On the Eve/VI

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Meanwhile, Elena had gone to her room, and sat down at the open window, her head resting on her hands. To spend about a quarter of an hour every evening at her bedroom window had become a habit with her. At this time she held converse with herself, and passed in review the preceding day. She had not long reached her twentieth year. She was tall, and had a pale and dark face, large grey eyes under arching brows, covered with tiny freckles, a perfectly regular forehead and nose, tightly compressed lips, and a rather sharp chin. Her hair, of a chestnut shade, fell low on her slender neck. In her whole personality, in the expression of her face, intent and a little timorous, in her clear but changing glance, in her smile, which was, as it were, intense, in her soft and uneven voice, there was something nervous, electric, something impulsive and hurried, something, in fact, which could never be attractive to every one, which even repelled some.

Her hands were slender and rosy, with long fingers; her feet were slender; she walked swiftly, almost impetuously, her figure bent a little forward. She had grown up very strangely; first she idolised her father, then she became passionately devoted to her mother, and had grown cold to both of them, especially to her father. Of late years she had behaved to her mother as to a sick grandmother; while her father, who had been proud of her while she had been regarded as an exceptional child, had come to be afraid of her when she was grown up, and said of her that she was a sort of enthusiastic republican—no one could say where she got it from. Weakness revolted her, stupidity made her angry, and deceit she could never, never pardon. She was exacting beyond all bounds, even her prayers had more than once been mingled with reproaches. When once a person had lost her respect—and she passed judgment quickly, often too quickly—he ceased to exist for her. All impressions cut deeply into her heart; life was bitter earnest for her.

The governess to whom Anna Vassilyevna had entrusted the finishing of her daughter's education—an education, we may remark in parenthesis, which had not even been begun by the languid lady—was a Russian, the daughter of a ruined official, educated at a government boarding school, a very emotional, soft-hearted, and deceitful creature; she was for ever falling in love, and ended in her fiftieth year (when Elena was seventeen) by marrying an officer of some sort, who deserted her without loss of time. This governess was very fond of literature, and wrote verses herself; she inspired Elena with a love of reading, but reading alone did not satisfy the girl; from childhood she thirsted for action, for active well-doing—the poor, the hungry, and the sick absorbed her thoughts, tormented her, and made her heart heavy; she used to dream of them, and to ply all her friends with questions about them; she gave alms carefully, with unconscious solemnity, almost with a thrill of emotion. All ill-used creatures, starved dogs, cats condemned to death, sparrows fallen out of the nest, even insects and reptiles found a champion and protector in Elena; she fed them herself, and felt no repugnance for them. Her mother did not interfere with her; but her father used to be very indignant with his daughter, for her—as he called it—vulgar soft-heartedness, and declared there was not room to move for the cats and dogs in the house. 'Lenotchka,' he would shout to her, 'come quickly, here's a spider eating a fly; come and save the poor wretch!' And Lenotchka, all excitement, would run up, set the fly free, and disentangle its legs. 'Well, now let it bite you a little, since you are so kind,' her father would say ironically; but she did not hear him. At ten years old Elena made friends with a little beggar-girl, Katya, and used to go secretly to meet her in the garden, took her nice things to eat, and presented her with handkerchiefs and pennies; playthings Katya would not take. She would sit beside her on the dry earth among the bushes behind a thick growth of nettles; with a feeling of delicious humility she ate her stale bread and listened to her stories. Katya had an aunt, an ill-natured old woman, who often beat her; Katya hated her, and was always talking of how she would run away from her aunt and live in God's full freedom; with secret respect and awe Elena drank in these new unknown words, stared intently at Katya and everything about her—her quick black, almost animal eyes, her sun-burnt hands, her hoarse voice, even her ragged clothes—seemed to Elena at such times something particular and distinguished, almost holy. Elena went back home, and for long after dreamed of beggars and God's freedom; she would dream over plans of how she would cut herself a hazel stick, and put on a wallet and run away with Katya; how she would wander about the roads in a wreath of corn-flowers; she had seen Katya one day in just such a wreath. If, at such times, any one of her family came into the room, she would shun them and look shy. One day she ran out in the rain to meet Katya, and made her frock muddy; her father saw her, and called her a slut and a peasant-wench. She grew hot all over, and there was something of terror and rapture in her heart Katya often sang some half-brutal soldier's song. Elena learnt this song from her. . . . Anna Vassilyevna overheard her singing it, and was very indignant.

'Where did you pick up such horrors?' she asked her daughter.

Elena only looked at her mother, and would not say a word; she felt that she would let them tear her to pieces sooner than betray her secret, and again there was a terror and sweetness in her heart. Her friendship with Katya, however, did not last long; the poor little girl fell sick of fever, and in a few days she was dead.

Elena was greatly distressed, and spent sleepless nights for long after she heard of Katya's death. The last words of the little beggar-girl were constantly ringing in her ears, and she fancied that she was being called. . . .

The years passed and passed; swiftly and noiselessly, like waters running under the snow, Elena's youth glided by, outwardly uneventful, inwardly in conflict and emotion. She had no friend; she did not get on with any one of all the girls who visited the Stahovs' house. Her parents' authority had never weighed heavily on Elena, and from her sixteenth year she became absolutely independent; she began to live a life of her own, but it was a life of solitude. Her soul glowed, and the fire died away again in solitude; she struggled like a bird in a cage, and cage there was none; no one oppressed her, no one restrained her, while she was torn, and fretted within. Sometimes she did not understand herself, was even frightened of herself. Everything that surrounded her seemed to her half-senseless, half-incomprehensible. 'How live without love? and there's no one to love!' she thought; and she felt terror again at these thoughts, these sensations. At eighteen, she nearly died of malignant fever; her whole constitution—naturally healthy and vigorous—was seriously affected, and it was long before it could perfectly recover; the last traces of the illness disappeared at last, but Elena Nikolaevna's father was never tired of talking with some spitefulness of her 'nerves.' Sometimes she fancied that she wanted something which no one wanted, of which no one in all Russia dreamed. Then she would grow calmer, and even laugh at herself, and pass day after day unconcernedly; but suddenly some over-mastering, nameless force would surge up within her, and seem to clamour for an outlet. The storm passed over, and the wings of her soul drooped without flight; but these tempests of feeling cost her much. However she might strive not to betray what was passing within her, the suffering of the tormented spirit was expressed in her even external tranquillity, and her parents were often justified in shrugging their shoulders in astonishment, and failing to understand her 'queer ways.'

On the day with which our story began, Elena did not leave the window till later than usual. She thought much of Bersenyev, and of her conversation with him. She liked him; she believed in the warmth of his feelings, and the purity of his aims. He had never before talked to her as on that evening. She recalled the expression of his timid eyes, his smiles—and she smiled herself and fell to musing, but not of him. She began to look out into the night from the open window. For a long time she gazed at the dark, low-hanging sky; then she got up, flung back her hair from her face with a shake of her head, and, herself not knowing why, she stretched out to it—to that sky—her bare chilled arms; then she dropped them, fell on her knees beside her bed, pressed her face into the pillow, and, in spite of all her efforts not to yield to the passion overwhelming her, she burst into strange, uncomprehending, burning tears.