On the Eve/XXII
No one in the house of the retired lieutenant of guards, Stahov, had ever seen him so sour, and at the same time so self-confident and important as on that day. He walked into the drawing-room in his overcoat and hat, with long deliberate stride, stamping with his heels; he approached the looking-glass and took a long look at himself, shaking his head and biting his lips with imperturbable severity. Anna Vassilyevna met him with obvious agitation and secret delight (she never met him otherwise); he did not even take off his hat, nor greet her, and in silence gave Elena his doe-skin glove to kiss. Anna Vassilyevna began questioning him about the progress of his cure; he made her no reply. Uvar Ivanovitch made his appearance; he glanced at him and said, 'bah!' He usually behaved coldly and haughtily to Uvar Ivanovitch, though he acknowledged in him 'traces of the true Stahov blood.' Almost all Russian families of the nobility are convinced, as is well known, of the existence of exceptional hereditary characteristics, peculiar to them alone; we have more than once heard discussions 'among ourselves' of the Podsalaskinsky 'noses,' and the 'Perepreyevsky' necks. Zoya came in and sat down facing Nikolai Artemyevitch. He grunted, sank into an armchair, asked for coffee, and only then took off his hat. Coffee was brought him; he drank a cup, and looking at everybody in turn, he growled between his teeth, Sortes, s'il vous plait,' and turning to his wife he added, et vous, madame, restez, je vous prie.'
They all left the room, except Anna Vassilyevna. Her head was trembling with agitation. The solemnity of Nikolai Artemyevitch's preparations impressed her. She was expecting something extraordinary.
'What is it?' she cried, directly the door was closed.
Nikolai Artemyevitch flung an indifferent glance at Anna Vassilyevna.
'Nothing special; what a way you have of assuming the air of a victim at once!' he began, quite needlessly dropping the corners of his mouth at every word. 'I only want to forewarn you that we shall have a new guest dining here to-day.'
'Who is it?'
'Kurnatovsky, Yegor Andreyevitch. You don't know him. The head secretary in the senate.'
'He is to dine with us to-day?'
'And was it only to tell me this that you made every one go away?'
Nikolai Artemyevitch again flung a glance—this time one of irony—at Anna Vassilyevna.
'Does that surprise you? Defer your surprise a little.'
He ceased speaking. Anna Vassilyevna too was silent for a little time.
'I could have wished——' she was beginning.
'I know you have always looked on me as an "immoral" man,' began Nikolai Artemyevitch suddenly.
'I!' muttered Anna Vassilyevna, astounded.
'And very likely you are right. I don't wish to deny that I have in fact sometimes given you just grounds for dissatisfaction' ("my greys!" flashed through Anna Vassilyevna's head), 'though you must yourself allow, that in the condition, as you are aware, of your constitution——'
'And I make no complaint against you, Nikolai Artemyevitch.'
'C'est possible. In any case, I have no intention of justifying myself. Time will justify me. But I regard it as my duty to prove to you that I understand my duties, and know how to care for—for the welfare of the family entrusted—entrusted to me.'
'What's the meaning of all this?' Anna Vassilyevna was thinking. (She could not guess that the preceding evening at the English club a discussion had arisen in a corner of the smoking-room as to the incapacity of Russians to make speeches. 'Which of us can speak? Mention any one!' one of the disputants had exclaimed. 'Well, Stahov, for instance,' had answered the other, pointing to Nikolai Artemyevitch, who stood up on the spot almost squealing with delight.)
'For instance,' pursued Nikolai Artemyevitch, 'my daughter Elena. Don't you consider that the time has come for her to take a decisive step along the path—to be married, I mean to say. All these intellectual and philanthropic pursuits are all very well, but only up to a certain point, up to a certain age. It's time for her to drop her mistiness, to get out of the society of all these artists, scholars, and Montenegrins, and do like everybody else.'
'How am I to understand you?' asked Anna Vassilyevna.
'Well, if you will kindly listen,' answered Nikolai Artemyevitch, still with the same dropping of the corners of his lips, 'I will tell you plainly, without beating about the bush. I have made acquaintance, I have become intimate with this young man, Mr. Kurnatovsky, in the hope of having him for a son-in-law. I venture to think that when you see him, you will not accuse me of partiality or precipitate judgment.' (Nikolai Artemyevitch was admiring his own eloquence as he talked.) 'Of excellent education—educated in the highest legal college—excellent manners, thirty-three years old, and upper-secretary, a councillor, and a Stanislas cross on his neck. You, I hope, will do me the justice to allow that I do not belong to the number of those peres de famille who are mad for position; but you yourself told me that Elena Nikolaevna likes practical business men; Yegor Andreyevitch is in the first place a business man; now on the other side, my daughter has a weakness for generous actions; so let me tell you that Yegor Andreyevitch, directly he had attained the possibility—you understand me—the possibility of living without privation on his salary, at once gave up the yearly income assigned him by his father, for the benefit of his brothers.'
'Who is his father?' inquired Anna Vassilyevna.
'His father? His father is a man well-known in his own line, of the highest moral character, un vrai stoicien, a retired major, I think, overseer of all the estates of the Count B——'
'Ah!' observed Anna Vassilyevna.
'Ah! why ah?' interposed Nikolai Artemyevitch. 'Can you be infected with prejudice?'
'Why, I said nothing——' Anna Vassilyevna was beginning.
'No, you said, ah!—However that may be, I have thought it well to acquaint you with my way of thinking; and I venture to think—I venture to hope Mr. Kurnatovsky will be received a bras ouverts. He is no Montenegrin vagrant.'
'Of course; I need only call Vanka the cook and order a few extra dishes.'
'You are aware that I will not enter into that,' said Nikolai Artemyevitch; and he got up, put on his hat, and whistling (he had heard some one say that whistling was only permissible in a country villa and a riding court) went out for a stroll in the garden. Shubin watched him out of the little window of his lodge, and in silence put out his tongue at him.
At ten minutes to four, a hackney-carriage drove up to the steps of the Stahovs's villa, and a man, still young, of prepossessing appearance, simply and elegantly dressed, stepped out of it and sent up his name. This was Yegor Andreyevitch Kurnatovsky.
This was what, among other things, Elena wrote next day to Insarov:
'Congratulate me, dear Dmitri, I have a suitor. He dined with us yesterday: papa made his acquaintance at the English club, I fancy, and invited him. Of course he did not come yesterday as a suitor. But good mamma, to whom papa had made known his hopes, whispered in my ear what this guest was. His name is Yegor Andreyevitch Kurnatovsky; he is upper-secretary to the Senate. I will first describe to you his appearance. He is of medium height, shorter than you, and a good figure; his features are regular, he is close-cropped, and wears large whiskers. His eyes are rather small (like yours), brown, and quick; he has a flat wide mouth; in his eyes and on his lips there is a perpetual sort of official smile; it seems to be always on duty there. He behaves very simply and speaks precisely, and everything about him is precise; he moves, laughs, and eats as though he were doing a duty. "How carefully she has studied him!" you are thinking, perhaps, at this minute. Yes; so as to be able to describe him to you. And besides, who wouldn't study her suitor! There's something of iron in him—and dull and empty at the same time—and honest; they say he is really very honest. You, too, are made of iron; but not like this man. At dinner he sat next me, and facing us sat Shubin. At first the conversation turned on commercial undertakings; they say he is very clever in business matters, and was almost throwing up his government post to take charge of a large manufacturing business. Pity he didn't do it! Then Shubin began to talk about the theatre; Mr. Kurnatovsky declared and—I must confess—without false modesty, that he has no ideas about art. That reminded me of you—but I thought; no, Dmitri and I are ignorant of art in a very different way though. This man seemed to mean, "I know nothing of it, and it's quite superfluous, still it may be admitted in a well-ordered state." He seems, however, to think very little about Petersburg and comme il faut: he once even called himself one of the proletariat. 'We are working people,' he said; I thought if Dmitri had said that, I shouldn't have liked it; but he may talk about himself, he may boast if he likes. With me he is very attentive; but I kept feeling that a very, very condescending superior was talking with me. When he means to praise any one, he says So-and-so is a man of principle—that's his favourite word. He seems to be self-confident, hardworking, capable of self-sacrifice (you see, I am impartial), that's to say, of sacrificing his own interest; but he is a great despot. It would be woeful to fall into his power! At dinner they began talking about bribes.
'"I know," he said, "that in many cases the man who accepts a bribe is not to blame; he cannot do otherwise. Still, if he is found out, he must be punished without mercy."' I cried, "Punish an innocent man!" '"Yes; for the sake of principle." '"What principle?" asked Shubin. Kurnatovsky seemed annoyed or surprised, and said, "That needs no explanation."
'Papa, who seems to worship him, put in "of course not"; and to my vexation the conversation stopped there. In the evening Bersenyev came and got into a terrific argument with him. I have never seen our good Andrei Petrovitch so excited. Mr. Kurnatovsky did not at all deny the utility of science, universities, and so on, but still I understood Andrei Petrovitch's indignation. The man looks at it all as a sort of gymnastics. Shubin came up to me after dinner, and said, "This fellow here and some one else (he can never bring himself to utter your name) are both practical men, but see what a difference; there's the real living ideal given to life; and here there's not even a feeling of duty, simply official honesty and activity without anything inside it." Shubin is clever, and I remembered his words to tell you; but to my mind there is nothing in common between you. You have faith, and he has not; for a man cannot have faith in himself only.
'He did not go away till late; but mamma had time to inform me that he was pleased with me, and papa is in ecstasies. Did he say, I wonder, that I was a woman of principle? I was almost telling mamma that I was very sorry, but I had a husband already. Why is it papa dislikes you so? Mamma, we could soon manage to bring round.
'Oh, my dear one! I have described this gentleman in such detail to deaden my heartache. I don't live without you; I am constantly seeing you, hearing you. I look forward to seeing you—only not at our house, as you intended—fancy how wretched and ill at ease we should be!—but you know where I wrote to you—in that wood. Oh, my dear one! How I love you!'