The Bet and Other Stories/A Tedious Story
A TEDIOUS STORY
(From An Old Man's Journal)
There lives in Russia an emeritus professor, Nicolai Stiepanovich . . . privy councillor and knight. He has so many Russian and foreign Orders that when he puts them on the students call him "the holy picture." His acquaintance is most distinguished. Not a single famous scholar lived or died during the last twenty-five or thirty years but he was intimately acquainted with him. Now he has no one to be friendly with, but speaking of the past the long list of his eminent friends would end with such names as Pirogov, Kavelin, and the poet Nekrasov, who bestowed upon him their warmest and most sincere friendship. He is a member of all the Russian and of three foreign universities, et cetera, et cetera. All this, and a great deal besides, forms what is known as my name.
This name of mine is very popular. It is known to every literate person in Russia; abroad it is mentioned from professorial chairs with the epithets "eminent and esteemed." It is reckoned among those fortunate names which to mention in vain or to abuse in public or in the Press is considered a mark of bad breeding. Indeed, it should be so; because with my name is inseparably associated the idea of a famous, richly gifted, and indubitably useful person. I am a steady worker, with the endurance of a camel, which is important. I am also endowed with talent, which is still more important. In passing, I would add that I am a well-educated, modest, and honest fellow. I have never poked my nose into letters or politics, never sought popularity in disputes with the ignorant, and made no speeches either at dinners or at my colleagues' funerals. Altogether there is not a single spot on my learned name, and it has nothing to complain of. It is fortunate.
The bearer of this name, that is myself, is a man of sixty-two, with a bald head, false teeth and an incurable tic. My name is as brilliant and prepossessing, as I myself am dull and ugly. My head and hands tremble from weakness; my neck, like that of one of Turgeniev's heroines, resembles the handle of a counter-bass; my chest is hollow and my back narrow. When I speak or read my mouth twists, and when I smile my whole face is covered with senile, deathly wrinkles. There is nothing imposing in my pitiable face, save that when I suffer from the tic, I have a singular expression which compels anyone who looks at me to think: "This man will die soon, for sure."
I can still read pretty well; I can still hold the attention of my audience for two hours. My passionate manner, the literary form of my exposition and my humour make the defects of my voice almost unnoticeable, though it is dry, harsh, and hard like a hypocrite's. But I write badly. The part of my brain which governs the ability to write refused office. My memory has weakened, and my thoughts are too inconsequent; and when I expound them on paper, I always have a feeling that I have lost the sense of their organic connection. The construction is monotonous, and the sentence feeble and timid. I often do not write what I want to, and when I write the end I cannot remember the beginning. I often forget common words, and in writing a letter I always have to waste much energy in order to avoid superfluous sentences and unnecessary incidental statements; both bear clear witness of the decay of my intellectual activity. And it is remarkable that, the simpler the letter, the more tormenting is my effort. When writing a scientific article I feel much freer and much more intelligent than in writing a letter of welcome or a report. One thing more: it is easier for me to write German or English than Russian.
As regards my present life, I must first of all note insomnia, from which I have begun to suffer lately. If I were asked: "What is now the chief and fundamental fact of your existence?" I would answer: "Insomnia." From habit, I still undress at midnight precisely and get into bed. I soon fall asleep but wake just after one with the feeling that I have not slept at all. I must get out of bed and light the lamp. For an hour or two I walk about the room from corner to corner and inspect the long familiar pictures. When I am weary of walking I sit down to the table. I sit motionless thinking of nothing, feeling no desires; if a book lies before me I draw it mechanically towards me and read without interest. Thus lately in one night I read mechanically a whole novel with a strange title, "Of What the Swallow Sang." Or in order to occupy my attention I make myself count to a thousand, or I imagine the face of some one of my friends, and begin to remember in what year and under what circumstances he joined the faculty. I love to listen to sounds. Now, two rooms away from me my daughter Liza will say something quickly, in her sleep; then my wife will walk through the drawing-room with a candle and infallibly drop the box of matches. Then the shrinking wood of the cupboard squeaks or the burner of the lamp tinkles suddenly, and all these sounds somehow agitate me.
Not to sleep of nights confesses one abnormal; and therefore I wait impatiently for the morning and the day, when I have the right not to sleep. Many oppressive hours pass before the cock crows. He is my harbinger of good. As soon as he has crowed I know that in an hour's time the porter downstairs will awake and for some reason or other go up the stairs, coughing angrily; and later beyond the windows the air begins to pale gradually and voices echo in the street.
The day begins with the coming of my wife. She comes in to me in a petticoat, with her hair undone, but already washed and smelling of eau de Cologne, and looking as though she came in by accident, saying the same thing every time: "Pardon, I came in for a moment. You haven't slept again?" Then she puts the lamp out, sits by the table and begins to talk. I am not a prophet but I know beforehand what the subject of conversation will be, every morning the same. Usually, after breathless inquiries after my health, she suddenly remembers our son, the officer, who is serving in Warsaw. On the twentieth of each month we send him fifty roubles. This is our chief subject of conversation.
"Of course it is hard on us," my wife sighs. "But until he is finally settled we are obliged to help him. The boy is among strangers; the pay is small. But if you like, next month we'll send him forty roubles instead of fifty. What do you think?"
Daily experience might have convinced my wife that expenses do not grow less by talking of them. But my wife does not acknowledge experience and speaks about our officer punctually every day, about bread, thank Heaven, being cheaper and sugar a half-penny dearer—and all this in a tone as though it were news to me.
I listen and agree mechanically. Probably because I have not slept during the night strange idle thoughts take hold of me. I look at my wife and wonder like a child. In perplexity I ask myself: This old, stout, clumsy woman, with sordid cares and anxiety about bread and butter written in the dull expression of her face, her eyes tired with eternal thoughts of debts and poverty, who can talk only of expenses and smile only when things are cheap—was this once the slim Varya whom I loved passionately for her fine clear mind, her pure soul, her beauty, and as Othello loved Desdemona, for her "compassion" of my science? Is she really the same, my wife Varya, who bore me a son?
I gaze intently into the fat, clumsy old woman's face. I seek in her my Varya; but from the past nothing remains but her fear for my health and her way of calling my salary "our" salary and my hat "our" hat. It pains me to look at her, and to console her, if only a little, I let her talk as she pleases, and I am silent even when she judges people unjustly, or scolds me because I do not practise and do not publish text-books.
Our conversation always ends in the same way. My wife suddenly remembers that I have not yet had tea, and gives a start:
"Why am I sitting down?" she says, getting up. "The samovar has been on the table a long while, and I sit chatting. How forgetful I am? Good gracious!"
She hurries away, but stops at the door to say:
"We owe Yegor five months' wages. Do you realise it? It's a bad thing to let the servants' wages run on. I've said so often. It's much easier to pay ten roubles every month than fifty for five!"
Outside the door she stops again:
"I pity our poor Liza more than anybody. The girl studies at the Conservatoire. She's always in good society, and the Lord only knows how she's dressed. That fur-coat of hers! It's a sin to show yourself in the street in it. If she had a different father, it would do, but everyone knows he is a famous professor, a privy councillor."
So, having reproached me for my name and title, she goes away at last. Thus begins my day. It does not improve.
When I have drunk my tea, Liza comes in, in a fur-coat and hat, with her music, ready to go to the Conservatoire. She is twenty-two. She looks younger. She is pretty, rather like my wife when she was young. She kisses me tenderly on my forehead and my hand.
"Good morning, Papa. Quite well?"
As a child she adored ice-cream, and I often had to take her to a confectioner's. Ice-cream was her standard of beauty. If she wanted to praise me, she used to say: "Papa, you are ice-creamy." One finger she called the pistachio, the other the cream, the third the raspberry finger and so on. And when she came to say good morning, I used to lift her on to my knees and kiss her fingers, and say:
"The cream one, the pistachio one, the lemon one."
And now from force of habit I kiss Liza's fingers and murmur:
"Pistachio one, cream one, lemon one." But it does not sound the same. I am cold like the ice-cream and I feel ashamed. When my daughter comes in and touches my forehead with her lips I shudder as though a bee had stung my forehead, I smile constrainedly and turn away my face. Since my insomnia began a question has been driving like a nail into my brain. My daughter continually sees how terribly I, an old man, blush because I owe the servant his wages; she sees how often the worry of small debts forces me to leave my work and to pace the room from corner to corner for hours, thinking; but why hasn't she, even once, come to me without telling her mother and whispered: "Father, here's my watch, bracelets, earrings, dresses . . . Pawn them all . . . You need money"? Why, seeing how I and her mother try to hide our poverty, out of false pride why does she not deny herself the luxury of music lessons? I would not accept the watch, the bracelets, or her sacrifices God forbid! I do not want that.
Which reminds me of my son, the Warsaw officer. He is a clever, honest, and sober fellow. But that doesn't mean very much. If I had an old father, and I knew that there were moments when he was ashamed of his poverty, I think I would give up my commission to someone else and hire myself out as a navvy. These thoughts of the children poison me. What good are they? Only a mean and irritable person can take refuge in thinking evil of ordinary people because they are not heroes. But enough of that.
At a quarter to ten I have to go and lecture to my dear boys. I dress myself and walk the road I have known these thirty years. For me it has a history of its own. Here is a big grey building with a chemist's shop beneath. A tiny house once stood there, and it was a beer-shop. In this beer-shop I thought out my thesis, and wrote my first love-letter to Varya. I wrote it in pencil on a scrap of paper that began "Historia Morbi." Here is a grocer's shop. It used to belong to a little Jew who sold me cigarettes on credit, and later on to a fat woman who loved students "because every one of them had a mother." Now a red-headed merchant sits there, a very nonchalant man, who drinks tea from a copper tea-pot. And here are the gloomy gates of the University that have not been repaired for years; a weary porter in a sheepskin coat, a broom, heaps of snow . . . Such gates cannot produce a good impression on a boy who comes fresh from the provinces and imagines that the temple of science is really a temple. Certainly, in the history of Russian pessimism, the age of university buildings, the dreariness of the corridors, the smoke-stains on the walls, the meagre light, the dismal appearance of the stairs, the clothes-pegs and the benches, hold one of the foremost places in the series of predisposing causes. Here is our garden. It does not seem to have grown any better or any worse since I was a student. I do not like it. It would be much more sensible if tall pine-trees and fine oaks grew there instead of consumptive lime-trees, yellow acacias and thin clipped lilac. The student's mood is created mainly by every one of the surroundings in which he studies; therefore he must see everywhere before him only what is great and strong and exquisite. Heaven preserve him from starveling trees, broken windows, and drab walls and doors covered with torn oilcloth.
As I approach my main staircase the door is open wide. I am met by my old friend, of the same age and name as I, Nicolas the porter. He grunts as he lets me in:
"It's frosty, Your Excellency."
Or if my coat is wet:
"It's raining a bit, Your Excellency."
Then he runs in front of me and opens all the doors on my way. In the study he carefully takes off my coat and at the same time manages to tell me some university news. Because of the close acquaintance that exists between all the University porters and keepers, he knows all that happens in the four faculties, in the registry, in the chancellor's cabinet, and the library. He knows everything. When, for instance, the resignation of the rector or dean is under discussion, I hear him talking to the junior porters, naming candidates and explaining offhand that so and so will not be approved by the Minister, so and so will himself refuse the honour; then he plunges into fantastic details of some mysterious papers received in the registry, of a secret conversation which appears to have taken place between the Minister and the curator, and so on. These details apart, he is almost always right. The impressions he forms of each candidate are original, but also true. If you want to know who read his thesis, joined the staff, resigned or died in a particular year, then you must seek the assistance of this veteran's colossal memory. He will not only name you the year, month, and day, but give you the accompanying details of this or any other event. Such memory is the privilege of love.
He is the guardian of the university traditions. From the porters before him he inherited many legends of the life of the university. He added to this wealth much of his own and if you like he will tell you many stories, long or short. He can tell you of extraordinary savants who knew everything, of remarkable scholars who did not sleep for weeks on end, of numberless martyrs to science; good triumphs over evil with him. The weak always conquer the strong, the wise man the fool, the modest the proud, the young the old. There is no need to take all these legends and stories for sterling; but filter them, and you will find what you want in your filter, a noble tradition and the names of true heroes acknowledged by all.
In our society all the information about the learned world consists entirely of anecdotes of the extraordinary absent-mindedness of old professors, and of a handful of jokes, which are ascribed to Guber or to myself or to Baboukhin. But this is too little for an educated society. If it loved science, savants and students as Nicolas loves them, it would long ago have had a literature of whole epics, stories, and biographies. But unfortunately this is yet to be.
The news told, Nicolas looks stern and we begin to talk business. If an outsider were then to hear how freely Nicolas uses the jargon, he would be inclined to think that he was a scholar, posing as a soldier. By the way, the rumours of the university-porter's erudition are very exaggerated. It is true that Nicolas knows more than a hundred Latin tags, can put a skeleton together and on occasion make a preparation, can make the students laugh with a long learned quotation, but the simple theory of the circulation of the blood is as dark to him now as it was twenty years ago.
At the table in my room, bent low over a book or a preparation, sits my dissector, Peter Ignatievich. He is a hardworking, modest man of thirty-five without any gifts, already bald and with a big belly. He works from morning to night, reads tremendously and remembers everything he has read. In this respect he is not merely an excellent man, but a man of gold; but in all others he is a cart-horse, or if you like a learned blockhead. The characteristic traits of a cart-horse which distinguish him from a creature of talent are these. His outlook is narrow, absolutely bounded by his specialism. Apart from his own subject he is as naive as a child. I remember once entering the room and saying:
"Think what bad luck! They say, Skobielev is dead."
Nicolas crossed himself; but Peter Ignatievich turned to me:
"Which Skobielev do you mean?"
Another time, some time earlier I announced that Professor Pierov was dead. That darling Peter Ignatievich asked:
"What was his subject?"
I imagine that if Patti sang into his ear, or Russia were attacked by hordes of Chinamen, or there was an earthquake, he would not lift a finger, but would go on in the quietest way with his eye screwed over his microscope. In a word: "What's Hecuba to him?" I would give anything to see how this dry old stick goes to bed with his wife.
Another trait: a fanatical belief in the infallibility of science, above all in everything that the Germans write. He is sure of himself and his preparations, knows the purpose of life, is absolutely ignorant of the doubts and disillusionments that turn talents grey,—a slavish worship of the authorities, and not a shadow of need to think for himself. It is hard to persuade him and quite impossible to discuss with him. Just try a discussion with a man who is profoundly convinced that the best science is medicine, the best men doctors, the best traditions—the medical! From the ugly past of medicine only one tradition has survived,—the white necktie that doctors wear still. For a learned, and more generally for an educated person there can exist only a general university tradition, without any division into traditions of medicine, of law, and so on. But it's quite impossible for Peter Ignatievich to agree with that; and he is ready to argue it with you till doomsday.
His future is quite plain to me. During the whole of his life he will make several hundred preparations of extraordinary purity, will write any number of dry, quite competent, essays, will make about ten scrupulously accurate translations; but he won't invent gunpowder. For gunpowder, imagination is wanted, inventiveness, and a gift for divination, and Peter Ignatievich has nothing of the kind. In short, he is not a master of science but a labourer.
Peter Ignatievich, Nicolas, and I whisper together. We are rather strange to ourselves. One feels something quite particular, when the audience booms like the sea behind the door. In thirty years I have not grown used to this feeling, and I have it every morning. I button up my frock-coat nervously, ask Nicolas unnecessary questions, get angry . . . It is as though I were afraid; but it is not fear, but something else which I cannot name nor describe.
Unnecessarily, I look at my watch and say:
"Well, it's time to go."
And we march in, in this order: Nicolas with the preparations or the atlases in front, myself next, and after me, the cart-horse, modestly hanging his head; or, if necessary, a corpse on a stretcher in front and behind the corpse Nicolas and so on. The students rise when I appear, then sit down and the noise of the sea is suddenly still. Calm begins.
I know what I will lecture about, but I know nothing of how I will lecture, where I will begin and where I will end. There is not a single sentence ready in my brain. But as soon as I glance at the audience, sitting around me in an amphitheatre, and utter the stereotyped "In our last lecture we ended with . . ." and the sentences fly out of my soul in a long line—then it is full steam ahead. I speak with irresistible speed, and with passion, and it seems as though no earthly power could check the current of my speech. In order to lecture well, that is without being wearisome and to the listener's profit, besides talent you must have the knack of it and experience; you must have a clear idea both of your own powers, of the people to whom you are lecturing, and of the subject of your remarks. Moreover, you must be quick in the uptake, keep a sharp eye open, and never for a moment lose your field of vision.
When he presents the composer's thought, a good conductor does twenty things at once. He reads the score, waves his baton, watches the singer, makes a gesture now towards the drum, now to the double-bass, and so on. It is the same with me when lecturing. I have some hundred and fifty faces before me, quite unlike each other, and three hundred eyes staring me straight in the face. My purpose is to conquer this many-headed hydra. If I have a clear idea how far they are attending and how much they are comprehending every minute while I am lecturing, then the hydra is in my power. My other opponent is within me. This is the endless variety of forms, phenomena and laws, and the vast number of ideas, whether my own or others', which depend upon them. Every moment I must be skilful enough to choose what is most important and necessary from this enormous material, and just as swiftly as my speech flows to clothe my thought in a form which will penetrate the hydra's understanding and excite its attention. Besides I must watch carefully to see that my thoughts shall not be presented as they have been accumulated, but in a certain order, necessary for the correct composition of the picture which I wish to paint. Further, I endeavour to make my speech literary, my definitions brief and exact, my sentences as simple and elegant as possible. Every moment I must hold myself in and remember that I have only an hour and forty minutes to spend. In other words, it is a heavy labour. At one and the same time you have to be a savant, a schoolmaster, and an orator, and it is a failure if the orator triumphs over the school-master in you or the schoolmaster over the orator.
After lecturing for a quarter, for half an hour, I notice suddenly that the students have begun to stare at the ceiling or Peter Ignatievich. One will feel for his handkerchief, another settle himself comfortably, another smile at his own thoughts. This means their attention is tried. I must take steps. I seize the first opening and make a pun. All the hundred and fifty faces have a broad smile, their eyes flash merrily, and for a while you can hear the boom of the sea. I laugh too. Their attention is refreshed and I can go on.
No sport, no recreation, no game ever gave me such delight as reading a lecture. Only in a lecture could I surrender myself wholly to passion and understand that inspiration is not a poet's fiction, but exists indeed. And I do not believe that Hercules, even after the most delightful of his exploits, felt such a pleasant weariness as I experienced every time after a lecture.
This was in the past. Now at lectures I experience only torture. Not half an hour passes before I begin to feel an invincible weakness in my legs and shoulders. I sit down in my chair, but I am not used to lecture sitting. In a moment I am up again, and lecture standing. Then I sit down again. Inside my mouth is dry, my voice is hoarse, my head feels dizzy. To hide my state from my audience I drink some water now and then, cough, wipe my nose continually, as though I was troubled by a cold, make inopportune puns, and finally announce the interval earlier than I should. But chiefly I feel ashamed.
Conscience and reason tell me that the best thing I could do now is to read my farewell lecture to the boys, give them my last word, bless them and give up my place to someone younger and stronger than I. But, heaven be my judge, I have not the courage to act up to my conscience.
Unfortunately, I am neither philosopher nor theologian. I know quite well I have no more than six months to live; and it would seem that now I ought to be mainly occupied with questions of the darkness beyond the grave, and the visions which will visit my sleep in the earth. But somehow my soul is not curious of these questions, though my mind grants every atom of their importance. Now before my death it is just as it was twenty or thirty years ago. Only science interests me. When I take my last breath I shall still believe that Science is the most important, the most beautiful, the most necessary thing in the life of man; that she has always been and always will be the highest manifestation of love, and that by her alone will man triumph over nature and himself. This faith is, perhaps, at bottom naïve and unfair, but I am not to blame if this and not another is my faith. To conquer this faith within me is for me impossible.
But this is beside the point. I only ask that you should incline to my weakness and understand that to tear a man who is more deeply concerned with the destiny of a brain tissue than the final goal of creation away from his rostrum and his students is like taking him and nailing him up in a coffin without waiting until he is dead.
Because of my insomnia and the intense struggle with my increasing weakness a strange thing happens inside me. In the middle of my lecture tears rise to my throat, my eyes begin to ache, and I have a passionate and hysterical desire to stretch out my hands and moan aloud. I want to cry out that fate has doomed me, a famous man, to death; that in some six months here in the auditorium another will be master. I want to cry out that I am poisoned; that new ideas that I did not know before have poisoned the last days of my life, and sting my brain incessantly like mosquitoes. At that moment my position seems so terrible to me that I want all my students to be terrified, to jump from their seats and rush panic-stricken to the door, shrieking in despair.
It is not easy to live through such moments.
After the lecture I sit at home and work. I read reviews, dissertations, or prepare for the next lecture, and sometimes I write something. I work with interruptions, since I have to receive visitors.
The bell rings. It is a friend who has come to talk over some business. He enters with hat and stick. He holds them both in front of him and says:
"Just a minute, a minute. Sit down, cher confrère. Only a word or two."
First we try to show each other that we are both extraordinarily polite and very glad to see each other. I make him sit down in the chair, and he makes me sit down; and then we touch each other's waists, and put our hands on each other's buttons, as though we were feeling each other and afraid to burn ourselves. We both laugh, though we say nothing funny. Sitting down, we bend our heads together and begin to whisper to each other. We must gild our conversation with such Chinese formalities as: "You remarked most justly" or "I have already had the occasion to say." We must giggle if either of us makes a pun, though it's a bad one. When we have finished with the business, my friend gets up with a rush, waves his hat towards my work, and begins to take his leave. We feel each other once more and laugh. I accompany him down to the hall. There I help my friend on with his coat, but he emphatically declines so great an honour. Then, when Yegor opens the door my friend assures me that I will catch cold, and I pretend to be ready to follow him into the street. And when I finally return to my study my face keeps smiling still, it must be from inertia.
A little later another ring. Someone enters the hall, spends a long time taking off his coat and coughs. Yegor brings me word that a student has come. I tell him to show him up. In a minute a pleasant-faced young man appears. For a year we have been on these forced terms together. He sends in abominable answers at examinations, and I mark him gamma. Every year I have about seven of these people to whom, to use the students' slang, "I give a plough" or "haul them through." Those of them who fail because of stupidity or illness, usually bear their cross in patience and do not bargain with me; only sanguine temperaments, "open natures," bargain with me and come to my house, people whose appetite is spoiled or who are prevented from going regularly to the opera by a delay in their examinations. With the first I am over-indulgent; the second kind I keep on the run for a year.
"Sit down," I say to my guest. "What was it you wished to say?"
"Forgive me for troubling you. Professor . . ." he begins, stammering and never looking me in the face. "I would not venture to trouble you unless . . . I was up for my examination before you for the fifth time . . . and I failed. I implore you to be kind, and give me a 'satis,' because . . ."
The defence which all idlers make of themselves is always the same. They have passed in every other subject with distinction, and failed only in mine, which is all the more strange because they had always studied my subject most diligently and know it thoroughly. They failed through some inconceivable misunderstanding.
"Forgive me, my friend," I say to my guest. "But I can't give you a 'satis'—impossible. Go and read your lectures again, and then come. Then we'll see.
Pause. I get a desire to torment the student a little, because he prefers beer and the opera to science; and I say with a sigh:
"In my opinion, the best thing for you now is to give up the Faculty of Medicine altogether. With your abilities, if you find it impossible to pass the examination, then it seems you have neither the desire nor the vocation to be a doctor."
My sanguine friend's face grows grave.
"Excuse me, Professor," he smiles, "but it would be strange, to say the least, on my part. Studying medicine for five years and suddenly—to throw it over."
"Yes, but it's better to waste five years than to spend your whole life afterwards in an occupation which you dislike."
Immediately I begin to feel sorry for him and hasten to say:
"Well, do as you please. Read a little and come again."
"When?" the idler asks, dully.
"Whenever you like. To-morrow, even."
And I read in his pleasant eyes. "I can come again; but you'll send me away again, you beast."
"Of course," I say, "you won't become more learned because you have to come up to me fifteen times for examination; but this will form your character. You must be thankful for that."
Silence. I rise and wait for my guest to leave. But he stands there, looking at the window, pulling at his little beard and thinking. It becomes tedious.
My sanguine friend has a pleasant, succulent voice, clever, amusing eyes, a good-natured face, rather puffed by assiduity to beer and much resting on the sofa. Evidently he could tell me many interesting things about the opera, about his love affairs, about the friends he adores; but, unfortunately, it is not the thing. And I would so eagerly listen!
"On my word of honour, Professor, if you give me a 'satis' I'll . . ."
As soon as it gets to "my word of honour," I wave my hands and sit down to the table. The student thinks for a while and says, dejectedly:
"In that case, good-bye . . . Forgive me!"
"Good-bye, my friend . . . Good-bye!"
He walks irresolutely into the hall, slowly puts on his coat, and, when he goes into the street, probably thinks again for a long while; having excogitated nothing better than "old devil" for me, he goes to a cheap restaurant to drink beer and dine, and then home to sleep. Peace be to your ashes, honest labourer!
A third ring. Enters a young doctor in a new black suit, gold-rimmed spectacles and the inevitable white necktie. He introduces himself. I ask him to take a seat and inquire his business. The young priest of science begins to tell me, not without agitation, that he passed his doctor's examination this year, and now has only to write his dissertation. He would like to work with me, under my guidance; and I would do him a great kindness if I would suggest a subject for his dissertation.
"I should be delighted to be of use to you, mon cher confrère," I say. "But first of all, let us come to an agreement as to what is a dissertation. Generally we understand by this, work produced as the result of an independent creative power. Isn't that so? But a work written on another's subject, under another's guidance, has a different name."
The aspirant is silent. I fire up and jump out of my seat. "Why do you all come to me? I can't understand," I cry out angrily. "Do I keep a shop? I don't sell theses across the counter. For the one thousandth time I ask you all to leave me alone. Forgive my rudeness, but I've got tired of it at last!"
The aspirant is silent. Only, a tinge of colour shows on his cheek. His face expresses his profound respect for my famous name and my erudition, but I see in his eyes that he despises my voice, my pitiable figure, my nervous gestures. When I am angry I seem to him a very queer fellow.
"I do not keep a shop," I storm. "It's an amazing business! Why don't you want to be independent? Why do you find freedom so objectionable?"
I say a great deal, but he is silent. At last by degrees I grow calm, and, of course, surrender. The aspirant will receive a valueless subject from me, will write under my observation a needless thesis, will pass his tedious disputation cum laude and will get a useless and learned degree.
The rings follow in endless succession, but here I confine myself to four. The fourth ring sounds, and I hear the familiar steps, the rustling dress, the dear voice.
Eighteen years ago my dear friend, the oculist, died and left behind him a seven year old daughter, Katy, and sixty thousand roubles. By his will he made me guardian. Katy lived in my family till she was ten. Afterwards she was sent to College and lived with me only in her holidays in the summer months. I had no time to attend to her education. I watched only by fits and starts; so that I can say very little about her childhood.
The chief thing I remember, the one I love to dwell upon in memory, is the extraordinary confidence which she had when she entered my house, when she had to have the doctor,—a confidence which was always shining in her darling face. She would sit in a corner somewhere with her face tied up, and would be sure to be absorbed in watching something. Whether she was watching me write and read books, or my wife bustling about, or the cook peeling the potatoes in the kitchen or the dog playing about—her eyes invariably expressed the same thing: "Everything that goes on in this world, everything is beautiful and clever." She was inquisitive and adored to talk to me. She would sit at the table opposite me, watching my movements and asking questions. She is interested to know what I read, what I do at the University, if I'm not afraid of corpses, what I do with my money.
"Do the students fight at the University?" she would ask.
"They do, my dear."
"You make them go down on their knees?"
And it seemed funny to her that the students fought and that I made them go down on their knees, and she laughed. She was a gentle, good, patient child.
Pretty often I happened to see how something was taken away from her, or she was unjustly punished, or her curiosity was not satisfied. At such moments sadness would be added to her permanent expression of confidence—nothing more. I didn't know how to take her part, but when I saw her sadness, I always had the desire to draw her close to me and comfort her in an old nurse's voice: "My darling little orphan!"
I remember too she loved to be well dressed and to sprinkle herself with scents. In this she was like me. I also love good clothes and fine scents.
I regret that I had neither the time nor the inclination to watch the beginnings and the growth of the passion which had completely taken hold of Katy when she was no more than fourteen or fifteen. I mean her passionate love for the theatre. When she used to come from the College for her holidays and live with us, nothing gave her such pleasure and enthusiasm to talk about as plays and actors. She used to tire us with her incessant conversation about the theatre. I alone hadn't the courage to deny her my attention. My wife and children did not listen to her. When she felt the desire to share her raptures she would come to my study and coax: "Nicolai Stiepanich, do let me speak to you about the theatre."
I used to show her the time and say: "I'll give you half an hour. Fire away!" Later on she used to bring in pictures of the actors and actresses she worshipped—whole dozens of them. Then several times she tried to take part in amateur theatricals, and finally when she left College she declared to me she was born to be an actress.
I never shared Katy's enthusiasms for the theatre. My opinion is that if a play is good then there's no need to trouble the actors for it to make the proper impression; you can be satisfied merely by reading it. If the play is bad, no acting will make it good.
When I was young I often went to the theatre, and nowadays my family takes a box twice a year and carries me off for an airing there. Of course this is not enough to give me the right to pass verdicts on the theatre; but I will say a few words about it. In my opinion the theatre hasn't improved in the last thirty or forty years. I can't find any more than I did then, a glass of clean water, either in the corridors or the foyer. Just as they did then, the attendants fine me sixpence for my coat, though there's nothing illegal in wearing a warm coat in winter. Just as it did then, the orchestra plays quite unnecessarily in the intervals, and adds a new, gratuitous impression to the one received from the play. Just as they did then, men go to the bar in the intervals and drink spirits. If there is no perceptible improvement in little things, it will be useless to look for it in the bigger things. When an actor, hide-bound in theatrical traditions and prejudices, tries to read simple straightforward monologue: "To be or not to be," not at all simply, but with an incomprehensible and inevitable hiss and convulsions over his whole body, or when he tries to convince me that Chazky, who is always talking to fools and is in love with a fool, is a very clever man and that "The Sorrows of Knowledge" is not a boring play, then I get from the stage a breath of the same old routine that exasperated me forty years ago when I was regaled with classical lamentation and beating on the breast. Every time I come out of the theatre a more thorough conservative than I went in.
It's quite possible to convince the sentimental, self-confident crowd that the theatre in its present state is an education. But not a man who knows what true education is would swallow this. I don't know what it may be in fifty or a hundred years, but under present conditions the theatre can only be a recreation. But the recreation is too expensive for continual use, and robs the country of thousands of young, healthy, gifted men and women, who if they had not devoted themselves to the theatre would be excellent doctors, farmers, schoolmistresses, or officers. It robs the public of its evenings, the best time for intellectual work and friendly conversation. I pass over the waste of money and the moral injuries to the spectator when he sees murder, adultery, or slander wrongly treated on the stage.
But Katy's opinion was quite the opposite. She assured me that even in its present state the theatre is above lecture-rooms and books, above everything else in the world. The theatre is a power that unites in itself all the arts, and the actors are men with a mission. No separate art or science can act on the human soul so strongly and truly as the stage; and therefore it is reasonable that a medium actor should enjoy much greater popularity than the finest scholar or painter. No public activity can give such delight and satisfaction as the theatrical.
So one fine day Katy joined a theatrical company and went away, I believe, to Ufa, taking with her a lot of money, a bagful of rainbow hopes, and some very high-class views on the business.
Her first letters on the journey were wonderful. When I read them I was simply amazed that little sheets of paper could contain so much youth, such transparent purity, such divine innocence, and at the same time so many subtle, sensible judgments, that would do honour to a sound masculine intelligence. The Volga, nature, the towns she visited, her friends, her successes and failures—she did not write about them, she sang. Every line breathed the confidence which I used to see in her face; and with all this a mass of grammatical mistakes and hardly a single stop.
Scarce six months passed before I received a highly poetical enthusiastic letter, beginning, "I have fallen in love." She enclosed a photograph of a young man with a clean-shaven face, in a broad-brimmed hat, with a plaid thrown over his shoulders. The next letters were just as splendid, but stops already began to appear and the grammatical mistakes to vanish. They had a strong masculine scent. Katy began to write about what a good thing it would be to build a big theatre somewhere in the Volga, but on a cooperative basis, and to attract the rich business-men and shipowners to the undertaking. There would be plenty of money, huge receipts, and the actors would work in partnership. . . . Perhaps all this is really a good thing, but I can't help thinking such schemes could only come from a man's head.
Anyhow for eighteen months or a couple of years everything seemed to be all right. Katy was in love, had her heart in her business and was happy. But later on I began to notice clear symptoms of a decline in her letters. It began with Katy complaining about her friends. This is the first and most ominous sign. If a young scholar or litterateur begins his career by complaining bitterly about other scholars or litterateurs, it means that he is tired already and not fit for his business. Katy wrote to me that her friends would not come to rehearsals and never knew their parts; that they showed an utter contempt for the public in the absurd plays they staged and the manner they behaved. To swell the box-office receipts—the only topic of conversation—serious actresses degrade themselves by singing sentimentalities, and tragic actors sing music-hall songs, laughing at husbands who are deceived and unfaithful wives who are pregnant. In short, it was amazing that the profession, in the provinces, was not absolutely dead. The marvel was that it could exist at all with such thin, rotten blood in its veins.
In reply I sent Katy a long and, I confess, a very tedious letter. Among other things I wrote: "I used to talk fairly often to actors in the past, men of the noblest character, who honoured me with their friendship. From my conversations with them I understood that their activities were guided rather by the whim and fashion of society than by the free working of their own minds. The best of them in their lifetime had to play in tragedy, in musical comedy, in French farce, and in pantomime; yet all through they considered that they were treading the right path and being useful. You see that this means that you must look for the cause of the evil, not in the actors, but deeper down, in the art itself and the attitude of society towards it." This letter of mine only made Katy cross. "You and I are playing in different operas. I didn't write to you about men of the noblest character, but about a lot of sharks who haven't a spark of nobility in them. They are a horde of savages who came on the stage only because they wouldn't be allowed anywhere else. The only ground they have for calling themselves artists is their impudence. Not a single talent among them, but any number of incapables, drunkards, intriguers, and slanderers. I can't tell you how bitterly I feel it that the art I love so much is fallen into the hands of people I despise. It hurts me that the best men should be content to look at evil from a distance and not want to come nearer. Instead of taking an active part, they write ponderous platitudes and useless sermons. . . ." and more in the same strain.
A little while after I received the following: "I have been inhumanly deceived. I can't go on living any more. Do as you think fit with my money. I loved you as a father and as my only friend. Forgive me."
So it appeared that he too belonged to the horde of savages. Later on, I gathered from various hints, that there was an attempt at suicide. Apparently, Katy tried to poison herself. I think she must have been seriously ill afterwards, for I got the following letter from Yalta, where most probably the doctors had sent her. Her last letter to me contained a request that I should send her at Yalta a thousand roubles, and it ended with the words: "Forgive me for writing such a sad letter. I buried my baby yesterday." After she had spent about a year in the Crimea she returned home.
She had been travelling for about four years, and during these four years I confess that I occupied a strange and unenviable position in regard to her. When she announced to me that she was going on to the stage and afterwards wrote to me about her love; when the desire to spend took hold of her, as it did periodically, and I had to send her every now and then one or two thousand roubles at her request; when she wrote that she intended to die, and afterwards that her baby was dead, I was at a loss every time. All my sympathy with her fate consisted in thinking hard and writing long tedious letters which might as well never have been written. But then I was in loco parentis and I loved her as a daughter.
Katy lives half a mile away from me now. She took a five-roomed house and furnished it comfortably, with the taste that was born in her. If anyone were to undertake to depict her surroundings, then the dominating mood of the picture would be indolence. Soft cushions, soft chairs for her indolent body; carpets for her indolent feet; faded, dim, dull colours for her indolent eyes; for her indolent soul, a heap of cheap fans and tiny pictures on the walls, pictures in which novelty of execution was more noticeable than content; plenty of little tables and stands, set out with perfectly useless and worthless things, shapeless scraps instead of curtains. . . . All this, combined with a horror of bright colours, of symmetry, and space, betokened a perversion of the natural taste as well as indolence of the soul. For whole days Katy lies on the sofa and reads books, mostly novels and stories. She goes outside her house but once in the day, to come and see me.
I work. Katy sits on the sofa at my side. She is silent, and wraps herself up in her shawl as though she were cold. Either because she is sympathetic to me, or I because I had got used to her continual visits while she was still a little girl, her presence does not prevent me from concentrating on my work. At long intervals I ask her some question or other, mechanically, and she answers very curtly; or, for a moment's rest, I turn towards her and watch how she is absorbed in looking through some medical review or newspaper. And then I see that the old expression of confidence in her face is there no more. Her expression now is cold, indifferent, distracted, like that of a passenger who has to wait a long while for his train. She dresses as she used—well and simply, but carelessly. Evidently her clothes and her hair suffer not a little from the sofas and hammocks on which she lies for days together. And she is not curious any more. She doesn't ask me questions any more, as if she had experienced everything in life and did not expect to hear anything new.
About four o'clock there is a sound of movement in the hall and the drawing-room. It's Liza come back from the Conservatoire, bringing her friends with her. You can hear them playing the piano, trying their voices and giggling. Yegor is laying the table in the dining-room and making a noise with the plates.
"Good-bye," says Katy. "I shan't go in to see your people. They must excuse me. I haven't time. Come and see me."
When I escort her into the hall, she looks me over sternly from head to foot, and says in vexation:
"You get thinner and thinner. Why don't you take a cure? I'll go to Sergius Fiodorovich and ask him to come. You must let him see you."
"It's not necessary, Katy."
"I can't understand why your family does nothing. They're a nice lot."
She puts on her jacket with her rush. Inevitably, two or three hair-pins fall out of her careless hair on to the floor. It's too much bother to tidy her hair now; besides she is in a hurry. She pushes the straggling strands of hair untidily under her hat and goes away.
As soon as I come into the dining-room, my wife asks:
"Was that Katy with you just now? Why didn't she come to see us. It really is extraordinary. . . ."
"Mamma!" says Liza reproachfully, "If she doesn't want to come, that's her affair. There's no need for us to go on our knees."
"Very well; but it's insulting. To sit in the study for three hours, without thinking of us. But she can do as she likes."
Varya and Liza both hate Katy. This hatred is unintelligible to me; probably you have to be a woman to understand it. I'll bet my life on it that you'll hardly find a single one among the hundred and fifty young men I see almost every day in my audience, or the hundred old ones I happen to meet every week, who would be able to understand why women hate and abhor Katy's past, her being pregnant and unmarried and her illegitimate child. Yet at the same time I cannot bring to mind a single woman or girl of my acquaintance who would not cherish such feelings, either consciously or instinctively. And it's not because women are purer and more virtuous than men. If virtue and purity are not free from evil feeling, there's precious little difference between them and vice. I explain it simply by the backward state of women's development. The sorrowful sense of compassion and the torment of conscience, which the modern man experiences when he sees distress have much more to tell me about culture and moral development than have hatred and repulsion. The modern woman is as lachrymose and as coarse in heart as she was in the middle ages. And in my opinion those who advise her to be educated like a man have wisdom on their side.
But still my wife does not like Katy, because she was an actress, and for her ingratitude, her pride, her extravagances, and all the innumerable vices one woman can always discover in another.
Besides myself and my family we have two or three of my daughter's girl friends to dinner and Alexander Adolphovich Gnekker, Liza's admirer and suitor. He is a fair young man, not more than thirty years old, of middle height, very fat, broad shouldered, with reddish hair round his ears and a little stained moustache, which give his smooth chubby face the look of a doll's. He wears a very short jacket, a fancy waistcoat, large-striped trousers, very full on the hip and very narrow in the leg, and brown boots without heels. His eyes stick out like a lobster's, his tie is like a lobster's tail, and I can't help thinking even that the smell of lobster soup clings about the whole of this young man. He visits us every day; but no one in the family knows where he comes from, where he was educated, or how he lives. He cannot play or sing, but he has a certain connection with music as well as singing, for he is agent for somebody's pianos, and is often at the Academy. He knows all the celebrities, and he manages concerts. He gives his opinion on music with great authority and I have noticed that everybody hastens to agree with him.
Rich men always have parasites about them. So do the sciences and the arts. It seems that there is no science or art in existence, which is free from such "foreign bodies" as this Mr. Gnekker. I am not a musician and perhaps I am mistaken about Gnekker, besides I don't know him very well. But I can't help suspecting the authority and dignity with which he stands beside the piano and listens when anyone is singing or playing.
You may be a gentleman and a privy councillor a hundred times over; but if you have a daughter you can't be guaranteed against the pettinesses that are so often brought into your house and into your own humour, by courtings, engagements, and weddings. For instance, I cannot reconcile myself to my wife's solemn expression every time Gnekker comes to our house, nor to those bottles of Chateau Lafitte, port, and sherry which are put on the table only for him, to convince him beyond doubt of the generous luxury in which we live. Nor can I stomach the staccato laughter which Liza learned at the Academy, and her way of screwing up her eyes, when men are about the house. Above all, I can't understand why it is that such a creature should come to me every day and have dinner with me—a creature perfectly foreign to my habits, my science, and the whole tenour of my life, a creature absolutely unlike the men I love. My wife and the servants whisper mysteriously that that is "the bridegroom," but still I can't understand why he's there. It disturbs my mind just as much as if a Zulu were put next to me at table. Besides, it seems strange to me that my daughter whom I used to think of as a baby should be in love with that necktie, those eyes, those chubby cheeks.
Formerly, I either enjoyed my dinner or was indifferent about it. Now it does nothing but bore and exasperate me. Since I was made an Excellency and Dean of the Faculty, for some reason or other my family found it necessary to make a thorough change in our menu and the dinner arrangements. Instead of the simple food I was used to as a student and a doctor, I am now fed on potage-purée, with some sossoulki swimming about in it, and kidneys in Madeira. The title of General and my renown have robbed me for ever of schi and savoury pies, and roast goose with apple sauce, and bream with kasha. They robbed me as well of my maid servant Agasha, a funny, talkative old woman, instead of whom I am now waited on by Yegor, a stupid, conceited fellow who always has a white glove in his right hand. The intervals between the courses are short, but they seem terribly long. There is nothing to fill them. We don't have any more of the old good-humour, the familiar conversations, the jokes and the laughter; no more mutual endearments, or the gaiety that used to animate my children, my wife, and myself when we met at the dinner table. For a busy man like me dinner was a time to rest and meet my friends, and a feast for my wife and children, not a very long feast, to be sure, but a gay and happy one, for they knew that for half an hour I did not belong to science and my students, but solely to them and to no one else. No more chance of getting tipsy on a single glass of wine, no more Agasha, no more bream with kasha, no more the old uproar to welcome our little contretemps at dinner, when the cat fought the dog under the table, or Katy's head-band fell down her cheek into her soup.
Our dinner nowadays is as nasty to describe as to eat. On my wife's face there is pompousness, an assumed gravity, and the usual anxiety. She eyes our plates nervously: "I see you don't like the meat? . . . Honestly, don't you like it?" And I must answer, "Don't worry, my dear. The meat is very good." She: "You're always taking my part, Nicolai Stiepanich. You never tell the truth. Why has Alexander Adolphovich eaten so little?" and the same sort of conversation for the whole of dinner. Liza laughs staccato and screws up her eyes. I look at both of them, and at this moment at dinner here I can see quite clearly that their inner lives have slipped out of my observation long ago. I feel as though once upon a time I lived at home with a real family, but now I am dining as a guest with an unreal wife and looking at an unreal Liza. There has been an utter change in both of them, while I have lost sight of the long process that led up to the change. No wonder I don't understand anything. What was the reason of the change? I don't know. Perhaps the only trouble is that God did not give my wife and daughter the strength He gave me. From my childhood I have been accustomed to resist outside influences and have been hardened enough. Such earthly catastrophes as fame, being made General, the change from comfort to living above my means, acquaintance with high society, have scarcely touched me. I have survived safe and sound. But it all fell down like an avalanche on my weak, unhardened wife and Liza, and crushed them.
Gnekker and the girls talk of fugues and counter-fugues; singers and pianists, Bach and Brahms, and my wife, frightened of being suspected of musical ignorance, smiles sympathetically and murmurs: "Wonderful . . . Is it possible? . . . Why? . . ." Gnekker eats steadily, jokes gravely, and listens condescendingly to the ladies' remarks. Now and then he has the desire to talk bad French, and then he finds it necessary for some unknown reason to address me magnificently, "Votre Excellence."
And I am morose. Apparently I embarrass them all and they embarrass me. I never had any intimate acquaintance with class antagonism before, but now something of the kind torments me indeed. I try to find only bad traits in Gnekker. It does not take long and then I am tormented because one of my friends has not taken his place as bridegroom. In another way too his presence has a bad effect upon me. Usually, when I am left alone with myself or when I am in the company of people I love, I never think of my merits; and if I begin to think about them they seem as trivial as though I had become a scholar only yesterday. But in the presence of a man like Gnekker my merits appear to me like an extremely high mountain, whose summit is lost in the clouds, while Gnekkers move about the foot, so small as hardly to be seen.
After dinner I go up to my study and light my little pipe, the only one during the whole day, the sole survivor of my old habit of smoking from morning to night. My wife comes into me while I am smoking and sits down to speak to me. Just as in the morning, I know beforehand what the conversation will be.
"We ought to talk seriously, Nicolai Stiepanovich," she begins. "I mean about Liza. Why won't you attend?"
"Attend to what?"
"You pretend you don't notice anything. It's not right. It's not right to be unconcerned. Gnekker has intentions about Liza. What do you say to that?"
"I can't say he's a bad man, because I don't know him; but I've told you a thousand times already that I don't like him."
"But that's impossible . . . impossible. . . ."
She rises and walks about in agitation.
"It's impossible to have such an attitude to a serious matter," she says. "When our daughter's happiness is concerned, we must put everything personal aside. I know you don't like him. . . . Very well. . . . But if we refuse him now and upset everything, how can you guarantee that Liza won't have a grievance against us for the rest of her life? Heaven knows there aren't many young men nowadays. It's quite likely there won't be another chance. He loves Liza very much and she likes him, evidently. Of course he hasn't a settled position. But what is there to do? Please God, he'll get a position in time. He comes of a good family, and he's rich."
"How did you find that out?"
"He said so himself. His father has a big house in Kharkov and an estate outside. You must certainly go to Kharkov"
"You'll find out there. You have acquaintances among the professors there. I'd go myself. But I'm a woman. I can't." "I will not go to Kharkov," I say morosely.
My wife gets frightened; a tormented expression comes over her face.
"or God's sake, Nicolai Stiepanich," she implores, sobbing, "For God's sake help me with this burden! It hurts me."
It is painful to look at her.
"Very well, Varya," I say kindly, "If you like—very well I'll go to Kharkov, and do everything you want."
She puts her handkerchief to her eyes and goes to cry in her room. I am left alone.
A little later they bring in the lamp. The familiar shadows that have wearied me for years fall from the chairs and the lamp-shade on to the walls and the floor. When I look at them it seems that it's night already, and the cursed insomnia has begun. I lie down on the bed; then I get up and walk about the room; then lie down again. My nervous excitement generally reaches its highest after dinner, before the evening. For no reason I begin to cry and hide my head in the pillow. All the while I am afraid somebody may come in; I am afraid I shall die suddenly; I am ashamed of my tears; altogether, something intolerable is happening in my soul. I feel I cannot look at the lamp or the books or the shadows on the floor, or listen to the voices in the drawing-room any more. Some invisible, mysterious force pushes me rudely out of my house. I jump up, dress hurriedly, and go cautiously out into the street so that the household shall not notice me. Where shall I go?
The answer to this question has long been there in my brain: "To Katy."
As usual she is lying on the Turkish divan or the couch and reading something. Seeing me she lifts her head languidly, sits down, and gives me her hand.
"You are always lying down like that," I say after a reposeful silence. "It's unhealthy. You'd far better be doing something."
"You'd far better be doing something, I say."
"What? . . . A woman can be either a simple worker or an actress."
"Well, then—if you can't become a worker, be an actress."
She is silent.
"You had better marry," I say, half-joking.
"There's no one to marry: and no use if I did."
"You can't go on living like this."
"Without a husband? As if that mattered. There are as many men as you like, if you only had the will."
"This isn't right, Katy."
"What isn't right?"
"What you said just now."
Katy sees that I am chagrined, and desires to soften the bad impression.
"Come. Let's come here. Here."
She leads me into a small room, very cosy, and points to the writing table.
"There. I made it for you. You'll work here. Come every day and bring your work with you. They only disturb you there at home. . . . Will you work here? Would you like to?"
In order not to hurt her by refusing, I answer that I shall work with her and that I like the room immensely. Then we both sit down in the cosy room and begin to talk.
The warmth, the cosy surroundings, the presence of a sympathetic being, rouses in me now not a feeling of pleasure as it used but a strong desire to complain and grumble. Anyhow it seems to me that if I moan and complain I shall feel better.
"It's a bad business, my dear," I begin with a sigh. "Very bad."
"What is the matter?"
"I'll tell you what is the matter. The best and most sacred right of kings is the right to pardon. And I have always felt myself a king so long as I used this right prodigally. I never judged, I was compassionate, I pardoned everyone right and left. Where others protested and revolted I only advised and persuaded. All my life I've tried to make my society tolerable to the family of students, friends and servants. And this attitude of mine towards people, I know, educated every one who came into contact with me. But now I am king no more. There's something going on in me which belongs only to slaves. Day and night evil thoughts roam about in my head, and feelings which I never knew before have made their home in my soul. I hate and despise; I'm exasperated, disturbed, and afraid. I've become strict beyond measure, exacting, unkind, and suspicious. Even the things which in the past gave me the chance of making an extra pun, now bring me a feeling of oppression. My logic has changed too. I used to despise money alone; now I cherish evil feelings, not to money, but to the rich, as if they were guilty. I used to hate violence and arbitrariness; now I hate the people who employ violence, as if they alone are to blame and not all of us, who cannot educate one another. What does it all mean? If my new thoughts and feelings come from a change of my convictions, where could the change have come from? Has the world grown worse and I better, or was I blind and indifferent before? But if the change is due to the general decline of my physical and mental powers—I am sick and losing weight every day—then I'm in a pitiable position. It means that my new thoughts are abnormal and unhealthy, that I must be ashamed of them and consider them valueless. . ."
"Sickness hasn't anything to do with it," Katy interrupts. "Your eyes are opened—that's all. You've begun to notice things you didn't want to notice before for some reason. My opinion is that you must break with your family finally first of all and then go away."
"You're talking nonsense."
"You don't love them any more. Then, why do you behave unfairly? And is it a family! Mere nobodies. If they died to-day, no one would notice their absence to-morrow."
Katy despises my wife and daughter as much as they hate her. It's scarcely possible nowadays to speak of the right of people to despise one another. But if you accept Katy's point of view and own that such a right exists, you will notice that she has the same right to despise my wife and Liza as they have to hate her.
"Mere nobodies!" she repeats. "Did you have any dinner to-day? It's a wonder they didn't forget to tell you dinner was ready. I don't know how they still remember that you exist."
"Katy!" I say sternly. "Please be quiet."
"You don't think it's fun for me to talk about them, do you? I wish I didn't know them at all. You listen to me, dear. Leave everything and go away: go abroad the quicker, the better."
"What nonsense! What about the University?"
"And the University, too. What is it to you? There's no sense in it at all. You've been lecturing for thirty years, and where are your pupils? Have you many famous scholars? Count them up. But to increase the number of doctors who exploit the general ignorance and make hundreds of thousands,—there's no need to be a good and gifted man. You aren't wanted."
"My God, how bitter you are!" I get terrified. "How bitter you are. Be quiet, or I'll go away. I can't reply to the bitter things you say."
The maid enters and calls us to tea. Thank God, our conversation changes round the samovar. I have made my moan, and now I want to indulge another senile weakness—reminiscences. I tell Katy about my past, to my great surprise with details that I never suspected I had kept safe in my memory. And she listens to me with emotion, with pride, holding her breath. I like particularly to tell how I once was a student at a seminary and how I dreamed of entering the University.
"I used to walk in the seminary garden," I tell her, "and the wind would bring the sound of a song and the thrumming of an accordion from a distant tavern, or a troika with bells would pass quickly by the seminary fence. That would be quite enough to fill not only my breast with a sense of happiness, but my stomach, legs, and hands. As I heard the sound of the accordion or the bells fading away, I would see myself a doctor and paint pictures, one more glorious than another. And, you see, my dreams came true. There were more things I dared to dream of. I have been a favourite professor thirty years, I have had excellent friends and an honourable reputation. I loved and married when I was passionately in love. I had children. Altogether, when I look back the whole of my life seems like a nice, clever composition. The only thing I have to do now is not to spoil the finale. For this, I must die like a man. If death is really a danger then I must meet it as becomes a teacher, a scholar, and a citizen of a Christian State. But I am spoiling the finale. I am drowning, and I run to you and beg for help, and you say: 'Drown. It's your duty.'"
At this point a ring at the bell sounds in the hall. Katy and I both recognise it and say:
"That must be Mikhail Fiodorovich."
And indeed in a minute Mikhail Fiodorovich, my colleague, the philologist, enters. He is a tall, well-built man about fifty years old, clean shaven, with thick grey hair and black eyebrows. He is a good man and an admirable friend. He belongs to an old aristocratic family, a prosperous and gifted house which has played a notable role in the history of our literature and education. He himself is clever, gifted, and highly educated, but not without his eccentricities. To a certain extent we are all eccentric, queer fellows, but his eccentricities have an element of the exceptional, not quite safe for his friends. Among the latter I know not a few who cannot see his many merits clearly because of his eccentricities.
As he walks in he slowly removes his gloves and says in his velvety bass:
"How do you do? Drinking tea. Just in time. It's hellishly cold."
Then he sits down at the table, takes a glass of tea and immediately begins to talk. What chiefly marks his way of talking is his invariably ironical tone, a mixture of philosophy and jest, like Shakespeare's grave-diggers. He always talks of serious matters; but never seriously. His opinions are always acid and provocative, but thanks to his tender, easy, jesting tone, it somehow happens that his acidity and provocativeness don't tire one's ears, and one very soon gets used to it. Every evening he brings along some half-dozen stories of the university life and generally begins with them when he sits down at the table.
"O Lord," he sighs with an amusing movement of his black eyebrows, "there are some funny people in the world."
"Who?" asks Katy.
"I was coming down after my lecture to-day and I met that old idiot N— on the stairs. He walks along, as usual pushing out that horse jowl of his, looking for some one to bewail his headaches, his wife, and his students, who won't come to his lectures. 'Well,' I think to myself, 'he's seen me. It's all up—no hope for me . . . '"
And so on in the same strain. Or he begins like this,
"Yesterday I was at Z's public lecture. Tell it not in Gath, but I do wonder how our alma mater dares to show the public such an ass, such a double-dyed blockhead as Z. Why he's a European fool. Good Lord, you won't find one like him in all Europe not even if you looked in daytime, and with a lantern. Imagine it: he lectures as though he were sucking a stick of barley-sugar—su—su—su. He gets a fright because he can't make out his manuscript. His little thoughts will only just keep moving, hardly moving, like a bishop riding a bicycle. Above all you can't make out a word he says. The flies die of boredom, it's so terrific. It can only be compared with the boredom in the great Hall at the Commemoration, when the traditional speech is made. To hell with it!"
Immediately an abrupt change of subject.
"I had to make the speech; three years ago. Nicolai Stiepanovich will remember. It was hot, close. My full uniform was tight under my arms, tight as death. I read for half an hour, an hour, an hour and a half, two hours. ' Well,' I thought, 'thank God I've only ten pages left.' And I had four pages of peroration that I needn't read at all. 'Only six pages then,' I thought. Imagine it. I just gave a glance in front of me and saw sitting next to each other in the front row a general with a broad ribbon and a bishop. The poor devils were bored stiff. They were staring about madly to stop themselves from going to steep. For all that they are still trying to look attentive, to make some appearance of understanding what I'm reading, and look as though they like it. 'Well,' I thought, 'if you like it, then you shall have it. I'll spite you.' So I set to and read the four pages, every word."
When he speaks only his eyes and eyebrows smile as it is generally with the ironical. At such moments there is no hatred or malice in his eyes but a great deal of acuteness and that peculiar fox-cunning which you can catch only in very observant people. Further, about his eyes I have noticed one more peculiarity. When he takes his glass from Katy, or listens to her remarks, or follows her with a glance as she goes out of the room for a little while, then I catch in his look something humble, prayerful, pure. . . .
The maid takes the samovar away and puts on the table a big piece of cheese, some fruit, and a bottle of Crimean champagne, a thoroughly bad wine which Katy got to like when she lived in the Crimea. Mikhail Fiodorovich takes two packs of cards from the shelves and sets them out for patience. If one may believe his assurances, some games of patience demand a great power of combination and concentration. Nevertheless while he sets out the cards he amuses himself by talking continually. Katy follows his cards carefully, helping him more by mimicry than words. In the whole evening she drinks no more than two small glasses of wine, I drink only a quarter of a glass, the remainder of the bottle falls to Mikhail Fiodorovich, who can drink any amount without ever getting drunk.
During patience we solve all kinds of questions, mostly of the lofty order, and our dearest love, science, comes off second best.
"Science, thank God, has had her day," says Mikhail Fiodorovich very slowly. "She has had her swan-song. Ye-es. Mankind has begun to feel the desire to replace her by something else. She was grown from the soil of prejudice, fed by prejudices, and is now the same quintessence of prejudices as were her bygone grandmothers: alchemy, metaphysics and philosophy. As between European scholars and the Chinese who have no sciences at all the difference is merely trifling, a matter only of externals. The Chinese had no scientific knowledge, but what have they lost by that?"
"Flies haven't any scientific knowledge either," I say; "but what does that prove?"
"It's no use getting angry, Nicolai Stiepanich. I say this only between ourselves. I'm more cautious than you think. I shan't proclaim it from the housetops, God forbid! The masses still keep alive a prejudice that science and art are superior to agriculture and commerce, superior to crafts. Our persuasion makes a living from this prejudice. It's not for you and me to destroy it. God forbid!"
During patience the younger generation also comes in for it.
"Our public is degenerate nowadays," Mikhail Fiodorovich sighs. "I don't speak of ideals and such things, I only ask that they should be able to work and think decently. 'Sadly I look at the men of our time'—it's quite true in this connection."
"Yes, they're frightfully degenerate," Katy agrees. "Tell me, had you one single eminent person under you during the last five or ten years?"
"I don't know how it is with the other professors,—but somehow I don't recollect that it ever happened to me."
"In my lifetime I've seen a great many of your students and young scholars, a great many actors. . . . What happened? I never once had the luck to meet, not a hero or a man of talent, but an ordinarily interesting person. Everything's dull and incapable, swollen and pretentious. . . ."
All these conversations about degeneracy give me always the impression that I have unwittingly overheard an unpleasant conversation about my daughter. I feel offended because the indictments are made wholesale and are based upon such ancient hackneyed commonplaces and such penny-dreadful notions as degeneracy, lack of ideals, or comparisons with the glorious past. Any indictment, even if it's made in a company of ladies, should be formulated with all possible precision; otherwise it isn't an indictment, but an empty calumny, unworthy of decent people.
I am an old man, and have served for the last thirty years; but I don't see any sign either of degeneracy or the lack of ideals. I don't find it any worse now than before. My porter, Nicolas, whose experience in this case has its value, says that students nowadays are neither better nor worse than their predecessors.
If I were asked what was the thing I did not like about my present pupils, I wouldn't say offhand or answer at length, but with a certain precision. I know their defects and there's no need for me to take refuge in a mist of commonplaces. I don't like the way they smoke, and drink spirits, and marry late; or the way they are careless and indifferent to the point of allowing students to go hungry in their midst, and not paying their debts into "The Students' Aid Society." They are ignorant of modern languages and express themselves incorrectly in Russian. Only yesterday my colleague, the hygienist, complained to me that he had to lecture twice as often because of their incompetent knowledge of physics and their complete ignorance of meteorology. They are readily influenced by the most modern writers, and some of those not the best, but they are absolutely indifferent to classics like Shakespeare, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Pascal; and their worldly unpractically shows itself mostly in their inability to distinguish between great and small. They solve all difficult questions which have a more or less social character (emigration, for instance) by getting up subscriptions, but not by the method of scientific investigation and experiment, though this is at their full disposal, and, above all, corresponds to their vocation. They readily become house-doctors, assistant house-doctors, clinical assistants, or consulting doctors, and they are prepared to keep these positions until they are forty, though independence, a sense of freedom, and personal initiative are quite as necessary in science, as, for instance, in art or commerce. I have pupils and listeners, but I have no helpers or successors. Therefore I love them and am concerned for them, but I'm not proud of them . . . and so on.
However great the number of such defects may be, it's only in a cowardly and timid person that they give rise to pessimism and distraction. All of them are by nature accidental and transitory, and are completely dependent on the conditions of life. Ten years will be enough for them to disappear or give place to new and different defects, which are quite indispensable, but will in their turn give the timid a fright. Students' shortcomings often annoy me, but the annoyance is nothing in comparison with the joy I have had these thirty years in speaking with my pupils, lecturing to them, studying their relations and comparing them with people of a different class.
Mikhail Fiodorovich is a slanderer. Katy listens and neither of them notices how deep is the pit into which they are drawn by such an outwardly innocuous recreation as condemning one's neighbours. They don't realise how a simple conversation gradually turns into mockery and derision, or how they both begin even to employ the manners of calumny.
"There are some queer types to be found," says Mikhail Fiodorovich. "Yesterday I went to see our friend Yegor Pietrovich. There I found a student, one of your medicos, a third-year man, I think. His face . . . rather in the style of Dobroliubov—the stamp of profound thought on his brow. We began to talk. 'My dear fellow—an extraordinary business. I've just read that some German or other—can't remember his name—has extracted a new alkaloid from the human brain—idiotine.' Do you know he really believed it, and produced an expression of respect on his face, as much as to say, 'See, what a power we are.'"
"The other day I went to the theatre. I sat down. Just in front of me in the next row two people were sitting: one, 'one of the chosen,' evidently a law student, the other a whiskery medico. The medico was as drunk as a cobbler. Not an atom of attention to the stage. Dozing and nodding. But the moment some actor began to deliver a loud monologue, or just raised his voice, my medico thrills, digs his neighbour in the ribs. 'What's he say? Something no—ble?' 'Noble,' answers 'the chosen.' 'Brrravo!' bawls the medico. 'No—ble. Bravo.' You see the drunken blockhead didn't come to the theatre for art, but for something noble. He wants nobility."
Katy listens and laughs. Her laugh is rather strange. She breathes out in swift, rhythmic, and regular alternation with her inward breathing. It's as though she were playing an accordion. Of her face, only her nostrils laugh. My heart fails me. I don't know what to say. I lose my temper, crimson, jump up from my seat and cry:
"Be quiet, won't you? Why do you sit here like two toads, poisoning the air with your breath? I've had enough."
In vain I wait for them to stop their slanders. I prepare to go home. And it's time, too. Past ten o'clock.
"I'll sit here a little longer," says Mikhail Fiodorovich, "if you give me leave, Ekaterina Vladimirovna?"
"You have my leave," Katy answers.
"Bene. In that case, order another bottle, please."
Together they escort me to the hall with candles in their hands. While I'm putting on my overcoat, Mikhail Fiodorovich says:
"You've grown terribly thin and old lately. Nicolai Stiepanovich. What's the matter with you? Ill?"
"Yes, a little."
"And he will not look after himself," Katy puts in sternly.
"Why don't you look after yourself? How can you go on like this? God helps those who help themselves, my dear man. Give my regards to your family and make my excuses for not coming. One of these days, before I go abroad, I'll come to say good-bye. Without fail. I'm off next week."
I came away from Katy's irritated, frightened by the talk about my illness and discontented with myself. "And why," I ask myself, "shouldn't I be attended by one of my colleagues?" Instantly I see how my friend, after sounding me, will go to the window silently, think a little while, turn towards me and say, indifferently, trying to prevent me from reading the truth in his face: "At the moment I don't see anything particular; but still, cher confrére, I would advise you to break off your work . . ." And that will take my last hope away.
Who doesn't have hopes? Nowadays, when I diagnose and treat myself, I sometimes hope that my ignorance deceives me, that I am mistaken about the albumen and sugar which I find, as well as about my heart, and also about the anasarca which I have noticed twice in the morning. While I read over the therapeutic text-books again with the eagerness of a hypochondriac, and change the prescriptions every day, I still believe that I will come across something hopeful. How trivial it all is!
Whether the sky is cloudy all over or the moon and stars are shining in it, every time I come back home I look at it and think that death will take me soon. Surely at that moment my thoughts should be as deep as the sky, as bright, as striking . . but no! I think of myself, of my wife, Liza, Gnekker, the students, people in general. My thoughts are not good, they are mean; I juggle with myself, and at this moment my attitude towards life can be expressed in the words the famous Arakheev wrote in one of his intimate letters: "All good in the world is inseparably linked to bad, and there is always more bad than good." Which means that everything is ugly, there's nothing to live for, and the sixty-two years I have lived out must be counted as lost. I surprise myself in these thoughts and try to convince myself they are accidental and temporary and not deeply rooted in me, but I think immediately:
"If that's true, why am I drawn every evening to those two toads." And I swear to myself never to go to Katy any more, though I know I will go to her again to-morrow.
As I pull my door bell and go upstairs, I feel already that I have no family and no desire to return to it. It is plain my new, Arakheev thoughts are not accidental or temporary in me, but possess my whole being. With a bad conscience, dull, indolent, hardly able to move my limbs, as though I had a ten ton weight upon me, I lie down in my bed and soon fall asleep.
The summer comes and life changes.
One fine morning Liza comes in to me and says in a joking tone:
"Come, Your Excellency. It's all ready."
They lead My Excellency into the street, put me into a cab and drive me away. For want of occupation I read the signboards backwards as I go. The word "Tavern" becomes "Nrevat." That would do for a baron's name: Baroness Nrevat. Beyond, I drive across the field by the cemetery, which produces no impression upon me whatever, though I'll soon lie there. After a two hours' drive, My Excellency is led into the ground-floor of the bungalow, and put into a small, lively room with a light-blue paper.
Insomnia at night as before, but I am no more wakeful in the morning and don't listen to my wife, but lie in bed. I don't sleep, but I am in a sleepy state, half-forgetfulness, when you know you are not asleep, but have dreams. I get up in the afternoon, and sit down at the table by force of habit, but now I don't work any more but amuse myself with French yellow-backs sent me by Katy. Of course it would be more patriotic to read Russian authors, but to tell the truth I'm not particularly disposed to them. Leaving out two or three old ones, all the modern literature doesn't seem to me to be literature but a unique home industry which exists only to be encouraged, but the goods are bought with reluctance. The best of these homemade goods can't be called remarkable and it's impossible to praise it sincerely without a saving "but"; and the same must be said of all the literary novelties I've read during the last ten or fifteen years. Not one remarkable, and you can't dispense with "but." They have cleverness, nobility, and no talent; talent, nobility, and no cleverness; or finally, talent, cleverness, but no nobility.
I would not say that French books have talent, cleverness, and nobility. Nor do they satisfy me. But they are not so boring as the Russian; and it is not rare to find in them the chief constituent of creative genius—the sense of personal freedom, which is lacking to Russian authors. I do not recall one single new book in which from the very first page the author did not try to tie himself up in all manner of conventions and contracts with his conscience. One is frightened to speak of the naked body, another is bound hand and foot by psychological analysis, a third must have "a kindly attitude to his fellow-men," the fourth heaps up whole pages with descriptions of nature on purpose to avoid any suspicion of a tendency. . . . One desires to be in his books a bourgeois at all costs, another at all costs an aristocrat. Deliberation, cautiousness, cunning: but no freedom, no courage to write as one likes, and therefore no creative genius.
All this refers to belles-lettres, so-called.
As for serious articles in Russian, on sociology, for instance, or art and so forth, I don't read them, simply out of timidity. For some reason in my childhood and youth I had a fear of porters and theatre attendants, and this fear has remained with me up till now. Even now I am afraid of them. It is said that only that which one cannot understand seems terrible. And indeed it is very difficult to understand why hall-porters and theatre attendants are so pompous and haughty and importantly polite. When I read serious articles, I have exactly the same indefinable fear. Their portentous gravity, their playfulness, like an archbishop's, their over-familiar attitude to foreign authors, their capacity for talking dignified nonsense "—filling a vacuum with emptiness "—it is all inconceivable to me and terrifying, and quite unlike the modesty and the calm and gentlemanly tone to which I am accustomed when reading our writers on medicine and the natural sciences. Not only articles; I have difficulty also in reading translations even when they are edited by serious Russians. The presumptuous benevolence of the prefaces, the abundance of notes by the translator (which prevents one from concentrating), the parenthetical queries and sics, which are so liberally scattered over the book or the article by the translator—seem to me an assault on the author's person, as well as on my independence as a reader.
Once I was invited as an expert to the High Court. In the interval one of my fellow-experts called my attention to the rude behaviour of the public prosecutor to the prisoners, among whom were two women intellectuals. I don't think I exaggerated at all when I replied to my colleague that he was not behaving more rudely than authors of serious articles behave to one another. Indeed their behaviour is so rude that one speaks of them with bitterness. They behave to each other or to the writers whom they criticise either with too much deference, careless of their own dignity, or, on the other hand, they treat them much worse than I have treated Gnekker, my future son-in-law, in these notes and thoughts of mine. Accusations of irresponsibility, of impure intentions, of any kind of crime even, are the usual adornment of serious articles. And this, as our young medicos love to say in their little articles—quite ultima ratio. Such an attitude must necessarily be reflected in the character of the young generation of writers, and therefore I'm not at all surprised that in the new books which have been added to our belles lettres in the last ten or fifteen years, the heroes drink a great deal of vodka and the heroines are not sufficiently chaste.
I read French books and look out of the window, which is open—I see the pointed palings of my little garden, two or three skinny trees, and there, beyond the garden, the road, fields, then a wide strip of young pine-forest. I often delight in watching a little boy and girl, both white-haired and ragged, climb on the garden fence and laugh at my baldness. In their shining little eyes I read, "Come out, thou baldhead." These are almost the only people who don't care a bit about my reputation or my title.
I don't have visitors everyday now. I'll mention only the visits of Nicolas and Piotr Ignatievich. Nicolas comes to me usually on holidays, pretending to come on business, but really to see me. He is very hilarious, a thing which never happens to him in the winter.
"Well, what have you got to say?" I ask him, coming out into the passage.
"Your Excellency!" he says, pressing his hand to his heart and looking at me with a lover's rapture. "Your Excellency! So help me God! God strike me where I stand! Gaudeamus igitur juvenestus."
And he kisses me eagerly on the shoulders, on my sleeves, and buttons.
"Is everything all right over there?" I ask.
"Your Excellency! I swear to God . . ."
He never stops swearing, quite unnecessarily, and I soon get bored, and send him to the kitchen, where they give him dinner. Piotr Ignatievich also comes on holidays specially to visit me and communicate his thoughts to me. He usually sits by the table in my room, modest, clean, judicious, without daring to cross his legs or lean his elbows on the table, all the while telling me in a quiet, even voice what he considers very piquant items of news gathered from journals and pamphlets.
These items are all alike and can be reduced to the following type: A Frenchman made a discovery. Another—a German—exposed him by showing that this discovery had been made as long ago as 1870 by some American. Then a third—also a German—outwitted them both by showing that both of them had been confused, by taking spherules of air under a microscope for dark pigment. Even when he wants to make me laugh, Piotr Ignatievich tells his story at great length, very much as though he were defending a thesis, enumerating his literary sources in detail, with every effort to avoid mistakes in the dates, the particular number of the journal and the names. Moreover, he does not say Petit simply but inevitably, Jean Jacques Petit. If he happens to stay to dinner, he will tell the same sort of piquant stories and drive all the company to despondency. If Gnekker and Liza begin to speak of fugues and counter-fugues in his presence he modestly lowers his eyes, and his face falls. He is ashamed that such trivialities should be spoken of in the presence of such serious men as him and me.
In my present state of mind five minutes are enough for him to bore me as though I had seen and listened to him for a whole eternity. I hate the poor man. I wither away beneath his quiet, even voice and his bookish language. His stories make me stupid. . . . He cherishes the kindliest feelings towards me and talks to me only to give me pleasure. I reward him by staring at his face as if I wanted to hypnotise him, and thinking "Go away. Go, go. . . ." But he is proof against my mental suggestion and sits, sits, sits. . . .
While he sits with me I cannot rid myself of the idea: "When I die, it's quite possible that he will be appointed in my place." Then my poor audience appears to me as an oasis where the stream has dried up, and I am unkind to Piotr Ignatievich, and silent and morose as if he were guilty of such thoughts and not I myself. When he begins, as usual, to glorify the German scholars, I no longer jest good-naturedly, but murmur sternly:
"They're fools, your Germans . . ."
It's like the late Professor Nikita Krylov when he was bathing with Pirogov at Reval. He got angry with the water, which was very cold, and swore about "These scoundrelly Germans." I behave badly to Piotr Ignatievich; and it's only when he is going away and I see through the window his grey hat disappearing behind the garden fence, that I want to call him back and say: "Forgive me, my dear fellow."
The dinner goes yet more wearily than in winter. The same Gnekker, whom I now hate and despise, dines with me every day. Before, I used to suffer his presence in silence, but now I say biting things to him, which make my wife and Liza blush. Carried away by an evil feeling, I often say things that are merely foolish, and don't know why I say them. Thus it happened once that after looking at Gnekker contemptuously for a long while, I suddenly fired off, for no reason at all:
- "Eagles than barnyard-fowls may lower bend; :But fowls shall never to the heav'ns ascend."
More's the pity that the fowl Gnekker shows himself more clever than the eagle professor. Knowing my wife and daughter are on his side he maintains these tactics. He replies to my shafts with a condescending silence ("The old man's off his head. . . . What's the good of talking to him?"), or makes good-humoured fun of me. It is amazing to what depths of pettiness a man may descend. During the whole dinner I can dream how Gnekker will be shown to be an adventurer, how Liza and my wife will realise their mistake, and I will tease them—ridiculous dreams like these at a time when I have one foot in the grave.
Now there occur misunderstandings, of a kind which I formerly knew only by hearsay. Though it is painful I will describe one which occurred after dinner the other day.
I sit in my room smoking a little pipe. Enters my wife, as usual, sits down and begins to talk. What a good idea it would be to go to Kharkov now while the weather is warm and there is the time, and inquire what kind of man our Gnekker is.
"Very well. I'll go," I agree.
My wife gets up, pleased with me, and walks to the door; but immediately returns:
"By-the bye, I've one more favour to ask. I know you'll be angry; but it's my duty to warn you . . . . Forgive me, Nicolai, but all our neighbours have begun to talk about the way you go to Katy's continually. I don't deny that she's clever and educated. It's pleasant to spend the time with her. But at your age and in your position it's rather strange to find pleasure in her society. . . . Besides she has a reputation enough to. . . ."
All my blood rushes instantly from my brain. My eyes flash fire. I catch hold of my hair, and stamp and cry, in a voice that is not mine:
"Leave me alone, leave me, leave me. . . ."
My face is probably terrible, and my voice strange, for my wife suddenly gets pale, and calls aloud, with a despairing voice, also not her own. At our cries rush in Liza and Gnekker, then Yegor.
My feet grow numb, as though they did not exist. I feel that I am falling into somebody's arms. Then I hear crying for a little while and sink into a faint which lasts for two or three hours.
Now for Katy. She comes to see me before evening every day, which of course must be noticed by my neighbours and my friends. After a minute she takes me with her for a drive. She has her own horse and a new buggy she bought this summer. Generally she lives like a princess. She has taken an expensive detached bungalow with a big garden, and put into it all her town furniture. She has two maids and a coachman. I often ask her:
"Katy, what will you live on when you've spent all your father's money?"
"We'll see, then," she answers.
"But this money deserves to be treated more seriously, my dear. It was earned by a good man and honest labour."
"You've told me that before. I know."
First we drive by the field, then by a young pine forest, which you can see from my window. Nature seems to me as beautiful as she used, although the devil whispers to me that all these pines and firs, the birds and white clouds in the sky will not notice my absence in three or four months when I am dead. Katy likes to take the reins, and it is good that the weather is fine and I am sitting by her side. She is in a happy mood, and does not say bitter things.
"You're a very good man, Nicolai," she says. "You are a rare bird. There's no actor who could play your part. Mine or Mikhail's, for instance—even a bad actor could manage, but yours—there's nobody. I envy you, envy you terribly! What am I? What?"
She thinks for a moment, and asks:
"I'm a negative phenomenon, aren't I?"
"Yes," I answer.
"H'm . . . what's to be done then?"
What answer can I give? It's easy to say "Work," or "Give your property to the poor," or "Know yourself," and because it's so easy to say this I don't know what to answer.
My therapeutist colleagues, when teaching methods of cure, advise one "to individualise each particular case." This advice must be followed in order to convince one's self that the remedies recommended in the text-books as the best and most thoroughly suitable as a general rule, are quite unsuitable in particular cases. It applies to moral affections as well.
But I must answer something. So I say:
"You've too much time on your hands, my dear. You must take up something. . . . In fact, why shouldn't you go on the stage again, if you have a vocation."
"You have the manner and tone of a victim. I don't like it, my dear. You have yourself to blame. Remember, you began by getting angry with people and things in general; but you never did anything to improve either of them. You didn't put up a struggle against the evil. You got tired. You're not a victim of the struggle but of your own weakness. Certainly you were young then and inexperienced. But now everything can be different. Come on, be an actress. You will work; you will serve in the temple of art.". . .
"Don't be so clever, Nicolai," she interrupts. "Let's agree once for all: let's speak about actors, actresses, writers, but let us leave art out of it. You're a rare and excellent man. But you don't understand enough about art to consider it truly sacred. You have no flair, no ear for art. You've been busy all your life, and you never had time to acquire the flair. Really . . . I don't love these conversations about art!" she continues nervously. "I don't love them. They've vulgarised it enough already, thank you."
"Who's vulgarised it?"
"They vulgarised it by their drunkenness, newspapers by their over-familiarity, clever people by philosophy."
"What's philosophy got to do with it?"
"A great deal. If a man philosophises, it means he doesn't understand."
So that it should not come to bitter words, I hasten to change the subject, and then keep silence for a long while. It's not till we come out of the forest and drive towards Katy's bungalow, I return to the subject and ask:
"Still, you haven't answered me why you don't want to go on the stage?"
"Really, it's cruel," she cries out, and suddenly blushes all over. "You want me to tell you the truth outright. Very well if . . . if you will have it! I've no talent! No talent and . . . much ambition! There you are!"
After this confession, she turns her face away from me, and to hide the trembling of her hands, tugs at the reins.
As we approach her bungalow, from a distance we see Mikhail already, walking about by the gate, impatiently awaiting us.
"This Fiodorovich again," Katy says with annoyance. "Please take him away from me. I'm sick of him. He's flat. . . . Let him go to the deuce."
Mikhail Fiodorovich ought to have gone abroad long ago, but he has postponed his departure every week. There have been some changes in him lately. He's suddenly got thin, begun to be affected by drink—a thing that never happened to him before, and his black eyebrows have begun to get grey. When our buggy stops at the gate he cannot hide his joy and impatience. Anxiously he helps Katy and me from the buggy, hastily asks us questions, laughs, slowly rubs his hands, and that gentle, prayerful, pure something that I used to notice only in his eyes is now poured over all his face. He is happy and at the same time ashamed of his happiness, ashamed of his habit of coming to Katy's every evening, and he finds it necessary to give a reason for his coming, some obvious absurdity, like: "I was passing on business, and I thought I'd just drop in for a second."
All three of us go indoors. First we drink tea, then our old friends, the two packs of cards, appear on the table, with a big piece of cheese, some fruit, and a bottle of Crimean champagne. The subjects of conversation are not new, but all exactly the same as they were in the winter. The university, the students, literature, the theatre all of them come in for it. The air thickens with slanders, and grows more close. It is poisoned by the breath, not of two toads as in winter, but now by all three. Besides the velvety, baritone laughter and the accordion-like giggle, the maid who waits upon us hears also the unpleasant jarring laugh of a musical comedy general: "He, he, he!"
There sometimes come fearful nights with thunder, lightning, rain, and wind, which the peasants call "sparrow-nights." There was one such sparrow-night in my own personal life. . . .
I wake after midnight and suddenly leap out of bed. Somehow it seems to me that I am going to die immediately. I do not know why, for there is no single sensation in my body which points to a quick end; but a terror presses on my soul as though I had suddenly seen a huge, ill-boding fire in the sky.
I light the lamp quickly and drink some water straight out of the decanter. Then I hurry to the window. The weather is magnificent. The air smells of hay and some delicious thing besides. I see the spikes of my garden fence, the sleepy starveling trees by the window, the road, the dark strip of forest. There is a calm and brilliant moon in the sky and not a single cloud. Serenity. Not a leaf stirs. To me it seems that everything is looking at me and listening for me to die.
Dread seizes me. I shut the window and run to the bed. I feel for my pulse. I cannot find it in my wrist; I seek it in my temples, my chin, my hand again. They are all cold and slippery with sweat. My breathing comes quicker and quicker; my body trembles, all my bowels are stirred, and my face and forehead feel as though a cobweb had settled on them.
What shall I do? Shall I call my family? No use. I do not know what my wife and Liza will do when they come in to me.
I hide my head under the pillow, shut my eyes and wait, wait . . . My spine is cold. It almost contracts within me. And I feel that death will approach me only from behind, very quietly.
"Kivi, kivi." A squeak sounds in the stillness of the night. I do not know whether it is in my heart or in the street.
God, how awful! I would drink some more water; but now I dread opening my eyes, and fear to raise my head. The terror is unaccountable, animal. I cannot understand why I am afraid. Is it because I want to live, or because a new and unknown pain awaits me?
Upstairs, above the ceiling, a moan, then a laugh . . . I listen. A little after steps sound on the staircase. Someone hurries down, then up again. In a minute steps sound downstairs again. Someone stops by my door and listens.
"Who's there?" I call.
The door opens. I open my eyes boldly and see my wife. Her face is pale and her eyes red with weeping.
"You're not asleep, Nicolai Stiepanovich?" she asks.
"What is it?"
"For God's sake go down to Liza. Something is wrong with her."
"Very well . . . with pleasure," I murmur, very glad that I am not alone. "Very well . . . immediately."
As I follow my wife I hear what she tells me, and from agitation understand not a word. Bright spots from her candle dance over the steps of the stairs; our long shadows tremble; my feet catch in the skirts of my dressing-gown. My breath goes, and it seems to me that someone is chasing me, trying to seize my back. "I shall die here on the staircase, this second," I think, "this second." But we have passed the staircase, the dark hall with the Italian window and we go into Liza's room. She sits in bed in her chemise; her bare legs hang down and she moans.
"Oh, my God . . . oh, my God!" she murmurs, half shutting her eyes from our candles." I can't, I can't."
"Liza, my child," I say, "what's the matter?"
Seeing me, she calls out and falls on my neck.
"Papa darling," she sobs. "Papa dearest . . . my sweet. I don't know what it is . . . It hurts."
She embraces me, kisses me and lisps endearments which I heard her lisp when she was still a baby.
"Be calm, my child. God's with you," I say. "You mustn't cry. Something hurts me too."
I try to cover her with the bedclothes; my wife gives her to drink; and both of us jostle in confusion round the bed. My shoulders push into hers, and at that moment I remember how we used to bathe our children.
"But help her, help her!" my wife implores. "Do something!" And what can I do? Nothing. There is some weight on the girl's soul; but I understand nothing, know nothing and can only murmur:
"It's nothing, nothing . . . It will pass . . . Sleep, sleep."
As if on purpose a dog suddenly howls in the yard, at first low and irresolute, then aloud, in two voices. I never put any value on such signs as dogs' whining or screeching owls; but now my heart contracts painfully, and I hasten to explain the howling.
"Nonsense," I think. "It's the influence of one organism on another. My great nervous strain was transmitted to my wife, to Liza, and to the dog. That's all. Such transmissions explain presentiments and previsions."
A little later when I return to my room to write a prescription for Liza I no longer think that I shall die soon. My soul simply feels heavy and dull, so that I am even sad that I did not die suddenly. For a long while I stand motionless in the middle of the room, pondering what I shall prescribe for Liza; but the moans above the ceiling are silent and I decide not to write a prescription, but stand there still.
There is a dead silence, a silence, as one man wrote, that rings in one's ears. The time goes slowly. The bars of moonshine on the window-sill do not move from their place, as though congealed . . . The dawn is still far away.
But the garden-gate creaks; someone steals in, and strips a twig from the starveling trees, and cautiously knocks with it on my window.
"Nicolai Stiepanovich!" I hear a whisper. "Nicolai Stiepanovich!"
I open the window, and I think that I am dreaming. Under the window, close against the wall stands a woman in a black dress. She is brightly lighted by the moon and looks at me with wide eyes. Her face is pale, stern and fantastic in the moon, like marble. Her chin trembles.
"It is I . . ." she says, "I . . . Katy!"
In the moon all women's eyes are big and black, people are taller and paler. Probably that is the reason why I did not recognise her in the first moment.
"What's the matter?"
"Forgive me," she says. "I suddenly felt so dreary . . . I could not bear it. So I came here. There's a light in your window . . . and I decided to knock . . . Forgive me . . . Ah, if you knew how dreary I felt! What are you doing now?"
Her eyebrows lift, her eyes shine with tears and all her face is illumined as with light, with the familiar, but long unseen, look of confidence.
"Nicolai Stiepanovich!" she says imploringly, stretching out both her hands to me. "ear, I beg you . . . I implore . . . If you do not despise my friendship and my respect for you, then do what I implore you."
"What is it?"
"Take my money."
"What next? What's the good of your money to me?"
"You will go somewhere to be Cured. You must cure yourself. You will take it? Yes? Dear . . . Yes?"
She looks into my face eagerly and repeats:
"Yes? You will take it?"
"No, my dear, I won't take it …", I say. "Thank you."
She turns her back to me and lowers her head. Probably the tone of my refusal would not allow any further talk of money.
"Go home to sleep," I say. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"It means, you don't consider me your friend?" she asks sadly.
"I don't say that. But your money is no good to me."
"Forgive me," she says lowering her voice by a full octave. "I understand you. To be obliged to a person like me … a retired actress … But good-bye."
And she walks away so quickly that I have no time even to say "Good-bye."
I am in Kharkov.
Since it would be useless to fight against my present mood, and I have no power to do it, I made up my mind that the last days of my life shall be irreproachable, on the formal side. If I am not right with my family, which I certainly admit, I will try at least to do as it wishes. Besides I am lately become so indifferent that it's positively all the same to me whether I go to Kharkov, or Paris, or Berditshev.
I arrived here at noon and put up at a hotel not far from the cathedral. The train made me giddy, the draughts blew through me, and now I am sitting on the bed with my head in my hands waiting for the tic. I ought to go to my professor friends to-day, but I have neither the will nor the strength.
The old hall-porter comes in to ask whether I have brought my own bed-clothes. I keep him about five minutes asking him questions about Gnekker, on whose account I came here. The porter happens to be Kharkov-born, and knows the town inside out; but he doesn't remember any family with the name of Gnekker. I inquire about the estate. The answer is the same.
The clock in the passage strikes one, . . . two, . . . three . . . The last months of my life, while I wait for death, seem to me far longer than my whole life. Never before could I reconcile myself to the slowness of time as I can now. Before, when I had to wait for a train at the station, or to sit at an examination, a quarter of an hour would seem an eternity. Now I can sit motionless in bed the whole night long, quite calmly thinking that there will be the same long, colourless night to-morrow, and the next day. . . .
In the passage the clock strikes five, six, seven . . .. It grows dark. There is dull pain in my cheek—the beginning of the tic. To occupy myself with thoughts, I return to my old point of view, when I was not indifferent, and ask: Why do I, a famous man, a privy councillor, sit in this little room, on this bed with a strange grey blanket? Why do I look at this cheap tin washstand and listen to the wretched clock jarring in the passage? Is all this worthy of my fame and my high position among people? And I answer these questions with a smile. My naïveté seems funny to me—the naïveté with which as a young man I exaggerated the value of fame and of the exclusive position which famous men enjoy. I am famous, my name is spoken with reverence. My portrait has appeared in "Niva" and in "The Universal Illustration." I've even read my biography in a German paper, but what of that? I sit lonely, by myself, in a strange city, on a strange bed, rubbing my aching cheek with my palm. . . .
Family scandals, the hardness of creditors, the rudeness of railway men, the discomforts of the passport system, the expensive and unwholesome food at the buffets, the general coarseness and roughness of people,—all this and a great deal more that would take too long to put down, concerns me as much as it concerns any bourgeois who is known only in his own little street. Where is the exclusiveness of my position then? We will admit that I am infinitely famous, that I am a hero of whom my country is proud. All the newspapers give bulletins of my illness, the post is already bringing in sympathetic addresses from my friends, my pupils, and the public. But all this will not save me from dying in anguish on a stranger's bed in utter loneliness. Of course there is no one to blame for this. But I must confess I do not like my popularity. I feel that it has deceived me.
At about ten I fall asleep, and, in spite of the tic sleep soundly, and would sleep for a long while were I not awakened. Just after one there is a sudden knock at my door.
"You could have brought it to-morrow," I storm, as I take the telegram from the porter. "Now I shan't sleep again."
"I'm sorry. There was a light in your room. I thought you were not asleep."
I open the telegram and look first at the signature—my wife's. What does she want?
"Gnekker married Liza secretly yesterday. Return."
I read the telegram. For a long while I am not startled. Not Gnekker's or Liza's action frightens me, but the indifference with which I receive the news of their marriage. Men say that philosophers and true savants are indifferent. It is untrue. Indifference is the paralysis of the soul, premature death.
I go to bed again and begin to ponder with what thoughts I can occupy myself. What on earth shall I think of? I seem to have thought over everything, and now there is nothing powerful enough to rouse my thought.
When the day begins to dawn, I sit in bed clasping my knees and, for want of occupation I try to know myself. "Know yourself" is good, useful advice; but it is a pity that the ancients did not think of showing us the way to avail ourselves of it.
Before, when I had the desire to understand somebody else, or myself, I used not to take into consideration actions, wherein everything is conditional, but desires. Tell me what you want, and I will tell you what you are.
And now I examine myself. What do I want?
I want our wives, children, friends, and pupils to love in us, not the name or the firm or the label, but the ordinary human beings. What besides? I should like to have assistants and successors. What more? I should like to wake in a hundred years' time, and take a look, if only with one eye, at what has happened to science. I should like to live ten years more. . . . What further?
Nothing further. I think, think a long while and cannot make out anything else. However much I were to think, wherever my thoughts should stray, it is clear to me that the chief, all-important something is lacking in my desires. In my infatuation for science, my desire to live, my sitting here on a strange bed, my yearning to know myself, in all the thoughts, feelings, and ideas I form about anything, there is wanting the something universal which could bind all these together in one whole. Each feeling and thought lives detached in me, and in all my opinions about science, the theatre, literature, and my pupils, and in all the little pictures which my imagination paints, not even the most cunning analyst will discover what is called the general idea, or the god of the living man.
And if this is not there, then nothing is there.
In poverty such as this a serious infirmity, fear of death, influence of circumstances and people would have been enough to overthrow and shatter all that I formerly considered as my conception of the world, and all wherein I saw the meaning and joy of my life. Therefore, it is nothing strange that I have darkened the last months of my life by thoughts and feelings worthy of a slave or a savage, and that I am now indifferent and do not notice the dawn. If there is lacking in a man that which is higher and stronger than all outside influences, then verily a good cold in the head is enough to upset his balance and to make him see each bird an owl and hear a dog's whine in every sound; and all his pessimism or his optimism with their attendant thoughts, great and small, seem then to be merely symptoms and no more.
I am beaten. Then it's no good going on thinking, no good talking. I shall sit and wait in silence for what will come.
In the morning the porter brings me tea and the local paper. Mechanically I read the advertisements on the first page, the leader, the extracts from newspapers and magazines, the local news . . . Among other things I find in the local news an item like this: "Our famous scholar, emeritus professor Nicolai Stiepanovich arrived in Kharkov yesterday by the express, and stayed at —— hotel."
Evidently big names are created to live detached from those who bear them. Now my name walks in Kharkov undisturbed. In some three months it will shine as bright as the sun itself, inscribed in letters of gold on my tombstone—at a time when I myself will be under the sod . . .
A faint knock at the door. Somebody wants me.
"Who's there? Come in!"
The door opens. I step back in astonishment, and hasten to pull my dressing gown together. Before me stands Katy.
"How do you do?" she says, panting from running up the stairs. "You didn't expect me? I . . . I've come too."
She sits down and continues, stammering and looking away from me. "Why don't you say 'Good morning'? I arrived too . . . to-day. I found out you were at this hotel, and came to see you."
"I'm delighted to see you," I say shrugging my shoulders. "But I'm surprised. You might have dropped straight from heaven. What are you doing here?"
"I?. . .I just came."
Silence. Suddenly she gets up impetuously and comes over to me.
"Nicolai Stiepanich!" she says, growing pale and pressing her hands to her breast. "Nicolai Stiepanich! I can't go on like this any longer. I can't. For God's sake tell me now, immediately. What shall I do? Tell me. what shall I do?"
"What can I say? I am beaten. I can say nothing."
"But tell me, I implore you," she continues, out of breath and trembling all over her body. "I swear to you, I can't go on like this any longer. I haven't the strength."
She drops into a chair and begins to sob. She throws her head back, wrings her hands, stamps with her feet; her hat falls from her head and dangles by its string, her hair is loosened.
"Help me, help," she implores. "I can't bear it any more."
She takes a handkerchief out of her little travelling bag and with it pulls out some letters which fall from her knees to the floor. I pick them up from the floor and recognise on one of them Mikhail Fiodorovich's hand-writing, and accidentally read part of a word: "passionat. . . ."
"There's nothing that I can say to you, Katy," I say.
"Help me," she sobs, seizing my hand and kissing it. "You're my father, my only friend. You're wise and learned, and you've lived long! You were a teacher. Tell me what to do."
I am bewildered and surprised, stirred by her sobbing, and I can hardly stand upright.
"Let's have some breakfast, Katy," I say with a constrained smile.
Instantly I add in a sinking voice:
"I shall be dead soon, Katy. . . ."
"Only one word, only one word," she weeps and stretches out her hands to me. "What shall I do?"
"You're a queer thing, really . . .", I murmur. "I can't understand it. Such a clever woman and suddenly—weeping. . . ."
Comes silence. Katy arranges her hair, puts on her hat, then crumples her letters and stuffs them in her little bag, all in silence and unhurried. Her face, her bosom and her gloves are wet with tears, but her expression is dry already, stern . . . I look at her and am ashamed that I am happier than she. It was but a little while before my death, in the ebb of my life, that I noticed in myself the absence of what our friends the philosophers call the general idea; but this poor thing's soul has never known and never will know shelter all her life, all her life.
"Katy, let's have breakfast," I say.
"No, thank you," she answers coldly.
One minute more passes in silence.
"I don't like Kharkov," I say. "It's too grey. A grey city."
"Yes . . . ugly. . . . I'm not here for long. . . . On my way. I leave to-day."
"For the Crimea . . . I mean, the Caucasus."
"So. For long?"
"I don't know."
Katy gets up and gives me her hand with a cold smile, looking away from me.
I would like to ask her: "That means you won't be at my funeral?" But she does not look at me; her hand is cold and like a stranger's. I escort her to the door in silence. . . . She goes out of my room and walks down the long passage, without looking back. She knows that my eyes are following her, and probably on the landing she will look back.
No, she did not look back. The black dress showed for the last time, her steps were stilled. . . . Goodbye, my treasure!