The Privy Councillor (Chekhov/Fell)
EARLY in April in the year 1870, my mother, Klavdia Arhipovna, the widow of a lieutenant, received a letter from her brother Ivan, a privy councillor in St. Petersburg. Among other things the letter said:
"An affection of the liver obliges me to spend every summer abroad, but as I have no funds this year with which to go to Marienbad, it is very probable that I may spend the coming summer with you at Kotchneffka, dear sister—"
My mother turned pale and trembled from head to foot as she perused this epistle, and an expression both smiling and tearful came into her face. She began to weep and to laugh. This conflict between laughter and tears always reminds me of the glitter and shimmer that follow when water is spilled on a brightly burning candle. Having read the letter through twice, my mother summoned her whole household together, and in a voice quivering with excitement began explaining to them that there had been four brothers in the Gundasoff family; one had died when he was a baby; a second had been a soldier, and had also died; a third, she meant no offence to him in saying it, had become an actor, and a fourth—
"The fourth brother is not of our world," sobbed my mother. "He is my own brother, we grew up together, and yet I am trembhng all over at the thought of him. He is a privy councillor, a general ! How can I meet my darling ? What can a poor, uneducated woman like me find to talk to him about ? It is fifteen years since I saw him last. Andrusha, darling !" cried my mother turning to me, "Rejoice little stupid, it is for your sake that God is sending him here ! "
When we had all heard the history of the Gundasoff family down to the smallest detail, there arose an uproar on the farm such as I had not been accustomed to hearing except before weddings. Only the vault of heaven, and the water in the river escaped; everything else was subjected to a process of cleaning, scrubbing, and painting. If the sky had been smaller and lower, and the river had not been so swift, they too would have been scalded with boiling water and polished with cloths. The walls were white as snow already, but they were whitewashed again. The floors shone and glistened, but they were scrubbed every day. Bobtail, the cat (so-called because I had chopped off a good portion of his tail with a carving-knife when I was a baby), was taken from the house into the kitchen and put in charge of Anfisa. Fedia was told that if the dogs came anywhere near the front porch, " God would punish him." But nothing caught it so cruelly as did the unfortunate sofas and carpets and chairs ! Never before had they been so unmercifully beaten with sticks as they now were in expectation of our guest's arrival. Hearing the blows, my doves fluttered anxiously about, and at last flew away straight up into the very sky.
From Novostroevka came Spiridon, the only tailor in the district who ventured to sew for the gentry. He was a sober, hard-working, intelligent man, not without some imagination and feeling for the plastic arts, but he sewed abominably nevertheless. His doubts always spoiled everything, for the idea that his clothes were not fashionable enough made him cut everything over five times at least. He used to go all the way to the city on foot on purpose to see how the young dandies were dressed, and then decked us in costumes that even a caricaturist would have called an exaggeration and a joke. We sported impossibly tight trousers, and coats so short that we always felt embarrassed whenever any young ladies were present.
Spiridon slowly took my measurements. He measured me lengthways and crossways as if he were going to fit me with barrel hoops, then wrote at length upon a sheet of paper with a very thick pencil, and at last marked his yardstick from end to end with little triangular notches. Having finished with me, he began upon my tutor Gregory Pobedimski. This unforgettable tutor of mine was just at the age when men anxiously watch the growth of their moustaches, and are critical about their attire, so that you may imagine with what holy terror Spiridon approached his person ! Pobedimski was made to throw his head back, and spread himself apart like a V upside down, now raising, now lowering his arms. Spiridon measured him several times, circling about him as a love-sick pigeon circles about his mate; then he fell down on one knee, and bent himself into the form of a hook. My mother, weary and worn with all this bustle and faint from the heat of her irons in the laundry, said as she watched all these endless proceedings:
"Take care, Spiridon, God will call you to account if you spoil the cloth ! And you will be an unlucky man if you don't hit the mark this time !"
My mother's words first threw Spiridon into a sweat and then into a fever, for he was very sure that he would not hit the mark. He asked one rouble and twenty copecks for making my suit, and two roubles for making my tutor's. The cloth, the buttons, and the linings were supplied by us. This cannot but seem cheap enough, especially when you consider that Novostroevka was six miles away, and that he came to try on the clothes four different times. At these fittings, as we pulled on our tight trousers and coats all streaked with white basting threads, my mother would look at our clothes, knit her brows with dissatisfaction and exclaim:
"Goodness knows we have queer fashions these days ! I am almost ashamed to look at you ! If my brother did not live in St. Petersburg I declare I wouldn't have you dressed in the fashion ! "
Spiridon, delighted that the fashions and not he were catching the blame, would shrug his shoulders, and sigh, as much as to say:
"There is nothing to be done about it; it is the spirit of the times !"
The trepidation with which we awaited the arrival of our guest can only be compared to the excitement that prevails among spiritualists when they are awaiting the appearance of a spirit. My mother had a headache, and burst into tears every minute. I lost my appetite and my sleep, and did not study my lessons. Even in my dreams I was devoured by my longing to see a general, a man with epaulettes, an embroidered collar reaching to his ears, and a naked sword in his hand; in short, a person exactly like the general I saw hanging over the sofa in our drawing-room glaring so balefully with his terrible black eyes at any one who ventured to look at him. Pobedimski alone felt at ease. He neither trembled nor rejoiced, and all he said as he listened to my mother's stories of the Gundasoff family was:
"Yes, it will be pleasant to talk with somebody new."
My tutor was considered a very exceptional person on our farm. He was a young man of twenty or there-abouts, pimply, ragged, with a low forehead, and an uncommonly long nose. In fact, this nose of his was so long that if he wanted to look at anything closely he had to put his head on one side like a bird. He had gone through the six grades of the high school, and had then entered the Veterinary College, from which he had been expelled in less than six months. By carefully concealing the reason of his expulsion, my tutor gave every one who wished it an opportunity for considering him a much-enduring and rather mysterious person. He talked little, and when he did it was always on learned subjects; he ate meat on fast-days, and looked upon the life about him in a high and mighty, contemptuous fashion, which, however, did not prevent him from accepting presents from my mother in the shape of suits of clothes, or from painting funny faces with red teeth on my kites. My mother did not like him on account of his "pride," but she had a deep respect for his learning.
We had not long to wait for our guest. Early in May two wagons piled with huge trunks arrived from the station. These trunks looked so majestic that the coachman unconsciously took off his hat as he unloaded them from the wagons.
"They must be full of uniforms and gunpowder!" thought I.
Why gunpowder? Probably because in my mind the idea of a general was closely connected with powder and cannon.
When my nurse woke me on the morning of the tenth of May, she announced in a whisper that my "uncle had come!" I dressed hastily, washing anyhow and forgetting my prayers, and scampered out of my room. In the hall I ran straight into a tall, stout gentleman with fashionable side-whiskers and an elegant overcoat. Swooning with horror, I drew myself up before him, and remembering the ceremonial taught me by my mother, I bowed deeply and attempted to kiss his hand. But the gentleman would not give me his hand to kiss, and stated that he was not my uncle, but only Peter, my uncle's valet. The sight of this Peter, dressed a great deal better than Pobedimski and myself, filled me with the profoundest astonishment which, to tell the truth, has not left me to this day. Is it possible that such grave, respectable men as he, with such stern, intelligent faces can be servants ? Why should they be ?
Peter told me that my uncle and mother were in the garden, and I rushed thither as fast as my legs could carry me.
Not knowing the history of the Gundasoff family and my uncle's rank, Nature felt a great deal freer and less constrained than I did. There was an activity in the garden such as one only sees at a country fair. Countless magpies were cleaving the air and hopping along the garden paths, chasing the mayflies with noisy cries. A flock of crows was swarming in the lilac bushes that thrust their delicate, fragrant blossoms into my very face. From all sides came the songs of orioles and the pipings of finches and blackbirds. At any other time I should have darted off after the grasshoppers or thrown stones at a crow that was sitting on a low haycock under a wasp's nest turning its blunt bill from side to side. But this was no time for play. My heart was hammering and shivers were running up and down my back. I was about to see a man with epaulettes, a naked sword, and terrible eyes !
Imagine, then, my disappointment ! A slender little dandy in a white silk shirt and a white military cap was walking through the garden at my mother's side. Every now and then he would run on ahead and, with his hands in his pockets and his head thrown back, he looked like quite a young man. There was so much life and vivacity in his whole figure that the treachery of old age only became apparent to me as I approached from behind, and, peeping under his cap, saw the white hairs glistening beneath the brim. Instead of a stolid, autocratic gravity I saw in him an almost boyish nimbleness, and instead of a collar to the ears he wore an ordinary light blue necktie. My mother and uncle were walking up and down the path, chatting together. I crept up softly from behind and waited for one of them to turn round and see me.
"What an enchanting place you have here, Klavdia!" my uncle exclaimed. "How sweet and lovely it all is ! If I had known how beautiful it was nothing could have taken me abroad all these years!"
My uncle stooped abruptly, and put his nose to a tulip. Everything he saw was a source of curiosity and delight to him, as if he had never seen a garden, or a sunny day before in his life. The strange little man moved as if on springs and chattered incessantly, not giving my mother a chance to put in a word. All at once Pobedimski stepped out from behind an elder bush at a turn of the path. His appearance was so unexpected that my uncle started and fell back a step. My tutor was dressed in his gala overcoat with a cape, in which he looked exactly like a windmill, especially from behind. His mien was majestic and triumphant. With his hat held close to his chest in Spanish fashion he took a step toward my uncle, and bowed forward and slightly sideways like a marquis in a melodrama.
"I have the honour to present myself to your worshipful highness," he said in a loud voice. "I am a pedagogue, the instructor of your nephew, and a former student at the Veterinary College. My name is Gregory Pobedimski, Esquire."
My tutor's beautiful manners pleased my mother immensely. She smiled and fluttered with the sweet expectation of his next brilliant sally, but my tutor was waiting for my uncle to respond to his lofty bearing with something equally lofty, and thought that two fingers would be offered him with a "h'm—" befitting a general. In consequence, he lost all his presence of mind and was completely embarrassed when my uncle smiled cordially and heartily pressed his hand. Murmuring some incoherent phrases, my tutor coughed and retired.
"Ha! Ha! Isn't that beautiful?" laughed my uncle. "Look at him. He has put on his wings, and is thinking what a clever fellow he is ! I like that, upon my word and honour, I do ! What youthful aplomb, what life there is in those silly wings ! And who is this boy?" he asked, suddenly turning round and catching sight of me.
"This is my little Andrusha," said my mother blushing. "The comfort of my life."
I put my foot behind me and bowed deeply.
"A fine little fellow, a fine little fellow!" murmured my uncle taking his hand away from my lips, and patting my head. "So your name is Andrusha? Well, well—yes—upon my word and honour. Do you go to school?"
My mother began to enumerate my triumphs of learning and behaviour, adding to them and exaggerating as all mothers do, while I walked at my uncle's side and did not cease from bowing deeply according to the ceremonial we had agreed upon. When my mother began hinting that with my remarkable attainments it would not be amiss for me to enter the military academy at the expense of the state, and when, according to our plan, I should have burst into tears and implored the patronage of my uncle, that relative suddenly stopped short and threw up his hands in astonishment.
"Heavens and earth, who is that?" he exclaimed.
Down the garden path came Tatiana, the wife of our manager, Theodore Petrovitch. She was carrying a white starched skirt and a long ironing board, and as she passed us she blushed and glanced shyly at our guest from under her long lashes.
"Worse and worse !" said my uncle under his breath, looking tenderly after her. "Why, sister, one can't take a step here without encountering some surprise, upon my word and honour !"
Not every one would have called Tatiana beautiful. She was a small, plump woman of twenty, graceful, black-eyed, and always rosy and sweet, but in all her face and figure there was not one strong feature, not one bold line for the eye to rest upon. It was as if in making her Nature had lacked confidence and inspiration. Tatiana was shy and timid and well behaved. She glided quietly along, saying little, seldom laughing; her life was as even and smooth as her face and her neatly brushed hair. My uncle half closed his eyes and smiled as he watched her. My mother looked intently at his smiling face and grew serious.
"Oh, brother, why have you never married?" she sighed.
"I have never married because—"
"Why not?" asked my mother softly.
"What shall I say? Because things did not turn out that way. When I was young I worked too hard to have time for enjoying life, and then, when I wanted to live— behold ! I had put fifty years behind me ! I was too slow. However, this is a tedious subject for conversation !"
My mother and uncle sighed simultaneously, and walked on together while I stayed behind, and ran to find my tutor in order to share my impressions with him. Pobedimski was standing in the middle of the courtyard gazing majestically at the sky.
"He is obviously an enlightened man," he said, wagging his head. "I hope we shall become friends."
An hour later my mother came to us.
"Oh, boys, I'm in terrible trouble !" she began with a sigh. "My brother has brought a valet with him, you know, and he is not the sort of man, heaven help him, whom one can put in the hall or the kitchen, he absolutely must have a room of his own. Look here, my children, couldn't you move into the wing with Theodore and give the valet your room?"
We answered that we should be delighted to do so, for, we thought, life in the wing would be much freer than in the house under the eyes of my mother.
"Yes, I'm terribly worried!" my mother continued. "My brother says he doesn't want to have his dinner at noon, but at seven as they do in the city. I am almost distracted. Why, by seven the dinner in the stove will be burned to a crisp. The truth is men know nothing about housekeeping, even if they are very clever. Oh, misery me, I shall have to have two dinners cooked every day ! You must have yours at noon as you always do, children, and let the old lady wait until seven for her brother."
My mother breathed a profound sigh, told me to please my uncle whom God had brought here especially for my benefit, and ran into the kitchen. Pobedimski and I moved into the wing that very same day. We were put in a passage between the hall and the manager's bedroom.
In spite of my uncle's arrival and our change of quarters, our days continued to trickle by in their usual way, more drowsily and monotonously than we had expected. We were excused from our lessons "because of our guest." Pobedimski, who never read or did anything, now spent most of his time sitting on his bed absorbed in thought, with his long nose in the air. Every now and then he would get up, try on his new suit, sit down again, and continue his meditations. One thing only disturbed him, and that was the flies, whom he slapped unmercifully with the palms of his hands. After dinner he would generally "rest," causing keen anguish to the whole household by his snores. I played in the garden from morning till night, or else sat in my room making kites. During the first two or three weeks we saw little of my uncle. He stayed in his room and worked for days on end, heeding neither the flies nor the heat.
His extraordinary power of sitting as if glued to his desk appeared to us something in the nature of an inexplicable trick. To lazybones like ourselves, who did not know the meaning of systematic work, his industry appeared positively miraculous. Getting up at nine, he would sit down at his desk, and not move until dinner time. After dinner he would go to work once more, and work until late at night. Whenever I peeped into his room through the keyhole I invariably saw the same scene. My uncle would be sitting at his desk and working. His work consisted of writing with one hand while turning over the pages of a book with the other, and strange as it may seem, he constantly wriggled all over, swinging one foot like a pendulum, whistling and nodding his head in time to the music he made. His appearance at these times was extraordinarily frivolous and careless, more as if he were playing at naughts and crosses than working. Each time I looked in I saw him wearing a dashing little coat and a dandified necktie, and each time, even through the keyhole, I could smell a sweet feminine perfume. He emerged from his room only to dine, and then ate scarcely anything.
"I can't understand my brother," my mother complained. "Every day I have a turkey or some pigeons killed especially for him, and stew some fruits for him myself, and yet he drinks a little bouillon and eats a piece of meat no larger than my finger, after which he leaves the table at once. If I beg him to eat more he comes back and drinks a little milk. What is there in milk ? It is slop, nothing more ! He will die of eating that kind of food ! If I try to persuade him to change his ways, he only laughs and makes a joke of it! No, children, our fare doesn't suit him!"
Our evenings passed much more pleasantly than our days. As a rule the setting sun and the long shadows falling across the courtyard found Tatiana, Pobedimski, and me seated on the porch of our wing. We did not speak until darkness fell—what could we talk about when everything had already been said? There had been one novelty, my uncle's arrival, but that theme had soon become exhausted as well as the others. My tutor constantly kept his eyes fixed on Tatiana's face and fetched one deep sigh after another. At that time I did not understand the meaning of those sighs, and did not seek to inquire into their cause, but they explain much to me now.
When the shadows had merged into thick, black darkness Theodore would come home from the hunt or the field. This Theodore seemed to me to be a wild and even fearsome man. He was the son of a Russian-ised gipsy, and was swarthy and dark with large black eyes and a tangled curly beard, and he was never spoken of by our peasants as anything but "the demon." There was a great deal of the gipsy in him beside his appearance. For instance, he never could stay at home, and would vanish for days at a time, hunting in the forest or roaming in the fields. He was gloomy, passionate, taciturn, and fearless, and could never be brought to acknowledge the authority of any one. He spoke gruffly to my mother, addressed me familiarly as "thou," and treated Pobedimski's learning with contempt, but we forgave him everything, because we considered that he had a morbidly excitable nature. My mother liked him in spite of his gipsy ways, for he was ideally honest and hard working. He loved his Tatiana passionately, in gipsy style, but his love was a thing of gloom, almost of suffering. He never caressed her in our presence, and only stared at her fiercely with his mouth all awry.
On coming back from the fields he would furiously slam down his gun on the floor of his room, and come out on the porch to take his seat beside his wife. When he had rested a while he would ask her a few questions about the housekeeping, and then relapse into silence.
"Let's sing !" I used to suggest.
My tutor would tune his guitar, and in a thick, deaconly voice would drone: "In Level Valleys." We would all chime in. My tutor sang bass, Theodore an almost inaudible tenor, and I contralto in tune with Tatiana.
When all the sky was strewn with stars, and the frogs' voices were hushed, our supper would be brought to us from the kitchen, and we would go into the house and fall to. My tutor and the gipsy ate ravenously, munching so loudly that it was hard to tell whether the noise came from the bones they were crunching or the cracking of their jaws. Tatiana and I, on the contrary, could scarcely manage to finish our portions. After supper our wing of the house would sink into deep slumber.
One evening at the end of May we were sitting on the porch waiting for our supper. Suddenly a shadow flitted toward us, and Gundasoff appeared as if he had sprung from the ground. He stared at us for a long time, and then waved his hands and laughed gaily.
"How idyllic!" he cried. "Singing and dreaming under the moon ! It is beautiful, upon my word and honour ! May I sit here and dream with you?"
We silently looked at one another. My uncle sat down on the lowest step, yawned, and gazed at the sky. Pobedimski, who had long been intending to have a conversation with this "new person," was delighted at the opportunity that now presented itself, and was the first to break the silence. He had only one subject for learned discussions, and that was the epizooty. It sometimes happens that, out of a crowd of thousands of persons with whom one is thrown, one face alone remains fixed in the memory, and so it was with Pobedimski. Out of all he had learned at the Veterinary College he remembered only one sentence :
"Epizooty is the cause of much loss to the peasant farmers. Every community should join hands with the state in fighting this disease."
Before saying this to Gundasoff, my tutor cleared his throat three times, and excitedly wrapped his cape around him. When my uncle had been informed concerning the epizooty, he made a noise in his nose that sounded like a laugh.
"How charming, upon my word and honour!" he said under his breath, staring at us as if we were maniacs. "This is indeed life ! This is real nature ! Why don't you say something, Pelagia ? " he asked of Tatiana.
Tatiana grew confused and coughed.
"Go on talking, friends ! Sing ! Play ! Don't waste a moment ! That rascal time goes fast and waits for no man. Upon my word and honour, old age will be upon you before you know it. It will be too late to enjoy life then; so come, Pelagia, don't sit there and say nothing!"
At this point our supper was brought from the kitchen. My uncle went into the house with us, and ate five curd fritters and a duck's wing for company. He kept his eyes fixed on us while he despatched his supper; we all filled his heart with enthusiasm and emotion. Whatever silliness that unforgettable tutor of mine was guilty of, whatever Tatiana did, was lovely and charming in his eyes. When Tatiana quietly took her knitting into a corner after supper, his eyes never left her little fingers, and he babbled without a moment's pause.
"Friends, you must hurry and begin to enjoy life as fast as you can!" he said. "For heaven's sake, don't sacrifice the present to the future ! You have youth and health and passion now, and the future is deceitful—a vapour ! As soon as your twentieth year knocks at the door, then begin to live ! "
Tatiana dropped a needle. My uncle jumped up, picked it up, and handed it to her with a bow, at which I realised for the first time that there was some one in the world with manners more polished than Pobedimski's.
"Yes," my uncle continued. "Fall in love! Marry! Be silly ! Silliness is much more healthy and natural than our toiling and striving to be sensible."
My uncle talked much and long, and I sat on a trunk in a corner listening to him and dozing. I felt hurt because he had never once paid the least attention to me. He left our wing of the house at two o'clock that night, when I had given up the battle, and sunk into profound slumber.
From that time on my uncle came to us every evening. He sang with us and sat with us each night until two o'clock, chatting without end always of the same thing. He ceased his evening and nocturnal labours, and by the end of July, when the privy councillor had learned to eat my mother's turkeys and stewed fruits, his daytime toil was also abandoned. My uncle had torn himself away from his desk and had entered into "real life." By day he walked about the garden whistling and keeping the workmen from their work by making them tell him stories. If he caught sight of Tatiana he would run up to her, and, if she were carrying anything, would offer to carry it for her, which always embarrassed her dreadfully.
The farther summer advanced toward autumn the more absent-minded and frivolous and lively my uncle became. Pobedimski lost all his illusions about him.
"He is too one-sided," he used to say. "Nothing about him shows that he stands on the highest rung of the official hierarchic ladder. He can't even talk properly. He says 'upon my word and honour' after every word. No, I don't like him!"
A distinct change came over my tutor and Theodore from the time that my uncle began to visit us in our wing. Theodore stopped hunting and began to come home early. He grew more silent and stared more ferociously than ever at his wife. My tutor stopped talking of the epizooty in my uncle's presence, and now frowned and even smiled derisively at sight of him.
"Here comes our little hop o'my thumb ! " he once growled, seeing my uncle coming toward our part of the house.
This change in the behaviour of both men I explained by the theory that Gundasoff had hurt their feelings. My absent-minded uncle always confused their names, and on the day of his departure had not learned which was my tutor, and which was Tatiana's husband. Tatiana herself he sometimes called Nastasia, sometimes Pelagia, sometimes Evdokia. Full of affectionate enthusiasm as he was for us all, he laughed at us and treated us as if we had been children. All this, of course, might easily have offended the young men. But, as I now see, this was not a question of lacerated feelings; sentiments much more delicate were involved.
One night, I remember, I was sitting on the trunk contending with my longing for sleep. A heavy glue seemed to have fallen on my eyelids, and my body was drooping sideways, exhausted by a long day's playing, but I tried to conquer my sleepiness, for I wanted to see what was going on. It was nearly midnight. Gentle, rosy, and meek as ever, Tatlana was sitting at a little table sewing a shirt for her husband. From one corner of the room Theodore was staring sternly and gloomily at her, in another corner sat Pobedimski snorting angrily, his head half buried in his high coat collar. My uncle was walking up and down plunged in thought. Silence reigned, broken only by the rustling of the linen in Tatiana's hands. Suddenly my uncle stopped In front of Tatiana, and said:
"Oh, you are all so young and fresh and good, and you live so peacefully in this quiet place that I envy you ! I have grown so fond of this life of yours that, upon my honour, my heart aches when I remember that some day I shall have to leave it all."
Sleep closed my eyes and I heard no more. I was awakened by a bang, and saw my uncle standing In front of Tatiana, looking at her with emotion. His cheeks were burning,
"My life is over and I have not lived," he was saying. "Your young face reminds me of my lost youth, and I should be happy to sit here looking at you until I died. I should like to take you with me to St. Petersburg."
"Why?" demanded Theodore in a hoarse voice.
"I should like to put you under a glass case on my desk; I should delight in contemplating you, and showing you to my friends. Do you know, Pelagia, that we don't have people like you where I live ? We have wealth and fame and sometimes beauty, but we have none of this natural life and this wholesome peacefulness—"
My uncle sat down in front of Tatiana and took her hand.
"So you won't come with me to St. Petersburg?" he laughed. "Then at least let me take this hand away with me, this lovely little hand ! You won't ? Very well then, little miser, at least allow me to kiss it ! "
I heard a chair crack. Theodore sprang to his feet and strode toward his wife with a heavy, measured tread. His face was ashy grey and quivering. He raised his arm and brought his fist down on the table with all his might, saying in a muffled voice:
"I won't allow it!"
At the same moment Pobedimski jumped out of his chair, and with a face as pale and angry as the other's, he also advanced toward Tatiana and banged the table with his fist.
"I—I won't allow it !" he cried.
"What? What's the matter," asked my uncle in astonishment.
"I won't allow it !" Theodore repeated, with another blow on the table.
My uncle jumped up and abjectly blinked his eyes. He wanted to say something, but surprise and fright held him tongue-tied. He gave an embarrassed smile and pattered out of the room with short, senile steps, leaving his hat behind him. When my startled mother came into the room a few moments later, Theodore and Pobedimski were still banging the table with their fists like blacksmiths hammering an anvil, and shouting:
"I won't allow it!"
"What has happened here?" demanded my mother. "Why has my brother fainted? What is the matter?"
When she saw the frightened Tatiana and her angry husband, my mother must have guessed what had been going on, for she sighed and shook her head.
"Come, come, stop thumping the table!" she commanded. " Stop, Theodore ! And what are you hammering for, Gregory Pobedimski? What business is this of yours?"
Pobedimski recollected himself and blushed. Theodore glared intently first at him and then at his wife, and began striding up and down the room. After my mother had gone, I saw something that for a long time after I took to be a dream. I saw Theodore seize my tutor, raise him in the air, and fling him out of the door.
When I awoke next morning my tutor's bed was empty. To my inquiries, my nurse replied in a whisper that he had been taken to the hospital early that morning, to be treated for a broken arm. Saddened by this news, and recalling yesterday's scandal, I went out into the courtyard. The day was overcast. The sky was covered with storm-clouds, and a strong wind was blowing across the earth, whirling before it dust, feathers, and scraps of paper. One could feel the approaching rain, and bad humour was obvious in both men and beasts. When I went back to the house I was told to walk lightly, and not to make a noise because my mother was ill in bed with a headache. What could I do ? I went out of the front gate, and, sitting down on a bench, tried to make out the meaning of what I had seen the night before. The road from our gate wound past a blacksmith's shop and around a damp meadow, turning at last into the main highway. I sat and looked at the telegraph poles around which the dust was whirling, and at the sleepy birds sitting on the wires until, suddenly, such ennui overwhelmed me that I burst into tears.
A dusty char-a-banc came along the highway filled with townspeople who were probably on a pilgrimage to some shrine. The char-a-banc was scarcely out of sight before a light victoria drawn by a pair of horses appeared. Standing up in the carriage and holding on to the coachman's belt was the rural policeman. To my intense surprise the victoria turned into our road and rolled past me through the gate. While I was still seeking an answer to the riddle of the policeman's appearance at our farm, a troika trotted up harnessed to a landau, and in the landau sat the captain of police pointing out our gate to his coachman.
"What does this mean?" I asked myself. "Pobedimski must have complained to them about Theodore, and they have come to fetch him away to prison."
But the problem was not so easily solved. The policeman and the police captain were evidently but the forerunners of some one more important still, for five minutes had scarcely elapsed before a coach drove into our gate. It flashed by me so quickly that, as I glanced in at the window, I could only catch a glimpse of a red beard.
Lost in conjectures and foreseeing some disaster, I ran into the house. The first person I met in the hall was my mother. Her face was pale, and she was staring with horror at a door from behind which came the sound of men's voices. Some guests had arrived unexpectedly and at the very height of her headache.
"Who is here, mamma?" I asked.
"Sister!" we heard my uncle call. "Do give the governor and the rest of us a bite to eat ! "
"That's easier said than done!" whispered my mother, collapsing with horror. "What can I give them at such short notice ? I shall be disgraced in my declining years ! "
My mother clasped her head with her hands and hurried into the kitchen. The unexpected arrival of the governor had turned the whole farm upside down. A cruel holocaust immediately began to take place. Ten hens were killed and five turkeys and eight ducks, and in the hurly-burly the old gander was beheaded, the ancestor of all our flock and the favourite of my mother. The coachman and the cook seemed to have gone mad, and frantically slaughtered every bird they could lay hands upon without regard to its age or breed. A pair of my precious turtle doves, as dear to me as the gander was to my mother, were sacrified to make a gravy. It was long before I forgave the governor their death.
That evening, when the governor and his suite had dined until they could eat no more, and had climbed into their carriages and driven away, I went into the house to look at the remains of the feast. Glancing into the drawing-room from the hall, I saw my mother there with my uncle. My uncle was shrugging his shoulders, and nervously pacing round and round the room with his hands behind his back. My mother looked exhausted and very much thinner. She was sitting on the sofa following my uncle's movements with eyes of suffering.
"I beg your pardon, sister, but one cannot behave like that ! I introduced the governor to you, and you did not even shake hands with him ! You quite embarrassed the poor man. Yes, it was most unseemly. Simplicity is all very pretty, but even simplicity must not be carried too far, upon my word and honour— And then that dinner ! How could you serve a dinner like that? What was that dish-rag you gave us for the fourth course?"
"That was duck with apple sauce," answered my mother faintly.
"Duck! Forgive me, sister, but—but—I have an attack of indigestion ! I'm ill !"
My uncle pulled a sour, tearful face and continued.
"The devil the governor had to come here to see me ! Much I wanted a visit from him ! Ouch—oh, my indigestion ! I—I can't work and I can't sleep. I'm completely run down. I don't see how in the world you can exist here in this wilderness without anything to do ! There now, the pain is commencing in the pit of my stomach !"
My uncle knit his brows and walked up and down more swiftly than ever.
"Brother," asked my mother softly. "How much does it cost to go abroad ? "
"Three thousand roubles at least !" wailed my uncle. "I should certainly go, but where can I get the money ? I haven't a copeck ! Ouch, what a pain !"
My uncle stopped in his walk and gazed with anguish through the window at the grey, cloudy sky.
Silence fell. My mother fixed her eyes for a long time on the icon as if she were debating something, and then burst into tears and exclaimed:
"I'll let you have three thousand, brother!"
Three days later the majestic trunks were sent to the station, and behind them rolled the carriage containing the privy councillor. He had wept as he bade farewell to my mother, and had held her hand to his lips for a long time. As he climbed into the carriage his face had shone with childish joy. Radiant and happy, he had settled himself more comfortably in his seat, kissed his hand to my weeping mother, and suddenly and unexpectedly turned his regard to me. The utmost astonishment had appeared on his features—
"What boy is this?" he had asked.
As my mother had always assured me that God had sent my uncle to us for my especial benefit, this question gave her quite a turn. But I was not thinking about the question. As I looked at my uncle's happy face I felt, for some reason, very sorry for him. I could not endure it, and jumped up into the carriage to embrace this man, so frivolous, so weak, and so human. As I looked into his eyes I wanted to say something pleasant, so I asked him:
"Uncle, were you ever in a battle?"
"Oh, my precious boy!" laughed my uncle kissing me. " My precious boy, upon my word and honour ! How natural and true to life it all is, upon my word and honour!"
The carriage moved away. I followed it with my eyes, and long after it had disappeared I still heard ringing in my ears that farewell, "Upon my word and honour!"