ONE Sunday evening in spring Volodia, a plain, shy, sickly lad of seventeen, was sitting, a prey to melancholy, in a summer-house on the country place of the Shumikins. His gloomy reflections flowed in three different channels. In the first place, to-morrow, Monday, he would have to take an examination in mathematics. He knew that if he did not pass he would be expelled from school, as he had already been two years in the sixth grade. In the second place, his pride suffered constant agony during his visits to the Shumikins, who were rich people with aristocratic pretensions. He imagined that Madame Shumikin and her nieces looked down upon his mother and himself as poor relations and dependents, and that they made fun of his mother and did not respect her. He had once overheard Madame Shumikin saying on the terrace to her cousin Anna Feodorovna that she was still pretending to be young, and that she never paid her debts and had a great hankering after other people's shoes and cigarettes. Every day Volodia would implore his mother not to go to the Shumikins' again. He painted for her the humiliating role which she played among these people, he entreated her and spoke rudely to her, but the spoiled, frivolous woman, who had wasted two fortunes in her day, her own and her husband's, yearned for high life and refused to understand him, so that twice every week Volodia was obliged to accompany her to the hated house.
In the third place, the lad could not free himself for a moment from a certain strange, unpleasant feeling that was entirely new to him. He imagined himself to be in love with Anna Feodorovna, the cousin and guest of Madame Shumikin. Anna Feodorovna was a talkative, lively, laughing little lady of thirty; healthy, rosy, and strong, with plump shoulders, a plump chin, and an eternal smile on her thin lips. She was neither pretty nor young. Volodia knew this perfectly well, and for that very reason he was unable to refrain from thinking of her, from watching her as she bent her plump shoulders over her croquet mallet, or, as she, after much laughter and running up and down-stairs, sank all out of breath into a chair, and with half-closed eyes pretended that she felt a tightness and strangling across the chest. She was married, and her husband was a staid architect who came down into the country once a week, had a long sleep, and then returned to the city. This feeling on Volodia's part began with an unreasoning hatred of the architect, and a sensation of joy whenever he returned to the city.
And now, as he sat in the summer-house thinking about to-morrow's examination and his mother, whom every one laughed at, he felt a great longing to see Nyuta, as the Shumikins called Anna Feodorovna, and to hear her laughter and the rustling of her dress. This longing did not resemble the pure, poetic love of which he had read in novels, and of which he dreamed every night as he went to bed. It was a strange and incomprehensible thing, and he was ashamed and afraid of it as of something wicked and wrong which he hardly dared to acknowledge even to himself.
"This is not love," he thought. "One does not fall in love with a woman of thirty. It is simply a little intrigue; yes, it is a little intrigue."
Thinking about intrigues, he remembered his invincible shyness, his lack of a moustache, his freckles, his little eyes, and pictured himself standing beside Nyuta. The contrast was impossible. So he hastened to imagine himself handsome and bold and witty, dressed in the latest fashion. . . .
In the very heat of his imaginings, as he sat huddled in a dark corner of the summer-house with his eyes fixed on the ground, he heard light footsteps approaching. Some one was hurrying down the garden path. The footsteps ceased and a figure clad in white gleamed in the doorway.
"Is any one there." asked a woman's voice.
Volodia recognised the voice and raised his head in alarm.
"Who is there?" asked Nyuta, stepping into the summer-house. "Ah, is it you, Volodia? What are you doing in there ? Brooding ? How can you always be brooding and brooding? It's enough to drive you crazy!"
Volodia rose and looked at Nyuta in confusion. She was on her way back from the bath-house; a Turkish towel hung across her shoulders, and a few damp locks of hair had escaped from under her white silk kerchief and were clinging to her forehead. She exhaled the cool, damp odour of the river, and the scent of almond soap. The upper button of her blouse was undone, so that her neck and throat were visible to the lad.
"Why don't you say something?" asked Nyuta, looking Volodia up and down. "It is rude not to answer when a lady speaks to you. What a stick-in-the-mud you are, Volodia, always sitting and thinking like some stodgy old philosopher, and never opening your mouth ! You have no vim in you, no fire ! You are horrid, really ! A boy of your age ought to live, and frisk, and chatter, and fall in love, and make love to the ladies."
Volodia stared at the towel which she was holding in her plump, white hand and pondered.
"He won't answer !" cried Nyuta in surprise. "This is too strange, really ! Listen to me, be a man ! At least smile! Bah! What a horrid dry-as-dust you are ! " she laughed . " Volodia, do you know what makes you such a boor ? It's because you never make love. Why don't you do it ? There are no girls here, I know, but what is to prevent you from making love to a woman? Why don't you make love to me, for instance?"
Volodia listened to her and rubbed his forehead in intense, painful irresolution.
"It is only proud people who never speak and like to be alone," Nyuta continued, pulling his hand down from his forehead. "You are proud, Volodia. Why do you squint at me like that? Look me in the eye, if you please. Now then, stick-in-the-mud ! "
Volodia made up his mind to speak. In an effort to smile he stuck out his lower hp, blinked his eyes, and his hand again went to his head.
"I—I love you !" he exclaimed.
Nyuta raised her eyebrows in astonishment and burst out laughing.
"What is this I hear?" she chanted as singers do in an opera when they hear a terrible piece of news. "What? What did you say? Say it again! Say it again!"
"I—I love you!" Volodia repeated.
And involuntarily, without premeditation and not realising what he was doing, he took a step toward Nyuta and seized her arm above the wrist. Tears started into his eyes, and the whole world seemed to turn into a huge Turkish towel smelling of the river.
"Bravo, bravo!" he heard a laughing voice cry approvingly. " Why don't you say something ? I want to hear you speak ! Now, then !"
Seeing that he was permitted to hold her arm, Volodia looked into Nyuta's laughing face and awkwardly, uneasily, put both arms around her waist, bringing his wrists together behind her back. As he held her thus, she put her hands behind her head showing the dimples in her elbows, and, arranging her hair under her kerchief, she said in a quiet voice:
"I want you to become bright and agreeable and charming, Volodia, and this you can only accomplish through the influence of women. Why, what a horrid cross face you have ! You ought to laugh and talk. Honestly, Volodia, don't be a stick ! You are young yet; you will have plenty of time for philosophising later on. And now, let me go. I'm in a hurry to get back. Let me go, I tell you ! "
She freed herself without effort, and went out of the summer-house singing a snatch of song. Volodia was left alone. He smoothed his hair, smiled, and walked three times round the summer-house. Then he sat down and smiled again. He felt an unbearable sense of mortification, and even marvelled that human shame could reach such a point of keenness and intensity. The feeling made him smile again and wring his hands and whisper a few incoherent phrases.
He felt humihated because he had just been treated like a little boy, and because he was so shy, but chiefly because he had dared to put his arms around the waist of a respectable married woman, when neither his age nor, as he thought, his social position, nor his appearance warranted such an act.
He jumped up and, without so much as a glance behind him, hurried away into the depths of the garden, as far away from the house as he could go.
"Oh, if we could only get away from here at once!" he thought, seizing his head in his hands. "Oh, quickly, quickly!"
The train on which Volodia and his mother were to go back to town left at eight-forty. There still remained three hours before train time, and he would have lihked to have gone to the station at once without waiting for his mother.
At eight o'clock he turned toward the house. His whole figure expressed determination and seemed to be proclaiming: "Come what may, I am prepared for anything ! " He had made up his mind to go in boldly, to look every one straight in the face, and to speak loudly no matter what happened.
He crossed the terrace, passed through the drawing-room and the living-room, and stopped in the hall to catch his breath. He could hear the family at tea in the adjoining dining-room; Madame Shumikin, his mother, and Nyuta were discussing something with laughter.
" I assure you I could scarcely beheve my eyes ! " Nyuta cried. "I hardly recognised him when he began to make love to me, and actually— will you believe it— put his arms around my waist ! He has quite a way with him ! When he told me that he loved me, he had the look of a wild animal, like a Circassian."
"You don't say so !" cried his mother, rocking with long shrieks of laughter. "You don't say so! How like his father he is !"
Volodia jumped back, and rushed out into the fresh air.
"How can they all talk about it?" he groaned, throwing up his arms and staring with horror at the sky. "Aloud, and in cold blood, too ! And mother laughed ! Mother ! Oh, God, why did you give me such a mother ? Oh, why ? "
But enter the house he must, happen what might. He walked three times round the garden, and then, feeling more composed, he went in.
"Why didn't you come in to tea on time?" asked Madame Shumikin sternly.
"Excuse me, it—it is time for me to go— " Volodia stammered, without raising his eyes. "Mother, it is eight o'clock!"
"Go along by yourself, dear," answered his mother languidly. "I am spending the night here with Lily. Good-by, my boy, come, let me kiss you."
She kissed her son and said in French:
"He reminds one a little of Lermontov, doesn't he ?"
Volodia managed to take leave of the company somehow without looking any one in the face, and ten minutes later he was striding along the road to the station, glad to be off at last. He now no longer felt frightened or ashamed, and could breathe deeply and freely once more.
Half a mile from the station he sat down on a stone by the wayside and began looking at the sun, which was now half hidden behind the horizon. A few small lights were already gleaming here and there near the station, and a dim green ray shone out, but the train had not yet appeared. It was pleasant to sit there quietly, watching the night slowly creeping across the fields. The dim summer-house, Nyuta's light footsteps, the smell of the bath-house, her laughter, and her waist—all these things rose up before Volodia's fancy with startling vividness, and now no longer seemed terrible and significant to him as they had a few hours before.
"What nonsense ! She did not pull her hand away; she laughed when I put my arm around her waist," he thought. "Therefore she must have enjoyed it. If she had not liked it she would have been angry "
Volodia was vexed now at not having been bolder. He regretted that he was stupidly running away, and was convinced that, were the same circumstances to occur again, he would be more manly and look at the thing more simply
But it would not be hard to bring those circumstances about. The Shumikins always strolled about the garden for a long time after supper. If Volodia were to go walking with Nyuta in the dark—there would be the chance to re-enact the same scene!
"I'll go back and leave on an early train to-morrow morning," he decided. "I'll tell them I missed this train."
So he went back. Madame Shumikin, his mother, Nyuta, and one of the nieces were sitting on the terrace playing cards. When Volodia told them his story about having missed the train they were uneasy lest he should be late for his examination, and advised him to get up early next morning. Volodia sat down at a little distance from the card-players, and during the whole game kept his eyes fixed on Nyuta. He had already determined on a plan. He would go up to Nyuta in the dark, take her hand, and kiss her. It would not be necessary for either to speak; they would understand one another without words.
But the ladies did not go walking after supper; they continued their game instead. They played until one o'clock, and then all separated for the night.
"How stupid this is!" thought Volodia, with annoyance. "But never mind, I'll wait until to-morrow. To-morrow in the summer-house — never mind!"
He made no effort to go to sleep, but sat on the edge of his bed with his arms around his knees and thought. The idea of the examination was odious to him. He had already made up his mind that he was going to be expelled, and that there was nothing terrible about that. On the contrary, it was a good thing, a very good thing. To-morrow he would be as free as a bird. He would leave off his schoolboy's uniform for civilian clothes, smoke in public, and come over here to make love to Nyuta whenever he liked. He would be a young man. As for what people called his career and his future, that was perfectly clear. Volodia would not enter the government service, but would become a telegraph operator or have a drug store, and become a pharmacist. Were there not plenty of careers open to a young man? An hour passed, two hours passed, and he was still sitting on the edge of his bed and thinking
At three o'clock, when it was already light, his door was cautiously pushed open and his mother came into the room.
"Aren't you asleep yet?" she asked with a yawn. "Go to sleep, go to sleep. I've just come in for a moment to get a bottle of medicine."
"Poor Lily is ill again. Go to sleep, child, you have an examination to-morrow."
She took a little bottle out of the closet, held it to the window, read the label, and went out.
"Oh, Maria, that isn't it !" he heard a woman's voice exclaim. "That is Eau de Cologne, and Lily wants morphine. Is your son awake.? Do ask him to find it!"
The voice was Nyuta's. Volodia's heart stopped beating. He hastily put on his trousers and coat and went to the door.
"Do you understand.? I want morphine!" explained Nyuta in a whisper. "It is probably written in Latin. Wake Volodia, he will be able to find it ! "
Volodia's mother opened the door, and he caught sight of Nyuta. She was wearing the same blouse she had worn when she came from the bath-house. Her hair was hanging loose, and her face looked sleepy and dusky in the dim light.
"There, Volodia is awake!" she exclaimed. "Volodia, do get me the morphine out of the closet, there's a good boy. What a nuisance Lily is ! She always has something the matter with her."
The mother murmured something, yawned, and went away.
"Come, find it!" cried Nyuta. "What are you standing there for ? "
Volodia went to the closet, knelt down, and began searching among the bottles of medicine and pill-boxes there. His hands were trembling and cold chills were running down his chest and back. He aimlessly seized bottles of ether, carbolic acid, and various boxes of herbs in his shaking hands, spilling and scattering the contents. The smell overpowered him and made his head swim.
"Mother has gone— " he thought. "That's good—good."
"Hurry!" cried Nyuta.
"Just a moment—there, this must be it!" said Volodia having deciphered the letters "morph— " on one of the labels, "Here it is !"
Nyuta was standing in the doorway with one foot in the hall and one in Volodia's room. She was twisting up her hair—which was no easy matter, for it was long and thick—and was looking vacantly at Volodia. In the dim radiance shed by the white, early morning sky, with her full blouse and her flowing hair, she looked to him superb and entrancing. Fascinated, trembling from head to foot, and remembering with delight how he had embraced her in the summer-house, he handed her the bottle and said:
"What?" she asked smiling,
He said nothing; he looked at her, and then, as he had done in the summer-house, he seized her hand.
"I love you—" he whispered.
Volodia felt as if the room and Nyuta, and the dawn, and he himself had suddenly rushed together into a keen, unknown feeling of happiness for which he was ready to give his whole life and lose his soul for ever, but half a minute later it all suddenly vanished.
"Well, I must go— " said Nyuta, looking contemptuously at Volodia. "What a pitiful, plain boy you are— Bah, you ugly duckling ! "
How hideous her long hair, her full blouse, her footsteps and her voice now seemed to him !
"Ugly duckling!" he thought. "Yes, I am indeed ugly—everything is ugly."
The sun rose; the birds broke into song; the sound of the gardener's footsteps and the creaking of his wheelbarrow rose from the garden. The cows lowed and the notes of a shepherd's pipe trembled in the air. The sunlight and all these manifold sounds proclaimed that somewhere in the world there could be found a life that was pure, and gracious, and poetic. Where was it ? Neither Volodia's mother, nor any one of the people who surrounded the boy had ever spoken of it to him.
When the man servant came to call him for the morning train, he pretended to be asleep.
"Oh, to thunder with it all!" he thought.
He got up at eleven. As he brushed his hair before the mirror he looked at his plain face, so pale after his sleepless night, and thought:
"She is quite right. I really am an ugly duckling."
When his mother saw him and seemed horrified at his not having gone to take his examination, Volodia said:
"I overslept, mamma, but don't worry; I can give them a certificate from the doctor."
Madame Shumikin and Nyuta woke at one o'clock. Volodia heard the former throw open her window with a bang, and heard Nyuta's ringing laugh answer her rough voice. He saw the dining-room door flung open and the nieces and dependents, among whom was his mother, troop in to lunch. He saw Nyuta's freshly washed face, and beside it the black eyebrows and beard of the architect, who had just come.
Nyuta was in Little Russian costume, and this was not becoming to her and made her look clumsy. The architect made some vulgar, insipid jests, and Volodia thought that there were a terrible lot of onions in the stew that day. He also thought that Nyuta was laughing loudly and looking in his direction on purpose to let him understand that the memory of last night did not worry her in the least, and that she scarcely noticed the presence at table of the ugly duckling.
At four o'clock Volodia and his mother drove to the station. The lad's sordid memories, his sleepless night, and the pangs of his conscience aroused in him a feeling of painful and gloomy anger. He looked at his mother's thin profile, at her little nose, and at the rain-coat that had been a gift to her from Nyuta, and muttered:
"Why do you powder your face? It does not become you at all ! You try to look pretty, but you don't pay your debts, and you smoke cigarettes that aren't yours ! It's disgusting ! I don't like you, no, I don't. I don't!"
So he insulted her, but she only rolled her eyes in terror and, throwing up her hands, said in a horrified whisper:
"What are you saying? Heavens, the coachman will hear you ! Do hush, he can hear everything !"
"I don't like you ! I don't like you !" he went on, struggling for breath. "You are without morals or heart. Don't dare to wear that rain-coat again, do you hear me? If you do, I'll tear it to shreds !"
"Control yourself, child!" wept his mother. "The coachman will hear you !"
" Where is my father's fortune ? Where is your own ? You have squandered them both. I am not ashamed of my poverty, but I am ashamed of my mother. I blush whenever the boys at school ask me about you."
The village was two stations from town. During the whole journey Volodia stood on the platform of the car, trembling from head to foot, not wanting to go inside because his mother, whom he hated, was sitting there. He hated himself, and the conductor, and the smoke of the engine, and the cold to which he ascribed the shivering fit that had seized him. The heavier his heart grew, the more convinced he became that somewhere in the world there must be people who lived a pure, noble, warm-hearted, gracious life, full of love, and tenderness, and merriment, and freedom. He felt this and suffered so keenly from the thought that one of the passengers looked intently at him, and said:
"You must have a toothache !"
Volodia and his mother lived with a widow who rented a large apartment and let rooms to lodgers. His mother had two rooms, one with windows where her own bed stood, and another adjoining it, which was small and dark, where Volodia lived. A sofa, on which he slept, was the only furniture of this little room; all the available space was taken up by trunks full of dresses, and by hat-boxes and piles of rubbish which his mother had seen fit to collect. Volodia studied his lessons in his mother's room, or in the "parlour," as the large room was called, where the lodgers assembled before dinner and in the evening.
On reaching home, Volodia threw himself down on his sofa and covered himself with a blanket, hoping to cure his shivering fit. The hat-boxes, the trunks, and the rubbish, all proclaimed to him that he had no room of his own, no corner in which he could take refuge from his mother, her guests, and the voices that now assailed his ears from the parlour. His school satchel and the books that lay scattered about the floor reminded him of the examination he had missed. Quite unexpectedly there rose before his eyes a vision of Mentone, where he had lived with his father when he was seven years old. He recalled Biarritz, and two little English girls with whom he had played on the beach. He vainly tried to remember the colour of the sky, and the ocean, and the height of the waves, and how he had then felt; the little English girls flashed across his vision with all the vividness of life, but the rest of the picture was confused and gradually faded away.
"It is too cold here," Volodia thought. He got up, put on his overcoat, and went into the parlour.
The inmates of the house were assembled there at tea. His mother, an old maid music teacher with horn spectacles, and Monsieur Augustin, a fat Frenchman, who worked in a perfume factory, were sitting near the samovar.
"I haven't had dinner to-day," his mother was saying. "I must send the maid for some bread."
"Duniash!" shouted the Frenchman.
It appeared that the maid had been sent on an errand by her mistress.
"Oh, no matter!" said the Frenchman, smiling broadly. " I go for the bread myself ! Oh, no matter ! "
He laid down his strong, reeking cigar in a conspicuous place, put on his hat, and went out.
When he had gone, Volodia's mother began telling the music teacher of her visit to Madame Shumikin's, and of the enthusiastic reception she had had there.
"Lily Shumikin is a relative of mine, you know," she said. "Her husband. General Shumikin, was a cousin of my husband's. She was the Baroness Kolb before her marriage."
"Mother, that isn't true !" cried Volodia exasperated. "Why do you lie so?"
Now he knew that his mother was not lying, and that in her account of General Shumikin and Baroness Kolb there was not a word of untruth, but he felt none the less as if she were lying. The tone of her voice, the expression of her face, her glance—all were false.
"It's a lie !" Volodia repeated, bringing his fist down on the table with such a bang that the cups and saucers rattled and mamma spilled her tea. "What makes you talk about generals and baronesses? It's all a lie!"
The music teacher was embarrassed and coughed behind her handkerchief, as if she had swallowed a crumb. Mamma burst into tears.
"How can I get away from here?" thought Volodia.
He was ashamed to go to the house of any of his school friends. Once more he unexpectedly remembered the two little English girls. He walked across the parlour and into Monsieur Augustin's room. There the air smelled strongly of volatile oils and glycerine soap. Quantities of little bottles full of liquids of various colours cluttered the table, the window-sills, and even the chairs. Volodia took up a paper and read the heading: "Le Figaro." The paper exhaled a strong and pleasant fragrance. He picked up a revolver that lay on the table.
"There, there, don't mind what he says !" the music teacher was consoling his mother in the next room. "He is still young, and young men always do foolish things. We must make up our minds to that."
"No, Miss Eugenia, he has been spoiled," moaned his mother. "There is no one who has any authority over him, and I am too weak to do anything. Oh, I am very unhappy."
Volodia put the barrel of the revolver into his mouth, felt something which he thought was the trigger, and pulled— Then he found another little hook and pulled again. He took the revolver out of his mouth and examined the lock. He had never held a firearm in his hands in his life.
"I suppose this thing ought to be raised," he thought. "Yes, I think that is right."
Monsieur Augustin entered the parlour laughing and began to recount some adventure he had had on the way. Volodia once more put the barrel into his mouth, seized it between his teeth, and pulled a little hook he felt with his fingers. A shot rang out— something hit him with tremendous force in the back of the neck, and he fell forward upon the table with his face among the bottles and glasses. He saw his father wearing a high hat with a wide silk band, because he was wearing mourning for some lady in Mentone, and felt himself suddenly seized in his arms and fall with him into a very deep, black abyss.
Then everything grew confused and faded away.