A DESPERATE CHARACTER AND OTHER STORIES
BY IVAN TURGENEV
Translated from the Russian By CONSTANCE GARNETT
THE NOVELS OF IVAN TURGENEV
Complete in Fifteen Volumes.
i. Rudin. ii. A House of Gentlefolk. iii. On the Eve. iv. Fathers and Children. v. Smoke. vi. & vii. Virgin Soil. 2 Vols. viii, & ix. A Sportsman's Sketches. 2 Vols. x. Dream Tales and Prose Poems. xi. The Torrents of Spring and other Stories. xii. A Lear of the Steppes and other Stories. xiii. The Diary of a Superfluous Man and other Stories. xiv. A Desperate Character and other Tales. xv. The Jew and other Stories.
TO JOSEPH CONRAD
WHOSE ART IN ESSENCE OFTEN RECALLS
THE ART AND ESSENCE OF TURGENEV
The six tales now translated for the English reader were written by Turgenev at various dates between 1847 and 1881. Their chronological order is:—
The Brigadier, 1867
A Strange Story, 1869
Punin and Baburin, 1874
Old Portraits, 1881
A Desperate Character, 1881
Pyetushkov is the work of a young man of twenty-nine, and its lively, unstrained realism is so bold, intimate, and delicate as to contradict the flattering compliment that the French have paid to one another—that Turgenev had need to dress his art by the aid of French mirrors.
Although Pyetushkov shows us, by a certain open naivete of style, that a youthful hand is at work, it is the hand of a young master, carrying out the realism of the 'forties'—that of Gogol, Balzac, and Dickens—straightway, with finer point, to find a perfect equilibrium free from any bias or caricature. The whole strength and essence of the realistic method has been developed in Pyetushkov to its just limits. The Russians are instinctive realists, and carry the warmth of life into their pages, which warmth the French seem to lose in clarifying their impressions and crystallising them in art. Pyetushkov is not exquisite: it is irresistible. Note how the reader is transported bodily into Pyetushkov's stuffy room, and how the major fairly boils out of the two pages he lives in! (pp. 301, 302). That is realism if you like. A woman will see the point of Pyetushkov very quickly. Onisim and Vassilissa and the aunt walk and chatter around the stupid Pyetushkov, and glance at him significantly in a manner that reveals everything about these people's world. All the servants who appear in the tales in this volume are hit off so marvellously that one sees the lower-class world, which is such a mystery to certain refined minds, has no secrets for Turgenev.
Of a different, and to our taste more fascinating, genre is The Brigadier. It is greater art because life's prosaic growth is revealed not merely realistically, but also poetically, life as a tiny part of the great universe around it. The tale is a microcosm of Turgenev's own nature; his love of Nature, his tender sympathy for all humble, ragged, eccentric, despised human creatures; his unfaltering keenness of gaze into character, his fine sense of proportion, mingle in. The Brigadier, to create for us a sense of the pitiableness of man's tiny life, of the mere human seed which springs and spreads a while on earth, and dies under the menacing gaze of the advancing years. 'Out of the sweetness came forth strength' is perhaps the best saying by which one can define Turgenev's peculiar merits in The Brigadier.
Punin and Baburin presents to us again one of those ragged ones, one of 'the poor in spirit,' the idealist Punin, a character whose portrait challenges Dostoievsky's skill on the latter's own ground. That delicious Punin! and that terrible grandmother's scene with Baburin! How absolutely Slav is the blending of irony and kindness in the treatment of Punin, Cucumber, and Pyetushkov, few English readers will understand. All the characters in Punin and Baburin are so strongly drawn, so intensely alive, that, like Rembrandt's portraits, they make the living people, who stand looking at them, absurdly grey and lifeless by comparison! Baburin is a Nihilist before the times of Nihilism, he is a type of the strong characters that arose later in the movement of the 'eighties.'
A pre-Nihilistic type is also the character of Sophie in A Strange Story. But the chief value of this last psychological study is that it gives the English mind a clue to the fundamental distinction that marks off the Russian people from the peoples of the West. Sophie's words—'You spoke of the will—that's what must be broken' (p. 61)—define most admirably the deepest aspiration of the Russian soul. To be lowly and suffering, to be despised, sick, to be under the lash of fate, to be trampled under foot by others, to be unworthy, all this secret desire of the Russian soul implies that the Russian has little will, that he finds it easier to resign himself than to make the effort to be powerful, triumphant, worthy. It is from the resignation and softness of the Russian nature that all its characteristic virtues spring. Whereas religion with the English mind is largely an anxiety to be moral, to be right and righteous, to be 'a chosen vessel of the Lord,' religion with the Russian implies a genuine abasement and loss of self, a bowing before the will of Heaven, and true brotherly love. The Western mind rises to greatness by concentrating the will-power in action, by assertion of all its inner force, by shutting out forcibly whatever might dominate or distract or weaken it. But the Russian mind, through its lack of character, will-power, and hardness, rises to greatness in its acceptance of life, and in its sympathy with all the unfortunate, the wretched, the poor in spirit. Of course in practical life the Russian lacks many of the useful virtues the Western peoples possess and has most of their vices; but certainly his pity, charity, and brotherliness towards men more unfortunate than himself largely spring from his fatalistic acceptance of his own unworthiness and weakness. So in Sophie's case the desire for self-sacrifice, and her impregnable conviction that to suffer and endure is right, is truly Russian in the sense of letting the individuality go with the stream of fate, not against it. And hence the formidable spirit of the youthful generation that sacrificed itself in the Nihilistic movement: the strenuous action of 'the youth' once set in movement, the spirit of self-sacrifice impelled it calmly towards its goal despite all the forces and threats of fate. Sophie is indeed an early Nihilist born before her time.
We have said that the lack of will in the Russian nature is at the root of Russian virtues and vices, and in this connection it is curious to remark that a race's soul seems often to grow out of the race's aspiration towards what it is not in life. Is not the French intellect, for example, so cool, clear-headed, so delicately analytic of its own motives, that through the principle of counterpoise it strives to lose itself and release itself in continual rhetoric and emotional positions? Is not the German mind so alive to the material facts of life, to the necessity of getting hold of concrete advantages in life, and of not letting them go, that it deliberately slackens the bent bow, and plunges itself and relaxes itself in floods of abstractions, and idealisations, and dreams of sentimentality? Assuredly it is because the Russian is so inwardly discontented with his own actions that he is such a keen and incisive critic of everything false and exaggerated, that he despises all French rhetoric and German sentimentalism. And in this sense it is that the Russian's lack of will comes in to deepen his soul. He surrenders himself thereby to the universe, and, as do the Asiatics, does not let the tiny shadow of his fate, dark though it may be, shut out the universe so thoroughly from his consciousness, as does the aggressive struggling will-power of the Western man striving to let his individuality have full play. The Russian's attitude may indeed be compared to a bowl which catches and sustains what life brings it; and the Western man's to a bowl inverted to ward off what drops from the impassive skies. The mental attitude of the Russian peasant indeed implies that in blood he is nearer akin to the Asiatics than Russian ethnologists have wished to allow. Certainly in the inner life of thought, intellectually, morally, and emotionally, he is a half-way house between the Western and Eastern races, just as geographically he spreads over the two continents. By natural law his destiny calls him towards the East. Should he one day spread his rule further and further among the Asiatics and hold the keys of an immense Asiatic empire, well! future English philosophers may feel thereat a curious fatalistic satisfaction.
PAGE A DESPERATE CHARACTER 1 A STRANGE STORY 40 PUNIN AND BABURIN 77 OLD PORTRAITS 172 THE BRIGADIER 210 PYETUSHKOV 248
A DESPERATE CHARACTER
... We were a party of eight in the room, and we were talking of contemporary affairs and men.
'I don't understand these men!' observed A.: 'they're such desperate fellows.... Really desperate.... There has never been anything like it before.'
'Yes, there has,' put in P., a man getting on in years, with grey hair, born some time in the twenties of this century: 'there were desperate characters in former days too, only they were not like the desperate fellows of to-day. Of the poet Yazikov some one has said that he had enthusiasm, but not applied to anything—an enthusiasm without an object. So it was with those people—their desperateness was without an object. But there, if you'll allow me, I'll tell you the story of my nephew, or rather cousin, Misha Poltyev. It may serve as an example of the desperate characters of those days.
He came into God's world, I remember, in 1828, at his father's native place and property, in one of the sleepiest corners of a sleepy province of the steppes. Misha's father, Andrei Nikolaevitch Poltyev, I remember well to this day. He was a genuine old-world landowner, a God-fearing, sedate man, fairly—for those days—well educated, just a little cracked, to tell the truth—and, moreover, he suffered from epilepsy.... That too is an old-world, gentlemanly complaint.... Andrei Nikolaevitch's fits were, however, slight, and generally ended in sleep and depression. He was good-hearted, and of an affable demeanour, not without a certain stateliness: I always pictured to myself the tsar Mihail Fedorovitch as like him. The whole life of Andrei Nikolaevitch was passed in the punctual fulfilment of every observance established from old days, in strict conformity with all the usages of the old orthodox holy Russian mode of life. He got up and went to bed, ate his meals, and went to his bath, rejoiced or was wroth (both very rarely, it is true), even smoked his pipe and played cards (two great innovations!), not after his own fancy, not in a way of his own, but according to the custom and ordinance of his fathers—with due decorum and formality. He was tall, well built, and stout; his voice was soft and rather husky, as is so often the case with virtuous people in Russia; he was scrupulously neat in his dress and linen, and wore white cravats and full-skirted snuff-coloured coats, but his noble blood was nevertheless evident; no one could have taken him for a priest's son or a merchant! At all times, on all possible occasions, and in all possible contingencies, Andrei Nikolaevitch knew without fail what ought to be done, what was to be said, and precisely what expressions were to be used; he knew when he ought to take medicine, and just what he ought to take; what omens were to be believed and what might be disregarded ... in fact, he knew everything that ought to be done.... For as everything had been provided for and laid down by one's elders, one had only to be sure not to imagine anything of one's self.... And above all, without God's blessing not a step to be taken!—It must be confessed that a deadly dulness reigned supreme in his house, in those low-pitched, warm, dark rooms, that so often resounded with the singing of liturgies and all-night services, and had the smell of incense and Lenten dishes almost always hanging about them!
Andrei Nikolaevitch—no longer in his first youth—married a young lady of a neighbouring family, without fortune, a very nervous and sickly person, who had had a boarding-school education. She played the piano fairly, spoke boarding-school French, was easily moved to enthusiasm, and still more easily to melancholy and even tears.... She was of unbalanced character, in fact. She regarded her life as wasted, could not care for her husband, who, 'of course,' did not understand her; but she respected him, ... she put up with him; and being perfectly honest and perfectly cold, she never even dreamed of another 'affection.' Besides, she was always completely engrossed in the care, first, of her own really delicate health, secondly, of the health of her husband, whose fits always inspired in her something like superstitious horror, and lastly, of her only son, Misha, whom she brought up herself with great zeal. Andrei Nikolaevitch did not oppose his wife's looking after Misha, on the one condition of his education never over-stepping the lines laid down, once and for all, within which everything must move in his house! Thus, for instance, at Christmas-time, and at New Year, and St. Vassily's eve, it was permissible for Misha to dress up and masquerade with the servant boys—and not only permissible, but even a binding duty.... But, at any other time, God forbid! and so on, and so on.
I remember Misha at thirteen. He was a very pretty boy, with rosy little cheeks and soft lips (indeed he was soft and plump-looking all over), with prominent liquid eyes, carefully brushed and combed, caressing and modest—a regular little girl! There was only one thing about him I did not like: he rarely laughed; but when he did laugh, his teeth—large white teeth, pointed like an animal's—showed disagreeably, and the laugh itself had an abrupt, even savage, almost animal sound, and there were unpleasant gleams in his eyes. His mother was always praising him for being so obedient and well behaved, and not caring to make friends with rude boys, but always preferring feminine society. 'A mother's darling, a milksop,' his father, Andrei Nikolaevitch, would call him; 'but he's always ready to go into the house of God.... And that I am glad to see.' Only one old neighbour, who had been a police captain, once said before me, speaking of Misha, 'Mark my words, he'll be a rebel.' And this saying, I remember, surprised me very much at the time. The old police captain, it is true, used to see rebels on all sides.
Just such an exemplary youth Misha continued to be till the eighteenth year of his age, up to the death of his parents, both of whom he lost almost on the same day. As I was all the while living constantly at Moscow, I heard nothing of my young kinsman. An acquaintance coming from his province did, it is true, inform me that Misha had sold the paternal estate for a trifling sum; but this piece of news struck me as too wildly improbable! And behold, all of a sudden, one autumn morning there flew into the courtyard of my house a carriage, with a pair of splendid trotting horses, and a coachman of monstrous size on the box; and in the carriage, wrapped in a cloak of military cut, with a beaver collar two yards deep, and with a foraging cap cocked on one side, a la diable m'emporte, sat ... Misha! On catching sight of me (I was standing at the drawing-room window, gazing in astonishment at the flying equipage), he laughed his abrupt laugh, and jauntily flinging back his cloak, he jumped out of the carriage and ran into the house.
'Misha! Mihail Andreevitch!' I was beginning, ... 'Is it you?'
'Call me Misha,'—he interrupted me. 'Yes, it's I, ... I, in my own person.... I have come to Moscow ... to see the world ... and show myself. And here I am, come to see you. What do you say to my horses?... Eh?' he laughed again.
Though it was seven years since I had seen Misha last, I recognised him at once. His face had remained just as youthful and as pretty as ever—there was no moustache even visible; only his cheeks looked a little swollen under his eyes, and a smell of spirits came from his lips. 'Have you been long in Moscow?' I inquired.
'I supposed you were at home in the country, looking after the place.' ...
'Eh! The country I threw up at once! As soon as my parents died—may their souls rest in peace—(Misha crossed himself scrupulously, without a shade of mockery) at once, without a moment's delay, ... ein, zwei, drei! ha, ha! I let it go cheap, damn it! A rascally fellow turned up. But it's no matter! Anyway, I am living as I fancy, and amusing other people. But why are you staring at me like that? Was I, really, to go dragging on in the same old round, do you suppose? ... My dear fellow, couldn't I have a glass of something?'
Misha spoke fearfully quick and hurriedly, and, at the same time, as though he were only just waked up from sleep.
'Misha, upon my word!' I wailed; 'have you no fear of God? What do you look like? What an attire! And you ask for a glass too! And to sell such a fine estate for next to nothing....'
'God I fear always, and do not forget,' he broke in.... 'But He is good, you know—God is.... He will forgive! And I am good too.... I have never yet hurt any one in my life. And drink is good too; and as for hurting,... it never hurt any one either. And my get-up is quite the most correct thing.... Uncle, would you like me to show you I can walk straight? Or to do a little dance?'
'Oh, spare me, please! A dance, indeed! You'd better sit down.'
'As to that, I'll sit down with pleasure.... But why do you say nothing of my greys? Just look at them, they're perfect lions! I've got them on hire for the time, but I shall buy them for certain, ... and the coachman too.... It's ever so much cheaper to have one's own horses. And I had the money, but I lost it yesterday at faro. It's no matter, I'll make it up to-morrow. Uncle, ... how about that little glass?'
I was still unable to get over my amazement. 'Really, Misha, how old are you? You ought not to be thinking about horses or cards, ... but going into the university or the service.'
Misha first laughed again, then gave vent to a prolonged whistle.
'Well, uncle, I see you're in a melancholy humour to-day. I'll come back another time. But I tell you what: you come in the evening to Sokolniki. I've a tent pitched there. The gypsies sing, ... such goings-on.... And there's a streamer on the tent, and on the streamer, written in large letters: "The Troupe of Poltyev's Gypsies." The streamer coils like a snake, the letters are of gold, attractive for every one to read. A free entertainment—whoever likes to come! ... No refusal! I'm making the dust fly in Moscow ... to my glory! ... Eh? will you come? Ah, I've one girl there ... a serpent! Black as your boot, spiteful as a dog, and eyes ... like living coals! One can never tell what she's going to do—kiss or bite! ... Will you come, uncle? ... Well, good-bye, till we meet!'
And with a sudden embrace, and a smacking kiss on my shoulder, Misha darted away into the courtyard, and into the carriage, waved his cap over his head, hallooed,—the monstrous coachman leered at him over his beard, the greys dashed off, and all vanished!
The next day I—like a sinner—set off to Sokolniki, and did actually see the tent with the streamer and the inscription. The drapery of the tent was raised; from it came clamour, creaking, and shouting. Crowds of people were thronging round it. On a carpet spread on the ground sat gypsies, men and women, singing and beating drums, and in the midst of them, in a red silk shirt and velvet breeches, was Misha, holding a guitar, dancing a jig. 'Gentlemen! honoured friends! walk in, please! the performance is just beginning! Free to all!' he was shouting in a high, cracked voice. 'Hey! champagne! pop! a pop on the head! pop up to the ceiling! Ha! you rogue there, Paul de Kock!'
Luckily he did not see me, and I hastily made off.
I won't enlarge on my astonishment at the spectacle of this transformation. But, how was it actually possible for that quiet and modest boy to change all at once into a drunken buffoon? Could it all have been latent in him from childhood, and have come to the surface directly the yoke of his parents' control was removed? But that he had made the dust fly in Moscow, as he expressed it—of that, certainly, there could be no doubt. I have seen something of riotous living in my day; but in this there was a sort of violence, a sort of frenzy of self-destruction, a sort of desperation!
For two months these diversions continued.... And once more I was standing at my drawing-room window, looking into the courtyard.... All of a sudden—what could it mean? ... there came slowly stepping in at the gate a pilgrim ... a squash hat pulled down on his forehead, his hair combed out straight to right and left below it, a long gown, a leather belt ... Could it be Misha? He it was!
I went to meet him on the steps.... 'What's this masquerade for?' I demanded.
'It's not a masquerade, uncle,' Misha answered with a deep sigh: since all I had I've squandered to the last farthing—and a great repentance too has come upon me—so I have resolved to go to the Sergiev monastery of the Holy Trinity to expiate my sins in prayer. For what refuge was left me? ... And so I have come to you to say good-bye, uncle, like a prodigal son.'
I looked intently at Misha. His face was just the same, rosy and fresh (indeed it remained almost unchanged to the end), and the eyes, liquid, affectionate, and languishing—and the hands, as small and white.... But he smelt of spirits.
'Well,' I pronounced at last, 'it's a good thing to do—since there's nothing else to be done. But why is it you smell of spirits?'
'A relic of the past,' answered Misha, and he suddenly laughed, but immediately pulled himself up, and, making a straight, low bow—a monk's bow—he added: 'Won't you help me on my way? I'm going, see, on foot to the monastery....'
'To-day ... at once.'
'Why be in such a hurry?'
'Uncle, my motto always was, "Make haste, make haste!"'
'But what is your motto now?'
'It's the same now.... Only, make haste towards good!'
And so Misha went off, leaving me to ponder on the vicissitudes of human destiny.
But he soon reminded me of his existence. Two months after his visit, I got a letter from him, the first of those letters, of which later on he furnished me with so abundant a supply. And note a peculiar fact: I have seldom seen a neater, more legible handwriting than that unbalanced fellow's. And the wording of his letters was exceedingly correct, just a little flowery. Invariable entreaties for assistance, always attended with resolutions to reform, vows, and promises on his honour.... All of it seemed—and perhaps was—sincere. Misha's signature to his letters was always accompanied by peculiar strokes, flourishes, and stops, and he made great use of marks of exclamation. In this first letter Misha informed me of a new 'turn in his fortune.' (Later on he used to refer to these turns as plunges, ... and frequent were the plunges he took.) He was starting for the Caucasus on active service for his tsar and his country in the capacity of a cadet! And, though a certain benevolent aunt had entered into his impecunious position, and had sent him an inconsiderable sum, still he begged me to assist him in getting his equipment. I did what he asked, and for two years I heard nothing more of him.
I must own I had the gravest doubts as to his having gone to the Caucasus. But it turned out that he really had gone there, had, by favour, got into the T—— regiment as a cadet, and had been serving in it for those two years. A perfect series of legends had sprung up there about him. An officer of his regiment related them to me.
I learned a great deal which I should never have expected of him.—I was, of course, hardly surprised that as a military man, as an officer, he was not a success, that he was in fact worse than useless; but what I had not anticipated was that he was by no means conspicuous for much bravery; that in battle he had a downcast, woebegone air, seemed half-depressed, half-bewildered. Discipline of every sort worried him, and made him miserable; he was daring to the point of insanity when only his own personal safety was in question; no bet was too mad for him to accept; but do harm to others, kill, fight, he could not, possibly because his heart was too good—or possibly because his 'cottonwool' education (so he expressed it), had made him too soft. Himself he was quite ready to murder in any way at any moment.... But others—no. 'There's no making him out,' his comrades said of him; 'he's a flabby creature, a poor stick—and yet such a desperate fellow—a perfect madman!' I chanced in later days to ask Misha what evil spirit drove him, forced him, to drink to excess, risk his life, and so on. He always had one answer—'wretchedness.'
'But why are you wretched?'
'Why! how can you ask? If one comes, anyway, to one's self, begins to feel, to think of the poverty, of the injustice, of Russia.... Well, it's all over with me! ... one's so wretched at once—one wants to put a bullet through one's head! One's forced to start drinking.'
'Why ever do you drag Russia in?'
'How can I help it? Can't be helped! That's why I'm afraid to think.'
'It all comes, and your wretchedness too, from having nothing to do.'
'But I don't know how to do anything, uncle! dear fellow! Take one's life, and stake it on a card—that I can do! Come, you tell me what I ought to do, what to risk my life for? This instant ... I'll ...'
'But you must simply live.... Why risk your life?'
'I can't! You say I act thoughtlessly.... But what else can I do? ... If one starts thinking—good God, all that comes into one's head! It's only Germans who can think! ...'
What use was it talking to him? He was a desperate man, and that's all one can say.
Of the Caucasus legends I have spoken about, I will tell you two or three. One day, in a party of officers, Misha began boasting of a sabre he had got by exchange—'a genuine Persian blade!' The officers expressed doubts as to its genuineness. Misha began disputing. 'Here then,' he cried at last; 'they say the man that knows most about sabres is Abdulka the one-eyed. I'll go to him, and ask.' The officers wondered. 'What Abdulka? Do you mean that lives in the mountains? The rebel never subdued? Abdul-khan?' 'Yes, that's him.' 'Why, but he'll take you for a spy, will put you in a hole full of bugs, or else cut your head off with your own sabre. And, besides, how are you going to get to him? They'll catch you directly.' 'I'll go to him, though, all the same.' 'Bet you won't!' 'Taken!' And Misha promptly saddled his horse and rode off to Abdulka. He disappeared for three days. All felt certain that the crazy fellow had come by his end. But, behold! he came back—drunk, and with a sabre, not the one he had taken, but another. They began questioning him. 'It was all right,' said he; 'Abdulka's a nice fellow. At first, it's true, he ordered them to put irons on my legs, and was even on the point of having me impaled. Only, I explained why I had come, and showed him the sabre. "And you'd better not keep me," said I; "don't expect a ransom for me; I've not a farthing to bless myself with—and I've no relations." Abdulka was surprised; he looked at me with his solitary eye. "Well," said he, "you are a bold one, you Russian; am I to believe you?" "You may believe me," said I; "I never tell a lie." (And this was true; Misha never lied.) Abdulka looked at me again. "And do you know how to drink wine?" "I do," said I; "give me as much as you will, I'll drink it." Abdulka was surprised again; he called on Allah. And he told his—daughter, I suppose—such a pretty creature, only with an eye like a jackal's—to bring a wine-skin. And I began to get to work on it. "But your sabre," said he, "isn't genuine; here, take the real thing. And now we are pledged friends." But you've lost your bet, gentlemen; pay up.'
The second legend of Misha is of this nature. He was passionately fond of cards; but as he had no money, and could never pay his debts at cards (though he was never a card-sharper), no one at last would sit down to a game with him. So one day he began urgently begging one of his comrades among the officers to play with him! 'But if you lose, you don't pay.' 'The money certainly I can't pay, but I'll put a shot through my left hand, see, with this pistol here!' 'But whatever use will that be to me?' 'No use, but still it will be curious.' This conversation took place after a drinking bout in the presence of witnesses. Whether it was that Misha's proposition struck the officer as really curious—anyway he agreed. Cards were brought, the game began. Misha was in luck; he won a hundred roubles. And thereupon his opponent struck his forehead with vexation. 'What an ass I am!' he cried, 'to be taken in like this! As if you'd have shot your hand if you had lost!—a likely story! hold out your purse!' 'That's a lie,' retorted Misha: 'I've won—but I'll shoot my hand.' He snatched up his pistol—and bang, fired at his own hand. The bullet passed right through it ... and in a week the wound had completely healed.
Another time, Misha was riding with his comrades along a road at night ... and they saw close to the roadside a narrow ravine like a deep cleft, dark—so dark you couldn't see the bottom. 'Look,' said one of the officers, 'Misha may be a desperate fellow, but he wouldn't leap into that ravine.' 'Yes, I'd leap in!' 'No, you wouldn't, for I dare say it's seventy feet deep, and you might break your neck.' His friend knew his weak point—vanity.... There was a great deal of it in Misha. 'But I'll leap in anyway! Would you like to bet on it? Ten roubles.' 'Good!' And the officer had hardly uttered the word, when Misha and his horse were off—into the ravine—and crashing down over the stones. All were simply petrified.... A full minute passed, and they heard Misha's voice, dimly, as it were rising up out of the bowels of the earth: 'All right! fell on the sand ... but it was a long flight! Ten roubles you've lost!'
'Climb out!' shouted his comrades. 'Climb out, I dare say!' echoed Misha. 'A likely story! I should like to see you climb out. You'll have to go for torches and ropes now. And, meanwhile, to keep up my spirits while I wait, fling down a flask....'
And so Misha had to stay five hours at the bottom of the ravine; and when they dragged him out, it turned out that his shoulder was dislocated. But that in no way troubled him. The next day a bone-setter, one of the black-smiths, set his shoulder, and he used it as though nothing had been the matter.
His health in general was marvellous, incredible. I have already mentioned that up to the time of his death he kept his almost childishly fresh complexion. Illness was a thing unknown to him, in spite of his excesses; the strength of his constitution never once showed signs of giving way. When any other man would infallibly have been seriously ill, or even have died, he merely shook himself, like a duck in the water, and was more blooming than ever. Once, also in the Caucasus ... this legend is really incredible, but one may judge from it what Misha was thought to be capable of.... Well, once, in the Caucasus, in a state of drunkenness, he fell down with the lower half of his body in a stream of water; his head and arms were on the bank, out of water. It was winter-time, there was a hard frost, and when he was found next morning, his legs and body were pulled out from under a thick layer of ice, which had formed over them in the night—and he didn't even catch cold! Another time—this was in Russia (near Orel, and also in a time of severe frost)—he was in a tavern outside the town in company with seven young seminarists (or theological students), and these seminarists were celebrating their final examination, but had invited Misha, as a delightful person, a man of 'inspiration,' as the phrase was then. A very great deal was drunk, and when at last the festive party got ready to depart, Misha, dead drunk, was in an unconscious condition. All the seven seminarists together had but one three-horse sledge with a high back; where were they to stow the unresisting body? Then one of the young men, inspired by classical reminiscences, proposed tying Misha by his feet to the back of the sledge, as Hector was tied to the chariot of Achilles! The proposal met with approval ... and jolting up and down over the holes, sliding sideways down the slopes, with his legs torn and flayed, and his head rolling in the snow, poor Misha travelled on his back for the mile and a half from the tavern to the town, and hadn't as much as a cough afterwards, hadn't turned a hair! Such heroic health had nature bestowed upon him!
From the Caucasus he came again to Moscow, in a Circassian dress, a dagger in his sash, a high-peaked cap on his head. This costume he retained to the end, though he was no longer in the army, from which he had been discharged for outstaying his leave. He stayed with me, borrowed a little money ... and forthwith began his 'plunges,' his wanderings, or, as he expressed it, 'his peregrinations from pillar to post,' then came the sudden disappearances and returns, and the showers of beautifully written letters addressed to people of every possible description, from an archbishop down to stable-boys and mid-wives! Then came calls upon persons known and unknown! And this is worth noticing: when he made these calls, he was never abject and cringing, he never worried people by begging, but on the contrary behaved with propriety, and had positively a cheerful and pleasant air, though the inveterate smell of spirits accompanied him everywhere, and his Oriental costume gradually changed into rags. 'Give, and God will reward you, though I don't deserve it,' he would say, with a bright smile and a candid blush; 'if you don't give, you'll be perfectly right, and I shan't blame you for it. I shall find food to eat, God will provide! And there are people poorer than I, and much more deserving of help—plenty, plenty!' Misha was particularly successful with women: he knew how to appeal to their sympathy. But don't suppose that he was or fancied himself a Lovelace....Oh, no! in that way he was very modest. Whether it was that he had inherited a cool temperament from his parents, or whether indeed this too is to be set down to his dislike for doing any one harm—as, according to his notions, relations with a woman meant inevitably doing a woman harm—I won't undertake to decide; only in all his behaviour with the fair sex he was extremely delicate. Women felt this, and were the more ready to sympathise with him and help him, until at last he revolted them by his drunkenness and debauchery, by the desperateness of which I have spoken already.... I can think of no other word for it.
But in other relations he had by that time lost every sort of delicacy, and was gradually sinking to the lowest depths of degradation. He once, in the public assembly at T——, got as far as setting on the table a jug with a notice: 'Any one, to whom it may seem agreeable to give the high-born nobleman Poltyev (authentic documents in proof of his pedigree are herewith exposed) a flip on the nose, may satisfy this inclination on putting a rouble into this jug.' And I am told there were persons found willing to pay for the privilege of flipping a nobleman's nose! It is true that one such person, who put in only one rouble and gave him two flips, he first almost strangled, and then forced to apologise; it is true, too, that part of the money gained in this fashion he promptly distributed among other poor devils ... but still, think what a disgrace!
In the course of his 'peregrinations from pillar to post,' he made his way, too, to his ancestral home, which he had sold for next to nothing to a speculator and money-lender well known in those days. The money-lender was at home, and hearing of the presence in the neighbourhood of the former owner, now reduced to vagrancy, he gave orders not to admit him into the house, and even, in case of necessity, to drive him away. Misha announced that he would not for his part consent to enter the house, polluted by the presence of so repulsive a person; that he would permit no one to drive him away, but was going to the churchyard to pay his devotions at the grave of his parents. So in fact he did.
In the churchyard he was joined by an old house-serf, who had once been his nurse. The money-lender had deprived this old man of his monthly allowance, and driven him off the estate; since then his refuge had been a corner in a peasant's hut. Misha had been too short a time in possession of his estate to have left behind him a particularly favourable memory; still the old servant could not resist running to the churchyard as soon as he heard of his young master's being there. He found Misha sitting on the ground between the tombstones, asked for his hand to kiss, as in old times, and even shed tears on seeing the rags which clothed the limbs of his once pampered young charge.
Misha gazed long and silently at the old man. 'Timofay!' he said at last; Timofay started.
'What do you desire?'
'Have you a spade?'
'I can get one.... But what do you want with a spade, Mihailo Andreitch, sir?'
'I want to dig myself a grave, Timofay, and to lie here for time everlasting between my father and mother. There's only this spot left me in the world. Get a spade!'
'Yes, sir,' said Timofay; he went and got it. And Misha began at once digging in the ground, while Timofay stood by, his chin propped in his hand, repeating: 'It's all that's left for you and me, master!'
Misha dug and dug, from time to time observing: 'Life's not worth living, is it, Timofay?'
'It's not indeed, master.'
The hole was already of a good depth. People saw what Misha was about, and ran to tell the new owner about it. The money-lender was at first very angry, wanted to send for the police: 'This is sacrilege,' said he. But afterwards, probably reflecting that it was inconvenient anyway to have to do with such a madman, and that it might lead to a scandal,—he went in his own person to the churchyard, and approaching Misha, still toiling, made him a polite bow. He went on with his digging as though he had not noticed his successor. 'Mihail Andreitch,' began the money-lender, 'allow me to ask what you are doing here?'
'You can see—I am digging myself a grave.'
'Why are you doing so?'
'Because I don't want to live any longer.'
The money-lender fairly threw up his hands in amazement. 'You don't want to live?'
Misha glanced menacingly at the money-lender. 'That surprises you? Aren't you the cause of it all? ... You? ... You? ... Wasn't it you, Judas, who robbed me, taking advantage of my childishness? Aren't you flaying the peasants' skins off their backs? Haven't you taken from this poor old man his crust of dry bread? Wasn't it you? ... O God! everywhere nothing but injustice, and oppression, and evil-doing.... Everything must go to ruin then, and me too! I don't care for life, I don't care for life in Russia!' And the spade moved faster than ever in Misha's hands.
'Here's a devil of a business!' thought the money-lender; 'he's positively burying himself alive.' 'Mihail Andreevitch,' he began again: 'listen. I've been behaving badly to you, indeed; they told me falsely of you.'
Misha went on digging.
'But why be desperate?'
Misha still went on digging, and kept throwing the earth at the money-lender's feet, as though to say, 'Here you are, land-grabber.'
'Really, you 're wrong in this. Won't you be pleased to come in to have some lunch, and rest a bit?'
Misha raised his head. 'So that's it now! And anything to drink?'
The money-lender was delighted. 'Why, of course ... I should think so.'
'You invite Timofay too?'
'Well, ... yes, him too.'
Misha pondered. 'Only, mind ... you made me a beggar, you know.... Don't think you can get off with one bottle!'
'Set your mind at rest ... there shall be all you can want.'
Misha got up and flung down the spade.... 'Well, Timosha,' said he to his old nurse; 'let's do honour to our host.... Come along.'
'Yes, sir,' answered the old man.
And all three started off to the house together. The money-lender knew the man he had to deal with. At the first start Misha, it is true, exacted a promise from him to 'grant all sorts of immunities' to the peasants; but an hour later, this same Misha, together with Timofay, both drunk, were dancing a galop in the big apartments, which still seemed pervaded by the God-fearing shade of Andrei Nikolaevitch; and an hour later still, Misha in a dead sleep (he had a very weak head for spirits), laid in a cart with his high cap and dagger, was being driven off to the town, more than twenty miles away, and there was flung under a hedge.... As for Timofay, who could still keep on his legs, and only hiccupped—him, of course, they kicked out of the house; since they couldn't get at the master, they had to be content with the old servant.
Some time passed again, and I heard nothing of Misha.... God knows what he was doing. But one day, as I sat over the samovar at a posting-station on the T—— highroad, waiting for horses, I suddenly heard under the open window of the station room a hoarse voice, uttering in French the words: 'Monsieur ... monsieur ... prenez pitie d'un pauvre gentil-homme ruine.' ... I lifted my head, glanced.... The mangy-looking fur cap, the broken ornaments on the ragged Circassian dress, the dagger in the cracked sheath, the swollen, but still rosy face, the dishevelled, but still thick crop of hair.... Mercy on us! Misha! He had come then to begging alms on the high-roads. I could not help crying out. He recognised me, started, turned away, and was about to move away from the window. I stopped him ... but what could I say to him? Give him a lecture? ... In silence I held out a five-rouble note; he, also in silence, took it in his still white and plump, though shaking and dirty hand, and vanished round the corner of the house.
It was a good while before they gave me horses, and I had time to give myself up to gloomy reflections on my unexpected meeting with Misha; I felt ashamed of having let him go so unsympathetically.
At last I set off on my way, and half a mile from the station I observed ahead of me, in the road, a crowd of people moving along with a curious, as it seemed rhythmic, step. I overtook this crowd—and what did I see?
Some dozen or so beggars, with sacks over their shoulders, were walking two by two, singing and leaping about, while in front of them danced Misha, stamping time with his feet, and shouting, 'Natchiki-tchikaldy, tchuk, tchuk, tchuk! ... Natchiki-tchikaldy, tchuk, tchuk, tchuk!' Directly my carriage caught them up, and he saw me, he began at once shouting, 'Hurrah! Stand in position! right about face, guard of the roadside!'
The beggars took up his shout, and halted; while he, with his peculiar laugh, jumped on to the carriage step, and again yelled: Hurrah!
'What's the meaning of this?' I asked with involuntary astonishment.
'This? This is my company, my army—all beggars, God's people, friends of my heart. Every one of them, thanks to you, has had a glass; and now we are all rejoicing and making merry! ... Uncle! Do you know it's only with beggars, God's people, that one can live in the world ... by God, it is!'
I made him no answer ... but at that moment he struck me as such a kind good creature, his face expressed such childlike simple-heartedness.... A light seemed suddenly as it were to dawn upon me, and I felt a pang in my heart.... 'Get into the carriage,' I said to him. He was taken aback....
'What? Into the carriage?'
'Yes, get in, get in,' I repeated; 'I want to make you a suggestion. Sit down.... Come along with me.'
'Well, as you will.' He sat down. 'Well, and you, my honoured friends, my dear comrades,' he added, addressing the beggars, 'fare-well, till we meet again.' Misha took off his high cap, and bowed low. The beggars all seemed overawed.... I told the coachman to whip up the horses, and the carriage rolled off.
The suggestion I wanted to make Misha was this: the idea suddenly occurred to me to take him with me to my home in the country, about five-and-twenty miles from that station, to rescue him, or at least to make an effort to rescue him. 'Listen, Misha,' I said; 'will you come along and live with me? ... You shall have everything provided you; you shall have clothes and linen made you; you shall be properly fitted out, and you shall have money to spend on tobacco, and so on, only on one condition, that you give up drink.... Do you agree?'
Misha was positively aghast with delight; he opened his eyes wide, flushed crimson, and suddenly falling on my shoulder, began kissing me, and repeating in a broken voice, 'Uncle ... benefactor ... God reward you.' ... He burst into tears at last, and taking off his cap fell to wiping his eyes, his nose, his lips with it.
'Mind,' I observed; 'remember the condition, not to touch strong drink.'
'Damnation to it!' he cried, with a wave of both arms, and with this impetuous movement, I was more than ever conscious of the strong smell of spirits with which he seemed always saturated.... 'Uncle, if you knew what my life has been.... If it hadn't been for sorrow, a cruel fate.... But now I swear, I swear, I will mend my ways, I will show you.... Uncle, I've never told a lie—you can ask whom you like.... I'm honest, but I'm an unlucky fellow, uncle; I've known no kindness from any one....'
Here he broke down finally into sobs. I tried to soothe him, and succeeded so far that when we reached home Misha had long been lost in a heavy sleep, with his head on my knees.
He was at once assigned a room for himself, and at once, first thing, taken to the bath, which was absolutely essential. All his clothes, and his dagger and cap and torn boots, were carefully put away in a loft; he was dressed in clean linen, slippers, and some clothes of mine, which, as is always the way with poor relations, at once seemed to adapt themselves to his size and figure. When he came to table, washed, clean, and fresh, he seemed so touched and happy, he beamed all over with such joyful gratitude, that I too felt moved and joyful.... His face was completely transformed.... Boys of twelve have faces like that on Easter Sundays, after the communion, when, thickly pomaded, in new jacket and starched collars, they come to exchange Easter greetings with their parents. Misha was continually—with a sort of cautious incredulity—feeling himself and repeating: 'What does it mean? ... Am I in heaven?' The next day he announced that he had not slept all night, he had been in such ecstasy.
I had living in my house at that time an old aunt with her niece; both of them were extremely disturbed when they heard of Misha's presence; they could not comprehend how I could have asked him into my house! There were very ugly rumours about him. But in the first place, I knew he was always very courteous with ladies; and, secondly, I counted on his promises of amendment. And, in fact, for the first two days of his stay under my roof Misha not merely justified my expectations but surpassed them, while the ladies of the household were simply enchanted with him. He played piquet with the old lady, helped her to wind her worsted, showed her two new games of patience; for the niece, who had a small voice, he played accompaniments on the piano, and read Russian and French poetry. He told both the ladies lively but discreet anecdotes; in fact, he showed them every attention, so that they repeatedly expressed their surprise to me, and the old lady even observed how unjust people sometimes were.... The things—the things they had said of him ... and he such a quiet fellow, and so polite ... poor Misha! It is true that at table 'poor Misha' licked his lips in a rather peculiar, hurried way, if he simply glanced at the bottle. But I had only to shake my finger at him, and he would turn his eyes upwards, and lay his hand on his heart ... as if to say, I have sworn.... 'I am regenerated now,' he assured me.... 'Well, God grant it be so,' was my thought.... But this regeneration did not last long.
The first two days he was very talkative and cheerful. But even on the third day he seemed somehow subdued, though he remained, as before, with the ladies and tried to entertain them. A half mournful, half dreamy expression flitted now and then over his face, and the face itself was paler and looked thinner. 'Are you unwell?' I asked him.
'Yes,' he answered; 'my head aches a little.' On the fourth day he was completely silent; for the most part he sat in a corner, hanging his head disconsolately, and his dejected appearance worked upon the compassionate sympathies of the two ladies, who now, in their turn, tried to amuse him. At table he ate nothing, stared at his plate, and rolled up pellets of bread. On the fifth day the feeling of compassion in the ladies began to be replaced by other emotions—uneasiness and even alarm. Misha was so strange, he held aloof from people, and kept moving along close to the walls, as though trying to steal by unnoticed, and suddenly looking round as though some one had called him. And what had become of his rosy colour? It seemed covered over by a layer of earth. 'Are you still unwell?' I asked him.
'No, I'm all right,' he answered abruptly.
'Are you dull?'
'Why should I be dull?' But he turned away and would not look me in the face.
'Or is it that wretchedness come over you again?' To this he made no reply. So passed another twenty-four hours.
Next day my aunt ran into my room in a state of great excitement, declaring that she would leave the house with her niece, if Misha was to remain in it.
'Why, we are dreadfully scared with him.... He's not a man, he's a wolf,—nothing better than a wolf. He keeps moving and moving about, and doesn't speak—and looks so wild.... He almost gnashes his teeth at me. My Katia, you know, is so nervous.... She was so struck with him the first day.... I'm in terror for her, and indeed for myself too.' ... I didn't know what to say to my aunt. I couldn't, anyway, turn Misha out, after inviting him.
He relieved me himself from my difficult position. The same day,—I was still sitting in my own room,—suddenly I heard behind me a husky and angry voice: 'Nikolai Nikolaitch, Nikolai Nikolaitch!' I looked round; Misha was standing in the doorway with a face that was fearful, black-looking and distorted. 'Nikolai Nikolaitch!' he repeated ... (not 'uncle' now).
'What do you want?'
'Let me go ... at once!'
'Let me go, or I shall do mischief, I shall set the house on fire or cut some one's throat.' Misha suddenly began trembling. 'Tell them to give me back my clothes, and let a cart take me to the highroad, and let me have some money, however little!'
'Are you displeased, then, at anything?'
'I can't live like this!' he shrieked at the top of his voice. 'I can't live in your respectable, thrice-accursed house! It makes me sick, and ashamed to live so quietly! ... How you manage to endure it!'
'That is,' I interrupted in my turn, 'you mean—you can't live without drink....'
'Well, yes! yes!' he shrieked again: 'only let me go to my brethren, my friends, to the beggars! ... Away from your respectable, loathsome species!'
I was about to remind him of his sworn promises, but Misha's frenzied look, his breaking voice, the convulsive tremor in his limbs,—it was all so awful, that I made haste to get rid of him; I said that his clothes should be given him at once, and a cart got ready; and taking a note for twenty-five roubles out of a drawer, I laid it on the table. Misha had begun to advance in a menacing way towards me,—but on this, suddenly he stopped, his face worked, flushed, he struck himself on the breast, the tears rushed from his eyes, and muttering, 'Uncle! angel! I know I'm a ruined man! thanks! thanks!' he snatched up the note and ran away.
An hour later he was sitting in the cart dressed once more in his Circassian costume, again rosy and cheerful; and when the horses started, he yelled, tore off the peaked cap, and, waving it over his head, made bow after bow. Just as he was going off, he had given me a long and warm embrace, and whispered, 'Benefactor, benefactor ... there's no saving me!' He even ran to the ladies and kissed their hands, fell on his knees, called upon God, and begged their forgiveness! Katia I found afterwards in tears.
The coachman, with whom Misha had set off, on coming home informed me that he had driven him to the first tavern on the highroad—and that there 'his honour had stuck,' had begun treating every one indiscriminately—and had quickly sunk into unconsciousness. From that day I never came across Misha again, but his ultimate fate I learned in the following manner.
Three years later, I was again at home in the country; all of a sudden a servant came in and announced that Madame Poltyev was asking to see me. I knew no Madame Poltyev, and the servant, who made this announcement, for some unknown reason smiled sarcastically. To my glance of inquiry, he responded that the lady asking for me was young, poorly dressed, and had come in a peasant's cart with one horse, which she was driving herself! I told him to ask Madame Poltyev up to my room.
I saw a woman of five-and-twenty, in the dress of the small tradesman class, with a large kerchief on her head. Her face was simple, roundish, not without charm; she looked dejected and gloomy, and was shy and awkward in her movements.
'You are Madame Poltyev?' I inquired, and I asked her to sit down.
'Yes,' she answered in a subdued voice, and she did not sit down. 'I am the widow of your nephew, Mihail Andreevitch Poltyev.'
'Is Mihail Andreevitch dead? Has he been dead long? But sit down, I beg.'
She sank into a chair.
'It's two months.'
'And had you been married to him long?'
'I had been a year with him.'
'Where have you come from now?'
'From out Tula way.... There's a village there, Znamenskoe-Glushkovo—perhaps you may know it. I am the daughter of the deacon there. Mihail Andreitch and I lived there.... He lived in my father's house. We were a whole year together.'
The young woman's lips twitched a little, and she put her hand up to them. She seemed to be on the point of tears, but she controlled herself, and cleared her throat.
'Mihail Andreitch,' she went on: 'before his death enjoined upon me to go to you; "You must be sure to go," said he! And he told me to thank you for all your goodness, and to give you ... this ... see, this little thing (she took a small packet out of her pocket) which he always had about him.... And Mihail Andreitch said, if you would be pleased to accept it in memory of him, if you would not disdain it.... "There's nothing else," said he, "I can give him" ... that is, you....'
In the packet there was a little silver cup with the monogram of Misha's mother. This cup I had often seen in Misha's hands, and once he had even said to me, speaking of some poor fellow, that he really was destitute, since he had neither cup nor bowl, 'while I, see, have this anyway.'
I thanked her, took the cup, and asked:
'Of what complaint had Misha died? No doubt....'
Then I bit my tongue ... but the young woman understood my unuttered hint.... She took a swift glance at me, then looked down again, smiled mournfully, and said at once: 'Oh no! he had quite given that up, ever since he got to know me ... But he had no health at all! ... It was shattered quite. As soon as he gave up drink, he fell into ill health directly. He became so steady; he always wanted to help father in his land or in the garden, ... or any other work there might be ... in spite of his being of noble birth. But how could he get the strength? ... At writing, too, he tried to work; as you know, he could do that work capitally, but his hands shook, and he couldn't hold the pen properly. ... He was always finding fault with himself; "I'm a white-handed poor creature," he would say; "I've never done any good to anybody, never helped, never laboured!" He worried himself very much about that.... He used to say that our people labour,—but what use are we? ... Ah, Nikolai Nikolaitch, he was a good man—and he was fond of me ... and I... Ah, pardon me....'
Here the young woman wept outright. I would have consoled her, but I did not know how.
'Have you a child left you?' I asked at last.
She sighed. 'No, no child.... Is it likely?' And her tears flowed faster than ever.
'And so that was how Misha's troubled wanderings had ended,' the old man P. wound up his narrative. 'You will agree with me, I am sure, that I'm right in calling him a desperate character; but you will most likely agree too that he was not like the desperate characters of to-day; still, a philosopher, you must admit, would find a family likeness between him and them. In him and in them there's the thirst for self-destruction, the wretchedness, the dissatisfaction.... And what it all comes from, I leave the philosopher to decide.'
BOUGIVALLE, November 1881.
A STRANGE STORY
Fifteen years ago—began H.—official duties compelled me to spend a few days in the principal town of the province of T——. I stopped at a very fair hotel, which had been established six months before my arrival by a Jewish tailor, who had grown rich. I am told that it did not flourish long, which is often the case with us; but I found it still in its full splendour: the new furniture emitted cracks like pistol-shots at night; the bed-linen, table-cloths, and napkins smelt of soap, and the painted floors reeked of olive oil, which, however, in the opinion of the waiter, an exceedingly elegant but not very clean individual, tended to prevent the spread of insects. This waiter, a former valet of Prince G.'s, was conspicuous for his free-and-easy manners and his self-assurance. He invariably wore a second-hand frockcoat and slippers trodden down at heel, carried a table-napkin under his arm, and had a multitude of pimples on his cheeks. With a free sweeping movement of his moist hands he gave utterance to brief but pregnant observations. He showed a patronising interest in me, as a person capable of appreciating his culture and knowledge of the world; but he regarded his own lot in life with a rather disillusioned eye. 'No doubt about it,' he said to me one day; 'ours is a poor sort of position nowadays. May be sent flying any day!' His name was Ardalion.
I had to make a few visits to official persons in the town. Ardalion procured me a coach and groom, both alike shabby and loose in the joints; but the groom wore livery, the carriage was adorned with an heraldic crest. After making all my official calls, I drove to see a country gentleman, an old friend of my father's, who had been a long time settled in the town.... I had not met him for twenty years; he had had time to get married, to bring up a good-sized family, to be left a widower and to make his fortune. His business was with government monopolies, that is to say, he lent contractors for monopolies loans at heavy interest.... 'There is always honour in risk,' they say, though indeed the risk was small.
In the course of our conversation there came into the room with hesitating steps, but as lightly as though on tiptoe, a young girl of about seventeen, delicate-looking and thin. 'Here,' said my acquaintance, 'is my eldest daughter Sophia; let me introduce you. She takes my poor wife's place, looks after the house, and takes care of her brothers and sisters.' I bowed a second time to the girl who had come in (she meanwhile dropped into a chair without speaking), and thought to myself that she did not look much like housekeeping or looking after children. Her face was quite childish, round, with small, pleasing, but immobile features; the blue eyes, under high, also immobile and irregular eyebrows, had an intent, almost astonished look, as though they had just observed something unexpected; the full little mouth with the lifted upper lip, not only did not smile, but seemed as though altogether innocent of such a practice; the rosy flush under the tender skin stood in soft, diffused patches on the cheeks, and neither paled nor deepened. The fluffy, fair hair hung in light clusters each side of the little head. Her bosom breathed softly, and her arms were pressed somehow awkwardly and severely against her narrow waist. Her blue gown fell without folds—like a child's—to her little feet. The general impression this girl made upon me was not one of morbidity, but of something enigmatical. I saw before me not simply a shy, provincial miss, but a creature of a special type—that I could not make out. This type neither attracted nor repelled me; I did not fully understand it, and only felt that I had never come across a nature more sincere. Pity ... yes! pity was the feeling that rose up within me at the sight of this young, serious, keenly alert life—God knows why! 'Not of this earth,' was my thought, though there was nothing exactly 'ideal' in the expression of the face, and though Mademoiselle Sophie had obviously come into the drawing-room in fulfilment of those duties of lady of the house to which her father had referred.
He began to talk of life in the town of T——, of the social amusements and advantages it offered. 'We're very quiet here,' he observed; 'the governor's a melancholy fellow; the marshal of the province is a bachelor. But there'll be a big ball in the Hall of the Nobility the day after to-morrow. I advise you to go; there are some pretty girls here. And you'll see all our intelligentsi too.'
My acquaintance, as a man of university education, was fond of using learned expressions. He pronounced them with irony, but also with respect. Besides, we all know that moneylending, together with respectability, developes a certain thoughtfulness in men.
'Allow me to ask, will you be at the ball?' I said, turning to my friend's daughter. I wanted to hear the sound of her voice.
'Papa intends to go,' she answered, 'and I with him.'
Her voice turned out to be soft and deliberate, and she articulated every syllable fully, as though she were puzzled.
'In that case, allow me to ask you for the first quadrille.'
She bent her head in token of assent, and even then did not smile.
I soon withdrew, and I remember the expression in her eyes, fixed steadily upon me, struck me as so strange that I involuntarily looked over my shoulder to see whether there were not some one or some thing she was looking at behind my back.
I returned to the hotel, and after dining on the never-varied 'soupe-julienne,' cutlets, and green peas, and grouse cooked to a dry, black chip, I sat down on the sofa and gave myself up to reflection. The subject of my meditations was Sophia, this enigmatical daughter of my old acquaintance; but Ardalion, who was clearing the table, explained my thoughtfulness in his own way; he set it down to boredom.
'There is very little in the way of entertainment for visitors in our town,' he began with his usual easy condescension, while he went on at the same time flapping the backs of the chairs with a dirty dinner-napkin—a practice peculiar, as you're doubtless aware, to servants of superior education. 'Very little!'
He paused, and the huge clock on the wall, with a lilac rose on its white face, seemed in its monotonous, sleepy tick, to repeat his words: 'Ve-ry! ve-ry!' it ticked. 'No concerts, nor theatres,' pursued Ardalion (he had travelled abroad with his master, and had all but stayed in Paris; he knew much better than to mispronounce this last word, as the peasants do)—'nor dances, for example; nor evening receptions among the nobility and gentry—there is nothing of the kind whatever.' (He paused a moment, probably to allow me to observe the choiceness of his diction.) 'They positively visit each other but seldom. Every one sits like a pigeon on its perch. And so it comes to pass that visitors have simply nowhere to go.'
Ardalion stole a sidelong glance at me.
'But there is one thing,' he went on, speaking with a drawl, 'in case you should feel that way inclined....'
He glanced at me a second time and positively leered, but I suppose did not observe signs of the requisite inclination in me.
The polished waiter moved towards the door, pondered a moment, came back, and after fidgeting about uneasily a little, bent down to my ear, and with a playful smile said:
'Would you not like to behold the dead?'
I stared at him in perplexity.
'Yes,' he went on, speaking in a whisper; 'there is a man like that here. He's a simple artisan, and can't even read and write, but he does marvellous things. If you, for example, go to him and desire to see any one of your departed friends, he will be sure to show him you.'
'How does he do it?'
'That's his secret. For though he's an uneducated man—to speak bluntly, illiterate—he's very great in godliness! Greatly respected he is among the merchant gentry!'
'And does every one in the town know about this?'
'Those who need to know; but, there, of course—there's danger from the police to be guarded against. Because, say what you will, such doings are forbidden anyway, and for the common people are a temptation; the common people—the mob, we all know, quickly come to blows.'
'Has he shown you the dead?' I asked Ardalion.
Ardalion nodded. 'He has; my father he brought before me as if living.'
I stared at Ardalion. He laughed and played with his dinner-napkin, and condescendingly, but unflinchingly, looked at me.
'But this is very curious!' I cried at last. 'Couldn't I make the acquaintance of this artisan?'
'You can't go straight to him; but one can act through his mother. She's a respectable old woman; she sells pickled apples on the bridge. If you wish it, I will ask her.'
Ardalion coughed behind his hand. 'And a gratuity, whatever you think fit, nothing much, of course, should also be handed to her—the old lady. And I on my side will make her understand that she has nothing to fear from you, as you are a visitor here, a gentleman—and of course you can understand that this is a secret, and will not in any case get her into any unpleasantness.'
Ardalion took the tray in one hand, and with a graceful swing of the tray and his own person, turned towards the door.
'So I may reckon upon you!' I shouted after him.
'You may trust me!' I heard his self-satisfied voice say: 'We'll talk to the old woman and transmit you her answer exactly.'
* * * * *
I will not enlarge on the train of thought aroused in me by the extraordinary fact Ardalion had related; but I am prepared to admit that I awaited the promised reply with impatience. Late in the evening Ardalion came to me and announced that to his annoyance he could not find the old woman. I handed him, however, by way of encouragement, a three-rouble note. The next morning he appeared again in my room with a beaming countenance; the old woman had consented to see me.
'Hi! boy!' shouted Ardalion in the corridor; 'Hi! apprentice! Come here!' A boy of six came up, grimed all over with soot like a kitten, with a shaved head, perfectly bald in places, in a torn, striped smock, and huge goloshes on his bare feet. 'You take the gentleman, you know where,' said Ardalion, addressing the 'apprentice,' and pointing to me. 'And you, sir, when you arrive, ask for Mastridia Karpovna.'
The boy uttered a hoarse grunt, and we set off.
* * * * *
We walked rather a long while about the unpaved streets of the town of T——; at last in one of them, almost the most deserted and desolate of all, my guide stopped before an old two-story wooden house, and wiping his nose all over his smock-sleeve, said: 'Here; go to the right.' I passed through the porch into the outer passage, stumbled towards my right, a low door creaked on rusty hinges, and I saw before me a stout old woman in a brown jacket lined with hare-skin, with a parti-coloured kerchief on her head.
'Mastridia Karpovna?' I inquired.
'The same, at your service,' the old woman replied in a piping voice. 'Please walk in. Won't you take a chair?'
The room into which the old woman conducted me was so littered up with every sort of rubbish, rags, pillows, feather-beds, sacks, that one could hardly turn round in it. The sunlight barely struggled in through two dusty little windows; in one corner, from behind a heap of boxes piled on one another, there came a feeble whimpering and wailing.... I could not tell from what; perhaps a sick baby, or perhaps a puppy. I sat down on a chair, and the old woman stood up directly facing me. Her face was yellow, half-transparent like wax; her lips were so fallen in that they formed a single straight line in the midst of a multitude of wrinkles; a tuft of white hair stuck out from below the kerchief on her head, but the sunken grey eyes peered out alertly and cleverly from under the bony overhanging brow; and the sharp nose fairly stuck out like a spindle, fairly sniffed the air as if it would say: I'm a smart one! 'Well, you're no fool!' was my thought. At the same time she smelt of spirits.
I explained to her the object of my visit, of which, however, as I observed, she must be aware. She listened to me, blinked her eyes rapidly, and only lifted her nose till it stuck out still more sharply, as though she were making ready to peck.
'To be sure, to be sure,' she said at last; 'Ardalion Matveitch did say something, certainly; my son Vassinka's art you were wanting.... But we can't be sure, my dear sir....'
'Oh, why so?' I interposed. 'As far as I'm concerned, you may feel perfectly easy.... I'm not an informer.'
'Oh, mercy on us,' the old woman caught me up hurriedly, 'what do you mean? Could we dare to suppose such a thing of your honour! And on what ground could one inform against us? Do you suppose it's some sinful contrivance of ours? No, sir, my son's not the one to lend himself to anything wicked ... or give way to any sort of witchcraft.... God forbid indeed, holy Mother of Heaven! (The old woman crossed herself three times.) He's the foremost in prayer and fasting in the whole province; the foremost, your honour, he is! And that's just it: great grace has been vouchsafed to him. Yes, indeed. It's not the work of his hands. It's from on high, my dear; so it is.'
'So you agree?' I asked: 'when can I see your son?'
The old woman blinked again and shifted her rolled up handkerchief from one sleeve to the other.
'Oh, well, sir—well, sir, I can't say.'
'Allow me, Mastridia Karpovna, to hand you this,' I interrupted, and I gave her a ten-rouble note.
The old woman clutched it at once in her fat, crooked fingers, which recalled the fleshy claws of an owl, quickly slipped it into her sleeve, pondered a little, and as though she had suddenly reached a decision, slapped her thighs with her open hand.
'Come here this evening a little after seven,' she said, not in her previous voice, but in quite a different one, more solemn and subdued; 'only not to this room, but kindly go straight up to the floor above, and you'll find a door to your left, and you open that door; and you'll go, your honour, into an empty room, and in that room you'll see a chair. Sit you down on that chair and wait; and whatever you see, don't utter a word and don't do anything; and please don't speak to my son either; for he's but young yet, and he suffers from fits. He's very easily scared; he'll tremble and shake like any chicken ... a sad thing it is!'
I looked at Mastridia. 'You say he's young, but since he's your son ...'
'In the spirit, sir, in the spirit. Many's the orphan I have under my care!' she added, wagging her head in the direction of the corner, from which came the plaintive whimper. 'O—O God Almighty, holy Mother of God! And do you, your honour, before you come here, think well which of your deceased relations or friends—the kingdom of Heaven to them!—you're desirous of seeing. Go over your deceased friends, and whichever you select, keep him in your mind, keep him all the while till my son comes!'
'Why, mustn't I tell your son whom ...'
'Nay, nay, sir, not one word. He will find out what he needs in your thoughts himself. You've only to keep your friend thoroughly in mind; and at your dinner drink a drop of wine—just two or three glasses; wine never comes amiss.' The old woman laughed, licked her lips, passed her hand over her mouth, and sighed.
'So at half-past seven?' I queried, getting up from my chair.
'At half-past seven, your honour, at half-past seven,' Mastridia Karpovna replied reassuringly.
* * * * *
I took leave of the old woman and went back to the hotel. I did not doubt that they were going to make a fool of me, but in what way?—that was what excited my curiosity. With Ardalion I did not exchange more than two or three words. 'Did she see you?' he asked me, knitting his brow, and on my affirmative reply, he exclaimed: 'The old woman's as good as any statesman!' I set to work, in accordance with the 'statesman's' counsel, to run over my deceased friends.
After rather prolonged hesitation I fixed, at last, on an old man who had long been dead, a Frenchman, once my tutor. I selected him not because he had any special attraction for me; but his whole figure was so original, so unlike any figure of to-day, that it would be utterly impossible to imitate it. He had an enormous head, fluffy white hair combed straight back, thick black eyebrows, a hawk nose, and two large warts of a pinkish hue in the middle of the forehead; he used to wear a green frockcoat with smooth brass buttons, a striped waistcoat with a stand-up collar, a jabot and lace cuffs. 'If he shows me my old Dessaire,' I thought, 'well, I shall have to admit that he's a sorcerer!'
At dinner I followed the old dame's behest and drank a bottle of Lafitte, of the first quality, so Ardalion averred, though it had a very strong flavour of burnt cork, and a thick sediment at the bottom of each glass.
* * * * *
Exactly at half-past seven I stood in front of the house where I had conversed with the worthy Mastridia Karpovna. All the shutters of the windows were closed, but the door was open. I went into the house, mounted the shaky staircase to the first story, and opening a door on the left, found myself, as the old woman had said, in a perfectly empty, rather large room; a tallow candle set in the window-sill threw a dim light over the room; against the wall opposite the door stood a wicker-bottomed chair. I snuffed the candle, which had already burnt down enough to form a long smouldering wick, sat down on the chair and began to wait.
The first ten minutes passed rather quickly; in the room itself there was absolutely nothing which could distract my attention, but I listened intently to every rustle, looked intently at the closed door.... My heart was throbbing. After the first ten minutes followed another ten minutes, then half an hour, three-quarters of an hour, and not a stir of any kind around! I coughed several times to make my presence known; I began to feel bored and out of temper; to be made a fool of in just that way had not entered into my calculations. I was on the point of getting up from my seat, taking the candle from the window, and going downstairs.... I looked at it; the wick again wanted snuffing; but as I turned my eyes from the window to the door, I could not help starting; with his back leaning against the door stood a man. He had entered so quickly and noiselessly that I had heard nothing. He wore a simple blue smock; he was of middle height and rather thick-set. With his hands behind his back and his head bent, he was staring at me. In the dim light of the candle I could not distinctly make out his features. I saw nothing but a shaggy mane of matted hair falling on his forehead, and thick, rather drawn lips and whitish eyes. I was nearly speaking to him, but I recollected Mastridia's injunction, and bit my lips. The man, who had come in, continued to gaze at me, and, strange to say, at the same time I felt something like fear, and, as though at the word of command, promptly started thinking of my old tutor. He still stood at the door and breathed heavily, as though he had been climbing a mountain or lifting a weight, while his eyes seemed to expand, seemed to come closer to me—and I felt uncomfortable under their obstinate, heavy, menacing stare; at times those eyes glowed with a malignant inward fire, a fire such as I have seen in the eyes of a pointer dog when it 'points' at a hare; and, like a pointer dog, he kept his eyes intently following mine when I 'tried to double,' that is, tried to turn my eyes away.
* * * * *
So passed I do not know how long—perhaps a minute, perhaps a quarter of an hour. He still gazed at me; I still experienced a certain discomfort and alarm and still thought of the Frenchman. Twice I tried to say to myself, 'What nonsense! what a farce!' I tried to smile, to shrug my shoulders.... It was no use! All initiative had all at once 'frozen up' within me—I can find no other word for it. I was overcome by a sort of numbness. Suddenly I noticed that he had left the door, and was standing a step or two nearer to me; then he gave a slight bound, both feet together, and stood closer still.... Then again ... and again; while the menacing eyes were simply fastened on my whole face, and the hands remained behind, and the broad chest heaved painfully. These leaps struck me as ridiculous, but I felt dread too, and what I could not understand at all, a drowsiness began suddenly to come upon me. My eyelids clung together ... the shaggy figure with the whitish eyes in the blue smock seemed double before me, and suddenly vanished altogether! ... I shook myself; he was again standing between the door and me, but now much nearer.... Then he vanished again—a sort of mist seemed to fall upon him; again he appeared ... vanished again ... appeared again, and always closer, closer ... his hard, almost gasping breathing floated across to me now.... Again the mist fell, and all of a sudden out of this mist the head of old Dessaire began to take distinct shape, beginning with the white, brushed-back hair! Yes: there were his warts, his black eyebrows, his hook nose! There too his green coat with the brass buttons, the striped waistcoat and jabot.... I shrieked, I got up.... The old man vanished, and in his place I saw again the man in the blue smock. He moved staggering to the wall, leaned his head and both arms against it, and heaving like an over-loaded horse, in a husky voice said, 'Tea!' Mastridia Karpovna—how she came there I can't say—flew to him and saying: 'Vassinka! Vassinka!' began anxiously wiping away the sweat, which simply trickled from his face and hair. I was on the point of approaching her, but she, so insistently, in such a heart-rending voice cried: 'Your honour! merciful sir! have pity on us, go away, for Christ's sake!' that I obeyed, while she turned again to her son. 'Bread-winner, darling,' she murmured soothingly: 'you shall have tea directly, directly. And you too, sir, had better take a cup of tea at home!' she shouted after me.
* * * * *
When I got home I obeyed Mastridia and ordered some tea; I felt tired—even weak. 'Well?' Ardalion questioned me, 'have you been? did you see something?'
'He did, certainly, show me something ... which, I'll own, I had not anticipated,' I replied.
'He's a man of marvellous power,' observed Ardalion, carrying off the samovar; 'he is held in high esteem among the merchant gentry.' As I went to bed, and reflected on the incident that had occurred to me, I fancied at last that I had reached some explanation of it. The man doubtless possessed a considerable magnetic power; acting by some means, which I did not understand of course, upon my nerves, he had evoked within me so vividly, so definitely, the image of the old man of whom I was thinking, that at last I fancied that I saw him before my eyes.... Such 'metastases,' such transferences of sensation, are recognised by science. It was all very well; but the force capable of producing such effects still remained, something marvellous and mysterious. 'Say what you will,' I thought, 'I've seen, seen with my own eyes, my dead tutor!'
* * * * *
The next day the ball in the Hall of Nobility took place. Sophia's father called on me and reminded me of the engagement I had made with his daughter. At ten o'clock I was standing by her side in the middle of a ballroom lighted up by a number of copper lamps, and was preparing to execute the not very complicated steps of the French quadrille to the resounding blare of the military band. Crowds of people were there; the ladies were especially numerous and very pretty; but the first place among them would certainly have been given to my partner, if it had not been for the rather strange, even rather wild look in her eyes. I noticed that she hardly ever blinked; the unmistakable expression of sincerity in her eyes did not make up for what was extraordinary in them. But she had a charming figure, and moved gracefully, though with constraint. When she waltzed, and, throwing herself a little back, bent her slender neck towards her right shoulder, as though she wanted to get away from her partner, nothing more touchingly youthful and pure could be imagined. She was all in white, with a turquoise cross on a black ribbon.
I asked her for a mazurka, and tried to talk to her. But her answers were few and reluctant, though she listened attentively, with the same expression of dreamy absorption which had struck me when I first met her. Not the slightest trace of desire to please, at her age, with her appearance, and the absence of a smile, and those eyes, continually fixed directly upon the eyes of the person speaking to her, though they seemed at the same time to see something else, to be absorbed with something different.... What a strange creature! Not knowing, at last, how to thaw her, I bethought me of telling her of my adventure of the previous day.
* * * * *
She heard me to the end with evident interest, but was not, as I had expected, surprised at what I told her, and merely asked whether he was not called Vassily. I recollected that the old woman had called him 'Vassinka.' 'Yes, his name is Vassily,' I answered; 'do you know him?'
'There is a saintly man living here called Vassily,' she observed; 'I wondered whether it was he.'
'Saintliness has nothing to do with this,' I remarked; 'it's simply the action of magnetism—a fact of interest for doctors and students of science.'
I proceeded to expound my views on the peculiar force called magnetism, on the possibility of one man's will being brought under the influence of another's will, and so on; but my explanations—which were, it is true, somewhat confused—seemed to make no impression on her. Sophie listened, dropping her clasped hands on her knees with a fan lying motionless in them; she did not play with it, she did not move her fingers at all, and I felt that all my words rebounded from her as from a statue of stone. She heard them, but clearly she had her own convictions, which nothing could shake or uproot.
'You can hardly admit miracles!' I cried.
'Of course I admit them,' she answered calmly. 'And how can one help admitting them? Are not we told in the gospel that who has but a grain of faith as big as a mustard seed, he can remove mountains? One need only have faith—there will be miracles!'
'It seems there is very little faith nowadays,' I observed; 'anyway, one doesn't hear of miracles.'
'But yet there are miracles; you have seen one yourself. No; faith is not dead nowadays; and the beginning of faith ...'
'The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,' I interrupted.
'The beginning of faith,' pursued Sophie, nothing daunted, 'is self-abasement ... humiliation.'
'Humiliation even?' I queried.
'Yes. The pride of man, haughtiness, presumption—that is what must be utterly rooted up. You spoke of the will—that's what must be broken.'
I scanned the whole figure of the young girl who was uttering such sentences.... 'My word, the child's in earnest, too,' was my thought. I glanced at our neighbours in the mazurka; they, too, glanced at me, and I fancied that my astonishment amused them; one of them even smiled at me sympathetically, as though he would say: 'Well, what do you think of our queer young lady? every one here knows what she's like.'
'Have you tried to break your will?' I said, turning to Sophie again.
'Every one is bound to do what he thinks right,' she answered in a dogmatic tone. 'Let me ask you,' I began, after a brief silence, 'do you believe in the possibility of calling up the dead?'
Sophie softly shook her head.
'There are no dead.'
'There are no dead souls; they are undying and can always appear, when they like.... They are always about us.'
'What? Do you suppose, for instance, that an immortal soul may be at this moment hovering about that garrison major with the red nose?'
'Why not? The sunlight falls on him and his nose, and is not the sunlight, all light, from God? And what does external appearance matter? To the pure all things are pure! Only to find a teacher, to find a leader!'
'But excuse me, excuse me,' I put in, not, I must own, without malicious intent. 'You want a leader ... but what is your priest for?'
Sophie looked coldly at me.
'You mean to laugh at me, I suppose. My priestly father tells me what I ought to do; but what I want is a leader who would show me himself in action how to sacrifice one's self!'
She raised her eyes towards the ceiling. With her childlike face, and that expression of immobile absorption, of secret, continual perplexity, she reminded me of the pre-raphaelite Madonnas....
'I have read somewhere,' she went on, not turning to me, and hardly moving her lips, 'of a grand person who directed that he should be buried under a church porch so that all the people who came in should tread him under foot and trample on him.... That is what one ought to do in life.'
Boom! boom! tra-ra-ra! thundered the drums from the band.... I must own such a conversation at a ball struck me as eccentric in the extreme; the ideas involuntarily kindled within me were of a nature anything but religious. I took advantage of my partner's being invited to one of the figures of the mazurka to avoid renewing our quasi-theological discussion.
A quarter of an hour later I conducted Mademoiselle Sophie to her father, and two days after I left the town of T——, and the image of the girl with the childlike face and the soul impenetrable as stone slipped quickly out of my memory.
Two years passed, and it chanced that that image was recalled again to me. It was like this: I was talking to a colleague who had just returned from a tour in South Russia. He had spent some time in the town of T——, and told me various items of news about the neighbourhood. 'By the way!' he exclaimed, 'you knew V. G. B. very well, I fancy, didn't you?'
'Of course I know him.'
'And his daughter Sophia, do you know her?'
'I've seen her twice.'
'Only fancy, she's run away!'
'Well, I don't know. Three months ago she disappeared, and nothing's been heard of her. And the astonishing thing is no one can make out whom she's run off with. Fancy, they've not the slightest idea, not the smallest suspicion! She'd refused all the offers made her, and she was most proper in her behaviour. Ah, these quiet, religious girls are the ones! It's made an awful scandal all over the province! B.'s in despair.... And whatever need had she to run away? Her father carried out her wishes in everything. And what's so unaccountable, all the Lovelaces of the province are there all right, not one's missing.'
'And they've not found her up till now?'
'I tell you she might as well be at the bottom of the sea! It's one rich heiress less in the world, that's the worst of it.'
This piece of news greatly astonished me. It did not seem at all in keeping with the recollection I had of Sophia B. But there! anything may happen.
* * * * *
In the autumn of the same year fate brought me—again on official business—into the S—— province, which is, as every one knows, next to the province of T——. It was cold and rainy weather; the worn-out posting-horses could scarcely drag my light trap through the black slush of the highroad. One day, I remember, was particularly unlucky: three times we got 'stuck' in the mud up to the axles of the wheels; my driver was continually giving up one rut and with moans and grunts trudging across to the other, and finding things no better with that. In fact, towards evening I was so exhausted that on reaching the posting-station I decided to spend the night at the inn. I was given a room with a broken-down wooden sofa, a sloping floor, and torn paper on the walls; there was a smell in it of kvas, bast-mats, onions, and even turpentine, and swarms of flies were on everything; but at any rate I could find shelter there from the weather, and the rain had set in, as they say, for the whole day. I ordered a samovar to be brought, and, sitting on the sofa, settled down to those cheerless wayside reflections so familiar to travellers in Russia.