DREAM TALES AND PROSE POEMS
Translated from the Russian by CONSTANCE GARNETT
THE SONG OF TRIUMPHANT LOVE
POEMS IN PROSE
In the spring of 1878 there was living in Moscow, in a small wooden house in Shabolovka, a young man of five-and-twenty, called Yakov Aratov. With him lived his father's sister, an elderly maiden lady, over fifty, Platonida Ivanovna. She took charge of his house, and looked after his household expenditure, a task for which Aratov was utterly unfit. Other relations he had none. A few years previously, his father, a provincial gentleman of small property, had moved to Moscow together with him and Platonida Ivanovna, whom he always, however, called Platosha; her nephew, too, used the same name. On leaving the country-place where they had always lived up till then, the elder Aratov settled in the old capital, with the object of putting his son to the university, for which he had himself prepared him; he bought for a trifle a little house in one of the outlying streets, and established himself in it, with all his books and scientific odds and ends. And of books and odds and ends he had many—for he was a man of some considerable learning ... 'an out-and-out eccentric,' as his neighbours said of him. He positively passed among them for a sorcerer; he had even been given the title of an 'insectivist.' He studied chemistry, mineralogy, entomology, botany, and medicine; he doctored patients gratis with herbs and metallic powders of his own invention, after the method of Paracelsus. These same powders were the means of his bringing to the grave his pretty, young, too delicate wife, whom he passionately loved, and by whom he had an only son. With the same powders he fairly ruined his son's health too, in the hope and intention of strengthening it, as he detected anaemia and a tendency to consumption in his constitution inherited from his mother. The name of 'sorcerer' had been given him partly because he regarded himself as a descendant—not in the direct line, of course—of the great Bruce, in honour of whom he had called his son Yakov, the Russian form of James.
He was what is called a most good-natured man, but of melancholy temperament, pottering, and timid, with a bent for everything mysterious and occult.... A half-whispered ah! was his habitual exclamation; he even died with this exclamation on his lips, two years after his removal to Moscow.
His son, Yakov, was in appearance unlike his father, who had been plain, clumsy, and awkward; he took more after his mother. He had the same delicate pretty features, the same soft ash-coloured hair, the same little aquiline nose, the same pouting childish lips, and great greenish-grey languishing eyes, with soft eyelashes. But in character he was like his father; and the face, so unlike the father's face, wore the father's expression; and he had the triangular-shaped hands and hollow chest of the old Aratov, who ought, however, hardly to be called old, since he never reached his fiftieth year. Before his death, Yakov had already entered the university in the faculty of physics and mathematics; he did not, however, complete his course; not through laziness, but because, according to his notions, you could learn no more in the university than you could studying alone at home; and he did not go in for a diploma because he had no idea of entering the government service. He was shy with his fellow-students, made friends with scarcely any one, especially held aloof from women, and lived in great solitude, buried in books. He held aloof from women, though he had a heart of the tenderest, and was fascinated by beauty.... He had even obtained a sumptuous English keepsake, and (oh shame!) gloated adoringly over its 'elegantly engraved' representations of the various ravishing Gulnaras and Medoras.... But his innate modesty always kept him in check. In the house he used to work in what had been his father's study, it was also his bedroom, and his bed was the very one in which his father had breathed his last.
The mainstay of his whole existence, his unfailing friend and companion, was his aunt Platosha, with whom he exchanged barely a dozen words in the day, but without whom he could not stir hand or foot. She was a long-faced, long-toothed creature, with pale eyes, and a pale face, with an invariable expression, half of dejection, half of anxious dismay. For ever garbed in a grey dress and a grey shawl, she wandered about the house like a spirit, with noiseless steps, sighed, murmured prayers—especially one favourite one, consisting of three words only, 'Lord, succour us!'—and looked after the house with much good sense, taking care of every halfpenny, and buying everything herself. Her nephew she adored; she was in a perpetual fidget over his health—afraid of everything—not for herself but for him; and directly she fancied the slightest thing wrong, she would steal in softly, and set a cup of herb tea on his writing-table, or stroke him on the spine with her hands, soft as wadding. Yakov was not annoyed by these attentions—though the herb tea he left untouched—he merely nodded his head approvingly. However, his health was really nothing to boast of. He was very impressionable, nervous, fanciful, suffered from palpitations of the heart, and sometimes from asthma; like his father, he believed that there are in nature and in the soul of man, mysteries which may sometimes be divined, but to which one can never penetrate; he believed in the existence of certain powers and influences, sometimes beneficent, but more often malignant,... and he believed too in science, in its dignity and importance. Of late he had taken a great fancy to photography. The smell of the chemicals used in this pursuit was a source of great uneasiness to his old aunt—not on her own account again, but on Yasha's, on account of his chest; but for all the softness of his temper, there was not a little obstinacy in his composition, and he persisted in his favourite pursuit. Platosha gave in, and only sighed more than ever, and murmured, 'Lord, succour us!' whenever she saw his fingers stained with iodine.
Yakov, as we have already related, had held aloof from his fellow-students; with one of them he had, however, become fairly intimate, and saw him frequently, even after the fellow-student had left the university and entered the service, in a position involving little responsibility. He had, in his own words, got on to the building of the Church of our Saviour, though, of course, he knew nothing whatever of architecture. Strange to say, this one solitary friend of Aratov's, by name Kupfer, a German, so far Russianised that he did not know one word of German, and even fell foul of 'the Germans,' this friend had apparently nothing in common with him. He was a black-haired, red-cheeked young man, very jovial, talkative, and devoted to the feminine society Aratov so assiduously avoided. It is true Kupfer both lunched and dined with him pretty often, and even, being a man of small means, used to borrow trifling sums of him; but this was not what induced the free and easy German to frequent the humble little house in Shabolovka so diligently. The spiritual purity, the idealism of Yakov pleased him, possibly as a contrast to what he was seeing and meeting every day; or possibly this very attachment to the youthful idealist betrayed him of German blood after all. Yakov liked Kupfer's simple-hearted frankness; and besides that, his accounts of the theatres, concerts, and balls, where he was always in attendance—of the unknown world altogether, into which Yakov could not make up his mind to enter—secretly interested and even excited the young hermit, without, however, arousing any desire to learn all this by his own experience. And Platosha made Kupfer welcome; it is true she thought him at times excessively unceremonious, but instinctively perceiving and realising that he was sincerely attached to her precious Yasha, she not only put up with the noisy guest, but felt kindly towards him.
At the time with which our story is concerned, there was in Moscow a certain widow, a Georgian princess, a person of somewhat dubious, almost suspicious character. She was close upon forty; in her youth she had probably bloomed with that peculiar Oriental beauty, which fades so quickly; now she powdered, rouged, and dyed her hair yellow. Various reports, not altogether favourable, nor altogether definite, were in circulation about her; her husband no one had known, and she had never stayed long in any one town. She had no children, and no property, yet she kept open house, in debt or otherwise; she had a salon, as it is called, and received a rather mixed society, for the most part young men. Everything in her house from her own dress, furniture, and table, down to her carriage and her servants, bore the stamp of something shoddy, artificial, temporary,... but the princess herself, as well as her guests, apparently desired nothing better. The princess was reputed a devotee of music and literature, a patroness of artists and men of talent, and she really was interested in all these subjects, even to the point of enthusiasm, and an enthusiasm not altogether affected. There was an unmistakable fibre of artistic feeling in her. Moreover she was very approachable, genial, free from presumption or pretentiousness, and, though many people did not suspect it, she was fundamentally good-natured, soft-hearted, and kindly disposed.... Qualities rare—and the more precious for their rarity—precisely in persons of her sort! 'A fool of a woman!' a wit said of her: 'but she'll get into heaven, not a doubt of it! Because she forgives everything, and everything will be forgiven her.' It was said of her too that when she disappeared from a town, she always left as many creditors behind as persons she had befriended. A soft heart readily turned in any direction.
Kupfer, as might have been anticipated, found his way into her house, and was soon on an intimate—evil tongues said a too intimate—footing with her. He himself always spoke of her not only affectionately but with respect; he called her a heart of gold—say what you like! and firmly believed both in her love for art and her comprehension of art! One day after dinner at the Aratovs', in discussing the princess and her evenings, he began to persuade Yakov to break for once from his anchorite seclusion, and to allow him, Kupfer, to present him to his friend. Yakov at first would not even hear of it. 'But what do you imagine?' Kupfer cried at last: 'what sort of presentation are we talking about? Simply, I take you, just as you are sitting now, in your everyday coat, and go with you to her for an evening. No sort of etiquette is necessary there, my dear boy! You're learned, you know, and fond of literature and music'—(there actually was in Aratov's study a piano on which he sometimes struck minor chords)—'and in her house there's enough and to spare of all those goods!... and you'll meet there sympathetic people, no nonsense about them! And after all, you really can't at your age, with your looks (Aratov dropped his eyes and waved his hand deprecatingly), yes, yes, with your looks, you really can't keep aloof from society, from the world, like this! Why, I'm not going to take you to see generals! Indeed, I know no generals myself!... Don't be obstinate, dear boy! Morality is an excellent thing, most laudable.... But why fall a prey to asceticism? You're not going in for becoming a monk!'
Aratov was, however, still refractory; but Kupfer found an unexpected ally in Platonida Ivanovna. Though she had no clear idea what was meant by the word asceticism, she too was of opinion that it would be no harm for dear Yasha to take a little recreation, to see people, and to show himself.
'Especially,' she added, 'as I've perfect confidence in Fyodor Fedoritch! He'll take you to no bad place!...' 'I'll bring him back in all his maiden innocence,' shouted Kupfer, at which Platonida Ivanovna, in spite of her confidence, cast uneasy glances upon him. Aratov blushed up to his ears, but ceased to make objections.
It ended by Kupfer taking him next day to spend an evening at the princess's. But Aratov did not remain there long. To begin with, he found there some twenty visitors, men and women, sympathetic people possibly, but still strangers, and this oppressed him, even though he had to do very little talking; and that, he feared above all things. Secondly, he did not like their hostess, though she received him very graciously and simply. Everything about her was distasteful to him: her painted face, and her frizzed curls, and her thickly-sugary voice, her shrill giggle, her way of rolling her eyes and looking up, her excessively low-necked dress, and those fat, glossy fingers with their multitude of rings!... Hiding himself away in a corner, he took from time to time a rapid survey of the faces of all the guests, without even distinguishing them, and then stared obstinately at his own feet. When at last a stray musician with a worn face, long hair, and an eyeglass stuck into his contorted eyebrow sat down to the grand piano and flinging his hands with a sweep on the keys and his foot on the pedal, began to attack a fantasia of Liszt on a Wagner motive, Aratov could not stand it, and stole off, bearing away in his heart a vague, painful impression; across which, however, flitted something incomprehensible to him, but grave and even disquieting.
Kupfer came next day to dinner; he did not begin, however, expatiating on the preceding evening, he did not even reproach Aratov for his hasty retreat, and only regretted that he had not stayed to supper, when there had been champagne! (of the Novgorod brand, we may remark in parenthesis). Kupfer probably realised that it had been a mistake on his part to disturb his friend, and that Aratov really was a man 'not suited' to that circle and way of life. On his side, too, Aratov said nothing of the princess, nor of the previous evening. Platonida Ivanovna did not know whether to rejoice at the failure of this first experiment or to regret it. She decided at last that Yasha's health might suffer from such outings, and was comforted. Kupfer went away directly after dinner, and did not show himself again for a whole week. And it was not that he resented the failure of his suggestion, the good fellow was incapable of that, but he had obviously found some interest which was absorbing all his time, all his thoughts; for later on, too, he rarely appeared at the Aratovs', had an absorbed look, spoke little and quickly vanished.... Aratov went on living as before; but a sort of—if one may so express it—little hook was pricking at his soul. He was continually haunted by some reminiscence, he could not quite tell what it was himself, and this reminiscence was connected with the evening he had spent at the princess's. For all that he had not the slightest inclination to return there again, and the world, a part of which he had looked upon at her house, repelled him more than ever. So passed six weeks.
And behold one morning Kupfer stood before him once more, this time with a somewhat embarrassed countenance. 'I know,' he began with a constrained smile, 'that your visit that time was not much to your taste; but I hope for all that you'll agree to my proposal ... that you won't refuse me my request!'
'What is it?' inquired Aratov.
'Well, do you see,' pursued Kupfer, getting more and more heated: 'there is a society here of amateurs, artistic people, who from time to time get up readings, concerts, even theatrical performances for some charitable object.'
'And the princess has a hand in it?' interposed Aratov.
'The princess has a hand in all good deeds, but that's not the point. We have arranged a literary and musical matinee ... and at this matinee you may hear a girl ... an extraordinary girl! We cannot make out quite yet whether she is to be a Rachel or a Viardot ... for she sings exquisitely, and recites and plays.... A talent of the very first rank, my dear boy! I'm not exaggerating. Well then, won't you take a ticket? Five roubles for a seat in the front row.'
'And where has this marvellous girl sprung from?' asked Aratov.
Kupfer grinned. 'That I really can't say.... Of late she's found a home with the princess. The princess you know is a protector of every one of that sort.... But you saw her, most likely, that evening.'
Aratov gave a faint inward start ... but he said nothing.
'She has even played somewhere in the provinces,' Kupfer continued, 'and altogether she's created for the theatre. There! you'll see for yourself!'
'What's her name?' asked Aratov.
'Clara?' Aratov interrupted a second time. 'Impossible!'
'Why impossible? Clara ... Clara Militch; it's not her real name ... but that's what she's called. She's going to sing a song of Glinka's ... and of Tchaykovsky's; and then she'll recite the letter from Yevgeny Oniegin. Well; will you take a ticket?'
'And when will it be?'
'To-morrow ... to-morrow, at half-past one, in a private drawing-room, in Ostozhonka.... I will come for you. A five-rouble ticket?... Here it is ... no, that's a three-rouble one. Here ... and here's the programme.... I'm one of the stewards.'
Aratov sank into thought. Platonida Ivanovna came in at that instant, and glancing at his face, was in a flutter of agitation at once. 'Yasha,' she cried, 'what's the matter with you? Why are you so upset? Fyodor Fedoritch, what is it you've been telling him?'
Aratov did not let his friend answer his aunt's question, but hurriedly snatching the ticket held out to him, told Platonida Ivanovna to give Kupfer five roubles at once.
She blinked in amazement.... However, she handed Kupfer the money in silence. Her darling Yasha had ejaculated his commands in a very imperative manner.
'I tell you, a wonder of wonders!' cried Kupfer, hurrying to the door. 'Wait till to-morrow.'
'Has she black eyes?' Aratov called after him.
'Black as coal!' Kupfer shouted cheerily, as he vanished.
Aratov went away to his room, while Platonida Ivanovna stood rooted to the spot, repeating in a whisper, 'Lord, succour us! Succour us, Lord!'
The big drawing-room in the private house in Ostozhonka was already half full of visitors when Aratov and Kupfer arrived. Dramatic performances had sometimes been given in this drawing-room, but on this occasion there was no scenery nor curtain visible. The organisers of the matinee had confined themselves to fixing up a platform at one end, putting upon it a piano, a couple of reading-desks, a few chairs, a table with a bottle of water and a glass on it, and hanging red cloth over the door that led to the room allotted to the performers. In the first row was already sitting the princess in a bright green dress. Aratov placed himself at some distance from her, after exchanging the barest of greetings with her. The public was, as they say, of mixed materials; for the most part young men from educational institutions. Kupfer, as one of the stewards, with a white ribbon on the cuff of his coat, fussed and bustled about busily; the princess was obviously excited, looked about her, shot smiles in all directions, talked with those next her ... none but men were sitting near her. The first to appear on the platform was a flute-player of consumptive appearance, who most conscientiously dribbled away—what am I saying?—piped, I mean—a piece also of consumptive tendency; two persons shouted bravo! Then a stout gentleman in spectacles, of an exceedingly solid, even surly aspect, read in a bass voice a sketch of Shtchedrin; the sketch was applauded, not the reader; then the pianist, whom Aratov had seen before, came forward and strummed the same fantasia of Liszt; the pianist gained an encore. He bowed with one hand on the back of the chair, and after each bow he shook back his hair, precisely like Liszt! At last after a rather long interval the red cloth over the door on to the platform stirred and opened wide, and Clara Militch appeared. The room resounded with applause. With hesitating steps, she moved forward on the platform, stopped and stood motionless, clasping her large handsome ungloved hands in front of her, without a courtesy, a bend of the head, or a smile.
She was a girl of nineteen, tall, rather broad-shouldered, but well-built. A dark face, of a half-Jewish half-gipsy type, small black eyes under thick brows almost meeting in the middle, a straight, slightly turned-up nose, delicate lips with a beautiful but decided curve, an immense mass of black hair, heavy even in appearance, a low brow still as marble, tiny ears ... the whole face dreamy, almost sullen. A nature passionate, wilful—hardly good-tempered, hardly very clever, but gifted—was expressed in every feature.
For some time she did not raise her eyes; but suddenly she started, and passed over the rows of spectators a glance intent, but not attentive, absorbed, it seemed, in herself.... 'What tragic eyes she has!' observed a man sitting behind Aratov, a grey-headed dandy with the face of a Revel harlot, well known in Moscow as a prying gossip and writer for the papers. The dandy was an idiot, and meant to say something idiotic ... but he spoke the truth. Aratov, who from the very moment of Clara's entrance had never taken his eyes off her, only at that instant recollected that he really had seen her at the princess's; and not only that he had seen her, but that he had even noticed that she had several times, with a peculiar insistency, gazed at him with her dark intent eyes. And now too—or was it his fancy?—on seeing him in the front row she seemed delighted, seemed to flush, and again gazed intently at him. Then, without turning round, she stepped away a couple of paces in the direction of the piano, at which her accompanist, a long-haired foreigner, was sitting. She had to render Glinka's ballad: 'As soon as I knew you ...' She began at once to sing, without changing the attitude of her hands or glancing at the music. Her voice was soft and resonant, a contralto; she uttered the words distinctly and with emphasis, and sang monotonously, with little light and shade, but with intense expression. 'The girl sings with conviction,' said the same dandy sitting behind Aratov, and again he spoke the truth. Shouts of 'Bis!' 'Bravo!' resounded over the room; but she flung a rapid glance on Aratov, who neither shouted nor clapped—he did not particularly care for her singing—gave a slight bow, and walked out without taking the hooked arm proffered her by the long-haired pianist. She was called back ... not very soon, she reappeared, with the same hesitating steps approached the piano, and whispering a couple of words to the accompanist, who picked out and put before him another piece of music, began Tchaykovsky's song: 'No, only he who knows the thirst to see.'... This song she sang differently from the first—in a low voice, as though she were tired ... and only at the line next the last, 'He knows what I have suffered,' broke from her in a ringing, passionate cry. The last line, 'And how I suffer' ... she almost whispered, with a mournful prolongation of the last word. This song produced less impression on the audience than the Glinka ballad; there was much applause, however.... Kupfer was particularly conspicuous; folding his hands in a peculiar way, in the shape of a barrel, at each clap he produced an extraordinarily resounding report. The princess handed him a large, straggling nosegay for him to take it to the singer; but she, seeming not to observe Kupfer's bowing figure, and outstretched hand with the nosegay, turned and went away, again without waiting for the pianist, who skipped forward to escort her more hurriedly than before, and when he found himself so unjustifiably deserted, tossed his hair as certainly Liszt himself had never tossed his!
During the whole time of the singing, Aratov had been watching Clara's face. It seemed to him that her eyes, through the drooping eyelashes, were again turned upon him; but he was especially struck by the immobility of the face, the forehead, the eyebrows; and only at her outburst of passion he caught through the hardly-parted lips the warm gleam of a close row of white teeth. Kupfer came up to him.
'Well, my dear boy, what do you think of her?' he asked, beaming all over with satisfaction.
'It's a fine voice,' replied Aratov; 'but she doesn't know how to sing yet; she's no real musical knowledge.' (Why he said this, and what conception he had himself of 'musical knowledge,' the Lord only knows!)
Kupfer was surprised. 'No musical knowledge,' he repeated slowly.... 'Well, as to that ... she can acquire that. But what soul! Wait a bit, though; you shall hear her in Tatiana's letter.'
He hurried away from Aratov, while the latter said to himself, 'Soul! with that immovable face!' He thought that she moved and held herself like one hypnotised, like a somnambulist. And at the same time she was unmistakably ... yes! unmistakably looking at him.
Meanwhile the matinee went on. The fat man in spectacles appeared again; in spite of his serious exterior, he fancied himself a comic actor, and recited a scene from Gogol, this time without eliciting a single token of approbation. There was another glimpse of the flute-player; another thunder-clap from the pianist; a boy of twelve, frizzed and pomaded, but with tear-stains on his cheeks, thrummed some variations on a fiddle. What seemed strange was that in the intervals of the reading and music, from the performers' room, sounds were heard from time to time of a French horn; and yet this instrument never was brought into requisition. In the sequel it appeared that the amateur, who had been invited to perform on it, had lost courage at the moment of facing the public. At last Clara Militch made her appearance again.
She held a volume of Pushkin in her hand; she did not, however, glance at it once during her recitation.... She was obviously nervous, the little book shook slightly in her fingers. Aratov observed also the expression of weariness which now overspread all her stern features. The first line, 'I write to you ... what more?' she uttered exceedingly simply, almost naively, and with a naive, genuine, helpless gesture held both hands out before her. Then she began to hurry a little; but from the beginning of the lines: 'Another! no! To no one in the whole world I have given my heart!' she mastered her powers, gained fire; and when she came to the words, 'My whole life has but been a pledge of a meeting true with thee,' her hitherto thick voice rang out boldly and enthusiastically, while her eyes just as boldly and directly fastened upon Aratov. She went on with the same fervour, and only towards the end her voice dropped again; and in it, and in her face, the same weariness was reflected again. The last four lines she completely 'murdered,' as it is called; the volume of Pushkin suddenly slid out of her hand, and she hastily withdrew.
The audience fell to applauding desperately, encoring.... One Little-Russian divinity student bellowed in so deep a bass, 'Mill-itch! Mill-itch!' that his neighbour civilly and sympathetically advised him, 'to take care of his voice, it would be the making of a protodeacon.' But Aratov at once rose and made for the door. Kupfer overtook him.... 'I say, where are you off to?' he called; 'would you like me to present you to Clara?' 'No, thanks,' Aratov returned hurriedly, and he went homewards almost at a run.
He was agitated by strange sensations, incomprehensible to himself. In reality, Clara's recitation, too, had not been quite to his taste ... though he could not quite tell why. It disturbed him, this recitation; it struck him as crude and inharmonious.... It was as though it broke something within him, forced itself with a certain violence upon him. And those fixed, insistent, almost importunate looks—what were they for? what did they mean?
Aratov's modesty did not for one instant admit of the idea that he might have made an impression on this strange girl, that he might have inspired in her a sentiment akin to love, to passion!... And indeed, he himself had formed a totally different conception of the still unknown woman, the girl to whom he was to give himself wholly, who would love him, be his bride, his wife.... He seldom dwelt on this dream—in spirit as in body he was virginal; but the pure image that arose at such times in his fancy was inspired by a very different figure, the figure of his dead mother, whom he scarcely remembered, but whose portrait he treasured as a sacred relic. The portrait was a water-colour, painted rather unskilfully by a lady who had been a neighbour of hers; but the likeness, as every one declared, was a striking one. Just such a tender profile, just such kind, clear eyes and silken hair, just such a smile and pure expression, was the woman, the girl, to have, for whom as yet he scarcely dared to hope....
But this swarthy, dark-skinned creature, with coarse hair, dark eyebrows, and a tiny moustache on her upper lip, she was certainly a wicked, giddy ... 'gipsy' (Aratov could not imagine a harsher appellation)—what was she to him?
And yet Aratov could not succeed in getting out of his head this dark-skinned gipsy, whose singing and reading and very appearance were displeasing to him. He was puzzled, he was angry with himself. Not long before he had read Sir Walter Scott's novel, St. Ronan's Well (there was a complete edition of Sir Walter Scott's works in the library of his father, who had regarded the English novelist with esteem as a serious, almost a scientific, writer). The heroine of that novel is called Clara Mowbray. A poet who flourished somewhere about 1840, Krasov, wrote a poem on her, ending with the words:
'Unhappy Clara! poor frantic Clara! Unhappy Clara Mowbray!'
Aratov knew this poem also.... And now these words were incessantly haunting his memory.... 'Unhappy Clara! Poor, frantic Clara!' ... (This was why he had been so surprised when Kupfer told him the name of Clara Militch.)
Platosha herself noticed, not a change exactly in Yasha's temper—no change in reality took place in it—but something unsatisfactory in his looks and in his words. She cautiously questioned him about the literary matinee at which he had been present; muttered, sighed, looked at him from in front, from the side, from behind; and suddenly clapping her hands on her thighs, she exclaimed: 'To be sure, Yasha; I see what it is!'
'Why? what?' Aratov queried.
'You've met for certain at that matinee one of those long-tailed creatures'—this was how Platonida Ivanovna always spoke of all fashionably-dressed ladies of the period—'with a pretty dolly face; and she goes prinking this way ... and pluming that way'—Platonida presented these fancied manoeuvres in mimicry—'and making saucers like this with her eyes'—and she drew big, round circles in the air with her forefinger—'You're not used to that sort of thing. So you fancied ... but that means nothing, Yasha ... no-o-thing at all! Drink a cup of posset at night ... it'll pass off!... Lord, succour us!'
Platosha ceased speaking, and left the room.... She had hardly ever uttered such a long and animated speech in her life.... While Aratov thought, 'Auntie's right, I dare say.... I'm not used to it; that's all ...'—it actually was the first time his attention had ever happened to be drawn to a person of the female sex ... at least he had never noticed it before—'I mustn't give way to it.'
And he set to work on his books, and at night drank some lime-flower tea; and positively slept well that night, and had no dreams. The next morning he took up his photography again as though nothing had happened....
But towards evening his spiritual repose was again disturbed.
And this is what happened. A messenger brought him a note, written in a large irregular woman's hand, and containing the following lines:
'If you guess who it is writes to you, and if it is not a bore to you, come to-morrow after dinner to the Tversky boulevard—about five o'clock—and wait. You shall not be kept long. But it is very important. Do come.'
There was no signature. Aratov at once guessed who was his correspondent, and this was just what disturbed him. 'What folly,' he said, almost aloud; 'this is too much. Of course I shan't go.' He sent, however, for the messenger, and from him learnt nothing but that the note had been handed him by a maid-servant in the street. Dismissing him, Aratov read the letter through and flung it on the ground.... But, after a little while, he picked it up and read it again: a second time he cried, 'Folly!'—he did not, however, throw the note on the floor again, but put it in a drawer. Aratov took up his ordinary occupations, first one and then another; but nothing he did was successful or satisfactory. He suddenly realised that he was eagerly expecting Kupfer! Did he want to question him, or perhaps even to confide in him?... But Kupfer did not make his appearance. Then Aratov took down Pushkin, read Tatiana's letter, and convinced himself again that the 'gipsy girl' had not in the least understood the real force of the letter. And that donkey Kupfer shouts: Rachel! Viardot! Then he went to his piano, as it seemed, unconsciously opened it, and tried to pick out by ear the melody of Tchaykovsky's song; but he slammed it to again directly in vexation, and went up to his aunt to her special room, which was for ever baking hot, smelled of mint, sage, and other medicinal herbs, and was littered up with such a multitude of rugs, side-tables, stools, cushions, and padded furniture of all sorts, that any one unused to it would have found it difficult to turn round and oppressive to breathe in it. Platonida Ivanovna was sitting at the window, her knitting in her hands (she was knitting her darling Yasha a comforter, the thirty-eighth she had made him in the course of his life!), and was much astonished to see him. Aratov rarely went up to her, and if he wanted anything, used always to call, in his delicate voice, from his study: 'Aunt Platosha!' However, she made him sit down, and sat all alert, in expectation of his first words, watching him through her spectacles with one eye, over them with the other. She did not inquire after his health nor offer him tea, as she saw he had not come for that. Aratov was a little disconcerted ... then he began to talk ... talked of his mother, of how she had lived with his father and how his father had got to know her. All this he knew very well ... but it was just what he wanted to talk about. Unluckily for him, Platosha did not know how to keep up a conversation at all; she gave him very brief replies, as though she suspected that was not what Yasha had come for.
'Eh!' she repeated, hurriedly, almost irritably plying her knitting-needles. 'We all know: your mother was a darling ... a darling that she was.... And your father loved her as a husband should, truly and faithfully even in her grave; and he never loved any other woman': she added, raising her voice and taking off her spectacles.
'And was she of a retiring disposition?' Aratov inquired, after a short silence.
'Retiring! to be sure she was. As a woman should be. Bold ones have sprung up nowadays.'
'And were there no bold ones in your time?'
'There were in our time too ... to be sure there were! But who were they? A pack of strumpets, shameless hussies. Draggle-tails—for ever gadding about after no good.... What do they care? It's little they take to heart. If some poor fool comes in their way, they pounce on him. But sensible folk looked down on them. Did you ever see, pray, the like of such in our house?'
Aratov made no reply, and went back to his study. Platonida Ivanovna looked after him, shook her head, put on her spectacles again, and again took up her comforter ... but more than once sank into thought, and let her knitting-needles fall on her knees.
Aratov up till very night kept telling himself, no! no! but with the same irritation, the same exasperation, he fell again into musing on the note, on the 'gipsy girl,' on the appointed meeting, to which he would certainly not go! And at night she gave him no rest. He was continually haunted by her eyes—at one time half-closed, at another wide open—and their persistent gaze fixed straight upon him, and those motionless features with their dominating expression....
The next morning he again, for some reason, kept expecting Kupfer; he was on the point of writing a note to him ... but did nothing, however,... and spent most of the time walking up and down his room. He never for one instant admitted to himself even the idea of going to this idiotic rendezvous ... and at half-past three, after a hastily swallowed dinner, suddenly throwing on his cloak and thrusting his cap on his head, he dashed out into the street, unseen by his aunt, and turned towards the Tversky boulevard.
Aratov found few people walking in it. The weather was damp and rather cold. He tried not to reflect on what he was doing, to force himself to turn his attention to every object that presented itself, and, as it were, persuaded himself that he had simply come out for a walk like the other people passing to and fro.... The letter of the day before was in his breast-pocket, and he was conscious all the while of its presence there. He walked twice up and down the boulevard, scrutinised sharply every feminine figure that came near him—and his heart throbbed.... He felt tired and sat down on a bench. And suddenly the thought struck him: 'What if that letter was not written by her, but to some one else by some other woman?' In reality this should have been a matter of indifference to him ... and yet he had to admit to himself that he did not want this to be so. 'That would be too silly,' he thought, 'even sillier than this!' A nervous unrest began to gain possession of him; he began to shiver—not outwardly, but inwardly. He several times took his watch out of his waistcoat pocket, looked at the face, put it back, and each time forgot how many minutes it was to five. He fancied that every passer-by looked at him in a peculiar way, with a sort of sarcastic astonishment and curiosity. A wretched little dog ran up, sniffed at his legs, and began wagging its tail. He threatened it angrily. He was particularly annoyed by a factory lad in a greasy smock, who seated himself on a seat on the other side of the boulevard, and by turns whistling, scratching himself, and swinging his feet in enormous tattered boots, persistently stared at him. 'And his master,' thought Aratov, 'is waiting for him, no doubt, while he, lazy scamp, is kicking up his heels here....'
But at that very instant he felt that some one had come up and was standing close behind him ... there was a breath of something warm from behind....
He looked round.... She!
He knew her at once, though a thick, dark blue veil hid her features. He instantaneously leapt up from the seat, but stopped short, and could not utter a word. She too was silent. He felt great embarrassment; but her embarrassment was no less. Aratov, even through the veil, could not help noticing how deadly pale she had turned. Yet she was the first to speak.
'Thanks,' she began in an unsteady voice, 'thanks for coming. I did not expect ...' She turned a little away and walked along the boulevard. Aratov walked after her.
'You have, perhaps, thought ill of me,' she went on, without turning her head; 'indeed, my conduct is very strange.... But I had heard so much about you ... but no! I ... that was not the reason.... If only you knew.... There was so much I wanted to tell you, my God!... But how to do it ... how to do it!'
Aratov was walking by her side, a little behind her; he could not see her face; he saw only her hat and part of her veil ... and her long black shabby cape. All his irritation, both with her and with himself, suddenly came back to him; all the absurdity, the awkwardness of this interview, these explanations between perfect strangers in a public promenade, suddenly struck him.
'I have come on your invitation,' he began in his turn. 'I have come, my dear madam' (her shoulders gave a faint twitch, she turned off into a side passage, he followed her), 'simply to clear up, to discover to what strange misunderstanding it is due that you are pleased to address me, a stranger to you ... who ... only guessed, to use your expression in your letter, that it was you writing to him ... guessed it because during that literary matinee, you saw fit to pay him such ... such obvious attention.'
All this little speech was delivered by Aratov in that ringing but unsteady voice in which very young people answer at examinations on a subject in which they are well prepared.... He was angry; he was furious.... It was just this fury which loosened his ordinarily not very ready tongue.
She still went on along the walk with rather slower steps.... Aratov, as before, walked after her, and as before saw only the old cape and the hat, also not a very new one. His vanity suffered at the idea that she must now be thinking: 'I had only to make a sign—and he rushed at once!'
Aratov was silent ... he expected her to answer him; but she did not utter a word.
'I am ready to listen to you,' he began again, 'and shall be very glad if I can be of use to you in any way ... though I am, I confess, surprised ... considering the retired life I lead....'
At these last words of his, Clara suddenly turned to him, and he beheld such a terrified, such a deeply-wounded face, with such large bright tears in the eyes, such a pained expression about the parted lips, and this face was so lovely, that he involuntarily faltered, and himself felt something akin to terror and pity and softening.
'Ah, why ... why are you like that?' she said, with an irresistibly genuine and truthful force, and how movingly her voice rang out! 'Could my turning to you be offensive to you?... is it possible you have understood nothing?... Ah, yes! you have understood nothing, you did not understand what I said to you, God knows what you have been imagining about me, you have not even dreamed what it cost me—to write to you!... You thought of nothing but yourself, your own dignity, your peace of mind!... But is it likely I' ... (she squeezed her hands raised to her lips so hard, that the fingers gave a distinct crack).... 'As though I made any sort of demands of you, as though explanations were necessary first....
"My dear madam,... I am, I confess, surprised,... if I can be of any use" ... Ah! I am mad!—I was mistaken in you—in your face!... when I saw you the first time ...! Here ... you stand.... If only one word. What, not one word?'
She ceased.... Her face suddenly flushed, and as suddenly took a wrathful and insolent expression. 'Mercy! how idiotic this is!' she cried suddenly, with a shrill laugh. 'How idiotic our meeting is! What a fool I am!... and you too.... Ugh!'
She gave a contemptuous wave of her hand, as though motioning him out of her road, and passing him, ran quickly out of the boulevard, and vanished.
The gesture of her hand, the insulting laugh, and the last exclamation, at once carried Aratov back to his first frame of mind, and stifled the feeling that had sprung up in his heart when she turned to him with tears in her eyes. He was angry again, and almost shouted after the retreating girl: 'You may make a good actress, but why did you think fit to play off this farce on me?'
He returned home with long strides, and though he still felt anger and indignation all the way, yet across these evil, malignant feelings, unconsciously, the memory forced itself of the exquisite face he had seen for a single moment only.... He even put himself the question, 'Why did I not answer her when she asked of me only a word? I had not time,' he thought. 'She did not let me utter the word ... and what word could I have uttered?'
But he shook his head at once, and murmured reproachfully, 'Actress!'
And again, at the same time, the vanity of the inexperienced nervous youth, at first wounded, was now, as it were, flattered at having any way inspired such a passion....
'Though by now,' he pursued his reflections, 'it's all over, of course.... I must have seemed absurd to her.'...
This idea was disagreeable to him, and again he was angry ... both with her ... and with himself. On reaching home, he shut himself up in his study. He did not want to see Platosha. The good old lady came twice to his locked door, put her ear to the keyhole, and only sighed and murmured her prayer.
'It has begun!' she thought.... 'And he only five-and-twenty! Ah, it's early, it's early!'
All the following day Aratov was in very low spirits. 'What is it, Yasha?' Platonida Ivanovna said to him: 'you seem somehow all loose ends to-day!'... In her own peculiar idiom the old lady's expression described fairly accurately Aratov's mental condition. He could not work and he did not know himself what he wanted. At one time he was eagerly on the watch for Kupfer, again he suspected that it was from Kupfer that Clara had got his address ... and from where else could she 'have heard so much about him'? Then he wondered: was it possible his acquaintance with her was to end like this? Then he fancied she would write to him again; then he asked himself whether he ought not to write her a letter, explaining everything, since he did not at all like leaving an unfavourable impression of himself.... But exactly what to explain? Then he stirred up in himself almost a feeling of repulsion for her, for her insistence, her impertinence; and then again he saw that unutterably touching face and heard an irresistible voice; then he recalled her singing, her recitation—and could not be sure whether he had been right in his wholesale condemnation of it. In fact, he was all loose ends! At last he was heartily sick of it, and resolved to keep a firm hand over himself, as it is called, and to obliterate the whole incident, as it was unmistakably hindering his studies and destroying his peace of mind. It turned out not so easy to carry out this resolution ... more than a week passed by before he got back into his old accustomed groove. Luckily Kupfer did not turn up at all; he was in fact out of Moscow. Not long before the incident, Aratov had begun to work at painting in connection with his photographic plans; he set to work upon it now with redoubled zest.
So, imperceptibly, with a few (to use the doctors' expression) 'symptoms of relapse,' manifested, for instance, in his once almost deciding to call upon the princess, two months passed ... then three months ... and Aratov was the old Aratov again. Only somewhere down below, under the surface of his life, something like a dark and burdensome secret dogged him wherever he went. So a great fish just caught on the hook, but not yet drawn up, will swim at the bottom of a deep stream under the very boat where the angler sits with a stout rod in his hand.
And one day, skimming through a not quite new number of the Moscow Gazette, Aratov lighted upon the following paragraph:
'With the greatest regret,' wrote some local contributor from Kazan, 'we must add to our dramatic record the news of the sudden death of our gifted actress Clara Militch, who had succeeded during the brief period of her engagement in becoming a favourite of our discriminating public. Our regret is the more poignant from the fact that Miss Militch by her own act cut short her young life, so full of promise, by means of poison. And this dreadful deed was the more awful through the talented actress taking the fatal drug in the theatre itself. She had scarcely been taken home when to the universal grief, she expired. There is a rumour in the town that an unfortunate love affair drove her to this terrible act.'
Aratov slowly laid the paper on the table. In outward appearance he remained perfectly calm ... but at once something seemed to strike him a blow in the chest and the head—and slowly the shock passed on through all his limbs. He got up, stood still on the spot, and sat down again, again read through the paragraph. Then he got up again, lay down on the bed, and clasping his hands behind, stared a long while at the wall, as though dazed. By degrees the wall seemed to fade away ... vanished ... and he saw facing him the boulevard under the grey sky, and her in her black cape ... then her on the platform ... saw himself even close by her. That something which had given him such a violent blow in the chest at the first instant, began mounting now ... mounting into his throat.... He tried to clear his throat; tried to call some one—but his voice failed him—and, to his own astonishment, tears rushed in torrents from his eyes ... what called forth these tears? Pity? Remorse? Or was it simply his nerves could not stand the sudden shock?
Why, she was nothing to him? was she?
'But, perhaps, it's not true after all,' the thought came as a sudden relief to him. 'I must find out! But from whom? From the princess? No, from Kupfer ... from Kupfer? But they say he's not in Moscow—no matter, I must try him first!'
With these reflections in his head, Aratov dressed himself in haste, called a cab and drove to Kupfer's.
Though he had not expected to find him, he found him. Kupfer had, as a fact, been away from Moscow for some time, but he had now been back a week, and was indeed on the point of setting off to see Aratov. He met him with his usual heartiness, and was beginning to make some sort of explanation ... but Aratov at once cut him short with the impatient question, 'Have you heard it? Is it true?'
'Is what true?' replied Kupfer, puzzled.
'About Clara Militch?'
Kupfer's face expressed commiseration. 'Yes, yes, my dear boy, it's true; she poisoned herself! Such a sad thing!'
Aratov was silent for a while. 'But did you read it in the paper too?' he asked—'or perhaps you have been in Kazan yourself?'
'I have been in Kazan, yes; the princess and I accompanied her there. She came out on the stage there, and had a great success. But I didn't stay up to the time of the catastrophe ... I was in Yaroslav at the time.'
'Yes—I escorted the princess there.... She is living now at Yaroslav.'
'But you have trustworthy information?'
'Trustworthy ... I have it at first-hand!—I made the acquaintance of her family in Kazan. But, my dear boy ... this news seems to be upsetting you? Why, I recollect you didn't care for Clara at one time? You were wrong, though! She was a marvellous girl—only what a temper! I was terribly broken-hearted about her!'
Aratov did not utter a word, he dropped into a chair, and after a brief pause, asked Kupfer to tell him ... he stammered.
'What?' inquired Kupfer.
'Oh ... everything,' Aratov answered brokenly, 'all about her family ... and the rest of it. Everything you know!'
'Why, does it interest you? By all means!' And Kupfer, whose face showed no traces of his having been so terribly broken-hearted about Clara, began his story.
From his account Aratov learnt that Clara Militch's real name was Katerina Milovidov; that her father, now dead, had held the post of drawing-master in a school in Kazan, had painted bad portraits and holy pictures of the regulation type; that he had besides had the character of being a drunkard and a domestic tyrant; that he had left behind him, first a widow, of a shopkeeper's family, a quite stupid body, a character straight out of an Ostrovsky comedy; and secondly, a daughter much older than Clara and not like her—a very clever girl, and enthusiastic, only sickly, a remarkable girl—and very advanced in her ideas, my dear boy! That they were living, the widow and daughter, fairly comfortably, in a decent little house, obtained by the sale of the bad portraits and holy pictures; that Clara ... or Katia, if you like, from her childhood up impressed every one with her talent, but was of an insubordinate, capricious temper, and used to be for ever quarrelling with her father; that having an inborn passion for the theatre, at sixteen she had run away from her parent's house with an actress ...'
'With an actor?' put in Aratov.
'No, not with an actor, with an actress, to whom she became attached.... It's true this actress had a protector, a wealthy gentleman, no longer young, who did not marry her simply because he happened to be married—and indeed I fancy the actress was a married woman.' Furthermore Kupfer informed Aratov that Clara had even before her coming to Moscow acted and sung in provincial theatres, that, having lost her friend the actress—the gentleman, too, it seemed, had died, or else he had made it up with his wife—Kupfer could not quite remember this—she had made the acquaintance of the princess, 'that heart of gold, whom you, my dear Yakov Andreitch,' the speaker added with feeling, 'were incapable of appreciating properly'; that at last Clara had been offered an engagement in Kazan, and that she had accepted it, though before then she used to declare that she would never leave Moscow! But then how the people of Kazan liked her—it was really astonishing! Whatever the performance was, nothing but nosegays and presents! nosegays and presents! A wholesale miller, the greatest swell in the province, had even presented her with a gold inkstand! Kupfer related all this with great animation, without giving expression, however, to any special sentimentality, and interspersing his narrative with the questions, 'What is it to you?' and 'Why do you ask?' when Aratov, who listened to him with devouring attention, kept asking for more and more details. All was told at last, and Kupfer was silent, rewarding himself for his exertions with a cigar.
'And why did she take poison?' asked Aratov. 'In the paper it was stated....'
Kupfer waved his hand. 'Well ... that I can't say ... I don't know. But the paper tells a lie. Clara's conduct was exemplary ... no love affairs of any kind.... And indeed how should there be with her pride! She was proud—as Satan himself—and unapproachable! A headstrong creature! Hard as rock! You'll hardly believe it—though I knew her so well—I never saw a tear in her eyes!'
'But I have,' Aratov thought to himself.
'But there's one thing,' continued Kupfer, 'of late I noticed a great change in her: she grew so dull, so silent, for hours together there was no getting a word out of her. I asked her even, "Has any one offended you, Katerina Semyonovna?" For I knew her temper; she could never swallow an affront! But she was silent, and there was no doing anything with her! Even her triumphs on the stage didn't cheer her up; bouquets fairly showered on her ... but she didn't even smile! She gave one look at the gold inkstand—and put it aside! She used to complain that no one had written the real part for her, as she conceived it. And her singing she'd given up altogether. It was my fault, my dear boy!... I told her that you thought she'd no musical knowledge. But for all that ... why she poisoned herself—is incomprehensible! And the way she did it!...'
'In what part had she the greatest success?'... Aratov wanted to know in what part she had appeared for the last time, but for some reason he asked a different question.
'In Ostrovosky's Gruna, as far as I remember. But I tell you again she'd no love affairs! You may be sure of that from one thing. She lived in her mother's house.... You know the sort of shopkeeper's houses: in every corner a holy picture and a little lamp before it, a deadly stuffiness, a sour smell, nothing but chairs along the walls in the drawing-room, a geranium in the window, and if a visitor drops in, the mistress sighs and groans, as if they were invaded by an enemy. What chance is there for gallantry or love-making? Sometimes they wouldn't even admit me. Their servant, a muscular female, in a red sarafan, with an enormous bust, would stand right across the passage, and growl, "Where are you coming?" No, I positively can't understand why she poisoned herself. Sick of life, I suppose,' Kupfer concluded his cogitations philosophically.
Aratov sat with downcast head. 'Can you give me the address of that house in Kazan?' he said at last.
'Yes; but what do you want it for? Do you want to write a letter there?'
'Perhaps.' 'Well, you know best. But the old lady won't answer, for she can't read and write. The sister, though, perhaps ... Oh, the sister's a clever creature! But I must say again, I wonder at you, my dear boy! Such indifference before ... and now such interest! All this, my boy, comes from too much solitude!'
Aratov made no reply, and went away, having provided himself with the Kazan address.
When he was on his way to Kupfer's, excitement, bewilderment, expectation had been reflected on his face.... Now he walked with an even gait, with downcast eyes, and hat pulled over his brows; almost every one who met him sent a glance of curiosity after him ... but he did not observe any one who passed ... it was not as on the Tversky boulevard!
'Unhappy Clara! poor frantic Clara!' was echoing in his soul.
The following day Aratov spent, however, fairly quietly. He was even able to give his mind to his ordinary occupations. But there was one thing: both during his work and during his leisure he was continually thinking of Clara, of what Kupfer had told him the evening before. It is true that his meditations, too, were of a fairly tranquil character. He fancied that this strange girl interested him from the psychological point of view, as something of the nature of a riddle, the solution of which was worth racking his brains over. 'Ran away with an actress living as a kept mistress,' he pondered, 'put herself under the protection of that princess, with whom she seems to have lived—and no love affairs'? It's incredible!... Kupfer talked of pride! But in the first place we know' (Aratov ought to have said: we have read in books),...'we know that pride can exist side by side with levity of conduct; and secondly, how came she, if she were so proud, to make an appointment with a man who might treat her with contempt ... and did treat her with it ... and in a public place, moreover ... in a boulevard!' At this point Aratov recalled all the scene in the boulevard, and he asked himself, Had he really shown contempt for Clara? 'No,' he decided,... 'it was another feeling ... a feeling of doubt ... lack of confidence, in fact!' 'Unhappy Clara!' was again ringing in his head. 'Yes, unhappy,' he decided again.... 'That's the most fitting word. And, if so, I was unjust. She said truly that I did not understand her. A pity! Such a remarkable creature, perhaps, came so close ... and I did not take advantage of it, I repulsed her.... Well, no matter! Life's all before me. There will be, very likely, other meetings, perhaps more interesting!
'But on what grounds did she fix on me of all the world?' He glanced into a looking-glass by which he was passing. 'What is there special about me? I'm not a beauty, am I? My face ... is like any face.... She was not a beauty either, though.
'Not a beauty ... and such an expressive face! Immobile ... and yet expressive! I never met such a face.... And talent, too, she has ... that is, she had, unmistakable. Untrained, undeveloped, even coarse, perhaps ... but unmistakable talent. And in that case I was unjust to her.' Aratov was carried back in thought to the literary musical matinee ... and he observed to himself how exceedingly clearly he recollected every word she had sung of recited, every intonation of her voice.... 'That would not have been so had she been without talent. And now it is all in the grave, to which she has hastened of herself.... But I've nothing to do with that ... I'm not to blame! It would be positively ridiculous to suppose that I'm to blame.'
It again occurred to Aratov that even if she had had 'anything of the sort' in her mind, his behaviour during their interview must have effectually disillusioned her.... 'That was why she laughed so cruelly, too, at parting. Besides, what proof is there that she took poison because of unrequited love? That's only the newspaper correspondents, who ascribe every death of that sort to unrequited love! People of a character like Clara's readily feel life repulsive ... burdensome. Yes, burdensome. Kupfer was right; she was simply sick of life.
'In spite of her successes, her triumphs?' Aratov mused. He got a positive pleasure from the psychological analysis to which he was devoting himself. Remote till now from all contact with women, he did not even suspect all the significance for himself of this intense realisation of a woman's soul.
'It follows,' he pursued his meditations, 'that art did not satisfy her, did not fill the void in her life. Real artists exist only for art, for the theatre.... Everything else is pale beside what they regard as their vocation.... She was a dilettante.'
At this point Aratov fell to pondering again. 'No, the word dilettante did not accord with that face, the expression of that face, those eyes....'
And Clara's image floated again before him, with eyes, swimming in tears, fixed upon him, with clenched hands pressed to her lips....
'Ah, no, no,' he muttered, 'what's the use?'
So passed the whole day. At dinner Aratov talked a great deal with Platosha, questioned her about the old days, which she remembered, but described very badly, as she had so few words at her command, and except her dear Yasha, had scarcely ever noticed anything in her life. She could only rejoice that he was nice and good-humoured to-day; towards evening Aratov was so far calm that he played several games of cards with his aunt.
So passed the day ... but the night!
It began well; he soon fell asleep, and when his aunt went into him on tip-toe to make the sign of the cross three times over him in his sleep—she did so every night—he lay breathing as quietly as a child. But before dawn he had a dream.
He dreamed he was on a bare steppe, strewn with big stones, under a lowering sky. Among the stones curved a little path; he walked along it.
Suddenly there rose up in front of him something of the nature of a thin cloud. He looked steadily at it; the cloud turned into a woman in a white gown with a bright sash round her waist. She was hurrying away from him. He saw neither her face nor her hair ... they were covered by a long veil. But he had an intense desire to overtake her, and to look into her face. Only, however much he hastened, she went more quickly than he.
On the path lay a broad flat stone, like a tombstone. It blocked up the way. The woman stopped. Aratov ran up to her; but yet he could not see her eyes ... they were shut. Her face was white, white as snow; her hands hung lifeless. She was like a statue.
Slowly, without bending a single limb, she fell backwards, and sank down upon the tombstone.... And then Aratov lay down beside her, stretched out straight like a figure on a monument, his hands folded like a dead man's.
But now the woman suddenly rose, and went away. Aratov tried to get up too ... but he could neither stir nor unclasp his hands, and could only gaze after her in despair.
Then the woman suddenly turned round, and he saw bright living eyes, in a living but unknown face. She laughed, she waved her hand to him ... and still he could not move.
She laughed once more, and quickly retreated, merrily nodding her head, on which there was a crimson wreath of tiny roses.
Aratov tried to cry out, tried to throw off this awful nightmare....
Suddenly all was darkness around ... and the woman came back to him. But this was not the unknown statue ... it was Clara. She stood before him, crossed her arms, and sternly and intently looked at him. Her lips were tightly pressed together, but Aratov fancied he heard the words, 'If you want to know what I am, come over here!'
'Where?' he asked.
'Here!' he heard the wailing answer. 'Here!'
Aratov woke up.
He sat up in bed, lighted the candle that stood on the little table by his bedside—but did not get up—and sat a long while, chill all over, slowly looking about him. It seemed to him as if something had happened to him since he went to bed; that something had taken possession of him ... something was in control of him. 'But is it possible?' he murmured unconsciously. 'Does such a power really exist?'
He could not stay in his bed. He quickly dressed, and till morning he was pacing up and down his room. And, strange to say, of Clara he never thought for a moment, and did not think of her, because he had decided to go next day to Kazan!
He thought only of the journey, of how to manage it, and what to take with him, and how he would investigate and find out everything there, and would set his mind at rest. 'If I don't go,' he reasoned with himself, 'why, I shall go out of my mind!' He was afraid of that, afraid of his nerves. He was convinced that when once he had seen everything there with his own eyes, every obsession would vanish like that nightmare. 'And it will be a week lost over the journey,' he thought; 'what is a week? else I shall never shake it off.'
The rising sun shone into his room; but the light of day did not drive away the shadows of the night that lay upon him, and did not change his resolution.
Platosha almost had a fit when he informed her of his intention. She positively sat down on the ground ... her legs gave way beneath her. 'To Kazan? why to Kazan?' she murmured, her dim eyes round with astonishment. She would not have been more surprised if she had been told that her Yasha was going to marry the baker woman next door, or was starting for America. 'Will you be long in Kazan?' 'I shall be back in a week,' answered Aratov, standing with his back half-turned to his aunt, who was still sitting on the floor.
Platonida Ivanovna tried to protest more, but Aratov answered her in an utterly unexpected and unheard-of way: 'I'm not a child,' he shouted, and he turned pale all over, his lips trembled, and his eyes glittered wrathfully. 'I'm twenty-six, I know what I'm about, I'm free to do what I like! I suffer no one ... Give me the money for the journey, pack my box with my clothes and linen ... and don't torture me! I'll be back in a week, Platosha,' he added, in a somewhat softer tone.
Platosha got up, sighing and groaning, and, without further protest, crawled to her room. Yasha had alarmed her. 'I've no head on my shoulders,' she told the cook, who was helping her to pack Yasha's things; 'no head at all, but a hive full of bees all a-buzz and a-hum! He's going off to Kazan, my good soul, to Ka-a-zan!' The cook, who had observed their dvornik the previous evening talking for a long time with a police officer, would have liked to inform her mistress of this circumstance, but did not dare, and only reflected, 'To Kazan! if only it's nowhere farther still!' Platonida Ivanovna was so upset that she did not even utter her usual prayer. 'In such a calamity the Lord God Himself cannot aid us!'
The same day Aratov set off for Kazan.
He had no sooner reached that town and taken a room in a hotel than he rushed off to find out the house of the widow Milovidov. During the whole journey he had been in a sort of benumbed condition, which had not, however, prevented him from taking all the necessary steps, changing at Nizhni-Novgorod from the railway to the steamer, getting his meals at the stations etc., etc. He was convinced as before that there everything would be solved; and therefore he drove away every sort of memory and reflection, confining himself to one thing, the mental rehearsal of the speech, in which he would lay before the family of Clara Militch the real cause of his visit. And now at last he reached the goal of his efforts, and sent up his name. He was admitted ... with perplexity and alarm—still he was admitted.
The house of the widow Milovidov turned out to be exactly as Kupfer had described it; and the widow herself really was like one of the tradesmen's wives in Ostrovsky, though the widow of an official; her husband had held his post under government. Not without some difficulty, Aratov, after a preliminary apology for his boldness, for the strangeness of his visit, delivered the speech he had prepared, explaining that he was anxious to collect all the information possible about the gifted artist so early lost, that he was not led to this by idle curiosity, but by profound sympathy for her talent, of which he was the devoted admirer (he said that, devoted admirer!) that, in fact, it would be a sin to leave the public in ignorance of what it had lost—and why its hopes were not realised. Madame Milovidov did not interrupt Aratov; she did not understand very well what this unknown visitor was saying to her, and merely opened her eyes rather wide and rolled them upon him, thinking, however, that he had a quiet respectable air, was well dressed ... and not a pickpocket ... hadn't come to beg.
'You are speaking of Katia?' she inquired, directly Aratov was silent.
'Yes ... of your daughter.'
'And you have come from Moscow for this?'
'Yes, from Moscow.'
'Only on this account?'
Madame Milovidov gave herself a sudden shake. 'Why, are you an author? Do you write for the newspapers?'
'No, I'm not an author—and hitherto I have not written for the newspapers.'
The widow bowed her head. She was puzzled.
'Then, I suppose ... it's from your own interest in the matter?' she asked suddenly. Aratov could not find an answer for a minute.
'Through sympathy, from respect for talent,' he said at last.
The word 'respect' pleased Madame Milovidov. 'Eh!' she pronounced with a sigh ... 'I'm her mother, any way—and terribly I'm grieved for her.... Such a calamity all of a sudden!... But I must say it: a crazy girl she always was—and what a way to meet with her end! Such a disgrace.... Only fancy what it was for a mother? we must be thankful indeed that they gave her a Christian burial....' Madame Milovidov crossed herself. 'From a child up she minded no one—she left her parent's house ... and at last—sad to say!—turned actress! Every one knows I never shut my doors upon her; I loved her, to be sure! I was her mother, any way! she'd no need to live with strangers ... or to go begging!...' Here the widow shed tears ... 'But if you, my good sir,' she began, again wiping her eyes with the ends of her kerchief, 'really have any idea of the kind, and you are not intending anything dishonourable to us, but on the contrary, wish to show us respect, you'd better talk a bit with my other daughter. She'll tell you everything better than I can.... Annotchka! called Madame Milovidov, 'Annotchka, come here! Here is a worthy gentleman from Moscow wants to have a talk about Katia!'
There was a sound of something moving in the next room; but no one appeared. 'Annotchka!' the widow called again, 'Anna Semyonovna! come here, I tell you!'
The door softly opened, and in the doorway appeared a girl no longer very young, looking ill—and plain—but with very soft and mournful eyes. Aratov got up from his seat to meet her, and introduced himself, mentioning his friend Kupfer. 'Ah! Fyodor Fedoritch?' the girl articulated softly, and softly she sank into a chair.
'Now, then, you must talk to the gentleman,' said Madam Milovidov, getting up heavily: 'he's taken trouble enough, he's come all the way from Moscow on purpose—he wants to collect information about Katia. And will you, my good sir,' she added, addressing Aratov—'excuse me ... I'm going to look after my housekeeping. You can get a very good account of everything from Annotchka; she will tell you about the theatre ... and all the rest of it. She is a clever girl, well educated: speaks French, and reads books, as well as her sister did. One may say indeed she gave her her education ... she was older—and so she looked after it.'
Madame Milovidov withdrew. On being left alone with Anna Semyonovna, Aratov repeated his speech to her; but realising at the first glance that he had to do with a really cultivated girl, not a typical tradesman's daughter, he went a little more into particulars and made use of different expressions; but towards the end he grew agitated, flushed and felt that his heart was throbbing. Anna listened to him in silence, her hands folded on her lap; a mournful smile never left her face ... bitter grief, still fresh in its poignancy, was expressed in that smile.
'You knew my sister?' she asked Aratov.
'No, I did not actually know her,' he answered. 'I met her and heard her once ... but one need only hear and see your sister once to ...'
'Do you wish to write her biography?' Anna questioned him again.
Aratov had not expected this inquiry; however, he replied promptly, 'Why not? But above all, I wanted to acquaint the public ...'
Anna stopped him by a motion of her hand.
'What is the object of that? The public caused her plenty of suffering as it is; and indeed Katia had only just begun life. But if you yourself—(Anna looked at him and smiled again a smile as mournful but more friendly ... as though she were saying to herself, Yes, you make me feel I can trust you) ... if you yourself feel such interest in her, let me ask you to come and see us this afternoon ... after dinner. I can't just now ... so suddenly ... I will collect my strength ... I will make an effort ... Ah, I loved her too much!'
Anna turned away; she was on the point of bursting into sobs.
Aratov rose hurriedly from his seat, thanked her for her offer, said he should be sure ... oh, very sure!—to come—and went off, carrying away with him an impression of a soft voice, gentle and sorrowful eyes, and burning in the tortures of expectation.
Aratov went back the same day to the Milovidovs and spent three whole hours in conversation with Anna Semyonovna. Madame Milovidov was in the habit of lying down directly after dinner—at two o'clock—and resting till evening tea at seven. Aratov's talk with Clara's sister was not exactly a conversation; she did almost all the talking, at first with hesitation, with embarrassment, then with a warmth that refused to be stifled. It was obvious that she had adored her sister. The confidence Aratov had inspired in her grew and strengthened; she was no longer stiff; twice she even dropped a few silent tears before him. He seemed to her to be worthy to hear an unreserved account of all she knew and felt ... in her own secluded life nothing of this sort had ever happened before!... As for him ... he drank in every word she uttered.
This was what he learned ... much of it of course, half-said ... much he filled in for himself.
In her early years, Clara had undoubtedly been a disagreeable child; and even as a girl, she had not been much gentler; self-willed, hot-tempered, sensitive, she had never got on with her father, whom she despised for his drunkenness and incapacity. He felt this and never forgave her for it. A gift for music showed itself early in her; her father gave it no encouragement, acknowledging no art but painting, in which he himself was so conspicuously unsuccessful though it was the means of support of himself and his family. Her mother Clara loved,... but in a careless way, as though she were her nurse; her sister she adored, though she fought with her and had even bitten her.... It is true she fell on her knees afterwards and kissed the place she had bitten. She was all fire, all passion, and all contradiction; revengeful and kind; magnanimous and vindictive; she believed in fate—and did not believe in God (these words Anna whispered with horror); she loved everything beautiful, but never troubled herself about her own looks, and dressed anyhow; she could not bear to have young men courting her, and yet in books she only read the pages which treated of love; she did not care to be liked, did not like caresses, but never forgot a caress, just as she never forgot a slight; she was afraid of death and killed herself! She used to say sometimes, 'Such a one as I want I shall never meet ... and no other will I have!' 'Well, but if you meet him?' Anna would ask. 'If I meet him ... I will capture him.' 'And if he won't let himself be captured?' 'Well, then ... I will make an end of myself. It will prove I am no good.' Clara's father—he used sometimes when drunk to ask his wife, 'Who got you your blackbrowed she-devil there? Not I!'—Clara's father, anxious to get her off his hands as soon as possible, betrothed her to a rich young shopkeeper, a great blockhead, one of the so-called 'refined' sort. A fortnight before the wedding-day—she was only sixteen at the time—she went up to her betrothed, her arms folded and her fingers drumming on her elbows—her favourite position—and suddenly gave him a slap on his rosy cheek with her large powerful hand! He jumped and merely gaped; it must be said he was head over ears in love with her.... He asked: 'What's that for?' She laughed scornfully and walked off. 'I was there in the room,' Anna related, 'I saw it all, I ran after her and said to her, "Katia, why did you do that, really?" And she answered me: "If he'd been a real man he would have punished me, but he's no more pluck than a drowned hen! And then he asks, 'What's that for?' If he loves me, and doesn't bear malice, he had better put up with it and not ask, 'What's that for?' I will never be anything to him—never, never!" And indeed she did not marry him. It was soon after that she made the acquaintance of that actress, and left her home. Mother cried, but father only said, "A stubborn beast is best away from the flock!" And he did not bother about her, or try to find her out. My father did not understand Katia. On the day before her flight,' added Anna, 'she almost smothered me in her embraces, and kept repeating: "I can't, I can't help it!... My heart's torn, but I can't help it! your cage is too small ... it cramps my wings! And there's no escaping one's fate...."
'After that,' observed Anna, 'we saw each other very seldom.... When my father died, she came for a couple of days, would take nothing of her inheritance, and vanished again. She was unhappy with us ... I could see that. Afterwards she came to Kazan as an actress.'
Aratov began questioning Anna about the theatre, about the parts in which Clara had appeared, about her triumphs.... Anna answered in detail, but with the same mournful, though keen fervour. She even showed Aratov a photograph, in which Clara had been taken in the costume of one of her parts. In the photograph she was looking away, as though turning from the spectators; her thick hair tied with a ribbon fell in a coil on her bare arm. Aratov looked a long time at the photograph, thought it like, asked whether Clara had taken part in public recitations, and learnt that she had not; that she had needed the excitement of the theatre, the scenery ... but another question was burning on his lips.
'Anna Semyonovna!' he cried at last, not loudly, but with a peculiar force, 'tell me, I implore you, tell me why did she ... what led her to this fearful step?'...
Anna looked down. 'I don't know,' she said, after a pause of some instants. 'By God, I don't know!' she went on strenuously, supposing from Aratov's gesture that he did not believe her.... 'since she came back here certainly she was melancholy, depressed. Something must have happened to her in Moscow—what, I could never guess. But on the other hand, on that fatal day she seemed as it were ... if not more cheerful, at least more serene than usual. Even I had no presentiment,' added Anna with a bitter smile, as though reproaching herself for it.
'You see,' she began again, 'it seemed as though at Katia's birth it had been decreed that she was to be unhappy. From her early years she was convinced of it. She would lean her head on her hand, sink into thought, and say, "I shall not live long!" She used to have presentiments. Imagine! she used to see beforehand, sometimes in a dream and sometimes awake, what was going to happen to her! "If I can't live as I want to live, then I won't live,"... was a saying of hers too.... "Our life's in our own hands, you know." And she proved that!'
Anna hid her face in her hands and stopped speaking. 'Anna Semyonovna,' Aratov began after a short pause, 'you have perhaps heard to what the newspapers ascribed ... "To an unhappy love affair?"' Anna broke in, at once pulling away her hands from her face. 'That's a slander, a fabrication!... My pure, unapproachable Katia ... Katia!... and unhappy, unrequited love? And shouldn't I have known of it?... Every one was in love with her ... while she ... And whom could she have fallen in love with here? Who among all the people here, who was worthy of her? Who was up to the standard of honesty, truth, purity ... yes, above all, of purity which she, with all her faults, always held up as an ideal before her?... She repulsed!... she!...'
Anna's voice broke.... Her fingers were trembling. All at once she flushed crimson ... crimson with indignation, and for that instant, and that instant only, she was like her sister.
Aratov was beginning an apology.
'Listen,' Anna broke in again. 'I have an intense desire that you should not believe that slander, and should refute it, if possible! You want to write an article or something about her: that's your opportunity for defending her memory! That's why I talk so openly to you. Let me tell you; Katia left a diary ...'
Aratov trembled. 'A diary?' he muttered.
'Yes, a diary ... that is, only a few pages. Katia was not fond of writing ... for months at a time she would write nothing, and her letters were so short. But she was always, always truthful, she never told a lie.... She, with her pride, tell a lie! I ... I will show you this diary! You shall see for yourself whether there is the least hint in it of any unhappy love affair!'