The Novels Of Ivan Turgenev
KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK And Other Stories
Translated From The Russian By Constance Garnett
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KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK
LIEUTENANT YERGUNOV'S STORY
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KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK
We all settled down in a circle and our good friend Alexandr Vassilyevitch Ridel (his surname was German but he was Russian to the marrow of his bones) began as follows:
I am going to tell you a story, friends, of something that happened to me in the 'thirties ... forty years ago as you see. I will be brief—and don't you interrupt me.
I was living at the time in Petersburg and had only just left the University. My brother was a lieutenant in the horse-guard artillery. His battery was stationed at Krasnoe Selo—it was summer time. My brother lodged not at Krasnoe Selo itself but in one of the neighbouring villages; I stayed with him more than once and made the acquaintance of all his comrades. He was living in a fairly decent cottage, together with another officer of his battery, whose name was Ilya Stepanitch Tyeglev. I became particularly friendly with him.
Marlinsky is out of date now—no one reads him—and even his name is jeered at; but in the 'thirties his fame was above everyone's—and in the opinion of the young people of the day Pushkin could not hold candle to him. He not only enjoyed the reputation of being the foremost Russian writer; but—something much more difficult and more rarely met with—he did to some extent leave his mark on his generation. One came across heroes a la Marlinsky everywhere, especially in the provinces and especially among infantry and artillery men; they talked and corresponded in his language; behaved with gloomy reserve in society—"with tempest in the soul and flame in the blood" like Lieutenant Byelosov in the "Frigate Hope." Women's hearts were "devoured" by them. The adjective applied to them in those days was "fatal." The type, as we all know, survived for many years, to the days of Petchorin. [Footnote: The leading character in Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time.—Translator's Note.] All sorts of elements were mingled in that type. Byronism, romanticism, reminiscences of the French Revolution, of the Dekabrists—and the worship of Napoleon; faith in destiny, in one's star, in strength of will; pose and fine phrases—and a miserable sense of the emptiness of life; uneasy pangs of petty vanity—and genuine strength and daring; generous impulses—and defective education, ignorance; aristocratic airs—and delight in trivial foppery.... But enough of these general reflections. I promised to tell you the story.
Lieutenant Tyeglev belonged precisely to the class of those "fatal" individuals, though he did not possess the exterior commonly associated with them; he was not, for instance, in the least like Lermontov's "fatalist." He was a man of medium height, fairly solid and round-shouldered, with fair, almost white eyebrows and eyelashes; he had a round, fresh, rosy-cheeked face, a turn-up nose, a low forehead with the hair growing thick over the temples, and full, well-shaped, always immobile lips: he never laughed, never even smiled. Only when he was tired and out of heart he showed his square teeth, white as sugar. The same artificial immobility was imprinted on all his features: had it not been for that, they would have had a good-natured expression. His small green eyes with yellow lashes were the only thing not quite ordinary in his face: his right eye was very slightly higher than his left and the left eyelid drooped a little, which made his eyes look different, strange and drowsy. Tyeglev's countenance, which was not, however, without a certain attractiveness, almost always wore an expression of discontent mingled with perplexity, as though he were chasing within himself a gloomy thought which he was never able to catch. At the same time he did not give one the impression of being stuck up: he might rather have been taken for an aggrieved than a haughty man. He spoke very little, hesitatingly, in a husky voice, with unnecessary repetitions. Unlike most "fatalists," he did not use particularly elaborate expressions in speaking and only had recourse to them in writing; his handwriting was quite like a child's. His superiors regarded him as an officer of no great merit—not particularly capable and not over-zealous. The brigadier-general, a man of German extraction, used to say of him: "He has punctuality but not precision." With the soldiers, too, Tyeglev had the character of being neither one thing nor the other. He lived modestly, in accordance with his means. He had been left an orphan at nine years old: his father and mother were drowned when they were being ferried across the Oka in the spring floods. He had been educated at a private school, where he had the reputation of being one of the slowest and quietest of the boys, and at his own earnest desire and through the good offices of a cousin who was a man of influence, he obtained a commission in the horse-guards artillery; and, though with some difficulty, passed his examination first as an ensign and then as a second lieutenant. His relations with other officers were somewhat strained. He was not liked, was rarely visited—and he hardly went to see anyone. He felt the presence of strangers a constraint; he instantly became awkward and unnatural ... he had no instinct for comradeship and was not on really intimate terms with anyone. But he was respected, and respected not for his character nor for his intelligence and education—but because the stamp which distinguishes "fatal" people was discerned in him. No one of his fellow officers expected that Tyeglev would make a career or distinguish himself in any way; but that Tyeglev might do something extraordinary or that Tyeglev might become a Napoleon was not considered impossible. For that is a matter of a man's "star"—and he was regarded as a "man of destiny," just as there are "men of sighs" and "of tears."
Two incidents that marked the first steps in his career did a great deal to strengthen his "fatal" reputation. On the very first day after receiving his commission—about the middle of March—he was walking with other newly promoted officers in full dress uniform along the embankment. The spring had come early that year, the Neva was melting; the bigger blocks of ice had gone but the whole river was choked up with a dense mass of thawing icicles. The young men were talking and laughing ... suddenly one of them stopped: he saw a little dog some twenty paces from the bank on the slowly moving surface of the river. Perched on a projecting piece of ice it was whining and trembling all over. "It will be drowned," said the officer through his teeth. The dog was slowly being carried past one of the sloping gangways that led down to the river. All at once Tyeglev without saying a word ran down this gangway and over the thin ice, sinking in and leaping out again, reached the dog, seized it by the scruff of the neck and getting safely back to the bank, put it down on the pavement. The danger to which Tyeglev had exposed himself was so great, his action was so unexpected, that his companions were dumbfoundered—and only spoke all at once, when he had called a cab to drive home: his uniform was wet all over. In response to their exclamations, Tyeglev replied coolly that there was no escaping one's destiny—and told the cabman to drive on.
"You might at least take the dog with you as a souvenir," cried one of the officers. But Tyeglev merely waved his hand, and his comrades looked at each other in silent amazement.
The second incident occurred a few days later, at a card party at the battery commander's. Tyeglev sat in the corner and took no part in the play. "Oh, if only I had a grandmother to tell me beforehand what cards will win, as in Pushkin's Queen of Spades," cried a lieutenant whose losses had nearly reached three thousand. Tyeglev approached the table in silence, took up a pack, cut it, and saying "the six of diamonds," turned the pack up: the six of diamonds was the bottom card. "The ace of clubs!" he said and cut again: the bottom card turned out to be the ace of clubs. "The king of diamonds!" he said for the third time in an angry whisper through his clenched teeth—and he was right the third time, too ... and he suddenly turned crimson. He probably had not expected it himself. "A capital trick! Do it again," observed the commanding officer of the battery. "I don't go in for tricks," Tyeglev answered drily and walked into the other room. How it happened that he guessed the card right, I can't pretend to explain: but I saw it with my own eyes. Many of the players present tried to do the same—and not one of them succeeded: one or two did guess one card but never two in succession. And Tyeglev had guessed three! This incident strengthened still further his reputation as a mysterious, fatal character. It has often occurred to me since that if he had not succeeded in the trick with the cards, there is no knowing what turn it would have taken and how he would have looked at himself; but this unexpected success clinched the matter.
It may well be understood that Tyeglev clutched at this reputation. It gave him a special significance, a special colour ... "Cela le posait," as the French express it—and with his limited intelligence, scanty education and immense vanity, such a reputation just suited him. It was difficult to acquire it but to keep it up cost nothing: he had only to remain silent and hold himself aloof. But it was not owing to this reputation that I made friends with Tyeglev and, I may say, grew fond of him. I liked him in the first place because I was rather an unsociable creature myself—and saw in him one of my own sort, and secondly, because he was a very good-natured fellow and in reality, very simple-hearted. He aroused in me a feeling of something like compassion; it seemed to me that apart from his affected "fatality," he really was weighed down by a tragic fate which he did not himself suspect. I need hardly say I did not express this feeling to him: could anything be more insulting to a "fatal" hero than to be an object of pity? And Tyeglev, on his side, was well-disposed to me; with me he felt at ease, with me he used to talk—in my presence he ventured to leave the strange pedestal on which he had been placed either by his own efforts or by chance. Agonisingly, morbidly vain as he was, yet he was probably aware in the depths of his soul that there was nothing to justify his vanity, and that others might perhaps look down on him ... but I, a boy of nineteen, put no constraint on him; the dread of saying something stupid, inappropriate, did not oppress his ever-apprehensive heart in my presence. He sometimes even chattered freely; and well it was for him that no one heard his chatter except me! His reputation would not have lasted long. He not only knew very little, but read hardly anything and confined himself to picking up stories and anecdotes of a certain kind. He believed in presentiments, predictions, omens, meetings, lucky and unlucky days, in the persecution and benevolence of destiny, in the mysterious significance of life, in fact. He even believed in certain "climacteric" years which someone had mentioned in his presence and the meaning of which he did not himself very well understand. "Fatal" men of the true stamp ought not to betray such beliefs: they ought to inspire them in others.... But I was the only one who knew Tyeglev on that side.
One day—I remember it was St. Elijah's day, July 20th—I came to stay with my brother and did not find him at home: he had been ordered off for a whole week somewhere. I did not want to go back to Petersburg; I sauntered about the neighbouring marshes, killed a brace of snipe and spent the evening with Tyeglev under the shelter of an empty barn where he had, as he expressed it, set up his summer residence. We had a little conversation but for the most part drank tea, smoked pipes and talked sometimes to our host, a Russianised Finn or to the pedlar who used to hang about the battery selling "fi-ine oranges and lemons," a charming and lively person who in addition to other talents could play the guitar and used to tell us of the unhappy love which he cherished in his young days for the daughter of a policeman. Now that he was older, this Don Juan in a gay cotton shirt had no experience of unsuccessful love affairs. Before the doors of our barn stretched a wide plain gradually sloping away in the distance; a little river gleamed here and there in the winding hollows; low growing woods could be seen further on the horizon. Night was coming on and we were left alone. As night fell a fine damp mist descended upon the earth, and, growing thicker and thicker, passed into a dense fog. The moon rose up into the sky; the fog was soaked through and through and, as it were, shimmering with golden light. Everything was strangely shifting, veiled and confused; the faraway looked near, the near looked far away, what was big looked small and what was small looked big ... everything became dim and full of light. We seemed to be in fairyland, in a world of whitish-golden mist, deep stillness, delicate sleep.... And how mysteriously, like sparks of silver, the stars filtered through the mist! We were both silent. The fantastic beauty of the night worked upon us: it put us into the mood for the fantastic.
Tyeglev was the first to speak and talked with his usual hesitating incompleted sentences and repetitions about presentiments ... about ghosts. On exactly such a night, according to him, one of his friends, a student who had just taken the place of tutor to two orphans and was sleeping with them in a lodge in the garden, saw a woman's figure bending over their beds and next day recognised the figure in a portrait of the mother of the orphans which he had not previously noticed. Then Tyeglev told me that his parents had heard for several days before their death the sound of rushing water; that his grandfather had been saved from death in the battle of Borodino through suddenly stooping down to pick up a simple grey pebble at the very instant when a volley of grape-shot flew over his head and broke his long black plume. Tyeglev even promised to show me the very pebble which had saved his grandfather and which he had mounted into a medallion. Then he talked of the lofty destination of every man and of his own in particular and added that he still believed in it and that if he ever had any doubts on that subject he would know how to be rid of them and of his life, as life would then lose all significance for him. "You imagine perhaps," he brought out, glancing askance at me, "that I shouldn't have the spirit to do it? You don't know me ... I have a will of iron."
"Well said," I thought to myself.
Tyeglev pondered, heaved a deep sigh and dropping his chibouk out of his hand, informed me that that day was a very important one for him. "This is the prophet Elijah's day—my name day.... It is ... it is always for me a difficult time."
I made no answer and only looked at him as he sat facing me, bent, round-shouldered, and clumsy, with his drowsy, lustreless eyes fixed on the ground.
"An old beggar woman" (Tyeglev never let a single beggar pass without giving alms) "told me to-day," he went on, "that she would pray for my soul.... Isn't that strange?"
"Why does the man want to be always bothering about himself!" I thought again. I must add, however, that of late I had begun noticing an unusual expression of anxiety and uneasiness on Tyeglev's face, and it was not a "fatal" melancholy: something really was fretting and worrying him. On this occasion, too, I was struck by the dejected expression of his face. Were not those very doubts of which he had spoken to me beginning to assail him? Tyeglev's comrades had told me that not long before he had sent to the authorities a project for some reforms in the artillery department and that the project had been returned to him "with a comment," that is, a reprimand. Knowing his character, I had no doubt that such contemptuous treatment by his superior officers had deeply mortified him. But the change that I fancied I saw in Tyeglev was more like sadness and there was a more personal note about it.
"It's getting damp, though," he brought out at last and he shrugged his shoulders. "Let us go into the hut—and it's bed-time, too." He had the habit of shrugging his shoulders and turning his head from side to side, putting his right hand to his throat as he did so, as though his cravat were constricting it. Tyeglev's character was expressed, so at least it seemed to me, in this uneasy and nervous movement. He, too, felt constricted in the world.
We went back into the hut, and both lay down on benches, he in the corner facing the door and I on the opposite side.
Tyeglev was for a long time turning from side to side on his bench and I could not get to sleep, either. Whether his stories had excited my nerves or the strange night had fevered my blood—anyway, I could not go to sleep. All inclination for sleep disappeared at last and I lay with my eyes open and thought, thought intensely, goodness knows of what; of most senseless trifles—as always happens when one is sleepless. Turning from side to side I stretched out my hands.... My finger hit one of the beams of the wall. It emitted a faint but resounding, and as it were, prolonged note.... I must have struck a hollow place.
I tapped again ... this time on purpose. The same sound was repeated. I knocked again.... All at once Tyeglev raised his head.
"Ridel!" he said, "do you hear? Someone is knocking under the window."
I pretended to be asleep. The fancy suddenly took me to play a trick at the expense of my "fatal" friend. I could not sleep, anyway.
He let his head sink on the pillow. I waited for a little and again knocked three times in succession.
Tyeglev sat up again and listened. I tapped again. I was lying facing him but he could not see my hand.... I put it behind me under the bedclothes.
"Ridel!" cried Tyeglev.
I did not answer.
"Ridel!" he repeated loudly. "Ridel!"
"Eh? What is it?" I said as though just waking up.
"Don't you hear, someone keeps knocking under the window, wants to come in, I suppose."
"Some passer-by," I muttered.
"Then we must let him in or find out who it is."
But I made no answer, pretending to be asleep.
Several minutes passed.... I tapped again. Tyeglev sat up at once and listened.
"Knock ... knock ... knock! Knock ... knock ... knock!"
Through my half-closed eyelids in the whitish light of the night I could distinctly see every movement he made. He turned his face first to the window then to the door. It certainly was difficult to make out where the sound came from: it seemed to float round the room, to glide along the walls. I had accidentally hit upon a kind of sounding board.
"Ridel!" cried Tyeglev at last, "Ridel! Ridel!"
"Why, what is it?" I asked, yawning.
"Do you mean to say you don't hear anything? There is someone knocking."
"Well, what if there is?" I answered and again pretended to be asleep and even snored.
"Knock ... knock ... knock!"
"Who is there?" Tyeglev shouted. "Come in!"
No one answered, of course.
"Knock ... knock ... knock!"
Tyeglev jumped out of bed, opened the window and thrusting out his head, cried wildly, "Who is there? Who is knocking?" Then he opened the door and repeated his question. A horse neighed in the distance—that was all.
He went back towards his bed.
"Knock ... knock ... knock!"
Tyeglev instantly turned round and sat down.
"Knock ... knock ... knock!"
He rapidly put on his boots, threw his overcoat over his shoulders and unhooking his sword from the wall, went out of the hut. I heard him walk round it twice, asking all the time, "Who is there? Who goes there? Who is knocking?" Then he was suddenly silent, stood still outside near the corner where I was lying and without uttering another word, came back into the hut and lay down without taking off his boots and overcoat.
"Knock ... knock ... knock!" I began again. "Knock ... knock ... knock!"
But Tyeglev did not stir, did not ask who was knocking, and merely propped his head on his hand.
Seeing that this no longer acted, after an interval I pretended to wake up and, looking at Tyeglev, assumed an air of astonishment.
"Have you been out?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered unconcernedly.
"Did you still hear the knocking?"
"And you met no one?"
"And did the knocking stop?"
"I don't know. I don't care now."
"Now? Why now?"
Tyeglev did not answer.
I felt a little ashamed and a little vexed with him. I could not bring myself to acknowledge my prank, however.
"Do you know what?" I began, "I am convinced that it was all your imagination."
Tyeglev frowned. "Ah, you think so!"
"You say you heard a knocking?"
"It was not only knocking I heard."
"Why, what else?"
Tyeglev bent forward and bit his lips. He was evidently hesitating.
"I was called!" he brought out at last in a low voice and turned away his face.
"You were called? Who called you?"
"Someone...." Tyeglev still looked away. "A woman whom I had hitherto only believed to be dead ... but now I know it for certain."
"I swear, Ilya Stepanitch," I cried, "this is all your imagination!"
"Imagination?" he repeated. "Would you like to hear it for yourself?"
"Then come outside."
I hurriedly dressed and went out of the hut with Tyeglev. On the side opposite to it there were no houses, nothing but a low hurdle fence broken down in places, beyond which there was a rather sharp slope down to the plain. Everything was still shrouded in mist and one could scarcely see anything twenty paces away. Tyeglev and I went up to the hurdle and stood still.
"Here," he said and bowed his head. "Stand still, keep quiet and listen!"
Like him I strained my ears, and I heard nothing except the ordinary, extremely faint but universal murmur, the breathing of the night. Looking at each other in silence from time to time we stood motionless for several minutes and were just on the point of going on.
"Ilyusha ..." I fancied I heard a whisper from behind the hurdle.
I glanced at Tyeglev but he seemed to have heard nothing—and still held his head bowed.
"Ilyusha ... ah, Ilyusha," sounded more distinctly than before—so distinctly that one could tell that the words were uttered by a woman.
We both started and stared at each other.
"Well?" Tyeglev asked me in a whisper. "You won't doubt it now, will you?"
"Wait a minute," I answered as quietly. "It proves nothing. We must look whether there isn't anyone. Some practical joker...."
I jumped over the fence—and went in the direction from which, as far as I could judge, the voice came.
I felt the earth soft and crumbling under my feet; long ridges stretched before me vanishing into the mist. I was in the kitchen garden. But nothing was stirring around me or before me. Everything seemed spellbound in the numbness of sleep. I went a few steps further.
"Who is there?" I cried as wildly as Tyeglev had.
"Prrr-r-r!" a startled corn-crake flew up almost under my feet and flew away as straight as a bullet. Involuntarily I started.... What foolishness!
I looked back. Tyeglev was in sight at the spot where I left him. I went towards him.
"You will call in vain," he said. "That voice has come to us—to me—from far away."
He passed his hand over his face and with slow steps crossed the road towards the hut. But I did not want to give in so quickly and went back into the kitchen garden. That someone really had three times called "Ilyusha" I could not doubt; that there was something plaintive and mysterious in the call, I was forced to own to myself.... But who knows, perhaps all this only appeared to be unaccountable and in reality could be explained as simply as the knocking which had agitated Tyeglev so much.
I walked along beside the fence, stopping from time to time and looking about me. Close to the fence, at no great distance from our hut, there stood an old leafy willow tree; it stood out, a big dark patch, against the whiteness of the mist all round, that dim whiteness which perplexes and deadens the sight more than darkness itself. All at once it seemed to me that something alive, fairly big, stirred on the ground near the willow. Exclaiming "Stop! Who is there?" I rushed forward. I heard scurrying footsteps, like a hare's; a crouching figure whisked by me, whether man or woman I could not tell.... I tried to clutch at it but did not succeed; I stumbled, fell down and stung my face against a nettle. As I was getting up, leaning on the ground, I felt something rough under my hand: it was a chased brass comb on a cord, such as peasants wear on their belt.
Further search led to nothing—and I went back to the hut with the comb in my hand, and my cheeks tingling.
I found Tyeglev sitting on the bench. A candle was burning on the table before him and he was writing something in a little album which he always had with him. Seeing me, he quickly put the album in his pocket and began filling his pipe.
"Look here, my friend," I began, "what a trophy I have brought back from my expedition!" I showed him the comb and told him what had happened to me near the willow. "I must have startled a thief," I added. "You heard a horse was stolen from our neighbour yesterday?"
Tyeglev smiled frigidly and lighted his pipe. I sat down beside him.
"And do you still believe, Ilya Stepanitch," I said, "that the voice we heard came from those unknown realms...."
He stopped me with a peremptory gesture.
"Ridel," he began, "I am in no mood for jesting, and so I beg you not to jest."
He certainly was in no mood for jesting. His face was changed. It looked paler, longer and more expressive. His strange, "different" eyes kept shifting from one object to another.
"I never thought," he began again, "that I should reveal to another ... another man what you are about to hear and what ought to have died ... yes, died, hidden in my breast; but it seems it is to be—and indeed I have no choice. It is destiny! Listen."
And he told me a long story.
I have mentioned already that he was a poor hand at telling stories, but it was not only his lack of skill in describing events that had happened to him that impressed me that night; the very sound of his voice, his glances, the movements which he made with his fingers and his hands—everything about him, indeed, seemed unnatural, unnecessary, false, in fact. I was very young and inexperienced in those days and did not know that the habit of high-flown language and falsity of intonation and manner may become so ingrained in a man that he is incapable of shaking it off: it is a sort of curse. Later in life I came across a lady who described to me the effect on her of her son's death, of her "boundless" grief, of her fears for her reason, in such exaggerated language, with such theatrical gestures, such melodramatic movements of her head and rolling of her eyes, that I thought to myself, "How false and affected that lady is! She did not love her son at all!" And a week afterwards I heard that the poor woman had really gone out of her mind. Since then I have become much more careful in my judgments and have had far less confidence in my own impressions.
The story which Tyeglev told me was, briefly, as follows. He had living in Petersburg, besides his influential uncle, an aunt, not influential but wealthy. As she had no children of her own she had adopted a little girl, an orphan, of the working class, given her a liberal education and treated her like a daughter. She was called Masha. Tyeglev saw her almost every day. It ended in their falling in love with one another and Masha's giving herself to him. This was discovered. Tyeglev's aunt was fearfully incensed, she turned the luckless girl out of her house in disgrace, and moved to Moscow where she adopted a young lady of noble birth and made her her heiress. On her return to her own relations, poor and drunken people, Masha's lot was a bitter one. Tyeglev had promised to marry her and did not keep his promise. At his last interview with her, he was forced to speak out: she wanted to know the truth and wrung it out of him. "Well," she said, "if I am not to be your wife, I know what there is left for me to do." More than a fortnight had passed since that last interview.
"I never for a moment deceived myself as to the meaning of her last words," added Tyeglev. "I am certain that she has put an end to her life and ... and that it was her voice, that it was she calling me ... to follow her there ... I recognised her voice.... Well, there is but one end to it."
"But why didn't you marry her, Ilya Stepanitch?" I asked. "You ceased to love her?"
"No; I still love her passionately."
At this point I stared at Tyeglev. I remembered another friend of mine, a very intelligent man, who had a very plain wife, neither intelligent nor rich and was very unhappy in his marriage. When someone in my presence asked him why he had married and suggested that it was probably for love, he answered, "Not for love at all. It simply happened." And in this case Tyeglev loved a girl passionately and did not marry her. Was it for the same reason, then?
"Why don't you marry her, then?" I asked again.
Tyeglev's strange, drowsy eyes strayed over the table.
"There is ... no answering that ... in a few words," he began, hesitating. "There were reasons.... And besides, she was ... a working-class girl. And then there is my uncle.... I was obliged to consider him, too."
"Your uncle?" I cried. "But what the devil do you want with your uncle whom you never see except at the New Year when you go to congratulate him? Are you reckoning on his money? But he has got a dozen children of his own!"
I spoke with heat.... Tyeglev winced and flushed ... flushed unevenly, in patches.
"Don't lecture me, if you please," he said dully. "I don't justify myself, however. I have ruined her life and now I must pay the penalty...."
His head sank and he was silent. I found nothing to say, either.
So we sat for a quarter of an hour. He looked away—I looked at him—and I noticed that the hair stood up and curled above his forehead in a peculiar way, which, so I have heard from an army doctor who had had a great many wounded pass through his hands, is always a symptom of intense overheating of the brain.... The thought struck me again that fate really had laid a heavy hand on this man and that his comrades were right in seeing something "fatal" in him. And yet inwardly I blamed him. "A working-class girl!" I thought, "a fine sort of aristocrat you are yourself!"
"Perhaps you blame me, Ridel," Tyeglev began suddenly, as though guessing what I was thinking. "I am very ... unhappy myself. But what to do? What to do?"
He leaned his chin on his hand and began biting the broad flat nails of his short, red fingers, hard as iron.
"What I think, Ilya Stepanitch, is that you ought first to make certain whether your suppositions are correct.... Perhaps your lady love is alive and well." ("Shall I tell him the real explanation of the taps?" flashed through my mind. "No—later.")
"She has not written to me since we have been in camp," observed Tyeglev.
"That proves nothing, Ilya Stepanitch."
Tyeglev waved me off. "No! she is certainly not in this world. She called me."
He suddenly turned to the window. "Someone is knocking again!"
I could not help laughing. "No, excuse me, Ilya Stepanitch! This time it is your nerves. You see, it is getting light. In ten minutes the sun will be up—it is past three o'clock—and ghosts have no power in the day."
Tyeglev cast a gloomy glance at me and muttering through his teeth "good-bye," lay down on the bench and turned his back on me.
I lay down, too, and before I fell asleep I remember I wondered why Tyeglev was always hinting at ... suicide. What nonsense! What humbug! Of his own free will he had refused to marry her, had cast her off ... and now he wanted to kill himself! There was no sense in it! He could not resist posing!
With these thoughts I fell into a sound sleep and when I opened my eyes the sun was already high in the sky—and Tyeglev was not in the hut.
He had, so his servant said, gone to the town.
I spent a very dull and wearisome day. Tyeglev did not return to dinner nor to supper; I did not expect my brother. Towards evening a thick fog came on again, thicker even than the day before. I went to bed rather early. I was awakened by a knocking under the window.
It was my turn to be startled!
The knock was repeated and so insistently distinct that one could have no doubt of its reality. I got up, opened the window and saw Tyeglev. Wrapped in his great-coat, with his cap pulled over his eyes, he stood motionless.
"Ilya Stepanitch!" I cried, "is that you? I gave up expecting you. Come in. Is the door locked?"
Tyeglev shook his head. "I do not intend to come in," he pronounced in a hollow tone. "I only want to ask you to give this letter to the commanding officer to-morrow."
He gave me a big envelope sealed with five seals. I was astonished—however, I took the envelope mechanically. Tyeglev at once walked away into the middle of the road.
"Stop! stop!" I began. "Where are you going? Have you only just come? And what is the letter?"
"Do you promise to deliver it?" said Tyeglev, and moved away a few steps further. The fog blurred the outlines of his figure. "Do you promise?"
"I promise ... but first—"
Tyeglev moved still further away and became a long dark blur. "Good-bye," I heard his voice. "Farewell, Ridel, don't remember evil against me.... And don't forget Semyon...."
And the blur itself vanished.
This was too much. "Oh, the damned poseur," I thought. "You must always be straining after effect!" I felt uneasy, however; an involuntary fear clutched at my heart. I flung on my great-coat and ran out into the road.
Yes; but where was I to go? The fog enveloped me on all sides. For five or six steps all round it was a little transparent—but further away it stood up like a wall, thick and white like cotton wool. I turned to the right along the village street; our house was the last but one in the village and beyond it came waste land overgrown here and there with bushes; beyond the waste land, a quarter of a mile from the village, there was a birch copse through which flowed the same little stream that lower down encircled our village. The moon stood, a pale blur in the sky—but its light was not, as on the evening before, strong enough to penetrate the smoky density of the fog and hung, a broad opaque canopy, overhead. I made my way out on to the open ground and listened.... Not a sound from any direction, except the calling of the marsh birds.
"Tyeglev!" I cried. "Ilya Stepanitch!! Tyeglev!!"
My voice died away near me without an answer; it seemed as though the fog would not let it go further. "Tyeglev!" I repeated.
No one answered.
I went forward at random. Twice I struck against a fence, once I nearly fell into a ditch, and almost stumbled against a peasant's horse lying on the ground. "Tyeglev! Tyeglev!" I cried.
All at once, almost behind me, I heard a low voice, "Well, here I am. What do you want of me?"
I turned round quickly.
Before me stood Tyeglev with his hands hanging at his sides and with no cap on his head. His face was pale; but his eyes looked animated and bigger than usual. His breathing came in deep, prolonged gasps through his parted lips.
"Thank God!" I cried in an outburst of joy, and I gripped him by both hands. "Thank God! I was beginning to despair of finding you. Aren't you ashamed of frightening me like this? Upon my word, Ilya Stepanitch!"
"What do you want of me?" repeated Tyeglev.
"I want ... I want you, in the first place, to come back home with me. And secondly, I want, I insist, I insist as a friend, that you explain to me at once the meaning of your actions—and of this letter to the colonel. Can something unexpected have happened to you in Petersburg?"
"I found in Petersburg exactly what I expected," answered Tyeglev, without moving from the spot.
"That is ... you mean to say ... your friend ... this Masha...."
"She has taken her life," Tyeglev answered hurriedly and as it were angrily. "She was buried the day before yesterday. She did not even leave a note for me. She poisoned herself."
Tyeglev hurriedly uttered these terrible words and still stood motionless as a stone.
I clasped my hands. "Is it possible? How dreadful! Your presentiment has come true.... That is awful!"
I stopped in confusion. Slowly and with a sort of triumph Tyeglev folded his arms.
"But why are we standing here?" I began. "Let us go home."
"Let us," said Tyeglev. "But how can we find the way in this fog?"
"There is a light in our windows, and we will make for it. Come along."
"You go ahead," answered Tyeglev. "I will follow you." We set off. We walked for five minutes and our beacon light still did not appear; at last it gleamed before us in two red points. Tyeglev stepped evenly behind me. I was desperately anxious to get home as quickly as possible and to learn from him all the details of his unhappy expedition to Petersburg. Before we reached the hut, impressed by what he had said, I confessed to him in an access of remorse and a sort of superstitious fear, that the mysterious knocking of the previous evening had been my doing ... and what a tragic turn my jest had taken!
Tyeglev confined himself to observing that I had nothing to do with it—that something else had guided my hand—and this only showed how little I knew him. His voice, strangely calm and even, sounded close to my ear. "But you do not know me," he added. "I saw you smile yesterday when I spoke of the strength of my will. You will come to know me—and you will remember my words."
The first hut of the village sprang out of the fog before us like some dark monster ... then the second, our hut, emerged—and my setter dog began barking, probably scenting me.
I knocked at the window. "Semyon!" I shouted to Tyeglev's servant, "hey, Semyon! Make haste and open the gate for us."
The gate creaked and opened; Semyon crossed the threshold.
"Ilya Stepanitch, come in," I said, and I looked round. But no Ilya Stepanitch was with me. Tyeglev had vanished as though he had sunk into the earth.
I went into the hut feeling dazed.
Vexation with Tyeglev and with myself succeeded the amazement with which I was overcome at first.
"Your master is mad!" I blurted out to Semyon, "raving mad! He galloped off to Petersburg, then came back and is running about all over the place! I did get hold of him and brought him right up to the gate—and here he has given me the slip again! To go out of doors on a night like this! He has chosen a nice time for a walk!"
"And why did I let go of his hand?" I reproached myself. Semyon looked at me in silence, as though intending to say something—but after the fashion of servants in those days he simply shifted from one foot to the other and said nothing.
"What time did he set off for town?" I asked sternly.
"At six o'clock in the morning."
"And how was he—did he seem anxious, depressed?" Semyon looked down. "Our master is a deep one," he began. "Who can make him out? He told me to get out his new uniform when he was going out to town—and then he curled himself."
"Curled his hair. I got the curling tongs ready for him."
That, I confess, I had not expected. "Do you know a young lady," I asked Semyon, "a friend of Ilya Stepanitch's. Her name is Masha."
"To be sure I know Marya Anempodistovna! A nice young lady."
"Is your master in love with this Marya ... et cetera?"
Semyon heaved a sigh. "That young lady is Ilya Stepanitch's undoing. For he is desperately in love with her—and can't bring himself to marry her—and sorry to give her up, too. It's all his honour's faintheartedness. He is very fond of her."
"What is she like then, pretty?" I inquired.
Semyon assumed a grave air. "She is the sort that the gentry like."
"She is not the right sort for us at all."
"Very thin in the body."
"If she died," I began, "do you think Ilya Stepanitch would not survive her?"
Semyon heaved a sigh again. "I can't venture to say that—there's no knowing with gentlemen ... but our master is a deep one."
I took up from the table the big, rather thick letter that Tyeglev had given me and turned it over in my hands.... The address to "his honour the Commanding Officer of the Battery, Colonel So and So" (the name, patronymic, and surname) was clearly and distinctly written. The word urgent, twice underlined, was written in the top left-hand corner of the envelope.
"Listen, Semyon," I began. "I feel uneasy about your master. I fancy he has some mischief in his mind. We must find him."
"Yes, sir," answered Semyon.
"It is true there is such a fog that one cannot see a couple of yards ahead; but all the same we must do our best. We will each take a lantern and light a candle in each window—in case of need."
"Yes, sir," repeated Semyon. He lighted the lanterns and the candles and we set off.
I can't describe how we wandered and lost our way! The lanterns were of no help to us; they did not in the least dissipate the white, almost luminous mist which surrounded us. Several times Semyon and I lost each other, in spite of the fact that we kept calling to each other and hallooing and at frequent intervals shouted—I: "Tyeglev! Ilya Stepanitch!" and Semyon: "Mr. Tyeglev! Your honour!" The fog so bewildered us that we wandered about as though in a dream; soon we were both hoarse; the fog penetrated right into one's chest. We succeeded somehow by help of the candles in the windows in reaching the hut again. Our combined action had been of no use—we merely handicapped each other—and so we made up our minds not to trouble ourselves about getting separated but to go each our own way. He went to the left, I to the right and I soon ceased to hear his voice. The fog seemed to have found its way into my brain and I wandered like one dazed, simply shouting from time to time, "Tyeglev! Tyeglev!"
"Here!" I heard suddenly in answer.
Holy saints, how relieved I was! How I rushed in the direction from which the voice came.... A human figure loomed dark before me.... I made for it. At last!
But instead of Tyeglev I saw another officer of the same battery, whose name was Tyelepnev.
"Was it you answered me?" I asked him.
"Was it you calling me?" he asked in his turn.
"No; I was calling Tyeglev."
"Tyeglev? Why, I met him a minute ago. What a fool of a night! One can't find the way home."
"You saw Tyeglev? Which way did he go?"
"That way, I fancy," said the officer, waving his hand in the air. "But one can't be sure of anything now. Do you know, for instance, where the village is? The only hope is the dogs barking. It is a fool of a night! Let me light a cigarette ... it will seem like a light on the way."
The officer was, so I fancied, a little exhilarated.
"Did Tyeglev say anything to you?" I asked.
"To be sure he did! I said to him, 'good evening, brother,' and he said, 'good-bye.' 'How good-bye? Why good-bye.' 'I mean to shoot myself directly with a pistol.' He is a queer fish!"
My heart stood still. "You say he told you ..."
"He is a queer fish!" repeated the officer, and sauntered off.
I hardly had time to recover from what the officer had told me, when my own name, shouted several times as it seemed with effort, caught my ear. I recognised Semyon's voice.
I called back ... he came to me.
"Well?" I asked him. "Have you found Ilya Stepanitch?"
"Here, not far away."
"How ... have you found him? Is he alive?"
"To be sure. I have been talking to him." (A load was lifted from my heart.) "His honour was sitting in his great-coat under a birch tree ... and he was all right. I put it to him, 'Won't you come home, Ilya Stepanitch; Alexandr Vassilitch is very much worried about you.' And he said to me, 'What does he want to worry for! I want to be in the fresh air. My head aches. Go home,' he said, 'and I will come later.'"
"And you left him?" I cried, clasping my hands.
"What else could I do? He told me to go ... how could I stay?"
All my fears came back to me at once.
"Take me to him this minute—do you hear? This minute! O Semyon, Semyon, I did not expect this of you! You say he is not far off?"
"He is quite close, here, where the copse begins—he is sitting there. It is not more than five yards from the river bank. I found him as I came alongside the river."
"Well, take me to him, take me to him."
Semyon set off ahead of me. "This way, sir.... We have only to get down to the river and it is close there."
But instead of getting down to the river we got into a hollow and found ourselves before an empty shed.
"Hey, stop!" Semyon cried suddenly. "I must have come too far to the right.... We must go that way, more to the left...."
We turned to the left—and found ourselves among such high, rank weeds that we could scarcely get out.... I could not remember such a tangled growth of weeds anywhere near our village. And then all at once a marsh was squelching under our feet, and we saw little round moss-covered hillocks which I had never noticed before either.... We turned back—a small hill was sharply before us and on the top of it stood a shanty—and in it someone was snoring. Semyon and I shouted several times into the shanty; something stirred at the further end of it, the straw rustled—and a hoarse voice shouted, "I am on guard."
We turned back again ... fields and fields, endless fields.... I felt ready to cry.... I remembered the words of the fool in King Lear: "This night will turn us all to fools or madmen."
"Where are we to go?" I said in despair to Semyon.
"The devil must have led us astray, sir," answered the distracted servant. "It's not natural ... there's mischief at the bottom of it!"
I would have checked him but at that instant my ear caught a sound, distinct but not loud, that engrossed my whole attention. There was a faint "pop" as though someone had drawn a stiff cork from a narrow bottle-neck. The sound came from somewhere not far off. Why the sound seemed to me strange and peculiar I could not say, but at once I went towards it.
Semyon followed me. Within a few minutes something tall and broad loomed in the fog.
"The copse! here is the copse!" Semyon cried, delighted. "Yes, here ... and there is the master sitting under the birch-tree.... There he is, sitting where I left him. That's he, surely enough!"
I looked intently. A man really was sitting with his back towards us, awkwardly huddled up under the birch-tree. I hurriedly approached and recognised Tyeglev's great-coat, recognised his figure, his head bowed on his breast. "Tyeglev!" I cried ... but he did not answer.
"Tyeglev!" I repeated, and laid my hand on his shoulder. Then he suddenly lurched forward, quickly and obediently, as though he were waiting for my touch, and fell onto the grass. Semyon and I raised him at once and turned him face upwards. It was not pale, but was lifeless and motionless; his clenched teeth gleamed white—and his eyes, motionless, too, and wide open, kept their habitual, drowsy and "different" look.
"Good God!" Semyon said suddenly and showed me his hand stained crimson with blood.... The blood was coming from under Tyeglev's great-coat, from the left side of his chest.
He had shot himself from a small, single-barreled pistol which was lying beside him. The faint pop I had heard was the sound made by the fatal shot.
Tyeglev's suicide did not surprise his comrades very much. I have told you already that, according to their ideas, as a "fatal" man he was bound to do something extraordinary, though perhaps they had not expected that from him. In the letter to the colonel he asked him, in the first place, to have the name of Ilya Tyeglev removed from the list of officers, as he had died by his own act, adding that in his cash-box there would be found more than sufficient money to pay his debts,—and, secondly, to forward to the important personage at that time commanding the whole corps of guards, an unsealed letter which was in the same envelope. This second letter, of course, we all read; some of us took a copy of it. Tyeglev had evidently taken pains over the composition of this letter.
"You know, Your Excellency" (so I remember the letter began), "you are so stern and severe over the slightest negligence in uniform when a pale, trembling officer presents himself before you; and here am I now going to meet our universal, righteous, incorruptible Judge, the Supreme Being, the Being of infinitely greater consequence even than Your Excellency, and I am going to meet him in undress, in my great-coat, and even without a cravat round my neck."
Oh, what a painful and unpleasant impression that phrase made upon me, with every word, every letter of it, carefully written in the dead man's childish handwriting! Was it worth while, I asked myself, to invent such rubbish at such a moment? But Tyeglev had evidently been pleased with the phrase: he had made use in it of the accumulation of epithets and amplifications a la Marlinsky, at that time in fashion. Further on he had alluded to destiny, to persecution, to his vocation which had remained unfulfilled, to a mystery which he would bear with him to the grave, to people who had not cared to understand him; he had even quoted lines from some poet who had said of the crowd that it wore life "like a dog-collar" and clung to vice "like a burdock"—and it was not free from mistakes in spelling. To tell the truth, this last letter of poor Tyeglev was somewhat vulgar; and I can fancy the contemptuous surprise of the great personage to whom it was addressed—I can imagine the tone in which he would pronounce "a worthless officer! ill weeds are cleared out of the field!"
Only at the very end of the letter there was a sincere note from Tyeglev's heart. "Ah, Your Excellency," he concluded his epistle, "I am an orphan, I had no one to love me as a child—and all held aloof from me ... and I myself destroyed the only heart that gave itself to me!"
Semyon found in the pocket of Tyeglev's great-coat a little album from which his master was never separated. But almost all the pages had been torn out; only one was left on which there was the following calculation:
Napoleon was born Ilya Tyeglev was born on August 15th, 1769. on January 7th, 1811. 1769 1811 15 7 8* 1+ ——- ——- Total 1792 Total 1819
* August—the 8th month + January—the 1st month of the year. of the year.
1 1 7 8 9 1 2 9 —- —- Total 19! Total 19!
Napoleon died on May Ilya Tyeglev died on 5th, 1825. April 21st, 1834.
1825 1834 5 21 5* 7+ ——- ——- Total 1835 Total 1862
* May—the 5th month + July—the 7th month of the year. of the year.
1 1 8 8 3 6 5 23 — — Total 17! Total 17!
Poor fellow! Was not this perhaps why he became an artillery officer?
As a suicide he was buried outside the cemetery—and he was immediately forgotten.
The day after Tyeglev's burial (I was still in the village waiting for my brother) Semyon came into the hut and announced that Ilya wanted to see me.
"What Ilya?" I asked.
I told Semyon to call him.
He made his appearance. He expressed some regret at the death of the lieutenant; wondered what could have possessed him....
"Was he in debt to you?" I asked.
"No, sir. He always paid punctually for everything he had. But I tell you what," here the pedlar grinned, "you have got something of mine."
"What is it?"
"Why, that," he pointed to the brass comb lying on the little toilet table. "A thing of little value," the fellow went on, "but as it was a present ..."
All at once I raised my head. Something dawned upon me.
"Your name is Ilya?"
"Was it you, then, I saw under the willow tree the other night?"
The pedlar winked, and grinned more broadly than ever.
"And it was your name that was called?"
"Yes, sir," the pedlar repeated with playful modesty. "There is a young girl here," he went on in a high falsetto, "who, owing to the great strictness of her parents——"
"Very good, very good," I interrupted him, handed him the comb and dismissed him.
"So that was the 'Ilyusha,'" I thought, and I sank into philosophic reflections which I will not, however, intrude upon you as I don't want to prevent anyone from believing in fate, predestination and such like.
When I was back in Petersburg I made inquiries about Masha. I even discovered the doctor who had treated her. To my amazement I heard from him that she had died not through poisoning but of cholera! I told him what I had heard from Tyeglev.
"Eh! Eh!" cried the doctor all at once. "Is that Tyeglev an artillery officer, a man of middle height and with a stoop, speaks with a lisp?"
"Well, I thought so. That gentleman came to me—I had never seen him before—and began insisting that the girl had poisoned herself. 'It was cholera,' I told him. 'Poison,' he said. 'It was cholera, I tell you,' I said. 'No, it was poison,' he declared. I saw that the fellow was a sort of lunatic, with a broad base to his head—a sign of obstinacy, he would not give over easily.... Well, it doesn't matter, I thought, the patient is dead.... 'Very well,' I said, 'she poisoned herself if you prefer it.' He thanked me, even shook hands with me—and departed."
I told the doctor how the officer had shot himself the same day.
The doctor did not turn a hair—and only observed that there were all sorts of queer fellows in the world.
"There are indeed," I assented.
Yes, someone has said truly of suicides: until they carry out their design, no one believes them; and when they do, no one regrets them.
* * * * *
On the high road to B., at an equal distance from the two towns through which it runs, there stood not long ago a roomy inn, very well known to the drivers of troikas, peasants with trains of waggons, merchants, clerks, pedlars and the numerous travellers of all sorts who journey upon our roads at all times of the year. Everyone used to call at the inn; only perhaps a landowner's coach, drawn by six home-bred horses, would roll majestically by, which did not prevent either the coachman or the groom on the footboard from looking with peculiar feeling and attention at the little porch so familiar to them; or some poor devil in a wretched little cart and with three five-kopeck pieces in the bag in his bosom would urge on his weary nag when he reached the prosperous inn, and would hasten on to some night's lodging in the hamlets that lie by the high road in a peasant's hut, where he would find nothing but bread and hay, but, on the other hand, would not have to pay an extra kopeck. Apart from its favourable situation, the inn with which our story deals had many attractions: excellent water in two deep wells with creaking wheels and iron buckets on a chain; a spacious yard with a tiled roof on posts; abundant stores of oats in the cellar; a warm outer room with a very huge Russian stove with long horizontal flues attached that looked like titanic shoulders, and lastly two fairly clean rooms with the walls covered with reddish lilac paper somewhat frayed at the lower edge with a painted wooden sofa, chairs to match and two pots of geraniums in the windows, which were, however, never cleaned—and were dingy with the dust of years. The inn had other advantages: the blacksmith's was close by, the mill was just at hand; and, lastly, one could get a good meal in it, thanks to the cook, a fat and red-faced peasant woman, who prepared rich and appetizing dishes and dealt out provisions without stint; the nearest tavern was reckoned not half a mile away; the host kept snuff which though mixed with wood-ash, was extremely pungent and pleasantly irritated the nose; in fact there were many reasons why visitors of all sorts were never lacking in that inn. It was liked by those who used it—and that is the chief thing; without which nothing, of course, would succeed and it was liked principally as it was said in the district, because the host himself was very fortunate and successful in all his undertakings, though he did not much deserve his good fortune; but it seems if a man is lucky, he is lucky.
The innkeeper was a man of the working class called Naum Ivanov. He was a man of middle height with broad, stooping shoulders; he had a big round head and curly hair already grey, though he did not look more than forty; a full and fresh face, a low but white and smooth forehead and little bright blue eyes, out of which he looked in a very queer way from under his brows and yet with an insolent expression, a combination not often met with. He always held his head down and seemed to turn it with difficulty, perhaps because his neck was very short. He walked at a trot and did not swing his arms, but slowly moved them with his fists clenched as he walked. When he smiled, and he smiled often without laughing, as it were smiling to himself, his thick lips parted unpleasantly and displayed a row of close-set, brilliant teeth. He spoke jerkily and with a surly note in his voice. He shaved his beard, but dressed in Russian style. His costume consisted of a long, always threadbare, full coat, full breeches and shoes on his bare feet. He was often away from home on business and he had a great deal of business—he was a horse-dealer, he rented land, had a market garden, bought up orchards and traded in various ways—but his absences never lasted long; like a kite, to which he had considerable resemblance, especially in the expression of his eyes, he used to return to his nest. He knew how to keep that nest in order. He was everywhere, he listened to everything and gave orders, served out stores, sent things out and made up his accounts himself, and never knocked off a farthing from anyone's account, but never asked more than his due.
The visitors did not talk to him, and, indeed, he did not care to waste words. "I want your money and you want my victuals," he used to say, as it were, jerking out each word: "We have not met for a christening; the traveller has eaten, has fed his beasts, no need to sit on. If he is tired, let him sleep without chattering." The labourers he kept were healthy grown-up men, but docile and well broken in; they were very much afraid of him. He never touched intoxicating liquor and he used to give his men ten kopecks for vodka on the great holidays; they did not dare to drink on other days. People like Naum quickly get rich ... but to the magnificent position in which he found himself—and he was believed to be worth forty or fifty thousand roubles—Naum Ivanov had not arrived by the strait path....
The inn had existed on the same spot on the high road twenty years before the time from which we date the beginning of our story. It is true that it had not then the dark red shingle roof which made Naum Ivanov's inn look like a gentleman's house; it was inferior in construction and had thatched roofs in the courtyard, and a humble fence instead of a wall of logs; nor had it been distinguished by the triangular Greek pediment on carved posts; but all the same it had been a capital inn—roomy, solid and warm—and travellers were glad to frequent it. The innkeeper at that time was not Naum Ivanov, but a certain Akim Semyonitch, a serf belonging to a neighbouring lady, Lizaveta Prohorovna Kuntse, the widow of a staff officer. This Akim was a shrewd trading peasant who, having left home in his youth with two wretched nags to work as a carrier, had returned a year later with three decent horses and had spent almost all the rest of his life on the high roads; he used to go to Kazan and Odessa, to Orenburg and to Warsaw and abroad to Leipsic and used in the end to travel with two teams, each of three stout, sturdy stallions, harnessed to two huge carts. Whether it was that he was sick of his life of homeless wandering, whether it was that he wanted to rear a family (his wife had died in one of his absences and what children she had borne him were dead also), anyway, he made up his mind at last to abandon his old calling and to open an inn. With the permission of his mistress, he settled on the high road, bought in her name about an acre and a half of land and built an inn upon it. The undertaking prospered. He had more than enough money to furnish and stock it. The experience he had gained in the course of his years of travelling from one end of Russia to another was of great advantage to him; he knew how to please his visitors, especially his former mates, the drivers of troikas, many of whom he knew personally and whose good-will is particularly valued by innkeepers, as they need so much food for themselves and their powerful beasts. Akim's inn became celebrated for hundreds of miles round. People were even readier to stay with him than with his successor, Naum, though Akim could not be compared with Naum as a manager. Under Akim everything was in the old-fashioned style, snug, but not over clean; and his oats were apt to be light, or musty; the cooking, too, was somewhat indifferent: dishes were sometimes put on the table which would better have been left in the oven and it was not that he was stingy with the provisions, but just that the cook had not looked after them. On the other hand, he was ready to knock off something from the price and did not refuse to trust a man's word for payment—he was a good man and a genial host. In talking, in entertaining, he was lavish, too; he would sometimes chatter away over the samovar till his listeners pricked up their ears, especially when he began telling them about Petersburg, about the Circassian steppes, or even about foreign parts; and he liked getting a little drunk with a good companion, but not disgracefully so, more for the sake of company, as his guests used to say of him. He was a great favourite with merchants and with all people of what is called the old school, who do not set off for a journey without tightening up their belts and never go into a room without making the sign of the cross, and never enter into conversation with a man without first wishing him good health. Even Akim's appearance disposed people in his favour: he was tall, rather thin, but graceful even at his advanced years; he had a long face, with fine-looking regular features, a high and open brow, a straight and delicate nose and a small mouth. His brown and prominent eyes positively shone with friendly gentleness, his soft, scanty hair curled in little rings about his neck; he had very little left on the top of his head. Akim's voice was very pleasant, though weak; in his youth he had been a good singer, but continual travelling in the open air in the winter had affected his chest. But he talked very smoothly and sweetly. When he laughed wrinkles like rays that were very charming came round his eyes:—such wrinkles are only to be seen in kind-hearted people. Akim's movements were for the most part deliberate and not without a certain confidence and dignified courtesy befitting a man of experience who had seen a great deal in his day.
In fact, Akim—or Akim Semyonitch as he was called even in his mistress's house, to which he often went and invariably on Sundays after mass—would have been excellent in all respects—if he had not had one weakness which has been the ruin of many men on earth, and was in the end the ruin of him, too—a weakness for the fair sex. Akim's susceptibility was extreme, his heart could never resist a woman's glance: he melted before it like the first snow of autumn in the sun ... and dearly he had to pay for his excessive sensibility.
For the first year after he had set up on the high road Akim was so busy with building his yard, stocking the place, and all the business inseparable from moving into a new house that he had absolutely no time to think of women and if any sinful thought came into his mind he immediately drove it away by reading various devotional works for which he cherished a profound respect (he had learned to read when first he left home), singing the psalms in a low voice or some other pious occupation. Besides, he was then in his forty-sixth year and at that time of life every passion grows perceptibly calmer and cooler and the time for marrying was past. Akim himself began to think that, as he expressed it, this foolishness was over and done with ... But evidently there is no escaping one's fate.
Akim's former mistress, Lizaveta Prohorovna Kuntse, the widow of an officer of German extraction, was herself a native of Mittau, where she had spent the first years of her childhood and where she had numerous poor relations, about whom she concerned herself very little, especially after a casual visit from one of her brothers, an infantry officer of the line. On the day after his arrival he had made a great disturbance and almost beaten the lady of the house, calling her "du lumpenmamselle," though only the evening before he had called her in broken Russian: "sister and benefactor." Lizaveta Prohorovna lived almost permanently on her pretty estate which had been won by the labours of her husband who had been an architect. She managed it herself and managed it very well. Lizaveta Prohorovna never let slip the slightest advantage; she turned everything into profit for herself; and this, as well as her extraordinary capacity for making a farthing do the work of a halfpenny, betrayed her German origin; in everything else she had become very Russian. She kept a considerable number of house serfs, especially many maids, who earned their salt, however: from morning to night their backs were bent over their work. She liked driving out in her carriage with grooms in livery on the footboard. She liked listening to gossip and scandal and was a clever scandal-monger herself; she liked to lavish favours upon someone, then suddenly crush him with her displeasure, in fact, Lizaveta Prohorovna behaved exactly like a lady. Akim was in her good graces; he paid her punctually every year a very considerable sum in lieu of service; she talked graciously to him and even, in jest, invited him as a guest ... but it was precisely in his mistress's house that trouble was in store for Akim.
Among Lizaveta Prohorovna's maidservants was an orphan girl of twenty called Dunyasha. She was good-looking, graceful and neat-handed; though her features were irregular, they were pleasing; her fresh complexion, her thick flaxen hair, her lively grey eyes, her little round nose, her rosy lips and above all her half-mocking, half-provocative expression—were all rather charming in their way. At the same time, in spite of her forlorn position, she was strict, almost haughty in her deportment. She came of a long line of house serfs. Her father, Arefy, had been a butler for thirty years, while her grandfather, Stepan had been valet to a prince and officer of the Guards long since dead. She dressed neatly and was vain over her hands, which were certainly very beautiful. Dunyasha made a show of great disdain for all her admirers; she listened to their compliments with a self-complacent little smile and if she answered them at all it was usually some exclamation such as: "Yes! Likely! As though I should! What next!" These exclamations were always on her lips. Dunyasha had spent about three years being trained in Moscow where she had picked up the peculiar airs and graces which distinguish maidservants who have been in Moscow or Petersburg. She was spoken of as a girl of self-respect (high praise on the lips of house serfs) who, though she had seen something of life, had not let herself down. She was rather clever with her needle, too, yet with all this Lizaveta Prohorovna was not very warmly disposed toward her, thanks to the headmaid, Kirillovna, a sly and intriguing woman, no longer young. Kirillovna exercised great influence over her mistress and very skilfully succeeded in getting rid of all rivals.
With this Dunyasha Akim must needs fall in love! And he fell in love as he had never fallen in love before. He saw her first at church: she had only just come back from Moscow.... Afterwards, he met her several times in his mistress's house; finally he spent a whole evening with her at the steward's, where he had been invited to tea in company with other highly respected persons. The house serfs did not disdain him, though he was not of their class and wore a beard; he was a man of education, could read and write and, what was more, had money; and he did not dress like a peasant but wore a long full coat of black cloth, high boots of calf leather and a kerchief on his neck. It is true that some of the house serfs did say among themselves that: "One can see that he is not one of us," but to his face they almost flattered him. On that evening at the steward's Dunyasha made a complete conquest of Akim's susceptible heart, though she said not a single word in answer to his ingratiating speeches and only looked sideways at him from time to time as though wondering why that peasant was there. All that only added fuel to the flames. He went home, pondered and pondered and made up his mind to win her hand.... She had somehow "bewitched" him. But how can I describe the wrath and indignation of Dunyasha when five days later Kirillovna with a friendly air invited her into her room and told her that Akim (and evidently he knew how to set to work) that bearded peasant Akim, to sit by whose side she considered almost an indignity, was courting her.
Dunyasha first flushed crimson, then she gave a forced laugh, then she burst into tears; but Kirillovna made her attack so artfully, made the girl feel her own position in the house so clearly, so tactfully hinted at the presentable appearance, the wealth and blind devotion of Akim and finally mentioned so significantly the wishes of their mistress that Dunyasha went out of the room with a look of hesitation on her face and meeting Akim only gazed intently into his face and did not turn away. The indescribably lavish presents of the love-sick man dissipated her last doubts. Lizaveta Prohorovna, to whom Akim in his joy took a hundred peaches on a large silver dish, gave her consent to the marriage, and the marriage took place. Akim spared no expense—and the bride, who on the eve of her wedding at her farewell party to her girl friends sat looking a figure of misery, and who cried all the next morning while Kirillovna was dressing her for the wedding, was soon comforted.... Her mistress gave her her own shawl to wear in the church and Akim presented her the same day with one like it, almost superior.
And so Akim was married, and took his young bride home.... They began their life together.... Dunyasha turned out to be a poor housewife, a poor helpmate to her husband. She took no interest in anything, was melancholy and depressed unless some officer sitting by the big samovar noticed her and paid her compliments; she was often absent, sometimes in the town shopping, sometimes at the mistress's house, which was only three miles from the inn. There she felt at home, there she was surrounded by her own people; the girls envied her finery. Kirillovna regaled her with tea; Lizaveta Prohorovna herself talked to her. But even these visits did not pass without some bitter experiences for Dunyasha.... As an innkeeper's wife, for instance, she could not wear a hat and was obliged to tie up her head in a kerchief, "like a merchant's lady," said sly Kirillovna, "like a working woman," thought Dunyasha to herself.
More than once Akim recalled the words of his only relation, an uncle who had lived in solitude without a family for years: "Well, Akimushka, my lad," he had said, meeting him in the street, "I hear you are getting married."
"Why, yes, what of it?"
"Ech, Akim, Akim. You are above us peasants now, there's no denying that; but you are not on her level either."
"In what way not on her level?"
"Why, in that way, for instance," his uncle had answered, pointing to Akim's beard, which he had begun to clip in order to please his betrothed, though he had refused to shave it completely.... Akim looked down; while the old man turned away, wrapped his tattered sheepskin about him and walked away, shaking his head.
Yes, more than once Akim sank into thought, cleared his throat and sighed.... But his love for his pretty wife was no less; he was proud of her, especially when he compared her not merely with peasant women, or with his first wife, to whom he had been married at sixteen, but with other serf girls; "look what a fine bird we have caught," he thought to himself.... Her slightest caress gave him immense pleasure. "Maybe," he thought, "she will get used to it; maybe she will get into the way of it." Meanwhile her behaviour was irreproachable and no one could say anything against her.
Several years passed like this. Dunyasha really did end by growing used to her way of life. Akim's love for her and confidence in her only increased as he grew older; her girl friends, who had been married not to peasants, were suffering cruel hardships, either from poverty or from having fallen into bad hands.... Akim went on getting richer and richer. Everything succeeded with him—he was always lucky; only one thing was a grief: God had not given him children. Dunyasha was by now over five and twenty; everyone addressed her as Avdotya Arefyevna. She never became a real housewife, however—but she grew fond of her house, looked after the stores and superintended the woman who worked in the house. It is true that she did all this only after a fashion; she did not keep up a high standard of cleanliness and order; on the other hand, her portrait painted in oils and ordered by herself from a local artist, the son of the parish deacon, hung on the wall of the chief room beside that of Akim. She was depicted in a white dress with a yellow shawl with six strings of big pearls round her neck, long earrings, and a ring on every finger. The portrait was recognisable though the artist had painted her excessively stout and rosy—and had made her eyes not grey but black and even slightly squinting.... Akim's was a complete failure, the portrait had come out dark—a la Rembrandt—so that sometimes a visitor would go up to it, look at it and merely give an inarticulate murmur. Avdotya had taken to being rather careless in her dress; she would fling a big shawl over her shoulders, while the dress under it was put on anyhow: she was overcome by laziness, that sighing apathetic drowsy laziness to which the Russian is only too liable, especially when his livelihood is secure....
With all that, the fortunes of Akim and his wife prospered exceedingly; they lived in harmony and had the reputation of an exemplary pair. But just as a squirrel will wash its face at the very instant when the sportsman is aiming at it, man has no presentiment of his troubles, till all of a sudden the ground gives way under him like ice.
One autumn evening a merchant in the drapery line put up at Akim's inn. He was journeying by various cross-country roads from Moscow to Harkov with two loaded tilt carts; he was one of those travelling traders whose arrival is sometimes awaited with such impatience by country gentlemen and still more by their wives and daughters. This travelling merchant, an elderly man, had with him two companions, or, speaking more correctly, two workmen, one thin, pale and hunchbacked, the other a fine, handsome young fellow of twenty. They asked for supper, then sat down to tea; the merchant invited the innkeeper and his wife to take a cup with him, they did not refuse. A conversation quickly sprang up between the two old men (Akim was fifty-six); the merchant inquired about the gentry of the neighbourhood and no one could give him more useful information about them than Akim; the hunchbacked workman spent his time looking after the carts and finally went off to bed; it fell to Avdotya to talk to the other one.... She sat by him and said little, rather listening to what he told her, but it was evident that his talk pleased her; her face grew more animated, the colour came into her cheeks and she laughed readily and often. The young workman sat almost motionless with his curly head bent over the table; he spoke quietly, without haste and without raising his voice; but his eyes, not large but saucily bright and blue, were rivetted on Avdotya; at first she turned away from them, then she, too, began looking him in the face. The young fellow's face was fresh and smooth as a Crimean apple; he often smiled and tapped with his white fingers on his chin covered with soft dark down. He spoke like a merchant, but very freely and with a sort of careless self-confidence and went on looking at her with the same intent, impudent stare.... All at once he moved a little closer to her and without the slightest change of countenance said to her: "Avdotya Arefyevna, there's no one like you in the world; I am ready to die for you."
Avdotya laughed aloud.
"What is it?" asked Akim.
"Why, he keeps saying such funny things," she said, without any particular embarrassment.
The old merchant grinned.
"Ha, ha, yes, my Naum is such a funny fellow, don't listen to him."
"Oh! Really! As though I should," she answered, and shook her head.
"Ha, ha, of course not," observed the old man. "But, however," he went on in a singsong voice, "we will take our leave; we are thoroughly satisfied, it is time for bed, ..." and he got up.
"We are well satisfied, too," Akim brought out and he got up, "for your entertainment, that is, but we wish you a good night. Avdotyushka, come along."
Avdotya got up as it were unwillingly. Naum, too, got up after her ... the party broke up. The innkeeper and his wife went off to the little lobby partitioned off, which served them as a bedroom. Akim was snoring immediately. It was a long time before Avdotya could get to sleep.... At first she lay still, turning her face to the wall, then she began tossing from side to side on the hot feather bed, throwing off and pulling up the quilt alternately ... then she sank into a light doze. Suddenly she heard from the yard a loud masculine voice: it was singing a song of which it was impossible to distinguish the words, prolonging each note, though not with a melancholy effect. Avdotya opened her eyes, propped herself on her elbows and listened.... The song went on.... It rang out musically in the autumn air.
Akim raised his head.
"Who's that singing?" he asked.
"I don't know," she answered.
"He sings well," he added, after a brief pause. "Very well. What a strong voice. I used to sing in my day," he went on. "And I sang well, too, but my voice has gone. That's a fine voice. It must be that young fellow singing, Naum is his name, isn't it?" And he turned over on the other side, gave a sigh and fell asleep again.
It was a long time before the voice was still ... Avdotya listened and listened; all at once it seemed to break off, rang out boldly once more and slowly died away.... Avdotya crossed herself and laid her head on the pillow.... Half an hour passed.... She sat up and softly got out of bed.
"Where are you going, wife?" Akim asked in his sleep.
"To see to the little lamp," she said, "I can't get to sleep."
"You should say a prayer," Akim mumbled, falling asleep.
Avdotya went up to the lamp before the ikon, began trimming it and accidentally put it out; she went back and lay down. Everything was still.
Early next morning the merchant set off again on his journey with his companions. Avdotya was asleep. Akim went half a mile with them: he had to call at the mill. When he got home he found his wife dressed and not alone. Naum, the young man who had been there the night before, was with her. They were standing by the table in the window talking. When Avdotya saw Akim, she went out of the room without a word, and Naum said that he had come for his master's gloves which the latter, he said, had left behind on the bench; and he, too, went away.
We will now tell the reader what he has probably guessed already: Avdotya had fallen passionately in love with Naum. It is hard to say how it could have happened so quickly, especially as she had hitherto been irreproachable in her behaviour in spite of many opportunities and temptations to deceive her husband. Later on, when her intrigue with Naum became known, many people in the neighbourhood declared that he had on the very first evening put a magic potion that was a love spell in her tea (the efficacy of such spells is still firmly believed in among us), and that this could be clearly seen from the appearance of Avdotya who, so they said, soon after began to pine away and look depressed.
However that may have been, Naum began to be frequently seen in Akim's yard. At first he came again with the same merchant and three months later arrived alone, with wares of his own; then the report spread that he had settled in one of the neighbouring district towns, and from that time forward not a week passed without his appearing on the high road with his strong, painted cart drawn by two sleek horses which he drove himself. There was no particular friendship between Akim and him, nor was there any hostility noticed between them; Akim did not take much notice of him and only thought of him as a sharp young fellow who was rapidly making his way in the world. He did not suspect Avdotya's real feelings and went on believing in her as before.
Two years passed like this.
One summer day it happened that Lizaveta Prohorovna—who had somehow suddenly grown yellow and wrinkled during those two years in spite of all sorts of unguents, rouge and powder—about two o'clock in the afternoon went out with her lap dog and her folding parasol for a stroll before dinner in her neat little German garden. With a faint rustle of her starched petticoats, she walked with tiny steps along the sandy path between two rows of erect, stiffly tied-up dahlias, when she was suddenly overtaken by our old acquaintance Kirillovna, who announced respectfully that a merchant desired to speak to her on important business. Kirillovna was still high in her mistress's favour (in reality it was she who managed Madame Kuntse's estate) and she had some time before obtained permission to wear a white cap, which gave still more acerbity to the sharp features of her swarthy face.
"A merchant?" said her mistress; "what does he want?"
"I don't know what he wants," answered Kirillovna in an insinuating voice, "only I think he wants to buy something from you."
Lizaveta Prohorovna went back into the drawing-room, sat down in her usual seat—an armchair with a canopy over it, upon which a climbing plant twined gracefully—and gave orders that the merchant should be summoned.
Naum appeared, bowed, and stood still by the door.
"I hear that you want to buy something of me," said Lizaveta Prohorovna, and thought to herself, "What a handsome man this merchant is."
"Just so, madam."
"What is it?"
"Would you be willing to sell your inn?"
"Why, the one on the high road not far from here."
"But that inn is not mine, it is Akim's."
"Not yours? Why, it stands on your land."
"Yes, the land is mine ... bought in my name; but the inn is his."
"To be sure. But wouldn't you be willing to sell it to me?"
"How could I sell it to you?"
"Well, I would give you a good price for it."
Lizaveta Prohorovna was silent for a space.
"It is really very queer what you are saying," she said. "And what would you give?" she added. "I don't ask that for myself but for Akim."
"For all the buildings and the appurtenances, together with the land that goes with it, of course, I would give two thousand roubles."
"Two thousand roubles! That is not enough," replied Lizaveta Prohorovna.
"It's a good price."
"But have you spoken to Akim?"
"What should I speak to him for? The inn is yours, so here I am talking to you about it."
"But I have told you.... It really is astonishing that you don't understand me."
"Not understand, madam? But I do understand."
Lizaveta Prohorovna looked at Naum and Naum looked at Lizaveta Prohorovna.
"Well, then," he began, "what do you propose?"
"I propose ..." Lizaveta Prohorovna moved in her chair. "In the first place I tell you that two thousand is too little and in the second ..."
"I'll add another hundred, then."
Lizaveta Prohorovna got up.
"I see that you are talking quite off the point. I have told you already that I cannot sell that inn—am not going to sell it. I cannot ... that is, I will not."
Naum smiled and said nothing for a space.
"Well, as you please, madam," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "I beg to take leave." He bowed and took hold of the door handle.
Lizaveta Prohorovna turned round to him.
"You need not go away yet, however," she said, with hardly perceptible agitation. She rang the bell and Kirillovna came in from the study. "Kirillovna, tell them to give this gentleman some tea. I will see you again," she added, with a slight inclination of her head.
Naum bowed again and went out with Kirillovna. Lizaveta Prohorovna walked up and down the room once or twice and rang the bell again. This time a page appeared. She told him to fetch Kirillovna. A few moments later Kirillovna came in with a faint creak of her new goatskin shoes.
"Have you heard," Lizaveta Prohorovna began with a forced laugh, "what this merchant has been proposing to me? He is a queer fellow, really!"
"No, I haven't heard. What is it, madam?" and Kirillovna faintly screwed up her black Kalmuck eyes.
"He wants to buy Akim's inn."
"Well, why not?"
"But how could he? What about Akim? I gave it to Akim."
"Upon my word, madam, what are you saying? Isn't the inn yours? Don't we all belong to you? And isn't all our property yours, our mistress's?"
"Good gracious, Kirillovna, what are you saying?" Lizaveta Prohorovna pulled out a batiste handkerchief and nervously blew her nose. "Akim bought the inn with his own money."
"His own money? But where did he get the money? Wasn't it through your kindness? He has had the use of the land all this time as it is. It was all through your gracious permission. And do you suppose, madam, that he would have no money left? Why, he is richer than you are, upon my word, he is!"
"That's all true, of course, but still I can't do it.... How could I sell the inn?"
"And why not sell it," Kirillovna went on, "since a purchaser has luckily turned up? May I ask, madam, how much he offers you?"
"More than two thousand roubles," said Lizaveta Prohorovna softly.
"He will give more, madam, if he offers two thousand straight off. And you will arrange things with Akim afterwards; take a little off his yearly duty or something. He will be thankful, too."
"Of course, I must remit part of his duty. But no, Kirillovna, how can I sell it?" and Lizaveta Prohorovna walked up and down the room. "No, that's out of the question, that won't do ... no, please don't speak of it again ... or I shall be angry."
But in spite of her agitated mistress's warning, Kirillovna did continue speaking of it and half an hour later she went back to Naum, whom she had left in the butler's pantry at the samovar.
"What have you to tell me, good madam?" said Naum, jauntily turning his tea-cup wrong side upwards in the saucer.
"What I have to tell you is that you are to go in to the mistress; she wants you."
"Certainly," said Naum, and he got up and followed Kirillovna into the drawing-room.
The door closed behind them.... When the door opened again and Naum walked out backwards, bowing, the matter was settled: Akim's inn belonged to him. He had bought it for 2800 paper roubles. It was arranged that the legal formalities should take place as quickly as possible and that till then the matter should not be made public. Lizaveta Prohorovna received a deposit of a hundred roubles and two hundred went to Kirillovna for her assistance. "It has not cost me much," thought Naum as he got into his coat, "it was a lucky chance."
While the transaction we have described was going forward in the mistress's house, Akim was sitting at home alone on the bench by the window, stroking his beard with a discontented expression. We have said already that he did not suspect his wife's feeling for Naum, although kind friends had more than once hinted to him that it was time he opened his eyes; it is true that he had noticed himself that of late his wife had become rather difficult, but we all know that the female sex is capricious and changeable. Even when it really did strike him that things were not going well in his house, he merely dismissed the thought with a wave of his hand; he did not like the idea of a squabble; his good nature had not lessened with years and indolence was asserting itself, too. But on that day he was very much out of humour; the day before he had overheard quite by chance in the street a conversation between their servant and a neighbouring peasant woman.
The peasant woman asked the servant why she had not come to see her on the holiday the day before. "I was expecting you," she said.
"I did set off," replied the servant, "but as ill-luck would have it, I ran into the mistress ... botheration take her."
"Ran into her?" repeated the peasant woman in a sing-song voice and she leaned her cheek on her hand. "And where did you run into her, my good girl?"
"Beyond the priest's hemp-patch. She must have gone to the hemp-patch to meet her Naum, but I could not see them in the dusk, owing to the moon, maybe, I don't know; I simply dashed into them."
"Dashed into them?" the other woman repeated. "Well, and was she standing with him, my good girl?"
"Yes, she was. He was standing there and so was she. She saw me and said, 'Where are you running to? Go home.' So I went home."
"You went home?" The peasant woman was silent. "Well, good-bye, Fetinyushka," she brought out at last, and trudged off.