THERE WAS ANOTHER being in the world to whom Varvara Petrovna was as much attached as she was to Stepan Trofimovitch, her only son, Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch Stavrogin. It was to undertake his education that Stepan Trofimovitch had been engaged. The boy was at that time eight years old, and his frivolous father, General Stavrogin, was already living apart from Varvara Petrovna, so that the child grew up entirely in his mother’s care. To do Stepan Trofimovitch justice, he knew how to win his pupil’s heart. The whole secret of this lay in the fact that he was a child himself. I was not there in those days, and he continually felt the want of a real friend. He did not hesitate to make a friend of this little creature as soon as he had grown a little older. It somehow came to pass quite naturally that there seemed to be no discrepancy of age between them. More than once he awaked his ten- or eleven-year-old friend at night, simply to pour out his wounded feelings and weep before him, or to tell him some family secret, without realising that this was an outrageous proceeding. They threw themselves into each other’s arms and wept. The boy knew that his mother loved him very much, but I doubt whether he cared much for her. She talked little to him and did not often interfere with him, but he was always morbidly conscious of her intent, searching eyes fixed upon him. Yet the mother confided his whole instruction and moral education to Stepan Trofimovitch. At that time her faith in him was unshaken. One can’t help believing that the tutor had rather a bad influence on his pupil’s nerves. When at sixteen he was taken to a lyceum he was fragile-looking and pale, strangely quiet and dreamy. (Later on he was distinguished by great physical strength.) One must assume too that the friends went on weeping at night, throwing themselves in each other’s arms, though their tears were not always due to domestic difficulties. Stepan Trofimovitch succeeded in reaching the deepest chords in his pupil’s heart, and had aroused in him a vague sensation of that eternal, sacred yearning which some elect souls can never give up for cheap gratification when once they have tasted and known it. (There are some connoisseurs who prize this yearning more than the most complete satisfaction of it, if such were possible.) But in any case it was just as well that the pupil and the preceptor were, though none too soon, parted.
For the first two years the lad used to come home from the lyceum for the holidays. While Varvara Petrovna and Stepan Trofimovitch were staying in Petersburg he was sometimes present at the literary evenings at his mother’s, he listened and looked on. He spoke little, and was quiet and shy as before. His manner to Stepan Trofimovitch was as affectionately attentive as ever, but there was a shade of reserve in it. He unmistakably avoided distressing, lofty subjects or reminiscences of the past. By his mother’s wish he entered the army on completing the school course, and soon received a commission in one of the most brilliant regiments of the Horse Guards. He did not come to show himself to his mother in his uniform, and his letters from Petersburg began to be infrequent. Varvara Petrovna sent him money without stint, though after the emancipation the revenue from her estate was so diminished that at first her income was less than half what it had been before. She had, however, a considerable sum laid by through years of economy. She took great interest in her son’s success in the highest Petersburg society. Where she had failed, the wealthy young officer with expectations succeeded. He renewed acquaintances which she had hardly dared to dream of, and was welcomed everywhere with pleasure. But very soon rather strange rumours reached Varvara Petrovna. The young man had suddenly taken to riotous living with a sort of frenzy. Not that he gambled or drank too much; there was only talk of savage recklessness, of running over people in the street with his horses, of brutal conduct to a lady of good society with whom he had a liaison and whom he afterwards publicly insulted. There was a callous nastiness about this affair. It was added, too, that he had developed into a regular bully, insulting people for the mere pleasure of insulting them. Varvara Petrovna was greatly agitated and distressed. Stepan Trofimovitch assured her that this was only the first riotous effervescence of a too richly endowed nature, that the storm would subside and that this was only like the youth of Prince Harry, who caroused with Falstaff, Poins, and Mrs. Quickly, as described by Shakespeare.
This time Varvara Petrovna did not cry out, “Nonsense, nonsense!” as she was very apt to do in later years in response to Stepan Trofimovitch. On the contrary she listened very eagerly, asked him to explain this theory more exactly, took up Shakespeare herself and with great attention read the immortal chronicle. But it did not comfort her, and indeed she did not find the resemblance very striking. With feverish impatience she awaited answers to some of her letters. She had not long to wait for them. The fatal news soon reached her that “Prince Harry” had been involved in two duels almost at once, was entirely to blame for both of them, had killed one of his adversaries on the spot and had maimed the other and was awaiting his trial in consequence. The case ended in his being degraded to the ranks, deprived of the rights of a nobleman, and transferred to an infantry line regiment, and he only escaped worse punishment by special favour.
In 1863 he somehow succeeded in distinguishing himself; he received a cross, was promoted to be a non-commissioned officer, and rose rapidly to the rank of an officer. During this period Varvara Petrovna despatched perhaps hundreds of letters to the capital, full of prayers and supplications. She even stooped to some humiliation in this extremity. After his promotion the young man suddenly resigned his commission, but he did not come back to Skvoreshniki again, and gave up writing to his mother altogether. They learned by roundabout means that he was back in Petersburg, but that he was not to be met in the same society as before; he seemed to be in hiding. They found out that he was living in strange company, associating with the dregs of the population of Petersburg, with slip-shod government clerks, discharged military men, beggars of the higher class, and drunkards of all sorts—that he visited their filthy families, spent days and nights in dark slums and all sorts of low haunts, that he had sunk very low, that he was in rags, and that apparently he liked it. He did not ask his mother for money, he had his own little estate—once the property of his father, General Stavrogin, which yielded at least some revenue, and which, it was reported, he had let to a German from Saxony. At last his mother besought him to come to her, and “Prince Harry” made his appearance in our town. I had never set eyes on him before, but now I got a very distinct impression of him. He was a very handsome young man of five-and-twenty, and I must own I was impressed by him. I had expected to see a dirty ragamuffin, sodden with drink and debauchery. He was on the contrary, the most elegant gentleman I had ever met, extremely well dressed, with an air and manner only to be found in a man accustomed to culture and refinement. I was not the only person surprised. It was a surprise to all the townspeople to whom, of course, young Stavrogin’s whole biography was well known in its minutest details, though one could not imagine how they had got hold of them, and, what was still more surprising, half of their stories about him turned out to be true.
All our ladies were wild over the new visitor. They were sharply divided into two parties, one of which adored him while the other half regarded him with a hatred that was almost blood-thirsty: but both were crazy about him. Some of them were particularly fascinated by the idea that he had perhaps a fateful secret hidden in his soul; others were positively delighted at the fact that he was a murderer. It appeared too that he had had a very good education and was indeed a man of considerable culture. No great acquirements were needed, of course, to astonish us. But he could judge also of very interesting everyday affairs, and, what was of the utmost value, he judged of them with remarkable good sense. I must mention as a peculiar fact that almost from the first day we all of us thought him a very sensible fellow. He was not very talkative, he was elegant without exaggeration, surprisingly modest, and at the same time bold and self-reliant, as none of us were. Our dandies gazed at him with envy, and were completely eclipsed by him. His face, too, impressed me. His hair was of a peculiarly intense black, his light-coloured eyes were peculiarly light and calm, his complexion was peculiarly soft and white, the red in his cheeks was too bright and clear, his teeth were like pearls, and his lips like coral—one would have thought that he must be a paragon of beauty, yet at the same time there seemed something repellent about him. It was said that his face suggested a mask; so much was said though, among other things they talked of his extraordinary physical strength. He was rather tall. Varvara Petrovna looked at him with pride, yet with continual uneasiness. He spent about six months among us—listless, quiet, rather morose. He made his appearance in society, and with unfailing propriety performed all the duties demanded by our provincial etiquette. He was related, on his father’s side, to the governor, and was received by the latter as a near kinsman. But a few months passed and the wild beast showed his claws.
I may observe by the way, in parenthesis, that Ivan Ossipovitch, our dear mild governor, was rather like an old woman, though he was of good family and highly connected—which explains the fact that he remained so long among us, though he steadily avoided all the duties of his office. From his munificence and hospitality he ought rather to have been a marshal of nobility of the good old days than a governor in such busy times as ours. It was always said in the town that it was not he, but Varvara Petrovna who governed the province. Of course this was said sarcastically; however, it was certainly a falsehood. And, indeed, much wit was wasted on the subject among us. On the contrary, in later years, Varvara Petrovna purposely and consciously withdrew from anything like a position of authority, and, in spite of the extraordinary respect in which she was held by the whole province, voluntarily confined her influence within strict limits set up by herself. Instead of these higher responsibilities she suddenly took up the management of her estate, and, within two or three years, raised the revenue from it almost to what it had yielded in the past. Giving up her former romantic impulses (trips to Petersburg, plans for founding a magazine, and so on) she began to be careful and to save money. She kept even Stepan Trofimovitch at a distance, allowing him to take lodgings in another house (a change for which he had long been worrying her under various pretexts). Little by little Stepan Trofimovitch began to call her a prosaic woman, or more jestingly, “My prosaic friend.” I need hardly say he only ventured on such jests in an extremely respectful form, and on rare, and carefully chosen, occasions.
All of us in her intimate circle felt—Stepan Trofimovitch more acutely than any of us—that her son had come to her almost, as it were, as a new hope, and even as a sort of new aspiration. Her passion for her son dated from the time of his successes in Petersburg society, and grew more intense from the moment that he was degraded in the army. Yet she was evidently afraid of him, and seemed like a slave in his presence. It could be seen that she was afraid of something vague and mysterious which she could not have put into words, and she often stole searching glances at “Nicolas,” scrutinising him reflectively … and behold—the wild beast suddenly showed his claws.
Suddenly, apropos of nothing, our prince was guilty of incredible outrages upon various persons and, what was most striking these outrages were utterly unheard of, quite inconceivable, unlike anything commonly done, utterly silly and mischievous, quite unprovoked and objectless. One of the most respected of our club members, on our committee of management, Pyotr Pavlovitch Gaganov, an elderly man of high rank in the service, had formed the innocent habit of declaring vehemently on all sorts of occasions: “No, you can’t lead me by the nose!” Well, there is no harm in that. But one day at the club, when he brought out this phrase in connection with some heated discussion in the midst of a little group of members (all persons of some consequence) Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch, who was standing on one side, alone and unnoticed, suddenly went up to Pyotr Pavlovitch, took him unexpectedly and firmly with two fingers by the nose, and succeeded in leading him two or three steps across the room. He could have had no grudge against Mr. Gaganov. It might be thought to be a mere schoolboy prank, though, of course, a most unpardonable one. Yet, describing it afterwards, people said that he looked almost dreamy at the very instant of the operation, “as though he had gone out of his mind,” but that was recalled and reflected upon long afterwards. In the excitement of the moment all they recalled was the minute after, when he certainly saw it all as it really was, and far from being confused smiled gaily and maliciously “without the slightest regret.” There was a terrific outcry; he was surrounded. Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch kept turning round, looking about him, answering nobody, and glancing curiously at the persons exclaiming around him. At last he seemed suddenly, as it were, to sink into thought again—so at least it was reported—frowned, went firmly up to the affronted Pyotr Pavlovitch, and with evident vexation said in a rapid mutter:
“You must forgive me, of course … I really don’t know what suddenly came over me … it’s silly.”
The carelessness of his apology was almost equivalent to a fresh insult. The outcry was greater than ever. Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch shrugged his shoulders and went away. All this was very stupid, to say nothing of its gross indecency—
A calculated and premeditated indecency as it seemed at first sight—and therefore a premeditated and utterly brutal insult to our whole society. So it was taken to be by every one. We began by promptly and unanimously striking young Stavrogin’s name off the list of club members. Then it was decided to send an appeal in the name of the whole club to the governor, begging him at once (without waiting for the case to be formally tried in court) to use “the administrative power entrusted to him” to restrain this dangerous ruffian, “this duelling bully from the capital, and so protect the tranquillity of all the gentry of our town from injurious encroachments.” It was added with angry resentment that “a law might be found to control even Mr. Stavrogin.” This phrase was prepared by way of a thrust at the governor on account of Varvara Petrovna. They elaborated it with relish. As ill luck would have it, the governor was not in the town at the time. He had gone to a little distance to stand godfather to the child of a very charming lady, recently left a widow in an interesting condition. But it was known that he would soon be back. In the meanwhile they got up a regular ovation for the respected and insulted gentleman; people embraced and kissed him; the whole town called upon him. It was even proposed to give a subscription dinner in his honour, and they only gave up the idea at his earnest request—reflecting possibly at last that the man had, after all, been pulled by the nose and that that was really nothing to congratulate him upon. Yet, how had it happened? How could it have happened? It is remarkable that no one in the whole town put down this savage act to madness. They must have been predisposed to expect such actions from Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch, even when he was sane. For my part I don’t know to this day how to explain it, in spite of the event that quickly followed and apparently explained everything, and conciliated every one. I will add also that, four years later, in reply to a discreet question from me about the incident at the club, Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch answered, frowning: “I wasn’t quite well at the time.” But there is no need to anticipate events.
The general outburst of hatred with which every one fell upon the “ruffian and duelling bully from the capital” also struck me as curious. They insisted on seeing an insolent design and deliberate intention to insult our whole society at once. The truth was no one liked the fellow, but, on the contrary, he had set every one against him—and one wonders how. Up to the last incident he had never quarrelled with anyone, nor insulted anyone, but was as courteous as a gentleman in a fashion-plate, if only the latter were able to speak. I imagine that he was hated for his pride. Even our ladies, who had begun by adoring him, railed against him now, more loudly than the men. Varvara Petrovna was dreadfully overwhelmed. She confessed afterwards to Stepan Trofimovitch that she had had a foreboding of all this long before, that every day for the last six months she had been expecting “just something of that sort,” a remarkable admission on the part of his own mother. “It’s begun!” she thought to herself with a shudder. The morning after the incident at the club she cautiously but firmly approached the subject with her son, but the poor woman was trembling all over in spite of her firmness. She had not slept all night and even went out early to Stepan Trofimovitch’s lodgings to ask his advice, and shed tears there, a thing which she had never been known to do before anyone. She longed for “Nicolas” to say something to her, to deign to give some explanation. Nikolay, who was always so polite and respectful to his mother, listened to her for some time scowling, but very seriously. He suddenly got up without saying a word, kissed her hand and went away. That very evening, as though by design, he perpetrated another scandal. It was of a more harmless and ordinary character than the first. Yet, owing to the state of the public mind, it increased the outcry in the town.
Our friend Liputin turned up and called on Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch immediately after the latter’s interview with his mother, and earnestly begged for the honour of his company at a little party he was giving for his wife’s birthday that evening. Varvara Petrovna had long watched with a pang at her heart her son’s taste for such low company, but she had not dared to speak of it to him. He had made several acquaintances besides Liputin in the third rank of our society, and even in lower depths—he had a propensity for making such friends. He had never been in Liputin’s house before, though he had met the man himself. He guessed that Liputin’s invitation now was the consequence of the previous day’s scandal, and that as a local liberal he was delighted at the scandal, genuinely believing that that was the proper way to treat stewards at the club, and that it was very well done. Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch smiled and promised to come.
A great number of guests had assembled. The company was not very presentable, but very sprightly. Liputin, vain and envious, only entertained visitors twice a year, but on those occasions he did it without stint. The most honoured of the invited guests, Stepan Trofimovitch, was prevented by illness from being present. Tea was handed, and there were refreshments and vodka in plenty. Cards were played at three tables, and while waiting for supper the young people got up a dance. Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch led out Madame Liputin—a very pretty little woman who was dreadfully shy of him—took two turns round the room with her, sat down beside her, drew her into conversation and made her laugh. Noticing at last how pretty she was when she laughed, he suddenly, before all the company, seized her round the waist and kissed her on the lips two or three times with great relish. The poor frightened lady fainted. Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch took his hat and went up to the husband, who stood petrified in the middle of the general excitement. Looking at him he, too, became confused and muttering hurriedly “Don’t be angry,” went away. Liputin ran after him in the entry, gave him his fur-coat with his own hands, and saw him down the stairs, bowing. But next day a rather amusing sequel followed this comparatively harmless prank—a sequel from which Liputin gained some credit, and of which he took the fullest possible advantage.
At ten o’clock in the morning Liputin’s servant Agafya, an easy-mannered, lively, rosy-cheeked peasant woman of thirty, made her appearance at Stavrogin’s house, with a message for Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch. She insisted on seeing “his honour himself.” He had a very bad headache, but he went out. Varvara Petrovna succeeded in being present when the message was given.
“Sergay Vassilyevitch” (Liputin’s name), Agafya rattled off briskly, “bade me first of all give you his respectful greetings and ask after your health, what sort of night your honour spent after yesterday’s doings, and how your honour feels now after yesterday’s doings?”
Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch smiled.
“Give him my greetings and thank him, and tell your master from me, Agafya, that he’s the most sensible man in the town.”
“And he told me to answer that,” Agafya caught him up still more briskly, “that he knows that without your telling him, and wishes you the same.”
“Really! But how could he tell what I should say to you?”
“I can’t say in what way he could tell, but when I had set off and had gone right down the street, I heard something, and there he was, running after me without his cap. ‘I say, Agafya, if by any chance he says to you, “Tell your master that he has more sense than all the town,” you tell him at once, don’t forget, “The master himself knows that very well, and wishes you the same.”’”
At last the interview with the governor took place too. Our dear, mild, Ivan Ossipovitch had only just returned and only just had time to hear the angry complaint from the club. There was no doubt that something must be done, but he was troubled. The hospitable old man seemed also rather afraid of his young kinsman. He made up his mind, however, to induce him to apologise to the club and to his victim in satisfactory form, and, if required, by letter, and then to persuade him to leave us for a time, travelling, for instance, to improve his mind, in Italy, or in fact anywhere abroad. In the waiting-room in which on this occasion he received Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch (who had been at other times privileged as a relation to wander all over the house unchecked), Alyosha Telyatnikov, a clerk of refined manners, who was also a member of the governor’s household, was sitting in a corner opening envelopes at a table, and in the next room, at the window nearest to the door, a stout and sturdy colonel, a former friend and colleague of the governor, was sitting alone reading the Golos, paying no attention, of course, to what was taking place in the waiting-room; in fact, he had his back turned. Ivan Ossipovitch approached the subject in a roundabout way, almost in a whisper, but kept getting a little muddled. Nikolay looked anything but cordial, not at all as a relation should. He was pale and sat looking down and continually moving his eyebrows as though trying to control acute pain.
“You have a kind heart and a generous one, Nicolas,” the old man put in among other things, “you’re a man of great culture, you’ve grown up in the highest circles, and here too your behaviour has hitherto been a model, which has been a great consolation to your mother, who is so precious to all of us.… And now again everything has appeared in such an unaccountable light, so detrimental to all! I speak as a friend of your family, as an old man who loves you sincerely and a relation, at whose words you cannot take offence.… Tell me, what drives you to such reckless proceedings so contrary to all accepted rules and habits? What can be the meaning of such acts which seem almost like outbreaks of delirium?”
Nikolay listened with vexation and impatience. All at once there was a gleam of something sly and mocking in his eyes.
“I’ll tell you what drives me to it,” he said sullenly, and looking round him he bent down to Ivan Ossipovitch’s ear. The refined Alyosha Telyatnikov moved three steps farther away towards the window, and the colonel coughed over the Golos. Poor Ivan Ossipovitch hurriedly and trustfully inclined his ear; he was exceedingly curious. And then something utterly incredible, though on the other side only too unmistakable, took place. The old man suddenly felt that, instead of telling him some interesting secret, Nikolay had seized the upper part of his ear between his teeth and was nipping it rather hard. He shuddered, and breath failed him.
“Nicolas, this is beyond a joke!” he moaned mechanically in a voice not his own.
Alyosha and the colonel had not yet grasped the situation, besides they couldn’t see, and fancied up to the end that the two were whispering together; and yet the old man’s desperate face alarmed them. They looked at one another with wide-open eyes, not knowing whether to rush to his assistance as agreed or to wait. Nikolay noticed this perhaps, and bit the harder.
“Nicolas! Nicolas!” his victim moaned again, “come … you’ve had your joke, that’s enough!”
In another moment the poor governor would certainly have died of terror; but the monster had mercy on him, and let go his ear. The old man’s deadly terror lasted for a full minute, and it was followed by a sort of fit. Within half an hour Nikolay was arrested and removed for the time to the guard-room, where he was confined in a special cell, with a special sentinel at the door. This decision was a harsh one, but our mild governor was so angry that he was prepared to take the responsibility even if he had to face Varvara Petrovna. To the general amazement, when this lady arrived at the governor’s in haste and in nervous irritation to discuss the matter with him at once, she was refused admittance, whereupon, without getting out of the carriage, she returned home, unable to believe her senses.
And at last everything was explained! At two o’clock in the morning the prisoner, who had till then been calm and had even slept, suddenly became noisy, began furiously beating on the door with his fists,—with unnatural strength wrenched the iron grating off the door, broke the window, and cut his hands all over. When the officer on duty ran with a detachment of men and the keys and ordered the cell to be opened that they might rush in and bind the maniac, it appeared that he was suffering from acute brain fever. He was taken home to his mother.
Everything was explained at once. All our three doctors gave it as their opinion that the patient might well have been in a delirious state for three days before, and that though he might have apparently been in possession of full consciousness and cunning, yet he might have been deprived of common sense and will, which was indeed borne out by the facts. So it turned out that Liputin had guessed the truth sooner than any one. Ivan Ossipovitch, who was a man of delicacy and feeling, was completely abashed. But what was striking was that he, too, had considered Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch capable of any mad action even when in the full possession of his faculties. At the club, too, people were ashamed and wondered how it was they had failed to “see the elephant” and had missed the only explanation of all these marvels: there were, of course, sceptics among them, but they could not long maintain their position.
Nikolay was in bed for more than two months. A famous doctor was summoned from Moscow for a consultation; the whole town called on Varvara Petrovna. She forgave them. When in the spring Nikolay had completely recovered and assented without discussion to his mother’s proposal that he should go for a tour to Italy, she begged him further to pay visits of farewell to all the neighbours, and so far as possible to apologise where necessary. Nikolay agreed with great alacrity. It became known at the club that he had had a most delicate explanation with Pyotr Pavlovitch Gaganov, at the house of the latter, who had been completely satisfied with his apology. As he went round to pay these calls Nikolay was very grave and even gloomy. Every one appeared to receive him sympathetically, but everybody seemed embarrassed and glad that he was going to Italy. Ivan Ossipovitch was positively tearful, but was, for some reason, unable to bring himself to embrace him, even at the final leave-taking. It is true that some of us retained the conviction that the scamp had simply been making fun of us, and that the illness was neither here nor there. He went to see Liputin too.
“Tell me,” he said, “how could you guess beforehand what I should say about your sense and prime Agafya with an answer to it?”
“Why,” laughed Liputin, “it was because I recognised that you were a clever man, and so I foresaw what your answer would be.”
“Anyway, it was a remarkable coincidence. But, excuse me, did you consider me a sensible man and not insane when you sent Agafya?”
“For the cleverest and most rational, and I only pretended to believe that you were insane.… And you guessed at once what was in my mind, and sent a testimonial to my wit through Agafya.”
“Well, there you’re a little mistaken. I really was … unwell …” muttered Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch, frowning. “Bah!” he cried, “do you suppose I’m capable of attacking people when I’m in my senses? What object would there be in it?”
Liputin shrank together and didn’t know what to answer. Nikolay turned pale or, at least, so it seemed to Liputin.
“You have a very peculiar way of looking at things, anyhow,” Nikolay went on, “but as for Agafya, I understand, of course, that you simply sent her to be rude to me.”
“I couldn’t challenge you to a duel, could I?”
“Oh, no, of course! I seem to have heard that you’re not fond of duels.…”
“Why borrow from the French?” said Liputin, doubling up again.
“You’re for nationalism, then?”
Liputin shrank into himself more than ever.
“Bah, bah! What do I see?” cried Nicolas, noticing a volume of Considérant in the most conspicuous place on the table. “You don’t mean to say you’re a Fourierist! I’m afraid you must be! And isn’t this too borrowing from the French?” he laughed, tapping the book with his finger.
“No, that’s not taken from the French,” Liputin cried with positive fury, jumping up from his chair. “That is taken from the universal language of humanity, not simply from the French. From the language of the universal social republic and harmony of mankind, let me tell you! Not simply from the French!”
“Foo! hang it all! There’s no such language!” laughed Nikolay.
Sometimes a trifle will catch the attention and exclusively absorb it for a time. Most of what I have to tell of young Stavrogin will come later. But I will note now as a curious fact that of all the impressions made on him by his stay in our town, the one most sharply imprinted on his memory was the unsightly and almost abject figure of the little provincial official, the coarse and jealous family despot, the miserly money-lender who picked up the candle-ends and scraps left from dinner, and was at the same time a passionate believer in some visionary future “social harmony,” who at night gloated in ecstasies over fantastic pictures of a future phalanstery, in the approaching realisation of which, in Russia, and in our province, he believed as firmly as in his own existence. And that in the very place where he had saved up to buy himself a “little home,” where he had married for the second time, getting a dowry with his bride, where perhaps, for a hundred miles round there was not one man, himself included, who was the very least like a future member “of the universal human republic and social harmony.”
“God knows how these people come to exist!” Nikolay wondered, recalling sometimes the unlooked-for Fourierist.
Our prince travelled for over three years, so that he was almost forgotten in the town. We learned from Stepan Trofimovitch that he had travelled all over Europe, that he had even been in Egypt and had visited Jerusalem, and then had joined some scientific expedition to Iceland, and he actually did go to Iceland. It was reported too that he had spent one winter attending lectures in a German university. He did not write often to his mother, twice a year, or even less, but Varvara Petrovna was not angry or offended at this. She accepted submissively and without repining the relations that had been established once for all between her son and herself. She fretted for her “Nicolas” and dreamed of him continually. She kept her dreams and lamentations to herself. She seemed to have become less intimate even with Stepan Trofimovitch. She was forming secret projects, and seemed to have become more careful about money than ever. She was more than ever given to saving money and being angry at Stepan Trofimovitch’s losses at cards.
At last, in the April of this year, she received a letter from Paris from Praskovya Ivanovna Drozdov, the widow of the general and the friend of Varvara Petrovna’s childhood. Praskovya Ivanovna, whom Varvara Petrovna had not seen or corresponded with for eight years, wrote, informing her that Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch had become very intimate with them and a great friend of her only daughter, Liza, and that he was intending to accompany them to Switzerland, to Verney-Montreux, though in the household of Count K. (a very influential personage in Petersburg), who was now staying in Paris. He was received like a son of the family, so that he almost lived at the count’s. The letter was brief, and the object of it was perfectly clear, though it contained only a plain statement of the above-mentioned facts without drawing any inferences from them. Varvara Petrovna did not pause long to consider; she made up her mind instantly, made her preparations, and taking with her her protégée, Dasha (Shatov’s sister), she set off in the middle of April for Paris, and from there went on to Switzerland. She returned in July, alone, leaving Dasha with the Drozdovs. She brought us the news that the Drozdovs themselves had promised to arrive among us by the end of August.
The Drozdovs, too, were landowners of our province, but the official duties of General Ivan Ivanovitch Drozdov (who had been a friend of Varvara Petrovna’s and a colleague of her husband’s) had always prevented them from visiting their magnificent estate. On the death of the general, which had taken place the year before, the inconsolable widow had gone abroad with her daughter, partly in order to try the grape-cure which she proposed to carry out at Verney-Montreux during the latter half of the summer. On their return to Russia they intended to settle in our province for good. She had a large house in the town which had stood empty for many years with the windows nailed up. They were wealthy people. Praskovya Ivanovna had been, in her first marriage, a Madame Tushin, and like her school-friend, Varvara Petrovna, was the daughter of a government contractor of the old school, and she too had been an heiress at her marriage. Tushin, a retired cavalry captain, was also a man of means, and of some ability. At his death he left a snug fortune to his only daughter Liza, a child of seven. Now that Lizaveta Nikolaevna was twenty-two her private fortune might confidently be reckoned at 200,000 roubles, to say nothing of the property—which was bound to come to her at the death of her mother, who had no children by her second marriage. Varvara Petrovna seemed to be very well satisfied with her expedition. In her own opinion she had succeeded in coming to a satisfactory understanding with Praskovya Ivanovna, and immediately on her arrival she confided everything to Stepan Trofimovitch. She was positively effusive with him as she had not been for a very long time.
“Hurrah!” cried Stepan Trofimovitch, and snapped his fingers.
He was in a perfect rapture, especially as he had spent the whole time of his friend’s absence in extreme dejection. On setting off she had not even taken leave of him properly, and had said nothing of her plan to “that old woman,” dreading, perhaps, that he might chatter about it. She was cross with him at the time on account of a considerable gambling debt which she had suddenly discovered. But before she left Switzerland she had felt that on her return she must make up for it to her forsaken friend, especially as she had treated him very curtly for a long time past. Her abrupt and mysterious departure had made a profound and poignant impression on the timid heart of Stepan Trofimovitch, and to make matters worse he was beset with other difficulties at the same time. He was worried by a very considerable money obligation, which had weighed upon him for a long time and which he could never hope to meet without Varvara Petrovna’s assistance. Moreover, in the May of this year, the term of office of our mild and gentle Ivan Ossipovitch came to an end. He was superseded under rather unpleasant circumstances. Then, while Varvara Petrovna was still away, there followed the arrival of our new governor, Andrey Antonovitch von Lembke, and with that a change began at once to be perceptible in the attitude of almost the whole of our provincial society towards Varvara Petrovna, and consequently towards Stepan Trofimovitch. He had already had time anyway to make some disagreeable though valuable observations, and seemed very apprehensive alone without Varvara Petrovna. He had an agitating suspicion that he had already been mentioned to the governor as a dangerous man. He knew for a fact that some of our ladies meant to give up calling on Varvara Petrovna. Of our governor’s wife (who was only expected to arrive in the autumn) it was reported that though she was, so it was heard, proud, she was a real aristocrat, and “not like that poor Varvara Petrovna.” Everybody seemed to know for a fact, and in the greatest detail, that our governor’s wife and Varvara Petrovna had met already in society and had parted enemies, so that the mere mention of Madame von Lembke’s name would, it was said, make a painful impression on Varvara Petrovna. The confident and triumphant air of Varvara Petrovna, the contemptuous indifference with which she heard of the opinions of our provincial ladies and the agitation in local society, revived the flagging spirits of Stepan Trofimovitch and cheered him up at once. With peculiar, gleefully-obsequious humour, he was beginning to describe the new governor’s arrival.
“You are no doubt aware, excellente amie,” he said, jauntily and coquettishly drawling his words, “what is meant by a Russian administrator, speaking generally, and what is meant by a new Russian administrator, that is the newly-baked, newly-established … ces interminables mots Russes! But I don’t think you can know in practice what is meant by administrative ardour, and what sort of thing that is.”
“Administrative ardour? I don’t know what that is.”
“Well … Vous savez chez nous … En un mot, set the most insignificant nonentity to sell miserable tickets at a railway station, and the nonentity will at once feel privileged to look down on you like a Jupiter, pour montrer son pouvoir when you go to take a ticket. ‘Now then,’ he says, ‘I shall show you my power’ … and in them it comes to a genuine, administrative ardour. En un mot, I’ve read that some verger in one of our Russian churches abroad—mais c’est très curieux—drove, literally drove a distinguished English family, les dames charmantes, out of the church before the beginning of the Lenten service … vous savez ces chants et le livre de Job … on the simple pretext that ‘foreigners are not allowed to loaf about a Russian church, and that they must come at the time fixed.…’ And he sent them into fainting fits.… That verger was suffering from an attack of administrative ardour, et il a montré son pouvoir.”
“Cut it short if you can, Stepan Trofimovitch.”
“Mr. von Lembke is making a tour of the province now. En un mot, this Andrey Antonovitch, though he is a russified German and of the Orthodox persuasion, and even—I will say that for him—a remarkably handsome man of about forty …”
“What makes you think he’s a handsome man? He has eyes like a sheep’s.”
“Precisely so. But in this I yield, of course, to the opinion of our ladies.”
“Let’s get on, Stepan Trofimovitch, I beg you! By the way, you’re wearing a red neck-tie. Is it long since you’ve taken to it?”
“I’ve … I’ve only put it on to-day.”
“And do you take your constitutional? Do you go for a four-mile walk every day as the doctor told you to?”
“N-not … always.”
“I knew you didn’t! I felt sure of that when I was in Switzerland!” she cried irritably. “Now you must go not four but six miles a day! You’ve grown terribly slack, terribly, terribly! You’re not simply getting old, you’re getting decrepit.… You shocked me when I first saw you just now, in spite of your red tie, quelle idee rouge! Go on about Von Lembke if you’ve really something to tell me, and do finish some time, I entreat you, I’m tired.”
“En un mot, I only wanted to say that he is one of those administrators who begin to have power at forty, who, till they’re forty, have been stagnating in insignificance and then suddenly come to the front through suddenly acquiring a wife, or some other equally desperate means.… That is, he has gone away now … that is, I mean to say, it was at once whispered in both his ears that I am a corrupter of youth, and a hot-bed of provincial atheism.… He began making inquiries at once.”
“Is that true?”
“I took steps about it, in fact. When he was ‘informed’ that you ‘ruled the province,’ vous savez, he allowed himself to use the expression that ‘there shall be nothing of that sort in the future.’”
“Did he say that?”
“That ‘there shall be nothing of the sort in future,’ and, avec cette morgue.… His wife, Yulia Mihailovna, we shall behold at the end of August, she’s coming straight from Petersburg.”
“From abroad. We met there.”
“In Paris and in Switzerland. She’s related to the Drozdovs.”
“Related! What an extraordinary coincidence! They say she is ambitious and … supposed to have great connections.”
“Nonsense! Connections indeed! She was an old maid without a farthing till she was five-and-forty. But now she’s hooked her Von Lembke, and, of course, her whole object is to push him forward. They’re both intriguers.”
“And they say she’s two years older than he is?”
“Five. Her mother used to wear out her skirts on my doorsteps in Moscow; she used to beg for an invitation to our balls as a favour when my husband was living. And this creature used to sit all night alone in a corner without dancing, with her turquoise fly on her forehead, so that simply from pity I used to have to send her her first partner at two o’clock in the morning. She was five-and-twenty then, and they used to rig her out in short skirts like a little girl. It was improper to have them about at last.”
“I seem to see that fly.”
“I tell you, as soon as I arrived I was in the thick of an intrigue. You read Madame Drozdov’s letter, of course. What could be clearer? What did I find? That fool Praskovya herself—she always was a fool—looked at me as much as to ask why I’d come. You can fancy how surprised I was. I looked round, and there was that Lembke woman at her tricks, and that cousin of hers—old Drozdov’s nephew—it was all clear. You may be sure I changed all that in a twinkling, and Praskovya is on my side again, but what an intrigue!”
“In which you came off victor, however. Bismarck!”
“Without being a Bismarck I’m equal to falseness and stupidity wherever I meet it, falseness, and Praskovya’s folly. I don’t know when I’ve met such a flabby woman, and what’s more her legs are swollen, and she’s a good-natured simpleton, too. What can be more foolish than a good-natured simpleton?”
“A spiteful fool, ma bonne amie, a spiteful fool is still more foolish,” Stepan Trofimovitch protested magnanimously.
“You’re right, perhaps. Do you remember Liza?”
“But she’s not an enfant now, but a woman, and a woman of character. She’s a generous, passionate creature, and what I like about her, she stands up to that confiding fool, her mother. There was almost a row over that cousin.”
“Bah, and of course he’s no relation of Lizaveta Nikolaevna’s at all.… Has he designs on her?”
“You see, he’s a young officer, not by any means talkative, modest in fact. I always want to be just. I fancy he is opposed to the intrigue himself, and isn’t aiming at anything, and it was only the Von Lembke’s tricks. He had a great respect for Nicolas. You understand, it all depends on Liza. But I left her on the best of terms with Nicolas, and he promised he would come to us in November. So it’s only the Von Lembke who is intriguing, and Praskovya is a blind woman. She suddenly tells me that all my suspicions are fancy. I told her to her face she was a fool. I am ready to repeat it at the day of judgment. And if it hadn’t been for Nicolas begging me to leave it for a time, I wouldn’t have come away without unmasking that false woman. She’s been trying to ingratiate herself with Count K. through Nicolas. She wants to come between mother and son. But Liza’s on our side, and I came to an understanding with Praskovya. Do you know that Karmazinov is a relation of hers?”
“What? A relation of Madame von Lembke?”
“Yes, of hers. Distant.”
“Karmazinov, the novelist?”
“Yes, the writer. Why does it surprise you? Of course he considers himself a great man. Stuck-up creature! She’s coming here with him. Now she’s making a fuss of him out there. She’s got a notion of setting up a sort of literary society here. He’s coming for a month, he wants to sell his last piece of property here. I very nearly met him in Switzerland, and was very anxious not to. Though I hope he will deign to recognise me. He wrote letters to me in the old days, he has been in my house. I should like you to dress better, Stepan Trofimovitch; you’re growing more slovenly every day.… Oh, how you torment me! What are you reading now?”
“I … I …”
“I understand. The same as ever, friends and drinking, the club and cards, and the reputation of an atheist. I don’t like that reputation, Stepan Trofimovitch; I don’t care for you to be called an atheist, particularly now. I didn’t care for it in old days, for it’s all nothing but empty chatter. It must be said at last.”
“Mais, ma chère …”
“Listen, Stepan Trofimovitch, of course I’m ignorant compared with you on all learned subjects, but as I was travelling here I thought a great deal about you. I’ve come to one conclusion.”
“That you and I are not the wisest people in the world, but that there are people wiser than we are.”
“Witty and apt. If there are people wiser than we are, then there are people more right than we are, and we may be mistaken, you mean? Mais, ma bonne amie, granted that I may make a mistake, yet have I not the common, human, eternal, supreme right of freedom of conscience? I have the right not to be bigoted or superstitious if I don’t wish to, and for that I shall naturally be hated by certain persons to the end of time. Et puis, comme on trouve toujours plus de moines que de raison, and as I thoroughly agree with that …”
“What, what did you say?”
“I said, on trouve toujours plus de moines que de raison, and as I thoroughly …”
“I’m sure that’s not your saying. You must have taken it from somewhere.”
“It was Pascal said that.”
“Just as I thought … it’s not your own. Why don’t you ever say anything like that yourself, so shortly and to the point, instead of dragging things out to such a length? That’s much better than what you said just now about administrative ardour …”
“Ma foi, chère …” why? In the first place probably because I’m not a Pascal after all, et puis … secondly, we Russians never can say anything in our own language.… We never have said anything hitherto, at any rate.…”
“H’m! That’s not true, perhaps. Anyway, you’d better make a note of such phrases, and remember them, you know, in case you have to talk.… Ach, Stephan Trofimovitch. I have come to talk to you seriously, quite seriously.”
“Chère, chère amie!”
“Now that all these Von Lembkes and Karmazinovs.… Oh, my goodness, how you have deteriorated!… Oh, my goodness, how you do torment me!… I should have liked these people to feel a respect for you, for they’re not worth your little finger—but the way you behave!… What will they see? What shall I have to show them? Instead of nobly standing as an example, keeping up the tradition of the past, you surround yourself with a wretched rabble, you have picked up impossible habits, you’ve grown feeble, you can’t do without wine and cards, you read nothing but Paul de Kock, and write nothing, while all of them write; all your time’s wasted in gossip. How can you bring yourself to be friends with a wretched creature like your inseparable Liputin?”
“Why is he mine and inseparable?” Stepan Trofimovitch protested timidly.
“Where is he now?” Varvara Petrovna went on, sharply and sternly.
“He … he has an infinite respect for you, and he’s gone to S——k, to receive an inheritance left him by his mother.”
“He seems to do nothing but get money. And how’s Shatov? Is he just the same?”
“Irascible, mais bon.”
“I can’t endure your Shatov. He’s spiteful and he thinks too much of himself.”
“How is Darya Pavlovna?”
“You mean Dasha? What made you think of her?” Varvara Petrovna looked at him inquisitively. “She’s quite well. I left her with the Drozdovs. I heard something about your son in Switzerland. Nothing good.”
“Oh, c’est un histoire bien bête! Je vous attendais, ma bonne amie, pour vous raconter …”
“Enough, Stepan Trofimovitch. Leave me in peace. I’m worn out. We shall have time to talk to our heart’s content, especially of what’s unpleasant. You’ve begun to splutter when you laugh, it’s a sign of senility! And what a strange way of laughing you’ve taken to!… Good Heavens, what a lot of bad habits you’ve fallen into! Karmazinov won’t come and see you! And people are only too glad to make the most of anything as it is.… You’ve betrayed yourself completely now. Well, come, that’s enough, that’s enough, I’m tired. You really might have mercy upon one!”
Stepan Trofimovitch “had mercy,” but he withdrew in great perturbation.
Our friend certainly had fallen into not a few bad habits, especially of late. He had obviously and rapidly deteriorated; and it was true that he had become slovenly. He drank more and had become more tearful and nervous; and had grown too impressionable on the artistic side. His face had acquired a strange facility for changing with extraordinary quickness, from the most solemn expression, for instance, to the most absurd, and even foolish. He could not endure solitude, and was always craving for amusement. One had always to repeat to him some gossip, some local anecdote, and every day a new one. If no one came to see him for a long time he wandered disconsolately about the rooms, walked to the window, puckering up his lips, heaved deep sighs, and almost fell to whimpering at last. He was always full of forebodings, was afraid of something unexpected and inevitable; he had become timorous; he began to pay great attention to his dreams.
He spent all that day and evening in great depression, he sent for me, was very much agitated, talked a long while, gave me a long account of things, but all rather disconnected. Varvara Petrovna had known for a long time that he concealed nothing from me. It seemed to me at last that he was worried about something particular, and was perhaps unable to form a definite idea of it himself. As a rule when we met tête-à-tête and he began making long complaints to me, a bottle was almost always brought in after a little time, and things became much more comfortable. This time there was no wine, and he was evidently struggling all the while against the desire to send for it.
“And why is she always so cross?” he complained every minute, like a child. “Tous les hommes de génie et de progrès en Russie étaient, sont, et seront toujours des gamblers et des drunkards qui boivent in outbreaks … and I’m not such a gambler after all, and I’m not such a drunkard. She reproaches me for not writing anything. Strange idea!… She asks why I lie down? She says I ought to stand, ‘an example and reproach.’ Mais, entre nous soit dit, what is a man to do who is destined to stand as a ‘reproach,’ if not to lie down? Does she understand that?”
And at last it became clear to me what was the chief particular trouble which was worrying him so persistently at this time. Many times that evening he went to the looking-glass, and stood a long while before it. At last he turned from the looking-glass to me, and with a sort of strange despair, said: “Mon cher, je suis un broken-down man.” Yes, certainly, up to that time, up to that very day there was one thing only of which he had always felt confident in spite of the “new views,” and of the “change in Varvara Petrovna’s ideas,” that was, the conviction that still he had a fascination for her feminine heart, not simply as an exile or a celebrated man of learning, but as a handsome man. For twenty years this soothing and flattering opinion had been rooted in his mind, and perhaps of all his convictions this was the hardest to part with. Had he any presentiment that evening of the colossal ordeal which was preparing for him in the immediate future?
I will now enter upon the description of that almost forgotten incident with which my story properly speaking begins.
At last at the very end of August the Drozdovs returned. Their arrival made a considerable sensation in local society, and took place shortly before their relation, our new governor’s wife, made her long-expected appearance. But of all these interesting events I will speak later. For the present I will confine myself to saying that Praskovya Ivanovna brought Varvara Petrovna, who was expecting her so impatiently, a most perplexing problem: Nikolay had parted from them in July, and, meeting Count K. on the Rhine, had set off with him and his family for Petersburg. (N.B.—The Count’s three daughters were all of marriageable age.)
“Lizaveta is so proud and obstinate that I could get nothing out of her,” Praskovya Ivanovna said in conclusion. “But I saw for myself that something had happened between her and Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch. I don’t know the reasons, but I fancy, my dear Varvara Petrovna, that you will have to ask your Darya Pavlovna for them. To my thinking Liza was offended. I’m glad. I can tell you that I’ve brought you back your favourite at last and handed her over to you; it’s a weight off my mind.”
These venomous words were uttered with remarkable irritability. It was evident that the “flabby” woman had prepared them and gloated beforehand over the effect they would produce. But Varvara Petrovna was not the woman to be disconcerted by sentimental effects and enigmas. She sternly demanded the most precise and satisfactory explanations. Praskovya Ivanovna immediately lowered her tone and even ended by dissolving into tears and expressions of the warmest friendship. This irritable but sentimental lady, like Stepan Trofimovitch, was forever yearning for true friendship, and her chief complaint against her daughter Lizaveta Nikolaevna was just that “her daughter was not a friend to her.”
But from all her explanations and outpourings nothing certain could be gathered but that there actually had been some sort of quarrel between Liza and Nikolay, but of the nature of the quarrel Praskovya Ivanovna was obviously unable to form a definite idea. As for her imputations against Darya Pavlovna, she not only withdrew them completely in the end, but even particularly begged Varvara Petrovna to pay no attention to her words, because “they had been said in irritation.” In fact, it had all been left very far from clear—suspicious, indeed. According to her account the quarrel had arisen from Liza’s “obstinate and ironical character.” “Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch is proud, too, and though he was very much in love, yet he could not endure sarcasm, and began to be sarcastic himself. Soon afterwards we made the acquaintance of a young man, the nephew, I believe, of your ‘Professor’ and, indeed, the surname’s the same.”
“The son, not the nephew,” Varvara Petrovna corrected her.
Even in old days Praskovya Ivanovna had been always unable to recall Stepan Trofimovitch’s name, and had always called him the “Professor.”
“Well, his son, then; so much the better. Of course, it’s all the same to me. An ordinary young man, very lively and free in his manners, but nothing special in him. Well, then, Liza herself did wrong, she made friends with the young man with the idea of making Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch jealous. I don’t see much harm in that; it’s the way of girls, quite usual, even charming in them. Only instead of being jealous Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch made friends with the young man himself, just as though he saw nothing and didn’t care. This made Liza furious. The young man soon went away (he was in a great hurry to get somewhere) and Liza took to picking quarrels with Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch at every opportunity. She noticed that he used sometimes to talk to Dasha; and, well, she got in such a frantic state that even my life wasn’t worth living, my dear. The doctors have forbidden my being irritated, and I was so sick of their lake they make such a fuss about, it simply gave me toothache, I had such rheumatism. It’s stated in print that the Lake of Geneva does give people the toothache. It’s a feature of the place. Then Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch suddenly got a letter from the countess and he left us at once. He packed up in one day. They parted in a friendly way, and Liza became very cheerful and frivolous, and laughed a great deal seeing him off; only that was all put on. When he had gone she became very thoughtful, and she gave up speaking of him altogether and wouldn’t let me mention his name. And I should advise you, dear Varvara Petrovna, not to approach the subject with Liza, you’ll only do harm. But if you hold your tongue she’ll begin to talk of it herself, and then you’ll learn more. I believe they’ll come together again, if only Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch doesn’t put off coming, as he promised.”
“I’ll write to him at once. If that’s how it was, there was nothing in the quarrel; all nonsense! And I know Darya too well. It’s nonsense!”
“I’m sorry for what I said about Dashenka, I did wrong. Their conversations were quite ordinary and they talked out loud, too. But it all upset me so much at the time, my dear. And Liza, I saw, got on with her again as affectionately as before.…”
That very day Varvara Petrovna wrote to Nikolay, and begged him to come, if only one month, earlier than the date he had fixed. But yet she still felt that there was something unexplained and obscure in the matter. She pondered over it all the evening and all night. Praskovya’s opinion seemed to her too innocent and sentimental. “Praskovya has always been too sentimental from the old schooldays upwards,” she reflected. “Nicolas is not the man to run away from a girl’s taunts. There’s some other reason for it, if there really has been a breach between them. That officer’s here though, they’ve brought him with them. As a relation he lives in their house. And, as for Darya, Praskovya was in too much haste to apologise. She must have kept something to herself, which she wouldn’t tell me.”
By the morning Varvara Petrovna had matured a project for putting a stop once for all to one misunderstanding at least; a project amazing in its unexpectedness. What was in her heart when she conceived it? It would be hard to decide and I will not undertake to explain beforehand all the incongruities of which it was made up. I simply confine myself as chronicler to recording events precisely as they happened, and it is not my fault if they seem incredible. Yet I must once more testify that by the morning there was not the least suspicion of Dasha left in Varvara Petrovna’s mind, though in reality there never had been any—she had too much confidence in her. Besides, she could not admit the idea that “Nicolas” could be attracted by her Darya. Next morning when Darya Pavlovna was pouring out tea at the table Varvara Petrovna looked for a long while intently at her and, perhaps for the twentieth time since the previous day, repeated to herself: “It’s all nonsense!”
All she noticed was that Dasha looked rather tired, and that she was even quieter and more apathetic than she used to be. After their morning tea, according to their invariable custom, they sat down to needlework. Varvara Petrovna demanded from her a full account of her impressions abroad, especially of nature, of the inhabitants, of the towns, the customs, their arts and commerce—of everything she had time to observe. She asked no questions about the Drozdovs or how she had got on with them. Dasha, sitting beside her at the work-table helping her with the embroidery, talked for half an hour in her even, monotonous, but rather weak voice.
“Darya!” Varvara Petrovna interrupted suddenly, “is there nothing special you want to tell me?”
“No, nothing,” said Dasha, after a moment’s thought, and she glanced at Varvara Petrovna with her light-coloured eyes.
“Nothing on your soul, on your heart, or your conscience?”
“Nothing,” Dasha repeated, quietly, but with a sort of sullen firmness.
“I knew there wasn’t! Believe me, Darya, I shall never doubt you. Now sit still and listen. In front of me, on that chair. I want to see the whole of you. That’s right. Listen, do you want to be married?”
Dasha responded with a long, inquiring, but not greatly astonished look.
“Stay, hold your tongue. In the first place there is a very great difference in age, but of course you know better than anyone what nonsense that is. You’re a sensible girl, and there must be no mistakes in your life. Besides, he’s still a handsome man … In short, Stepan Trofimovitch, for whom you have always had such a respect. Well?”
Dasha looked at her still more inquiringly, and this time not simply with surprise; she blushed perceptibly.
“Stay, hold your tongue, don’t be in a hurry! Though you will have money under my will, yet when I die, what will become of you, even if you have money? You’ll be deceived and robbed of your money, you’ll be lost in fact. But married to him you’re the wife of a distinguished man. Look at him on the other hand. Though I’ve provided for him, if I die what will become of him? But I could trust him to you. Stay, I’ve not finished. He’s frivolous, shilly-shally, cruel, egoistic, he has low habits. But mind you think highly of him, in the first place because there are many worse. I don’t want to get you off my hands by marrying you to a rascal, you don’t imagine anything of that sort, do you? And, above all, because I ask you, you’ll think highly of him,”—
She broke off suddenly and irritably. “Do you hear? Why won’t you say something?”
Dasha still listened and did not speak.
“Stay, wait a little. He’s an old woman, but you know, that’s all the better for you. Besides, he’s a pathetic old woman. He doesn’t deserve to be loved by a woman at all, but he deserves to be loved for his helplessness, and you must love him for his helplessness. You understand me, don’t you? Do you understand me?”
Dasha nodded her head affirmatively.
“I knew you would. I expected as much of you. He will love you because he ought, he ought; he ought to adore you.” Varvara Petrovna almost shrieked with peculiar exasperation. “Besides, he will be in love with you without any ought about it. I know him. And another thing, I shall always be here. You may be sure I shall always be here. He will complain of you, he’ll begin to say things against you behind your back, he’ll whisper things against you to any stray person he meets, he’ll be for ever whining and whining; he’ll write you letters from one room to another, two a day, but he won’t be able to get on without you all the same, and that’s the chief thing. Make him obey you. If you can’t make him you’ll be a fool. He’ll want to hang himself and threaten, to—don’t you believe it. It’s nothing but nonsense. Don’t believe it; but still keep a sharp look-out, you never can tell, and one day he may hang himself. It does happen with people like that. It’s not through strength of will but through weakness that people hang themselves, and so never drive him to an extreme, that’s the first rule in married life. Remember, too, that he’s a poet. Listen, Dasha, there’s no greater happiness than self-sacrifice. And besides, you’ll be giving me great satisfaction and that’s the chief thing. Don’t think I’ve been talking nonsense. I understand what I’m saying. I’m an egoist, you be an egoist, too. Of course I’m not forcing you. It’s entirely for you to decide. As you say, so it shall be. Well, what’s the good of sitting like this. Speak!”
“I don’t mind, Varvara Petrovna, if I really must be married,” said Dasha firmly.
“Must? What are you hinting at?” Varvara Petrovna looked sternly and intently at her.
Dasha was silent, picking at her embroidery canvas with her needle.
“Though you’re a clever girl, you’re talking nonsense; though it is true that I have certainly set my heart on marrying you, yet it’s not because it’s necessary, but simply because the idea has occurred to me, and only to Stepan Trofimovitch. If it had not been for Stepan Trofimovitch, I should not have thought of marrying you yet, though you are twenty.… Well?”
“I’ll do as you wish, Varvara Petrovna.”
“Then you consent! Stay, be quiet. Why are you in such a hurry? I haven’t finished. In my will I’ve left you fifteen thousand roubles. I’ll give you that at once, on your wedding-day. You will give eight thousand of it to him; that is, not to him but to me. He has a debt of eight thousand. I’ll pay it, but he must know that it is done with your money. You’ll have seven thousand left in your hands. Never let him touch a farthing of it. Don’t pay his debts ever. If once you pay them, you’ll never be free of them. Besides, I shall always be here. You shall have twelve hundred roubles a year from me, with extras, fifteen hundred, besides board and lodging, which shall be at my expense, just as he has it now. Only you must set up your own servants. Your yearly allowance shall be paid to you all at once straight into your hands. But be kind, and sometimes give him something, and let his friends come to see him once a week, but if they come more often, turn them out. But I shall be here, too. And if I die, your pension will go on till his death, do you hear, till his death, for it’s his pension, not yours. And besides the seven thousand you’ll have now, which you ought to keep untouched if you’re not foolish, I’ll leave you another eight thousand in my will. And you’ll get nothing more than that from me, it’s right that you should know it. Come, you consent, eh? Will you say something at last?”
“I have told you already, Varvara Petrovna.”
“Remember that you’re free to decide. As you like, so it shall be.”
“Then, may I ask, Varvara Petrovna, has Stepan Trofimovitch said anything yet?”
“No, he hasn’t said anything, he doesn’t know … but he will speak directly.”
She jumped up at once and threw on a black shawl. Dasha flushed a little again, and watched her with questioning eyes. Varvara Petrovna turned suddenly to her with a face flaming with anger.
“You’re a fool!” She swooped down on her like a hawk. “An ungrateful fool! What’s in your mind? Can you imagine that I’d compromise you, in any way, in the smallest degree. Why, he shall crawl on his knees to ask you, he must be dying of happiness, that’s how it shall be arranged. Why, you know that I’d never let you suffer. Or do you suppose he’ll take you for the sake of that eight thousand, and that I’m hurrying off to sell you? You’re a fool, a fool! You’re all ungrateful fools. Give me my umbrella!”
And she flew off to walk by the wet brick pavements and the wooden planks to Stepan Trofimovitch’s.
It was true that she would never have let Dasha suffer; on the contrary, she considered now that she was acting as her benefactress. The most generous and legitimate indignation was glowing in her soul, when, as she put on her shawl, she caught fixed upon her the embarrassed and mistrustful eyes of her protégée. She had genuinely loved the girl from her childhood upwards. Praskovya Ivanovna had with justice called Darya Pavlovna her favourite. Long ago Varvara Petrovna had made up her mind once for all that “Darya’s disposition was not like her brother’s” (not, that is, like Ivan Shatov’s), that she was quiet and gentle, and capable of great self-sacrifice; that she was distinguished by a power of devotion, unusual modesty, rare reasonableness, and, above all, by gratitude. Till that time Dasha had, to all appearances, completely justified her expectations.
“In that life there will be no mistakes,” said Varvara Petrovna when the girl was only twelve years old, and as it was characteristic of her to attach herself doggedly and passionately to any dream that fascinated her, any new design, any idea that struck her as noble, she made up her mind at once to educate Dasha as though she were her own daughter. She at once set aside a sum of money for her, and sent for a governess, Miss Criggs, who lived with them until the girl was sixteen, but she was for some reason suddenly dismissed. Teachers came for her from the High School, among them a real Frenchman, who taught Dasha French. He, too, was suddenly dismissed, almost turned out of the house. A poor lady, a widow of good family, taught her to play the piano. Yet her chief tutor was Stepan Trofimovitch.
In reality he first discovered Dasha. He began teaching the quiet child even before Varvara Petrovna had begun to think about her. I repeat again, it was wonderful how children took to him. Lizaveta Nikolaevna Tushin had been taught by him from the age of eight till eleven (Stepan Trofimovitch took no fees, of course, for his lessons, and would not on any account have taken payment from the Drozdovs). But he fell in love with the charming child and used to tell her poems of a sort about the creation of the world, about the earth, and the history of humanity. His lectures about the primitive peoples and primitive man were more interesting than the Arabian Nights. Liza, who was ecstatic over these stories, used to mimic Stepan Trofimovitch very funnily at home. He heard of this and once peeped in on her unawares. Liza, overcome with confusion, flung herself into his arms and shed tears; Stepan Trofimovitch wept too with delight. But Liza soon after went away, and only Dasha was left. When Dasha began to have other teachers, Stepan Trofimovitch gave up his lessons with her, and by degrees left off noticing her. Things went on like this for a long time. Once when she was seventeen he was struck by her prettiness. It happened at Varvara Petrovna’s table. He began to talk to the young girl, was much pleased with her answers, and ended by offering to give her a serious and comprehensive course of lessons on the history of Russian literature. Varvara Petrovna approved, and thanked him for his excellent idea, and Dasha was delighted. Stepan Trofimovitch proceeded to make special preparations for the lectures, and at last they began. They began with the most ancient period. The first lecture went off enchantingly. Varvara Petrovna was present. When Stepan Trofimovitch had finished, and as he was going informed his pupil that the next time he would deal with “The Story of the Expedition of Igor,” Varvara Petrovna suddenly got up and announced that there would be no more lessons. Stepan Trofimovitch winced, but said nothing, and Dasha flushed crimson. It put a stop to the scheme, however. This had happened just three years before Varvara Petrovna’s unexpected fancy.
Poor Stepan Trofimovitch was sitting alone free from all misgivings. Plunged in mournful reveries he had for some time been looking out of the window to see whether any of his friends were coming. But nobody would come. It was drizzling. It was turning cold, he would have to have the stove heated. He sighed. Suddenly a terrible apparition flashed upon his eyes:
Varvara Petrovna in such weather and at such an unexpected hour to see him! And on foot! He was so astounded that he forgot to put on his coat, and received her as he was, in his everlasting pink-wadded dressing-jacket.
“Ma bonne amie!” he cried faintly, to greet her. “You’re alone; I’m glad; I can’t endure your friends. How you do smoke! Heavens, what an atmosphere! You haven’t finished your morning tea and it’s nearly twelve o’clock. It’s your idea of bliss—disorder! You take pleasure in dirt. What’s that torn paper on the floor? Nastasya, Nastasya! What is your Nastasya about? Open the window, the casement, the doors, fling everything wide open. And we’ll go into the drawing-room. I’ve come to you on a matter of importance. And you sweep up, my good woman, for once in your life.”
“They make such a muck!” Nastasya whined in a voice of plaintive exasperation.
“Well, you must sweep, sweep it up fifteen times a day! You’ve a wretched drawing-room” (when they had gone into the drawing-room). “Shut the door properly. She’ll be listening. You must have it repapered. Didn’t I send a paperhanger to you with patterns? Why didn’t you choose one? Sit down, and listen. Do sit down, I beg you. Where are you off to? Where are you off to? Where are you off to?”
“I’ll be back directly,” Stepan Trofimovitch cried from the next room. “Here I am again.”
“Ah,—you’ve changed your coat.” She scanned him mockingly. (He had flung his coat on over the dressing-jacket.) “Well, certainly that’s more suited to our subject. Do sit down, I entreat you.”
She told him everything at once, abruptly and impressively. She hinted at the eight thousand of which he stood in such terrible need. She told him in detail of the dowry. Stepan Trofimovitch sat trembling, opening his eyes wider and wider. He heard it all, but he could not realise it clearly. He tried to speak, but his voice kept breaking. All he knew was that everything would be as she said, that to protest and refuse to agree would be useless, and that he was a married man irrevocably.
“Mais, ma bonne amie! … for the third time, and at my age … and to such a child.” He brought out at last, “Mais, c’est une enfant!”
“A child who is twenty years old, thank God. Please don’t roll your eyes, I entreat you, you’re not on the stage. You’re very clever and learned, but you know nothing at all about life. You will always want a nurse to look after you. I shall die, and what will become of you? She will be a good nurse to you; she’s a modest girl, strong-willed, reasonable; besides, I shall be here too, I shan’t die directly. She’s fond of home, she’s an angel of gentleness. This happy thought came to me in Switzerland. Do you understand if I tell you myself that she is an angel of gentleness!” she screamed with sudden fury. “Your house is dirty, she will bring in order, cleanliness. Everything will shine like a mirror. Good gracious, do you expect me to go on my knees to you with such a treasure, to enumerate all the advantages, to court you! Why, you ought to be on your knees.… Oh, you shallow, shallow, faint-hearted man!”
“But … I’m an old man!”
“What do your fifty-three years matter! Fifty is the middle of life, not the end of it. You are a handsome man and you know it yourself. You know, too, what a respect she has for you. If I die, what will become of her? But married to you she’ll be at peace, and I shall be at peace. You have renown, a name, a loving heart. You receive a pension which I look upon as an obligation. You will save her perhaps, you will save her! In any case you will be doing her an honour. You will form her for life, you will develop her heart, you will direct her ideas. How many people come to grief nowadays because their ideas are wrongly directed. By that time your book will be ready, and you will at once set people talking about you again.”
“I am, in fact,” he muttered, at once flattered by Varvara Petrovna’s adroit insinuations. “I was just preparing to sit down to my ‘Tales from Spanish History.’”
“Well, there you are. It’s just come right.”
“But … she? Have you spoken to her?”
“Don’t worry about her. And there’s no need for you to be inquisitive. Of course, you must ask her yourself, entreat her to do you the honour, you understand? But don’t be uneasy. I shall be here. Besides, you love her.”
Stepan Trofimovitch felt giddy. The walls were going round. There was one terrible idea underlying this to which he could not reconcile himself.
“Excellente amie,” his voice quivered suddenly. “I could never have conceived that you would make up your mind to give me in marriage to another … woman.”
“You’re not a girl, Stepan Trofimovitch. Only girls are given in marriage. You are taking a wife,” Varvara Petrovna hissed malignantly.
“Oui, j’ai pris un mot pour un autre. Mais c’est égal.” He gazed at her with a hopeless air.
“I see that c’est égal,” she muttered contemptuously through her teeth. “Good heavens! Why he’s going to faint. Nastasya, Nastasya, water!”
But water was not needed. He came to himself. Varvara Petrovna took up her umbrella.
“I see it’s no use talking to you now.…”
“Oui, oui, je suis incapable.”
“But by to-morrow you’ll have rested and thought it over. Stay at home. If anything happens let me know, even if it’s at night. Don’t write letters, I shan’t read them. To-morrow I’ll come again at this time alone, for a final answer, and I trust it will be satisfactory. Try to have nobody here and no untidiness, for the place isn’t fit to be seen. Nastasya, Nastasya!”
The next day, of course, he consented, and, indeed, he could do nothing else. There was one circumstance …
Stepan Trofimovitch’s estate, as we used to call it (which consisted of fifty souls, reckoning in the old fashion, and bordered on Skvoreshniki), was not really his at all, but his first wife’s, and so belonged now to his son Pyotr Stepanovitch Verhovensky. Stepan Trofimovitch was simply his trustee, and so, when the nestling was full-fledged, he had given his father a formal authorisation to manage the estate. This transaction was a profitable one for the young man. He received as much as a thousand roubles a year by way of revenue from the estate, though under the new regime it could not have yielded more than five hundred, and possibly not that. God knows how such an arrangement had arisen. The whole sum, however, was sent the young man by Varvara Petrovna, and Stepan Trofimovitch had nothing to do with a single rouble of it. On the other hand, the whole revenue from the land remained in his pocket, and he had, besides, completely ruined the estate, letting it to a mercenary rogue, and without the knowledge of Varvara Petrovna selling the timber which gave the estate its chief value. He had some time before sold the woods bit by bit. It was worth at least eight thousand, yet he had only received five thousand for it. But he sometimes lost too much at the club, and was afraid to ask Varvara Petrovna for the money. She clenched her teeth when she heard at last of everything. And now, all at once, his son announced that he was coming himself to sell his property for what he could get for it, and commissioned his father to take steps promptly to arrange the sale. It was clear that Stepan Trofimovitch, being a generous and disinterested man, felt ashamed of his treatment of ce cher enfant (whom he had seen for the last time nine years before as a student in Petersburg). The estate might originally have been worth thirteen or fourteen thousand. Now it was doubtful whether anyone would give five for it. No doubt Stepan Trofimovitch was fully entitled by the terms of the trust to sell the wood, and taking into account the incredibly large yearly revenue of a thousand roubles which had been sent punctually for so many years, he could have put up a good defence of his management. But Stepan Trofimovitch was a generous man of exalted impulses. A wonderfully fine inspiration occurred to his mind: when Petrusha returned, to lay on the table before him the maximum price of fifteen thousand roubles without a hint at the sums that had been sent him hitherto, and warmly and with tears to press ce cher fils to his heart, and so to make an end of all accounts between them. He began cautiously and indirectly unfolding this picture before Varvara Petrovna. He hinted that this would add a peculiarly noble note to their friendship … to their “idea.” This would set the parents of the last generation—and people of the last generation generally—in such a disinterested and magnanimous light in comparison with the new frivolous and socialistic younger generation. He said a great deal more, but Varvara Petrovna was obstinately silent. At last she informed him airily that she was prepared to buy their estate, and to pay for it the maximum price, that is, six or seven thousand (though four would have been a fair price for it). Of the remaining eight thousand which had vanished with the woods she said not a word.
This conversation took place a month before the match was proposed to him. Stepan Trofimovitch was overwhelmed, and began to ponder. There might in the past have been a hope that his son would not come, after all—an outsider, that is to say, might have hoped so. Stepan Trofimovitch as a father would have indignantly rejected the insinuation that he could entertain such a hope. Anyway queer rumours had hitherto been reaching us about Petrusha. To begin with, on completing his studies at the university six years before, he had hung about in Petersburg without getting work. Suddenly we got the news that he had taken part in issuing some anonymous manifesto and that he was implicated in the affair. Then he suddenly turned up abroad in Switzerland at Geneva—he had escaped, very likely.
“It’s surprising to me,” Stepan Trofimovitch commented, greatly disconcerted. “Petrusha, c’est une si pauvre tête! He’s good, noble-hearted, very sensitive, and I was so delighted with him in Petersburg, comparing him with the young people of to-day. But c’est un pauvre sire, tout de même.… And you know it all comes from that same half-bakedness, that sentimentality. They are fascinated, not by realism, but by the emotional ideal side of socialism, by the religious note in it, so to say, by the poetry of it … second-hand, of course. And for me, for me, think what it means! I have so many enemies here and more still there, they’ll put it down to the father’s influence. Good God! Petrusha a revolutionist! What times we live in!”
Very soon, however, Petrusha sent his exact address from Switzerland for money to be sent him as usual; so he could not be exactly an exile. And now, after four years abroad, he was suddenly making his appearance again in his own country, and announced that he would arrive shortly, so there could be no charge against him. What was more, someone seemed to be interested in him and protecting him. He wrote now from the south of Russia, where he was busily engaged in some private but important business. All this was capital, but where was his father to get that other seven or eight thousand, to make up a suitable price for the estate? And what if there should be an outcry, and instead of that imposing picture it should come to a lawsuit? Something told Stepan Trofimovitch that the sensitive Petrusha would not relinquish anything that was to his interest. “Why is it—as I’ve noticed,” Stepan Trofimovitch whispered to me once, “why is it that all these desperate socialists and communists are at the same time such incredible skinflints, so avaricious, so keen over property, and, in fact, the more socialistic, the more extreme they are, the keener they are over property … why is it? Can that, too, come from sentimentalism?” I don’t know whether there is any truth in this observation of Stepan Trofimovitch’s. I only know that Petrusha had somehow got wind of the sale of the woods and the rest of it, and that Stepan Trofimovitch was aware of the fact. I happened, too, to read some of Petrusha’s letters to his father. He wrote extremely rarely, once a year, or even less often. Only recently, to inform him of his approaching visit, he had sent two letters, one almost immediately after the other. All his letters were short, dry, consisting only of instructions, and as the father and son had, since their meeting in Petersburg, adopted the fashionable “thou” and “thee,” Petrusha’s letters had a striking resemblance to the missives that used to be sent by landowners of the old school from the town to their serfs whom they had left in charge of their estates. And now suddenly this eight thousand which would solve the difficulty would be wafted to him by Varvara Petrovna’s proposition. And at the same time she made him distinctly feel that it never could be wafted to him from anywhere else. Of course Stepan Trofimovitch consented.
He sent for me directly she had gone and shut himself up for the whole day, admitting no one else. He cried, of course, talked well and talked a great deal, contradicted himself continually, made a casual pun, and was much pleased with it. Then he had a slight attack of his “summer cholera”—everything in fact followed the usual course. Then he brought out the portrait of his German bride, now twenty years deceased, and began plaintively appealing to her: “Will you forgive me?” In fact he seemed somehow distracted. Our grief led us to get a little drunk. He soon fell into a sweet sleep, however. Next morning he tied his cravat in masterly fashion, dressed with care, and went frequently to look at himself in the glass. He sprinkled his handkerchief with scent, only a slight dash of it, however, and as soon as he saw Varvara Petrovna out of the window he hurriedly took another handkerchief and hid the scented one under the pillow.
“Excellent!” Varvara Petrovna approved, on receiving his consent. “In the first place you show a fine decision, and secondly you’ve listened to the voice of reason, to which you generally pay so little heed in your private affairs. There’s no need of haste, however,” she added, scanning the knot of his white tie, “for the present say nothing, and I will say nothing. It will soon be your birthday; I will come to see you with her. Give us tea in the evening, and please without wine or other refreshments, but I’ll arrange it all myself. Invite your friends, but we’ll make the list together. You can talk to her the day before, if necessary. And at your party we won’t exactly announce it, or make an engagement of any sort, but only hint at it, and let people know without any sort of ceremony. And then the wedding a fortnight later, as far as possible without any fuss.… You two might even go away for a time after the wedding, to Moscow, for instance. I’ll go with you, too, perhaps … The chief thing is, keep quiet till then.”
Stepan Trofimovitch was surprised. He tried to falter that he could not do like that, that he must talk it over with his bride. But Varvara Petrovna flew at him in exasperation.
“What for? In the first place it may perhaps come to nothing.”
“Come to nothing!” muttered the bridegroom, utterly dumbfoundered.
“Yes. I’ll see.… But everything shall be as I’ve told you, and don’t be uneasy. I’ll prepare her myself. There’s really no need for you. Everything necessary shall be said and done, and there’s no need for you to meddle. Why should you? In what character? Don’t come and don’t write letters. And not a sight or sound of you, I beg. I will be silent too.”
She absolutely refused to explain herself, and went away, obviously upset. Stepan Trofimovitch’s excessive readiness evidently impressed her. Alas! he was utterly unable to grasp his position, and the question had not yet presented itself to him from certain other points of view. On the contrary a new note was apparent in him, a sort of conquering and jaunty air. He swaggered.
“I do like that!” he exclaimed, standing before me, and flinging wide his arms. “Did you hear? She wants to drive me to refusing at last. Why, I may lose patience, too, and … refuse! ‘Sit still, there’s no need for you to go to her.’ But after all, why should I be married? Simply because she’s taken an absurd fancy into her heart. But I’m a serious man, and I can refuse to submit to the idle whims of a giddy-woman! I have duties to my son and … and to myself! I’m making a sacrifice. Does she realise that? I have agreed, perhaps, because I am weary of life and nothing matters to me. But she may exasperate me, and then it will matter. I shall resent it and refuse. Et enfin, le ridicule … what will they say at the club? What will … what will … Laputin say? ‘Perhaps nothing will come of it’—what a thing to say! That beats everything. That’s really … what is one to say to that?… Je suis un forçat, un Badinguet, un man pushed to the wall.…”
And at the same time a sort of capricious complacency, something frivolous and playful, could be seen in the midst of all these plaintive exclamations. In the evening we drank too much again.