‘Grigory Litvinov, a brick, a true Russian heart. I commend him to you,’ cried Bambaev, conducting Litvinov up to a short man of the figure of a country gentleman, with an unbuttoned collar, in a short jacket, grey morning trousers and slippers, standing in the middle of a light, and very well-furnished room; ‘and this,’ he added, addressing himself to Litvinov, ‘is he, the man himself, do you understand? Gubaryov, then, in a word.’
Litvinov stared with curiosity at ‘the man himself.’ He did not at first sight find in him anything out of the common. He saw before him a gentleman of respectable, somewhat dull exterior, with a broad forehead, large eyes, full lips, a big beard, and a thick neck, with a fixed gaze, bent sidelong and downwards. This gentleman simpered, and said, ‘Mmm ... ah ... very pleased,...’ raised his hand to his own face, and at once turning his back on Litvinov, took a few paces upon the carpet,-23- with a slow and peculiar shuffle, as though he were trying to slink along unseen. Gubaryov had the habit of continually walking up and down, and constantly plucking and combing his beard with the tips of his long hard nails. Besides Gubaryov, there was also in the room a lady of about fifty, in a shabby silk dress, with an excessively mobile face almost as yellow as a lemon, a little black moustache on her upper lip, and eyes which moved so quickly that they seemed as though they were jumping out of her head; there was too a broad-shouldered man sitting bent up in a corner.
‘Well, honoured Matrona Semyonovna,’ began Gubaryov, turning to the lady, and apparently not considering it necessary to introduce Litvinov to her, ‘what was it you were beginning to tell us?’
The lady (her name was Matrona Semyonovna Suhantchikov—she was a widow, childless, and not rich, and had been travelling from country to country for two years past) began with peculiar exasperated vehemence:
‘Well, so he appears before the prince and says to him: “Your Excellency,” he says, “in such an office and such a position as yours, what will it cost you to alleviate my lot? You,” he says, “cannot but respect the purity of my ideas! And is it possible,” he says, “in-24- these days to persecute a man for his ideas?” And what do you suppose the prince did, that cultivated dignitary in that exalted position?’
‘Why, what did he do?’ observed Gubaryov, lighting a cigarette with a meditative air.
The lady drew herself up and held out her bony right hand, with the first finger separated from the rest.
‘He called his groom and said to him, “Take off that man’s coat at once, and keep it yourself. I make you a present of that coat!”’
‘And did the groom take it?’ asked Bambaev, throwing up his arms.
‘He took it and kept it. And that was done by Prince Barnaulov, the well-known rich grandee, invested with special powers, the representative of the government. What is one to expect after that!’
The whole frail person of Madame Suhantchikov was shaking with indignation, spasms passed over her face, her withered bosom was heaving convulsively under her flat corset; of her eyes it is needless to speak, they were fairly leaping out of her head. But then they were always leaping, whatever she might be talking about.
‘A crying shame, a crying shame!’ cried Bambaev. ‘No punishment could be bad enough!’
‘Mmm.... Mmm.... From top to bottom it’s all rotten,’ observed Gubaryov, without raising his voice, however. ‘In that case punishment is not ... that needs ... other measures.’
‘But is it really true?’ commented Litvinov.
‘Is it true?’ broke in Madame Suhantchikov. ‘Why, that one can’t even dream of doubting ... can’t even d-d-d-ream of it.’ She pronounced these words with such energy that she was fairly shaking with the effort. ‘I was told of that by a very trustworthy man. And you, Stepan Nikolaitch, know him—Elistratov, Kapiton. He heard it himself from eyewitnesses, spectators of this disgraceful scene.’
‘What Elistratov?’ inquired Gubaryov. ‘The one who was in Kazan?’
‘Yes. I know, Stepan Nikolaitch, a rumour was spread about him that he took bribes there from some contractors or distillers. But then who is it says so? Pelikanov! And how can one believe Pelikanov, when every one knows he is simply—a spy!’
‘No, with your permission, Matrona Semyonovna,’ interposed Bambaev, ‘I am friends with Pelikanov, he is not a spy at all.’
‘Yes, yes, that’s just what he is, a spy!’
‘But wait a minute, kindly——’
‘A spy, a spy!’ shrieked Madame Suhantchikov.
‘No, no, one minute, I tell you what,’ shrieked Bambaev in his turn.
‘A spy, a spy,’ persisted Madame Suhantchikov.
‘No, no! There’s Tentelyev now, that’s a different matter,’ roared Bambaev with all the force of his lungs.
Madame Suhantchikov was silent for a moment.
‘I know for a fact about that gentleman,’ he continued in his ordinary voice, ‘that when he was summoned before the secret police, he grovelled at the feet of the Countess Blazenkrampff and kept whining, “Save me, intercede for me!” But Pelikanov never demeaned himself to baseness like that.’
‘Mm ... Tentelyev ...’ muttered Gubaryov, ‘that ... that ought to be noted.’
Madame Suhantchikov shrugged her shoulders contemptuously.
‘They’re one worse than another,’ she said, ‘but I know a still better story about Tentelyev. He was, as every one knows, a most horrible despot with his serfs, though he gave himself out for an emancipator. Well, he was once at some friend’s house in Paris, and suddenly in comes Madame Beecher Stowe—you know, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tentelyev, who’s an awfully pushing fellow, began asking the host to present him; but directly she heard his name. “What?” she said, “he presumes to be introduced to the author of Uncle Tom?” And she gave him a slap on the cheek! “Go away!” she says, “at once!” And what do you think? Tentelyev took his hat and slunk away, pretty crestfallen.’
‘Come, I think that’s exaggerated,’ observed Bambaev. ‘“Go away” she certainly did say, that’s a fact, but she didn’t give him a smack!’
‘She did, she did!’ repeated Madam Suhantchikov with convulsive intensity: ‘I am not talking idle gossip. And you are friends with men like that!’
‘Excuse me, excuse me, Matrona Semyonovna, I never spoke of Tentelyev as a friend of mine; I was speaking of Pelikanov.’
‘Well, if it’s not Tentelyev, it’s another. Mihnyov, for example.’
‘What did he do then?’ asked Bambaev, already showing signs of alarm.
‘What? Is it possible you don’t know? He exclaimed on the Poznesensky Prospect in the hearing of all the world that all the liberals ought to be in prison; and what’s more, an old schoolfellow came to him, a poor man of course, and said, “Can I come to dinner with you?” And this was his answer. “No, impossible; I have two counts dining with me to-day ... get along with you!”’
‘But that’s slander, upon my word!’ vociferated Bambaev.
‘Slander? ... slander? In the first place, Prince Vahrushkin, who was also dining at your Mihnyov’s——’
‘Prince Vahrushkin,’ Gubaryov interpolated severely, ‘is my cousin; but I don’t allow him to enter my house.... So there is no need to mention him even.’
‘In the second place,’ continued Madame Suhantchikov, with a submissive nod in Gubaryov’s direction, ‘Praskovya Yakovlovna told me so herself.’
‘You have hit on a fine authority to quote! Why, she and Sarkizov are the greatest scandal-mongers going.’
‘I beg your pardon, Sarkizov is a liar, certainly. He filched the very pall of brocade off his dead father’s coffin. I will never dispute that; but Praskovya Yakovlovna—there’s no comparison! Remember how magnanimously she parted from her husband! But you, I know, are always ready——’
‘Come, enough, enough, Matrona Semyonovna,’ said Bambaev, interrupting her, ‘let us give up this tittle-tattle, and take a loftier flight. I am not new to the work, you know. Have you read Mlle. de la Quintinie? That’s something charming now! And quite-29- in accord with your principles at the same time!’
‘I never read novels now,’ was Madame Suhantchikov’s dry and sharp reply.
‘Because I have not the time now; I have no thoughts now but for one thing, sewing machines.’
‘What machines?’ inquired Litvinov.
‘Sewing, sewing; all women ought to provide themselves with sewing-machines, and form societies; in that way they will all be enabled to earn their living, and will become independent at once. In no other way can they ever be emancipated. That is an important, most important social question. I had such an argument about it with Boleslav Stadnitsky. Boleslav Stadnitsky is a marvellous nature, but he looks at these things in an awfully frivolous spirit. He does nothing but laugh. Idiot!’
‘All will in their due time be called to account, from all it will be exacted,’ pronounced Gubaryov deliberately, in a tone half-professorial, half-prophetic.
‘Yes, yes,’ repeated Bambaev, ‘it will be exacted, precisely so, it will be exacted. But, Stepan Nikolaitch,’ he added, dropping his voice, ‘how goes the great work?’
‘I am collecting materials,’ replied Gubaryov,-30- knitting his brows; and, turning to Litvinov, whose head began to swim from the medley of unfamiliar names, and the frenzy of backbiting, he asked him what subjects he was interested in.
Litvinov satisfied his curiosity.
‘Ah! to be sure, the natural sciences. That is useful, as training; as training, not as an end in itself. The end at present should be ... mm ... should be ... different. Allow me to ask what views do you hold?’
‘Yes, that is, more accurately speaking, what are your political views?’
‘Strictly speaking, I have no political views.’
The broad-shouldered man sitting in the corner raised his head quickly at these words and looked attentively at Litvinov.
‘How is that?’ observed Gubaryov with peculiar gentleness. ‘Have you not yet reflected on the subject, or have you grown weary of it?’
‘How shall I say? It seems to me that for us Russians, it is too early yet to have political views or to imagine that we have them. Observe that I attribute to the word “political” the meaning which belongs to it by right, and that—-31-—’
‘Aha! he belongs to the undeveloped,’ Gubaryov interrupted him, with the same gentleness, and going up to Voroshilov, he asked him: ‘Had he read the pamphlet he had given him?’
Voroshilov, to Litvinov’s astonishment, had not uttered a word ever since his entrance, but had only knitted his brows and rolled his eyes (as a rule he was either speechifying or else perfectly dumb). He now expanded his chest in soldierly fashion, and with a tap of his heels, nodded assent.
‘Well, and how was it? Did you like it?’
‘As regards the fundamental principles, I liked it; but I did not agree with the inferences.’
‘Mmm ... Andrei Ivanitch praised that pamphlet, however. You must expand your doubts to me later.’
‘You desire it in writing?’
Gubaryov was obviously surprised; he had not expected this; however, after a moment’s thought, he replied:
‘Yes, in writing. By the way, I will ask you to explain to me your views also ... in regard to ... in regard to associations.’
‘Associations on Lassalle’s system, do you desire, or on the system of Schulze-Delitzsch?’
‘Mmm ... on both. For us Russians, you understand, the financial aspect of the matter-32- is specially important. Yes, and the artel ... as the germ.... All that, one must take note of. One must go deeply into it. And the question, too, of the land to be apportioned to the peasants....’
‘And you, Stepan Nikolaitch, what is your view as to the number of acres suitable?’ inquired Voroshilov, with reverential delicacy in his voice.
‘Mmm ... and the commune?’ articulated Gubaryov, deep in thought, and biting a tuft of his beard he stared at the table-leg. ‘The commune!... Do you understand. That is a grand word! Then what is the significance of these conflagrations? these ... these government measures against Sunday-schools, reading-rooms, journals? And the refusal of the peasants to sign the charters regulating their position in the future? And finally, what of what is happening in Poland? Don’t you see that ... mmm ... that we ... we have to unite with the people ... find out ... find out their views——’ Suddenly a heavy, almost a wrathful emotion seemed to take possession of Gubaryov; he even grew black in the face and breathed heavily, but still did not raise his eyes, and continued to gnaw at his beard. ‘Can’t you see——’
‘Yevseyev is a wretch!’ Madame Suhantchikov-33- burst out noisily all of a sudden. Bambaev had been relating something to her in a voice lowered out of respect for their host. Gubaryov turned round swiftly on his heels, and again began limping about the room.
Fresh guests began to arrive; towards the end of the evening a good many people were assembled. Among them came, too, Mr. Yevseyev whom Madame Suhantchikov had vilified so cruelly. She entered into conversation with him very cordially, and asked him to escort her home; there arrived too a certain Pishtchalkin, an ideal mediator, one of those men of precisely whom perhaps Russia stands in need—a man, that is, narrow, of little information, and no great gifts, but conscientious, patient, and honest; the peasants of his district almost worshipped him, and he regarded himself very respectfully as a creature genuinely deserving of esteem. A few officers, too, were there, escaped for a brief furlough to Europe, and rejoicing—though of course warily, and ever mindful of their colonel in the background of their brains—in the opportunity of dallying a little with intellectual—even rather dangerous—people; two lanky students from Heidelberg came hurrying in, one looked about him very contemptuously, the other giggled spasmodically ... both were very ill at ease;-34- after them a Frenchman—a so-called petit jeune homme—poked his nose in; a nasty, silly, pitiful little creature, ... who enjoyed some repute among his fellow commis-voyageurs on the theory that Russian countesses had fallen in love with him; for his own part, his reflections were centred more upon getting a supper gratis; the last to appear was Tit Bindasov, in appearance a rollicking German student, in reality a skinflint, in words a terrorist, by vocation a police-officer, a friend of Russian merchants’ wives and Parisian cocottes; bald, toothless, and drunken; he arrived very red and sodden, affirming that he had lost his last farthing to that blackguard Benazet; in reality, he had won sixteen guldens.... In short, there were a number of people. Remarkable—really remarkable—was the respect with which all these people treated Gubaryov as a preceptor or chief; they laid their ideas before him, and submitted them to his judgment; and he replied by muttering, plucking at his beard, averting his eyes, or by some disconnected, meaningless words, which were at once seized upon as the utterances of the loftiest wisdom. Gubaryov himself seldom interposed in the discussions; but the others strained their lungs to the utmost to make up for it. It happened more than once that three or four were shouting-35- for ten minutes together, and all were content and understood. The conversation lasted till after midnight, and was as usual distinguished by the number and variety of the subjects discussed. Madame Suhantchikov talked about Garibaldi, about a certain Karl Ivanovitch, who had been flogged by the serfs of his own household, about Napoleon III., about women’s work, about a merchant, Pleskatchov, who had designedly caused the death of twelve work-women, and had received a medal for it with the inscription ‘for public services’; about the proletariat, about the Georgian Prince Tchuktcheulidzov, who had shot his wife with a cannon, and about the future of Russia. Pishtchalkin, too, talked of the future of Russia, and of the spirit monopoly, and of the significance of nationalities, and of how he hated above everything what was vulgar. There was an outburst all of a sudden from Voroshilov; in a single breath, almost choking himself, he mentioned Draper, Virchow, Shelgunov, Bichat, Helmholtz, Star, St. Raymund, Johann Müller the physiologist, and Johann Müller the historian—obviously confounding them—Taine, Renan, Shtchapov; and then Thomas Nash, Peele, Greene.... ‘What sort of queer fish may they be?’ Bambaev muttered bewildered, Shakespeare’s predecessors having the same relation-36- to him as the ranges of the Alps to Mont Blanc. Voroshilov replied cuttingly, and he too touched on the future of Russia. Bambaev also spoke of the future of Russia, and even depicted it in glowing colours: but he was thrown into special raptures over the thought of Russian music, in which he saw something. ‘Ah! great indeed!’ and in confirmation he began humming a song of Varlamov’s, but was soon interrupted by a general shout, ‘He is singing the Miserere from the Trovatore, and singing it excruciatingly too.’ One little officer was reviling Russian literature in the midst of the hubbub; another was quoting verses from Sparks; but Tit Bindasov went even further; he declared that all these swindlers ought to have their teeth knocked out, ... and that’s all about it, but he did not particularise who were the swindlers alluded to. The smoke from the cigars became stifling; all were hot and exhausted, every one was hoarse, all eyes were growing dim, and the perspiration stood out in drops on every face. Bottles of iced beer were brought in and drunk off instantaneously. ‘What was I saying?’ remarked one; ‘and with whom was I disputing, and about what?’ inquired another. And among all the uproar and the smoke, Gubaryov walked indefatigably up and down as before, swaying from side to side and twitching at his beard;-37- now listening, turning an ear to some controversy, now putting in a word of his own; and every one was forced to feel that he, Gubaryov, was the source of it all, that he was the master here, and the most eminent personality....
Litvinov, towards ten o’clock, began to have a terrible headache, and, taking advantage of a louder outburst of general excitement, went off quietly unobserved. Madame Suhantchikov had recollected a fresh act of injustice of Prince Barnaulov; he had all but given orders to have some one’s ears bitten off.
The fresh night air enfolded Litvinov’s flushed face caressingly, the fragrant breeze breathed on his parched lips. ‘What is it,’ he thought as he went along the dark avenue, ‘that I have been present at? Why were they met together? What were they shouting, scolding, and making such a pother about? What was it all for?’ Litvinov shrugged his shoulders, and turning into Weber’s, he picked up a newspaper and asked for an ice. The newspaper was taken up with a discussion on the Roman question, and the ice turned out to be very nasty. He was already preparing to go home, when suddenly an unknown person in a wide-brimmed hat drew near, and saying in Russian: ‘I hope I am not in your way?’ sat down at his table. Only then, after a closer glance at-38- the stranger, Litvinov recognised him as the broad-shouldered gentleman hidden away in a corner at Gubaryov’s, who had stared at him with such attention when the conversation had turned on political views. During the whole evening this gentleman had not once opened his mouth, and now, sitting down near Litvinov, and taking off his hat, he looked at him with an expression of friendliness and some embarrassment.