On the following morning Vladímir Sergyéitch awoke quite late, and immediately after the general tea and breakfast in the dining-room, drove off home to finish his business on his estate, in spite of all old Ipátoff’s attempts to detain him. Márya Pávlovna also was present at the tea; but Vladímir Sergyéitch did not consider it necessary to question her concerning her late stroll of the night before; he was one of the people who find it difficult to surrender themselves for two days in succession to any unusual thoughts and assumptions whatsoever. He would have been obliged to discuss verses, and the so-called “poetical” mood wearied him very quickly. He spent the whole day until dinner in the fields, ate with great appetite, dozed off, and when he woke up, tried to take up the clerk’s accounts; but before he had finished the first page, he ordered his tarantás to be harnessed, and set off for Ipátoff’s. Evidently, even positive people do not bear about in their breasts hearts of stone, and they are no more fond of being bored than other plain mortals.
As he drove upon the dam he heard voices and the sound of music. They were singing Russian ballads in chorus in Ipátoff’s house. He found the whole company which he had left in the morning on the terrace; all, Nadézhda Alexyéevna among the rest, were sitting in a circle around a man of two-and-thirty—a swarthy-skinned, black-eyed, black-haired man in a velvet jacket, with a scarlet kerchief carelessly knotted about his neck, and a guitar in his hands. This was Piótr Alexyéevitch Véretyeff, brother of Nadézhda Alexyéevna. On catching sight of Vladímir Sergyéitch, old Ipátoff advanced to meet him with a joyful cry, led him up to Véretyeff, and introduced them to each other. After exchanging the customary greetings with his new acquaintance, Astákhoff made a respectful bow to the latter’s sister.
“We’re singing songs in country fashion, Vladímir Sergyéitch,”—began Ipátoff, and pointing to Véretyeff he added:-“Piótr Alexyéitch is our leader,—and what a leader! Just you listen to him!”
“This is very pleasant,”—replied Vladímir Sergyéitch.
“Will not you join the choir?”—Nadézhda Alexyéevna asked him.
“I should be heartily glad to do so, but I have no voice.”
“That doesn’t matter! See, Egór Kapítonitch is singing, and I’m singing. All you have to do is to chime in. Pray, sit down; and do thou strike up, my dear fellow!”
“What song shall we sing now?”—said Véretyeff, thrumming the guitar; and suddenly stopping short, he looked at Márya Pávlovna, who was sitting by his side.—“I think it is your turn now,”—he said to her.
“No; do you sing,”—replied Márya Pávlovna.
“Here’s a song now: ‘Adown dear Mother Volga’”—said Vladímir Sergyéitch, with importance.
“No, we will save that up for the last,”—replied Véretyeff, and tinkling the strings of the guitar, he struck up, in slow measure, “The sun is setting.”
He sang splendidly, dashingly, and blithely. His manly face, already expressive, became still more animated when he sang; now and then he shrugged his shoulders, suddenly pressed the strings with his palm, raised his arm, shook his curls, and darted a falcon-like look around him. More than once in Moscow he had seen the famous Ilyá, and he imitated him. The chorus chimed in lustily. Márya Pávlovna’s voice separated itself in a melodious flood from the other voices; it seemed to drag them after it; but she would not sing alone, and Véretyeff remained the leader to the end.
They sang a great many other songs....
In the meantime, along with the evening shadows, a thunder-storm drew on. From noonday it had been steaming hot, and thunder had kept rumbling in the distance; but now a broad thunder-cloud, which had long lain like a leaden pall on the very rim of the horizon, began to increase and show itself above the crests of the trees, the stifling air began to quiver more distinctly, shaken more and more violently by the approaching storm; the wind rose, rustled the foliage abruptly, died into silence, again made a prolonged clamour, and began to roar; a surly gloom flitted over the earth, swiftly dispelling the last reflection of the sunset glow; dense clouds suddenly floated up, as though rending themselves free, and sailed across the sky; a fine rain began to patter down, the lightning flashed in a red flame, and the thunder rumbled heavily and angrily.
“Let us go,”—said old Ipátoff,—“or we shall be drenched.”
“Directly!”—exclaimed Piótr Alexyéitch.—“One more song, the last. Listen:
“Akh, thou house, thou house of mine, Thou new house of mine....”
He struck up in a loud voice, briskly striking the strings of the guitar with his whole hand. “My new house of maple-wood,” joined in the chorus, as though reluctantly carried away. Almost at the same moment, the rain began to beat down in streams; but Véretyeff sang “My house” to the end. From time to time, drowned by the claps of thunder, the dashing ballad seemed more dashing than ever beneath the noisy rattle and gurgling of the rain. At last the final detonation of the chorus rang out—and the whole company ran, laughing, into the drawing-room. Loudest of all laughed the little girls, Ipátoff’s daughters, as they shook the rain-drops from their frocks. But, by way of precaution, Ipátoff closed the window, and locked the door; and Egór Kapítonitch lauded him, remarking that Matryóna Márkovna also always gave orders to shut up whenever there was a thunder-storm, because electricity is more capable of acting in an empty space. Bodryakóff looked him straight in the face, stepped aside, and overturned a chair. Such trifling mishaps were constantly happening to him.
The thunder-storm passed over very soon. The doors and windows were opened again, and the rooms were filled with moist fragrance. Tea was brought. After tea the old men sat down to cards again. Iván Ílitch joined them, as usual. Vladímir Sergyéitch was about to go to Márya Pávlovna, who was sitting at the window with Véretyeff; but Nadézhda Alexyéevna called him to her, and immediately entered into a fervent discussion with him about Petersburg and Petersburg life. She attacked it; Vladímir Sergyéitch began to defend it. Nadézhda Alexyéevna appeared to be trying to keep him by her side.
“What are you wrangling about?”—inquired Véretyeff, rising and approaching them.
He swayed lazily from side to side as he walked; in all his movements there was perceptible something which was not exactly carelessness, nor yet exactly fatigue.
“Still about Petersburg.”—replied Nadézhda Alexyéevna.—“Vladímir Sergyéitch cannot sufficiently praise it.”
“‘Tis a fine town,”—remarked Véretyeff;—“but, in my opinion, it is nice everywhere. By Heaven, it is. If one only has two or three women, and—pardon my frankness—wine, a man really has nothing left to wish for.”
“You surprise me,”—retorted Vladímir Sergyéitch. “Can it be possible that you are really of one opinion, that there does not exist for the cultured man....”
“Perhaps ... in fact ... I agree with you,”—interrupted Véretyeff, who, notwithstanding all his courtesy, had a habit of not listening to the end of retorts;—“but that’s not in my line; I’m not a philosopher.”
“Neither am I a philosopher,”—replied Vladímir Sergyéitch;—“and I have not the slightest desire to be one; but here it is a question of something entirely different.”
Véretyeff cast an abstracted glance at his sister, and she, with a faint laugh, bent toward him, and whispered in a low voice:
“Petrúsha, my dear, imitate Egór Kapítonitch for us, please.”
Véretyeff’s face instantly changed, and, Heaven knows by what miracle, became remarkably like the face of Egór Kapítonitch, although the features of the two faces had absolutely nothing in common, and Véretyeff himself barely wrinkled up his nose and pulled down the corners of his lips.
“Of course,”—he began to whisper, in a voice which was the exact counterpart of Egór Kapítonitch’s,—“Matryóna Márkovna is a severe lady on the score of manners; but, on the other hand, she is a model wife. It is true that no matter what I may have said....”
“The Biriúloff girls know it all,”—put in Nadézhda Alexyéevna, hardly restraining her laughter.
“Everything is known on the following day,”—replied Véretyeff, with such a comical grimace, with such a perturbed sidelong glance, that even Vladímir Sergyéitch burst out laughing.
“I see that you possess great talent for mimicry,”—he remarked.
Véretyeff passed his hand over his face, his features resumed their ordinary expression, while Nadézhda Alexyéevna exclaimed:
“Oh, yes! he can mimic any one whom he wishes.... He’s a master hand at that.”
“And would you be able to imitate me, for example?”—inquired Vladímir Sergyéitch.
“I should think so!”—returned Nadézhda Alexyéevna:—“of course.”
“Akh, pray do me the favour to represent me,”—said Astákhoff, turning to Véretyeff.—“I beg that you will not stand on ceremony.”
“And so you too have believed her?”—replied Véretyeff, slightly screwing up one eye, and imparting to his voice the sound of Astákhoff’s voice, but so cautiously and slightly that only Nadézhda Alexyéevna noticed it, and bit her lips.—“Please do not believe her; she will tell you other untrue things about me.”
“And if you only knew what an actor he is!”—pursued Nadézhda Alexyéevna:—“he plays every conceivable sort of a part. And so splendidly! He is our stage-manager, and our prompter, and everything you like. It’s a pity that you are going away so soon.”
“Sister, thy partiality blinds thee,”—remarked Véretyeff, in a pompous tone, but still with the same touch of Astákhoff.—“What will Mr. Astákhoff think of thee?—He will regard thee as a rustic.”
“No, indeed,”—Vladímir Sergyéitch was beginning....
“See here, Petrúsha,”—interposed Nadézhda Alexyéevna;—“please show us how a drunken man is utterly unable to get his handkerchief out of his pocket; or no: show us, rather, how a boy catches a fly on the window, and how it buzzes under his fingers.”
“Thou art a regular child,”—replied Véretyeff.
Nevertheless he rose, and stepping to the window, beside which Márya Pávlovna was sitting, he began to pass his hand across the panes, and represent how a small boy catches a fly.
The accuracy with which he imitated its pitiful squeak was really amazing. It seemed as though a live fly were actually struggling under his fingers. Nadézhda Alexyéevna burst out laughing, and gradually every one in the room got to laughing. Márya Pávlovna’s face alone underwent no change, not even her lips quivered. She sat with downcast eyes, but raised them at last, and casting a serious glance at Véretyeff, she muttered through her set teeth:
“What possesses you to make a clown of yourself?”
Véretyeff instantly turned away from the window, and, after standing still for a moment in the middle of the room, he went out on the terrace, and thence into the garden, which had already grown perfectly dark.
“How amusing that Piótr Alexyéitch is!”—exclaimed Egór Kapítonitch, slapping down the seven of trumps with a flourish on some one else’s ace.—“Really, he’s very amusing!”
Nadézhda Alexyéevna rose, and hastily approaching Márya Pávlovna, asked her in an undertone:
“What didst thou say to my brother?”
“Nothing,”—replied the other.
“What dost thou mean by ‘nothing’? Impossible.”
And after waiting a little, Nadézhda Alexyéevna said: “Come!”—took Márya Pávlovna by the hand, forced her to rise, and went off with her into the garden.
Vladímir Sergyéitch gazed after the two young girls not without perplexity. But they were not absent long; a quarter of an hour later they returned, and Piótr Alexyéitch entered the room with them.
“What a splendid night!” exclaimed Nadézhda Alexyéevna, as she entered.—“How beautiful it is in the garden!”
“Akh, yes. By the way,”—said Vladímir Sergyéitch;—“allow me to inquire, Márya Pávlovna, whether it was you whom I saw in the garden last night?”
Márya Pávlovna gave him a swift look straight in the eyes.
“Moreover, so far as I could make out, you were declaiming Púshkin’s ‘The Upas-Tree.’”
Véretyeff frowned slightly, and he also began to stare at Astákhoff.
“It really was I,”—said Márya Pávlovna;—“only, I was not declaiming anything; I never declaim.”
“Perhaps it seemed so to me,”—began Vladímir Sergyéitch;—“but....”
“It did seem so to you?”—remarked Márya Pávlovna, coldly.
“What’s ‘The Upas-Tree’?”—inquired Nadézhda Alexyéevna.
“Why, don’t you know?”—retorted Astákhoff.—“Do you mean to say you don’t remember Púshkin’s verses: ‘On the unhealthy, meagre soil’?”
“Somehow I don’t remember.... That upas-tree is a poisonous tree, isn’t it?”
“Like the datura.... Dost remember, Másha, how beautiful the datura were on our balcony, in the moonlight, with their long, white blossoms? Dost remember what fragrance poured from them,—so sweet, insinuating, and insidious?”
“An insidious fragrance!”—exclaimed Vladímir Sergyéitch.
“Yes; insidious. What are you surprised at? They say it is dangerous, but it is attractive. Why can evil attract? Evil should not be beautiful.”
“Oh, what theories!”—remarked Piótr Alexyéitch;—“how far away we have got from verses!”
“I recited those verses yesterday evening to Márya Pávlovna,” interposed Vladímir Sergyéitch;—“and they pleased her greatly.”
“Akh, please recite them,”—said Nadézhda Alexyéevna.
And Astákhoff recited “The Upas-Tree.”
“Too bombastic,”—ejaculated Véretyeff, as though against his will, as soon as Vladímir Sergyéitch had finished.
“The poem is too bombastic?”
“No, not the poem.... Excuse me, it seems to me that you do not recite with sufficient simplicity. The thing speaks for itself; however, I may be mistaken.”
“No, thou art not mistaken,”—said Nadézhda Alexyéevna, pausing between her words.
“Oh, yes; that is a matter of course! In thy eyes I am a genius, an extremely gifted man, who knows everything, can do everything; unfortunately, he is overcome with laziness; isn’t that so?”
Nadézhda Alexyéevna merely shook her head.
“I shall not quarrel with you; you must know best about that,”—remarked Vladímir Sergyéitch, somewhat sulkily.—“That’s not in my line.”
“I made a mistake, pardon me,”—ejaculated Véretyeff, hastily.
In the meantime, the game of cards had come to an end.
“Akh, by the way,”—said Ipátoff, as he rose;—“Vladímir Sergyéitch, one of the local landed proprietors, a neighbour, a very fine and worthy man, Akílin, Gavríla Stepánitch, has commissioned me to ask you whether you will not do him the honour to be present at his ball,—that is, I just put it so, for beauty of style, and said ‘ball,’ but it is only an evening party with dancing, quite informal. He would have called upon you himself without fail, only he was afraid of disturbing you.”
“I am much obliged to the gentleman,”—returned Vladímir Sergyéitch;—“but it is imperatively necessary that I should return home....”
“Why—but when do you suppose the ball takes place? ’Tis to-morrow. To-morrow is Gavríla Stepánitch’s Name-day. One day more won’t matter, and how much pleasure you will give him! And it’s only ten versts from here. If you will allow, we will take you thither.”
“Really, I don’t know,”—began Vladímir Sergyéitch.—“And are you going?”
“The whole family! And Nadézhda Alexyéevna and Piótr Alexyéitch,—everybody is going!”
“You may invite me on the spot for the fifth quadrille, if you like,”—remarked Nadézhda Alexyéevna.—“The first four are already bespoken.”
“You are very kind; and are you already engaged for the mazurka?”
“I? Let me think ... no, I think I am not.”
“In that case, if you will be so kind, I should like to have the honour....”
“That means that you will go? Very good. Certainly.”
“Bravo!”—exclaimed Ipátoff.—“Well, Vladímir Sergyéitch, you have put us under an obligation. Gavrílo Stepánitch will simply go into raptures. Isn’t that so, Iván Ílitch?”
Iván Ílitch would have preferred to hold his peace, according to his wont, but thought it better to utter a sound of approval.
“What possessed thee,”—said Piótr Alexyéitch an hour later to his sister, as he sat with her in a light two-wheeled cart, which he was driving himself,—“what possessed thee to saddle thyself with that sour-visaged fellow for the mazurka?”
“I have reasons of my own for that,”—replied Nadézhda Alexyéevna.
“What reasons?—permit me to inquire.”
“That’s my secret.”
And with his whip he lightly flicked the horse, which was beginning to prick up its ears, snort, and shy. It was frightened by the shadow of a huge willow bush which fell across the road, dimly illuminated by the moon.
“And shalt thou dance with Másha?”—Nadézhda Alexyéevna, in her turn, questioned her brother.
“Yes,” he said indifferently.
“Yes! yes!”—repeated Nadézhda Alexyéevna, reproachfully.—“You men,”—she added, after a brief pause,—“positively do not deserve to be loved by nice women.”
“Dost think so? Well, and that sour-visaged Petersburger—does he deserve it?”
“Sooner than thou.”
And Piótr Alexyéitch recited, with a sigh:
“What a mission, O Creator, To be ... the brother of a grown-up sister!” Nadézhda Alexyéevna burst out laughing.
“I cause thee a great deal of trouble, there’s no denying that. I have a commission to thee.”
“Really?—I hadn’t the slightest suspicion of that.”
“I’m speaking of Másha.”
“On what score?”
Nadézhda Alexyéevna’s face assumed a slight expression of pain.
“Thou knowest thyself,”—she said softly.
“Ah, I understand!—What’s to be done, Nadézhda Alexyéevna, ma’am? I love to drink with a good friend, ma’am, sinful man that I am; I love it, ma’am.”
“Stop, brother, please don’t talk like that!... This is no jesting matter.”
“Tram-tram-tam-poom!”—muttered Piótr Alexyéitch through his teeth.
“It is thy perdition, and thou jestest....”
“The farm-hand is sowing the grain, his wife does not agree....”
struck up Piótr Alexyéitch loudly, slapped the horse with the reins, and it dashed onward at a brisk trot.