On the high road to B., at an equal distance from the two towns through which it runs, there stood not long ago a roomy inn, very well known to the drivers of troikas, peasants with trains of waggons, merchants, clerks, pedlars and the numerous travellers of all sorts who journey upon our roads at all times of the year. Everyone used to call at the inn; only perhaps a landowner's coach, drawn by six home-bred horses, would roll majestically by, which did not prevent either the coachman or the groom on the footboard from looking with peculiar feeling and attention at the little porch so familiar to them; or some poor devil in a wretched little cart and with three five-kopeck pieces in the bag in his bosom would urge on his weary nag when he reached the prosperous inn, and would hasten on to some night's lodging in the hamlets that lie by the high road in a peasant's hut, where he would find nothing but bread and hay, but, on the other hand, would not have to pay an extra kopeck. Apart from its favourable situation, the inn with which our story deals had many attractions: excellent water in two deep wells with creaking wheels and iron buckets on a chain; a spacious yard with a tiled roof on posts; abundant stores of oats in the cellar; a warm outer room with a very huge Russian stove with long horizontal flues attached that looked like titanic shoulders, and lastly two fairly clean rooms with the walls covered with reddish lilac paper somewhat frayed at the lower edge with a painted wooden sofa, chairs to match and two pots of geraniums in the windows, which were, however, never cleaned--and were dingy with the dust of years. The inn had other advantages: the blacksmith's was close by, the mill was just at hand; and, lastly, one could get a good meal in it, thanks to the cook, a fat and red-faced peasant woman, who prepared rich and appetizing dishes and dealt out provisions without stint; the nearest tavern was reckoned not half a mile away; the host kept snuff which though mixed with wood-ash, was extremely pungent and pleasantly irritated the nose; in fact there were many reasons why visitors of all sorts were never lacking in that inn. It was liked by those who used it--and that is the chief thing; without which nothing, of course, would succeed and it was liked principally as it was said in the district, because the host himself was very fortunate and successful in all his undertakings, though he did not much deserve his good fortune; but it seems if a man is lucky, he is lucky.
The innkeeper was a man of the working class called Naum Ivanov. He was a man of middle height with broad, stooping shoulders; he had a big round head and curly hair already grey, though he did not look more than forty; a full and fresh face, a low but white and smooth forehead and little bright blue eyes, out of which he looked in a very queer way from under his brows and yet with an insolent expression, a combination not often met with. He always held his head down and seemed to turn it with difficulty, perhaps because his neck was very short. He walked at a trot and did not swing his arms, but slowly moved them with his fists clenched as he walked. When he smiled, and he smiled often without laughing, as it were smiling to himself, his thick lips parted unpleasantly and displayed a row of close-set, brilliant teeth. He spoke jerkily and with a surly note in his voice. He shaved his beard, but dressed in Russian style. His costume consisted of a long, always threadbare, full coat, full breeches and shoes on his bare feet. He was often away from home on business and he had a great deal of business--he was a horse-dealer, he rented land, had a market garden, bought up orchards and traded in various ways--but his absences never lasted long; like a kite, to which he had considerable resemblance, especially in the expression of his eyes, he used to return to his nest. He knew how to keep that nest in order. He was everywhere, he listened to everything and gave orders, served out stores, sent things out and made up his accounts himself, and never knocked off a farthing from anyone's account, but never asked more than his due.
The visitors did not talk to him, and, indeed, he did not care to waste words. "I want your money and you want my victuals," he used to say, as it were, jerking out each word: "We have not met for a christening; the traveller has eaten, has fed his beasts, no need to sit on. If he is tired, let him sleep without chattering." The labourers he kept were healthy grown-up men, but docile and well broken in; they were very much afraid of him. He never touched intoxicating liquor and he used to give his men ten kopecks for vodka on the great holidays; they did not dare to drink on other days. People like Naum quickly get rich ... but to the magnificent position in which he found himself--and he was believed to be worth forty or fifty thousand roubles--Naum Ivanov had not arrived by the strait path....
The inn had existed on the same spot on the high road twenty years before the time from which we date the beginning of our story. It is true that it had not then the dark red shingle roof which made Naum Ivanov's inn look like a gentleman's house; it was inferior in construction and had thatched roofs in the courtyard, and a humble fence instead of a wall of logs; nor had it been distinguished by the triangular Greek pediment on carved posts; but all the same it had been a capital inn--roomy, solid and warm--and travellers were glad to frequent it. The innkeeper at that time was not Naum Ivanov, but a certain Akim Semyonitch, a serf belonging to a neighbouring lady, Lizaveta Prohorovna Kuntse, the widow of a staff officer. This Akim was a shrewd trading peasant who, having left home in his youth with two wretched nags to work as a carrier, had returned a year later with three decent horses and had spent almost all the rest of his life on the high roads; he used to go to Kazan and Odessa, to Orenburg and to Warsaw and abroad to Leipsic and used in the end to travel with two teams, each of three stout, sturdy stallions, harnessed to two huge carts. Whether it was that he was sick of his life of homeless wandering, whether it was that he wanted to rear a family (his wife had died in one of his absences and what children she had borne him were dead also), anyway, he made up his mind at last to abandon his old calling and to open an inn. With the permission of his mistress, he settled on the high road, bought in her name about an acre and a half of land and built an inn upon it. The undertaking prospered. He had more than enough money to furnish and stock it. The experience he had gained in the course of his years of travelling from one end of Russia to another was of great advantage to him; he knew how to please his visitors, especially his former mates, the drivers of troikas, many of whom he knew personally and whose good-will is particularly valued by innkeepers, as they need so much food for themselves and their powerful beasts. Akim's inn became celebrated for hundreds of miles round. People were even readier to stay with him than with his successor, Naum, though Akim could not be compared with Naum as a manager. Under Akim everything was in the old-fashioned style, snug, but not over clean; and his oats were apt to be light, or musty; the cooking, too, was somewhat indifferent: dishes were sometimes put on the table which would better have been left in the oven and it was not that he was stingy with the provisions, but just that the cook had not looked after them. On the other hand, he was ready to knock off something from the price and did not refuse to trust a man's word for payment--he was a good man and a genial host. In talking, in entertaining, he was lavish, too; he would sometimes chatter away over the samovar till his listeners pricked up their ears, especially when he began telling them about Petersburg, about the Circassian steppes, or even about foreign parts; and he liked getting a little drunk with a good companion, but not disgracefully so, more for the sake of company, as his guests used to say of him. He was a great favourite with merchants and with all people of what is called the old school, who do not set off for a journey without tightening up their belts and never go into a room without making the sign of the cross, and never enter into conversation with a man without first wishing him good health. Even Akim's appearance disposed people in his favour: he was tall, rather thin, but graceful even at his advanced years; he had a long face, with fine-looking regular features, a high and open brow, a straight and delicate nose and a small mouth. His brown and prominent eyes positively shone with friendly gentleness, his soft, scanty hair curled in little rings about his neck; he had very little left on the top of his head. Akim's voice was very pleasant, though weak; in his youth he had been a good singer, but continual travelling in the open air in the winter had affected his chest. But he talked very smoothly and sweetly. When he laughed wrinkles like rays that were very charming came round his eyes:--such wrinkles are only to be seen in kind-hearted people. Akim's movements were for the most part deliberate and not without a certain confidence and dignified courtesy befitting a man of experience who had seen a great deal in his day.
In fact, Akim--or Akim Semyonitch as he was called even in his mistress's house, to which he often went and invariably on Sundays after mass--would have been excellent in all respects--if he had not had one weakness which has been the ruin of many men on earth, and was in the end the ruin of him, too--a weakness for the fair sex. Akim's susceptibility was extreme, his heart could never resist a woman's glance: he melted before it like the first snow of autumn in the sun ... and dearly he had to pay for his excessive sensibility.
For the first year after he had set up on the high road Akim was so busy with building his yard, stocking the place, and all the business inseparable from moving into a new house that he had absolutely no time to think of women and if any sinful thought came into his mind he immediately drove it away by reading various devotional works for which he cherished a profound respect (he had learned to read when first he left home), singing the psalms in a low voice or some other pious occupation. Besides, he was then in his forty-sixth year and at that time of life every passion grows perceptibly calmer and cooler and the time for marrying was past. Akim himself began to think that, as he expressed it, this foolishness was over and done with ... But evidently there is no escaping one's fate.
Akim's former mistress, Lizaveta Prohorovna Kuntse, the widow of an officer of German extraction, was herself a native of Mittau, where she had spent the first years of her childhood and where she had numerous poor relations, about whom she concerned herself very little, especially after a casual visit from one of her brothers, an infantry officer of the line. On the day after his arrival he had made a great disturbance and almost beaten the lady of the house, calling her "du lumpenmamselle," though only the evening before he had called her in broken Russian: "sister and benefactor." Lizaveta Prohorovna lived almost permanently on her pretty estate which had been won by the labours of her husband who had been an architect. She managed it herself and managed it very well. Lizaveta Prohorovna never let slip the slightest advantage; she turned everything into profit for herself; and this, as well as her extraordinary capacity for making a farthing do the work of a halfpenny, betrayed her German origin; in everything else she had become very Russian. She kept a considerable number of house serfs, especially many maids, who earned their salt, however: from morning to night their backs were bent over their work. She liked driving out in her carriage with grooms in livery on the footboard. She liked listening to gossip and scandal and was a clever scandal-monger herself; she liked to lavish favours upon someone, then suddenly crush him with her displeasure, in fact, Lizaveta Prohorovna behaved exactly like a lady. Akim was in her good graces; he paid her punctually every year a very considerable sum in lieu of service; she talked graciously to him and even, in jest, invited him as a guest... but it was precisely in his mistress's house that trouble was in store for Akim.
Among Lizaveta Prohorovna's maidservants was an orphan girl of twenty called Dunyasha. She was good-looking, graceful and neat-handed; though her features were irregular, they were pleasing; her fresh complexion, her thick flaxen hair, her lively grey eyes, her little round nose, her rosy lips and above all her half-mocking, half-provocative expression--were all rather charming in their way. At the same time, in spite of her forlorn position, she was strict, almost haughty in her deportment. She came of a long line of house serfs. Her father, Arefy, had been a butler for thirty years, while her grandfather, Stepan had been valet to a prince and officer of the Guards long since dead. She dressed neatly and was vain over her hands, which were certainly very beautiful. Dunyasha made a show of great disdain for all her admirers; she listened to their compliments with a self-complacent little smile and if she answered them at all it was usually some exclamation such as: "Yes! Likely! As though I should! What next!" These exclamations were always on her lips. Dunyasha had spent about three years being trained in Moscow where she had picked up the peculiar airs and graces which distinguish maidservants who have been in Moscow or Petersburg. She was spoken of as a girl of self-respect (high praise on the lips of house serfs) who, though she had seen something of life, had not let herself down. She was rather clever with her needle, too, yet with all this Lizaveta Prohorovna was not very warmly disposed toward her, thanks to the headmaid, Kirillovna, a sly and intriguing woman, no longer young. Kirillovna exercised great influence over her mistress and very skilfully succeeded in getting rid of all rivals.
With this Dunyasha Akim must needs fall in love! And he fell in love as he had never fallen in love before. He saw her first at church: she had only just come back from Moscow.... Afterwards, he met her several times in his mistress's house; finally he spent a whole evening with her at the steward's, where he had been invited to tea in company with other highly respected persons. The house serfs did not disdain him, though he was not of their class and wore a beard; he was a man of education, could read and write and, what was more, had money; and he did not dress like a peasant but wore a long full coat of black cloth, high boots of calf leather and a kerchief on his neck. It is true that some of the house serfs did say among themselves that: "One can see that he is not one of us," but to his face they almost flattered him. On that evening at the steward's Dunyasha made a complete conquest of Akim's susceptible heart, though she said not a single word in answer to his ingratiating speeches and only looked sideways at him from time to time as though wondering why that peasant was there. All that only added fuel to the flames. He went home, pondered and pondered and made up his mind to win her hand.... She had somehow "bewitched" him. But how can I describe the wrath and indignation of Dunyasha when five days later Kirillovna with a friendly air invited her into her room and told her that Akim (and evidently he knew how to set to work) that bearded peasant Akim, to sit by whose side she considered almost an indignity, was courting her.
Dunyasha first flushed crimson, then she gave a forced laugh, then she burst into tears; but Kirillovna made her attack so artfully, made the girl feel her own position in the house so clearly, so tactfully hinted at the presentable appearance, the wealth and blind devotion of Akim and finally mentioned so significantly the wishes of their mistress that Dunyasha went out of the room with a look of hesitation on her face and meeting Akim only gazed intently into his face and did not turn away. The indescribably lavish presents of the love-sick man dissipated her last doubts. Lizaveta Prohorovna, to whom Akim in his joy took a hundred peaches on a large silver dish, gave her consent to the marriage, and the marriage took place. Akim spared no expense--and the bride, who on the eve of her wedding at her farewell party to her girl friends sat looking a figure of misery, and who cried all the next morning while Kirillovna was dressing her for the wedding, was soon comforted.... Her mistress gave her her own shawl to wear in the church and Akim presented her the same day with one like it, almost superior.
And so Akim was married, and took his young bride home.... They began their life together.... Dunyasha turned out to be a poor housewife, a poor helpmate to her husband. She took no interest in anything, was melancholy and depressed unless some officer sitting by the big samovar noticed her and paid her compliments; she was often absent, sometimes in the town shopping, sometimes at the mistress's house, which was only three miles from the inn. There she felt at home, there she was surrounded by her own people; the girls envied her finery. Kirillovna regaled her with tea; Lizaveta Prohorovna herself talked to her. But even these visits did not pass without some bitter experiences for Dunyasha.... As an innkeeper's wife, for instance, she could not wear a hat and was obliged to tie up her head in a kerchief, "like a merchant's lady," said sly Kirillovna, "like a working woman," thought Dunyasha to herself.
More than once Akim recalled the words of his only relation, an uncle who had lived in solitude without a family for years: "Well, Akimushka, my lad," he had said, meeting him in the street, "I hear you are getting married."
"Why, yes, what of it?"
"Ech, Akim, Akim. You are above us peasants now, there's no denying that; but you are not on her level either."
"In what way not on her level?"
"Why, in that way, for instance," his uncle had answered, pointing to Akim's beard, which he had begun to clip in order to please his betrothed, though he had refused to shave it completely.... Akim looked down; while the old man turned away, wrapped his tattered sheepskin about him and walked away, shaking his head.
Yes, more than once Akim sank into thought, cleared his throat and sighed.... But his love for his pretty wife was no less; he was proud of her, especially when he compared her not merely with peasant women, or with his first wife, to whom he had been married at sixteen, but with other serf girls; "look what a fine bird we have caught," he thought to himself.... Her slightest caress gave him immense pleasure. "Maybe," he thought, "she will get used to it; maybe she will get into the way of it." Meanwhile her behaviour was irreproachable and no one could say anything against her.
Several years passed like this. Dunyasha really did end by growing used to her way of life. Akim's love for her and confidence in her only increased as he grew older; her girl friends, who had been married not to peasants, were suffering cruel hardships, either from poverty or from having fallen into bad hands.... Akim went on getting richer and richer. Everything succeeded with him--he was always lucky; only one thing was a grief: God had not given him children. Dunyasha was by now over five and twenty; everyone addressed her as Avdotya Arefyevna. She never became a real housewife, however--but she grew fond of her house, looked after the stores and superintended the woman who worked in the house. It is true that she did all this only after a fashion; she did not keep up a high standard of cleanliness and order; on the other hand, her portrait painted in oils and ordered by herself from a local artist, the son of the parish deacon, hung on the wall of the chief room beside that of Akim. She was depicted in a white dress with a yellow shawl with six strings of big pearls round her neck, long earrings, and a ring on every finger. The portrait was recognisable though the artist had painted her excessively stout and rosy--and had made her eyes not grey but black and even slightly squinting.... Akim's was a complete failure, the portrait had come out dark--à la Rembrandt--so that sometimes a visitor would go up to it, look at it and merely give an inarticulate murmur. Avdotya had taken to being rather careless in her dress; she would fling a big shawl over her shoulders, while the dress under it was put on anyhow: she was overcome by laziness, that sighing apathetic drowsy laziness to which the Russian is only too liable, especially when his livelihood is secure....
With all that, the fortunes of Akim and his wife prospered exceedingly; they lived in harmony and had the reputation of an exemplary pair. But just as a squirrel will wash its face at the very instant when the sportsman is aiming at it, man has no presentiment of his troubles, till all of a sudden the ground gives way under him like ice.
One autumn evening a merchant in the drapery line put up at Akim's inn. He was journeying by various cross-country roads from Moscow to Harkov with two loaded tilt carts; he was one of those travelling traders whose arrival is sometimes awaited with such impatience by country gentlemen and still more by their wives and daughters. This travelling merchant, an elderly man, had with him two companions, or, speaking more correctly, two workmen, one thin, pale and hunchbacked, the other a fine, handsome young fellow of twenty. They asked for supper, then sat down to tea; the merchant invited the innkeeper and his wife to take a cup with him, they did not refuse. A conversation quickly sprang up between the two old men (Akim was fifty-six); the merchant inquired about the gentry of the neighbourhood and no one could give him more useful information about them than Akim; the hunchbacked workman spent his time looking after the carts and finally went off to bed; it fell to Avdotya to talk to the other one.... She sat by him and said little, rather listening to what he told her, but it was evident that his talk pleased her; her face grew more animated, the colour came into her cheeks and she laughed readily and often. The young workman sat almost motionless with his curly head bent over the table; he spoke quietly, without haste and without raising his voice; but his eyes, not large but saucily bright and blue, were rivetted on Avdotya; at first she turned away from them, then she, too, began looking him in the face. The young fellow's face was fresh and smooth as a Crimean apple; he often smiled and tapped with his white fingers on his chin covered with soft dark down. He spoke like a merchant, but very freely and with a sort of careless self-confidence and went on looking at her with the same intent, impudent stare.... All at once he moved a little closer to her and without the slightest change of countenance said to her: "Avdotya Arefyevna, there's no one like you in the world; I am ready to die for you."
Avdotya laughed aloud.
"What is it?" asked Akim.
"Why, he keeps saying such funny things," she said, without any particular embarrassment.
The old merchant grinned.
"Ha, ha, yes, my Naum is such a funny fellow, don't listen to him."
"Oh! Really! As though I should," she answered, and shook her head.
"Ha, ha, of course not," observed the old man. "But, however," he went on in a singsong voice, "we will take our leave; we are thoroughly satisfied, it is time for bed, ..." and he got up.
"We are well satisfied, too," Akim brought out and he got up, "for your entertainment, that is, but we wish you a good night. Avdotyushka, come along."
Avdotya got up as it were unwillingly. Naum, too, got up after her ... the party broke up. The innkeeper and his wife went off to the little lobby partitioned off, which served them as a bedroom. Akim was snoring immediately. It was a long time before Avdotya could get to sleep.... At first she lay still, turning her face to the wall, then she began tossing from side to side on the hot feather bed, throwing off and pulling up the quilt alternately ... then she sank into a light doze. Suddenly she heard from the yard a loud masculine voice: it was singing a song of which it was impossible to distinguish the words, prolonging each note, though not with a melancholy effect. Avdotya opened her eyes, propped herself on her elbows and listened.... The song went on.... It rang out musically in the autumn air.
Akim raised his head.
"Who's that singing?" he asked.
"I don't know," she answered.
"He sings well," he added, after a brief pause. "Very well. What a strong voice. I used to sing in my day," he went on. "And I sang well, too, but my voice has gone. That's a fine voice. It must be that young fellow singing, Naum is his name, isn't it?" And he turned over on the other side, gave a sigh and fell asleep again.
It was a long time before the voice was still ... Avdotya listened and listened; all at once it seemed to break off, rang out boldly once more and slowly died away.... Avdotya crossed herself and laid her head on the pillow.... Half an hour passed.... She sat up and softly got out of bed.
"Where are you going, wife?" Akim asked in his sleep.
"To see to the little lamp," she said, "I can't get to sleep."
"You should say a prayer," Akim mumbled, falling asleep.
Avdotya went up to the lamp before the ikon, began trimming it and accidentally put it out; she went back and lay down. Everything was still.
Early next morning the merchant set off again on his journey with his companions. Avdotya was asleep. Akim went half a mile with them: he had to call at the mill. When he got home he found his wife dressed and not alone. Naum, the young man who had been there the night before, was with her. They were standing by the table in the window talking. When Avdotya saw Akim, she went out of the room without a word, and Naum said that he had come for his master's gloves which the latter, he said, had left behind on the bench; and he, too, went away.
We will now tell the reader what he has probably guessed already: Avdotya had fallen passionately in love with Naum. It is hard to say how it could have happened so quickly, especially as she had hitherto been irreproachable in her behaviour in spite of many opportunities and temptations to deceive her husband. Later on, when her intrigue with Naum became known, many people in the neighbourhood declared that he had on the very first evening put a magic potion that was a love spell in her tea (the efficacy of such spells is still firmly believed in among us), and that this could be clearly seen from the appearance of Avdotya who, so they said, soon after began to pine away and look depressed.
However that may have been, Naum began to be frequently seen in Akim's yard. At first he came again with the same merchant and three months later arrived alone, with wares of his own; then the report spread that he had settled in one of the neighbouring district towns, and from that time forward not a week passed without his appearing on the high road with his strong, painted cart drawn by two sleek horses which he drove himself. There was no particular friendship between Akim and him, nor was there any hostility noticed between them; Akim did not take much notice of him and only thought of him as a sharp young fellow who was rapidly making his way in the world. He did not suspect Avdotya's real feelings and went on believing in her as before.
Two years passed like this.
One summer day it happened that Lizaveta Prohorovna--who had somehow suddenly grown yellow and wrinkled during those two years in spite of all sorts of unguents, rouge and powder--about two o'clock in the afternoon went out with her lap dog and her folding parasol for a stroll before dinner in her neat little German garden. With a faint rustle of her starched petticoats, she walked with tiny steps along the sandy path between two rows of erect, stiffly tied-up dahlias, when she was suddenly overtaken by our old acquaintance Kirillovna, who announced respectfully that a merchant desired to speak to her on important business. Kirillovna was still high in her mistress's favour (in reality it was she who managed Madame Kuntse's estate) and she had some time before obtained permission to wear a white cap, which gave still more acerbity to the sharp features of her swarthy face.
"A merchant?" said her mistress; "what does he want?"
"I don't know what he wants," answered Kirillovna in an insinuating voice, "only I think he wants to buy something from you."
Lizaveta Prohorovna went back into the drawing-room, sat down in her usual seat--an armchair with a canopy over it, upon which a climbing plant twined gracefully--and gave orders that the merchant should be summoned.
Naum appeared, bowed, and stood still by the door.
"I hear that you want to buy something of me," said Lizaveta Prohorovna, and thought to herself, "What a handsome man this merchant is."
"Just so, madam."
"What is it?"
"Would you be willing to sell your inn?"
"Why, the one on the high road not far from here."
"But that inn is not mine, it is Akim's."
"Not yours? Why, it stands on your land."
"Yes, the land is mine ... bought in my name; but the inn is his."
"To be sure. But wouldn't you be willing to sell it to me?"
"How could I sell it to you?"
"Well, I would give you a good price for it."
Lizaveta Prohorovna was silent for a space.
"It is really very queer what you are saying," she said. "And what would you give?" she added. "I don't ask that for myself but for Akim."
"For all the buildings and the appurtenances, together with the land that goes with it, of course, I would give two thousand roubles."
"Two thousand roubles! That is not enough," replied Lizaveta Prohorovna.
"It's a good price."
"But have you spoken to Akim?"
"What should I speak to him for? The inn is yours, so here I am talking to you about it."
"But I have told you.... It really is astonishing that you don't understand me."
"Not understand, madam? But I do understand."
Lizaveta Prohorovna looked at Naum and Naum looked at Lizaveta Prohorovna.
"Well, then," he began, "what do you propose?"
"I propose..." Lizaveta Prohorovna moved in her chair. "In the first place I tell you that two thousand is too little and in the second..."
"I'll add another hundred, then."
Lizaveta Prohorovna got up.
"I see that you are talking quite off the point. I have told you already that I cannot sell that inn--am not going to sell it. I cannot ... that is, I will not."
Naum smiled and said nothing for a space.
"Well, as you please, madam," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "I beg to take leave." He bowed and took hold of the door handle.
Lizaveta Prohorovna turned round to him.
"You need not go away yet, however," she said, with hardly perceptible agitation. She rang the bell and Kirillovna came in from the study. "Kirillovna, tell them to give this gentleman some tea. I will see you again," she added, with a slight inclination of her head.
Naum bowed again and went out with Kirillovna. Lizaveta Prohorovna walked up and down the room once or twice and rang the bell again. This time a page appeared. She told him to fetch Kirillovna. A few moments later Kirillovna came in with a faint creak of her new goatskin shoes.
"Have you heard," Lizaveta Prohorovna began with a forced laugh, "what this merchant has been proposing to me? He is a queer fellow, really!"
"No, I haven't heard. What is it, madam?" and Kirillovna faintly screwed up her black Kalmuck eyes.
"He wants to buy Akim's inn."
"Well, why not?"
"But how could he? What about Akim? I gave it to Akim."
"Upon my word, madam, what are you saying? Isn't the inn yours? Don't we all belong to you? And isn't all our property yours, our mistress's?"
"Good gracious, Kirillovna, what are you saying?" Lizaveta Prohorovna pulled out a batiste handkerchief and nervously blew her nose. "Akim bought the inn with his own money."
"His own money? But where did he get the money? Wasn't it through your kindness? He has had the use of the land all this time as it is. It was all through your gracious permission. And do you suppose, madam, that he would have no money left? Why, he is richer than you are, upon my word, he is!"
"That's all true, of course, but still I can't do it.... How could I sell the inn?"
"And why not sell it," Kirillovna went on, "since a purchaser has luckily turned up? May I ask, madam, how much he offers you?"
"More than two thousand roubles," said Lizaveta Prohorovna softly.
"He will give more, madam, if he offers two thousand straight off. And you will arrange things with Akim afterwards; take a little off his yearly duty or something. He will be thankful, too."
"Of course, I must remit part of his duty. But no, Kirillovna, how can I sell it?" and Lizaveta Prohorovna walked up and down the room. "No, that's out of the question, that won't do ... no, please don't speak of it again ... or I shall be angry."
But in spite of her agitated mistress's warning, Kirillovna did continue speaking of it and half an hour later she went back to Naum, whom she had left in the butler's pantry at the samovar.
"What have you to tell me, good madam?" said Naum, jauntily turning his tea-cup wrong side upwards in the saucer.
"What I have to tell you is that you are to go in to the mistress; she wants you."
"Certainly," said Naum, and he got up and followed Kirillovna into the drawing-room.
The door closed behind them.... When the door opened again and Naum walked out backwards, bowing, the matter was settled: Akim's inn belonged to him. He had bought it for 2800 paper roubles. It was arranged that the legal formalities should take place as quickly as possible and that till then the matter should not be made public. Lizaveta Prohorovna received a deposit of a hundred roubles and two hundred went to Kirillovna for her assistance. "It has not cost me much," thought Naum as he got into his coat, "it was a lucky chance."
While the transaction we have described was going forward in the mistress's house, Akim was sitting at home alone on the bench by the window, stroking his beard with a discontented expression. We have said already that he did not suspect his wife's feeling for Naum, although kind friends had more than once hinted to him that it was time he opened his eyes; it is true that he had noticed himself that of late his wife had become rather difficult, but we all know that the female sex is capricious and changeable. Even when it really did strike him that things were not going well in his house, he merely dismissed the thought with a wave of his hand; he did not like the idea of a squabble; his good nature had not lessened with years and indolence was asserting itself, too. But on that day he was very much out of humour; the day before he had overheard quite by chance in the street a conversation between their servant and a neighbouring peasant woman.
The peasant woman asked the servant why she had not come to see her on the holiday the day before. "I was expecting you," she said.
"I did set off," replied the servant, "but as ill-luck would have it, I ran into the mistress ... botheration take her."
"Ran into her?" repeated the peasant woman in a sing-song voice and she leaned her cheek on her hand. "And where did you run into her, my good girl?"
"Beyond the priest's hemp-patch. She must have gone to the hemp-patch to meet her Naum, but I could not see them in the dusk, owing to the moon, maybe, I don't know; I simply dashed into them."
"Dashed into them?" the other woman repeated. "Well, and was she standing with him, my good girl?"
"Yes, she was. He was standing there and so was she. She saw me and said, 'Where are you running to? Go home.' So I went home."
"You went home?" The peasant woman was silent. "Well, good-bye, Fetinyushka," she brought out at last, and trudged off.
This conversation had an unpleasant effect on Akim. His love for Avdotya had cooled, but still he did not like what the servant had said. And she had told the truth: Avdotya really had gone out that evening to meet Naum, who had been waiting for her in the patch of dense shade thrown on the road by the high motionless hemp. The dew bathed every stalk of it from top to bottom; the strong, almost overpowering fragrance hung all about it. A huge crimson moon had just risen in the dingy, blackish mist. Naum heard the hurried footsteps of Avdotya a long way off and went to meet her. She came up to him, pale with running; the moon lighted up her face.
"Well, have you brought it?" he asked.
"Brought it--yes, I have," she answered in an uncertain voice. "But, Naum Ivanitch----"
"Give it me, since you have brought it," he interrupted her, and held out his hand.
She took a parcel from under her shawl. Naum took it at once and thrust it in his bosom.
"Naum Ivanitch," Avdotya said slowly, keeping her eyes fixed on him, "oh, Naum Ivanitch, you will bring my soul to ruin."
It was at that instant that the servant came up to them.
And so Akim was sitting on the bench discontentedly stroking his beard. Avdotya kept coming into the room and going out again. He simply followed her with his eyes. At last she came into the room and after taking a jerkin from the lobby was just crossing the threshold, when he could not restrain himself and said, as though speaking to himself:
"I wonder," he began, "why it is women are always in a fuss? It's no good expecting them to sit still. That's not in their line. But running out morning or evening, that's what they like. Yes."
Avdotya listened to her husband's words without changing her position; only at the word "evening," she moved her head slightly and seemed to ponder.
"Once you begin talking, Semyonitch," she commented at last with vexation, "there is no stopping you."
And with a wave of her hand she went away and slammed the door. Avdotya certainly did not appreciate Akim's eloquence and often in the evenings when he indulged in conversation with travellers or fell to telling stories she stealthily yawned or went out of the room. Akim looked at the closed door. "Once you begin talking," he repeated in an undertone.... "The fact is, I have not talked enough to you. And who is it? A peasant like any one of us, and what's more...." And he got up, thought a little and tapped the back of his head with his fist.
Several days passed in a rather strange way. Akim kept looking at his wife as though he were preparing to say something to her, and she, for her part, looked at him suspiciously; meanwhile, they both preserved a strained silence. This silence, however, was broken from time to time by some peevish remark from Akim in regard to some oversight in the housekeeping or in regard to women in general. For the most part Avdotya did not answer one word. But in spite of Akim's good-natured weakness, it certainly would have come to a decisive explanation between him and Avdotya, if it had not been for an event which rendered any explanation useless.
One morning Akim and wife were just beginning lunch (owing to the summer work in the fields there were no travellers at the inn) when suddenly a cart rattled briskly along the road and pulled up sharply at the front door. Akim peeped out of window, frowned and looked down: Naum got deliberately out of the cart. Avdotya had not seen him, but when she heard his voice in the entry the spoon trembled in her hand. He told the labourers to put up the horse in the yard. At last the door opened and he walked into the room.
"Good-day," he said, and took off his cap.
"Good-day," Akim repeated through his teeth. "Where has God brought you from?"
"I was in the neighbourhood," replied Naum, and he sat down on the bench. "I have come from your lady."
"From the lady," said Akim, not getting up from his seat. "On business, eh?"
"Yes, on business. My respects to you, Avdotya Arefyevona."
"Good morning, Naum Ivanitch," she answered. All were silent.
"What have you got, broth, is it?" began Naum.
"Yes, broth," replied Akim and all at once he turned pale, "but not for you."
Naum glanced at Akim with surprise.
"Not for me?"
"Not for you, and that's all about it." Akim's eyes glittered and he brought his fist on the table. "There is nothing in my house for you, do you hear?"
"What's this, Semyonitch, what is the matter with you?"
"There's nothing the matter with me, but I am sick of you, Naum Ivanitch, that's what it is." The old man got up, trembling all over. "You poke yourself in here too often, I tell you."
Naum, too, got up.
"You've gone clean off your head, old man," he said with a jeer. "Avdotya Arefyevna, what's wrong with him?"
"I tell you," shouted Akim in a cracked voice, "go away, do you hear? ... You have nothing to do with Avdotya Arefyevna ... I tell you, do you hear, get out!"
"What's that you are saying to me?" Naum asked significantly.
"Go out of the house, that's what I am telling to you. Here's God and here's the door ... do you understand? Or there will be trouble."
Naum took a step forward.
"Good gracious, don't fight, my dears," faltered Avdotya, who till then had sat motionless at the table.
Naum glanced at her.
"Don't be uneasy, Avdotya Arefyevna, why should we fight? Fie, brother, what a hullabaloo you are making!" he went on, addressing Akim. "Yes, really. You are a hasty one! Has anyone ever heard of turning anyone out of his house, especially the owner of it?" Naum added with slow deliberateness.
"Out of his house?" muttered Akim. "What owner?"
"Me, if you like."
And Naum screwed up his eyes and showed his white teeth in a grin.
"You? Why, it's my house, isn't it?"
"What a slow-witted fellow you are! I tell you it's mine."
Akim gazed at him open-eyed.
"What crazy stuff is it you are talking? One would think you had gone silly," he said at last. "How the devil can it be yours?"
"What's the good of talking to you?" cried Naum impatiently. "Do you see this bit of paper?" he went on, pulling out of his pocket a sheet of stamped paper, folded in four, "do you see? This is the deed of sale, do you understand, the deed of sale of your land and your house; I have bought them from the lady, from Lizaveta Prohorovna; the deed was drawn up at the town yesterday; so I am master here, not you. Pack your belongings today," he added, putting the document back in his pocket, "and don't let me see a sign of you here to-morrow, do you hear?"
Akim stood as though struck by a thunderbolt.
"Robber," he moaned at last, "robber.... Heigh, Fedka, Mitka, wife, wife, seize him, seize him--hold him."
He lost his head completely.
"Mind now, old man," said Naum menacingly, "mind what you are about, don't play the fool...."
"Beat him, wife, beat him!" Akim kept repeating in a tearful voice, trying helplessly and in vain to get up. "Murderer, robber.... She is not enough for you, you want to take my house, too, and everything.... But no, stop a bit ... that can't be.... I'll go myself, I'll speak myself ... how ... why should she sell it? Wait a bit, wait a bit."
And he dashed out bareheaded.
"Where are you off to, Akim Ivanitch?" said the servant Fetinya, running into him in the doorway.
"To our mistress! Let me pass! To our mistress!" wailed Akim, and seeing Naum's cart which had not yet been taken into the yard, he jumped into it, snatched the reins and lashing the horse with all his might set off at full speed to his mistress's house.
"My lady, Lizaveta Prohorovna," he kept repeating to himself all the way, "how have I lost your favour? I should have thought I had done my best!"
And meantime he kept lashing and lashing the horse. Those who met him moved out of his way and gazed after him.
In a quarter of an hour Akim had reached Lizaveta Prohorovna's house, had galloped up to the front door, jumped out of the cart and dashed straight into the entry.
"What do you want?" muttered the frightened footman who was sleeping sweetly on the hall bench.
"The mistress, I want to see the mistress," said Akim loudly.
The footman was amazed.
"Has anything happened?" he began.
"Nothing has happened, but I want to see the mistress."
"What, what," said the footman, more and more astonished, and he slowly drew himself up.
Akim pulled himself up.... He felt as though cold water had been poured on him.
"Announce to the mistress, please, Pyotr Yevgrafitch," he said with a low bow, "that Akim asks leave to see her."
"Very good ... I'll go ... I'll tell her ... but you must be drunk, wait a bit," grumbled the footman, and he went off.
Akim looked down and seemed confused.... His determination had evaporated as soon as he went into the hall.
Lizaveta Prohorovna was confused, too, when she was informed that Akim had come. She immediately summoned Kirillovna to her boudoir.
"I can't see him," she began hurriedly, as soon as the latter appeared. "I absolutely cannot. What am I to say to him? I told you he would be sure to come and complain," she added in annoyance and agitation. "I told you."
"But why should you see him?" Kirillovna answered calmly, "there is no need to. Why should you be worried! No, indeed!"
"What is to be done then?"
"If you will permit me, I will speak to him."
Lizaveta Prohorovna raised her head.
"Please do, Kirillovna. Talk to him. You tell him ... that I found it necessary ... but that I will compensate him ... say what you think best. Please, Kirillovna."
"Don't you worry yourself, madam," answered Kirillovna, and she went out, her shoes creaking.
A quarter of an hour had not elapsed when their creaking was heard again and Kirillovna walked into the boudoir with the same unruffled expression on her face and the same sly shrewdness in her eyes.
"Well?" asked her mistress, "how is Akim?"
"He is all right, madam. He says that it must all be as you graciously please; that if only you have good health and prosperity he can get along very well."
"And he did not complain?"
"No, madam. Why should he complain?"
"What did he come for, then?" Lizaveta Prohorovna asked in some surprise.
"He came to ask whether you would excuse his yearly payment for next year, that is, until he has been compensated."
"Of course, of course," Lizaveta Prohorovna caught her up eagerly. "Of course, with pleasure. And tell him, in fact, that I will make it up to him. Thank you, Kirillovna. I see he is a good-hearted man. Stay," she added, "give him this from me," and she took a three-rouble note out of her work-table drawer, "Here, take this, give it to him."
"Certainly, madam," answered Kirillovna, and going calmly back to her room she locked the note in an iron-cased box which stood at the head of her bed; she kept in it all her spare cash, and there was a considerable amount of it.
Kirillovna had reassured her mistress by her report but the conversation between herself and Akim had not been quite what she represented. She had sent for him to the maid's room. At first he had not come, declaring that he did not want to see Kirillovna but Lizaveta Prohorovna herself; he had, however, at last obeyed and gone by the back door to see Kirillovna. He found her alone. He stopped at once on getting into the room and leaned against the wall by the door; he would have spoken but he could not.
Kirillovna looked at him intently.
"You want to see the mistress, Akim Semyonitch?" she began.
He simply nodded.
"It's impossible, Akim Semyonitch. And what's the use? What's done can't be undone, and you will only worry the mistress. She can't see you now, Akim Semyonitch."
"She cannot," he repeated and paused. "Well, then," he brought out at last, "so then my house is lost?"
"Listen, Akim Semyonitch. I know you have always been a sensible man. Such is the mistress's will and there is no changing it. You can't alter that. Whatever you and I might say about it would make no difference, would it?"
Akim put his arm behind his back.
"You'd better think," Kirillovna went on, "shouldn't you ask the mistress to let you off your yearly payment or something?"
"So my house is lost?" repeated Akim in the same voice.
"Akim Semyonitch, I tell you, it's no use. You know that better than I do."
"Yes. Anyway, you might tell me what the house went for?"
"I don't know, Akim Semyonitch, I can't tell you.... But why are you standing?" she added. "Sit down."
"I'd rather stand, I am a peasant. I thank you humbly."
"You a peasant, Akim Semyonitch? You are as good as a merchant, let alone a house-serf! What do you mean? Don't distress yourself for nothing. Won't you have some tea?"
"No, thank you, I don't want it. So you have got hold of my house between you," he added, moving away from the wall. "Thank you for that. I wish you good-bye, my lady."
And he turned and went out. Kirillovna straightened her apron and went to her mistress.
"So I am a merchant, it seems," Akim said to himself, standing before the gate in hesitation. "A nice merchant!" He waved his hand and laughed bitterly. "Well, I suppose I had better go home."
And entirely forgetting Naum's horse with which he had come, he trudged along the road to the inn. Before he had gone the first mile he suddenly heard the rattle of a cart beside him.
"Akim, Akim Semyonitch," someone called to him.
He raised his eyes and saw a friend of his, the parish clerk, Yefrem, nicknamed the Mole, a little, bent man with a sharp nose and dim-sighted eyes. He was sitting on a bundle of straw in a wretched little cart, and leaning forward against the box.
"Are you going home?" he asked Akim.
"Shall I give you a lift?"
Yefrem moved to one side and Akim climbed into the cart. Yefrem, who seemed to be somewhat exhilarated, began lashing at his wretched little horse with the ends of his cord reins; it set off at a weary trot continually tossing its unbridled head.
They drove for nearly a mile without saying one word to each other. Akim sat with his head bent while Yefrem muttered to himself, alternately urging on and holding back his horse.
"Where have you been without your cap, Semyonitch?" he asked Akim suddenly and, without waiting for an answer, went on, "You've left it at some tavern, that's what you've done. You are a drinking man; I know you and I like you for it, that you are a drinker; you are not a murderer, not a rowdy, not one to make trouble; you are a good manager, but you are a drinker and such a drinker, you ought to have been pulled up for it long ago, yes, indeed; for it's, a nasty habit.... Hurrah!" he shouted suddenly at the top of his voice, "Hurrah! Hurrah!"
"Stop! Stop!" a woman's voice sounded close by, "Stop!"
Akim looked round. A woman so pale and dishevelled that at first he did not recognise her, was running across the field towards the cart.
"Stop! Stop!" she moaned again, gasping for breath and waving her arms.
Akim started: it was his wife.
He snatched up the reins.
"What's the good of stopping?" muttered Yefrem. "Stopping for a woman? Gee-up!"
But Akim pulled the horse up sharply. At that instant Avdotya ran up to the road and flung herself down with her face straight in the dust.
"Akim Semyonitch," she wailed, "he has turned me out, too!"
Akim looked at her and did not stir; he only gripped the reins tighter.
"Hurrah!" Yefrem shouted again.
"So he has turned you out?" said Akim.
"He has turned me out, Akim Semyonitch, dear," Avdotya answered, sobbing. "He has turned me out. The house is mine, he said, so you can go."
"Capital! That's a fine thing ... capital," observed Yefrem.
"So I suppose you thought to stay on?" Akim brought out bitterly, still sitting in the cart.
"How could I! But, Akim Semyonitch," went on Avdotya, who had raised her head but let it sink to the earth again, "you don't know, I ... kill me, Akim Semyonitch, kill me here on the spot."
"Why should I kill you, Arefyevna?" said Akim dejectedly, "you've been your own ruin. What's the use?"
"But do you know what, Akim Semyonitch, the money ... your money ... your money's gone.... Wretched sinner as I am, I took it from under the floor, I gave it all to him, to that villain Naum.... Why did you tell me where you hid your money, wretched sinner as I am? ... It's with your money he has bought the house, the villain."
Sobs choked her voice.
Akim clutched his head with both hands.
"What!" he cried at last, "all the money, too ... the money and the house, and you did it.... Ah! You took it from under the floor, you took it.... I'll kill you, you snake in the grass!" And he leapt out of the cart.
"Semyonitch, Semyonitch, don't beat her, don't fight," faltered Yefrem, on whom this unexpected adventure began to have a sobering effect.
"No, Akim Semyonitch, kill me, wretched sinner as I am; beat me, don't heed him," cried Avdotya, writhing convulsively at Akim's feet.
He stood a moment, looked at her, moved a few steps away and sat down on the grass beside the road.
A brief silence followed. Avdotya turned her head in his direction.
"Semyonitch! hey, Semyonitch," began Yefrem, sitting up in the cart, "give over ... you know ... you won't make things any better. Tfoo, what a business," he went on as though to himself. "What a damnable woman.... Go to him," he added, bending down over the side of the cart to Avdotya, "you see, he's half crazy."
Avdotya got up, went nearer to Akim and again fell at his feet.
"Akim Semyonitch!" she began, in a faint voice.
Akim got up and went back to the cart. She caught at the skirt of his coat.
"Get away!" he shouted savagely, and pushed her off.
"Where are you going?" Yefrem asked, seeing that he was getting in beside him again.
"You were going to take me to my home," said Akim, "but take me to yours ... you see, I have no home now. They have bought mine."
"Very well, come to me. And what about her?"
Akim made no answer.
"And me? Me?" Avdotya repeated with tears, "are you leaving me all alone? Where am I to go?"
"You can go to him," answered Akim, without turning round, "the man you have given my money to.... Drive on, Yefrem!"
Yefrem lashed the horse, the cart rolled off, Avdotya set up a wail....
Yefrem lived three-quarters of a mile from Akim's inn in a little house close to the priest's, near the solitary church with five cupolas which had been recently built by the heirs of a rich merchant in accordance with the latter's will. Yefrem said nothing to Akim all the way; he merely shook his head from time to time and uttered such ejaculations as "Dear, dear!" and "Upon my soul!" Akim sat without moving, turned a little away from Yefrem. At last they arrived. Yefrem was the first to get out of the cart. A little girl of six in a smock tied low round the waist ran out to meet him and shouted,
"And where is your mother?" asked Yefrem.
"She is asleep in the shed."
"Well, let her sleep. Akim Semyonitch, won't you get out, sir, and come indoors?"
(It must be noted that Yefrem addressed him familiarly only when he was drunk. More important persons than Yefrem spoke to Akim with formal politeness.)
Akim went into the sacristan's hut.
"Here, sit on the bench," said Yefrem. "Run away, you little rascals," he cried to three other children who suddenly came out of different corners of the room together with two lean cats covered with wood ashes. "Get along! Sh-sh! Come this way, Akim Semyonitch, this way!" he went on, making his guest sit down, "and won't you take something?"
"I tell you what, Yefrem," Akim articulated at last, "could I have some vodka?"
Yefrem pricked up his ears.
"Vodka? You can. I've none in the house, but I will run this minute to Father Fyodor's. He always has it.... I'll be back in no time."
And he snatched up his cap with earflaps.
"Bring plenty, I'll pay for it," Akim shouted after him. "I've still money enough for that."
"I'll be back in no time," Yefrem repeated again as he went out of the door. He certainly did return very quickly with two bottles under his arm, of which one was already uncorked, put them on the table, brought two little green glasses, part of a loaf and some salt.
"Now this is what I like," he kept repeating, as he sat down opposite Akim. "Why grieve?" He poured out a glass for Akim and another for himself and began talking freely. Avdotya's conduct had perplexed him. "It's a strange business, really," he said, "how did it happen? He must have bewitched her, I suppose? It shows how strictly one must look after a wife! You want to keep a firm hand over her. All the same it wouldn't be amiss for you to go home; I expect you have got a lot of belongings there still." Yefrem added much more to the same effect; he did not like to be silent when he was drinking.
This is what was happening an hour later in Yefrem's house. Akim, who had not answered a word to the questions and observations of his talkative host but had merely gone on drinking glass after glass, was sleeping on the stove, crimson in the face, a heavy, oppressive sleep; the children were looking at him in wonder, and Yefrem ... Yefrem, alas, was asleep, too, but in a cold little lumber room in which he had been locked by his wife, a woman of very masculine and powerful physique. He had gone to her in the shed and begun threatening her or telling her some tale, but had expressed himself so unintelligibly and incoherently that she instantly saw what was the matter, took him by the collar and deposited him in a suitable place. He slept in the lumber room, however, very soundly and even serenely. Such is the effect of habit.
* * * * *
Kirillovna had not quite accurately repeated to Lizaveta Prohorovna her conversation with Akim ... the same may be said of Avdotya. Naum had not turned her out, though she had told Akim that he had; he had no right to turn her out. He was bound to give the former owners time to pack up. An explanation of quite a different character took place between him and Avdotya.
When Akim had rushed out crying that he would go to the mistress, Avdotya had turned to Naum, stared at him open-eyed and clasped her hands.
"Good heavens!" she cried, "Naum Ivanitch, what does this mean? You've bought our inn?"
"Well, what of it?" he replied. "I have."
Avdotya was silent for a while; then she suddenly started.
"So that is what you wanted the money for?"
"You are quite right there. Hullo, I believe your husband has gone off with my horse," he added, hearing the rumble of the wheels. "He is a smart fellow!"
"But it's robbery!" wailed Avdotya. "Why, it's our money, my husband's money and the inn is ours...."
"No, Avdotya Arefyevna," Naum interrupted her, "the inn was not yours. What's the use of saying that? The inn was on your mistress's land, so it was hers. The money was yours, certainly; but you were, so to say, so kind as to present it to me; and I am grateful to you and will even give it back to you on occasion--if occasion arises; but you wouldn't expect me to remain a beggar, would you?"
Naum said all this very calmly and even with a slight smile.
"Holy saints!" cried Avdotya, "it's beyond everything! Beyond everything! How can I look my husband in the face after this? You villain," she added, looking with hatred at Naum's fresh young face. "I've ruined my soul for you, I've become a thief for your sake, why, you've turned us into the street, you villain! There's nothing left for me but to hang myself, villain, deceiver! You've ruined me, you monster!" And she broke into violent sobbing.
"Don't excite yourself, Avdotya Arefyevna," said Naum. "I'll tell you one thing: charity begins at home, and that's what the pike is in the sea for, to keep the carp from going to sleep."
"Where are we to go now. What's to become of us?" Avdotya faltered, weeping.
"That I can't say."
"But I'll cut your throat, you villain, I'll cut your throat."
"No, you won't do that, Avdotya Arefyevna; what's the use of talking like that? But I see I had better leave you for a time, for you are very much upset.... I'll say good-bye, but I shall be back to-morrow for certain. But you must allow me to send my workmen here today," he added, while Avdotya went on repeating through her tears that she would cut his throat and her own.
"Oh, and here they are," he observed, looking out of the window. "Or, God forbid, some mischief might happen.... It will be safer so. Will you be so kind as to put your belongings together to-day and they'll keep guard here and help you, if you like. I'll say goodbye."
He bowed, went out and beckoned the workmen to him.
Avdotya sank on the bench, then bent over the table, wringing her hands, then suddenly leapt up and ran after her husband.... We have described their meeting.
When Akim drove away from her with Yefrem, leaving her alone in the field, for a long time she remained where she was, weeping. When she had wept away all her tears she went in the direction of her mistress's house. It was very bitter for her to go into the house, still more bitter to go into the maids' room. All the maids flew to meet her with sympathy and consideration. Seeing them, Avdotya could not restrain her tears; they simply spurted from her red and swollen eyes. She sank, helpless, on the first chair that offered itself. Someone ran to fetch Kirillovna. Kirillovna came, was very friendly to her, but kept her from seeing the mistress just as she had Akim. Avdotya herself did not insist on seeing Lizaveta Prohorovna; she had come to her old home simply because she had nowhere else to go.
Kirillovna ordered the samovar to be brought in. For a long while Avdotya refused to take tea, but yielded at last to the entreaties and persuasion of all the maids and after the first cup drank another four. When Kirillovna saw that her guest was a little calmer and only shuddered and gave a faint sob from time to time, she asked her where they meant to move to and what they thought of doing with their things. Avdotya began crying again at this question, and protesting that she wanted nothing but to die; but Kirillovna as a woman with a head on her shoulders, checked her at once and advised her without wasting time to set to work that very day to move their things to the hut in the village which had been Akim's and in which his uncle (the old man who had tried to dissuade him from his marriage) was now living; she told her that with their mistress's permission men and horses should be sent to help them in packing and moving. "And as for you, my love," added Kirillovna, twisting her cat-like lips into a wry smile, "there will always be a place for you with us and we shall be delighted if you stay with us till you are settled in a house of your own again. The great thing is not to lose heart. The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away and will give again. Lizaveta Prohorovna, of course, had to sell your inn for reasons of her own but she will not forget you and will make up to you for it; she told me to tell Akim Semyonitch so. Where is he now?"
Avdotya answered that when he met her he had been very unkind to her and had driven off to Yefrem's.
"Oh, to that fellow's!" Kirillovna replied significantly. "Of course, I understand that it's hard for him now. I daresay you won't find him to-day; what's to be done? I must make arrangements. Malashka," she added, turning to one of the maids, "ask Nikanop Ilyitch to come here: we will talk it over with him."
Nikanop Ilyitch, a feeble-looking man who was bailiff or something of the sort, made his appearance at once, listened with servility to all that Kirillovna said to him, said, "it shall be done," went out and gave orders. Avdotya was given three waggons and three peasants; a fourth who said that he was "more competent than they were," volunteered to join them and she went with them to the inn where she found her own labourers and the servant Fetinya in a state of great confusion and alarm.
Naum's newly hired labourers, three very stalwart young men, had come in the morning and had not left the place since. They were keeping very zealous guard, as Naum had said they would--so zealous that the iron tyres of a new cart were suddenly found to be missing.
It was a bitter, bitter task for poor Avdotya to pack. In spite of the help of the "competent" man, who turned out, however, only capable of walking about with a stick in his hand, looking at the others and spitting on the ground, she was not able to get it finished that day and stayed the night at the inn, begging Fetinya to spend the night in her room. But she only fell into a feverish doze towards morning and the tears trickled down her cheeks even in her sleep.
Meanwhile Yefrem woke up earlier than usual in his lumber room and began knocking and asking to be let out. At first his wife was unwilling to release him and told him through the door that he had not yet slept long enough; but he aroused her curiosity by promising to tell her of the extraordinary thing that had happened to Akim; she unbolted the door. Yefrem told her what he knew and ended by asking "Is he awake yet, or not?"
"The Lord only knows," answered his wife. "Go and look yourself; he hasn't got down from the stove yet. How drunk you both were yesterday! You should look at your face--you don't look like yourself. You are as black as a sweep and your hair is full of hay!"
"That doesn't matter," answered Yefrem, and, passing his hand over his head, he went into the room. Akim was no longer asleep; he was sitting on the stove with his legs hanging down; he, too, looked strange and unkempt. His face showed the effects the more as he was not used to drinking much.
"Well, how have you slept, Akim Semyonitch?" Yefrem began.
Akim looked at him with lustreless eyes.
"Well, brother Yefrem," he said huskily, "could we have some again?"
Yefrem took a swift glance at Akim.... He felt a slight tremor at that moment; it was a tremor such as is felt by a sportsman when he hears the yap of his dog at the edge of the wood from which he had fancied all the game had been driven.
"What, more?" he asked at last.
"My wife will see," thought Yefrem, "she won't let me out, most likely.
"All right," he pronounced aloud, "have a little patience."
He went out and, thanks to skilfully taken precautions, succeeded in bringing in unseen a big bottle under his coat.
Akim took the bottle. But Yefrem did not sit down with him as he had the day before--he was afraid of his wife--and informing Akim that he would go and have a look at what was going on at the inn and would see that his belongings were being packed and not stolen--at once set off, riding his little horse which he had neglected to feed--but judging from the bulging front of his coat he had not forgotten his own needs.
Soon after he had gone, Akim was on the stove again, sleeping like the dead.... He did not wake up, or at least gave no sign of waking when Yefrem returned four hours later and began shaking him and trying to rouse him and muttering over him some very muddled phrases such as that "everything was moved and gone, and the ikons have been taken out and driven away and that everything was over, and that everyone was looking for him but that he, Yefrem, had given orders and not allowed them, ..." and so on. But his mutterings did not last long. His wife carried him off to the lumber room again and, very indignant both with her husband and with the visitor, owing to whom her husband had been drinking, lay down herself in the room on the shelf under the ceiling.... But when she woke up early, as her habit was, and glanced at the stove, Akim was not there. The second cock had not crowed and the night was still so dark that the sky hardly showed grey overhead and at the horizon melted into the darkness when Akim walked out of the gate of the sacristan's house. His face was pale but he looked keenly around him and his step was not that of a drunken man.... He walked in the direction of his former dwelling, the inn, which had now completely passed into the possession of its new owner--Naum.
Naum, too, was awake when Akim stole out of Yefrem's house. He was not asleep; he was lying on a bench with his sheepskin coat under him. It was not that his conscience was troubling him--no! he had with amazing coolness been present all day at the packing and moving of all Akim's possessions and had more than once addressed Avdotya, who was so downcast that she did not even reproach him ... his conscience was at rest but he was disturbed by various conjectures and calculations. He did not know whether he would be lucky in his new career; he had never before kept an inn, nor had a home of his own at all; he could not sleep. "The thing has begun well," he thought, "how will it go on?" ... Towards evening, after seeing off the last cart with Akim's belongings (Avdotya walked behind it, weeping), he looked all over the yard, the cellars, sheds, and barns, clambered up into the loft, more than once instructed his labourers to keep a very, very sharp look-out and when he was left alone after supper could not go to sleep. It so happened that day that no visitor stayed at the inn for the night; this was a great relief to him. "I must certainly buy a dog from the miller to-morrow, as fierce a one as I can get; they've taken theirs away," he said to himself, as he tossed from side to side, and all at once he raised his head quickly ... he fancied that someone had passed by the window ... he listened ... there was nothing. Only a cricket from time to time gave a cautious churr, and a mouse was scratching somewhere; he could hear his own breathing. Everything was still in the empty room dimly lighted by the little glass lamp which he had managed to hang up and light before the ikon in the corner.... He let his head sink; again he thought he heard the gate creak ... then a faint snapping sound from the fence.... He could not refrain from jumping up; he opened the door of the room and in a low voice called, "Fyodor! Fyodor!" No one answered.... He went out into the passage and almost fell over Fyodor, who was lying on the floor. The man stirred in his sleep with a faint grunt; Naum roused him.
"What's there? What do you want?" Fyodor began.
"What are you bawling for, hold your tongue!" Naum articulated in a whisper. "How you sleep, you damned fellows! Have you heard nothing?"
"Nothing," answered the man.... "What is it?"
"Where are the others sleeping?"
"Where they were told to sleep.... Why, is there anything ..."
"Hold your tongue--come with me."
Naum stealthily opened the door and went out into the yard. It was very dark outside.... The roofed-in parts and the posts could only be distinguished because they were a still deeper black in the midst of the black darkness.
"Shouldn't we light a lantern?" said Fyodor in a low voice.
But Naum waved his hand and held his breath.... At first he could hear nothing but those nocturnal sounds which can almost always be heard in an inhabited place: a horse was munching oats, a pig grunted faintly in its sleep, a man was snoring somewhere; but all at once his ear detected a suspicious sound coming from the very end of the yard, near the fence.
Someone seemed to be stirring there, and breathing or blowing. Naum looked over his shoulder towards Fyodor and cautiously descending the steps went towards the sound.... Once or twice he stopped, listened and stole on further.... Suddenly he started.... Ten paces from him, in the thick darkness there came the flash of a bright light: it was a glowing ember and close to it there was visible for an instant the front part of a face with lips thrust out.... Quickly and silently, like a cat at a mouse, Naum darted to the fire.... Hurriedly rising up from the ground a long body rushed to meet him and, nearly knocking him off his feet, almost eluded his grasp; but Naum hung on to it with all his strength.
"Fyodor! Andrey! Petrushka!" he shouted at the top of his voice. "Make haste! here! here! I've caught a thief trying to set fire to the place...."
The man whom he had caught fought and struggled violently ... but Naum did not let him go. Fyodor at once ran to his assistance.
"A lantern! Make haste, a lantern! Run for a lantern, wake the others!" Naum shouted to him. "I can manage him alone for a time--I am sitting on him.... Make haste! And bring a belt to tie his hands."
Fyodor ran into the house.... The man whom Naum was holding suddenly left off struggling.
"So it seems wife and money and home are not enough for you, you want to ruin me, too," he said in a choking voice.
Naum recognised Akim's voice.
"So that's you, my friend," he brought out; "very good, you wait a bit."
"Let me go," said Akim, "aren't you satisfied?"
"I'll show you before the judge to-morrow whether I am satisfied," and Naum tightened his grip of Akim.
The labourers ran up with two lanterns and cords. "Tie his arms," Naum ordered sharply. The men caught hold of Akim, stood him up and twisted his arms behind his back.... One of them began abusing him, but recognising the former owner of the inn lapsed into silence and only exchanged glances with the others.
"Do you see, do you see!" Naum kept repeating, meanwhile throwing the light of the lantern on the ground, "there are hot embers in the pot; look, there's a regular log alight here! We must find out where he got this pot ... here, he has broken up twigs, too," and Naum carefully stamped out the fire with his foot. "Search him, Fyodor," he added, "see if he hasn't got something else on him."
Fyodor rummaged Akim's pockets and felt him all over while the old man stood motionless, with his head drooping on his breast as though he were dead.
"Here's a knife," said Fyodor, taking an old kitchen knife out of the front of Akim's coat.
"Aha, my fine gentleman, so that's what you were after," cried Naum. "Lads, you are witnesses ... here he wanted to murder me and set fire to the house.... Lock him up for the night in the cellar, he can't get out of that.... I'll keep watch all night myself and to-morrow as soon as it is light we will take him to the police captain ... and you are witnesses, do you hear!"
Akim was thrust into the cellar and the door was slammed.... Naum set two men to watch it and did not go to bed himself.
Meanwhile, Yefrem's wife having convinced herself that her uninvited guest had gone, set about her cooking though it was hardly daylight.... It was a holiday. She squatted down before the stove to get a hot ember and saw that someone had scraped out the hot ashes before her; then she wanted her knife and searched for it in vain; then of her four cooking pots one was missing. Yefrem's wife had the reputation of being a woman with brains, and justly so. She stood and pondered, then went to the lumber room, to her husband. It was not easy to wake him--and still more difficult to explain to him why he was being awakened.... To all that she said to him Yefrem made the same answer.
"He's gone away--well, God bless him.... What business is it of mine? He's taken our knife and our pot--well, God bless him, what has it to do with me?"
At last, however, he got up and after listening attentively to his wife came to the conclusion that it was a bad business, that something must be done.
"Yes," his wife repeated, "it is a bad business; maybe he will be doing mischief in his despair.... I saw last night that he was not asleep but was just lying on the stove; it would be as well for you to go and see, Yefrem Alexandritch."
"I tell you what, Ulyana Fyodorovna," Yefrem began, "I'll go myself to the inn now, and you be so kind, mother, as to give me just a drop to sober me."
"Well," she decided at last, "I'll give you the vodka, Yefrem Alexandritch; but mind now, none of your pranks."
"Don't you worry, Ulyana Fyodorovna."
And fortifying himself with a glass, Yefrem made his way to the inn.
It was only just getting light when he rode up to the inn but, already a cart and a horse were standing at the gate and one of Naum's labourers was sitting on the box holding the reins.
"Where are you off to?" asked Yefrem.
"To the town," the man answered reluctantly.
The man simply shrugged his shoulders and did not answer. Yefrem jumped off his horse and went into the house. In the entry he came upon Naum, fully dressed and with his cap on.
"I congratulate the new owner on his new abode," said Yefrem, who knew him. "Where are you off to so early?"
"Yes, you have something to congratulate me on," Naum answered grimly. "On the very first day the house has almost been burnt down."
Yefrem started. "How so?"
"Oh, a kind soul turned up who tried to set fire to it. Luckily I caught him in the act; now I am taking him to the town."
"Was it Akim, I wonder?" Yefrem asked slowly.
"How did you know? Akim. He came at night with a burning log in a pot and got into the yard and was setting fire to it ... all my men are witnesses. Would you like to see him? It's time for us to take him, by the way."
"My good Naum Ivanitch," Yefrem began, "let him go, don't ruin the old man altogether. Don't take that sin upon your soul, Naum Ivanitch. Only think--the man was in despair--he didn't know what he was doing."
"Give over that nonsense," Naum cut him short. "What! Am I likely to let him go! Why, he'd set fire to the house to-morrow if I did."
"He wouldn't, Naum Ivanitch, believe me. Believe me you will be easier yourself for it--you know there will be questions asked, a trial--you can see that for yourself."
"Well, what if there is a trial? I have no reason to be afraid of it."
"My good Naum Ivanitch, one must be afraid of a trial."
"Oh, that's enough. I see you are drunk already, and to-day a saint's day, too!"
Yefrem all at once, quite unexpectedly, burst into tears.
"I am drunk but I am speaking the truth," he muttered. "And for the sake of the holiday you ought to forgive him."
"Well, come along, you sniveller."
And Naum went out on to the steps.
"Forgive him, for Avdotya Arefyevna's sake," said Yefrem following him on to the steps.
Naum went to the cellar and flung the door wide open. With timid curiosity Yefrem craned his neck from behind Naum and with difficulty made out the figure of Akim in the corner of the cellar. The once well-to-do innkeeper, respected all over the neighbourhood, was sitting on straw with his hands tied behind him like a criminal. Hearing a noise he raised his head.... It seemed as though he had grown fearfully thin in those last few days, especially during the previous night--his sunken eyes could hardly be seen under his high, waxen-yellow forehead, his parched lips looked dark ... his whole face was changed and wore a strange expression--savage and frightened.
"Get up and come along," said Naum.
Akim got up and stepped over the threshold.
"Akim Semyonitch!" Yefrem wailed, "you've brought ruin on yourself, my dear!"
Akim glanced at him without speaking.
"If I had known why you asked for vodka I would not have given it to you, I really would not. I believe I would have drunk it all myself! Eh, Naum Ivanitch," he added clutching at Naum's arm, "have mercy upon him, let him go!"
"What next!" Naum replied with a grin. "Well, come along," he added addressing Akim again. "What are you waiting for?"
"Naum Ivanitch," Akim began.
"What is it?"
"Naum Ivanitch," Akim repeated, "listen: I am to blame; I wanted to settle my accounts with you myself; but God must be the judge between us. You have taken everything from me, you know yourself, everything I had. Now you can ruin me, only I tell you this: if you let me go now, then--so be it--take possession of everything! I agree and wish you all success. I promise you as before God, if you let me go you will not regret it. God be with you."
Akim shut his eyes and ceased speaking.
"A likely story!" retorted Naum, "as though one could believe you!"
"But, by God, you can," said Yefrem, "you really can. I'd stake my life on Akim Semyonitch's good faith--I really would."
"Nonsense," cried Naum. "Come along."
Akim looked at him.
"As you think best, Naum Ivanitch. It's for you to decide. But you are laying a great burden on your soul. Well, if you are in such a hurry, let us start."
Naum in his turn looked keenly at Akim.
"After all," he thought to himself, "hadn't I better let him go? Or people will never have done pestering me about him. Avdotya will give me no peace." While Naum was reflecting, no one uttered a word. The labourer in the cart who could see it all through the gate did nothing but toss his head and flick the horse's sides with the reins. The two other labourers stood on the steps and they too were silent.
"Well, listen, old man," Naum began, "when I let you go and tell these fellows" (he motioned with his head towards the labourers) "not to talk, shall we be quits--do you understand me--quits ... eh?"
"I tell you, you can have it all."
"You won't consider me in your debt?"
"You won't be in my debt, I shall not be in yours."
Naum was silent again.
"And will you swear it?"
"Yes, as God is holy," answered Akim.
"Well, I know I shall regret it," said Naum, "but there, come what may! Give me your hands."
Akim turned his back to him; Naum began untying him.
"Now, mind, old man," he added as he pulled the cord off his wrists, "remember, I have spared you, mind that!"
"Naum Ivanitch, my dear," faltered Yefrem, "the Lord will have mercy upon you!"
Akim freed his chilled and swollen hands and was moving towards the gate.
Naum suddenly "showed the Jew" as the saying is--he must have regretted that he had let Akim off.
"You've sworn now, mind!" he shouted after him. Akim turned, and looking round the yard, said mournfully, "Possess it all, so be it forever! ... Good-bye."
And he went slowly out into the road accompanied by Yefrem. Naum ordered the horse to be unharnessed and with a wave of his hand went back into the house.
"Where are you off to, Akim Semyonitch? Aren't you coming back to me?" cried Yefrem, seeing that Akim was hurrying to the right out of the high road.
"No, Yefremushka, thank you," answered Akim. "I am going to see what my wife is doing."
"You can see afterwards.... But now we ought to celebrate the occasion."
"No, thank you, Yefrem.... I've had enough. Good-bye."
And Akim walked off without looking round.
"Well! 'I've had enough'!" the puzzled sacristan pronounced. "And I pledged my word for him! Well, I never expected this," he added, with vexation, "after I had pledged my word for him, too!"
He remembered that he had not thought to take his knife and his pot and went back to the inn.... Naum ordered his things to be given to him but never even thought of offering him a drink. He returned home thoroughly annoyed and thoroughly sober.
"Well?" his wife inquired, "found?"
"Found what?" answered Yefrem, "to be sure I've found it: here is your pot."
"Akim?" asked his wife with especial emphasis.
Yefrem nodded his head.
"Yes. But he is a nice one! I pledged my word for him; if it had not been for me he'd be lying in prison, and he never offered me a drop! Ulyana Fyodorovna, you at least might show me consideration and give me a glass!"
But Ulyana Fyodorovna did not show him consideration and drove him out of her sight.
Meanwhile, Akim was walking with slow steps along the road to Lizaveta Prohorovna's house. He could not yet fully grasp his position; he was trembling all over like a man who had just escaped from a certain death. He seemed unable to believe in his freedom. In dull bewilderment he gazed at the fields, at the sky, at the larks quivering in the warm air. From the time he had woken up on the previous morning at Yefrem's he had not slept, though he had lain on the stove without moving; at first he had wanted to drown in vodka the insufferable pain of humiliation, the misery of frenzied and impotent anger ... but the vodka had not been able to stupefy him completely; his anger became overpowering and he began to think how to punish the man who had wronged him.... He thought of no one but Naum; the idea of Lizaveta Prohorovna never entered his head and on Avdotya he mentally turned his back. By the evening his thirst for revenge had grown to a frenzy, and the good-natured and weak man waited with feverish impatience for the approach of night and ran, like a wolf to its prey, to destroy his old home.... But then he had been caught ... locked up.... The night had followed. What had he not thought over during that cruel night! It is difficult to put into words all that a man passes through at such moments, all the tortures that he endures; more difficult because those tortures are dumb and inarticulate in the man himself.... Towards morning, before Naum and Yefrem had come to the door, Akim had begun to feel as it were more at ease. Everything is lost, he thought, everything is scattered and gone ... and he dismissed it all. If he had been naturally bad-hearted he might at that moment have become a criminal; but evil was not natural to Akim. Under the shock of undeserved and unexpected misfortune, in the delirium of despair he had brought himself to crime; it had shaken him to the depths of his being and, failing, had left in him nothing but intense weariness.... Feeling his guilt in his mind he mentally tore himself from all things earthly and began praying, bitterly but fervently. At first he prayed in a whisper, then perhaps by accident he uttered a loud "Oh, God!" and tears gushed from his eyes.... For a long time he wept and at last grew quieter.... His thoughts would probably have changed if he had had to pay the penalty of his attempted crime ... but now he had suddenly been set free ... and he was walking to see his wife, feeling only half alive, utterly crushed but calm.
Lizaveta Prohorovna's house stood about a mile from her village to the left of the cross road along which Akim was walking. He was about to stop at the turning that led to his mistress's house ... but he walked on instead. He decided first to go to what had been his hut, where his uncle lived.
Akim's small and somewhat dilapidated hut was almost at the end of the village; Akin walked through the whole street without meeting a soul. All the people were at church. Only one sick old woman raised a little window to look after him and a little girl who had run out with an empty pail to the well gaped at him, and she too looked after him. The first person he met was the uncle he was looking for. The old man had been sitting all the morning on the ledge under his window taking pinches of snuff and warming himself in the sun; he was not very well, so he had not gone to church; he was just setting off to visit another old man, a neighbour who was also ailing, when he suddenly saw Akim.... He stopped, let him come up to him and glancing into his face, said:
"Good-day," answered Akim, and passing the old man went in at the gate. In the yard were standing his horses, his cow, his cart; his poultry, too, were there.... He went into the hut without a word. The old man followed him. Akim sat down on the bench and leaned his fists on it. The old man standing at the door looked at him compassionately.
"And where is my wife?" asked Akim.
"At the mistress's house," the old man answered quickly. "She is there. They put your cattle here and what boxes there were, and she has gone there. Shall I go for her?"
Akim was silent for a time.
"Yes, do," he said at last.
"Oh, uncle, uncle," he brought out with a sigh while the old man was taking his hat from a nail, "do you remember what you said to me the day before my wedding?"
"It's all God's will, Akimushka."
"Do you remember you said to me that I was above you peasants, and now you see what times have come.... I'm stripped bare myself."
"There's no guarding oneself from evil folk," answered the old man, "if only someone such as a master, for instance, or someone in authority, could give him a good lesson, the shameless fellow--but as it is, he has nothing to be afraid of. He is a wolf and he behaves like one." And the old man put on his cap and went off.
Avdotya had just come back from church when she was told that her husband's uncle was asking for her. Till then she had rarely seen him; he did not come to see them at the inn and had the reputation of being queer altogether: he was passionately fond of snuff and was usually silent.
She went out to him.
"What do you want, Petrovitch? Has anything happened?"
"Nothing has happened, Avdotya Arefyevna; your husband is asking for you."
"Has he come back?"
"Where is he, then?"
"He is in the village, sitting in his hut."
Avdotya was frightened.
"Well, Petrovitch," she inquired, looking straight into his face, "is he angry?"
"He does not seem so."
Avdotya looked down.
"Well, let us go," she said. She put on a shawl and they set off together. They walked in silence to the village. When they began to get close to the hut, Avdotya was so overcome with terror that her knees began to tremble.
"Good Petrovitch," she said, "go in first.... Tell him that I have come."
The old man went into the hut and found Akim lost in thought, sitting just as he had left him.
"Well?" said Akim raising his head, "hasn't she come?"
"Yes," answered the old man, "she is at the gate...."
"Well, send her in here."
The old man went out, beckoned to Avdotya, said to her, "go in," and sat down again on the ledge. Avdotya in trepidation opened the door, crossed the threshold and stood still.
Akim looked at her.
"Well, Arefyevna," he began, "what are we going to do now?"
"I am guilty," she faltered.
"Ech Arefyevna, we are all sinners. What's the good of talking about it!"
"It's he, the villain, has ruined us both," said Avdotya in a cringing voice, and tears flowed down her face. "You must not leave it like that, Akim Semyonitch, you must get the money back. Don't think of me. I am ready to take my oath that I only lent him the money. Lizaveta Prohorovna could sell our inn if she liked, but why should he rob us.... Get your money back."
"There's no claiming the money back from him," Akim replied grimly, "we have settled our accounts."
Avdotya was amazed. "How is that?"
"Why, like this. Do you know," Akim went on and his eyes gleamed, "do you know where I spent the night? You don't know? In Naum's cellar, with my arms and legs tied like a sheep--that's where I spent the night. I tried to set fire to the place, but he caught me--Naum did; he is too sharp! And to-day he meant to take me to the town but he let me off; so I can't claim the money from him.... 'When did I borrow money from you?' he would say. Am I to say to him, 'My wife took it from under the floor and brought it to you'? 'Your wife is telling lies,' he will say. Hasn't there been scandal enough for you, Arefyevna? You'd better say nothing, I tell you, say nothing."
"I am guilty, Semyonitch, I am guilty," Avdotya, terrified, whispered again.
"That's not what matters," said Akim, after a pause. "What are we going to do? We have no home or no money."
"We shall manage somehow, Akim Semyonitch. We'll ask Lizaveta Prohorovna, she will help us, Kiriliovna has promised me."
"No, Arefyenva, you and your Kirillovna had better ask her together; you are berries off the same bush. I tell you what: you stay here and good luck to you; I shall not stay here. It's a good thing we have no children, and I shall be all right, I dare say, alone. There's always enough for one."
"What will you do, Semyonitch? Take up driving again?"
Akim laughed bitterly.
"I should be a fine driver, no mistake! You have pitched on the right man for it! No, Arefyenva, that's a job not like getting married, for instance; an old man is no good for the job. I don't want to stay here, just because I don't want them to point the finger at me--do you understand? I am going to pray for my sins, Arefyevna, that's what I am going to do."
"What sins have you, Semyonitch?" Avdotya pronounced timidly.
"Of them I know best myself, wife."
"But are you leaving me all alone, Semyonitch? How can I live without a husband?"
"Leaving you alone? Oh, Arefyevna, how you do talk, really! Much you need a husband like me, and old, too, and ruined as well! Why, you got on without me in the past, you can get on in the future. What property is left us, you can take; I don't want it."
"As you like, Semyonitch," Avdotya replied mournfully. "You know best."
"That's better. Only don't you suppose that I am angry with you, Arefyevna. No, what's the good of being angry when ... I ought to have been wiser before. I've been to blame. I am punished." (Akim sighed.) "As you make your bed so you must lie on it. I am old, it's time to think of my soul. The Lord himself has brought me to understanding. Like an old fool I wanted to live for my own pleasure with a young wife.... No, the old man had better pray and beat his head against the earth and endure in patience and fast.... And now go along, my dear. I am very weary, I'll sleep a little."
And Akim with a groan stretched himself on the bench.
Avdotya wanted to say something, stood a moment, looked at him, turned away and went out.
"Well, he didn't beat you then?" asked Petrovitch sitting bent up on the ledge when she was level with him. Avdotya passed by him without speaking. "So he didn't beat her," the old man said to himself; he smiled, ruffled up his beard and took a pinch of snuff.
* * * * *
Akim carried out his intention. He hurriedly arranged his affairs and a few days after the conversation we have described went, dressed ready for his journey, to say goodbye to his wife who had settled for a time in a little lodge in the mistress's garden. His farewell did not take long. Kirillovna, who happened to be present, advised Akim to see his mistress; he did so, Lizaveta Prohorovna received him with some confusion but graciously let him kiss her hand and asked him where he meant to go. He answered he was going first to Kiev and after that where it would please the Lord. She commended his decision and dismissed him. From that time he rarely appeared at home, though he never forgot to bring his mistress some holy bread.... But wherever Russian pilgrims gather his thin and aged but always dignified and handsome face could be seen: at the relics of St. Sergey; on the shores of the White Sea, at the Optin hermitage, and at the far-away Valaam; he went everywhere.
This year he has passed by you in the ranks of the innumerable people who go in procession behind the ikon of the Mother of God to the Korennaya; last year you found him sitting with a wallet on his shoulders with other pilgrims on the steps of Nikolay, the wonder-worker, at Mtsensk ... he comes to Moscow almost every spring.
From land to land he has wandered with his quiet, unhurried, but never-resting step--they say he has been even to Jerusalem. He seems perfectly calm and happy and those who have chanced to converse with him have said much of his piety and humility. Meanwhile, Naum's fortunes prospered exceedingly. He set to work with energy and good sense and got on, as the saying is, by leaps and bounds. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew by what means he had acquired the inn, they knew too that Avdotya had given him her husband's money; nobody liked Naum because of his cold, harsh disposition.... With censure they told the story of him that once when Akim himself had asked alms under his window he answered that God would give, and had given him nothing; but everyone agreed that there never had been a luckier man; his corn came better than other people's, his bees swarmed more frequently; even his hens laid more eggs; his cattle were never ill, his horses did not go lame.... It was a long time before Avdotya could bear to hear his name (she had accepted Lizaveta Prohorovna's invitation and had reentered her service as head sewing-maid), but in the end her aversion was somewhat softened; it was said that she had been driven by poverty to appeal to him and he had given her a hundred roubles.... She must not be too severely judged: poverty breaks any will and the sudden and violent change in her life had greatly aged and humbled her: it was hard to believe how quickly she lost her looks, how completely she let herself go and lost heart....
How did it all end? the reader will ask. Why, like this: Naum, after having kept the inn successfully for about fifteen years, sold it advantageously to another townsman. He would never have parted from the inn if it had not been for the following, apparently insignificant, circumstance: for two mornings in succession his dog, sitting before the windows, had kept up a prolonged and doleful howl. He went out into the road the second time, looked attentively at the howling dog, shook his head, went up to town and the same day agreed on the price with a man who had been for a long time anxious to purchase it. A week later he had moved to a distance--out of the province; the new owner settled in and that very evening the inn was burnt to ashes; not a single outbuilding was left and Naum's successor was left a beggar. The reader can easily imagine the rumours that this fire gave rise to in the neighbourhood.... Evidently he carried his "luck" away with him, everyone repeated. Of Naum it is said that he has gone into the corn trade and has made a great fortune. But will it last long? Stronger pillars have fallen and evil deeds end badly sooner or later. There is not much to say about Lizaveta Prohorovna. She is still living and, as is often the case with people of her sort, is not much changed, she has not even grown much older--she only seems to have dried up a little; on the other hand, her stinginess has greatly increased though it is difficult to say for whose benefit she is saving as she has no children and no attachments. In conversation she often speaks of Akim and declares that since she has understood his good qualities she has begun to feel great respect for the Russian peasant. Kirillovna bought her freedom for a considerable sum and married for love a fair-haired young waiter who leads her a dreadful life; Avdotya lives as before among the maids in Lizaveta Prohorovna's house, but has sunk to a rather lower position; she is very poorly, almost dirtily dressed, and there is no trace left in her of the townbred airs and graces of a fashionable maid or of the habits of a prosperous innkeeper's wife.... No one takes any notice of her and she herself is glad to be unnoticed; old Petrovitch is dead and Akim is still wandering, a pilgrim, and God only knows how much longer his pilgrimage will last!
LIEUTENANT YERGUNOV'S STORY
That evening Kuzma Vassilyevitch Yergunov told us his story again. He used to repeat it punctually once a month and we heard it every time with fresh satisfaction though we knew it almost by heart, in all its details. Those details overgrew, if one may so express it, the original trunk of the story itself as fungi grow over the stump of a tree. Knowing only too well the character of our companion, we did not trouble to fill in his gaps and incomplete statements. But now Kuzma Vassilyevitch is dead and there will be no one to tell his story and so we venture to bring it before the notice of the public.
It happened forty years ago when Kuzma Vassilyevitch was young. He said of himself that he was at that time a handsome fellow and a dandy with a complexion of milk and roses, red lips, curly hair, and eyes like a falcon's. We took his word for it, though we saw nothing of that sort in him; in our eyes Kuzma Vassilyevitch was a man of very ordinary exterior, with a simple and sleepy-looking face and a heavy, clumsy figure. But what of that? There is no beauty the years will not mar! The traces of dandyism were more clearly preserved in Kuzma Vassilyevitch. He still in his old age wore narrow trousers with straps, laced in his corpulent figure, cropped the back of his head, curled his hair over his forehead and dyed his moustache with Persian dye, which had, however, a tint rather of purple, and even of green, than of black. With all that Kuzma Vassilyevitch was a very worthy gentleman, though at preference he did like to "steal a peep," that is, look over his neighbour's cards; but this he did not so much from greed as carefulness, for he did not like wasting his money. Enough of these parentheses, however; let us come to the story itself.
It happened in the spring at Nikolaev, at that time a new town, to which Kuzma Vassilyevitch had been sent on a government commission. (He was a lieutenant in the navy.) He had, as a trustworthy and prudent officer, been charged by the authorities with the task of looking after the construction of ship-yards and from time to time received considerable sums of money, which for security he invariably carried in a leather belt on his person. Kuzma Vassilyevitch certainly was distinguished by his prudence and, in spite of his youth, his behaviour was exemplary; he studiously avoided every impropriety of conduct, did not touch cards, did not drink and, even fought shy of society so that of his comrades, the quiet ones called him "a regular girl" and the rowdy ones called him a muff and a noodle. Kuzma Vassilyevitch had only one failing, he had a tender heart for the fair sex; but even in that direction he succeeded in restraining his impulses and did not allow himself to indulge in any "foolishness." He got up and went to bed early, was conscientious in performing his duties and his only recreation consisted in rather long evening walks about the outskirts of Nikolaev. He did not read as he thought it would send the blood to his head; every spring he used to drink a special decoction because he was afraid of being too full-blooded. Putting on his uniform and carefully brushing himself Kuzma Vassilyevitch strolled with a sedate step alongside the fences of orchards, often stopped, admired the beauties of nature, gathered flowers as souvenirs and found a certain pleasure in doing so; but he felt acute pleasure only when he happened to meet "a charmer," that is, some pretty little workgirl with a shawl flung over her shoulders, with a parcel in her ungloved hand and a gay kerchief on her head. Being as he himself expressed it of a susceptible but modest temperament Kuzma Vassilyevitch did not address the "charmer," but smiled ingratiatingly at her and looked long and attentively after her.... Then he would heave a deep sigh, go home with the same sedate step, sit down at the window and dream for half an hour, carefully smoking strong tobacco out of a meerschaum pipe with an amber mouthpiece given him by his godfather, a police superintendent of German origin. So the days passed neither gaily nor drearily.
Well, one day, as he was returning home along an empty side-street at dusk Kuzma Vassilyevitch heard behind him hurried footsteps and incoherent words mingled with sobs. He looked round and saw a girl about twenty with an extremely pleasing but distressed and tear-stained face. She seemed to have been overtaken by some great and unexpected grief. She was running and stumbling as she ran, talking to herself, exclaiming, gesticulating; her fair hair was in disorder and her shawl (the burnous and the mantle were unknown in those days) had slipped off her shoulders and was kept on by one pin. The girl was dressed like a young lady, not like a workgirl.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch stepped aside; his feeling of compassion overpowered his fear of doing something foolish and, when she caught him up, he politely touched the peak of his shako, and asked her the cause of her tears.
"For," he added, and he laid his hand on his cutlass, "I, as an officer, may be able to help you."
The girl stopped and apparently for the first moment did not clearly understand what he wanted of her; but at once, as though glad of the opportunity of expressing herself, began speaking in slightly imperfect Russian.
"Oh, dear, Mr. Officer," she began and tears rained down her charming cheeks, "it is beyond everything! It's awful, it is beyond words! We have been robbed, the cook has carried off everything, everything, everything, the dinner service, the lock-up box and our clothes.... Yes, even our clothes, and stockings and linen, yes ... and aunt's reticule. There was a twenty-five-rouble note and two appliqué spoons in it ... and her pelisse, too, and everything.... And I told all that to the police officer and the police officer said, 'Go away, I don't believe you, I don't believe you. I won't listen to you. You are the same sort yourselves.' I said, 'Why, but the pelisse ...' and he, 'I won't listen to you, I won't listen to you.' It was so insulting, Mr. Officer! 'Go away,' he said, 'get along,' but where am I to go?"
The girl sobbed convulsively, almost wailing, and utterly distracted leaned against Kuzma Vassilyevitch's sleeve.... He was overcome with confusion in his turn and stood rooted to the spot, only repeating from time to time, "There, there!" while he gazed at the delicate nape of the dishevelled damsel's neck, as it shook from her sobs.
"Will you let me see you home?" he said at last, lightly touching her shoulder with his forefinger, "here in the street, you understand, it is quite impossible. You can explain your trouble to me and of course I will make every effort ... as an officer."
The girl raised her head and seemed for the first time to see the young man who might be said to be holding her in his arms. She was disconcerted, turned away, and still sobbing moved a little aside. Kuzma Vassilyevitch repeated his suggestion. The girl looked at him askance through her hair which had fallen over her face and was wet with tears. (At this point Kuzma Vassilyevitch always assured us that this glance pierced through him "like an awl," and even attempted once to reproduce this marvellous glance for our benefit) and laying her hand within the crooked arm of the obliging lieutenant, set off with him for her lodging.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch had had very little to do with ladies and so was at a loss how to begin the conversation, but his companion chattered away very fluently, continually drying her eyes and shedding fresh tears. Within a few minutes Kuzma Vassilyevitch had learnt that her name was Emilie Karlovna, that she came from Riga and that she had come to Nikolaev to stay with her aunt who was from Riga, too, that her papa too had been in the army but had died from "his chest," that her aunt had a Russian cook, a very good and inexpensive cook but she had not a passport and that this cook had that very day robbed them and run away. She had had to go to the police--in die Polizei.... But here the memories of the police superintendent, of the insult she had received from him, surged up again ... and sobs broke out afresh. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was once more at a loss what to say to comfort her. But the girl, whose impressions seemed to come and go very rapidly, stopped suddenly and holding out her hand, said calmly:
"And this is where we live!"
It was a wretched little house that looked as though it had sunk into the ground, with four little windows looking into the street. The dark green of geraniums blocked them up within; a candle was burning in one of them; night was already coming on. A wooden fence with a hardly visible gate stretched from the house and was almost of the same height. The girl went up to the gate and finding it locked knocked on it impatiently with the iron ring of the padlock. Heavy footsteps were audible behind the fence as though someone in slippers trodden down at heel were carelessly shuffling towards the gate, and a husky female voice asked some question in German which Kuzma Vassilyevitch did not understand: like a regular sailor he knew no language but Russian. The girl answered in German, too; the gate opened a very little, admitted the girl and then was slammed almost in the face of Kuzma Vassilyevitch who had time, however, to make out in the summer twilight the outline of a stout, elderly woman in a red dress with a dimly burning lantern in her hand. Struck with amazement Kuzma Vassilyevitch remained for some time motionless in the street; but at the thought that he, a naval officer (Kuzma Vassilyevitch had a very high opinion of his rank) had been so discourteously treated, he was moved to indignation and turning on his heel he went homewards. He had not gone ten paces when the gate opened again and the girl, who had had time to whisper to the old woman, appeared in the gateway and called out aloud:
"Where are you going, Mr. Officer! Please come in."
Kuzma Vassilyevitch hesitated a little; he turned back, however.
This new acquaintance, whom we will call Emilie, led him through a dark, damp little lobby into a fairly large but low-pitched and untidy room with a huge cupboard against the further wall and a sofa covered with American leather; above the doors and between the windows hung three portraits in oils with the paint peeling off, two representing bishops in clerical caps and one a Turk in a turban; cardboard boxes were lying about in the corners; there were chairs of different sorts and a crooked legged card table on which a man's cap was lying beside an unfinished glass of kvass. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was followed into the room by the old woman in the red dress, whom he had noticed at the gate, and who turned out to be a very unprepossessing Jewess with sullen pig-like eyes and a grey moustache over her puffy upper lip. Emilie indicated her to Kuzma Vassilyevitch and said:
"This is my aunt, Madame Fritsche."
Kuzma Vassilyevitch was a little surprised but thought it his duty to introduce himself. Madame Fritsche looked at him from under her brows, made no response, but asked her niece in Russian whether she would like some tea.
"Ah, yes, tea!" answered Emilie. "You will have some tea, won't you, Mr. Officer? Yes, auntie, give us some tea! But why are you standing, Mr. Officer? Sit down! Oh, how ceremonious you are! Let me take off my fichu."
When Emilie talked she continually turned her head from one side to another and jerked her shoulders; birds make similar movements when they sit on a bare branch with sunshine all round them.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch sank into a chair and assuming a becoming air of dignity, that is, leaning on his cutlass and fixing his eyes on the floor, he began to speak about the theft. But Emilie at once interrupted him.
"Don't trouble yourself, it's all right. Auntie has just told me that the principal things have been found." (Madame Fritsche mumbled something to herself and went out of the room.) "And there was no need to go to the police at all; but I can't control myself because I am so ... You don't understand German? ... So quick, immer so rasch! But I think no more about it ... aber auch gar nicht!"
Kuzma Vassilyevitch looked at Emilie. Her face indeed showed no trace of care now. Everything was smiling in that pretty little face: the eyes, fringed with almost white lashes, and the lips and the cheeks and the chin and the dimples in the chin, and even the tip of her turned-up nose. She went up to the little looking glass beside the cupboard and, screwing up her eyes and humming through her teeth, began tidying her hair. Kuzma Vassilyevitch followed her movements intently.... He found her very charming.
"You must excuse me," she began again, turning from side to side before the looking glass, "for having so ... brought you home with me. Perhaps you dislike it?"
"Oh, not at all!"
"As I have told you already, I am so quick. I act first and think afterwards, though sometimes I don't think at all.... What is your name, Mr. Officer? May I ask you?" she added going up to him and folding her arms.
"My name is Kuzma Vassilyevitch Yergunov."
"Yergu.... Oh, it's not a nice name! I mean it's difficult for me. I shall call you Mr. Florestan. At Riga we had a Mr. Florestan. He sold capital gros-de-Naples in his shop and was a handsome man, as good-looking as you. But how broad-shouldered you are! A regular sturdy Russian! I like the Russians.... I am a Russian myself ... my papa was an officer. But my hands are whiter than yours!" She raised them above her head, waved them several times in the air, so as to drive the blood from them, and at once dropped them. "Do you see? I wash them with Greek scented soap.... Sniff! Oh, but don't kiss them.... I did not do it for that.... Where are you serving?"
"In the fleet, in the nineteenth Black Sea company."
"Oh, you are a sailor! Well, do you get a good salary?"
"No ... not very."
"You must be very brave. One can see it at once from your eyes. What thick eyebrows you've got! They say you ought to grease them with lard overnight to make them grow. But why have you no moustache?"
"It's against the regulations."
"Oh, that's not right! What's that you've got, a dagger?"
"It's a cutlass; a cutlass, so to say, is the sailor's weapon."
"Ah, a cutlass! Is it sharp? May I look?" With an effort, biting her lip and screwing up her eyes, she drew the blade out of the scabbard and put it to her nose.
"Oh, how blunt! I can kill you with it in a minute!"
She waved it at Kuzma Vassilyevitch. He pretended to be frightened and laughed. She laughed too.
"Ihr habt pardon, you are pardoned," she pronounced, throwing herself into a majestic attitude. "There, take your weapon! And how old are you?" she asked suddenly.
"And I am nineteen! How funny that is! Ach!" And Emilie went off into such a ringing laugh that she threw herself back in her chair. Kuzma Vassilyevitch did not get up from his chair and looked still more intently at her rosy face which was quivering with laughter and he felt more and more attracted by her.
All at once Emilie was silent and humming through her teeth, as her habit was, went back to the looking glass.
"Can you sing, Mr. Florestan?"
"No, I have never been taught."
"Do you play on the guitar? Not that either? I can. I have a guitar set with perlenmutter but the strings are broken. I must buy some new ones. You will give me the money, won't you, Mr. Officer? I'll sing you a lovely German song." She heaved a sigh and shut her eyes. "Ah, such a lovely one! But you can dance? Not that, either? Unmöglich! I'll teach you. The schottische and the valse-cosaque. Tra-la-la, tra-la-la," Emilie pirouetted once or twice. "Look at my shoes! From Warsaw. Oh, we will have some dancing, Mr. Florestan! But what are you going to call me?"
Kuzma Vassilyevitch grinned and blushed to his ears.
"I shall call you: lovely Emilie!"
"No, no! You must call me: Mein Schätzchen, mein Zuckerpüppchen! Repeat it after me."
"With the greatest pleasure, but I am afraid I shall find it difficult...."
"Never mind, never mind. Say: Mein."
"Püppchen! Püppchen! Püppchen!"
"Poop ... poop.... That I can't manage. It doesn't sound nice."
"No! You must ... you must! Do you know what it means? That's the very nicest word for a young lady in German. I'll explain it to you afterwards. But here is auntie bringing us the samovar. Bravo! Bravo! auntie, I will have cream with my tea.... Is there any cream?"
"So schweige doch," answered the aunt.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch stayed at Madame Fritsche's till midnight. He had not spent such a pleasant evening since his arrival at Nikolaev. It is true that it occurred to him that it was not seemly for an officer and a gentleman to be associating with such persons as this native of Riga and her auntie, but Emilie was so pretty, babbled so amusingly and bestowed such friendly looks upon him, that he dismissed his rank and family and made up his mind for once to enjoy himself. Only one circumstance disturbed him and left an impression that was not quite agreeable. When his conversation with Emilie and Madame Fritsche was in full swing, the door from the lobby opened a crack and a man's hand in a dark cuff with three tiny silver buttons on it was stealthily thrust in and stealthily laid a big bundle on the chair near the door. Both ladies instantly darted to the chair and began examining the bundle. "But these are the wrong spoons!" cried Emilie, but her aunt nudged her with her elbow and carried away the bundle without tying up the ends. It seemed to Kuzma Vassilyevitch that one end was spattered with something red, like blood.
"What is it?" he asked Emilie. "Is it some more stolen things returned to you?"
"Yes," answered Emilie, as it were, reluctantly. "Some more."
"Was it your servant found them?"
"What servant? We haven't any servant."
"Some other man, then?"
"No men come to see us."
"But excuse me, excuse me.... I saw the cuff of a man's coat or jacket. And, besides, this cap...."
"Men never, never come to see us," Emilie repeated emphatically. "What did you see? You saw nothing! And that cap is mine."
"How is that?"
"Why, just that. I wear it for dressing up.... Yes, it is mine, und Punctum."
"Who brought you the bundle, then?"
Emilie made no answer and, pouting, followed Madame Fritsche out of the room. Ten minutes later she came back alone, without her aunt and when Kuzma Vassilyevitch tried to question her again, she gazed at his forehead, said that it was disgraceful for a gentleman to be so inquisitive (as she said this, her face changed a little, as it were, darkened), and taking a pack of old cards from the card table drawer, asked him to tell fortunes for her and the king of hearts.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch laughed, took the cards, and all evil thoughts immediately slipped out of his mind.
But they came back to him that very day. When he had got out of the gate into the street, had said good-bye to Emilie, shouted to her for the last time, "Adieu, Zuckerpüppchen!" a short man darted by him and turning for a minute in his direction (it was past midnight but the moon was shining rather brightly), displayed a lean gipsy face with thick black eyebrows and moustache, black eyes and a hooked nose. The man at once rushed round the corner and it struck Kuzma Vassilyevitch that he recognised--not his face, for he had never seen it before--but the cuff of his sleeve. Three silver buttons gleamed distinctly in the moonlight. There was a stir of uneasy perplexity in the soul of the prudent lieutenant; when he got home he did not light as usual his meerschaum pipe. Though, indeed, his sudden acquaintance with charming Emilie and the agreeable hours spent in her company would alone have induced his agitation.
Whatever Kuzma Vassilyevitch's apprehensions may have been, they were quickly dissipated and left no trace. He took to visiting the two ladies from Riga frequently. The susceptible lieutenant was soon on friendly terms with Emilie. At first he was ashamed of the acquaintance and concealed his visits; later on he got over being ashamed and no longer concealed his visits; it ended by his being more eager to spend his time with his new friends than with anyone and greatly preferring their society to the cheerless solitude of his own four walls. Madame Fritsche herself no longer made the same unpleasant impression upon him, though she still treated him morosely and ungraciously. Persons in straitened circumstances like Madame Fritsche particularly appreciate a liberal expenditure in their visitors, and Kuzma Vassilyevitch was a little stingy and his presents for the most part took the shape of raisins, walnuts, cakes.... Only once he let himself go and presented Emilie with a light pink fichu of real French material, and that very day she had burnt a hole in his gift with a candle. He began to upbraid her; she fixed the fichu to the cat's tail; he was angry; she laughed in his face. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was forced at last to admit to himself that he had not only failed to win the respect of the ladies from Riga, but had even failed to gain their confidence: he was never admitted at once, without preliminary scrutinising; he was often kept waiting; sometimes he was sent away without the slightest ceremony and when they wanted to conceal something from him they would converse in German in his presence. Emilie gave him no account of her doings and replied to his questions in an offhand way as though she had not heard them; and, worst of all, some of the rooms in Madame Fritsche's house, which was a fairly large one, though it looked like a hovel from the street, were never opened to him. For all that, Kuzma Vassilyevitch did not give up his visits; on the contrary, he paid them more and more frequently: he was seeing living people, anyway. His vanity was gratified by Emilie's continuing to call him Florestan, considering him exceptionally handsome and declaring that he had eyes like a bird of paradise, "wie die Augen eines Paradiesvogels!"
One day in the very height of summer, Kuzma Vassilyevitch, who had spent the whole morning in the sun with contractors and workmen, dragged himself tired and exhausted to the little gate that had become so familiar to him. He knocked and was admitted. He shambled into the so-called drawing-room and immediately lay down on the sofa. Emilie went up to him and mopped his wet brow with a handkerchief.
"How tired he is, poor pet! How hot he is!" she said commiseratingly. "Good gracious! You might at least unbutton your collar. My goodness, how your throat is pulsing!"
"I am done up, my dear," groaned Kuzma Vassilyevitch. "I've been on my feet all the morning, in the baking sun. It's awful! I meant to go home. But there those vipers, the contractors, would find me! While here with you it is cool.... I believe I could have a nap."
"Well, why not? Go to sleep, my little chick; no one will disturb you here."...
"But I am really ashamed."
"What next! Why ashamed? Go to sleep. And I'll sing you ... what do you call it? ... I'll sing you to bye-bye, 'Schlaf, mein Kindchen, Schlafe!'" She began singing.
"I should like a drink of water first."
"Here is a glass of water for you. Fresh as crystal! Wait, I'll put a pillow under your head.... And here is this to keep the flies off."
She covered his face with a handkerchief.
"Thank you, my little cupid.... I'll just have a tiny doze ... that's all."
Kuzma Vassilyevitch closed his eyes and fell asleep immediately.
"Schlaf, mein Kindchen, schlafe," sang Emilie, swaying from side to side and softly laughing at her song and her movements.
"What a big baby I have got!" she thought. "A boy!"
An hour and a half later the lieutenant awoke. He fancied in his sleep that someone touched him, bent over him, breathed over him. He fumbled, and pulled off the kerchief. Emilie was on her knees close beside him; the expression of her face struck him as queer. She jumped up at once, walked away to the window and put something away in her pocket.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch stretched.
"I've had a good long snooze, it seems!" he observed, yawning. "Come here, meine züsse Fräulein!"
Emilie went up to him. He sat up quickly, thrust his hand into her pocket and took out a small pair of scissors.
"Ach, Herr Je!" Emilie could not help exclaiming.
"It's ... it's a pair of scissors?" muttered Kuzma Vassilyevitch.
"Why, of course. What did you think it was ... a pistol? Oh, how funny you look! You're as rumpled as a pillow and your hair is all standing up at the back.... And he doesn't laugh.... Oh, oh! And his eyes are puffy.... Oh!"
Emilie went off into a giggle.
"Come, that's enough," muttered Kuzma Vassilyevitch, and he got up from the sofa. "That's enough giggling about nothing. If you can't think of anything more sensible, I'll go home.... I'll go home," he repeated, seeing that she was still laughing.
"Come, stay; I won't.... Only you must brush your hair."
"No, never mind.... Don't trouble. I'd better go," said Kuzma Vassilyevitch, and he took up his cap.
"Fie, how cross he is! A regular Russian! All Russians are cross. Now he is going. Fie! Yesterday he promised me five roubles and today he gives me nothing and goes away."
"I haven't any money on me," Kuzma Vassilyevitch muttered grumpily in the doorway. "Good-bye."
Emilie looked after him and shook her finger.
"No money! Do you hear, do you hear what he says? Oh, what deceivers these Russians are! But wait a bit, you pug.... Auntie, come here, I have something to tell you."
That evening as Kuzma Vassilyevitch was undressing to go to bed, he noticed that the upper edge of his leather belt had come unsewn for about three inches. Like a careful man he at once procured a needle and thread, waxed the thread and stitched up the hole himself. He paid, however, no attention to this apparently trivial circumstance.
The whole of the next day Kuzma Vassilyevitch devoted to his official duties; he did not leave the house even after dinner and right into the night was scribbling and copying out his report to his superior officer, mercilessly disregarding the rules of spelling, always putting an exclamation mark after the word but and a semi-colon after however. Next morning a barefoot Jewish boy in a tattered gown brought him a letter from Emilie--the first letter that Kuzma Vassilyevitch had received from her.
"Mein allerliebstep Florestan," she wrote to him, "can you really so cross with your Zuckerpüppchen be that you came not yesterday? Please be not cross if you wish not your merry Emilie to weep very bitterly and come, be sure, at 5 o'clock to-day." (The figure 5 was surrounded with two wreaths.) "I will be very, very glad. Your amiable Emilie." Kuzma Vassilyevitch was inwardly surprised at the accomplishments of his charmer, gave the Jew boy a copper coin and told him to say, "Very well, I will come."
Kuzma Vassilyevitch kept his word: five o'clock had not struck when he was standing before Madame Fritsche's gate. But to his surprise he did not find Emilie at home; he was met by the lady of the house herself who--wonder of wonders!--dropping a preliminary curtsey, informed him that Emilie had been obliged by unforeseen circumstances to go out but she would soon be back and begged him to wait. Madame Fritsche had on a neat white cap; she smiled, spoke in an ingratiating voice and evidently tried to give an affable expression to her morose countenance, which was, however, none the more prepossessing for that, but on the contrary acquired a positively sinister aspect.
"Sit down, sit down, sir," she said, putting an easy chair for him, "and we will offer you some refreshment if you will permit it."
Madame Fritsche made another curtsey, went out of the room and returned shortly afterwards with a cup of chocolate on a small iron tray. The chocolate turned out to be of dubious quality; Kuzma Vassilyevitch drank the whole cup with relish, however, though he was at a loss to explain why Madame Fritsche was suddenly so affable and what it all meant. For all that Emilie did not come back and he was beginning to lose patience and feel bored when all at once he heard through the wall the sounds of a guitar. First there was the sound of one chord, then a second and a third and a fourth--the sound continually growing louder and fuller. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was surprised: Emilie certainly had a guitar but it only had three strings: he had not yet bought her any new ones; besides, Emilie was not at home. Who could it be? Again a chord was struck and so loudly that it seemed as though it were in the room.... Kuzma Vassilyevitch turned round and almost cried out in a fright. Before him, in a low doorway which he had not till then noticed--a big cupboard screened it--stood a strange figure ... neither a child nor a grown-up girl. She was wearing a white dress with a bright-coloured pattern on it and red shoes with high heels; her thick black hair, held together by a gold fillet, fell like a cloak from her little head over her slender body. Her big eyes shone with sombre brilliance under the soft mass of hair; her bare, dark-skinned arms were loaded with bracelets and her hands covered with rings, held a guitar. Her face was scarcely visible, it looked so small and dark; all that was seen was the crimson of her lips and the outline of a straight and narrow nose. Kuzma Vassilyevitch stood for some time petrified and stared at the strange creature without blinking; and she, too, gazed at him without stirring an eyelid. At last he recovered himself and moved with small steps towards her.
The dark face began gradually smiling. There was a sudden gleam of white teeth, the little head was raised, and lightly flinging back the curls, displayed itself in all its startling and delicate beauty.
"What little imp is this?" thought Kuzma Vassilyevitch, and, advancing still closer, he brought out in a low voice:
"Hey, little image! Who are you?"
"Come here, come here," the "little image" responded in a rather husky voice, with a halting un-Russian intonation and incorrect accent, and she stepped back two paces.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch followed her through the doorway and found himself in a tiny room without windows, the walls and floor of which were covered with thick camel's-hair rugs. He was overwhelmed by a strong smell of musk. Two yellow wax candles were burning on a round table in front of a low sofa. In the corner stood a bedstead under a muslin canopy with silk stripes and a long amber rosary with a red tassle at the end hung by the pillow.
"But excuse me, who are you?" repeated Kuzma Vassilyevitch.
"Sister ... sister of Emilie."
"You are her sister? And you live here?"
"Yes ... yes."
Kuzma Vassilyevitch wanted to touch "the image." She drew back.
"How is it she has never spoken of you?"
"Could not ... could not."
"You are in concealment then ... in hiding?"
"Are there reasons?"
"Reasons ... reasons."
"Hm!" Again Kuzma Vassilyevitch would have touched the figure, again she stepped back. "So that's why I never saw you. I must own I never suspected your existence. And the old lady, Madame Fritsche, is your aunt, too?"
"Yes ... aunt."
"Hm! You don't seem to understand Russian very well. What's your name, allow me to ask?"
"Colibri! That's an out-of-the-way name! There are insects like that in Africa, if I remember right?"
Colibri gave a short, queer laugh ... like a clink of glass in her throat. She shook her head, looked round, laid her guitar on the table and going quickly to the door, abruptly shut it. She moved briskly and nimbly with a rapid, hardly audible sound like a lizard; at the back her hair fell below her knees.
"Why have you shut the door?" asked Kuzma Vassilyevitch.
Colibri put her fingers to her lips.
"Emilie ... not want ... not want her."
Kuzma Vassilyevitch grinned.
"I say, you are not jealous, are you?"
Colibri raised her eyebrows.
"Jealous ... angry," Kuzma Vassilyevitch explained.
"Really! Much obliged.... I say, how old are you?"
"Seventeen, you mean?"
Kuzma Vassilyevitch scrutinised his fantastic companion closely.
"What a beautiful creature you are!" he said, emphatically. "Marvellous! Really marvellous! What hair! What eyes! And your eyebrows ... ough!"
Colibri laughed again and again looked round with her magnificent eyes.
"Yes, I am a beauty! Sit down, and I'll sit down ... beside."
"By all means! But say what you like, you are a strange sister for Emilie! You are not in the least like her."
"Yes, I am sister ... cousin. Here ... take ... a flower. A nice flower. It smells." She took out of her girdle a sprig of white lilac, sniffed it, bit off a petal and gave him the whole sprig. "Will you have jam? Nice jam ... from Constantinople ... sorbet?" Colibri took from the small chest of drawers a gilt jar wrapped in a piece of crimson silk with steel spangles on it, a silver spoon, a cut glass decanter and a tumbler like it. "Eat some sorbet, sir; it is fine. I will sing to you.... Will you?" She took up the guitar.
"You sing, then?" asked Kuzma Vassilyevitch, putting a spoonful of really excellent sorbet into his mouth.
"Oh, yes!" She flung back her mane of hair, put her head on one side and struck several chords, looking carefully at the tips of her fingers and at the top of the guitar ... then suddenly began singing in a voice unexpectedly strong and agreeable, but guttural and to the ears of Kuzma Vassilyevitch rather savage. "Oh, you pretty kitten," he thought. She sang a mournful song, utterly un-Russian and in a language quite unknown to Kuzma Vassilyevitch. He used to declare that the sounds "Kha, gha" kept recurring in it and at the end she repeated a long drawn-out "sintamar" or "sintsimar," or something of the sort, leaned her head on her hand, heaved a sigh and let the guitar drop on her knee. "Good?" she asked, "want more?"
"I should be delighted," answered Kuzma Vassilyevitch. "But why do you look like that, as though you were grieving? You'd better have some sorbet."
"No ... you. And I will again.... It will be more merry." She sang another song, that sounded like a dance, in the same unknown language. Again Kuzma Vassilyevitch distinguished the same guttural sounds. Her swarthy fingers fairly raced over the strings, "like little spiders," and she ended up this time with a jaunty shout of "Ganda" or "Gassa," and with flashing eyes banged on the table with her little fist.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch sat as though he were in a dream. His head was going round. It was all so unexpected.... And the scent, the singing ... the candles in the daytime ... the sorbet flavoured with vanilla. And Colibri kept coming closer to him, too; her hair shone and rustled, and there was a glow of warmth from her--and that melancholy face.... "A russalka!" thought Kuzma Vassilyevitch. He felt somewhat awkward.
"Tell me, my pretty, what put it into your head to invite me to-day?"
"You are young, pretty ... such I like."
"So that's it! But what will Emilie say? She wrote me a letter: she is sure to be back directly."
"You not tell her ... nothing! Trouble! She will kill!"
Kuzma Vassilyevitch laughed.
"As though she were so fierce!"
Colibri gravely shook her head several times.
"And to Madame Fritsche, too, nothing. No, no, no!" She tapped herself lightly on the forehead. "Do you understand, officer?"
Kuzma Vassilyevitch frowned.
"It's a secret, then?"
"Yes ... yes."
"Very well.... I won't say a word. Only you ought to give me a kiss for that."
"No, afterwards ... when you are gone."
"That's a fine idea!" Kuzma Vassilyevitch was bending down to her but she slowly drew herself back and stood stiffly erect like a snake startled in the grass. Kuzma Vassilyevitch stared at her. "Well!" he said at last, "you are a spiteful thing! All right, then."
Colibri pondered and turned to the lieutenant.... All at once there was the muffled sound of tapping repeated three times at even intervals somewhere in the house. Colibri laughed, almost snorted.
"To-day--no, to-morrow--yes. Come to-morrow."
"At what time?".
"Seven ... in the evening."
"And what about Emilie?"
"Emilie ... no; will not be here."
"You think so? Very well. Only, to-morrow you will tell me?"
"What?" (Colibri's face assumed a childish expression every time she asked a question.)
"Why you have been hiding away from me all this time?"
"Yes ... yes; everything shall be to-morrow; the end shall be."
"Mind now! And I'll bring you a present."
"No ... no need."
"Why not? I see you like fine clothes."
"No need. This ... this ... this ..." she pointed to her dress, her rings, her bracelets, and everything about her, "it is all my own. Not a present. I do not take."
"As you like. And now must I go?"
Kuzma Vassilyevitch got up. Colibri got up, too.
"Good-bye, pretty little doll! And when will you give me a kiss?"
Colibri suddenly gave a little jump and swiftly flinging both arms round his neck, gave him not precisely a kiss but a peck at his lips. He tried in his turn to kiss her but she instantly darted back and stood behind the sofa.
"To-morrow at seven o'clock, then?" he said with some confusion.
She nodded and taking a tress of her long hair with her two fingers, bit it with her sharp teeth.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch kissed his hand to her, went out and shut the door after him. He heard Colibri run up to it at once.... The key clicked in the lock.
There was no one in Madame Fritsche's drawing-room. Kuzma Vassilyevitch made his way to the passage at once. He did not want to meet Emilie. Madame Fritsche met him on the steps.
"Ah, you are going, Mr. Lieutenant?" she said, with the same affected and sinister smile. "You won't wait for Emilie?"
Kuzma Vassilyevitch put on his cap.
"I haven't time to wait any longer, madam. I may not come to-morrow, either. Please tell her so."
"Very good, I'll tell her. But I hope you haven't been dull, Mr. Lieutenant?"
"No, I have not been dull."
"I thought not. Good-bye."
Kuzma Vassilyevitch returned home and stretching himself on his bed sank into meditation. He was unutterably perplexed. "What marvel is this?" he cried more than once. And why did Emilie write to him? She had made an appointment and not come! He took out her letter, turned it over in his hands, sniffed it: it smelt of tobacco and in one place he noticed a correction. But what could he deduce from that? And was it possible that Madame Fritsche knew nothing about it? And she.... Who was she? Yes, who was she? The fascinating Colibri, that "pretty doll," that "little image," was always before him and he looked forward with impatience to the following evening, though secretly he was almost afraid of this "pretty doll" and "little image."
Next day Kuzma Vassilyevitch went shopping before dinner, and, after persistent haggling, bought a tiny gold cross on a little velvet ribbon. "Though she declares," he thought, "that she never takes presents, we all know what such sayings mean; and if she really is so disinterested, Emilie won't be so squeamish." So argued this Don Juan of Nikolaev, who had probably never heard of the original Don Juan and knew nothing about him. At six o'clock in the evening Kuzma Vassilyevitch shaved carefully and sending for a hairdresser he knew, told him to pomade and curl his topknot, which the latter did with peculiar zeal, not sparing the government note paper for curlpapers; then Kuzma Vassilyevitch put on a smart new uniform, took into his right hand a pair of new wash-leather gloves, and, sprinkling himself with lavender water, set off. Kuzma Vassilyevitch took a great deal more trouble over his personal appearance on this occasion than when he went to see his "Zuckerpüppchen", not because he liked Colibri better than Emilie but in the "pretty little doll" there was something enigmatic, something which stirred even the sluggish imagination of the young lieutenant.
Madame Fritsche greeted him as she had done the day before and as though she had conspired with him in a plan of deception, informed him again that Emilie had gone out for a short time and asked him to wait. Kuzma Vassilyevitch nodded in token of assent and sat down on a chair. Madame Fritsche smiled again, that is, showed her yellow tusks and withdrew without offering him any chocolate.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch instantly fixed his eyes on the mysterious door. It remained closed. He coughed loudly once or twice so as to make known his presence.... The door did not stir. He held his breath, strained his ears.... He heard not the faintest sound or rustle; everything was still as death. Kuzma Vassilyevitch got up, approached the door on tiptoe and, fumbling in vain with his fingers, pressed his knee against it. It was no use. Then he bent down and once or twice articulated in a loud whisper, "Colibri! Colibri! Little doll!" No one responded. Kuzma Vassilyevitch drew himself up, straightened his uniform--and, after standing still a little while, walked with more resolute steps to the window and began drumming on the pane. He began to feel vexed, indignant; his dignity as an officer began to assert itself. "What nonsense is this?" he thought at last; "whom do they take me for? If they go on like this, I'll knock with my fists. She will be forced to answer! The old woman will hear.... What of it? That's not my fault." He turned swiftly on his heel ... the door stood half open.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch immediately hastened into the secret room again on tiptoe. Colibri was lying on the sofa in a white dress with a broad red sash. Covering the lower part of her face with a handkerchief, she was laughing, a noiseless but genuine laugh. She had done up her hair, this time plaiting it into two long, thick plaits intertwined with red ribbon; the same slippers adorned her tiny, crossed feet but the feet themselves were bare and looking at them one might fancy that she had on dark, silky stockings. The sofa stood in a different position, nearer the wall; and on the table he saw on a Chinese tray a bright-coloured, round-bellied coffee pot beside a cut glass sugar bowl and two blue China cups. The guitar was lying there, too, and blue-grey smoke rose in a thin coil from a big, aromatic candle.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch went up to the sofa and bent over Colibri, but before he had time to utter a word she held out her hand and, still laughing in her handkerchief, put her little, rough fingers into his hair and instantly ruffled the well-arranged curls on the top of his head.
"What next?" exclaimed Kuzma Vassilyevitch, not altogether pleased by such unceremoniousness. "Oh, you naughty girl!"
Colibri took the handkerchief from her face.
"Not nice so; better now." She moved away to the further end of the sofa and drew her feet up under her. "Sit down ... there."
Kuzma Vassilyevitch sat down on the spot indicated.
"Why do you move away?" he said, after a brief silence. "Surely you are not afraid of me?"
Colibri curled herself up and looked at him sideways.
"I am not afraid ... no."
"You must not be shy with me," Kuzma Vassilyevitch said in an admonishing tone. "Do you remember your promise yesterday to give me a kiss?"
Colibri put her arms round her knees, laid her head on them and looked at him again.
"I should hope so. And you must keep your word."
"Yes ... I must."
"In that case," Kuzma Vassilyevitch was beginning, and he moved nearer.
Colibri freed her plaits which she was holding tight with her knees and with one of them gave him a flick on his hand.
"Not so fast, sir!"
Kuzma Vassilyevitch was embarrassed.
"What eyes she has, the rogue!" he muttered, as though to himself. "But," he went on, raising his voice, "why did you call me ... if that is how it is?"
Colibri craned her neck like a bird ... she listened. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was alarmed.
"Emilie?" he asked.
Colibri shrugged her shoulder.
"Do you hear something?"
"Nothing." With a birdlike movement, again Colibri drew back her little oval-shaped head with its pretty parting and the short growth of tiny curls on the nape of her neck where her plaits began, and again curled herself up into a ball. "Nothing."
"Nothing! Then now I'll ..." Kuzma Vassilyevitch craned forward towards Colibri but at once pulled back his hand. There was a drop of blood on his finger. "What foolishness is this!" he cried, shaking his finger. "Your everlasting pins! And the devil of a pin it is!" he added, looking at the long, golden pin which Colibri slowly thrust into her sash. "It's a regular dagger, it's a sting.... Yes, yes, it's your sting, and you are a wasp, that's what you are, a wasp, do you hear?"
Apparently Colibri was much pleased at Kuzma Vasselyevitch's comparison; she went off into a thin laugh and repeated several times over:
"Yes, I will sting ... I will sting."
Kuzma Vassilyevitch looked at her and thought: "She is laughing but her face is melancholy.
"Look what I am going to show you," he said aloud.
"Why do you say tso? Are you a Pole?"
"Now you say nee! But there, it's no matter." Kuzma Vassilyevitch got out his present and waved it in the air. "Look at it.... Isn't it nice?"
Colibri raised her eyes indifferently.
"Ah! A cross! We don't wear."
"What? You don't wear a cross? Are you a Jewess then, or what?"
"We don't wear," repeated Colibri, and, suddenly starting, looked back over her shoulder. "Would you like me to sing?" she asked hurriedly.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch put the cross in the pocket of his uniform and he, too, looked round.
"What is it?" he muttered.
"A mouse ... a mouse," Colibri said hurriedly, and suddenly to Kuzma Vassilyevitch's complete surprise, flung her smooth, supple arms round his neck and a rapid kiss burned his cheek ... as though a red-hot ember had been pressed against it.
He pressed Colibri in his arms but she slipped away like a snake--her waist was hardly thicker than the body of a snake--and leapt to her feet.
"Wait," she whispered, "you must have some coffee first."
"Nonsense! Coffee, indeed! Afterwards."
"No, now. Now hot, after cold." She took hold of the coffee pot by the handle and, lifting it high, began pouring out two cups. The coffee fell in a thin, as it were, twirling stream; Colibri leaned her head on her shoulder and watched it fall. "There, put in the sugar ... drink ... and I'll drink."
Kuzma Vassilyevitch put a lump of sugar in the cup and drank it off at one draught. The coffee struck him as very strong and bitter. Colibri looked at him, smiling, and faintly dilated her nostrils over the edge of her cup. She slowly put it down on the table.
"Why don't you drink it?" asked Kuzma Vassilyevitch.
"Not all, now."
Kuzma Vassilyevitch got excited.
"Do sit down beside me, at least."
"In a minute." She bent her head and, still keeping her eyes fixed on Kuzma Vassilyevitch, picked up the guitar. "Only I will sing first."
"Yes, yes, only sit down."
"And I will dance. Shall I?"
"You dance? Well, I should like to see that. But can't that be afterwards?"
"No, now.... But I love you very much."
"You love? Mind now ... dance away, then, you queer creature."
Colibri stood on the further side of the table and running her fingers several times over the strings of the guitar and to the surprise of Kuzma Vassilyevitch, who was expecting a lively, merry song, began singing a slow, monotonous air, accompanying each separate sound, which seemed as though it were wrung out of her by force, with a rhythmical swaying of her body to right and left. She did not smile, and indeed knitted her brows, her delicate, high, rounded eyebrows, between which a dark blue mark, probably burnt in with gunpowder, stood out sharply, looking like some letter of an oriental alphabet. She almost closed her eyes but their pupils glimmered dimly under the drooping lids, fastened as before on Kuzma Vassilyevitch. And he, too, could not look away from those marvellous, menacing eyes, from that dark-skinned face that gradually began to glow, from the half-closed and motionless lips, from the two black snakes rhythmically moving on both sides of her graceful head. Colibri went on swaying without moving from the spot and only her feet were working; she kept lightly shifting them, lifting first the toe and then the heel. Once she rotated rapidly and uttered a piercing shriek, waving the guitar high in the air.... Then the same monotonous movement accompanied by the same monotonous singing, began again. Kuzma Vassilyevitch sat meanwhile very quietly on the sofa and went on looking at Colibri; he felt something strange and unusual in himself: he was conscious of great lightness and freedom, too great lightness, in fact; he seemed, as it were, unconscious of his body, as though he were floating and at the same time shudders ran down him, a sort of agreeable weakness crept over his legs, and his lips and eyelids tingled with drowsiness. He had no desire now, no thought of anything ... only he was wonderfully at ease, as though someone were lulling him, "singing him to bye-bye," as Emilie had expressed it, and he whispered to himself, "little doll!" At times the face of the "little doll" grew misty. "Why is that?" Kuzma Vassilyevitch wondered. "From the smoke," he reassured himself. "There is such a blue smoke here." And again someone was lulling him and even whispering in his ear something so sweet ... only for some reason it was always unfinished. But then all of a sudden in the little doll's face the eyes opened till they were immense, incredibly big, like the arches of a bridge.... The guitar dropped, and striking against the floor, clanged somewhere at the other end of the earth.... Some very near and dear friend of Kuzma Vassilyevitch's embraced him firmly and tenderly from behind and set his cravat straight. Kuzma Vassilyevitch saw just before his own face the hooked nose, the thick moustache and the piercing eyes of the stranger with the three buttons on his cuff ... and although the eyes were in the place of the moustache and the nose itself seemed upside down, Kuzma Vassilyevitch was not in the least surprised, but, on the contrary, thought that this was how it ought to be; he was even on the point of saying to the nose, "Hullo, brother Grigory," but he changed his mind and preferred ... preferred to set off with Colibri to Constantinople at once for their forthcoming wedding, as she was a Turk and the Tsar promoted him to be an actual Turk.
And opportunely a little boat appeared: he lifted his foot to get into it and though through clumsiness he stumbled and hurt himself rather badly, so that for some time he did not know where anything was, yet he managed it and getting into the boat, floated on the big river, which, as the River of Time, flows to Constantinople in the map on the walls of the Nikolaevsky High School. With great satisfaction he floated down the river and watched a number of red ducks which continually met him; they would not let him come near them, however, and, diving, changed into round, pink spots. And Colibri was going with him, too, but to escape the sultry heat she hid, under the boat and from time to time knocked on the bottom of it.... And here at last was Constantinople. The houses, as houses should, looked like Tyrolese hats; and the Turks had all big, sedate faces; only it did not do to look at them too long: they began wriggling, making faces and at last melted away altogether like thawing snow. And here was the palace in which he would live with Colibri.... And how well everything was arranged in it! Walls with generals' gold lace on it, everywhere epaulettes, people blowing trumpets in the corners and one could float into the drawing-room in the boat. Of course, there was a portrait of Mahomet.... Only Colibri kept running ahead through the rooms and her plaits trailed after her on the floor and she would not turn round, and she kept growing smaller and smaller.... And now it was not Colibri but a boy in a jacket and he was the boy's tutor and he had to climb after the boy into a telescope, and the telescope got narrower and narrower, till at last he could not move ... neither backwards nor forwards, and something fell on his back ... there was earth in his mouth.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch opened his eyes. It was daylight and everything was still ... there was a smell of vinegar and mint. Above him and at his sides there was something white; he looked more intently: it was the canopy of a bed. He wanted to raise his head ... he could not; his hand ... he could not do that, either. What was the meaning of it? He dropped his eyes.... A long body lay stretched before him and over it a yellow blanket with a brown edge. The body proved to be his, Kuzma Vassilyevitch's. He tried to cry out ... no sound came. He tried again, did his very utmost ... there was the sound of a feeble moan quavering under his nose. He heard heavy footsteps and a sinewy hand parted the bed curtains. A grey-headed pensioner in a patched military overcoat stood gazing at him.... And he gazed at the pensioner. A big tin mug was put to Kuzma Vassilyevitch's lips. He greedily drank some cold water. His tongue was loosened. "Where am I?" The pensioner glanced at him once more, went away and came back with another man in a dark uniform. "Where am I?" repeated Kuzma Vassilyevitch. "Well, he will live now," said the man in the dark uniform. "You are in the hospital," he added aloud, "but you must go to sleep. It is bad for you to talk." Kuzma Vassilyevitch began to feel surprised, but sank into forgetfulness again....
Next morning the doctor appeared. Kuzma Vassilyevitch came to himself. The doctor congratulated him on his recovery and ordered the bandages round his head to be changed.
"What? My head? Why, am I ..."
"You mustn't talk, you mustn't excite yourself," the doctor interrupted. "Lie still and thank the Almighty. Where are the compresses, Poplyovkin?"
"But where is the money ... the government money ..."
"There! He is lightheaded again. Some more ice, Poplyovkin."
Another week passed. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was so much better that the doctors found it possible to tell him what had happened to him. This is what he learned.
At seven o'clock in the evening on the 16th of June he had visited the house of Madame Fritsche for the last time and on the 17th of June at dinner time, that is, nearly twenty-four hours later, a shepherd had found him in a ravine near the Herson high road, a mile and a half from Nikolaev, with a broken head and crimson bruises on his neck. His uniform and waistcoat had been unbuttoned, all his pockets turned inside out, his cap and cutlass were not to be found, nor his leather money belt. From the trampled grass, from the broad track upon the grass and the clay, it could be inferred that the luckless lieutenant had been dragged to the bottom of the ravine and only there had been gashed on his head, not with an axe but with a sabre--probably his own cutlass: there were no traces of blood on his track from the high road while there was a perfect pool of blood round his head. There could be no doubt that his assailants had first drugged him, then tried to strangle him and, taking him out of the town by night, had dragged him to the ravine and there given him the final blow. It was only thanks to his truly iron constitution that Kuzma Vassilyevitch had not died. He had returned to consciousness on July 22nd, that is, five weeks later.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch immediately informed the authorities of the misfortune that had happened to him; he stated all the circumstances of the case verbally and in writing and gave the address of Madame Fritsche. The police raided the house but they found no one there; the birds had flown. They got hold of the owner of the house. But they could not get much sense out of the latter, a very old and deaf workman. He lived in a different part of the town and all he knew was that four months before he had let his house to a Jewess with a passport, whose name was Schmul or Schmulke, which he had immediately registered at the police station. She had been joined by another woman, so he stated, who also had a passport, but what was their calling did not know; and whether they had other people living with them had not heard and did not know; the lad whom he used to keep as porter or watchman in the house had gone away to Odessa or Petersburg, and the new porter had only lately come, on the 1st of July.
Inquiries were made at the police station and in the neighbourhood; it appeared that Madame Schmulke, together with her companion, whose real name was Frederika Bengel, had left Nikolaev about the 20th of June, but where they had gone was unknown. The mysterious man with a gipsy face and three buttons on his cuff and the dark-skinned foreign girl with an immense mass of hair, no one had seen. As soon as Kuzma Vassilyevitch was discharged from the hospital, he visited the house that had been so fateful for him. In the little room where he had talked to Colibri and where there was still a smell of musk, there was a second secret door; the sofa had been moved in front of it on his second visit and through it no doubt the murderer had come and seized him from behind. Kuzma Vassilyevitch lodged a formal complaint; proceedings were taken. Several numbered reports and instructions were dispatched in various directions; the appropriate acknowledgments and replies followed in due course.... There the incident closed. The suspicious characters had disappeared completely and with them the stolen government money had vanished, too, one thousand, nine hundred and seventeen roubles and some kopecks, in paper and gold. Not an inconsiderable sum in those days! Kuzma Vassilyevitch was paying back instalments for ten years, when, fortunately for him, an act of clemency from the Throne cancelled the debt.
He was himself at first firmly convinced that Emilie, his treacherous Zuckerpüppchen, was to blame for all his trouble and had originated the plot. He remembered how on the last day he had seen her he had incautiously dropped asleep on the sofa and how when he woke he had found her on her knees beside him and how confused she had been, and how he had found a hole in his belt that evening--a hole evidently made by her scissors. "She saw the money," thought Kuzma Vassilyevitch, "she told the old hag and those other two devils, she entrapped me by writing me that letter ... and so they cleaned me out. But who could have expected it of her!" He pictured the pretty, good-natured face of Emilie, her clear eyes.... "Women! women!" he repeated, gnashing his teeth, "brood of crocodiles!" But when he had finally left the hospital and gone home, he learned one circumstance which perplexed and nonplussed him. On the very day when he was brought half dead to the town, a girl whose description corresponded exactly to that of Emilie had rushed to his lodging with tear-stained face and dishevelled hair and inquiring about him from his orderly, had dashed off like mad to the hospital. At the hospital she had been told that Kuzma Vassilyevitch would certainly die and she had at once disappeared, wringing her hands with a look of despair on her face. It was evident that she had not foreseen, had not expected the murder. Or perhaps she had herself been deceived and had not received her promised share? Had she been overwhelmed by sudden remorse? And yet she had left Nikolaev afterwards with that loathsome old woman who had certainly known all about it. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was lost in conjecture and bored his orderly a good deal by making him continually describe over and over again the appearance of the girl and repeat her words.
A year and a half later Kuzma Vassilyevitch received a letter in German from Emilie, alias Frederika Bengel, which he promptly had translated for him and showed us more than once in later days. It was full of mistakes in spelling and exclamation marks; the postmark on the envelope was Breslau. Here is the translation, as correct as may be, of the letter:
"My precious, unforgettable and incomparable Florestan! Mr. Lieutenant Yergenhof!
"How often I felt impelled to write to you! And I have always unfortunately put it off, though the thought that you may regard me as having had a hand in that awful crime has always been the most appalling thought to me! Oh, dear Mr. Lieutenant! Believe me, the day when I learnt that you were alive and well, was the happiest day of my life! But I do not mean to justify myself altogether! I will not tell a lie! I was the first to discover your habit of carrying your money round your waist! (Though indeed in our part of the world all the butchers and meat salesmen do the same!) And I was so incautious as to let drop a word about it! I even said in joke that it wouldn't be bad to take a little of your money! But the old wretch (Mr. Florestan! she was not my aunt) plotted with that godless monster Luigi and his accomplice! I swear by my mother's tomb, I don't know to this day who those people were! I only know that his name was Luigi and that they both came from Bucharest and were certainly great criminals and were hiding from the police and had money and precious things! Luigi was a dreadful individual (ein schröckliches Subject), to kill a fellow-man (einen Mitmenschen) meant nothing at all to him! He spoke every language--and it was he who that time got our things back from the cook! Don't ask how! He was capable of anything, he was an awful man! He assured the old woman that he would only drug you a little and then take you out of town and put you down somewhere and would say that he knew nothing about it but that it was your fault--that you had taken too much wine somewhere! But even then the wretch had it in his mind that it would be better to kill you so that there would be no one to tell the tale! He wrote you that letter, signed with my name and the old woman got me away by craft! I suspected nothing and I was awfully afraid of Luigi! He used to say to me, 'I'll cut your throat, I'll cut your throat like a chicken's!' And he used to twitch his moustache so horribly as he said it! And they dragged me into a bad company, too.... I am very much ashamed, Mr. Lieutenant! And even now I shed bitter tears at these memories! ... It seems to me ... ah! I was not born for such doings.... But there is no help for it; and this is how it all happened! Afterwards I was horribly frightened and could not help going away, for if the police had found us, what would have happened to us then? That accursed Luigi fled at once as soon as he heard that you were alive. But I soon parted from them all and though now I am often without a crust of bread, my heart is at peace! You will ask me perhaps why I came to Nikolaev? But I can give you no answer! I have sworn! I will finish by asking of you a favour, a very, very important one: whenever you remember your little friend Emilie, do not think of her as a black-hearted criminal! The eternal God sees my heart. I have a bad morality (Ich habe eine schlechte moralität) and I am feather-headed, but I am not a criminal. And I shall always love and remember you, my incomparable Florestan, and shall always wish you everything good on this earthly globe (auf diesem Erdenrund!). I don't know whether my letter will reach you, but if it does, write me a few lines that I may see you have received it. Thereby you will make very happy your ever-devoted Emilie.
"P. S. Write to F. E. poste restante, Breslau, Silesia.
"P. S. S. I have written to you in German; I could not express my feelings otherwise; but you write to me in Russian."
"Well, did you answer her?" we asked Kuzma Vassilyevitch.
"I meant to, I meant to many times. But how was I to write? I don't know German ... and in Russian, who would have translated it? And so I did not write."
And always as he finished his story, Kuzma Vassilyevitch sighed, shook his head and said, "that's what it is to be young!" And if among his audience was some new person who was hearing the famous story for the first time, he would take his hand, lay it on his skull and make him feel the scar of the wound.... It really was a fearful wound and the scar reached from one ear to the other.