Two days later Ilya met Pashka Gratschev. It was evening, little flakes of snow danced in the air and glimmered in the light of the lamps. In spite of the cold, Pavel wore nothing thicker than a cotton shirt, without a belt. He walked slowly, his head on his breast, his hands in his pockets, and his back bent as though he were looking for something. When Ilya stopped him and spoke to him, Pashka raised his head, looked into Ilya's face, and said indifferently:
"Oh, it's you!"
"How goes it?" asked Ilya, falling into step.
"It's just possible things might be worse. And you?"
"Oh, rubbing along."
"Not very grandly, it seems."
They walked along together silently, their elbows touching.
"Why didn't you come to see us?" asked Ilya. "I'm always inviting you."
"No opportunity, brother. You know people like us don't get much time."
"You could come if you wanted to."
"Don't be cross. You're always saying I ought to come, and for all that, you've never asked me where I live, much less thought of paying me a visit."
"You're right; it's a fact!" said Ilya, laughing. "But tell me now."
Pavel looked at him, laughed too, and went on more cheerfully:
"I live for myself. I've no friends, can't find any who can put up with me. I've been ill—three months in hospital. Not a soul came to see me all the time."
"What was wrong?"
"Caught cold once, when I was drunk. Typhus it was. When I was better, that was the worst. I lay alone all day and all night. You feel dumb and blind, like a puppy they throw into a pond. Thanks to the doctor, I had some books at least, else I should have been bored to death."
"Were they nice books?" asked Ilya.
"Ye-es, they were jolly good, mostly poems—Lermontov, Nekrassov, Pushkin. Lots of times, reading was like drinking milk. Verses, brother! To read verses is like your sweetheart kissing you. A line sometimes goes through your heart and makes the sparks fly—you feel on fire."
"And I've given up reading books," said Ilya, with a sigh.
"Oh, what's the good of them, after all? You read books, and things seem to go one way, and you look at the real thing, and it's all different."
"You're right there! Shall we turn in anywhere? We might have a bit of a talk. There's somewhere I must go, but there's plenty of time. Perhaps you'll come along?"
Ilya agreed and took Pashka's arm. Pavel looked him in the face, and said, smiling:
"We were never really friends, but I'm always very glad to meet you."
"That's your look-out," said Ilya, jokingly. "Don't be glad on my account."
"Ah, brother," Pavel interrupted him, "it's all very well to joke! I had something very different in my mind when you stopped me. But never mind that."
They entered the first public house they came to, sat down in a corner and ordered some beer. Ilya saw in the lamp-light that Pavel's face was thin and sunken. His eyes had a restless look, and his lips, that so often before were half-open in gay mockery, were now pressed close together.
"Where are you working now?" asked Ilya.
"In a printing works again," said Pavel, gloomily.
"Oh, no; more play than work."
Ilya felt a vague pleasure to see Pashka, once so gay and assertive, now sad and careworn. He wanted to find out what had changed his friend, and, filling Pashka's glass, began to question him.
"Well, and how does the poetry get on?"
"I let it alone now. But I made a lot of poems a while ago. I showed them to the doctor, he praised them. He got one of them printed in a paper. I got thirty-nine kopecks for it."
"Oho!" cried Ilya. "That's something like! What sort of verses were they? Let's hear them!"
Ilya's eager curiosity and a couple of glasses of beer brought Gratschev into the right mood. His eyes shone and his yellow cheeks reddened. "What shall I say to you?" he said, rubbing his forehead. "I've forgotten it all; by God, I've forgotten it. Wait, perhaps something'll come back to me. I've always a head full of this sort of stuff, like a swarm of bees inside, humming. Often when I sit down to compose, I'm in a fever, something boils away in my soul and tears come into my eyes."
"I say! How does that happen?" asked Ilya, astonished and suspicious.
"Oh! something burns and blazes in you, and you want to express it cleverly and you can't find words, and then it makes you rage." He sighed, shook his head, and went on:
"Before it comes out, it seems tremendous, and when it's written down, it's nothing."
"Say a verse or two now."
The more closely Ilya observed Pavel, the keener grew his curiosity, and following the curiosity another warm, friendly, and at the same time sorrowful feeling.
"Generally I make funny poems, about my own life," said Gratschev, and laughed constrainedly.
"All right, say a funny poem."
Gratschev looked round, coughed, rubbed his chest, and began to declaim hurriedly, in a dull voice, without looking at his friend:
"It is night, and so sad—but piercing the gloom,
The moon throws its beams into my little room.
It beckons and laughs in the friendliest way
And paints a blue pattern so cheerful and gay,
On the dull stone wall, that is damp and so cold,
And over the carpet, all tattered and old.
I sit there, fast bound by the spell of my thought
And sleep never comes, though it's longed for and sought."
Pavel paused, sighed deeply, then went on more slowly, and in a lower voice:
"Grim fate has close gripped me in shuddering pain,
It tears at my heart, and it strikes at my brain;
It robbed me of all, when it caught at my dear,
And leaves me for comfort—this brandy-flask here.
See there, where it stands and gleams through the night,
And beckons and smiles in the moon's faint light.
The brandy shall heal me, my heart shall be well,
It shall cloud o'er my brain with the power of its spell.
Thoughts vanish in vapour, see, sleep is at hand,
Another glass, come! and all trouble is banned.
I drink yet again—who sleeps can endure,
I build against trouble a stronghold sure."
As Gratschev ended, he looked inquiringly at Ilya, then let his head fall lower and said softly:
"That's the kind of thing generally—you see, it's silly enough."
He drummed on the edge of the table with his fingers, and shifted his chair uneasily to and fro. For a moment, Ilya looked at him with a searching glance and his face expressed incredulous astonishment. The bitter, smooth running lines yet rang in his ears, and it seemed to him hardly credible that this thin beardless lad, with restless eyes, in an old cotton shirt and heavy boots, should have composed this poem.
"Well, brother, I shouldn't call that silly," he said slowly and thoughtfully, while he still looked curiously at Pavel. "On the contrary, it's beautiful, it touched my heart—say it again, will you?"
Pavel raised his head, looked delightedly at his listener, and coming closer, asked in a whisper, "No—really—do you like it?"
"Good Lord, what a queer fellow you are. I shouldn't lie to you."
"Well, I'll believe you, you're honest; you're straight, anyhow."
"Say it again!"
Pavel softly declaimed it in melancholy tones, often stammering and sighing deeply when his voice failed him. When he had finished, Ilya's suspicion was strengthened, that Pavel was not really the author of the verses.
"And the others?" he said to Pavel.
"Ah! do you know," said the other, "I'd rather bring my book to you, for most of my poems are long, and I haven't any time now. I can't remember them properly, the beginnings and ends get muddled up; there's one ends like this: I'm going through the wood at night, and I've lost my way and I'm tired—yes, and then I get frightened, it's so quiet all round. I am alone and now I'm looking for some escape from my misery and I lament:
"My feet are heavy,
My heart is weary,
No way is clear;
O Earth my mother,
Guide me and tell me
What course to steer.
Anxious I nestle,
Close to thy bosom;
I listen, I peer—
And out of the dark depths
Comes a soft whisper—
'Hide thy grief here!'"
"Not so bad, eh? That's the way of things. One goes, as it were, through a break in a forest, sees a light all of a sudden, then finds no way that'll lead to it. Listen, Ilya. Will you come with me? Come! I don't want to say good-bye yet." Gratschev got up suddenly, caught Ilya by the sleeve, and looked in his face in a friendly way.
"I'll come," said Ilya. "I'd like some more talk with you. To tell the truth, I hardly know how to believe you made those verses yourself."
"You don't believe? Doesn't matter. You'll see right enough that I did," said Pavel, as they came out into the street.
"If they are your verses, then you're a fine fellow," cried Ilya, in downright bewilderment. "Only stick to it! Show people what life is really like!"
"Right, brother. Once I've learnt properly how, then I'll write. They shall hear it."
"Good! good! Plan it out well! Let 'em know!"
"Often I think, when things are quiet, 'Ah, you people, you're full and warmly clothed, and I——'"
"It's not fair."
"Am I not a man too?"
"We're all equal."
"He who walks in brave attire
Also eats and drinks his fill,
But he whose only clothes are rags
Has an empty stomach still."
"Ah, the hypocrites!"
"Yes, they are hypocrites, all the lot!"
They strode quickly through the streets, and caught up eagerly the passionate scattered words each threw to the other. The more excited they became the closer together they walked. Each felt a deep pure joy that the other thought as he did, and the joy heightened their mood still further. The snow, falling in great flakes, melted on their glowing faces, settled on their clothes, clung to their boots. They marched on through a thick slush that settled noiselessly on the earth.
"I see the state of things quite clearly," cried Pavel, in a tone of conviction.
"One can't go on living like this," Ilya seconded him.
"If you've ever been to the High School, then you're reckoned a gentleman, even if your father was a water-carrier."
"That's it; and how can I help it that I didn't go there, eh?"
"They're to have all the learning, and I—I'm to have nothing!" cried Gratschev, full of wrath. "Just wait a bit!"
"Oh, curse it!" cried Ilya, who that moment stepped into a mud puddle.
"Keep more to the left."
"Where are we going, anyhow—to the hangman?"
"To Sidorisha. Don't you know her?"
"N—no," said Ilya, after a moment's pause, and took two or three steps onward. "It's a good long way, we're going."
"Oh!" said Pavel quietly, "I must go, I've something to do."
"Oh! don't mind me! of course, I'll come too."
"I'll tell you Ilya, though it's hard to speak of it."
He spat into the road and was silent for a moment or two.
"What is it?" asked Lunev, pricking up his ears.
"You see," began Pavel, hesitatingly, "it's about a girl. Well, you'll see her. She can search a fellow's heart; she was a servant at the doctor's house, who cured me. I got books from him after I was better. I'd go, and then I'd have to sit in the kitchen and wait, and she was there skipping about like a squirrel and laughing; for me, I was like a wood shaving in the fire. Well, we were alone, things went quickly, without many words. Ah! the happiness! as if heaven had come down to us. I flew to her like a feather into the fire; we kissed till our lips smarted. Ah! she was as pretty and dainty as a toy. If I caught her in my arms, she seemed to disappear. She was like a little bird that flew into my heart and sang and sang there."
He stopped, and a strange sound like a sob came from his lips.
"And what then?" asked Ilya, carried away by the story.
"The doctor's wife surprised us, devil take her! She was pretty too, and used to speak quite kindly to me before, but now of course, there was a scene. Vyerka was turned out of doors and I with her, and they blackguarded us both horribly, my word! Vyerka stayed with me. I hadn't any work and we starved and sold everything to the last thread. But Vyerka is a girl of spirit. She went off—was away a fortnight and came back dressed like a swell lady—bracelets, money in her pocket." Pashka ground his teeth and said gloomily: "I thrashed her, I tell you."
"Did she run away?" asked Ilya.
"N—No! If she'd left me I'd have thrown myself in the river. 'Kill me if you like,' she said 'but let me alone! I know I'm a burden to you. No one shall have my soul,' she said."
"And what did you do?"
"Do? I struck her once more, then I cried. What could I do; I can't find food for her."
"Why didn't she find a new place?"
"The devil knows. She said, 'it would be better this way.' If children came, what could we do with them, and so——"
Ilya thought for a little, then said: "A sensible girl."
Pashka went on a step or two in silence. Then he wheeled sharp round, stood in front of Ilya, and said in a dull hissing voice:
"When I think that other men kiss her, then it's like molten lead driving through my limbs."
"Why don't you let her go?"
"Let her go?" cried Pavel in the highest astonishment. Ilya understood afterwards when he saw the girl.
They came to a one-storied house on the outskirts of the town. Its six windows were fast shut with thick shutters so that the house had the look of an old straggling granary. The wet, sloppy snow clung to roof and walls, as though it would conceal or smother the house.
Pashka knocked at the door and said:
"This is where they're looked after. Sidorisha gives her girls board and lodging and takes fifty roubles from each of them for it; she has only four altogether. Of course she keeps wine too, and beer, and sweetmeats, and all that you want, for the rest she lets the girls do what they want to, go out if they like, or stop at home if they like, only pay the fifty every month. They are all jolly girls; they make money as easily as——One of them, Olympiada, never takes less than four roubles."
There was a rustling the other side of the door. A yellow streak of light quivered in the air.
"Who is there?"
"I, Vassa Sidorovna—Gratschev."
"Oh! The door opened and a little dried-up old woman, with a big nose in her shrivelled face, held the candle up to Pavel's face, and said in a friendly way:
"Good evening, Pashka. Vyerunka has been waiting for you for a long time, and is quite cross. Who's that with you?"
"Who is it?" came a pleasant voice out of a long, dark corridor.
"A visitor for Vyera," said the old woman.
"Vyera, here's your sweetheart," cried the same clear voice, ringing through the corridor. At once at the end of the passage a door opened and the dainty figure of a girl, dressed in white, appeared in the bright patch of light, with her thick fair hair streaming round her face.
"How late you are!" she said, in a deep alto voice, pouting. Then she stood on the tips of her toes, put her hands on Pavel's shoulders, and looked at Ilya out of her soft brown eyes.
"This is my friend, Ilya Lunev. I met him, and that's how I'm a bit late."
"Welcome," she said, giving Ilya her hand, so that the wide sleeve of her loose white dress fell back almost up to the shoulder. Ilya pressed her hot, dry little hand respectfully, without a word. He looked at Pavel's sweetheart, with that feeling of joyful surprise with which a man greets a slender fragrant birch-tree in a thick wood full of brambles and marshy thickets. As she stood aside to let him enter, he stepped back, bowed, and said politely:
"Please, after you."
"How polite!" she laughed.
Her laughter was pleasant, gay and clear. Pavel laughed too, and said:
"You've turned his head already, Vyerka. See, how he stands there, like a bear in front of the honey jar."
"Is that true?" asked the girl, mischievously.
"Of course," answered Ilya, laughing. "I'm quite bewildered by your beauty."
"Here, you, listen! You just fall in love with her and I'll kill you," Pavel threatened, jokingly. It pleased him that his lady's beauty should make such an impression on his friend, and his eyes shone with pride as he looked at her. She, too, paraded her charms with a naïve coquetry, convinced of their power. She wore nothing but a bodice with sleeves, over a vest and a shining white petticoat; her healthy, sound, snow-white body showed through the bodice-opening. A childish, self-contented smile twitched at the corners of her red lips; it was as though she took pleasure in herself, like a child with a toy it is not yet tired of. Ilya could not take his eyes off her. He saw how gracefully she moved up and down in the room, and how she wrinkled up her little nose, and laughed and chattered, and looked tenderly at Pavel every now and then; his heart was heavy to think he had no such friend. He sat silently and looked about him. A table covered with a white cloth, stood in the middle of the little, tidy, brightly-lighted room; on the table the samovar bubbled cheerily, and everything round about it was fresh and gay; the cups, the wine-bottle, the plate with bread and sausage—everything had a clean new look; it struck Ilya as unusual, and moved him to envy Pavel, who sat there, quite blissful, and began to rhyme extempore:
"The sight of you, like bright sunshine,
Streams over this poor heart of mine.
Forgotten all my grief and pain,
My heart begins to hope again.
To call a beautiful girl one's own
Is the greatest joy that can ever be known."
"Pashka, dear, how nice it is!" cried Vyera, delighted.
"Ah! it's hot! Hullo, you there, Ilya, leave off! Can't you look enough? Get one for yourself!"
"But she must be pretty," said Vyera, with a strange emphasis, looking Ilya in the eyes.
"Prettier than you can't be found," sighed Ilya, and laughed.
"Don't talk of things you don't understand," said Vyera, softly.
"He knows his way about," said Pashka. Then, turning to Ilya, went on, wrinkling his brow: "Here, now, everything is so clean and jolly, and then, all of a sudden—one thinks—It cuts one's heart."
"Don't think then!" cried Vyera, and bent over the table. Ilya looked at her, and saw how her ears grew red.
"You must think—" she went on, softly but firmly—"if I have only a day, still it's mine! It isn't easy for me, either, but I don't mix up the joy and the trouble; I keep it, like the song says: 'The sorrow I alone will bear, the joy together we shall share.'"
Pavel listened, but hardened his heart, in his sulky mood. Ilya longed to say something comforting, encouraging, and, after a pause, began:
"What's to be done when the knots won't be loosened? If I had lots of money, a thousand or ten thousand roubles, I'd give it to you, and say: 'There, take it, take it because of your love,' for I see it and feel it; for you it's a real true heart affair, and that is always pure to the conscience, and all the rest you can spit at."
A warm feeling flamed up and thrilled through him. He stood up when he saw the girl lift her head and look at him gratefully, while Pavel smiled, as though he waited for him to say more.
"It's the first time in my life I've seen such a beautiful thing," Ilya went on. "It's the first time I have seen how people can love one another; and, Pavel, it's the first time I've really got to know you—I've looked into your soul. I sit here and say frankly, I envy you; I'm sad and merry at the same time. God grant that all may be well with you! And—and as for the rest, let me say something. Suppose—I dislike Chuvashai and Mordvij, they're dirty and blear-eyed. But I bathe in the same river and drink the same water as they do. Am I to avoid the river because they are objectionable? Why should I? God cleanses it again."
"That's it, Ilya! You're a good fellow," cried Pavel, excitedly.
"But do you drink out of the river?" said Vyera, softly.
"I must find it first," laughed Ilya. "Pour me out a glass of tea to go on with, Vyera!"
"You're a nice boy!" cried the girl.
"Many thanks," said Ilya, seriously, bowed to her, and sat down again.
His words and the whole scene acted on Pavel like wine. His animated face reddened, his eyes shone with excitement, he sprang from his chair and paced the room joyously. "Ah, devil take it!" he cried, "the world's a jolly place, if men are as simple as children. It was a good thing I did when I brought you along, Ilya! Drink, brother! Fill up, Vyerunka!"
"Now there's no holding him," said the girl, and smiled at him tenderly. Then, turning to Ilya, "he's always like that, either as gay and shining as a rainbow, or dull, and grey, and cross."
"That's not good," said Lunev decidedly. Then all three began to chatter gaily and cheerfully, breaking into careless laughter every now and then.
There was a knock at the door, and a voice asked: "Vyera, may I come in?"
"Come in! come in! Ilya Jakovlevitsch, this is my friend, Lipa."
Ilya rose from his chair, and turned towards the door. A tall, stately woman stood before him, and looked in his face with calm blue eyes. From her dress came a sweet perfume, her cheeks were fresh and red, and her head was adorned with a crown-like mass of hair that made her look even taller.
"I was sitting alone in my room, so bored, and then, all at once I heard you talking and laughing, and so—well, I came here. You don't mind I hope? There's a gentleman without a lady. I will entertain him—shall I?"
With a graceful gesture, she placed her chair near Ilya's, seated herself, and asked: "You're rather bored with them, aren't you? They kiss and hug one another, and you're envious, eh?"
"I'm not bored with them," said Ilya, confused by feeling her so near.
"That's a pity," she said quietly, then turned from Ilya and went over to Vyera.
"Just think, I went to Mass yesterday at the nunnery, and I saw such a pretty nun in the choir, such a dear. I couldn't take my eyes off her, and thought why on earth did she go into the nunnery. I felt quite sorry."
"Why? I shouldn't pity her," said Vyera.
"Oh! Who's going to believe that!"
Ilya breathed in the costly perfume that floated round this woman, he looked sidelong at her and listened to her voice. She spoke with extraordinary calm and self-possession, there was something drowsy in her voice and it seemed as though a powerful, delightful scent streamed from her words also.
"D'you know, Vyera, I'm still considering if I shall go to Poluektov or not."
"I can't advise you."
"Perhaps I will. He's old and rich, and those are two important points. But he's miserly. I want five thousand roubles in my name in the bank, and a hundred and fifty roubles a month, and he only offers three thousand and a hundred."
"Don't talk of it now, Lipotshka!"
"All right, as you like," said Lipa, quietly, and turned again to Ilya. "Now, young man, let us talk a little. I like you, you've a nice face and serious eyes. What will you say to that?"
"I? I shan't say anything," said he, laughing carelessly, but feeling clearly how this woman ensnared him with her magic.
"Nothing? oh! you're bored;—what are you?"
"R—really? I thought you were a clerk in a bank, or in some shop. You look very good form."
"I like cleanliness," said Ilya. He felt oppressively hot, and his head was in a whirl with the perfume.
"You like cleanliness?—that's very nice. Are you a good hand at guessing?"
"I don't understand."
"Can't you guess that you're in the way here, eh;" and she looked right through him with her blue eyes.
"Oh! of course. I'll go," said Ilya confused.
"Wait a minute! Vyera, may I take this youngster away?"
"Of course, if he wants to go," answered Vyera, laughing.
"But where?" asked Ilya, in great excitement.
"Oh! go along you silly fellow!" cried Pashka.
Ilya stood there dazed and laughed vaguely, but the beautiful lady took his hand and led him out, saying in her quiet way: "You're not tamed yet, and I'm capricious and obstinate. If I made up my mind to put out the sun, I'd climb on the roof and blow at it till I'd used my last breath. Now you know what I'm like."
Ilya went with her hand in hand, hardly hearing her words and not understanding at all: he only felt she was so warm, and soft and fragrant.