His intimacy with Olympiada, so unexpectedly begun from a woman's whim, rendered Ilya at first quite arrogant. A proud self-confident feeling awakened in him, healing the little wounds that life had dealt his heart.
The thought that a lovely well-dressed lady gave him her precious kisses out of pure affection and demanded nothing in return, raised him more and more in his own eyes, and he felt as though he were floating in a broad stream, borne along by a peaceful flood that caressed his body tenderly and waked strength and courage in his limbs.
"My dear lad," said Olympiada to him, as she played with his hair or passed her finger over the dark down that covered his upper lip. "You're nicer every day, you've such a bold, confident heart, and I can see you're sure to get what you want. I like that. I'm made that way, too. If I were younger, I'd marry you and together we'd have a splendid time."
Ilya treated her with great respect. She seemed so sensible, and he liked her for the way she respected herself in spite of her vicious life. She never drank and used no foul words like the other women that he knew. Her body was as supple and strong as her full deep voice, and as tense as her character. Even her frugality, her love of order and cleanliness, and the readiness with which she could speak on any subject and ward off anything that irritated her pride, delighted him. Sometimes though, if he visited her and found her lying with dishevelled hair and pale, languid face, a bitter feeling of disgust would arise, and then as he looked gloomily into her wearied eyes he could bring no greeting from his lips. She must have understood his feeling readily, for she would wrap the coverlet round her and say:
"Off with you!—go and see Vyera—tell the old woman to bring me some snow-water!"
He would go to the clean little room and Vyera would laugh guiltily at the sight of his gloomy, displeased face. One day she asked him:
"Well, Ilya Jakovlevitsch, how are you getting on? How do you like it here?"
"Ah, Vyerotchka, sin can't stick to you; if you only smile it melts away like snow."
"I'm so sorry for you, both of you, poor fellows."
Ilya liked Vyera very much. He treated her as a little child, was very disturbed if she quarrelled with Pashka, and made the peace between them every time. He liked to sit in her room and watch her comb her golden hair, or sew at something, singing softly. Often he surprised in her eyes a gnawing pain, and sometimes her face twitched with a hopeless weary smile. At such a time he felt even more drawn to her, the misery of this little girl touched him more keenly and he would comfort her as well as he could. But she said:
"No, no, Ilya, we can't go on like this, it's quite impossible; think—I—I must live on in this filth, but Pavel, what place is there for him near me?"
"But he chooses it," said Ilya.
"Chooses?" came like an echo from her lips.
Olympiada interrupted the conversation, entering noiselessly in a wide blue cloak, like a cold moonbeam.
"Come to tea, my lad, and you come in too, presently, Vyerotchka."
Fresh and rosy from the cold water, clean, neat and calm, she took Ilya to her room without many words, and he followed, marvelling that this could be the same Olympiada he had seen before, faded and soiled by lustful hands.
While they drank their tea, she said to him: "It's a pity you're only a peasant lad and have learned so little, that'll make it harder for you in life, but anyhow you must drop your present business and try something else. Wait, I'll look out for a place for you—you must be looked after. As soon as I've fixed things up with Poluektov, I'll manage it."
"Is he going to give you the five thousand?"
"Of course," she answered with conviction.
"Well, if I ever meet him near you, I'll pull his head off," cried Ilya jealously.
"Why? he doesn't get in your way."
"He does, most decidedly, get in my way."
"But he's old and horrid," said Olympiada, laughing.
"Laugh away! I'll never believe that it's anything but a great sin to caress such a dirty beast."
"Wait a little, at least, till I get hold of his money."
The merchant did everything for her that she desired. Soon Ilya was sitting in her new house, seeing the thick carpets and the heavy plush-covered furniture, and listening to his lady's business-like remarks. He found in her no special pleasure in her altered surroundings, she was as calm and self-contained as ever. It was as though only the clothes were changed, nothing else.
"I am now twenty-seven,—when I am thirty, I shall have ten thousand roubles. Then I'll throw over the old man and be free; learn from me, my lad, how to deal with life."
Ilya learnt from her obstinate perseverance to attain a predetermined goal, but often the thought tortured him, that he shared her caresses with another, and a painful sense of degradation and weakness. At such times the vision would rise again of his shop, with the clean room, where he might entertain his lady. He didn't believe that he loved Olympiada, but she seemed quite necessary to him, as a sensible good comrade.
In this way, two months—three months passed away. One day, when he returned home, he betook himself to Perfishka's cellar, and saw with amazement Perfishka at the table with a bottle of brandy, and opposite him, Jakov sat, leaning heavily on the table, his head swaying, and said unsteadily:
"Splendid! If God sees everything and knows everything, then He sees me too. Every one has forsaken me, brother. I'm all alone. My father hates me, he's a scoundrel! He's a robber and a cheat, isn't he, Perfishka?"
"Right, Jakov. It's a pity, but it's true."
"Well, then, how am I to live? What am I to believe in?" asked Jakov, stammering and shaking his dishevelled hair. "I can't believe in my father. Ilya goes his own way. Masha is a child. Where is there a man? Perfishka, I tell you, there's not a man left in the world."
Ilya stood in the doorway, and heard his friend's drunken speech. His heart sank painfully. He saw Jakov's head loll, drooping and weak, on his thin neck, saw Perfishka's thin, yellow face lighted up with a pleased smile, and he would not believe that this could really be Jakov, the quiet, modest Jakov.
"What are you doing here?" he said reproachfully as he entered.
Jakov started, looked with startled eyes into Ilya's face, and said, with a despairing smile: "Ah, Ilya—is that all! I thought—my father——"
"What's all this about, tell me," Ilya interrupted.
"You let him alone, Ilya," cried Perfishka, and rose swaying from his chair. "He can please himself. Thank God that he still likes brandy."
"Ilya," cried Jakov convulsively, "my father thrashed me."
"That's so. I was a witness," explained Perfishka, and smote his breast with his fist. "I saw everything. I can take my oath! He knocked his teeth out, and made his nose bleed."
In fact, Jakov's face was swollen and his upper lip covered with blood. He stood in front of his comrade, and said, smiling mournfully:
"How dare he beat me? I'm nineteen, and I'd done nothing wrong."
"Why did he beat you, then?"
Jakov's lips twitched as though he was about to speak, but he said nothing. His bruised face quivered. He sank heavily on a chair, took his head in his hands, and began to sob aloud, so that his whole body shook. Perfishka, who had supported him as he sank down, poured out a glass of brandy, and said: "Let him cry. It's good when a man can. Mashutka, too, was in a state, quite bathed in tears. 'I'll scratch his eyes out,' she screamed right on, till I took her to Matiza."
"But what happened?"
"I can tell you exactly. It was quite a crazy business. Terenti, that uncle of yours, he began the thing. All at once he said to Petrusha, 'Let me go to Kiev,' he said, 'to the holy men!' Petrusha was delighted; that hump of Terenti's has worried his eyes, and to tell the truth, he's jolly glad to see Terenti's back; it's not nice to have some one about who knows a secret of yours—he! he! 'All right,' he says. 'Go along, and put in a little word for me too with the holy men.' And then Jakov starts in all of a sudden: 'Let me go too,' he says."
Perfishka began to roll his eyes, made a fierce grimace, and cried in a hoarse voice, imitating Petrusha:
"'Wha—a—at do you want to do?'"
"'I want to go with uncle to the holy men.'
"'What do you mean?'
"Jakov says, 'I could pray for you too.' Then Petrusha begins to roar, 'I'll teach you to pray!' Jakov sticks to his point. 'Let me go. God is pleased with the prayers of sons for their fathers' sins.' My word, how Petrusha hit him in the mouth, and again and again."
"I can't live with him," cried Jakov. "I'll go away. I'll hang myself. Why did he beat me—why? All I said came from my heart."
Ilya's heart sank at this outcry, and with a despairing shrug of his shoulders, he left the cellar. He was glad to hear that his uncle was going on a pilgrimage. Once Terenti was gone, he would finally leave this house, take a little room somewhere for himself, and be his own master. As he entered his room, Terenti appeared, following him. His eyes shone, his face wore an expression of joy. He approached Ilya and said: "Well, I'm going. O Lord, how glad I am! To step out of a cave, a cellar, into God's world. Surely He will not despise my prayer, since He lets me get away from this place."
"Do you know what's happened to Jakov?" said Ilya, drily.
"He's got drunk."
"What do you say? That is wrong of him! Silly boy! And just now he was begging his father to let him go with me."
"Were you there when his father beat him?"
"Yes, of course. Why?"
"Why, can't you understand? That's why he's got drunk."
"Because of that? It's not possible!"
Ilya saw clearly that Jakov's fate was a matter of indifference to his uncle, and that strengthened his feeling of enmity against the hunchback. He had never seen Terenti so overjoyed, and the sight of this happiness, coming right after Jakov's misery, moved him strangely. He sat down at the window and said:
"Go on into the bar."
"Petrusha is there. I want to talk to you."
"Oh! what about?"
The hunchback came up to him and said mysteriously:
"I'm getting away. You're staying behind and that means—well——"
"Hurry up," said Ilya.
"Yes—yes, I want to; it isn't easy to say," said Terenti, in a subdued way, while his eyes blinked.
"Do you want to talk about me? eh?"
"Yes—yes—about you, too, but presently. I've saved some money."
Ilya looked at him and laughed maliciously.
"What d'you mean? Why d'you laugh?" cried his uncle, frightened.
"Oh, nothing. Well, then, you've saved some money, have you?"
Ilya emphasised "saved."
"Yes, that's it," said Terenti, avoiding his look. "I shall give two hundred roubles to the monastery."
"And a hundred to you."
"A hundred?" asked Ilya, suddenly, and at once he knew that in his soul for a long time the hope had lived that his uncle would give him not a hundred roubles, but a much bigger sum. He was angered against himself that his heart could entertain so hateful, calculating, an expectation, and against his uncle that the sum was so small. He got up, straightened himself, and said, full of scorn and insolence:
"I'll have none of your stolen money, d'you understand."
The hunchback recoiled in fear and sank on his bed, pale and wretched, his hair bristled, his mouth stood open, and he gazed at Ilya silently with stupid terror in his eyes.
"Well, why do you look like that? I don't want your money."
"Christ!" Terenti groaned hoarsely. "Why not, my dear, why not? Ilusha, you've been like a son to me." Then presently he went on in a whisper. "It was just—for you—for fear of what should happen to you, that I took the sin on my soul; take the money, take it, else the Lord won't forgive me."
"So," cried Ilya, mockingly, "you'll go to your God with an account book! Oh! you! did I ask you to steal old Jeremy's money; think what a good man he was you robbed!"
"Ilusha, you didn't ask to be born, either," said the uncle, and stretched out his hand to Ilya with an odd gesture. "No, take the money, quietly, for Christ's sake, to save my soul; if I come back, then you'll get it all, and meantime take this, my dear boy. God will not forgive my sins, if you don't take the money!"
He was actually begging, his lips quivered, and in his eyes was an expression of fear. Ilya looked at him and could not determine if his uncle really distressed him or no.
"Well, all right, I'll take it," he said at last, and went straight out of the room. He was sorry that he had yielded finally, he felt degraded. What was a hundred roubles to him after all? What big thing could he undertake with that? If his uncle had given him a thousand roubles now instead of a hundred, then he would have been enabled to change his dull uneasy life into a better, that should glide along in peaceful solitude far from mankind.
How would it be to ask his uncle, just how much he had obtained from the rag-picker's hoard? But this thought was too repugnant to him. Ever since Ilya had made Olympiada's acquaintance the house of Filimonov appeared to him dirtier and stuffier than ever. The dirt and the close atmosphere roused in him a physical nausea, as though cold, slimy hands were laid on his body. To-day this feeling was more painful than usual, he could find no spot in the house to suit him, and, without any definite motive, he climbed the stairs to Matiza's garret. As he went, he felt as though this house would somehow, at some time or other, deal him an unexpected terrible injury.
Busy with such thoughts he entered Matiza's room and saw her sitting on a chair beside her bed. She cast a glance at him, warned him with a finger, and whispered in a deep bass voice, like a far-off storm-wind:
"Sh! She's asleep."
Masha lay on the bed, huddled in a heap.
"What kind of a thing d'you call this?" Matiza whispered, and rolled her big eyes angrily. "Thrash children to ribbons, do they, the cursed villains! to lay hands on children! curse them! the scoundrels!"
Ilya stood by the stove and listened, while he gazed at the delicate form of the cobbler's daughter, wrapped in a grey shawl.
"What's to become of the poor things?" rang in his head.
"D'you know that the blackguard struck Masha, too?" went on Matiza. "Tore her hair, the cursed scoundrel, the old bar loafer! Beat his son, and the girl, and he's going to turn them both out of doors, d'you know that? Where are they to go, poor orphans? How——"
"Perhaps I can find her a place," said Ilya, thoughtfully, remembering that Olympiada needed a housemaid.
"You!" whispered Matiza, reproachfully. "You come in always now as if you were a fine gentleman. You get on and grow for yourself like a young oak-tree, give no shadow and no acorns. You might have done something for her long ago. Aren't you sorry for the child?"
"Wait a bit and don't jaw!" said Ilya, crossly. It was an excuse for him to visit Olympiada at once, and he asked: "How old's Mashutka?"
"Fifteen! Why? What's her age got to do with it? She looks barely twelve, she's so slender and delicate. Heaven knows, she's just a child still. She's fit for nothing, nothing! What is to become of her? It would be better if she never waked again till the last day."
A vague cloud of ideas filled Ilya's head when he left the garret. An hour later he was standing before the door of Olympiada's house, waiting to be admitted. He waited a long time in the cold, till at last from behind the door a thin, peevish voice asked: "Who is there?"
"I——" answered Lunev, not very clear who was speaking. Olympiada's servant, a plump, pock-marked person, had a loud harsh voice, and always opened the door without question.
"Whom do you want?" asked the voice again.
"Is Olympiada Danilovna at home?"
The door opened suddenly, and a strong light fell on Ilya's face. The lad fell back a step, half shut his eyes, and looked perplexedly at the door, as though what he saw appeared an illusion. Before him, lamp in hand, stood a little old man, in a wide heavy dressing-gown, the colour of raspberries. His head was all but entirely bald, only a thin crown of grey hair ran from one ear to the other, and on his chin a short thin grey beard quivered uneasily. He looked at Ilya's face, and his keen, piercing eyes blinked evilly, and his upper lip, with its scanty hairs, twitched up and down. The lamp shook and trembled in his thin, swarthy hand.
"Who are you, then? Well, come in. Who are you?"
Ilya understood. He felt the blood mount to his head and an untoward feeling of disgust and wrath filled his heart. This was the rival who shared with him the favours of the stately, beautiful lady!
"I am—a pedlar," he said, in a dull voice, as he crossed the threshhold.
The old man winked at him with his left eye, and smiled. His eyes were red with inflammation, without eyelashes, and instead of teeth, a couple of yellow, pointed pegs showed in his mouth.
"Oh, ho! A pedlar, eh? What sort of a pedlar?" asked the old man, with a cunning smile, and held the lamp up to illumine Ilya's face.
"I deal in all sorts of little things—scent and ribbons, and so on," said Ilya, and hung his head. A giddiness seized him and red spots danced before his eyes.
"Oh, oh! Ribbons and scent. Yes, yes! Ribbons and laces to deck pretty faces. But what do you want here, my young pedlar? Eh?"
"I want to see Olympiada Danilovna."
"Eh, to see her? What do you want of her, now?"
"I have to get some money for things she's had," Ilya brought out, with difficulty.
He felt an incomprehensible fear of this horrible old man and hated him. In his thin, soft voice and in his evil eyes lay something that penetrated within Ilya's heart and took away his courage, and cast him down.
"Money, eh? A little debt. All right, my lad."
Suddenly the old man took the lamp away from Ilya's face, put it down, brought his yellow, withered face close to Ilya's ear, and asked him softly, with another, cunning smile: "Where's the bill? Give me the bill."
"What bill?" said Ilya, recoiling, frightened.
"Why, from your master. The bill for Olympiada Danilovna. You've got it, I suppose? What? Give it here! I'll take it to her. Quick, be quick!"
The old man moved nearer, while Ilya retreated towards the door. His mouth was dry with fear.
"I have no bill," he said loudly in despair, feeling that something terrible must happen the next moment.
The tall, stately figure of Olympiada appeared behind the old man. Calmly, without the trembling of an eyelash, she looked at Ilya over the head of the old man, and said in her measured way: "What is the matter?"
"It's a pedlar, he says you owe him money; you've bought ribbons, eh? and not paid for them? He! He! Well, here he is and wants his money."
He paced with short steps to and fro and blinked suspiciously first at Olympiada, then at Ilya. With a commanding gesture, she waved him to one side, put her hand in the pocket of her cloak, and said to Ilya in a severe tone: "What is it? Could you not come another time?"
"Quite right," squeaked the old man. "Silly fool, isn't he?"
"Coming when he's least wanted—donkey!"
Ilya stood as though turned to stone.
"Don't scream so, Vassili Gavrilovitsch, it doesn't sound well," said Olympiada, and turning to Ilya, "How much? three roubles forty kopecks isn't it? here, take it!"
"And now clear out!" squeaked the old man again. "Allow me. I'll bolt the door myself. I'll do it."
He drew his dressing-gown round him, opened the door, and cried:
"Now then, go along!"
Ilya stood in the frost before the closed door, and stared stupidly at it. He could not yet decide if all that he had just seen were reality, or a hateful dream. In one hand he held his cap, in the other the money Olympiada had given him. He stood there so long that he felt the frost round his head like a ring of ice, and his legs were stiff with cold. Then he put on his cap, put the money in his pocket, tucked his hands into the sleeves of his overcoat, drew in his shoulders, and went slowly down the street with bowed head. His heart seemed ice and in his head a couple of balls rolled here and there and knocked against his temples. Before his eyes swam the dusky face of the old man, the yellow skull illuminated by the cold lamp-light.
And the face of the old man smiled evilly, cunningly, triumphantly.