Ilya settled quietly into his new dwelling-place, and his landlords interested him deeply. The woman's name was Tatiana Vlassyevna. As gay as a little bird, and always ready to chatter, she had given the new lodger a complete description of her life before he had spent many days in the little room.
In the morning, while Ilya drank his tea, she bustled about in the kitchen, with skirts tucked up and sleeves rolled above her elbows, but gave many a smiling glance into his room, and said, cheerfully:
"We're not rich, my husband and I, but we've got education and intelligence. I went to the progymnasium, and he was in the cadet corps, even if he didn't quite finish his time there. But we want to be rich, and we'll manage it too. We've no children; they're the big expense. I do the cooking and go to market, and I keep a maid for the rest, and she lives in the house, and gets a rouble and a half a month. You see what a lot I save!"
She remained in the doorway and, shaking her curls, began to reckon:
"Cook's wages, three roubles, and what she'd cost, seven—makes ten roubles. She'd steal at least three roubles' worth a month—thirteen roubles. Then I let her room to you—eighteen roubles. That's the cost of a cook, you see. Then I buy everything wholesale, butter—half a pood, flour—a whole sack, sugar by the loaf, and so on. I save another twelve roubles that way—that's thirty. If I had a place at the police-station or telegraph office, I should only work as a cook; and now I cost my man nothing, and I'm proud of it. One must understand how to arrange one's life, remember that, young man!" She looked roguishly at Ilya with her laughing eyes, and he smiled with some embarrassment. She pleased him, but yet inspired him with respect. When he waked in the morning she was already working in the kitchen, with a pock-marked, undersized girl, who stared at her mistress and every one else, with colourless, frightened eyes. In the evening, when Ilya came home, Tatiana opened the door to him, smiling and active, with a pleasant perfume surrounding her. When her husband was at home he played the guitar, and she chimed in with her clear voice, or they played cards for kisses. Ilya could hear everything in his room—the tones of the strings, gay or sentimental, the turning of the cards, and the kisses. Their dwelling consisted of two rooms—the bedroom and another adjoining Ilya's apartment, which served the pair for dining and drawing-room, where they spent their evenings. Clear birds' voices resounded from here in the mornings, the titmouse peeped, the siskin and thistle-finch sang for a wager, the bullfinch whistled in between, and, through it all, the linnet sounded his serious, gentle song.
Titiana's husband, Kirik Nikodimovitch Avtonomov, was a man of twenty-six years, tall and big, with a big nose and black teeth. His good-tempered face was thick with pimples, and his watery blue eyes looked at everything with imperturbable calm. His close-cropped light hair stood up like a brush on his head, and in his whole plump figure there was something helpless and comical. His movements were clumsy, and immediately after his first greeting to Ilya, he said, for no particular reason:
"Do you like singing birds?"
"Do you ever catch any?"
"No," answered Ilya, looking wonderingly at the inspector, who wrinkled his nose, thought a moment, then said:
"Used you ever to catch them?"
Kirik Avtonomov smiled in a superior way, and said:
"You can't be said to like them, if you've never caught any. Now, I love them, and have caught them often, and was dismissed from the cadet corps because of that. I'd like to catch 'em now, but I don't want to get into trouble with my superiors, for though the love of singing birds is a noble passion, to catch them is not a proper occupation for an established man. If I were in your shoes I'd catch siskins like anything. The siskin's a jolly bird. That's why he's called God's bird."
Avtonomov looked with the expression of an enthusiast into Ilya's face, and a certain embarrassment came over Ilya as he listened. He felt as though the inspector spoke of bird-catching allegorically, with a hidden reference. His heart palpitated and he pricked up his ears. But the sight of Avtonomov's watery blue eyes quieted him, he saw in a moment that the inspector was quite a harmless individual, without any subtlety; so he smiled politely, and murmured some reply or other. The inspector was evidently taken with Ilya's modest demeanour and serious face, and said, smiling:
"Come and have tea with us of an evening, when you feel inclined. We're simple people, without any style. We'll have a game of cards. We don't get many visitors. Visitors are all very well, but you have to treat them, and that's a nuisance and comes expensive." The longer Ilya observed the comfortable life of his landlords, the better it pleased him. Everything they had was so solid and clean, their existence ran so easily and peacefully, and they were evidently much attached to one another. The brisk little woman was like a tomtit, and her husband like a clumsy bullfinch, and their rooms were as tidy and pretty as a bird's nest. When Ilya was home of an evening, he listened to their conversation, and thought: "That's the kind of life!" He sighed enviously, and dreamed more vividly of the time when he would open his shop and have a little bright room of his own. He would keep birds, and live as in a dream, alone and quiet, peacefully and methodically.
The other side of the wall, Tatiana was telling her husband how she bought everything she needed in the market, how much she had spent, and how much saved, and he laughed pleasantly and praised her.
"Ah, the clever little woman! My dear little bird! Come, give me a kiss!"
Then he would begin and relate all that had happened in the town, the processes he had drawn up, what the Chief of Police or any of his superiors had said. They talked of the possibility of a rise of salary for him, and discussed minutely whether, in such an event, they ought to take a bigger house.
Ilya lay and listened till suddenly a melancholy weariness fell on him. The little blue room was too narrow; he looked restlessly round as if to seek the cause of his moodiness, then, unable longer to endure the weight that lay at his breast, he went to Olympiada, or loafed aimlessly in the streets.
Olympiada became more and more full of reproaches. She plagued him with jealousy and more and more frequently they fell into contention. She grew thin, her eyes were sunken and looked darker, her arms were thinner, and all this was not pleasing to Ilya. Still less, however, did he like the fact that of late she had begun to talk of conscience and God, and of going into a nunnery. He did not believe in the genuineness of her words, for he knew she could not live without the society of men.
"You needn't pray for me if you take the veil," he said one day with a mocking smile. "I'll manage my own sins alone."
She looked at him full of fear and sadness.
"Ilya, don't make a jest of it!"
"But I mean it."
"You don't believe that I shall go to a nunnery? You'll see, then you'll believe."
"Not at all—I believe you; lots of people turn monks or nuns out of sheer wickedness."
Olympiada grew angry with him and they quarrelled fiercely.
"You unlucky, proud man!" she cried, with sparkling eyes. "Just wait! However you stiffen your back in your pride, you'll be bent down! What are you so proud of? Your youth and your beauty? It will all go—all, and then you'll creep on the ground like a snake and beg for mercy. 'Have pity!' and no one will care."
She heaped reproaches on him, and her eyes grew so bloodshot that it seemed as though great drops of blood instead of tears would flow over her cheeks. When they quarrelled she never spoke of Poluektov's murder, indeed, in her better moments she would bid him "forget." Lunev wondered at this, and asked her one day after a quarrel:
"Lipa! tell me, when you're angry, why do you never speak of the old man."
She answered readily:
"Because that was really neither my doing nor yours. Since they haven't found you out, it must have been his fate. You were the instrument, not the force; you had no reason to strangle him, as you say yourself. So he only met his due punishment through you."
Ilya laughed incredulously.
"O—Oh! I thought that a man must either be a fool or a rascal—ha! ha! Anything is right for him if only he wants to do it, and in the same way anything can be wrong."
"I don't understand," said Olympiada, and shook her head.
"Where's the difficulty?" asked Ilya, sighing and shrugging his shoulders. "It's quite simple! Show me any one thing in life that holds for every one; find anything that a clever man can't make either right or wrong; anything that stands fast, permanent; you can't. That is what I meant to say. There is nothing fixed in life; it is all changing and confused, like a man's own soul—yes."
"I don't understand," said the woman after a pause.
"And I understand so well," answered Ilya. "That this is just the knot that strangles us all."
At last, after one of the periodical quarrels, when Ilya had not been near Olympiada for four days, he received a letter from her; she wrote:
"Good-bye, my dear Ilyusha, good-bye for ever; we shall never meet again. Don't look for me, you won't find me. I'm leaving this unlucky town by the next steamboat; here I have destroyed my soul for ever. I'm going away, far away, and shall never come back; don't think of me and don't wait for me. With all my heart, I thank you for the good you have brought me, and the bad I will forget. I must tell you the plain truth. I'm not going into a nunnery, I'm going away with young Ananyin, who has been entreating me for a long time. I have agreed at last, what does it matter to me? We go to the sea to a village where Ananyin has fisheries. He is simple, and even means to marry me, good, silly boy! Good-bye! We have met as if in a dream, and when I waked there was nothing. Forgive me too! If you knew how my heart burns with longing. I kiss you—you, the one man in the world for me. Don't be proud before men; we are all unfortunate. I have grown calm, I, your Lipa, and I go as though under the axe,—my heart pains me so.——
"I am sending you a token by the post, a ring. Please wear it.—O.S."
Ilya read the letter and bit his lips till they smarted. He read it again and again, and the more often he read, the better it pleased him; it was at once a pain and a pleasure to read the big irregularly written characters.
Previously, Ilya had given little thought to determine what the nature might be of Olympiada's feelings for himself; now, however, he felt that she had loved him dearly and warmly, and as he read her letter he felt a deep peace sink into his heart. But the peace gave way gradually to a sense of loss, and the consciousness that there was no one now to whom he could reveal the bitterness of his soul depressed him.
The image of this woman stood vividly before his eyes, he remembered her passionate caresses, her sensible talk, her jests, and more and more clearly he felt in his breast a harsh feeling of wretchedness. He stood moodily by the window, looking into the garden, and there in the darkness the elder-bushes rustled softly, and the thin, thready twigs of the birch-trees waved to and fro. From behind the wall the strings of the guitar resounded mournfully, and Tatiana sang in her high voice:
"Let him who will search through the seas
To find the amber golden——"
Ilya held the letter in his hand and thought: "She always said she was persistent, and that I brought her good fortune, and yet she has left me, so the fortune can not have been so very good after all."
He felt himself in the wrong before Olympiada, and sorrow and compassion weighed heavy on his soul.
"But bring me back my little ring from out the deep blue sea," sounded behind the wall. Then the inspector laughed aloud and the singer chimed in merrily from the kitchen. Then, however, she was silent. Ilya felt her nearness, but dared not turn round to look, though he knew his room door was open. He gave the rein to his thoughts, and stood motionless, feeling himself deserted.
The tree-tops in the garden shivered, and Lunev felt as though he had left the ground, and were floating out there in the cold twilight.
"Ilya Jakovlevitch, will you have your tea?"
"No," answered Ilya.
The solemn note of a bell resounded through the air. The deep tone made the window panes quiver. Ilya crossed himself, remembered that it was long since he had been to church, and seized the occasion to get away from the house.
"I'm going to evening service," he called as he went out.
Tatiana stood in the doorway, her hands against the door-posts, and looked curiously at him. Her inquiring glance confused Ilya, and as if excusing himself, he said:
"I haven't been to church for ever so long."
"Very well. I'll get the samovar ready by nine o'clock," she replied.
As he went, Lunev thought of young Ananyin. He knew the man; he was a rich young merchant, partner in fish business—Ananyin Brothers—a thin, fair young man, with a pale face and blue eyes. He had but recently come to the town and lived there at a great pace.
"That is really living," thought Ilya bitterly, "like a rich young man does—hardly out of the nest before he gets a mate for himself."
He entered the church in a discontented mood, and chose a dark corner, where lay the ladder to light the chandeliers.
"O Lord, have mercy!" came from the left-hand choir. A choir boy sang with a shrill, unpleasing voice, and could not keep in tune with the hoarse, deep bass voice of the precentor. The lack of harmony embittered Ilya's mood still further, and roused a desire in him to seize the boy by the ears. The heating stove made the corner very hot, it smelt of burning rags. An old woman in a fur jacket, came up to him and said, grumbling:
"You're not in your right place, sir."
Ilya looked at the fox tails adorning the collar of her jacket, and went to one side silently, thinking: "Even in the church there's a special place for us."
It was the first time he had been to church since the murder of Poluektov, and when he remembered this, involuntarily he shuddered. He thought of his guilt and forgot everything else, though the idea no longer terrified him, but only filled him with sorrow and heaviness of soul.
"O Lord, have mercy!" he whispered and crossed himself. The choir burst into loud, harmonious song. The soprano voices, giving the words clearly and distinctly, rang under the dome like the clear, pleasant tones of sweet bells. The altos vibrated like a ringing tense string, and against their continued sound, flowing on like a stream, the soprano notes quivered like the reflection of the sun on a transparent pool. The full deep bass notes swept proudly through the church, supporting the children's song; from time to time the beautiful strong tones of the tenors pierced through, then again the children's voices rang out, and rose into the twilight of the dome, whence, serious and thoughtful, clad in white garments, the figure of the Almighty looked down, blessing the faithful with majestic outstretched hands. The waves of sound and the scent of incense rolled up to Him, and flowed round Him, and it seemed as though He floated in the midst, and swept ever higher into the depths of boundless space.
When the music ceased, Ilya sighed deeply. His heart was light, and he felt no fear nor repentance, not even the irritation that had disturbed him when he entered the church. His thoughts flew far away from his own sins. The music had cleansed and lightened his soul. He could not trust his own sensations, feeling so unexpectedly calm and peaceful, and he strove to awaken in himself a sense of remorse, but it was in vain.
Suddenly the thought darted through his mind: "Suppose that woman goes into my room out of curiosity and looks about and finds the money."
He hurried away out of the church, and hailed a droshky to reach home as quickly as he could. All the way the thought tormented him, and set him in a quiver of excitement.
"Suppose they do find the money, what then? They won't lay an information about it, they'll just steal it."
And this thought roused him still more; he became quite positive that if it should happen he would go straight to the police in this same droshky and confess that he had murdered Poluektov. No, he would not any longer be tortured, and live in dirt and turmoil while others enjoy in peace and comfort the money for which he sinned so deeply. The mere idea of it drove him nearly crazy. When the droshky drew up at his door, he darted out and tugged at the bell; his fist clenched and his teeth locked, he waited impatiently for the door to open. Tatiana appeared on the threshold.
"My, what a ring you gave! What's the matter? What's wrong?" she cried, frightened at the sight of him.
Without a word he pushed her aside, went quickly to his room, and assured himself in one glance, that his fears were unnecessary. The money lay behind the upper window-boxing, and he had stuck on a little scrap of down, in such a way that it must be removed if any one tried to get at the packet. He saw the white fleck at once against the brown background.
"Aren't you well?" asked his landlady, appearing at the door of his room.
"I'm all right; I beg your pardon, I pushed you."
"That's nothing; but see here, how much is the droshky?"
"I don't know, ask him please, and pay him."
She hurried away, and Ilya in a moment sprang on a chair, snatched away the packet of money, knew by the feel that it had not been tampered with, and dropped it in his pocket with a sigh of relief. He was ashamed now of his anxiety, and the precaution of the scrap of down seemed foolish and ridiculous.
"Witchcraft!" he thought, and laughed to himself. Tatiana Vlassyevna appeared again.
"I gave him twenty kopecks—but what's the matter? were you faint?"
"Yes. I was standing in the church, and then all at once——"
"Lie down," she said, and came into the room. "Lie down quietly. Don't worry! I'll sit by you a little. I'm at home alone. My husband's working late and going on to his club."
Ilya sat down on the bed, while she took the only chair.
"I disturbed you I'm afraid," said Ilya, with an embarrassed smile.
"Doesn't matter," she answered, and looked in his face with frank curiosity. There was a pause. Ilya did not know what to talk about. She still looked at him, and suddenly laughed in an odd way.
"What are you laughing at?" said Ilya, and dropped his eyes.
"Shall I tell you?" she asked, mischievously.
"Yes, tell me!"
"You can't pretend well, d'you know?"
Ilya started and looked at her uneasily.
"No, you can't. You are not ill; only you've had a letter that troubles you. I saw—I saw——"
"Yes, I've had a letter," said Ilya slowly.
Something rustled in the branches outside. Tatiana looked quickly out at the window, then again at Ilya.
"It was only the wind, or a bird," she said. "Now, young man, will you listen to my advice? I'm only a young woman, but I'm not a fool!"
"If you'll be so good—please," said Lunev, and looked at her with curiosity.
"Tear up the letter and throw it away," she said in a decided tone. "If she has written you your dismissal, she's acted well, and like a sensible girl. It's too soon for you to marry. You've no settled standing, and you ought not to marry without. You're a strong young man and you work, and you're good-looking. You're bound to get on. Only take care you don't fall in love. Earn a lot of money, and save, and try to get on to something bigger. Open a shop, and then, when you've got firm ground under your feet, you can marry. You're bound to get on. You don't drink, you're unassuming, you've no ties."
Ilya listened, with bowed head and smiled quietly. He longed to laugh out loud.
"There's nothing more silly than to hang your head down," continued Tatiana, in the tone of an experienced man of the world. "It will pass. Love is a disease that is easily cured. Before I was married I fell in love three times, fit to drown myself, but it passed. And when I saw that it was time for me to marry, I married without all that love."
"Ilya raised his head and looked at the woman as she said this:
"What's the matter?" she asked. "Afterwards I learnt to love my husband. It happens often that a woman falls in love with her husband."
"What does that mean?" asked Ilya, opening his eyes. Tatiana laughed gaily. "I was only joking—but quite seriously, you can really marry a man without love, and come to care for him afterwards."
And she chattered away and made play with her eyes. Ilya listened attentively, and looked with great interest at the little, trim figure, and was full of wonder. She was so small and slender and yet she had such foresight and strength of will, and good sense.
"With a wife like that," he thought, "a man couldn't come to grief." He found it pleasant to sit there with an intelligent woman, a real, trim, neat housewife, who was not too proud to chat with him, a simple working lad. A feeling of gratitude towards her arose in him, and when she got up to go, he sprang up at once, bowed, and said:
"Thank you very much for the honour you have done me; your talk has done me a lot of good."
"Really, think of that!" she said, smiling quietly, while her cheeks reddened and she looked for a second or two steadily in Ilya's face. "Well then, good-bye for the present," she added with a strange intonation and slipped out with the easy gait of a young girl.