Ilya came to like the Avtonomovs better every day, and he envied them their peaceful, sheltered life. In a general way he had no love for police officials, for he saw many evil qualities among them. But Kirik seemed like a simple working-man, good-tempered, if limited. He was the body, and his wife the soul. He was seldom at home, and not of much importance there. Tatiana Vlassyevna became more and more at home with Ilya. She got him to chop wood, fetch water, empty away slops. He obeyed dutifully, and these little services gradually became his daily duty. Then his landlady dismissed the pock-marked girl who helped her, and only had her on Sundays. Occasionally visitors came to the Avtonomovs. Korsakov, the assistant town inspector, often came, a thin man with a long moustache. He wore dark glasses, smoked thick cigarettes, and could not endure droshky drivers, speaking of them always with great irritation. "No one breaks rules and orders so often as these drivers," he used to say. "Insolent brutes! Foot passengers in the streets you can deal with easily; it only means a police notice in the papers. Those going down the street keep to the right, those going up to the left, and at once you get excellent discipline. But these drivers, you can't get at them with any notice. A driver, well, the devil only knows what he's like!"
He could talk of droshky drivers a whole evening, and Lunev never heard him speak of anything else.
Also the inspector of the Orphan Asylum, Gryslov, came occasionally, a silent man, with a black beard. He loved to sing, in his bass voice, the song: "Over the sea, the deep blue sea," and his wife, a stately, stout woman with big teeth, always ate up the whole provision of sweetmeats, a feat which occasioned remarks after her departure.
"Felizata Segarovna does that on purpose. Whatever sweets come on the table, she always swallows the lot."
Alexandra Fedorovna Travkina used to come with her husband. She was tall and thin, with a large nose and short red hair. She had big eyes and a piping voice, and blew her nose frequently with a sound like the tearing of calico. Her husband suffered from a disease of the throat, and spoke in consequence in a whisper. But he would talk incessantly by the hour, and the sounds that came from his mouth were like the rustling of dry straw. He was very well-to-do, had served in the Excise Department, and was a director of a flourishing benevolent society. Both he and his wife spoke of little else but charitable institutions.
"Just think what has just happened in our society!"
"Ah, yes, yes. Just imagine!" cried his wife.
"An appeal has been presented for assistance."
"I tell you, these charitable institutions ruin the people——"
"A woman writes, her husband is dead. She has three children. They are starving and she is always ill."
"The old story, you know——"
"They were to get three roubles——"
"But, for my part, I don't believe in this widow," cried Alexandra Fedorovna, triumphantly.
"My wife says to me, 'Wait,' she says: 'I'll see first what kind of a person it is.'"
"And what do you think? The husband had been dead five years."
"She's two children, not three."
"The things they say!"
"And she's as healthy as can be."
"Then I said to her: 'See now, my friend, how would you like to be tried for fraud?' Of course, she fell at my feet."
"Ha! ha! ha!" laughed Kirik Avtonomov. And every one praised Fedorovna for her acuteness, and blamed the poor, because of their lying and greed, and want of respect towards their benefactors.
Lunev sat in his room, and listened attentively to the conversations that went on close by. He wanted to understand what these people thought and said of life. But what he heard was incomprehensible to him. It seemed as though these people had made up their minds about life, had settled all questions, and knew everything; and they condemned in the strongest terms every one who lived differently from themselves. Most frequently, they talked of all kinds of family scandals, of different services in the cathedral, or of the evil behaviour of their acquaintances. It wearied Ilya to listen.
Sometimes his landlord invited him to tea in the evening. Tatiana Vlassyevna was merry, and her husband waxed enthusiastic over the possibility of becoming rich, when he would retire from the service and buy himself a house.
"Then I'd keep fowls," he said, and screwed up his eyes. "All sorts of fowls—Brahmahpootras, Cochin Chinas, Guinea-fowl, and turkeys—and a peacock—yes. Think of sitting at the window in a dressing-gown, smoking a scented cigarette, and seeing the peacock, my own peacock, in the courtyard, spreading his tail. That would be something like a life. He'd stalk round like a police officer, and say: 'Brr—Brrll—Brrll!'"
Tatiana smiled, and, looking at Ilya, went on in her turn:
"And every summer I'd go away somewhere, to the Crimea or the Caucasus, and in winter I'd be on some charitable committee. Then I'd have a black cloth dress, quite simple with no ornament, and I wouldn't wear any jewels except a ruby brooch and pearl ear-rings. I read a poem in the 'Niva,' where it said, 'that the blood and tears of the poor are turned to rubies and pearls,'" then with a soft sigh, she added, "Rubies look so nice on dark women."
Ilya smiled and said nothing. It was warm and clean in the room, an odour of tea and of some pleasant scent mingled in the air. The birds, little feather balls, were asleep in the cages. A few gaudy pictures hung on the walls. A little étagère between the two windows was covered with all kinds of pretty little boxes, china birds, and gay Easter eggs of sugar or glass. The whole place pleased Ilya and filled him with a kind of soft, comfortable melancholy. Sometimes however, especially when he had earned little or nothing, this melancholy changed into a restless fretfulness. Then the china fowls and the eggs and the boxes annoyed him; he wanted to throw them on the ground and smash them.
This mood disturbed and frightened him; he could not understand it and it seemed strange and unlike himself. As soon as it came upon him, he maintained an obstinate silence, kept his eyes fixed on one spot, and was afraid to speak lest he should somehow hurt the feelings of these good people.
Once, however, as he was playing cards with them, he could not contain himself, and asked Kirik drily, looking him straight in the face:
"I say, Kirik Nikodimovitch, you've never caught him—the murderer of the merchant in Dvoryanskaya Street?"
As he spoke he felt a pleasant tingling in his breast.
"Poluektov, the money-changer?" said the inspector, thoughtfully, as he examined his cards. "Poluektov? Ah! ah! No! I have not caught Poluektov—ah! I haven't caught him, my friend; that's to say, of course, not Poluektov, but the man who——I haven't even looked for him. I don't want him, anyhow—I only want to know who has the queen of spades? You, Tanya, played three cards—queen of clubs, queen of diamonds and—what was the other?"
"Seven of diamonds—hurry up!"
"He's quite lost!" said Ilya, and laughed scornfully.
But the inspector paid no attention to him, he was absorbed in the game.
"Quite lost," he repeated mechanically, "and he twisted poor Poluektov's neck—ah! ah!"
"Kirya, do stop that, ah! ah!" said his wife. "Be quick!"
"He must be a smart fellow who murdered him," remarked Ilya.
The indifference with which his words were received roused in him a desire to speak of the murder.
"Smart?" said the inspector slowly. "No! I am the smart fellow! There!" and he played a five, slapping the card down on the table. Ilya could not follow suit, and lost the round.
The husband and wife laughed at him, and he grew more restive. As he was dealing, he said defiantly:
"To kill a man in broad daylight, in the main street of the town, that takes some courage."
"Luck, not courage," Tatiana corrected.
Ilya looked first at her, then at her husband, laughed softly and asked:
"You call it luck to kill some one?"
"Why, yes; to kill some one and not get caught."
"You've given me ace of diamonds again," cried the inspector.
"I could do with an ace," said Ilya seriously.
"Kill a rich man, that's the best ace!" said Tatiana jokingly.
"Hold on a bit with your killing, here's an ace of cards to go on with," cried Kirik, with a loud laugh and played two nines and an ace.
Ilya glanced again at their pleasant, happy faces, and the desire to speak further of the murder left him.
Living side by side with these people, separated only by a thin wall from their sheltered, peaceful life, Ilya was seized more and more frequently with fits of painful dissatisfaction. The feeling poured over him like a dense, cold flood, and he could not understand whence it came. At the same time thoughts of life's contradictions rose up in him, of God who knows everything, yet does not punish but waits patiently. Why does He wait?
Out of sheer boredom he began to read again. His landlady had a couple of volumes of the "Niva," and the "Illustrated Review," and a few other odd volumes. Just as in his childhood, so now, he cared only for tales and romances, in which a strange unknown life was depicted, and not at all for representations of the real, the wrong and misery filling the life that surrounded him. Whenever he read tales of actual life, dealing with simple folk, he found them wearisome and full of false descriptions. Sometimes it is true they amused him, when it seemed as though these tales were written by clever people, anxious to paint this miserable, dull, grey life in fair colours and gloss over its wretchedness. He knew this life and daily learned to know it better. As he passed through the streets he never failed to see something that appealed to his critical faculties. In this way once he witnessed a scene on his way to visit his friend at the hospital which he related to Pavel:
"This is what they call law and order. I saw some people like carpenters and plasterers going along the pavement. Up comes a policeman. 'Now then, you rascals!' he shouts, and turns them off into the road. That's to say, walk with the horses, else your dirty clothes may soil the fine gentry; build me a house, oh, yes, but I'll chuck you out of it, ah!"
Pavel's wrath was aroused too, by the incident, and added fuel to Ilya's flame. He endured tortures in the hospital, little better to him than a prison; his thoughts would not let him rest, and his eyes glowed with despair and grim defiance. To think where Vyera might then be, consumed him, and he grew thin and wasted. Jakov he did not like, and avoided his society in spite of the wearisomeness that plagued him.
"He's half silly," he answered when Ilya asked after Jakov.
But Jakov, two of whose ribs it appeared were broken, lived very happily in the hospital. He had made friends with the patient next him, a servant in a church, whose leg had been amputated a little while before for sarcoma. He was a short, thick-set man, with a big bald head and a black beard that covered his breast. His eyebrows were thick and bushy, and he moved them constantly up and down; his voice sounded hollow as though it came from his stomach. Every time Lunev visited the hospital he found Jakov by the bedside of this man, who lay and moved his eyebrows without speaking, while Jakov read half-aloud out of a Bible, that was as short and thick as its owner.
"'Because in the night Ar of Moab is laid waste and brought to silence,'" read Jakov. "'Because in the night Kin of Moab is laid waste and brought to silence.'"
Jakov's voice sounded weak and creaking, like the noise of a saw cutting wood. As he read, he held up his left hand, as if to summon all the patients in the ward to hear the calamitous prophecies of Isaiah. The blue bruises were not yet quite gone from his face, and the big, thoughtful eyes in the midst of them gave him a very strange expression. As soon as he saw Ilya, he threw down the book, and always asked the same anxious question:
"Haven't you seen Mashutka?"
Ilya had not seen her.
"O God!" said Jakov sadly. "How strange it is! Like a fairy tale! She was there, and suddenly a magician snatches her away, and she's disappeared."
"Has your father been to see you?"
"Yes—he came again."
A shiver passed over Jakov's face, and he looked anxiously here and there.
"He brought a pound of cakes, and tea and sugar. 'You've loafed round here enough,' he said, 'let them send you out!' But I begged the doctors not to send me away yet. It's so jolly here, quiet and comfortable. This is Nikita Jegarowitch. We read together. He has a Bible. He's read it for seven years. He knows it all by heart and can explain the prophecies. When I'm well, I'm going to leave my father and live with Nikita. I'll help him in the church and sing in the choir."
The church servant lifted his eyebrows, underneath which a pair of big dark eyes moved slowly in deep sockets. Quiet and lustreless, they looked at Ilya's face with a fixed, dull look, and Ilya tried involuntarily to avoid them.
"What a lovely book the Bible is!" said Jakov, quite enraptured, Mashka, his father, and all his dreams forgotten. "What things it says, brother! What words!"
His widely-opened eyes glanced from the book to Ilya's face and back again, and he shook with excitement.
"And that saying is in it—do you remember?—that the old preacher said to your uncle in the bar—'The tabernacles of robbers prosper!'—It's there, I found it, and things worse than that!"
Jakov shut his eyes and said solemnly, with uplifted hand:
"'How oft is the candle of the wicked put out, and how oft cometh destruction upon them! God distributed sorrows in his anger'—Do you hear?—'God layeth up his iniquity for his children: He rewardeth him and he shall know it.'"
"Does it really say that?" said Ilya, incredulously.
"Word for word."
"Then I think that is—not right—wicked," said Ilya.
The church servant drew down his bushy brows till they shaded his eyes, his beard moved up and down, and he spoke clearly in a dull, strange voice:
"The boldness of the man who seeks the Truth is not sinful, for it springs from divine prompting."
Ilya shuddered. The speaker sighed deeply, and went on, slowly and distinctly:
"'The Truth itself bids a man seek Me! For Truth is God, and it is written: It is a great glory to follow the Lord.'"
The man's face, covered with thick hair, inspired Ilya with shyness and respect. There was in it something strong, sublime. His brows went up again, he looked at the ceiling, and his big beard moved again:
"Read him, Jakov, from the Book of Job, the beginning of the tenth chapter."
Jakov turned over the leaves quickly, and read, in a low, trembling voice:
"'My soul is weary of my life; I will leave my complaint upon myself; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say unto God, do not condemn me: Show me wherefore thou contendest with me. Is it good unto Thee that Thou shouldest oppress; that Thou shouldest despise the work of Thine hands?'"
Ilya stretched out his neck and looked at the book with blinking eyes.
"You don't believe it?" cried Jakov. "How silly you are!"
"Not silly, only cowardly," said the church servant, quietly, "because he cannot look God in the face."
He turned his dull eyes from the ceiling to Ilya's face, and went on sternly as though he would shatter him with words.
"There are parts that are more difficult than that one. The third verse of the twenty-second chapter says plainly: 'Is it any pleasure to the Almighty that thou art righteous? or is it gain to Him that thou makest thy ways perfect?' You need to think very diligently, so as not to go astray in these matters and to understand them."
"And you, do you understand?" asked Lunev softly.
"He?" cried Jakov. "Nikita Jegarowitch understands everything."
But the church servant said, sinking his voice lower:
"For me, it's too late already. It is time for me to understand death; they've taken off my leg, but it's swelling higher up, and the other leg is swelling, and my breast, and I shall soon die of it."
His eyes stared steadily at Ilya and he continued slowly and quietly:
"And I do not want to die yet, for I have lived wretchedly in sickness and bitterness, with no joy in my life. I've worked ever since I was a little boy, and like Jakov, under the scourge of a father. He was a drunkard and a brute. Three times he damaged my skull, once he scalded my leg with boiling water. I had no mother, she died when I was born. I married; I was compelled to take a wife who did not love me; three days after the wedding she hanged herself. Yes. I had a brother-in-law who robbed me, and my own sister said to my face that I drove my wife to her death. And they all said it, although they knew I had not touched her, that she died a maid. Then I lived nine years, alone and solitary. It is terrible to live alone. I've always waited for happiness to come at last, and now I'm dying. That is my whole life."
He closed his eyes, paused a moment, then asked:
"Why was life given to me? Guess that riddle."
Ilya listened, pale, with fear in his heart.
A dark shadow lay on Jakov's face and tears glimmered in his eyes; both were silent.
"Why was I born? I ask. The Lord has done me wrong. I do not pray that He will lengthen my life. I find no words to pray with. I lie here and think and think: Why has life been given to me?"
His voice choked. He broke off all at once, like a muddy brook that flows along and suddenly vanishes under ground.
"For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion," said the church servant after a while in the words of the Scripture; then again his eyebrows went up, his eyes opened and his beard moved.
"Also in Ecclesiastes it says: 'In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity, consider. God also hath set the one over against the other to the end that man should find nothing after him.' Well?"
Ilya could hear no more. He got up quietly, gave Jakov a hand, bowed low to the sick man, as though he were taking leave of the dead; and this he did involuntarily.
This time he left the hospital with a new, strangely oppressive feeling. The talk with the church servant had left no clear impression on his brain, but the mournful spectacle the sick man presented was stamped deep on his memory.
Another was added to the men, he knew, whose lives had proved a delusion. He held the words of this man clear in his memory, and turned them over and over to get at their secret meaning. They confused him and disturbed something in the depths of his soul, where he hid his faith in the justice of God, and these words which he could not fathom, awaked in him a bitter gnawing brain-activity that drove him on to examine and analyse all that he saw or experienced. It appeared to him now that somehow, in a way unknown to himself, his faith in the justice of God had sustained a shock and was no longer so firm as of old. Something had gnawed at it, like the rust gnaws the iron. He felt clearly that this had happened; the fierce commotion into which the lament of the church servant had thrown him, convinced him. There were sensations and ideas in his breast as irreconcilable as fire and water, continually at strife. His bitterness against his own past, against all men and all the laws of life, broke out with new strength. In his anger he came finally to the question:
"Thoughts grow in the soul like roots in the ground, but where is the fruit?"
He would gladly have torn all these troubles from his heart, that he might begin the realisation of his dream of a solitary, peaceful, sheltered life.
"I will mix with men no more. It's no good to me or any one. I can't live like this."
He took to wandering the streets for hours, and came back home tired and moody.
Every day the Avtonomovs became more friendly and obliging to Ilya. Kirik clapped him on the shoulder, jested with him, and said, in a tone of conviction:
"You busy yourself with useless things, my friend. So modest and serious a lad must take a wider view. It isn't good to remain district inspector if you're fit to look after the whole town."
Tatiana, too, began to ask Ilya definitely and in detail, how his peddling trade did, and how much he put by every month. He talked freely to her, and his respect for this woman, who could make so tidy and comfortable a life out of small possibilities, grew every day.
One evening, as he sat by the open window of his room, in a dark mood, looking at the garden and thinking of the faithless Olympiada, Tatiana Vlassyevna came out of her dining-room to the kitchen and called Ilya to tea. He accepted the invitation against his will. He could not break free from his moodiness, and had no inclination to talk. He sat at the table, sulky and silent, and, looking at his hostess, noticed that her face wore an unusually solemn and troubled expression. Neither spoke; the samovar bubbled cheerily, a bird fluttered in a cage, the air was full of the scent of fried onions and eau-de-Cologne. Kirik twisted about on his chair, drummed with his fingers on the edge of the tea-tray, and sang under his breath.
"Ilya Jakovlevitch," began his wife, with an important air, "we—my husband and I—have arranged a little matter, and would like to talk seriously with you."
"Ho! ho! ho!" laughed the inspector suddenly, and rubbed his big red hands. Ilya started and looked at him in surprise.
"Wait, Kirik! There's nothing to laugh at," said Tatiana.
"We've arranged it," cried Kirik, with a big laugh, then looked at Ilya and winked towards his wife. "Clever little girl!"
"We've saved some money——"
"We! We've saved money! Ho! ho! ho! My clever, dear little wife!"
"Kirya, be quiet!" said Tatiana, severely. Her face seemed thinner and more pointed than ever.
"We have saved close on a thousand roubles," she went on half aloud, and bent over towards Ilya and looked him full in the face with her sharp little eyes. He sat quiet, but in his breast something seemed to jump for joy.
"The money's in the bank, and brings us four per cent," went on Tatiana.
"And that's too little, devil take it!" cried Kirik, and struck the table with his hand. "We want——"
His wife silenced him with a reproving look.
"Naturally, we are quite satisfied with this return, but we should like to help you in case you care to start on a bigger scale. You are so steady——" She paid Ilya a compliment or two, and then proceeded:
"They say that a fancy ware shop can bring in twenty per cent., or even more if you go about it the right way. Now, we are ready to find you the money for a bill of exchange, at sight, of course, on condition that you open a shop. You will manage it under my supervision, and we'll halve the profits. You will insure the goods in my name, and you'll give me besides a document of some sort, nothing of importance. And now, think over the matter, and tell us simply—yes or no."
Ilya listened to the thin, clear voice, and rubbed his forehead hard. While she spoke he looked many times at the corner where the golden frame of the eikon shone between the two wedding candles. He felt a kind of helplessness and fear as he listened to his hostess's words. Her proposal all at once assured his dream of years. It astonished him and filled him with joy. Smiling in confusion, he looked at the little woman and thought:
"That's it, it's Fate."
She spoke now in a motherly tone:
"Consider it well, look at it from all sides! whether you have confidence in yourself, if you have enough strength—enough experience for it? And then tell us, what could you put to it besides your work,—our money won't go so very far, will it?"
"I can," said Ilya slowly, "put in five hundred roubles. My uncle will give them to me—I have an uncle—I told you. He'll give me the money, perhaps more."
"Hurrah!" cried Kirik.
"Then is it a bargain?" asked Tatiana.
"Yes. I agree," said Lunev.
"Well, I should think so!" cried the inspector. Then he put his hand in his pocket and called out: "Now, let's have some champagne. Ilya, my boy, run to the wine merchant, and bring some champagne. Let's crack a bottle,—here's the money, you're our guest, of course. Ask for Don Champagne at ninety kopecks, and say it's for me, for Avtonomov, then they'll give it you for sixty-five,—hurry up, my lad!"
Ilya looked smilingly at the beaming faces of the couple and went.
So Fate had pushed him and buffeted him, led him to grievous sin, troubled his soul, and now suddenly she seemed to ask his forgiveness, to smile on him and offer her favours. Now before him the way lay open to a sheltered corner in life, where he could live quietly and find peace for his soul. He had taken a man's life, and for that he would help many and so make amends before the Lord. No, the Lord would not punish him severely, for He knows all. Olympiada was right; in the murder he was only the instrument, not the will, and evidently the Lord Himself was helping him to straighten his course, since he had made easy the attainment of his life's desire. Thoughts whirled through Ilya's head as in a happy dance, and inspired his heart with joys of life unknown till now. He brought from the wine shop a bottle of real champagne for which he paid seven roubles.
"Oho!" cried Avtonomov, "that's what I call proper, my boy; that's an idea! Ha! yes."
Tatiana thought differently; she shook her head disparagingly and said in a tone of reproach, looking at the bottle:
"Seven roubles! Ei—ei! Ilya Jakovlevitch, how unpractical, how foolish!"
Lunev stood before her, happy, deeply stirred; he smiled and said joyfully:
"It's real champagne,—for the first time in my life I'll drink something real. What's my life been up to now? All spoilt, dirt and coarseness, and stuffiness, injuries and insults, and all kinds of torment. Is that a real life do you suppose? Can any one go on living like that?"
He touched the sore place in his heart; his words rang bitterly, his eyes grew gloomy; he sighed deeply, and went on firmly and decidedly:
"Ever since I was small I've looked for the real thing and have lived all the time like a wood-shaving in a brook. I was swept about, now here, now there, and all round me everything was dull and dirty and restless. I didn't know where to catch hold; only misery and injustice and knavishness all round me, and all that disgusts me: and now fate brings me to you, for the first time in my life I see how people can live in peace and comfort and love."
He looked at them with a bright smile and bowed to them.
"I thank you. With you I've found relief for my soul, by God! You've helped me for my whole life, now I can step out boldly, now I know how a man should live! It will go well with me and no other shall suffer for me. How many unlucky ones there are in the world! how many go under. I've seen it all, I know it all."
Tatiana Vlassyevna regarded him with the look of the cat who lies in wait for the bird, ravished by his own song. A greenish fire gleamed in her eyes and her lips twitched; Kirik was busy with the bottle, he had it between his knees and bent over it. The veins of his neck swelled and his ears moved.
"My friends," continued Ilya, "for I have two friends——"
The cork popped, hit the ceiling and fell on the table; a glass that it fell against rang, quivering.
Kirik smacked his lips, filled the glasses and commanded:
Then when his wife and Lunev had taken their glasses, he held his high over his head and cried:
"To the firm of Tatiana Avtonomov and Lunev; may it bloom and flourish! Hurrah!"