At last Ilya Lunev's dream was realised. Full of calm joy, he stood from morning to night behind the counter of his own business, and swelled with pride over all he saw round him. Boxes of wood and cardboard were ranged carefully on the shelves; in the window was a display of waist-buckles, purses, soap, buttons, with gay-coloured ribbons and laces. It was all bright and clean, and shone in the sunshine in rainbow colours. Handsome and steady-looking, he received his customers with a polite bow and displayed his goods on the counter before them. He heard pleasant music in the rustling of his laces and ribbons, and all the girls—tailoresses, who bought a few kopecks' worth—seemed to him pretty and lovable. All at once life became pleasant and easy, a clear, simple meaning seemed to have entered into it, and the past was veiled in a cloud. No thoughts came to him save of business, and goods and customers. He had taken on an errand boy, dressed him in a well-fitting grey jacket, and took great care that the lad washed himself well, and kept as clean as possible.
"You and I, Gavrik," he said, "deal in fine goods, and we must be clean."
Gavrik was a lad of twelve years, rather fat, snub-nosed and slightly pock-marked, with little grey eyes and a lively face. He had passed through the town school, and considered himself a full-grown, serious man. He took a great interest in his work in the clean little shop; it delighted him to handle the boxes, and he was at great pains to be as polite to the customers as his master. But this he found difficult—his talents for mimicry were too strongly developed, and he was apt to reproduce on his coarse face any expression that he observed in a customer. Above all he was the sworn foe of all little girls, and could seldom resist the temptation to pinch them or push them, or pull their hair, and generally make their lives a burden. Ilya watched him, and remembered how he had served in the fish shop, and as he had a liking for the boy, he joked with him and spoke to him in a friendly way when there were no customers in the shop.
"If you're dull, Gavrik, read books when there's no work to be done," he advised. "Time passes easily with a book, and reading's pleasant."
From this time Lunev began to regard mankind cheerfully and attentively, and he smiled as much as to say:
"I'm a lucky one, you see; but patience! Your turn will come soon."
He opened his shop at seven and closed at ten. There were few customers; he sat on a chair near the door basking in the rays of the spring sun, and resting, almost without a thought, without a wish. Gavrik sat in the doorway, observed the passers-by, imitated their ways, enticed the dogs to him, and threw stones at the pigeons and sparrows, or else read a book, and breathed heavily through his nose. Sometimes his master would make him read aloud, but the actual reading did not interest Ilya, he listened rather to the stillness and peace in his heart. This inner peace filled him with delight, it was new to him and unspeakably pleasant. Now and then, however, the sweetness was disturbed, there was a strange, incomprehensible sensation, a premonition of unrest; it could not shatter the peace in his soul, but rested lightly on it like a shadow. Then Ilya began to talk to the boy.
"Gavrik! What is your father?"
"He's a postman."
"Are you a big family?"
"Big? There's a crowd of us. Some grown-up, but some are still little."
"How many little ones?"
"Five, and three grown-up. We three have all got places. I'm with you, Vassili is in Siberia in a telegraph office, Sonyka gives lessons. She earns a lot, twelve roubles a month. Then there's Mishka—he is older than I am, but he's still at school."
"Then there are four grown-up, not three?"
"No, how?" cried Gavrik, and added sententiously: "Mishka is still learning, but a grown-up is one who works."
"Do you have a hard time at home?"
"Rather," answered Gavrik indifferently, and sniffed loudly. Then he began to explain his schemes for the future.
"When I'm big, I shall be a soldier. Then there'll be a war, and I'll go to the war. I'm brave, and so I'll rush at the enemy before all the others and capture the standard—that's what my uncle did—and General Gourko gave Kim a medal and five roubles."
Ilya listened, smiling, and looked at the pock-marked face, and the wide, twitching nostrils. In the evening when the shop was shut, Ilya went into the little room at the back. The samovar made ready by the lad was on the table, and bread and sausage. Gavrik had his tea and bread and went into the shop to sleep, but Ilya sat long by the samovar, often as much as two hours. Two chairs, a table, a bed, and a cupboard for household utensils made up all the furniture of Ilya's new home. The room was small and low, with a square window from which could be seen the feet of the passers-by, the roofs of the houses over the way, and the sky above the roofs. He hung a white muslin curtain before the window. An iron railing cut the window off from the street, and this displeased Ilya very much. Over his bed was a picture—"The Steps of Man's Life." This picture was a great favourite with Ilya, and he had long wished to buy it, but for one reason and another he had never possessed it till he opened his shop, though it cost but ten kopecks.
The steps of man's life were arranged in the form of an arch, under which was represented Paradise; here the Almighty, surrounded with rays of light and flowers, talked with Adam and Eve. There were seventeen steps in all. On the first stood a child supported by his mother, and underneath, in red letters: "The first step." On the second the child was beating a drum, and the inscription ran: "Five years old—he plays." At seven years of age he began "to learn;" at ten, "goes to school;" at twenty-one he stood on the step with a rifle in his hand, and a smiling face, and underneath was written: "Serves his time as a soldier." On the next step he is twenty-five, he is in evening dress, with an opera hat in one hand and a bouquet in the other—"he is a bridegroom." Then his beard is grown, he has a long coat and a red tie, and is standing near a stout lady in yellow, and pressing her hand. Next he is thirty-five; he stands with rolled-up shirt-sleeves by an anvil and hammers the iron. At the top of the arch he is sitting in a red chair reading the paper, his wife and four children are listening to him. He himself and all his family are well dressed, respectable, with healthy, happy faces. At this time he is fifty years old. But note how the steps begin to go down; the man's beard is already grey, he is clad in a long yellow coat, and in his hands he holds a bag of fish and a jar of some sort. This step is labelled: "Household duties." On the following step the man is rocking the cradle of his grandson; lower down "he is led," being now eighty years old; and in the last—he is ninety-five—he is in a chair with his feet in a coffin, and behind the chair stands Death, with the scythe in his hand.
When Ilya sat by the samovar he looked at the picture, and it pleased him to see the life of man so accurately and simply depicted. The picture radiated peace, the bright colours seemed to smile at him, and he was persuaded that the series represented honourable life wisely and intelligibly, as an example to men—life exactly as it should be led. As he gazed at this representation of life, he thought that now that he had attained his desire, his career must henceforth follow the picture exactly. He would mount upwards, and right at the summit, when he had saved enough money, he would marry a modest girl who had learned to read and to write.
The samovar hummed and whistled in a melancholy way. The sky looked dull through the glass of the window and the muslin curtain, and the stars were hardly visible. There is always something disturbing in the glance of the stars.
"Perhaps it would be better to marry at forty," thought Ilya. "Life is so disturbed with women; they bring such useless hurrying and so many petty things: and it is better to marry a girl who is close on thirty. But then, if you marry late, you die and never have time to start your children for themselves."
The samovar whistles more gently but more shrilly. The fine sound pierces the ears unbearably; it is like the buzzing of a fly, and distracts and confuses thought. But Ilya does not put the lid on the chimney, for if the samovar ceases to whistle, the room becomes so still. In his new house, new feelings, hitherto unknown, come to visit him. Formerly he had lived constantly close to people, separated from them only by thin partitions; now he was shut off by stone walls and felt no man at his back. "Why must we die?" Lunev asks himself suddenly, looking at the man declining from the height of his fortune towards the grave. Then he remembers Jakov, who was always pondering on death, and Jakov's saying: "It is interesting to die."
Angrily Ilya thrusts the memory away, and tries to think of something quite different.
"How are Pavel and Vyera getting on?" he wonders suddenly. A droshky drives by; the window-panes shake with the noise of the wheels on the stony street, the lamp trembles on the wall. Then strange sounds arise in the shop—it is Gavrik talking in his sleep. The dense darkness in the corner of the room seems to move. Ilya sits propped up at the table, presses his temples with the palms of his hands, and looks at the picture. Next to the Almighty is a fine big lion, on the ground crawls a tortoise, and there is a badger and a frog jumping, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is adorned with great blood-red flowers. The old man with his feet in the coffin is like Poluektov, he is bald-headed and lean, and his neck is of just the same thin kind. A dull noise of footsteps sounds from the street. Some one goes slowly past the shop. The samovar has gone out, and now the room is so still that the air in it seems thickened and as solid as the walls.
The memory of Poluektov did not trouble Ilya and, generally speaking, his thoughts were not disturbing—they lay soft and easily on his soul, enwrapping it as a cloud the moon. The colours of the picture were made a little pale by them, and a vague dark spot appeared on it, while the stillness round about grew denser. Frequently he thought with calmness, as he had done after the murder of Poluektov, that there must be justice in life, and that, sooner or later, men must be punished for their sins. After such thoughts, he would look sharply into the dark corner of the room, where it was so mysteriously still, and where the darkness would take on a definite form. Then he undressed, lay down, and extinguished the lamp. He did not put it out at once, but turned the wick first up, then down. The light would all but go out, then again flare up, and the darkness danced round the bed, now threw itself on the bed from all sides, now again sprung back into the corner of the room. Ilya watched how the pitiless black waves tried to overwhelm him, and he played in this way for a long time, whilst trying to pierce the darkness with wide-open eyes, as though he expected to catch sight of something. At last the light flickered for the last time, and went out in a moment. The blackness flooded the room, and seemed to waver as though still disturbed by its struggle with the light. Then the dull bluish patch of the window became visible. When the moon shone, black streaks of shadow from the railings in front of the window fell across the table and the floor. There was so tense a stillness in the room that it seemed as if his whole frame must quiver if he sighed. He wrapped the bed-clothes round him, drawing them up to his chin, but with his face uncovered, and lay and looked at the twilight of the window till sleep overpowered him. In the morning he woke fresh and rested, almost ashamed of his follies of the night before. He had tea with Gavrik at the counter and looked at his shop as at a new thing. Sometimes Pavel came in from his work, covered with dirt and grease, in a scorched blouse and with smoke-blackened face. He was working again with a well-sinker, and carried with him a little kettle, with lead piping and soldering-iron. He was always in a hurry to get home, and if Ilya asked him to stay, he would say, with a shame-faced smile:
"I can't. I feel, brother, as though I had a wonderful bird at home, but as if the cage were too weak. She sits there alone all day, and who knows what she thinks about? It's a dull kind of life for her. I know that very well—if only we had a child!"
And Gratschev sighed heavily. Once when Ilya asked him if he still wrote poems, he replied smiling:
"On the sky, with my finger! Oh, the devil! How can you make cabbage soup of bast shoes. I'm on the sand-bank, brother, altogether. Not a spark in my head, not one little one! I think of her all the time. I work, begin to solder or something, and at once dreams of my little girl fly through my head. You see that's my poetry nowadays—ha! ha! Surely, honour to him who devotes himself body and soul!—You see, though I think this, she thinks differently—yes, it's hard for her."
"And you?" asked Ilya.
"Oh, yes; it's hard for me because of her. If she could have a happier life! She's used to being happy, that's it. She dreams of money all the time. If we had money, anyhow, she says everything would be different. I'm stupid she says; I ought to rob a rich man; she's always talking nonsense. She does it all out of compassion for me—I know. It is hard for her."
Presently Pavel became restless and departed.
Often the ragged half-naked cobbler came to Ilya with his inseparable companion, his harmonica, under his arm. He told what had happened at Filimonov's and of Jakov. Thin and dirty and dishevelled, he pushed into the door of the shop; smiling all over his face, and scattering his jests.
"Petrusha is married, his wife is like—like a beetroot, and the stepson like a carrot. Quite a vegetable garden, by God! The wife is thick and short and red, and her face is built in three storeys; three chins she has, but only one mouth; eyes like a beautiful pig, they are little and can't look up. Her son is yellow and long, with spectacles—an aristocrat. He's called Savva—speaks through his nose. When his lady-mother's there he's an absolute sheep, but if she's away, chatterbox isn't the word! Such a crew—with all due respect! Jashutka looks now as if he'd like to crawl into a crack like a terrified black beetle. He drinks on the quiet, poor lad, and coughs away like anything. Evidently his dear papa has damaged his liver for him; they're always at him. He's a feeble fellow; they'll soon swallow him down. Your uncle has written from Kiev; I think he is worrying himself for nothing. Hunchbacks don't get in to Paradise, I'm thinking. Matiza's feet are no good at all now. She goes about in a little cart. She's got a blind man for partner, harnesses him to the cart, and guides him like a horse—it's really funny. They get enough to eat out of it though. She's a good sort, I say. That's to say if I hadn't had such a wonderful wife I'd marry this Matiza right away. I say boldly, there are two real women in the world—on my word I mean it—my wife and Matiza. Of course she drinks, but why not? A good man always drinks."
"But what about Mashutka?" Ilya reminded him. At the mention of his daughter all the cobbler's jests and laughter came to a sudden end, like the leaves torn from the trees by the winds of autumn. His lips quivered, his yellow face lengthened, and he said in a confused low voice:
"I don't know. Ehrenov said to me plainly I won't have you about my house, else I'll thrash you.—Give me something, Ilya Jakovlevitch, for a little drink of brandy."
"You'll come to grief, Perfily," said Ilya compassionately.
"I'm on the way," admitted the cobbler. "Lots of people will be sorry when I'm dead," he went on with conviction. "For I'm a good fellow, and I like to make people laugh. Every one cries—ah! and alas! and laments and talks of God and sin; but I sing little songs and laugh. Whether you sin a pennyworth or a pound's-worth, you've got to die all the same. You go under, and the Devil will torment you anyhow; and besides the world needs good fellows."
Finally he went off, laughing and jesting, like a tousled old greenfinch. But Ilya, when he had seen him out, shook his head; while he pitied Perfishka, he saw the uselessness of his compassion. His own past seemed far behind him, and all that reminded him of it made him uncomfortable. Now he resembled a weary man who rests and sleeps quietly, but the autumn flies buzz persistently in his ear and will not let him have his sleep out. When he talked to Pavel or listened to Perfishka's tales, he smiled in sympathy, but when they were gone, he shook his head. Especially he found Pavel's conversation melancholy and troubling. At such times he hurriedly and obstinately offered him money, gesticulated, and said: "What else can I do to help you? I should advise you—break with Vyera!"
"I can't," said Pavel, softly. "You only throw away things you don't want. But I need her—ah, yes, and others want her too, and would like to take her from me, that's the trouble. And perhaps I don't love her with my soul, but out of wickedness and desperation. She's the best that life has offered me. All my good fortune. Why should I let her go? What shall I have left? No, I won't sell her. It's a lie.—I'll kill her, but I won't let her go."
Gratschev's drawn face was covered with red patches, and he clenched his fists convulsively.
"Do you find, then, that people hang about after her?"
"How do you mean, then—they'd like to take her away?"
"There's a power that will snatch her from my hands. Ah! the devil! My father came to grief through a woman, and seems to have left me the same fortune."
"It's impossible to help you, I'm afraid," said Lunev, and felt a certain relief as he said it. Pavel distressed him more than Perfishka, and when his friend spoke with hate and anger, a similar feeling surged up in Ilya's breast against some undefined person. But the enemy that caused the suffering, that ruined Pavel's life, was not there, but invisible, and Lunev felt anew that his enmity or his compassion availed nothing, like nearly all his sympathetic feelings towards other men. It seemed these feelings were all superfluous, useless. Pavel went on, more gloomily:
"I know—it's impossible to help me.—How could I be helped? Who is there? We're alone in life, brother; our lot is settled—work, suffer, be silent—and then go out. Devil take you!"
He looked searchingly into his friend's face, and added in a decided, sinister tone:
"Look! You've crawled into a corner and sit quiet there. But I tell you, there's some one, who watches by night, thinking how to drag you out."
"No, no!" said Lunev smiling. "I'll make a fight for it. It's not so easy."
"Ah, don't be so sure! You think you'll run this business all your life, eh?"
"They'll have you out, or else you yourself will give it up."
"But how? You'll have to wait to see that!" said Ilya, smiling.
But Gratschev maintained his statement. He looked hard at his friend, and said obstinately:
"I tell you, you'll leave it. You are not the kind to sit quiet and warm all your life, and it's certain either you'll take to drink or you'll go bankrupt. Something's bound to happen to you."
"Yes, but why?" cried Lunev, in surprise.
"For this—You can't stand a quiet life. You're a good fellow, you've a good heart, there are a few like that—they live healthy lives, are never ill, and all of a sudden—bang!"
"What d'you mean?"
"They fall down dead."
Ilya laughed, straightened himself, stretched his strong muscles, and breathed out a deep breath.
"That's all rubbish," he said. But at night, as he sat by the samovar, Gratschev's words returned involuntarily, and he considered his business relations with the Avtonomovs. In his delight at their proposal to open a shop, he had agreed to everything that was suggested. Now, suddenly he perceived that, although he had put into the business about four hundred roubles of Poluektov's money, he was rather a manager, engaged by Tatiana Vlassyevna, than her partner. This discovery surprised and annoyed him. "Aha! that's why she kisses me, so as to pick my pocket more easily," he thought. He determined to use the rest of his money to get the business away from his mistress and then separate from her. Even earlier, Tatiana Vlassyevna had seemed to him unnecessary, and of late she had become a burden. He could not reconcile himself to her caresses, and once said to her face:
"You're absolutely shameless, Tanyka!"
She only laughed. As before, she constantly told him tales of the people of her circle, and once he remarked, doubtfully:
"If that's all true, Tatiana, your respectable life isn't good for much."
"Why, pray? It's very jolly!" she replied, and shrugged her pretty shoulders.
"Jolly? In the day, a fight for crumbs, and at night—beastliness. No! There's something wrong about that."
"How simple you are! Now listen," and she began to praise the orderly, respectable middle-class life, and as she praised, strove to hide its hideousness and foulness.
"Is that what you call good, then?" asked Ilya.
"How odd you are! I don't call it good; but if it weren't it would be very dull."
Sometimes she would advise him:
"It's time you gave up wearing cotton shirts—a respectable man must wear linen. And listen to the way I pronounce words, and learn. You're not a peasant any longer, and you must drop your peasant ways, and get a little polish."
More often she would point out the difference between him, the peasant, and herself, the educated woman, and by the comparison frequently hurt his feelings. When he lived with Olympiada, he felt constantly that she was near him, like a good comrade. Tatiana aroused no feeling of comradeship; he saw that she was more interesting than Olympiada, and studied her with curiosity, but completely lost his respect for her. When he lived with the Avtonomovs, he used sometimes to hear Tatiana praying before she went to sleep:
"Our Father, Who art in heaven"—her loud rapid whisper sounded behind the partition. "Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses—Kirya, get up and shut the kitchen door—there's a draught at my feet."
"Why do you kneel on the bare floor?" answered Kirik lazily.
"Be quiet, don't interrupt me!" and again Ilya would hear the rapidly murmured prayer. The haste displeased him; he saw well she prayed from custom, not from inner need.
"Do you believe in God, Tatiana?" he asked her once.
"What a question," she cried. "Of course I do. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, then when you pray, you hurry up so as to get away from Him, I suppose," said Ilya laughing.
"First of all, don't say hurry up, but make haste; in the second place, I'm so tired with my day's work that God must forgive my haste."
And she closed her eyes, and added in a tone of deep conviction:
"He will forgive everything. He is merciful."
Olympiada used to pray silently and for a long time. She knelt before the eikon, hung her head, and remained motionless as if turned to stone. At such times her face was downcast, serious; and she did not answer if addressed. Now that Ilya grasped that Tatiana had cleverly over-reached him over the business, he felt a kind of disgust towards her.
"If she were a stranger—well and good," he thought. "All men try to cheat one another, but she is almost like my wife." He began to behave coldly and suspiciously towards her, and to avoid meeting her on all sorts of pretexts.
Just at this time he became acquainted with another woman. This was Gavrik's sister, who came now and then to see her brother. Tall, thin, and lanky, she was not pretty, and though Gavrik had said she was nineteen she seemed to Ilya much older. Her face was long and thin and yellow; fine wrinkles furrowed the brow. She had a flat nose, and the wide nostrils seemed distended with anger, while the thin lips were usually pressed together. She spoke distinctly, but as it were through her teeth, and unwillingly. She walked quickly with her head high, as though she were proud to display her ugly face, though possibly it was her long, thick black hair that drew her head backwards. Her big dark eyes looked serious and earnest, and the whole effect of her features was to give her tall figure an air of definite uprightness and inflexibility. Lunev felt afraid of her. She seemed to him proud and inspired him with respect. Whenever she appeared in the shop, he offered her a chair politely and said:
"Please take a seat."
"Thank you," she said shortly—bowed slightly and sat down. Lunev looked secretly at her face, absolutely different from the women's faces he had seen hitherto, her dark-brown well-worn dress, her patched shoes and yellow straw hat. She sat there, and talked to her brother, while the long fingers of her right hand drummed rapidly but noiselessly on her knee; in her left hand she swung some books, strapped together. It struck Ilya as strange to see a girl so badly dressed, so proud. After sitting two or three minutes she would say to her brother:
"Well—good-bye. Behave yourself!" Then she would bow silently to the owner of the shop and go out into the street with the stride of a brave soldier going to the attack.
"What a serious sister you've got," said Lunev once to Gavrik.
Gavrik distended his nostrils, rolled his eyes wildly, and drew out his lips into a straight line, and so gave his face a carefully caricatured resemblance to his sister's. Then he explained with a smile:
"Yes—but she only puts it on."
"But why should she?"
"It looks well. She likes it.—I can imitate any face you like."
The girl interested Ilya very much; he thought about her as he used to think of Tatiana Vlassyevna.
"There, that's the kind of girl to marry—she's got a heart, for certain."
Once she brought a thick book with her and said to her brother:
"There—read it! It's very interesting."
"What is it, may I see?" asked Ilya politely.
She took the book from her brother and passed it to Ilya saying:
"Don Quixote—the story of a worthy knight."
"Ah! I've read a lot about knights," said Ilya with a friendly smile, and looked her in the face. Her eyebrows twitched, and she said quickly in a dry way:
"You've read fairy tales, but this is a fine clever book. The man in it devotes himself to help the unfortunate and unjustly oppressed—this man was always ready to give his life for others. You see? The book is written amusingly—but that's because of the conditions under which it was written. It must be read seriously and attentively."
"Then that's how we'll read it," said Ilya. This was the first time she had spoken to him; he felt curiously pleased, and smiled. But she looked in his face, said drily:
"I fancy you won't like it."
Then she went away. Ilya felt that she had spoken with intention and was annoyed. He spoke sharply to Gavrik who was looking at the pictures in the book.
"Now then—it's no time for reading now."
"But there are no customers," answered Gavrik without closing the book.
Ilya looked at him and said nothing; the girl's words rang in his ears, but he thought of her with a feeling of discomfort in his heart.
"My word; doesn't she think a lot of herself!"