From henceforth there was a new and rather disturbing feature in Ilya's life. Gavrik's sister began to visit his shop almost every day. She appeared always anxious over one thing or another, greeted Ilya with a hearty handshake, and vanished again after exchanging a few words with him. But always she left something new in Ilya's mind. Once she asked him:
"Do you like a business like this?"
"Not so very much," answered Ilya, shrugging his shoulders; "but a man must earn his living some way or other."
She looked at him attentively with her serious eyes, and her face looked even more tense than usual.
"A man must live!" repeated Ilya with a sigh.
"Have you never tried to make your living by work?"
Ilya did not understand.
"Have you ever worked?"
"Always. All my life. I—sell things," answered Ilya doubtfully.
She smiled, and Ilya felt a little hurt at her smile.
"You think—selling things—is work?"
"Yes, surely. It often makes me tired." Looking in her face he felt that she was not joking, but speaking earnestly.
"Oh, no"—the girl went on with a condescending smile. "To work means to make something by the exercise of one's strength—to create something. Thread or ribbons or chairs or chests—d'you see?" Lunev nodded and blushed; he was ashamed to say that he did not understand.
"But trade—what's the good of it? it makes nothing," she said with conviction, and looked challengingly at Ilya.
"Yes," he answered slowly and carefully. "You're right there—it isn't difficult when you're used to it. But still trade must be some use, or else there wouldn't be any, would there?"
She did not reply to this, but turned away and began to speak to her brother. Soon after she took her leave, only nodding to Ilya as she went. Her expression was cold and proud, even as it was before the encounter with Masha. Ilya pondered on this; could he by any chance have hurt her feelings by a careless word? He thought over everything he had said, and could find nothing in it to wound her. Then he began to consider her words, and the more he thought the more they occupied him. What sort of difference could she see between trade and work?
She interested him more and more; but he could not understand why her features looked cross and irritable when she herself was so kind, and could not only sympathise with people, but also help them. Pavel had visited her at home, and was full of enthusiastic praises for her and all the mode of life in her family.
"The minute you come in—at once, they say, 'Welcome.' If they're at table, then—'Sit down with us.' If they're having tea—'Have a cup of tea with us.' It's so simple—and the people, there—my word!—and so happy—they drink tea and talk all at once and quarrel over books; and the books all lie about as if it were a book-shop. It's often crowded, you knock into your neighbour, and he laughs. All educated people—one is an advocate, another will soon be a doctor, and students and that sort. You forget altogether who you are, and laugh as if you were in your own set, and smoke and so on. It's splendid—so jolly, and so sensible."
"Ah—they'll never ask me," said Lunev, gloomily, "that proud young lady."
"Proud?—she?" cried Pavel. "I tell you, she's simplicity itself. Don't wait for an invitation—meet her by accident at the house door—and there you are. All people are equal, there—like in an inn, my boy. You feel so free. I tell you—what am I compared to you? But after two visits—like a child of the house!—and interesting—the noise, the row—the words start up—it's like a game."
"Well, and how's Mashutka?" asked Ilya.
"Pretty well, she's picked up a bit—sits and smiles now and then. They look after her—give her lots of milk—as for Ehrenov, he'll catch it! The advocate said the old devil would get it properly. Masha will be taken to the Judge of Inquiry—and as for my girl, they're taking a lot of trouble to bring the case on soon. Ah—it's good to be near them—the little house—people there like wood in the stove—they glow."
"But she, she herself?" asked Ilya.
Of "her" Pavel began to talk, as once he had talked of the prisoners who taught him to read and write. Every nerve was tense, and he talked emphatically, his speech full of interjections.
"She, brother? Oh—ho! Where did she learn it? She orders them all about, and if any one says anything unfair, or else—she, frrr—like a cat."
"I know that," said Ilya, and smiled involuntarily.
Yet he envied Pavel; he longed to visit the house, but his self-conceit forbade him to take the straight way there.
Standing behind the counter he thought obstinately:
"All the men there are, every one looks out for a chance to get something somehow from the rest. But she, what good does it do her to take up Mashutka and Vyera? She's poor; perhaps everything in the house has to be reckoned. That means she must be very good. And yet she talks to me that way, how am I worse than Pavel?"
These thoughts troubled him so, that he began to feel almost indifferent to everything else. A chink seemed to have opened in the darkness of his life, and through it he felt, rather than saw, something glimmer that he had never perceived before.
"My friend," said Tatiana Vlassyevna to him, coldly but impressively: "The stock of narrow tape wants renewing; the trimming, too, is almost used up, and there's very little black thread number fifty. A firm offers us pearl buttons at—the traveller came to me. I sent him on here. Has he been?"
"No," answered Ilya shortly.
This woman became more repugnant to him daily. He had a suspicion that she had taken Karsakov, recently named District Chief of Police, for a lover. She appointed meetings with Ilya more and more seldom, although she had just the same tender, gay manner with him as before. He did his best to avoid even these rarer meetings on one pretext or another, and finding that she was not at all annoyed, he called her in his heart fickle and shameless.
She was especially irksome to him when she came to the shop to inspect the stock. She turned about like a top, jumped on the counter, hauled out the cardboard boxes from the highest shelves, sneezing in the dust she raised, shook her head, and worried the life out of Gavrik.
"An apprentice in business must be quick and ready, he isn't fed to sit in the door all day and rub his nose; and when he's spoken to he ought to listen attentively, and not stare like a scarecrow."
But Gavrik had a character quite his own. While he listened to her flood of comments he preserved a complete indifference. Especially when she was rummaging about among the upper shelves, and holding up her skirts, Gavrik would look mischievously at his master. When he addressed her it was roughly and without any sign of respect, and when she departed he would remark: "There goes the plover at last."
"You mustn't speak of your mistress like that," said Ilya, trying to hide a smile.
"What sort of a mistress is she?" answered Gavrik. "She comes here and chatters, and hops off again! You—are the master."
"She is, too," said Ilya feebly, for he liked the honourable, high-spirited lad.
"Ah; she's a plover," insisted Gavrik.
"You teach that youngster nothing," said Madame Avtonomov to Ilya on another occasion. "And I must say, frankly, that lately everything seems carried on without enthusiasm, with no love for the work."
Lunev said nothing, but in his soul he hated her so that he thought:
"I wish to goodness, you she-devil, you'd break your leg; coming skipping about here."
One day he received a letter from his uncle, and learnt that Terenti had not only been to Kiev, but also the Sergius Monastery and in Valvam. He had nearly gone to Solovky, on the Dvina, but had abandoned that pilgrimage, and expected soon to reach home again.
"Another joy," thought Ilya bitterly. "He'll come here to live for certain."
He considered eagerly how to arrange that his uncle should live alone. But he had little time for thought; customers came in, and while he was busy with them, Gavrik's sister appeared. She seemed tired and out of breath, greeted him, and asked, nodding at the door of the room behind:
"Is there any water there?"
"I'll get it," said Ilya.
"No, I'll go."
She went into the room and stayed there till Lunev had finished with his customers, and followed her. He found her standing before the "Steps of Man's Life." Turning her head towards him, she said, indicating the picture:
"What awful taste!"
Confused by the remark, Ilya smiled, and felt somewhat guilty.
"Burr! What middle-class sentiment!" she repeated with disgust, and before he could ask for an explanation she was gone. A few days later she brought her brother some new linen, and reproved him for being careless with his clothes, tearing and soiling them.
"Well," said Gavrik, crossly. "That's enough. That woman's always on at me, and now you're beginning."
"What's the matter with him? Is he very rude?" she asked Ilya at this.
"N—no. He doesn't mean to be," answered Ilya kindly.
"I—I always keep quite quiet!" said the boy.
"His tongue goes a little fast!" said Ilya.
"Do you hear?" asked his sister, knitting her brows.
"Oh, yes, I hear!" cried Gavrik crossly.
"It doesn't matter much," said Ilya good-humouredly. "A man who can show his teeth has always an advantage over the rest. A man who bears blows silently gets beaten to his grave by the stupid people."
She listened and a smile of pleasure came over her face. Ilya noticed it.
"I wanted to ask you——" he began, in some confusion.
The girl came closer and looked right into his eyes. He could not meet her glance, but hung his head and went on:
"As far as I can make out, you don't care for tradesmen?"
"Because they live on the work of others," she explained, speaking very distinctly.
Ilya threw up his head, and his brows contracted. The words did not only astonish him, but pained him; and she said them so simply, so much as if it were a matter of course.
"But—excuse me—that isn't true!" he said loudly, after a pause.
Her face twitched and she blushed.
"How much does this ribbon cost you?" she asked coldly and sternly.
"Ribbon?—this ribbon?—Seventeen kopecks the arshin."
"And how do you sell it?"
"Very well. The three kopecks that you make don't really belong to you, but to the one who made the ribbon. Do you see?"
"No," confessed Lunev frankly.
A flame shot from her eyes. Ilya saw it, and was afraid, yet angered with himself because of his fear.
"Yes. I thought it wouldn't be easy for you to understand such a simple idea," she said, and turned away towards the door. "But see, now—imagine you are a worker, that you've made all this yourself,"—she swept her hand round with a big gesture, and went on to explain to him how labour enriches all except the labourer. At first she spoke in her ordinary manner, coldly, distinctly, and her ugly face was unmoved; but presently her eyebrows quivered and contracted, her nostrils dilated, and, standing close to Ilya, with head erect, she hurled mighty words at him, nerved by her youthful, unshakeable confidence in their truth.
"The retailer stands between the worker and the purchaser. He does nothing himself, he only increases the cost of the goods. Trading! It's only legal, permissible robbery."
Ilya felt deeply hurt, but he could find no words to answer this bold girl, who told him to his face he was a loafer and a robber. He clenched his teeth and listened silently, but did not believe, he could not believe; and while he ransacked his brain for the word to controvert her argument, to silence her forthwith, while he marvelled at her boldness, the contemptuous phrases, so amazing to his ears, stirred in his mind the question: "Why—what have I done to her?"
"All that is just not true," he interrupted her finally in a loud voice, feeling that he could not listen any longer without contradicting. "No—I can't agree with you."
"Then disprove it!" the young girl replied quietly. She sat down on a stool, drew the long plait of her hair over her shoulder, and began to play with it. Lunev turned away to avoid her challenging glance.
"I'll disprove it!" he cried, no longer able to contain himself. "I'll disprove it by my whole life. I—perhaps I did commit a great sin once before I came to this."
"So much the worse—but this is no argument," answered the girl; and her words fell on Ilya like a cold douche. He supported himself with both hands on the counter, and bent forward as though he were going to spring over, and gazed at her for some seconds in silence, cut to the heart, and astonished at her quietness. Her glance and her unmoved countenance, full of profound conviction, restrained his anger and confused him; he felt something fearless, impregnable in her, and the words he needed to refute her died on his tongue.
"Well? What then?" she asked with a cool challenge, then laughed, and said triumphantly:
"It's impossible to disprove it, because I spoke the truth."
"Impossible?" repeated Ilya in a dull voice.
"Yes, impossible. What can you say against it?"
She laughed again condescendingly.
"Good-bye!" and she went out, her head even higher than usual.
"That's all nonsense! It isn't true, excuse me"—Lunev shouted after her. But she did not turn round. Ilya sat down on the stool. Gavrik stood at the door and looked at him, evidently well pleased with his sister's behaviour; his face had an important triumphant expression.
"What are you staring at?" cried Lunev crossly, feeling annoyed by the boy's expression.
"Oh! oh!" cried Lunev threateningly; then after a short pause he added: "You can go, take a holiday."
He felt the necessity for solitude, but even when alone he could not collect his thoughts. He could not grasp the sense of the girl's words; they pained him before everything. Leaning his elbows on the counter, he thought in irritation:
"Why did she abuse me? What have I done to her? And she's kind, too. Comes here, condemns me, and goes away—without any justice; without even finding out anything. She is very clever; but wait till you come back here—I'll answer you."
But even while he threatened his mind was searching for the fault wherefore she had so attacked him. He remembered what Pavel had said of her intelligence and simplicity.
"Pashka—no fear—she wouldn't hurt him."
Raising his head he saw his reflection in the mirror, and as he looked he seemed to question his image. The black moustache moved on his lip, the big eyes looked weary, and a red flush burned on his cheek-bones; but yet, in spite of its look of annoyance over his defeat, the face was handsome, with a coarse, peasant's beauty; certainly more handsome than Pavel's yellow, bony countenance.
"Does she really like Pashka better than me?" he thought, and at once answered his thought:
"What good's my face? I'm no man for her. She'll marry some doctor or advocate, or official. Whatever interest could she take in us?"
He smiled bitterly, and began to question again:
"But why has she asked Pashka to go and see her? Why does she despise me? A tradesman—is he a thief? He doesn't work—think. I live on the work of others? And who is it stands here stiff and tired all day long, and never gets away?"
Now he began to oppose her, and found many words to justify his life; but now she was not there, and his fine words did not console him, but only increased the feeling of exasperation that glowed within him. He got up, went into his room, swallowed a mouthful of water, and looked round him. It was close and stuffy in the low room, with the iron railings in front of the window; the picture caught his eye with its bright colours; standing in the doorway, he raised his eyes to the "Steps of Life," so accurately measured out, and thought:
"All a lie! As if life were like that!" He looked long at the picture, comparing in his mind his own life with this sample, set out in such glowing colours.
"Is that life?" he repeated to himself, and suddenly added, hopelessly: "Yes, even if it were really, it's dreary and monotonous—clean enough, but not jolly!"
He stepped slowly up to the wall, tore the picture down, and carried it into the shop. There he laid it on the counter, and began again to observe the development of man as it was here depicted. Now he regarded it with scorn, but while he looked, he thought only of Gavrik's sister.
"As if she knew that I strangled the old man! However little she likes me, why need she say such things?"
His thoughts circled in his brain slowly and heavily, and the picture wavered before his eyes. Then he crumpled it up and threw it under the counter, but it rolled out again under his feet. Still more exasperated, he crushed it into a tighter ball, and flung it out into the street. The street was full of noise. On the other side some one was walking with a stick. The stick did not strike the pavement regularly, so that it sounded as though the man had three feet. The doves cooed; the clank of metal sounded somewhere, probably a chimney-sweep going over a roof. A droshky went by; the driver was drowsy and his head nodded to and fro. Everything seemed to sway round Ilya. Half asleep he took his reckoning frame and counted off twenty kopecks. From them he took seventeen—three were left. He flipped the little balls with his finger-nail, and they slid along the wire with a slight noise, separated out and stopped. Ilya sighed, laid the frame aside, threw himself on the counter, and lay so, listening to the beating of his heart. Next day Gavrik's sister came back. She looked just the same, in the same old dress, with the same expression.
"There!" thought Lunev angrily, looking at her from his room. He bowed ungraciously as she greeted him, but she laughed suddenly and said in a friendly way:
"Why are you so pale? Aren't you well?"
"Quite well!" answered Ilya shortly, and tried to conceal from her the feeling that her friendly observation of him had roused. It was a warm, happy feeling. Her smile and her words touched his heart, but he resolved to show her he felt hurt, hoping she would give him another smile or friendly word. He resolved, and waited therefore sulkily without looking at her.
"I'm afraid—you feel hurt!" her usual firm voice said. The tone was so different from that of her earlier words that Ilya looked at her in surprise. But she was as proud as ever, and in her dark eyes lay something disdainful, angry.
"I'm used to being hurt," said Lunev now, and smiled at her in challenge, but with the coldness of disillusion in his heart.
"Ah, you're playing with me!" was his thought. "First you'll stroke me, and then strike? Well, you shan't!"
"I didn't mean to hurt you!" Her words sounded to Ilya hard, even condescending.
"It would be hard for you to hurt me, really," he began loudly and boldly. "I think I know now the kind of lady you are. You're a bird that doesn't fly very high."
At these words she drew herself up, astonished, with eyes wide open. But Ilya noticed nothing now, the hot desire to pay her back for what she had done to him burned in him like a flame, and he used hard, harsh words, slowly and carefully.
"Your superiority—this pride—they don't cost much. Any one who has the chance of education can get them. If it wasn't for your education, you'd be a tailoress or a housemaid. As poor as you are, you couldn't be anything else!"
"What's that you say?" she exclaimed.
Ilya looked at her and was glad to see how her nostrils quivered and her cheeks reddened.
"I say what I think; and I do think it. All your cheap airs of superiority aren't worth a button."
"I've no airs of superiority!" the girl cried in a ringing voice. Her brother hurried to her, took her hand and said loudly, looking angrily at his master, "Come away, Sonyka."
Lunev glanced at the pair and answered, with aversion, but coldly:
"Please do go! I am nothing to you, nor you to me."
Both gave one strange lightning glance at him, and then disappeared. He laughed as they went. Then he stood alone in the shop for several minutes, motionless, intoxicated with the bitter sweetness of complete revenge. The angry face of the girl, half astonished, half frightened, was stamped on his memory, and he was pleased with himself.
"But that rascal—he——" a sudden thought buzzed in his brain. Gavrik's behaviour annoyed him and disturbed his self-satisfied mood.
"Another of the conceited lot!" he thought. "Now, if only Tanitshka were to come, I'd talk to her too—now's the time."
He experienced the desire to thrust all mankind away from him, harshly and contemptuously, and felt the strength in him now to do it.
But Tanitshka did not come; he was alone all day, and the time hung very heavily on his hands. When he lay down to sleep he felt isolated, and his sense of injury at his isolation was greater even than at the girl's words. He remembered Olympiada, and thought now that she had been kinder to him than any one. Closing his eyes, he listened in the stillness of the night; but at every sound he started, raised his head from the pillow, and stared into the darkness with eyes wide open. All night he could not get to sleep, because of his terrified expectation of something unknown—a feeling as though he were imprisoned in a cellar, gasping in a damp, close air, full of helpless, disconnected thoughts. He got up with an aching head, tried to get the samovar going, but gave it up. He washed, drank some water, and opened the shop.
About midday Pavel appeared, his forehead wrinkled in anger. Without any greeting, he asked:
"What on earth's the matter with you?"
Ilya understood the drift of the question, and shook his head hopelessly. He was silent awhile, thinking: "He's against me, too."
"Why have you insulted Sophie Nikonovna?" said Pavel sternly, standing very straight.
Ilya read his condemnation in Gratschev's angry face and reproachful eyes, but he bore that with indifference. He said slowly, in a tired voice:
"You might say 'good day' when you come in, don't you think? and take off your cap. There's an eikon here."
Pavel simply clutched his cap and drew it on more firmly, while his lips twitched with anger. Then he began, speaking fast and bitterly, with a trembling voice:
"Go on! Got lots of money, haven't you? and plenty to eat? You'd better think how you once said: 'There's no one to care about us,' and then you find one, and you turn her out. Ah, you—you pedlar, you!"
A dull feeling of slackness prevented Lunev from replying. With an unmoved, indifferent look he regarded Pavel's angry contemptuous features, feeling that the reproaches could not bite into his soul. On Pavel's chin and upper lip lay a thin yellow down, and Lunev found himself looking at this as he thought, indifferently:
"Now he's beginning. She must have complained of me to him. Did I really insult her? I might have said far worse things."
"She, who understands everything and can explain everything; and it's to her—you——Ah!" said Pavel, his talk full of interjections as usual: "All of them—there, are good—clever—they know everything you can think of by heart. Yes!—you ought to have held to her—and you——"
"That'll do anyhow, Pashka," said Lunev slowly. "What are you trying to teach me? I do what I like.'
"Yes, but what do you do? It's a shame!"
"Whatever I like I'll do. I've had enough of all of you! Only get away and chatter what you like." Lunev leaned heavily against the boxes of goods, and went on thoughtfully, as though questioning himself:
"And what could you tell me that I don't know?"
"She can do anything," cried Pavel, with deep conviction, holding up his hand as though prepared to take an oath. "They know everything."
"Then go to them!" cried Ilya, with complete unconcern. Pavel's words and his excitement were distasteful to him, but he felt no wish to contradict his friend. A dull, blank weariness hindered him from speaking or thinking or even moving. He wanted to be alone, to hear nothing and see nothing and nobody.
"And I'll leave you, once and for all," said Pavel threateningly. "I'll go because I understand one thing—I can only live near them, near them I can find all I need—I—they know right and truth! Life to me was never before what it is now, worthy of a man! Who ever respected me before?"
"Don't shout so!" said Lunev half aloud.
"You wooden idol you!" screamed Pavel.
At this moment a little girl came into the shop for a dozen shirt-buttons. Ilya served her politely, took her twenty kopeck piece, twirled it a moment in his fingers, and then gave it back, saying:
"I've no change. You can bring it by-and-bye." He had change in his till, but the key was in his room, and he had no inclination to fetch it. When the child had gone Pavel made no show of renewing the quarrel. He stood by the counter, striking his knee with his cap, and looked at his friend as though he expected something from him; but Lunev, who had turned half away, only whistled softly through his teeth. The groaning sound of heavy waggons in the street and the noise of hasty footsteps of passers-by came into the shop, the dust drifted in.
"Well—what?" asked Pavel.
"Oh, very well, then—nothing!"
"For God's sake, let me alone!" said Ilya impatiently.
Gratschev threw on his cap and walked quickly out without another word. Ilya followed him slowly with his eyes, but did not move his head.
"Am I ill, I wonder?" he thought.
A big, fox-coloured dog looked in at the door, wagged his tail, and made off again. Then an old beggar-woman, quite grey, with a big nose, she begged in a half-whisper:
"Please, give me something, kind gentleman."
Lunev shook his head. The noise of the busy day swept by outside. It was as though a huge stove were kindled, where wood crackled in the flames, and glowing heat poured out. A cart, loaded with long iron bars, goes by; the ends of the elastic bars reached the ground and struck, clanking, on the pavement. A knife-grinder sharpens a knife; an evil, hissing sound cuts the air.
"Cherries from Vladimir!" shouts a fruit-seller in a sing-song voice. Every moment brings forth something new and unexpected; life amazes our ears with the multiplicity of its noises, the unwearied persistence of its movement, the strength of its restless creative might. But in Lunev's soul everything there was calm and dead. Everything there was still together. There was there no thought, no wish, only a dull weariness. He spent the whole day in this state, and was tortured all night by nightmare and wild dreams—and many days and nights thereafter passed in the same way. People came, bought what they needed, and went again; his only thought was:
"I don't need them, and they don't need me. That's only strange at first; I shall get used to it! I will just live alone. I will live!"
Instead of Gavrik, the former cook of the owner of the house saw to his samovar and brought him his midday meal. She was a lean, sinister woman, with a red face and eyes that were colourless and staring. Sometimes when he looked at her Ilya felt fear deep down in his soul. "Shall I, then, never see anything beautiful in my life?" And darkly, despairingly, he said to himself: "See how life goes." There had been a time when he had grown accustomed to the manifold impressions of life, and although they irritated him and angered him, he yet felt—it is better to live among men. But now men had disappeared from the world, and there were only customers left. His sense of a common humanity and the longing for a better life vanished together in his indifference towards all and everything, and again the days slipped slowly by in a suffocating stupor.
One evening, when he had closed the shop, he went out into the courtyard, lay down under the elm-tree, and listened to the noise on the further side of the fence. Some one clicked with the tongue, and said softly:
"O—Oh! Good dog! Good little dog!"
Through a chink between the planks Ilya saw a fat old woman, with a long face, sitting on a bench; a big yellow dog had laid one of his fore-paws on her knee, and raising his muzzle, tried to lick her face. The woman turned her face away, and stroked the dog, smiling.
"People caress dogs, then, if there's no one else," Ilya mused. With deep pain in his heart, he thought of Gavrik and his stern sister; then of Pashka, Masha. "If they wanted me they'd come. They can go to the devil. To-morrow I'll go and see Jakov."
"My good dog!" murmured the woman beyond the fence.
"If even Tanyka would come!" thought Ilya, sadly. But Tatiana Vlassyevna was living in a country house a good way from the town, and never appeared in the shop.