Between five and six in the evening. A fairly well-known man of learning — we will call him simply the man of learning — is sitting in his study nervously biting his nails.
“It’s positively revolting,” he says, continually looking at his watch. “It shows the utmost disrespect for another man’s time and work. In England such a person would not earn a farthing, he would die of hunger. You wait a minute, when you do come . . . .”
And feeling a craving to vent his wrath and impatience upon someone, the man of learning goes to the door leading to his wife’s room and knocks.
“Listen, Katya,” he says in an indignant voice. “If you see Pyotr Danilitch, tell him that decent people don’t do such things. It’s abominable! He recommends a secretary, and does not know the sort of man he is recommending! The wretched boy is two or three hours late with unfailing regularity every day. Do you call that a secretary?
Those two or three hours are more precious to me than two or three years to other people. When he does come I will swear at him like a dog, and won’t pay him and will kick him out. It’s no use standing on ceremony with people like that!”
“You say that every day, and yet he goes on coming and coming.”
“But to-day I have made up my mind. I have lost enough through him. You must excuse me, but I shall swear at him like a cabman.”
At last a ring is heard. The man of learning makes a grave face; drawing himself up, and, throwing back his head, he goes into the entry. There his amanuensis Ivan Matveyitch, a young man of eighteen, with a face oval as an egg and no moustache, wearing a shabby, mangy overcoat and no goloshes, is already standing by the hatstand.
He is in breathless haste, and scrupulously wipes his huge clumsy boots on the doormat, trying as he does so to conceal from the maidservant a hole in his boot through which a white sock is peeping. Seeing the man of learning he smiles with that broad, prolonged, somewhat foolish smile which is seen only on the faces of children or very good-natured people.
“Ah, good evening!” he says, holding out a big wet hand. “Has your sore throat gone?”
“Ivan Matveyitch,” says the man of learning in a shaking voice, stepping back and clasping his hands together. “Ivan Matveyitch.”
Then he dashes up to the amanuensis, clutches him by the shoulders, and begins feebly shaking him.
“What a way to treat me!” he says with despair in his voice. “You dreadful, horrid fellow, what a way to treat me! Are you laughing at me, are you jeering at me? Eh?”
Judging from the smile which still lingered on his face Ivan Matveyitch had expected a very different reception, and so, seeing the man of learning’s countenance eloquent of indignation, his oval face grows longer than ever, and he opens his mouth in amazement.
“What is . . . what is it?” he asks.
“And you ask that?” the man of learning clasps his hands. “You know how precious time is to me, and you are so late. You are two hours late! . . . Have you no fear of God?”
“I haven’t come straight from home,” mutters Ivan Matveyitch, untying his scarf irresolutely. “I have been at my aunt’s name-day party, and my aunt lives five miles away. . . . If I had come straight from home, then it would have been a different thing.”
“Come, reflect, Ivan Matveyitch, is there any logic in your conduct? Here you have work to do, work at a fixed time, and you go flying off after name-day parties and aunts! But do make haste and undo your wretched scarf! It’s beyond endurance, really!”
The man of learning dashes up to the amanuensis again and helps him to disentangle his scarf.
“You are done up like a peasant woman, . . . Come along, . . . Please make haste!”
Blowing his nose in a dirty, crumpled-up handkerchief and pulling down his grey reefer jacket, Ivan Matveyitch goes through the hall and the drawing-room to the study. There a place and paper and even cigarettes had been put ready for him long ago.
“Sit down, sit down,” the man of learning urges him on, rubbing his hands impatiently. “You are an unsufferable person. . . . You know the work has to be finished by a certain time, and then you are so late. One is forced to scold you. Come, write, . . . Where did we stop?”
Ivan Matveyitch smooths his bristling cropped hair and takes up his pen. The man of learning walks up and down the room, concentrates himself, and begins to dictate:
“The fact is . . . comma . . . that so to speak fundamental forms . . . have you written it? . . . forms are conditioned entirely by the essential nature of those principles . . . comma . . . which find in them their expression and can only be embodied in them. . . . New line, . . . There’s a stop there, of course. . . . More independence is found . . . is found . . . by the forms which have not so much a political . . . comma . . . as a social character . .”
“The high-school boys have a different uniform now . . . a grey one,” said Ivan Matveyitch, “when I was at school it was better: they used to wear regular uniforms.”
“Oh dear, write please!” says the man of learning wrathfully. “Character . . . have you written it? Speaking of the forms relating to the organization . . . of administrative functions, and not to the regulation of the life of the people . . . comma . . . it cannot be said that they are marked by the nationalism of their forms . . . the last three words in inverted commas. . . . Aie, aie . . . tut, tut . . . so what did you want to say about the high school?”
“That they used to wear a different uniform in my time.”
“Aha! . . . indeed, . . . Is it long since you left the high school?”
“But I told you that yesterday. It is three years since I left school. . . . I left in the fourth class.”
“And why did you give up high school?” asks the man of learning, looking at Ivan Matveyitch’s writing.
“Oh, through family circumstances.”
“Must I speak to you again, Ivan Matveyitch? When will you get over your habit of dragging out the lines? There ought not to be less than forty letters in a line.”
“What, do you suppose I do it on purpose?” says Ivan Matveyitch, offended. “There are more than forty letters in some of the other lines. . . . You count them. And if you think I don’t put enough in the line, you can take something off my pay.”
“Oh dear, that’s not the point. You have no delicacy, really. . . . At the least thing you drag in money. The great thing is to be exact, Ivan Matveyitch, to be exact is the great thing. You ought to train yourself to be exact.”
The maidservant brings in a tray with two glasses of tea on it, and a basket of rusks. . . . Ivan Matveyitch takes his glass awkwardly with both hands, and at once begins drinking it. The tea is too hot. To avoid burning his mouth Ivan Matveyitch tries to take a tiny sip. He eats one rusk, then a second, then a third, and, looking sideways, with embarrassment, at the man of learning, timidly stretches after a fourth. . . .
The noise he makes in swallowing, the relish with which he smacks his lips, and the expression of hungry greed in his raised eyebrows irritate the man of learning.
“Make haste and finish, time is precious.”
“You dictate, I can drink and write at the same time. . . . I must confess I was hungry.”
“I should think so after your walk!”
“Yes, and what wretched weather! In our parts there is a scent of spring by now. . . . There are puddles everywhere; the snow is melting.”
“You are a southerner, I suppose?”
“From the Don region. . . . It’s quite spring with us by March. Here it is frosty, everyone’s in a fur coat, . . . but there you can see the grass . . . it’s dry everywhere, and one can even catch tarantulas.”
“And what do you catch tarantulas for?”
“Oh! . . . to pass the time . . .” says Ivan Matveyitch, and he sighs. “It’s fun catching them. You fix a bit of pitch on a thread, let it down into their hole and begin hitting the tarantula on the back with the pitch, and the brute gets cross, catches hold of the pitch with his claws, and gets stuck. . . . And what we used to do with them! We used to put a basinful of them together and drop a bihorka in with them.”
“What is a bihorka?”
“That’s another spider, very much the same as a tarantula. In a fight one of them can kill a hundred tarantulas.”
“H’m! . . . But we must write, . . . Where did we stop?”
The man of learning dictates another twenty lines, then sits plunged in meditation.
Ivan Matveyitch, waiting while the other cogitates, sits and, craning his neck, puts the collar of his shirt to rights. His tie will not set properly, the stud has come out, and the collar keeps coming apart.
“H’m! . . .” says the man of learning. “Well, haven’t you found a job yet, Ivan Matveyitch?”
“No. And how is one to find one? I am thinking, you know, of volunteering for the army. But my father advises my going into a chemist’s.”
“H’m! . . . But it would be better for you to go into the university. The examination is difficult, but with patience and hard work you could get through. Study, read more. . . . Do you read much?”
“Not much, I must own . . .” says Ivan Matveyitch, lighting a cigarette.
“Have you read Turgenev?”
“N-no. . . .”
“Gogol. H’m! . . . Gogol. . . . No, I haven’t read him!”
“Ivan Matveyitch! Aren’t you ashamed? Aie! aie! You are such a nice fellow, so much that is original in you . . . you haven’t even read Gogol! You must read him! I will give you his works! It’s essential to read him! We shall quarrel if you don’t!”
Again a silence follows. The man of learning meditates, half reclining on a soft lounge, and Ivan Matveyitch, leaving his collar in peace, concentrates his whole attention on his boots. He has not till then noticed that two big puddles have been made by the snow melting off his boots on the floor. He is ashamed.
“I can’t get on to-day . . .” mutters the man of learning. “I suppose you are fond of catching birds, too, Ivan Matveyitch?”
“That’s in autumn, . . . I don’t catch them here, but there at home I always did.”
“To be sure . . . very good. But we must write, though.”
The man of learning gets up resolutely and begins dictating, but after ten lines sits down on the lounge again.
“No. . . . Perhaps we had better put it off till to-morrow morning,” he says. “Come to-morrow morning, only come early, at nine o’clock. God preserve you from being late!”
Ivan Matveyitch lays down his pen, gets up from the table and sits in another chair. Five minutes pass in silence, and he begins to feel it is time for him to go, that he is in the way; but in the man of learning’s study it is so snug and light and warm, and the impression of the nice rusks and sweet tea is still so fresh that there is a pang at his heart at the mere thought of home.
At home there is poverty, hunger, cold, his grumbling father, scoldings, and here it is so quiet and unruffled, and interest even is taken in his tarantulas and birds.
The man of learning looks at his watch and takes up a book.
“So you will give me Gogol?’ says Ivan Matveyitch, getting up.
“Yes, yes! But why are you in such a hurry, my dear boy? Sit down and tell me something . . .”
Ivan Matveyitch sits down and smiles broadly. Almost every evening he sits in this study and always feels something extraordinarily soft, attracting him, as it were akin, in the voice and the glance of the man of learning.
There are moments when he even fancies that the man of learning is becoming attached to him, used to him, and that if he scolds him for being late, it’s simply because he misses his chatter about tarantulas and how they catch goldfinches on the Don.