Pyotr Mihalitch Ivashin was very much out of humor: his sister, a young girl, had gone away to live with Vlassitch, a married man. To shake off the despondency and depression which pursued him at home and in the fields, he called to his aid his sense of justice, his genuine and noble ideas — he had always defended free-love! — but this was of no avail, and he always came back to the same conclusion as their foolish old nurse, that his sister had acted wrongly and that Vlassitch had abducted his sister. And that was distressing.
His mother did not leave her room all day long; the old nurse kept sighing and speaking in whispers; his aunt had been on the point of taking her departure every day, and her trunks were continually being brought down to the hall and carried up again to her room. In the house, in the yard, and in the garden it was as still as though there were some one dead in the house. His aunt, the servants, and even the peasants, so it seemed to Pyotr Mihalitch, looked at him enigmatically and with perplexity, as though they wanted to say “Your sister has been seduced; why are you doing nothing?” And he reproached himself for inactivity, though he did not know precisely what action he ought to have taken.
So passed six days. On the seventh — it was Sunday afternoon — a messenger on horseback brought a letter. The address was in a familiar feminine handwriting: “Her Excy. Anna Nikolaevna Ivashin.” Pyotr Mihalitch fancied that there was something defiant, provocative, in the handwriting and in the abbreviation “Excy.” And advanced ideas in women are obstinate, ruthless, cruel.
“She’d rather die than make any concession to her unhappy mother, or beg her forgiveness,” thought Pyotr Mihalitch, as he went to his mother with the letter.
His mother was lying on her bed, dressed. Seeing her son, she rose impulsively, and straightening her grey hair, which had fallen from under her cap, asked quickly:
“What is it? What is it?”
“This has come . . .” said her son, giving her the letter.
Zina’s name, and even the pronoun “she” was not uttered in the house. Zina was spoken of impersonally: “this has come,” “Gone away,” and so on. . . . The mother recognized her daughter’s handwriting, and her face grew ugly and unpleasant, and her grey hair escaped again from her cap.
“No!” she said, with a motion of her hands, as though the letter scorched her fingers. “No, no, never! Nothing would induce me!”
The mother broke into hysterical sobs of grief and shame; she evidently longed to read the letter, but her pride prevented her. Pyotr Mihalitch realized that he ought to open the letter himself and read it aloud, but he was overcome by anger such as he had never felt before; he ran out into the yard and shouted to the messenger:
“Say there will be no answer! There will be no answer! Tell them that, you beast!
And he tore up the letter; then tears came into his eyes, and feeling that he was cruel, miserable, and to blame, he went out into the fields.
He was only twenty-seven, but he was already stout. He dressed like an old man in loose, roomy clothes, and suffered from asthma. He already seemed to be developing the characteristics of an elderly country bachelor. He never fell in love, never thought of marriage, and loved no one but his mother, his sister, his old nurse, and the gardener, Vassilitch. He was fond of good fare, of his nap after dinner, and of talking about politics and exalted subjects. He had in his day taken his degree at the university, but he now looked upon his studies as though in them he had discharged a duty incumbent upon young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five; at any rate, the ideas which now strayed every day through his mind had nothing in common with the university or the subjects he had studied there.
In the fields it was hot and still, as though rain were coming. It was steaming in the wood, and there was a heavy fragrant scent from the pines and rotting leaves. Pyotr Mihalitch stopped several times and wiped his wet brow. He looked at his winter corn and his spring oats, walked round the clover-field, and twice drove away a partridge with its chicks which had strayed in from the wood. And all the while he was thinking that this insufferable state of things could not go on for ever, and that he must end it one way or another. End it stupidly, madly, but he must end it.
“But how? What can I do?” he asked himself, and looked imploringly at the sky and at the trees, as though begging for their help.
But the sky and the trees were mute. His noble ideas were no help, and his common sense whispered that the agonising question could have no solution but a stupid one, and that to-day’s scene with the messenger was not the last one of its kind. It was terrible to think what was in store for him!
As he returned home the sun was setting. By now it seemed to him that the problem was incapable of solution. He could not accept the accomplished fact, and he could not refuse to accept it, and there was no intermediate course. When, taking off his hat and fanning himself with his handkerchief, he was walking along the road, and had only another mile and a half to go before he would reach home, he heard bells behind him. It was a very choice and successful combination of bells, which gave a clear crystal note. No one had such bells on his horses but the police captain, Medovsky, formerly an officer in the hussars, a man in broken-down health, who had been a great rake and spendthrift, and was a distant relation of Pyotr Mihalitch. He was like one of the family at the Ivashins’ and had a tender, fatherly affection for Zina, as well as a great admiration for her.
“I was coming to see you,” he said, overtaking Pyotr Mihalitch. “Get in; I’ll give you a lift.”
He was smiling and looked cheerful. Evidently he did not yet know that Zina had gone to live with Vlassitch; perhaps he had been told of it already, but did not believe it. Pyotr Mihalitch felt in a difficult position.
“You are very welcome,” he muttered, blushing till the tears came into his eyes, and not knowing how to lie or what to say. “I am delighted,” he went on, trying to smile, “but . . . Zina is away and mother is ill.”
“How annoying!” said the police captain, looking pensively at Pyotr Mihalitch. “And I was meaning to spend the evening with you. Where has Zinaida Mihalovna gone?”
“To the Sinitskys’, and I believe she meant to go from there to the monastery. I don’t quite know.”
The police captain talked a little longer and then turned back. Pyotr Mihalitch walked home, and thought with horror what the police captain’s feelings would be when he learned the truth. And Pyotr Mihalitch imagined his feelings, and actually experiencing them himself, went into the house.
“Lord help us,” he thought, “Lord help us!”
At evening tea the only one at the table was his aunt. As usual, her face wore the expression that seemed to say that though she was a weak, defenseless woman, she would allow no one to insult her. Pyotr Mihalitch sat down at the other end of the table (he did not like his aunt) and began drinking tea in silence.
“Your mother has had no dinner again to-day,” said his aunt. “You ought to do something about it, Petrusha. Starving oneself is no help in sorrow.”
It struck Pyotr Mihalitch as absurd that his aunt should meddle in other people’s business and should make her departure depend on Zina’s having gone away. He was tempted to say something rude to her, but restrained himself. And as he restrained himself he felt the time had come for action, and that he could not bear it any longer. Either he must act at once or fall on the ground, and scream and bang his head upon the floor. He pictured Vlassitch and Zina, both of them progressive and self-satisfied, kissing each other somewhere under a maple tree, and all the anger and bitterness that had been accumulating in him for the last seven days fastened upon Vlassitch.
“One has seduced and abducted my sister,” he thought, “another will come and murder my mother, a third will set fire to the house and sack the place. . . . And all this under the mask of friendship, lofty ideas, unhappiness!”
“No, it shall not be!” Pyotr Mihalitch cried suddenly, and he brought his fist down on the table.
He jumped up and ran out of the dining-room. In the stable the steward’s horse was standing ready saddled. He got on it and galloped off to Vlassitch.
There was a perfect tempest within him. He felt a longing to do something extraordinary, startling, even if he had to repent of it all his life afterwards. Should he call Vlassitch a blackguard, slap him in the face, and then challenge him to a duel? But Vlassitch was not one of those men who do fight duels; being called a blackguard and slapped in the face would only make him more unhappy, and would make him shrink into himself more than ever. These unhappy, defenceless people are the most insufferable, the most tiresome creatures in the world. They can do anything with impunity. When the luckless man responds to well-deserved reproach by looking at you with eyes full of deep and guilty feeling, and with a sickly smile bends his head submissively, even justice itself could not lift its hand against him.
“No matter. I’ll horsewhip him before her eyes and tell him what I think of him,” Pyotr Mihalitch decided.
He was riding through his wood and waste land, and he imagined Zina would try to justify her conduct by talking about the rights of women and individual freedom, and about there being no difference between legal marriage and free union. Like a woman, she would argue about what she did not understand. And very likely at the end she would ask, “How do you come in? What right have you to interfere?”
“No, I have no right,” muttered Pyotr Mihalitch. “But so much the better. . . . The harsher I am, the less right I have to interfere, the better.”
It was sultry. Clouds of gnats hung over the ground and in the waste places the peewits called plaintively. Everything betokened rain, but he could not see a cloud in the sky. Pyotr Mihalitch crossed the boundary of his estate and galloped over a smooth, level field. He often went along this road and knew every bush, every hollow in it. What now in the far distance looked in the dusk like a dark cliff was a red church; he could picture it all down to the smallest detail, even the plaster on the gate and the calves that were always grazing in the church enclosure. Three-quarters of a mile to the right of the church there was a copse like a dark blur — it was Count Koltonovitch’s. And beyond the church Vlassitch’s estate began.
From behind the church and the count’s copse a huge black storm-cloud was rising, and there were ashes of white lightning.
“Here it is!” thought Pyotr Mihalitch. “Lord help us, Lord help us!”
The horse was soon tired after its quick gallop, and Pyotr Mihalitch was tired too. The storm-cloud looked at him angrily and seemed to advise him to go home. He felt a little scared.
“I will prove to them they are wrong,” he tried to reassure himself. “They will say that it is free-love, individual freedom; but freedom means self-control and not subjection to passion. It’s not liberty but license!”
He reached the count’s big pond; it looked dark blue and frowning under the cloud, and a smell of damp and slime rose from it. Near the dam, two willows, one old and one young, drooped tenderly towards one another. Pyotr Mihalitch and Vlassitch had been walking near this very spot only a fortnight before, humming a students’ song:
” ‘Youth is wasted, life is nought, when the heart is cold and loveless.’ ”
A wretched song!
It was thundering as Pyotr Mihalitch rode through the copse, and the trees were bending and rustling in the wind. He had to make haste. It was only three-quarters of a mile through a meadow from the copse to Vlassitch’s house. Here there were old birch-trees on each side of the road. They had the same melancholy and unhappy air as their owner Vlassitch, and looked as tall and lanky as he. Big drops of rain pattered on the birches and on the grass; the wind had suddenly dropped, and there was a smell of wet earth and poplars. Before him he saw Vlassitch’s fence with a row of yellow acacias, which were tall and lanky too; where the fence was broken he could see the neglected orchard.
Pyotr Mihalitch was not thinking now of the horsewhip or of a slap in the face, and did not know what he would do at Vlassitch’s. He felt nervous. He felt frightened on his own account and on his sister’s, and was terrified at the thought of seeing her. How would she behave with her brother? What would they both talk about? And had he not better go back before it was too late? As he made these reflections, he galloped up the avenue of lime-trees to the house, rode round the big clumps of lilacs, and suddenly saw Vlassitch.
Vlassitch, wearing a cotton shirt, and top-boots, bending forward, with no hat on in the rain, was coming from the corner of the house to the front door. He was followed by a workman with a hammer and a box of nails. They must have been mending a shutter which had been banging in the wind. Seeing Pyotr Mihalitch, Vlassitch stopped.
“It’s you!” he said, smiling. “That’s nice.”
“Yes, I’ve come, as you see,” said Pyotr Mihalitch, brushing the rain off himself with both hands.
“Well, that’s capital! I’m very glad,” said Vlassitch, but he did not hold out his hand: evidently he did not venture, but waited for Pyotr Mihalitch to hold out his. “It will do the oats good,” he said, looking at the sky.
They went into the house in silence. To the right of the hall was a door leading to another hall and then to the drawing-room, and on the left was a little room which in winter was used by the steward. Pyotr Mihalitch and Vlassitch went into this little room.
“Where were you caught in the rain?”
“Not far off, quite close to the house.”
Pyotr Mihalitch sat down on the bed. He was glad of the noise of the rain and the darkness of the room. It was better: it made it less dreadful, and there was no need to see his companion’s face. There was no anger in his heart now, nothing but fear and vexation with himself. He felt he had made a bad beginning, and that nothing would come of this visit.
Both were silent for some time and affected to be listening to the rain.
“Thank you, Petrusha,” Vlassitch began, clearing his throat. “I am very grateful to you for coming. It’s generous and noble of you. I understand it, and, believe me, I appreciate it. Believe me.”
He looked out of the window and went on, standing in the middle of the room:
“Everything happened so secretly, as though we were concealing it all from you. The feeling that you might be wounded and angry has been a blot on our happiness all these days. But let me justify myself. We kept it secret not because we did not trust you. To begin with, it all happened suddenly, by a kind of inspiration; there was no time to discuss it. Besides, it’s such a private, delicate matter, and it was awkward to bring a third person in, even some one as intimate as you. Above all, in all this we reckoned on your generosity. You are a very noble and generous person. I am infinitely grateful to you. If you ever need my life, come and take it.”
Vlassitch talked in a quiet, hollow bass, always on the same droning note; he was evidently agitated. Pyotr Mihalitch felt it was his turn to speak, and that to listen and keep silent would really mean playing the part of a generous and noble simpleton, and that had not been his idea in coming. He got up quickly and said, breathlessly in an undertone:
“Listen, Grigory. You know I liked you and could have desired no better husband for my sister; but what has happened is awful! It’s terrible to think of it!”
“Why is it terrible?” asked Vlassitch, with a quiver in his voice. “It would be terrible if we had done wrong, but that isn’t so.”
“Listen, Grigory. You know I have no prejudices; but, excuse my frankness, to my mind you have both acted selfishly. Of course, I shan’t say so to my sister — it will distress her; but you ought to know: mother is miserable beyond all description.”
“Yes, that’s sad,” sighed Vlassitch. “We foresaw that, Petrusha, but what could we have done? Because one’s actions hurt other people, it doesn’t prove that they are wrong. What’s to be done! Every important step one takes is bound to distress somebody. If you went to fight for freedom, that would distress your mother, too. What’s to be done! Any one who puts the peace of his family before everything has to renounce the life of ideas completely.”
There was a vivid flash of lightning at the window, and the lightning seemed to change the course of Vlassitch’s thoughts. He sat down beside Pyotr Mihalitch and began saying what was utterly beside the point.
“I have such a reverence for your sister, Petrusha,” he said. “When I used to come and see you, I felt as though I were going to a holy shrine, and I really did worship Zina. Now my reverence for her grows every day. For me she is something higher than a wife — yes, higher! ” Vlassitch waved his hands. “She is my holy of holies. Since she is living with me, I enter my house as though it were a temple. She is an extraordinary, rare, most noble woman!”
“Well, he’s off now!” thought Pyotr Mihalitch; he disliked the word “woman.”
“Why shouldn’t you be married properly?” he asked. “How much does your wife want for a divorce?”
“It’s rather a lot. But if we were to negotiate with her?”
“She won’t take a farthing less. She is an awful woman, brother,” sighed Vlassitch. “I’ve never talked to you about her before — it was unpleasant to think of her; but now that the subject has come up, I’ll tell you about her. I married her on the impulse of the moment — a fine, honorable impulse. An officer in command of a battalion of our regiment — if you care to hear the details — had an affair with a girl of eighteen; that is, to put it plainly, he seduced her, lived with her for two months, and abandoned her. She was in an awful position, brother. She was ashamed to go home to her parents; besides, they wouldn’t have received her. Her lover had abandoned her; there was nothing left for her but to go to the barracks and sell herself. The other officers in the regiment were indignant.
They were by no means saints themselves, but the baseness of it was so striking. Besides, no one in the regiment could endure the man. And to spite him, you understand, the indignant lieutenants and ensigns began getting up a subscription for the unfortunate girl. And when we subalterns met together and began to subscribe five or ten rubles each, I had a sudden inspiration. I felt it was an opportunity to do something fine. I hastened to the girl and warmly expressed my sympathy. And while I was on my way to her, and while I was talking to her, I loved her fervently as a woman insulted and injured. Yes. . . . Well, a week later I made her an offer. The colonel and my comrades thought my marriage out of keeping with the dignity of an officer.
That roused me more than ever. I wrote a long letter, do you know, in which I proved that my action ought to be inscribed in the annals of the regiment in letters of gold, and so on. I sent the letter to my colonel and copies to my comrades. Well, I was excited, and, of course, I could not avoid being rude. I was asked to leave the regiment. I have a rough copy of it put away somewhere; I’ll give it to you to read sometime. It was written with great feeling. You will see what lofty and noble sentiments I was experiencing. I resigned my commission and came here with my wife. My father had left a few debts, I had no money, and from the first day my wife began making acquaintances, dressing herself smartly, and playing cards, and I was obliged to mortgage the estate. She led a bad life, you understand, and you are the only one of the neighbors who hasn’t been her lover.
After two years I gave her all I had to set me free and she went off to town. Yes. . . . And now I pay her twelve hundred rubles a year. She is an awful woman! There is a fly, brother, which lays an egg in the back of a spider so that the spider can’t shake it off: the grub fastens upon the spider and drinks its heart’s blood. That was how this woman fastened upon me and sucks the blood of my heart. She hates and despises me for being so stupid; that is, for marrying a woman like her. My chivalry seems to her despicable. ‘A wise man cast me off,’ she says, ‘and a fool picked me up.’ To her thinking no one but a pitiful idiot could have behaved as I did. And that is insufferably bitter to me, brother. Altogether, I may say in parenthesis, fate has been hard upon me, very hard.”
Pyotr Mihalitch listened to Vlassitch and wondered in perplexity what it was in this man that had so charmed his sister. He was not young — he was forty-one — lean and lanky, narrow-chested, with a long nose, and grey hairs in his beard. He talked in a droning voice, had a sickly smile, and waved his hands awkwardly as he talked. He had neither health, nor pleasant, manly manners, nor savoir-faire, nor gaiety, and in all his exterior there was something colorless and indefinite. He dressed without taste, his surroundings were depressing, he did not care for poetry or painting because “they have no answer to give to the questions of the day” — that is, he did not understand them; music did not touch him. He was a poor farmer.
His estate was in a wretched condition and was mortgaged; he was paying twelve percent on the second mortgage and owed ten thousand on personal securities as well. When the time came to pay the interest on the mortgage or to send money to his wife, he asked every one to lend him money with as much agitation as though his house were on fire, and, at the same time losing his head, he would sell the whole of his winter store of fuel for five rubles and a stack of straw for three roubles, and then have his garden fence or old cucumber-frames chopped up to heat his stoves. His meadows were ruined by pigs, the peasants’ cattle strayed in the undergrowth in his woods, and every year the old trees were fewer and fewer: beehives and rusty pails lay about in his garden and kitchen-garden. He had neither talents nor abilities, nor even ordinary capacity for living like other people. In practical life he was a weak, naïve man, easy to deceive and to cheat, and the peasants with good reason called him “simple.”
He was a Liberal, and in the district was regarded as a “Red,” but even his progressiveness was a bore. There was no originality nor moving power about his independent views: he was revolted, indignant, and delighted always on the same note; it was always spiritless and ineffective. Even in moments of strong enthusiasm he never raised his head or stood upright. But the most tiresome thing of all was that he managed to express even his best and finest ideas so that they seemed in him commonplace and out of date.
It reminded one of something old one had read long ago, when slowly and with an air of profundity he would begin discoursing of his noble, lofty moments, of his best years; or when he went into raptures over the younger generation, which has always been, and still is, in advance of society; or abused Russians for donning their dressing-gowns at thirty and forgetting the principles of their alma mater. If you stayed the night with him, he would put Pissarev or Darwin on your bedroom table; if you said you had read it, he would go and bring Dobrolubov.
In the district this was called free-thinking, and many people looked upon this free-thinking as an innocent and harmless eccentricity; it made him profoundly unhappy, however. It was for him the maggot of which he had just been speaking; it had fastened upon him and was sucking his life-blood. In his past there had been the strange marriage in the style of Dostoevsky; long letters and copies written in a bad, unintelligible hand-writing, but with great feeling, endless misunderstandings, explanations, disappointments, then debts, a second mortgage, the allowance to his wife, the monthly borrowing of money – and all this for no benefit to any one, either himself or others.
And in the present, as in the past, he was still in a nervous flurry, on the lookout for heroic actions, and poking his nose into other people’s affairs; as before, at every favorable opportunity there were long letters and copies, wearisome, stereotyped conversations about the village community, or the revival of handicrafts or the establishment of cheese factories — conversations as like one another as though he had prepared them, not in his living brain, but by some mechanical process. And finally this scandal with Zina of which one could not see the end!
And meanwhile Zina was young — she was only twenty-two — good-looking, elegant, gay; she was fond of laughing, chatter, argument, a passionate musician; she had good taste in dress, in furniture, in books, and in her own home she would not have put up with a room like this, smelling of boots and cheap vodka. She, too, had advanced ideas, but in her free-thinking one felt the overflow of energy, the vanity of a young, strong, spirited girl, passionately eager to be better and more original than others. . . . How had it happened that she had fallen in love with Vlassitch?
“He is a Quixote, an obstinate fanatic, a maniac,” thought Pyotr Mihalitch, “and she is as soft, yielding, and weak in character as I am. . . . She and I give in easily, without resistance. She loves him; but, then, I, too, love him in spite of everything.”
Pyotr Mihalitch considered Vlassitch a good, straightforward man, but narrow and one-sided. In his perturbations and his sufferings, and in fact in his whole life, he saw no lofty aims, remote or immediate; he saw nothing but boredom and incapacity for life. His self-sacrifice and all that Vlassitch himself called heroic actions or noble impulses seemed to him a useless waste of force, unnecessary blank shots which consumed a great deal of powder. And Vlassitch’s fanatical belief in the extraordinary loftiness and faultlessness of his own way of thinking struck him as naïve and even morbid; and the fact that Vlassitch all his life had contrived to mix the trivial with the exalted, that he had made a stupid marriage and looked upon it as an act of heroism, and then had affairs with other women and regarded that as a triumph of some idea or other was simply incomprehensible.
Nevertheless, Pyotr Mihalitch was fond of Vlassitch; he was conscious of a sort of power in him, and for some reason he had never had the heart to contradict him.
Vlassitch sat down quite close to him for a talk in the dark, to the accompaniment of the rain, and he had cleared his throat as a prelude to beginning on something lengthy, such as the history of his marriage. But it was intolerable for Pyotr Mihalitch to listen to him; he was tormented by the thought that he would see his sister directly.
“Yes, you’ve had bad luck,” he said gently; “but, excuse me, we’ve been wandering from the point. That’s not what we are talking about.”
“Yes, yes, quite so. Well, let us come back to the point,” said Vlassitch, and he stood up. “I tell you, Petrusha, our conscience is clear. We are not married, but there is no need for me to prove to you that our marriage is perfectly legitimate. You are as free in your ideas as I am, and, happily, there can be no disagreement between us on that point. As for our future, that ought not to alarm you. I’ll work in the sweat of my brow, I’ll work day and night — in fact, I will strain every nerve to make Zina happy. Her life will be a splendid one! You may ask, am I able to do it. I am, brother! When a man devotes every minute to one thought, it’s not difficult for him to attain his object. But let us go to Zina; it will be a joy to her to see you.”
Pyotr Mihalitch’s heart began to beat. He got up and followed Vlassitch into the hall, and from there into the drawing-room. There was nothing in the huge gloomy room but a piano and a long row of old chairs ornamented with bronze, on which no one ever sat. There was a candle alight on the piano. From the drawing-room they went in silence into the dining-room. This room, too, was large and comfort less; in the middle of the room there was a round table with two leaves with six thick legs, and only one candle. A clock in a large mahogany case like an ikon stand pointed to half-past two.
Vlassitch opened the door into the next room and said:
“Zina, here is Petrusha come to see us!”
At once there was the sound of hurried footsteps and Zina came into the dining-room. She was tall, plump, and very pale, and, just as when he had seen her for the last time at home, she was wearing a black skirt and a red blouse, with a large buckle on her belt. She flung one arm round her brother and kissed him on the temple.
“What a storm!” she said. “Grigory went off somewhere and I was left quite alone in the house.”
She was not embarrassed, and looked at her brother as frankly and candidly as at home; looking at her, Pyotr Mihalitch, too, lost his embarrassment.
“But you are not afraid of storms,” he said, sitting down at the table.
“No,” she said, “but here the rooms are so big, the house is so old, and when there is thunder it all rattles like a cupboard full of crockery. It’s a charming house altogether,” she went on, sitting down opposite her brother. “There’s some pleasant memory in every room. In my room, only fancy, Grigory’s grandfather shot himself.”
“In August we shall have the money to do up the lodge in the garden,” said Vlassitch.
“For some reason when it thunders I think of that grandfather,” Zina went on. “And in this dining-room somebody was flogged to death.”
“That’s an actual fact,” said Vlassitch, and he looked with wide-open eyes at Pyotr Mihalitch. “Sometime in the forties this place was let to a Frenchman called Olivier. The portrait of his daughter is lying in an attic now – a very pretty girl. This Olivier, so my father told me, despised Russians for their ignorance and treated them with cruel derision. Thus, for instance, he insisted on the priest walking without his hat for half a mile round his house, and on the church bells being rung when the Olivier family drove through the village. The serfs and altogether the humble of this world, of course, he treated with even less ceremony.
Once there came along this road one of the simple-hearted sons of wandering Russia, somewhat after the style of Gogol’s divinity student, Homa Brut. He asked for a night’s lodging, pleased the bailiffs, and was given a job at the office of the estate. There are many variations of the story. Some say the divinity student stirred up the peasants, others that Olivier’ s daughter fell in love with him. I don’t know which is true, only one fine evening Olivier called him in here and cross-examined him, then ordered him to be beaten. Do you know, he sat here at this table drinking claret while the stable-boys beat the man. He must have tried to wring something out of him. Towards morning the divinity student died of the torture and his body was hidden. They say it was thrown into Koltovitch’s pond. There was an inquiry, but the Frenchman paid some thousands to some one in authority and went away to Alsace. His lease was up just then, and so the matter ended.”
“What scoundrels!” said Zina, shuddering.
“My father remembered Olivier and his daughter well. He used to say she was remarkably beautiful and eccentric. I imagine the divinity student had done both – stirred up the peasants and won the daughter’s heart. Perhaps he wasn’t a divinity student at all, but some one traveling incognito.”
Zina grew thoughtful; the story of the divinity student and the beautiful French girl had evidently carried her imagination far away. It seemed to Pyotr Mihalitch that she had not changed in the least during the last week, except that she was a little paler. She looked calm and just as usual, as though she had come with her brother to visit Vlassitch. But Pyotr Mihalitch felt that some change had taken place in himself. Before, when she was living at home, he could have spoken to her about anything, and now he did not feel equal to asking her the simple question, “How do you like being here?” The question seemed awkward and unnecessary. Probably the same change had taken place in her. She was in no haste to turn the conversation to her mother, to her home, to her relations with Vlassitch; she did not defend herself, she did not say that free unions are better than marriages in the church; she was not agitated, and calmly brooded over the story of Olivier. . . . And why had they suddenly begun talking of Olivier?
“You are both of you wet with the rain,” said Zina, and she smiled joyfully; she was touched by this point of resemblance between her brother and Vlassitch.
And Pyotr Mihalitch felt all the bitterness and horror of his position. He thought of his deserted home, the closed piano, and Zina’s bright little room into which no one went now; he thought there were no prints of little feet on the garden-paths, and that before tea no one went off, laughing gaily, to bathe. What he had clung to more and more from his childhood upwards, what he had loved thinking about when he used to sit in the stuffy class-room or the lecture theater – brightness, purity, and joy, everything that filled the house with life and light, had gone never to return, had vanished, and was mixed up with a coarse, clumsy story of some battalion officer, a chivalrous lieutenant, a depraved woman and a grandfather who had shot himself. . . . And to begin to talk about his mother or to think that the past could ever return would mean not understanding what was clear.
Pyotr Mihalitch’s eyes filled with tears and his hand began to tremble as it lay on the table. Zina guessed what he was thinking about, and her eyes, too, glistened and looked red.
“Grigory, come here,” she said to Vlassitch.
They walked away to the window and began talking of something in a whisper. From the way that Vlassitch stooped down to her and the way she looked at him, Pyotr Mihalitch realized again that everything was irreparably over, and that it was no use to talk of anything. Zina went out of the room.
“Well, brother!” Vlassitch began, after a brief silence, rubbing his hands and smiling. “I called our life happiness just now, but that was, so to speak, poetical license. In reality, there has not been a sense of happiness so far. Zina has been thinking all the time of you, of her mother, and has been worrying; looking at her, I, too, felt worried. Hers is a bold, free nature, but, you know, it’s difficult when you’re not used to it, and she is young, too. The servants call her ‘Miss’; it seems a trifle, but it upsets her. There it is, brother.”
Zina brought in a plateful of strawberries. She was followed by a little maidservant, looking crushed and humble, who set a jug of milk on the table and made a very low bow: she had something about her that was in keeping with the old furniture, something petrified and dreary.
The sound of the rain had ceased. Pyotr Mihalitch ate strawberries while Vlassitch and Zina looked at him in silence. The moment of the inevitable but useless conversation was approaching, and all three felt the burden of it. Pyotr Mihalitch’s eyes filled with tears again; he pushed away his plate and said that he must be going home, or it would be getting late, and perhaps it would rain again. The time had come when common decency required Zina to speak of those at home and of her new life.
“How are things at home?” she asked rapidly, and her pale face quivered. “How is mother?”
“You know mother . . .” said Pyotr Mihalitch, not looking at her.
“Petrusha, you’ve thought a great deal about what has happened,” she said, taking hold of her brother’s sleeve, and he knew how hard it was for her to speak. “You’ve thought a great deal: tell me, can we reckon on mother’s accepting Grigory . . . and the whole position, one day?”
She stood close to her brother, face to face with him, and he was astonished that she was so beautiful, and that he seemed not to have noticed it before. And it seemed to him utterly absurd that his sister, so like his mother, pampered, elegant, should be living with Vlassitch and in Vlassitch’s house, with the petrified servant, and the table with six legs – in the house where a man had been flogged to death, and that she was not going home with him, but was staying here to sleep.
“You know mother,” he said, not answering her question. “I think you ought to have . . . to do something, to ask her forgiveness or something. . . .”
“But to ask her forgiveness would mean pretending we had done wrong. I’m ready to tell a lie to comfort mother, but it won’t lead anywhere. I know mother. Well, what will be, must be!” said Zina, growing more cheerful now that the most unpleasant had been said. “We’ll wait for five years, ten years, and be patient, and then God’s will be done.”
She took her brother’s arm, and when she walked through the dark hall she squeezed close to him. They went out on the steps. Pyotr Mihalitch said good-bye, got on his horse, and set off at a walk; Zina and Vlassitch walked a little way with him. It was still and warm, with a delicious smell of hay; stars were twinkling brightly between the clouds. Vlassitch’s old garden, which had seen so many gloomy stories in its time, lay slumbering in the darkness, and for some reason it was mournful riding through it.
“Zina and I to-day after dinner spent some really exalted moments,” said Vlassitch. “I read aloud to her an excellent article on the question of emigration. You must read it, brother! You really must. It’s remarkable for its lofty tone. I could not resist writing a letter to the editor to be forwarded to the author. I wrote only a single line: ‘I thank you and warmly press your noble hand.’ ”
Pyotr Mihalitch was tempted to say, “Don’t meddle in what does not concern you,” but he held his tongue.
Vlassitch walked by his right stirrup and Zina by the left; both seemed to have forgotten that they had to go home. It was damp, and they had almost reached Koltovitch’s copse. Pyotr Mihalitch felt that they were expecting something from him, though they hardly knew what it was, and he felt unbearably sorry for them. Now as they walked by the horse with submissive faces, lost in thought, he had a deep conviction that they were unhappy, and could not be happy, and their love seemed to him a melancholy, irreparable mistake. Pity and the sense that he could do nothing to help them reduced him to that state of spiritual softening when he was ready to make any sacrifice to get rid of the painful feeling of sympathy.
“I’ll come over sometimes for a night,” he said.
But it sounded as though he were making a concession, and did not satisfy him. When they stopped near Koltovitch’s copse to say good-bye, he bent down to Zina, touched her shoulder, and said:
“You are right, Zina! You have done well.” To avoid saying more and bursting into tears, he lashed his horse and galloped into the wood. As he rode into the darkness, he looked round and saw Vlassitch and Zina walking home along the road — he taking long strides, while she walked with a hurried, jerky step beside him — talking eagerly about something.
“I am an old woman!” thought Pyotr Mihalitch. “I went to solve the question and I have only made it more complicated — there it is!”
He was heavy at heart. When he got out of the copse he rode at a walk and then stopped his horse near the pond. He wanted to sit and think without moving. The moon was rising and was reflected in a streak of red on the other side of the pond. There were low rumbles of thunder in the distance. Pyotr Mihalitch looked steadily at the water and imagined his sister’s despair, her martyr-like pallor, the tear less eyes with which she would conceal her humiliation from others. He imagined her with child, imagined the death of their mother, her funeral, Zina’s horror. . . . The proud, superstitious old woman would be sure to die of grief. Terrible pictures of the future rose before him on the background of smooth, dark water, and among pale feminine figures he saw himself, a weak, cowardly man with a guilty face.
A hundred paces off on the right bank of the pond, something dark was standing motionless: was it a man or a tall post? Pyotr Mihalitch thought of the divinity student who had been killed and thrown into the pond.
“Olivier behaved inhumanly, but one way or another he did settle the question, while I have settled nothing and have only made it worse,” he thought, gazing at the dark figure that looked like a ghost. “He said and did what he thought right while I say and do what I don’t think right; and I don’t know really what I do think. . . .”
He rode up to the dark figure: it was an old rotten post, the relic of some shed.
From Koltovitch’s copse and garden there came a strong fragrant scent of lilies of the valley and honey-laden flowers. Pyotr Mihalitch rode along the bank of the pond and looked mournfully into the water. And thinking about his life, he came to the conclusion he had never said or acted upon what he really thought, and other people had repaid him in the same way. And so the whole of life seemed to him as dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and water-weeds grew in a tangle. And it seemed to him that nothing could ever set it right.