Best Russian Short Stories by Various - HTML preview
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And so the Pustovalovs lived for full six years, quietly and peaceably, in perfect love and harmony. But once in the winter Vasily Andreyich, after drinking some hot tea, went out into the lumber-yard without a hat on his head, caught a cold and took sick. He was treated by the best physicians, but the malady progressed, and he died after an illness of four months. Olenka was again left a widow.
"To whom have you left me, my darling?" she wailed after the funeral. "How shall I live now without you, wretched creature that I am. Pity me, good people, pity me, fatherless and motherless, all alone in the world!"
She went about dressed in black and weepers, and she gave up wearing hats and gloves for good. She hardly left the house except to go to church and to visit her husband's grave. She almost led the life of a nun.
It was not until six months had passed that she took off the weepers and opened her shutters. She began to go out occasionally in the morning to market with her cook. But how she lived at home and what went on there, could only be surmised. It could be surmised from the fact that she was seen in her little garden drinking tea with the veterinarian while he read the paper out loud to her, and also from the fact that once on meeting an acquaintance at the post-office, she said to her:
"There is no proper veterinary inspection in our town. That is why there is so much disease. You constantly hear of people getting sick from the milk and becoming infected by the horses and cows. The health of domestic animals ought really to be looked after as much as that of human beings."
She repeated the veterinarian's words and held the same opinions as he about everything. It was plain that she could not exist a single year without an attachment, and she found her new happiness in the wing of her house. In any one else this would have been condemned; but no one could think ill of Olenka. Everything in her life was so transparent. She and the veterinary surgeon never spoke about the change in their relations. They tried, in fact, to conceal it, but unsuccessfully; for Olenka could have no secrets. When the surgeon's colleagues from the regiment came to see him, she poured tea, and served the supper, and talked to them about the cattle plague, the foot and mouth disease, and the municipal slaughter houses. The surgeon was dreadfully embarrassed, and after the visitors had left, he caught her hand and hissed angrily:
"Didn't I ask you not to talk about what you don't understand? When we doctors discuss things, please don't mix in. It's getting to be a nuisance."
But their happiness was of short duration. The veterinary surgeon went away with his regiment to be gone for good, when it was transferred to some distant place almost as far as Siberia, and Olenka was left alone.
Now she was completely alone. Her father had long been dead, and his armchair lay in the attic covered with dust and minus one leg. She got thin and homely, and the people who met her on the street no longer looked at her as they had used to, nor smiled at her. Evidently her best years were over, past and gone, and a new, dubious life was to begin which it were better not to think about.
In the evening Olenka sat on the steps and heard the music playing and the rockets bursting in the Tivoli; but it no longer aroused any response in her. She looked listlessly into the yard, thought of nothing, wanted nothing, and when night came on, she went to bed and dreamed of nothing but the empty yard. She ate and drank as though by compulsion.
And what was worst of all, she no longer held any opinions. She saw and understood everything that went on around her, but she could not form an opinion about it. She knew of nothing to talk about. And how dreadful not to have opinions! For instance, you see a bottle, or you see that it is raining, or you see a muzhik riding by in a wagon. But what the bottle or the rain or the muzhik are for, or what the sense of them all is, you cannot tell--you cannot tell, not for a thousand rubles. In the days of Kukin and Pustovalov and then of the veterinary surgeon, Olenka had had an explanation for everything, and would have given her opinion freely no matter about what. But now there was the same emptiness in her heart and brain as in her yard. It was as galling and bitter as a taste of wormwood.
Gradually the town grew up all around. The Gypsy Road had become a street, and where the Tivoli and the lumber-yard had been, there were now houses and a row of side streets. How quickly time flies! Olenka's house turned gloomy, the roof rusty, the shed slanting. Dock and thistles overgrew the yard. Olenka herself had aged and grown homely. In the summer she sat on the steps, and her soul was empty and dreary and bitter. When she caught the breath of spring, or when the wind wafted the chime of the cathedral bells, a sudden flood of memories would pour over her, her heart would expand with a tender warmth, and the tears would stream down her cheeks. But that lasted only a moment. Then would come emptiness again, and the feeling, What is the use of living? The black kitten Bryska rubbed up against her and purred softly, but the little creature's caresses left Olenka untouched. That was not what she needed. What she needed was a love that would absorb her whole being, her reason, her whole soul, that would give her ideas, an object in life, that would warm her aging blood. And she shook the black kitten off her skirt angrily, saying:"Go away! What are you doing here?" And so day after day, year after year not a single joy, not a single opinion. Whatever Marva, the cook, said was all right.
One hot day in July, towards evening, as the town cattle were being driven by, and the whole yard was filled with clouds of dust, there was suddenly a knocking at the gate. Olenka herself went to open it, and was dumbfounded to behold the veterinarian Smirnov. He had turned grey and was dressed as a civilian. All the old memories flooded into her soul, she could not restrain herself, she burst out crying, and laid her head on Smirnov's breast without saying a word. So overcome was she that she was totally unconscious of how they walked into the house and seated themselves to drink tea."My darling!" she murmured, trembling with joy. "Vladimir Platonych, from where has God sent you?"
"I want to settle here for good," he told her. "I have resigned my position and have come here to try my fortune as a free man and lead a settled life. Besides, it's time to send my boy to the gymnasium. He is grown up now. You know, my wife and I have become reconciled.""Where is she?" asked Olenka. "At the hotel with the boy. I am looking for lodgings."
"Good gracious, bless you, take my house. Why won't my house do? Oh, dear! Why, I won't ask any rent of you," Olenka burst out in the greatest excitement, and began to cry again. "You live here, and the wing will be enough for me. Oh, Heavens, what a joy!"
The very next day the roof was being painted and the walls whitewashed, and Olenka, arms akimbo, was going about the yard superintending. Her face brightened with her old smile. Her whole being revived and freshened, as though she had awakened from a long sleep. The veterinarian's wife and child arrived. She was a thin, plain woman, with a crabbed expression. The boy Sasha, small for his ten years of age, was a chubby child, with clear blue eyes and dimples in his cheeks. He made for the kitten the instant he entered the yard, and the place rang with his happy laughter."Is that your cat, auntie?" he asked Olenka. "When she has little kitties, please give me one. Mamma is awfully afraid of mice."
Olenka chatted with him, gave him tea, and there was a sudden warmth in her bosom and a soft gripping at her heart, as though the boy were her own son.In the evening, when he sat in the dining-room studying his lessons, she looked at him tenderly and whispered to herself: "My darling, my pretty. You are such a clever child, so good to look at." "An island is a tract of land entirely surrounded by water," he recited.
"An island is a tract of land," she repeated--the first idea asseverated with conviction after so many years of silence and mental emptiness.
She now had her opinions, and at supper discussed with Sasha's parents how difficult the studies had become for the children at the
gymnasium, but how, after all, a classical education was better than a commercial course, because when you graduated from the gymnasium then the road was open to you for any career at all. If you chose to, you could become a doctor, or, if you wanted to, you could become an engineer.
Sasha began to go to the gymnasium. His mother left on a visit to her sister in Kharkov and never came back. The father was away every day inspecting cattle, and sometimes was gone three whole days at a time, so that Sasha, it seemed to Olenka, was utterly abandoned, was treated as if he were quite superfluous, and must be dying of hunger. So she transferred him into the wing along with herself and fixed up a little room for him there.
Every morning Olenka would come into his room and find him sound asleep with his hand tucked under his cheek, so quiet that he seemed not to be breathing. What a shame to have to wake him, she thought."Sashenka," she said sorrowingly, "get up, darling. It's time to go to the gymnasium."
He got up, dressed, said his prayers, then sat down to drink tea. He drank three glasses of tea, ate two large cracknels and half a buttered roll. The sleep was not yet out of him, so he was a little cross.
"You don't know your fable as you should, Sashenka," said Olenka, looking at him as though he were departing on a long journey. "What a lot of trouble you are. You must try hard and learn, dear, and mind your teachers.""Oh, let me alone, please," said Sasha.
Then he went down the street to the gymnasium, a little fellow wearing a large cap and carrying a satchel on his back. Olenka followed him noiselessly."Sashenka," she called.
He looked round and she shoved a date or a caramel into his hand. When he reached the street of the gymnasium, he turned around and said, ashamed of being followed by a tall, stout woman:"You had better go home, aunt. I can go the rest of the way myself." She stopped and stared after him until he had disappeared into the school entrance.
Oh, how she loved him! Not one of her other ties had been so deep. Never before had she given herself so completely, so disinterestedly, so cheerfully as now that her maternal instincts were all aroused. For this boy, who was not hers, for the dimples in his cheeks and for his big cap, she would have given her life, given it with joy and with tears of rapture. Why? Ah, indeed, why?
When she had seen Sasha off to the gymnasium, she returned home quietly, content, serene, overflowing with love. Her face, which had grown younger in the last half year, smiled and beamed. People who met her were pleased as they looked at her."How are you, Olga Semyonovna, darling? How are you getting on, darling?"
"The gymnasium course is very hard nowadays," she told at the market. "It's no joke. Yesterday the first class had a fable to learn by heart, a Latin translation, and a problem. How is a little fellow to do all that?"And she spoke of the teacher and the lessons and the text-books, repeating exactly what Sasha said about them.
At three o'clock they had dinner. In the evening they prepared the lessons together, and Olenka wept with Sasha over the difficulties. When she put him to bed, she lingered a long time making the sign of the cross over him and muttering a prayer. And when she lay in bed, she dreamed of the far-away, misty future when Sasha would finish his studies and become a doctor or an engineer, have a large house of his own, with horses and a carriage, marry and have children. She would fall asleep still thinking of the same things, and tears would roll down her cheeks from her closed eyes. And the black cat would lie at her side purring: "Mrr, mrr, mrr."
Suddenly there was a loud knocking at the gate. Olenka woke up breathless with fright, her heart beating violently. Half a minute later there was another knock."A telegram from Kharkov," she thought, her whole body in a tremble. "His mother wants Sasha to come to her in Kharkov. Oh, great God!"
She was in despair. Her head, her feet, her hands turned cold. There was no unhappier creature in the world, she felt. But another minute passed, she heard voices. It was the veterinarian coming home from the club.
"Thank God," she thought. The load gradually fell from her heart, she was at ease again. And she went back to bed, thinking of Sasha who lay fast asleep in the next room and sometimes cried out in his sleep:"I'll give it to you! Get away! Quit your scrapping!" THE BET BY ANTON P. CHEKHOV I
It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was pacing from corner to corner of his study, recalling to his mind the party he gave in the autumn fifteen years before. There were many clever people at the party and much interesting conversation. They talked among other things of capital punishment. The guests, among them not a few scholars and journalists, for the most part disapproved of capital punishment. They found it obsolete as a means of punishment, unfitted to a Christian State and immoral. Some of them thought that capital punishment should be replaced universally by life-imprisonment.
"I don't agree with you," said the host. "I myself have experienced neither capital punishment nor life-imprisonment, but if one may judge _a priori_, then in my opinion capital punishment is more moral and more humane than imprisonment. Execution kills instantly, life-imprisonment kills by degrees. Who is the more humane executioner, one who kills you in a few seconds or one who draws the life out of you incessantly, for years?"
"They're both equally immoral," remarked one of the guests, "because their purpose is the same, to take away life. The State is not God. It has no right to take away that which it cannot give back, if it should so desire."Among the company was a lawyer, a young man of about twenty-five. On being asked his opinion, he said:
"Capital punishment and life-imprisonment are equally immoral; but if I were offered the choice between them, I would certainly choose the second. It's better to live somehow than not to live at all."
There ensued a lively discussion. The banker who was then younger and more nervous suddenly lost his temper, banged his fist on the table, and turning to the young lawyer, cried out:"It's a lie. I bet you two millions you wouldn't stick in a cell even for five years." "If you mean it seriously," replied the lawyer, "then I bet I'll stay not five but fifteen." "Fifteen! Done!" cried the banker. "Gentlemen, I stake two millions." "Agreed. You stake two millions, I my freedom," said the lawyer.
So this wild, ridiculous bet came to pass. The banker, who at that time had too many millions to count, spoiled and capricious, was beside himself with rapture. During supper he said to the lawyer jokingly:
"Come to your senses, young roan, before it's too late. Two millions are nothing to me, but you stand to lose three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you'll never stick it out any longer. Don't forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary is much heavier than enforced imprisonment. The idea that you have the right to free yourself at any moment will poison the whole of your life in the cell. I pity you."And now the banker, pacing from corner to corner, recalled all this and asked himself:
"Why did I make this bet? What's the good? The lawyer loses fifteen years of his life and I throw away two millions. Will it convince people that capital punishment is worse or better than imprisonment for life? No, no! all stuff and rubbish. On my part, it was the caprice of a well-fed man; on the lawyer's pure greed of gold."
He recollected further what happened after the evening party. It was decided that the lawyer must undergo his imprisonment under the strictest observation, in a garden wing of the banker's house. It was agreed that during the period he would be deprived of the right to cross the threshold, to see living people, to hear human voices, and to receive letters and newspapers. He was permitted to have a musical instrument, to read books, to write letters, to drink wine and smoke tobacco. By the agreement he could communicate, but only in silence, with the outside world through a little window specially constructed for this purpose. Everything necessary, books, music, wine, he could receive in any quantity by sending a note through the window. The agreement provided for all the minutest details, which made the confinement strictly solitary, and it obliged the lawyer to remain exactly fifteen years from twelve o'clock of November 14th, 1870, to twelve o'clock of November 14th, 1885. The least attempt on his part to violate the conditions, to escape if only for two minutes before the time freed the banker from the obligation to pay him the two millions.
During the first year of imprisonment, the lawyer, as far as it was possible to judge from his short notes, suffered terribly from loneliness and boredom. From his wing day and night came the sound of the piano. He rejected wine and tobacco. "Wine," he wrote, "excites desires, and desires are the chief foes of a prisoner; besides, nothing is more boring than to drink good wine alone," and tobacco spoils the air in his room. During the first year the lawyer was sent books of a light character; novels with a complicated love interest, stories of crime and fantasy, comedies, and so on.
In the second year the piano was heard no longer and the lawyer asked only for classics. In the fifth year, music was heard again, and the prisoner asked for wine. Those who watched him said that during the whole of that year he was only eating, drinking, and lying on his bed. He yawned often and talked angrily to himself. Books he did not read. Sometimes at nights he would sit down to write. He would write for a long time and tear it all up in the morning. More than once he was heard to weep.
In the second half of the sixth year, the prisoner began zealously to study languages, philosophy, and history. He fell on these subjects so hungrily that the banker hardly had time to get books enough for him. In the space of four years about six hundred volumes were bought at his request. It was while that passion lasted that the banker received the following letter from the prisoner: "My dear gaoler, I am writing these lines in six languages. Show them to experts. Let them read them. If they do not find one single mistake, I beg you to give orders to have a gun fired off in the garden. By the noise I shall know that my efforts have not been in vain. The geniuses of all ages and countries speak in different languages; but in them all burns the same flame. Oh, if you knew my heavenly happiness now that I can understand them!" The prisoner's desire was fulfilled. Two shots were fired in the garden by the banker's order.
Later on, after the tenth year, the lawyer sat immovable before his table and read only the New Testament. The banker found it strange that a man who in four years had mastered six hundred erudite volumes, should have spent nearly a year in reading one book, easy to understand and by no means thick. The New Testament was then replaced by the history of religions and theology.
During the last two years of his confinement the prisoner read an extraordinary amount, quite haphazard. Now he would apply himself to the natural sciences, then he would read Byron or Shakespeare. Notes used to come from him in which he asked to be sent at the same time a book on chemistry, a text-book of medicine, a novel, and some treatise on philosophy or theology. He read as though he were swimming in the sea among broken pieces of wreckage, and in his desire to save his life was eagerly grasping one piece after another.II The banker recalled all this, and thought:
"To-morrow at twelve o'clock he receives his freedom. Under the agreement, I shall have to pay him two millions. If I pay, it's all over with me. I am ruined for ever ..."
Fifteen years before he had too many millions to count, but now he was afraid to ask himself which he had more of, money or debts. Gambling on the Stock-Exchange, risky speculation, and the recklessness of which he could not rid himself even in old age, had gradually brought his business to decay; and the fearless, self-confident, proud man of business had become an ordinary banker, trembling at every rise and fall in the market.
"That cursed bet," murmured the old man clutching his head in despair... "Why didn't the man die? He's only forty years old. He will take away my last farthing, marry, enjoy life, gamble on the Exchange, and I will look on like an envious beggar and hear the same words from him every day: 'I'm obliged to you for the happiness of my life. Let me help you.' No, it's too much! The only escape from bankruptcy and disgrace--is that the man should die."
The clock had just struck three. The banker was listening. In the house every one was asleep, and one could hear only the frozen trees whining outside the windows. Trying to make no sound, he took out of his safe the key of the door which had not been opened for fifteen years, put on his overcoat, and went out of the house. The garden was dark and cold. It was raining. A damp, penetrating wind howled in the garden and gave the trees no rest. Though he strained his eyes, the banker could see neither the ground, nor the white statues, nor the garden wing, nor the trees. Approaching the garden wing, he called the watchman twice. There was no answer. Evidently the watchman had taken shelter from the bad weather and was now asleep somewhere in the kitchen or the greenhouse.
In the darkness he groped for the steps and the door and entered the hall of the garden-wing, then poked his way into a narrow passage and struck a match. Not a soul was there. Some one's bed, with no bedclothes on it, stood there, and an iron stove loomed dark in the corner. The seals on the door that led into the prisoner's room were unbroken.When the match went out, the old man, trembling from agitation, peeped into the little window.
In the prisoner's room a candle was burning dimly. The prisoner himself sat by the table. Only his back, the hair on his head and his hands were visible. Open books were strewn about on the table, the two chairs, and on the carpet near the table.
Five minutes passed and the prisoner never once stirred. Fifteen years' confinement had taught him to sit motionless. The banker tapped on the window with his finger, but the prisoner made no movement in reply. Then the banker cautiously tore the seals from the door and put the key into the lock. The rusty lock gave a hoarse groan and the door creaked. The banker expected instantly to hear a cry of surprise and the sound of steps. Three minutes passed and it was as quiet inside as it had been before. He made up his mind to enter.
Before the table sat a man, unlike an ordinary human being. It was a skeleton, with tight-drawn skin, with long curly hair like a woman's, and a shaggy beard. The colour of his face was yellow, of an earthy shade; the cheeks were sunken, the back long and narrow, and the hand upon which he leaned his hairy head was so lean and skinny that it was painful to look upon. His hair was already silvering with grey, and no one who glanced at the senile emaciation of the face would have believed that he was only forty years old. On the table, before his bended head, lay a sheet of paper on which something was written in a tiny hand.
"Poor devil," thought the banker, "he's asleep and probably seeing millions in his dreams. I have only to take and throw this half-dead thing on the bed, smother him a moment with the pillow, and the most careful examination will find no trace of unnatural death. But, first, let us read what he has written here."The banker took the sheet from the table and read:
"To-morrow at twelve o'clock midnight, I shall obtain my freedom and the right to mix with people. But before I leave this room and see the sun I think it necessary to say a few words to you. On my own clear conscience and before God who sees me I declare to you that I despise freedom, life, health, and all that your books call the blessings of the world.
"For fifteen years I have diligently studied earthly life. True, I saw neither the earth nor the people, but in your books I drank fragrant wine, sang songs, hunted deer and wild boar in the forests, loved women... And beautiful women, like clouds ethereal, created by the magic of your poets' genius, visited me by night and whispered to me wonderful tales, which made my head drunken. In your books I climbed the summits of Elbruz and Mont Blanc and saw from there how the sun rose in the morning, and in the evening suffused the sky, the ocean and lie mountain ridges with a purple gold. I saw from there how above me lightnings glimmered cleaving the clouds; I saw green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, cities; I heard syrens singing, and the playing of the pipes of Pan; I touched the wings of beautiful devils who came flying to me to speak of God... In your books I cast myself into bottomless abysses, worked miracles, burned cities to the ground, preached new religions, conquered whole countries...
"Your books gave me wisdom. All that unwearying human thought created in the centuries is compressed to a little lump in my skull. I know that I am cleverer than you all.
"And I despise your books, despise all worldly blessings and wisdom. Everything is void, frail, visionary and delusive as a mirage. Though you be proud and wise and beautiful, yet will death wipe you from the face of the earth like the mice underground; and your posterity, your history, and the immortality of your men of genius will be as frozen slag, burnt down together with the terrestrial globe.
"You are mad, and gone the wrong way. You take falsehood for truth and ugliness for beauty. You would marvel if suddenly apple and orange trees should bear frogs and lizards instead of fruit, and if roses should begin to breathe the odour of a sweating horse. So do I marvel at you, who have bartered heaven for earth. I do not want to understand you.
"That I may show you in deed my contempt for that by which you live, I waive the two millions of which I once dreamed as of paradise, and which I now despise. That I may deprive myself of my right to them, I shall come out from here five minutes before the stipulated term, and thus shall violate the agreement."
When he had read, the banker put the sheet on the table, kissed the head of the strange man, and began to weep. He went out of the wing. Never at any other time, not even after his terrible losses on the Exchange, had he felt such contempt for himself as now. Coming home, he lay down on his bed, but agitation and tears kept him a long time from sleeping...
The next morning the poor watchman came running to him and told him that they had seen the man who lived in the wing climb through the window into the garden. He had gone to the gate and disappeared. The banker instantly went with his servants to the wing and established the escape of his prisoner. To avoid unnecessary rumours he took the paper with the renunciation from the table and, on his return, locked it in his safe.VANKA BY ANTON P. CHEKHOV
Nine-year-old Vanka Zhukov, who had been apprentice to the shoemaker Aliakhin for three months, did not go to bed the night before Christmas. He waited till the master and mistress and the assistants had gone out to an early church-service, to procure from his employer's cupboard a small phial of ink and a penholder with a rusty nib; then, spreading a crumpled sheet of paper in front of him, he began to write.
Before, however, deciding to make the first letter, he looked furtively at the door and at the window, glanced several times at the sombre ikon, on either side of which stretched shelves full of lasts, and heaved a heart-rending sigh. The sheet of paper was spread on a bench, and he himself was on his knees in front of it.
"Dear Grandfather Konstantin Makarych," he wrote, "I am writing you a letter. I wish you a Happy Christmas and all God's holy best. I have no mamma or papa, you are all I have."
Vanka gave a look towards the window in which shone the reflection of his candle, and vividly pictured to himself his grandfather, Konstantin Makarych, who was night-watchman at Messrs. Zhivarev. He was a small, lean, unusually lively and active old man of sixty-five, always smiling and blear-eyed. All day he slept in the servants' kitchen or trifled with the cooks. At night, enveloped in an ample sheep-skin coat, he strayed round the domain tapping with his cudgel. Behind him, each hanging its head, walked the old bitch Kashtanka, and the dog Viun, so named because of his black coat and long body and his resemblance to a loach. Viun was an unusually civil and friendly dog, looking as kindly at a stranger as at his masters, but he was not to be trusted. Beneath his deference and humbleness was hid the most inquisitorial maliciousness. No one knew better than he how to sneak up and take a bite at a leg, or slip into the larder or steal a muzhik's chicken. More than once they had nearly broken his hind-legs, twice he had been hung up, every week he was nearly flogged to death, but he always recovered.
At this moment, for certain, Vanka's grandfather must be standing at the gate, blinking his eyes at the bright red windows of the village church, stamping his feet in their high-felt boots, and jesting with the people in the yard; his cudgel will be hanging from his belt, he will be hugging himself with cold, giving a little dry, old man's cough, and at times pinching a servant-girl or a cook."Won't we take some snuff?" he asks, holding out his snuff-box to the women. The women take a pinch of snuff, and sneeze. The old man goes into indescribable ecstasies, breaks into loud laughter, and cries: "Off with it, it will freeze to your nose!"
He gives his snuff to the dogs, too. Kashtanka sneezes, twitches her nose, and walks away offended. Viun deferentially refuses to sniff and wags his tail. It is glorious weather, not a breath of wind, clear, and frosty; it is a dark eight, but the whole village, its white roofs and streaks of smoke from the chimneys, the trees silvered with hoar-frost, and the snowdrifts, you can see it all. The sky scintillates with bright twinkling stars, and the Milky Way stands out so clearly that it looks as if it had been polished and rubbed over with snow for the holidays...Vanka sighs, dips his pen in the ink, and continues to write:
"Last night I got a thrashing, my master dragged me by my hair into the yard, and belaboured me with a shoe-maker's stirrup, because, while I was rocking his brat in its cradle, I unfortunately fell asleep. And during the week, my mistress told me to clean a herring, and I began by its tail, so she took the herring and stuck its snout into my face. The assistants tease me, send me to the tavern for vodka, make me steal the master's cucumbers, and the master beats me with whatever is handy. Food there is none; in the morning it's bread, at dinner gruel, and in the evening bread again. As for tea or sour-cabbage soup, the master and the mistress themselves guzzle that. They make me sleep in the vestibule, and when their brat cries, I don't sleep at all, but have to rock the cradle. Dear Grandpapa, for Heaven's sake, take me away from here, home to our village, I can't bear this any more... I bow to the ground to you, and will pray to God for ever and ever, take me from here or I shall die..."The corners of Vanka's mouth went down, he rubbed his eyes with his dirty fist, and sobbed.
"I'll grate your tobacco for you," he continued, "I'll pray to God for you, and if there is anything wrong, then flog me like the grey goat. And if you really think I shan't find work, then I'll ask the manager, for Christ's sake, to let me clean the boots, or I'll go instead of Fedya as underherdsman. Dear Grandpapa, I can't bear this any more, it'll kill me... I wanted to run away to our village, but I have no boots, and I was afraid of the frost, and when I grow up I'll look after you, no one shall harm you, and when you die I'll pray for the repose of your soul, just like I do for mamma Pelagueya.
"As for Moscow, it is a large town, there are all gentlemen's houses, lots of horses, no sheep, and the dogs are not vicious. The children don't come round at Christmas with a star, no one is allowed to sing in the choir, and once I saw in a shop window hooks on a line and fishing rods, all for sale, and for every kind of fish, awfully convenient. And there was one hook which would catch a sheat-fish weighing a pound. And there are shops with guns, like the master's, and I am sure they must cost 100 rubles each. And in the meat-shops there are woodcocks, partridges, and hares, but who shot them or where they come from, the shopman won't say.
"Dear Grandpapa, and when the masters give a Christmas tree, take a golden walnut and hide it in my green box. Ask the young lady, Olga Ignatyevna, for it, say it's for Vanka."
Vanka sighed convulsively, and again stared at the window. He remembered that his grandfather always went to the forest for the Christmas tree, and took his grandson with him. What happy times! The frost crackled, his grandfather crackled, and as they both did, Vanka did the same. Then before cutting down the Christmas tree his grandfather smoked his pipe, took a long pinch of snuff, and made fun of poor frozen little Vanka... The young fir trees, wrapt in
hoar-frost, stood motionless, waiting for which of them would die. Suddenly a hare springing from somewhere would dart over the snowdrift... His grandfather could not help shouting:
"Catch it, catch it, catch it! Ah, short-tailed devil!"
When the tree was down, his grandfather dragged it to the master's house, and there they set about decorating it. The young lady, Olga Ignatyevna, Vanka's great friend, busied herself most about it. When little Vanka's mother, Pelagueya, was still alive, and was servant-woman in the house, Olga Ignatyevna used to stuff him with sugar-candy, and, having nothing to do, taught him to read, write, count up to one hundred, and even to dance the quadrille. When Pelagueya died, they placed the orphan Vanka in the kitchen with his grandfather, and from the kitchen he was sent to Moscow to Aliakhin, the shoemaker.
"Come quick, dear Grandpapa," continued Vanka, "I beseech you for Christ's sake take me from here. Have pity on a poor orphan, for here they beat me, and I am frightfully hungry, and so sad that I can't tell you, I cry all the time. The other day the master hit me on the head with a last; I fell to the ground, and only just returned to life. My life is a misfortune, worse than any dog's... I send
greetings to Aliona, to one-eyed Tegor, and the coachman, and don't let any one have my mouth-organ. I remain, your grandson, Ivan Zhukov, dear Grandpapa, do come."
Vanka folded his sheet of paper in four, and put it into an envelope purchased the night before for a kopek. He thought a little, dipped the pen into the ink, and wrote the address:
"The village, to my grandfather." He then scratched his head, thought again, and added: "Konstantin Makarych." Pleased at not having been interfered with in his writing, he put on his cap, and, without putting on his sheep-skin coat, ran out in his shirt-sleeves into the street.
The shopman at the poulterer's, from whom he had inquired the night before, had told him that letters were to be put into post-boxes, and from there they were conveyed over the whole earth in mail troikas by drunken post-boys and to the sound of bells. Vanka ran to the first post-box and slipped his precious letter into the slit.
An hour afterwards, lulled by hope, he was sleeping soundly. In his dreams he saw a stove, by the stove his grandfather sitting with his legs dangling down, barefooted, and reading a letter to the cooks, and Viun walking round the stove wagging his tail.HIDE AND SEEK BY FIODOR SOLOGUB
Everything in Lelechka's nursery was bright, pretty, and cheerful. Lelechka's sweet voice charmed her mother. Lelechka was a delightful child. There was no other such child, there never had been, and there never would be. Lelechka's mother, Serafima Aleksandrovna, was sure of that. Lelechka's eyes were dark and large, her cheeks were rosy, her lips were made for kisses and for laughter. But it was not these charms in Lelechka that gave her mother the keenest joy. Lelechka was her mother's only child. That was why every movement of Lelechka's bewitched her mother. It was great bliss to hold Lelechka on her knees and to fondle her; to feel the little girl in her arms--a thing as lively and as bright as a little bird.To tell the truth, Serafima Aleksandrovna felt happy only in the nursery. She felt cold with her husband.
Perhaps it was because he himself loved the cold--he loved to drink cold water, and to breathe cold air. He was always fresh and cool, with a frigid smile, and wherever he passed cold currents seemed to move in the air.
The Nesletyevs, Sergey Modestovich and Serafima Aleksandrovna, had married without love or calculation, because it was the accepted thing. He was a young man of thirty-five, she a young woman of twenty-five; both were of the same circle and well brought up; he was expected to take a wife, and the time had come for her to take a husband.
It even seemed to Serafima Aleksandrovna that she was in love with her future husband, and this made her happy. He looked handsome and well-bred; his intelligent grey eyes always preserved a dignified expression; and he fulfilled his obligations of a fiance with irreproachable gentleness.
The bride was also good-looking; she was a tall, dark-eyed, dark-haired girl, somewhat timid but very tactful. He was not after her dowry, though it pleased him to know that she had something. He had connexions, and his wife came of good, influential people. This might, at the proper opportunity, prove useful. Always irreproachable and tactful, Nesletyev got on in his position not so fast that any one should envy him, nor yet so slow that he should envy any one else--everything came in the proper measure and at the proper time.
After their marriage there was nothing in the manner of Sergey Modestovich to suggest anything wrong to his wife. Later, however, when his wife was about to have a child, Sergey Modestovich established connexions elsewhere of a light and temporary nature. Serafima Aleksandrovna found this out, and, to her own astonishment, was not particularly hurt; she awaited her infant with a restless anticipation that swallowed every other feeling.
A little girl was born; Serafima Aleksandrovna gave herself up to her. At the beginning she used to tell her husband, with rapture, of all the joyous details of Lekchka's existence. But she soon found that he listened to her without the slightest interest, and only from the habit of politeness. Serafima Aleksandrovna drifted farther and farther away from him. She loved her little girl with the ungratified passion that other women, deceived in their husbands, show their chance young lovers."_Mamochka_, let's play _priatki_" (hide and seek), cried Lelechka, pronouncing the _r_ like the _l_, so that the word sounded "pliatki."
This charming inability to speak always made, Serafima Aleksandrovna smile with tender rapture. Lelechka then ran away, stamping with her plump little legs over the carpets, and hid herself behind the curtains near her bed."_Tiu-tiu, mamochka!_" she cried out in her sweet, laughing voice, as she looked out with a single roguish eye. "Where is my baby girl?" the mother asked, as she looked for Lelechka and made believe that she did not see her.
And Lelechka poured out her rippling laughter in her hiding place. Then she came out a little farther, and her mother, as though she had only just caught sight of her, seized her by her little shoulders and exclaimed joyously: "Here she is, my Lelechka!"
Lelechka laughed long and merrily, her head close to her mother's knees, and all of her cuddled up between her mother's white hands. Her mother's eyes glowed with passionate emotion."Now, _mamochka_, you hide," said Lelechka, as she ceased laughing.
Her mother went to hide. Lelechka turned away as though not to see, but watched her _mamochka_ stealthily all the time. Mamma hid behind the cupboard, and exclaimed: "_Tiu-tiu_, baby girl!"
Lelechka ran round the room and looked into all the corners, making believe, as her mother had done before, that she was seeking--though she really knew all the time where her _mamochka_ was standing."Where's my _mamochka_?" asked Lelechka. "She's not here, and she's not here," she kept on repeating, as she ran from corner to corner.
Her mother stood, with suppressed breathing, her head pressed against the wall, her hair somewhat disarranged. A smile of absolute bliss played on her red lips.
The nurse, Fedosya, a good-natured and fine-looking, if somewhat stupid woman, smiled as she looked at her mistress with her characteristic expression, which seemed to say that it was not for her to object to gentlewomen's caprices. She thought to herself: "The mother is like a little child herself--look how excited she is."
Lelechka was getting nearer her mother's corner. Her mother was growing more absorbed every moment by her interest in the game; her heart beat with short quick strokes, and she pressed even closer to the wall, disarranging her hair still more. Lelechka suddenly glanced toward her mother's corner and screamed with joy."I've found 'oo," she cried out loudly and joyously, mispronouncing her words in a way that again made her mother happy.
She pulled her mother by her hands to the middle of the room, they were merry and they laughed; and Lelechka again hid her head against her mother's knees, and went on lisping and lisping, without end, her sweet little words, so fascinating yet so awkward.
Sergey Modestovich was coming at this moment toward the nursery. Through the half-closed doors he heard the laughter, the joyous outcries, the sound of romping. He entered the nursery, smiling his genial cold smile; he was irreproachably dressed, and he looked fresh and erect, and he spread round him an atmosphere of cleanliness, freshness and coldness. He entered in the midst of the lively game, and he confused them all by his radiant coldness. Even Fedosya felt abashed, now for her mistress, now for herself. Serafima Aleksandrovna at once became calm and apparently cold--and this mood communicated itself to the little girl, who ceased to laugh, but looked instead, silently and intently, at her father.
Sergey Modestovich gave a swift glance round the room. He liked coming here, where everything was beautifully arranged; this was done by Serafima Aleksandrovna, who wished to surround her little girl, from her very infancy, only with the loveliest things. Serafima
Aleksandrovna dressed herself tastefully; this, too, she did for Lelechka, with the same end in view. One thing Sergey Modestovich had not become reconciled to, and this was his wife's almost continuous presence in the nursery.
They left the nursery together. As he followed his wife through the door Sergey Modestovich said rather indifferently, in an incidental way, laying no stress on his words: "Don't you think that it would be well for the little girl if she were sometimes without your company? Merely, you see, that the child should feel its own individuality," he explained in answer to Serafima Aleksandrovna's puzzled glance."She's still so little," said Serafima Aleksandrovna. "In any case, this is but my humble opinion. I don't insist. It's your kingdom there." "I'll think it over," his wife answered, smiling, as he did, coldly but genially. Then they began to talk of something else. II
Nurse Fedosya, sitting in the kitchen that evening, was telling the silent housemaid Darya and the talkative old cook Agathya about the young lady of the house, and how the child loved to play _priatki_ with her mother--"She hides her little face, and cries '_tiutiu_'!""And the mistress herself is like a little one," added Fedosya, smiling. Agathya listened and shook her head ominously; while her face became grave and reproachful. "That the mistress does it, well, that's one thing; but that the young lady does it, that's bad." "Why?" asked Fedosya with curiosity. This expression of curiosity gave her face the look of a wooden, roughly-painted doll. "Yes, that's bad," repeated Agathya with conviction. "Terribly bad!" "Well?" said Fedosya, the ludicrous expression of curiosity on her face becoming more emphatic. "She'll hide, and hide, and hide away," said Agathya, in a mysterious whisper, as she looked cautiously toward the door. "What are you saying?" exclaimed Fedosya, frightened.
"It's the truth I'm saying, remember my words," Agathya went on with the same assurance and secrecy. "It's the surest sign."
The old woman had invented this sign, quite suddenly, herself; and she was evidently very proud of it.
Lelechka was asleep, and Serafima Aleksandrovna was sitting in her own room, thinking with joy and tenderness of Lelechka. Lelechka was in her thoughts, first a sweet, tiny girl, then a sweet, big girl, then again a delightful little girl; and so until the end she remained mamma's little Lelechka.Serafima Aleksandrovna did not even notice that Fedosya came up to her and paused before her. Fedosya had a worried, frightened look. "Madam, madam," she said quietly, in a trembling voice. Serafima Aleksandrovna gave a start. Fedosya's face made her anxious. "What is it, Fedosya?" she asked with great concern. "Is there anything wrong with Lelechka?"
"No, madam," said Fedosya, as she gesticulated with her hands to reassure her mistress and to make her sit down. "Lelechka is asleep, may God be with her! Only I'd like to say something--you see--Lelechka is always hiding herself--that's not good."Fedosya looked at her mistress with fixed eyes, which had grown round from fright. "Why not good?" asked Serafima Aleksandrovna, with vexation, succumbing involuntarily to vague fears. "I can't tell you how bad it is," said Fedosya, and her face expressed the most decided confidence. "Please speak in a sensible way," observed Serafima Aleksandrovna dryly. "I understand nothing of what you are saying." "You see, madam, it's a kind of omen," explained Fedosya abruptly, in a shamefaced way. "Nonsense!" said Serafima Aleksandrovna.
She did not wish to hear any further as to the sort of omen it was, and what it foreboded. But, somehow, a sense of fear and of sadness crept into her mood, and it was humiliating to feel that an absurd tale should disturb her beloved fancies, and should agitate her so deeply.
"Of course I know that gentlefolk don't believe in omens, but it's a bad omen, madam," Fedosya went on in a doleful voice, "the young lady will hide, and hide..."
Suddenly she burst into tears, sobbing out loudly: "She'll hide, and hide, and hide away, angelic little soul, in a damp grave," she continued, as she wiped her tears with her apron and blew her nose."Who told you all this?" asked Serafima Aleksandrovna in an austere low voice. "Agathya says so, madam," answered Fedosya; "it's she that knows."
"Knows!" exclaimed Serafima Aleksandrovna in irritation, as though she wished to protect herself somehow from this sudden anxiety. "What nonsense! Please don't come to me with any such notions in the future. Now you may go."Fedosya, dejected, her feelings hurt, left her mistress.
"What nonsense! As though Lelechka could die!" thought Serafima Aleksandrovna to herself, trying to conquer the feeling of coldness and fear which took possession, of her at the thought of the possible death of Lelechka. Serafima Aleksandrovna, upon reflection, attributed these women's beliefs in omens to ignorance. She saw clearly that there could be no possible connexion between a child's quite ordinary diversion and the continuation of the child's life. She made a special effort that evening to occupy her mind with other matters, but her thoughts returned involuntarily to the fact that Lelechka loved to hide herself.
When Lelechka was still quite small, and had learned to distinguish between her mother and her nurse, she sometimes, sitting in her nurse's arms, made a sudden roguish grimace, and hid her laughing face in the nurse's shoulder. Then she would look out with a sly glance.
Of late, in those rare moments of the mistress' absence from the nursery, Fedosya had again taught Lelechka to hide; and when Lelechka's mother, on coming in, saw how lovely the child looked when she was hiding, she herself began to play hide and seek with her tiny daughter.
IV The next day Serafima Aleksandrovna, absorbed in her joyous cares for Lelechka, had forgotten Fedosya's words of the day before.
But when she returned to the nursery, after having ordered the dinner, and she heard Lelechka suddenly cry _"Tiu-tiu!"_ from under the table, a feeling of fear suddenly took hold of her. Though she reproached herself at once for this unfounded, superstitious dread, nevertheless she could not enter wholeheartedly into the spirit of Lelechka's favourite game, and she tried to divert Lelechka's attention to something else.
Lelechka was a lovely and obedient child. She eagerly complied with her mother's new wishes. But as she had got into the habit of hiding from her mother in some corner, and of crying out _"Tiu-tiu!"_ so even that day she returned more than once to the game.
Serafima Aleksandrovna tried desperately to amuse Lelechka. This was not so easy because restless, threatening thoughts obtruded themselves constantly.
"Why does Lelechka keep on recalling the _tiu-tiu_? Why does she not get tired of the same thing--of eternally closing her eyes, and of hiding her face? Perhaps," thought Serafima Aleksandrovna, "she is not as strongly drawn to the world as other children, who are attracted by many things. If this is so, is it not a sign of organic weakness? Is it not a germ of the unconscious non-desire to live?"
Serafima Aleksandrovna was tormented by presentiments. She felt ashamed of herself for ceasing to play hide and seek with Lelechka before Fedosya. But this game had become agonising to her, all the more agonising because she had a real desire to play it, and because something drew her very strongly to hide herself from Lelechka and to seek out the hiding child. Serafima Aleksandrovna herself began the game once or twice, though she played it with a heavy heart. She suffered as though committing an evil deed with full consciousness.It was a sad day for Serafima Aleksandrovna. V
Lelechka was about to fall asleep. No sooner had she climbed into her little bed, protected by a network on all sides, than her eyes began to close from fatigue. Her mother covered her with a blue blanket. Lelechka drew her sweet little hands from under the blanket and stretched them out to embrace her mother. Her mother bent down. Lelechka, with a tender expression on her sleepy face, kissed her mother and let her head fall on the pillow. As her hands hid themselves under the blanket Lelechka whispered: "The hands _tiu-tiu!_"
The mother's heart seemed to stop--Lelechka lay there so small, so frail, so quiet. Lelechka smiled gently, closed her eyes and said quietly: "The eyes _tiu-tiu!_"Then even more quietly: "Lelechka _tiu-tiu!_"
With these words she fell asleep, her face pressing the pillow. She seemed so small and so frail under the blanket that covered her. Her mother looked at her with sad eyes.Serafima Aleksandrovna remained standing over Lelechka's bed a long while, and she kept looking at Lelechka with tenderness and fear.
"I'm a mother: is it possible that I shouldn't be able to protect her?" she thought, as she imagined the various ills that might befall Lelechka.She prayed long that night, but the prayer did not relieve her sadness. VI
Several days passed. Lelechka caught cold. The fever came upon her at night. When Serafima Aleksandrovna, awakened by Fedosya, came to Lelechka and saw her looking so hot, so restless, and so tormented, she instantly recalled the evil omen, and a hopeless despair took possession of her from the first moments.
A doctor was called, and everything was done that is usual on such occasions--but the inevitable happened. Serafima Aleksandrovna tried to console herself with the hope that Lelechka would get well, and would again laugh and play--yet this seemed to her an unthinkable happiness! And Lelechka grew feebler from hour to hour.All simulated tranquillity, so as not to frighten Serafima Aleksandrovna, but their masked faces only made her sad. Nothing made her so unhappy as the reiterations of Fedosya, uttered between sobs: "She hid herself and hid herself, our Lelechka!"
But the thoughts of Serafima Aleksandrovna were confused, and she could not quite grasp what was happening.
Fever was consuming Lelechka, and there were times when she lost consciousness and spoke in delirium. But when she returned to herself she bore her pain and her fatigue with gentle good nature; she smiled feebly at her _mamochka_, so that her _mamochka_ should not see how much she suffered. Three days passed, torturing like a nightmare. Lelechka grew quite feeble. She did not know that she was dying.
She glanced at her mother with her dimmed eyes, and lisped in a scarcely audible, hoarse voice: "_Tiu-tiu, mamochka!_ Make _tiu-tiu, mamochka!_"Serafima Aleksandrovna hid her face behind the curtains near Lelechka's bed. How tragic! "_Mamochka!_" called Lelechka in an almost inaudible voice. Lelechka's mother bent over her, and Lelechka, her vision grown still more dim, saw her mother's pale, despairing face for the last time. "A white _mamochka_!" whispered Lelechka.
_Mamochka's_ white face became blurred, and everything grew dark before Lelechka. She caught the edge of the bed-cover feebly with her hands and whispered: "_Tiu-tiu!_"Something rattled in her throat; Lelechka opened and again closed her rapidly paling lips, and died. Serafima Aleksandrovna was in dumb despair as she left Lelechka, and went out of the room. She met her husband. "Lelechka is dead," she said in a quiet, dull voice. Sergey Modestovich looked anxiously at her pale face. He was struck by the strange stupor in her formerly animated handsome features. VII
Lelechka was dressed, placed in a little coffin, and carried into the parlour. Serafima Aicksandrovna was standing by the coffin and looking dully at her dead child. Sergey Modestovich went to his wife and, consoling her with cold, empty words, tried to draw her away from the coffin. Seranma Aleksandrovna smiled.
"Go away," she said quietly. "Lelechka is playing. She'll be up in a minute."
"Sima, my dear, don't agitate yourself," said Sergey Modestovich in a whisper. "You must resign yourself to your fate."
Her face seemed tranquil and her eyes were dry. She went into the nursery and began to walk round the room, looking into those places where Lelechka used to hide herself. She walked all about the room, and bent now and then to look under the table or under the bed, and kept on repeating cheerfully: "Where is my little one? Where is my Lelechka?"
After she had walked round the room once she began to make her quest anew. Fedosya, motionless, with dejected face, sat in a corner, and looked frightened at her mistress; then she suddenly burst out sobbing, and she wailed loudly:"She hid herself, and hid herself, our Lelechka, our angelic little soul!" Serafima Aleksandrovna trembled, paused, cast a perplexed look at Fedosya, began to weep, and left the nursery quietly. VIII
Sergey Modestovich hurried the funeral. He saw that Serafima Aleksandrovna. was terribly shocked by her sudden misfortune, and as he feared for her reason he thought she would more readily be diverted and consoled when Lelechka was buried.
Next morning Serafima Aleksandrovna dressed with particular care--for Lelechka. When she entered the parlour there were several people between her and Lelechka. The priest and deacon paced up and down the room; clouds of blue smoke drifted in the air, and there was a smell of incense. There was an oppressive feeling of heaviness in Serafima Aleksandrovna's head as she approached Lelechka. Lelechka lay there still and pale, and smiled pathetically. Serafima Aleksandrovna laid her cheek upon the edge of Lelechka's coffin, and whispered: "_Tiu-tiu_, little one!"
The little one did not reply. Then there was some kind of stir and confusion around Serafima Aleksandrovna; strange, unnecessary faces bent over her, some one held her--and Lelechka was carried away somewhere.Serafima Aleksandrovna stood up erect, sighed in a lost way, smiled, and called loudly: "Lelechka!"
Lelechka was being carried out. The mother threw herself after the coffin with despairing sobs, but she was held back. She sprang behind the door, through which Lelechka had passed, sat down there on the floor, and as she looked through the crevice, she cried out: "Lelechka, _tiu-tiu!_"Then she put her head out from behind the door, and began to laugh. Lelechka was quickly carried away from her mother, and those who carried her seemed to run rather than to walk. DETHRONED BY I.N. POTAPENKO "Well?" Captain Zarubkin's wife called out impatiently to her husband, rising from the sofa and turning to face him as he entered.
"He doesn't know anything about it," he replied indifferently, as if the matter were of no interest to him. Then he asked in a businesslike tone: "Nothing for me from the office?""Why should I know? Am I your errand boy?" "How they dilly-dally! If only the package doesn't come too late. It's so important!" "Idiot!" "Who's an idiot?" "You, with your indifference, your stupid egoism."
The captain said nothing. He was neither surprised nor insulted. On the contrary, the smile on his face was as though he had received a compliment. These wifely animadversions, probably oft-heard, by no means interfered with his domestic peace.
"It can't be that the man doesn't know when his wife is coming back home," Mrs. Zarubkin continued excitedly. "She's written to him every day of the four months that she's been away. The postmaster told me so.""Semyonov! Ho, Semyonov! Has any one from the office been here?" "I don't know, your Excellency," came in a loud, clear voice from back of the room. "Why don't you know? Where have you been?" "I went to Abramka, your Excellency." "The tailor again?" "Yes, your Excellency, the tailor Abramka." The captain spat in annoyance. "And where is Krynka?" "He went to market, your Excellency." "Was he told to go to market?" "Yes, your Excellency." The captain spat again.
"Why do you keep spitting? Such vulgar manners!" his wife cried angrily. "You behave at home like a drunken subaltern. You haven't the least consideration for your wife. You are so coarse in your behaviour towards me! Do, please, go to your office.""Semyonov." "Your Excellency?"
"If the package comes, please have it sent back to the office and say I've gone there. And listen! Some one must always be here. I won't have everybody out of the house at the same time. Do you hear?""Yes, your Excellency." The captain put on his cap to go. In the doorway he turned and addressed his wife.
"Please, Tasya, please don't send all the servants on your errands at the same time. Something important may turn up, and then there's nobody here to attend to it."
He went out, and his wife remained reclining in the sofa corner as if his plea were no concern of hers. But scarcely had he left the house, when she called out:"Semyonov, come here. Quick!"
A bare-footed unshaven man in dark blue pantaloons and cotton shirt presented himself. His stocky figure and red face made a wholesome appearance. He was the Captain's orderly."At your service, your Excellency." "Listen, Semyonov, you don't seem to be stupid." "I don't know, your Excellency." "For goodness' sake, drop 'your Excellency.' I am not your superior officer." "Yes, your Excel--" "Idiot!"
But the lady's manner toward the servant was far friendlier than toward her husband. Semyonov had it in his power to perform important services for her, while the captain had not come up to her
"Very well, then go straight to them and try to find out when Mrs. Shaldin is expected back. They ought to know. They must be getting things ready against her return--cleaning her bedroom and fixing it up. Do you understand? But be careful to find out right. And also be very careful not to let on for whom you are finding it out. Do you understand?'"Of course, I understand."
"Well, then, go. But one more thing. Since you're going out, you may as well stop at Abramka's again and tell him to come here right away. You understand?""But his Excellency gave me orders to stay at home," said Semyonov, scratching himself behind his ears. "Please don't answer back. Just do as I tell you. Go on, now." "At your service." And the orderly, impressed by the lady's severe military tone, left the room.
Mrs. Zarubkin remained reclining on the sofa for a while. Then she rose and walked up and down the room and finally went to her bedroom, where her two little daughters were playing in their nurse's care. She scolded them a bit and returned to her former place on the couch. Her every movement betrayed great excitement.* * * * *
Tatyana Grigoryevna Zarubkin was one of the most looked-up to ladies of the S---- Regiment and even of the whole town of Chmyrsk, where the regiment was quartered. To be sure, you hardly could say that, outside the regiment, the town could boast any ladies at all. There were very respectable women, decent wives, mothers, daughters and widows of honourable citizens; but they all dressed in cotton and flannel, and on high holidays made a show of cheap Cashmere gowns over which they wore gay shawls with borders of wonderful arabesques. Their hats and other headgear gave not the faintest evidence of good taste. So they could scarcely be dubbed "ladies." They were satisfied to be called "women." Each one of them, almost, had the name of her husband's trade or position tacked to her name--Mrs. Grocer so-and-so, Mrs. Mayor so-and-so, Mrs. Milliner so-and-so, etc. Genuine _ladies_ in the Russian society sense had never come to the town before the S----Regiment had taken up its quarters there; and it goes without saying that the ladies of the regiment had nothing in common, and therefore no intercourse with, the women of the town. They were so dissimilar that they were like creatures of a different species.
There is no disputing that Tatyana Grigoryevna Zarubkin was one of the most looked-up-to of the ladies. She invariably played the most important part at all the regimental affairs--the amateur theatricals, the social evenings, the afternoon teas. If the captain's wife was not to be present, it was a foregone conclusion that the affair would not be a success.
The most important point was that Mrs. Zarubkin had the untarnished reputation of being the best-dressed of all the ladies. She was always the most distinguished looking at the annual ball. Her gown for the occasion, ordered from Moscow, was always chosen with the greatest regard for her charms and defects, and it was always exquisitely beautiful. A new fashion could not gain admittance to the other ladies of the regiment except by way of the captain's wife. Thanks to her good taste in dressing, the stately blonde was queen at all the balls and in all the salons of Chmyrsk. Another advantage of hers was that although she was nearly forty she still looked fresh and youthful, so that the young officers were constantly hovering about her and paying her homage.
November was a very lively month in the regiment's calendar. It was on the tenth of November that the annual ball took place. The ladies, of course, spent their best efforts in preparation for this event. Needless to say that in these arduous activities, Abramka Stiftik, the ladies' tailor, played a prominent role. He was the one man in Chmyrsk who had any understanding at all for the subtle art of the feminine toilet. Preparations had begun in his shop in August already. Within the last weeks his modest parlour--furnished with six shabby chairs placed about a round table, and a fly-specked mirror on the wall--the atmosphere heavy with a smell of onions and herring, had been filled from early morning to the evening hours with the most charming and elegant of the fairer sex. There was trying-on and discussion of styles and selection of material. It was all very nerve-racking for the ladies.
The only one who had never appeared in this parlour was the captain's wife. That had been a thorn in Abramka's flesh. He had spent days and nights going over in his mind how he could rid this lady of the, in his opinion, wretched habit of ordering her clothes from Moscow. For this ball, however, as she herself had told him, she had not ordered a dress but only material from out of town, from which he deduced that he was to make the gown for her. But there was only one week left before the ball, and still she had not come to him. Abramka was in a state of feverishness. He longed once to make a dress for Mrs. Zarubkin. It would add to his glory. He wanted to prove that he understood his trade just as well as any tailor in Moscow, and that it was quite superfluous for her to order her gowns outside of Chmyrsk. He would come out the triumphant competitor of Moscow.
As each day passed and Mrs. Zarubkin did not appear in his shop, his nervousness increased. Finally she ordered a dressing-jacket from him--but not a word said of a ball gown. What was he to think of it?
So, when Semyonov told him that Mrs. Zarubkin was expecting him at her home, it goes without saying that he instantly removed the dozen pins in his mouth, as he was trying on a customer's dress, told one of his assistants to continue with the fitting, and instantly set off to call on the captain's wife. In this case, it was not a question of a mere ball gown, but of the acquisition of the best customer in town.
Although Abramka wore a silk hat and a suit in keeping with the silk hat, still he was careful not to ring at the front entrance, but always knocked at the back door. At another time when the captain's orderly was not in the house--for the captain's orderly also performed the duties of the captain's cook--he might have knocked long and loud. On other occasions a cannon might have been shot off right next to Tatyana Grigoryevna's ears and she would not have lifted her fingers to open the door. But now she instantly caught the sound of the modest knocking and opened the back door herself for Abramka."Oh!" she cried delightedly. "You, Abramka!"
She really wanted to address him less familiarly, as was more befitting so dignified a man in a silk hat; but everybody called him "Abramka," and he would have been very much surprised had he been honoured with his full name, Abram Srulevich Stiftik. So she thought it best to address him as the others did.
Mr. "Abramka" was tall and thin. There was always a melancholy expression in his pale face. He had a little stoop, a long and very heavy greyish beard. He had been practising his profession for thirty years. Ever since his apprenticeship he had been called "Abramka," which did not strike him as at all derogatory or unfitting. Even his shingle read: "Ladies' Tailor: Abramka Stiftik"--the most valid proof that he deemed his name immaterial, but that the chief thing to him was his art. As a matter of fact, he had attained, if not perfection in tailoring, yet remarkable skill. To this all the ladies of the S---- Regiment could attest with conviction.Abramka removed his silk hat, stepped into the kitchen, and said gravely, with profound feeling:
"Mrs. Zarubkin, I am entirely at your service." "Come into the reception room. I have something very important to speak to you about."Abramka followed in silence. He stepped softly on tiptoe, as if afraid of waking some one.
"Sit down, Abramka, listen--but give me your word of honour, you won't tell any one?" Tatyana Grigoryevna began, reddening a bit. She was ashamed to have to let the tailor Abramka into her secret, but since there was no getting around it, she quieted herself and in an instant had regained her ease.
"I don't know what you are speaking of, Mrs. Zarubkin," Abramka rejoined. He assumed a somewhat injured manner. "Have you ever heard of Abramka ever babbling anything out? You certainly know that in my profession--you know everybody has some secret to be kept.""Oh, you must have misunderstood me, Abramka. What sort of secrets do you mean?"
"Well, one lady is a little bit one-sided, another lady"--he pointed to his breast--"is not quite full enough, another lady has scrawny arms--such things as that have to be covered up or filled out or laced in, so as to look better. That is where our art comes in. But we are in duty bound not to say anything about it."Tatyana Grigoryevna smiled. "Well, I can assure you I am all right that way. There is nothing about me that needs to be covered up or filled out." "Oh, as if I didn't know that! Everybody knows that Mrs. Zarubkin's figure is perfect," Abramka cried, trying to flatter his new customer. Mrs. Zarubkin laughed and made up her mind to remember "Everybody knows that Mrs. Zarubkin's figure is perfect." Then she said: "You know that the ball is to take place in a week." "Yes, indeed, Mrs. Zarubkin, in only one week; unfortunately, only one week," replied Abramka, sighing. "But you remember your promise to make my dress for me for the ball this time?"
"Mrs. Zarubkin," Abramka cried, laying his hand on his heart. "Have I said that I was not willing to make it? No, indeed, I said it must be made and made right--for Mrs. Zarubkin, it must be better than for any one else. That's the way I feel about it."
"Splendid! Just what I wanted to know."
"But why don't you show me your material? Why don't you say to me, 'Here, Abramka, here is the stuff, make a dress?' Abramka would work on it day and night."
"Ahem, that's just it--I can't order it. That is where the trouble comes in. Tell me, Abramka, what is the shortest time you need for making the dress? Listen, the very shortest?"Abramka shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, is a week too much for a ball dress such as you will want? It's got to be sewed, it can't be pasted together, You, yourself, know that, Mrs. Zarubkin.""But supposing I order it only three days before the ball?" Abramka started. "Only three days before the ball? A ball dress? Am I a god, Mrs. Zarubkin? I am nothing but the ladies' tailor, Abramka Stiftik." "Well, then you are a nice tailor!" said Tatyana Grigoryevna, scornfully. "In Moscow they made a ball dress for me in two days." Abramka jumped up as if at a shot, and beat his breast.
"Is that so? Then I say, Mrs. Zarubkin," he cried pathetically, "if they made a ball gown for you in Moscow in two days, very well, then I will make a ball gown for you, if I must, in one day. I will neither eat nor sleep, and I won't let my help off either for one minute. How does that suit you?"
"Sit down, Abramka, thank you very much. I hope I shall not have to put such a strain on you. It really does not depend upon me, otherwise I should have ordered the dress from you long ago.""It doesn't depend upon you? Then upon whom does it depend?" "Ahem, it depends upon--but now, Abramka, remember this is just between you and me--it depends upon Mrs. Shaldin." "Upon Mrs. Shaldin, the doctor's wife? Why she isn't even here." "That's just it. That is why I have to wait. How is it that a clever man like you, Abramka, doesn't grasp the situation?"
"Hm, hm! Let me see." Abramka racked his brains for a solution of the riddle. How could it be that Mrs. Shaldin, who was away, should have anything to do with Mrs. Zarubkin's order for a gown? No, that passed his comprehension."She certainly will get back in time for the ball," said Mrs. Zarubkin, to give him a cue. "Well, yes." "And certainly will bring a dress back with her." "Certainly!" "A dress from abroad, something we have never seen here--something highly original."
"Mrs. Zarubkin!" Abramka cried, as if a truth of tremendous import had been revealed to him. "Mrs. Zarubkin, I understand. Why certainly! Yes, but that will be pretty hard.""That's just it." Abramka reflected a moment, then said:
"I assure you, Mrs. Zarubkin, you need not be a bit uneasy. I will make a dress for you that will be just as grand as the one from abroad. I assure you, your dress will be the most elegant one at the ball, just as it always has been. I tell you, my name won't be Abramka Stiftik if--"His eager asseverations seemed not quite to satisfy the captain's wife. Her mind was not quite set at ease. She interrupted him. "But the style, Abramka, the style! You can't possibly guess what the latest fashion is abroad."
"Why shouldn't I know what the latest fashion is, Mrs. Zarubkin? In Kiev I have a friend who publishes fashion-plates. I will telegraph to him, and he will immediately send me pictures of the latest French models. The telegram will cost only eighty cents, Mrs. Zarubkin, and I swear to you I will copy any dress he sends. Mrs. Shaldin can't possibly have a dress like that."
"All very well and good, and that's what we'll do. Still we must wait until Mrs. Shaldin comes back. Don't you see, Abramka, I must have exactly the same style that she has? Can't you see, so that nobody can say that she is in the latest fashion?"
At this point Semyonov entered the room cautiously. He was wearing the oddest-looking jacket and the captain's old boots. His hair was rumpled, and his eyes were shining suspiciously. There was every sign that he had used the renewal of friendship with the doctor's men as a pretext for a booze.
"I had to stand them some brandy, your Excellency," he said saucily, but catching his mistress's threatening look, he lowered his head guiltily."Idiot," she yelled at him, "face about. Be off with you to the kitchen."
In his befuddlement, Semyonov had not noticed Abramka's presence. Now he became aware of him, faced about and retired to the kitchen sheepishly."What an impolite fellow," said Abramka reproachfully. "Oh, you wouldn't believe--" said the captain's wife, but instantly followed Semyonov into the kitchen. Semyonov aware of his awful misdemeanour, tried to stand up straight and give a report. "She will come back, your Excellency, day after to-morrow toward evening. She sent a telegram." "Is that true now?" "I swear it's true. Shuchok saw it himself." "All right, very good. You will get something for this." "Yes, your Excellency." "Silence, you goose. Go on, set the table." Abramka remained about ten minutes longer with the captain's wife, and on leaving said:
"Let me assure you once again, Mrs. Zarubkin, you needn't worry; just select the style, and I will make a gown for you that the best tailor in Paris can't beat." He pressed his hand to his heart in token of his intention to do everything in his power for Mrs. Zarubkin.* * * * *
It was seven o'clock in the evening. Mrs. Shaldin and her trunk had arrived hardly half an hour before, yet the captain's wife was already there paying visit; which was a sign of the warm friendship that existed between the two women. They kissed each other and fell to talking. The doctor, a tall man of forty-five, seemed discomfited by the visit, and passed unfriendly side glances at his guest. He had hoped to spend that evening undisturbed with his wife, and he well knew that when the ladies of the regiment came to call upon each other "for only a second," it meant a whole evening of listening to idle talk.
"You wouldn't believe me, dear, how bored I was the whole time you were away, how I longed for you, Natalie Semyonovna. But you probably never gave us a thought."
"Oh, how can you say anything like that. I was thinking of you every minute, every second. If I hadn't been obliged to finish the cure, I should have returned long ago. No matter how beautiful it may be away from home, still the only place to live is among those that are near and dear to you."
These were only the preliminary soundings. They lasted with variations for a quarter of an hour. First Mrs. Shaldin narrated a few incidents of the trip, then Mrs. Zarubkin gave a report of some of the chief happenings in the life of the regiment. When the conversation was in full swing, and the samovar was singing on the table, and the pancakes were spreading their appetising odour, the captain's wife suddenly cried:"I wonder what the fashions are abroad now. I say, you must have feasted your eyes on them!" Mrs. Shaldin simply replied with a scornful gesture.
"Other people may like them, but I don't care for them one bit. I am glad we here don't get to see them until a year later. You know, Tatyana Grigoryevna, you sometimes see the ugliest styles."
"Really?" asked the captain's wife eagerly, her eyes gleaming with curiosity. The great moment of complete revelation seemed to have arrived.
"Perfectly hideous, I tell you. Just imagine, you know how nice the plain skirts were. Then why change them? But no, to be in style now, the skirts have to be draped. Why? It is just a sign of complete lack of imagination. And in Lyons they got out a new kind of silk--but that is still a French secret.""Why a secret? The silk is certainly being worn already?"
"Yes, one does see it being worn already, but when it was first manufactured, the greatest secret was made of it. They were afraid the Germans would imitate. You understand?"
"Oh, but what is the latest style?"
"She can't explain! That means she doesn't want to explain. Oh, the cunning one. What a sly look she has in her eyes." So thought the captain's wife. From the very beginning of the conversation, the two warm friends, it need scarcely be said, were mutually distrustful. Each had the conviction that everything the other said was to be taken in the very opposite sense. They were of about the same age, Mrs. Shaldin possibly one or two years younger than Mrs. Zarubkin. Mrs. Zarubkin was rather plump, and had heavy light hair. Her appearance was blooming. Mrs. Shaldin was slim, though well proportioned. She was a brunette with a pale complexion and large dark eyes. They were two types of beauty very likely to divide the gentlemen of the regiment into two camps of admirers. But women are never content with halves. Mrs. Zarubkin wanted to see all the officers of the regiment at her feet, and so did Mrs. Shaldin. It naturally led to great rivalry between the two women, of which they were both conscious, though they always had the friendliest smiles for each other.Mrs. Shaldin tried to give a different turn to the conversation. "Do you think the ball will be interesting this year?" "Why should it be interesting?" rejoined the captain's wife scornfully. "Always the same people, the same old humdrum jog-trot." "I suppose the ladies have been besieging our poor Abramka?" "I really can't tell you. So far as I am concerned, I have scarcely looked at what he made for me." "Hm, how's that? Didn't you order your dress from Moscow again?"
"No, it really does not pay. I am sick of the bother of it all. Why all that trouble? For whom? Our officers don't care a bit how one dresses. They haven't the least taste.""Hm, there's something back of that," thought Mrs. Shaldin. The captain's wife continued with apparent indifference: "I can guess what a gorgeous dress you had made abroad. Certainly in the latest fashion?"
"I?" Mrs. Shaldin laughed innocently. "How could I get the time during my cure to think of a dress? As a matter of fact, I completely forgot the ball, thought of it at the last moment, and bought the first piece of goods I laid my hands on.""Pink?" "Oh, no. How can you say pink!" "Light blue, then?" "You can't call it exactly light blue. It is a very undefined sort of colour. I really wouldn't know what to call it." "But it certainly must have some sort of a shade?" "You may believe me or not if you choose, but really I don't know. It's a very indefinite shade." "Is it Sura silk?" "No, I can't bear Sura. It doesn't keep the folds well." "I suppose it is crepe de Chine?" "Heavens, no! Crepe de Chine is much too expensive for me." "Then what can it be?" "Oh, wait a minute, what _is_ the name of that goods? You know there are so many funny new names now. They don't make any sense." "Then show me your dress, dearest. Do please show me your dress." Mrs. Shaldin seemed to be highly embarrassed. "I am so sorry I can't. It is way down at the bottom of the trunk. There is the trunk. You see yourself I couldn't unpack it now."
The trunk, close to the wall, was covered with oil cloth and tied tight with heavy cords. The captain's wife devoured it with her eyes. She would have liked to see through and through it. She had nothing to say in reply, because it certainly was impossible to ask her friend, tired out from her recent journey, to begin to unpack right away and take out all her things just to show her her new dress. Yet she could not tear her eyes away from the trunk. There was a magic in it that held her enthralled. Had she been alone she would have begun to unpack it herself, nor even have asked the help of a servant to undo the knots. Now there was nothing left for her but to turn her eyes sorrowfully away from the fascinating object and take up another topic of conversation to which she would be utterly indifferent. But she couldn't think of anything else to talk about. Mrs. Shaldin must have prepared herself beforehand. She must have suspected something. So now Mrs. Zarubkin pinned her last hope to Abramka's inventiveness. She glanced at the clock.
"Dear me," she exclaimed, as if surprised at the lateness of the hour. "I must be going. I don't want to disturb you any longer either, dearest. You must be very tired. I hope you rest well."She shook hands with Mrs. Shaldin, kissed her and left. * * * * *
Abramka Stiftik had just taken off his coat and was doing some ironing in his shirt sleeves, when a peculiar figure appeared in his shop. It was that of a stocky orderly in a well-worn uniform without buttons and old galoshes instead of boots. His face was gloomy-looking and was covered with a heavy growth of hair. Abramka knew this figure well. It seemed always just to have been awakened from the deepest sleep."Ah, Shuchok, what do you want?" "Mrs. Shaldin would like you to call upon her," said Shuchok. He behaved as if he had come on a terribly serious mission.
"Ah, that's so, your lady has come back. I heard about it. You see I am very busy. Still you may tell her I am coming right away. I just want to finish ironing Mrs. Konopotkin's dress."
Abramka simply wanted to keep up appearances, as always when he was sent for. But his joy at the summons to Mrs. Shaldin was so great that to the astonishment of his helpers and Shuchok he left immediately.
He found Mrs. Shaldin alone. She had not slept well the two nights before and had risen late that morning. Her husband had left long before for the Military Hospital. She was sitting beside her open trunk taking her things out very carefully."How do you do, Mrs. Shaldin? Welcome back to Chmyrsk. I congratulate you on your happy arrival."
"Oh, how do you do, Abramka?" said Mrs. Shaldin delightedly; "we haven't seen each other for a long time, have we? I was rather homesick for you.""Oh, Mrs. Shaldin, you must have had a very good time abroad. But what do you need me for? You certainly brought a dress back with you?"
"Abramka always comes in handy," said Mrs. Shaldin jestingly. "We ladies of the regiment are quite helpless without Abramka. Take a seat."
Abramka seated himself. He felt much more at ease in Mrs. Shaldin's home than in Mrs. Zarubkin's. Mrs. Shaldin did not order her clothes from Moscow. She was a steady customer of his. In this room he had many a time circled about the doctor's wife with a yard measure, pins, chalk and scissors, had kneeled down beside her, raised himself to his feet, bent over again and stood puzzling over some difficult problem of dressmaking--how low to cut the dress out at the neck, how long to make the train, how wide the hem, and so on. None of the ladies of the regiment ordered as much from him as Mrs. Shaldin. Her grandmother would send her material from Kiev or the doctor would go on a professional trip to Chernigov and always bring some goods back with him; or sometimes her aunt in Voronesh would make her a gift of some silk.
"Abramka is always ready to serve Mrs. Shaldin first," said the tailor, though seized with a little pang, as if bitten by a guilty conscience.
"Are you sure you are telling the truth? Is Abramka always to be depended upon? Eh, is he?" She looked at him searchingly from beneath drooping lids."What a question," rejoined Abramka. His face quivered slightly. His feeling of discomfort was waxing. "Has Abramka ever--"
"Oh, things can happen. But, all right, never mind. I brought a dress along with me. I had to have it made in a great hurry, and there is just a little more to be done on it. Now if I give you this dress to finish, can I be sure that you positively won't tell another soul how it is made?"
"Mrs. Shaldin, oh, Mrs. Shaldin," said Abramka reproachfully. Nevertheless, the expression of his face was not so reassuring as usual."You give me your word of honour?" "Certainly! My name isn't Abramka Stiftik if I--" "Well, all right, I will trust you. But be careful. You know of whom you must be careful?" "Who is that, Mrs. Shaldin?"
"Oh, you know very well whom I mean. No, you needn't put your hand on your heart. She was here to see me yesterday and tried in every way she could to find out how my dress is made. But she couldn't get it out of me." Abramka sighed. Mrs. Shaldin seemed to suspect his betrayal. "I am right, am I not? She has not had her dress made yet, has she? She waited to see my dress, didn't she? And she told you to copy the style, didn't she?" Mrs, Shaldin asked with honest naivete. "But I warn you, Abramka, if you give away the least little thing about my dress, then all is over between you and me. Remember that."Abramka's hand went to his heart again, and the gesture carried the same sense of conviction as of old. "Mrs. Shaldin, how can you speak like that?" "Wait a moment."
Mrs. Shaldin left the room. About ten minutes passed during which Abramka had plenty of time to reflect. How could he have given the captain's wife a promise like that so lightly? What was the captain's wife to him as compared with the doctor's wife? Mrs. Zarubkin had never given him a really decent order--just a few things for the house and some mending. Supposing he were now to perform this great service for her, would that mean that he could depend upon her for the future? Was any woman to be depended upon? She would wear this dress out and go back to ordering her clothes from Moscow again. But _Mrs. Shaldin_, she was very different. He could forgive her having brought this one dress along from abroad. What woman in Russia would have refrained, when abroad, from buying a new dress? Mrs. Shaldin would continue to be his steady customer all the same.The door opened. Abramka rose involuntarily, and clasped his hands in astonishment.
"Well," he exclaimed rapturously, "that is a dress, that is--My, my!" He was so stunned he could find nothing more to say. And how charming Mrs. Shaldin looked in her wonderful gown! Her tall slim figure seemed to have been made for it. What simple yet elegant lines. At first glance you would think it was nothing more than an ordinary house-gown, but only at first glance. If you looked at it again, you could tell right away that it met all the requirements of a fancy ball-gown. What struck Abramka most was that it had no waist line, that it did not consist of bodice and skirt. That was strange. It was just caught lightly together under the bosom, which it brought out in relief. Draped over the whole was a sort of upper garment of exquisite old-rose lace embroidered with large silk flowers, which fell from the shoulders and broadened out in bold superb lines. The dress was cut low and edged with a narrow strip of black down around the bosom, around the bottom of the lace drapery, and around the hem of the skirt. A wonderful fan of feathers to match the down edging gave the finishing touch."Well, how do you like it, Abramka!" asked Mrs. Shaldin with a triumphant smile.
"Glorious, glorious! I haven't the words at my command. What a dress! No, I couldn't make a dress like that. And how beautifully it fits you, as if you had been born in it, Mrs. Shaldin. What do you call the style?""Empire."
"Ampeer?" he queried. "Is that a new style? Well, well, what people don't think of. Tailors like us might just as well throw our needles and scissors away."
"Now, listen, Abramka, I wouldn't have shown it to you if there were not this sewing to be done on it. You are the only one who will have seen it before the ball. I am not even letting my husband look at it.""Oh, Mrs. Shaldin, you can rely upon me as upon a rock. But after the ball may I copy it?" "Oh, yes, after the ball copy it as much as you please, but not now, not for anything in the world."
There were no doubts in Abramka's mind when he left the doctor's house. He had arrived at his decision. That superb creation had conquered him. It would be a piece of audacity on his part, he felt, even to think of imitating such a gown. Why, it was not a gown. It was a dream, a fantastic vision--without a bodice, without puffs or frills or tawdry trimmings of any sort. Simplicity itself and yet so chic.
Back in his shop he opened the package of fashion-plates that had just arrived from Kiev. He turned the pages and stared in astonishment. What was that? Could he trust his eyes? An Empire gown. There it was, with the broad voluptuous drapery of lace hanging from the shoulders and the edging of down. Almost exactly the same thing as Mrs. Shaldin's.
He glanced up and saw Semyonov outside the window. He had certainly come to fetch him to the captain's wife, who must have ordered him to watch the tailor's movements, and must have learned that he had just been at Mrs. Shaldin's. Semyonov entered and told him his mistress wanted to sec him right away.
Abramks slammed the fashion magazine shut as if afraid that Semyonov might catch a glimpse of the new Empire fashion and give the secret away."I will come immediately," he said crossly.
He picked up his fashion plates, put the yard measure in his pocket, rammed his silk hat sorrowfully on his head and set off for the captain's house. He found Mrs. Zarubkin pacing the room excitedly, greeted her, but carefully avoided meeting her eyes.
"Well, what did you find out?"
"Oh--h--h, you can't? You know why you can't. Because that is the style of Mrs. Shaldin's dress. So that is the reliability you boast so about? Great!""Mrs. Zarubkin, I will make any other dress you choose, but it is absolutely impossible for me to make this one." "I don't need your fashion plates, do you hear me? Get out of here, and don't ever show your face again." "Mrs. Zarubkin, I--" "Get out of here," repeated the captain's wife, quite beside herself. The poor tailor stuck his yard measure, which he had already taken out, back into his pocket and left.
Half an hour later the captain's wife was entering a train for Kiev, carrying a large package which contained material for a dress. The captain had accompanied her to the station with a pucker in his forehead. That was five days before the ball.* * * * *
At the ball two expensive Empire gowns stood out conspicuously from among the more or less elegant gowns which had been finished in the shop of Abramka Stiftik, Ladies' Tailor. The one gown adorned Mrs. Shaldin's figure, the other the figure of the captain's wife.
Mrs. Zarubkin had bought her gown ready made at Kiev, and had returned only two hours before the beginning of the ball. She had scarcely had time to dress. Perhaps it would have been better had she not appeared at this one of the annual balls, had she not taken that fateful trip to Kiev. For in comparison with the make and style of Mrs. Shaldin's dress, which had been brought abroad, hers was like the botched imitation of an amateur.
That was evident to everybody, though the captain's wife had her little group of partisans, who maintained with exaggerated eagerness that she looked extraordinarily fascinating in her dress and Mrs. Shaldin still could not rival her. But there was no mistaking it, there was little justice in this contention. Everybody knew better; what was worst of all, Mrs. Zarubkin herself knew better. Mrs. Shaldin's triumph was complete.
The two ladies gave each other the same friendly smiles as always, but one of them was experiencing the fine disdain and the derision of the conqueror, while the other was burning inside with the furious resentment of a dethroned goddess--goddess of the annual ball.From that time on Abramka cautiously avoided passing the captain's house. THE SERVANT BY S.T. SEMYONOV I
Gerasim returned to Moscow just at a time when it was hardest to find work, a short while before Christmas, when a man sticks even to a poor job in the expectation of a present. For three weeks the peasant lad had been going about in vain seeking a position.
He stayed with relatives and friends from his village, and although he had not yet suffered great want, it disheartened him that he, a strong young man, should go without work.
Gerasim had lived in Moscow from early boyhood. When still a mere child, he had gone to work in a brewery as bottle-washer, and later as a lower servant in a house. In the last two years he had been in a merchant's employ, and would still have held that position, had he not been summoned back to his village for military duty. However, he had not been drafted. It seemed dull to him in the village, he was not used to the country life, so he decided he would rather count the stones in Moscow than stay there.
Every minute it was getting to be more and more irk-some for him to be tramping the streets in idleness. Not a stone did he leave unturned in his efforts to secure any sort of work. He plagued all of his acquaintances, he even held up people on the street and asked them if they knew of a situation--all in vain.
Finally Gerasim could no longer bear being a burden on his people. Some of them were annoyed by his coming to them; and others had suffered unpleasantness from their masters on his account. He was altogether at a loss what to do. Sometimes he would go a whole day without eating.II
One day Gerasim betook himself to a friend from his village, who lived at the extreme outer edge of Moscow, near Sokolnik. The man was coachman to a merchant by the name of Sharov, in whose service he had been for many years. He had ingratiated himself with his master, so that Sharov trusted him absolutely and gave every sign of holding him in high favour. It was the man's glib tongue, chiefly, that had gained him his master's confidence. He told on all the servants, and Sharov valued him for it.
Gerasim approached and greeted him. The coachman gave his guest a proper reception, served him with tea and something to eat, and asked him how he was doing."Very badly, Yegor Danilych," said Gerasim. "I've been without a job for weeks." "Didn't you ask your old employer to take you back?" "I did." "He wouldn't take you again?"
"The position was filled already." "That's it. That's the way you young fellows are. You serve your employers so-so, and when you leave your jobs, you usually have muddied up the way back to them. You ought to serve your masters so that they will think a lot of you, and when you come again, they will not refuse you, but rather dismiss the man who has taken your place.""How can a man do that? In these days there aren't any employers like that, and we aren't exactly angels, either."
"What's the use of wasting words? I just want to tell you about myself. If for some reason or other I should ever have to leave this place and go home, not only would Mr. Sharov, if I came back, take me on again without a word, but he would be glad to, too."Gerasim sat there downcast. He saw his friend was boasting, and it occurred to him to gratify him.
"I know it," he said. "But it's hard to find men like you, Yegor Danilych. If you were a poor worker, your master would not have kept you twelve years."Yegor smiled. He liked the praise. "That's it," he said. "If you were to live and serve as I do, you wouldn't be out of work for months and months." Gerasim made no reply. Yegor was summoned to his master. "Wait a moment," he said to Gerasim. "I'll be right back." "Very well." III
Yegor came back and reported that inside of half an hour he would have to have the horses harnessed, ready to drive his master to town. He lighted his pipe and took several turns in the room. Then he came to a halt in front of Gerasim."Listen, my boy," he said, "if you want, I'll ask my master to take you as a servant here."
"Does he need a man?" "We have one, but he's not much good. He's getting old, and it's very hard for him to do the work. It's lucky for us that the neighbourhood isn't a lively one and the police don't make a fuss about things being kept just so, else the old man couldn't manage to keep the place clean enough for them."
"Oh, if you can, then please do say a word for me, Yegor Danilych. I'll pray for you all my life. I can't stand being without work any longer.""All right, I'll speak for you. Come again to-morrow, and in the meantime take this ten-kopek piece. It may come in handy." "Thanks, Yegor Danilych. Then you _will_ try for me? Please do me the favour." "All right. I'll try for you."
Gerasim left, and Yegor harnessed up his horses. Then he put on his coachman's habit, and drove up to the front door. Mr. Sharov stepped out of the house, seated himself in the sleigh, and the horses galloped off. He attended to his business in town and returned home. Yegor, observing that his master was in a good humour, said to him:"Yegor Fiodorych, I have a favour to ask of you." "What is it?" "There's a young man from my village here, a good boy He's without a job." "Well?" "Wouldn't you take him?" "What do I want him for?" "Use him as man of all work round the place." "How about Polikarpych?" "What good is he? It's about time you dismissed him." "That wouldn't be fair. He has been with me so many years. I can't let him go just so, without any cause."
"Supposing he _has_ worked for you for years. He didn't work for nothing. He got paid for it. He's certainly saved up a few dollars for his old age."
"Saved up! How could he? From what? He's not alone in the world. He has a wife to support, and she has to eat and drink also."
"Why should you care about Polikarpych and his wife? To tell you the truth, he's a very poor servant. Why should you throw your money away on him? He never shovels the snow away on time, or does anything right. And when it comes his turn to be night watchman, he slips away at least ten times a night. It's too cold for him. You'll see, some day, because of him, you will have trouble with the police. The quarterly inspector will descend on us, and it won't be so agreeable for you to be responsible for Polikarpych.""Still, it's pretty rough. He's been with me fifteen years. And to treat him that way in his old age--it would be a sin."
"A sin! Why, what harm would you be doing him? He won't starve. He'll go to the almshouse. It will be better for him, too, to be quiet in his old age."Sharov reflected. "All right," he said finally. "Bring your friend here. I'll see what I can do."
"Do take him, sir. I'm so sorry for him. He's a good boy, and he's been without work for such a long time. I know he'll do his work well and serve you faithfully. On account of having to report for military duty, he lost his last position. If it hadn't been for that, his master would never have let him go."IV The next evening Gerasim came again and asked: "Well, could you do anything for me?" "Something, I believe. First let's have some tea. Then we'll go see my master."
Even tea had no allurements for Gerasim. He was eager for a decision; but under the compulsion of politeness to his host, he gulped down two glasses of tea, and then they betook themselves to Sharov. Sharov asked Gerasim where he had lived before end what work he could do. Then he told him he was prepared to engage him as man of all work, and he should come back the next day ready to take the place.
Gerasim was fairly stunned by the great stroke of fortune. So overwhelming was his joy that his legs would scarcely carry him. He went to the coachman's room, and Yegor said to him:
"Well, my lad, see to it that you do your work right, so that I shan't have to be ashamed of you. You know what masters are like. If you go wrong once, they'll be at you forever after with their fault-finding, and never give you peace.""Don't worry about that, Yegor Danilych." "Well--well."
Gerasim took leave, crossing the yard to go out by the gate. Polikarpych's rooms gave on the yard, and a broad beam of light from the window fell across Gerasim's way. He was curio as to get a glimpse of his future home, but the panes were all frosted over, and it was impossible to peep through. However, he could hear what the people inside were saying."What will we do now?" was said in a woman's voice. "I don't know, I don't know," a man, undoubtedly Polikarpych, replied. "Go begging, I suppose."
"That's all we can do. There's nothing else left," said the woman. "Oh, we poor people, what a miserable life we lead. We work and work from early morning till late at night, day after day, and when we get old, then it's, 'Away with you!'"
"What can we do? Our master is not one of us. It wouldn't be worth the while to say much to him about it. He cares only for his own advantage."
"All the masters are so mean. They don't think of any one but themselves. It doesn't occur to them that we work for them honestly and faithfully for years, and use up our best strength in their service. They're afraid to keep us a year longer, even though we've got all the strength we need to do their work. If we weren't strong enough, we'd go of our own accord.""The master's not so much to blame as his coachman. Yegor Danilych wants to get a good position for his friend."
"Yes, he's a serpent. He knows how to wag his tongue. You wait, you foul-mouthed beast, I'll get even with you. I'll go straight to the master and tell him how the fellow deceives him, how he steals the hay and fodder. I'll put it down in writing, and he can convince himself how the fellow lies about us all.""Don't, old woman. Don't sin."
"Sin? Isn't what I said all true? I know to a dot what I'm saying, and I mean to tell it straight out to the master. He should see with his own eyes. Why not? What can we do now anyhow? Where shall we go? He's ruined us, ruined us."The old woman burst out sobbing.
Gerasim heard all that, and it stabbed him like a dagger. He realised what misfortune he would be bringing the old people, and it made him sick at heart. He stood there a long while, saddened, lost in thought, then he turned and went back into the coachman's room."Ah, you forgot something?"
"No, Yegor Danilych." Gerasim stammered out, "I've come--listen--I want to thank you ever and ever so much--for the way you received me--and--and all the trouble you took for me--but--I can't take the place.""What! What does that mean?" "Nothing. I don't want the place. I will look for another one for myself." Yegor flew into a rage.
"Did you mean to make a fool of me, did you, you idiot? You come here so meek--'Try for me, do try for me'--and then you refuse to take the place. You rascal, you have disgraced me!"Gerasim found nothing to say in reply. He reddened, and lowered his eyes. Yegor turned his back scornfully and said nothing more.
Then Gerasim quietly picked up his cap and left the coachman's room. He crossed the yard rapidly, went out by the gate, and hurried off down the street. He felt happy and lighthearted.ONE AUTUMN NIGHT BY MAXIM GORKY
Once in the autumn I happened to be in a very unpleasant and inconvenient position. In the town where I had just arrived and where I knew not a soul, I found myself without a farthing in my pocket and without a night's lodging.
Having sold during the first few days every part of my costume without which it was still possible to go about, I passed from the town into the quarter called "Yste," where were the steamship wharves--a quarter which during the navigation season fermented with boisterous, laborious life, but now was silent and deserted, for we were in the last days of October.
Dragging my feet along the moist sand, and obstinately scrutinising it with the desire to discover in it any sort of fragment of food, I wandered alone among the deserted buildings and warehouses, and thought how good it would be to get a full meal.
In our present state of culture hunger of the mind is more quickly satisfied than hunger of the body. You wander about the streets, you are surrounded by buildings not bad-looking from the outside and--you may safely say it--not so badly furnished inside, and the sight of them may excite within you stimulating ideas about architecture, hygiene, and many other wise and high-flying subjects. You may meet warmly and neatly dressed folks--all very polite, and turning away from you tactfully, not wishing offensively to notice the lamentable fact of your existence. Well, well, the mind of a hungry man is always better nourished and healthier than the mind of the well-fed man; and there you have a situation from which you may draw a very ingenious conclusion in favour of the ill fed.
The evening was approaching, the rain was falling, and the wind blew violently from the north. It whistled in the empty booths and shops, blew into the plastered window-panes of the taverns, and whipped into foam the wavelets of the river which splashed noisily on the sandy shore, casting high their white crests, racing one after another into the dim distance, and leaping impetuously over one another's shoulders. It seemed as if the river felt the proximity of winter, and was running at random away from the fetters of ice which the north wind might well have flung upon her that very night. The sky was heavy and dark; down from it swept incessantly scarcely visible drops of rain, and the melancholy elegy in nature all around me was emphasised by a couple of battered and misshapen willow-trees and a boat, bottom upwards, that was fastened to their roots.
The overturned canoe with its battered keel and the miserable old trees rifled by the cold wind--everything around me was bankrupt, barren, and dead, and the sky flowed with undryable tears... Everything around was waste and gloomy ... it seemed as if everything were dead, leaving me alone among the living, and for me also a cold death waited.I was then eighteen years old--a good time!
I walked and walked along the cold wet sand, making my chattering teeth warble in honour of cold and hunger, when suddenly, as I was carefully searching for something to eat behind one of the empty crates, I perceived behind it, crouching on the ground, a figure in woman's clothes dank with the rain and clinging fast to her stooping shoulders. Standing over her, I watched to see what she was doing. It appeared that she was digging a trench in the sand with her hands--digging away under one of the crates."Why are you doing that?" I asked, crouching down on my heels quite close to her.
She gave a little scream and was quickly on her legs again. Now that she stood there staring at me, with her wide-open grey eyes full of terror, I perceived that it was a girl of my own age, with a very pleasant face embellished unfortunately by three large blue marks. This spoilt her, although these blue marks had been distributed with a remarkable sense of proportion, one at a time, and all were of equal size--two under the eyes, and one a little bigger on the forehead just over the bridge of the nose. This symmetry was evidently the work of an artist well inured to the business of spoiling the human physiognomy.
The girl looked at me, and the terror in her eyes gradually died out... She shook the sand from her hands, adjusted her cotton head-gear, cowered down, and said:
"I suppose you too want something to eat? Dig away then! My hands are tired. Over there"--she nodded her head in the direction of a booth--"there is bread for certain ... and sausages too... That booth is still carrying on business."I began to dig. She, after waiting a little and looking at me, sat down beside me and began to help me.
We worked in silence. I cannot say now whether I thought at that moment of the criminal code, of morality, of proprietorship, and all the other things about which, in the opinion of many experienced persons, one ought to think every moment of one's life. Wishing to keep as close to the truth as possible, I must confess that apparently I was so deeply engaged in digging under the crate that I completely forgot about everything else except this one thing: What could be inside that crate?
The evening drew on. The grey, mouldy, cold fog grew thicker and thicker around us. The waves roared with a hollower sound than before, and the rain pattered down on the boards of that crate more loudly and more frequently. Somewhere or other the night-watchman began springing his rattle.
"I say, has the crate got a bottom? If it has we shall try in vain to break into it. Here we are digging a trench, and we may, after all, come upon nothing but solid boards. How shall we take them off? Better smash the lock; it is a wretched lock."
Good ideas rarely visit the heads of women, but, as you see, they do visit them sometimes. I have always valued good ideas, and have always tried to utilise them as far as possible.
Having found the lock, I tugged at it and wrenched off the whole thing. My accomplice immediately stooped down and wriggled like a serpent into the gaping-open, four cornered cover of the crate whence she called to me approvingly, in a low tone:"You're a brick!"
Nowadays a little crumb of praise from a woman is dearer to me than a whole dithyramb from a man, even though he be more eloquent than all the ancient and modern orators put together. Then, however, I was less amiably disposed than I am now, and, paying no attention to the compliment of my comrade, I asked her curtly and anxiously:"Is there anything?" In a monotonous tone she set about calculating our discoveries. "A basketful of bottles--thick furs--a sunshade--an iron pail." All this was uneatable. I felt that my hopes had vanished... But suddenly she exclaimed vivaciously: "Aha! here it is!" "What?" "Bread ... a loaf ... it's only wet ... take it!"
A loaf flew to my feet and after it herself, my valiant comrade. I had already bitten off a morsel, stuffed it in my mouth, and was chewing it...
"Come, give me some too!... And we mustn't stay here... Where shall we go?" she looked inquiringly about on all sides... It was dark, wet, and boisterous.
"Let us go then!" And off we set, demolishing our booty as we went, and filling our mouths with large portions of it... The rain grew more violent, the river roared; from somewhere or other resounded a prolonged mocking whistle--just as if Someone great who feared nobody was whistling down all earthly institutions and along with them this horrid autumnal wind and us its heroes. This whistling made my heart throb painfully, in spite of which I greedily went on eating, and in this respect the girl, walking on my left hand, kept even pace with me."What do they call you?" I asked her--why I know not. "Natasha," she answered shortly, munching loudly.
I stared at her. My heart ached within me; and then I stared into the mist before me, and it seemed to me as if the inimical countenance of my Destiny was smiling at me enigmatically and coldly.* * * * *
The rain scourged the timbers of the skiff incessantly, and its soft patter induced melancholy thoughts, and the wind whistled as it flew down into the boat's battered bottom through a rift, where some loose splinters of wood were rattling together--a disquieting and depressing sound. The waves of the river were splashing on the shore, and sounded so monotonous and hopeless, just as if they were telling something unbearably dull and heavy, which was boring them into utter disgust, something from which they wanted to run away and yet were obliged to talk about all the same. The sound of the rain blended with their splashing, and a long-drawn sigh seemed to be floating above the overturned skiff--the endless, labouring sigh of the earth, injured and exhausted by the eternal changes from the bright and warm summer to the cold misty and damp autumn. The wind blew continually over the desolate shore and the foaming river--blew and sang its melancholy songs...
Our position beneath the shelter of the skiff was utterly devoid of comfort; it was narrow and damp, tiny cold drops of rain dribbled through the damaged bottom; gusts of wind penetrated it. We sat in silence and shivered with cold. I remembered that I wanted to go to sleep. Natasha leaned her back against the hull of the boat and curled herself up into a tiny ball. Embracing her knees with her hands, and resting her chin upon them, she stared doggedly at the river with wide-open eyes; on the pale patch of her face they seemed immense, because of the blue marks below them. She never moved, and this immobility and silence--I felt it--gradually produced within me a terror of my neighbour. I wanted to talk to her, but I knew not how to begin.It was she herself who spoke. "What a cursed thing life is!" she exclaimed plainly, abstractedly, and in a tone of deep conviction.
But this was no complaint. In these words there was too much of indifference for a complaint. This simple soul thought according to her understanding--thought and proceeded to form a certain conclusion which she expressed aloud, and which I could not confute for fear of contradicting myself. Therefore I was silent, and she, as if she had not noticed me, continued to sit there immovable.
"Even if we croaked ... what then...?" Natasha began again, this time quietly and reflectively, and still there was not one note of complaint in her words. It was plain that this person, in the course of her reflections on life, was regarding her own case, and had arrived at the conviction that in order to preserve herself from the mockeries of life, she was not in a position to do anything else but simply "croak"--to use her own expression.
The clearness of this line of thought was inexpressibly sad and painful to me, and I felt that if I kept silence any longer I was really bound to weep... And it would have been shameful to have done this before a woman, especially as she was not weeping herself. I resolved to speak to her."Who was it that knocked you about?" I asked. For the moment I could not think of anything more sensible or more delicate. "Pashka did it all," she answered in a dull and level tone. "And who is he?" "My lover... He was a baker." "Did he beat you often?" "Whenever he was drunk he beat me... Often!"
And suddenly, turning towards me, she began to talk about herself, Pashka, and their mutual relations. He was a baker with red moustaches and played very well on the banjo. He came to see her and greatly pleased her, for he was a merry chap and wore nice clean clothes. He had a vest which cost fifteen rubles and boots with dress tops. For these reasons she had fallen in love with him, and he became her "creditor." And when he became her creditor he made it his business to take away from her the money which her other friends gave to her for bonbons, and, getting drunk on this money, he would fall to beating her; but that would have been nothing if he hadn't also begun to "run after" other girls before her very eyes.