IF newcomers to the little provincial city of S. complained that life there was monotonous and dull, its inhabitants would answer that, on the contrary, S. was a very amusing place, indeed, that it had a library and a club, that balls were given there, and finally, that very pleasant families lived there with whom one might become acquainted. And they always pointed to the Turkins as the most accomplished and most enlightened family of all.
These Turkins lived in a house of their own, on Main Street, next door to the governor. Ivan Turkin, the father, was a stout, handsome, dark man with side-whiskers. He often organized amateur theatricals for charity, playing the parts of the old generals in them and coughing most amusingly. He knew a lot of funny stories, riddles, and proverbs, and loved to joke and pun with, all the while, such a quaint expression on his face that no one ever knew whether he was serious or jesting. His wife Vera was a thin, rather pretty woman who wore glasses and wrote stories and novels which she liked to read aloud to her guests. Katherine, the daughter, played the piano. In short, each member of the family had his or her special talent. The Turkins always welcomed their guests cordially and showed off their accomplishments to them with cheerful and genial simplicity. The interior of their large stone house was spacious, and, in summer, delightfully cool. Half of its windows looked out upon a shady old garden where, on spring evenings, the nightingales sang. Whenever there were guests in the house a mighty chopping would always begin in the kitchen, and a smell of fried onions would pervade the courtyard. These signs always foretold a sumptuous and appetising supper.
So it came to pass that when Dimitri Ionitch Startseff received his appointment as government doctor, and went to live in Dialij, six miles from S., he too, as an intelligent man, was told that he must not fail to make the Turkins' acquaintance. Turkin was presented to him on the street one winter's day; they talked of the weather and the theatre and the cholera, and an invitation from Turkin followed. Next spring, on Ascension Day, after he had received his patients, Startseff went into town for a little holiday, and to make some purchases. He strolled along at a leisurely pace (he had no horse of his own yet), and as he walked he sang to himself:
- "Before I had drunk those tears from Life's cup—"
After dining in town he sauntered through the public gardens, and the memory of Turkin's invitation somehow came into his mind. He decided to go to their house and see for himself what sort of people they were.
"Be welcome, if you please !" cried Turkin, meeting him on the front steps. "I am delighted, delighted to see such a welcome guest ! Come, let me introduce you to the missus. I told him. Vera," he continued, presenting the doctor to his wife, "I told him that no law of the Medes and Persians allows him to shut himself up in his hospital as he does. He ought to give society the benefit of his leisure hours, oughtn't he, dearest?"
"Sit down here," said Madame Turkin, beckoning him to a seat at her side. "You may flirt with me, if you like. My husband is jealous, a regular Othello, but we'll try to behave so that he shan't notice anything."
"Oh, you little wretch, you!" murmured Turkin, tenderly kissing her forehead. "You have come at a very opportune moment," he went on, addressing his guest. "My missus has just written a splendiferous novel and is going to read it aloud to-day."
"Jean," said Madame Turkin to her husband. "Dites que l'on nous donne du the."
Startseff next made the acquaintance of Miss Katherine, an eighteen-year old girl who much resembled her mother. Like her, she was pretty and slender; her expression was childlike still, and her figure delicate and supple, but her full, girlish chest spoke of spring and of the loveliness of spring. They drank tea with jam, honey, and sweetmeats and ate delicious cakes that melted in the mouth. When evening came other guests began to arrive, and Turkin turned his laughing eyes on each one in turn exclaiming :
"Be welcome, if you please!"
"When all had assembled, they took their seats in the drawing-room, and Madame Turkin read her novel aloud. The story began with the words: "The frost was tightening its grasp." The windows were open wide, and sounds of chopping could be heard in the kitchen, while the smell of fried onions came floating through the air. Every one felt very peaceful sitting there in those deep, soft armchairs, while the friendly lamplight played tenderly among the shadows of the drawing-room. On that evening of summer, with the sound of voices and laughter floating up from the street, and the scent of lilacs blowing in through the open windows, it was hard to imagine the frost tightening its grasp, and the setting sun illuminating with its bleak rays a snowy plain and a solitary wayfarer journeying across it. Madame Turkin read of how a beautiful princess had built a school, and hospital, and library in the village where she lived, and had fallen in love with a strolling artist. She read of things that had never happened in this world, and yet it was delightfully comfortable to sit there and listen to her, while such pleasant and peaceful dreams floated through one's fancy that one wished never to move again.
"Not baddish!" said Turkin softly. And one of the guests, who had allowed his thoughts to roam far, far afield, said almost inaudibly:
"Yes—it is indeed!"
One hour passed, two hours passed. The town band began playing in the public gardens, and a chorus of singers struck up "The Little Torch." After Madame Turkin had folded her manuscript, every one sat silent for five minutes, listening to the old folk-song telling of things that happen in life and not in story-books.
"Do you have your stories published in the magazines?" asked Startseff.
"No," she answered. "I have never had anything published. I put all my manuscripts away in a closet. Why should I publish them?" she added by way of explanation. "We don't need the money."
And for some reason every one sighed.
"And now, Kitty, play us something," said Turkin to his daughter.
Some one raised the top of the piano, and opened the music which was already lying at hand. Katherine struck the keys with both hands. Then she struck them again with all her might, and then again and again. Her chest and shoulders quivered, and she obstinately hammered the same place, so that it seemed as if she were determined not to stop playing until she had beaten the keyboard into the piano. The drawing-room was filled with thunder; the floor, the ceiling, the furniture, everything rumbled. Katherine played a long, monotonous piece, interesting only for its intricacy, and as Startseff listened, he imagined he saw endless rocks rolling down a high mountainside. He wanted them to stop rolling as quickly as possible, and at the same time Katherine pleased him immensely, she looked so energetic and strong, all rosy from her exertions, with a lock of hair hanging down over her forehead. After his winter spent among sick people and peasants in Dialij, it was a new and agreeable sensation to be sitting in a drawing-room watching that graceful, pure young girl and listening to those noisy, monotonous but cultured sounds.
"Well, Kitty, you played better than ever to-day !" exclaimed Turkin, with tears in his eyes when his daughter had finished and risen from the piano-stool. "Last the best, you know!"
The guests all surrounded her exclaiming, congratulating, and declaring that they had not heard such music for ages. Kitty listened in silence, smiling a little, and triumph was written all over her face.
"Beautiful!" exclaimed Startseff, abandoning himself to the general enthusiasm. "Where did you study music? At the conservatory?" he asked Katherine.
"No, I haven't been to the conservatory, but I am going there very soon. So far I have only had lessons here from Madame Zakivska."
"Did you go to the high school?"
"Oh, dear no !" the mother answered for her daughter. "We had teachers come to the house for her. She might have come under bad influences at school, you know. While a girl is growing up she should be under her mother's influence only."
"I'm going to the conservatory all the same!" declared Katherine.
"No, Kitty loves her mamma too much for that; Kitty would not grieve her mamma and papa !"
"Yes, I am going!" Katherine insisted, playfully and wilfully stamping her little foot.
At supper it was Turkin who showed off his accomplishments. With laughing eyes, but with a serious face he told funny stories, and made jokes, and asked ridiculous riddles which he answered himself. He spoke a language all his own, full of laboured, acrobatic feats of wit, in the shape of such words as "splendiferous," "not baddish," "I thank you blindly," which had clearly long since become a habit with him.
But this was not the end of the entertainment. When the well-fed, well-satisfied guests had trooped into the front hall to sort out their hats and canes they found Pava the footman, a shaven-headed boy of fourteen, bustling about among them.
"Come now, Pava! Do your act!" cried Turkin to the lad.
Pava struck an attitude, raised one hand, and said in a tragic voice:
"Die, unhappy woman!"
At which every one laughed.
"Quite amusing!" thought Startseff, as he stepped out into the street.
He went to a restaurant and had a glass of beer, and then started off on foot for his home in Dialij. As he walked he sang to himself:
- "Your voice so languorous and soft—"
He felt no trace of fatigue after his six-mile walk, and as he went to bed he thought that, on the contrary, he would gladly have walked another fifteen miles.
"Not baddish!" he remembered as he fell asleep, and laughed aloud at the recollection.
After that Startseff was always meaning to go to the Turkins' again, but he was kept very busy in the hospital, and for the life of him could not win an hour's leisure for himself. More than a year of solitude and toil thus went by, until one day a letter in a blue envelope was brought to him from the city.
Madame Turkin had long been a sufferer from headaches, but since Kitty had begun to frighten her every day by threatening to go away to the conservatory her attacks had become more frequent. All the doctors in the city had treated her and now, at last, it was the country doctor's turn. Madame Turkin wrote him a moving appeal in which she implored him to come, and relieve her sufferings. Startseff went, and after that he began to visit the Turkins often, very often. The fact was, he did help Madame Turkin a little, and she hastened to tell all her guests what a wonderful and unusual physician he was, but it was not Madame Turkin's headaches that took Startseff to the house.
One evening, on a holiday, when Katherine had finished her long, wearisome exercises on the piano, they all went into the dining-room and had sat there a long time drinking tea while Turkin told some of those funny stories of his. Suddenly a bell rang. Some one had to go to the front door to meet a newly come guest, and Startseff took advantage of the momentary confusion to whisper into Katherine's ear with intense agitation:
"For heaven's sake come into the garden with me, I beseech you ! Don't torment me !"
She shrugged her shoulders as if in doubt as to what he wanted of her, but rose, nevertheless, and went out with him.
"You play for three or four hours a day on the piano, and then go and sit with your mother, and I never have the slightest chance to talk to you. Give me just one quarter of an hour, I implore you ! "
Autumn was approaching, and the old garden, its paths strewn with fallen leaves, was quiet and melancholy. The early twilight was falling.
"I have not seen you for one whole week," Startseff went on. "If you only knew what agony that has been for me ! Let us sit down. Listen to me !"
The favourite haunt of both was a bench under an old spreading maple-tree. On this they took their seats.
"What is it you want." asked Katherine in a hard, practical voice.
"I have not seen you for one whole week. I have not heard you speak for such a long time ! I long madly for the sound of your voice. I hunger for it! Speak to me now !"
He was carried away by her freshness and the candid expression of her eyes and cheeks. He even saw in the fit of her dress something extraordinarily touching and sweet in its simplicity and artless grace. And at the same time, with all her innocence, she seemed to him wonderfully clever and precocious for her years. He could talk to her of literature or art or anything he pleased and could pour out his complaints to her about the life he led and the people he met, even if she did sometimes laugh for no reason when he was talking seriously, or jump up and run into the house. Like all the young ladies in S., she read a great deal. Most people there read very little, and, indeed, it was said in the library that if it were not for the girls, and the young Jews, the building might as well be closed. This reading of Katherine's was an endless source of pleasure to Startseff. Each time he met her he would ask her with emotion what she had been reading, and would listen enchanted as she told him.
"What have you read this week since we last saw one another?" he now asked. "Tell me, I beg you."
"I have been reading Pisemski."
"What have you been reading of Pisemski's?"
"'The Thousand Souls,'" answered Kitty. "What a funny name Pisemski had: Alexei Theofilaktitch ! "
"Where are you going?" cried Startseff in terror as she suddenly jumped up and started toward the house. "I absolutely must speak to you. I want to tell you something ! Stay with me, if only for five minutes, I implore you !"
She stopped as if she meant to answer him, and then awkwardly slipped a note into his hand and ran away into the house where she took her seat at the piano once more.
"Meet me in the cemetery at Demetti's grave tonight at eleven," Startseff read.
"How absurd !" he thought, when he had recovered himself a little. "Why in the cemetery? What is the sense of that?"
The answer was clear: Kitty was fooling. Who would think seriously of making a tryst at night in a cemetery far outside the city when it would have been so easy to meet in the street or in the public gardens ? Was it becoming for him, a government doctor and a serious-minded person, to sigh and receive notes and wander about a cemetery, and do silly things that even schoolboys made fun of? How would this little adventure end? What would his friends say if they knew of it? These were Startseff's reflections, as he wandered about among the tables at the club that evening, but at half past ten he suddenly changed his mind and drove to the cemetery.
He had his own carriage and pair now, and a coachman named Panteleimon in a long velvet coat. The moon was shining. The night was still and mellow, but with an autumnal softness. The dogs barked at him as he drove through the suburbs and out through the city gates. Startseff stopped his carriage in an alley on the edge of the town and continued his way to the cemetery on foot.
"Every one has his freaks," he reflected. "Kitty is freakish, too, and, who knows, perhaps she was not joking and may come after all."
He abandoned himself to this faint, groundless hope, and it intoxicated him.
He crossed the fields for half a mile. The dark band of trees in the cemetery appeared in the distance like a wood or a large garden, then a white stone wall loomed up before him, and soon, by the light of the moon, Startseff was able to read the inscription over the gate: "Thy hour also approacheth—" He went in through a little side gate, and his eye was struck first by the white crosses and monuments on either side of a wide avenue, and by their black shadows and the shadows of the tall poplars that bordered the walk. Around him, on all sides, he could see the same checkering of white and black, with the sleeping trees brooding over the white tombstones. The night did not seem so dark as it had appeared in the fields. The fallen leaves of the maples, like tiny hands, lay sharply defined upon the sandy walks and marble slabs, and the inscriptions on the tombstones were clearly legible. Startseff was struck with the reflection that he now saw for the first and perhaps the last time a world unlike any other, a world that seemed to be the very cradle of the soft moonlight, where there was no life, no, not a breath of it; and yet, in every dark poplar, in every grave he felt the presence of a great mystery promising life, calm, beautiful, and eternal. Peace and sadness and mercy rose with the scent of autumn from the graves, the leaves, and the faded flowers.
Profoundest silence lay over all; the stars looked down from heaven with deep humility. Startseff's footsteps sounded jarring and out of place. It was only when the church-bells began to ring the hour, and he imagined himself lying dead under the ground for ever, that some one seemed to be watching him, and he thought suddenly that here were not silence and peace, but stifling despair and the dull anguish of nonexistence.
Demetti's grave was a little chapel surmounted by an angel. An Italian opera troupe had once come to S., and one of its members had died there. She had been buried here, and this monument had been erected to her memory. No one in the city any longer remembered her, but the shrine lamp hanging in the doorway sparkled in the moon's rays and seemed to be alight.
No one was at the grave, and who should come there at midnight ? Startseff waited, and the moonlight kindled all the passion in him. He ardently painted in his imagination the longed-for kiss and the embrace. He sat down beside the monument for half an hour, and then walked up and down the paths with his hat in his hand, waiting and thinking. How many girls, how many women, were lying here under these stones who had been beautiful and enchanting, and who had loved and glowed with passion in the night under the caresses of their lovers ! How cruelly does Mother Nature jest with mankind! How bitter to acknowledge it! So thought Startseff and longed to scream aloud that he did not want to be jested with, that he wanted love at any price. Around him gleamed not white blocks of marble, but beautiful human forms timidly hiding among the shadows of the trees. He felt keen anguish.
Then, as if a curtain had been drawn across the scene, the moon vanished behind a cloud and darkness fell about him. Startseff found the gate with difficulty in the obscurity of the autumn night, and then wandered about for more than an hour in search of the alley where he had left his carriage.
"I am so tired, I am ready to drop," he said to Panteleimon.
And, as he sank blissfully into his seat, he thought:
"Oh dear, I must not get fat!"
On the evening of the following day Startseff drove to the Turkins' to make his proposal. But he proved to have come at an unfortunate time, as Katherine was in her room having her hair dressed by a coiffeur before going to a dance at the club.
Once more Startseff was obliged to sit in the dining-room for an age drinking tea. Seeing that his guest was pensive and bored, Turkin took a scrap of paper out of his waistcoat pocket, and read aloud a droll letter from his German manager telling how "all the disavowals on the estate had been spoiled and all the modesty had been shaken down."
"They will probably give her a good dowry," thought Startseff, listening vacantly to what was being read.
After his sleepless night he felt almost stunned, as if he had drunk some sweet but poisonous sleeping potion. His mind was hazy but warm and cheerful, though at the same time a cold, hard fragment of his brain kept reasoning with him and saying:
"Stop before it is too late ! Is she the woman for you.? She is willful and spoiled; she sleeps until two every day, and you are a government doctor and a poor deacon's son."
"Well, what does that matter ? " he thought. " What if I am?"
"And what is more," that cold fragment continued. "If you marry her her family will make you give up your government position, and live in town."
"And what of that?" he thought. "I'll live in town then ! She will have a dowry. We will keep house."
At last Katherine appeared, looking pretty and immaculate in her low-necked ball dress, and the moment Startseff saw her he fell into such transports that he could not utter a word and could only stare at her and laugh.
She began to say good-bye, and as there was nothing to keep him here now that she was going, he, too, rose, saying that it was time for him to be off to attend to his patients in Dialij.
"If you must go now," said Turkin, "you can take Kitty to the club; it is on your way."
A light drizzle was falling and it was very dark, so that only by the help of Panteleimon's cough could they tell where the carriage was. The hood of the victoria was raised.
"Roll away !" cried Turkin, seating his daughter in the carriage. "Rolling stones gather no moss! God speed you, if you please ! "
They drove away.
"I went to the cemetery last night," Startseff began. "How heartless and unkind of you "
"You went to the cemetery?"
"Yes, I did, and waited there for you until nearly two o'clock. I was very unhappy."
"Then be unhappy if you can't understand a joke!"
Delighted to have caught her lover so cleverly, and to see him so much in lovе, Katherine burst out laughing, and then suddenly screamed as the carriage tipped and turned sharply in at the club gates. Startseff put his arm around her waist, and in her fright the girl pressed closer to him. At that he could contain himself no longer, and passionately kissed her on the lips and on the chin, holding her tighter than ever.
"That will do!" she said drily.
And a moment later she was no longer in the carriage, and the policeman standing near the lighted entrance to the club was shouting to Panteleimon in a harsh voice:
"Move on, you old crow! What are you standing there for?"
Startseff drove home, but only to return at once arrayed in a borrowed dress suit and a stiff collar that was always trying to climb up off the collar-band. At midnight he was sitting in the reception-room of the club, saying passionately to Katherine:
"Oh, how ignorant people are who have never loved ! No one, I think, has ever truly described love, and it would scarcely be possible to depict this tender, blissful, agonising feeling. He who has once felt it would never be able to put it into words. Do I need introductions and descriptions? Do I need oratory to tell me what it is? My love is unspeakable—I beg you, I implore you to be my wife!" cried Startseff at last.
"Dimitri Ionitch," said Katherine, assuming a very serious, thoughtful expression. "Dimitri Ionitch, I am very grateful to you for the honour you do me. I esteem you, but—" here she rose and stood before him. "But, forgive me, I cannot be your wife. Let us be serious. You know, Dimitri Ionitch, that I love art more than anything else in the world . I am passionately fond of, I adore, music, and if I could I would consecrate my whole life to it. I want to be a musician. I long for fame and success and freedom and you ask me to go on living in this town, and to continue this empty, useless existence which has become unbearable to me ! You want me to marry ? Ah no, that cannot be ! One should strive for a higher and brighter ideal, and family life would tie me down for ever. Dimitri Ionitch—" (she smiled a little as she said these words, remembering Alexei Theofilaktitch) "Dimitri Ionitch, you are kind and noble and clever, you are the nicest man I know" (her eyes filled with tears). "I sympathise with you with all my heart, but—but you must understand "
She turned away and left the room, unable to restrain her tears.
Startseff's heart ceased beating madly. His first action on reaching the street was to tear off his stiff collar and draw a long, deep breath. He felt a little humiliated, and his pride was stung, for he had not expected a refusal, and could not believe that all his hopes and pangs and dreams had come to such a silly ending; he might as well have been the hero of a playlet at a performance of amateur theatricals ! He regretted his lost love and emotion, regretted it so keenly that he could have sobbed aloud or given Panteleimon's broad back a good, sound blow with his umbrella.
For three days after that evening his business went to ruin, and he could neither eat nor sleep, but when he heard a rumour that Katherine had gone to Moscow to enter the conservatory he grew calmer, and once more gathered up the lost threads of his life.
Later, when he remembered how he had wandered about the cemetery and rushed all over town looking for a dress suit, he would yawn lazily and say:
"What a business that was ! "
Four years went by. Startseff now had a large practice in the city. He hastily prescribed for his sick people every morning at Dialij, and then drove to town to see his patients there, returning late at night. He had grown stouter and heavier, and would not walk, if he could help it, suffering as he did from asthma. Panteleimon, too, had become stouter, and the more he grew in width the more bitterly he sighed and lamented his hard lot : he was so tired of driving !
Startseff was now an occasional guest at several houses, but he had made close friends with no one. The conversation, the point of view, and even the looks of the inhabitants of S. bored him. Experience had taught him that as long as he played cards, or dined with them, they were peaceful, good-natured, and even fairly intelligent folk, but he had only to speak of anything that was not edible, he had only to mention politics or science to them, for them to become utterly non-plussed, or else to talk such foolish and mischievous nonsense that there was nothing to be done but to shrug one's shoulders and leave them. If Startseff tried to say to even the most liberal of them that, for instance, mankind was fortunately progressing, and that in time we should no longer suffer under a system of passports and capital punishment, they would look at him askance, and say mistrustfully: "Then one will be able to kill any one one wants to on the street, will one ? " Or if at supper, in talking about work, Startseff said that labour was a good thing, and every one should work, each person present would take it as a personal affront and begin an angry and tiresome argument. As they never did anything and were not interested in anything, and as Startseff could never for the life of him think of anything to say to them, he avoided all conversation and confined himself to eating and playing cards. If there was a family fete at one of the houses and he was asked to dinner, he would eat in silence with his eyes fixed on his plate, listening to all the uninteresting, false, stupid things that were being said around him and feeling irritated and bored. But he would remain silent, and because he always sternly held his tongue and never raised his eyes from his plate, he was known as "the puffed-up Pole," although he was no more of a Pole than you or I. He shunned amusements, such as theatres and concerts, but he played cards with enjoyment for two or three hours every evening. There was one other pleasure to which he had unconsciously, little by little, become addicted, and that was to empty his pockets every evening of the little bills he had received in his practice during the day. Sometimes he would find them scattered through all his pockets, seventy roubles' worth of them, yellow ones and green ones, smelling of scent, and vinegar, and incense, and kerosene. When he had collected a hundred or more he would take them to the Mutual Loan Society, and have them put to his account.
In all the four years following Katherine's departure, he had only been to the Turkins' twice, each time at the request of Madame Turkin, who was still suffering from headaches. Katherine came back every summer to visit her parents, but he did not see her once; chance, somehow, willed otherwise.
And so four years had gone by. One warm, still morning a letter was brought to him at the hospital, Madame Turkin wrote that she missed Dimitri Ionitch very much and begged him to come without fail and relieve her sufferings, especially as it happened to be her birthday that day. At the end of the letter was a postscript: "I join my entreaties to those of my mother. K."
Startseff reflected a moment, and in the evening he drove to the Turkins'.
"Ah, be welcome, if you please !" Turkin cried with smiling eyes. " Bonjour to you ! "
Madame Turkin, who had aged greatly and whose hair was now white, pressed his hand and sighed affectedly, saying:
"You don't want to flirt with me I see, doctor, you never come to see me. I am too old for you, but here is a young thing, perhaps she may be more lucky than I am!"
And Kitty? She had grown thinner and paler and was handsomer and more graceful than before, but she was Miss Katherine now, and Kitty no longer. Her freshness, and her artless, childish expression were gone; there was something new in her glance and manner, something timid and apologetic, as if she no longer felt at home here, in the house of the Turkins.
"How many summers, how many winters have gone by!" she said, giving her hand to Startseff, and one could see that her heart was beating anxiously. She looked curiously and intently into his face, and continued: "How stout you have grown! You look browner and more manly, but otherwise you haven't changed much."
She pleased him now as she had pleased him before, she pleased him very much, but something seemed to be wanting in her—or was it that there was something about her which would better have been lacking ? He could not say, but he was prevented, somehow, from feeling toward her as he had felt in the past. He did not like her pallor, the new expression in her face, her weak smile, her voice, and, in a little while, he did not like her dress and the chair she was sitting in, and something displeased him about the past in which he had nearly married her. He remembered his love and the dreams and hopes that had thrilled him four years ago, and at the recollection he felt awkward.
They drank tea and ate cake. Then Madame Turkin read a story aloud, read of things that had never happened in this world, while Startseff sat looking at her handsome grey head, waiting for her to finish.
"It is not the people who can't write novels who are stupid," he thought. "But the people who write them and can't conceal it."
"Not baddish!" said Turkin.
Then Katherine played a long, loud piece on the piano, and when she had finished every one went into raptures and overwhelmed her with prolonged expressions of gratitude.
"It's a good thing I didn't marry her ! " thought Startseff.
She looked at him, evidently expecting him to invite her to go into the garden, but he remained silent.
"Do let us have a talk !" she said going up to him. "How are you? What are you doing ? Tell me about it all ! I have been thinking about you for three days," she added nervously. "I wanted to write you a letter, I wanted to go to see you myself at Dialij, and then changed my mind. I have no idea how you will treat me now. I was so excited waiting for you to-day. Do let us go into the garden !"
They went out and took their seats under the old maple-tree, where they had sat four years before. Night was falling.
"Well, and what have you been doing?" asked Katherine.
"Nothing much; just living somehow," answered Startseff.
And that was all he could think of saying. They were silent.
"I am so excited!" said Katherine, covering her face with her hands. "But don't pay any attention to me. I am so glad to be at home, I am so glad to see every one again that I cannot get used to it. How many memories we have between us ! I thought you and I would talk without stopping until morning ! "
He saw her face and her shining eyes more closely now, and she looked younger to him than she had in the house. Even her childish expression seemed to have returned. She was gazing at him with naive curiosity, as if she wanted to see and understand more clearly this man who had once loved her so tenderly and so unhappily. Her eyes thanked him for his love. And he remembered all that had passed between them down to the smallest detail, remembered how he had wandered about the cemetery and had gone home exhausted at dawn. He grew suddenly sad and felt sorry to think that the past had vanished for ever. A little flame sprang up in his heart.
"Do you remember how I took you to the club that evening?" he asked. "It was raining and dark "
The little flame was burning more brightly, and now he wanted to talk and to lament his dull life.
"Alas!" he sighed. "You ask what I have been doing ! What do we all do here ? Nothing ! We grow older and fatter and more sluggish. Day in, day out our colourless life passes by without impressions, without thoughts. It is money by day and the club by night, in the company of gamblers and inebriates whom I cannot endure. What is there in that."
"But you have your work, your noble end in life. You used to like so much to talk about your hospital. I was a queer girl then, I thought I was a great pianist. All girls play the piano these days, and I played, too; there was nothing remarkable about me. I am as much of a pianist as mamma is an author. Of course I didn't understand you then, but later, in Moscow, I often thought of you. I thought only of you. Oh, what a joy it must be to be a country doctor, to help the sick and to serve the people! Oh, what a joy!" Katherine repeated with exaltation. " When I thought of you while I was in Moscow you seemed to me to be so lofty and ideal "
Startseff remembered the little bills which he took out of his pockets every evening with such pleasure, and the little flame went out.
He rose to go into the house. She took his arm.
"You are the nicest person I have ever known in my life," she continued. "We shall see one another and talk together often, shan't we ? Promise me that ! I am not a pianist, I cherish no more illusions about myself, and shall not play to you or talk music to you any more."
When they had entered the house, and, in the evening light, Startseff saw her face and her melancholy eyes turned on him full of gratitude and suffering, he felt uneasy and thought again:
"It's a good thing I didn't marry her!"
He began to take his leave.
"No law of the Medes and Persians allows you to go away before supper!" cried Turkin, accompanying him to the door. "It is extremely peripatetic on your part. Come, do your act!" he cried to Pava as they reached the front hall.
Pava, no longer a boy, but a young fellow with a moustache, struck an attitude, raised one hand, and said in a tragic voice:
"Die, unhappy woman!"
All this irritated Startseff, and as he took his seat in his carriage and looked at the house and the dark garden that had once been so dear to him, he was overwhelmed by the recollection of Madame Turkin's novels and Kitty's noisy playing and Turkin's witticisms and Pava's tragic pose, and, as he recalled them, he thought:
"If the cleverest people in town are as stupid as that, what a deadly town this must be !"
Three days later Pava brought the doctor a letter from Katherine.
"You don't come to see us; why?" she wrote. "I am afraid your feeling for us has changed, and the very thought of that terrifies me. Calm my fears; come and tell me that all is well ! I absolutely must see you. Yours,
- K. T."
He read the letter, reflected a moment, and said to Pava:
"Tell them I can't get away to-day, my boy. Tell them I'll go to see them in three days' time."
But three days went by, a week went by, and still he did not go. Every time that he drove past the Turkins' house he remembered that he ought to drop in there for a few minutes; he remembered it and—did not go.
He never went to the Turkins' again.
Several years have passed since then. Startseff is stouter than ever now, he is even fat. He breathes heavily and walks with his head thrown back. The picture he now makes, as he drives by with his troika and his jingling carriage-bells, is impressive. He is round and red, and Panteleimon, round and red, with a brawny neck, sits on the box with his arms stuck straight out in front of him like pieces of wood, shouting to every one he meets : "Turn to the right ! " It is more like the passage of a heathen god than of a man. He has an immense practice in the city, there is no time for repining now. He already owns an estate in the country and two houses in town, and is thinking of buying a third which will be even more remunerative than the others. If, at the Mutual Loan Society, he hears of a house for sale he goes straight to it, enters it without more ado, and walks through all the rooms not paying the slightest heed to any women or children who may be dressing there, though they look at him with doubt and fear. He taps all the doors with his cane and asks:
"Is this the library ? Is this a bedroom ? And what is this?"
And he breathes heavily as he says it and wipes the perspiration from his forehead.
Although he has so much business on his hands, he still keeps his position of government doctor at Dialij. His acquisitiveness is too strong, and he wants to find time for everything. He is simply called "Ionitch" now, both in Dialij and in the city. "Where is Ionitch going?" the people ask, or "Shall we call in Ionitch to the consultation?"
His voice has changed and has become squeaky and harsh, probably because his throat is obstructed with fat. His character, too, has changed and he has grown irascible and crusty. He generally loses his temper with his patients and irritably thumps the floor with his stick, exclaiming in his unpleasant voice :
"Be good enough to confine yourself to answering my questions! No conversation!"
He is lonely, he is bored, and nothing interests him.
During all his life in Dialij his love for Kitty had been his only happiness, and will probably be his last. In the evening he plays cards in the club, and then sits alone at a large table and has supper. Ivan, the oldest and most respectable of the waiters, waits upon him and pours out his glass of Lafitte No. 17. Every one at the club, the officers and the chef and the waiters, all know what he likes and what he doesn't like and strive with might and main to please him, for if they don't he will suddenly grow angry and begin thumping the floor with his cane.
After supper he occasionally relents and takes part in a conversation.
"What were you saying? What? Whom did you say?"
And if the conversation at a neighbouring table turns on the Turkins, he asks:
"Which Turkins do you mean? The ones whose daughter plays the piano?"
That is all that can be said of Startseff.
And the Turkins? The father has not grown old, and has not changed in any way. He still makes jokes and tells funny stories. The mother still reads her novels aloud to her guests, with as much pleasure and genial simplicity as ever. Kitty practises the piano for four hours every day. She has grown conspicuously older, is delicate, and goes to the Crimea every autumn with her mother. As he bids them farewell at the station, Turkin wipes his eyes and cries as the train moves away:
"God speed you, if you please!"
And he waves his handkerchief after them.