Punin and Baburin
PUNIN AND BABURIN
PIOTR PETROVITCH'S STORY
. . . I am old and ill now, and my thoughts brood oftenest upon death, every day coming nearer; rarely I think of the past, rarely I turn the eyes of my soul behind me. Only from time to time—in winter, as I sit motionless before the glowing fire, in summer, as I pace with slow tread along the shady avenue—I recall past years, events, faces; but it is not on my mature years nor on my youth that my thoughts rest at such times. They either carry me back to my earliest childhood, or to the first years of boyhood. Now, for instance, I see myself in the country with my stern and wrathful grandmother—I was only twelve—and two figures rise up before my imagination.. . .
But I will begin my story consecutively, and in proper order.
The old footman Filippitch came in, on tip-toe, as usual, with a cravat tied up in a rosette, with tightly compressed lips, 'lest his breath should be smelt,' with a grey tuft of hair standing up in the very middle of his forehead. He came in, bowed, and handed my grandmother on an iron tray a large letter with an heraldic seal. My grandmother put on her spectacles, read the letter through. . . .
'Is he here?' she asked.
'What is my lady pleased . . .' Filippitch began timidly.
'Imbecile! The man who brought the letter—is he here?'
'He is here, to be sure he is. . . . He is sitting in the counting-house.'
My grandmother rattled her amber rosary beads. . . .
'Tell him to come to me. . . . And you, sir,' she turned to me, 'sit still.'
As it was, I was sitting perfectly still in my corner, on the stool assigned to me.
My grandmother kept me well in hand!
Five minutes later there came into the room a man of five-and-thirty, black-haired and swarthy, with broad cheek-bones, a face marked with smallpox, a hook nose, and thick eyebrows, from under which the small grey eyes looked out with mournful composure. The colour of the eyes and their expression were out of keeping with the Oriental cast of the rest of the face. The man was dressed in a decent, long-skirted coat. He stopped in the doorway, and bowed—only with his head.
"So your name's Baburin?" queried my grandmother, and she added to herself: ' Il a l'air d'un arménien.'
'Yes, it is,' the man answered in a deep and even voice. At the first brusque sound of my grandmother's voice his eyebrows faintly quivered. Surely he had not expected her to address him as an equal?
'Are you a Russian? orthodox?'
My grandmother took off her spectacles, and scanned Baburin from head to foot deliberately. He did not drop his eyes, he merely folded his hands behind his back. What particularly struck my fancy was his beard; it was very smoothly shaven, but such blue cheeks and chin I had never seen in my life!
'Yakov Petrovitch,' began my grandmother, 'recommends you strongly in his letter as sober and industrious; why, then, did you leave his service?'
'He needs a different sort of person to manage his estate, madam.'
'A different . . . sort? That I don't quite understand.'
My grandmother rattled her beads again. 'Yakov Petrovitch writes to me that there are two peculiarities about you. What peculiarities?'
Baburin shrugged his shoulders slightly.
'I can't tell what he sees fit to call peculiarities. Possibly that I . . . don't allow corporal punishment.'
My grandmother was surprised. 'Do you mean to say Yakov Petrovitch wanted to flog you?'
Baburin's swarthy face grew red to the roots of his hair.
'You have not understood me right, madam. I make it a rule not to employ corporal punishment . . . with the peasants.'
My grandmother was more surprised than ever; she positively threw up her hands.
'Ah!' she pronounced at last, and putting her head a little on one side, once more she scrutinised Baburin attentively. 'So that's your rule, is it? Well, that's of no consequence whatever to me; I don't want an overseer, but a counting-house clerk, a secretary. What sort of a hand do you write?'
'I write well, without mistakes in spelling.'
'That too is of no consequence to me. The great thing for me is for it to be clear, and without any of those new copybook letters with tails, that I don't like. And what's your other peculiarity?'
Baburin moved uneasily, coughed. . . .
'Perhaps . . . the gentleman has referred to the fact that I am not alone.'
'You are married?'
'Oh no . . . but . . .'
My grandmother knit her brows.
'There is a person living with me . . . of the male sex . . . a comrade, a poor friend, from whom I have never parted . . . for . . . let me see . . . ten years now.'
'A relation of yours?'
'No, not a relation—a friend. As to work, there can be no possible hindrance occasioned by him,' Baburin made haste to add, as though foreseeing objections. 'He lives at my cost, occupies the same room with me; he is more likely to be of use, as he is well educated—speaking without flattery, extremely so, in fact—and his morals are exemplary.'
My grandmother heard Baburin out, chewing her lips and half closing her eyes.
'He lives at your expense?'
'You keep him out of charity?'
'As an act of justice . . . as it's the duty of one poor man to help another poor man.'
'Indeed! It's the first time I've heard that. I had supposed till now that that was rather the duty of rich people.'
'For the rich, if I may venture to say so, it is an entertainment . . . but for such as we . . .'
'Well, well, that's enough, that's enough,' my grandmother cut him short; and after a moment's thought she queried, speaking through her nose, which was always a bad sign, 'And what age is he, your protégé?'
'About my own age.'
'Really, I imagined that you were bringing him up.'
'Not so; he is my comrade—and besides . . .'
'That's enough,' my grandmother cut him short a second time. 'You're a philanthropist, it seems. Yakov Petrovitch is right; for a man in your position it's something very peculiar. But now let's get to business. I'll explain to you what your duties will be. And as regards wages. . . . Que faites vous ici? ' added my grandmother suddenly, turning her dry, yellow face to me:— 'Allez étudier votre devoir de mythologie. '
I jumped up, went up to kiss my grandmother's hand, and went out,—not to study mythology, but simply into the garden.
The garden on my grandmother's estate was very old and large, and was bounded on one side by a flowing pond, in which there were not only plenty of carp and eels, but even loach were caught, those renowned loach, that have nowadays disappeared almost everywhere. At the head of this pond was a thick clump of willows; further and higher, on both sides of a rising slope, were dense bushes of hazel, elder, honeysuckle, and sloe-thorn, with an undergrowth of heather and clover flowers. Here and there between the bushes were tiny clearings, covered with emerald-green, silky, fine grass, in the midst of which squat funguses peeped out with their comical, variegated pink, lilac, and straw-coloured caps, and golden balls of 'hen-dazzle' blazed in light patches. Here in spring-time the nightingales sang, the blackbirds whistled, the cuckoos called; here in the heat of summer it was always cool—and I loved to make my way into the wilderness and thicket, where I had favourite secret spots, known—so, at least, I imagined—only to me.
On coming out of my grandmother's room I made straight for one of these spots, which I had named 'Switzerland.' But what was my astonishment when, before I had reached 'Switzerland.' I perceived through the delicate network of half-dry twigs and green branches that some one besides me had found it out! A long, long figure in a long, loose coat of yellow frieze and a tall cap was standing in the very spot I loved best of all! I stole up a little nearer, and made out the face, which was utterly unknown to me, also very long and soft, with small reddish eyes, and a very funny nose; drawn out as long as a pod of peas, it positively overhung the full lips; and these lips, quivering and forming a round O, were giving vent to a shrill little whistle, while the long fingers of the bony hands, placed facing one another on the upper part of the chest, were rapidly moving with a rotatory action. From time to time the motion of the hands subsided, the lips ceased whistling and quivering, the head was bent forward as though listening. I came still nearer, examined him still more closely. . . . The stranger held in each hand a small flat cup, such as people use to tease canaries and make them sing. A twig snapped under my feet; the stranger started, turned his dim little eyes towards the copse, and was staggering away . . . but he stumbled against a tree, uttered an exclamation, and stood still.
I came out into the open space. The stranger smiled.
'Good morning,' said I.
'Good morning, little master!'
I did not like his calling me little master. Such familiarity!
'What are you doing here?' I asked sternly.
'Why, look here,' he responded, never leaving off smiling, 'I'm calling the little birds to sing.' He showed me his little cups. 'The chaffinches answer splendidly! You, at your tender years, take delight, no doubt, in the feathered songsters' notes! Listen, I beg; I will begin chirping, and they'll answer me directly—it's so delightful!'
He began rubbing his little cups. A chaffinch actually did chirp in response from a mountain ash near. The stranger laughed without a sound, and winked at me.
The laugh and the wink—every gesture of the stranger, his weak, lisping voice, his bent knees and thin hands, his very cap and long frieze coat—everything about him suggested good-nature, something innocent and droll.
'Have you been here long?' I asked.
'I came to-day.'
'Why, aren't you the person of whom . . .'
'Mr. Baburin spoke to the lady here. The same, the same.'
'Your friend's name's Baburin, and what's yours?'
'I'm Punin. Punin's my name; Punin. He's Baburin and I'm Punin.' He set the little cups humming again. 'Listen, listen to the chaffinch. . . . How it carols!'
This queer creature took my fancy 'awfully' all at once. Like almost all boys, I was either timid or consequential with strangers, but I felt with this man as if I had known him for ages.
'Come along with me,' I said to him 'I know a place better than this; there's a seat there; we can sit down, and we can see the dam from there.'
'By all means let us go,' my new friend responded in his singing voice. I let him pass before me. As he walked he rolled from side to side, tripped over his own feet, and his head fell back.
I noticed on the back of his coat, under the collar, there hung a small tassel. 'What's that you've got hanging there?' I asked.
'Where?' he questioned, and he put his hand up to the collar to feel. 'Ah, the tassel? Let it be! I suppose it was sewn there for ornament! It's not in the way.'
I led him to the seat, and sat down; he settled himself beside me. 'It's lovely here!' he commented, and he drew a deep, deep sigh. 'Oh, how lovely! You have a most splendid garden! Oh, o—oh!'
I looked at him from one side. 'What a queer cap you've got!' I couldn't help exclaiming. 'Show it me here!'
'By all means, little master, by all means.' He took off the cap; I was holding out my hand, but I raised my eyes, and—simply burst out laughing. Punin was completely bald; not a single hair was to be seen on the high conical skull, covered with smooth white skin.
He passed his open hand over it, and he too laughed. When he laughed he seemed, as it were, to gulp, he opened his mouth wide, closed his eyes—and vertical wrinkles flitted across his forehead in three rows, like waves. 'Eh,' said he at last, 'isn't it quite like an egg?'
'Yes, yes, exactly like an egg!' I agreed with enthusiasm. 'And have you been like that long?'
'Yes, a long while; but what hair I used to have!—A golden fleece like that for which the Argonauts sailed over the watery deeps.'
Though I was only twelve, yet, thanks to my mythological studies, I knew who the Argonauts were; I was the more surprised at hearing the name on the lips of a man dressed almost in rags.
'You must have learned mythology, then?' I queried, as I twisted his cap over and over in my hands. It turned out to be wadded, with a mangy-looking fur trimming, and a broken cardboard peak.
'I have studied that subject, my dear little master; I've had time enough for everything in my life! But now restore to me my covering, it is a protection to the nakedness of my head.'
He put on the cap, and, with a downward slope of his whitish eyebrows, asked me who I was, and who were my parents.
'I'm the grandson of the lady who owns this place,' I answered. 'I live alone with her. Papa and mamma are dead.'
Punin crossed himself. 'May the kingdom of heaven be theirs! So then, you're an orphan; and the heir, too. The noble blood in you is visible at once; it fairly sparkles in your eyes, and plays like this . . . sh . . . sh . . . sh . . .' He represented with his fingers the play of the blood. 'Well, and do you know, your noble honour, whether my friend has come to terms with your grandmamma, whether he has obtained the situation he was promised?'
'I don't know.'
Punin cleared his throat. 'Ah! if one could be settled here, if only for a while! Or else one may wander and wander far, and find not a place to rest one's head; the disquieting alarms of life are unceasing, the soul is confounded. . . ..'
'Tell me,' I interrupted: 'are you of the clerical profession?'
Punin turned to me and half closed his eyelids. 'And what may be the cause of that question, gentle youth?'
'Why, you talk so—well, as they read in church.'
'Because I use the old scriptural forms of expression? But that ought not to surprise you. Admitting that in ordinary conversation such forms of expression are not always in place; but when one soars on the wings of inspiration, at once the language too grows more exalted. Surely your teacher—the professor of Russian literature—you do have lessons in that, I suppose?—surely he teaches you that, doesn't he?"
'No, he doesn't,' I responded. 'When we stay in the country I have no teacher. In Moscow I have a great many teachers.'
'And will you be staying long in the country?'
'Two months, not longer; grandmother says that I'm spoilt in the country, though I have a governess even here.'
'A French governess?'
Punin scratched behind his ear. 'A mamselle, that's to say?'
'Yes; she's called Mademoiselle Friquet.' I suddenly felt it disgraceful for me, a boy of twelve, to have not a tutor, but a governess, like a little girl! 'But I don't mind her,' I added contemptuously. 'What do I care!'
Punin shook his head. 'Ah, you gentlefolk, you gentlefolk! you're too fond of foreigners! You have turned away from what is Russian,—towards all that's strange. You've turned your hearts to those that come from foreign parts. . . .'
'Hullo! Are you talking in verse?' I asked.
'Well, and why not? I can do that always, as much as you please; for it comes natural to me. . . .'
But at that very instant there sounded in the garden behind us a loud and shrill whistle. My new acquaintance hurriedly got up from the bench.
'Good-bye, little sir; that's my friend calling me, looking for me. . . . What has he to tell me? Good-bye—excuse me. . . .'
He plunged into the bushes and vanished, while I sat on some time longer on the seat. I felt perplexity and another feeling, rather an agreeable one . . . I had never met nor spoken to any one like this before. Gradually I fell to dreaming, but recollected my mythology and sauntered towards the house.
At home, I learned that my grandmother had arranged to take Baburin; he had been assigned a small room in the servants' quarters, overlooking the stable-yard. He had at once settled in there with his friend.
When I had drunk my tea, next morning, without asking leave of Mademoiselle Friquet, I set off to the servants' quarters. I wanted to have another chat with the queer fellow I had seen the day before. Without knocking at the door—the very idea of doing so would never have occurred to us—I walked straight into the room. I found in it not the man I was looking for, not Punin, but his protector—the philanthropist, Baburin. He was standing before the window, without his outer garment, his legs wide apart. He was busily engaged in rubbing his head and neck with a long towel.
'What do you want?' he observed, keeping his hands still raised, and knitting his brows.
'Punin's not at home, then?' I queried in the most free-and-easy manner, without taking off my cap.
'Mr. Punin, Nikander Vavilitch, at this moment, is not at home, truly,' Baburin responded deliberately; 'but allow me to make an observation, young man: it's not the proper thing to come into another person's room like this, without asking leave.'
I! . . . young man! . . . how dared he! . . . I grew crimson with fury.
'You cannot be aware who I am,' I rejoined, in a manner no longer free-and-easy, but haughty. 'I am the grandson of the mistress here.'
'That's all the same to me,' retorted Baburin, setting to work with his towel again. 'Though you are the seignorial grandson, you have no right to come into other people's rooms.'
'Other people's? What do you mean? I'm—at home here—everywhere.'
'No, excuse me: here—I'm at home; since this room has been assigned to me, by agreement, in exchange for my work.'
'Don't teach me, if you please,' I interrupted: 'I know better than you what . . .'
'You must be taught,' he interrupted in his turn, 'for you're at an age when you . . . I know my duties, but I know my rights too very well, and if you continue to speak to me in that way, I shall have to ask you to go out of the room . . .'
There is no knowing how our dispute would have ended if Punin had not at that instant entered, shuffling and shambling from side to side. He most likely guessed from the expression of our faces that some unpleasantness had passed between us, and at once turned to me with the warmest expressions of delight.
'Ah! little master! little master!' he cried, waving his hands wildly, and going off into his noiseless laugh: 'the little dear! come to pay me a visit! here he's come, the little dear!' (What's the meaning of it? I thought: can he be speaking in this familiar way to me?) 'There, come along, come with me into the garden. I've found something there. . . . Why stay in this stuffiness here! let's go!'
I followed Punin, but in the doorway I thought it as well to turn round and fling a glance of defiance at Baburin, as though to say, I'm not afraid of you!
He responded in the same way, and positively snorted into the towel—probably to make me thoroughly aware how utterly he despised me!
'What an insolent fellow your friend is!' I said to Punin, directly the door had closed behind me.
Almost with horror, Punin turned his plump face to me.
'To whom did you apply that expression?' he asked me, with round eyes.
"Why, to him, of course . . . What's his name? that . . .} Baburin.'
'Why, yes; that . . . blackfaced fellow.'
'Eh . . . eh . . . eh . . .!' Punin protested, with caressing reproachfulness. 'How can you talk like that, little master! Paramon Semyonevitch is the most estimable man, of the strictest principles, an extraordinary person! To be sure, he won't allow any disrespect to him, because—he knows his own value. That man possesses a vast amount of knowledge—and it's not a place like this he ought to be filling! You must, my dear, behave very courteously to him; do you know, he's . . .' here Punin bent down quite to my ear,—'a republican!'
I stared at Punin. This I had not at all expected. From Keidanov's manual and other historical works I had gathered the fact that at some period or other, in ancient times, there had existed republicans, Greeks and Romans. For some unknown reason I had always pictured them all in helmets, with round shields on their arms, and big bare legs; but that in real life, in the actual present, above all, in Russia, in the province of X——, one could come across republicans—that upset all my notions, and utterly confounded them!
'Yes, my dear, yes; Paramon Semyonitch is a republican,' repeated Punin; 'there, so you'll know for the future how one should speak of a man like that! But now let's go into the garden. Fancy what I've found there! A cuckoo's egg in a redstart's nest! a lovely thing!'
I went into the garden with Punin; but mentally I kept repeating: 'republican! re . . . pub . . . lican!'
'So,' I decided at last—'that's why he has such a blue chin!'
My attitude to these two persons—Punin and Baburin—took definite shape from that very day. Baburin aroused in me a feeling of hostility with which there was, however, in a short time, mingled something akin to respect. And wasn't I afraid of him! I never got over being afraid of him even when the sharp severity of his manner with me at first had quite disappeared. It is needless to say that of Punin I had no fear; I did not even respect him; I looked upon him—not to put too fine a point on it—as a buffoon; but I loved him with my whole soul! To spend hours at a time in his company, to be alone with him, to listen to his stories, became a genuine delight to me. My grandmother was anything but pleased at this intimité with a person of the 'lower classes'—du commun; but, whenever I could break away, I flew at once to my queer, amusing, beloved friend. Our meetings became more frequent after the departure of Mademoiselle Friquet, whom my grandmother sent back to Moscow in disgrace because, in conversation with a military staff captain, visiting in the neighbourhood, she had had the insolence to complain of the dulness which reigned in our household. And Punin, for his part, was not bored by long conversations with a boy of twelve; he seemed to seek them of himself. How often have I listened to his stories, sitting with him in the fragrant shade, on the dry, smooth grass, under the canopy of the silver poplars, or among the reeds above the pond, on the coarse, damp sand of the hollow bank, from which the knotted roots protruded, queerly interlaced, like great black veins, like snakes, like creatures emerging from some subterranean region! Punin told me the whole story of his life in minute detail, describing all his happy adventures, and all his misfortunes, with which I always felt the sincerest sympathy! His father had been a deacon;—'a splendid man—but, under the influence of drink, stern to the last extreme.'
Punin himself had received his education in a seminary; but, unable to stand the severe thrashings, and feeling no inclination for the priestly calling, he had become a layman, and in consequence had experienced all sorts of hardships; and, finally, had become a vagrant. 'And had I not met with my benefactor, Paramon Semyonitch,' Punin commonly added (he never spoke of Baburin except in this way), 'I should have sunk into the miry abysses of poverty and vice.' Punin was fond of high-sounding expressions, and had a great propensity, if not for lying, for romancing and exaggeration; he admired everything, fell into ecstasies over everything . . . And I, in imitation of him, began to exaggerate and be ecstatic, too. 'What a crazy fellow you've grown! God have mercy on you!' my old nurse used to say to me. Punin's narratives used to interest me extremely; but even better than his stories I loved the readings we used to have together.
It is impossible to describe the feeling I experienced when, snatching a favourable moment, suddenly, like a hermit in a tale or a good fairy, he appeared before me with a ponderous volume under his arm, and stealthily beckoning with his long crooked finger, and winking mysteriously, he pointed with his head, his eyebrows, his shoulders, his whole person, toward the deepest recesses of the garden, whither no one could penetrate after us, and where it was impossible to find us out. And when we had succeeded in getting away unnoticed; when we had satisfactorily reached one of our secret nooks, and were sitting side by side, and, at last, the book was slowly opened, emitting a pungent odour, inexpressibly sweet to me then, of mildew and age;—with what a thrill, with what a wave of dumb expectancy, I gazed at the face, at the lips of Punin, those lips from which in a moment a stream of such delicious eloquence was to flow! At last the first sounds of the reading were heard. Everything around me vanished . . . no, not vanished, but grew far away, passed into clouds of mist, leaving behind only an impression of something friendly and protecting. Those trees, those green leaves, those high grasses screen us, hide us from all the rest of the world; no one knows where we are, what we are about—while with us is poetry, we are saturated in it, intoxicated with it, something solemn, grand, mysterious is happening to us. . . . Punin, by preference, kept to poetry, musical, sonorous poetry; he was ready to lay down his life for poetry. He did not read, he declaimed the verse majestically, in a torrent of rhythm, in a rolling outpour through his nose, like a man intoxicated, lifted out of himself, like the Pythian priestess. And another habit he had: first he would lisp the verses through softly, in a whisper, as it were mumbling them to himself. . . . This he used to call the rough sketch of the reading; then he would thunder out the same verse in its 'fair copy,' and would all at once leap up, throw up his hand, with a half-supplicating, half-imperious gesture. . . . In this way we went through not only Lomonosov, Sumarokov, and Kantemir (the older the poems, the more they were to Punin's taste), but even Heraskov's Rossiad. And, to tell the truth, it was this same Rossiad which aroused my enthusiasm most. There is in it, among others, a mighty Tatar woman, a gigantic heroine; I have forgotten even her name now; but in those days my hands and feet turned cold as soon as it was mentioned. "Yes," Punin would say, nodding his head with great significance, "Heraskov, he doesn't let one off easily. At times one comes upon a line, simply heart-breaking. . . . One can only stick to it, and do one's best. . . . One tries to master it, but he breaks away again and trumpets, trumpets, with the crash of cymbals. His name's been well bestowed on him--the very word, Herrraskov!" Lomonosov Punin found fault with for too simple and free a style; while to Derzhavin he maintained an attitude almost of hostility, saying that he was more of a courtier than a poet. In our house it was not merely that no attention was given to literature, to poetry; but poetry, especially Russian poetry, was looked upon as something quite undignified and vulgar; my grandmother did not even call it poetry, but "doggrel verses"; every author of such doggrel was, in her opinion, either a confirmed toper or a perfect idiot. Brought up among such ideas, it was inevitable that I should either turn from Punin with disgust--he was untidy and shabby into the bargain, which was an offence to my seignorial habits--or that, attracted and captivated by him, I should follow his example, and be infected by his passion for poetry. . . . And so it turned out. I, too, began reading poetry, or, as my grandmother expressed it, poring over doggrel trash. . . . I even tried my hand at versifying, and composed a poem, descriptive of a barrel-organ, in which occurred the following two lines:
"Lo, the barrel turns around,
And the cogs within resound."
Punin commended in this effort a certain imitative melody, but disapproved of the subject itself as low and unworthy of lyrical treatment.
Alas! all those efforts and emotions and transports, our solitary readings, our life together, our poetry, all came to an end at once. Trouble broke upon us suddenly, like a clap of thunder.
My grandmother in everything liked cleanliness and order, quite in the spirit of the active generals of those days; cleanliness and order were to be maintained too in our garden. And so from time to time they "drove" into it poor peasants, who had no families, no land, no beasts of their own, and those among the house serfs who were out of favour or superannuated, and set them to clearing the paths, weeding the borders, breaking up and sifting the earth in the beds, and so on. Well, one day, in the very heat of these operations, my grandmother went into the garden, and took me with her. On all sides, among the trees and about the lawns, we caught glimpses of white, red, and blue smocks; on all sides we heard the scraping and clanging of spades, the dull thud of clods of earth on the slanting sieves. As she passed by the labourers, my grandmother with her eagle eye noticed at once that one of them was working with less energy than the rest, and that he took off his cap, too, with no show of eagerness. This was a youth, still quite young, with a wasted face, and sunken, lustreless eyes. His cotton smock, all torn and patched, scarcely held together over his narrow shoulders.
"Who's that?" my grandmother inquired of Filippitch, who was walking on tiptoe behind her.
"Of whom . . . you are pleased . . ." Filippitch stammered.
"Oh, fool! I mean the one that looked so sullenly at me. There, standing yonder, not working."
"Oh, him! Yes...th...th...that's Yermil, son of Pavel Afanasiitch, now deceased."
Pavel Afanasiitch had been, ten years before, head butler in my grandmother's house, and stood particularly high in her favour. But suddenly falling into disgrace, he was as suddenly degraded to being herdsman, and did not long keep even that position. He sank lower still, and struggled on for a while on a monthly pittance of flour in a little hut far away. At last he had died of paralysis, leaving his family in the most utter destitution.
"Aha!" commented my grandmother; "it's clear the apple's not fallen far from the tree. Well, we shall have to make arrangements about this fellow too. I've no need of people like that, with scowling faces."
My grandmother went back to the house--and made arrangements. Three hours later Yermil, completely "equipped," was brought under the window of her room. The unfortunate boy was being transported to a settlement; the other side of the fence, a few steps from him, was a little cart loaded with his poor belongings. Such were the times then. Yermil stood without his cap, with downcast head, barefoot, with his boots tied up with a string behind his back; his face, turned towards the seignorial mansion, expressed not despair nor grief, nor even bewilderment; a stupid smile was frozen on his colourless lips; his eyes, dry and half-closed, looked stubbornly on the ground. My grandmother was apprised of his presence. She got up from the sofa, went, with a faint rustle of her silken skirts, to the window of the study, and, holding her golden-rimmed double eyeglass on the bridge of her nose, looked at the new exile. In her room there happened to be at the moment four other persons, the butler, Baburin, the page who waited on my grandmother in the daytime, and I.
My grandmother nodded her head up and down. . . .
"Madam," a hoarse almost stifled voice was heard suddenly. I looked round. Baburin's face was red . . dark red; under his overhanging brows could be seen little sharp points of light. . . . There was no doubt about it; it was he, it was Baburin, who had uttered the word "Madam."
My grandmother too looked round, and turned her eyeglass from Yermil to Baburin.
"Who is that . . . speaking?" she articulated slowly . . . through her nose. Baburin moved slightly forward.
"Madam," he began, "it is I . . . . I venture . . . I imagine . . . I make bold to submit to your honour that you are making a mistake in acting as . . . as you are pleased to act at this moment."
"That is?" my grandmother said, in the same voice, not removing her eyeglass.
"I take the liberty . . ." Baburin went on distinctly, uttering every word though with obvious effort--"I am referring to the case of this lad who is being sent away to a settlement . . . for no fault of his. Such arrangements, I venture to submit, lead to dissatisfaction, and to other--which God forbid!--consequences, and are nothing else than a transgression of the powers allowed to seignorial proprietors."
"And where have you studied, pray?" my grandmother asked after a short silence, and she dropped her eyeglass.
Baburin was disconcerted. "What are you pleased to wish?" he muttered.
"I ask you: where have you studied? You use such learned words."
"I . . . my education . . ." Baburin was beginning.
My grandmother shrugged her shoulders contemptuously. "It seems," she interrupted, "that my arrangements are not to your liking. That is of absolutely no consequence to me--among my subjects I am sovereign, and answerable to no one for them, only I am not accustomed to having people criticising me in my presence, and meddling in what is not their business. I have no need of learned philanthropists of nondescript position; I want servants to do my will without question. So I always lived till you came, and so I shall live after you've gone. You do not suit me; you are discharged. Nikolai Antonov," my grandmother turned to the steward, "pay this man off; and let him be gone before dinner-time to-day! D' you hear? Don't put me into a passion. And the other too . . . the fool that lives with him--to be sent off too. What's Yermilka waiting for?" she added, looking out of window, "I have seen him. What more does he want?" My grandmother shook her handkerchief in the direction of the window, as though to drive away an importunate fly. Then she sat down in a low chair, and turning towards us, gave the order grimly: "Everybody present to leave the room!"
We all withdrew--all, except the day page, to whom my grandmother's words did not apply, because he was nobody.
My grandmother's decree was carried out to the letter. Before dinner, both Baburin and my friend Punin were driving away from the place. I will not undertake to describe my grief, my genuine, truly childish despair. It was so strong that it stifled even the feeling of awe-stricken admiration inspired by the bold action of the republican Baburin. After the conversation with my grandmother, he went at once to his room and began packing up. He did not vouchsafe me one word, one look, though I was the whole time hanging about him, or rather, in reality, about Punin. The latter was utterly distraught, and he too said nothing; but he was continually glancing at me, and tears stood in his eyes . . . always the same tears; they neither fell nor dried up. He did not venture to criticise his "benefactor"--Paramon Semyonitch could not make a mistake,--but great was his distress and dejection. Punin and I made an effort to read something out of the Rossiad for the last time; we even locked ourselves up in the lumber-room--it was useless to dream of going into the garden--but at the very first line we both broke down, and I fairly bellowed like a calf, in spite of my twelve years, and my claims to be grown-up.
When he had taken his seat in the carriage Baburin at last turned to me, and with a slight softening of the accustomed sternness of his face, observed: "It's a lesson for you, young gentleman; remember this incident, and when you grow up, try to put an end to such acts of injustice. Your heart is good, your nature is not yet corrupted. . . . Mind, be careful; things can't go on like this!" Through my tears, which streamed copiously over my nose, my lips, and my chin, I faltered out that I would . . . I would remember, that I promised . . . I would do . . . I would be sure . . . quite sure. . . .
But at this point, Punin, whom I had before this embraced twenty times (my cheeks were burning from the contact with his unshaven beard, and I was odoriferous of the smell that always clung to him)--at this point a sudden frenzy came over Punin. He jumped up on the seat of the cart, flung both hands up in the air, and began in a voice of thunder (where he got it from!) to declaim the well-known paraphrase of the Psalm of David by Derzhavin,--a poet for this occasion--not a courtier.
God the All-powerful doth arise
And judgeth in the congregation of the mighty! . . .
How long, how long, saith the Lord,
Will ye have mercy on the wicked?
'Ye have to keep the laws. . . .
"Sit down!" Baburin said to him. Punin sat down, but continued:
"To save the guiltless and needy,
To give shelter to the afflicted,
To defend the weak from the oppressors."
Punin at the word "oppressors" pointed to the seignorial abode, and then poked the driver in the back.
"To deliver the poor out of bondage!
They know not! neither will they understand! . . .
Nikolai Antonov running out of the seignorial abode, shouted at the top of his voice to the coachman: "Get away with you! owl! go along! don't stay lingering here!" and the cart rolled away. Only in the distance could still be heard:
"Arise, O Lord God of righteousness! . . .
Come forth to judge the unjust--
And be Thou the only Ruler of the nations!"
"What a clown!" remarked Nikolai Antonov. "He didn't get enough of the rod in his young days," observed the deacon, appearing on the steps. He had come to inquire what hour it would please the mistress to fix for the night service.
The same day, learning that Yermil was still in the village, and would not till early next morning be despatched to the town for the execution of certain legal formalities, which were intended to check the arbitrary proceedings of the landowners, but served only as a source of additional revenue to the functionaries in superintendence of them, I sought him out, and, for lack of money of my own, handed him a bundle, in which I had tied up two pocket-handkerchiefs, a shabby pair of slippers, a comb, an old nightgown, and a perfectly new silk cravat. Yermil, whom I had to wake up--he was lying on a heap of straw in the back yard, near the cart--Yermil took my present rather indifferently, with some hesitation in fact, did not thank me, promptly poked his head into the straw and fell asleep again. I went home somewhat disappointed. I had imagined that he would be astonished and overjoyed at my visit, would see in it a pledge of my magnanimous intentions for the future--and instead of that. . . .
"You may say what you like--these people have no feeling," was my reflection on my homeward way.
My grandmother, who had for some reason left me in peace the whole of that memorable day, looked at me suspiciously when I came after supper to say good-night to her.
"Your eyes are red," she observed to me in French; "and there's a smell of the peasant's hut about you. I am not going to enter into an examination of what you've been feeling and doing--I should not like to be obliged to punish you--but I hope you will get over all your foolishness, and begin to conduct yourself once more in a manner befitting a well-bred boy. However, we are soon going back to Moscow, and I shall get you a tutor--as I see you need a man's hand to manage you. You can go."
We did, as a fact, go back soon after to Moscow.
SEVEN years had passed by. We were living as before at Moscow--but I was by now a student in my second year--and the authority of my grandmother, who had aged very perceptibly in the last years, no longer weighed upon me. Of all my fellow-students the one with whom I was on the friendliest terms was a light-hearted and good-natured youth called Tarhov. Our habits and our tastes were similar. Tarhov was a great lover of poetry, and himself wrote verses; while in me the seeds sown by Punin had not been without fruit. As is often the case with young people who are very close friends, we had no secrets from one another. But behold, for several days together I noti ced a certain excitement and agitation in Tarhov. . . . He disappeared for hours at a time, and I did not know where he had got to--a thing which had never happened before. I was on the point of demanding, in the name of friendship, a full explanation. . . . He anticipated me.
One day I was sitting in his room. . . . "Petya," he said suddenly, blushing gaily, and looking me straight in the face, "I must introduce you to my muse."
"Your muse! how queerly you talk! Like a classicist. (Romanticism was at that time, in 1837, at its full height.) As if I had not known it ever so long--your muse! Have you written a new poem, or what?"
"You don't understand what I mean," rejoined Tarhov, still laughing and blushing. "I will introduce you to a living muse."
"Aha! so that's it! But how is she--yours?"
"Why, because . . . But hush, I believe it's she coming here."
There was the light click of hurrying heels, the door opened, and in the doorway appeared a girl of eighteen, in a chintz cotton gown, with a black cloth cape on her shoulders, and a black straw hat on her fair, rather curly hair. On seeing me she was frightened and disconcerted, and was beating a retreat . . . but Tarhov at once rushed to meet her.
"Please, please, Musa Pavlovna, come in! This is my great friend, a splendid fellow--and the soul of discretion. You've no need to be afraid of him. Petya," he turned to me, "let me introduce my Musa--Musa Pavlovna Vinogradov, a great friend of mine."
"How is that . . . Musa?" I was beginning. . . . Tarhov laughed. "Ah, you didn't know there was such a name in the calendar? I didn't know it either, my boy, till I met this dear young lady. Musa! such a charming name! And suits her so well!"
I bowed again to my comrade's great friend. She left the door, took two steps forward and stood still. She was very attractive, but I could not agree with Tarhov's opinion, and inwardly said to myself: "Well, she's a strange sort of muse!"
The features of her curved, rosy face were small and delicate; there was an air of fresh, buoyant youth about all her slender, miniature figure; but of the muse, of the personification of the muse, I--and not only I--all the young people of that time had a very different conception! First of all the muse had infallibly to be dark-haired and pale. An expression of scornful pride, a bitter smile, a glance of inspiration, and that "something"--mysterious, demonic, fateful--that was essential to our conception of the muse, the muse of Byron, who at that time held sovereign sway over men's fancies. There was nothing of that kind to be discerned in the face of the girl who came in. Had I been a little older and more experienced I should probably have paid more attention to her eyes, which were small and deep-set, with full lids, but dark as agate, alert and bright, a thing rare in fair-haired people. Poetical tendencies I should not have detected in their rapid, as it were elusive, glance, but hints of a passionate soul, passionate to self-forgetfulness. But I was very young then.
I held out my hand to Musa Pavlovna--she did not give me hers--she did not notice my movement; she sat down on the chair Tarhov placed for her, but did not take off her hat and cape.
She was, obviously, ill at ease; my presence embarrassed her. She drew deep breaths, at irregular intervals, as though she were gasping for air.
"I've only come to you for one minute, Vladimir Nikolaitch," she began--her voice was very soft and deep; from her crimson, almost childish lips, it seemed rather strange;--"but our madame would not let me out for more than half an hour. You weren't well the day before yesterday . . . and so, I thought. . . ."
She stammered and hung her head. Under the shade of her thick, low brows her dark eyes darted--to and fro--elusively. There are dark, swift, flashing beetles that flit so in the heat of summer among the blades of dry grass.
"How good you are, Musa, Musotchka!" cried Tarhov. "But you must stay, you must stay a little. . . . We'll have the samovar in directly."
"Oh no, Vladimir Nikolaevitch! it's impossible! I must go away this minute."
"You must rest a little, anyway. You're out of breath. . . . You're tired."
"I'm not tired. It's . . . not that . . . only . . . give me another book; I've finished this one." She took out of her pocket a tattered grey volume of a Moscow edition.
"Of course, of course. Well, did you like it? Roslavlev," added Tarhov, addressing me.
"Yes. Only I think Yury Miloslavsky is much better. Our madame is very strict about books. She says they hinder our working. For, to her thinking. . . ."
"But, I say, Yury Miloslavsky's not equal to Pushkin's Gipsies? Eh? Musa Pavlovna?" Tarhov broke in with a smile.
"No, indeed! The Gipsies . . ." she murmured slowly. "Oh yes, another thing, Vladimir Nikolaitch; don't come to-morrow . . . you know where."
The girl shrugged her shoulders, and all at once, as though she had received a sudden shove, got up from her chair.
"Why, Musa, Musotchka," Tarhov expostulated plaintively. "Stay a little!"
"No, no, I can't." She went quickly to the door, took hold of the handle. . . .
"Well, at least, take the book!"
Tarhov rushed towards the girl, but at that instant she darted out of the room. He almost knocked his nose against the door. "What a girl! She's a regular little viper!" he declared with some vexation, and then sank into thought.
I stayed at Tarhov's. I wanted to find out what was the meaning of it all. Tarhov was not disposed to be reserved. He told me that the girl was a milliner; that he had seen her for the first time three weeks before in a fashionable shop, where he had gone on a commission for his sister, who lived in the provinces, to buy a hat; that he had fallen in love with her at first sight, and that next day he had succeeded in speaking to her in the street; that she had herself, it seemed, taken rather a fancy to him.
"Only, please, don't you suppose," he added with warmth,--"don't you imagine any harm of her. So far, at any rate, there's been nothing of that sort between us."
"Harm!" I caught him up, "I've no doubt of that; and I've no doubt either that you sincerely deplore the fact, my dear fellow! Have patience--everything will come right."
"I hope so," Tarhov muttered through his teeth, though with a laugh. "But really, my boy, that girl . . . I tell you--it's a new type, you know. You hadn't time to get a good look at her. She's a shy thing!--oo! such a shy thing! and what a will of her own! But that very shyness is what I like in her. It's a sign of independence! I'm simply over head and ears, my boy!"
Tarhov fell to talking of his "charmer," and even read me the beginning of a poem entitled: "My Muse." His emotional outpourings were not quite to my taste. I felt secretly jealous of him. I soon left him.
A few days after I happened to be passing through one of the arcades of the Gostinny Dvor. It was Saturday; there were crowds of people shopping; on all sides, in the midst of the pushing and crushing, the shopmen kept shouting to people to buy. Having bought what I wanted, I was thinking of nothing but getting away from their teasing importunity as soon as possible--when all at once I halted involuntarily: in a fruit shop I caught sight of my comrade's charmer--Musa, Musa Pavlovna! She was standing, profile to me, and seemed to be waiting for something. After a moment's hesitation I made up my mind to go up to her and speak. But I had hardly passed through the doorway of the shop and taken off my cap, when she tottered back dismayed, turned quickly to an old man in a frieze cloak, for whom the shopman was weighing out a pound of raisins, and clutched at his arm, as though fleeing to put herself under his protection. The latter, in his turn, wheeled round facing her--and, imagine my amazement, I recognised him as Punin!
Yes, it was he; there were his inflamed eyes, his full lips, his soft, overhanging nose. He had, in fact, changed little during the last seven years; his face was a little flabbier, perhaps.
"Nikander Vavilitch!" I cried. "Don't you know me?" Punin started, opened his mouth, stared at me. . . .
"I haven't the honour," he was beginning--and all at once he piped out shrilly: "The little master of Troïtsky (my grandmother's property was called Troïtsky)! Can it be the little master of Troïtsky?"
The pound of raisins tumbled out of his hands.
"It really is," I answered, and, picking up Punin's purchase from the ground, I kissed him.
He was breathless with delight and excitement; he almost cried, removed his cap — which enabled me to satisfy myself that the last traces of hair had vanished from his 'egg' — took a handkerchief out of it, blew his nose, poked the cap into his bosom with the raisins, put it on again, again dropped the raisins. . . . I don't know how Musa was behaving all this time, I tried not to look at her. I don't imagine Punin's agitation proceeded from any extreme attachment to my person; it was simply that his nature could not stand the slightest unexpected shock. The nervous excitability of these poor devils!
'Come and see us, my dear boy,' he faltered at last; 'you won't be too proud to visit our humble nest? You're a student, I see. . . .'
'On the contrary, I shall be delighted, really.'
'Are you independent now?'
'That's capital! How pleased Paramon Semyonitch will be! To-day he'll be home earlier than usual, and madame lets her, too, off for Saturdays. But, stop, excuse me, I am quite forgetting myself. Of course, you don't know our niece!'
I hastened to slip in that I had not yet had the pleasure.
"Of course, of course! How could you know her! Musotchka. . . Take note, my dear sir, this girl's name is Musa — and it's not a nickname, but her real name. . . . Isn't that a predestination? Musotchka, I want to introduce you to Mr. . . . Mr. . . .'
'B.,' I prompted.
'B.,' he repeated. 'Musotchka, listen! You see before you the most excellent, most delightful of young men. Fate threw us together when he was still in years of boyhood! I beg you to look on him as a friend!'
I swung off a low bow. Musa, red as a poppy, flashed a look on me from under her eyelids, and dropped them immediately.
'Ah!' thought I, 'you're one of those who in difficult moments don't turn pale, but red; that must be made a note of.'
'You must be indulgent, she's not a fine lady,' observed Punin, and he went out of the shop into the street; Musa and I followed him.
The house in which Punin lodged was a considerable distance from the Gostinny Dvor, being, in fact, in Sadovoy Street. On the way my former preceptor in poetry had time to communicate a good many details of his mode of existence. Since the time of our parting, both he and Baburin had been tossed about holy Russia pretty thoroughly, and had not long — only a year and a half before — found a permanent home in Moscow. Baburin had succeeded in becoming head-clerk in the office of a rich merchant and manufacturer. 'Not a lucrative berth," Punin observed with a sigh,--"a lot of work, and not much profit . . . but what's one to do? One must be thankful to get that! I, too, am trying to earn something by copying and lessons; only my efforts have so far not been crowned with success. My writing, you perhaps recollect, is old-fashioned, not in accordance with the tastes of the day; and as regards lessons--what has been a great obstacle is the absence of befitting attire; moreover, I greatly fear that in the matter of instruction--in the subject of Russian literature--I am also not in harmony with the tastes of the day; and so it comes about that I am turned away." (Punin laughed his sleepy, subdued laugh. He had retained his old, somewhat high-flown manner of speech, and his old weakness for falling into rhyme.) "All run after novelties, nothing but innovations! I dare say you, too, do not honour the old divinities, and fall down before new idols?"
"And you, Nikander Vavilitch, do you really still esteem Heraskov?"
Punin stood still and waved both hands at once. "In the highest degree, sir! in the high . . . est de . . . gree, I do!"
"And you don't read Pushkin? You don't like Pushkin?"
Punin again flung his hands up higher than his head.
"Pushkin? Pushkin is the snake, lying hid in the grass, who is endowed with the note of the nightingale!"
While Punin and I talked like this, cautiously picking our way over the unevenly laid brick pavement of so-called "white-stoned" Moscow--in which there is not one stone, and which is not white at all--Musa walked silently beside us on the side further from me. In speaking of her, I called her "your niece." Punin was silent for a little, scratched his head, and informed me in an undertone that he had called her so . . . merely as a manner of speaking; that she was really no relation; that she was an orphan picked up and cared for by Baburin in the town of Voronezh; but that he, Punin, might well call her daughter, as he loved her no less than a real daughter. I had no doubt that, though Punin intentionally dropped his voice, Musa could hear all he said very well; and she was at once angry, and shy, and embarrassed; and the lights and shades chased each other over her face, and everything in it was slightly quivering, the eyelids and brows and lips and narrow nostrils. All this was very charming, and amusing, and queer.
But at last we reached the "modest nest." And modest it certainly was, the nest. It consisted of a small, one-storied house, that seemed almost sunk into the ground, with a slanting wooden roof, and four dingy windows in the front. The furniture of the rooms was of the poorest, and not over tidy, indeed. Between the windows and on the walls hung about a dozen tiny wooden cages containing larks, canaries, and siskins. "My subjects!" Punin pronounced triumphantly, pointing his finger at them. We had hardly time to get in and look about us, Punin had hardly sent Musa for the samovar, when Baburin himself came in. He seemed to me to have aged much more than Punin, though his step was as firm as ever, and the expression of his face altogether was unchanged; but he had grown thin and bent, his cheeks were sunken, and his thick black shock of hair was sprinkled with grey. He did not recognise me, and showed no particular pleasure when Punin mentioned my name; he did not even smile with his eyes, he barely nodded; he asked--very carelessly and drily--whether my granny were living--and that was all. "I'm not over-delighted at a visit from a nobleman," he seemed to say; "I don't feel flattered by it." The republican was a republican still.
Musa came back; a decrepit little old woman followed her, bringing in a tarnished samovar. Punin began fussing about, and pressing me to take things; Baburin sat down to the table, leaned his head on his hands, and looked with weary eyes about him. At tea, however, he began to talk. He was dissatisfied with his position. "A screw--not a man," so he spoke of his employer; "people in a subordinate position are so much dirt to him, of no consequence whatever; and yet it's not so long since he was under the yoke himself. Nothing but cruelty and covetousness. It's a bondage worse than the government's! And all the trade here rests on swindling and flourishes on nothing else!"
Hearing such dispiriting utterances, Punin sighed expressively, assented, shook his head up and down, and from side to side; Musa maintained a stubborn silence. . . . She was obviously fretted by the doubt, what I was, whether I was a discreet person or a gossip. And if I were discreet, whether it was not with some afterthought in my mind. Her dark, swift, restless eyes fairly flashed to and fro under their half-drooping lids. Only once she glanced at me, but so inquisitively, so searchingly, almost viciously . . . I positively started. Baburin scarcely talked to her at all; but whenever he did address her, there was a note of austere, hardly fatherly, tenderness in his voice.
Punin, on the contrary, was continually joking with Musa; she responded unwillingly, however. He called her little snow-maiden, little snowflake.
"Why do you give Musa Pavlovna such names?" I asked.
Punin laughed. "Because she's such a chilly little thing."
"Sensible," put in Baburin: "as befits a young girl."
"We may call her the mistress of the house," cried Punin. "Hey? Paramon Semyonitch?" Baburin frowned; Musa turned away. . . . I did not understand the hint at the time.
So passed two hours . . . in no very lively fashion, though Punin did his best to "entertain the honourable company." For instance, he squatted down in front of the cage of one of the canaries, opened the door, and commanded: "On the cupola! Begin the concert!" The canary fluttered out at once, perched on the cupola, that is to say, on Punin's bald pate, and turning from side to side, and shaking its little wings, carolled with all its might. During the whole time the concert lasted, Punin kept perfectly still, only conducting with his finger, and half closing his eyes. I could not help roaring with laughter . . . but neither Baburin nor Musa laughed.
Just as I was leaving, Baburin surprised me by an unexpected question. He wished to ask me, as a man studying at the university, what sort of person Zeno was, and what were my ideas about him.
"What Zeno?" I asked, somewhat puzzled.
"Zeno, the sage of antiquity. Surely he cannot be unknown to you?"
I vaguely recalled the name of Zeno, as the founder of the school of Stoics; but I knew absolutely nothing more about him.
"Yes, he was a philosopher," I pronounced, at last
"Zeno," Baburin resumed in deliberate tones, "was that wise man, who declared that suffering was not an evil, since fortitude overcomes all things, and that the good in this world is one: justice; and virtue itself is nothing else than justice."
Punin turned a reverent ear.
"A man living here who has picked up a lot of old books, told me that saying," continued Baburin; "it pleased me much. But I see you are not interested in such subjects."
Baburin was right. In such subjects I certainly was not interested. Since I had entered the university, I had become as much of a republican as Baburin himself. Of Mirabeau, of Robespierre, I would have talked with zest. Robespierre, indeed . . . why, I had hanging over my writing-table the lithographed portraits of Fouquier-Tinville and Chalier! But Zeno! Why drag in Zeno?
As he said good-bye to me, Punin insisted very warmly on my visiting them next day, Sunday; Baburin did not invite me at all, and even remarked between his teeth, that talking to plain people of nondescript position could not give me any great pleasure, and would most likely be disagreeable to my granny. At that word I interrupted him, however, and gave him to understand that my grandmother had no longer any authority over me.
"Why, you've not come into possession of the property, have you?" queried Baburin.
"No, I haven't," I answered.
"Well, then, it follows . . ." Baburin did not finish his sentence; but I mentally finished it for him: "it follows that I'm a boy."
"Good-bye," I said aloud, and I retired.
I was just going out of the courtyard into the street . . . Musa suddenly ran out of the house, and slipping a piece of crumpled paper into my hand, disappeared at once. At the first lamp-post I unfolded the paper. It turned out to be a note. With difficulty I deciphered the pale pencil-marks. "For God's sake," Musa had written, "come to-morrow after matins to the Alexandrovsky garden near the Kutafia tower I shall wait for you don't refuse me don't make me miserable I simply must see you." There were no mistakes in spelling in this note, but neither was there any punctuation. I returned home in perplexity.
When, a quarter of an hour before the appointed time, next day, I began to get near the Kutafia tower (it was early in April, the buds were swelling, the grass was growing greener, and the sparrows were noisily chirrupping and quarrelling in the bare lilac bushes), considerably to my surprise, I caught sight of Musa a little to one side, not far from the fence. She was there before me. I was going towards her; but she herself came to meet me.
"Let's go to the Kreml wall," she whispered in a hurried voice, running her downcast eyes over the ground; "there are people here."
We went along the path up the hill.
"Musa Pavlovna," I was beginning. . . . But she cut me short at once.
"Please," she began, speaking in the same jerky and subdued voice, "don't criticise me, don't think any harm of me. I wrote a letter to you, I made an appointment to meet you, because . . . I was afraid. . . . It seemed to me yesterday,--you seemed to be laughing all the time. Listen," she added, with sudden energy, and she stopped short and turned towards me: "listen; if you tell with whom . . . if you mention at whose room you met me, I'll throw myself in the water, I'll drown myself, I'll make an end of myself!"
At this point, for the first time, she glanced at me with the inquisitive, piercing look I had seen before.
"Why, she, perhaps, really . . . would do it," was my thought.
"Really, Musa Pavlovna," I protested, hurriedly: "how can you have such a bad opinion of me? Do you suppose I am capable of betraying my friend and injuring you? Besides, come to that, there's nothing in your relations, as far as I'm aware, deserving of censure. . . . For goodness' sake, be calm."
Musa heard me out, without stirring from the spot, or looking at me again.
"There's something else I ought to tell you," she began, moving forward again along the path, "or else you may think I'm quite mad! I ought to tell you, that old man wants to marry me!"
"What old man? The bald one? Punin?"
"No--not he! The other . . . Paramon Semyonitch."
"Is it possible? Has he made you an offer?"
"But you didn't consent, of course?"
"Yes, I did consent . . . because I didn't understand what I was about then. Now it's a different matter."
I flung up my hands. "Baburin--and you! Why, he must be fifty!"
"He says forty-three. But that makes no difference. If he were five-and-twenty I wouldn't marry him. Much happiness I should find in it! A whole week will go by without his smiling once! Paramon Semyonitch is my benefactor, I am deeply indebted to him; he took care of me, educated me; I should have been utterly lost but for him; I'm bound to look on him as a father. . . . But be his wife! I'd rather die! I'd rather be in my coffin!"
"Why do you keep talking about death, Musa Pavlovna?"
Musa stopped again.
"Why, is life so sweet, then? Even your friend Vladimir Nikolaitch, I may say, I've come to love from being wretched and dull: and then Paramon Semyonitch with his offers of marriage. . . . Punin, though he bores me with his verses, he doesn't scare me, anyway; he doesn't make me read Karamzin in the evenings, when my head's ready to drop off my shoulders for weariness! And what are these old men to me? They call me cold, too. With them, is it likely I should be warm? If they try to make me--I shall go. Paramon Semyonitch himself's always saying: Freedom! freedom! All right, I want freedom too. Or else it comes to this! Freedom for every one else, and keeping me in a cage! I'll tell him so myself. But if you betray me, or drop a hint--remember; they'll never set eyes on me again!"
Musa stood in the middle of the path.
"They'll never set eyes on me again!" she repeated sharply. This time, too, she did not raise her eyes to me; she seemed to be aware that she would infallibly betray herself, would show what was in her heart, if any one looked her straight in the face. . . . And that was just why she did not lift her eyes, except when she was angry or annoyed, and then she stared straight at the person she was speaking to. . . . But her small pretty face was aglow with indomitable resolution.
"Why, Tarhov was right," flashed through my head; "this girl is a new type."
"You've no need to be afraid of me," I declared, at last.
"Truly? Even, if . . . You said something about our relations. . . . But even if there were . . ." she broke off.
"Even in that case, you would have no need to be afraid, Musa Pavlovna. I am not your judge. Your secret is buried here." I pointed to my bosom. "Believe me, I know how to appreciate. . . ."
"Have you got my letter?" Musa asked suddenly.
"In my pocket."
"Give it here . . . quick, quick!"
I got out the scrap of paper. Musa snatched it in her rough little hand, stood still a moment facing me, as though she were going to thank me; but suddenly started, looked round, and without even a word at parting, ran quickly down the hill.
I looked in the direction she had taken. At no great distance from the tower I discerned, wrapped in an "Almaviva" ("Almavivas" were then in the height of fashion), a figure which I recognised at once as Tarhov.
"Aha, my boy," thought I, "you must have had notice, then, since you're on the look-out."
And whistling to myself, I started homewards.
Next morning I had only just drunk my morning tea, when Punin made his appearance. He came into my room with rather an embarrassed face, and began making bows, looking about him, and apologising for his intrusion, as he called it. I made haste to reassure him. I, sinful man, imagined that Punin had come with the intention of borrowing money. But he confined himself to asking for a glass of tea with rum in it, as, luckily, the samovar had not been cleared away. "It's with some trepidation and sinking of heart that I have come to see you," he said, as he nibbled a lump of sugar. "You I do not fear; but I stand in awe of your honoured grandmother! I am abashed too by my attire, as I have already communicated to you." Punin passed his finger along the frayed edge of his ancient coat. "At home it's no matter, and in the street, too, it's no harm; but when one finds one's self in gilded palaces, one's poverty stares one in the face, and one feels confused!" I occupied two small rooms on the ground floor, and certainly it would never have entered any one's head to call them palaces, still less gilded; but Punin apparently was referring to the whole of my grandmother's house, though that too was by no means conspicuously sumptuous. He reproached me for not having been to see them the previous day; "Paramon Semyonitch," said he, "expected you, though he did declare that you would be sure not to come. And Musotchka, too, expected you."
"What? Musa Pavlovna too?" I queried.
"She too. She's a charming girl we have got with us, isn't she? What do you say?"
"Very charming," I assented.
Punin rubbed his bare head with extraordinary rapidity.
"She's a beauty, sir, a pearl or even a diamond--it's the truth I am telling you." He bent down quite to my ear. "Noble blood, too," he whispered to me, "only--you understand--left-handed; the forbidden fruit was eaten. Well, the parents died, the relations would do nothing for her, and flung her to the hazards of destiny, that's to say, despair, dying of hunger! But at that point Paramon Semyonitch steps forward, known as a deliverer from of old! He took her, clothed her and cared for her, brought up the poor nestling; and she has blossomed into our darling! I tell you, a man of the rarest qualities!"
Punin subsided against the back of the arm-chair, lifted his hands, and again bending forward, began whispering again, but still more mysteriously: "You see Paramon Semyonitch himself too. . . . Didn't you know? he too is of exalted extractlon--and on the left side, too. They do say--his father was a powerful Georgian prince, of the line of King David. . . . What do you make of that? A few words--but how much is said? The blood of King David! What do you think of that? And according to other accounts, the founder of the family of Paramon Semyonitch was an Indian Shah, Babur. Blue blood! That's fine too, isn't it? Eh?"
"Well?" I queried, "and was he too, Baburin, flung to the hazards of destiny?"
Punin rubbed his pate again. "To be sure he was! And with even greater cruelty than our little lady! From his earliest childhood nothing but struggling! And, in fact, I will confess that, inspired by Ruban, I composed in allusion to this fact a stanza for the portrait of Paramon Semyonitch. Wait a bit . . . how was it? Yes!
"E'en from the cradle fate's remorseless blows
Baburin drove towards the abyss of woes!
But as in darkness gleams the light, so now
The conqueror's laurel wreathes his noble brow!"
"So that's how it is he's a republican!" I exclaimed.
"No, that's not why," Punin answered simply. "He forgave his father long ago; but he cannot endure injustice of any sort; it's the sorrows of others that trouble him!"
I wanted to turn the conversation on what I had learned from Musa the day before, that is to say, on Baburin's matrimonial project,--but I did not know how to proceed. Punin himself got me out of the difficulty.
"Did you notice nothing?" he asked me suddenly, slily screwing up his eyes, "while you were with us? nothing special?"
"Why, was there anything to notice?" I asked in my turn.
Punin looked over his shoulder, as though anxious to satisfy himself that no one was listening. "Our little beauty, Musotchka, is shortly to be a married lady!"
"Madame Baburin," Punin announced with an effort, and slapping his knees several times with his open hands, he nodded his head, like a china mandarin.
"Impossible!" I cried, with assumed astonishment.
Punin's head slowly came to rest, and his hands dropped down. "Why impossible, allow me to ask?"
"Because Paramon Semyonitch is more fit to be your young lady's father; because such a difference in age excludes all likelihood of love--on the girl's side."
"Excludes?" Punin repeated excitedly. "But what about gratitude? and pure affection? and tenderness of feeling? Excludes! You must consider this: admitting that Musa's a splendid girl; but then to gain Paramon Semyonitch's affection, to be his comfort, his prop--his spouse, in short! is that not the loftiest possible happiness even for such a girl? And she realises it! You should look, turn an attentive eye! In Paramon Semyonitch's presence Musotchka is all veneration, all tremor and enthusiasm!"
"That's just what's wrong, Nikander Vavilitch, that she is, as you say, all tremor. If you love any one you don't feel tremors in their presence."
"But with that I can't agree! Here am I, for instance; no one, I suppose, could love Paramon Semyonitch more than I, but I . . . tremble before him."
"Oh, you--that's a different matter."
"How is it a different matter? how? how?" interrupted Punin. I simply did not know him; he got hot, and serious, almost angry, and quite dropped his rhythmic sing-song in speaking. "No," he declared; "I notice that you have not a good eye for character! No; you can't read people's hearts!" I gave up contradicting him . . . and to give another turn to the conversation, proposed, for the sake of old times, that we should read something together.
Punin was silent for a while.
"One of the old poets? The real ones?" he asked at last.
"No; a new one."
"A new one?" Punin repeated mistrustfully.
"Pushkin," I answered. I suddenly thought of the Gypsies, which Tarhov had mentioned not long before. There, by the way, is the ballad about the old husband. Punin grumbled a little, but I sat him down on the sofa, so that he could listen more comfortably, and began to read Pushkin's poem. The passage came at last, "old husband, cruel husband"; Punin heard the ballad through to the end, and all at once he got up impulsively.
"I can't," he pronounced, with an intense emotion, which impressed even me;--"excuse me; I cannot hear more of that author. He is an immoral slanderer; he is a liar . . . he upsets me. I cannot! Permit me to cut short my visit to-day."
I began trying to persuade Punin to remain; but he insisted on having his own way with a sort of stupid, scared obstinacy: he repeated several times that he felt upset, and wished to get a breath of fresh air--and all the while his lips were faintly quivering and his eyes avoided mine, as though I had wounded him. So he went away. A little while after, I too went out of the house and set off to see Tarhov.
Without inquiring of any one, with a student's usual lack of ceremony, I walked straight into his lodgings. In the first room there was no one. I called Tarhov by name, and receiving no answer, was just going to retreat; but the door of the adjoining room opened, and my friend appeared. He looked at me rather queerly, and shook hands without speaking. I had come to him to repeat all I had heard from Punin; and though I felt at once that I had called on Tarhov at the wrong moment, still, after talking a little about extraneous matters, I ended by informing him of Baburin's intentions in regard to Musa. This piece of news did not, apparently, surprise him much; he quietly sat down at the table, and fixing his eyes intently upon me, and keeping silent as before, gave to his features an expression . . . an expression, as though he would say: "Well, what more have you to tell? Come, out with your ideas!" I looked more attentively into his face. . . . It struck me as eager, a little ironical, a little arrogant even. But that did not hinder me from bringing out my ideas. On the contrary. "You're showing off," was my thought; "so I am not going to spare you!" And there and then I proceeded straightway to enlarge upon the mischief of yielding to impulsive feelings, upon the duty of every man to respect the freedom and personal life of another man--in short, I proceeded to enunciate useful and appropriate counsel. Holding forth in this manner, I walked up and down the room, to be more at ease. Tarhov did not interrupt me, and did not stir from his seat; he only played with his fingers on his chin.
"I know," said I . . . (Exactly what was my motive in speaking so, I have no clear idea myself--envy, most likely; it was not devotion to morality, anyway!) "I know," said I, "that it's no easy matter, no joking matter; I am sure you love Musa, and that Musa loves you--that it is not a passing fancy on your part. . . . But, see, let us suppose! (Here I folded my arms on my breast.) . . . Let us suppose you gratify your passion--what is to follow? You won't marry her, you know. And at the same time you are wrecking the happiness of an excellent, honest man, her benefactor--and--who knows? (here my face expressed at the same time penetration and sorrow)--possibly her own happiness too. . . ."
And so on, and so on!
For about a quarter of an hour my discourse flowed on. Tarhov was still silent. I began to be disconcerted by this silence. I glanced at him from time to time, not so much to satisfy myself as to the impression my words were making on him, as to find out why he neither objected nor agreed, but sat like a deaf mute. At last I fancied that there was . . . yes, there certainly was a change in his face. It began to show signs of uneasiness, agitation, painful agitation. . . . Yet, strange to say, the eager, bright, laughing something, which had struck me at my first glance at Tarhov, still did not leave that agitated, that troubled face! I could not make up my mind whether or no to congratulate myself on the success of my sermon, when Tarhov suddenly got up, and pressing both my hands, said, speaking very quickly, "Thank you, thank you. You're right, of course. . . . though, on the other side, one might observe . . . What is your Baburin you make so much of, after all? An honest fool--and nothing more! You call him a republican--and he's simply a fool! Oo! That's what he is! All his republicanism simply means that he can never get on anywhere!"
"Ah! so that's your idea! A fool! can never get on!--but let me tell you," I pursued, with sudden heat, "let me tell you, my dear Vladimir Nikolaitch, that in these days to get on nowhere is a sign of a fine, a noble nature! None but worthless people--bad people--get on anywhere and accommodate themselves to everything. You say Baburin is an honest fool! Why, is it better, then, to your mind, to be dishonest and clever?"
"You distort my words!" cried Tarhov. "I only wanted to explain how I understand that person. Do you think he's such a rare specimen? Not a bit of it! I've met other people like him in my time. A man sits with an air of importance, silent, obstinate, angular. . . . O-ho-ho! say you. It shows that there's a great deal in him! But there's nothing in him, not one idea in his head--nothing but a sense of his own dignity."
"Even if there is nothing else, that's an honourable thing," I broke in. "But let me ask where you have managed to study him like this? You don't know him, do you? Or are you describing him . . . from what Musa tells you?"
Tarhov shrugged his shoulders. "Musa and I . . . have other things to talk of. I tell you what," he added, his whole body quivering with impatience,--"I tell you what: if Baburin has such a noble and honest nature, how is it he doesn't see that Musa is not a fit match for him? It's one of two things: either he knows that what he's doing to her is something of the nature of an outrage, all in the name of gratitude . . . and if so, what about his honesty?--or he doesn't realise it . . . and in that case, what can one call him but a fool?"
I was about to reply, but Tarhov again clutched my hands, and again began talking in a hurried voice. "Though . . . of course . . . I confess you are right, a thousand times right. . . . You are a true friend . . . but now leave me alone, please."
I was puzzled. "Leave you alone?"
"Yes. I must, don't you see, think over all you've just said, thoroughly. . . . I have no doubt you are right . . . but now leave me alone!"
"You're in such a state of excitement. . . ." I was beginning.
"Excitement? I?" Tarhov laughed, but instantly pulled himself up. "Yes, of course I am. How could I help being? You say yourself it's no joking matter. Yes; I must think about it . . . alone." He was still squeezing my hands. "Good-bye, my dear fellow, good-bye!"
"Good-bye," I repeated. "Good-bye, old boy!" As I was going away I flung a last glance at Tarhov. He seemed pleased. At what? At the fact that I, like a true friend and comrade, had pointed out the danger of the way upon which he had set his foot--or that I was going? Ideas of the most diverse kind were floating in my head the whole day till evening--till the very instant when I entered the house occupied by Punin and Baburin, for I went to see them the same day. I am bound to confess that some of Tarhov's phrases had sunk deep into my soul . . . and were ringing in my ears. . . . In truth, was it possible Baburin . . . was it possible he did not see she was not a fit match for him?
But could this possibly be: Baburin, the self-sacrificing Baburin--an honest fool!
Punin had said, when he came to see me, that I had been expected there the day before. That may have been so, but on this day, it is certain, no one expected me. . . . I found every one at home, and every one was surprised at my visit. Baburin and Punin were both unwell: Punin had a headache, and he was lying curled up on the sofa, with his head tied up in a spotted handkerchief, and strips of cucumber applied to his temples. Baburin was suffering from a bilious attack; all yellow, almost dusky, with dark rings round his eyes, with scowling brow and unshaven chin--he did not look much like a bridegroom! I tried to go away. . . . But they would not let me go, and even made tea. I spent anything but a cheerful evening. Musa, it is true, had no ailment, and was less shy than usual too, but she was obviously vexed, angry. . . . At last she could not restrain herself, and, as she handed me a cup of tea, she whispered hurriedly: "You can say what you like, you may try your utmost, you won't make any difference. . . . So there!" I looked at her in astonishment, and, seizing a favourable moment, asked her, also in a whisper, "What's the meaning of your words?" "I'll tell you," she answered, and her black eyes, gleaming angrily under her frowning brows, were fastened for an instant on my face, and turned away at once: "the meaning is that I heard all you said there to-day, and thank you for nothing, and things won't be as you'd have them, anyway." "You were there," broke from me unconsciously. . . . But at this point Baburin's attention was caught, and he glanced in our direction. Musa walked away from me.
Ten minutes later she managed to come near me again. She seemed to enjoy saying bold and dangerous things to me, and saying them in the presence of her protector, under his vigilant eye, only exercising barely enough caution not to arouse his suspicions. It is well known that walking on the brink, on the very edge, of the precipice is woman's favourite pastime. "Yes, I was there," whispered Musa, without any change of countenance, except that her nostrils were faintly quivering and her lips twitching. "Yes, and if Paramon Semyonitch asks me what I am whispering about with you, I'd tell him this minute. What do I care?"
"Be more careful," I besought her. "I really believe they are noticing."
"I tell you, I'm quite ready to tell them everything. And who's noticing? One's stretching his neck off the pillow, like a sick duck, and hears nothing; and the other's deep in philosophy. Don't you be afraid!" Musa's voice rose a little, and her cheeks gradually flushed a sort of malignant, dusky red; and this suited her marvellously, and never had she been so pretty. As she cleared the table, and set the cups and saucers in their places, she moved swiftly about the room; there was something challenging about her light, free and easy movement. "You may criticise me as you like," she seemed to say; "but I'm going my own way, and I'm not afraid of you."
I cannot disguise the fact that I found Musa bewitching just that evening. "Yes," I mused; "she's a little spitfire--she's a new type. . . . She's--exquisite. Those hands know how to deal a blow, I dare say. . . . What of it! No matter!"
"Paramon Semyonitch," she cried suddenly, "isn't a republic an empire in which every one does as he chooses?"
"A republic is not an empire," answered Baburin, raising his head, and contracting his brows; "it is a . . . form of society in which everything rests on law and justice."
"Then," Musa pursued, "in a republic no one can oppress any one else?"
"And every one is free to dispose of himself?"
"Ah! that's all I wanted to know."
"Why do you want to know?"
"Oh, I wanted to--I wanted you to tell me that."
"Our young lady is anxious to learn," Punin observed from the sofa.
When I went out into the passage Musa accompanied me, not, of course, from politeness, but with the same malicious intent. I asked her, as I took leave, "Can you really love him so much?"
"Whether I love him, or whether I don't, that's my affair," she answered. "What is to be, will be."
"Mind what you're about; don't play with fire . . . you'll get burnt."
"Better be burnt than frozen. You . . . with your good advice! And how can you tell he won't marry me? How do you know I so particularly want to get married? If I am ruined . . . what business is it of yours?"
She slammed the door after me.
I remember that on the way home I reflected with some pleasure that my friend Vladimir Tarhov might find things rather hot for him with his new type. . . . He ought to have to pay something for his happiness!
That he would be happy, I was--regretfully--unable to doubt.
Three days passed by. I was sitting in my room at my writing-table, and not so much working as getting myself ready for lunch. . . . I heard a rustle, lifted my head, and I was stupefied. Before me--rigid, terrible, white as chalk, stood an apparition . . . Punin. His half-closed eyes were looking at me, blinking slowly; they expressed a senseless terror, the terror of a frightened hare, and his arms hung at his sides like sticks.
"Nikander Vavilitch! what is the matter with you? How did you come here? Did no one see you? What has happened? Do speak!"
"She has run away," Punin articulated in a hoarse, hardly audible voice.
"What do you say?"
"She has run away," he repeated.
"Musa. She went away in the night, and left a note."
"Yes. 'I thank you,' she said,'but I am not coming back again. Don't look for me.' We ran up and down; we questioned the cook; she knew nothing. I can't speak loud; you must excuse me. I've lost my voice."
"Musa Pavlovna has left you!" I exclaimed. "Nonsense! Mr. Baburin must be in despair. What does he intend to do now?"
"He has no intention of doing anything. I wanted to run to the Governor-general: he forbade it. I wanted to give information to the police; he forbade that too, and got very angry. He says, 'She's free.' He says, 'I don't want to constrain her.' He has even gone to work, to his office. But he looks more dead than alive. He loved her terribly. . . . Oh, oh, we both loved her!"
Here Punin for the first time showed that he was not a wooden image, but a live man; he lifted both his fists in the air, and brought them down on his pate, which shone like ivory.
"Ungrateful girl!" he groaned; "who was it gave you food and drink, clothed you, and brought you up? who cared for you, would have given all his life, all his soul . . . And you have forgotten it all! To cast me off, truly, were no great matter, but Paramon Semyonitch, Paramon. . . ."
I begged him to sit down, to rest.
Punin shook his head. "No, I won't. I have come to you . . . I don't know what for. I'm like one distraught; to stay at home alone is fearful; what am I to do with myself? I stand in the middle of the room, shut my eyes, and call, 'Musa! Musotchka!' That's the way to go out of one's mind. But no, why am I talking nonsense? I know why I have come to you. You know, the other day you read me that thrice-accursed poem . . . you remember, where there is talk of an old husband. What did you do that for? Did you know something then . . . or guessed something?" Punin glanced at me. "Piotr Petrovitch," he cried suddenly, and he began trembling all over, "you know, perhaps, where she is. Kind friend, tell me whom she has gone to!"
I was disconcerted, and could not help dropping my eyes. . . .
"Perhaps she said something in her letter," I began. . . .
"She said she was leaving us because she loved some one else! Dear, good friend, you know, surely, where she is? Save her, let us go to her; we will persuade her. Only think what a man she's bringing to ruin."
Punin all at once flushed crimson, the blood seemed to rush to his head, he plumped heavily down on his knees. "Save us, friend, let us go to her."
My servant appeared in the doorway, and stood still in amazement.
I had no little trouble to get Punin on to his feet again, to convince him that, even if I did suspect something, still it would not do to act like that, on the spur of the moment, especially both together--that would only spoil all our efforts--that I was ready to do my best, but would not answer for anything. Punin did not oppose me, nor did he indeed hear me; he only repeated from time to time in his broken voice, "Save her, save her and Paramon Semyonitch." At last he began to cry. "Tell me at least one thing," he asked . . . "is he handsome, young?"
"Yes, he is young," I answered.
"He is young," repeated Punin, smearing the tears over his cheeks; "and she is young. . . . It's from that that all the trouble's sprung!"
This rhyme came by chance; poor Punin was in no mood for versifying. I would have given a good deal to hear his rhapsodical eloquence again, or even his almost noiseless laugh. . . . Alas! his eloquence was quenched for ever, and I never heard his laugh again.
I promised to let him know, as soon as I should find out anything positive. . . . Tarhov's name I did not, however, mention. Punin suddenly collapsed completely. "Very good, very good, sir, thank you," he said with a pitiful face, using the word "sir," which he had never done before; "only mind, sir, do not say anything to Paramon Semyonitch . . . or he'll be angry. In one word, he has forbidden it. Good-bye, sir."
As he got up and turned his back to me, Punin struck me as such a poor feeble creature, that I positively marvelled; he limped with both legs, and doubled up at each step. . . .
"It's a bad look-out. It's the end of him, that's what it means," I thought.
Though I had promised Punin to trace Musa, yet as I set off the same day to Tarhov's, I had not the slightest expectation of learning anything, as I considered it certain that either I should not find him at home, or that he would refuse to see me. My supposition turned out to be a mistaken one. I found Tarhov at home; he received me, and I found out indeed all I wanted to know; but there was nothing gained by that. Directly I crossed the threshold of his door, Tarhov came resolutely, rapidly, to meet me, and his eyes sparkling and glowing, his face grown handsomer and radiant, he said firmly and briskly: "Listen, Petya, my boy; I guess what you've come for, and what you want to talk about; but I give you warning, if you say a single word about her, or about her action, or about what, according to you, is the course dictated to me by common sense, we're friends no longer, we're not even acquainted, and I shall beg you to treat me as a stranger."
I looked at Tarhov; he was quivering all over inwardly, like a tightly drawn harpstring; he was tingling all over, hardly could he hold back the tide of brimming youth and passion; violent, ecstatic happiness had burst into his soul, and had taken full possession of him--and he of it.
"Is that your final decision?" I pronounced mournfully.
"Yes, Petya, my boy, it's final."
"In that case, there's nothing for me but to say good-bye."
Tarhov faintly dropped his eyelids. . . . He was too happy at that moment.
"Good-bye, Petya, old boy," he said, a little through his nose, with a candid smile and a gay flash of all his white teeth.
What was I to do? I left him to his "happiness." As I slammed the door after me, the other door of the room slammed also--I heard it.
It was with a heavy heart that I trudged off next day to see my luckless acquaintances. I secretly hoped--such is human weakness--that I should not find them at home, and again I was mistaken. Both were at home. The change that had taken place in them during the last three days must have struck any one. Punin looked ghastly white and flabby. His talkativeness had completely vanished. He spoke listlessly, feebly, still in the same husky voice, and looked somehow lost and bewildered. Baburin, on the contrary, seemed shrunk into himself, and blacker than ever; taciturn at the best of times, he uttered nothing now but a few abrupt sounds; an expression of stony severity seemed to have frozen on his countenance.
I felt it impossible to be silent; but what was there to say? I confined myself to whispering to Punin, "I have discovered nothing, and my advice to you is to give up all hope." Punin glanced at me with his swollen, red little eyes--the only red left in his face--muttered something inaudible, and hobbled away. Baburin most likely guessed what I had been speaking about to Punin, and opening his lips, which were tightly compressed, as though glued together, he pronounced, in a deliberate voice, "My dear sir, since your last visit to us, something disagreeable has happened to us; our young friend, Musa Pavlovna Vinogradov, finding it no longer convenient to live with us, has decided to leave us, and has given us a written communication to that effect. Not considering that we have any right to hinder her doing so, we have left her to act according to her own views of what is best. We trust that she may be happy," he added, with some effort; "and I humbly beg you not to allude to the subject, as any such references are useless, and even painful."
"So he too, like Tarhov, forbids my speaking of Musa," was the thought that struck me, and I could not help wondering inwardly. He might well prize Zeno so highly. I wished to impart to him some facts about that sage, but my tongue would not form the words, and it did well.
I soon went about my business. At parting neither Punin nor Baburin said, "Till we meet!" both with one voice pronounced, "Good-bye."
Punin even returned me a volume of the Telegraph I had brought him, as much as to say, "he had no need of anything of that kind now."
A week later I had a curious encounter. An early spring had set in abruptly; at midday the heat rose to eighteen degrees Réaumur. Everything was turning green, and shooting up out of the spongy, damp earth. I hired a horse at the riding-school, and went out for a ride into the outskirts of the town, towards the Vorobyov hills. On the road I was met by a little cart, drawn by a pair of spirited ponies, splashed with mud up to their ears, with plaited tails, and red ribbons in their manes and forelocks. Their harness was such as sportsmen affect, with copper discs and tassels; they were being driven by a smart young driver, in a blue tunic without sleeves, a yellow striped silk shirt, and a low felt hat with peacock's feathers round the crown. Beside him sat a girl of the artisan or merchant class, in a flowered silk jacket, with a big blue handkerchief on her head--and she was simply bubbling over with mirth. The driver was laughing too. I drew my horse on one side, but did not, however, take particular notice of the swiftly passing, merry couple, when, all at once, the young man shouted to his ponies. . . . Why, that was Tarhov's voice! I looked round. . . . Yes, it was he; unmistakably he, dressed up as a peasant, and beside him--wasn't it Musa?
But at that instant their ponies quickened their pace, and they were out of my sight in a minute. I tried to put my horse into a gallop in pursuit of them, but it was an old riding-school hack, that shambled from side to side as it moved; it went more slowly galloping than trotting.
"Enjoy yourselves, my dear friends!" I muttered through my teeth.
I ought to observe that I had not seen Tarhov during the whole week, though I had been three times to his rooms. He was never at home. Baburin and Punin I had not seen either. . . . I had not been to see them.
I caught cold on my ride; though it was very warm, there was a piercing wind. I was dangerously ill, and when I recovered I went with my grandmother into the country "to feed up," by the doctor's advice. I did not get to Moscow again; in the autumn I was transferred to the Petersburg university.
NOT seven, but fully twelve years had passed by, and I was in my thirty-second year. My grandmother had long been dead; I was living in Petersburg, with a post in the Depart ment of Home Affairs. Tarhov I had lost sight of; he had gone into the army, and lived almost always in the provinces. We had met twice, as old friends, glad to see each other; but we had not touched on the past in our talk. At the time of our last meeting he was, if I remember right, already a married man.
One sultry summer day I was sauntering along Gorohov Street, cursing my official duties for keeping me in Petersburg, and the heat and stench and dust of the city. A funeral barred my way. It consisted of a solitary car, that is, to be accurate, of a decrepit hearse, on which a poor-looking wooden coffin, half-covered with a threadbare black cloth, was shaking up and down as it was jolted violently over the uneven pavement. An old man with a white head was walking alone after the hearse.
I looked at him. . . . His face seemed familiar. . . . He too turned his eyes upon me. . . . Merciful heavens! it was Baburin!
I took off my hat, went up to him, mentioned my name, and walked along beside him.
"Whom are you burying?" I asked.
"Nikander Vavilitch Punin," he answered.
I felt, I knew beforehand, that he would utter that name, and yet it set my heart aching. I felt melancholy, and yet I was glad that chance had enabled me to pay my last respects to my old friend. . . .
"May I go with you, Paramon Semyonitch?"
"You may. . . . I was following him alone; now there'll be two of us."
Our walk lasted more than an hour. My companion moved forward, without lifting his eyes or opening his lips. He had become quite an old man since I had seen him last; his deeply furrowed, copper-coloured face stood out sharply against his white hair. Signs of a life of toil and suffering, of continual struggle, could be seen in Baburin's whole figure; want and poverty had worked cruel havoc with him. When everything was over, when what was Punin had disappeared for ever in the damp . . . yes, undoubtedly damp earth of the Smolensky cemetery, Baburin, after standing a couple of minutes with bowed, uncovered head before the newly risen mound of sandy clay, turned to me his emaciated, as it were embittered, face, his dry, sunken eyes, thanked me grimly, and was about to move away; but I detained him.
"Where do you live, Paramon Semyonitch? Let me come and see you. I had no idea you were living in Petersburg. We could recall old days, and talk of our dead friend."
Baburin did not answer me at once.
"It's two years since I found my way to Petersburg," he observed at last; "I live at the very end of the town. However, if you really care to visit me, come." He gave me his address. "Come in the evening; in the evening we are always at home . . . both of us."
"Both of you?"
"I am married. My wife is not very well to-day, and that's why she did not come too. Though, indeed, it's quite enough for one person to go through this empty formality, this ceremony. As if anybody believed in it all!"
I was a little surprised at Baburin's last words, but I said nothing, called a cab, and proposed to Baburin to take him home; but he refused.
The same day I went in the evening to see him. All the way there I was thinking of Punin. I recalled how I had met him the first time, and how ecstatic and amusing he was in those days; and afterwards in Moscow how subdued he had grown--especially the last time I saw him; and now he had made his last reckoning with life;--life is in grim earnest, it seems! Baburin was living in the Viborgsky quarter, in a little house which reminded me of the Moscow "nest":--the Petersburg abode was almost shabbier in appearance. When I went into his room he was sitting on a chair in a corner with his hands on his knees; a tallow candle, burning low, dimly lighted up his bowed, white head. He heard the sound of my footsteps, started up, and welcomed me more warmly than I had expected. A few moments later his wife came in; I recognised her at once as Musa--and only then understood why Baburin had invited me to come; he wanted to show me that he had after all come by his own.
Musa was greatly changed--in face, in voice, and in manners; but her eyes were changed most of all. In old times they had darted about like live creatures, those malicious, beautiful eyes; they had gleamed stealthily, but brilliantly; their glance had pierced, like a pin-prick. . . . Now they looked at one directly, calmly, steadily; their black centres had lost their lustre. "I am broken in, I am tame, I am good," her soft and dull gaze seemed to say. Her continued, submissive smile told the same story. And her dress, too, was subdued; brown, with little spots on it. She came up to me, asked me whether I knew her. She obviously felt no embarrassment, and not because she had lost a sense of shame or memory of the past, but simply because all petty self-consciousness had left her.
Musa talked a great deal about Punin, talked in an even voice, which too had lost its fire. I learned that of late years he had become very feeble, had almost sunk into childishness, so much so that he was miserable if he had not toys to play with; they persuaded him, it is true, that he made them out of waste stuff for sale . . . but he really played with them himself. His passion for poetry, however, never died out, and he kept his memory for nothing but verses; a few days before his death he recited a passage from the Rossiad; but Pushkin he feared, as children fear bogies. His devotion to Baburin had also remained undiminished; he worshipped him as much as ever, and even at the last, wrapped about by the chill and dark of the end, he had faltered with halting tongue, "benefactor!" I learned also from Musa that soon after the Moscow episode, it had been Baburin's fate once more to wander all over Russia, continually tossed from one private situation to another; that in Petersburg, too, he had been again in a situation, in a private business, which situation he had, however, been obliged to leave a few days before, owing to some unpleasantness with his employer: Baburin had ventured to stand up for the workpeople. . . . The invariable smile, with which Musa accompanied her words, set me musing mournfully; it put the finishing touch to the impression made on me by her husband's appearance. They had hard work, the two of them, to make a bare living--there was no doubt of it. He took very little part in our conversation; he seemed more preoccupied than grieved. . . . Something was worrying him.
"Paramon Semyonitch, come here," said the cook, suddenly appearing in the doorway.
"What is it? what's wanted?" he asked in alarm.
"Come here," the cook repeated insistently and meaningly. Baburin buttoned up his coat and went out.
When I was left alone with Musa, she looked at me with a somewhat changed glance, and observed in a voice which was also changed, and with no smile: "I don't know, Piotr Petrovitch, what you think of me now, but I dare say you remember what I used to be. . . . I was self-confident, light-hearted . . . and not good; I wanted to live for my own pleasure. But I want to tell you this: when I was abandoned, and was like one lost, and was only waiting for God to take me, or to pluck up spirit to make an end of myself,--once more, just as in Voronezh, I met with Paramon Semyonitch--and he saved me once again. . . . Not a word that could wound me did I hear from him, not a word of reproach; he asked nothing of me--I was not worthy of that; but he loved me . . . and I became his wife. What was I to do? I had failed of dying; and I could not live either after my own choice. . . . What was I to do with myself? Even so--it was a mercy to be thankful for. That is all."
She ceased, turned away for an instant . . . the same submissive smile came back to her lips. "Whether life's easy for me, you needn't ask," was the meaning I fancied now in that smile.
The conversation passed to ordinary subjects. Musa told me that Punin had left a cat that he had been very fond of, and that ever since his death she had gone up to the attic and stayed there, mewing incessantly, as though she were calling some one . . . the neighbours were very much scared, and fancied that it was Punin's soul that had passed into the cat.
"Paramon Semyonitch is worried about something," I said at last.
"Oh, you noticed it?"--Musa sighed. "He cannot help being worried. I need hardly tell you that Paramon Semyonitch has remained faithful to his principles. . . . The present condition of affairs can but strengthen them." (Musa expressed herself quite differently now from in the old days in Moscow; there was a literary, bookish flavour in her phrases.) "I don't know, though, whether I can rely upon you, and how you will receive. . . ."
"Why should you imagine you cannot rely upon me?"
"Well, you are in the government service--you are an official."
"Well, what of that?"
"You are, consequently, loyal to the government."
I marvelled inwardly . . . at Musa's innocence. "As to my attitude to the government, which is not even aware of my existence, I won't enlarge upon that," I observed; "but you may set your mind at rest. I will make no bad use of your confidence. I sympathise with your husband's ideas . . . more than you suppose."
Musa shook her head.
"Yes; that's all so," she began, not without hesitation; "but you see it's like this. Paramon Semyonitch's ideas will shortly, it may be, find expression in action. They can no longer be hidden under a bushel. There are comrades whom we cannot now abandon. . . ."
Musa suddenly ceased speaking, as though she had bitten her tongue. Her last words had amazed and a little alarmed me. Most likely my face showed what I was feeling--and Musa noticed it.
As I have said already, our interview took place in the year 1849. Many people still remember what a disturbed and difficult time that was, and by what incidents it was signalised in St. Petersburg. I had been struck myself by certain peculiarities in Baburin's behaviour, in his whole demeanour. Twice he had referred to governmental action, to personages in high authority, with such intense bitterness and hatred, with such loathing, that I had been dumbfoundered. . . .
"Well?" he asked me suddenly: "did you set your peasants free?"
I was obliged to confess I had not.
"Why, I suppose your granny's dead, isn't she?"
I was obliged to admit that she was.
"To be sure, you noble gentlemen," Baburin muttered between his teeth," . . use other men's hands . . . to poke up your fire . . . that's what you like."
In the most conspicuous place in his room hung the well-known lithograph portrait of Belinsky; on the table lay a volume of the old Polar Star, edited by Bestuzhev.
A long time passed, and Baburin did not come back after the cook had called him away. Musa looked several times uneasily towards the door by which he had gone out. At last she could bear it no longer; she got up, and with an apology she too went out by the same door. A quarter of an hour later she came back with her husband; the faces of both, so at least I thought, looked troubled. But all of a sudden Baburin's face assumed a different, an intensely bitter, almost frenzied expression.
"What will be the end of it?" he began all at once in a jerky, sobbing voice, utterly unlike him, while his wild eyes shifted restlessly about him. "One goes on living and living, and hoping that maybe it'll be better, that one will breathe more freely; but it's quite the other way--everything gets worse and worse! They have squeezed us right up to the wall! In my youth I bore all with patience; they . . . maybe . . . beat me . . . even . . . yes!" he added, turning sharply round on his heels and swooping down as it were, upon me: "I, a man of full age, was subjected to corporal punishment . . . yes;--of other wrongs I will not speak. . . . But is there really nothing before us but to go back to those old times again? The way they are treating the young people now! . . . Yes, it breaks down all endurance at last. . . . It breaks it down! Yes! Wait a bit!"
I had never seen Baburin in such a condition. Musa turned positively white. . . . Baburin suddenly cleared his throat, and sank down into a seat. Not wishing to constrain either him or Musa by my presence, I decided to go, and was just saying good-bye to them, when the door into the next room suddenly opened, and a head appeared. . . . It was not the cook's head, but the dishevelled and terrified-looking head of a young man.
"Something's wrong, Baburin, something's wrong!" he faltered hurriedly, then vanished at once on perceiving my unfamiliar figure.
Baburin rushed after the young man. I pressed Musa's hand warmly, and withdrew, with presentiments of evil in my heart.
"Come to-morrow," she whispered anxiously.
"I certainly will come," I answered.
I was still in bed next morning, when my man handed me a letter from Musa.
"Dear Piotr Petrovitch!" she wrote: "Paramon Semyonitch has been this night arrested by the police and carried off to the fortress, or I don't know where; they did not tell me. They ransacked all our papers, sealed up a great many, and took them away with them. It has been the same with our books and letters. They say a mass of people have been arrested in the town. You can fancy how I feel. It is well Nikander Vavilitch did not live to see it! He was taken just in time. Advise me what I am to do. For myself I am not afraid--I shall not die of starvation--but the thought of Paramon Semyonitch gives me no rest. Come, please, if only you are not afraid to visit people in our position.--Yours faithfully, MUSA BABURIN."
Half an hour later I was with Musa, On seeing me she held out her hand, and, though she did not utter a word, a look of gratitude flitted over her face. She was wearing the same clothes as on the previous day; there was every sign that she had not been to bed or slept all night. Her eyes were red, but from sleeplessness, not from tears. She had not been crying. She was in no mood for weeping. She wanted to act, wanted to struggle with the calamity that had fallen upon them: the old, energetic, self-willed Musa had risen up in her again. She had no time even to be indignant, though she was choking with indignation. How to assist Baburin, to whom to appeal so as to soften his lot--she could think of nothing else, She wanted to go instantly. . . . to petition, . . . demand. . . . But where to go, whom to petition, what to demand--this was what she wanted to hear from me, this was what she wanted to consult me about.
I began by counselling her . . . to have patience. For the first moment there was nothing left to be done but to wait, and, as far as might be, to make inquiries; and to take any decisive step now when the affair had scarcely begun, and hardly yet taken shape, would be simply senseless, irrational. To hope for any success was irrational, even if I had been a person of much more importance and influence, . . . but what could I, a petty official, do? As for her, she was absolutely without any powerful friends. . . .
It was no easy matter to make all this plain to her . . . but at last she understood my arguments; she understood, too, that I was not prompted by egoistic feeling, when I showed her the uselessness of all efforts.
"But tell me, Musa Pavlovna," I began, when she sank at last into a chair (till then she had been standing up, as though on the point of setting off at once to the aid of Baburin), "how Paramon Semyonitch, at his age, comes to be mixed up in such an affair? I feel sure that there are none but young people implicated in it, like the one who came in yesterday to warn you. . . ."
"Those young people are our friends!" cried Musa, and her eyes flashed and darted as of old. Something strong, irrepressible, seemed, as it were, to rise up from the bottom of her soul. . . . and I suddenly recalled the expression "a new type," which Tarhov had once used of her. "Years are of no consequence when it is a matter of political principles!" Musa laid a special stress on these last two words. One might fancy that in all her sorrow it was not unpleasing to her to show herself before me in this new, unlooked-for character--in the character of a cultivated and mature woman, fit wife of a republican! . . . "Some old men are younger than some young ones," she pursued, "more capable of sacrifice. . . . But that's not the point."
"I think, Musa Pavlovna," I observed, "that you are exaggerating a little. Knowing the character of Paramon Semyonitch, I should have felt sure beforehand that he would sympathise with every . . . sincere impulse; but, on the other hand, I have always regarded him as a man of sense. . . . Surely he cannot fail to realise all the impracticability, all the absurdity of conspiracies in Russia? In his position, in his calling. . . ."
"Oh, of course," Musa interrupted, with bitterness in her voice, "he is a working man; and in Russia it is only permissible for noblemen to take part in conspiracies. . . . as, for instance, in that of the fourteenth of December. . . . that's what you meant to say."
"In that case, what do you complain of now?" almost broke from my lips. . . . but I restrained myself. "Do you consider that the result of the fourteenth of December was such as to encourage other such attempts?" I said aloud.
Musa frowned. "It is no good talking to you about it," was what I read in her downcast face.
"Is Paramon Semyonitch very seriously compromised?" I ventured to ask her. Musa made no reply. . . . A hungry, savage mewing was heard from the attic.
Musa started. "Ah, it is a good thing Nikander Vavilitch did not see all this!" she moaned almost despairingly. "He did not see how violently in the night they seized his benefactor, our benefactor--maybe, the best and truest man in the whole world,--he did not see how they treated that noble man at his age, how rudely they addressed him. . . . how they threatened him, and the threats they used to him!--only because he was a working man! That young officer, too, was no doubt just such an unprincipled, heartless wretch as I have known in my life. . . ."
Musa's voice broke. She was quivering all over like a leaf.
Her long-suppressed indignation broke out at last; old memories stirred up, brought to the surface by the general tumult of her soul, showed themselves alive within her. . . . But the conviction I carried off at that moment was that the "new type" was still the same, still the same passionate, impulsive nature. . . . Only the impulses by which Musa was carried away were not the same as in the days of her youth. What on my first visit I had taken for resignation, for meekness, and what really was so--the subdued, lustreless glance, the cold voice, the quietness and simplicity--all that had significance only in relation to the past, to what would never return. . . .
Now it was the present asserted itself.
I tried to soothe Musa, tried to put our conversation on a more practical level. Some steps must be taken that could not be postponed; we must find out exactly where Baburin was; and then secure both for him and for Musa the means of subsistence. All this presented no inconsiderable difficulty; what was needed was not to find money, but work, which is, as we all know, a far more complicated problem. . . .
I left Musa with a perfect swarm of reflections in my head.
I soon learned that Baburin was in the fortress.
The proceedings began. . . . dragged on. I saw Musa several times every week. She had several interviews with her husband. But just at the moment of the decision of the whole melancholy affair, I was not in Petersburg. Unforeseen business had obliged me to set off to the south of Russia. During my absence I heard that Baburin had been acquitted at the trial; it appeared that all that could be proved against him was, that young people regarding him as a person unlikely to awaken suspicion, had sometimes held meetings at his house, and he had been present at their meetings; he was, however, by administrative order sent into exile in one of the western provinces of Siberia. Musa went with him.
"Paramon Semyonitch did not wish it," she wrote to me; "as, according to his ideas, no one ought to sacrifice self for another person, and not for a cause; but I told him there was no question of sacrifice at all. When I said to him in Moscow that I would be his wife, I thought to myself--for ever, indissolubly! So indissoluble it must be till the end of our days. . . ."
TWELVE more years passed by. . . . Every one in Russia knows, and will ever remember, what passed between the years 1849 and 1861. In my personal life, too, many changes took p lace, on which, however, there is no need to enlarge. New interests came into it, new cares. . . . The Baburin couple first fell into the background, then passed out of my mind altogether. Yet I kept up a correspondence with Musa--at very long intervals, however. Sometimes more than a year passed without any tidings of her or of her husband. I heard that soon after 1855 he received permission to return to Russia; but that he preferred to remain in the little Siberian town, where he had been flung by destiny, and where he had apparently made himself a home, and found a haven and a sphere of activity. . . .
And, lo and behold! towards the end of March in 1861, I received the following letter from Musa:--
"It is so long since I have written to you, most honoured Piotr Petrovitch, that I do not even know whether you are still living; and if you are living, have you not forgotten our existence? But no matter; I cannot resist writing to you to-day. Everything till now has gone on with us in the same old way: Paramon Semyonitch and I have been always busy with our schools, which are gradually making good progress; besides that, Paramon Semyonitch was taken up with reading and correspondence and his usual discussions with the Old-believers, members of the clergy, and Polish exiles; his health has been fairly good. . . . So has mine. But yesterday! the manifesto of the 19th of February reached us! We had long been on the look-out for it. Rumours had reached us long before of what was being done among you in Petersburg, . . . but yet I can't describe what it was! You know my husband well; he was not in the least changed by his misfortune; on the contrary, he has grown even stronger and more energetic, and has a will as strong as iron, but at this he could not restrain himself! His hands shook as he read it; then he embraced me three times, and three times he kissed me, tried to say something—but no! he could not! and ended by bursting into tears, which was very astounding to see, and suddenly he shouted, "Hurrah! hurrah! God save the Tsar!" Yes, Piotr Petrovitch, those were his very words! Then he went on: "Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart" . . . and again: "This is the first step, others are bound to follow it"; and, just as he was, bareheaded, ran to tell the great news to our friends. There was a bitter frost, and even a snowstorm coming on. I tried to prevent him, but he would not listen to me. And when he came home, he was all covered with snow, his hair, his face, and his beard—he has a beard right down to his chest now—and the tears were positively frozen on his cheeks! But he was very lively and cheerful, and told me to uncork a bottle of home-made champagne, and he drank with our friends that he had brought back with him, to the health of the Tsar and of Russia, and all free Russians; and taking the glass, and fixing his eyes on the ground, he said: "Nikander, Nikander, do you hear? There are no slaves in Russia any more! Rejoice in the grave, old comrade!" And much more he said; to the effect that his "expectations were fulfilled!" He said, too, that now there could be no turning back; that this was in its way a pledge or promise.... I don't remember everything, but it is long since I have seen him so happy. And so I made up my mind to write to you, so that you might know how we have been rejoicing and exulting in the remote Siberian wilds, so that you might rejoice with us....'
This letter I received at the end of March. At the beginning of May another very brief letter arrived from Musa. She informed me that her husband, Paramon Semyonitch Baburin, had taken cold on the very day of the arrival of the manifesto, and died on the 12th of April of inflammation of the lungs, in the 67th year of his age. She added that she intended to remain where his body lay at rest, and to go on with the work he had bequeathed her, since such was the last wish of Paramon Semyonitch, and that was her only law.
Since then I have heard no more of Musa.