Darya Mihailovna’s house was regarded as almost the first in the whole province. It was a huge stone mansion, built after designs of Rastrelli in the taste of last century, and in a commanding position on the summit of a hill, at whose base flowed one of the principal rivers of central Russia. Darya Mihailovna herself was a wealthy and distinguished lady, the widow of a privy councillor. Pandalevsky said of her, that she knew all Europe and all Europe knew her! However, Europe knew her very little; even at Petersburg she had not played a very prominent part; but on the other hand at Moscow every one knew her and visited her. She belonged to the highest society, and was spoken of as a rather eccentric woman, not wholly good-natured, but excessively clever. In her youth she had been very pretty. Poets had written verses to her, young men had been in love with her, distinguished men had paid her homage. But twenty-five or thirty years had passed since those days and not a trace of her former charms remained. Every one who saw her now for the first time was impelled to ask himself, if this woman—skinny, sharp-nosed, and yellow-faced, though still not old in years—could once have been a beauty, if she was really the same woman who had been the inspiration of poets . . . And every one marvelled inwardly at the mutability of earthly things. It is true that Pandalevsky discovered that Darya Mihailovna had preserved her magnificent eyes in a marvellous way; but we have seen that Pandalevsky also maintained that all Europe knew her.
Darya Mihailovna went every summer to her country place with her children (she had three: a daughter of seventeen, Natalya, and two sons of nine and ten years old). She kept open house in the country, that is, she received men, especially unmarried ones; provincial ladies she could not endure. But what of the treatment she received from those ladies in return?
Darya Mihailovna, according to them, was a haughty, immoral, and insufferable tyrant, and above all—she permitted herself such liberties in conversation, it was shocking! Darya Mihailovna certainly did not care to stand on ceremony in the country, and in the unconstrained frankness of her manners there was perceptible a slight shade of the contempt of the lioness of the capital for the petty and obscure creatures who surrounded her. She had a careless, and even a sarcastic manner with her own set; but the shade of contempt was not there.
By the way, reader, have you observed that a person who is exceptionally nonchalant with his inferiors, is never nonchalant with persons of a higher rank? Why is that? But such questions lead to nothing.
When Konstantin Diomiditch, having at last learnt by heart the étude of Thalberg, went down from his bright and cheerful room to the drawing-room, he already found the whole household assembled. The salon was already beginning. The lady of the house was reposing on a wide couch, her feet gathered up under her, and a new French pamphlet in her hand; at the window behind a tambour frame, sat on one side the daughter of Darya Mihailovna, on the other, Mlle. Boncourt, the governess, a dry old maiden lady of sixty, with a false front of black curls under a parti-coloured cap and cotton wool in her ears; in the corner near the door was huddled Bassistoff reading a paper, near him were Petya and Vanya playing draughts, and leaning by the stove, his hands clasped behind his back, was a gentleman of low stature, with a swarthy face covered with bristling grey hair, and fiery black eyes—a certain African Semenitch Pigasov.
This Pigasov was a strange person. Full of acerbity against everything and every one—especially against women—he was railing from morning to night, sometimes very aptly, sometimes rather stupidly, but always with gusto. His ill-humour almost approached puerility; his laugh, the sound of his voice, his whole being seemed steeped in venom. Darya Mihailovna gave Pigasov a cordial reception; he amused her with his sallies. They were certainly absurd enough. He took delight in perpetual exaggeration. For example, if he were told of any disaster, that a village had been struck by lightning, or that a mill had been carried away by floods, or that a peasant had cut his hand with an axe, he invariably asked with concentrated bitterness, ‘And what’s her name?’ meaning, what is the name of the woman responsible for this calamity, for according to his convictions, a woman was the cause of every misfortune, if you only looked deep enough into the matter. He once threw himself on his knees before a lady he hardly knew at all, who had been effusive in her hospitality to him and began dolefully, but with wrath written on his face, to entreat her to have compassion on him, saying that he had done her no harm and never would come to see her for the future. Once a horse had bolted with one of Darya Mihailovna’s maids, thrown her into a ditch and almost killed her. From that time Pigasov never spoke of that horse except as the ‘good, good horse,’ and he even came to regard the hill and the ditch as specially picturesque spots. Pigasov had failed in life and had adopted this whimsical craze. He came of poor parents. His father had filled various petty posts, and could scarcely read and write, and did not trouble himself about his son’s education; he fed and clothed him and nothing more. His mother spoiled him, but she died early. Pigasov educated himself, sent himself to the district school and then to the gymnasium, taught himself French, German, and even Latin, and, leaving the gymnasiums with an excellent certificate, went to Dorpat, where he maintained a perpetual struggle with poverty, but succeeded in completing his three years’ course. Pigasov’s abilities did not rise above the level of mediocrity; patience and perseverance were his strong points, but the most powerful sentiment in him was ambition, the desire to get into good society, not to be inferior to others in spite of fortune. He had studied diligently and gone to the Dorpat University from ambition. Poverty exasperated him, and made him watchful and cunning. He expressed himself with originality; from his youth he had adopted a special kind of stinging and exasperated eloquence. His ideas did not rise above the common level; but his way of speaking made him seem not only a clever, but even a very clever, man. Having taken his degree as candidate, Pigasov decided to devote himself to the scholastic profession; he understood that in any other career he could not possibly be the equal of his associates. He tried to select them from a higher rank and knew how to gain their good graces; even by flattery, though he was always abusing them. But to do this he had not, to speak plainly, enough raw material. Having educated himself through no love for study, Pigasov knew very little thoroughly. He broke down miserably in the public disputation, while another student who had shared the same room with him, and who was constantly the subject of his ridicule, a man of very limited ability who had received a careful and solid education, gained a complete triumph. Pigasov was infuriated by this failure, he threw all his books and manuscripts into the fire and went into a government office. At first he did not get on badly, he made a fair official, not very active, extremely self-confident and bold, however; but he wanted to make his way more quickly, he made a false step, got into trouble, and was obliged to retire from the service. He spent three years on the property he had bought himself and suddenly married a wealthy half-educated woman who was captivated by his unceremonious and sarcastic manners. But Pigasov’s character had become so soured and irritable that family life was unendurable to him. After living with him a few years, his wife went off secretly to Moscow and sold her estate to an enterprising speculator; Pigasov had only just finished building a house on it. Utterly crushed by this last blow, Pigasov began a lawsuit with his wife, but gained nothing by it. After this he lived in solitude, and went to see his neighbours, whom he abused behind their backs and even to their faces, and who welcomed him with a kind of constrained half-laugh, though he did not inspire them with any serious dread. He never took a book in his hand. He had about a hundred serfs; his peasants were not badly off.
‘Ah! Constantin,’ said Darya Mihailovna, when Pandalevsky came into the drawing-room, ‘is Alexandrine coming?’
‘Alexandra Pavlovna asked me to thank you, and they will be extremely delighted,’ replied Konstantin Diomiditch, bowing affably in all directions, and running his plump white hand with its triangular cut nails through his faultlessly arranged hair.
‘And is Volintsev coming too?’
‘So, according to you, African Semenitch,’ continued Darya Mihailovna, turning to Pigasov, ‘all young ladies are affected?’
Pigasov’s mouth twitched, and he plucked nervously at his elbow.
‘I say,’ he began in a measured voice—in his most violent moods of exasperation he always spoke slowly and precisely. ‘I say that young ladies, in general—of present company, of course, I say nothing.’
‘But that does not prevent your thinking of them,’ put in Darya Mihailovna.
‘I say nothing of them,’ repeated Pigasov. ‘All young ladies, in general, are affected to the most extreme point—affected in the expression of their feelings. If a young lady is frightened, for instance, or pleased with anything, or distressed, she is certain first to throw her person into some such elegant attitude (and Pigasov threw his figure into an unbecoming pose and spread out his hands) and then she shrieks—ah! or she laughs or cries. I did once though (and here Pigasov smiled complacently) succeed in eliciting a genuine, unaffected expression of emotion from a remarkably affected young lady!’
‘How did you do that?’
Pigasov’s eyes sparkled.
‘I poked her in the side with an aspen stake, from behind. She did shriek, and I said to her, “Bravo, bravo! that’s the voice of nature, that was a genuine shriek! Always do like that for the future!”’
Every one in the room laughed.
‘What nonsense you talk, African Semenitch,’ cried Darya Mihailovna. ‘Am I to believe that you would poke a girl in the side with a stake!’
‘Yes, indeed, with a stake, a very big stake, like those that are used in the defence of a fort.’
‘Mais c’est un horreur ce que vous dites là, Monsieur,’ cried Mlle. Boncourt, looking angrily at the boys, who were in fits of laughter.
‘Oh, you mustn’t believe him,’ said Darya Mihailovna. ‘Don’t you know him?’
But the offended French lady could not be pacified for a long while, and kept muttering something to herself.
‘You need not believe me,’ continued Pigasov coolly, ‘but I assure you I told the simple truth. Who should know if not I? After that perhaps you won’t believe that our neighbour, Madame Tchepuz, Elena Antonovna, told me herself, mind herself, that she had murdered her nephew?’
‘What an invention!’
‘Wait a minute, wait a minute! Listen and judge for yourselves. Mind, I don’t want to slander her, I even like her as far as one can like a woman. She hasn’t a single book in her house except a calendar, and she can’t read except aloud, and that exercise throws her into a violent perspiration, and she complains then that her eyes feel bursting out of her head. . . . In short, she’s a capital woman, and her servant girls grow fat. Why should I slander her?’
‘You see,’ observed Darya Mihailovna, ‘African Semenitch has got on his hobbyhorse, now he will not be off it to-night.’
‘My hobby! But women have three at least, which they are never off, except, perhaps, when they’re asleep.’
‘What three hobbies are those?’
‘Reproof, reproach, recrimination.’
‘Do you know, African Semenitch,’ began Darya Mihailovna, ‘you cannot be so bitter against women for nothing. Some woman or other must have———’
‘Done me an injury, you mean?’ Pigasov interrupted.
Darya Mihailovna was rather embarrassed; she remembered Pigasov’s unlucky marriage, and only nodded.
‘One woman certainly did me an injury,’ said Pigasov, ‘though she was a good, very good———’
‘Who was that?’
‘My mother,’ said Pigasov, dropping his voice.
‘Your mother? What injury could she have done you?’
‘She brought me into the world.’
Darya Mihailovna frowned.
‘Our conversation,’ she said, ‘seems to have taken a gloomy turn. Constantin, play us Thalberg’s new étude. I daresay the music will soothe African Semenitch. Orpheus soothed savage beasts.’
Konstantin Diomiditch took his seat at the piano, and played the étude very fairly well. Natalya Alexyevna at first listened attentively, then she bent over her work again.
‘Merci, c’est charmant,’ observed Darya Mihailovna, ‘I love Thalberg. Il est si distingué. What are you thinking of, African Semenitch?’
‘I thought,’ began African Semenitch slowly, ‘that there are three kinds of egoists; the egoists who live themselves and let others live; the egoists who live themselves and don’t let others live; and the egoists who don’t live themselves and don’t let others live. Women, for the most part, belong to the third class.’
‘That’s polite! I am very much astonished at one thing, African Semenitch; your confidence in your convictions; of course you can never be mistaken.’
‘Who says so? I make mistakes; a man, too, may be mistaken. But do you know the difference between a man’s mistakes and a woman’s? Don’t you know? Well, here it is; a man may say, for example, that twice two makes not four, but five, or three and a half; but a woman will say that twice two makes a wax candle.’
‘I fancy I’ve heard you say that before. But allow me to ask what connection had your idea of the three kinds of egoists with the music you have just been hearing?’
‘None at all, but I did not listen to the music.’
‘Well, “incurable I see you are, and that is all about it,”’ answered Darya Mihailovna, slightly altering Griboyedov’s line. ‘What do you like, since you don’t care for music? Literature?’
‘I like literature, only not our contemporary literature.’
‘I’ll tell you why. I crossed the Oka lately in a ferry boat with a gentleman. The ferry got fixed in a narrow place; they had to drag the carriages ashore by hand. This gentleman had a very heavy coach. While the ferrymen were straining themselves to drag the coach on to the bank, the gentleman groaned so, standing in the ferry, that one felt quite sorry for him. . . . Well, I thought, here’s a fresh illustration of the system of division of labour! That’s just like our modern literature; other people do the work, and it does the groaning.’
Darya Mihailovna smiled.
‘And that is called expressing contemporary life,’ continued Pigasov indefatigably, ‘profound sympathy with the social question and so on. . . . Oh, how I hate those grand words!’
‘Well, the women you attack so—they at least don’t use grand words.’
Pigasov shrugged his shoulders.
‘They don’t use them because they don’t understand them.’
Darya Mihailovna flushed slightly.
‘You are beginning to be impertinent, African Semenitch!’ she remarked with a forced smile.
There was complete stillness in the room.
‘Where is Zolotonosha?’ asked one of the boys suddenly of Bassistoff.
‘In the province of Poltava, my dear boy,’ replied Pigasov, ‘in the centre of Little Russia.’ (He was glad of an opportunity of changing the conversation.) ‘We were talking of literature,’ he continued, ‘if I had money to spare, I would at once become a Little Russian poet.’
‘What next? a fine poet you would make!’ retorted Darya Mihailovna. ‘Do you know Little Russian?’
‘Not a bit; but it isn’t necessary.’
‘Oh no, it’s not necessary. You need only take a sheet of paper and write at the top “A Ballad,” then begin like this, “Heigho, alack, my destiny!” or “the Cossack Nalivaiko was sitting on a hill and then on the mountain, under the green tree the birds are singing, graë, voropaë, gop, gop!” or something of that kind. And the thing’s done. Print it and publish it. The Little Russian will read it, drop his head into his hands and infallibly burst into tears—he is such a sensitive soul!’
‘Good heavens!’ cried Bassistoff. ‘What are you saying? It’s too absurd for anything. I have lived in Little Russia, I love it and know the language . . . “graë, graë, voropaë” is absolute nonsense.’
‘It may be, but the Little Russian will weep all the same. You speak of the “language.” . . . But is there a Little Russian language? Is it a language, in your opinion? an independent language? I would pound my best friend in a mortar before I’d agree to that.’
Bassistoff was about to retort.
‘Leave him alone!’ said Darya Mihailovna, ‘you know that you will hear nothing but paradoxes from him.’
Pigasov smiled ironically. A footman came in and announced the arrival of Alexandra Pavlovna and her brother.
Darya Mihailovna rose to meet her guests.
‘How do you do, Alexandrine?’ she began, going up to her, ‘how good of you to come! . . . How are you, Sergeï Pavlitch?’
Volintsev shook hands with Darya Mihailovna and went up to Natalya Alexyevna.
‘But how about that baron, your new acquaintance, is he coming to-day?’ asked Pigasov.
‘Yes, he is coming.’
‘He is a great philosopher, they say; he is just brimming over with Hegel, I suppose?’
Darya Mihailovna made no reply, and making Alexandra Pavlovna sit down on the sofa, established herself near her.
‘Philosophies,’ continued Pigasov, ‘are elevated points of view! That’s another abomination of mine; these elevated points of view. And what can one see from above? Upon my soul, if you want to buy a horse, you don’t look at it from a steeple!’
‘This baron was going to bring you an essay?’ said Alexandra Pavlovna.
‘Yes, an essay,’ replied Darya Mihailovna, with exaggerated carelessness, ‘on the relation of commerce to manufactures in Russia. . . . But don’t be afraid; we will not read it here. . . . I did not invite you for that. Le baron est aussi aimable que savant. And he speaks Russian beautifully! C’est un vrai torrent . . . il vous entrâine!’
‘He speaks Russian so beautifully,’ grumbled Pigasov, ‘that he deserves a eulogy in French.’
‘You may grumble as you please, African Semenitch. . . . It’s in keeping with your ruffled locks. . . . I wonder, though, why he does not come. Do you know what, messieurs et mesdames’ added Darya Mihailovna, looking round, ‘we will go into the garden. There is still nearly an hour to dinner-time and the weather is glorious.’
All the company rose and went into the garden.
Darya Mihailovna’s garden stretched right down to the river. There were many alleys of old lime-trees in it, full of sunlight and shade and fragrance and glimpses of emerald green at the ends of the walks, and many arbours of acacias and lilacs.
Volintsev turned into the thickest part of the garden with Natalya and Mlle. Boncourt. He walked beside Natalya in silence. Mlle. Boncourt followed a little behind.
‘What have you been doing to-day?’ asked Volintsev at last, pulling the ends of his handsome dark brown moustache.
In features he resembled his sister strikingly; but there was less movement and life in his expression, and his soft beautiful eyes had a melancholy look.
‘Oh! nothing,’ answered Natalya, ‘I have been listening to Pigasov’s sarcasms, I have done some embroidery on canvas, and I’ve been reading.’
‘And what have you been reading?’
‘Oh! I read—a history of the Crusades,’ said Natalya, with some hesitation,
Volintsev looked at her.
‘Ah!’ he ejaculated at last, ‘that must be interesting.’
He picked a twig and began to twirl it in the air. They walked another twenty paces.
‘What is this baron whom your mother has made acquaintance with?’ began Volintsev again.
‘A Gentleman of the Bedchamber, a new arrival; maman speaks very highly of him.’
‘Your mother is quick to take fancies to people.’
‘That shows that her heart is still young,’ observed Natalya.
‘Yes. I shall soon bring you your mare. She is almost quite broken in now. I want to teach her to gallop, and I shall manage it soon.’
‘Merci! . . . But I’m quite ashamed. You are breaking her in yourself . . . and they say it’s so hard!’
‘To give you the least pleasure, you know, Natalya Alexyevna, I am ready . . . I . . . not in such trifles———’
Volintsev grew confused.
Natalya looked at him with friendly encouragement, and again said ‘merci.’
‘You know,’ continued Sergei Pavlitch after a long pause, ‘that not such things. . . . But why am I saying this? you know everything, of course.’
At that instant a bell rang in the house.
‘Ah! la cloche du diner!’ cried Mlle. Boncourt, ‘rentrons.’
‘Quel dommage,’ thought the old French lady to herself as she mounted the balcony steps behind Volintsev and Natalya, ‘quel dommage que ce charmant garçon ait si peu de ressources dans la conversation,’ which may be translated, ‘you are a good fellow, my dear boy, but it's a pity you have not more brains.’
The baron did not arrive to dinner. They waited half-an-hour for him. Conversation flagged at the table. Sergeï Pavlitch did nothing but gaze at Natalya, near whom he was sitting, and zealously filled up her glass with water. Pandalevsky tried in vain to entertain his neighbour, Alexandra Pavlovna; he was bubbling over with sweetness, but she hardly refrained from yawning.
Bassistoff was rolling up pellets of bread and thinking of nothing at all; even Pigasov was silent, and when Darya Mihailovna remarked to him that he had not been very polite to-day, he replied crossly, ‘When am I polite? that’s not in my line;’ and smiling grimly he added, ‘have a little patience; I am only kvas, you know, du simple Russian kvas; but your Gentleman of the Bedchamber———’
‘Bravo!’ cried Darya Mihailovna, ‘Pigasov is jealous, he is jealous already!’
But Pigasov made her no rejoinder, and only gave her a rather cross look.
Seven o’clock struck, and they were all assembled again in the drawing-room.
‘He is not coming, clearly,’ said Darya Mihailovna.
But, behold, the rumble of a carriage was heard: a small tarantass drove into the court, and a few instants later a footman entered the drawing-room and gave Darya Mihailovna a note on a silver salver. She glanced through it, and turning to the footman asked:
‘But where is the gentleman who brought this letter?’
‘He is sitting in the carriage. Shall I ask him to come up?’
‘Ask him to do so.’
The man went out.
‘Fancy, how vexatious!’ continued Darya Mihailovna, ‘the baron has received a summons to return at once to Petersburg. He has sent me his essay by a certain Mr. Rudin, a friend of his. The baron wanted to introduce him to me—he speaks very highly of him. But how vexatious it is! I had hoped the baron would stay here for some time.’
‘Dmitri Nikolaitch Rudin,’ announced the servant.