A TRIFLING OCCURRENCE
Nicolai Ilyich Byelyaev, a Petersburg landlord, very fond of the racecourse, a well fed, pink young man of about thirty-two, once called towards evening on Madame Irnin—Olga Ivanovna—with whom he had a liaison, or, to use his own phrase, spun out a long and tedious romance. And indeed the first pages of this romance, pages of interest and inspiration, had been read long ago; now they dragged on and on, and presented neither novelty nor interest.
Finding that Olga Ivanovna was not at home, my hero lay down a moment on the drawing-room sofa and began to wait.
"Good evening, Nicolai Ilyich," he suddenly heard a child's voice say. "Mother will be in in a moment. She's gone to the dressmaker's with Sonya."
In the same drawing-room on the sofa lay Olga Vassilievna's son, Alyosha, a boy about eight years old, well built, well looked after, dressed up like a picture in a velvet jacket and long black stockings. He lay on a satin pillow, and apparently imitating an acrobat whom he had lately seen in the circus, lifted up first one leg then the other. When his elegant legs began to be tired, he moved his hands, or he jumped up impetuously and then went on all fours, trying to stand with his legs in the air. All this he did with a most serious face, breathing heavily, as if he himself found no happiness in God's gift of such a restless body.
"Ah, how do you do, my friend?" said Byelyaev. "Is it you? I didn't notice you. Is your mother well?"
At the moment Alyosha had just taken hold of the toe of his left foot in his right hand and got into a most awkward pose. He turned head over heels, jumped up, and glanced from under the big, fluffy lampshade at Byelyaev.
"How can I put it?" he said, shrugging his shoulders. "As a matter of plain fact mother is never well. You see she's a woman, and women, Nicolai Ilyich, have always some pain or another."
For something to do, Byelyaev began to examine Alyosha's face. All the time he had been acquainted with Olga Ivanovna he had never once turned his attention to the boy and had completely ignored his existence. A boy is stuck in front of your eyes, but what is he doing here, what is his rôle?—you don't want to give a single thought to the question.
In the evening dusk Alyosha's face with a pale forehead and steady black eyes unexpectedly reminded Byelyaev of Olga Vassilievna as she was in the first pages of the romance. He had the desire to be affectionate to the boy.
"Come here, whipper-snapper," he said. "Come and let me have a good look at you, quite close."
The boy jumped off the sofa and ran to Byelyaev.
"Well?" Nicolai Ilyich began, putting his hand on the thin shoulders. "And how are things with you?"
"How shall I put it? . . . They used to be much better before."
"Quite simple. Before, Sonya and I only had to do music and reading, and now we're given French verses to learn. You've had your hair cut lately?"
"Yes, just lately."
"That's why I noticed it. Your beard's shorter. May I touch it . . . doesn't it hurt?"
"No, not a bit."
"Why is it that it hurts if you pull one hair, and when you pull a whole lot, it doesn't hurt a bit? Ah, ah! You know it's a pity you don't have side-whiskers. You should shave here, and at the sides . . . and leave the hair just here."
The boy pressed close to Byelyaev and began to play with his watch-chain.
"When I go to the gymnasium," he said, "Mother is going to buy me a watch. I'll ask her to buy me a chain just like this. What a fine locket! Father has one just the same, but yours has stripes, here, and his has got letters . . . Inside it's mother's picture. Father has another chain now, not in links, but like a ribbon . . ."
"How do you know? Do you see your father?"
"I? Mm . . . no . . . I . . ."
Alyosha blushed and in the violent confusion of being detected in a lie began to scratch the locket busily with his finger-nail. Byelyaev looked steadily at his face and asked:
"Do you see your father?"
"No . . . no!"
"But, be honest—on your honour. By your face I can see you're not telling me the truth. If you made a slip of the tongue by mistake, what's the use of shuffling. Tell me, do you see him? As one friend to another."
"And you won't tell Mother?" he asked.
"On your word of honour."
"My word of honour."
"Swear an oath."
"What a nuisance you are! What do you take me for?"
Alyosha looked round, made big eyes and began to whisper.
"Only for God's sake don't tell Mother! Never tell it to anyone at all, because it's a secret. God forbid that Mother should ever get to know; then I and Sonya and Pelagueia will pay for it . . . Listen. Sonya and I meet Father every Tuesday and Friday. When Pelagueia takes us for a walk before dinner, we go into Apfel's sweet-shop and Father's waiting for us. He always sits in a separate room, you know, where there's a splendid marble table and an ash-tray shaped like a goose without a back . . ."
"And what do you do there?"
"Nothing!—First, we welcome one another, then we sit down at a little table and Father begins to treat us to coffee and cakes. You know, Sonya eats meat-pies, and I can't bear pies with meat in them! I like them made of cabbage and eggs. We eat so much that afterwards at dinner we try to eat as much as we possibly can so that Mother shan't notice."
"What do you talk about there?"
"To Father? About anything. He kisses us and cuddles us, tells us all kinds of funny stories. You know, he says that he will take us to live with him when we are grown up. Sonya doesn't want to go, but I say 'Yes.' Of course, it'll be lonely without Mother; but I'll write letters to her. How funny: we could go to her for our holidays then—couldn't we? Besides, Father says that he'll buy me a horse. He's a splendid man. I can't understand why Mother doesn't invite him to live with her or why she says we mustn't meet him. He loves Mother very much indeed. He's always asking us how she is and what she's doing. When she was ill, he took hold of his head like this . . . and ran, ran, all the time. He is always telling us to obey and respect her. Tell me, is it true that we're unlucky?"
"H'm . . . how?"
"Father says so. He says: 'You are unlucky children.' It's quite strange to listen to him. He says: 'You are unhappy, I'm unhappy, and Mother's unhappy.' He says: 'Pray to God for yourselves and for her.'"
Alyosha's eyes rested upon the stuffed bird and he mused.
"Exactly . . ." snorted Byelyaev. "This is what you do. You arrange conferences in sweet-shops. And your mother doesn't know?"
"N—no . . . How could she know? Pelagueia won't tell for anything. The day before yesterday Father stood us pears. Sweet, like jam. I had two."
"H'm . . . well, now . . . tell me, doesn't your father speak about me?"
"About you? How shall I put it?"
Alyosha gave a searching glance to Byelyaev's face and shrugged his shoulders.
"He doesn't say anything in particular."
"What does he say, for instance?"
"You won't be offended?"
"What next? Why, does he abuse me?"
"He doesn't abuse you, but you know . . . he is cross with you. He says that it's through you that Mother's unhappy and that you . . . ruined Mother. But he is so queer! I explain to him that you are good and never shout at Mother, but he only shakes his head."
"Does he say those very words: that I ruined her?"
"Yes. Don't be offended, Nicolai Ilyich!"
Byelyaev got up, stood still a moment, and then began to walk about the drawing-room.
"This is strange, and . . . funny," he murmured, shrugging his shoulders and smiling ironically. "He is to blame all round, and now I've ruined her, eh? What an innocent lamb! Did he say those very words to you: that I ruined your mother?"
"Yes, but . . . you said that you wouldn't get offended."
"I'm not offended, and . . . and it's none of your business! No, it . . . it's quite funny though. I fell into the trap, yet I'm to be blamed as well."
The bell rang. The boy dashed from his place and ran out. In a minute a lady entered the room with a little girl. It was Olga Ivanovna, Alyosha's mother. After her, hopping, humming noisily, and waving his hands, followed Alyosha.
"Of course, who is there to accuse except me?" he murmured, sniffing. "He's right, he's the injured husband."
"What's the matter?" asked Olga Ivanovna.
"What's the matter! Listen to the kind of sermon your dear husband preaches. It appears It appears I'm a scoundrel and a murderer, I've ruined you and the children. All of you are unhappy, and only I am awfully happy! Awfully, awfully happy!"
"I don't understand, Nicolai! What is it?"
"Just listen to this young gentleman," Byelyaev said, pointing to Alyosha.
Alyosha blushed, then became pale suddenly and his whole face was twisted in fright.
"Nicolai Ilyich," he whispered loudly. "Shh!"
Olga Ivanovna glanced in surprise at Alyosha, at Byelyaev, and then again at Alyosha.
"Ask him, if you please," went on Byelyaev. "That stupid fool Pelagueia of yours, takes them to sweet-shops and arranges meetings with their dear father there. But that's not the point. The point is that the dear father is a martyr, and I'm a murderer, I'm a scoundrel, who broke the lives of both of you. . . ."
"Nicolai Ilyich!" moaned Alyosha. "You gave your word of honour!"
"Ah, let me alone!" Byelyaev waved his hand. "This is something more important than any words of honour. The hypocrisy revolts me, the lie!"
"I don't understand," muttered Olga Ivanovna, and tears began to glimmer in her eyes. "Tell me, Lyolka,'"—she turned to her son, "Do you see your father?"
Alyosha did not hear and looked with horror at Byelyaev.
"It's impossible," said the mother. "I'll go and ask Pelagueia."
Olga Ivanovna went out.
"But, but you gave me your word of honour," Alyosha said trembling all over.
Byelyaev waved his hand at him and went on walking up and down. He was absorbed in his insult, and now, as before, he did not notice the presence of the boy. He, a big serious man, had nothing to do with boys. And Alyosha sat down in a corner and in terror told Sonya how he had been deceived. He trembled, stammered, wept. This was the first time in his life that he had been set, roughly, face to face with a lie. He had never known before that in this world besides sweet pears and cakes and expensive watches, there exist many other things which have no name in children's language.