State-Councillor Usielkov, architect, arrived in his native town, where he had been summoned to restore the cemetery church. He was born in the town, he had grown up and been married there, and yet when he got out of the train he hardly recognised it. Everything was changed. For instance, eighteen years ago, when he left the town to settle in Petersburg, where the railway station is now boys used to hunt for marmots: now as you come into the High Street there is a four storied "Hôtel Vienna," with apartments, where there was of old an ugly grey fence. But not the fence or the houses, or anything had changed so much as the people. Questioning the hall-porter, Usielkov discovered that more than half of the people he remembered were dead or paupers or forgotten.
"Do you remember Usielkov?" he asked the porter. "Usielkov, the architect, who divorced his wife. . . . He had a house in Sviribev Street. . . . Surely you remember."
"No, I don't remember anyone of the name."
"Why, it's impossible not to remember. It was an exciting case. All the cabmen knew, even. Try to remember. His divorce was managed by the attorney, Shapkin, the swindler . . . the notorious sharper, the man who was thrashed at the club. . . ."
"You mean Ivan Nicolaich?"
"Yes. . . . Is he alive? dead?"
"Thank heaven, his honour's alive. His honour's a notary now, with an office. Well-to-do. Two houses in Kirpichny Street. Just lately married his daughter off."
Usielkov strode from one corner of the room to another. An idea flashed into his mind. From boredom, he decided to see Shapkin. It was afternoon when he left the hotel and quietly walked to Kirpichny Street. He found Shapkin in his office and hardly recognised him. From the well-built, alert attorney with a quick, impudent, perpetually tipsy expression, Shapkin had become a modest, grey-haired, shrunken old man.
"You don't recognise me . . . You have forgotten . . ." Usielkov began. "I'm your old client, Usielkov."
"Usielkov? Which Usielkov? Ah!"
Remembrance came to Shapkin: he recognised him and was confused. Began exclamations, questions, recollections.
"Never expected . . . never thought . . ." chuckled Shapkin. "What will you have? Would you like champagne? Perhaps you'd like oysters. My dear man, what a lot of money I got out of you in the old days—so much that I can't think what I ought to stand you."
"Please don't trouble," said Usielkov. "I haven't time. I must go to the cemetery and examine the church. I have a commission."
"Splendid. We'll have something to eat and a drink and go together. I've got some splendid horses! I'll take you there and introduce you to the churchwarden. . . . I'll fix up everything. . . . But what's the matter, my dearest man? You're not avoiding me, not afraid? Please sit nearer. There's nothing to be afraid of now. . . . Long ago, I really was pretty sharp, a bit of a rogue . . . but now I'm quieter than water, humbler than grass. I've grown old; got a family. There are children. . . . Time to die!"
The friends had something to eat and drink, and went in a coach and pair to the cemetery.
"Yes, it was a good time," Shapkin was reminiscent, sitting in the sledge. "I remember, but I simply can't believe it. Do you remember how you divorced your wife? It's almost twenty years ago, and you've probably forgotten everything, but I remember it as though I conducted the petition yesterday. My God, how rotten I was! Then I was a smart, casuistical devil, full of sharp practice and devilry. . . and I used to run into some shady affairs, particularly when there was a good fee, as in your case, for instance. What was it you paid me then? Five—six hundred. Enough to upset anybody! By the time you left for Petersburg you'd left the whole affair completely in my hands. 'Do what you like!' And your former wife, Sophia Mikhailovna, though she did come from a merchant family, was proud and selfish. To bribe her to take the guilt on herself was difficult—extremely difficult. I used to come to her for a business talk, and when she saw me, she would say to her maid: 'Masha, surely I told you I wasn't at home to scoundrels.' I tried one way, then another . . . wrote letters to her, tried to meet her accidentally—no good. I had to work through a third person. For a long time I had trouble with her, and she only yielded when you agreed to give her ten thousand. She could not stand out against ten thousand. She succumbed. . . . She began to weep, spat in my face, but she yielded and took the guilt on herself."
"If I remember it was fifteen, not ten thousand she took from me," said Usielkov.
"Yes, of course . . . fifteen, my mistake." Shapkin was disconcerted. "Anyway it's all past and done with now. Why shouldn't I confess, frankly? Ten I gave to her, and the remaining five I bargained out of you for my own share. I deceived both of you. . . . It's all past, why be ashamed of it? And who else was there to take from, Boris Pietrovich, if not from you? I ask you . . . You were rich and well-to-do. You married in caprice: you were divorced in caprice. You were making a fortune. I remember you got twenty thousand out of a single contract. Whom was I to tap, if not you? And I must confess, I was tortured by envy. If you got hold of a nice lot of money, people would take off their hats to you: but the same people would beat me for shillings and smack my face in the club. But why recall it? It's time to forget."
"Tell me, please, how did Sophia Mikhailovna live afterwards?"
"With her ten thousand? On ne peut plus badly. . . . God knows whether it was frenzy or pride and conscience that tortured her, because she had sold herself for money—or perhaps she loved you; but, she took to drink, you know. She received the money and began to gad about with officers in troikas. . . . Drunkenness, philandering, debauchery. . . . She would come into a tavern with an officer, and instead of port or a light wine, she would drink the strongest cognac to drive her into a frenzy."
"Yes, she was eccentric. I suffered enough with her. She would take offence at some trifle and then get nervous. . . . And what happened afterwards?"
"A week passed, a fortnight. . . . I was sitting at home writing. Suddenly, the door opened and she comes in. 'Take your cursed money,' she said, and threw the parcel in my face. . . She could not resist it. . . . Five hundred were missing. She had only got rid of five hundred."
"And what did you do with the money?"
"It's all past and done with. What's the good of concealing it? . . . I certainly took it. What are you staring at me like that for? Wait for the sequel. It's a complete novel, the sickness of a soul! Two months passed by. One night I came home drunk, in a wicked mood. . . . I turned on the light and saw Sophia Mikhailovna sitting on my sofa, drunk too, wandering a bit, with something savage in her face as if she had just escaped from the mad-house. 'Give me my money back,' she said. 'I've changed my mind. If I'm going to the dogs, I want to go madly, passionately. Make haste, you scoundrel, give me the money.' How indecent it was!"
"And you . . . did you give it her?"
"I remember. . . . I gave her ten roubles."
"Oh . . . is it possible?" Usielkov frowned. "If you couldn't do it yourself, or you didn't want to, you could have written to me. . . . And I didn't know . . . I didn't know."
"My dear man, why should I write, when she wrote herself afterwards when she was in hospital?"
"I was so taken up with the new marriage that I paid no attention to letters. . . . But you were an outsider; you had no antagonism to Sophia Mikhailovna. . . . Why didn't you help her?"
"We can't judge by our present standards, Boris Pietrovich. Now we think in this way; but then we thought quite differently. . . . Now I might perhaps give her a thousand roubles; but then even ten roubles . . . she didn't get them for nothing. It's a terrible story. It's time to forget. . . . But here you are!"
The sledge stopped at the churchyard gate. Usielkov and Shapkin got out of the sledge, went through the gate and walked along a long, broad avenue. The bare cherry trees, the acacias, the grey crosses and monuments sparkled with hoar-frost. In each flake of snow the bright sunny day was reflected. There was the smell you find in all cemeteries of incense and fresh-dug earth.
"You have a beautiful cemetery," said Usielkov. "It's almost an orchard."
"Yes, but it's a pity the thieves steal the monuments. Look, there, behind that cast-iron memorial, on the right, Sophia Mikhailovna is buried. Would you like to see?"
The friends turned to the right, stepping in deep snow towards the cast-iron memorial.
"Down here," said Shapkin, pointing to a little stone of white marble. "Some subaltern or other put up the monument on her grave."
Usielkov slowly took off his hat and showed his bald pate to the snow. Eying him, Shapkin also took off his hat, and another baldness shone beneath the sun. The silence round about was like the tomb, as though the air were dead, too. The friends looked at the stone, silent, thinking.
"She is asleep!" Shapkin broke the silence. "And she cares very little that she took the guilt upon herself and drank cognac. Confess, Boris Pietrovich!"
"What?" asked Usielkov, sternly.
"That, however loathsome the past may be, it's better than this." And Shapkin pointed to his grey hairs.
"In the old days I did not even think of death. . . . If I'd met her, I would have circumvented her, but now . . . well, now!"
Sadness took hold of Usielkov. Suddenly he wanted to cry, passionately, as he once desired to love. . . . And he felt that these tears would be exquisite, refreshing. Moisture came out of his eyes and a lump rose in his throat, but . . . Shapkin was standing by his side, and Usielkov felt ashamed of his weakness before a witness. He turned back quickly and walked towards the church.
Two hours later, having arranged with the churchwarden and examined the church, he seized the opportunity while Shapkin was talking away to the priest, and ran to shed a tear. He walked to the stone surreptitiously, with stealthy steps, looking round all the time. The little white monument stared at him absently, so sadly and innocently, as though a girl and not a wanton divorcée were beneath.
"If I could weep, could weep!" thought Usielkov.
But the moment for weeping had been lost. Though the old man managed to make his eyes shine, and tried to bring himself to the right pitch, the tears did not flow and the lump did not rise in his throat.… After waiting for about ten minutes, Usielkov waved his arm and went to look for Shapkin.