The Life of Véra Pavlovna with her Parents.
The education of Véra Pavlovna was very ordinary, and there was nothing peculiar in her life until she made the acquaintance of Lopoukhoff, the medical student.
Véra Pavlovna grew up in a fine house, situated on the Rue Gorokhovaïa, between the Rue Sadovaïa and the Sémenovsky Bridge. This house is now duly labelled with a number, but in 1852, when numbers were not in use to designate the houses of any given street, it bore this inscription:—
House of Ivan Zakharovitch Storechnikioff, present Councillor of State.
So said the inscription, although Ivan Zakharovitch Storechnikoff died in 1837. After that, according to the legal title-deeds, the owner of the house was his son, Mikhaïl Ivanytch. But the tenants knew that Mikhaïl Ivanytch was only the son of the mistress, and that the mistress of the house was Anna Petrovna.
The house was what it still is, large, with two carriage-ways, four flights of steps from the street, and three interior court-yards.
Then (as is still the case today) the mistress of the house and her son lived on the first and naturally the principal floor. Anna Petrovna has remained a beautiful lady, and Mikhaïl Ivanytch is to-day, as he was in 1852, an elegant and handsome officer. Who lives now in the dirtiest of the innumerable flats of the first court, fifth door on the right? I do not know. But in 1852 it was inhabited by the steward of the house, Pavel Konstantinytch Rosalsky, a robust and fine-looking man. His wife, Maria Alexevna, a slender person, tall and possessed of a strong constitution, his young and beautiful daughter (Véra Pavlovna), and his son Fédia, nine years old, made up the family.
Besides his position of steward, Pavel Konstantinytch was employed as chief deputy in I know not which ministerial bureau. As an employee he had no perquisites; his perquisites as steward were very moderate; for Pavel Konstantinytch, as he said to himself, had a conscience, which he valued at least as highly as the benevolence of the proprietor. In short, the worthy steward had amassed in fourteen years about ten thousand roubles, of which but three thousand had come from the proprietor's pocket. The rest was derived from a little business peculiarly his own: Pavel Konstantinytch combined with his other functions that of a pawn-broker. Maria Alexevna also had her little capital: almost five thousand roubles, she told the gossips, but really much more. She had begun fifteen years before by the sale of a fur-lined pelisse, a poor lot of furniture, and an old coat left her by her brother, a deceased government employee.
These brought her one hundred and fifty roubles, which she lost no time in lending on security. Much bolder than her husband, she braved risks for the sake of greater gains. More than once she had been caught. One day a sharper pawned to her for five roubles a stolen passport, and Maria Alexevna not only lost the five roubles, but had to pay fifteen to get out of the scrape. Another time a swindler, in consideration of a loan of twenty roubles, left with her a gold watch, the proceeds of a murder followed by robbery, and Maria Alexevna had to pay heavily this time to get clear. But if she suffered losses which her more prudent husband had no occasion to fear, on the other hand she saw her profits rolling up more rapidly.
To make money she would stop at nothing.
One day—Véra Pavlovna was still small and her mother did not mistrust her ears—a somewhat strange event occurred. Vérotchka, indeed, would not have understood it, had not the cook, beaten by Maria Alexevna, been eager to explain to the little girl, in a very intelligible fashion, the matter in question.
Matroena was often beaten for indulging the passion of love,—notwithstanding which she always had a black eye given her really by her lover.
Maria Alexevna passed over this black eye because cooks of that character work for less money. Having said this, we come to the story.
A lady as beautiful as she was richly dressed stopped for some time at the house of Maria Alexevna.
This lady received the visits of a very fine-looking gentleman, who often gave bonbons to Vérotchka and even made her a present of two illustrated books. The engravings in one of these books represented animals and cities; as for the other, Maria Alexevna took it away from her daughter as soon as the visitor had gone, and the only time when Vérotchka saw the engravings was on that same day when he showed them to her.
While the lady remained, an unusual tranquillity prevailed in the apartments of the pawn-brokers; Maria Alexevna neglected the closet (of which she always carried the key) in which the decanter of brandy was kept; she whipped neither Matroena nor Vérotchka, and even ceased her continual vociferations. But one night the little girl was awakened and frightened by the cries of the tenant and by a great stir and uproar going on in the house. In the morning, nevertheless, Maria Alexevna, in better humor than ever, opened the famous closet and said between two draughts of brandy:
"Thank God! all has gone well." Then she called Matroena, and instead of abusing or beating her, as was generally the case when she had been drinking, she offered her a glass of brandy, saying:
"Go on! Drink! You too worked well."
After which she went to embrace her daughter and lie down. As for the tenant, she cried no more, did not even leave her room, and was not slow in taking her departure.
Two days after she had gone a captain of police, accompanied by two of his officers, came and roundly abused Maria Alexevna, who, it must be allowed, took no pains on her part, as the phrase goes, to keep her tongue in her pocket. Over and over again she repeated:
"I do not know what you mean. If you wish to find out, you will see by the books of the establishment that the woman who was here is named Savastianoff, one of my acquaintances, engaged in business at Pskow. And that is all."
After having redoubled his abuse, the captain of police finally went away.
That is what Vérotchka saw at the age of eight.
At the age of nine she received an explanation of the affair from Matroena. For the rest, there had been but one case of the kind in the house. Sometimes other adventures of a different sort, but not very numerous.
One day, as Vérotchka, then a girl of ten years, was accompanying her mother as usual to the old clothes shop, at the corner of the Rue Gorokhovaïa and the Rue Sadovaïa she was struck a blow on the neck, dealt her doubtless to make her heed this observation of her mother:
"Instead of sauntering, why do you not cross yourself as you go by the church? Do you not see that all respectable people do so?"
At twelve Vérotchka was sent to boarding-school, and received in addition lessons in piano-playing from a teacher who, though a great drunkard, was a worthy man and an excellent pianist, but, on account of his drunkenness, had to content himself with a very moderate reward for his services.
At fourteen Vérotchka did the sewing for the whole family, which, to be sure, was not a large one.
When she was fifteen, such remarks as this were daily addressed to her:
"Go wash your face cleaner! It is as black as a gypsy's. But you will wash it in vain; you have the face of a scarecrow; you are like nobody else."
The little girl, much mortified at her dark complexion, gradually came to consider herself very homely.
Nevertheless, her mother, who formerly covered her with nothing but rags, began to dress her up. When Vérotchka in fine array followed her mother to church, she said sadly to herself:
"Why this finery? For a gypsy's complexion like mine a dress of serge is as good as a dress of silk. This luxury would become others better. It must be very nice to be pretty! How I should like to be pretty!"
When she was sixteen, Vérotchka stopped taking music lessons, and became a piano-teacher herself in a boarding-school. In a short time Maria Alexevna found her other lessons.
Soon Vérotchka's mother stopped calling her gypsy and scare-crow; she dressed her even with greater care, and Matroena (this was a third Matroena, who, like her predecessors, always had a black eye and sometimes a swollen cheek), Matroena told Vérotchka that the chief of her father's bureau desired to ask her hand in marriage, and that this chief was a grave man, wearing a cross upon his neck.
In fact, the employees of the ministry had noticed the advances of the chief of the department towards his subordinate. And this chief said to one of his colleagues that he intended to marry and that the dowry was of little consequence, provided the woman was beautiful; he added that Pavel Konstantinytch was an excellent official.
What would have happened no one knows; but, while the chief of the department was in this frame of mind, an important event occurred:
The son of the mistress appeared at the steward's to say that his mother desired Pavel Konstantinytch to bring her several samples of wall paper, as she wished to newly furnish her apartments. Orders of this nature were generally transmitted by the major-domo. The intention was evident, and would have been to people of less experience than Vérotchka's parents. Moreover, the son of the proprietor remained more than half an hour to take tea.
The next day Maria Alexevna gave her daughter a bracelet which had not been redeemed and ordered new dresses for her. Vérotchka much admired both the bracelet and the dresses, and was given further occasion to rejoice by her mother's purchase for her at last of some glossy boots of admirable elegance. These toilet expenses were not lost, for Mikhaïl Ivanytch came every day to the steward's and found—it goes without saying—in Vérotchka's conversation a peculiar charm, which—and this too goes without saying—was not displeasing to the steward and his wife. At least the latter gave her daughter long instructions, which it is useless to detail.
"Dress yourself, Vérotchka," she said to her one evening, on rising from the table; "I have prepared a surprise for you. We are going to the opera, and I have taken a box in the second tier, where there are none but generals. All this is for you, little stupid. For it I do not hesitate to spend my last copecks, and your father on his side scatters his substance in foolish expenditures for your sake. To the governess, to the boarding-school, to the piano-teacher, what a sum we have paid! You know nothing of all that, ingrate that you are! You have neither soul nor sensibilities."
Maria Alexevna said nothing further; for she no longer abused her daughter, and, since the reports about the chief of the department, had even ceased to beat her.
So they went to the opera. After the first act the son of the mistress came in, followed by two friends, one of whom, dressed as a civilian, was very thin and very polite, while the other, a soldier, inclined to stoutness and had simple manners. Mikhaïl Ivanytch, I say, came into the box occupied by Vérotchka and her parents.
Without further ceremony, after the customary salutations, they sat down and began to converse in low tones in French, Mikhaïl Ivanytch and the civilian especially; the soldier talked little.
Maria Alexevna lent an attentive ear and tried to catch the conversation; but her knowledge of French was limited. However, she knew the meaning of certain words which perpetually recurred in the conversation: beautiful, charming, love, happiness.
Beautiful! Charming! Maria Alexevna has long heard those adjectives applied to her daughter. Love! She clearly sees that Mikhaïl Ivanytch is madly in love. Where there is love there is happiness. It is complete; but when will he speak of marriage?
"You are very ungrateful, Vérotchka," said Maria Alexevna in a low voice to her daughter; "why do you turn away your head? They certainly pay you enough attention, little stupid! Tell me the French for engaged and marriage. Have they said those words?"
"Perhaps you are not telling me the truth? Take care!"
"No; no such words have passed their lips. . . . Let us go; I can stay here no longer!"
"Go! What do you say, wretch?" muttered Maria Alexevna, into whose eyes the blood shot.
"Yes, let us go! Do with me what you will; but I stay here no longer. Later I will tell you why. Mamma," continued the young girl, in a loud voice, "I have too severe a headache; I can remain no longer. Let us go, I beg of you."
And at the same time Vérotchka rose.
"It is nothing," said Maria Alexevna, severely; "promenade in the corridor a little while with Mikhaïl Ivanytch, and it will pass away."
"Mamma, I feel very ill; come quickly, I beg of you."
The young people hastened to open the door and offered their arms to Vérotchka, who had the impoliteness to refuse. They placed the ladies in the carriage. Meanwhile Maria Alexevna looked upon the valets with an air which seemed to say: "See, rabble, how eager these fine gentlemen are in their attentions, and that one there will be my son-in-law, and soon I too shall have at my bidding wretches like you." Then mentally addressing her daughter:
"Must you be obstinate, stupid that you are! But I will put you on your good behavior. . . . Stay, stay, my future son-in-law is speaking to her; he arranges her in the carriage. Listen: health, visit, permit (he is asking her permission to call and inquire after her health.)" Without becoming any the less angry, Maria Alexevna took into consideration the words she had just heard.
"What did he say on leaving you?" she asked, as soon as the carriage had started.
"He told me that tomorrow morning he would come to our house to ask after my health."
"You are not lying? He really said tomorrow?"
Vérotchka said nothing.
"You have escaped finely," resumed her mother, who could not refrain from pulling her hair; "but once only and narrowly enough. I will not beat you, she continued, "but be gay tomorrow! Sleep tonight, stupid, and above all do not take it into your head to weep; for if tomorrow morning you are pale, if your eyes are red, beware! I shall be pitiless; your pretty face will be gone; but I shall have asserted myself!"
"I long since ceased to weep, as you well know."
"That's right! But talk with him a little more."
"I will try tomorrow."
"That's right! It is time to become reasonable. Fear God and have a little pity for your mother, boldface that you are!"
After a silence of ten minutes:
"Vérotchka, do not be angry with me; it is through love for you and for your good that I torment you. Children are so dear to their mothers. I carried you for nine months in my womb. I ask of you only gratitude and obedience. Do as I tell you, and tomorrow he will propose."
"You are mistaken, mamma; he does not dream of it. If you knew of what they talked!"
"I know it. If he does not think of marriage, I know of what he thinks. But he does not know the people with whom he has to deal. We will reduce him to servile obedience, and, if necessary, I will carry him to the altar in a sack, or I will drag him there by the hair, and still he will be content. But a truce to babbling! I have already said too much to you; young girls should not know so much. It is the business of their mothers. The daughters have only to obey. Tomorrow you will speak to him."
"And you, Pavel Konstantinytch, of what are you thinking with your chilly air? You tell her also, in the name of your paternal authority, that you order her to obey her mother in everything."
"Maria Alexevna, you are a wise woman; but the affair is difficult, and even dangerous. Can you carry it through?"
"Imbecile! That is very appropriate now! And before Vérotchka, too! The proverb is quite right: do not stir up ordure if you fear its stench. It is not your advice that I ask; only this: should a daughter obey her mother?"
"Certainly! Certainly! Maria Alexevna, that is just."
"Well, do you order her as a father?"
"Vérotchka, obey in all things your mother, who is a wise woman, an experienced woman. She will not teach you to do evil. This obedience I enjoin upon you as a father."
On stepping from the carriage Vérotchka said to her mother:
"It is well; I will talk with him tomorrow. But I am very tired, and I need rest."
"Yes, go to bed. I will not disturb you. Sleep well; you need to for tomorrow."
In order to keep her promise Maria Alexevna entered the house without making a disturbance. How much that cost her! How much it cost her also to see Vérotchka enter her room directly without stopping to take tea!
"Vérotchka, come here!" she said to her, pleasantly.
The young girl obeyed.
"Bow your little head; I wish to bless you. There! May God bless you, Vérotchka, as I bless you!"
Three times in succession she blessed her daughter, after which she offered her her hand to kiss.
"No, mamma. I long ago told you that I will not kiss your hand. Let me go now, for I really feel very ill."
The eyes of Maria Alexevna blazed with hatred, but she again restrained herself, and gently said:
"Go! Rest yourself!"
Vérotchka spent much time in undressing.
While taking off her dress and putting it in the closet, while taking off her bracelets and ear-rings, each of those simple operations was followed by a long reverie. It was some time before she discovered that she was very tired, and that she had sunk into an arm-chair, being unable to stand erect before the mirror. At last she perceived it, and made haste to get into bed.
She had scarcely lain down when her mother entered, carrying on a tray a large cup of tea and a number of biscuits.
"Come, eat, Vérotchka, it will do you good. You see that your mother does not forget you. I said to myself: Why has my daughter gone to bed without her tea? And I desired to bring it to you myself; help yourself, dear child."
This kind and gentle voice which Vérotchka had never heard surprised her very much, till, looking at her mother, she saw her cheeks inflamed and her eyes disordered.
"Eat!" continued Maria Alexevna; "when you have finished, I will go for more."
The tea and cream which she had brought aroused Vérotchka's appetite, and, raising herself on her elbow, she began to drink.
"Tea is really good when it is fresh and strong, with plenty of sugar and cream. When I get rich, I shall always drink it so; it is not like warmed-over, half-sweetened tea, which is so unpalatable. Thank you, mamma."
"Do not go to sleep; I am going to get you another cup. Drink," she continued, as she came back bearing an excellent cup of tea; "drink, my child; I wish to stay with you longer."
Accordingly she sat down, and, after a moment's silence, she began to talk in a somewhat confused voice, now slowly, now rapidly.
"Vérotchka, you just said 'Thank you' to me; it is a long time since those words escaped your lips. You think me wicked; well, yes, I am wicked! Can one help it?
"But, dear me! how weak I am! Three punches in succession—at my age! And then you vexed me; that is why I am weak.
"My life has been a very hard one, my daughter! I do not want you to live one like it. You shall live in luxury. How many torments I have endured! Oh, yes! how many torments!
"You do not remember the life that we lived before your father got his stewardship. We lived very poorly; I was virtuous then, Vérotchka. But now I am no longer so, and I will not burden my soul with a new sin by falsely telling you that I am still virtuous. I have not been for a long time, Vérotchka; you are educated, I am not; but I know all that is written in your books, and I know that it is written there that no one should be treated as I have been. They reproach me for not being virtuous, too! and your father the first, the imbecile!
"My little Nadinka was born; he was not her father. Well, what of it! What harm did that do him?
"Was it I who received the position of chief deputy?
"And was it not his fault as much as mine, and more?
"They took my child to put it with the foundlings, and I know not what became of her. Now I hardly care whether she is still living; but then I suffered much. I became wicked, and then all began to go well. I made your father chief deputy, I made him steward, and at last we were where we could live well. Now, how have I succeeded in doing that? By becoming dishonest; for it is written in your books, I know, Vérotchka, that none but rascals make any figure in the world. Is it not true?
"Now your fool of a father has money, thanks to me. And I too have money! Perhaps more than he. It was I who made it all!
"Your fool of a father has come to esteem me, and I have made him walk straight. When I was virtuous, he ill-treated me without reason, and just because I was good. I had to become wicked.
"It is written in your books that we should be good; but can one in the present arrangement of things? For it is necessary to live. Why do they not make society anew, and in accordance with the beautiful order which exists only in your books? It would be better, I know, but the people are so stupid! What can be done with such people? Let us live, then, according to the old order. The old order, your books say, is built on robbery and falsehood. The new order not existing, we must live according to the old. Steal and lie, my daughter; it is through love of you . . . that I speak . . . and . . ."
The voice of Maria Alexevna was extinguished in a loud snore.
Maria Alexevna, while she knew what had happened at the theatre, did not however know the sequel. While she was snoring on a chair, Storechnikoff, his two friends, and the officer's French mistress were finishing supper in one of the most fashionable restaurants.
"M'sieur Storechnik!"—Storechnikoff beamed, this being the third time that the young Frenchwoman had addressed him since the beginning of the supper.—"M'sieur Storechnik! let me call you so, it sounds better and is easier to pronounce; you did not tell me that I was to be the only lady in your society. I hoped to meet Adèle here; I should have been pleased, for I see her so rarely!"
"Adèle, unfortunately, has fallen out with me."
The officer started as if to speak; then, changing his mind, kept silent. It was the civilian who said:
"Do not believe him. Mademoiselle Julie. He is afraid to tell you the truth and confess that he has abandoned this Frenchwoman for a Russian."
"I do not clearly understand why we came here either," muttered the officer.
"But," replied Julie, "why not. Serge, since Jean invited us? I am very glad to make the acquaintance of M. Storechnik, though he has very bad taste, I admit. I should have nothing to say, M. Storechnik, if you had abandoned Adèle for the beautiful Georgian whom you visited in her box, but to exchange a Frenchwoman for a Russian! I can fancy her pale cheeks,—no, I beg pardon, that is not exactly the word; blood with cream in it, as you call it,—that is, a dish which only you Esquimaux are able to relish. Jean, hand me the cigar-ash tray to pass to M. Storechnik that he may humble his guilty head beneath the ashes."
"You have just said so many foolish things, Julie, that you are the one to humble your guilty head beneath the ashes. She whom you call Georgian is precisely the Russian in question." Thus spoke the officer.
"You are laughing at me."
"Not at all; she is a pure-blooded Russian."
"It is impossible."
"You are wrong in supposing, my dear Julie, that our country has but one type of beauty. Have you not brunettes and blondes in France? As for us, we are a mixture of tribes including blondes like the Finns ("Finns! that is it! that is it!" exclaimed the Frenchwoman) and brunettes darker than the Italians, the Tartars, and the Mongolians ("The Mongolians! very good!" again exclaimed the Frenchwoman). These different types are mingled, and our blondes whom you so hate are but a local type, very numerous, but not exclusive."
"That is astonishing! But she is splendid! Why does she not become an actress? But mind, gentlemen, I speak only of what I have seen; there is still an important question to be settled,—her foot? Has not your great poet Karassin said that in all Russia there could not be found five pairs of dainty little feet?"
"Julie, it was not Karassin who said that. Karassin, whom you would do better to call Kuramzine, is neither a Russian nor a poet; he is a Tartar historian. It was Pouchkine who spoke of the little feet. That poet's verses, very popular in his day, have lost a little of their value. As for the Esquimaux, they live in America, and our savages who drink stags' blood are called Samoyèdes."
"I thank you, Serge; Karamzine historian. Pouchkine: . . . I know. The Esquimaux in America, the Russians Samoyèdes . . . Samoyèdes, that name sounds well, Sa-mo-yèdes. I shall remember, gentlemen, and will make Serge repeat it all to me when we get home. These things are useful to know in a conversation. Besides, I have a passion for knowledge; I was born to be a Staël. But that is another affair. Let us come back to the question,—her foot?"
"If you will allow me to call upon you to-morrow, M'elle Julie, I shall have the honor to bring you her shoe."
"I hope so; I will try it on; that excites my curiosity."
Storechnikoff was enchanted. And how could he help it? Hitherto he had been the follower of Jean, who had been the follower of Serge, who had been the follower of Julie, one of the most elegant of the Frenchwomen in Serge's society. It was a great honor that they did him.
"The foot is satisfactory," said Jean; "I, as a positive man, am interested in that which is more essential; I looked at her neck."
"Her neck is very beautiful," answered Storechnikoff, flattered at the praises bestowed upon the object of his choice, and he added, to flatter Julie:
"Yes, ravishing! And I say it, though it be a sacrilege in this presence to praise the neck of another woman."
"Ha! Ha! Ha! He thinks to pay me a compliment! I am neither a hypocrite nor a liar, M. Storechnik; I do not praise myself, nor do I suffer others to praise me where I am unworthy. I have plenty of other charms left, thank God! But my neck! . . . Jean, tell him what it is. Give me your hand, M. Storechnik, and feel here, and there. You see that I wear a false neck, as I wear a dress, a petticoat, a chemise. Not that it pleases me; I do not like such hypocrisies; but it is admitted in society: a woman who has led the life that I have led—M. Storechnik, I am now an anchorite in comparison with what I have been—such a woman cannot preserve the beauty of her throat."
And Julie burst into tears, crying:
"O my youth! O my purity! O God! was it for so much infamy that I was born?"
"You lie, gentlemen," she cried, rising suddenly from her seat and striking her hand upon the table; "you slander this young girl; you are vile! She is not his mistress; I saw it all. He wishes to buy her of her mother. I saw her turn her back upon him, quivering with indignation. Your conduct is abominable! She is a pure and noble girl!"
"Yes," said Jean, languidly stretching himself. "My dear Storechnikoff, you must prove your words. You describe very well what you have not seen. What matters it, after all, whether it be a week before or a week after. For you will not be disenchanted, and the reality will surpass your imagination. I surveyed her; you will be content."
Storechnikoff held back no longer:
"Pardon, Mademoiselle Julie, you are mistaken in your conclusions; she is really my mistress. It was a cloud caused by jealousy. She had taken offence because during the first act I had remained in Mademoiselle Mathilde's box That was all."
"You are lying, my dear," said Jean, yawning.
"Prove it! I am positive, and do not believe without proofs."
"What proof can I give you?"
"You yield already! What proof? This, for instance. Tomorrow we will take supper here again together. Mademoiselle Julie shall bring Serge, I will bring my little Berthe, and you shall bring the beauty in question. If you bring her, I lose, and will pay for the supper; if you do not bring her, we will banish you in shame from our circle."
While speaking Jean had rung, and a waiter had come.
"Simon," he said to him, "prepare a supper tomorrow for six persons. A supper such as we had here at the time of my marriage to Berthe. Do you remember it, before Christmas? In the same room."
"Ah, sir, could one forget such a supper? You shall have it."
"Abominable people!" resumed Julie; "do you not see that he will set some trap for her? I have been plunged in all the filth of Paris, and I never met three men like these! In what society must I live? for what crime do I deserve such ignominy?"
And falling on her knees:
"My God! I was only a poor and weak woman! I endured hunger and cold in Paris. But the cold was so intense, the temptations so irresistible. I wished to live; I wished to love! Was that, then, so great a crime that you punish me thus severely? Lift me from this mire! My old life in Paris! Rather that than live among such people!"
She rose suddenly and ran to the officer:
"Serge, are you like these people? No, you are better."
"Better," echoed the officer, phlegmatically.
"Is this not abominable?"
"And you say nothing! You let them go on? You become an accomplice!"
"Come and sit on my knee, my girl." And he began to caress her until she grew calm:
"Come, now, you are a brave little woman; I adore you at such times. Why will you not marry me? I have asked you so often.
"Marriage! Yoke! Appearances! No, never! I have already forbidden you to talk to me of such nonsense. Do not vex me. But, my beloved Serge, defend her. He fears you; save her!"
"Be calm, Julie! What would you have me do? If it is not he, it will be another; it comes to the same thing. Do you not see that Jean, too, already dreams of capturing her? And people of his sort, you know, are to be found by thousands. One cannot defend her against everybody, especially when the mother desires to put her daughter into the market. As well might one butt his head against the wall, as the Russian proverb says. We are a wise people, Julie: see how calm my life is, because I know how to bow to fate."
"That is not the way of wisdom. I, a Frenchwoman, struggle; I may succumb, but I struggle. I, for my part, will not tolerate this infamy! Do you know who this young girl is and where she lives?"
"Well, let us go to her home; I will warn her."
"To her home! And past midnight! Let us rather go to bed. Au revoir, Jean; au revoir, Storechnikoff. You will not look for me at your supper to-morrow. Julie is incensed, and this affair does not please me either. Au revoir."
"That Frenchwoman is a devil unchained," said Jean, yawning, when the officer and his mistress had gone. "She is very piquant; but she is getting stout already. Very agreeable to the eye is a beautiful woman in anger! All the same, I would not have lived with her four years, like Serge. Four years! Not even a quarter of an hour! But, at any rate, this little caprice shall not lose us our supper. Instead of them I will bring Paul and Mathilde. Now it is time to separate. I am going to see Berthe a moment, and then to the little Lotchen's, who is veritably charming."
"It is well, Véra; your eyes are not red; hereafter you will be tractable, will you not?"
Vérotchka made a gesture of impatience.
"Come! come!" continued the mother, "do not get impatient; I am silent. Last night I fell asleep in your room; perhaps I said too much: but you see, I was drunk, so do not believe anything I told you. Believe none of it, do you understand?" she repeated, threateningly.
The young girl had concluded the night before that, beneath her wild beast's aspect, her mother had preserved some human feelings, and her hatred for her had changed into pity; suddenly she saw the wild beast reappear, and felt the hatred returning; but at least the pity remained.
"Dress yourself," resumed Maria Alexevna, "he will probably come soon." After a careful survey of her daughter's toilet, she added:
"If you behave yourself well, I will give you those beautiful emerald ear-rings left with me as security for one hundred and fifty roubles. That is to say, they are worth two hundred and fifty roubles, and cost over four hundred. Act accordingly, then!"
Storechnikoff had pondered as to the method of winning his wager and keeping his word, and for a long time sought in vain. But at last, while walking home from the restaurant, he had hit upon it, and it was with a tranquil mind that he entered the steward's apartments. Having inquired first as to the health of Véra Pavlovna, who answered him with a brief "I am well," Storechnikoff said that youth and health should be made the most of, and proposed to Véra Pavlovna and her mother to take a sleigh-ride that very evening in the fine frosty weather. Maria Alexevna consented; adding that she would make haste to prepare a breakfast of meat and coffee, Vérotchka meanwhile to sing something.
"Sing us something, Vérotchka," she said, in a tone that suffered no reply.
Vérotchka sang "Troïka," which describes, as we know, a girl of charming beauty all eyes to see an officer pass.
"Well, now, that's not so bad," murmured the old woman from the adjoining room. "When she likes, this Verka can be very agreeable at least."
Soon Vérotchka stopped singing and began to talk with Storechnikoff, but in French.
"Imbecile that I am!" thought the old woman; "to think that I should have forgotten to tell her to speak Russian! But she talks in a low voice, she smiles; it's going well! it's going well! Why does he make such big eyes? It is easy to see that he is an imbecile, and that is what we are after. Good! she extends her hand to him. Is she not agreeable, this Verka?"
This is what Vérotchka said to Storechnikoff:
"I must speak severely to you, sir; last evening at the theatre you told your friends that I was your mistress. I will not tell you that this lie was cowardly; for, if you had understood the whole import of your words, I do not think that you would have uttered them. But I warn you that if, at the theatre or in the street, you ever approach me, I will give you a blow. I know that my mother will kill me with ill-treatment [it was here that Vérotchka smiled], but what does that matter, since life is so little to me? This evening you will receive from my mother a note informing you that I am indisposed and unable to join you in the sleigh-ride."
He looked at her with big eyes, as Maria Alexevna had observed.
"I address you, sir, as a man of honor not yet utterly depraved. If I am right, I pray you to cease your attentions, and I, for my part, will pardon your calumny, If you accept, give me your hand."
He shook her hand without knowing what he did.
"Thank you," she added; "and now go. You can give as a pretext the necessity for ordering the horses."
He stood as one stupefied, while she began once more to sing "Troïka."
If connoisseurs had heard Vérotchka, they would have been astonished at the extraordinary feeling which she put into her song; in her, feeling surely dominated art.
Meanwhile Maria Alexevna was coming, followed by her cook carrying the breakfast and coffee on a tray. But Storechnikoff, pretending that he had orders to give concerning the preparation of the horses, withdrew toward the door instead of approaching, and, before the steward's wife could protest, the young man went out.
Maria Alexevna, pale with rage and fists lifted in the air, rushed into the parlor, crying:
"What have you done, wench? Wait for me!"
Vérotchka had hurried into her room. Thither the mother ran like a hurricane; but the door was locked. Beside herself, she tried to break down the door, and struck it heavy blows.
"If you break down the door," cried the young girl, "I will break the window and call for help; in any case, I warn you that you shall not take me alive."
The calm and decided tone with which these words were uttered did not fail to make an impression on the mother, who contented herself with shouting and made no more attacks on the door.
As soon as she could make herself heard, Vérotchka said to her:
"I used to detest you, but since last night I have pitied you. You have suffered, and that has made you wicked. If you wish it, we will talk together pleasantly, as we have never talked together before."
These words did not go straight to the heart of Maria Alexevna, but her tired nerves demanded rest: she asked herself if, after all, it were not better to enter into negotiations. She will no longer obey, and yet she must be married to that fool of a Michka. And then, one cannot tell exactly what has happened; they shook hands. . . . . . . no, one cannot tell. She was still hesitating between stratagem and ferocity, when a ring of the bell interrupted her reflections; it was, Serge and Julie.
"Serge, does her mother speak French?" had been Julie's first word on waking.
"I know nothing about it. What! have you still that idea?"
"Still. But I do not believe she speaks French: you shall be my interpreter."
Had Véra's mother been Cardinal Mezzofanti, Serge would have consented to go to her with Julie. To follow Julie everywhere, as the confidant always follows the heroines of Corneille, had become his destiny, and we must add that he did not complain of it.
But Julie had waked late and had stopped at four or five stores on the way, so that Storechnikoff had time to explain himself and Maria Alexevna to rage and calm down again before their arrival.
"What horrible stairs! I never saw anything like them in Paris. And, by the way, what shall be our excuse for calling?"
"No matter what; the mother is a usurer; we will pawn your brooch. No, I have a better idea; the daughter gives piano lessons. We will say that you have a niece, etc."
At the sight of Serge's beautiful uniform and Julie's dazzling toilette Matroena blushed for the first time in her life; she had never seen such fine people. No less were the enthusiasm and awe of Maria Alexevna when Matroena announced Colonel X. and his wife.
And his wife!
The scandals which Maria Alexevna started or heard of concerned nobody higher in station than counsellors. Consequently she did not suspect that Serge's marriage might be only one of those so-called Parisian marriages, in which legality goes for nothing. Besides, Serge was brilliant; he explained to her that he was fortunate in having met them at the theatre, that his wife had a niece, etc., and that, his wife not speaking Russian, he had come to act as an interpreter.
"Oh yes! I may thank heaven; my daughter is a very talented musician, and were she to be appreciated in a house like yours I should be extremely happy; only, she is not very well; I do not know whether she can leave her room."
Maria Alexevna spoke purposely in a very loud voice in order that Vérotchka might hear and understand that an armistice was proposed. At the same time she devoured her callers with her eyes.
"Vérotchka, can you come, my dear?"
Why should she not go out? Her mother certainly would not dare to make a scene in public. So she opened her door; but at sight of Serge she blushed with shame and anger. This would have been noticed even by poor eyes, and Julie's eyes were very good; therefore, without indirection, she explained herself:
"My dear child, you are astonished and indignant at seeing here the man before whom last night you were so shamefully outraged. But though he be thoughtless, my husband at least is not wicked; he is better than the scamps who surround him. Forgive him for love of me; I have come with good intentions. This niece is but a pretext; but your mother must think it genuine. Play something, no matter what, provided it be very short, and then we will retire to your room to talk."
Is this the Julie known to all the rakes of the aristocracy, and whose jokes have often caused even the libidinous to blush? One would say, rather, a princess whose ear has never been soiled.
Vérotchka went to the piano; Julie sat near her, and Serge busied himself in sounding Maria Alexevna in order to ascertain the situation regarding Storechnikoff. A few minutes later Julie stopped Vérotchka, and, taking her around the waist, led her to her room. Serge explained that his wife wished to talk a little longer with Vérotchka in order to know her character, etc. Then he led the conversation back to Storechnikoff. All this might be charming; but Maria Alexevna, who was by no means innocent, began to cast suspicious looks about her. Meanwhile Julie went straight to the matter in hand.
"My dear child, your mother is certainly a very bad woman, but in order that I may know how to speak to you, tell me why you were taken to the theatre last evening. I know already from my husband; but I wish to get your view of the matter."
Vérotchka needed no urging, and, when she had finished, Julie cried:
"Yes, I may tell you all!"
And in the most fitting and chaste language she told her of the wager of the night before. To which Vérotchka answered by informing her of the invitation to a sleigh-ride.
"Did he intend to deceive your mother? Or were they in conspiracy?"
"Oh!" quickly cried Vérotchka, "my mother does not go as far as that."
"I shall know presently. Stay here; there you would be in the way."
Julie went back to the parlor.
"Serge," she said, "he has already invited this woman and her daughter to a sleigh-ride this evening. Tell her about the supper."
"Your daughter pleases my wife; it remains but to fix the price, and we shall be agreed. Let us come back to our mutual acquaintance, Storechnikoff. You praise him highly. Do you know what he says of his relations with your daughter? Do you know his object in inviting us into your box?"
Maria Alexevna's eyes flashed.
"I do not retail scandal, and seldom listen to it," she said, with restrained anger; "and besides," she added, while striving to appear humble, "the chatter of young people is of little consequence."
"Possibly! But what do you say to this?" And he told the story of the previous night's wager.
"Ah! the rascal, the wretch, the ruffian! That is why he desired to take us out of the city,—to get rid of me and dishonor my daughter."
Maria Alexevna continued a long time in this strain; then she thanked the colonel; she had seen clearly that the lessons sought were but a feint; she had suspected them of desiring to take Storechnikoff away from her; she had misjudged them; and humbly asked their pardon.
Julie, having heard all, hastened back to Vérotchka, and told her that her mother was not guilty, that she was full of indignation against the impostor, but that her thirst for lucre would soon lead her to look for a new suitor, which would at once subject Vérotchka to new annoyances. Then she asked her if she had relatives in St. Petersburg, and, being answered in the negative, Julie said further:
"That is a pity. Have you a lover?"
Vérotchka opened her eyes wide.
"Forgive me, forgive me! That is understood. But, then you are without protection? What's to be done? But wait, I am not what you think me; I am not his wife, but his mistress; I cannot ask you to my house, I am not married; all St. Petersburg knows me. Your reputation would be lost; it is enough already that I should have come here; to come a second time would be to ruin you. But I must see you once more, and still again perhaps,—that is, if you have confidence in me? Yes? Good! At what hour shall you be free to-morrow?"
"What a good idea!" continued the Frenchwoman. "Now give me some paper, that I may write to M. Storechnikoff."
The note which she wrote read as follows:
"Monsieur, you are probably very much disturbed by your position. If you wish me to aid you, call on me this evening at seven o'clock.
But instead of taking the hand which she extended, Vérotchka threw herself upon her neck and wept as she kissed her. Julie, also much moved, likewise could not restrain her tears, and with an outburst of extreme tenderness she kissed the young girl several times, while making a thousand protests of affection.
'Dear child," she said at last, "you cannot understand my present feelings. For the first time in many years pure lips have touched mine. O my child, if you knew! . . . Never give a kiss without love! Choose death before such a calamity!"
Storechnikoff's plan was not so black as Maria Alexevna had imagined, she having no reason to disbelieve in evil; but it was none the less infamous. They were to start off in a sleigh and get belated in the evening; the ladies soon becoming cold and hungry, Storechnikoff was to offer them some tea; in the mother's cup he was to put a little opium; then, taking advantage of the young girl's anxiety and fright, he was to conduct her to the supper-room, and the wager was won. What would happen then chance was to decide; perhaps Vérotchka, dazed and not clearly understanding, would remain a moment; if, on the contrary, she only entered and at once went out again, he would assert that it was the first time she had been out alone, and the wager would be won just the same. Finally he was to offer money to Maria Alexevna. . . . Yes, it was well planned. But now. . . . He cursed his presumption, and wished himself under the earth.
It was in this frame of mind that he received Julie's letter; it was like sovereign elixir to a sick man, a ray of light in utter darkness, firm ground under the feet of one sinking. Storechnikoff rose at a bound to the most sanguine hope.
"She will save me, this generous woman. She is so intelligent that she can invent something imperative. O noble Julie!"
At ten minutes before seven, he stood at her door.
"Madame is waiting for you; please come in."
Julie received him without rising. What majesty in her mien! What severity in her look!
"I am very glad to see you; be seated," she said to him in answer to his respectful salutation.
Not a muscle of his face moved; Storechnikoff was about to receive a stern reprimand. What matter, provided she would save him?
"Monsieur Storechnikoff," began Julie, in a cold, slow voice, "you know my opinion of the affair which occasions our interview; it is useless to recall the details. I have seen the person in question, and I know the proposition that you made to her this morning. Therefore I know all, and am very glad to be relieved from questioning you. Your position is clear, to you and to me. ("God!" thought Storechnikoff, "I would rather be upbraided by far!") You can escape only through me. If you have any reply to make, I am waiting. . . . You do not reply? You believe, then, that I alone can come to your aid. I will tell you what I can do, and, if you deem it satisfactory, I will submit my conditions."
Storechnikoff having given sign of assent, she resumed:
"I have prepared here a letter for Jean, in which I tell him that, since the scene of last night, I have changed my mind, and that I will join in the supper, but not this evening, being engaged elsewhere; so I beg him to induce you to postpone the supper. I will make him understand that, having won your wager, it will be hard for you to put off your triumph. Does this letter suit you?"
"But I will send the letter only on two conditions, You can refuse to accept them, and in that case I will burn the letter.
"These two conditions," she continued, in a slow voice which tortured Storechnikoff,—"these two conditions are as follows:
"First, you shall stop persecuting this young person.
"Second, you shall never speak her name again in your conversations."
"Is that all?"
A ray of joy illuminated Storechnikoff's countenance. "Only that," he thought, "It was hardly worth while to frighten me so. God knows how ready I was to grant it."
But Julie continued with the same solemnity and deliberation:
"The first is necessary for her, the second for her also, but still more for you; I will postpone the supper from week to week until it has been forgotten. And you must see that it will not be forgotten unless you speak the name of this young person no more."
Then, in the same tone, she went into the details of carrying out the plan. "Jean will receive the letter in season. I have found out that he is to dine at Bertha's. He will go to your house after smoking his cigar. We will send the letter, then. Do you wish to read it? Here is the envelope. I will ring . . . Pauline, you will take this letter. We have not seen each other today, Monsieur Storechnikoff and I. Do you understand?"
At last the letter is sent; Storechnikoff breathes more freely, and is quite overjoyed at his deliverance.
But Julie has not yet done.
"In a quarter of an hour you must be at home in order that Jean may find you there; you have a moment left, and I wish to take advantage of it to say a few words more. You will follow my advice, or not, as you please; but you will reflect upon it.
"I will not speak of the duties of an honest man toward a young girl whose reputation he has compromised. I know our worldly youth too well to think it useful to examine that side of the question at any length. Your marriage with this young person would seem to me a good thing for you. I will explain myself with my usual frankness, and though some of the things that I am going to say may wound you. If I go too far, a word from you will stop me short. Listen, then:
"You have a weak character, and, if you fall into the hands of a bad woman, you will be duped, deceived, and tortured into the bargain. She is good, and has a noble heart; in spite of her plebeian birth and poverty, she will aid you singularly in your career.
"Introduced into the world by you, she will shine and wield an influence there. The advantages which such a situation procure for a husband are easy to see. Besides these external advantages, there are others more intimate and precious still. You need a peaceful home and even a little watchful care. All this she can give you. I speak in all seriousness; my observations of this morning tell me that she is perfection. Think of what I have said to you.
"If she accepts, which I very much doubt, I shall consider the acceptance a great piece of good fortune for you.
"I keep you no longer; it is time for you to go."
Vérotchka was at least tranquil for the time being; her mother could not in fairness be angry with her for having escaped a trap so basely laid; consequently she was left free enough the next day to enable her to go to the Gastinoï Dvor without hindrance.
"It is very cold here, and I do not like the cold. But wait here a moment," said Julie, on arriving. She entered a store, where she bought a very thick veil.
"Put that on! Now you may come with me without being recognized. Pauline is very discreet; yet I do not wish her to see you, so jealous am I of your reputation; and, above all, do not lift your veil while we are together."
Julie was dressed in her servant's cloak and hat, and her face was hidden beneath a thick veil. First they were obliged to warm themselves; after which, being questioned by Julie, Vérotchka gave her the latest details.
"Good, my dear child; now be sure that he asks your hand in marriage. Men like him become madly amorous when their gallantries are received unfavorably. Do you know that you have dealt with him like an experienced coquette? Coquetry—I do not mean the affected and false imitation of this method of acting—coquetry is nothing but a high degree of wit and tact applied to the relations between man and woman. Thus it is that innocent young girls act like experienced coquettes without knowing it; all that they need is wit. Perhaps, too, my arguments will have some influence on him. But the principal thing is your firmness; however that may be, he is almost sure to make you a proposition of marriage, and I advise you to accept him."
"You! who told me yesterday that it was better to die than to give, a kiss without love."
"My dear child, I said that in a moment of exaltation; it is right, but it, is poetry, and life is made up of very prosaic interests."
"No! I will never marry him; he fills me with horror! I will never stoop to that! I would rather die, throw myself out of the window, ask alms! Yes, rather death than a man so debased!"
Julie, without being disconcerted, began to explain the advantages of the marriage which she had planned:
"You would be delivered from your mother's persecutions; you would run no more risk of being sold. As for him, he is rather stupid, but he is not such a wretch. A husband of that sort is what an intelligent woman like you needs; you would rule the household."
Then she told her in a lively way of the actresses and singers who, far from being made submissive to men through love, subjugate them, on the contrary.
"That is a fine position for a woman! and finer yet when she joins to such independence and power a legality of ties which commands the respect of society; that is, when she is married, and loved and admired by her husband, as the actress is by the lover whom she has subjugated."
The conversation grew more and more animated. Julie said much, and Vérotchka replied:
"You call me whimsical, and you ask me how I look upon life. I wish neither to dominate nor be dominated; I wish neither to dissimulate nor deceive; nor do I wish to exert myself to acquire that which I am told is necessary, but of which I do not feel the need. I do not desire wealth; why should I seek it? The world does not attract me; to shine in society is of little moment to me; why should I make efforts in that direction?
"Not only would I not sacrifice myself for those things of which the world boasts so loudly, but I would not even sacrifice one of my caprices. I wish to be independent and live in my own fashion. What I need I feel that I have the strength to earn; what I do not need I do not desire. You say that I am young, inexperienced, and that I shall change with time; that remains to be seen. For the present I have no concern with the wealth and splendor of the world.
"You will ask me what I desire. I do not know. If I need to be in love, I do not know it. Did I know, yesterday morning, that I was going to love you? that my heart was going to be taken possession of by friendship a few hours later? Certainly not. No more can I know how I shall feel toward a man when I shall be in love with him. What I do know is that I wish to be free; that I do not wish to be under obligations to any one, dependent on any one; I wish to act after my own fancy; let others do the same. I respect the liberty of others, as I wish them to respect mine."
Julie listened, moved and thoughtful, and several times she blushed.
"Oh! my dear child, how thoroughly right you are!" she cried, in a broken voice. "Ah! if I were not so depraved! They call me an immoral woman, my body has been polluted, I have suffered so much,—but that is not what I consider my depravity. My depravity consists in being habituated to luxury and idleness; in not being able to live without others . . . .
"Unfortunate that I am! I deprave you, poor child, and without intending it. Forgive me, and forget all that I have said. You are right in despising the world: it is vile and even more worthless than I.
"Wherever idleness is, there is vice and abomination; wherever luxury is there also is vice and abomination. Adieu! Go quickly!"
Storechnikoff remained plunged in this thought, cherished more and more: If indeed I should marry her. Under these circumstances there happened to him what happens, not only to inconstant men like him, but also to men of firmer character. The history of peoples is full of similar cases: see the pages of Hume, Gibbon, Ranke, Thierry. Men drag themselves along in a beaten track simply because they have been told to do so; but tell them in a very loud voice to take another road, and, though they will not hear you at first, they will soon throw themselves into the new path with the same spirit. Storechnikoff had been told that, with a great fortune, a young man has only to choose among the poor the beauty whom he desires for a mistress, and that is why he had thought of making a mistress of Vérotchka. Now a new word had been thrown into his head: Marriage! And he pondered over this question: Shall I marry her? as before he had pondered over the other: Shall I make her my mistress?
That is the common trait by which Storechnikoff represented in his person, in a satisfactory manner, nine-tenths of his fellow-citizens of the world. Historians and psychologists tell us that in each special fact the common fact is individualized by local, temporary, individual elements, and that these particular elements are precisely those of most importance. Let us examine, then, our particular case. The main feature had been pointed out by Julie (as if she had taken it from Russian novels, which all speak of it): resistance excites desire. Storechnikoff had become accustomed to dream of the possession of Vérotchka. Like Julie I call things by their names, as, moreover, almost all of us do in current conversation. For some time his imagination had represented Vérotchka in poses each more voluptuous than its predecessor; these pictures had inflamed his mind, and, when he believed himself on the point of their realization, Vérotchka had blown upon his dream, and all had vanished. But if he could not have her as as mistress, he could have her as a wife; and what matters it which after all, provided his gross sensuality be satisfied, provided his wildest erotic dreams be realized? O human degradation! to possess! Who dares possess a human being? One may possess a pair of slippers, a dressing-gown. But what do I say? Each of us, men, possesses some one of you, our sisters! Are you, then, our sisters? You are our servants. There are, I know, some women who subjugate some men; but what of that? Many valets rule their masters, but that does not prevent valets from being valets.
These amorous images had developed in Storechnikoff's mind after the interview at the theatre; he had found her a hundred times more beautiful than at first he deemed her, and his polluted imagination was excited.
It is with beauty as with wit, as with all qualities; men value it by the judgment of general opinion. Every one sees that a beautiful face is beautiful, but how beautiful is it? It is at this point that the data of current opinion become necessary to classification. As long as Vérotchka sat in the galleries or in the back rows of the pit, she was not noticed; but when she appeared in one of the boxes of the second tier, several glasses were levelled at her; and how many were the expressions of admiration heard by Storechnikoff when he returned to the lobby after escorting her to the carriage!
"Serge," said Storechnikoff, "is a man of very fine taste! And Julie? how about her? But . . . when one has only to lay his hand on such a marvel, he does not ask himself by what title he shall possess her."
His ambition was aroused as well as his desires. Julie's phrase, "I doubt very much whether she accepts you," excited him still more, "What! she will not accept me, with such a uniform and such a house! I will prove to you, Frenchwoman, that she will accept me; yes, she shall accept me!"
There was still another influence that tended to inflame Storechnikoff's passion: his mother would certainly oppose the marriage, and in this she represented the opinion of society. Now, heretofore Storechnikoff had feared his mother; but evidently this dependence was a burden to him. And the thought, "I do not fear her, I have a character of my own," was very well calculated to flatter the ambition of a man as devoid of character as he.
He was also urged on by the desire to advance a little in his career through the influence of his wife.
And to all this it must be added that Storechnikoff could not present himself before Vérotchka in his former rôle, and he desired so much to see her!
In short, he dreamed of the marriage more and more every day, and a week afterwards, on Sunday, while Maria Alexevna, after attending mass, was considering how she could best coax him back, he presented himself and formulated his request. Vérotchka remaining in her room, he had to address himself to Maria Alexevna, who answered that for her part the marriage would be a great honor, but that as an affectionate mother she wished to consult her daughter, and that he might return the next morning to get his answer.
"What an excellent daughter we have!" said Maria Alexevna to her husband a moment later. "How well she knew how to take him! And I who, not knowing how to reëntice him, thought that all was to begin over again! I even thought it a hopeless affair. But she, my Verka, did not spoil matters; she conducted them with perfect strategy. Good girl!"
"It is thus that the Lord inspires children," said Pavel Konstantinytch.
He rarely played a part in the family life. But Maria Alexevna was a strict observer of traditions, and in a case like this, of conveying to her daughter the proposition that had been made, she hastened to give her husband the rôle of honor which by right belongs to the head of the family and the master.
Pavel Konstantinytch and Maria Alexevna installed themselves upon the divan, the only place solemn enough for such a purpose, and sent Matroena to ask Mademoiselle to be good enough to come to them.
"Véra," began Pavel Konstantinytch, "Mikhaïl Ivanytch does us a great honor: he asks your hand. We have answered him that, as affectionate parents, we did not wish to coerce you, but that for our part we were pleased with his suit. Like the obedient and wise daughter that we have always found you to be, trust to our experience: we have never dared to ask of God such a suitor. Do you accept him, Véra?"
"No," said Vérotchka.
"What do I hear, Véra?" cried Pavel Konstantinytch (the thing was so clear that he could fall into a rage without asking his wife's advice).
"Are you mad or an idiot? Just dare to repeat what you said, detestable rag that you are!" cried Maria Alexevna, beside herself and her fists raised over her daughter.
"Calm yourself, Mamma," said Vérotchka, rising also. "If you touch me, I will leave the house; if you shut me up, I will throw myself out of the window. I knew how you would receive my refusal, and have considered well all that I have to do. Seat yourself, and be tranquil, or I go."
Maria Alexevna sat down again. "What stupidity!" she thought; "we did not lock the outer door. It takes but a second to push the bolt back. This mad creature will go, as she says, and no one will stop her."
"I will not be his wife," repeated the young girl, "and without my consent the marriage cannot take place."
"Véra, you are mad," insisted the mother with a stifled voice.
"Is it possible? What shall we say to him tomorrow?" added the father.
"It is not your fault; it is I who refuse."
The scene lasted nearly two hours. Maria Alexevna, furious, cried, and twenty times raised her tightly clenched fists: but at each outbreak Vérotchka, said:
"Do not rise, or I go,"
Thus they disputed without coming to any conclusion, when the entrance of Matroena to ask if it was time to serve dinner—the cake having been in the oven too long already—put an end to it all.
"Reflect until evening, Véra, there is yet time; reconsider your determination; it would be unspeakable foolishness."
Then Maria Alexevna said something in Matroena's ear.
"Mamma, you are trying to set some trap for me, to take the key from my chamber door, or something of that sort. Do nothing of the kind: it would be worse."
Again Maria Alexevna yielded.
"Do not do it," she said, addressing the cook. "This jade is a wild beast. Oh I if it were not that he wants her for her face, I would tear it to pieces. But if I touch her, she is capable of self-mutilation. Oh, wretch! Oh, serpent! If I could!"
They dined without saying a word. After dinner Vérotchka went back to her room. Pavel Konstantinytch lay down, according to his habit, to sleep a little; but he did not succeed, for hardly had he begun to doze when Matroena informed him that the servant of the mistress of the house had come to ask him to call upon her instantly.
Matroena trembled like a leaf.
And why should she not tremble? Had she not, without loss of time, told the wife of the mistress's cook of the suit of Mikhaïl Ivanytch? The latter had complained to the second waiting-maid of the secrets that were kept from her. The second servant had protested her innocence: if she had known anything, she would have said so; she had no secrets, she told everything. The cook's wife then made apologies; but the second servant ran straight to the first servant and told her the great news.
"Is it possible?" cried the latter. "As I did not know it, then Madame does not; he has concealed his course from his mother." And she ran to warn Anna Petrovna.
See what a fuss Matroena had caused.
"O my wicked tongue!" said she, angrily. "Fine things are going to happen to me now! Maria Alexevna will make inquiries."
But the affair took such a turn that Maria Alexevna forgot to look for the origin of the indiscretion.
Anna, Petrovna sighed and groaned; twice she fainted before her first waiting-maid. That showed that she was deeply afflicted. She sent in search of her son.
"Can what I have heard, Michel, be true?" she said to him in French in a voice at once broken and furious.
"What have you heard, Mamma?"
"That you have made a proposition of marriage to that . . . . . to that . . . to that . . . . . to the daughter of our steward."
"It is true, Mamma."
"Without asking your mother's advice?"
"I intended to wait, before asking your consent, until I had received hers."
"You ought to know, it seems to me, that it is easier to obtain her consent than mine."
"Mamma, it is now allowable to first ask the consent of the young girl and then speak to the parents."
"That is allowable, for you? Perhaps for you it is also allowable that sons of good family should marry a . . . . . . one knows not what, and that mothers should give their consent!"
"Mamma, she is not a one knows not what; when you know her, you will approve my choice."
"When I know her! I shall never know her! Approve your choice! I forbid you to think of it any longer! I forbid you, do you understand?"
"Mamma, this parental absolutism is now somewhat out of date; I am not a little boy, to be led by the end of the nose. I know what I am about."
"Ah!" cried Anna Petrovna, closing her eyes.
Though to Maria Alexevna, Julie, and Vérotchka, Mikhaïl Ivanytch seemed stupid and irresolute, it was because they were women of mind and character: but here, so far as mind was concerned, the weapons were equal, and if, in point of character, the balance was in favor of the mother, the son had quite another advantage. Hitherto he had feared his mother from habit; but he had as good a memory as hers. They both knew that he, Mikhaïl Ivanytch, was the real proprietor of the establishment. This explains why Anna Petrovna, instead of coming straight to the decisive words, I forbid you, availed herself of expedients and prolonged the conversation. But Mikhaïl Ivanytch had already gone so far that he could not recoil.
"I assure you, Mamma, that you could not have a better daughter."
"Monster! Assassin of your mother!"
"Mamma, let us talk in cold blood. Sooner or later I must marry; now, a married man has more expenses than a bachelor. I could, if I chose, marry such a woman that all the revenues of the house would hardly be enough for us. If, on the contrary, I marry this girl, you will have a dutiful daughter, and you can live with us as in the past."
"Be silent, monster! Leave me!"
"Mamma, do not get angry, I beg of you; it is not my fault."
"You marry a plebeian, a servant, and it is not your fault!"
"Now, Mamma, I leave you without further solicitation, for I cannot suffer her to be thus characterized in my presence."
Anna Petrovna fainted, and Michel went away, quite content at having come off so well in this first skirmish, which in affairs of this sort is the most important.
When her son had gone, Anna Petrovna hastened to come out of her fainting fit. The situation was serious; her son was escaping her. In reply to "I forbid you," he had explained that the house belonged to him. After calming herself a little, she called her servant and confided her sorrow to her; the latter, who shared the contempt of her mistress for the steward's daughter, advised her to bring her influence to bear upon the parents. And that is why Anna Petrovna had just sent for her steward.
"Hitherto I have been very well satisfied with you, Pavel Konstantinytch, but intrigues, in which, I hope, you have no part, may set us seriously at variance."
"Your excellency, it is none of my doing, God is my witness."
"I already knew that Michel was paying court to your daughter. I did not prevent it, for a young man needs distraction. I am indulgent toward the follies of youth. But I will not allow the degradation of my family. How did your daughter come to entertain such hopes?"
"Your excellency, she has never entertained them. She is a respectful girl; we have brought her up in obedience."
"What do you mean by that?"
"She will never dare to thwart your will."
Anna Petrovna could not believe her ears. Was it possible? She could, then, relieve herself so easily!
"Listen to my will. I cannot consent to so strange, I should say so unfitting, a marriage."
"We feel that, your excellency, and Vérotchka feels it too. These are her own words: 'I dare not, for fear of offending her excellency.'"
"How did all this happen?"
"It happened in this wise, your excellency: Mikhaïl Ivanytch condescended to express his intentions to my wife, and my wife told him that she could not give him a reply before tomorrow morning. Now, my wife and I intended to speak to you first. But we did not dare to disturb your excellency at so late an hour. After the departure of Mikhaïl Ivanytch, we said as much to Vérotchka, who answered that she was of our opinion and that the thing was not to be thought of."
"Your daughter is, then, a prudent and honest girl?"
"Why, certainly, your excellency, she is a dutiful daughter!"
"I am very glad that we can remain friends. I wish to reward you instantly. The large room on the second floor, facing on the street and now occupied by the tailor, will soon be vacant?"
"In three days, your excellency."
"Take it yourself, and you may spend up to a hundred roubles to put it in good order. Further, I add two hundred and forty roubles a year to your salary."
"Deign to let me kiss your hand, your excellency."
"Pshaw, pshaw! Tatiana!" The servant came running in.
"Bring me my blue velvet cloak. I make your wife a present of it. It cost one hundred and fifty roubles [it really cost only seventy-five], and I have worn it only twice [she had worn it more than twenty times]. This is for your daughter [Anna Petrovna handed the steward a small watch such as ladies carry]; I paid three hundred roubles for it [she paid one hundred and twenty]. You see, I know how to reward, and I shall always remember you, always! Do not forget that I am indulgent toward the foibles of the young."
When the steward had gone, Anna Petrovna again called Tatiana.
"Ask Mikhaïl Ivanytch to come and talk with me. . . . . But no, I will go myself instead." She feared that the ambassadress would tell her son's servant, and the servant her son, what had happened. She wished to have the pleasure of crushing her son's spirit with this unexpected news. She found Mikhaïl Ivanytch lying down and twirling his moustache, not without some inward satisfaction.
"What brings her here? I have no preventive of fainting fits," thought he, on seeing his mother enter. But he saw in her countenance an expression of disdainful triumph.
She took a seat and said:
"Sit up, Mikhaïl Ivanytch, and we will talk."
She looked at him a long time, with a smile upon her lips. At last she said slowly:
"I am very happy, Mikhaïl Ivanytch: guess at what."
"I do not know what to think. Mamma; your look is so strange."
"You will see that it is not strange at all; look closely and you will divine, perhaps."
A prolonged silence followed this fresh thrust of sarcasm. The son lost himself in conjectures; the mother delighted in her triumph.
"You cannot guess; I will tell you. It is very simple and very natural; if you had had a particle of elevated feeling, you would have guessed. Your mistress,"—in the previous conversation Anna Petrovna had manœuvred; now it was no longer necessary, the enemy being disarmed,—"your mistress,—do not reply, Mikhaïl Ivanytch, you have loudly asserted on all sides yourself that she is your mistress,—your mistress, this creature of base extraction, base education, base conduct, this even contemptible creature" . . . .
"Mamma, my ear cannot tolerate such expressions applied to a young girl who is to be my wife."
"I would not have used them if I had had any idea that she could be your wife. I did so with the view of explaining to you that that will not occur and of telling you at the same time why it will not occur. Let me finish, then. Afterwards you can reproach me, if you like, for the expressions which I have used, supposing that you still believe them out of place. But meantime let me finish. I wish to say to you that your mistress, this creature without name or education, devoid of sentiment, has herself comprehended the utter impropriety of your designs. Is not that enough to cover you with shame?"
"What? What do you say? Finish!"
"You do not let me. I meant to say that even this creature—do you understand? even this creature!—comprehended and appreciated my feelings, and, after learning from her mother that you had made a proposition for her hand, she sent her father to tell me that she would never rise against my will and would not dishonor our family with her degraded name."
"Mamma, you deceive me."
"Fortunately for you and for me, I tell only the exact truth. She says that" . . . . .
But Mikhaïl Ivanytch was no longer in the room; he was putting on his cloak to go out.
"Hold him, Pœtre, hold him!" cried Anna Petrovna.
Pœtre opened his eyes wide at hearing so extraordinary an order. Meanwhile Mikhaïl Ivanytch rapidly descended the staircase.
"Well?" said Maria Alexevna, when her husband reëntered.
"All goes well, all goes well, little mother! She knew already, and said to me: 'How dare you?' and I told her; 'We do not dare, your excellency, and Vérotchka has already refused him.'"
"What? What? You were stupid enough to say that, ass that you are?"
"Maria Alexevna" . . . .
"Ass! Rascal! You have killed me, murdered me, you old stupid! There's one for you! [the husband received a blow.] And there's another! [the husband received a blow on the other cheek]. Wait. I will teach you, you old imbecile!" And she seized him by the hair and pulled him into the room. The lesson lasted sufficiently long, for Storechnikoff, reaching the room after the long pauses of his mother and the information which she gave him between them, found Maria Alexevna still actively engaged in her work of education.
"Why did you not close the door, you imbecile? A pretty state we are found in! Are you not ashamed, you old he-goat?" That was all that Maria Alexevna found to say.
"Where is Véra Pavlovna? I wish to see her directly. Is it true that she refuses me?" said Storechnikoff.
The circumstances were so embarrassing that Maria Alexevna could do nothing but desist. Precisely like Napoleon after the battle of Waterloo, when he believed himself lost through the incapacity of Marshal Grouchy, though really the fault was his own, so Maria Alexevna believed her husband the author of the evil. Napoleon, too, struggled with tenacity, did marvels, and ended only with these words: "I abdicate; do what you will."
"Is it true that you refuse me, Véra Pavlovna?"
"I leave it to you, could I do otherwise than refuse you?"
"Véra Pavlovna, I have outraged you in a cowardly manner; I am guilty; but your refusal kills me." And again he began his supplications.
Vérotchka listened for some minutes; then, to end the painful interview, she said:
"Mikhaïl Ivanytch, your entreaties are useless. You will never get my consent."
"At least grant me one favor. You still feel very keenly how deeply I outraged you. Do not give me a reply to-day; let me have time to become worthy of your pardon! I seem to you despicable, but wait a little: I wish to become better and more worthy; aid me, do not repel me, grant me time. I will obey you in all things! Perhaps at last you will find me worthy of pardon."
"I pity you; I see the sincerity of your love [it is not love, Vérotchka; it is a mixture of something low with something painful; one may be very unhappy and deeply mortified by a woman's refusal without really loving her; love is quite another thing,—but Vérotchka is still ignorant regarding these things, and she is moved],—you wish me to postpone my answer; so be it, then! But I warn you that the postponement will end in nothing; I shall never give you any other reply than that which I have given you to-day."
"I will become worthy of another answer; you save me!"
He seized her hand and kissed it rapturously.
Maria Alexevna entered the room, and in her enthusiasm blessed her dear children without the traditional formalities,—that is, without Pavel Konstantinytch; then she called her husband to bless them once more with proper solemnity. But Storechnikoff dampened her enthusiasm by explaining to her that Véra Pavlovna, though she had not consented, at least had not definitely refused, and that she had postponed her answer.
This was not altogether glorious, but after all, compared with the situation of a moment before, it was a step taken.
Consequently Storechnikoff went back to his house with an air of triumph, and Anna Petrovna had no resource left but fainting.
Maria Alexevna did not know exactly what to think of Vérotchka, who talked and seemed to act exactly against her mother's intentions, and who, after all, surmounted difficulties before which Maria Alexevna herself was powerless. Judging from the progress of affairs, it was clear that Vérotchka's wishes were the same as her mother's; only her plan of action was better laid and, above all, more effective. Yet, if this were the case, why did she not say to her mother: "Mamma, we have the same end in view; be tranquil." Was she so out of sorts with her mother that she wished to have nothing to do with her? This postponement, it was clear to Maria Alexevna, simply signified that her daughter wished to excite Storechnikoff's love and make it strong enough to break down the resistance of Anna Petrovna.
"She is certainly even shrewder than I," concluded Maria Alexevna after much reflection. But all that she saw and heard tended to prove the contrary.
"What, then, would have to be done," said she to herself, "if Véra really should not wish to be Storechnikoff's wife? She is so wild a beast that one does not know how to subdue her. Yes, it is altogether probable that this conceited creature does not wish Storechnikoff for a husband; in fact, it is indisputable."
For Maria Alexevna had too much common sense to be long deceived by artificial suppositions representing Vérotchka as an intriguer.
"All the same, one knows not what may happen, for the devil only knows what she has in her head; but, if she should marry Storechnikoff, she would control both son and mother. There is nothing to do, then, but wait. This spirited girl may come to a decision after a while, . . . . and we may aid her to it, but prudently, be it understood."
For the moment, at any rate, the only course was to wait, and so Maria Alexevna waited.
It was, moreover, very pleasant, this thought, which her common sense would not let her accept, that Vérotchka knew how to manœuvre in order to bring about her marriage; and everything except the young girl's words and actions supported this idea.
The suitor was as gentle as a lamb. His mother struggled for three weeks; then the son got the upper hand from the fact that he was the proprietor, and Anna Petrovna began to grow docile; she expressed a desire to make Vérotchka's acquaintance. The latter did not go to see her. Maria Alexevna thought at first that, in Vérotchka's place, she would have acted more wisely by going; but after a little reflection she saw that it was better not to go. "Oh! she is a shrewd rogue!"
A fortnight later Anna Petrovna came to the steward's herself, her pretext being to see if the new room was well arranged. Her manner was cold and her amiability biting; after enduring two or three of her caustic sentences, Vérotchka went to her room. While her daughter remained, Maria Alexevna did not think she was pursuing the best course; she thought that sarcasm should have been answered with sarcasm; but when Vérotchka withdrew, Maria Alexevna instantly concluded: "Yes, it was better to withdraw; leave her to her son, let him be the one to reprimand her; that is the best way."
Two weeks afterwards Anna Petrovna came again, this time without putting forward any pretext; she simply said that she had come to make a call; and nothing sarcastic did she say in Vérotchka's presence.
Such was the situation. The suitor made presents to Vérotchka through Maria Alexevna, and these presents very certainly remained in the latter's hands, as did Anna Petrovna's watch, always excepting the gifts of little value, which Maria Alexevna faithfully delivered to her daughter as articles which had been deposited with her and not redeemed; for it was necessary that the suitor should see some of these articles on his sweetheart. And, indeed, he did see them, and was convinced that Vérotchka was disposed to consent; otherwise she would not have accepted his gifts; but why, then, was she so slow about it? Perhaps she was waiting until Anna Petrovna should be thoroughly softened; this thought was whispered in his ear by Maria Alexevna. And he continued to break in his mother, as he would a saddle-horse, an occupation which was not without charm for him. Thus Vérotchka was left at rest, and everything was done to please her. This watch-dog kindness was repugnant to her; she tried to be with her mother as little as possible. The mother, on the other hand, no longer dared to enter her daughter's room, and when Vérotchka stayed there a large portion of the day, she was entirely undisturbed. Sometimes she allowed Mikhaïl Ivanytch to come and talk with her.
Then he was as obedient as a grandchild. She commanded him to read and he read with much zeal, as if he was preparing for an examination; he did not reap much profit from his reading, but nevertheless he reaped a little; she tried to aid him by conversation; conversation was much more intelligible to him than books, and thus he made some progress, slow, very slow, but real. He began by treating his mother a little better than before: instead of breaking her in like a saddle-horse, he preferred to hold her by the bridle.
Thus things went on for two or three months. All was quiet, but only because of a truce agreed upon, with the tempest liable to break forth again any day. Vérotchka viewed the future with a shrinking heart: some day or other would not Mikhaïl Ivanytch or Maria Alexevna press her to a decision? For their impatience would not put up long with this state of things.
Here I might have invented a tragic climax; in reality there was none. I might have put everything into confusion to allure the reader. But, a friend of truth and an enemy of subterfuge, I warn my readers in advance that there will be no tragic climax and that the clouds will roll away without lightning or thunder or tempest.
- A song by Nekrassoff.
- Verka is an ill-natured diminutive of Véra.
- Michka is an ill-natured diminutive of Mikhaïl.
- Who spoke sixty languages, it is said.
- The Palais Royal of St. Petersburg.
- That is, the Perspective Nevsky, the finest street In St. Petersburg.