I had been certain the day before that I should be the first to arrive. But it was not a question of being the first to arrive. Not only were they not there, but I had difficulty in finding our room. The table was not laid even. What did it mean? After a good many questions I elicited from the waiters that the dinner had been ordered not for five, but for six o'clock. This was confirmed at the buffet too. I felt really ashamed to go on questioning them. It was only twenty-five minutes past five. If they changed the dinner hour they ought at least to have let me know--that is what the post is for, and not to have put me in an absurd position in my own eyes and ... and even before the waiters. I sat down; the servant began laying the table; I felt even more humiliated when he was present.
Towards six o'clock they brought in candles, though there were lamps burning in the room. It had not occurred to the waiter, however, to bring them in at once when I arrived. In the next room two gloomy, angry- looking persons were eating their dinners in silence at two different tables. There was a great deal of noise, even shouting, in a room further away; one could hear the laughter of a crowd of people, and nasty little shrieks in French: there were ladies at the dinner. It was sickening, in fact.
I rarely passed more unpleasant moments, so much so that when they did arrive all together punctually at six I was overjoyed to see them, as though they were my deliverers, and even forgot that it was incumbent upon me to show resentment.
Zverkov walked in at the head of them; evidently he was the leading spirit. He and all of them were laughing; but, seeing me, Zverkov drew himself up a little, walked up to me deliberately with a slight, rather jaunty bend from the waist. He shook hands with me in a friendly, but not over- friendly, fashion, with a sort of circumspect courtesy like that of a General, as though in giving me his hand he were warding off something. I had imagined, on the contrary, that on coming in he would at once break into his habitual thin, shrill laugh and fall to making his insipid jokes and witticisms. I had been preparing for them ever since the previous day, but I had not expected such condescension, such high-official courtesy. So, then, he felt himself ineffably superior to me in every respect! If he only meant to insult me by that high-official tone, it would not matter, I thought--I could pay him back for it one way or another. But what if, in reality, without the least desire to be offensive, that sheepshead had a notion in earnest that he was superior to me and could only look at me in a patronising way? The very supposition made me gasp.
"I was surprised to hear of your desire to join us," he began, lisping and drawling, which was something new. "You and I seem to have seen nothing of one another. You fight shy of us. You shouldn't. We are not such terrible people as you think. Well, anyway, I am glad to renew our acquaintance."
And he turned carelessly to put down his hat on the window.
"Have you been waiting long?" Trudolyubov inquired.
"I arrived at five o'clock as you told me yesterday," I answered aloud, with an irritability that threatened an explosion.
"Didn't you let him know that we had changed the hour?" said Trudolyubov to Simonov.
"No, I didn't. I forgot," the latter replied, with no sign of regret, and without even apologising to me he went off to order the HORS D'OEUVRE.
"So you've been here a whole hour? Oh, poor fellow!" Zverkov cried ironically, for to his notions this was bound to be extremely funny. That rascal Ferfitchkin followed with his nasty little snigger like a puppy yapping. My position struck him, too, as exquisitely ludicrous and embarrassing.
"It isn't funny at all!" I cried to Ferfitchkin, more and more irritated.
"It wasn't my fault, but other people's. They neglected to let me know. It was ... it was ... it was simply absurd."
"It's not only absurd, but something else as well," muttered Trudolyubov, naively taking my part. "You are not hard enough upon it. It was simply rudeness--unintentional, of course. And how could Simonov ... h'm!"
"If a trick like that had been played on me," observed Ferfitchkin, "I should ..."
"But you should have ordered something for yourself," Zverkov interrupted, "or simply asked for dinner without waiting for us."
"You will allow that I might have done that without your permission," I rapped out. "If I waited, it was ..."
"Let us sit down, gentlemen," cried Simonov, coming in. "Everything is ready; I can answer for the champagne; it is capitally frozen .... You see, I did not know your address, where was I to look for you?" he suddenly turned to me, but again he seemed to avoid looking at me.
Evidently he had something against me. It must have been what happened yesterday.
All sat down; I did the same. It was a round table. Trudolyubov was on my left, Simonov on my right, Zverkov was sitting opposite, Ferfitchkin next to him, between him and Trudolyubov.
"Tell me, are you ... in a government office?" Zverkov went on attending to me. Seeing that I was embarrassed he seriously thought that he ought to be friendly to me, and, so to speak, cheer me up.
"Does he want me to throw a bottle at his head?" I thought, in a fury.
In my novel surroundings I was unnaturally ready to be irritated.
"In the N--- office," I answered jerkily, with my eyes on my plate.
"And ha-ave you a go-od berth? I say, what ma-a-de you leave your original job?"
"What ma-a-de me was that I wanted to leave my original job," I drawled more than he, hardly able to control myself. Ferfitchkin went off into a guffaw. Simonov looked at me ironically. Trudolyubov left off eating and began looking at me with curiosity.
Zverkov winced, but he tried not to notice it.
"And the remuneration?"
"I mean, your sa-a-lary?"
"Why are you cross-examining me?" However, I told him at once what my salary was. I turned horribly red.
"It is not very handsome," Zverkov observed majestically.
"Yes, you can't afford to dine at cafes on that," Ferfitchkin added insolently.
"To my thinking it's very poor," Trudolyubov observed gravely.
"And how thin you have grown! How you have changed!" added Zverkov, with a shade of venom in his voice, scanning me and my attire with a sort of insolent compassion.
"Oh, spare his blushes," cried Ferfitchkin, sniggering.
"My dear sir, allow me to tell you I am not blushing," I broke out at last; "do you hear? I am dining here, at this cafe, at my own expense, not at other people's--note that, Mr. Ferfitchkin."
"Wha-at? Isn't every one here dining at his own expense? You would seem to be ..." Ferfitchkin flew out at me, turning as red as a lobster, and looking me in the face with fury. "Tha-at," I answered, feeling I had gone too far, "and I imagine it would be better to talk of something more intelligent."
"You intend to show off your intelligence, I suppose?"
"Don't disturb yourself, that would be quite out of place here."
"Why are you clacking away like that, my good sir, eh? Have you gone out of your wits in your office?"
"Enough, gentlemen, enough!" Zverkov cried, authoritatively.
"How stupid it is!" muttered Simonov.
"It really is stupid. We have met here, a company of friends, for a farewell dinner to a comrade and you carry on an altercation," said Trudolyubov, rudely addressing himself to me alone. "You invited yourself to join us, so don't disturb the general harmony."
"Enough, enough!" cried Zverkov. "Give over, gentlemen, it's out of place. Better let me tell you how I nearly got married the day before yesterday ...."
And then followed a burlesque narrative of how this gentleman had almost been married two days before. There was not a word about the marriage, however, but the story was adorned with generals, colonels and kammer-junkers, while Zverkov almost took the lead among them. It was greeted with approving laughter; Ferfitchkin positively squealed.
No one paid any attention to me, and I sat crushed and humiliated.
"Good Heavens, these are not the people for me!" I thought. "And what a fool I have made of myself before them! I let Ferfitchkin go too far, though. The brutes imagine they are doing me an honour in letting me sit down with them. They don't understand that it's an honour to them and not to me! I've grown thinner! My clothes! Oh, damn my trousers! Zverkov noticed the yellow stain on the knee as soon as he came in .... But what's the use! I must get up at once, this very minute, take my hat and simply go without a word ... with contempt! And tomorrow I can send a challenge. The scoundrels! As though I cared about the seven roubles. They may think .... Damn it! I don't care about the seven roubles. I'll go this minute!"
Of course I remained. I drank sherry and Lafitte by the glassful in my discomfiture. Being unaccustomed to it, I was quickly affected. My annoyance increased as the wine went to my head. I longed all at once to insult them all in a most flagrant manner and then go away. To seize the moment and show what I could do, so that they would say, "He's clever, though he is absurd," and ... and ... in fact, damn them all!
I scanned them all insolently with my drowsy eyes. But they seemed to have forgotten me altogether. They were noisy, vociferous, cheerful.
Zverkov was talking all the time. I began listening. Zverkov was talking of some exuberant lady whom he had at last led on to declaring her love (of course, he was lying like a horse), and how he had been helped in this affair by an intimate friend of his, a Prince Kolya, an officer in the hussars, who had three thousand serfs.
"And yet this Kolya, who has three thousand serfs, has not put in an appearance here tonight to see you off," I cut in suddenly.
For one minute every one was silent. "You are drunk already." Trudolyubov deigned to notice me at last, glancing contemptuously in my direction. Zverkov, without a word, examined me as though I were an insect. I dropped my eyes. Simonov made haste to fill up the glasses with champagne.
Trudolyubov raised his glass, as did everyone else but me.
"Your health and good luck on the journey!" he cried to Zverkov. "To old times, to our future, hurrah!"
They all tossed off their glasses, and crowded round Zverkov to kiss him. I did not move; my full glass stood untouched before me.
"Why, aren't you going to drink it?" roared Trudolyubov, losing patience and turning menacingly to me.
"I want to make a speech separately, on my own account ... and then I'll drink it, Mr. Trudolyubov."
"Spiteful brute!" muttered Simonov. I drew myself up in my chair and feverishly seized my glass, prepared for something extraordinary, though I did not know myself precisely what I was going to say.
"SILENCE!" cried Ferfitchkin. "Now for a display of wit!"
Zverkov waited very gravely, knowing what was coming.
"Mr. Lieutenant Zverkov," I began, "let me tell you that I hate phrases, phrasemongers and men in corsets ... that's the first point, and there is a second one to follow it."
There was a general stir.
"The second point is: I hate ribaldry and ribald talkers. Especially ribald talkers! The third point: I love justice, truth and honesty." I went on almost mechanically, for I was beginning to shiver with horror myself and had no idea how I came to be talking like this. "I love thought, Monsieur Zverkov; I love true comradeship, on an equal footing and not ... H'm ... I love ... But, however, why not? I will drink your health, too, Mr. Zverkov. Seduce the Circassian girls, shoot the enemies of the fatherland and ... and ... to your health, Monsieur Zverkov!"
Zverkov got up from his seat, bowed to me and said:
"I am very much obliged to you." He was frightfully offended and turned pale.
"Damn the fellow!" roared Trudolyubov, bringing his fist down on the table.
"Well, he wants a punch in the face for that," squealed Ferfitchkin.
"We ought to turn him out," muttered Simonov.
"Not a word, gentlemen, not a movement!" cried Zverkov solemnly, checking the general indignation. "I thank you all, but I can show him for myself how much value I attach to his words."
"Mr. Ferfitchkin, you will give me satisfaction tomorrow for your words just now!" I said aloud, turning with dignity to Ferfitchkin.
"A duel, you mean? Certainly," he answered. But probably I was so ridiculous as I challenged him and it was so out of keeping with my appearance that everyone including Ferfitchkin was prostrate with laughter.
"Yes, let him alone, of course! He is quite drunk," Trudolyubov said with disgust.
"I shall never forgive myself for letting him join us," Simonov muttered again.
"Now is the time to throw a bottle at their heads," I thought to myself. I picked up the bottle ... and filled my glass .... "No, I'd better sit on to the end," I went on thinking; "you would be pleased, my friends, if I went away. Nothing will induce me to go. I'll go on sitting here and drinking to the end, on purpose, as a sign that I don't think you of the slightest consequence. I will go on sitting and drinking, because this is a public-house and I paid my entrance money. I'll sit here and drink, for I look upon you as so many pawns, as inanimate pawns. I'll sit here and drink ... and sing if I want to, yes, sing, for I have the right to ... to sing ... H'm!"
But I did not sing. I simply tried not to look at any of them. I assumed most unconcerned attitudes and waited with impatience for them to speak FIRST. But alas, they did not address me! And oh, how I wished, how I wished at that moment to be reconciled to them! It struck eight, at last nine. They moved from the table to the sofa. Zverkov stretched himself on a lounge and put one foot on a round table. Wine was brought there.
He did, as a fact, order three bottles on his own account. I, of course, was not invited to join them. They all sat round him on the sofa. They listened to him, almost with reverence. It was evident that they were fond of him. "What for? What for?" I wondered. From time to time they were moved to drunken enthusiasm and kissed each other. They talked of the Caucasus, of the nature of true passion, of snug berths in the service, of the income of an hussar called Podharzhevsky, whom none of them knew personally, and rejoiced in the largeness of it, of the extraordinary grace and beauty of a Princess D., whom none of them had ever seen; then it came to Shakespeare's being immortal.
I smiled contemptuously and walked up and down the other side of the room, opposite the sofa, from the table to the stove and back again. I tried my very utmost to show them that I could do without them, and yet I purposely made a noise with my boots, thumping with my heels. But it was all in vain. They paid no attention. I had the patience to walk up and down in front of them from eight o'clock till eleven, in the same place, from the table to the stove and back again. "I walk up and down to please myself and no one can prevent me." The waiter who came into the room stopped, from time to time, to look at me. I was somewhat giddy from turning round so often; at moments it seemed to me that I was in delirium. During those three hours I was three times soaked with sweat and dry again. At times, with an intense, acute pang I was stabbed to the heart by the thought that ten years, twenty years, forty years would pass, and that even in forty years I would remember with loathing and humiliation those filthiest, most ludicrous, and most awful moments of my life.
No one could have gone out of his way to degrade himself more shamelessly, and I fully realised it, fully, and yet I went on pacing up and down from the table to the stove. "Oh, if you only knew what thoughts and feelings I am capable of, how cultured I am!" I thought at moments, mentally addressing the sofa on which my enemies were sitting. But my enemies behaved as though I were not in the room. Once--only once-- they turned towards me, just when Zverkov was talking about Shakespeare, and I suddenly gave a contemptuous laugh. I laughed in such an affected and disgusting way that they all at once broke off their conversation, and silently and gravely for two minutes watched me walking up and down from the table to the stove, TAKING NO NOTICE OF THEM. But nothing came of it: they said nothing, and two minutes later they ceased to notice me again. It struck eleven.
"Friends," cried Zverkov getting up from the sofa, "let us all be off now, THERE!"
"Of course, of course," the others assented. I turned sharply to Zverkov. I was so harassed, so exhausted, that I would have cut my throat to put an end to it. I was in a fever; my hair, soaked with perspiration, stuck to my forehead and temples.
"Zverkov, I beg your pardon," I said abruptly and resolutely. "Ferfitchkin, yours too, and everyone's, everyone's: I have insulted you all!"
"Aha! A duel is not in your line, old man," Ferfitchkin hissed venomously.
It sent a sharp pang to my heart.
"No, it's not the duel I am afraid of, Ferfitchkin! I am ready to fight you tomorrow, after we are reconciled. I insist upon it, in fact, and you cannot refuse. I want to show you that I am not afraid of a duel. You shall fire first and I shall fire into the air."
"He is comforting himself," said Simonov.
"He's simply raving," said Trudolyubov.
"But let us pass. Why are you barring our way? What do you want?" Zverkov answered disdainfully. They were all flushed, their eyes were bright: they had been drinking heavily.
"I ask for your friendship, Zverkov; I insulted you, but ..."
"Insulted? YOU insulted ME? Understand, sir, that you never, under any circumstances, could possibly insult ME."
"And that's enough for you. Out of the way!" concluded Trudolyubov.
"Olympia is mine, friends, that's agreed!" cried Zverkov.
"We won't dispute your right, we won't dispute your right," the others answered, laughing.
I stood as though spat upon. The party went noisily out of the room.
Trudolyubov struck up some stupid song. Simonov remained behind for a moment to tip the waiters. I suddenly went up to him.
"Simonov! give me six roubles!" I said, with desperate resolution.
He looked at me in extreme amazement, with vacant eyes. He, too, was drunk.
"You don't mean you are coming with us?"
"I've no money," he snapped out, and with a scornful laugh he went out of the room.
I clutched at his overcoat. It was a nightmare.
"Simonov, I saw you had money. Why do you refuse me? Am I a scoundrel? Beware of refusing me: if you knew, if you knew why I am asking! My whole future, my whole plans depend upon it!"
Simonov pulled out the money and almost flung it at me.
"Take it, if you have no sense of shame!" he pronounced pitilessly, and ran to overtake them.
I was left for a moment alone. Disorder, the remains of dinner, a broken wine-glass on the floor, spilt wine, cigarette ends, fumes of drink and delirium in my brain, an agonising misery in my heart and finally the waiter, who had seen and heard all and was looking inquisitively into my face.
"I am going there!" I cried. "Either they shall all go down on their knees to beg for my friendship, or I will give Zverkov a slap in the face!"
"So this is it, this is it at last--contact with real life," I muttered as I ran headlong downstairs. "This is very different from the Pope's leaving Rome and going to Brazil, very different from the ball on Lake Como!"
"You are a scoundrel," a thought flashed through my mind, "if you laugh at this now."
"No matter!" I cried, answering myself. "Now everything is lost!"
There was no trace to be seen of them, but that made no difference--I knew where they had gone.
At the steps was standing a solitary night sledge-driver in a rough peasant coat, powdered over with the still falling, wet, and as it were warm, snow. It was hot and steamy. The little shaggy piebald horse was also covered with snow and coughing, I remember that very well. I made a rush for the roughly made sledge; but as soon as I raised my foot to get into it, the recollection of how Simonov had just given me six roubles seemed to double me up and I tumbled into the sledge like a sack.
"No, I must do a great deal to make up for all that," I cried. "But I will make up for it or perish on the spot this very night. Start!"
We set off. There was a perfect whirl in my head.
"They won't go down on their knees to beg for my friendship. That is a mirage, cheap mirage, revolting, romantic and fantastical--that's another ball on Lake Como. And so I am bound to slap Zverkov's face! It is my duty to. And so it is settled; I am flying to give him a slap in the face.
The driver tugged at the reins.
"As soon as I go in I'll give it him. Ought I before giving him the slap to say a few words by way of preface? No. I'll simply go in and give it him. They will all be sitting in the drawing-room, and he with Olympia on the sofa. That damned Olympia! She laughed at my looks on one occasion and refused me. I'll pull Olympia's hair, pull Zverkov's ears! No, better one ear, and pull him by it round the room. Maybe they will all begin beating me and will kick me out. That's most likely, indeed. No matter! Anyway, I shall first slap him; the initiative will be mine; and by the laws of honour that is everything: he will be branded and cannot wipe off the slap by any blows, by nothing but a duel. He will be forced to fight. And let them beat me now. Let them, the ungrateful wretches! Trudolyubov will beat me hardest, he is so strong; Ferfitchkin will be sure to catch hold sideways and tug at my hair. But no matter, no matter! That's what I am going for. The blockheads will be forced at last to see the tragedy of it all! When they drag me to the door I shall call out to them that in reality they are not worth my little finger. Get on, driver, get on!" I cried to the driver.
He started and flicked his whip, I shouted so savagely.
"We shall fight at daybreak, that's a settled thing. I've done with the office. Ferfitchkin made a joke about it just now. But where can I get pistols? Nonsense! I'll get my salary in advance and buy them. And powder, and bullets? That's the second's business. And how can it all be done by daybreak? and where am I to get a second? I have no friends.
Nonsense!" I cried, lashing myself up more and more. "It's of no consequence! The first person I meet in the street is bound to be my second, just as he would be bound to pull a drowning man out of water. The most eccentric things may happen. Even if I were to ask the director himself to be my second tomorrow, he would be bound to consent, if only from a feeling of chivalry, and to keep the secret! Anton Antonitch ...."
The fact is, that at that very minute the disgusting absurdity of my plan and the other side of the question was clearer and more vivid to my imagination than it could be to anyone on earth. But ....
"Get on, driver, get on, you rascal, get on!"
"Ugh, sir!" said the son of toil.
Cold shivers suddenly ran down me. Wouldn't it be better ... to go straight home? My God, my God! Why did I invite myself to this dinner yesterday? But no, it's impossible. And my walking up and down for three hours from the table to the stove? No, they, they and no one else must pay for my walking up and down! They must wipe out this dishonour! Drive on!
And what if they give me into custody? They won't dare! They'll be afraid of the scandal. And what if Zverkov is so contemptuous that he refuses to fight a duel? He is sure to; but in that case I'll show them ... I will turn up at the posting station when he's setting off tomorrow, I'll catch him by the leg, I'll pull off his coat when he gets into the carriage.
I'll get my teeth into his hand, I'll bite him. "See what lengths you can drive a desperate man to!" He may hit me on the head and they may belabour me from behind. I will shout to the assembled multitude: "Look at this young puppy who is driving off to captivate the Circassian girls after letting me spit in his face!"
Of course, after that everything will be over! The office will have vanished off the face of the earth. I shall be arrested, I shall be tried, I shall be dismissed from the service, thrown in prison, sent to Siberia.
Never mind! In fifteen years when they let me out of prison I will trudge off to him, a beggar, in rags. I shall find him in some provincial town. He will be married and happy. He will have a grown-up daughter .... I shall say to him: "Look, monster, at my hollow cheeks and my rags! I've lost everything--my career, my happiness, art, science, THE WOMAN I LOVED, and all through you. Here are pistols. I have come to discharge my pistol and ... and I ... forgive you. Then I shall fire into the air and he will hear nothing more of me ...."
I was actually on the point of tears, though I knew perfectly well at that moment that all this was out of Pushkin's SILVIO and Lermontov's MASQUERADE. And all at once I felt horribly ashamed, so ashamed that I stopped the horse, got out of the sledge, and stood still in the snow in the middle of the street. The driver gazed at me, sighing and astonished.
What was I to do? I could not go on there--it was evidently stupid, and I could not leave things as they were, because that would seem as though ... Heavens, how could I leave things! And after such insults! "No!" I cried, throwing myself into the sledge again. "It is ordained! It is fate! Drive on, drive on!"
And in my impatience I punched the sledge-driver on the back of the neck.
"What are you up to? What are you hitting me for?" the peasant shouted, but he whipped up his nag so that it began kicking.
The wet snow was falling in big flakes; I unbuttoned myself, regardless of it. I forgot everything else, for I had finally decided on the slap, and felt with horror that it was going to happen NOW, AT ONCE, and that NO FORCE COULD STOP IT. The deserted street lamps gleamed sullenly in the snowy darkness like torches at a funeral. The snow drifted under my great-coat, under my coat, under my cravat, and melted there. I did not wrap myself up--all was lost, anyway.
At last we arrived. I jumped out, almost unconscious, ran up the steps and began knocking and kicking at the door. I felt fearfully weak, particularly in my legs and knees. The door was opened quickly as though they knew I was coming. As a fact, Simonov had warned them that perhaps another gentleman would arrive, and this was a place in which one had to give notice and to observe certain precautions. It was one of those "millinery establishments" which were abolished by the police a good time ago. By day it really was a shop; but at night, if one had an introduction, one might visit it for other purposes.
I walked rapidly through the dark shop into the familiar drawing- room, where there was only one candle burning, and stood still in amazement: there was no one there. "Where are they?" I asked somebody.
But by now, of course, they had separated. Before me was standing a person with a stupid smile, the "madam" herself, who had seen me before. A minute later a door opened and another person came in.
Taking no notice of anything I strode about the room, and, I believe, I talked to myself. I felt as though I had been saved from death and was conscious of this, joyfully, all over: I should have given that slap, I should certainly, certainly have given it! But now they were not here and ... everything had vanished and changed! I looked round. I could not realise my condition yet. I looked mechanically at the girl who had come in: and had a glimpse of a fresh, young, rather pale face, with straight, dark eyebrows, and with grave, as it were wondering, eyes that attracted me at once; I should have hated her if she had been smiling. I began looking at her more intently and, as it were, with effort. I had not fully collected my thoughts. There was something simple and good-natured in her face, but something strangely grave. I am sure that this stood in her way here, and no one of those fools had noticed her. She could not, however, have been called a beauty, though she was tall, strong-looking, and well built. She was very simply dressed. Something loathsome stirred within me. I went straight up to her.
I chanced to look into the glass. My harassed face struck me as revolting in the extreme, pale, angry, abject, with dishevelled hair. "No matter, I am glad of it," I thought; "I am glad that I shall seem repulsive to her; I like that."
... Somewhere behind a screen a clock began wheezing, as though oppressed by something, as though someone were strangling it. After an unnaturally prolonged wheezing there followed a shrill, nasty, and as it were unexpectedly rapid, chime--as though someone were suddenly jumping forward. It struck two. I woke up, though I had indeed not been asleep but lying half-conscious.
It was almost completely dark in the narrow, cramped, low-pitched room, cumbered up with an enormous wardrobe and piles of cardboard boxes and all sorts of frippery and litter. The candle end that had been burning on the table was going out and gave a faint flicker from time to time. In a few minutes there would be complete darkness.
I was not long in coming to myself; everything came back to my mind at once, without an effort, as though it had been in ambush to pounce upon me again. And, indeed, even while I was unconscious a point seemed continually to remain in my memory unforgotten, and round it my dreams moved drearily. But strange to say, everything that had happened to me in that day seemed to me now, on waking, to be in the far, far away past, as though I had long, long ago lived all that down.
My head was full of fumes. Something seemed to be hovering over me, rousing me, exciting me, and making me restless. Misery and spite seemed surging up in me again and seeking an outlet. Suddenly I saw beside me two wide open eyes scrutinising me curiously and persistently.
The look in those eyes was coldly detached, sullen, as it were utterly remote; it weighed upon me.
A grim idea came into my brain and passed all over my body, as a horrible sensation, such as one feels when one goes into a damp and mouldy cellar. There was something unnatural in those two eyes, beginning to look at me only now. I recalled, too, that during those two hours I had not said a single word to this creature, and had, in fact, considered it utterly superfluous; in fact, the silence had for some reason gratified me. Now I suddenly realised vividly the hideous idea-- revolting as a spider--of vice, which, without love, grossly and shamelessly begins with that in which true love finds its consummation. For a long time we gazed at each other like that, but she did not drop her eyes before mine and her expression did not change, so that at last I felt uncomfortable.
"What is your name?" I asked abruptly, to put an end to it.
"Liza," she answered almost in a whisper, but somehow far from graciously, and she turned her eyes away.
I was silent.
"What weather! The snow ... it's disgusting!" I said, almost to myself, putting my arm under my head despondently, and gazing at the ceiling.
She made no answer. This was horrible.
"Have you always lived in Petersburg?" I asked a minute later, almost angrily, turning my head slightly towards her.
"Where do you come from?"
"From Riga," she answered reluctantly.
"Are you a German?"
"Have you been here long?"
"In this house?"
She spoke more and more jerkily. The candle went out; I could no longer distinguish her face.
"Have you a father and mother?"
"Yes ... no ... I have."
"Where are they?"
"There ... in Riga."
"What are they?"
"Nothing? Why, what class are they?"
"Have you always lived with them?"
"How old are you?"
"Twenty." "Why did you leave them?"
"Oh, for no reason."
That answer meant "Let me alone; I feel sick, sad."
We were silent.
God knows why I did not go away. I felt myself more and more sick and dreary. The images of the previous day began of themselves, apart from my will, flitting through my memory in confusion. I suddenly recalled something I had seen that morning when, full of anxious thoughts, I was hurrying to the office.
"I saw them carrying a coffin out yesterday and they nearly dropped it," I suddenly said aloud, not that I desired to open the conversation, but as it were by accident.
"Yes, in the Haymarket; they were bringing it up out of a cellar."
"From a cellar?"
"Not from a cellar, but a basement. Oh, you know ... down below ... from a house of ill-fame. It was filthy all round ... Egg-shells, litter ... a stench. It was loathsome."
"A nasty day to be buried," I began, simply to avoid being silent.
"Nasty, in what way?"
"The snow, the wet." (I yawned.)
"It makes no difference," she said suddenly, after a brief silence.
"No, it's horrid." (I yawned again). "The gravediggers must have sworn at getting drenched by the snow. And there must have been water in the grave."
"Why water in the grave?" she asked, with a sort of curiosity, but speaking even more harshly and abruptly than before.
I suddenly began to feel provoked.
"Why, there must have been water at the bottom a foot deep. You can't dig a dry grave in Volkovo Cemetery."
"Why? Why, the place is waterlogged. It's a regular marsh. So they bury them in water. I've seen it myself ... many times."
(I had never seen it once, indeed I had never been in Volkovo, and had only heard stories of it.)
"Do you mean to say, you don't mind how you die?"
"But why should I die?" she answered, as though defending herself.
"Why, some day you will die, and you will die just the same as that dead woman. She was ... a girl like you. She died of consumption."
"A wench would have died in hospital ..." (She knows all about it already: she said "wench," not "girl.")
"She was in debt to her madam," I retorted, more and more provoked by the discussion; "and went on earning money for her up to the end, though she was in consumption. Some sledge-drivers standing by were talking about her to some soldiers and telling them so. No doubt they knew her. They were laughing. They were going to meet in a pot-house to drink to her memory."
A great deal of this was my invention. Silence followed, profound silence. She did not stir.
"And is it better to die in a hospital?"
"Isn't it just the same? Besides, why should I die?" she added irritably.
"If not now, a little later."
"Why a little later?"
"Why, indeed? Now you are young, pretty, fresh, you fetch a high price. But after another year of this life you will be very different--you will go off."
"In a year?"
"Anyway, in a year you will be worth less," I continued malignantly.
"You will go from here to something lower, another house; a year later-- to a third, lower and lower, and in seven years you will come to a basement in the Haymarket. That will be if you were lucky. But it would be much worse if you got some disease, consumption, say ... and caught a chill, or something or other. It's not easy to get over an illness in your way of life. If you catch anything you may not get rid of it. And so you would die."
"Oh, well, then I shall die," she answered, quite vindictively, and she made a quick movement.
"But one is sorry."
"Sorry for whom?"
"Sorry for life." Silence.
"Have you been engaged to be married? Eh?"
"What's that to you?"
"Oh, I am not cross-examining you. It's nothing to me. Why are you so cross? Of course you may have had your own troubles. What is it to me? It's simply that I felt sorry."
"Sorry for whom?"
"Sorry for you."
"No need," she whispered hardly audibly, and again made a faint movement.
That incensed me at once. What! I was so gentle with her, and she ....
"Why, do you think that you are on the right path?"
"I don't think anything."
"That's what's wrong, that you don't think. Realise it while there is still time. There still is time. You are still young, good-looking; you might love, be married, be happy ...."
"Not all married women are happy," she snapped out in the rude abrupt tone she had used at first.
"Not all, of course, but anyway it is much better than the life here.
Infinitely better. Besides, with love one can live even without happiness.
Even in sorrow life is sweet; life is sweet, however one lives. But here what is there but ... foulness? Phew!"
I turned away with disgust; I was no longer reasoning coldly. I began to feel myself what I was saying and warmed to the subject. I was already longing to expound the cherished ideas I had brooded over in my corner.
Something suddenly flared up in me. An object had appeared before me.
"Never mind my being here, I am not an example for you. I am, perhaps, worse than you are. I was drunk when I came here, though," I hastened, however, to say in self-defence. "Besides, a man is no example for a woman. It's a different thing. I may degrade and defile myself, but I am not anyone's slave. I come and go, and that's an end of it. I shake it off, and I am a different man. But you are a slave from the start. Yes, a slave! You give up everything, your whole freedom. If you want to break your chains afterwards, you won't be able to; you will be more and more fast in the snares. It is an accursed bondage. I know it. I won't speak of anything else, maybe you won't understand, but tell me: no doubt you are in debt to your madam? There, you see," I added, though she made no answer, but only listened in silence, entirely absorbed, "that's a bondage for you! You will never buy your freedom. They will see to that. It's like selling your soul to the devil .... And besides ... perhaps, I too, am just as unlucky--how do you know--and wallow in the mud on purpose, out of misery? You know, men take to drink from grief; well, maybe I am here from grief. Come, tell me, what is there good here? Here you and I ... came together ... just now and did not say one word to one another all the time, and it was only afterwards you began staring at me like a wild creature, and I at you. Is that loving? Is that how one human being should meet another? It's hideous, that's what it is!"
"Yes!" she assented sharply and hurriedly.
I was positively astounded by the promptitude of this "Yes." So the same thought may have been straying through her mind when she was staring at me just before. So she, too, was capable of certain thoughts? "Damn it all, this was interesting, this was a point of likeness!" I thought, almost rubbing my hands. And indeed it's easy to turn a young soul like that!
It was the exercise of my power that attracted me most.
She turned her head nearer to me, and it seemed to me in the darkness that she propped herself on her arm. Perhaps she was scrutinising me.
How I regretted that I could not see her eyes. I heard her deep breathing.
"Why have you come here?" I asked her, with a note of authority already in my voice.
"Oh, I don't know."
"But how nice it would be to be living in your father's house! It's warm and free; you have a home of your own."
"But what if it's worse than this?"
"I must take the right tone," flashed through my mind. "I may not get far with sentimentality." But it was only a momentary thought. I swear she really did interest me. Besides, I was exhausted and moody. And cunning so easily goes hand-in-hand with feeling.
"Who denies it!" I hastened to answer. "Anything may happen. I am convinced that someone has wronged you, and that you are more sinned against than sinning. Of course, I know nothing of your story, but it's not likely a girl like you has come here of her own inclination ...."
"A girl like me?" she whispered, hardly audibly; but I heard it.
Damn it all, I was flattering her. That was horrid. But perhaps it was a good thing .... She was silent.
"See, Liza, I will tell you about myself. If I had had a home from childhood, I shouldn't be what I am now. I often think that. However bad it may be at home, anyway they are your father and mother, and not enemies, strangers. Once a year at least, they'll show their love of you.
Anyway, you know you are at home. I grew up without a home; and perhaps that's why I've turned so ... unfeeling."
I waited again. "Perhaps she doesn't understand," I thought, "and, indeed, it is absurd--it's moralising."
"If I were a father and had a daughter, I believe I should love my daughter more than my sons, really," I began indirectly, as though talking of something else, to distract her attention. I must confess I blushed.
"Why so?" she asked.
Ah! so she was listening!
"I don't know, Liza. I knew a father who was a stern, austere man, but used to go down on his knees to his daughter, used to kiss her hands, her feet, he couldn't make enough of her, really. When she danced at parties he used to stand for five hours at a stretch, gazing at her. He was mad over her: I understand that! She would fall asleep tired at night, and he would wake to kiss her in her sleep and make the sign of the cross over her. He would go about in a dirty old coat, he was stingy to everyone else, but would spend his last penny for her, giving her expensive presents, and it was his greatest delight when she was pleased with what he gave her.
Fathers always love their daughters more than the mothers do. Some girls live happily at home! And I believe I should never let my daughters marry."
"What next?" she said, with a faint smile.
"I should be jealous, I really should. To think that she should kiss anyone else! That she should love a stranger more than her father! It's painful to imagine it. Of course, that's all nonsense, of course every father would be reasonable at last. But I believe before I should let her marry, I should worry myself to death; I should find fault with all her suitors. But I should end by letting her marry whom she herself loved.
The one whom the daughter loves always seems the worst to the father, you know. That is always so. So many family troubles come from that."
"Some are glad to sell their daughters, rather than marrying them honourably."
Ah, so that was it!
"Such a thing, Liza, happens in those accursed families in which there is neither love nor God," I retorted warmly, "and where there is no love, there is no sense either. There are such families, it's true, but I am not speaking of them. You must have seen wickedness in your own family, if you talk like that. Truly, you must have been unlucky. H'm! ... that sort of thing mostly comes about through poverty."
"And is it any better with the gentry? Even among the poor, honest people who live happily?"
"H'm ... yes. Perhaps. Another thing, Liza, man is fond of reckoning up his troubles, but does not count his joys. If he counted them up as he ought, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it.
And what if all goes well with the family, if the blessing of God is upon it, if the husband is a good one, loves you, cherishes you, never leaves you! There is happiness in such a family! Even sometimes there is happiness in the midst of sorrow; and indeed sorrow is everywhere. If you marry YOU WILL FIND OUT FOR YOURSELF. But think of the first years of married life with one you love: what happiness, what happiness there sometimes is in it! And indeed it's the ordinary thing. In those early days even quarrels with one's husband end happily. Some women get up quarrels with their husbands just because they love them. Indeed, I knew a woman like that: she seemed to say that because she loved him, she would torment him and make him feel it. You know that you may torment a man on purpose through love. Women are particularly given to that, thinking to themselves 'I will love him so, I will make so much of him afterwards, that it's no sin to torment him a little now.' And all in the house rejoice in the sight of you, and you are happy and gay and peaceful and honourable .... Then there are some women who are jealous. If he went off anywhere--I knew one such woman, she couldn't restrain herself, but would jump up at night and run off on the sly to find out where he was, whether he was with some other woman. That's a pity. And the woman knows herself it's wrong, and her heart fails her and she suffers, but she loves--it's all through love. And how sweet it is to make up after quarrels, to own herself in the wrong or to forgive him! And they both are so happy all at once--as though they had met anew, been married over again; as though their love had begun afresh. And no one, no one should know what passes between husband and wife if they love one another. And whatever quarrels there may be between them they ought not to call in their own mother to judge between them and tell tales of one another.
They are their own judges. Love is a holy mystery and ought to be hidden from all other eyes, whatever happens. That makes it holier and better.
They respect one another more, and much is built on respect. And if once there has been love, if they have been married for love, why should love pass away? Surely one can keep it! It is rare that one cannot keep it.
And if the husband is kind and straightforward, why should not love last? The first phase of married love will pass, it is true, but then there will come a love that is better still. Then there will be the union of souls, they will have everything in common, there will be no secrets between them.
And once they have children, the most difficult times will seem to them happy, so long as there is love and courage. Even toil will be a joy, you may deny yourself bread for your children and even that will be a joy, They will love you for it afterwards; so you are laying by for your future.
As the children grow up you feel that you are an example, a support for them; that even after you die your children will always keep your thoughts and feelings, because they have received them from you, they will take on your semblance and likeness. So you see this is a great duty.
How can it fail to draw the father and mother nearer? People say it's a trial to have children. Who says that? It is heavenly happiness! Are you fond of little children, Liza? I am awfully fond of them. You know--a little rosy baby boy at your bosom, and what husband's heart is not touched, seeing his wife nursing his child! A plump little rosy baby, sprawling and snuggling, chubby little hands and feet, clean tiny little nails, so tiny that it makes one laugh to look at them; eyes that look as if they understand everything. And while it sucks it clutches at your bosom with its little hand, plays. When its father comes up, the child tears itself away from the bosom, flings itself back, looks at its father, laughs, as though it were fearfully funny, and falls to sucking again. Or it will bite its mother's breast when its little teeth are coming, while it looks sideways at her with its little eyes as though to say, 'Look, I am biting!' Is not all that happiness when they are the three together, husband, wife and child? One can forgive a great deal for the sake of such moments. Yes, Liza, one must first learn to live oneself before one blames others!"
"It's by pictures, pictures like that one must get at you," I thought to myself, though I did speak with real feeling, and all at once I flushed crimson. "What if she were suddenly to burst out laughing, what should I do then?" That idea drove me to fury. Towards the end of my speech I really was excited, and now my vanity was somehow wounded. The silence continued. I almost nudged her.
"Why are you--" she began and stopped. But I understood: there was a quiver of something different in her voice, not abrupt, harsh and unyielding as before, but something soft and shamefaced, so shamefaced that I suddenly felt ashamed and guilty.
"What?" I asked, with tender curiosity.
"Why, you ..."
"Why, you ... speak somehow like a book," she said, and again there was a note of irony in her voice.
That remark sent a pang to my heart. It was not what I was expecting.
I did not understand that she was hiding her feelings under irony, that this is usually the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded, and that their pride makes them refuse to surrender till the last moment and shrink from giving expression to their feelings before you. I ought to have guessed the truth from the timidity with which she had repeatedly approached her sarcasm, only bringing herself to utter it at last with an effort. But I did not guess, and an evil feeling took possession of me.
"Wait a bit!" I thought.