IT was a quiet summer morning. The sun stood already pretty high in the clear sky but the fields were still sparkling with dew; a fresh breeze blew fragrantly from the scarce awakened valleys and in the forest, still damp and hushed, the birds were merrily carolling their morning song. On the ridge of a swelling upland, which was covered from base to summit with blossoming rye, a little village was to be seen. Along a narrow by-road to this little village a young woman was walking in a white muslin gown, and a round straw hat, with a parasol in her hand. A page boy followed her some distance behind.
She moved without haste and as though she were enjoying the walk. The high nodding rye all round her moved in long softly rustling waves, taking here a shade of silvery green and there a ripple of red; the larks were trilling overhead. The young woman had come from her own estate, which was not more than a mile from the village to which she was turning her steps. Her name was Alexandra Pavlovna Lipin. She was a widow, childless, and fairly well off, and lived with her brother, a retired cavalry officer, Sergei Pavlitch Volintsev. He was unmarried and looked after her property.
Alexandra Pavlovna reached the village and, stopping at the last hut, a very old and low one, she called up the boy and told him to go in and ask after the health of its mistress. He quickly came back accompanied by a decrepit old peasant with a white beard.
‘Well, how is she?’ asked Alexandra Pavlovna.
‘Well, she is still alive,’ began the old man.
‘Can I go in?’
‘Of course; yes.’
Alexandra Pavlovna went into the hut. It was narrow, stifling, and smoky inside. Some one stirred and began to moan on the stove which formed the bed. Alexandra Pavlovna looked round and discerned in the half darkness the yellow wrinkled face of the old woman tied up in a checked handkerchief. Covered to the very throat with a heavy overcoat she was breathing with difficulty, and her wasted hands were twitching.
Alexandra Pavlovna went close up to the old woman and laid her fingers on her forehead; it was burning hot.
‘How do you feel, Matrona?’ she inquired, bending over the bed.
‘Oh, oh!’ groaned the old woman, trying to make her out, ‘bad, very bad, my dear! My last hour has come, my darling!’
‘God is merciful, Matrona; perhaps you will be better soon. Did you take the medicine I sent you?’
The old woman groaned painfully, and did not answer. She had hardly heard the question.
‘She has taken it,’ said the old man who was standing at the door.
Alexandra Pavlovna turned to him.
‘Is there no one with her but you?’ she inquired.
‘There is the girl—her granddaughter, but she always keeps away. She won’t sit with her; she’s such a gad-about. To give the old woman a drink of water is too much trouble for her. And I am old; what use can I be?’
‘Shouldn’t she be taken to me—to the hospital?’
‘No. Why take her to the hospital? She would die just the same. She has lived her life; it’s God’s will now seemingly. She will never get up again. How could she go to the hospital? If they tried to lift her up, she would die.’
‘Oh!’ moaned the sick woman, ‘my pretty lady, don’t abandon my little orphan; our master is far away, but you——’
She could not go on, she had spent all her strength in saying so much.
‘Do not worry yourself,’ replied Alexandra Pavlovna, ‘everything shall be done. Here is some tea and sugar I have brought you. If you can fancy it you must drink some. Have you a samovar, I wonder?’ she added, looking at the old man.
‘A samovar? We haven’t a samovar, but we could get one.’
‘Then get one, or I will send you one. And tell your granddaughter not to leave her like this. Tell her it’s shameful.’
The old man made no answer but took the parcel of tea and sugar with both hands.
‘Well, good-bye, Matrona!’ said Alexandra Pavlovna, ‘I will come and see you again; and you must not lose heart but take your medicine regularly.’
The old woman raised her head and drew herself a little towards Alexandra Pavlovna.
‘Give me your little hand, dear lady,’ she muttered.
Alexandra Pavlovna did not give her hand; she bent over her and kissed her on the forehead.
‘Take care, now,’ she said to the old man as she went out, ‘and give her the medicine without fail, as it is written down, and give her some tea to drink.’
Again the old man made no reply, but only bowed.
Alexandra Pavlovna breathed more freely when she came out into the fresh air. She put up her parasol and was about to start homewards, when suddenly there appeared round the corner of a little hut a man about thirty, driving a low racing droshky and wearing an old overcoat of grey linen, and a foraging cap of the same. Catching sight of Alexandra Pavlovna he at once stopped his horse and turned round towards her. His broad and colourless face with its small light grey eyes and almost white moustache seemed all in the same tone of colour as his clothes.
‘Good-morning!’ he began, with a lazy smile; ‘what are you doing here, if I may ask?’
‘I have been visiting a sick woman . . . And where have you come from, Mihailo Mihailitch?’
The man addressed as Mihailo Mihailitch looked into her eyes and smiled again.
‘You do well,’ he said, ‘to visit the sick, but wouldn’t it be better for you to take her into the hospital?’
‘She is too weak; impossible to move her.’
‘But don’t you intend to give up your hospital?’
‘Give it up? Why?’
‘Oh, I thought so.’
‘What a strange notion! What put such an idea into your head?’
‘Oh, you are always with Madame Lasunsky now, you know, and seem to be under her influence. And in her words—hospitals, schools, and all that sort of things, are mere waste of time—useless fads. Philanthropy ought to be entirely personal, and education too, all that is the soul’s work . . . that’s how she expresses herself, I believe. From whom did she pick up that opinion I should like to know?’
Alexandra Pavlovna laughed.
‘Darya Mihailovna is a clever woman, I like and esteem her very much; but she may make mistakes, and I don’t put faith in everything she says.’
‘And it’s a very good thing you don’t,’ rejoined Mihailo Mihailitch, who all the while remained sitting in his droshky, ‘for she doesn’t put much faith in what she says herself. I’m very glad I met you.’
‘That’s a nice question! As though it wasn’t always delightful to meet you? To-day you look as bright and fresh as this morning.’
Alexandra Pavlovna laughed again.
‘What are you laughing at?’
‘What, indeed! If you could see with what a cold and indifferent face you brought out your compliment! I wonder you didn’t yawn over the last word!’
‘A cold face. . . . You always want fire; but fire is of no use at all. It flares and smokes and goes out.’
‘And warms,’ . . . put in Alexandra Pavlovna.
‘Yes . . . and burns.’
‘Well, what if it does burn! That’s no great harm either! It’s better anyway than——’
‘Well, we shall see what you will say when you do get nicely burnt one day,’ Mihailo Mihailitch interrupted her in a tone of vexation and made a cut at the horse with the reins, ‘Good-bye.’
‘Mihailo Mihailitch, stop a minute!’ cried Alexandra Pavlovna, ‘when are you coming to see us?’
‘To-morrow; my greetings to your brother.’
And the droshky rolled away.
Alexandra Pavlovna looked after Mihailo Mihailitch.
‘What a sack!’ she thought. Sitting huddled up and covered with dust, his cap on the back of his head and tufts of flaxen hair straggling from beneath it, he looked strikingly like a huge sack of flour.
Alexandra Pavlovna turned tranquilly back along the path homewards. She was walking with downcast eyes. The tramp of a horse near made her stop and raise her head. . . . Her brother had come on horseback to meet her; beside him was walking a young man of medium height, wearing a light open coat, a light tie, and a light grey hat, and carrying a cane in his hand. He had been smiling for a long time at Alexandra Pavlovna, even though he saw that she was absorbed in thought and noticing nothing, and when she stopped he went up to her and in a tone of delight, almost of emotion, cried:
‘Good-morning, Alexandra Pavlovna, good-morning!’
‘Ah! Konstantin Diomiditch! good-morning!’ she replied. ‘You have come from Darya Mihailovna?’
‘Precisely so, precisely so,’ rejoined the young man with a radiant face, ‘from Darya Mihailovna. Darya Mihailovna sent me to you; I preferred to walk. . . . It’s such a glorious morning, and the distance is only three miles. When I arrived, you were not at home. Your brother told me you had gone to Semenovka; and he was just going out to the fields; so you see I walked with him to meet you. Yes, yes. How very delightful!’
The young man spoke Russian accurately and grammatically but with a foreign accent, though it was difficult to determine exactly what accent it was. In his features there was something Asiatic. His long hook nose, his large expressionless prominent eyes, his thick red lips, and retreating forehead, and his jet black hair,—everything about him suggested an Oriental extraction; but the young man gave his surname as Pandalevsky and spoke of Odessa as his birthplace, though he was brought up somewhere in White Russia at the expense of a rich and benevolent widow.
Another widow had obtained a government post for him. Middle-aged ladies were generally ready to befriend Konstantin Diomiditch; he knew well how to court them and was successful in coming across them. He was at this very time living with a rich lady, a landowner, Darya Mihailovna Lasunsky, in a position between that of a guest and of a dependant. He was very polite and obliging, full of sensibility and secretly given to sensuality, he had a pleasant voice, played well on the piano, and had the habit of gazing intently into the eyes of any one he was speaking to. He dressed very neatly, and wore his clothes a very long time, shaved his broad chin carefully, and arranged his hair curl by curl.
Alexandra Pavlovna heard his speech to the end and turned to her brother.
‘I keep meeting people to-day; I have just been talking to Lezhnyov.’
‘Oh, Lezhnyov! was he driving somewhere?’
‘Yes, and fancy; he was in a racing droshky, and dressed in a kind of linen sack, all covered with dust. . . . What a queer creature he is!’
‘Perhaps so; but he’s a capital fellow.’
‘Who? Mr. Lezhnyov?’ inquired Pandalevsky, as though he were surprised.
‘Yes, Mihailo Mihailitch Lezhnyov,’ replied Volintsev. ‘Well, good-bye; it’s time I was off to the field; they are sowing your buckwheat. Mr. Pandalevsky will escort you home.’ And Volintsev rode off at a trot.
‘With the greatest of pleasure!’ cried Konstantin Diomiditch, offering Alexandra Pavlovna his arm.
She took it and they both turned along the path to her house.
Walking with Alexandra Pavlovna on his arm seemed to afford Konstantin Diomiditch great delight; he moved with little steps, smiling, and his Oriental eyes were even be-dimmed by a slight moisture, though this indeed was no rare occurrence with them; it did not mean much for Konstantin Diomiditch to be moved and dissolve into tears. And who would not have been pleased to have on his arm a pretty, young and graceful woman? Of Alexandra Pavlovna the whole of her district was unanimous in declaring that she was charming, and the district was not wrong. Her straight, ever so slightly tilted nose would have been enough alone to drive any man out of his senses, to say nothing of her velvety dark eyes, her golden brown hair, the dimples in her smoothly curved cheeks, and her other beauties. But best of all was the sweet expression of her face; confiding, good and gentle, it touched and attracted at the same time. Alexandra Pavlovna had the glance and the smile of a child; other ladies found her a little simple. . . . Could one wish for anything more?
‘Darya Mihailovna sent you to me, did you say?’ she asked Pandalevsky.
‘Yes; she sent me,’ he answered, pronouncing the letter s like the English th. ‘She particularly wishes and told me to beg you very urgently to be so good as to dine with her to-day. She is expecting a new guest whom she particularly wishes you to meet’
‘Who is it?’
‘A certain Muffel, a baron, a gentleman of the bed-chamber from Petersburg. Darya Mihailovna made his acquaintance lately at the Prince Garin’s, and speaks of him in high terms as an agreeable and cultivated young man. His Excellency the baron is interested, too, in literature, or more strictly speaking——ah! what an exquisite butterfly! pray look at it!——more strictly speaking, in political economy. He has written an essay on some very interesting question, and wants to submit it to Darya Mihailovna’s criticism.’
‘An article on political economy?’
‘From the literary point of view, Alexandra Pavlovna, from the literary point of view. You are well aware, I suppose, that in that line Darya Mihailovna is an authority. Zhukovsky used to ask her advice, and my benefactor, who lives at Odessa, that benevolent old man, Roxolan Mediarovitch Ksandrika——No doubt you know the name of that eminent man?’
‘No; I have never heard of him.’
‘You never heard of such a man? surprising! I was going to say that Roxolan Mediarovitch always had the very highest opinion of Darya Mihailovna’s knowledge of Russian!
‘Is this baron a pedant then?’ asked Alexandra Pavlovna.
‘Not in the very least. Darya Mihailovna says, on the contrary, that you see that he belongs to the best society at once. He spoke of Beethoven with such eloquence that even the old prince was quite delighted by it. That, I own, I should like to have heard; you know that is in my line. Allow me to offer you this lovely wild-flower.’
Alexandra Pavlovna took the flower, and when she had walked a few steps farther, let it drop on the path. They were not more than two hundred paces from her house. It had been recently built and whitewashed, and looked out hospitably with its wide light windows from the thick foliage of the old limes and maples.
‘So what message do you give me for Darya Mihailovna?’ began Pandalevsky, slightly hurt at the fate of the flower he had given her. ‘Will you come to dinner? She invites your brother too.’
‘Yes; we will come, most certainly. And how is Natasha?’
‘Natalya Alexyevna is well, I am glad to say. But we have already passed the road that turns off to Darya Mihailovna’s. Allow me to bid you good-bye.’
Alexandra Pavlovna stopped. ‘But won’t you come in?’ she said in a hesitating voice.
‘I should like to, indeed, but I am afraid it is late. Darya Mihailovna wishes to hear a new etude of Thalberg’s, so I must practise and have it ready. Besides, I am doubtful, I must confess, whether my visit could afford you any pleasure.’
‘Oh, no! why?’
Pandalevsky sighed and dropped his eyes expressively.
‘Good-bye, Alexandra Pavlovna!’ he said after a slight pause; then he bowed and turned back.
Alexandra Pavlovna turned round and went home.
Konstantin Diomiditch, too, walked homewards. All softness had vanished at once from his face; a self-confident, almost hard expression came into it. Even his walk was changed; his steps were longer and he trod more heavily. He had walked about two miles, carelessly swinging his cane, when all at once he began to smile again: he saw by the roadside a young, rather pretty peasant girl, who was driving some calves out of an oat-field. Konstantin Diomiditch approached the girl as warily as a cat, and began to speak to her. She said nothing at first, only blushed and laughed, but at last she hid her face in her sleeve, turned away, and muttered:
‘Go away, sir; upon my word . . .’
Konstantin Diomiditch shook his finger at her and told her to bring him some cornflowers.
‘What do you want with cornflowers?—to make a wreath?’ replied the girl; ‘come now, go along then.’
‘Stop a minute, my pretty little dear,’ Konstantin Diomiditch was beginning.
‘There now, go along,’ the girl interrupted him, ‘there are the young gentlemen coming.’
Konstantin Diomiditch looked round. There really were Vanya and Petya, Darya Mihailovna’s sons, running along the road; after them walked their tutor, Bassistoff, a young man of two-and-twenty, who had only just left college. Bassistoff was a well-grown youth, with a simple face, a large nose, thick lips, and small pig’s eyes, plain and awkward, but kind, good, and upright. He dressed untidily and wore his hair long—not from affectation, but from laziness; he liked eating and he liked sleeping, but he also liked a good book, and an earnest conversation, and he hated Pandalevsky from the depths of his soul.
Darya Mihailovna’s children worshipped Bassistoff, and yet were not in the least afraid of him; he was on a friendly footing with all the rest of the household, a fact which was not altogether pleasing to its mistress, though she was fond of declaring that for her social prejudices did not exist.
‘Good-morning, my dears,’ began Konstantin Diomiditch, ‘how early you have come for your walk to-day! But I,’ he added, turning to Bassistoff, ‘have been out a long while already; it’s my passion—to enjoy nature.’
‘We saw how you were enjoying nature,’ muttered Bassistoff.
‘You are a materialist, God knows what you are imagining! I know you.’ When Pandalevsky spoke to Bassistoff or people like him, he grew slightly irritated, and pronounced the letter s quite clearly, even with a slight hiss.
‘Why, were you asking your way of that girl, am I to suppose?’ said Bassistoff, shifting his eyes to right and to left.
He felt that Pandalevsky was looking him straight in the face, and this fact was exceedingly unpleasant to him. ‘I repeat, a materialist and nothing more.’
‘You certainly prefer to see only the prosaic side in everything.’
‘Boys!’ cried Bassistoff suddenly, ‘do you see that willow at the corner? let’s see who can get to it first. One! two! three! and away!’
The boys set off at full speed to the willow. Bassistoff rushed after them.
‘What a lout!’ thought Pandalevsky, ‘he is spoiling those boys. A perfect peasant!’
And looking with satisfaction at his own neat and elegant figure, Konstantin Diomiditch struck his coat-sleeve twice with his open hand, pulled up his collar, and went on his way. When he had reached his own room, he put on an old dressing-gown and sat down with an anxious face to the piano.