Boris Pavlovich Raisky had a vivacious, unusually mobile face.
At first sight he appeared younger than his years. The high, white
forehead gave an impression of freshness and vigour; the eyes
blazed one moment with intelligence, emotion or gaiety, a moment
later they wore a meditative, dreamy expression, then again they
looked young, even childlike. At other times they evidenced
knowledge of life, or looked so weary, so bored that they betrayed
their owner's age; at these times there appeared between them three
furrows, certain indications of time and knowledge of life. Smooth
black hair fell on his neck and half covered the ears, with here
and there silver threads about the temples. His complexion had kept
the tints of youth except on the temples and the chin, which were a
It was easy to guess from his physiognomy that the conflict
between youth and maturity was past, that he had passed the early
stages of life's journey and that sorrow and sickness had left
their marks on him. Only the mouth, with its delicate lines, with
the fresh, almost childlike smile remained unchanged by age.
He had been left an orphan in childhood, and for some time his
indifferent, bachelor guardian had left his education to a
relative, Boris's aunt.
This lady was endowed with a rich temperament, but her horizon
did not stretch far beyond her own home, where in the tranquil
atmosphere of woods and gardens, in the environment of the family
and the estate, Boris had passed several years. When he grew older
his guardian sent him to the High School, where the family
traditions of former wealth and of the connexion with other old
noble families faded.
His further development, occupations and inclinations led him
still further from the traditions of his childhood. Raisky had
lived for about ten years in St. Petersburg; that is to say he
rented three pleasant rooms from a German landlord, which he
retained, although after he had left the civil service he rarely
spent two successive half-years in the capital.
He had left the civil service as casually as he had entered it,
because, when he had had time to consider his position, he came to
the conclusion that the service is not an aim in itself, but merely
a means to bring together a number of men who would otherwise have
had no justification for their existence. If these men had not
existed, the posts which they filled need never have been
Now, he had already passed his thirtieth year, and had neither
sowed nor reaped. He did not follow the same path as the other
ordinary arrival from the interior of Russia, for he was neither an
officer nor an official, nor did he seek a career for himself by
hard work or by influence. He was inscribed in the registers of his
police district as a civil servant.
It would have been hard for the expert in physiognomy to
decipher Raisky's characteristics, inclinations and character from
his face because of its extraordinary mobility. Still less could
his mental physiognomy be defined. He had moments when, to use his
own expression, he embraced the whole world, so that many people
declared that there was no kinder, more amiable man in existence.
Others, on the contrary, who came across him at an unfortunate
moment, when the yellow patches on his face were most marked, when
his lips were drawn in a sinister, nervous quiver, and he returned
kindness and sympathy with cold looks and sharp words, were
repelled by him and even pursued him with their dislike. Some
called him egotistic and proud, while others declared themselves
enchanted with him; some again maintained that he was theatrical,
others that he was not to be trusted. Two or three friends judged
otherwise. "A noble nature," they said, "most honourable, but with
all its virtues, nervous, passionate, excitable, fiery tempered… ."
So there had never been any unanimous opinion of him.
Even in early childhood while he lived with his aunt, and later,
after his school-days had begun, he showed the same enigmatic and
It might be expected that the first effort of a new boy would be
to listen to the teacher's questions and the pupils' answers. But
Raisky stared at the teacher, as if seeking to impress on his
memory the details of his appearance, his speech, how he took
snuff; he looked at his eyebrows, his beard, then at his clothes,
at the cornelian seal suspended across his waistcoat, and so on.
Then he would observe each of the other boys and note their
peculiarities, or he would study his own person, and wonder what
his own face was like, what the others thought of him… .
"What did I say just now?" interrupted the master, noticing
Boris's wandering glance.
To the teacher's amazement Boris replied word for word, "And
what is the meaning of this?" He had listened mechanically, and had
caught the actual syllables.
The master repeated his explanation, and again Boris caught the
sound of his voice, noticing that sometimes he spoke shortly,
staccato—sometimes drawled as if he were singing, and then rapped
out his words smartly like nuts.
Raisky blushed, perspired with anxiety, and was silent.
It was the mathematical master. He went to the blackboard, wrote
up the problem, and again began the explanation. Raisky only
noticed with what rapidity and certainty he wrote the figures, how
the waistcoat with the cornelian seal and then the snuff-spattered
shirt front came nearer—nothing, except the solution of the
problem, escaped him.
Now and then a notion penetrated to his brain, but when it came
to equations he grew weary with the effort required. Sometimes the
teacher lost patience with him, and generally concluded: "Go back
to your place, you are a blockhead."
But if a whiff of originality passed over the master himself, if
he taught as if it were a game, and had recourse neither to his
book nor to the blackboard, then the solution flashed on Raisky,
and he found the answer quicker than any of the others.
He consumed passionately history, novels and tales; wherever he
could he begged for books. But he did not like facts or theories or
anything that drew him from the world of fancy towards the world of
reality. In the geography lesson he could not understand how any
boy could answer in class, but once out of class he could talk
about foreign countries and cities, or about the sea, to the
amazement of his classmates. He had not learnt it from the teacher
or from a book, but he gave a picture of the place as if he had
actually been there.
"You are inventing," a sceptical listener would say. "Vassili
Nikitich never said that."
His companions did not know what to make of him, for his
sympathies changed so often that he had neither constant friends
nor constant enemies. One week he would attach himself to one boy,
seek his society, sit with him, read to him, talk to him and give
him his confidence. Then, for no reason, he would leave him, enter
into close relations with another boy, and then as speedily forget
If one of his companions annoyed him he became angry with him
and pursued hostilities obstinately long after the original cause
was forgotten. Then suddenly he would have a friendly, magnanimous
impulse, would carefully arrange a scene of reconciliation, which
interested everyone, himself most of all.
When he was out of school, everyday life attracted him very
little; he cared neither for its gayer side nor its sterner
activities. If his guardian asked him how the corn should be
threshed, the cloth milled or linen bleached, he turned away and
went out on to the verandah to look out on the woods, or made his
way along the river to the thicket to watch the insects at work, or
to observe the birds, to see how they alighted, how they sharpened
their beaks. He caught a hedgehog and made a playmate of it, went
out fishing all day long with the village boys, or listened to the
tales about Pugachev told by a half-witted old woman living in a
mud hut, greedily drinking in the most singular of the horrible
incidents she related, while he looked into the old woman's
toothless mouth and into the caverns of her fading eyes.
For hours he would listen with morbid curiosity to the babble of
the idiot Feklusha. At home he read in the most desultory way. He
deemed the secrets of Eastern magic, Russian tales and folk-lore,
skimmed Ossian, Tasso, Homer, or wandered with Cook in strange
lands. If he found nothing to read he lay motionless all day long,
as if he were exhausted with hard work; his fancy carried him
beyond Ossian and Homer, beyond the tales of Cook, until fevered
with his imaginings he rose tired, exhausted, and unable for a long
time to resume normal life.
People called him an idler. He feared this accusation, and wept
over it in secret, though he was convinced that he was no idler,
but something different, that no one but himself comprehended.
Unfortunately, there was no one to guide him in a definite
direction. On the one hand, his guardian merely saw to it that his
masters came at stated times and that Boris did not avoid school;
on the other, his aunt contented herself with seeing that he was in
good health, ate and slept well, was decently dressed, and as a
well-brought-up boy should, did not consort with every village
Nobody cared to see what he read; his aunt gave him the keys of
his father's library in the old house, where he shut himself in,
now to read Spinoza, now a novel, and another day Voltaire or
He made better progress in the arts than in the sciences. Here
too he had his tricks. One day the teacher set the pupils to draw
eyes, but Raisky grew tired of that, and proceeded to add a nose
and a moustache. The master surprised him, and seized him by the
hair. When he looked closer at the drawing, however, he asked:
"Where did you learn to do that?"
"Nowhere," was the reply.
"But it is well done, my lad. See yourself what this hurry to
get on leads to; the forehead and nose are good enough, but the ear
you have put in the wrong place, and the hair looks like tow."
Raisky was triumphant. The words, "But it is well done; the
forehead and nose are good enough," were for him a crown of
He walked round the school yard proud in the consciousness that
he was the best in the drawing class; this mood lasted to the next
day, when he came to grief in the ordinary lessons. But he
conceived a passion for drawing, and during the month that followed
drew a curly-headed boy, then the head of Fingal. His fancy was
caught by a woman's head which hung in the master's room; it leaned
a little towards one shoulder, and looked away into the distance
with melancholy, meditative eyes. "Allow me to make a copy," he
begged with a gentle, tremulous voice, and with a nervous quiver of
the upper lip.
"Don't break the glass," the master warned him, and gave him the
picture. Boris was happy. For a whole week his masters did not
secure a single intelligent answer from him. He sat silently in his
corner and drew. At night he took the drawing to his bedroom, and
as he looked into its gracious eyes, followed the lines of the
delicately bent neck, he shivered, his heart stood still, there was
a catch in his breath, and he closed his eyes; with a faint sigh he
pressed the picture to his breast where the breath came so
painfully—and then there was a crash and the glass fell clattering
on the floor.
When he had drawn the head his pride knew no bounds. His work
was exhibited with the drawings of pupils of the top class, the
teacher had made few corrections, had only here and there put broad
strokes in the shading, had drawn three or four more decided lines,
had put a point in each eye—and the eyes were now like life.
"How lifelike and bold it is!" thought Raisky, as he looked at
the strokes inserted by his master, and more especially at the
points in the eyes, which had so suddenly given them the look of
life. This step forward intoxicated him. "Talent! Talent!" sang in
He sketched the maids, the coachman, the peasants of the
countryside. He was particularly successful with the idiot
Feklusha, seated in a cavern with her bust in the shade, and the
light on her wild hair; he had not the patience nor the skill to
finish bust, hands and feet. How could anybody be expected to sit
still all the morning, when the sun was shedding its rays so gaily
and so generously on stream and meadow?
Within three days the picture had faded in his imagination, and
new images were thronging his brain. He would like to have drawn a
round dance, a drunken old man, the rapid passage of a troika. For
two days he was taken up with this picture, which stood before his
mind's eye in every detail; the peasants and the women were
finished, but not the waggon with its three fleet horses.
In a week he had forgotten this picture also.
He loved music to distraction. At school he had an enduring
affection for the dull Vassyvkov, who was the laughing stock of the
other boys. A boy would seize Vassyvkov by the ear, crying, "Get
out, stupid, blockhead," but Raisky stood by him, because
Vassyvkov, inattentive, sleepy, idle, who never did his work even
for the universally beloved Russian master, would every afternoon
after dinner take his violin, and as he played, forget the school,
the masters and the nose-pullings. His eyes as they gazed into the
distance, apparently seeking something strange, enticing, and
mysterious, became wild and gloomy, and often filled with
He was no longer Vassyvkov, but another creature. His pupils
dilated, his eyes ceased to blink, becoming clearer and deeper; his
glance was proud and intelligent; his breath came long and deep.
Over his face stole an expression of happiness, of gentleness; his
eyes became darker and seemed to radiate light. In a word he became
Raisky began to think the thoughts of Vassyvkov, to see what he
saw. His surroundings vanished, and boys and benches were lost in a
mist. More notes … and a wide space opened before him. A world
in motion arose. He heard the murmur of running streams, saw ships,
men, woods, and drifting clouds; everywhere was light, motion, and
gaiety. He had the sensation that he himself was growing taller, he
caught his breath… .
The dream continued just so long as the notes were heard.
Suddenly he heard a noise, he was awakened with a start, Vassyvkov
had ceased to play; the moving, musical waves vanished, and there
were only the boys, benches and tables. Vassyvkov laid aside his
violin, and somebody tweaked his ear. Raisky threw himself in a
rage on the offender, struck him—all the while possessed by the
Every nerve in his body sang. Life, thought, emotion broke in
waves in the seething sea of his consciousness. The notes strike a
chord of memory. A cloud of recollection hovers before him, shaping
the figure of a woman who holds him to her breast. He gropes in his
consciousness—it was thus that his mother's arms cradled him, his
face pressed to her breast … her figure grows in distinctness,
as if she had risen from the grave… .
He had begun to take lessons from Vassyvkov. For a whole week he
had been moving the bow up and down, but its scratching set his
teeth on edge. He caught two strings at once, and his hand trembled
with weakness. It was clearly no use. When Vassyvkov played his
hand seemed to play of itself. Tired of the torment, Raisky begged
his guardian to allow him to take piano lessons.
"It will be easier on the pianoforte," he thought.
His guardian engaged a German master, but took the opportunity
of saying a few words to his nephew.
"Boris," he said, "for what are you preparing yourself? I have
been intending to ask you for a long time."
Boris did not understand the question, and made no answer.
"You are nearly sixteen years old, and it is time you began to
think of serious things. It is plain that you have not yet
considered what faculty you will follow in the University, and to
which branch of the service you will devote yourself. You cannot
well go into the army, because you have no great fortune, and yet,
for the sake of your family, could hardly serve elsewhere than in
Boris was silent, and watched through the window how the hens
strutted about, how the pigs wallowed in the mire, how the cat was
stalking a pigeon… .
"I am speaking to you seriously, and you stare out of the
window. For what future are you preparing yourself?"
"I want to be an artist."
"The devil only knows what notions you have got into your head.
Who would agree to that? Do you even know what an artist is?"
Raisky made no answer.
"An artist … is a man who borrows money from you, or
chatters foolish nonsense, and drives you to distraction… .
Artist! … These people lead a wild gipsy life, are destitute
of money, clothes, shoes, and all the time they dream of wealth.
Artists live on this earth like the birds of heaven. I have seen
enough of them in St. Petersburg: bold rascals who meet one another
in the evening dressed in fantastic costumes, lie upon divans,
smoke pipes, talk about trifles, read poetry, drink brandy and
declare that they are artists. Uncombed, unwashed… ."
"I have heard, Uncle, that artists are now held in high esteem.
You are thinking of the past. Now, the Academy produces many famous
"I am not very old, and I have seen the world. You have heard
the bells ring, but do not know in what tower. Famous people! There
are famous artists as there are famous doctors. But when do they
achieve fame? When do they enter the service and reach the rank of
Councillor? If a man builds a cathedral or erects a monument in a
public place, then people begin to seek him out. But artists begin
in poverty, with a crust of bread. You will find they are for the
most part freed serfs, small tradespeople or foreigners, or Jews.
Poverty drives them to art. But you—a Raisky! You have land of your
own, and bread to eat. It's pleasant enough to have graceful
talents in society, to play the piano, to sketch in an album, and
to sing a song, and I have therefore engaged a German professor for
you. But what an abominable idea to be an artist by profession!
Have you ever heard of a prince or a count who has painted a
picture, or a nobleman who has chiselled a statue? No, and
"What about Rubens? He was a courtier, an ambassador… ."
"Where have you dug that out? Two hundred years ago… . Among the
Germans … but you are going to the University, to enter the
faculty of law, then you will study for the service in St.
Petersburg, try to get a position as advocate, and your connexions
will help you to a place at court. And if you keep your eyes open,
with your name and your connexions, you will be a Governor in
thirty years' time. That is the career for you. But there seem to
be no serious ideas in your head; you catch fish with the village
boors, have sketched a swamp and a drunken beggar, but you have not
the remotest idea of when this or that crop should be sown, or at
what price it is sold."
Raisky trembled. His guardian's lecture affected his nerves.
Like Vassyvkov, the music master began to bend his fingers. If
Raisky had not been ashamed before his guardian he would not have
endured the torture. As it was he succeeded in a few months, after
much trouble, in completing the first stages of his instruction.
Very soon he surpassed and surprised the local young ladies by the
strength and boldness of his playing. His master saw his abilities
were remarkable, his indolence still more remarkable.
That, he thought, was no misfortune. Indolence and negligence
are native to artists. He had been told too that a man who has
talent should not work too hard. Hard work is only for those with