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First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri
SOME DETAILS OF THE BIOGRAPHY OF THAT HIGHLY RESPECTED GENTLEMANSTEPAN TROFIMOVITCH VERHOVENSKY.
IN UNDERTAKING to describe the recent and strangeincidents inour town, till lately wrapped in uneventful obscurity, I findmyself forced in absence of literary skill to begin my story ratherfar back, that is to say, with certain biographical detailsconcerning that talented and highly-esteemed gentleman, StepanTrofimovitch Verhovensky. I trust that these details may at leastserve as an introduction, while my projected story itself will comelater.
I will say at once that Stepan Trofimovitch had always filled aparticular rôle among us, that of the progressive patriot, soto say, and he was passionately fond of playing the part—somuch so that I really believe he could not have existed without it.Not that I would put him on a level with an actor at a theatre, Godforbid, for I really have a respect forhim. This may all have beenthe effect of habit, or rather, more exactly of a generouspropensity he had from his earliest years for indulging in anagreeable day-dream in which he figured as a picturesque publiccharacter. He fondly loved, for instance,his position as a“persecuted” man and, so to speak, an“exile.” There is a sort of traditional glamour aboutthose two little words that fascinated him once for all and,exalting him gradually in his own opinion, raised him in the courseof years to a lofty pedestal very gratifying to vanity. In anEnglish satire of the last century, Gulliver, returning from theland of the Lilliputians where the people were only three or fourinches high, had grown so accustomed to consider himself a giantamong them, that as he walked along the streets of London he couldnot help crying out to carriages and passers-by to be careful andget out of his way for fear he should crush them, imagining thatthey were little and he was still a giant. He was laughed at andabused for it, and rough coachmen even lashed at the giant withtheir whips. But was that just? What may not be done by habit?Habit had brought Stepan Trofimovitch almost to the same position,but in a more innocent and inoffensive form, if one may use suchexpressions, for he was a most excellent man.
I am even inclined to suppose that towards the end he had beenentirely forgotten everywhere; but still it cannot be said that hisname had never been known. It is beyond question that he had at onetime belonged toa certain distinguished constellation of celebratedleaders of the last generation, and at one time—though onlyfor the briefest moment—his name was pronounced by many hastypersons of that day almost as though it were on a level with thenames of Tchaadaev, of Byelinsky, of Granovsky, and of Herzen, whohad only just begun to write abroad. But StepanTrofimovitch’s activity ceased almost at the moment it began,owing, so to say, to a “vortex of combinedcircumstances.” And would you believe it? It turnedoutafterwards that there had been no “vortex” and even no“circumstances,” at least in that connection. I onlylearned the other day to my intenseamazement, though on the mostunimpeachable authority, that Stepan Trofimovitch had lived amongus in our province not as an “exile” as we wereaccustomed to believe, and had never even been under policesupervision at all. Such is the force of imagination! All his lifehe sincerely believed that in certain spheres he was a constantcause of apprehension, that every step he took was watched andnoted, and that each one of the three governors who succeeded oneanother during twenty years in our province came with special anduneasy ideas concerning him, which had, by higher powers, beenimpressed upon each beforeeverything else, on receiving theappointment. Had anyone assured the honest man on the mostirrefutable grounds that he had nothing to be afraid of, he wouldcertainly have been offended. Yet Stepan Trofimovitch was a mostintelligent and gifted man, even, so to say, a man of science,though indeed, in science … well, in fact he had not donesuch great things in science. I believe indeed he had done nothingat all. But that’s very often the case, of course, with menof science among us in Russia.
He came back from abroad and was brilliant in the capacity oflecturer at the university, towards the end of the forties. He onlyhad time to deliver a few lectures, I believe they were about theArabs; he maintained, too, a brilliant thesis on the political andHanseatic importance of the German town Hanau, of which there waspromise in the epoch between 1413 and 1428, and on the special andobscure reasons why that promise was never fulfilled. Thisdissertation was a cruel and skilful thrust at the Slavophils ofthe day, and at once made him numerous and irreconcilable enemiesamong them. Later on—after he had lost his post as lecturer,however—he published (by way of revenge, so to say, and toshow them what a man they had lost) in a progressive monthlyreview, which translated Dickens and advocated the views of GeorgeSand, the beginning of a very profound investigation into thecauses, I believe, of the extraordinary moral nobility of certainknights at a certain epoch or something of that nature.
Some lofty andexceptionally noble idea was maintained in it,anyway. It was said afterwards that the continuation was hurriedlyforbidden and even that the progressive review had to suffer forhaving printed the first part. That may very well have been so, forwhat wasnot possible in those days? Though, in this case, it ismore likely that there was nothing of the kind, and that the authorhimself was too lazy to conclude his essay. He cut short hislectures on the Arabs because, somehow and by someone (probably oneofhis reactionary enemies) a letter had been seized giving anaccount of certain circumstances, in consequence of which someonehad demanded an explanation from him. I don’t know whetherthe story is true, but it was asserted that at the same time therewasdiscovered in Petersburg a vast, unnatural, and illegalconspiracy of thirty people which almost shook society to itsfoundations. It was said that they were positively on the point oftranslating Fourier. As though of design a poem of StepanTrofimovitch’s was seized in Moscow at that very time, thoughit had been written six years before in Berlin in his earliestyouth, and manuscript copies had been passed round a circleconsisting of two poetical amateurs and one student. This poem islying now on my table. No longer ago than last year I received arecent copy in his own handwriting from Stepan Trofimovitchhimself, signed by him, and bound in a splendid red leatherbinding. It is not without poetic merit, however, and even acertain talent. It’s strange, but in those days (or to bemore exact, in the thirties) peoplewere constantly composing inthat style. I find it difficult to describe the subject, for Ireally do not understand it. It is some sort of an allegory inlyrical-dramatic form, recalling the second part of Faust. Thescene opens with a chorus of women, followed by a chorus of men,then a chorus of incorporeal powers of some sort, and at the end ofall a chorus of spirits not yet living but very eager to come tolife. All these choruses singabout something very indefinite, forthe most part about somebody’s curse, but with a tinge of thehigher humour. But the scene is suddenly changed. There begins asort of “festival of life” at which even insects sing,a tortoise comes on the scene with certain sacramental Latin words,and even, if I remember aright, a mineral sings about somethingthat is a quite inanimate object. In fact, they all singcontinually, or if they converse, it is simply to abuse one anothervaguely, but again with a tinge of higher meaning. At last thescene is changed again; a wilderness appears, and among the rocksthere wanders a civilized young man who picks and sucks certainherbs. Asked by a fairy why he sucks these herbs, he answers that,conscious of a superfluity of life in himself, he seeksforgetfulness, and finds it in the juice of these herbs, but thathis great desire is to lose his reason at once (a desire possiblysuperfluous). Then a youth of indescribable beauty rides in on ablack steed, and an immense multitude of all nations follow him.The youth represents death, for whom all the peoples are yearning.And finally, in the last scene we are suddenly shown the Tower ofBabel, and certain athletes at last finish building it with a songof new hope, and when at length they complete the topmost pinnacle,the lord (of Olympia, let us say) takes flight in a comic fashion,and man, grasping the situation and seizing his place, at oncebegins a new life with new insight into things. Well, this poem wasthought at thattime to be dangerous. Last year I proposed to StepanTrofimovitch to publish it, on the ground of its perfectharmlessness nowadays, but he declined the suggestion with evidentdissatisfaction. My view of its complete harmlessness evidentlydispleased him,and I even ascribe to it a certain coldness on hispart, which lasted two whole months.
And what do you think? Suddenly, almost at the time I proposedprinting it here, our poem was published abroad in a collection ofrevolutionary verse, without the knowledge of Stepan Trofimovitch.He was at first alarmed, rushed to the governor, and wrote a nobleletter in self-defence to Petersburg. He read it to me twice, butdid not send it, not knowing to whom to address it. In fact he wasin a state of agitation for a whole month, but I am convinced thatin the secret recesses of his heart he was enormously flattered. Healmost took the copy of the collection to bed with him, and kept ithidden under his mattress in the daytime; he positively would notallow the women to turn his bed, and although he expected every daya telegram, he held his head high. No telegram came. Then he madefriends with me again, which is a proof of the extreme kindness ofhis gentle and unresentful heart.
Of course I don’t assert that he had never suffered forhis convictions at all, but I am fully convinced that he might havegone on lecturing on his Arabs as long as he liked, if he had onlygiven the necessary explanations. But he was too lofty, and heproceeded with peculiar haste toassure himself that his career wasruined forever “by the vortex of circumstance.” And ifthe whole truth is to be told the real cause of the change in hiscareer was the verydelicate proposition which had been made beforeand was then renewed by VarvaraPetrovna Stavrogin, a lady of greatwealth, the wife of a lieutenant-general, that he should undertakethe education and the whole intellectual development of her onlyson in the capacity of a superior sort of teacher and friend, tosay nothing of a magnificent salary. This proposal had been made tohim the first time in Berlin, at the moment when he was first lefta widower. His first wife was a frivolous girl from our province,whom he married in his early and unthinking youth, and apparentlyhe had had agreat deal of trouble with this young person, charmingas she was, owing to the lack of means for her support; and alsofrom other, more delicate, reasons. She died in Paris after threeyears’ separation from him, leaving him a son of five yearsold; “thefruit of our first, joyous, and uncloudedlove,” were the words the sorrowing father once let fall inmy presence.
The child had, from the first, been sent back to Russia, wherehe was brought up in the charge of distant cousins in some remoteregion. Stepan Trofimovitch had declined Varvara Petrovna’sproposal on that occasion and had quickly married again, before theyear was over, a taciturn Berlin girl, and, what makes it morestrange, there was no particular necessity for him to do so. Butapart fromhis marriage there were, it appears, other reasons forhis declining the situation. He was tempted by the resounding fameof a professor, celebrated at that time, and he, in his turn,hastened to the lecturer’s chair for which he had beenpreparing himself, to try his eagle wings in flight. But now withsinged wings he naturally remembered the proposition which eventhen had made him hesitate. The sudden death of his second wife,who did not live a year with him, settled the matter decisively. Toput it plainly it was all brought about by the passionate sympathyand priceless, so to speak, classic friendship of Varvara Petrovna,if one may use such an expression of friendship. He flung himselfinto the arms of this friendship, and his position was settled formore than twenty years. I use the expression “flung himselfinto the arms of,” but God forbid that anyone should fly toidle and superfluous conclusions. These embraces must be understoodonly in the most loftily moral sense. The most refined and delicatetie united these two beings, both so remarkable, forever.
The post of tutor was the more readily accepted too, as theproperty—a very small one—left to Stepan Trofimovitchby his first wife was close to Skvoreshniki, the Stavrogins’magnificent estate onthe outskirts of our provincial town. Besides,in the stillness of his study, far from the immense burden ofuniversity work, it was always possible to devote himself to theservice of science, and to enrich the literature of his countrywith erudite studies. These works did not appear. But on the otherhand it did appear possible to spend the rest of his life, morethan twenty years, “a reproach incarnate,” so to speak,to his native country, in the words of a popular poet:
Reproach incarnate thou didst standErect before thy Fatherland,OLiberal idealist!
But the person to whom the popular poet referred may perhapshave had the right to adopt that pose for the rest of his life ifhe had wished to do so, though it must have been tedious. OurStepan Trofimovitch was, to tell the truth, only an imitatorcompared with such people; moreover, he had grown weary of standingerect and often lay down for a while. But, to do him justice, the“incarnation of reproach” was preserved even in therecumbent attitude,the more so as that was quite sufficient for theprovince. You should have seen him at our club when he sat down tocards. His whole figure seemed to exclaim “Cards! Me sit downto whist with you! Is it consistent? Who is responsible for it? Whohas shattered my energies and turned them to whist? Ah, perish,Russia!” and he would majestically trump with a heart.
And to tell the truth he dearly loved a game of cards, which ledhim, especially in later years, into frequent and unpleasantskirmishes with VarvaraPetrovna, particularly as he was alwayslosing. But of that later. I will only observe that he was a man oftender conscience (that is, sometimes) and so was often depressed.In the course of his twenty years’ friendship with VarvaraPetrovna he used regularly, three or four times a year, to sinkinto a state of “patriotic grief,” as it was calledamong us, or rather really into an attack of spleen, but ourestimable Varvara Petrovna preferred the former phrase. Of lateyears his grief had begun to be notonly patriotic, but at timesalcoholic too; but Varvara Petrovna’s alertness succeeded inkeeping him all his life from trivial inclinations. And he neededsomeone to look after him indeed, for he sometimes behaved veryoddly: in the midst of his exalted sorrow he would begin laughinglike any simple peasant. There were moments when he began to take ahumorous tone even about himself. But there was nothing VarvaraPetrovna dreaded so much as a humorous tone. She was a woman of theclassic type, a female Mæcenas, invariably guided only by thehighest considerations. The influence of this exalted lady over herpoor friend for twenty years is a fact of the first importance. Ishall need to speak of her more particularly, which I now proceedto do.
There arestrange friendships. The two friends are always readyto fly at one another, and go on like that all their lives, and yetthey cannot separate. Parting, in fact, is utterly impossible. Theone who has begun the quarrel and separated will be the first tofall ill and even die, perhaps, if the separation comes off. I knowfor a positive fact that several times Stepan Trofimovitch hasjumped up from the sofa and beaten the wall with his fists afterthe most intimate and emotionaltête-à-têtewithVarvara Petrovna.
This proceeding was by no means an empty symbol; indeed, on oneoccasion, he broke some plaster off the wall. It may be asked how Icome to know such delicate details. What if I were myself a witnessof it? What if Stepan Trofimovitch himself has, onmore than oneoccasion, sobbed on my shoulder while he described to me in luridcolours all his most secret feelings. (And what was there he didnot say at such times!) But what almost always happened after thesetearful outbreaks was that next day he wasready to crucify himselffor his ingratitude. He would send for me in a hurry or run over tosee me simply to assure me that Varvara Petrovna was “anangel of honour and delicacy, while he was very much theopposite.” He did not only run to confide in me,but, on morethan one occasion, described it all to her in the most eloquentletter, and wrote a full signed confession that no longer ago thanthe day before he had told an outsider that she kept him out ofvanity, that she was envious of his talents anderudition, that shehated him and was only afraid to express her hatred openly,dreading that he would leave her and so damage her literaryreputation, that this drove him to self-contempt, and he wasresolved to die a violent death,and that he was waiting for thefinal word from her which would decide everything, and so on and soon in the same style. You can fancy after this what an hystericalpitch the nervous outbreaks of this most innocent of allfifty-year-old infants sometimes reached! I once readone of theseletters after some quarrel between them, arising from a trivialmatter, but growing venomous as it went on. I was horrified andbesought him not to send it.
“I must … more honourable … duty … Ishall die if I don’t confess everything, everything!”he answered almost in delirium, and he did send the letter.
That was the difference between them, that Varvara Petrovnanever would have sent such a letter. It is true that he waspassionately fond of writing, he wrote to her though he lived inthe same house, and during hysterical interludes he would write twoletters a day. I know for a fact that she always read these letterswith the greatest attention, even when she received two a day, andafter reading them she put them away in a special drawer, sortedand annotated; moreover, she pondered them in her heart. But shekept her friend all day without an answer, met him as though therewere nothing the matter, exactly as though nothing special hadhappened the day before. By degrees she broke him in socompletelythat at last he did not himself dare to allude to what had happenedthe day before, and only glanced into her eyes at times. But shenever forgot anything, while he sometimes forgot too quickly, andencouraged by her composure he would not infrequently, if friendscame in, laugh and make jokes over the champagne the very same day.With what malignancy she must have looked at him at such moments,while he noticed nothing! Perhaps in a week’s time, amonth’s time, or even six months later, chancing to recallsome phrase in such a letter, and then the whole letter with allits attendant circumstances, he would suddenly grow hot with shame,and be so upset that he fell ill with one of his attacks of“summer cholera.” These attacks of a sort of“summer cholera” were, in some cases, the regularconsequence of his nervous agitations and were an interestingpeculiarity of his physical constitution.
No doubt Varvara Petrovna did very often hate him. But there wasone thing he had not discerned up to the end: that was that he hadbecome for her a son, her creation, even, one may say, herinvention; he had become flesh of her flesh, and she kept andsupported him not simply from “envy of his talents.”And how wounded she must have been by such suppositions! Aninexhaustible love for him lay concealed in her heart in the midstof continual hatred, jealousy, and contempt. She would not let aspeck of dust fall upon him, coddled him up for twenty-two years,would not have slept for nights together if there were the faintestbreath against his reputation as a poet, a learned man, and apublic character. She had invented him, and had been the first tobelieve in her own invention. He was, after a fashion, herday-dream.… But in return she exacted a great deal from him,sometimes even slavishness. It was incredible how long sheharboured resentment. I have two anecdotes to tell about that.
On one occasion, just at the time when the first rumours of theemancipation of the serfs were in the air, when all Russiawasexulting and making ready for a completeregeneration, VarvaraPetrovna was visited by a baron from Petersburg, a man of thehighest connections, and very closely associated with the newreform. Varvara Petrovna prized such visits highly, as herconnections in higher circles had grown weaker and weaker since thedeath of her husband, and had at last ceased altogether. The baronspent an hour drinking tea with her. There was no one else presentbut Stepan Trofimovitch, whom Varvara Petrovna invited andexhibited. The baron had heard something about him before oraffected to have done so, but paid little attention to him at tea.Stepan Trofimovitch of course was incapable of making a socialblunder, and his manners were most elegant. Though I believe he wasbyno means of exalted origin, yet it happened that he had fromearliest childhood been brought up in a Moscow household—ofhigh rank, and consequently was well bred. He spoke French like aParisian. Thus the baron was to have seen from the first glancethesort of people with whom Varvara Petrovna surrounded herself,even in provincial seclusion. But things did not fall out likethis. When the baron positively asserted the absolute truth of therumours of the great reform, which were then only just beginningtobe heard, Stepan Trofimovitch could not contain himself, andsuddenly shouted “Hurrah!” and even made somegesticulation indicative of delight. His ejaculation was notover-loud and quite polite, his delight was even perhapspremeditated, and his gesture purposely studied before thelooking-glass half an hour before tea. But something must have beenamiss with it, for the baron permitted himself a faint smile,though he, at once, with extraordinary courtesy, put in a phraseconcerning the universal andbefitting emotion of all Russian heartsin view of the great event. Shortly afterwards he took his leaveand at parting did not forget to hold out two fingers to StepanTrofimovitch. On returning to the drawing-room Varvara Petrovna wasat first silent fortwo or three minutes, and seemed to be lookingfor something on the table. Then she turned to Stepan Trofimovitch,and with pale face and flashing eyes she hissed in a whisper:
“I shall never forgive you for that!”
Next day she met her friend as thoughnothing had happened, shenever referred to the incident, but thirteen years afterwards, at atragic moment, she recalled it and reproached him with it, and sheturned pale, just as she had done thirteen years before. Only twicein the course of her life did she say to him:
“I shall never forgive you for that!”
The incident with the baron was the second time, but the firstincident was so characteristic and had so much influence on thefate of Stepan Trofimovitch that I venture to refer to thattoo.
It wasin 1855, in spring-time, in May, just after the news hadreached Skvoreshniki of the death of Lieutenant-General Stavrogin,a frivolous old gentleman who died of a stomach ailment on the wayto the Crimea, where he was hastening to join the army onactiveservice. Varvara Petrovna was left a widow and put on deepmourning. She could not, it is true, deplore his death very deeply,since, for the last four years, she had been completely separatedfrom him owing to incompatibility of temper, and was giving himanallowance. (The Lieutenant-General himself had nothing but onehundred and fifty serfs and his pay,besides his position and hisconnections. All the money and Skvoreshniki belonged to VarvaraPetrovna, the only daughter of a very rich contractor.) Yetshe wasshocked by the suddenness of the news, and retired into completesolitude. Stepan Trofimovitch, of course, was always at herside.
May was in its full beauty. The evenings were exquisite. Thewild cherry was in flower. The two friends walked everyevening inthe garden and used to sit till nightfall in the arbour, and pourout their thoughts and feelings to one another. They had poeticmoments. Under the influence of the change in her position VarvaraPetrovna talked more than usual. She, as it were, clung to theheart of her friend, and this continued for several evenings. Astrange idea suddenly came over Stepan Trofimovitch: “Was notthe inconsolable widow reckoning upon him, and expecting from him,when her mourning was over, the offer of his hand?” A cynicalidea, but the very loftiness of a man’s nature sometimesincreases a disposition to cynical ideas if only from themany-sidedness of his culture. He began to look more deeply intoit, and thought it seemed like it. He pondered: “Herfortuneis immense, of course, but …” Varvara Petrovnacertainly could not be called a beauty. She was a tall, yellow,bony woman with an extremely long face, suggestive of a horse.Stepan Trofimovitch hesitated more and more, he was tortured bydoubts, he positively shed tears of indecision once or twice (hewept not infrequently). In the evenings, that is to say in thearbour, his countenance involuntarily began to express somethingcapricious and ironical, something coquettish and at the same timecondescending.This is apt to happen as it were by accident, and themore gentlemanly the man the more noticeable it is. Goodness onlyknows what one is to think about it, but it’s most likelythat nothing had begun working in her heart that could have fullyjustified Stepan Trofimovitch’s suspicions. Moreover, shewould not have changed her name, Stavrogin, for his name, famous asit was. Perhaps there was nothing in it but the play of femininityon her side; the manifestation of an unconscious feminine yearningso natural in some extremely feminine types. However, I won’tanswer for it; the depths of the female heart have not beenexplored to this day. But I must continue.
It is to be supposed that she soon inwardly guessed thesignificance of her friend’s strangeexpression; she was quickand observant, and he was sometimes extremely guileless. But theevenings went on as before, and their conversations were just aspoetic and interesting. And behold on one occasion at nightfall,after the most lively and poeticalconversation, they partedaffectionately, warmly pressing each other’s hands at thesteps of the lodge where Stepan Trofimovitch slept. Every summer heused to move into this little lodge which stood adjoining the hugeseignorial house of Skvoreshniki, almost in the garden. He had onlyjust gone in, and in restless hesitation taken a cigar, and nothaving yet lighted it, was standing weary and motionless before theopen window, gazing at the light feathery white clouds glidingaround the bright moon, when suddenly a faint rustle made him startand turn round. Varvara Petrovna, whom he had left only fourminutes earlier, was standing before him again. Her yellow face wasalmost blue. Her lips were pressed tightly together and twitchingat the corners. For tenfull seconds she looked him in the eyes insilence with a firm relentless gaze, and suddenly whisperedrapidly:
“I shall never forgive you for this!”
When, ten years later, Stepan Trofimovitch, after closing thedoors, told me this melancholy tale in a whisper, he vowed that hehad been so petrified on the spot that he had not seen or heard howVarvara Petrovna had disappeared. As she never once afterwardsalluded to the incident and everything went on as though nothinghad happened, he was all his life inclined to the idea that it wasall an hallucination, a symptom of illness, the more so as he wasactually taken ill that very night and was indisposed for afortnight, which, by the way, cut short the interviews in thearbour.
But in spite of his vague theory of hallucination he seemedevery day, all his life, to be expecting the continuation, and, soto say, thedénouementof this affair. He could not believe thatthat was the end of it! And if so he must have looked strangelysometimes at his friend.
She had herself designed the costume for him which he wore forthe rest of his life. It was elegant and characteristic; a longblack frock-coat, buttoned almost to the top, but stylishly cut; asoft hat (in summer a straw hat) with a wide brim, a white batistecravat with a full bow and hanging ends, a cane with a silver knob;his hair flowed on to his shoulders. It was dark brown, and onlylately had begun to get a little grey. He was clean-shaven. He wassaid to have been very handsome in his youth. And, tomy mind, hewas still an exceptionally impressive figure even in old age.Besides, who can talk of old age at fifty-three? From his specialpose as a patriot, however, he did not try to appear younger, butseemed rather to pride himself on the solidity ofhis age, and,dressed as described, tall and thin with flowing hair, he lookedalmost like a patriarch, or even more like the portrait of the poetKukolnik, engraved in the edition of his works published in 1830 orthereabouts. This resemblance was especially striking when he satin the garden in summertime, on a seat under a bush of floweringlilac, with both hands propped on his cane and an open book besidehim, musing poetically over the setting sun. In regard to books Imay remark that he came in lateryears rather to avoid reading. Butthat was only quite towards the end. The papers and magazinesordered in great profusion by Varvara Petrovna he was continuallyreading. He never lost interest in the successes of Russianliterature either, though he always maintained a dignified attitudewith regard to them. He was at one time engrossed in the study ofour home and foreign politics, but he soon gave up the undertakingwith a gesture of despair. It sometimes happened that he would takeDe Tocqueville withhim into the garden while he had a Paul de Kockin his pocket. But these are trivial matters.
I must observe in parenthesis about the portrait of Kukolnik;the engraving had first come into the hands of Varvara Petrovnawhen she was a girl in a high-classboarding-school in Moscow. Shefell in love with the portrait at once, after the habit of allgirls at school who fall in love with anything they come across, aswell as with their teachers, especially the drawing and writingmasters. What is interestingin this, though, is not thecharacteristics of girls but the fact that even at fifty VarvaraPetrovna kept the engraving among her most intimate and treasuredpossessions, so that perhaps it was only on this account that shehad designed for Stepan Trofimovitch a costume somewhat like thepoet’s in the engraving. But that, of course, is a triflingmatter too.
For the first years or, more accurately, for the first half ofthe time he spent with Varvara Petrovna, Stepan Trofimovitch wasstill planning a bookand every day seriously prepared to write it.But during the later period he must have forgotten even what he haddone. More and more frequently he used to say to us:
“I seem to be ready for work, my materials are collected,yet the work doesn’t get done!Nothing is done!”
And he would bow his head dejectedly. No doubt this wascalculated to increase his prestige in our eyes as a martyr toscience, but he himself was longing for something else. “Theyhave forgotten me! I’m no use to anyone!” broke fromhimmore than once. This intensified depression took special hold ofhim towards the end of the fifties. Varvara Petrovna realised atlast that it was a serious matter. Besides, she could not endurethe idea that her friend was forgotten and useless. To distract himand at the same time to renew his fame she carried him off toMoscow, where she had fashionable acquaintances in the literary andscientific world; but it appeared that Moscow too wasunsatisfactory.
It was a peculiar time; something new was beginning, quiteunlike the stagnation of the past, something very strange too,though it was felt everywhere, even at Skvoreshniki. Rumours of allsorts reached us. The facts were generally more or less well known,but it was evident that in addition to the facts there were certainideas accompanying them, and what’s more, a great number ofthem. And this was perplexing. It was impossible to estimate andfind out exactly what was the drift of these ideas. VarvaraPetrovna was prompted by the feminine compositionof her characterto a compelling desire to penetrate the secret of them. She took toreading newspapers and magazines, prohibited publications printedabroad and even the revolutionary manifestoes which were justbeginning to appear at the time (she was able to procure them all);but this only set her head in a whirl. She fell to writing letters;she got few answers, and they grew more incomprehensible as timewent on. Stepan Trofimovitch was solemnly called upon to explain“these ideas” to her once for all, but she remaineddistinctly dissatisfied with his explanations.
Stepan Trofimovitch’s view of the general movement wassupercilious in the extreme. In his eyes all it amounted to wasthat he was forgotten and of no use. At last his name wasmentioned, atfirst in periodicals published abroad as that of anexiled martyr, and immediately afterwards in Petersburg as that ofa former star in a celebrated constellation. He was even for somereason compared with Radishtchev. Then someone printed thestatement that he was dead and promised an obituary notice of him.Stepan Trofimovitch instantly perked up and assumed an air ofimmense dignity. All his disdain for his contemporaries evaporatedand he began to cherish the dream of joining the movement andshowing his powers. Varvara Petrovna’s faith in everythinginstantly revived and she was thrown into a violent ferment. It wasdecided to go to Petersburg without a moment’s delay, to findout everything on the spot, to go into everything personally, and,if possible, to throw themselves heart and soul into the newmovement. Among other things she announced that she was prepared tofound a magazine of her own, and henceforward to devote her wholelife to it. Seeing what it had come to, Stepan Trofimovitch becamemore condescending than ever, and on the journey began to behavealmost patronisingly toVarvara Petrovna—which she at oncelaid up in her heart against him. She had, however, another veryimportant reason for the trip, which was to renew her connectionsin higher spheres. It was necessary, as far as she could, to remindthe world of her existence, or at any rate to make an attempt to doso. The ostensible object of the journey was to see her only son,who was just finishing his studies at a Petersburg lyceum.
They spent almost the whole winter season in Petersburg. But byLent everything burst like a rainbow-coloured soap-bubble.
Their dreams were dissipated, and the muddle, far from beingcleared up, had become even more revoltingly incomprehensible. Tobegin with, connections with the higher spheres were notestablished, or only on a microscopic scale, and by humiliatingexertions. In her mortification Varvara Petrovna threw herselfheart and soul into the “new ideas,” and began givingevening receptions.She invited literary people, and they werebrought to her at once in multitudes. Afterwards they came ofthemselves without invitation, one brought another. Never had sheseen such literary men. They were incredibly vain, but quite openin their vanity, asthough they were performing a duty by thedisplay of it. Some (but by no means all) of them even turned upintoxicated, seeming, however, to detect in this a peculiar, onlyrecently discovered, merit. They were all strangely proud ofsomething. On every face was written that they had only justdiscovered some extremely important secret. They abused oneanother, and took credit to themselves for it. It was ratherdifficult to find out what they had written exactly, but among themthere were critics, novelists, dramatists, satirists, and exposersof abuses. Stepan Trofimovitch penetrated into their very highestcircle from which the movement was directed. Incredible heights hadto be scaled to reach this group; but they gave him a cordialwelcome, though, ofcourse, no one of them had ever heard of him orknew anything about him except that he “represented anidea.” His manœuvres among them were so successful thathe got them twice to Varvara Petrovna’s salon in spite oftheir Olympian grandeur. These people were very serious and verypolite; they behaved nicely; the others were evidently afraid ofthem; but it was obvious that they had no time to spare. Two orthree former literary celebrities who happened to be in Petersburg,and with whom Varvara Petrovna had long maintained a most refinedcorrespondence, came also. But to her surprise these genuine andquite indubitable celebrities were stiller than water, humbler thanthe grass, and some of them simply hung on to this new rabble, andwere shamefully cringing before them. At first Stepan Trofimovitchwas a success. People caught at him and began to exhibit him atpublic literary gatherings. The first time he came on to theplatform at some public reading in which he was to take part, hewas received with enthusiastic clapping which lasted for fiveminutes. He recalled this with tears nine years afterwards, thoughrather from his natural artistic sensibility than from gratitude.“I swear, and I’m ready to bet,” he declared (butonly to me, and in secret), “thatnot one of that audienceknew anything whatever about me.” A noteworthy admission. Hemust have had a keen intelligence since he was capable of graspinghis position so clearly even on the platform, even in such a stateof exaltation; it also follows thathe had not a keen intelligenceif, nine years afterwards, he could not recall it withoutmortification. He was made to sign two or three collective protests(against whathe did not know); he signed them. Varvara Petrovna toowas made to protest against some “disgraceful action”and she signed too. The majority of these new people, however,though they visited Varvara Petrovna, felt themselves for somereason called upon to regard her with contempt, and withundisguised irony. Stepan Trofimovitch hinted tome at bittermoments afterwards that it was from that time she had been enviousof him. She saw, of course, that she could not get on with thesepeople, yet she received them eagerly, with all the hystericalimpatience of her sex, and, what is more, she expected something.At her parties she talked little, although she could talk, but shelistened the more. They talked of the abolition of the censorship,and of phonetic spelling, of the substitution of the Latincharacters for the Russian alphabet, of someone’s having beensent into exile the day before, of some scandal, of the advantageof splitting Russia into nationalities united in a free federation,of the abolition of the army and the navy, of the restoration ofPoland as far as the Dnieper, of the peasant reforms, and of themanifestoes, of the abolition of the hereditary principle, of thefamily, of children, and of priests, of women’s rights, ofKraevsky’s house, for which no one ever seemed able toforgive Mr. Kraevsky, and so on, and so on. It wasevident that inthis mob of new people there were many impostors, but undoubtedlythere were also many honest and very attractive people, in spite ofsome surprising characteristics in them. The honest ones were farmore difficult to understand than the coarse and dishonest, but itwas impossible to tell which was being made a tool of by the other.When Varvara Petrovna announced her idea of founding a magazine,people flocked to her in even larger numbers, but charges of beinga capitalist and an exploiter of labour were showered upon her toher face. The rudeness of these accusations was only equalled bytheir unexpectedness. The aged General Ivan Ivanovitch Drozdov, anold friend and comrade of the late General Stavrogin’s, knownto us all here as an extremely stubborn and irritable, though veryestimable, man (in his own way, of course), who ate a great deal,and was dreadfully afraid of atheism, quarrelled at one of VarvaraPetrovna’s parties with a distinguished young man. The latterat the first wordexclaimed, “You must be a general if youtalk like that,” meaning that he could find no word of abuseworse than “general.”
Ivan Ivanovitch flew into a terrible passion: “Yes, sir, Iam a general, and a lieutenant-general, and I have served my Tsar,and you, sir, are a puppy and an infidel!”
An outrageous scene followed. Next day the incident was exposedin print, and they began getting up a collective protest againstVarvara Petrovna’s disgraceful conduct in not havingimmediately turned the general out. In an illustrated paper thereappeared a malignant caricature in which Varvara Petrovna, StepanTrofimovitch, and General Drozdov were depicted as threereactionary friends. There were verses attached to this caricaturewritten by a popular poet especiallyfor the occasion. I mayobserve, for my own part, that many persons of general’s rankcertainly have an absurd habit of saying, “I have served myTsar” … just as though they had not the same Tsar asall the rest of us, their simple fellow-subjects, but hada specialTsar of their own.
It was impossible, of course, to remain any longer inPetersburg, all the more so as Stepan Trofimovitch was overtaken bya complete fiasco. He could not resist talking of the claims ofart, and they laughed at him more loudlyas time went on. At hislast lecture he thought to impress them with patriotic eloquence,hoping to touch their hearts, and reckoning onthe respect inspiredby his “persecution.” He did not attempt to dispute theuselessness and absurdity of the word “fatherland,”acknowledged the pernicious influence of religion, but firmly andloudly declared that boots were of less consequence than Pushkin;of much less, indeed. He was hissed so mercilessly that he burstinto tears, there and then, on the platform. Varvara Petrovna tookhim home more dead than alive.“On m’a traité commeun vieux bonnet de coton,”he babbled senselessly. She waslooking after him all night, giving him laurel-drops and repeatingto him till daybreak, “You will still be of use; you willstill make your mark; you will be appreciated … in anotherplace.”
Early next morning five literary men called on Varvara Petrovna,three of them complete strangers, whom she had never set eyes onbefore. With a stern air they informed her that they had lookedinto the question of her magazine, and had brought her theirdecision on the subject. Varvara Petrovna had never authorisedanyone to look into or decide anything concerning her magazine.Their decision was that, having founded the magazine, she shouldatonce hand it over to them with the capital to run it, on the basisof a co-operative society. She herself was to go back toSkvoreshniki, not forgetting to take with her Stepan Trofimovitch,who was “out of date.” From delicacy they agreed torecognisethe right of property in her case, and to send her everyyear a sixth part of the net profits. What was most touching aboutit was that of these five men, four certainly were not actuated byany mercenary motive, and were simply acting in the interests ofthe“cause.”
“We came away utterly at a loss,” StepanTrofimovitch used to say afterwards. “I couldn’t makehead or tail of it, and kept muttering, I remember, to the rumbleof the train:
‘Vyek, and vyek, and Lyov Kambek, Lyov Kambek and vyek, and vyek.’
and goodness knows what, all the way to Moscow. It was only inMoscow that I came to myself—as though we really might findsomething different there.”
“Oh, my friends!” he would exclaim to us sometimeswith fervour, “you cannot imagine what wrath andsadnessovercome your whole soul when a great idea, which you have longcherished as holy, is caught up by the ignorant and dragged forthbefore fools like themselves into the street, and you suddenly meetit in the market unrecognisable, in the mud, absurdly set up,without proportion, without harmony, the plaything of foolishlouts! No! In our day it was not so, and it was not this for whichwe strove. No, no, not this at all. I don’t recogniseit.… Our day will come again and will turn all thetotteringfabric of to-day into a true path. If not, what willhappen?…”
Immediately on their return from Petersburg Varvara Petrovnasent her friend abroad to “recruit”; and, indeed, itwas necessary for them to part for a time, she felt that.StepanTrofimovitch was delighted to go.
“There I shall revive!” he exclaimed. “There,at last, I shall set to work!” But in the first of hisletters from Berlin he struck his usual note:
“My heart is broken!” he wrote to Varvara Petrovna.“I can forget nothing!Here, in Berlin, everything brings backto me my old past, my first raptures and my first agonies. Where isshe? Where are they both? Where are you two angels of whom I wasnever worthy? Where is my son, my beloved son? And last of all,where am I, where is my old self, strong as steel, firm as a rock,when now some Andreev, our orthodox clown with a beard,peut brisermon existence en deux”—and so on.
As for Stepan Trofimovitch’s son, he had only seen himtwice in his life, the first time when he was bornand the secondtime lately in Petersburg, where the young man was preparing toenter the university. The boy had been all his life, as we havesaid already, brought up by his aunts (at Varvara Petrovna’sexpense) in a remote province, nearly six hundred miles fromSkvoreshniki. As for Andreev, he was nothing more or less than ourlocal shopkeeper, a very eccentric fellow, a self-taughtarchæologist who had a passion for collecting Russianantiquities and sometimes tried to outshine Stepan Trofimovitch inerudition and in the progressiveness of his opinions. This worthyshopkeeper, with a grey beard and silver-rimmed spectacles, stillowed Stepan Trofimovitch four hundred roubles for some acres oftimber he had bought on the latter’s little estate (nearSkvoreshniki). Though Varvara Petrovna had liberally provided herfriend with funds when she sent him to Berlin, yet StepanTrofimovitch had, before starting, particularly reckoned on gettingthat four hundred roubles, probably for his secret expenditure, andwas ready to cry when Andreev asked leave to defer payment for amonth, which he had a right to do, since he had brought the firstinstallments of the money almost six months in advance to meetStepan Trofimovitch’s special need at the time.
Varvara Petrovna read this first letter greedily, andunderlining in pencil the exclamation: “Where are theyboth?” numbered it and put it away in a drawer. He had, ofcourse, referred to his two deceased wives. The second letter shereceived from Berlin was in a different strain:
“I am working twelve hours out of the twenty-four.”(“Eleven would be enough,” muttered Varvara Petrovna.)“I’m rummaging in the libraries, collating, copying,rushing about. I’ve visited the professors. I have renewed myacquaintance with the delightful Dundasov family. What a charmingcreature Lizaveta Nikolaevna is even now! She sends you hergreetings. Her young husband and three nephews are all in Berlin. Isit up talking till daybreak with the young people and we havealmost Athenian evenings, Athenian, I mean, only in theirintellectual subtlety and refinement. Everything is in noble style;a great deal of music, Spanish airs, dreams of the regeneration ofall humanity, ideas of eternal beauty, of the Sistine Madonna,light interspersed with darkness, but there are spots even on thesun! Oh, my friend, my noble, faithful friend! In heart I am withyou and am yours; with you alone, always,en tout pays, even inlepays de Makar et de ses veaux, of which we often used to talk inagitation in Petersburg, do you remember, before we came away. Ithink of it with a smile. Crossing the frontier I felt myself insafety, a sensation, strange and new, for the first time after somany years”—and so on and so on.
“Come, it’s all nonsense!” Varvara Petrovnacommented, folding up that letter too. “If he’s up tilldaybreak with his Athenian nights, he isn’t at his books fortwelve hours a day. Was he drunk when he wrote it? That Dundasovwoman dares to send me greetings! But there, let him amusehimself!”
The phrase “dans le pays de Makar et de ses veaux”meant: “wherever Makar may drive his calves.” StepanTrofimovitch sometimes purposely translated Russian proverbs andtraditional sayings into French in the most stupid way, though nodoubt he was able to understand and translate them better. But hedid it from a feeling that it was chic, and thought it witty.
But he did not amuse himself for long. He could not hold out forfour months, and was soon flying back to Skvoreshniki. His lastletters consisted of nothing but outpourings of the mostsentimental love for his absent friend, and were literally wet withtears. There are natures extremely attached to home like lap-dogs.The meeting of the friends was enthusiastic. Within two dayseverything was as beforeand even duller than before. “Myfriend,” Stepan Trofimovitch said to me a fortnight after, indead secret, “I have discovered something awful for me… something new:je suis un simpledependent,et rien de plus!Mais r-r-rien de plus.”
After this wehad a period of stagnation which lasted nine years.The hysterical outbreaks and sobbings on my shoulder that recurredat regular intervals did not in the least mar our prosperity. Iwonder that Stepan Trofimovitch did not grow stout during thisperiod. His nose was a little redder, and his manner had gained inurbanity, that was all. By degrees a circle of friends had formedaround him, although it was never a very large one. ThoughVarvaraPetrovna had little to do with the circle, yet we all recognisedher as our patroness. After the lesson she had received inPetersburg, she settled down in our town for good. In winter shelived in her town house and spent the summer on her estate in theneighbourhood. She had never enjoyed so much consequence andprestige in our provincial society as during the last seven yearsof this period, that is up to the time of the appointment of ourpresent governor. Our former governor, the mild Ivan Ossipovitch,who will never be forgotten among us, was a near relation ofVarvara Petrovna’s, and had at one time been underobligations to her. His wife trembled at the very thought ofdispleasing her, while the homage paid her by provincial societywas carried almost to a pitch that suggested idolatry. So StepanTrofimovitch, too,had a good time. He was a member of the club,lost at cards majestically, and was everywhere treated withrespect, though many people regarded him only as a “learnedman.” Later on, when Varvara Petrovna allowed him to live ina separate house, we enjoyedgreater freedom than before. Twice aweek we used to meet at his house. We were a merry party,especially when he was not sparing of the champagne. The wine camefrom the shop of the same Andreev. The bill was paid twice a yearby Varvara Petrovna, and onthe day it was paid Stepan Trofimovitchalmost invariably suffered from an attack of his “summercholera.”
One of the first members of our circle was Liputin, an elderlyprovincial official, and a great liberal, who was reputed in thetown to be an atheist. He had married for the second time a youngand pretty wife with a dowry, and had, besides, three grown-updaughters. He brought up his family in the fear of God, and kept atight hand over them. He was extremely stingy, and out of hissalary had boughthimself a house and amassed a fortune. He was anuncomfortable sort of man, and had not been in the service. He wasnot much respected in the town, and was not received in the bestcircles. Moreover, he was a scandal-monger, and had more than oncehad to smart for his back-biting, for which he had been badlypunished by an officer, and again by a country gentleman, therespectable head of a family. But we liked his wit, his inquiringmind, his peculiar, malicious liveliness. Varvara Petrovna dislikedhim, but he always knew how to make up to her.
Nor did she care for Shatov, who became one of our circle duringthe last years of this period. Shatov had been a student and hadbeen expelled from the university after some disturbance. In hischildhood he had been a student of Stepan Trofimovitch’s andwas by birth a serf of Varvara Petrovna’s, the son of aformer valet of hers, Pavel Fyodoritch, and was greatly indebted toher bounty. She disliked him for his pride and ingratitude andcould never forgive him fornot having come straight to her on hisexpulsion from the university. On the contrary he had not evenanswered the letter she had expressly sent him at the time, andpreferred to be a drudge in the family of a merchant of the newstyle, with whom he went abroad, looking after his children more inthe position of a nurse than of a tutor. He was very eager totravel at the time. The children had a governess too, a livelyyoung Russian lady, who also became one of the household on the eveof their departure, and had been engaged chiefly because she was socheap. Two months later the merchant turned her out of the housefor “free thinking.” Shatov took himself off after herand soon afterwards married her in Geneva. They lived togetherabout three weeks, and then parted as free people recognising nobonds, though, no doubt, also through poverty. He wanderedaboutEurope alone for a long time afterwards, living God knows how; heis said to have blacked boots in the street, and to have been aporter in some dockyard. At last, a year before, he had returned tohis native place among us and settled with an old aunt, whom heburied a month later. His sister Dasha, who had also been broughtup by Varvara Petrovna, was a favourite of hers, and treated withrespect and consideration in her house. He saw his sister rarelyand was not on intimate terms with her. In our circle he was alwayssullen, and never talkative; but from time to time, when hisconvictions were touched upon, he became morbidly irritable andvery unrestrained in his language.
“One has to tie Shatov up and then argue with him,”Stepan Trofimovitch would sometimes say in joke, but he likedhim.
Shatov had radically changed some of his former socialisticconvictions abroad and had rushed to the opposite extreme. He wasone of those idealistic beings common in Russia, who are suddenlystruck by some overmastering idea which seems, as it were, to crushthem at once, and sometimes forever. They are never equal to copingwith it, but put passionate faith in it, and their whole lifepasses afterwards, as it were, in the last agonies under the weightof the stone that has fallen upon them and half crushed them. Inappearance Shatov was in complete harmony with his convictions: hewas short, awkward, had a shock of flaxen hair, broad shoulders,thick lips, very thick overhanging white eyebrows, a wrinkledforehead, and a hostile, obstinately downcast, as it wereshamefaced, expression in his eyes. His hair was always in a wildtangle and stood up in a shock which nothing could smooth. He wasseven- or eight-and-twenty.
“I no longer wonder that his wife ran away fromhim,” Varvara Petrovna enunciated on one occasion aftergazing intently at him. He tried to be neat in his dress, in spiteof his extreme poverty. He refrained again from appealing toVarvara Petrovna, and struggled along as best he could, doingvarious jobs for tradespeople. At one time he served in a shop, atanother he was on the point of going as an assistant clerk on afreight steamer, but he fell ill just at the time of sailing. It ishard to imagine what poverty he was capable of enduring withoutthinking about it at all. After his illness Varvara Petrovna senthim a hundred roubles, anonymously and in secret. He found out thesecret, however, and after some reflection took the money and wentto Varvara Petrovna to thank her. She received him with warmth, buton this occasion, too, he shamefully disappointed her. He onlystayed five minutes, staring blankly at the ground and smilingstupidly in profoundsilence, and suddenly, at the most interestingpoint, without listening to what she was saying, he got up, made anuncouth sideways bow, helpless with confusion, caught against thelady’s expensive inlaid work-table, upsetting it on the floorand smashingit to atoms, and walked out nearly dead with shame.Liputin blamed him severely afterwards for having accepted thehundred roubles and having even gone to thank Varvara Petrovna forthem, instead of having returned the money with contempt, becauseit hadcome from his former despotic mistress. He lived in solitudeon the outskirts of the town, and did not like any of us to go andsee him. He used to turn up invariably at StepanTrofimovitch’s evenings, and borrowed newspapers and booksfrom him.
There wasanother young man who always came, one Virginsky, aclerk in the service here, who had something in common with Shatov,though on the surface he seemed his complete opposite in everyrespect. He was a “family man” too. He was a patheticand very quiet young man though he was thirty; he had considerableeducation though he was chiefly self-taught. He was poor, married,and in the service, and supported the aunt and sister of his wife.His wife and all the ladies of his family professed the very latestconvictions, but in rather a crude form. It was a case of “anidea dragged forth into the street,” as Stepan Trofimovitchhad expressed it upon a former occasion. They got it all out ofbooks, and at the first hint coming from any of our littleprogressive corners in Petersburg they were prepared to throwanything overboard, so soon as they were advised to do so. MadameVirginsky practised as a midwife in the town. She had lived a longwhile in Petersburg as a girl. Virginsky himself was a man of raresingle-heartedness, and I have seldom met more honest fervour.
“I will never, never, abandon these bright hopes,”he used to say to me with shining eyes. Of these “brighthopes” he always spoke quietly, in a blissful half-whisper,as it were secretly. He was rather tall, but extremely thin andnarrow-shouldered, and had extraordinarily lank hair of a reddishhue. All Stepan Trofimovitch’s condescending gibes at some ofhis opinions he accepted mildly, answered him sometimes veryseriously, and often nonplussed him. Stepan Trofimovitch treatedhim very kindly, and indeed he behaved like a father to all of us.“You are all half-hearted chickens,” he observed toVirginsky in joke. “All who are like you, though in you,Virginsky, I have not observed that narrow-mindednessI found inPetersburg,chez ces séminaristes. But you’re ahalf-hatched chicken all the same. Shatov would give anything tohatch out, but he’s half-hatched too.”
“And I?” Liputin inquired.
“You’re simply the golden mean which will get onanywhere in its own way.” Liputin was offended.
The story was told of Virginsky, and it was unhappily only tootrue, that before his wife had spent a year in lawful wedlock withhim she announced that he was superseded and that she preferredLebyadkin. This Lebyadkin, a stranger to the town, turned outafterwards to be a very dubious character, and not a retiredcaptain as he represented himself to be. He could do nothing buttwist his moustache, drink, and chatter the most inept nonsensethat can possibly be imagined. Thisfellow, who was utterly lackingin delicacy, at once settled in his house, glad to live at anotherman’s expense, ate and slept there and came, in the end, totreating the master of the house with condescension. It wasasserted that when Virginsky’s wifehad announced to him thathe was superseded he said to her:
“My dear, hitherto I have only loved you, but now Irespect you,” but I doubt whether this renunciation, worthyof ancient Rome, was ever really uttered. On the contrary they saythat he wept violently. A fortnight after he was superseded, all ofthem, in a “family party,” went one day for a picnic toa wood outside the town to drink tea with their friends. Virginskywas in a feverishly lively mood and took part in the dances. Butsuddenly, withoutany preliminary quarrel, he seized the giantLebyadkin with both hands, by thehair, just as the latter wasdancing a can-can solo, pushed him down, and began dragging himalong with shrieks, shouts, and tears. The giant was sopanic-stricken that he didnot attempt to defend himself, and hardlyuttered a sound all the time he was being dragged along. Butafterwards he resented it with all the heat of an honourable man.Virginsky spent a whole night on his knees begging his wife’sforgiveness. But this forgiveness was not granted, as he refused toapologise to Lebyadkin; moreover, he was upbraided for the meannessof his ideas and his foolishness, the latter charge based on thefact that he knelt down in the interview with his wife. The captainsoon disappeared and did not reappear in our town till quitelately, when he came with his sister, and with entirely differentaims; but of him later. It was no wonder that the poor younghusband sought our society and found comfort in it. But he neverspoke of his home-life to us. On one occasion only, returning withme from Stepan Trofimovitch’s, he made a remote allusion tohis position, but clutching my hand at once he cried ardently:
“It’s of no consequence. It’s only a personalincident. It’s no hindrance to the‘cause,’ notthe slightest!”
Stray guests visited our circle too; a Jew, called Lyamshin, anda Captain Kartusov came. An old gentleman of inquiring mind used tocome at one time, but he died. Liputin brought an exiled Polishpriest called Slontsevsky, andfor a time we received him onprinciple, but afterwards we didn’t keep it up.
At one time it was reported about the town that our littlecircle was a hotbed of nihilism, profligacy, and godlessness, andthe rumour gained more and more strength. And yetwe did nothing butindulge in the most harmless, agreeable, typically Russian,light-hearted liberal chatter. “The higher liberalism”and the “higher liberal,” that is, a liberal withoutany definite aim, is only possible in Russia.
Stepan Trofimovitch, like every witty man, needed a listener,and, besides that, he needed the consciousness that he wasfulfilling the lofty duty of disseminating ideas. And finally hehad to have someone to drink champagne with, and over the wine toexchange light-hearted views of a certain sort, about Russia andthe “Russian spirit,” about God in general, and the“Russian God” in particular, to repeat for thehundredth time the same Russian scandalous stories that every oneknew and every one repeated. We had no distaste forthe gossip ofthe town which often, indeed, led us to the most severe and loftilymoral verdicts. We fell into generalising about humanity, madestern reflections on the future of Europe and mankind in general,authoritatively predicted that after CæsarismFrance would atonce sink into the position of a second-rate power, and were firmlyconvinced that this might terribly easily and quickly come to pass.We had long ago predicted that the Pope would play the part of asimple archbishop in a united Italy, and were firmly convinced thatthis thousand-year-old question had, in our age of humanitarianism,industry, and railways, become a trifling matter. But, of course,“Russian higher liberalism” could not look at thequestion in any other way. Stepan Trofimovitch sometimes talked ofart, and very well, though rather abstractly. He sometimes spoke ofthe friends of his youth—all namesnoteworthy in the historyof Russian progress. He talked of them with emotion and reverence,though sometimes with envy. If we were very much bored, the Jew,Lyamshin (a little post-office clerk), a wonderful performer on thepiano, sat down to play, and in the intervals would imitate a pig,a thunderstorm, a confinement with the first cry of the baby, andso on, and so on; it wasonly for this that he was invited, indeed.If we had drunk a great deal—and that did happen sometimes,though not often—we flew into raptures, and even on oneoccasion sang the “Marseillaise” in chorus to theaccompaniment of Lyamshin, though I don’t knowhow it wentoff. The great day, the nineteenth of February, we welcomedenthusiastically, and for a long time beforehand drank toasts inits honour. But that was long ago, before the advent of Shatov orVirginsky, when Stepan Trofimovitch was still livingin the samehouse with Varvara Petrovna. For some time before the great dayStepan Trofimovitch fell into the habit of muttering to himselfwell-known, though rather far-fetched, lines which must have beenwritten by some liberal landowner of the past:
“The peasant with his axe is coming,Something terriblewill happen.”
Something of that sort, I don’t remember the exact words.Varvara Petrovna overheard him on one occasion, and crying,“Nonsense, nonsense!” she went out of the room in arage. Liputin, whohappened to be present, observed malignantly toStepan Trofimovitch:
“It’ll be a pity if their former serfs really dosome mischief tomessieurs leslandowners to celebrate theoccasion,” and he drew his forefinger round his throat.
“Cher ami,” Stepan Trofimovitch observed,“believe me that—this (he repeated the gesture) willnever be of any use to our landowners nor to any of us in general.We shall never be capable of organising anything even without ourheads, though our heads hinder our understanding more thananything.”
I may observe that many people among us anticipated thatsomething extraordinary, such as Liputin predicted, would takeplace on the day of the emancipation, and those who held this viewwere the so-called “authorities” on the peasantryandthe government. I believe Stepan Trofimovitch shared this idea, somuch so that almost on the eve of the great day he began askingVarvara Petrovna’s leave to go abroad; in fact he began to beuneasy. But the great day passed, and some time passed after it,and the condescending smile reappeared on StepanTrofimovitch’s lips. In our presence he delivered himself ofsome noteworthy thoughts on the character of the Russian ingeneral, and the Russian peasant in particular.
“Like hasty people we have beenin too great a hurry withour peasants,” he said in conclusion of a series ofremarkable utterances. “We have made them the fashion, and awhole section of writers have for several years treated them asthough they were newly discovered curiosities. We have putlaurel-wreaths on lousy heads. The Russian village has given usonly ‘Kamarinsky’ in a thousand years. A remarkableRussian poet who was also something of a wit, seeing the greatRachel on the stage for the first time cried in ecstasy, ‘Iwouldn’t exchange Rachel for a peasant!’ I am preparedto go further. I would give all the peasants in Russia for oneRachel. It’s high time to look things in the face moresoberly, and not to mix up our national rustic pitch withbouquet del’Impératrice.”
Liputin agreed at once, but remarked that one had to perjureoneself and praise the peasant all the same for the sake of beingprogressive, that even ladies in good society shed tears reading“Poor Anton,” and that some of them even wrote fromParis to their bailiffs that they were, henceforward, to treat thepeasants as humanely as possible.
It happened, and as ill-luck would have it just after therumours of the Anton Petrov affair had reached us, that there wassome disturbance in our province too, only about tenmiles fromSkvoreshniki, so that a detachment of soldiers was sent down in ahurry.
This time Stepan Trofimovitch was so much upset that he evenfrightened us. He cried out at the club that more troops wereneeded, that they ought to be telegraphed for from anotherprovince; he rushed off to the governor to protest that he had nohand in it, begged him not to allow his name on account of oldassociations to be brought into it, and offered to write about hisprotest to the proper quarter in Petersburg. Fortunately it allpassed over quickly and ended in nothing, but I was surprised atStepan Trofimovitch at the time.
Three years later, as every one knows, people were beginning totalk of nationalism, and “public opinion” first cameupon the scene. Stepan Trofimovitch laughed a great deal.
“My friends,” he instructed us, “if ournationalism has ‘dawned’ as they keep repeating in thepapers—it’s still at school, at some German‘Peterschule,’ sitting over a German book and repeatingits everlasting German lesson, and its German teacher will make itgo down on its knees when he thinks fit. I think highly of theGerman teacher. But nothing has happened and nothing of the kindhas dawned and everything is going on in the old way, that is, asordained by God. To my thinking that should be enough forRussia,pour notre Sainte Russie. Besides, all this Slavism andnationalism is too old to be new. Nationalism, if you like, hasnever existed among us except as a distraction forgentlemen’s clubs, and Moscow ones at that.I’m nottalking of the days of Igor, of course. And besides it all comes ofidleness. Everything in Russia comes of idleness, everything goodand fine even. It all springs from the charming, cultured,whimsical idleness of our gentry! I’m ready to repeatit forthirty thousand years. We don’t know how to live by our ownlabour. And as for the fuss they’re making now about the‘dawn’ of some sort of public opinion, has it sosuddenly dropped from heaven without any warning? How is it theydon’t understand that before we can have an opinion of ourown we must have work, our own work, our own initiative in things,our own experience. Nothing is to be gained for nothing. If we workwe shall have an opinion of our own. But as we never shall work,our opinions will be formed for us by those who have hitherto donethe work instead of us, that is, as always, Europe, the everlastingGermans—our teachers for the last two centuries. Moreover,Russia is too big a tangle for us to unravel alone without theGermans, and without hard work. For the last twenty yearsI’ve been sounding the alarm, and the summons to work.I’ve given up my life to that appeal, and, in my folly I putfaith in it. Now I have lost faith in it, but I sound the alarmstill, and shall sound it to thetomb. I will pull at the bell-ropesuntil they toll for my own requiem!”