A short lane with two or three houses crosses the town of N.'s main street and ends in a sharp slope, nearly a ravine, down to a brook. Although this brook is considered a river and is even mentioned in geography textbooks, it's sizeable only during the spring flooding; in the summer its waters barely have reached far enough to irrigate the vegetable gardens along the sloping side of the ravine. For the passerby who is weary of all the dust, who has stumbled on the pitted brick sidewalk from Bolshaya Street, seeing nothing ahead except more huge clouds of dust, the greenery of the lane's most distant depths along the slope comfortingly catches the eye. There was a garden here with large linden trees, flowering lilacs, and a wall of acacias. A house adjoined the garden, dissimilar to the other homes in N.—spacious, beautiful, and small but with large windows and an attic in the form of a glass tower—more a summer cottage than an urban home but without the colorful decorations usually affixed to the building to lend an appearance of country simplicity. True, a sign with large radiant letters on a black background extended along the cornice, yet it didn't ruin the general impression but just attracted attention from a distance: Atelier Photographique—accompanied by a more diminutive explanation for the majority of N.'s populace over the entry doorway: "Rudolf Liebmeier, Photographer." A balcony faced out over the garden. The glass tower also had a balcony, and a narrow exterior staircase linked them together. In the bright open air among all the greenery, it was elegant.
The balconies also were adorned with greenery and potted flowers. On the lower of them, two men drank coffee and smoked at a table with newspapers and journals. One of them was the host—blonde, tall, handsome, very talkative, and cheerful—he wore his hair parted on two sides and was dressed in something made of black velvet, a kind of smock without a belt, some sort of imitation of an artist's apparel of the Middle Ages. It underscored the fact that he was handsome and flaunting it. He was thirty years old. His guest seemed older, perhaps because of the weariness noticeable in his unevenly pale face. When he smiled at his host's constant laughter, it was done somehow mechanically, distractedly; and his eyes did not laugh. He was finely dressed, though a little carelessly, with a bag over his shoulder like a traveler. His name was Aiarov. He had known Liebmeier for a long time, though not especially closely, and had last seen him seven years ago. Aiarov had stayed in N. then when he was passing through on his way to Moscow. Liebmeier was just now mentioning this last meeting.
"Don't you see, you said that you were leaving forever!" he exclaimed cheerfully. "It's impossible to predict anything ahead of time. I don't want to believe that you'll be here only until evening, that you'll leave on the first night train, again ‘forever.' Why did you come?"
"To see if your N. was still in the same place," Aiarov replied.
"Impossible! Of course, you wanted to see your old friends...."
"God help me, there's no one."
"So an exception was made for me?"
"How did you end up here?"
"It's your fault!" Liebmeier replied even more cheerfully and laughed even louder. He really had a cheerful character, but he also had learned how to laugh to enliven the physiognomies of his customers.
"It's your fault—you, my good man! At our last meeting in Moscow—you'd from there to go to N., and you'd denounced it, the unfortunate place, with all your might—do you remember? I was living poorly at the time—there's nothing to hide. I thought: Why not look for happiness there, where others have fled?"
"A fantasy," noted Aiarov.
"A wild fantasy," said Liebmeier, "but wilderness, extremes, oddities—this is all still the unknown and mysterious; it's fate! I decided to put my hand into the mysterious font and... as you can see: I traveled here with little, almost with nothing, and in seven years—my house, my garden, and carriage; I think... this is all I need for happiness."
"Is it really possible to earn so much just from photographs?"
"You've got to have luck. Then again, you've got to please the public. I visited the only photographer here... and to do him justice: he was an expert; he'd been to London. But it takes no experience to understand the public here. I struggled here with the last one, as only I could. Then even he cleared out. I bought his instruments from him, too, as I wouldn't have managed to do in Moscow... because, where would he dispose of them besides giving them to me? It was good luck! As soon as I was on my own, I presented myself. The public here had seen nothing like it their whole lives: my methodology, conversation... But added to this, my uncle in Frankfurt died..."
"Was that good luck?" Aiarov repeated.
"Yes!" Liebmeier said and laughed. "No, but what of it? I didn't even know him; I was born in Russia... I got a little from him, of course, so there was some support anyway. And, as I told you, I'm alone here; I'm known and loved.... You've really been too exacting toward society here; I met people just as—after you'd left; there's really nothing...."
"Absolutely nothing, I agree with you," Aiarov responded. "But our positions are different. You only make portraits, but I had to do business with these people. Look, that grand gentleman, for example, who hangs in a gold frame in your drawing room; I'm not an important personage, but I'm sure he wasn't displeased when I decided to abandon my job here and leave. By the way, what's he doing in your home?"
Liebmeier looked hastily in the direction of the flower garden. The guest had touched upon a sensitive issue. Mr. Head of the Province, depicted in all his finery, had left the photographer a copy of his portrait with an inscription in his own hand: "as a token of my sympathy for art and the artist," along with something else, rather long, less intelligible, but full of amicable goodwill, enlightened patronage, and overbearingly weighty jest. This portrait occupied a prominent place in the drawing room, and no one had ever dared to express anything similar to what this ex-judicial prosecutor—who apparently never had found anyplace accommodating to his disposition in all of the fatherland—now had uttered before it.... However, Liebmeier, did not feel any need to respond, and he seemingly had not heard the question. In the short interval of silence, Aiarov apparently had forgotten what he had asked. It seemed awkward to the host to remain silent.
"No, it's really not boring here," he began again, "especially recently. You know, society has been livening up again. Everyone still was very serious six or seven years ago. Now, everything somehow has fallen into place. There's dancing. There's theater, operettas. There's something to discuss with the ladies. But then, as you'll recall, there used to be some standoffishness.... Ah, it was such fun just after I got established here—two young girls came to see me and asked me to teach them how to take photographs, but there was still very little of this: so I gave a little lecture on chemistry.... There were few enough of such undertakings. Now I recall it with amusement, but what didn't I at first suffer to an extreme! Sometimes, the chemical solutions, you'd take them out, and there were various beetles.... Really, what could I do! There was need! However, women's portraits were the most unpleasant of all. There always was black lustrine, without any little bow, pose, or expression. Always ‘strict simplicity' and this is a real punishment for an artist. You just somehow want to adjust the lighting, seating—and they exclaim: ‘That's unnatural!' That's was art here and how it vwas realized...."
"And now?" asked Aiarov.
"Oh, now, there's no comparison! You wouldn't recognize the ladies; they've livened up; there's beauty again and fine clothes. Now there's freedom for the artist. I'll show you...."
"Do you keep the portraits you make?" asked Aiarov hurriedly.
"The remarkable ones, for collections."
"What kind of collections?"
"Collections? For sale?"
"Well, yes. Don't you know the new trend? Yes, you do! Albums of beautiful little heads?"
"I had no idea."
"Really? That's impossible! For goodness sake.... Well, it's clear you've come from the Asiatic frontier! For goodness sake, this is a requisite now for a young man's office. Stereoscopes—-well, they're intimate, but these are albums for everyone...."
"I haven't seen any," Aiarov rejoined.
"How charming! Formerly, long ago, there were lithographs—-perhaps by Grevedon? But all of that was fantasy, and these are real, live. Open them up and feast your eyes—there are dozens!"
"Where do you get them?"
"Well it's simple: they are familiar, unfamiliar, beautiful and affecting faces. For example, I take a picture, and I see—a suitable face—so I work on that one a little more. We artist-photographers exchange them, supply one for another! They're bought up like hot cakes."
"And it's done so obviously, in the open?"
"So what? Well, yes! But, you know, it's done as if in the strictest confidence!"
"But meanwhile—for the entire world?"
"And no one tries to stop you?"
"Who is there to stop me?"
"Who? Their fathers, husbands, brothers...."
"Ah, but they themselves buy other people's wives, sisters and daughters!"
"But the women? How do they ensure that their faces will not end up with just anyone?"
"The women? For goodness sake! It's no longer those times! Formerly, they sometimes had their pictures taken with bobbed hair, but then they'd imperiously say: ‘I'd like you to destroy the negative.' I didn't even have any intention of saving it and only took the picture because it's my business and they pay me.... The beauty herself has a presentiment of why I'm so effectively seating and illuminating her, so she'll also assist, make adjustments, assume a particular facial expression, devise something; and then she herself is pleased.... And how successfully it turns out, such charm! Have you really never seen any? I'll show you some right now."
He was glad either for the opportunity to boast about his work or for the opportunity to occupy his guest with something.
"These are my specialties, women's faces and these collections," he continued with pride, stopping at the doors of the balcony. "You'll find a few of these even in Petersburg. I'm competing with foreigners. Look, what finishing touches, but I recommend... I'm not boasting.... But, here, take a look...."
Aiarov was left alone and paced back and forth on the balcony. From this height, he could see the distant expanses between the trees. Beyond the river, the cupolas of the churches gleamed; pigeons flew past with a flash of their wings. It was silent as if in the countryside.... Aiarov seemed to fall into deep thought. However, he was thinking about nothing, although this town where he had spent the first four years of his free youth could have reminded him of much. All the past, all his memories, all his youth, and all his life had ended yesterday evening. It hadn't even been a whole twenty-four hours yet. He still remained in shock under the weight of this ending....
Yesterday, he had been traveling by railway from a distant city to Petersburg. In the evening after dinner, at the station, where a branch of the railway goes on toward N. he heard one gentleman traveler say to another:
"Novoselov's become a widower."
These words seemed somehow strange to Aiarov, as if they weren't in Russian. It seemed as though his knees had grown cold, and someone had yanked his breath out of his chest. He understood absolutely nothing, neither the conversations around him nor their topics. He addressed the stranger:
"Who's become a widower?"
The gentleman glanced quizzically around at him. Many others did the same thing at that moment.
"My good friend, Ivan Petrovich Novoselov," he replied distinctly and not without some reproach toward the stranger who had permitted himself to intervene in someone else's conversation: "Novoselov."
"It can't be!"
"There's nothing anyone can do about it, that's just the way it is!" confirmed the traveler, smiling and shrugging his shoulders. "I myself accompanied his wife to her last domicile, the Dukhovsk Convent.... She died in March," he added, addressing his listeners, "and before long a monument will be erected; it already has arrived...."
Aiarov rose from the table, paid his bill, approached the ticket office, got himself a ticket and left to get seated in a car of the train to N., as it was ready to leave. He didn't know how and why he did this, but he did it all very calmly. He only forgot his traveling bag in the train to Petersburg; but the obliging conductor raced after him with it.
He remembered that he ought to pay for this service then he looked for a comfortable place in a corner of the car so he'd sleep better through the night. It was cool and somewhat damp, and rain swept across the windows. The passengers around him were sleeping soundly. However, Aiarov didn't even know there was anyone else in his car. No one sat next to him. He didn't sleep and looked out the window. The fields of young wheat stands sprawled grayish as steel; the belts of forest drew apart, one backward, another forward; the bend of a river gleamed like a piece of broken glass, reflecting a dark cloud in the yellow gleam of the lingering sunset; fog hovered over the marshes; there were black reeds, white pussy willows. The distant rolling expanse and soft blue plain sharply separated themselves from the pale sky. Suddenly everything disappeared behind an embankment; some shrubs appeared above it and raced by as if frightened; a grove extended to the very tracks; clouds of smoke rolled toward the earth, scattered, and like long phantoms floated away under the trees; whirling and trembling, sparks flew past....
Something began to thunder especially loudly, a bridge or an oncoming train.
"Oh! Hélène, où es-tu?" a frightened voice behind a pillow of the neighboring divan resounded still half-asleep.
"Elena....," uttered Aiarov, his head tossing on his pillow.
At eight o'clock in the morning, the town of N. appeared. The sun was bright, the sky was rosy, and the shadows were blue; golden belts of yellow flowers gleamed in a field, and the cries of larks rang out; in town the gardens darkened; the early drawn-out tolling of bells sounded. The passengers bustled about. Their fatigue seemed greater at the end of their trip; the dust and soot, the odors of something that had been burnt, dirt, oil, and rusted iron seemed even more repulsive; and the monotonous tracks and around them—the piles of debris and stones, the puddles, ruts, wasteland, and destruction—seemed even more tedious....
The locomotive again cried out plaintively; the last clouds of stormy gray smoke erupted into the sparkling air, and the passengers exited onto the platform of the large stone railway station.
Aiarov also exited. Seven years ago when he had left N. there still hadn't been any railroad. He no longer could recognize some places, and he didn't even see one familiar face in the crowd all around him. However, he didn't need anyone. He only remembered why he had come; all of the rest whirled before him like one of this past evening's fragmentary dreams.
"Do you want to stop over? The rooms are nice. Do you see, nearby, right across the way?" resounded near him when he exited onto the porch.
An innkeeper pointed to a large wooden building with a gilt sign.
"That's fine," Aiarov replied, mechanically giving his bag to him. "And when does the train leave here?"
"Where do you want to go?"
"The train to Moscow starts off now no earlier than one o'clock in the morning.... We have tea, coffee, dinner; you can get whatever you want. And if you want to leave—you'll have some help getting to the station...."
"Good. Perhaps you can give me a room...."
"I think so. It's the Hotel ‘Kazbek.' We have all kinds of rooms...."
"Good. I have to go into town first. I'll be back...."
He took a seat in a drozhky.
"To the Dukhovsk Convent."
He rode through familiar streets and recognized the aging homes. He wasn't in that strange mood which makes someone almost an outside observer, a derisive judge of his own actions, his own feelings, and his own past. For Aiarov, the past had just arrived; life had just died away, but it was still warm. He was tortured by an impatient sharp pain, a mortal torment... like that torment that it's said used to exist... in which he didn't want to believe, in which he did believe, and in which he had to be convinced....
He headed toward it.
When entering the enclosure, the thought occurred to him that he didn't know where she would be. But he didn't want to enquire. It didn't matter if he searched all day....
"She'll call to me...."
He smiled and walked on....
Probably she really did call....
There was a low embankment in the thick grass, a wooden cross, and on it was her name....
He now absolutely did not believe that she ever had lived, since everything was intact, everything was in its place, everything was in its own stupid order, and everything was gleaming, growing, and clamoring, but she.... She wasn't anywhere. Nowhere, nowhere, nowhere....
He stood up....
Seven years ago, he had left her as the happy wife of a beloved man; he withdrew from sight, thinking that it would be easier at a distance; he senselessly fell in love with others, but he still only loved her; he cherished this good and honest feeling inside himself, and it in turn protected him, never let him become petty, reminded him of his responsibility, and supported his courage.... "What romantic amusement!" someone might have said, if anyone had known about it....
He stood there and gazed, without trying to recall anything, not dully indifferent but calmly. Everything had ended. Her name was before his eyes; and it was as if she were here. Now, he was completely convinced. It was time to leave. Singing could be heard in the church; if someone comes....
He left then returned. He wanted to seize this knoll and take it away with him.
"Why is it so meager? Yes, true, one of these days a monument will be erected; it's already arrived...."
"But this suits her better; this way, it's simple...."
He suddenly felt pity, with a sickly, timid pity in which something dear becomes feeble, lesser.... He recalled how pale she had been... He softly and bitterly started to weep.
"Goodbye," he said aloud then paused again.
"Really, how can I take this with me?" He suddenly had an idea. Of course, there's a photographer here. Bring him here, get him to take a picture then take the negative...."
He glanced at his watch: it's ten o'clock in the morning! It's the right time.
He quickly found a photographic studio. However, an unexpected encounter here with a forgotten acquaintance, who had remembered him very well, had occurred as if by design. An unsympathetic and shallow acquaintance, now twice as unbearable. It would have been simple to make the request of a stranger. This man won't leave you alone; he'll begin guessing, start to force you into frankness.... Am I to bring him here? Bare my soul to him? He'll try to play some trick, too.... Well, to hell with him! And what an idea—a photograph from the grave! What an exalted, profane, and sentimental whim!
A petty, everyday annoyance had disturbed his emotion. It still existed as it had been, intact within his soul, but it had run into an obstacle. Evidently, such is the fate of every emotion. In order to hide it out of necessity, out of decorum, out of his own jealous fury, so that someone we don't want to know about it won't dare look for it; in order to pretend to be calm, occupied with business and other nonsense, even while the excuses of "not the time" and "not the place"—excuses created by someone else's indifference and by our own cowardly resistance—tear into our heart a little deeper, even while they seem logical to us, even while our secretly cherished egoism never rejoices in them, and while work and other nonsense absorb and devour not only our emotion but even the memory that we ever were capable of emotion....
Liebmeier returned, dragging a large portfolio.
"Here you go," he exclaimed solemnly. "There's one condition—if you admire some of them, take them for the beginning of your own album. What of it, you've gotten behind the times, for goodness sake! Allow me to enlighten you."
He bustled about, threw newspapers on the floor then opened the portfolio.
"Here are all kinds: cabinet, album, and groups. These are samples from which to choose. Take whichever one you'd like—do you see the number? By referring to it, as many as you'd like can be brought right away from my studio. Well now, how do you like them?"
Carried away by his enthusiasm, he scattered portraits all over the table. They were countless. This multitude produced a strange impression. It was as if there was a mob that had rushed in and crowded all around so that the observer could only become lost among them without succeeding in examining anything and could only became embarrassed amid the hundreds of gazes directed at him from all sides. They were always women and more women. Young and old, beautiful and ugly—who would take them! There were so many; it felt crowded because of them; faces, profiles, backs of heads, faces and backs of heads together, reflected in mirrors. Clouds of gloom protruded from them as though fragments of something made of stone—noses, foreheads, and wattles caught in electric light. An improbable multitude of huge eyes and improbably long lashes. Always white shoulders, elbows, and spines; arms crossed over chests, arms outstretched in embrace, fingers coquettishly threatening, fingers pointing at the heavens; the corresponding gazes—surprised, moved, promising, defiant, threatening, proud, languorous, sly, or gloomy; raptly pursed lips; little mouths puckered up for a kiss; an angrily scowling forehead on a head turned to the side; the end of a rounded nose sticking out from behind a plump raised shoulder; a smile and bared teeth; a head thrown back and eyes rolling upwards; a mouth, open for some unknown reason; a head, inclined reverentially in an attitude of prayer and with an endless neck exposed to the middle of the spine, in ringlets of cascading hair. Stacks of hair piled up and plaited; braided locks, topknots, bugles, chignons and frisures; bundles of flowers, ears of corn, grape vines with leaves and berries; feathers from all kinds of birds, skins from all kinds of beasts, stuffed birds and beasts on top of little caps and headdresses; mountains of drapery, sheets, lace, the hems of ruffled flounces and upright ruff collars; trains extending into infinity; close-fitting tunics; necklaces, lockets, clasps, chains, crowns, and floating veils....
"How do you like them?" the artist repeated.
Aiarov's eyes grew dim.
"Where did you get them?" he repeated.
"Ah, where! Really, it's hard to believe! They're all mine, from my practice. I call them: ‘my houri.' Well, they'll be needed for preparing a little exhibit for the guests from the East who will be passing through at the train station, since they're better.... Where are they from? From here, from the countryside. The countryside isn't a backwoods anymore now; progress has penetrated.... But you're still surprised that there are so many? There's nothing that can be done about it forI'll tell you my secret. Take a look forhere is one and the same individual in various poses. And then, this is the same woman, but you wouldn't know it. I changed her clothes, another expression; and I did some retouching—so a beautiful woman emerges from an ugly one.
"What kind of comedy is this?" asked Aiarov. "Can it be that they get their portraits taken just for your collection?"
"Why? No, I make them very willingly for them—three or four, as many as it happens to be. Look here, I have one blonde in four views. It's very pleasant to see yourself in different ways."
"But if the portraits aren't similar to each other, maybe they're not similar to their originals?"
"How would they be dissimilar? But then, they're taken from life! A photograph doesn't lie!"
"I don't understand... Perhaps, these here are one and the same individual?"
"Which ones? What are you saying! Or don't you see? One is a girl, and the other is a forty-year-old lady. But you're a layman, a layman, my dear man! You evidently have never looked at women?"
"So this is a mother and daughter? Sisters?"
Liebmeier started to laugh and waved his arms.
"They're not even related! Where did you even find any resemblance? In the expression? But the expression can be taken any way that you'd like...."
"Are these actually actresses?"
"Of course not. I've got some of those with me especially—I'll show you—in costumes, in the poses of their roles...."
"But why are these others putting on airs?"
"How are they putting on airs?" repeated the artist, a little offended.
For the first time, Aiarov almost sincerely started to laugh; the desire was so strong that he had to hide it.
"I meant to say....," he said, "in general, all of our women, and our provincial women of the middle strata in particular.... But then, do you have any women from the middle strata here for the most part?"
"All strata of society are here," Liebmeier replied with dignity.
"That's just what I was saying.... In general, the Russian woman is very rarely depicted in life, and she rarely has the opportunity to be depicted; her surroundings, pursuits—simply, everything. Why not get a portrait that she can give to her family...."
"These elegant portraits are not made for the family at all," Liebmeier interrupted sternly. "Here, for example, this stylish brunette...."
He pointed at a beautiful lady in a beret or a helmet with two cock's feathers protruding, as is written of Mephistopheles. Having thrown her head back imperiously and as if quizzically, she was unfolding a sumptuous fan of the Regency period with both hands. The cupids on this fan came out excellently in the photograph.
"Here, for example, is the daughter of a woman who bakes communion wafers; she's married to a district supervisor. If I may ask, what will her family get out of such a portrait? In order to make it presentable for them, should her sleeves be rolled up, her skirt tucked up, and so forth; and then she is to be portrayed this way? Enough, my dear man! Don't degrade woman, don't censure her eternal dream to strive for the sublime! Here is just once in her life to show off, to be depicted somehow as something better...."
"Better than she really is?"
"Oh, enough of your realism! You'd make the whole world vulgar for them; but then, there's already been an epidemic of that.... Well then, if you will, she'll keep this for her family: even her children will ponder the sublime!""
"But, for goodness sake, they won't be able to recognize their own mother. At home, she of course doesn't stroll about this way, décolletée...."
"Of course not. She purposely made this dress herself," Liebmeier replied very seriously, "but the fan was mine. I have a multitude of accessories already prepared. Whatever is needed is on hand immediately. It's impossible without them. It has cost me dearly to arrange for everything, but there was nothing I could do about it. Furniture, decorations. Groups can't be organized without them.... True, other photographers don't care about all this, but what results, too! It's pure monotony. I can even recognize it from a distance; they show me a print, I see a ficus elasticus is sticking out, and, I say to myself, what work! You'll admire my groups. Here, this is a merchant family. You see, the wife, son, daughter...."
"Are they from here?"
"Where are they sitting? There are some palm trees in the distance...."
"And some camels. A caravan. It really wasn't a bad idea at all."
"Listen...." Aiarov said.
"This is a comedy."
"You already said that."
"Why would they want to be anyone but themselves? The wives of police officers with the appearance of duchesses, old women with the look of infants.... How about these others for you—in turbans, burnouses...."
"Well, it's fine for you to make fun!"
"No, but I can't understand...."
"I'm surprised at you!" the artist cried. "Why, can't you understand the desire for an escape from everyday prose? Don't you understand that a woman loves her beauty? That she mustn't hide this beauty...."
"And that's why she must allow it to be sold?"
"Well, yes. A woman obtains esthetic pleasure from this! Why? Try it yourself, surround yourself with these delights—life seems brighter!"
"For some, but for me—no," rejoined Aiarov. "It's enough to know that this was done on commission, that it was embellished, that the woman put on airs, that she was dressed up for sale and that she knew that her face, no matter what, would be sold to any passing fop, that he will enjoy it—not at all esthetically, because there's not a hair of anything beautiful here but only a reflection of a drop in taste and moral sensibility...."
"Oh, you, you really like to defy popular opinion!" exclaimed Liebmeier. "It can also be said that you have no taste!"
"I'll allow that."
"Because it's strange that you insist.... What moral sensibility, too! Please tell me what's so immoral here? Such an album can be placed in any salon. It's accepted. Excuse me, if you didn't know it—there's no one to blame. And the costumes—what's so unusual? With the smallest changes, they're all that way now, even the most educated, serious women...."
"I can't consider a woman to be serious who has the Tower of Babel whirling on her head."
"A serious woman would never concern herself with this."
"And to have her hair cropped off that way?"
"An extreme, but it's easier—anyway something can be done. But here—a dozen pounds on top of her head, all her movements are hindered—it'd be impossible to think or work. All she has left is to smile in every possible way. A woman who only smiles...."
"If you will, here's one for you who isn't smiling," the artist interrupted, extracting a large-sized print, a work that evidently made him especially proud. "This is, I'll even name her for you—Mademoiselle Belusheva; a young person, not long ago returned from abroad; she'd been traveling with her mother. She's educated, writes; she's the daughter of a state councilor and a musician. She wanted to preserve the memory of her trip. You see, she stands on a cliff; there's the sea and a storm. I expressly ordered the cliff. Cardboard, you know; there's some moss here, plants. It was difficult to arrange; however, I managed."
Aiarov fell headfirst onto the photograph and unrestrainedly burst into laughter.
The girl standing on the cliff was spherical-shaped. From underneath her narrow, flounced skirt with bows, her large legs protruded; her heels stuck into the cardboard. Her hair, false without a doubt since her own couldn't have been so disorderly, was whipped up in bunches, in tufts, and hung over her low, sharp forehead; and from there her round, white eyes wildly stared; her mouth was open, and one hand pressed a corsage, tightly affixed with twine, while the other, with a gesture of terror, seemingly pushed the distance away....
"Lord, whatever you please....," Aiarov whispered.
The artist was dumbfounded.... He hadn't been alarmed at the objections; he'd wanted to reduce them all to dust; he'd despised them, despised the one making the objections, but he now felt lost—he, a sensitive, respectable man—felt lost before this childish laughter, before this frank, naive, unguarded discourteousness.... In indignation, he let himself yank the ill-fated portrait out of the hands of his still laughing guest.
"If you will...."
Even with all of the artist's restraint, his motion came out convulsively. The prints scattered all about. From underneath them, a thin print of an unfinished portrait flew onto the floor.
"Excuse me...," Aiarov said, bending to pick it up. "Here's another one...."
He didn't finish. If Liebmeier had glanced into his face, he would've seen that it had become lifeless. However, Liebmeier was angrily removing his entire collection.
"That one is unneeded, a discard.... I don't know how it got here," he answered abruptly, without turning his head.
Out of annoyance as much as out of haste, everything fell from his hands. Liebmeier made a pile and again spread out all of his works without looking around and without uttering a word, while Aiarov, also remaining silent, firmly and mechanically clasped the discarded print in his fingers and stared straight ahead, seeing nothing....
The clatter of a carriage and a bell interrupted this scene.
Liebmeier rushed around, glanced at the door of the drawing room, threw down the prints, adjusted his smock, instantly assumed a radiantly welcoming expression, and ran to meet the visitors.
Aiarov also rose from his place as though he'd been summoned, and he nearly had descended as far as the steps into the garden but returned. He wanted to leave. Voices sounded in the drawing room. It was impossible to leave, and there was nowhere to go. He sat down again and put the unfinished portrait before him.
It was she.
Her meekly inquisitive gaze, the blameless tenderness on her lips; it was absolutely she, as though full of quiet, evening light....
He closed his eyes. The dark spot of the portrait floated before him like a white ghost....
How thin she had become.... She was all bundled up; her hands couldn't be seen....
"Madame," sputtered Liebmeier before the ladies who stood in the middle of his drawing room. "I don't know how to thank you for your attention; you were so kind to come in person...."
"No, on the contrary I don't know how to apologize enough," rejoined the lady. "We came to hurry you along...."
A pleasant penumbra reigned in the drawing room from the half-lowered drapes and broad-leafed plants. The lady was plump, tall, well-dressed and grand; and she softened her grandiosity with a civility in appearance and a delicate elegance, as women of the older generation behave for the most part as a reproach and corrective for the curt manners of youth. This was Madame Belusheva. Her daughter, the original of the renowned portrait, without raising the black, detailed veil that swaddled her face, was examining through her lorgnette everything that hung on the walls, the flowers in the windows, the knickknacks on the shelves, and the sheet music on the open piano. She busied herself energetically. Crossing the room, she illuminated objects nearby with the gleam of her bright rose-colored dress.
"We're hurrying you because all of our friends, all the people with whom we've spoken, are excited to see your chef d'oeuvre," continued Madame Belusheva. "Yesterday, one young man vowed: 'If it's only half as perfect—I'm ready to ravish it and make off with it....' But we haven't even seen it ourselves! Show us, cher monsieur Liebmeier.... Talia, ask nicely!"
"Of course, show us," the girl answered, after striking a chord on the piano.
Liebmeier affected a serious mien.
"I assure you, Madame," he began, "I can't. I have a rule. I, Madame, grant only one right—really only one, so to speak—indulgence. I'm I'm entirely at the service of the public, Madame; ask anyone you'd like, but no one has ever complained that I've delayed a work. Order three, four, even ten dozen from me—when it's time—they're ready! However, large works, Madame, you must forgive me—my rule is not to show them to anyone if I'm still not satisfied ...."
"Oh, my Lord, was it really unsuccessful? Talia! Did you hear?"
"I heard, and I expected as much."
"On the contrary, Madame, it was completely successful...."
"So show us!"
"My rule, Madame.... I've got only one copy ready, and I need two so that I can better compare the likeness, the finishing touches.... I'll present you with the best one, Madame, but consider my position. But then, this isn't just a portrait but a painting so to speak! Here, this is after just a single retouching.... You don't know this business...."
"Oh, of course, we're laymen! But there's our impatience, our curiosity.... Mais, Talia, parlez donc!"
"You'd better just tell us the truth—is it worthless?" asked the girl.
"Oh, don't be so hard on yourself!" her mother cried.
"Madame!" Liebmeier exclaimed, boasting. "If you could only understand what an artist feels when he wishes to please the public! But, Madame, I'm all alone now. I had an assistant; I paid him thirty rubles a month—at today's prices this is no joke—but he was lured away from me to go to Moscow. Now I must do everything myself. But if I didn't mind entrusting it to someone inexperienced... that's it, I'd have a new one! But then, I'd have to supervise him. You wouldn't believe, Madame, how one wants to please; and there are such variable tastes...."
"Yes! And an artist's conception is dear to him...."
"You struggle, retouching, then, there's yet another... you ruin so many of them; you simply work out of your own pocket...."
"So that you'll finally be satisfied," prompted Madame Belusheva.
"Oh, enough," interrupted Mademoiselle Belusheva. "Well, why are you making us beg? You've got one copy ready. You're satisfied with it, and we only need one."
"Give it to us. You won't be faced with a loss. Just do it; a lot of fanciers will be found for it."
"Talia, how can you permit yourself?" asked her mother as though surprised.
"To sell it? Why not?"
"Oh, Monsieur Liebmeier, that's how she is for you...."
"But why do you think that he needs another copy? For an exhibition! But then, isn't that so?"
"I admit it," Liebmeier replied with a smile and some embarrassment. "It's so good that... that...."
"You see, I guessed it by your face. Why play the coquette? You would've made them yourself at some point.... Give us the portrait; there's nothing more for us to discuss with you."
She raised her veil, as a helmet is grasped, and left it that way—there was a thick headband on her forehead. This gave her an even prouder appearance. As though sensing this and taking pity on a mere provincial mortal, Mademoiselle Belusheva screwed up her little eyes and bestowed a smile upon him.
"I admit it...," submissively uttered the artist, again bowing, and he exited to the balcony.
"You've lost your mind," her mother said in the meantime.
"Il y a quelqu'un là-bas."
"Oh, you and your French language.... Where?"
"On the balcony."
"Is that his assistant?"
Liebmeier returned with the portrait.
"Here," he said modestly, giving it to the mother and throwing her daughter a quick glance.
At this point, something somewhat strange occurred. It seemed at first glance that the mother did not recognize her own daughter, nor did the daughter recognize herself. There was momentary surprise, bewilderment, vacillation, but it all soon safely dispersed, and the faces of both ladies brightened.
"The expression....," the mother noted aloud. "Yes, the expression means a great deal," she added reassuringly.
"Yes," confirmed the daughter, and holding the photograph at a distance, opened her lorgnette.
Behind her back, her mother appeared at a loss. Liebmeier bowed his head and waited.
"It's splendid!" escaped from the chest of Madame Belusheva.
She turned away toward the balcony to take a breath, strained by her enthusiasm. Liebmeier permitted himself to approach the young woman.
"Flatterer," she said softly, clearly and expressively.
"Oh, no, never have I so doubted my art....," he rejoined with sadness and also softly.
"Flatterer," repeated Mademoiselle Belusheva, offering her hand to him over the portfolio.
The artist dared to kiss her hand. Her mother didn't see. Quicker than light strikes objects, the photographer had taken into consideration that Mademoiselle Belusheva had reached her thirtieth year of age, had traveled abroad, and was hopelessly obsessed with literature.
They've got an estate near town... he concluded to himself and repeated the kiss.
Madame Belusheva approached, after becoming convinced that the gentleman sitting on the balcony was not Liebmeier's assistant. She communicated this to her daughter with a momentary glance.
"You've obliged me beyond any words.... I thank you as a mother," she said with feeling, pressing the artist's hand.
He was pleasantly agitated.
"You ordered one copy... permit me to offer you two...."
The ladies exchanged glances.
"At the same price," he hurried to add.
Madame Belusheva vacillated, feeling ashamed or not understanding; the young woman was more decisive.
"A gift? Give it to us! You'd be taking it to sell," she said, starting to laugh. "But Mama, I'm tired, it's hot in here.... Do you have a flower garden Monsieur Liebmeier?"
She sprang onto the balcony. The glass door lightly trembled. But Mademoiselle Belusheva did not turn her attention to the garden but instead rushed to the table as though pleased by what she found on it and stared at Aiarov from head to toe. He stood up and started to go through the prints, flinging them away, one after another.
Madame Belusheva smiled condescendingly, and grandly followed her daughter. Liebmeier followed her, after bowing his head in deferential pleasure.
"Mais, Talia, vous abusez.... my Lord," she exclaimed slowly. "Here is something unexpected, here is fate! Monsieur Aiarov, est-ce bien vous? Don't you recognize me? Don't you remember? It's your old friend, Olympe Belusheva! In Moscow, during the good old student days...."
"But then, we're the same age—we've known each other since childhood," explained Madame Belusheva, addressing Liebmeier. "True, I'm a little older than you, but we women are always older than men. We begin to live earlier! I was already married. Of course, you don't remember this individual?"
Aiarov remembered nothing of his childhood but only knew that this lady was older than him by nearly twenty years and that she already had a grown daughter in his student days whom she had hidden away in an institute. In order to ask something, he asked about her spouse.
"I'm a widow," Madame Belusheva replied with momentary sorrow, then quickly changed to an affected, inquisitive tone. "I now completely belong to this little fool here. But allow me to present to you: ma fille Nathalie."
Aiarov bowed once more. The young woman fell silent and looked at him coolly.
"I'm at her command. We've raced all over Europe, and for two years now we've been settled in N. Her sister, Annette, married here. Do you remember?"
Aiarov remembered her; she actually was his age.
"So, in order for all of us to be together in one place, I bought a house; and we live with them.... Mais venez nous voir! Did you arrive long ago? Why? For long?"
"I was passing through and decided to visit," Aiarov replied. "I'm leaving today."
"Ah, yes, but then you worked here at one time. So much has changed, Lord, Lord! Whether it's for the better...."
She lightly shook her head.
"In all this storm of rebuilding, toutes ces innovations, there's just one salvation—the domestic hearth," she continued pensively. "And are you also a wanderer of the world?"
"Yes, I've visited various destinations."
"As also is apparent, you've become an inveterate tourist if you thought of taking a look even at N. Have you seen many of your friends?"
"No one. I haven't visited anyone."
"Have you found anyone here?"
She pointed at the portraits.
"No one here either."
"Oh, that's sad! Has everything really changed so much, is it all gone? I haven't felt that way, but you tell me. This is probably a terrible feeling—to find everything to be foreign around you? Yes... But tell me... How fortunate I am to see you! You won't believe it, but I'm telling you this straight from my soul...."
"Thank you for remembering. I'm very glad myself...."
"You know, when you encounter a comrade of your youthful convictions and youthful foolishness in mid-life... But then, all this is the past! We can say with thankfulness: it's over! Tell me.... But no, it's not the time...."
She looked over at her daughter; she was looking through the prints, which provided an occupation for everyone, and addressing Liebmeier.
"Come visit me.... Isn't it true, aren't they remarkable beauties?" she asked, following his glance. "Here, look, and this one?"
"Yes," Aiarov said.
"Are you indifferent to them? Doesn't beauty make an impression on you? Come visit me without fail! We have so much to discuss...."
"I don't know, I can't," Aiarov replied, and he stood up, making use of the momentary opportunity to interrupt the conversation. "Thank you once again...."
"No, I don't want to think that...."
Aiarov went to shake Liebmeier's hand.
"Don't be angry that I didn't know how to value your beauties," he said. "I'm sorry. But you wanted to give me something of your work; permit me to take this one...."
"If you'd like," Liebmeier replied compassionately, "but that one was discarded...."
"What?" Madame Belusheva was curious. "Oh, Novoselova. When did you take her picture?"
"Sometime at the beginning of spring."
"Yes, it's already noticeable—her cheeks and eyes are inflamed. However, she was never pretty. She didn't give her photographs to anyone. Did you know her, Monsieur Aiarov?"
"Why did you think of taking this one? Elle est donc morte.... Did you make many of these portraits, Monsieur Liebmeier?"
"And the negative?" asked Aiarov.
"It's been destroyed, as she wished," the artist replied, preserving a proud equanimity.
"It could be, this is a rarity," added Madame Belusheva. "For whom did she have it taken.... I never saw it at her husband's house."
"She very likely made the portrait for herself," uttered Aiarov.
"Oh! But then, you didn't know her!" Madame Belusheva replied with a smile that encountered its reflection in her daughter's lips and in the sly look of the photographer. "A romance! However, a rather ordinary, even trite one," she continued disdainfully and carelessly returned the print to Aiarov, who had held it in his hands until this moment. "At first there was passion, then cooling, perfectly just—from the husband's side. Novoselov est un homme de bien, courteous, educated.... Here's what is meant by the first step!"
"The first step?" Aiarov repeated.
"Yes. Their marriage was after she was ravished and carried off," she replied, her majestic face brightening again with a momentary smile and again giving it an expression of insulted virtue. "She eloped with Novoselov; her parents haven't forgiven her to this day...."
"Oh, I won't start to lecture! No, I don't force my convictions on anyone, I assure you!" exclaimed Madame Belusheva as if someone was arguing with her. "I'll only note that there is something loftier than we are... something in the prayer of a mother when she accompanies her daughter to live under another's roof...."
Madame Belusheva's voice broke; she made an effort to contain herself, as a woman fully in command of the social graces, then continued instructively.
"There's something else, and it's perfectly natural.... We women understand you better than you gentlemen understand yourselves! A man does not want to love a woman who sacrifices too much for him; he can't respect her. It's true in every way; it's logical and valid. She had deceived her parents—so she'll deceive her husband. There's some kind of power of attraction in deception and crime. The woman was to blame, and she'll still be to blame—that's unavoidable! The husband senses it. He begins with jealousy; he's in the right! Very natural suspicions occur to him at every step. He doesn't have the strength to restrain himself; perhaps he's mistaken, but how can he find out the truth? And the woman always is so stupid here! There are excuses, tears; she only annoys and bores him; she becomes unpleasant to him in every way. Isn't this really the truth? I'm pleading for you gentlemen here!" she added, raising her solemn gaze. "In our times, we aren't squeamish. We call things by their names.... And when a woman is contrary, who would dare reproach her husband if he forgot himself, if... in a word their family life was a hell...."
"Would you say that... this... husband was an honest man?" Aiarov said.
"A charming man!" Madame Belusheva replied sadly and convincingly. "He had suffered! There's everything: both sufficient means and a good position but... how many years of life have been lost! It's terrible! And there are no children who might have comforted...."
"But you know," Liebmeier said mysteriously, carefully, vacillating, and all together satisfied with something, "Novoselov visited me the other day; he was making selections for a stereoscope.... He, apparently, is getting married...."
The eyes of the younger Belusheva assumed the expression of her portrait.
"He's getting married...," her mother somehow noiselessly repeated.
Aiarov wanted to burst out laughing: he felt suffocated. He took his hat.
"But come visit us!" exclaimed Madame Belusheva, grabbing his hand. "Venez diner, or in the evening."
"I'll try...," he said, leaving.
Mademoiselle Belusheva threw herself more comfortably onto the divan.
"Mama, it's so pleasant here that I don't want to leave. Monsieur Liebmeier, give me a glass of cold water and an orange...."
Aiarov paced over the creaking floor from one end of his hotel room to the other.
The hotel here near the railway station was almost empty. This was a building constructed hastily for the sake of profit, but the calculation hadn't paid off: travelers continued to prefer the hôtel in the center of the city, on the boulevard, where music could be heard in the evenings and N.'s society could be seen. It was silent in Aiarov's room, and it was somehow especially bright, as occurs in newly constructed buildings; it smelled of fresh pine and fresh hay, and the small windows shut improperly. Through them, one could see the district's streets, the grass along the edges of the thoroughfare, the tall willow trees, the wheels of the draw-wells, starling houses, and further, the red brick railway station with its green roof, as well as the clouds and streaks of smoke above it; one could hear as the roosters crowed and the trains whistled.
The summer day dragged on for a long time.
In the light of a long hot day, fatigue, daily racket, and the necessity of paying attention to whatever is occurring all around, there is an element of distraction from moral concerns. Some unbearable, stupefying force takes precedence over thought and prevents it from becoming focused; dying away, emotion recedes into the depths, lies somewhere at the bottom of the heart and aches; it scalds as though on fire when suddenly agitated and then vanishes again as if in fright. It somehow becomes incoherent. The individual suffers from the absence of a full measure of suffering.
Aiarov had experienced this in the morning. As is often said, he wanted to plunge into grieving, to be alone, and at liberty.
After he finally was left alone, he placed the portrait before him and again gazed at it without averting his eyes—just as he had done for a whole hour on Liebmeier's balcony.... He imagined the features—memorable even without it—more clearly; the deficiencies of the neglected, yellowed, and crumpled photograph became even more noticeable.... It was annoying, and it would not be possible to obtain another portrait elsewhere.
But someone has one.
This was all that was left of the best impressions of his best years. A scrap of paper. If he perhaps had come later by one day—even this may not have remained but would've been tossed into the fire....
Liebmeier's chefs d'oeuvre began to whirl around before his eyes, black on white, like a flock of jackdaws in bad weather.
Lord, what nonsense.... She lived amid this community. She didn't suit its taste, and it didn't suit her taste. Is that so?
She was sick and dying; of course, she didn't feel like whipping up a chignon.... Her hair had thinned.
There wasn't any time to get dressed up for a portrait that had been made on the sly. It undoubtedly had been made on the sly. Perhaps the man for whom it was intended didn't like fancy clothes....
Why he and not she? Perhaps the portrait was for her mother, who still hadn't forgiven her until then. She would let the old woman see what had become of the beautiful woman.... Had she forgotten her own daughter? Her youth hadn't been without sin, but now.... She hadn't forgiven her until now, what virtue! Well, so feast your eyes; here's your daughter....
No, my darling, no, angel, no! You never sent your mother this shocker! No, my pure charmer, you were true to yourself in everything! You remained in your loftiness amid all the self-satisfied ignorance, the stupid insolence, and flimsy hypocritical depravity; you didn't want to go along with those who had cursed your "first step" even in the smallest trifle, your style of dress! For him who loves you, here you are, just as you were, as you eternally.... But you are no more! My dear, did you love someone? Not him, not your husband, this charming man who had built a hell for you because you sacrificed too much for him. Not him, the educated gallant.... All foolish people are kind.... To whom did you turn when you so fearfully realized.... And you realized: you couldn't endure it, and you died. Who was he, that fortunate fellow?
But was it really he, or was it perhaps a woman friend? May you be blessed, good woman! If only—sentimentalizing, gossiping, acting virtuously, or just any old way, out of nothing to do, with a smile, a little grimace, a sigh, or an appeal to the heavens—you never cast the confession of this heart, stiffened by the cold, to all four corners of the earth.... But you, unknown man, how did you value this heart?
Love! Yes, that's it exactly; she had loved someone. Her eyes don't lie: she feels love. It wouldn't be possible otherwise. Otherwise, how and why would anyone stay alive? But then, there had been no little child who had been fondled at this breast; no little arms had grasped these cheeks, this hair.... She'd been alone; well, she'd still been loved.
Who was it? To whom did you give yourself, and then with such a scrap of paper as a keepsake, or... or was there more? And did he survive you?
The coffin has been nailed shut, and the book has been closed; no one will open it again, nor will anyone read another line.... But who has any desire to read it? To each his own....
He, the survivor, also, of course, has his own cares. Who knows what. Perhaps, he also "heard the news from indifferent lips...." How did I see this written? "And indifferently heeded...." Why not? Why not indifferently? She went wrong at her first step—and all of her prospects would have gone wrong with the next ones, too; she also sacrificed too much.... Fatum! It's just retribution, to weigh virtues based on the pieces of fabric for bodices... It's funny!
It's funny! To revere her.... Well, really, to pray! To burn as if in a fever—so to speak—to be deprived of sustenance, and for the purpose of ending everything at once, so as not to provoke suspicions, so as not to disturb her happiness with any dark shadow—to shatter your life, to run off really to half-savage monsters at all ends of the earth, to abandon society, lose friends, anger your relatives, renounce the simple comforts of everyday life, to be jostled from one side to the other, and finally to ruin your career—be that as it may—to stray from the tracks, and never get established anywhere.... And all this only to give up your spot to someone else....
Who is this other?
Aiarov gazed at her in anger.... She calmly and patiently reflected his gaze. He madly pressed his lips to the crumpled paper....
Anyway, you didn't love me.... Well, forgive me! Throughout my lifetime, I only was guilty before you—that in this moment—forgive me! But what is left? After seven years of wandering, half my life, everything's been experienced, everything's become understood first-hand—people, gaiety, as well as the price for people and the price for gaiety.... You alone were the first sanctity of life! There's nothing more to seek. Well, and to become banal, grow hardened, make a fortune. Is this why it's said salvation is the domestic hearth? From what moral or mental disease?
It's evening. I'll go see how it is for her there, in the evening....
The evening twilight summons pedestrians outside; Aiarov had not considered this. On his way back, he mixed up the streets, ended up on the boulevard, and started off again silently, relaxing, distractedly observing what had changed during these years. Suddenly someone called his name. Madame Belusheva stood before him.
Not completely justly, Aiarov cursed the fate which had sent him this lady for this encounter twice in one day. Madame Belusheva had not appeared accidently, although the encounter would not have taken place a minute later. Madame Belusheva and her Talia had circled this boulevard many times during the course of the evening. The mother had a goal, but she did not tell her daughter. The daughter had a premonition but asked nothing. Each feigned indifference but not at all to spare the other. Toward the end of their stroll Madame Belusheva fell into an inexplicable despondency, and Mademoiselle Nathalie started to respond to everything sarcastically. They decided to return and were already leaving. Through her veil and without the aid of her lorgnette, Mademoiselle Nathalie then suddenly saw and said, unable to hold out:
"There's your Aiarov."
"He went into the alley on the left, near the exit."
"Go home. Make some tea.... light up the place. Right away, I'll... I'll bring him.... Deux lampes, Nathalie," her mother uttered hurriedly after her daughter, while determining where she would find the nearest crossroads from here.
She soon found the crossroads, and the one whom she wanted to overtake was crossing the road.
"Good evening.... Merci, I see that you're keeping your promise; are you coming to visit us? Yes? After we parted in the morning, I recalled that I'd been a bit flighty, since I hadn't told you my address. Very likely, you inquired and obtained it, yes? Everyone knows my house. It's here, right across from the boulevard, à deux pas. But you almost erred just now on your way and turned right past it. C'est par ici.
She led him in a lengthy circuit; she had to give Talia enough time to get home and so forth.
"It's so nice to have a house across from the boulevard; trees can be seen out the windows, and it's possible to take a stroll at any time. Nathalie takes advantage of the neighborhood: she just grabs her hat and goes out in the morning or the middle of the day, as she so desires, to see something original. This is all so necessary for her; nature, the rustle of the leaves—it interests her.... And later, for the purpose of observation. She has such a lively grasp.... It's still not even nine o'clock; at nine o'clock a drum tattoo will be performed. Do you like military music? It's come into style again. But as you may recall.... You and I have lived through a great deal, mon cher Aiarov! Que d'illusions, bon Dieu, et que de folies! Whoever survived it is blessed! Well, it's all over now; and t could be said of our past that it wasn't all very pleasant, and what good fortune it is that we at least see that our young people, who are smarter than us, are taking their time! You know, when you take a look at them there.... For example, turn your attention to these groups here...."
Three young women and two cavaliers ran past. They loudly laughed, hurrying to get to a bench; and while racing to outstrip each other, they shoved everyone they met. Aiarov managed to step aside, but Madame Belusheva's train suffered a little. The cavaliers reached the spot first and wouldn't let the young women sit down; they didn't laugh but only shouted and chased them away.
"How polite this is. Let us! We're tired!"
"We're tired, too!"
The shouting went back and forth for a long time.
"Take note of this," continued Madame Belusheva, after shaking her train. "I'm resigned!" she added, following Aiarov's gaze: "I'm resigned—it's unavoidable. I'm of another generation, and I give up my own place with joy: it's a life which is seething, full of hopes, and full of the future. It's light-hearted, it doesn't think about anything at all—it doesn't invent, rebuild, become dry through pedantry; it just lives! It just lives and enjoys, takes its right and its share, and it knows how to defend them firmly. Oh, they're strong! Here is character. Listen, even the ones over there right now. Our own would be rearranging the universe or something of that kind by now—but they simply laugh.... Listen, there's only cheerful talk everywhere without any ulterior motive; their aspirations—goodness knows, whatever for—without questions which lead to nothing and only defile the imagination. Meanwhile, these young people are more sensible and industrious than we were; they know how to get organized; they understand that chimeras don't exist; they're scrupulous in their choice of friends, and they don't let themselves be compromised.... Ah, these are real people! But we? It's sad to recall! My dear, in our youth (but then it was the same for both of us!) we never heard laughter. There was spring without flowers, a sky without the rays of the sun; here was our youth. What did we want? What did you want—to be more exact! Isn't it true, you wouldn't be able to say? Meanwhile, everything was clouded, everything was in turmoil, all ties were ruptured.... My friend, even you, you also had a hand in this!"
With forgiving delight, she pressed his hand and took his arm.
"Laissez moi prende votre bras. Anyway, I'm a little older than you and—a lady!" she laughed without noticing that she was soliloquizing. "Oh, but now we've been breathing easier again. We have a rebirth, a renaissance, now. I'm glad, I'm happy that my daughter's youth coincided with this and not with that time. I always say to her: ‘You're smart to be born late.' We understand each other, Je suis une heureuse mère, Aiarov! I pray... she and I pray together—but many mothers were deprived of this in our times! She has so many talents. We study nature and art together.... Oh, no, I don't want to believe that we may be meeting for only two or three hours. No, you'll remain here yet, you'll stay here; you have to see.... But here we are at home. Welcome."
Madame Belusheva's home was shining from every window. Different kinds of ivy and cacti could be seen through the lace curtains. A plaintive tremolo and recitative carried down the entire street:
"Sing! It's already time for us to say farewell;
The captain's bugle trumpets...."
"Talia...," whispered Madame Belusheva. "Oh, she isn't expecting you.... People often stop here to listen to her...."
"Continuez, mademoiselle," she said, appearing in the drawing room, accompanied by Aiarov.
"I've finished," Mademoiselle Nathalie said, standing up. "Why were you so long? Tea is ready."
"I brought a guest for you," her mother replied.
"Oh, it's you.... Please, let's have tea; I'm terribly hungry. So, you aren't leaving today, Monsieur Aiarov?" she asked, sitting down at the circular table, illuminated and covered with sweets and so forth.
"I'm leaving," Aiarov repeated for the tenth time.
"Leave, please. I've made a bet with Mama; she assures me.... But where is Avdotia Andreevna?" she addressed a lackey.
He hadn't managed to reply when another person entered; and after exchanging greetings with the guest for a moment, she started to busy herself with domestic tasks at the samovar. She was no longer a young woman, judging by her hairstyle and clothes. Both the one and the other showed pretensions, like everything in the house in general, but they bore noticeable signs of care, deliberation, savings, and repairs. Everything was poor and everything was in style, nothing was new any longer and everything was carefully repaired. Her black, though not very thick hair was tightly pulled back from her temples, lending a strange expression to her lovely brows and eyes, also lovely though faded; her lips were dry and taut; her thin, darkly pale face was lightly powdered. The girl had been pretty at one time, and that's why it was noticeable that she had withered. Her small hands were terribly thin; on one of them, a golden ring without a stone, thin as a thread, barely noticeable on the transparent whiteness, shone. Going about her business, serving others, the girl somehow looked nowhere in particular, and she apparently saw no one. It was noisy all around, colorful and bright because of the lamp and white tablecloth, yet this face without any gaze and these soundless movements created a sharp contrast. Aiarov was in the frame of mind for fantasy; he recalled tales of the dead, the face of a ghost in a painting. As he looked at her, he recognized her--she was Madame Belusheva's cousin. Ten years ago she had been considered "a renowned young lady" in Aiarov's young circle.
"Don't you recognize me, Avdotia Andreevna?" he addressed her.
"Yes, I recognized you," she replied; and almost closing her eyes, she offered him some sugar.
"Last fall," continued Aiarov, "I met two friends of ours, Eletsky and Ivanov. Do you remember them? They spoke, they spoke about you; we reminisced about everything! However, none of us knew where you were, how you were...."
"But she always has lived with me, and she still lives with me!" Madame Belusheva interrupted, returning from another room and seating herself at the table. "What a pity, Talia.... Monsieur Aiarov, my sister Annette is so sorry that she can't see you today; she hopes that you will grant her your presence tomorrow. She was going to take a bath; she's constantly ill. In appearance—but then, do you remember her? So-so, plump, and the color of her face—mais les nerfs! It's terrible! Well, but when there's a family.... Annette has four children.... They live completely separately; there's even another entrance; our house is large.... When there's family, we're obliged to take care of them. What a pity that Annette's husband isn't in town; he's out on an inspection, il sert dans l'octroi. This year, his business has shaped up so it's impossible, but next year we're all going abroad. This is necessary for Annette as well as for this person here.... Shall we go, Talia?"
She inclined her head toward Mademoiselle Nathalie's shoulder.
"It's decidedly all the same to me," she rejoined, straightening up. "Whether abroad or here.... Mama is still completely concerned with old-fashioned delights," she addressed Aiarov. "She imagines that the desire of others for various delights has not passed."
"Oh, my angel, but how can the desire pass for something which someone still has not seen...."
"She has an unusual memory," continued Mademoiselle Nathalie. "Scarcely having seen something, and she immediately calmly can recite it. Really. And she pulls so much from there: she has something on everything."
"Mais, mon enfant...."
"Well, isn't that really the truth? Only the waterfall alone remains unsung...."
"Talia, quelle folie!" exclaimed her mother, laughing. "But, my friend, each to his own taste. I love nature and you study people, but when there are beauties of nature--these mountains, these chasms.... Isn't that true, Monsieur Aiarov?"
"I've never been abroad," he said.
"Really? It can't be! It's so easy. You must afford yourself this pleasure...."
"Why haven't you gone?" Mademoiselle Nathalie asked seriously.
"I had no money," Aiarov replied.
"Oh, but it's so inexpensive!" exclaimed Madame Belusheva and caught herself; perhaps her daughter's question was objectionable to the guest. "More likely, there's another reason; you're attached to your native land and so exclusively that you don't want to make comparisons. Don't be afraid; making a comparison won't disillusion you in your attachment. The homeland is always the homeland.... All the better, here's an example: Talia was so delighted when she saw our snow again. A childish delight! She captivated even me...."
"Oh, I was simply glad that we finally had ended up somewhere in one place," Mademoiselle Nathalie interrupted.
"A mischievous child!" exclaimed her mother, laughing. "Monsieur Aiarov, admire the contradictions! How can you want to ensconce yourself in one spot, Talia? With your fervent imagination and your loving heart.... Is this really you? Monsieur Aiarov, you be the judge. You can't imagine the variety of this young person's pursuits: piano, brush, and pen. There, now, isn't it true, a prompt change of place, different conditions, and people are necessary; the glitter of society, works of art, the beauty of the sea and forests are necessary... so that thought may, so to speak, freely.... A wealth of impressions is necessary, isn't that true?"
"I don't know," Aiarov said. "It very likely depends on one's character. I've heard that many like to retire to seclusion in order to gather their thoughts better."
"You've heard?" Mademoiselle Nathalie said aloud and slightly derisively.
"You've heard?" repeated Madame Belusheva with a sly smile. "However, you're being evasive; you must be caught! ‘You've heard'—but what about your own personal opinion? Judge for yourself."
"I'm even more perplexed now," he replied. "My abilities aren't very diverse nor my pursuits either—it all ends up being very boring."
"And don't you have any desire for variety?" Mademoiselle Nathalie uttered derisively as before.
"When I'm overcome with boredom? Yes."
"What do you do then?"
"Well, nothing," he replied. "New impressions don't come about on command."
"And youre so apathetically resigned?" Mademoiselle Nathalie continued, even with some scorn.
"I take what's on hand, and if there's nothing, then there's nothing."
"Again to work. What more is there?"
"But then, this dries and deadens you!" exclaimed Madame Belusheva with distress. "No, speak frankly, do you really conduct your life this way?"
"But then, almost everyone conducts it this way," he rejoined.
"Everyone, but you.... No, this mustn't be! No, you are responsible for yourself.... Talia, you'll support me.... Where did you intend to go from here?"
"Just to do something."
"Do you have a job?"
"Did you leave your job recently?"
"And will you again look for a position?"
"I don't think so."
"Do you want to rest? This is understandable. But even beyond government service.... Are you an attorney?"
"Oh, what unforgivable absent mindedness! I even know you from university, and I even recall your arguments formerly with your comrades so well.... Vous aviez cette exquise finesse d'analyse, which you indulged a bit. I recall how you tried your strength, and we, we enthusiastically listened! So, to Petersburg? But you risk making a big mistake. Listen to me.... You won't hold a grudge against me for undertaking to give you some advice, will you? Excuse me, my kind Aiarov! C'est donc pour votre bien...."
He thanked her.
"You've lived for too long in such out-of-the-way places. Don't rush to an extreme, to Petersburg. It's too noisy for you there. How is this to be explained? A sharp transition. This crush will shut you off from life. Don't you need something more peaceful? Isn't that true, Talia? Are you free to establish yourself?"
"Oh, how absent minded I'm being!" she repeated, laughing with emotion. "I know that you don't depend on family but on your own pleasure. Well, I haven't even managed to ask since I've seen you—aren't you married?"
"It could be that you can perform all kinds of experiments on yourself?" she continued cheerfully. "That's good. Trust me. Boredom, apathy, the dryness of business, doubt in one's own abilities—it all will pass right away.... Don't you want that?"
"Who would refuse any boon," Aiarov replied.
"That's good. So don't go to Petersburg. Circumstances brought you here; stay here."
"Well, yes. But then, are you free? Pitch your tent here and see what happens. I'm telling you this without joking," she continued seriously and lowering her voice. "You always knew how sincerely I cared for you.... Entre nous—there isn't a single good barrister here...."
Aiarov had been expecting this for a long time.
"Talia... elle est au courant; she's continually listening to things everywhere...."
Madame Belusheva spoke all the more softly.
"They—the ones here, and, you know... aucun prestige, no enthusiasm or appearance...."
"Talentlessness...," uttered Mademoiselle Nathalie, pensively gazing off to the side.
"You'd have huge success!" Madame Belusheva continued in an enthusiastic whisper. "You'd be plied with work. Think—it's an income! A single gratifying job, but all the small ones, too...."
She caught herself and lowered her fiery eyes; she didn't have the strength to subdue them. Mademoiselle Nathalie, without looking over, noticeably caught her breath. Aiarov looked at them.
A minute of silence passed.
"Yes, maybe it's worth considering," said Aiarov, after smiling.
"Oh, but what's to consider here?" Mademoiselle Belusheva exclaimed. "All this was known long ago; on the contrary, it's necessary to seize it quickly.... Act in accordance with your passion—it's better, it's the truest thing; a single bright idea.... If you calculate: you'll win it all. Instead of a hypothetical ‘something' in Petersburg... Petersburg is so crowded! Here, you'll find both society and entertainment...."
She caught herself again.
"If there's a great deal of business, then there won't be any time to be entertained," Aiarov, still smiling, objected.
"Yes.... But don't you love work?" she continued with pleasure. "However, there won't always be business; there'll be leisure, too. The rarer it is, the more pleasant. Isn't that true, Talia? You know all about it, you are such busy people! You'll give us some of your leisure time.... And next year we'll take you abroad to relax...."
Mademoiselle Nathalie threw her an irritated but angry look. The temptation had been presented all stitched together nicely; however, the tempted apparently didn't notice.
"I have to think about it," he repeated.
"Are you being indecisive?" asked Mademoiselle Nathalie.
"Could it be that you might be subjugated to another's influence?"
"I acknowledge that's possible, yes."
"That's too bad. I don't like weakness of character."
Her mother glanced over at her somehow frightened. Mademoiselle Nathalie calmly picked at one of the sweets.
"I don't understand how a free person can allow others to boss him around.... Really," she added sharply, turning toward Aiarov: "I feel ashamed for his pride."
"In that case, he should be grateful to you," said Aiarov, slightly bowing his head as though offering his gratitude.
"It's all the same to me," she rejoined coldly.... "I'm thinking here about the person himself, not about what he thinks of me."
"He's twice as grateful for this," Aiarov repeated. "However, if he asks your opinion and is ready to subjugate himself, it's not out of a lack of willpower, but because it's valuable to him."
Madame Belusheva got up and left. She did this unnoticeably, without rustling her dress, without hurrying, without looking for a pretext, as though also without interrupting her participation in the conversation and indulging herself for only a minute in the pleasure of the evening coolness that was rustling the curtains. However, Madame Belusheva prolonged her pleasure and not voluntarily. Passers-by still strolled along the sidewalk. The thought pleasantly flashed through Madame Belusheva's mind that they could see their guest illuminated and sitting here. She looked at their guest.... She thought that of course the younger generation doesn't get down to business as gracefully but somewhat coarsely—but then, it works out the same as a result. It could be, one must give in, submit to the spirit of the times, and let them act as they know how.... They understand each other better.
Madame Belusheva wanted to dream of the past and the present, focus on the delicacy which always used to fill her conversations with outsiders and in the presence of outsiders—but privately with herself it never succeeded for her. As if on purpose, sudden ideas of a completely different nature led her away from her dreams. At the present moment, an unusual amount of numbers whirled in her head—in particular numbers of expenditures and her daughter's age. She glanced over at her daughter. Mademoiselle Nathalie now sat, having placed both her elbows on the table. The refined sensitivity of her mother somehow was alarmed at the appearance of the ash blond chignon and ash-colored dress that had been united into a single whole. Something sharp, a kind of despair, passed through Madame Belusheva's heart. She was reminded of when she was a young woman and she had reached Talia's age and met Belushev. A female relative advised her to impose a fast on herself in those renowned days. And it worked—six weeks had not passed, and Belushev was declared her fiancé; he brought gifts....
Faith means a great deal....
Madame Belusheva vaguely sighed over this loss, and the thought slid away—but then, not resignedly but impatiently—and once again over the spirit of the times. She shifted her gaze again to her Talia and specifically thought about the punishment of God....
Agitated, she listened in—they were talking about contemporary issues: schools, women's work....
"The punishment of God....," her mother repeated in her heart again with great conviction.
But who knows? Perhaps, it's quicker this way....
However, there's just one thing—if all goes well, he'll stay too long... and perhaps he'll stay for supper....
Madame Belusheva went out. The phantoms of many similar past cares, which made her gait become almost impetuous, accompanied her. However, Madame Belusheva suddenly remembered something after almost disappearing through the doors, and she stopped, turned around, and called:
She didn't have any need for her cousin, but she thought that there was no reason for her to stay here. This was perfectly justified. Tea had ended long ago, and the table hadn't been cleared, because half hour ago Madame Belusheva had replied to the voiceless question of her cousin with a shrug of her shoulders and the comment aloud:
"Perhaps, you'd also like to...."
As a result, her cousin had extracted from her pocket a tiny hook, a tiny ball of thread and started to crochet something diaphanous. She did this the same way, without looking at anything, as she did everything else, and in the same way, without moving; and only her fingers slightly quivered. Aiarov looked at her; their glances met; she apparently didn't notice this. He was about to address her and speak, but he suddenly restrained himself; he'd felt somehow involuntarily and strangely awkward. Before long, Mademoiselle Nathalie, leaning on her elbows, created a complete obstacle between her cousin and the guest; but her cousin didn't notice this either and remained unperturbed; she only seemingly straightened up more and became still thinner. Aiarov had noticed at that moment that there was a blue bow at the crown of her head.
At the sound of Madame Belusheva's voice, she suddenly got up, glanced around in fright, and started to hurry; the wooden scaffold for the little ball clattered onto the floor. She bent over it; and with a kind of terror she accepted it from Aiarov's hand, then said something completely inaudible and disappeared.
Mademoiselle Nathalie remained in her place, without changing her position and demonstrating by this that she was waiting for the return of her interlocutor.
Aiarov didn't hurry to return, paced around the room, and then glanced at his watch. Mademoiselle Nathalie noted his movement, but that's why she hurried to continue, without interrupting the thread of their conversation:
"Everything can be obtained here in the library...."
"Excuse me, I'm interrupting you," Aiarov said awkwardly. "I wanted to ask your cousin...."
"Maybe, about much.... About herself. It's been so long since we saw each other...."
"Why didn't you ask her?"
I don't know.... It turned out to be somehow awkward...."
Mademoiselle Nathalie smiled.
"I should think so. It always turns out to be awkward for her. What did you want to know?"
"She's changed a great deal."
"Were you in love with her? Well, but then, the long distant past can be discussed freely! You or one of the gentlemen whom you just now named had remembered her? This would be curious. Well, tell me, who was it?"
"No one," Aiarov replied with annoyance. "I simply wanted to ask why this lively, sweet, intelligent girl is so—sad. It would be impossible to say it, but...."
He stopped, after mentally reproaching himself for having begun to speak, but his interlocutress didn't intend to abandon this topic of conversation.
"Lively, sweet, intelligent....," she repeated. "You're telling me such wonders! I hadn't grasped any of this and that's why I presume that you're mistaken."
"Am I mistaken?"
"Yes, you and your friends. You were always fantasizing and creating ideals of lively, sweet, thinking women and so forth then, but the ladies whom you dressed up in these perfections.... Oh, poor Monsieur Aiarov, what disillusionment!"
She laughed sweetly and unceremoniously.
"Excuse me.... Please tell me, what, how did this happen? Did Avdotia Andreevna then also read along with you, orate, devise all kinds of plans for society? It's charming, I think, how this all has turned out! Oh, Monsieur Aiarov, why haven't any of you written your memoirs.... Or, perhaps, they already exist, and it still hasn't been possible to publish them? However, when you've all gathered together—anyone of your generation—and you remember, acknowledge sincerely and without false shame—I imagine, how funny it turns ut! How do you look at oone another without laughing? I imagine! If your women were of Avdotia Andreevna's kind... Oh, yes, rather! But then, Aunt Annette also figured in it, how? Do you also remember her?"
"I remember her, too."
"What was she like?"
"Pretty, a good girl."
"And, meaning, not first rate! Pardon me, Monsieur Aiarov, I'll die of laughter! First rate—Avdotia Andreevna! I feel sad about it, but nothing can be done—I'll have to disillusion you. Aunt Annette.... Mama poeticizes her, but this is a habit with Mama. Now Aunt Annette—having gotten fat, an apathetic lady, a homemaker, a mother of a family—that is, she's surrounded by children; she doesn't know what to do with them, and that's why she feeds them every minute. During her youth—she told me herself most naively—she'd been bored to tears with you and your abstruse speeches; she was a prim young lady, she sentimentalized people, and she ate dozens of sweets off in the corner. Among your friends, the strictest of them disdained her for her lack of cultivation. Wasn't that so?"
"I don't recall."
"Oh, don't be sly! But then, we're recalling the past, be sincere.... Or perhaps those men, your friends, were more farsighted than you.... It's not my fault if I've reminded you of an entirely unpleasant...."
"How do you know all this?"
"But you were a little girl then."
"Yes, a little girl," she confirmed seriously, "but this girl was thinking harder than the adults. These recent legends, I supplement them through conjectures and induction; it all emerges clearly. And besides, what of it? God only knows what wisdom was in all your education, your knowledge, your plans, so as not to understand them, gentlemen! I'm not even going to apologize that I'm expressing myself disrespectfully. All of this already has been evaluated and deposited in the archive. For you, the younger generation, which you were then, also already had appeared; and don't get angry, but we understood you. However, we won't fight any battles with you, since we're peaceful people. We only allow ourselves sometimes, well like this, to joke a little. You aren't angry, are you?"
"I've resigned myself," Aiarov said.
"Oh, don't imitate my dear mama! She says the same thing, and she isn't resigned at all.... But I'm speaking without malice, and why shouldn't I have my own opinion?"
Yes, rather! I want to write about this. Look, sometime.... No, you know... you'll agree that it's really better if people of different generations, like you and I, extend our hands to each other and look at things directly. Together, frankly and without annoyance, so that we perhaps can come to an agreement on something...."
"Well.... Even understanding what exactly was your past. You'll tell me the details sometime, but right now I'll take the pleasure of informing you about the distant past. Avdotia Andreevna interests you. Permit me to add yet another to this illustration—Aunt Annette. They're inseparable and in the same story; they supplement one another.... Well then, after your assemblies and undertakings had ended, my dear late papa courteously suggested that the younger generation forget how the door of his home had been open; well then, there was nothing more to do for these educated young women who had been accompanying you but to fall in love and snare a suitor. But then, this had been prohibited, according to your rules. Isn't that so?"
"I don't recall."
"Oh, what a sly man! But I know—it was prescribed ‘to look for a man.' This was in general a little unintelligible, but all the more so for our two young ladies. That's why, you can't imagine how glad they were that they had gotten rid of you; everything was tossed away—all of your lithographs, your manuscripts—and they went to balls, stylish stores. They felt a kind of joy, but then it was all the same either to return to the parental bosom or to the bosom of the church...."
"And Avdotia Andreevna?"
"A stubborn unbeliever!! She was the first one. She had a very sensitive heart—she fell in love now and not just in jest. There were tears, bliss, and reciprocity. She already was considering a dowry for herself. Annette was her confidante. And suddenly, one fine day, Annette, calmly, patriarchally, accepted an offer for her hand from this same gentleman, her present spouse...."
"Knowing that Avdotia Andreevna loved him?"
"Also knowing that he had declared his love to Avdotia Andreevna," replied Mademoiselle Nathalie, laughing loudly. "How do you like that?"
"And Avdotia Andreevna stayed to live with you?"
"Annette accepted this as an affront, but then she is the lawful wife...."
"No, Avdotia Andreevna, how could she...."
"Where was she to go?"
"Anywhere, wherever her eyes may lead her!"
"Permit me... since you've told me all this, you've also given me the right to speak out. She loved this man; she endured his deceitfulness, dendured the deceitfulness of his girlfriend, yet she didn't abandon either of them...."
Mademoiselle Nathalie laughed.
"Monsieur Aiarov, how you take all this to heart! But then, you know this is simply charming in you! It's so impulsive, so youthful.... Really, but then you're not of Mama's generation but mine! But we must be sensible. Earlier we were told that ‘to love eternally is impossible.' Would you really be in a condition to abandon everything, run off.... Oh, what a laugh! And, really, where would she go? But then, it's necessary to live; people are not fed on air alone."
"I know! It's possible to get established somehow, and it's possible to work...."
Mademoiselle Nathalie started to laugh even louder.
"To work? Who is this? Avdotia Andreevna? But is she really capable of doing anything? But, no, I understand you," she continued, then suddenly caught herself and seemingly with a rush of feeling exclaimed: "I understand! You wanted to find out what is left of an individual who... who you knew at one time, and it's sad for you to find out that she's—nothing. But, unfortunately, that's how it is. Here she is—always, just as you have seen her. With a hook, sitting at her embroidery frame; she bathes the children, cooks the jam—and all right here. Oh, Monsieur Aiarov, don't imagine that very much is necessary for these women! So, they're satisfied with trifles! They take great pains in dressing, in their beauty—under the pretext of decorum, but really because past generations still remember.... When Annette's spouse is on hand, humorous scenes occur. This is such a source of observation for me. There are jealousies, tiffs. Annette also is more tolerable. You know, in a woman who has fulfilled her purpose, in a woman who is a mother, there is something that is settled—she grumbles, she's jealous, but this is a manifestation of character anyway; this is perhaps something. But the other one is a spinster!"
"And to live that way for ten years!" Aiarov interrupted.
"Do you really think that she's noticed them? Although it might have been unpleasant, one gets used to it in time. You, an attorney, know that a ten years' prescription...."
"To fuss over his children and he's right here before your eyes...."
"She's a fancier of dolls.... But who is he? The husband of Annette? He! It's splendid! How it suits him, this ‘he'! And have you noticed that even my dear mother only calls him ‘Annette's husband'? Here's another ideal! But if she has anything left for him, then it's an anomaly, the passion of an old maid, and it's expressed every time she puts some sugar in his cup, since he throws it away every time. Fate made this gentleman especially happy—he wanted to proceed according to his feelings so there was Avdotia Andreevna; he wanted a friend for life, so there was Annette. He obtained both amazing examples of womanhood: a brood hen and a sterile flower."
"A sterile flower?"
"Well, yes. It's a totally correct definition for such individuals, and it was discovered long ago; don't you recall? True, you aren't obliged by your profession to recall all of this. There's a real War and Peace there.... It's completely true. She imperturbably and tranquilly lives for herself. She's nothing because there was nothing to be. She's a sterile flower."
"Who made her that way?"
"Oh, her own nature!"
"But not the ten years when her abilities were wasted?"
"If you'll permit me, Monsieur Aiarov, please permit me, but which ones?"
"All of them, her intellectual, moral...."
"And so forth. But what if there never were any? In ten years they could've manifested themselves in something...."
"Yes, if she had taken up something...."
"Oh, what good fortune it is that she didn't take up anything! Think about those around her—all the melancholy activity in the house—have mercy on us! Fortunately for us, she's not guilty of any aspiration, any social discontent, not even in thought. It's just that you've poeticized her...."
"No, I only think that life couldn't be easy for her."
"Why wouldn't it be easy?" hurriedly asked Mademoiselle Nathalie. "Of course, she has no means, but my mother is so attentive...."
"I don't doubt it."
"So what more is there for her? You feel sorry about her wasted abilities, but let me inform you that this is—excuse me—just a phrase. You expressed yourself in that way with empty phrases in your past, and our young women—who were thinking absolutely nothing—expressed themselves in empty phrases after you. It's a special type of coquetry; it was in vogue at that time. And the consequences were such a pursuit of activity that you can't identify where you can get away from it. You only hear—go there, go here. Really, all Russia soon may be covered under the same roof: ‘the woman's academy'.... But what was the goal of all this...."
"Don't you like it?"
"It doesn't bother me," she replied sharply. "I don't sit with my arms crossed; I have the right to judge and to be strict. Your ideas—don't become irate, gentlemen—have brought a great amount of woman's ambition to fruition. I don't have anything against women's work, but what kind? It's necessary to evaluate yourself beforehand, and then rush ahead. Talents, I assure you, are not so abundantly strewn over the earth.... It's necessary to work.... I'm not arguing about that. Of course, sometimes the need arises. Well, let them go to work in the literal sense...."
"That is, how—as maids, cooks?"
"Monsieur Aiarov, you prefer to understand me literally and say that I.... However, it even was put in print at one time that employed working women are heartless. You're mistaken.... But I ask you—aren't cooks and maids really necessary? Is this really not work? Really, if someone takes up something seriously, isn't it useful to society?"
"In the sense of new discoveries in gastronomy?"
"No, I ask you, without jokes. In the sense of economics, hygiene. I assure you, all of this is very important.... It's also important in another, moral way—freedom has not made our people any smarter; this has been proven by the facts—you can't find a decent servant. Here's a case of teaching people by personal example.... Incidentally, the principle of equality, fussed over so much by you, also would be implemented."
"And incidentally a new kind of serfdom would be introduced for educated women."
"Monsieur Aiarov, what paradoxes.... Oh, but it's so charming! Oh, you charmingly argue! How I love... so warmly, unexpectedly! So lively! It's probably been ages since I argued this way! But don't present me with paradoxes.... Do you know, I'm beginning to suspect something? May I make a confession to you? Would you like that?"
"If it's not embarrassing for you to do so."
"For me, it's not at all; I'm frank to the point of foolishness. However, I'm afraid about how it will seem to you."
"In that case, I'm curious. Confess."
"I suspect that you've never attentively studied women...."
"Is that really a small thing? I'm saying that you're a novice, but you aren't offended! Well, perhaps you were somehow in love a long time ago, but this plunged you even more into disillusionment, and now you fantasize about your former theme, while something completely different is being sung in life."
"Perhaps," said Aiarov.
"How is it ‘perhaps'? It's that way completely!" she exclaimed. "Women's natures are extremely varied. Well now, I for example—you've just now gotten to know me, true? There isn't a shred of caution in me. Slyness—I fear it. I'm afraid of everything. You can't perceive at a word by looking at me that I'm bold; it's just that when one speaks from the heart, when suddenly it seems that others will grasp, sympathize, excuse.... Well, God only knows how it's happened that I, at our first meeting, have betrayed everything to you about my family, myself.... How did this happen...."
She finished speaking and tried to appear embarrassed. Aiarov gave her time for this and didn't say a word. The silence continued for a minute.
"Listen," Mademoiselle Nathalie said as though indecisively, after placing her head on her forearms and peeping up from behind them. "Will you accept Mama's advice? Will you stay here?"
"Do you want me to?"
Aiarov looked fixedly at her.
"Well, so what then?"
She fell silent again.
"It would be glorious," she said finally as though to herself. "It might be.... Oh, much more could be said," she added, also softly and impetuously, and shook her head as though awakening herself from a dream. "You'd have to do something, Monsieur Aiarov. You're right—there's no reason to spend your time in idleness. And I really don't like it.... Mama is going to tell you... don't believe her. I myself don't know whether I need a change of place or something there. I'll go wherever I'm led. I don't need coddling, but I do want to live...."
"What's this, what's this..." languorously and drawlingly uttered Madame Belusheva, appearing and placing her hands on her daughter's shoulder. "What do you want, my tyrant? What did she say to you, Monsieur Aiarov? I see that she's already behaving completely without ceremony. When she assumes this pose.... This is the pose of the angel in the Sistine Madonna—do you recall?"
"Well now, take a picture of her that way," Aiarov said, standing up.
"For you? Good, come by tomorrow," replied Mademoiselle Nathalie without raising her head.
"Tomorrow?" repeated Madame Belusheva.
"Yes, Monsieur Aiarov won't be leaving."
For a moment the happy mother could not find any words.
"It could be, we'll end the evening together and eat supper....," she began to say hurriedly.
"I thank you, no," replied Aiarov, grabbing his hat. "Excuse me, but I'm so tired...."
"You're tired? From what.... Oh, that's true, you were on the road today.... But tomorrow? Shall we expect you tomorrow?"
Mademoiselle Nathalie also stood up; both of them walked behind him.
"Shall we expect you in the morning?"
"If you'd like."
It ended up similar to an escape. They detained him, said goodbye to him a dozen times, and accompanied him. Aiarov nearly collided with the cousin at the threshold of the entrance; he squeezed her hand and came face to face with her direct, immobile, surprised gaze. She stood aside like a ghost and let him pass.
"What a night!" sighed Madame Belusheva on the porch.
What was all this?, whirled through Aiarov's mind, as he sat in the platform station, waiting for his departure.
Circles from the lamps' shadows raced along the floor; they crisscrossed the shadows of the passers-by. In the distance, a fat gentleman talked with a waiter at a set table. In another room, a cork could be heard poppong. Two women with a case and bags over their shoulders, their heels tapping, passed along the hallway from one end to the other fifty times and talking without ceasing.
They don't feel like getting a little sleep, thought Aiarov, without knowing himself why they were bothering him.
Next to him, at a bookcase, a gentleman was haggling over A Fiery Woman. The woman-librarian was asserting that it was worth much more. She was in a state of agitation—a few issues of a newspaper had disappeared from a shelf, yet no money had been paid for them and the train was about to leave. The gentleman buyer, now reaching an agreement on the price, suddenly started to waver between A Fiery Woman and The Gilded Gang.
"The devil knows why....," Aiarov uttered under his breath to himself.
All this was unconnected and strange; everything which had occurred for a half hour and which had stood before his eyes; his fatigue and the expectation of new fatigue; the boredom of the road and his moral, remote, and even unconscious pain; his stupid annoyance at everyone and at himself; and his laughter, which was provoked by this same annoyance and after it the consciousness of an overwhelming, deathly banality in everyone and in himself.... All this merged somehow into one sensation, which left no way out, which (he knew!) wouldn't be forgotten even in a dream, because even a dream repeats the same overpowering images and impressions.... What anguish!
The day was over.... But then, this had been a decisive day in his life—his youth had been buried. It lay there under a low ridge, under the grass which now so gloriously and firmly stood tall in the dew—resilient, cold. The moon wasn't very high. Very likely, everything was in the shadow of the church.... What reason was there for not staying there, well, until now?
Yes, until the gate was locked and the midnight hero was taken to the police. It's the spirit of the times!
But what if there might be some desire really to stay, there, until now? The measures of preserving public safety, apparently, correspond perfectly with the extent of society's sensitivity.
Aiarov felt like laughing and bowed his head.
Of course. Well, to spend the night above her, well, to endure everything terrible and laughable that would be encountered in this adventure.... You won't return here, that much is known, but you won't learn anything more and you won't keep guessing. The book has been closed. It's a mystery. Become jealous, forgive, despise, laugh, or pull your hair, but you don't know why you have a right to do so. Resign yourself and....
Forget? So, is that it?
The world is full of the forgotten. There are those who say that it's estimated if none of the seeds of all the grass, trees, and all the other plants were ever lost, they'd not only populate the whole earth, but even places that you can't even pronounce. Very likely, people also have estimated, and they fear that it'll be too crowded in their hearts if the memory of those who have departed remains there next to what's vital. Even though this memory may be a thousand times purer, more elevated, and sublime than all that the present allows, it occupies a place that is needed for something else, well, so then, get rid of it.
But people don't forget on command, but unwillingly—some comfort lightly and graciously clings to it, like an autumnal spider's web.... They don't forget suddenly but little by little; they also don't have the brute strength to tear themselves away all at once, say goodbye, and walk off without turning back sentimentally, nervously, tensely, hypocritically.... Little by little? To feel how everything that was formerly dear leaves, leaves the heart; how a charming dear image all the same is buried, all the same floats in darkness, where we—haven't abandoned it, no!—but only dropped it unwillingly.... After hundreds of diverse, trivial feelings and vacillations, it has gotten to the point of becoming unpleasant and terrifying, when a pale face with its golden halo looks out at us from the abyss, somehow accidentally summoned by an empty word of reminder, an incident.... It's gotten to the point where—hurrying, turning away, and always still dressed in our love, fear, and annoyance—we say: "Treasure, flow more quickly!"
It's said that her husband has remarried. Well, that's all the better. This is more honest than erecting monuments... than spending the evening of the burial day with some insipid ladies.
But then, they were trying to snare me into marriage...., Aiarov suddenly recalled, burst into laughter then stood up.
The thought came to him involuntarily, and it involuntarily amused him a little and enraged him....
"Are we leaving soon? It's ten minutes until two," he addressed the conductor who had run across the hall.
"There's a delay, there.... The train's on its way.... It's just leaving now," he replied.
"What's this? What happened?" the ladies exclaimed and ran after him.
Aiarov paced and looked at them more closely. Their stylish clothes turned out to be very old-fashioned, and their youthful faces very troubled. The question of whether they would be late or would arrive on time worried these two individuals very much. They cheerlessly whispered, moving farther away. One started to cry, and the other comforted her; both bowed their heads.
Who knows what they're deliberating, what's the concern here? It's a closed book! Aiarov thought.
The faces of the women he had seen during the course of the day flashed before him again, like an absurd and importunate dream.
But it's a curious idea—this album for sale. A sign of the times, a companion for the advertisement that had been in the newspapers: "In such and such store, at a discounted price, children's toys which have gone out of style are being sold....." This is family pride, family happiness....
Woman's fate, woman's work, respect for woman, and this exhibition of useless vanity for the amusement of a half-dozing sensitivity. A woman permits all this and even panders to it—an unhappy... foolish woman. As though her work was so little, her grief so small, so small her humiliation that she is even willingly humiliated! As if she trusts everyone so much that she fools herself without fear, puts on airs, and lies to herself.... Because, then, she lies to herself. Because half of them in this repulsive exhibition are not dolls and are not scorned, but it's just—they haven't thought about what they're doing! If they only did think about it!
But who knows!
Reality is so tarnished and so tedious; youth desires amusements; internal pain seeks oblivion; there are so many cares, but there's nothing that can be done about it; time flies by, but you won't escape the empty hours.... So comedies are performed for other people and yourself. And what is revealed is insignificant, senseless, and rotten....
But behind everything exhibited, presented for ugly derision, never valued nor spared, behind all this comedy is the gloom of real life and in it what's hidden, forgotten, incomprehensible, unrecognized, overlooked without notice, and interpreted falsely; thought, feeling, passion for happiness, for knowledge, for the world, cares, tears, memory of those deceased, anguish for the living, losses, concessions, sacrifices; soothing someone else's child, a piece of bread from someone else's hands, humiliating need, boredom that eats away at the soul; pitiful gathering of the crumbs of happiness that have been richly dispersed to others; a downtrodden submissiveness that has forgotten its rights; the distant and extinguished memory of better days, hardened loneliness, dulling banality.... There are so many images, images without number. There are beauty, gifts, youth, and love. Self-denial without any well-dressed scaffoldings, patience, nobility, forgiveness without insult and reproach, and a courage that isn't even conscious that it is courage.... The terrifying, overflowing, and teeming darkness, with passions, crime, despair and disgrace, slander and deceit, struggle and labor, a burden beyond strength, a bondage that kills dignity, and an insane will that lays hands on itself.... In order to penetrate into this endlessness and summon these toiling women, these female martyrs, and guilty women.... May they resist offering their faces for exhibition but instead for the right to their lives—a right without embellishment, magnanimity, self-justification, fear, and false shame. May they acknowledge how they have lived, how they are living....
Maybe, they'll say nothing.... But there, as you see, it's all ended, a plot filled with earth.... A mystery!
He started at the sharp sound of a bell.
"Finally!" resounded from all sides.
It was still dark; clouds had accumulated, it was raining. A series of black train cars stood before the platform; there were lanterns, a light in the windows, running, shouts....
"Don't go any farther, my angel, Mama, they're starting to shove." A farewell was heard at the same door where the crowd had halted Aiarov.
A cluster of various feathers flashed, a young face.
"Goodbye. I'll write, I will, without fail.... What can be done about it! Well, God willing, somehow next year.... What can be done about it, but then, it's necessary...."
Kisses were heard, sobbing. There was sobbing, weak and unseen, almost on the ground.
"Return, my treasure.... Oh, Lord!"
"Move along! Third class! Farther, move along farther!"
She addressed someone in the crowd.
"Olga Petrovna, my darling, really, don't abandon her or forget her.... I—as soon as I get there—I'll write right away, right away I'll send...."
"If you will! Move along! Third class. Move along!"
A colorful little plume flashed in a patch of light.
A desperate "Verochka, Verochka...." was heard afterwards.
Aiarov dashed to his train car.