At his brother's interview with the steward (the latter was a tall, thin man of shifty eyes who to every remark of Nikolai's replied in an unctuous, mellifluous voice: "Very well, if so it please you") Paul Petrovitch did not long remain present. Recently the system of estate-management had been reorganised on a new footing, and was creaking as loudly as an ungreased cartwheel or furniture which has been fashioned of unseasoned wood. For the same reason, though never actually giving way to melancholy, Nikolai Petrovitch often indulged in moodiness and sighing, for the reason that it was clear that his affairs would never prosper without money, and that the bulk of the latter had disappeared. As for Arkady's statement that frequently Paul Petrovitch had come to his brother's assistance, it had been perfectly true, for on more than one occasion had Paul been moved by the sight of his brother's perplexity to walk slowly to the window, to plunge a hand into his pocket, to mutter, "Mais je puis vous donner de l'argent," and, lastly, to suit the action to the word. But on the day of which we are speaking Paul had no spare cash himself; wherefore he preferred to remove himself elsewhere, and the more so in that the minutiæ of estate-management wearied him, and that he felt certain that, though powerless to suggest a better way of doing business than the present one, he knew at least that Nikolai's was at fault.
"He is not sufficiently practical," would be his reflection. "He lets these fellows cheat him right and left."
On the other hand, Nikolai had a high opinion of Paul's practicality, and always sought his advice.
"I am a weak, easy-going fellow," he would say, "and have spent the whole of my life in retirement; whereas you cannot have lived in the world for nothing—you know it well, and have the eye of an eagle."
To this Paul Petrovitch would make no reply: he would merely turn away without attempting to undeceive his brother.
After leaving Nikolai Petrovitch's study, Paul traversed the corridor which separated the front portion of the house from the rear, and, on reaching a low doorway, halted in seeming indecision, tugged at his moustache for a moment, then tapped with his knuckles upon the panels.
"Who is there?" replied Thenichka from within. "Pray enter."
"It is I," said Paul Petrovitch as he opened the door.
Springing from the chair on which she had been seated with her baby, she handed the latter to the nurse-girl (who at once bore it from the room), and hastened to rearrange her bodice.
"Pardon me for having disturbed you," said Paul Petrovitch without looking at her, "but my object in coming here is to ask you (for I understand that you are sending in to the town to-day) if you would procure me a little green tea for my own personal use."
"I will," replied Thenichka. "How much ought I to have ordered?"
"I think that half a pound will suffice. But what a change!" he went on glancing around the room with an eye which included also in its purview Thenichka's features. "It is those curtains that I am referring to," he explained on seeing that she had failed to grasp his meaning.
"Yes—those curtains. They were given me by Nikolai Petrovitch himself, and have been hung a long while."
"But it is a long time, remember, since last I paid you a visit. The room looks indeed comfortable, does it not?"
"Yes, thanks to Nikolai Petrovitch's kindness," whispered Thenichka.
"And you find things better here than in the wing?" continued Paul Petrovitch politely—also, without the least shadow of a smile.
"And who is lodged in the wing in your place?"
"The laundry women."
Paul Petrovitch relapsed into silence, while Thenichka thought to herself: "I suppose he will go presently." So far from doing so, however, he remained where he was, and she had to continue standing in front of him with her fingers nervelessly locking and unlocking themselves.
"Why have you had the little one taken away?" at length he inquired. "I love children. Pray show him to me."
Thenichka reddened with confusion and pleasure; and that though Paul Petrovitch was accustomed to make her nervous, so seldom did he address her.
"Duniasha!" she cried (Duniasha she addressed, as she did every one in the house, in the second person plural). "Bring Mitia here, and be quick about it! But first put on his clothes." With that she moved towards the door.
"Never mind, never mind," said Paul Petrovitch.
"But I shall soon be back." And she disappeared.
Left alone, Paul looked about him with keen attention. The small, low room in which he was waiting was clean and comfortable, and redolent of balm, camomile, and furniture polish. Against the walls stood straight-backed, lyre-shaped chairs which the late General had purchased during the period of the Polish campaign; in one corner stood a bedstead under a muslin coverlet, with, flanking it, a large, iron-clamped, convex-lidded chest; in the opposite corner burnt a lamp before a massive, smoke-blackened ikon of Saint Nikolai the Miracle Worker—the Saint's halo suspended by a red riband, and a tiny china egg resting on his breast; on the window-sills were ranged some carefully sealed jars of last year's jam, which filtered the light to green, and of which the parchment covers were inscribed, in Thenichka's large handwriting, "Gooseberry"—a jam of which Nikolai Petrovitch was particularly fond; from the ceiling hung, by a long cord, a cage containing a short-tailed siskin which kept up such a perpetual twittering and hopping that its cage rocked to and fro as it sang, and stray hemp seeds came pattering lightly to the floor; on the wall space above a small chest of drawers hung a few poorly executed photographs of Nikolai Petrovitch in various attitudes (the work of a travelling photographer); alongside these photographs hung a very unsuccessful one of Thenichka herself, since it revealed nothing but an eyeless face peering painfully from a dark frame; and, lastly, above the portrait of Thenichka hung a picture of Ermolov in a big cloak and a portentous frown—the latter directed principally towards a distant mountain range of the Caucasus, while over the forehead of the portrait dangled a silken pincushion in the shape of a shoe.
For five minutes or so there came from the adjoining room a sound as of rustling and whispering. From the chest of drawers Paul Petrovitch took up a greasy, dog's-eared volume of Masalsky's The Strielitsi, and turned over a few of its pages. Suddenly the door opened, and Thenichka entered with Mitia, whom she had now vested in a red robe and beaded collar, while his little head had been brushed, and also his face washed. Though he was breathing stertorously, and wriggling his whole body about, and twitching his tiny arms after the manner of all healthy children, the dainty robe had had its effect, and his face was puckered with delight. Also, Thenichka had tidied her own hair, and rearranged her bodice—well enough though she would have done as she was. For, in all the world, is there a more entrancing spectacle than that of a young, handsome mother with, in her arms, a healthy child?
"What a little beauty!" Paul Petrovitch exclaimed indulgently as he tickled Mitia's double chin with the tip of his forefinger. The baby fixed its eyes upon the siskin, and smiled.
"This is Uncle," said Thenichka as she bent over the boy and gave him a gentle shake. For fumigating purposes Duniasha deposited upon the window-sill a lighted candle, and, beneath it, a two-kopeck piece.
"How old is he?" asked Paul Petrovitch.
"Six months. On the eleventh of this month he will be seven."
"No, eight, will he not, Theodosia Nikolaievna?" timidly corrected Duniasha.
Here the infant crowed, fixed his eyes upon the chest in the corner, and suddenly closed his five tiny fingers upon his mother's mouth and nose.
"The little rascal!" she said, without, however, freeing her features from his grasp.
"He is very like my brother," commented Paul Petrovitch.
"Whom else should he be like?" she thought.
"Yes," he continued, half to himself. "Undoubtedly I see the likeness." He gazed pensively, almost mournfully, at the young mother.
"This is Uncle," again she said to the child: but this time she said it under her breath.
"Oh, here you are, Paul!" cried Nikolai Petrovitch from behind them.
Paul Petrovitch faced about and knit his brows. But so joyously, and with such a grateful expression, was his brother regarding the trio that Paul could only respond with a smile.
"He is a fine little fellow, this baby of yours," the elder brother observed. Then, glancing at his watch, he added: "I came here merely to arrange about the purchase of some tea." With which he assumed an air of indifference, and left the room.
"He came here of his own accord, did he?" was Nikolai Petrovitch's first inquiry.
"Yes, of his own accord," the girl replied. "He just knocked at the door and entered."
"And what of Arkasha? Has he too been to see you?"
"No, Nikolai Petrovitch. By the way, might I return to the rooms in the wing of the house?"
"Why do you want to?"
"Because they suit me better than these."
"I think not," said Nikolai Petrovitch, rubbing his forehead with an air of indecision. "Before there was a reason for your being there, but that reason no longer exists."
"Good morning, little rascal!" was his next remark as, with a sudden access of animation, he approached and kissed the baby's cheek. Then, bending a little, he pressed his lips to Thenichka's hand—a hand, against the red of Mitia's robe, as white as milk.
"Why have you done that, Nikolai Petrovitch?" she murmured with downcast eyes. Yet when she raised them, their expression, as she glanced from under her brows and smiled her caressing, but slightly vacant, smile, was charming indeed!
Of the circumstances of Nikolai Petrovitch's first meeting with Thenichka the following may be related. Three years ago it had fallen to his lot to spend a night at an inn in a remote country town; and, while doing so, he had been struck with the cleanliness of the room assigned him, and also with the freshness of the bed-linen. "Clearly," he had thought to himself, "the landlady must be a German." But, as it had turned out, she was not a German, but a Russian of about fifty, well-dressed, and possessed both of a comely, intelligent countenance and of a refined manner of speaking. When breakfast was over, he had had a long conversation with her, and conceived for her a great liking. Now, as fate would have it, he had just removed to his new house, and, owing to a reluctance to continue keeping bonded serfs, was on the look-out for hired domestics; while she, for her part, was in despair over the question of the hard times, which caused only a limited number of visitors to resort to the town. In the end, therefore, Nikolai Petrovitch proposed to her to come to his house as housekeeper; and to this proposal, (since her husband was dead, and her family consisted only of a young daughter named Thenichka) she eventually agreed. Accordingly, within two weeks Arina Savishna (such was the new housekeeper's name) arrived at Marino with her child, and took up her abode in the wing of the new manor-house; nor was it long before she had put the place to rights. To Thenichka, however, then a girl of sixteen, she never referred; and few people even caught a glimpse of the maiden, since she lived a life so modest and retired that only on Sundays could Nikolai Petrovitch contemplate the delicate profile of her face in an aisle of the parish church. More than a year thus elapsed.
But one morning Arina entered his study, bowed to him as usual, and requested him to be so good as to come and help her with her daughter, one of whose eyes had been injured with a spark from the stove. It so happened that, like most men of sedentary habit, Nikolai Petrovitch had picked up a smattering of medicine—nay, he had even compiled a list of homoeopathic remedies for one and another emergency; wherefore he hastened to order Arina to produce the sufferer. As soon as she heard that the barin had sent for her, Thenichka turned very nervous, but followed her mother as in duty bound; whereupon Nikolai Petrovitch led her to the window, took her head in his hands, and, after an inspection of the red, inflamed eye, wrote out a prescription for a lotion, compounded the stuff himself, and, lastly, tore off a portion of his handkerchief, and showed her how best the eye could be bathed. Meanwhile Thenichka listened attentively, and then tried to leave the room. "But the idea of going away without kissing the barin's hand, foolish one!" cried Arina; whereupon, in lieu of offering the girl his hand, Nikolai Petrovitch felt so embarrassed that in the end he himself kissed her bent head at the spot where the hair lay parted. Soon Thenichka's eye healed, but the impression produced upon Nikolai Petrovitch did not pass away so quickly. Continually there flitted before him a pure, tender, timidly upturned face; continually he could feel between the palms of his hands soft coils of hair; continually appearing to his vision there would be a pair of innocent, half-parted lips between which a set of pearl-like teeth flashed back the sunlight. Consequently he began to observe the girl more in church, and to try to engage her in conversation. But shyness always overcame her, and, on one occasion when she happened to meet him on a narrow path through a rye field, she turned aside, and plunged into the mass of tall grain and undergrowth of cornflowers and wormwood. Yet, despite her endeavours to escape, his eye discerned her head amid the golden mesh of cornblades, and he called to her, as she gazed at him with wild eyes:
"Good morning, Thenichka! I shall not hurt you."
"Good morning, barin!" she whispered in reply, but did not leave her retreat.
As time went on, however, she grew more accustomed to his presence; and by the time that she was beginning really to get over her bashfulness, her mother died of cholera. Here was a dilemma indeed! For what was to be done with the young Thenichka, who had inherited her mother's love of orderliness, and also her mother's good sense and natural refinement? In the end, she was so young and lonely, and Nikolai Petrovitch was so good-hearted and modest, that the inevitable came about. The rest need not be related.
"So my brother has been to you?" he inquired again. "You say that he just knocked at the door and entered?"
"Yes, he just knocked at the door and entered."
"Good! Now, hand me Mitia."
And Nikolai Petrovitch fell to tossing the baby up and down towards the ceiling—a proceeding which greatly delighted the little one, but as greatly disquieted the mother, who, at each upward flight, stretched her hands in the direction of the infant's naked toes.
Meanwhile Paul Petrovitch returned to his study, of which the walls were lined with a paper of red wild roses, and hung with weapons; the floor was covered with a striped Persian carpet; and the furniture, consisting of a Renaissance bookcase in old black oak, a handsome writing-table, a few bronze statuettes, and a stove, was constructed, for the most part, of hazelwood, and upholstered in dark-green velvet. Stretching himself upon a sofa, he clasped his hands behind his head, and remained staring at the ceiling. Did presently the thoughts which were passing through his mind need to be concealed even from the walls, seeing that he rose, unhooked the heavy curtains from before the windows, and replaced himself upon the sofa?