The villa in which Avdotia, or Evdoksia, Nikitishna Kukshin resided was one of the usual Moscow pattern, and stood in one of the recently consumed streets (for as we know, every fifth year sees each of our provincial capitals burnt to the ground) of the town of ——. Beside the front door there hung (over a cracked, crooked visiting-card) a bell-handle, while in the hall the visitors were met by a female who constituted, not exactly a maidservant, but a mob-capped "lady companion." And it need hardly be added that these two phenomena, the bell-handle and the "lady companion," constituted clear evidence of the "progressiveness" of the hostess's views.
On Sitnikov inquiring whether Avdotia Nikitishna were within, a shrill voice interrupted him from an adjoining room:
"Is that you, Victor? Pray enter."
The female in the mob-cap disappeared.
"I have not come alone," Sitnikov responded as, after an inquiring glance at Arkady and Bazarov, he divested himself of his greatcoat, and revealed thereunder a sort of sack jacket.
"Never mind," the voice replied. "Entrez, s'il vous plaît."
The young men did as bidden, and found themselves in a room which resembled a workshop rather than a parlour. On tables were piled promiscuous papers, letters and Russian magazines (most of the latter uncut); everywhere on the floor were to be seen gleaming the fag-ends of cigarettes; and on a leather-padded sofa a lady—youngish, flaxen-haired, and clad in a négligée soiled silk gown—was lolling in a semi-recumbent position. About her stumpy wrists were clasped a large pair of bracelets, and over her head was thrown a lace mantilla. Rising, she draped her shoulders carelessly in a velvet tippet with faded ermine trimming, and, saying indolently, "Good day, Victor," pressed Sitnikov's hand.
"Bazarov—Kirsanov," he said in abrupt imitation of the former; whereupon she responded, "How do you do?" and then added, as she fixed upon Bazarov a pair of large eyes between which glimmered a correspondingly small, pink, upturned nose: "I have met you before."
That said, she pressed his hand even as she had done Sitnikov's.
Bazarov frowned, for though the plain, insignificant features of the emancipated lady contained nothing actually to repel, there was something in their mien which produced upon the beholder the sort of unpleasant impression which might have inclined him to ask her: "Are you hungry, or bored, or afraid? At all events, what is it you want?" Also, like Sitnikov, she kept pawing the air as she spoke, and her every word, her every gesture, revealed such a lack of control as at times amounted to sheer awkwardness. In short, though she conceived herself to be just a simple, good-hearted creature, her bearing was of the kind to lead the beholder to reflect that, no matter what she did, it was not what she had intended to do, and that everything was done (to use the children's term) "on purpose"—that is to say, non-simply and non-naturally.
"Yes, I have met you before, Bazarov," she repeated (like many other contemporary females of Moscow and the provinces, she had adopted the fashion of calling men by their surnames alone on first introduction). "Will you have a cigar?"
"I thank you," interposed Sitnikov (who had deposited his person in an armchair, and crossed his legs). "Also, pray give us some luncheon, for we are absolutely ravenous. Also, you might order us a bottle of champagne."
"You Sybarite!" exclaimed Evdoksia with a smile (a smile always brought her upper gum prominently into view). "Is he not, Bazarov?"
"No; it is merely that I love the comforts of life," protested Sitnikov pompously. "Nor need that in any way prevent me from being a Liberal."
"But it does, it does," cried Evdoksia. However, she gave orders to her servant to see both to the luncheon and to the champagne. "What is your opinion on the matter?" she added, turning to Bazarov. "I feel convinced that you share mine."
"No, I do not," he replied. "On the contrary, I think that, even from the chemical point of view, a piece of meat is better than a piece of bread."
"Then you study chemistry?" she exclaimed. "Chemistry is my passion also. In fact, I have invented a special liniment."
"A liniment? You?"
"Yes, I. And please guess its use. It is for making unbreakable dolls and pipe-bowls. You see that, like yourself, I am of a practical turn of mind. But, as yet, I have not completed my course of study. It still remains for me to read up my Liebig. Apropos, have you seen an article in the Viedomosti on Woman's Work—an article by Kisliakov? If not, you should read it (for I presume that you take an interest in the Feminine Question, and also in the Question of the Schools?). But what is your friend's line? Apropos, what is his name?"
These questions Madame Kukshin, as it were, mouthed, and did so with an affected carelessness which waited for no reply, even as a spoilt child propounds conundrums to its nurse.
"My name is Arkady Nikolaievitch Kirsanov," Arkady answered for himself. "And my particular line is doing nothing at all."
"How nice!" she exclaimed. "Then you do not even smoke? Victor, I am furious with you!"
"Why?" enquired Sitnikov.
"Because I have just heard that you are again standing up for Georges Sand, that played-out woman. How is she even to be compared (that creature, who lacks a single idea on education or physiology or anything else) with Emerson? In fact, I believe that never in her life has she so much as heard of embryology—though in these days no one can get on without it." The speaker flung out her arms in an expressive gesture. "But what a splendid article was that of Elisievitch's! He is indeed a talented gentleman!" (This was another habit of Evdoksia's—the habit of persistently using the term "gentleman" for the ordinary word "man"). "Bazarov, pray come and sit beside me on the sofa. You may not know it, but I am dreadfully afraid of you."
"Why are you afraid of me (if you will forgive my curiosity)?"
"Because you are a dangerous gentleman—you are a critic so caustic that in your presence my confusion leads me to begin speaking like a lady-landowner of the Steppes. Apropos, I am a lady-landowner myself; for, though I employ a local steward named Erothei (a sort of Cooper's 'Pathfinder,' but compounded with a blend of independence in his composition), I retain the ultimate reins of management in my own hands. But how unbearable this town is!—yes, even though I have made it my permanent home, seeing that nothing else was to be done!"
"The town is what a town always is," remarked Bazarov indifferently.
"But its interests are so petty!" continued Evdoksia.
"That is what troubles me. Once upon a time I used to winter in Moscow, but now good Monsieur Kukshin has to dwell there alone. And Moscow itself is, is—well, not what it used to be. As a matter of fact, I contemplate going abroad. I have spent the whole year in making my preparations for the journey."
"You will go to Paris, I presume?"
"Yes, and to Heidelberg."
"Why to Heidelberg?"
"Because there the great Herr Bunsen has his home."
Bazarov could not think of a suitable reply.
"Do you know Pierre Sapozhnikov?" continued she.
"No, I do not."
"He is always to be found at Lydia Khostatov's."
"Even with her I am not acquainted."
"Well, Sapozhnikov is going to escort me on my travels. For at least I am free—I have no children, thank God! Why I should have put in that 'Thank God!' I scarcely know."
She rolled another cigarette between her nicotine-stained fingers, licked it, placed it between her lips, and struck a match. The servant entered with a tray.
"Ah! Here comes luncheon! Will you have some? Victor, pray uncork the bottle. It is your function to do so."
"Mine, yes, mine," he hummed; then gave another of his shrill giggles.
"Have you any good-looking ladies in this town?" Bazarov asked after a third glassful of champagne.
"Yes," replied Evdoksia. "But uniformly they are futile. For example, a friend of mine, a Madame Odintsov, is not bad-looking, and has nothing against her except a doubtful reputation (a thing of no consequence in itself); but, alas! she combines with it such a complete lack of freedom, or of breadth of view, or, in fact, of anything! The system of bringing up women needs a radical change. I myself have given much thought to the matter, and come to the conclusion that our women are ill-educated."
"Yes; the only thing to be done with them is to hold them in contempt," agreed Sitnikov. To him any opportunity of despising, of expressing scornful sentiments, was the most agreeable of sensations. Yet, though he thus chose women for his especial censure, he little suspected that before many months were over he himself would be grovelling at the feet of a wife—and doing so merely for the reason that she had been born a Princess Durdoleosov!
"No, to none of them would our conversation convey anything," he continued. "Nor is there a single one of them upon whom the attention of a serious-minded man would be anything but thrown away."
"Scarcely need they desire to have anything conveyed to them by our conversation," remarked Bazarov.
"Of whom are you speaking?" interposed Evdoksia.
"Of the smart women of the day."
"What? I suppose you agree with Proudhon's opinion on the subject?"
Bazarov drew himself up.
"I agree with no man's opinions," he remarked. "I have some of my own."
"A bas les autorités!" cried Sitnikov, delighted at this unlooked-for opportunity of showing off in the presence of the man whom he worshipped.
"But even Macaulay——" began Madame Kukshin.
"A bas Macaulay!" roared Sitnikov. "How can you defend those dolls of ours?"
"I am not defending them at all," said Madame Kukshin. "I am merely standing up for the rights of women—rights which I have sworn to defend to the last drop of my blood."
"A bas——" began Sitnikov—then paused. "I do not reject them," he added in a lower tone.
"But you do reject them, for you are a Slavophil, as I can see very clearly."
"On the contrary, I am not a Slavophil; although, of course, I——"
"But you are a Slavophil: you believe in the principles of the Domostroi, and would like always to be holding over women a scourge."
"A scourge is not a bad thing in its proper place," observed Bazarov. "But, seeing that we have reached the last drop of, of——"
"Of what?" said Evdoksia.
"Of champagne, most respected Avdotia Nikitishna—not of your blood."
"Never when I hear my sex abused can I listen with indifference," resumed Evdoksia. "It is all too horrible, too horrible! Instead of attacking us, people ought to read Michel's De l'Amour. What a wonderful work it is! Let us talk of love."
She posed her arm gracefully upon the tumbled cushions of the sofa.
There fell a sudden silence.
"What is there to say concerning love?" at length said Bazarov. "In passing, you mentioned a certain Madame Odintsov (I think that was the name?). Who is she?"
"A very charming woman," squeaked Sitnikov, "as well as clever, rich, and a widow. Unfortunately, she is not sufficiently developed, and a closer acquaintance with our Evdoksia would do her a world of good. Evdoksia, I drink to your health! Let us sing the honours. 'Et toc, et toc, et tin, tin, tin! Et toc, et toc, et tin, tin, tin!'"
"You scamp, Victor!"
The luncheon proved a lengthy affair, for to the first bottle of champagne there succeeded a second, and to the latter a third, and to that a fourth. Meanwhile Evdoksia kept up an unceasing flow of chatter, and received effective assistance from Sitnikov. In particular did the pair discuss the nature of marriage ("the outcome of prejudice and vice"), the question whether people are born "single," and the consistency of "individuality." Then Evdoksia seated herself at the piano, and, red in the face with wine which she had drunk, clattered her flat finger-nails upon the keys, and essayed hoarsely to sing, first of all some gipsy ditties, and then the ballad, "Dreaming Granada lies asleep"; while, throwing a scarf over his head to represent the dying lover, Sitnikov joined her at the words "Your lips meet mine in a burning kiss."
At length Arkady could stand it no longer.
"Gentlemen," he exclaimed, "this is sheer Bedlam!"
As for Bazarov, he yawned, for he had done little more than interject a satirical word or two—his attention had been devoted, rather, to the champagne. At length he rose, and, accompanied by Arkady, left the house without so much as a word of farewell to the hostess. Sitnikov pursued the pair.
"Ah, ha!" he exclaimed as he skipped about the roadway. "Did I not tell you that she would prove a most remarkable personality? Would that more of our women were like her! In her way, she is a moral phenomenon."
"And your father's establishment?" remarked Bazarov as he pointed to a tavern which they happened to be passing. "Is that also a moral phenomenon?"
Sitnikov vented another of his shrill giggles. But, being also ashamed of his origin, he felt at a loss whether to plume himself upon, or to take offence at, Bazarov's unexpected pleasantry.