A Dreary Story - III
As a rule she is lying on the sofa or in a lounge-chair reading. Seeing me, she raises her head languidly, sits up, and shakes hands.
“You are always lying down,” I say, after pausing and taking breath. “That’s not good for you. You ought to occupy yourself with something.”
“I say you ought to occupy yourself in some way.”
“With what? A woman can be nothing but a simple workwoman or an actress.”
“Well, if you can’t be a workwoman, be an actress.”
She says nothing.
“You ought to get married,” I say, half in jest.
“There is no one to marry. There’s no reason to, either.”
“You can’t live like this.”
“Without a husband? Much that matters; I could have as many men as I like if I wanted to.”
“That’s ugly, Katya.”
“What is ugly?”
“Why, what you have just said.”
Noticing that I am hurt and wishing to efface the disagreeable impression, Katya says:
“Let us go; come this way.”
She takes me into a very snug little room, and says, pointing to the writing-table:
“Look... I have got that ready for you. You shall work here. Come here every day and bring your work with you. They only hinder you there at home. Will you work here? Will you like to?”
Not to wound her by refusing, I answer that I will work here, and that I like the room very much. Then we both sit down in the snug little room and begin talking.
The warm, snug surroundings and the presence of a sympathetic person does not, as in old days, arouse in me a feeling of pleasure, but an intense impulse to complain and grumble. I feel for some reason that if I lament and complain I shall feel better.
“Things are in a bad way with me, my dear—very bad....”
“What is it?”
“You see how it is, my dear; the best and holiest right of kings is the right of mercy. And I have always felt myself a king, since I have made unlimited use of that right. I have never judged, I have been indulgent, I have readily forgiven every one, right and left. Where others have protested and expressed indignation, I have only advised and persuaded. All my life it has been my endeavour that my society should not be a burden to my family, to my students, to my colleagues, to my servants. And I know that this attitude to people has had a good influence on all who have chanced to come into contact with me. But now I am not a king. Something is happening to me that is only excusable in a slave; day and night my brain is haunted by evil thoughts, and feelings such as I never knew before are brooding in my soul. I am full of hatred, and contempt, and indignation, and loathing, and dread. I have become excessively severe, exacting, irritable, ungracious, suspicious. Even things that in old days would have provoked me only to an unnecessary jest and a good-natured laugh now arouse an oppressive feeling in me. My reasoning, too, has undergone a change: in old days I despised money; now I harbour an evil feeling, not towards money, but towards the rich as though they were to blame: in old days I hated violence and tyranny, but now I hate the men who make use of violence, as though they were alone to blame, and not all of us who do not know how to educate each other. What is the meaning of it? If these new ideas and new feelings have come from a change of convictions, what is that change due to? Can the world have grown worse and I better, or was I blind before and indifferent? If this change is the result of a general decline of physical and intellectual powers—I am ill, you know, and every day I am losing weight—my position is pitiable; it means that my new ideas are morbid and abnormal; I ought to be ashamed of them and think them of no consequence....”
“Illness has nothing to do with it,” Katya interrupts me; “it’s simply that your eyes are opened, that’s all. You have seen what in old days, for some reason, you refused to see. To my thinking, what you ought to do first of all, is to break with your family for good, and go away.”
“You are talking nonsense.”
“You don’t love them; why should you force your feelings? Can you call them a family? Nonentities! If they died today, no one would notice their absence tomorrow.”
Katya despises my wife and Liza as much as they hate her. One can hardly talk at this date of people’s having a right to despise one another. But if one looks at it from Katya’s standpoint and recognizes such a right, one can see she has as much right to despise my wife and Liza as they have to hate her.
“Nonentities,” she goes on. “Have you had dinner today? How was it they did not forget to tell you it was ready? How is it they still remember your existence?”
“Katya,” I say sternly, “I beg you to be silent.”
“You think I enjoy talking about them? I should be glad not to know them at all. Listen, my dear: give it all up and go away. Go abroad. The sooner the better.”
“What nonsense! What about the University?”
“The University, too. What is it to you? There’s no sense in it, anyway. You have been lecturing for thirty years, and where are your pupils? Are many of them celebrated scientific men? Count them up! And to multiply the doctors who exploit ignorance and pile up hundreds of thousands for themselves, there is no need to be a good and talented man. You are not wanted.”
“Good heavens! how harsh you are!” I cry in horror. “How harsh you are! Be quiet or I will go away! I don’t know how to answer the harsh things you say!”
The maid comes in and summons us to tea. At the samovar our conversation, thank God, changes. After having had my grumble out, I have a longing to give way to another weakness of old age, reminiscences. I tell Katya about my past, and to my great astonishment tell her incidents which, till then, I did not suspect of being still preserved in my memory, and she listens to me with tenderness, with pride, holding her breath. I am particularly fond of telling her how I was educated in a seminary and dreamed of going to the University.
“At times I used to walk about our seminary garden...” I would tell her. “If from some faraway tavern the wind floated sounds of a song and the squeaking of an accordion, or a sledge with bells dashed by the garden-fence, it was quite enough to send a rush of happiness, filling not only my heart, but even my stomach, my legs, my arms.... I would listen to the accordion or the bells dying away in the distance and imagine myself a doctor, and paint pictures, one better than another. And here, as you see, my dreams have come true. I have had more than I dared to dream of. For thirty years I have been the favourite professor, I have had splendid comrades, I have enjoyed fame and honour. I have loved, married from passionate love, have had children. In fact, looking back upon it, I see my whole life as a fine composition arranged with talent. Now all that is left to me is not to spoil the end. For that I must die like a man. If death is really a thing to dread, I must meet it as a teacher, a man of science, and a citizen of a Christian country ought to meet it, with courage and untroubled soul. But I am spoiling the end; I am sinking, I fly to you, I beg for help, and you tell me ‘Sink; that is what you ought to do.’”
But here there comes a ring at the front-door. Katya and I recognize it, and say:
“It must be Mihail Fyodorovitch.”
And a minute later my colleague, the philologist Mihail Fyodorovitch, a tall, well-built man of fifty, clean-shaven, with thick grey hair and black eyebrows, walks in. He is a good-natured man and an excellent comrade. He comes of a fortunate and talented old noble family which has played a prominent part in the history of literature and enlightenment. He is himself intelligent, talented, and very highly educated, but has his oddities. To a certain extent we are all odd and all queer fish, but in his oddities there is something exceptional, apt to cause anxiety among his acquaintances. I know a good many people for whom his oddities completely obscure his good qualities.
Coming in to us, he slowly takes off his gloves and says in his velvety bass:
“Good-evening. Are you having tea? That’s just right. It’s diabolically cold.”
Then he sits down to the table, takes a glass, and at once begins talking. What is most characteristic in his manner of talking is the continually jesting tone, a sort of mixture of philosophy and drollery as in Shakespeare’s gravediggers. He is always talking about serious things, but he never speaks seriously. His judgments are always harsh and railing, but, thanks to his soft, even, jesting tone, the harshness and abuse do not jar upon the ear, and one soon grows used to them. Every evening he brings with him five or six anecdotes from the University, and he usually begins with them when he sits down to table.
“Oh, Lord!” he sighs, twitching his black eyebrows ironically. “What comic people there are in the world!”
“Well?” asks Katya.
“As I was coming from my lecture this morning I met that old idiot N. N—— on the stairs.... He was going along as usual, sticking out his chin like a horse, looking for some one to listen to his grumblings at his migraine, at his wife, and his students who won’t attend his lectures. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘he has seen me—I am done for now; it is all up....’”
And so on in the same style. Or he will begin like this:
“I was yesterday at our friend Z. Z——‘s public lecture. I wonder how it is our alma mater—don’t speak of it after dark—dare display in public such noodles and patent dullards as that Z. Z—— Why, he is a European fool! Upon my word, you could not find another like him all over Europe! He lectures—can you imagine?—as though he were sucking a sugar-stick—sue, sue, sue;... he is in a nervous funk; he can hardly decipher his own manuscript; his poor little thoughts crawl along like a bishop on a bicycle, and, what’s worse, you can never make out what he is trying to say. The deadly dulness is awful, the very flies expire. It can only be compared with the boredom in the assembly-hall at the yearly meeting when the traditional address is read—damn it!”
And at once an abrupt transition:
“Three years ago—Nikolay Stepanovitch here will remember it—I had to deliver that address. It was hot, stifling, my uniform cut me under the arms—it was deadly! I read for half an hour, for an hour, for an hour and a half, for two hours.... ‘Come,’ I thought; ‘thank God, there are only ten pages left!’ And at the end there were four pages that there was no need to read, and I reckoned to leave them out. ‘So there are only six really,’ I thought; ‘that is, only six pages left to read.’ But, only fancy, I chanced to glance before me, and, sitting in the front row, side by side, were a general with a ribbon on his breast and a bishop. The poor beggars were numb with boredom; they were staring with their eyes wide open to keep awake, and yet they were trying to put on an expression of attention and to pretend that they understood what I was saying and liked it. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘since you like it you shall have it! I’ll pay you out;’ so I just gave them those four pages too.”
As is usual with ironical people, when he talks nothing in his face smiles but his eyes and eyebrows. At such times there is no trace of hatred or spite in his eyes, but a great deal of humour, and that peculiar fox-like slyness which is only to be noticed in very observant people. Since I am speaking about his eyes, I notice another peculiarity in them. When he takes a glass from Katya, or listens to her speaking, or looks after her as she goes out of the room for a moment, I notice in his eyes something gentle, beseeching, pure....
The maid-servant takes away the samovar and puts on the table a large piece of cheese, some fruit, and a bottle of Crimean champagne—a rather poor wine of which Katya had grown fond in the Crimea. Mihail Fyodorovitch takes two packs of cards off the whatnot and begins to play patience. According to him, some varieties of patience require great concentration and attention, yet while he lays out the cards he does not leave off distracting his attention with talk. Katya watches his cards attentively, and more by gesture than by words helps him in his play. She drinks no more than a couple of wine-glasses of wine the whole evening; I drink four glasses, and the rest of the bottle falls to the share of Mihail Fyodorovitch, who can drink a great deal and never get drunk.
Over our patience we settle various questions, principally of the higher order, and what we care for most of all—that is, science and learning—is more roughly handled than anything.
“Science, thank God, has outlived its day,” says Mihail Fyodorovitch emphatically. “Its song is sung. Yes, indeed. Mankind begins to feel impelled to replace it by something different. It has grown on the soil of superstition, been nourished by superstition, and is now just as much the quintessence of superstition as its defunct granddames, alchemy, metaphysics, and philosophy. And, after all, what has it given to mankind? Why, the difference between the learned Europeans and the Chinese who have no science is trifling, purely external. The Chinese know nothing of science, but what have they lost thereby?”
“Flies know nothing of science, either,” I observe, “but what of that?”
“There is no need to be angry, Nikolay Stepanovitch. I only say this here between ourselves... I am more careful than you think, and I am not going to say this in public—God forbid! The superstition exists in the multitude that the arts and sciences are superior to agriculture, commerce, superior to handicrafts. Our sect is maintained by that superstition, and it is not for you and me to destroy it. God forbid!”
After patience the younger generation comes in for a dressing too.
“Our audiences have degenerated,” sighs Mihail Fyodorovitch. “Not to speak of ideals and all the rest of it, if only they were capable of work and rational thought! In fact, it’s a case of ‘I look with mournful eyes on the young men of today.’”
“Yes; they have degenerated horribly,” Katya agrees. “Tell me, have you had one man of distinction among them for the last five or ten years?”
“I don’t know how it is with the other professors, but I can’t remember any among mine.”
“I have seen in my day many of your students and young scientific men and many actors—well, I have never once been so fortunate as to meet—I won’t say a hero or a man of talent, but even an interesting man. It’s all the same grey mediocrity, puffed up with self-conceit.”
All this talk of degeneration always affects me as though I had accidentally overheard offensive talk about my own daughter. It offends me that these charges are wholesale, and rest on such worn-out commonplaces, on such wordy vapourings as degeneration and absence of ideals, or on references to the splendours of the past. Every accusation, even if it is uttered in ladies’ society, ought to be formulated with all possible definiteness, or it is not an accusation, but idle disparagement, unworthy of decent people.
I am an old man, I have been lecturing for thirty years, but I notice neither degeneration nor lack of ideals, and I don’t find that the present is worse than the past. My porter Nikolay, whose experience of this subject has its value, says that the students of today are neither better nor worse than those of the past.
If I were asked what I don’t like in my pupils of today, I should answer the question, not straight off and not at length, but with sufficient definiteness. I know their failings, and so have no need to resort to vague generalities. I don’t like their smoking, using spirituous beverages, marrying late, and often being so irresponsible and careless that they will let one of their number be starving in their midst while they neglect to pay their subscriptions to the Students’ Aid Society. They don’t know modern languages, and they don’t express themselves correctly in Russian; no longer ago than yesterday my colleague, the professor of hygiene, complained to me that he had to give twice as many lectures, because the students had a very poor knowledge of physics and were utterly ignorant of meteorology. They are readily carried away by the influence of the last new writers, even when they are not first-rate, but they take absolutely no interest in classics such as Shakespeare, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, or Pascal, and this inability to distinguish the great from the small betrays their ignorance of practical life more than anything. All difficult questions that have more or less a social character (for instance the migration question) they settle by studying monographs on the subject, but not by way of scientific investigation or experiment, though that method is at their disposal and is more in keeping with their calling. They gladly become ward-surgeons, assistants, demonstrators, external teachers, and are ready to fill such posts until they are forty, though independence, a sense of freedom and personal initiative, are no less necessary in science than, for instance, in art or commerce. I have pupils and listeners, but no successors and helpers, and so I love them and am touched by them, but am not proud of them. And so on, and so on....
Such shortcomings, however numerous they may be, can only give rise to a pessimistic or fault-finding temper in a faint-hearted and timid man. All these failings have a casual, transitory character, and are completely dependent on conditions of life; in some ten years they will have disappeared or given place to other fresh defects, which are all inevitable and will in their turn alarm the faint-hearted. The students’ sins often vex me, but that vexation is nothing in comparison with the joy I have been experiencing now for the last thirty years when I talk to my pupils, lecture to them, watch their relations, and compare them with people not of their circle.
Mihail Fyodorovitch speaks evil of everything. Katya listens, and neither of them notices into what depths the apparently innocent diversion of finding fault with their neighbours is gradually drawing them. They are not conscious how by degrees simple talk passes into malicious mockery and jeering, and how they are both beginning to drop into the habits and methods of slander.
“Killing types one meets with,” says Mihail Fyodorovitch. “I went yesterday to our friend Yegor Petrovitch’s, and there I found a studious gentleman, one of your medicals in his third year, I believe. Such a face!... in the Dobrolubov style, the imprint of profound thought on his brow; we got into talk. ‘Such doings, young man,’ said I. ‘I’ve read,’ said I, ‘that some German—I’ve forgotten his name—has created from the human brain a new kind of alkaloid, idiotine.’ What do you think? He believed it, and there was positively an expression of respect on his face, as though to say, ‘See what we fellows can do!’ And the other day I went to the theatre. I took my seat. In the next row directly in front of me were sitting two men: one of ‘us fellows’ and apparently a law student, the other a shaggy-looking figure, a medical student. The latter was as drunk as a cobbler. He did not look at the stage at all. He was dozing with his nose on his shirt-front. But as soon as an actor begins loudly reciting a monologue, or simply raises his voice, our friend starts, pokes his neighbour in the ribs, and asks, ‘What is he saying? Is it elevating?’ ‘Yes,’ answers one of our fellows. ‘B-r-r-ravo!’ roars the medical student. ‘Elevating! Bravo!’ He had gone to the theatre, you see, the drunken blockhead, not for the sake of art, the play, but for elevation! He wanted noble sentiments.”
Katya listens and laughs. She has a strange laugh; she catches her breath in rhythmically regular gasps, very much as though she were playing the accordion, and nothing in her face is laughing but her nostrils. I grow depressed and don’t know what to say. Beside myself, I fire up, leap up from my seat, and cry:
“Do leave off! Why are you sitting here like two toads, poisoning the air with your breath? Give over!”
And without waiting for them to finish their gossip I prepare to go home. And, indeed, it is high time: it is past ten.
“I will stay a little longer,” says Mihail Fyodorovitch. “Will you allow me, Ekaterina Vladimirovna?”
“I will,” answers Katya.
“Bene! In that case have up another little bottle.”
They both accompany me with candles to the hall, and while I put on my fur coat, Mihail Fyodorovitch says:
“You have grown dreadfully thin and older looking, Nikolay Stepanovitch. What’s the matter with you? Are you ill?”
“Yes; I am not very well.”
“And you are not doing anything for it...” Katya puts in grimly.
“Why don’t you? You can’t go on like that! God helps those who help themselves, my dear fellow. Remember me to your wife and daughter, and make my apologies for not having been to see them. In a day or two, before I go abroad, I shall come to say good-bye. I shall be sure to. I am going away next week.”
I come away from Katya, irritated and alarmed by what has been said about my being ill, and dissatisfied with myself. I ask myself whether I really ought not to consult one of my colleagues. And at once I imagine how my colleague, after listening to me, would walk away to the window without speaking, would think a moment, then would turn round to me and, trying to prevent my reading the truth in his face, would say in a careless tone: “So far I see nothing serious, but at the same time, collega, I advise you to lay aside your work....” And that would deprive me of my last hope.
Who is without hope? Now that I am diagnosing my illness and prescribing for myself, from time to time I hope that I am deceived by my own illness, that I am mistaken in regard to the albumen and the sugar I find, and in regard to my heart, and in regard to the swellings I have twice noticed in the mornings; when with the fervour of the hypochondriac I look through the textbooks of therapeutics and take a different medicine every day, I keep fancying that I shall hit upon something comforting. All that is petty.
Whether the sky is covered with clouds or the moon and the stars are shining, I turn my eyes towards it every evening and think that death is taking me soon. One would think that my thoughts at such times ought to be deep as the sky, brilliant, striking.... But no! I think about myself, about my wife, about Liza, Gnekker, the students, people in general; my thoughts are evil, petty, I am insincere with myself, and at such times my theory of life may be expressed in the words the celebrated Araktcheev said in one of his intimate letters: “Nothing good can exist in the world without evil, and there is more evil than good.” That is, everything is disgusting; there is nothing to live for, and the sixty-two years I have already lived must be reckoned as wasted. I catch myself in these thoughts, and try to persuade myself that they are accidental, temporary, and not deeply rooted in me, but at once I think:
“If so, what drives me every evening to those two toads?”
And I vow to myself that I will never go to Katya’s again, though I know I shall go next evening.
Ringing the bell at the door and going upstairs, I feel that I have no family now and no desire to bring it back again. It is clear that the new Araktcheev thoughts are not casual, temporary visitors, but have possession of my whole being. With my conscience ill at ease, dejected, languid, hardly able to move my limbs, feeling as though tons were added to my weight, I get into bed and quickly drop asleep.