The Wife - III
My wife’s outburst reminded me of our married life together. In old days after every such outburst we felt irresistibly drawn to each other; we would meet and let off all the dynamite that had accumulated in our souls. And now after Ivan Ivanitch had gone away I had a strong impulse to go to my wife. I wanted to go downstairs and tell her that her behaviour at tea had been an insult to me, that she was cruel, petty, and that her plebeian mind had never risen to a comprehension of what I was saying and of what I was doing. I walked about the rooms a long time thinking of what I would say to her and trying to guess what she would say to me.
That evening, after Ivan Ivanitch went away, I felt in a peculiarly irritating form the uneasiness which had worried me of late. I could not sit down or sit still, but kept walking about in the rooms that were lighted up and keeping near to the one in which Marya Gerasimovna was sitting. I had a feeling very much like that which I had on the North Sea during a storm when every one thought that our ship, which had no freight nor ballast, would overturn. And that evening I understood that my uneasiness was not disappointment, as I had supposed, but a different feeling, though what exactly I could not say, and that irritated me more than ever.
“I will go to her,” I decided. “I can think of a pretext. I shall say that I want to see Ivan Ivanitch; that will be all.”
I went downstairs and walked without haste over the carpeted floor through the vestibule and the hall. Ivan Ivanitch was sitting on the sofa in the drawing-room; he was drinking tea again and muttering something. My wife was standing opposite to him and holding on to the back of a chair. There was a gentle, sweet, and docile expression on her face, such as one sees on the faces of people listening to crazy saints or holy men when a peculiar hidden significance is imagined in their vague words and mutterings. There was something morbid, something of a nun’s exaltation, in my wife’s expression and attitude; and her low-pitched, half-dark rooms with their old-fashioned furniture, with her birds asleep in their cages, and with a smell of geranium, reminded me of the rooms of some abbess or pious old lady.
I went into the drawing-room. My wife showed neither surprise nor confusion, and looked at me calmly and serenely, as though she had known I should come.
“I beg your pardon,” I said softly. “I am so glad you have not gone yet, Ivan Ivanitch. I forgot to ask you, do you know the Christian name of the president of our Zemstvo?”
“Andrey Stanislavovitch. Yes....”
“Merci,” I said, took out my notebook, and wrote it down.
There followed a silence during which my wife and Ivan Ivanitch were probably waiting for me to go; my wife did not believe that I wanted to know the president’s name—I saw that from her eyes.
“Well, I must be going, my beauty,” muttered Ivan Ivanitch, after I had walked once or twice across the drawing-room and sat down by the fireplace.
“No,” said Natalya Gavrilovna quickly, touching his hand. “Stay another quarter of an hour.... Please do!”
Evidently she did not wish to be left alone with me without a witness.
“Oh, well, I’ll wait a quarter of an hour, too,” I thought.
“Why, it’s snowing!” I said, getting up and looking out of window. “A good fall of snow! Ivan Ivanitch”—I went on walking about the room—“I do regret not being a sportsman. I can imagine what a pleasure it must be coursing hares or hunting wolves in snow like this!”
My wife, standing still, watched my movements, looking out of the corner of her eyes without turning her head. She looked as though she thought I had a sharp knife or a revolver in my pocket.
“Ivan Ivanitch, do take me out hunting some day,” I went on softly. “I shall be very, very grateful to you.”
At that moment a visitor came into the room. He was a tall, thick-set gentleman whom I did not know, with a bald head, a big fair beard, and little eyes. From his baggy, crumpled clothes and his manners I took him to be a parish clerk or a teacher, but my wife introduced him to me as Dr. Sobol.
“Very, very glad to make your acquaintance,” said the doctor in a loud tenor voice, shaking hands with me warmly, with a naive smile. “Very glad!”
He sat down at the table, took a glass of tea, and said in a loud voice:
“Do you happen to have a drop of rum or brandy? Have pity on me, Olya, and look in the cupboard; I am frozen,” he said, addressing the maid.
I sat down by the fire again, looked on, listened, and from time to time put in a word in the general conversation. My wife smiled graciously to the visitors and kept a sharp lookout on me, as though I were a wild beast. She was oppressed by my presence, and this aroused in me jealousy, annoyance, and an obstinate desire to wound her. “Wife, these snug rooms, the place by the fire,” I thought, “are mine, have been mine for years, but some crazy Ivan Ivanitch or Sobol has for some reason more right to them than I. Now I see my wife, not out of window, but close at hand, in ordinary home surroundings that I feel the want of now I am growing older, and, in spite of her hatred for me, I miss her as years ago in my childhood I used to miss my mother and my nurse. And I feel that now, on the verge of old age, my love for her is purer and loftier than it was in the past; and that is why I want to go up to her, to stamp hard on her toe with my heel, to hurt her and smile as I do it.”
“Monsieur Marten,” I said, addressing the doctor, “how many hospitals have we in the district?”
“Sobol,” my wife corrected.
“Two,” answered Sobol.
“And how many deaths are there every year in each hospital?”
“Pavel Andreitch, I want to speak to you,” said my wife.
She apologized to the visitors and went to the next room. I got up and followed her.
“You will go upstairs to your own rooms this minute,” she said.
“You are ill-bred,” I said to her.
“You will go upstairs to your own rooms this very minute,” she repeated sharply, and she looked into my face with hatred.
She was standing so near that if I had stooped a little my beard would have touched her face.
“What is the matter?” I asked. “What harm have I done all at once?”
Her chin quivered, she hastily wiped her eyes, and, with a cursory glance at the looking-glass, whispered:
“The old story is beginning all over again. Of course you won’t go away. Well, do as you like. I’ll go away myself, and you stay.”
We returned to the drawing-room, she with a resolute face, while I shrugged my shoulders and tried to smile. There were some more visitors—an elderly lady and a young man in spectacles. Without greeting the new arrivals or taking leave of the others, I went off to my own rooms.
After what had happened at tea and then again downstairs, it became clear to me that our “family happiness,” which we had begun to forget about in the course of the last two years, was through some absurd and trivial reason beginning all over again, and that neither I nor my wife could now stop ourselves; and that next day or the day after, the outburst of hatred would, as I knew by experience of past years, be followed by something revolting which would upset the whole order of our lives. “So it seems that during these two years we have grown no wiser, colder, or calmer,” I thought as I began walking about the rooms. “So there will again be tears, outcries, curses, packing up, going abroad, then the continual sickly fear that she will disgrace me with some coxcomb out there, Italian or Russian, refusing a passport, letters, utter loneliness, missing her, and in five years old age, grey hairs.” I walked about, imagining what was really impossible—her, grown handsomer, stouter, embracing a man I did not know. By now convinced that that would certainly happen, “‘Why,” I asked myself, “Why, in one of our long past quarrels, had not I given her a divorce, or why had she not at that time left me altogether? I should not have had this yearning for her now, this hatred, this anxiety; and I should have lived out my life quietly, working and not worrying about anything.”
A carriage with two lamps drove into the yard, then a big sledge with three horses. My wife was evidently having a party.
Till midnight everything was quiet downstairs and I heard nothing, but at midnight there was a sound of moving chairs and a clatter of crockery. So there was supper. Then the chairs moved again, and through the floor I heard a noise; they seemed to be shouting hurrah. Marya Gerasimovna was already asleep and I was quite alone in the whole upper storey; the portraits of my forefathers, cruel, insignificant people, looked at me from the walls of the drawing-room, and the reflection of my lamp in the window winked unpleasantly. And with a feeling of jealousy and envy for what was going on downstairs, I listened and thought: “I am master here; if I like, I can in a moment turn out all that fine crew.” But I knew that all that was nonsense, that I could not turn out any one, and the word “master” had no meaning. One may think oneself master, married, rich, a kammer-junker, as much as one likes, and at the same time not know what it means.
After supper some one downstairs began singing in a tenor voice.
“Why, nothing special has happened,” I tried to persuade myself. “Why am I so upset? I won’t go downstairs tomorrow, that’s all; and that will be the end of our quarrel.”
At a quarter past one I went to bed.
“Have the visitors downstairs gone?” I asked Alexey as he was undressing me.
“Yes, sir, they’ve gone.”
“And why were they shouting hurrah?”
“Alexey Dmitritch Mahonov subscribed for the famine fund a thousand bushels of flour and a thousand roubles. And the old lady—I don’t know her name—promised to set up a soup kitchen on her estate to feed a hundred and fifty people. Thank God... Natalya Gavrilovna has been pleased to arrange that all the gentry should assemble every Friday.”
“To assemble here, downstairs?”
“Yes, sir. Before supper they read a list: since August up to today Natalya Gavrilovna has collected eight thousand roubles, besides corn. Thank God.... What I think is that if our mistress does take trouble for the salvation of her soul, she will soon collect a lot. There are plenty of rich people here.”
Dismissing Alexey, I put out the light and drew the bedclothes over my head.
“After all, why am I so troubled?” I thought. “What force draws me to the starving peasants like a butterfly to a flame? I don’t know them, I don’t understand them; I have never seen them and I don’t like them. Why this uneasiness?”
I suddenly crossed myself under the quilt.
“But what a woman she is!” I said to myself, thinking of my wife. “There’s a regular committee held in the house without my knowing. Why this secrecy? Why this conspiracy? What have I done to them? Ivan Ivanitch is right—I must go away.”
Next morning I woke up firmly resolved to go away. The events of the previous day—the conversation at tea, my wife, Sobol, the supper, my apprehensions—worried me, and I felt glad to think of getting away from the surroundings which reminded me of all that. While I was drinking my coffee the bailiff gave me a long report on various matters. The most agreeable item he saved for the last.
“The thieves who stole our rye have been found,” he announced with a smile. “The magistrate arrested three peasants at Pestrovo yesterday.”
“Go away!” I shouted at him; and a propos of nothing, I picked up the cake-basket and flung it on the floor.