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We were in mourning for my mother, who had died in the autumn, and I spent all that winter alone in the country with Katya and Sonya.
Katya was an old friend of the family, our governess who had brought us all up, and I had known and loved her since my earliest recollections. Sonya was my younger sister. It was a dark and sad winter which we spent in our old house of Pokrovskoye. The weather was cold and so windy that the snowdrifts came higher than the windows; the panes were almost always dimmed by frost, and we seldom walked or drove anywhere throughout the winter. Our visitors were few, and those who came brought no addition of cheerfulness or happiness to the household. They all wore sad faces and spoke low, as if they were afraid of waking someone; they never laughed, but sighed and often shed tears as they looked at me and especially at little Sonya in her black frock. The feeling of death clung to the house; the air was still filled with the grief and horror of death. My mother’s room was kept locked; and whenever I passed it on my way to bed, I felt a strange uncomfortable impulse to look into that cold empty room.
I was then seventeen; and in the very year of her death my mother was intending to move to Petersburg, in order to take me into society. The loss of my mother was a great grief to me; but I must confess to another feeling behind that grief — a feeling that though I was young and pretty (so everybody told me), I was wasting a second winter in the solitude of the country. Before the winter ended, this sense of dejection, solitude, and simple boredom increased to such an extent that I refused to leave my room or open the piano or take up a book. When Katya urged me to find some occupation, I said that I did not feel able for it; but in my heart I said, “What is the good of it? What is the good of doing anything, when the best part of my life is being wasted like this?” and to this question, tears were my only answer.
I was told that I was growing thin and losing my looks; but even this failed to interest me. What did it matter? For whom? I felt that my whole life was bound to go on in the same solitude and helpless dreariness, from which I had myself no strength and even no wish to escape. Towards the end of winter Katya became anxious about me and determined to make an effort to take me abroad. But money was needed for this, and we hardly knew how our affairs stood after my mother’s death. Our guardian, who was to come and clear up our position, was expected every day.
In March he arrived.
“Well, thank God!” Katya said to me one day, when I was walking up and down the room like a shadow, without occupation, without a thought, and without a wish. “Sergey Mikhaylych has arrived; he has sent to inquire about us and means to come here for dinner. You must rouse yourself, dear Mashechka,” she added, “or what will he think of you? He was so fond of you all.”
Sergey Mikhaylych was our near neighbor, and, though a much younger man, had been a friend of my father’s. His coming was likely to change our plans and to make it possible to leave the country; and also I had grown up in the habit of love and regard for him; and when Katya begged me to rouse myself, she guessed rightly that it would give me especial pain to show to disadvantage before him, more than before any other of our friends. Like everyone in the house, from Katya and his god-daughter Sonya down to the helper in the stables, I loved him from old habit; and also he had a special significance for me, owing to a remark which my mother had once made in my presence. “I should like you to marry a man like him,” she said. At the time this seemed to me strange and even unpleasant. My ideal husband was quite different: he was to be thin, pale, and sad; and Sergey Mikhaylych was middle-aged, tall, robust, and always, as it seemed to me, in good spirits. But still my mother’s words stuck in my head; and even six years before this time, when I was eleven, and he still said “thou” to me, and played with me, and called me by the pet-name of “violet” — even then I sometimes asked myself in a fright, “What shall I do, if he suddenly wants to marry me?”
Before our dinner, to which Katya made an addition of sweets and a dish of spinach, Sergey Mikhaylych arrived. From the window I watched him drive up to the house in a small sleigh; but as soon as it turned the corner, I hastened to the drawing room, meaning to pretend that his visit was a complete surprise. But when I heard his tramp and loud voice and Katya’s footsteps in the hall, I lost patience and went to meet him myself. He was holding Katya’s hand, talking loud, and smiling. When he saw me, he stopped and looked at me for a time without bowing. I was uncomfortable and felt myself blushing.
“Can this be really you?” he said in his plain decisive way, walking towards me with his arms apart. “Is so great a change possible? How grown-up you are! I used to call you “violet”, but now you are a rose in full bloom!’
He took my hand in his own large hand and pressed it so hard that it almost hurt. Expecting him to kiss my hand, I bent towards him, but he only pressed it again and looked straight into my eyes with the old firmness and cheerfulness in his face.
It was six years since I had seen him last. He was much changed — older and darker in complexion; and he now wore whiskers which did not become him at all; but much remained the same — his simple manner, the large features of his honest open face, his bright intelligent eyes, his friendly, almost boyish, smile.
Five minutes later he had ceased to be a visitor and had become the friend of us all, even of the servants, whose visible eagerness to wait on him proved their pleasure at his arrival. He behaved quite unlike the neighbors who had visited us after my mother’s death. They had thought it necessary to be silent when they sat with us, and to shed tears. He, on the contrary, was cheerful and talkative, and said not a word about my mother, so that this indifference seemed strange to me at first and even improper on the part of so close a friend. But I understood later that what seemed indifference was sincerity, and I felt grateful for it. In the evening Katya poured out tea, sitting in her old place in the drawing room, where she used to sit in my mother’s lifetime; our old butler Grigori had hunted out one of my father’s pipes and brought it to him; and he began to walk up and down the room as he used to do in past days.
“How many terrible changes there are in this house, when one thinks of it all!” he said, stopping in his walk.
“Yes,” said Katya with a sigh; and then she put the lid on the samovar and looked at him, quite ready to burst out crying.
“I suppose you remember your father?” he said, turning to me.
“Not clearly,” I answered.
“How happy you would have been together now!” he added in a low voice, looking thoughtfully at my face above the eyes. “I was very fond of him,” he added in a still lower tone, and it seemed to me that his eyes were shining more than usual.
“And now God has taken her too!” said Katya; and at once she laid her napkin on the teapot, took out her handkerchief, and began to cry.
“Yes, the changes in this house are terrible,” he repeated, turning away. “Sonya, show me your toys,” he added after a little and went off to the parlor. When he had gone, I looked at Katya with eyes full of tears.
“What a splendid friend he is!” she said. And, though he was no relation, I did really feel a kind of warmth and comfort in the sympathy of this good man.
I could hear him moving about in the parlor with Sonya, and the sound of her high childish voice. I sent tea to him there; and I heard him sit down at the piano and strike the keys with Sonya’s little hands.
Then his voice came — “Marya Aleksandrovna, come here and play something.”
I liked his easy behavior to me and his friendly tone of command; I got up and went to him.
“Play this,” he said, opening a book of Beethoven’s music at the adagio of the “Moonlight Sonata.” “Let me hear how you play,” he added, and went off to a corner of the room, carrying his cup with him.
I somehow felt that with him it was impossible to refuse or to say beforehand that I played badly: I sat down obediently at the piano and began to play as well as I could; yet I was afraid of criticism, because I knew that he understood and enjoyed music. The adagio suited the remembrance of past days evoked by our conversation at tea, and I believe that I played it fairly well. But he would not let me play the scherzo. “No,” he said, coming up to me; “you don’t play that right; don’t go on; but the first movement was not bad; you seem to be musical.” This moderate praise pleased me so much that I even reddened. I felt it pleasant and strange that a friend of my father’s, and his contemporary, should no longer treat me like a child but speak to me seriously. Katya now went upstairs to put Sonya to bed, and we were left alone in the parlor.
He talked to me about my father, and about the beginning of their friendship and the happy days they had spent together, while I was still busy with lesson-books and toys; and his talk put my father before me in quite a new light, as a man of simple and delightful character. He asked me too about my tastes, what I read and what I intended to do, and gave me advice. The man of mirth and jest who used to tease me and make me toys had disappeared; here was a serious, simple, and affectionate friend, for whom I could not help feeling respect and sympathy. It was easy and pleasant to talk to him; and yet I felt an involuntary strain also. I was anxious about each word I spoke: I wished so much to earn for my own sake the love which had been given me already merely because I was my father’s daughter.
After putting Sonya to bed, Katya joined us and began to complain to him of my apathy, about which I had said nothing.
“So she never told me the most important thing of all!” he said, smiling and shaking his head reproachfully at me.
“Why tell you?” I said. “It is very tiresome to talk about, and it will pass off.” (I really felt now, not only that my dejection would pass off, but that it had already passed off, or rather had never existed.)
“It is a bad thing,” he said, “not to be able to stand solitude. Can it be that you are a young lady?”
“Of course, I am a young lady,” I answered laughing.
“Well, I can’t praise a young lady who is alive only when people are admiring her, but as soon as she is left alone, collapses and finds nothing to her taste — one who is all for show and has no resources in herself.”
“You have a flattering opinion of me!” I said, just for the sake of saying something.
He was silent for a little. Then he said: “Yes; your likeness to your father means something. There is something in you . . .,” and his kind attentive look again flattered me and made me feel a pleasant embarrassment.
I noticed now for the first time that his face, which gave one at first the impression of high spirits, had also an expression peculiar to himself — bright at first and then more and more attentive and rather sad.
“You ought not to be bored and you cannot be,” he said; “you have music, which you appreciate, books, study; your whole life lies before you, and now or never is the time to prepare for it and save yourself future regrets. A year hence it will be too late.”
He spoke to me like a father or an uncle, and I felt that he kept a constant check upon himself, in order to keep on my level. Though I was hurt that he considered me as inferior to himself, I was pleased that for me alone he thought it necessary to try to be different.
For the rest of the evening he talked about business with Katya.
“Well, goodby, dear friends,” he said. Then he got up, came towards me and took my hand. When shall we see you again?” asked Katya.
“In spring,” he answered, still holding my hand. “I shall go now to Danilovka” (this was another property of ours), “look into things there and make what arrangements I can; then I go to Moscow on business of my own; and in summer we shall meet again.”
“Must you really be away so long?” I asked, and I felt terribly grieved. I had really hoped to see him every day, and I felt a sudden shock of regret, and a fear that my depression would return. And my face and voice just have made this plain.
“You must find more to do and not get depressed,” he said; and I thought his tone too cool and unconcerned. “I shall put you through an examination in spring,” he added, letting go my hand and not looking at me.
When we saw him off in the hall, he put on his fur coat in a hurry and still avoided looking at me. “He is taking a deal of trouble for nothing!” I thought. “Does he think me so anxious that he should look at me? He is a good man, a very good man; but that’s all.”
That evening, however, Katya and I sat up late, talking, not about him but about our plans for the summer, and where we should spend next winter and what we should do then. I had ceased to ask that terrible question — what is the good of it all? Now it seemed quite plain and simple: the proper object of life was happiness, and I promised myself much happiness ahead. It seemed as if our gloomy old house had suddenly become fully of light and life.
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