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The Fast of the Assumption falling in august, no one in the house was surprised by my intention of fasting.
During the whole of the week he never once came to see us; but, far from being surprised or vexed or made uneasy by his absence, I was glad of it — I did not expect him until my birthday. Each day during the week I got up early. while the horses were being harnessed, I walked in the garden alone, turning over in my mind the sins of the day before, and considering what I must do today, so as to be satisfied with my day and not spoil it by a singlesin. It seemed so easy to me then to abstain from sin altogether; only a trifling effort seemed necessary. When the horses came round, I got into the carriage with Katya or one of the maids, and we drove to the church two miles away. While entering the church, I always recalled the paryer for those who “come unto the Temple in the fear of God”, and tried to get just that frame of mind when mounting the two grass-grown steps up to the building. At that hour there were not more than a dozen worshippers — household servants or peasant women keeping the Fast. They bowed to me, and I returned their bows with studied humility. Then, with what seemed to me a great effort of courage, I went myself and got candles from the man who kept them, an old soldier and an Elder; and I placed the candles before the icons. throught the central door of the altar-screen I could see the altar cloth which my mother had worked; on the screen were the two angels which had seemed so big to me when I was little, and the dove with a golden halo which had fascinated me long ago. Behind the choir stood the old batter font, where I had been christened myself and stood godmother to so many of the servants’ children. the old priest came out, wearing a cope made of the pall that had covered my father’s coffin, and began to read in the same voice that I had heard all my life — at services held in our house, at Sonya’s christening, at memorial services for my father, and at my mother’s funeral. The same old quavering voice of the deacon rose in the choir; and the same old woman, whom I could remember at every service in that church, crouched by the wall, fising her streaming eyes on an icon in the choir, pressing her folded fingers against her faded kerchief, and muttering with her toothless gums. And these objects were no longer merely curious to me, merely interesting from old recollections — each had become important and sacred in my eyes and seemed charged with profound meaning. I listened to each word of the prayrers and tried to suit my feeling to it; and if I failed to understand, I prayed silently that God would enlighten me, or made up a prayer of my own in place of what I had failed to catch. When the penitential prayers were repeated, I recalled my past life, and that innocent childish past seemed to me so black when compared to the present brightness of my soul, that I wept and was horrified at myself; but I felt too that all those sins would be forgiven, and that if my sins had been even greater, my repentance would be all the sweeter. At the end of the service when the priest said, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you!” I semed to feel an immediate sensation of physical well-being, of a mysterious light and warmth that instantly filled my heart. The service over, the priest came and asked me whether he should come to our house to say Mass, and what hour would suit me; and I thanked him for the suggestion, intended, as I thought, to please me, but said that I would come to church instead, walking or driving.
“Is that not too much trouble?” he asked. and I was at a loss for an answer, fearing to commit a sin of pride.
After the Mass, if Katya was not with me, I always sent the carriage home and walked back alone, bowing humbly to all who passed, and trying to find an opportunity of giving help or advice. I was eager to sacrifice myself for someone, to help in lifting a fallen cart, to rock a child’s cradle, to give up the path to others by stepping into the mud. One evening I heard the bailiff report to Katya that Simon, one of our serfs, had come to beg some boards to make a coffin for his daughter, and a ruble to pay the priest for the funeral; the bailiff had given what he asked. “Are they as poor as that?” I asked. “Very poor, Miss,” the bailiff answered; “they have no salt to their food.” My heart ached to hear this, and yet I felt a kind of pleasure too. Pretending to katya that I was merely going for a walk, I ran upstairs, got out all my money (it was very little but it was all I had), crossed myself, and started off alone, through the veranda and the garden, on my way to Simon’s hut. It stood at the end of the village, and no one saw me as I went up to the window, placed the money on the sill, and tapped on the pane. Someone came out, making the door creak, and hailed me; but I hurried home, cold and chaking with fear like a criminal. Katya asked where I had been and what was the matter with me; but I did not answer, and did not even understand what she was saying. Everything suddenly seemed to me so pety and insignificant. I locked myself up in my own room, and walked up and down alone for a long time, unable to do anything, unable to think, unable to understand my own feelings. I thought of the joy of the whole family, and of what they would say of their benefactor; and I felt sorry that I had not given them the money myself. I thought too of what Sergey Mikhaylych would say, if he knew what I had done; and I was glad to think that no one would ever find out. I was so happy, and I felt myself and everyone else so bad, and yet was so kindly disposed to myself and to all the world, that the thought of death came to me as a dream of happiness. I smiled and prayed and wept, and felt at that moment a burning passion of love for all the world, myself included. Between services I used to read the Gospel; and the book became more and more intelligible to me, and the story of that divine life simpler and more touching; and the depths of thought and feeling I found in studying it became more awful and impenetrable. On the other hand, how clear and simple everything seemed to me when I rose from the study of this book and looked again on life around me and reflected on it! It was so difficult, I felt, to lead a bad life, and so simple to love everyone and be loved. All were so kind and gentle to me; even sonya, whose lessons I had not broken off, was quite different — trying to understand and please me and not to vex me. Everyone treated me as I treated them. Thinking over my enemies, of whom I must ask pardon before confession, I could only remember one — one of our neighbors, a girl whom I had made fun of in company a year ago, and who had ceased to visit us. I wrote to her, confessing my fault and asking her forgiveness. she replied that she forgave me and wished me to forgive her. I cried for joy over her simple words, and saw in them, at the time, a deep and touching feeling. My old nurse cried, when I asked her to forgive me. “What makes them all so kind to me? what have I done to deserve their love?” I asked myself. Sergey Mikhaylych would come into my mind, and I thought for long about him. I could not help it, and I did not consider these thoughts sinful. But my thoughts of him were quite different from what they had been on the night when I first realized that I loved him: he seemed to me now like a second self, and became a part of every plan for the future. The inferiority which I had always felt in his presence had vanished entirely: I felt myself his equal and could understand him thoroughly from the moral elevation I had reached. What had seemed strange in him was now quite clear to me. Now I could see what he meant by saying to live for others was the only true happiness, and I agreed with him perfectly. I believed that our life together would be endlessly happy and untroubled. I looked forward, not to foreign tours or fashionable society or display, but to a quite different scene — a quiet family life in the country, with constant self-sacrifice, constant mutual love, and constant recognition in all things of the kind hand of Providence.
I carried out my plan of taking the Communion on my birthday. When I came back from church that day, my heart was so swelling with happiness that I was afraid of life, afraid of any feeling that might break in on that happiness. We had hardly left the carriage for the steps in front of the house, when there was a sound of wheels on the bridge, and I saw Sergey Mikhaylych drive up in his well-known trap. He congratulated me, and we went together to the parlour. Never since I had known him had I been so much at my ease with him and so self-possessed as on that morning. I felt in myself a whole new world out of his reach and beyond his comprehension. I was not consciousl of the slightest embarrassment in speaking to him. He must have understood the cause of this feeling; for he was tender and gentle beyond his wont and showed a kind of reverent consideration for me. When I made for the piano, he locked it and put the key in his pocket.
“Don’t spoil your present mood,” he said, “you have the sweetest of all music in your soul just now.”
I was grateful for his words, and yet I was not quite pleased at his understanding too easily and clearly what ought to have been an exclusive secret in my heart. At dinner he said that he had come to congratulate me and also to say goodby; for he must go to Moscow tomorrow. FHe looked at Katya as he spoke; but then he stole a glance at me, and I saw that he was afraid he might detect signs of emotion on my face. But I was neither surprised nor agitated; I did not even ask whether he would be long away. I knew he would say this, and I knew that he would not go. How did I know? I cannot explain that to myself now; but on that memorable day it seemed that I knew everything that had been and that would be. It was like a delightful dream, when all that happenes seems to have happened already and to be quite familiar, and it will all happen over again, and one knows that it will happen.
He meant to go away immediately after dinner; but, as Katya was tired after church and went to lie down for a little, he had to wait until she woke up in order to say goodby to her. The sunshone into the drawing room, and we went out to the veranda. When we were seated, I began at once, quite calmly, the conversation that was bound to fix the fate of my heart. I began to speak, no sooner and no later, but at the very moment when we sat down, before our talk had taken any turn or color that might have hindered me from saying what I meant to say. I cannot tell myself where it came from — my coolness and determination and preciseness of expression. It was if something independent of my will was speaking through my lips. He sat opposite me with his elbows resting on the rails of the veranda; he pulled a lilac-branch towards him and stripped the leaves off it. When I began to speak, he let go the branch and leaned his head on one hand. His attitude might have shown either perfect calmness or strong emotion.
“Why are you going?” I asked, significantly, deliberately, and looking straight at him.
He did not answer at once.
“Business!” he muttered at last and dropped his eyes.
I realized how difficult he found it to lie to me, and in reply to such a frank question.
“Listen,” I said; you know what today is to me, how important for many reasons. If I question you, it is not to show an interest in your doings (you know that I have become intimate with you and fond of you) — I ask you this question, because I must know the answer. Why are you going?”
“It is very hard for me to tell you the true reason,” he said. “During this week I have thought much about you and about myself, and have decided that I must go. You understand why; and if you care for me, you will ask no questions.” He put up a hand to rub his forehead and cover his eyes. “I find it very difficult . . . But you will understand.”
My heart began to beat fast.
“I cannot understand you,” I said; I cannot! you must tell me; in God’s name and for the sake of this day tell me what you please, and I shall hear it with calmness,” I said.
He changed his position, glanced at me, and again drew the lilac-twig towards him.
“Well!” he said, after a short silence and in a voice that tried in vain to seem steady, “it’s a foolish business and impossible to put into words, and I feel the difficulty, but I will try to explain it to you,” he added, frowning as if in bodily pain.
“Well?” I said.
“Just imagine the existence of a man — let us call him A — who has left youth far behind, and of a woman whom we may call B, who is young and happy and has seen nothing as yet of life or of the world. Family circumstances of various kinds brought them together, and he grew to love her as a daughter, and had no fear that his love would change its nature.”
He stopped, but I did not interrupt him.
“But he forgot that B was so young, that life was still all a May-game to her,” he went on with a sudden swiftness and determination and without looking at me, “and that it was easy to fall in love with her in a different way, and that this would amuse her. He made a mistake and was suddenly aware of another feeling, as heavy as remorse, making its way into his heart, and he was afraid. He was afraid that their old friendly relations would be destroyed, and he made up his mind to go away before that happened.” As he said this, he began again to rub his eyes with a pretence of indifference, and to close them.
“Why was he afraid to love differently?” I asked very low; but I restrained my emotion and spokein an even voice. He evidently thought that I was not serious; for he answered as if he were hurt.
“You are young, and I am not young. You want amusement, and I want something different. Amuse yourself, if you like, but not with me. If you do, I shall take it seriously; and then I shall be unhappy, and you will repent. That is what A said,” he added; “however, this is all nonsense; but you understand why I am going. And don’t let us continue this conversation. Please not!”
“No! no!” I said, “we must continue it,” and tears began to tremble in my voice. “Did he lover her, or not?”
He did not answer.
“If he did not love her, why did he treat her as a child and pretend to love her?” I asked.
“Yes, A behaved badly,” he interrupted me quickly; “but it all came to an end and they parted friends.”
“This is horrible! Is there no other ending?” I said with a great effort and then felt afraid of what I had said.
“Yes, there is,” he said, showing a face full of emotion and looking straight at me. “There are two different endings. But, for God’s sake, listen to me quietly and don’t interrupt. Some say” — here he stood up and smiled with a smile that was heavy with pain — “some say that A went off his head, fell passionately in love with B, and told her so. But she only laughed. To her it was all a jest, but to him a matter of life and death.”
I shuddered and tried to interrupt him — tried to say that he must not dare to speak for me; but he checked me, laying his hand on mine.
“Wait!” he said, and his voice shook. “The other story is that she took pity on him, and fancied, poor child, from her ignorance of the world, that she really could love hiim, and so consented to be his wife. And he, in his madness, believed it — believed that his whole life could begin anew; but she saw herself that she had deceived him and that he had deceived her. . . . But let us drop the subject finally,” he ended, clearly unable to say more; and then he began to walk up and down in silence before me.
Thought he had asked that subject should be dropped, I saw that his whole soul was hanging on my answer. I tried to speak, but the pain at my heart kept me dumb. I glanced at him — he was pale and his lower lip trembled. I felt sorry for him. with a sudden effort I broke the bonds of silence which had held me fast, and began to speak in a low inward voice, which I feared would break every moment.
“There is a third ending to the story,” I said, and then paused, but he said nothing; “the third ending is that he did not love her, but hurt her, hurt her, and thought that he was right; and he left her and was actually proud of himself. You have been pretending, not I; I have loved you since the first day we met, loved you,” I repeated, and at the word “loved” my low inward voice changed, without intention of mine, to a wild cry which frightened me myself.
He stood pale before me, his lip trembled more and more violently, and two tears came out upon his cheeks.
“It is wrong!” I almost screamed, feeling that I was choking with angry unshed tears. “Why do you do it?” I cried and got up to leave him.
But he would not let me go. His head was resting on my knees, his lips were kissing my still trembling hands, and his tears were wetting them. “My God! if I had only known!” he whispered.
“why? why?” I kept on repeating, but in my heart there was happiness, happiness which had now come back, after so nearly departing for ever.
Five minutes later Sonya was rushing upstairs to Katya and proclaiming all over the house that Masha intended to marry Sergey Mikhaylych.
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