ject Gutenberg EBook of The Precipice, by Ivan Goncharov
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Title: The Precipice
Author: Ivan Goncharov
Release Date: January, 2005 [EBook #7307]
[This file was first posted on April 10, 2003]
Character set encoding: ISO Latin-1
*** START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK, THE PRECIPICE ***
Susan Skinner, Eric Eldred, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed
Original Russian Title: _OBRYV_
TRANSLATED FROM THE ORIGINAL RUSSIAN; TRANSLATOR UNKNOWN
[This text is condensed from the original.]
Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov (1812-1891) was one of the leading members
of the great circle of Russian writers who, in the middle of the
nineteenth century, gathered around the _Sovremmenik_ (Contemporary)
under Nekrasov's editorship-a circle including Turgenev, Dostoyevsky,
Tolstoy, Byelinsky, and Herzen. He had not the marked genius of the
first three of these; but that he is so much less known to the western
reader is perhaps also due to the fact that there was nothing
sensational either in his life or his literary method. His strength was
in the steady delineation of character, conscious of, but not deeply
disturbed by, the problems which were obsessing and distracting smaller
and greater minds.
Tolstoy has a characteristically prejudiced reminiscence: "I remember
how Goncharov, the author, a very sensible and educated man but a
thorough townsman and an aesthete, said to me that, after Turgenev,
there was nothing left to write about in the life of the lower classes.
It was all used up. The life of our wealthy people, with their
amorousness and dissatisfaction with their lives, seemed to him full of
inexhaustible subject-matter. One hero kissed his lady on her palm, and
another on her elbow, and a third somewhere else. One man is
discontented through idleness, another because people don't love him.
And Goncharov thought that in this sphere there is no end of variety."
In fact, his greatest success was the portrait of Oblomov in the novel
of that name, which was at once recognised as a peculiarly national
character-a man of thirty-two years, careless, bored, untidy, lazy, but
gentle and good-natured. In the present work, now translated for the
first time into English, the type reappears with some differences.
Raisky seems to have been "born tired." He has plenty of intelligence,
some artistic gifts, charm, and an abundant kindliness, yet he achieves
nothing, either in work or in love, and in the end fades ineffectually
out of the story. "He knew he would do better to begin a big piece of
work instead of these trifles; but he told himself that Russians did not
understand hard work, or that real work demanded rude strength, the use
of the hands, the shoulders, and the back," "He is only half a man,"
says Mark Volokov, the wolfish outlaw who quotes Proudhon and talks
about "the new knowledge, the new life." This rascal, whose violent
pursuit of the heroine produces the tragedy of the book, is a much less
convincing figure, though he also represents a reality of Russian life
then, and even now.
The true contrast to Raisky of which Goncharov had deep and sympathetic
knowledge is shown in the splendid picture of the two women-Vera, the
infatuated beauty, and Aunt Tatiana, whose agony of motherly concern and
shamed remembrance is depicted with great power. The book is remarkable
as a study in the psychology of passionate emotion; for the western
reader, it is also delightful for the glimpses it gives of the old
Russian country life which is slowly passing away. The scene lies beside
one of the small towns on the Volga-"like other towns, a cemetery ...
the tranquillity of the grave. What a frame for a novel, if only he knew
what to put in the novel.... If the image of passion should float over
this motionless, sleepy little world, the picture would glow into the
enchanting colour of life." The storm of passion does break over the
edge of the hill overlooking the mighty river, and, amid the wreckage,
the two victims rise into a nobility that the reckless reformer and the
pleasant dilettante have never conceived.
Goncharov had passed many years in Governmental service and had, in fact,
reached the age of thirty-five when his first work, _"A Common
Story,"_ was published. _"The Frigate Pallada,"_ which followed,
is a lengthy descriptive account of an official expedition to Japan and
Siberia in which Goncharov took part. After the publication of _"The
Precipice,"_ its author was moved to write an essay, _"Better Late
Than Never,"_ in which he attempted to explain that the purpose of
his three novels was to present the eternal struggle between East and
West-the lethargy of the Russian and the ferment of foreign influences.
Thus he ranged himself more closely with the great figures among his
contemporaries. Two other volumes consist of critical study and
Boris Pavlovich Raisky had a vivacious, unusually mobile face. At first
sight he appeared younger than his years. The high, white forehead gave
an impression of freshness and vigour; the eyes blazed one moment with
intelligence, emotion or gaiety, a moment later they wore a meditative,
dreamy expression, then again they looked young, even childlike. At
other times they evidenced knowledge of life, or looked so weary, so
bored that they betrayed their owner's age; at these times there
appeared between them three furrows, certain indications of time and
knowledge of life. Smooth black hair fell on his neck and half covered
the ears, with here and there silver threads about the temples. His
complexion had kept the tints of youth except on the temples and the
chin, which were a brownish-yellow colour.
It was easy to guess from his physiognomy that the conflict between
youth and maturity was past, that he had passed the early stages of
life's journey and that sorrow and sickness had left their marks on him.
Only the mouth, with its delicate lines, with the fresh, almost
childlike smile remained unchanged by age.
He had been left an orphan in childhood, and for some time his
indifferent, bachelor guardian had left his education to a relative,
This lady was endowed with a rich temperament, but her horizon did not
stretch far beyond her own home, where in the tranquil atmosphere of
woods and gardens, in the environment of the family and the estate,
Boris had passed several years. When he grew older his guardian sent him
to the High School, where the family traditions of former wealth and of
the connexion with other old noble families faded.
His further development, occupations and inclinations led him still
further from the traditions of his childhood. Raisky had lived for about
ten years in St. Petersburg; that is to say he rented three pleasant
rooms from a German landlord, which he retained, although after he had
left the civil service he rarely spent two successive half-years in the
He had left the civil service as casually as he had entered it, because,
when he had had time to consider his position, he came to the conclusion
that the service is not an aim in itself, but merely a means to bring
together a number of men who would otherwise have had no justification
for their existence. If these men had not existed, the posts which they
filled need never have been created.
Now, he had already passed his thirtieth year, and had neither sowed nor
reaped. He did not follow the same path as the other ordinary arrival
from the interior of Russia, for he was neither an officer nor an
official, nor did he seek a career for himself by hard work or by
influence. He was inscribed in the registers of his police district as a
It would have been hard for the expert in physiognomy to decipher
Raisky's characteristics, inclinations and character from his face
because of its extraordinary mobility. Still less could his mental
physiognomy be defined. He had moments when, to use his own expression,
he embraced the whole world, so that many people declared that there was
no kinder, more amiable man in existence. Others, on the contrary, who
came across him at an unfortunate moment, when the yellow patches on his
face were most marked, when his lips were drawn in a sinister, nervous
quiver, and he returned kindness and sympathy with cold looks and sharp
words, were repelled by him and even pursued him with their dislike.
Some called him egotistic and proud, while others declared themselves
enchanted with him; some again maintained that he was theatrical, others
that he was not to be trusted. Two or three friends judged otherwise. "A
noble nature," they said, "most honourable, but with all its virtues,
nervous, passionate, excitable, fiery tempered...." So there had never
been any unanimous opinion of him.
Even in early childhood while he lived with his aunt, and later, after
his school-days had begun, he showed the same enigmatic and
It might be expected that the first effort of a new boy would be to
listen to the teacher's questions and the pupils' answers. But Raisky
stared at the teacher, as if seeking to impress on his memory the
details of his appearance, his speech, how he took snuff; he looked at
his eyebrows, his beard, then at his clothes, at the cornelian seal
suspended across his waistcoat, and so on. Then he would observe each of
the other boys and note their peculiarities, or he would study his own
person, and wonder what his own face was like, what the others thought
"What did I say just now?" interrupted the master, noticing Boris's
To the teacher's amazement Boris replied word for word, "And what is the
meaning of this?" He had listened mechanically, and had caught the
The master repeated his explanation, and again Boris caught the sound of
his voice, noticing that sometimes he spoke shortly, staccato-sometimes
drawled as if he were singing, and then rapped out his words smartly
Raisky blushed, perspired with anxiety, and was silent.
It was the mathematical master. He went to the blackboard, wrote up the
problem, and again began the explanation. Raisky only noticed with what
rapidity and certainty he wrote the figures, how the waistcoat with the
cornelian seal and then the snuff-spattered shirt front came
nearer-nothing, except the solution of the problem, escaped him.
Now and then a notion penetrated to his brain, but when it came to
equations he grew weary with the effort required. Sometimes the teacher
lost patience with him, and generally concluded: "Go back to your place,
you are a blockhead."
But if a whiff of originality passed over the master himself, if he
taught as if it were a game, and had recourse neither to his book nor to
the blackboard, then the solution flashed on Raisky, and he found the
answer quicker than any of the others.
He consumed passionately history, novels and tales; wherever he could he
begged for books. But he did not like facts or theories or anything that
drew him from the world of fancy towards the world of reality. In the
geography lesson he could not understand how any boy could answer in
class, but once out of class he could talk about foreign countries and
cities, or about the sea, to the amazement of his classmates. He had not
learnt it from the teacher or from a book, but he gave a picture of the
place as if he had actually been there.
"You are inventing," a sceptical listener would say. "Vassili Nikitich
never said that."
His companions did not know what to make of him, for his sympathies
changed so often that he had neither constant friends nor constant
enemies. One week he would attach himself to one boy, seek his society,
sit with him, read to him, talk to him and give him his confidence. Then,
for no reason, he would leave him, enter into close relations with
another boy, and then as speedily forget him.
If one of his companions annoyed him he became angry with him and
pursued hostilities obstinately long after the original cause was
forgotten. Then suddenly he would have a friendly, magnanimous impulse,
would carefully arrange a scene of reconciliation, which interested
everyone, himself most of all.
When he was out of school, everyday life attracted him very little; he
cared neither for its gayer side nor its sterner activities. If his
guardian asked him how the corn should be threshed, the cloth milled or
linen bleached, he turned away and went out on to the verandah to look
out on the woods, or made his way along the river to the thicket to
watch the insects at work, or to observe the birds, to see how they
alighted, how they sharpened their beaks. He caught a hedgehog and made
a playmate of it, went out fishing all day long with the village boys,
or listened to the tales about Pugachev told by a half-witted old woman
living in a mud hut, greedily drinking in the most singular of the
horrible incidents she related, while he looked into the old woman's
toothless mouth and into the caverns of her fading eyes.
For hours he would listen with morbid curiosity to the babble of the
idiot Feklusha. At home he read in the most desultory way. He deemed the
secrets of Eastern magic, Russian tales and folk-lore, skimmed Ossian,
Tasso, Homer, or wandered with Cook in strange lands. If he found
nothing to read he lay motionless all day long, as if he were exhausted
with hard work; his fancy carried him beyond Ossian and Homer, beyond
the tales of Cook, until fevered with his imaginings he rose tired,
exhausted, and unable for a long time to resume normal life.
People called him an idler. He feared this accusation, and wept over it
in secret, though he was convinced that he was no idler, but something
different, that no one but himself comprehended.
Unfortunately, there was no one to guide him in a definite direction. On
the one hand, his guardian merely saw to it that his masters came at
stated times and that Boris did not avoid school; on the other, his aunt
contented herself with seeing that he was in good health, ate and slept
well, was decently dressed, and as a well-brought-up boy should, did not
consort with every village lout.
Nobody cared to see what he read; his aunt gave him the keys of his
father's library in the old house, where he shut himself in, now to read
Spinoza, now a novel, and another day Voltaire or Boccaccio.
He made better progress in the arts than in the sciences. Here too he
had his tricks. One day the teacher set the pupils to draw eyes, but
Raisky grew tired of that, and proceeded to add a nose and a moustache.
The master surprised him, and seized him by the hair. When he looked
closer at the drawing, however, he asked: "Where did you learn to do
"Nowhere," was the reply.
"But it is well done, my lad. See yourself what this hurry to get on
leads to; the forehead and nose are good enough, but the ear you have
put in the wrong place, and the hair looks like tow."
Raisky was triumphant. The words, "But it is well done; the forehead and
nose are good enough," were for him a crown of laurel.
He walked round the school yard proud in the consciousness that he was
the best in the drawing class; this mood lasted to the next day, when he
came to grief in the ordinary lessons. But he conceived a passion for
drawing, and during the month that followed drew a curly-headed boy,
then the head of Fingal. His fancy was caught by a woman's head which
hung in the master's room; it leaned a little towards one shoulder, and
looked away into the distance with melancholy, meditative eyes. "Allow
me to make a copy," he begged with a gentle, tremulous voice, and with a
nervous quiver of the upper lip.
"Don't break the glass," the master warned him, and gave him the picture.
Boris was happy. For a whole week his masters did not secure a single
intelligent answer from him. He sat silently in his corner and drew. At
night he took the drawing to his bedroom, and as he looked into its
gracious eyes, followed the lines of the delicately bent neck, he
shivered, his heart stood still, there was a catch in his breath, and he
closed his eyes; with a faint sigh he pressed the picture to his breast
where the breath came so painfully-and then there was a crash and the
glass fell clattering on the floor.
When he had drawn the head his pride knew no bounds. His work was
exhibited with the drawings of pupils of the top class, the teacher had
made few corrections, had only here and there put broad strokes in the
shading, had drawn three or four more decided lines, had put a point in
each eye-and the eyes were now like life.
"How lifelike and bold it is!" thought Raisky, as he looked at the
strokes inserted by his master, and more especially at the points in the
eyes, which had so suddenly given them the look of life. This step
forward intoxicated him. "Talent! Talent!" sang in his ears.
He sketched the maids, the coachman, the peasants of the countryside. He
was particularly successful with the idiot Feklusha, seated in a cavern
with her bust in the shade, and the light on her wild hair; he had not
the patience nor the skill to finish bust, hands and feet. How could
anybody be expected to sit still all the morning, when the sun was
shedding its rays so gaily and so generously on stream and meadow?
Within three days the picture had faded in his imagination, and new
images were thronging his brain. He would like to have drawn a round
dance, a drunken old man, the rapid passage of a troОka. For two days he
was taken up with this picture, which stood before his mind's eye in
every detail; the peasants and the women were finished, but not the
waggon with its three fleet horses.
In a week he had forgotten this picture also.
He loved music to distraction. At school he had an enduring affection
for the dull Vassyvkov, who was the laughing stock of the other boys. A
boy would seize Vassyvkov by the ear, crying, "Get out, stupid,
blockhead," but Raisky stood by him, because Vassyvkov, inattentive,
sleepy, idle, who never did his work even for the universally beloved
Russian master, would every afternoon after dinner take his violin, and
as he played, forget the school, the masters and the nose-pullings. His
eyes as they gazed into the distance, apparently seeking something
strange, enticing, and mysterious, became wild and gloomy, and often
filled with tears.
He was no longer Vassyvkov, but another creature. His pupils dilated,
his eyes ceased to blink, becoming clearer and deeper; his glance was
proud and intelligent; his breath came long and deep. Over his face
stole an expression of happiness, of gentleness; his eyes became darker
and seemed to radiate light. In a word he became beautiful.
Raisky began to think the thoughts of Vassyvkov, to see what he saw. His
surroundings vanished, and boys and benches were lost in a mist. More
notes ... and a wide space opened before him. A world in motion arose.
He heard the murmur of running streams, saw ships, men, woods, and
drifting clouds; everywhere was light, motion, and gaiety. He had the
sensation that he himself was growing taller, he caught his breath....
The dream continued just so long as the notes were heard. Suddenly he
heard a noise, he was awakened with a start, Vassyvkov had ceased to
play; the moving, musical waves vanished, and there were only the boys,
benches and tables. Vassyvkov laid aside his violin, and somebody
tweaked his ear. Raisky threw himself in a rage on the offender, struck
him-all the while possessed by the magic notes.
Every nerve in his body sang. Life, thought, emotion broke in waves in
the seething sea of his consciousness. The notes strike a chord of
memory. A cloud of recollection hovers before him, shaping the figure of
a woman who holds him to her breast. He gropes in his consciousness-it
was thus that his mother's arms cradled him, his face pressed to her
breast ... her figure grows in distinctness, as if she had risen from
He had begun to take lessons from Vassyvkov. For a whole week he had
been moving the bow up and down, but its scratching set his teeth on
edge. He caught two strings at once, and his hand trembled with weakness.
It was clearly no use. When Vassyvkov played his hand seemed to play of
itself. Tired of the torment, Raisky begged his guardian to allow him to
take piano lessons.
"It will be easier on the pianoforte," he thought.
His guardian engaged a German master, but took the opportunity of saying
a few words to his nephew.
"Boris," he said, "for what are you preparing yourself? I have been
intending to ask you for a long time."
Boris did not understand the question, and made no answer.
"You are nearly sixteen years old, and it is time you began to think of
serious things. It is plain that you have not yet considered what
faculty you will follow in the University, and to which branch of the
service you will devote yourself. You cannot well go into the army,
because you have no great fortune, and yet, for the sake of your family,
could hardly serve elsewhere than in the Guards."
Boris was silent, and watched through the window how the hens strutted
about, how the pigs wallowed in the mire, how the cat was stalking a
"I am speaking to you seriously, and you stare out of the window. For
what future are you preparing yourself?"
"I want to be an artist."
"The devil only knows what notions you have got into your head. Who
would agree to that? Do you even know what an artist is?"
Raisky made no answer.
"An artist ... is a man who borrows money from you, or chatters foolish
nonsense, and drives you to distraction.... Artist! ... These people
lead a wild gipsy life, are destitute of money, clothes, shoes, and all
the time they dream of wealth. Artists live on this earth like the birds
of heaven. I have seen enough of them in St. Petersburg: bold rascals
who meet one another in the evening dressed in fantastic costumes, lie
upon divans, smoke pipes, talk about trifles, read poetry, drink brandy
and declare that they are artists. Uncombed, unwashed...."
"I have heard, Uncle, that artists are now held in high esteem. You are
thinking of the past. Now, the Academy produces many famous people."
"I am not very old, and I have seen the world. You have heard the bells
ring, but do not know in what tower. Famous people! There are famous
artists as there are famous doctors. But when do they achieve fame? When
do they enter the service and reach the rank of Councillor? If a man
builds a cathedral or erects a monument in a public place, then people
begin to seek him out. But artists begin in poverty, with a crust of
bread. You will find they are for the most part freed serfs, small
tradespeople or foreigners, or Jews. Poverty drives them to art. But
you-a Raisky! You have land of your own, and bread to eat. It's
pleasant enough to have graceful talents in society, to play the piano,
to sketch in an album, and to sing a song, and I have therefore engaged
a German professor for you. But what an abominable idea to be an artist
by profession! Have you ever heard of a prince or a count who has
painted a picture, or a nobleman who has chiselled a statue? No, and
"What about Rubens? He was a courtier, an ambassador...."
"Where have you dug that out? Two hundred years ago.... Among the
Germans ... but you are going to the University, to enter the faculty of
law, then you will study for the service in St. Petersburg, try to get a
position as advocate, and your connexions will help you to a place at
court. And if you keep your eyes open, with your name and your
connexions, you will be a Governor in thirty years' time. That is the
career for you. But there seem to be no serious ideas in your head; you
catch fish with the village boors, have sketched a swamp and a drunken
beggar, but you have not the remotest idea of when this or that crop
should be sown, or at what price it is sold."
Raisky trembled. His guardian's lecture affected his nerves.
Like Vassyvkov, the music master began to bend his fingers. If Raisky
had not been ashamed before his guardian he would not have endured the
torture. As it was he succeeded in a few months, after much trouble, in
completing the first stages of his instruction. Very soon he surpassed
and surprised the local young ladies by the strength and boldness of his
playing. His master saw his abilities were remarkable, his indolence
still more remarkable.
That, he thought, was no misfortune. Indolence and negligence are native
to artists. He had been told too that a man who has talent should not
work too hard. Hard work is only for those with moderate abilities.
Raisky entered the University, and spent the summer vacation with his
aunt, Tatiana Markovna Berezhkov.
His aunt lived in a family estate which Boris had inherited from his
mother-a piece of land on the Volga, close by a little town, with fifty
souls and two residences, one built of stone and now neglected, the
other a wooden building built by Boris's father. In this newer house
Tatiana Markovna lived with two orphan girls of six and five years old
respectively, who had been left in her care by a niece whom she had
loved as a daughter.
Tatiana Markovna had an estate and a village of her own, but after the
death of Raisky's parents she had established herself on their little
estate, which she ruled like a miniature kingdom, wisely, economically,
carefully and despotically. She never permitted Boris's guardian to
interfere in her business, took no heed of documents, papers, or deeds,
but carried on the affairs of the estate according to the practice of
its former owners. She told Boris's guardian that all the documents,
papers and deeds were inscribed in her memory, and that she would render
account to Boris when he came of age; until that day came she, according
to the verbal instructions of his parents, was mistress of the estate.
Boris's guardian was content. It was an excellent estate, and could not
be better administered than by the old lady.
What a Paradise Raisky evolved for himself in this corner of the earth,
from which he had been taken away in his childhood and where he had
spent many a summer visit in his schooldays. What views in the
neighbourhood! Every window in the house framed a lovely landscape. From
one side could be seen the Volga with its steep banks; from the others
wide meadows and gorges, and the whole seemed to melt into the distant
blue hills. From the third side could be seen fields, villages, and part
of the town. The air was cool and invigorating, and as refreshing as a
bathe on a summer day.
In the immediate neighbourhood of the two houses the great park, with
its dark alleys, arbours and seats, was kept in good order, but beyond
these limits it was left wild. There were broad stretching elms, cherry
and apple trees, service trees, and there were lime trees intended to
form an avenue, which lost itself in a wood in the friendly
neighbourhood of pines and birches. Suddenly the whole ended in a
precipice, thickly overgrown with bushes, which overhung a plain about
one and a-half versts in breadth along the banks of the Volga.
Nearer the wooden house lay the vegetable garden, and just in front of
its windows lay the flower garden. Tatiana Markovna liked to have a
space clear of trees in front of the house, so that the place was
flooded with sunshine and the scent of flowers. From the other side of
the house one could watch all that was going on in the courtyard and
could see the servants' quarters, the kitchens, the hayricks, and the
stable. In the depths of the courtyard stood the old house, gloomy,
always in shadow, stained with age, with here and there a cracked window
pane, with heavy doors fastened by heavy bolts, and the path leading up
to it overgrown with grass. But on the new house the sun streamed from
morning to night; the flower garden, full of roses and dahlias,
surrounded it like a garland, and the gay flowers seemed to be trying to
force their way in through the windows. Swallows nesting under the eaves
flew hither and thither; in the garden and the trees there were
hedge-sparrows, siskins and goldfinches, and when darkness fell the
nightingale began to sing. Around the flowers there were swarms of bees,
humble-bees, dragon-flies, and glittering butterflies; and in the
corners cats and kittens stretched themselves comfortably in the
In the house itself peace and joy reigned. The rooms were small, but
cosy. Antique pieces of furniture had been brought over from the great
house, as had the portraits of Raisky's parents and grandparents. The
floors were painted, waxed and polished; the stoves were adorned with
old-fashioned tiles, also brought over from the other house; the
cupboards were full of plate and silver; there were old Dresden cups and
figures, Chinese ornaments, tea-pots, sugar-basins, heavy old spoons.
Round stools bound with brass, and inlaid tables stood in pleasant
In Tatiana Markovna's sitting-room stood an old-fashioned carved bureau
with a mirror, urns, lyres, and genii. But she had hung up the mirror,
because she said it was a hindrance to writing when you stared at your
own stupid face. The room also contained a round table where she lunched
and drank her tea and coffee, and a rather hard leather-covered armchair
with a high back. Grandmother  was old-fashioned; she did not approve
of lounging, but held herself upright and was simple and reserved in
How beautiful Boris thought her! And indeed she was beautiful.
Tall, neither stout nor thin, a vivacious old lady ... not indeed an old
lady, but a woman of fifty, with quick black eyes, and so kind and
gracious a smile that even when she was angry, and the storm-light
flickered in her eyes, the blue sky could be observed behind the clouds.
She had a slight moustache, and, on her left cheek, near the chin, a
birth-mark with a little bunch of hairs, details which gave her face a
remarkable expression of kindness.
She cut her grey hair short, and went about in house, yard, garden with
her head uncovered, but on feast days, or when guests were expected she
put on a cap. The cap could not be kept in its place, and did not suit
her at all, so that after about five minutes she would with apologies
remove the tiresome headdress.
In the mornings she wore a wide white blouse with a girdle and big
pockets; in the afternoon she put on a brown dress, and on feast days a
heavy rustling silk dress that gleamed like silver, and over it a
valuable shawl which only Vassilissa, her housekeeper, was allowed to
take out of the press.
"Uncle Ivan Kusmich brought it from the East," she used to boast. "It
cost three hundred gold roubles, and now no money would buy it."
At her girdle hung a bunch of keys, so that Grandmother could he heard
from afar like a rattlesnake when she crossed the yard or the garden. At
the sound the coachmen hid their pipes in their boots, because the
mistress feared nothing so much as fire, and for that reason counted
smoking as the greatest of crimes. The cooks seized the knife, the spoon
or the broom; Kirusha, who had been joking with Matrona, hurried to the
door, while Matrona hurried to the byre.
If the approaching clatter gave warning that the mistress was returning
to the house Mashutka quickly took off her dirty apron and wiped her
hands on a towel or a bit of rag, as the case might be. Spitting on her
hands she smoothed down her dry, rebellious hair, and covered the round
table with the finest of clean tablecloths. Vassilissa, silent, serious,
of the same age as her mistress, buxom, but faded with much confinement
indoors, would bring in the silver service with the steaming coffee.
Mashutka effaced herself as far as possible in a corner. The mistress
insisted on cleanliness in her servants, but Mashutka had no gift for
keeping herself spotless. When her hands were clean she could do nothing,
but felt as if everything would slip through her fingers. If she was
told to do her hair on Sunday, to wash and to put on tidy clothes, she
felt the whole day as if she had been sewn into a sack. She only seemed
to be happy when, smeared and wet with washing the boards, the windows,
the silver, or the doors, she had become almost unrecognisable, and had,
if she wanted to rub her nose or her eyebrows, to use her elbow.
Vassilissa, on the contrary, respected herself, and was the only tidy
woman among all the servants. She had been in the service of her
mistress since her earliest days as her personal maid, had never been
separated from her, knew every detail of her life, and now lived with
her as housekeeper and confidential servant. The two women communicated
with one another in monosyllables. Tatiana Markovna hardly needed to
give instructions to Vassilissa, who knew herself what had to be done.
If something unusual was required, her mistress did not give orders, but
suggested that this or that should be done.
Vassilissa was the only one of her subjects whom Tatiana Markovna
addressed by her full name. If she did address them by their baptismal
names they were names that could not be compressed nor clipped, as for
example Ferapont or Panteleimon. The village elder she did indeed
address as Stepan Vassilich, but the others were to her Matroshka,
Mashutka, Egorka and so on. The unlucky individual whom she addressed
with his Christian name and patronymic knew that a storm was impending.
"Here, Egor Prokhorich! where were you all day yesterday?" Or "Simeon
Vassilich, you smoked a pipe yesterday in the hayrick. Take care!"
She would get up in the middle of the night to convince herself that a
spark from a pipe had not set fire to anything, or that there was not
someone walking about the yard or the coachhouse with a lantern.
Under no consideration could the gulf between the "people" and the
family be bridged. She was moderately strict and moderately considerate,
kindly, but always within the limits of her ideas of government. If
Irene, Matrona or another of the maids gave birth to a child, she
listened to the report of the event with an air of injured dignity, but
gave Vassilissa to understand that the necessaries should be provided;
and would add, "Only don't let me see the good-for-nothing." After
Matrona or Irene had recovered she would keep out of her mistress's
sight for a month or so; then it was as if nothing had happened, and the
child was put out in the village.
If any of her people fell sick, Tatiana got up in the night, sent him
spirits and embrocation, but next day she would send him either to the
infirmary or oftener to the "wise woman," but she did not send for a
doctor. But if one of her own relatives, her "grandchildren" showed a
bad tongue, or a swollen face, Kirusha or Vlass must immediately ride
post haste to the town for the doctor.
The "wise woman" was a woman in the suburbs who treated the "people"
with simple remedies, and rapidly relieved them of their maladies. It
did, indeed, happen that many a man remained crippled for life after her
treatment. One lost his voice and could only crow, another lost an eye,
or a piece of his jawbone, but the pain was gone and he went back to
work. That seemed satisfactory to the patient as well as the proprietor
of the estate. And as the "wise woman" only concerned herself with
humble people, with serfs and the poorer classes, the medical profession
did not interfere with her.
Tatiana Markovna fed her servants decently with cabbage soup and groats,
on feast-days with rye and mutton; at Christmas geese and pigs were
roasted. She allowed nothing out of the common on the servants' table or
in their dress, but she gave the surplus from her own table now to one
woman, now to another.
Vassilissa drank tea immediately after her mistress; after her came the
maids in the house, and last old Yakob. On feast days, on account of the
hardness of their work, a glass of brandy was handed to the coachman,
the menservants and the Starost.
As soon as the tea was cleared away in the morning a stout, chubby-faced
woman pushed her way into the room, always smiling. She was maid to the
grandchildren, Veroshka and Marfinka. Close at her heels the
twelve-year-old assistant, and together they brought the children
Never knowing which of the two to kiss first, Tatiana Markovna would
begin: "Well, my birdies, how are you? Veroshka, darling, you have
brushed your hair?"
"And me, Granny, me," Marfinka would cry.
"Why are Marfinka's eyes red? Has she been crying?" Tatiana Markovna
inquired anxiously of the maid. "The sun has dazzled her. Are her
curtains well drawn, you careless girl? I must see."
In the maid's room sat three or four young girls who sat all day long
sewing, or making bobbin lace, without once stretching their limbs all
day, because the mistress did not like to see idle hands. In the
ante-room there sat idly the melancholy Yakob, Egorka, who was sixteen
and always laughing, with two or three lackeys. Yakob did nothing but
wait at table, where he idly flicked away the flies, and as idly changed
the plates. He was almost too idle to speak, and when the visitors
addressed him he answered in a tone indicating excessive boredom or a
guilty conscience. Because he was quiet, never seriously drunk, and did
not smoke, his master had made him butler; he was also very zealous at
 Tatiana Markovna was addressed by her grand-nieces and her
grand-nephew as Grandmother.
Boris came in on his aunt during the children's breakfast. Tatiana
Markovna clapped her hands and all but jumped from her chair; the plates
were nearly shaken off the table.
"Borushka, tiresome boy! You have not even written, but descend like a
thunderclap. How you frightened me!"
She took his head in her hands, looked for a full minute into his face,
and would have wept, but she glanced away at his mother's portrait, and
"Well, well!" she seemed to say, but in fact said nothing, but smiled
and wiped away her tears with her handkerchief. "Your mother's boy," she
cried, "her very image! See how lovely she was, look, Vassilissa! Do you
remember? Isn't he like her?"
With youthful appetite Boris devoured coffee, tea, cakes and bread, his
aunt watching all the while.
"Call the people, tell the Starost and everybody that the Master is here,
the real Master, the owner. Welcome, little father, welcome home!" she
said, with an ironic air of humility, laughing and mimicking the
pleasant speech. "Forsake us not with your favour. Tatiana Markovna
insults us, ruins us, take us over into your charge.... Ha! Ha! Here are
the keys, the accounts, at your service, demand a reckoning from the old
lady. Ask her what she has done with the estate money, why the peasants'
huts are in ruins. See how the Malinovka peasants beg in the streets of
the town. Ha! Ha! Under your guardian and uncle in the new estate, I
believe, the peasants wear polished boots and red shirts, and live in
two-storied houses. Well, Sir, why this silence? Why do you not ask for
the accounts? Have your breakfast, and then I will show you everything."
After breakfast Tatiana Markovna took her sunshade, put on her
thick-soled shoes, covered her head with a light hood, and went to
show Boris the garden.
"Now, Sir, keep your eyes wide open, and if there is anything wrong,
don't spare your Grandmother. You will see I have just planted out the
beds in front of the house. Veroshka and Marfinka play here under my
eyes, in the sand. One cannot trust any nurse."
They reached the yard.
"Kirusha, Eromka, Matroshka, where have you all hidden yourselves? One
of you come here."
Matroshka appeared, and announced that Kirusha and Eromka had gone into
the village to fetch the peasants.
"Here is Matroshka. Do you remember her? What are you staring there for,
fool. Kiss your Master's hand."
Matroshka came nearer. "I dare not," she said.
Boris shyly embraced the girl.
"You have built a new wing to the buildings, Grandmother," he said.
"You noticed that. Do you remember the old one? It was quite rotten, had
holes in the floors as broad as my hand, and the dirt and the soot! And
They went into the new wing. His aunt showed Boris the alterations in
the stables, the horses and the separate space for fowls, the laundry
"Here is the new kitchen which I built detached so that the kitchen
range is outside the house, and the servants have more room. Now each
has his own corner. Here is the pantry, there the new ice-cellar. What
are you standing there for?" she said, turning to Matrona. "Go and tell
Egorka to run into the village and say to the Starost that we are going
In the garden his aunt showed him every tree and every bush, led him
through the alleys, looked down from the top of the precipice into the
brushwood, and went with him into the village. It was a warm day, and
the winter corn waved gently in the pleasant breeze.
"Here is my nephew, Boris Pavlovich," she said to the Starost. "Are you
getting in the hay while the warm weather lasts? We are sure to have
rain before long after this heat. Here is the Master, the real Master,
my nephew," she said, turning to the peasants. "Have you seen him before,
Garashka? Take a good look at him. Is that your calf in the rye,
Iliusha?" she said in passing to a peasant, while her attention already
wandered to the pond.
"There they are again, hanging out the clothes on the trees," she
remarked angrily to the village elder. "I have given orders for a line
to be fixed. Tell blind Agasha so. It is she that likes to hang her
things out on the willows. The branches will break...."
"We haven't a line long enough," answered the Starost sleepily. "We
shall have to buy one in the town."
"Why did you not tell Vassilissa? She would have let me know. I go into
the town every week, and would have brought a line long ago."
"I have told her, but she forgets, or says it is not worth while to
bother the Mistress about it."
Tatiana Markovna made a knot in her handkerchief. She liked it to be
said that nothing could be done without her; a clothes-line, for
instance, could be bought by anybody, but God forbid that she should
trust anybody with money. Although by no means avaricious, she was
sparing with money. Before she brought herself to part with it she was
thoughtful, sometimes angry, but the money once spent, she forgot all
about it and did not like keeping account of it.
Besides the more important arrangements, her life was full of small
matters of business. The maids had to be put to cutting out and sewing,
or to cooking and cleaning. She arranged so that everything was carried
out before her own eyes. She herself did not touch the actual work, but
with the dignity of age she stood with one hand on her hip and the other
pointing out exactly where and how everything was to be done. The
clattering keys opened cupboards, chests, strong boxes, which contained
a profusion of household linen, costly lace yellow with age, diamonds,
destined for the dowry of her nieces, and money. The cupboards where tea,
sugar, coffee and other provisions were kept were in Vassilissa's charge.
In the morning, after coffee, when she had given her orders for the farm,
Tatiana Markovna sat down at her bureau to her accounts, then sat by the
window and looked out into the field, watched the labourers, saw what
was going on in the yard, and sent Yakob or Vassilissa when there was
anything of which she disapproved.
When necessary she drove into the town to the market hall, or to make
visits, but never was long away, returning always in time for the midday
meal. She herself received many guests; she liked to be dispensing
hospitality from morning to night.
When in winter afternoons she sat by the stove, she was silent and
thoughtful, and liked everything around her quiet. Summer afternoons she
spent in the garden, when she put on her gardening gloves and took a
spade, a rake, or a watering can, by way of obtaining a little exercise.
Then she spent the evening at the tea-table in the company of Tiet
Nikonich Vatutin, her oldest and best friend and adviser.
Tiet Nikonich was a gentleman of birth and breeding. He owned in the
province two or three hundred "souls"-he did not exactly know how many,
and never attended to his estate, but left his peasants to do as they
liked, and to pay him what dues they pleased. Shyly, and without
counting it, he took the money they brought him, put it in his bureau,
and signed to them to go where they pleased. He had been in the army,
and old people remembered him as a handsome young officer, a modest,
frank young man. In his youth he often visited his mother on the estate,
and spent his leave with her. Eventually he took his discharge, and then
built himself a little grey house in the town with three windows on to
the street, and there established himself.
Although he had only received a moderate education in the cadet school,
he liked to read, occupying himself chiefly with politics and natural
science. In his speech, his manners and his gait he betrayed a gentle
shyness, never obtruded his dignity, but was ready to show it if
necessity arose. However intimate he might be with anyone, he always
maintained a certain courtesy and reserve in word and gesture. He bowed
to the Governor or a friend or a new acquaintance with the same
old-fashioned politeness, drawing back one foot as he did so. In the
street he addressed ladies with uncovered head, was the first to pick up
a handkerchief or bring a footstool. If there were young girls in a house
he visited he came armed with a pound of bonbons, a bunch of flowers,
and tried to suit his conversation to their age, their tastes and their
occupations. He always maintained his delicate politeness, tinged with
the respectful manner of a courtier of the old school. When ladies were
present he always wore his frock-coat. He neither smoked, nor used
perfume, nor tried to make himself look younger, but was always spotless,
and distinguished in his dress. His clothes were simple but dazzlingly
neat. His nankeen trousers were freshly pressed, and his blue frock-coat
looked as if it had come straight from the tailor. In spite of his fifty
years, he had, with his perruque and his shaven chin, the air of a fresh,
rosy-cheeked young man. With all his narrow means he gave the impression
of wealth and good breeding, and put down his hundred roubles as if he
had thousands to throw about.
For Tatiana Markovna he showed a respectful friendship, but one so
devoted and ardent that it was evident from his manner that he loved her
beyond all others. But although he was her daily guest he gave no sign
of intimacy before strangers.
She showed great friendship for him, but there was more vivacity in her
tone. Those who remembered them when they were young, said she had been
a very beautiful girl. When she had thrown on her shawl and sat looking
meditatively before her, she resembled a family portrait in the gallery
of the old house. Occasionally there came over her moods which betrayed
pride and a desire for domination; when this happened her face wore an
earnest, dreamy expression, as if she were leading another life far from
the small details of her actual existence.
Hardly a day went by that Tiet Nikonich did not bring some present for
Grandmother or the little girls, a basket of strawberries, oranges,
peaches, always the earliest on the market.
At one time it had been rumoured in the town-a rumour long since
stilled-that Tiet Nikonich had loved Tatiana Markovna and Tatiana
Markovna him, but that her parents had chosen another husband for her.
She refused to assent, and remained unmarried. What truth there was in
this, none knew but herself. But every day he came to her, either at
midday or in the evening.
He liked to talk over with her what was going on in the world, who was
at war, and with whom, and why. He knew why bread was cheap in Russia;
the names of all the noble houses; he knew b