WE were in mourning for our mother, who had died the preceding autumn, and we had spent all the winter alone in the country — Macha, Sonia and I.
Macha was an old family friend, who had been our governess and had brought us all up, and my memories of her, like my love for her, went as far back as my memories of myself.
Sonia was my younger sister.
The winter had dragged by, sad and sombre, in our old country-house of Pokrovski. The weather had been cold, and so windy that the snow was often piled high above our windows; the panes were almost always cloudy with a coating of ice; and throughout the whole season we were shut in, rarely finding it possible to go out of the house.
It was very seldom that any one came to see us, and our few visitors brought neither joy nor cheerfulness to our house. They all had mournful faces, spoke low, as if they were afraid of waking some one, were careful not to laugh, sighed and often shed tears when they looked at me, and above all at the sight of my poor Sonia in her little black frock. Everything in the house still savored of death; the affliction, the horror of the last agony yet reigned in the air. Mamma’s chamber was shut up, and I felt a painful dread and yet an irresistible longing to peep furtively into the chill, desolate place as I passed it every night on my way to bed.
I was at this time seventeen years old, and the very year of her death Mamma had intended to remove to the city, in order to introduce me into society. The loss of my mother had been a great sorrow to me; but I must confess that to this grief had been added another, that of seeing myself — young, beautiful as I heard from every one that I was, — condemned to vegetate during a second winter in the country, in a barren solitude. Even before the end of this winter, the feeling of regret, of isolation, and, to speak plainly, of ennui, had so gained upon me that I scarcely ever left my own room, never opened my piano, and never even took a book in my hand. If Macha urged me to occupy myself with something I would reply: “I do not wish to, I cannot,” and far down in my soul a voice kept asking: “What is the use? Why ‘do something’ — no matter what — when the best of my life is wearing away so in pure loss? Why?” And to this “Why?” I had no answer except tears.
I was told that I was growing thin and losing my beauty, but this gave me not the slightest concern. Why, and for whom, should I take interest in it? It seemed to me that my entire life was to drift slowly away in this desert, borne down by this hopeless suffering, from which, given up to my own resources alone, I had no longer the strength, nor even the wish, to set myself free.
Towards the end of the winter Macha became seriously uneasy about me, and determined come what might to take me abroad. But for this, money was essential, and as yet we knew little of our resources beyond the fact that we were to succeed to our mother’s inheritance; however, we were in daily expectation of a visit from our guardian, who was to examine the condition of our affairs.
He came at last, late in March.
“Thank Heaven!” said Macha to me one day, when I was wandering like a shadow from one corner to another, perfectly idle, without a thought in my head or a wish in my heart: “Sergius Mikaïlovitch has sent word that he will be here before dinner. — You must rouse yourself, my little Katia,” she added; “what will he think of you? He loves you both so much!”
Sergius Mikaïlovitch was our nearest neighbor, and though much his junior had been the friend of our dead father. Besides the pleasant change which his arrival might cause in our life, by making it possible for us to leave the country, I had been too much accustomed, from my childhood, to love and respect him, for Macha not to divine while urging me to rouse myself, that still another change might be worked and that, of all my acquaintances, he was the one before whom I would be most unwilling to appear in an unfavorable light. Not only did I feel the old attachment for Sergius Mikaïlovitch which was shared by every one in the house, from Sonia, who was his god-daughter, down to the under-coachman, but this attachment had derived a peculiar character from a few words Mamma had once let fall before me. She had said that he was just the husband that she would have wished for me. At the moment such an idea had appeared to me very extraordinary and even somewhat disagreeable; the hero of my imagination was totally different. My own hero was to be slender, delicate, pale, and melancholy. Sergius Mikaïlovitch, on the contrary, was no longer young, he was tall and large, full of vigor, and, so far as I could judge, had an extremely pleasant temper; nevertheless my mother’s remark had made a strong impression on my imagination. This had happened six years before, when I was only eleven, when he still said “thou” to me, played with me, and gave me the name of La petite violette, yet ever since that day I had always felt some secret misgivings whenever I had asked myself the question what I should do if he should suddenly take a fancy to marry me?
A little before dinner, to which Macha had added a dish of spinach and a sweet entre mets Sergius Mikaïlovitch arrived. I was looking out of the window when his light sledge approached, and as he turned the corner of the house I hastily drew back into the drawing-room, not wishing to let him see that I had been watching for him the least in the world. But upon hearing sounds in the ante-chamber, his strong voice, and Macha’s footsteps, I lost patience and went myself to meet him. He was holding Macha’s hand, and talking to her in a raised voice, smiling. When he perceived me, he stopped and looked at me for some moments without saluting me; it embarrassed me a good deal, and I felt myself blush.
“Ah! is it possible that this is you, Katia?” he said in his frank, decided tone, disengaging his hand and approaching me.
“Can people change so! How you have grown! Yesterday a violet! To-day the full rose!”
His large hand clasped mine, pressing it so cordially, so strongly, that he almost hurt me. I had thought he might kiss me, and bent a little towards him; but he only caught it a second time, and looked me straight in the eyes with his bright, steady glance.
I had not seen him for six years. He was much changed, older, browner, and his whiskers, which he had allowed to grow, were not particularly becoming to him; but he had the same simple manners, the same open, honest face, with its marked features, eyes sparkling with intelligence, and smile as sweet as a child’s.
At the end of five minutes he was no longer on the footing of a mere visitor, but on that of an intimate guest with us all, and even the servants manifested their joy at his arrival, by the eager zeal with which they served him.
He did not act at all like a neighbor who, coming to a house for the first time after the mother’s death, thinks it necessary to bring with him a solemn countenance; on the contrary, he was gay, talkative, and did not say a single word about Mamma, so that I began to think this indifference on the part of a man standing in such near relation to us very strange, and rather unseemly. But I soon saw that it was far from being indifference, and read in his intention a considerateness for which I could not help being grateful.
In the evening Macha gave us tea in the drawing-room where it had been usually served during Mamma’s lifetime. Sonia and I sat near her; Gregory found one of Papa’s old pipes, and brought it to our guardian, who began to pace up and down the room according to his old fashion.
“What terrible changes in this house, when one thinks of it!” said he, stopping suddenly.
“Yes,” replied Macha with a sigh; and replacing the top of the samovar, she looked up at Sergius Mikaïlovitch, almost ready to burst into tears.
“No doubt you remember your father?” he asked me.
“How fortunate it would be for you, now, to have him still!” he observed slowly, with a thoughtful air, casting a vague glance into vacancy over my head. And he added more slowly still:
“I loved your father very much….”
I thought I detected a new brightness in his eyes at this moment.
“And now God has taken away our mother also!” exclaimed Macha. Dropping her napkin on the tea-tray, she pulled out her handkerchief and began to cry.
“Yes, there have been terrible changes in this house!”
He turned away as he spoke.
Then, a moment after: “Katia Alexandrovna,” he said, in a louder voice, “play me something!”
I liked the tone of frank, friendly authority with which he made this request; I rose and went to him.
“Here, play me this,” said he, opening my Beethoven at the adagio of the sonata, Quasi una fantasia. “Let us see how you play,” he continued, taking his cup of tea to drink in a corner of the room.
I know not why, but I felt it would be impossible either to refuse or to put forward a plea of playing badly; on the contrary, I submissively sat down at the piano and began to play as well as I could, although I was afraid of his criticism, knowing his excellent taste in music.
In the tone of this adagio there was a prevalent sentiment which by association carried me away to the conversation before tea, and, guided by this impression, I played tolerably well, it seemed. But he would not let me play the scherzo.
“No, you will not play it well,” said he, coming to me, “stop with that first movement, — which has not been bad! I see that you comprehend music.”
This praise, certainly moderate enough, delighted me so that I felt my color rise. It was something so new and agreeable to me to have the friend, the equal of my father, speak to me alone, seriously, and no longer as though he were talking to a child as he used to do.
He talked to me about my father, telling me how they suited each other, and what a pleasant life they had led together while I was occupied solely with my playthings and school-books; and what he said revealed my father to me in a light quite new to me, for the first time I seemed to know fully his simple goodness. My guardian questioned me as to what I liked, what I read, what I intended doing, and gave me advice. I had no longer beside me the gay talker, delighting in badinage, but a man serious, frank, friendly, for whom I felt involuntary respect, while at the same time I was conscious of being in perfect sympathy with him. This consciousness was pleasing to me, nevertheless there was a certain tension in conversing with him. Every word I uttered left me timid; I wished so much to deserve in my own person the affection which at present I only received because I was my father’s daughter!
After putting Sonia to bed, Macha rejoined us, and began to pour out to Sergius Mikaïlovitch her lamentations on the score of my apathy, which resulted she complained in my rarely having a single word to say.
“Then she has not told me the most important thing of all,” he answered, smiling, and shaking his head at me with an air of reproach.
“What had I to tell?” I replied: “that I was bored? — but that will pass away.” (And indeed it now seemed to me, not only that my ennui would pass away, but that it was something already gone by, which could not return.)
“It is not well not to know how to bear solitude: — is it possible that you are truly a ‘grown young lady’?”
“I believe so!” I answered smiling.
“No, no, or at least a naughty young lady, who only lives to be admired, and who, when she finds herself isolated, gives way, and no longer enjoys anything; all for show, nothing for herself.”
“You have a lovely idea of me, it seems!” I answered, to say something.
“No,” he returned, after a moment’s silence; “it is not in vain that you have that resemblance to your father; there is something in you!”
Again those kind, steadfast eyes exerted their charm over me, filling me with strange emotion.
I noticed for the first time at this moment that the face which to a casual glance seemed so gay, the expression, so peculiarly his own, where at first one seemed to read only serenity, afterwards revealed more and more clearly, a reserve of deep thought and a shade of sadness.
“You should not feel ennui,” he said, “you have music, which you are able to understand, books, study; you have before you a whole life, for which the present is the only moment to prepare yourself, so that hereafter you may not have to repine. In a year it will be too late.”
He spoke to me like a father or an uncle, and I understood that he was making an effort to come to my level. I was a little offended that he should think me so much below him, and on the other hand, it was gratifying to feel that he cared to make the effort for my sake.
The rest of the evening was devoted to a business conversation between him and Macha.
“And now, good-night, my dear Katia,” said he, rising, approaching me, and taking my hand.
“When shall we see each other again?” asked Macha.
“In the spring,” he replied, still holding my hand; “I am now going to Danilovka” (our other estate); “I must look into matters there and make some necessary arrangements, then I have to go to Moscow upon business of my own, and later — or in the summer — we shall see each other again.”
“Why do you go for so long a time?” I asked, dejectedly; for I was already hoping to see him every day, and it was with a sudden sinking of my heart that I thought of again battling with my ennui. Probably my eyes and voice let this be guessed.
“Come, occupy yourself more; drive away the blues!” he said in a voice that seemed to me too placid and cold. “In the spring I will hold an examination,” he added, dropping my hand without looking at me.