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- On the Eve - 5/36 -
than an ensign, he was given to discussing, persistently, such questions as whether it is possible for a man to visit the whole of the globe in the course of his whole lifetime, whether it is possible for a man to know what is happening at the bottom of the sea; and he always maintained the view that these things were impossible.
Nikolai Artemyevitch was twenty-five years old when he 'hooked' Anna Vassilyevna; he retired from the service and went into the country to manage the property. He was soon tired of country life, and as the peasants' labour was all commuted for rent he could easily leave the estate; he settled in Moscow in his wife's house. In his youth he had played no games of any kind, but now he developed a passion for loto, and, when loto was prohibited, for whist. At home he was bored; he formed a connection with a widow of German extraction, and spent almost all his time with her. In the year 1853 he had not moved to Kuntsovo; he stopped at Moscow, ostensibly to take advantage of the mineral waters; in reality, he did not want to part from his widow. He did not, however, have much conversation with her, but argued more than ever as to whether one can foretell the weather and such questions. Some one had once called him a _frondeur_; he was greatly delighted with that name. 'Yes,' he thought, letting the corners of his mouth drop complacently and shaking his head, 'I am not easily satisfied; you won't take me in.' Nikolai Artemyevitch's _frondeurism_ consisted in saying, for instance, when he heard the word nerves: 'And what do you mean by nerves?' or if some one alluded in his presence to the discoveries of astronomy, asking: 'And do you believe in astronomy?' When he wanted to overwhelm his opponent completely, he said: 'All that is nothing but words.' It must be admitted that to many persons remarks of that kind seemed (and still seem) irrefutable arguments. But Nikolai Artemyevitch never suspected that Augustina Christianovna, in letters to her cousin, Theodolina Peterzelius, called him _Mein Pinselchen_.
Nikolai Artemyevitch's wife, Anna Vassilyevna, was a thin, little woman with delicate features, and a tendency to be emotional and melancholy. At school, she had devoted herself to music and reading novels; afterwards she abandoned all that. She began to be absorbed in dress, and that, too, she gave up. She did, for a time, undertake her daughter's education, but she got tired of that too, and handed her over to a governess. She ended by spending her whole time in sentimental brooding and tender melancholy. The birth of Elena Nikolaevna had ruined her health, and she could never have another child. Nikolai Artemyevitch used to hint at this fact in justification of his intimacy with Augustina Christianovna. Her husband's infidelity wounded Anna Vassilyevna deeply; she had been specially hurt by his once giving his German woman, on the sly, a pair of grey horses out of her (Anna Vassilyevna's) own stable. She had never reproached him to his face, but she complained of him secretly to every one in the house in turn, even to her daughter. Anna Vassilyevna did not care for going out, she liked visitors to come and sit with her and talk to her; she collapsed at once when she was left alone. She had a very tender and loving heart; life had soon crushed her.
Pavel Yakovlitch Shubin happened to be a distant cousin of hers. His father had been a government official in Moscow. His brothers had entered cadets' corps; he was the youngest, his mother's darling, and of delicate constitution; he stopped at home. They intended him for the university, and strained every effort to keep him at the gymnasium. From his early years he began to show an inclination for sculpture. The ponderous senator, Volgin, saw a statuette of his one day at his aunt's--he was then sixteen--and declared that he intended to protect this youthful genius. The sudden death of Shubin's father very nearly effected a complete transformation in the young man's future. The senator, the patron of genius, made him a present of a bust of Homer in plaster, and did nothing more. But Anna Vassilyevna helped him with money, and at nineteen he scraped through into the university in the faculty of medicine. Pavel felt no inclination for medical science, but, as the university was then constituted, it was impossible for him to enter in any other faculty. Besides, he looked forward to studying anatomy. But he did not complete his anatomical studies; at the end of the first year, and before the examination, he left the university to devote himself exclusively to his vocation. He worked zealously, but by fits and starts; he used to stroll about the country round Moscow sketching and modelling portraits of peasant girls, and striking up acquaintance with all sorts of people, young and old, of high and low degree, Italian models and Russian artists. He would not hear of the Academy, and recognised no one as a teacher. He was possessed of unmistakeable talent; it began to be talked about in Moscow. His mother, who came of a good Parisian family, a kind-hearted and clever woman, had taught him French thoroughly and had toiled and thought for him day and night. She was proud of him, and when, while still young in years, she died of consumption, she entreated Anna Vassilyevna to take him under her care. He was at that time twenty-one. Anna Vassilyevna carried out her last wish; a small room in the lodge of the country villa was given up to him.
'Come to dinner, come along,' said the lady of the house in a plaintive voice, and they all went into the dining-room. 'Sit beside me, _Zoe_,' added Anna Vassilyevna, 'and you, Helene, take our guest; and you, _Paul_, please don't be naughty and tease _Zoe_. My head aches to-day.'
Shubin again turned his eyes up to the ceiling; Zoe responded with a half-smile. This Zoe, or, to speak more precisely, Zoya Nikitishna Mueller, was a pretty, fair-haired, half-Russian German girl, with a little nose rather wide at the end, and tiny red lips. She sang Russian ballads fairly well and could play various pieces, both lively and sentimental, very correctly on the piano. She dressed with taste, but in a rather childish style, and even over-precisely. Anna Vassilyevna had taken her as a companion for her daughter, and she kept her almost constantly at her side. Elena did not complain of that; she was absolutely at a loss what to say to Zoya when she happened to be left alone with her.
The dinner lasted rather a long time; Bersenyev talked with Elena about university life, and his own plans and hopes; Shubin listened without speaking, ate with an exaggerated show of greediness, and now and then threw comic glances of despair at Zoya, who responded always with the same phlegmatic smile. After dinner, Elena with Bersenyev and Shubin went into the garden; Zoya looked after them, and, with a slight shrug of her shoulders, sat down to the piano. Anna Vassilyevna began: 'Why don't you go for a walk, too?' but, without waiting for a reply, she added: 'Play me something melancholy.'
'_La derniere pensee de Weber_?' suggested Zoya.
'Ah, yes, Weber,' replied Anna Vassilyevna. She sank into an easy chair, and the tears started on to her eyelashes.
Meanwhile, Elena led the two friends to an arbour of acacias, with a little wooden table in the middle, and seats round. Shubin looked round, and, whispering 'Wait a minute!' he ran off, skipping and hopping to his own room, brought back a piece of clay, and began modelling a bust of Zoya, shaking his head and muttering and laughing to himself.
'At his old tricks again,' observed Elena, glancing at his work. She turned to Bersenyev, with whom she was continuing the conversation begun at dinner.
'My old tricks!' repeated Shubin. 'It's a subject that's simply inexhaustible! To-day, particularly, she drove me out of all patience.'
'Why so?' inquired Elena. 'One would think you were speaking of some spiteful, disagreeable old woman. She is a pretty young girl.'
'Of course,' Shubin broke in, 'she is pretty, very pretty; I am sure that no one who meets her could fail to think: that's some one I should like to--dance a polka with; I'm sure, too, that she knows that, and is pleased. . . . Else, what's the meaning of those modest simpers, that discreet air? There, you know what I mean,' he muttered between his teeth. 'But now you're absorbed in something else.'
And breaking up the bust of Zoya, Shubin set hastily to modelling and kneading the clay again with an air of vexation.
'So it is your wish to be a professor?' said Elena to Bersenyev.
'Yes,' he answered, squeezing his red hands between his knees. 'That's my cherished dream. Of course I know very well how far I fall short of being--to be worthy of such a high--I mean that I am too little prepared, but I hope to get permission for a course of travel abroad; I shall pass three or four years in that way, if necessary, and then----'
He stopped, dropped his eyes, then quickly raising them again, he gave an embarrassed smile and smoothed his hair. When Bersenyev was talking to a woman, his words came out more slowly, and he lisped more than ever.
'You want to be a professor of history?' inquired Elena.
'Yes, or of philosophy,' he added, in a lower voice--'if that is possible.'
'He's a perfect devil at philosophy already,' observed Shubin, making deep lines in the clay with his nail. 'What does he want to go abroad for?'
'And will you be perfectly contented with such a position?' asked Elena, leaning on her elbow and looking him straight in the face.
'Perfectly, Elena Nikolaevna, perfectly. What could be a finer vocation? To follow, perhaps, in the steps of Timofay Nikolaevitch . . . The very thought of such work fills me with delight and confusion . . . yes, confusion . . . which comes from a sense of my own deficiency. My dear father consecrated me to this work. . . I shall never forget his last words.' . . .
'Your father died last winter?'
'Yes, Elena Nikolaevna, in February.'
'They say,' Elena went on, 'that he left a remarkable work in manuscript; is it true?'
'Yes. He was a wonderful man. You would have loved him, Elena Nikolaevna.'
'I am sure I should. And what was the subject of the work?'
'To give you an idea of the subject of the work in few words, Elena Nikolaevna, would be somewhat difficult. My father was a learned man,
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