For the autumn, woodcocks often take refuge in old gardens of lime-trees. There are a good many such gardens among us, in the province of Orel. Our forefathers, when they selected a place for habitation, invariably marked out two acres of good ground for a fruit-garden, with avenues of lime-trees. Within the last fifty, or seventy years at most, these mansions—’noblemen’s nests,’ as they call them—have gradually disappeared off the face of the earth; the houses are falling to pieces, or have been sold for the building materials; the stone outhouses have become piles of rubbish; the apple-trees are dead and turned into firewood, the hedges and fences are pulled up. Only the lime-trees grow in all their glory as before, and with ploughed fields all round them, tell a tale to this light-hearted generation of ‘our fathers and brothers who have lived before us.’
A magnificent tree is such an old lime-tree…. Even the merciless axe of the Russian peasant spares it. Its leaves are small, its powerful limbs spread wide in all directions; there is perpetual shade under them.
Once, as I was wandering about the fields after partridges with Yermolaï, I saw some way off a deserted garden, and turned into it. I had hardly crossed its borders when a snipe rose up out of a bush with a clatter. I fired my gun, and at the same instant, a few paces from me, I heard a shriek; the frightened face of a young girl peeped out for a second from behind the trees, and instantly disappeared. Yermolaï ran up to me: ‘Why are you shooting here? there is a landowner living here.’
Before I had time to answer him, before my dog had had time to bring me, with dignified importance, the bird I had shot, swift footsteps were heard, and a tall man with moustaches came out of the thicket and stopped, with an air of displeasure, before me. I made my apologies as best I could, gave him my name, and offered him the bird that had been killed on his domains.
‘Very well,’ he said to me with a smile; ‘I will take your game, but only on one condition: that you will stay and dine with us.’
I must confess I was not greatly delighted at his proposition, but it was impossible to refuse.
‘I am a landowner here, and your neighbour, Radilov; perhaps you have heard of me?’ continued my new acquaintance; ‘to-day is Sunday, and we shall be sure to have a decent dinner, otherwise I would not have invited you.’
I made such a reply as one does make in such circumstances, and turned to follow him. A little path that had lately been cleared soon led us out of the grove of lime-trees; we came into the kitchen-garden. Between the old apple-trees and gooseberry bushes were rows of curly whitish-green cabbages; the hop twined its tendrils round high poles; there were thick ranks of brown twigs tangled over with dried peas; large flat pumpkins seemed rolling on the ground; cucumbers showed yellow under their dusty angular leaves; tall nettles were waving along the hedge; in two or three places grew clumps of tartar honeysuckle, elder, and wild rose—the remnants of former flower-beds. Near a small fish-pond, full of reddish and slimy water, we saw the well, surrounded by puddles. Ducks were busily splashing and waddling about these puddles; a dog blinking and twitching in every limb was gnawing a bone in the meadow, where a piebald cow was lazily chewing the grass, from time to time flicking its tail over its lean back. The little path turned to one side; from behind thick willows and birches we caught sight of a little grey old house, with a boarded roof and a winding flight of steps. Radilov stopped short.
‘But,’ he said, with a good-humoured and direct look in my face,’ on second thoughts … perhaps you don’t care to come and see me, after all…. In that case—’
I did not allow him to finish, but assured him that, on the contrary, it would be a great pleasure to me to dine with him.
‘Well, you know best.’
We went into the house. A young man in a long coat of stout blue cloth met us on the steps. Radilov at once told him to bring Yermolaï some vodka; my huntsman made a respectful bow to the back of the munificent host. From the hall, which was decorated with various parti-coloured pictures and check curtains, we went into a small room—Radilov’s study. I took off my hunting accoutrements, and put my gun in a corner; the young man in the long-skirted coat busily brushed me down.
‘Well, now, let us go into the drawing-room.’ said Radilov cordially.
‘I will make you acquainted with my mother.’
I walked after him. In the drawing-room, in the sofa in the centre of the room, was sitting an old lady of medium height, in a cinnamon-coloured dress and a white cap, with a thinnish, kind old face, and a timid, mournful expression.
‘Here, mother, let me introduce to you our neighbour….’
The old lady got up and made me a bow, not letting go out of her withered hands a fat worsted reticule that looked like a sack.
‘Have you been long in our neighbourhood?’ she asked, in a weak and gentle voice, blinking her eyes.
‘No, not long.’
‘Do you intend to remain here long?’
‘Till the winter, I think.’
The old lady said no more.
‘And here,’ interposed Radilov, indicating to me a tall and thin man, whom I had not noticed on entering the drawing-room, ‘is Fyodor Miheitch. … Come, Fedya, give the visitor a specimen of your art. Why have you hidden yourself away in that corner?’
Fyodor Miheitch got up at once from his chair, fetched a wretched little fiddle from the window, took the bow—not by the end, as is usual, but by the middle—put the fiddle to his chest, shut his eyes, and fell to dancing, singing a song, and scraping on the strings. He looked about seventy; a thin nankin overcoat flapped pathetically about his dry and bony limbs. He danced, at times skipping boldly, and then dropping his little bald head with his scraggy neck stretched out as if he were dying, stamping his feet on the ground, and sometimes bending his knees with obvious difficulty. A voice cracked with age came from his toothless mouth.
Radilov must have guessed from the expression of my face that Fedya’s ‘art’ did not give me much pleasure.
‘Very good, old man, that’s enough,’ he said. ‘You can go and refresh yourself.’
Fyodor Miheitch at once laid down the fiddle on the window-sill, bowed first to me as the guest, then to the old lady, then to Radilov, and went away.
‘He too was a landowner,’ my new friend continued, ‘and a rich one too, but he ruined himself—so he lives now with me…. But in his day he was considered the most dashing fellow in the province; he eloped with two married ladies; he used to keep singers, and sang himself, and danced like a master…. But won’t you take some vodka? dinner is just ready.’
A young girl, the same that I had caught a glimpse of in the garden, came into the room.
‘And here is Olga!’ observed Radilov, slightly turning his head; ‘let me present you…. Well, let us go into dinner.’
We went in and sat down to the table. While we were coming out of the drawing-room and taking our seats, Fyodor Miheitch, whose eyes were bright and his nose rather red after his ‘refreshment,’ sang ‘Raise the cry of Victory.’ They laid a separate cover for him in a corner on a little table without a table-napkin. The poor old man could not boast of very nice habits, and so they always kept him at some distance from society. He crossed himself, sighed, and began to eat like a shark. The dinner was in reality not bad, and in honour of Sunday was accompanied, of course, with shaking jelly and Spanish puffs of pastry. At the table Radilov, who had served ten years in an infantry regiment and had been in Turkey, fell to telling anecdotes; I listened to him with attention, and secretly watched Olga. She was not very pretty; but the tranquil and resolute expression of her face, her broad, white brow, her thick hair, and especially her brown eyes—not large, but clear, sensible and lively—would have made an impression on anyone in my place. She seemed to be following every word Radilov uttered—not so much sympathy as passionate attention was expressed on her face. Radilov in years might have been her father; he called her by her Christian name, but I guessed at once that she was not his daughter. In the course of conversation he referred to his deceased wife—’her sister,’ he added, indicating Olga. She blushed quickly and dropped her eyes. Radilov paused a moment and then changed the subject. The old lady did not utter a word during the whole of dinner; she ate scarcely anything herself, and did not press me to partake. Her features had an air of timorous and hopeless expectation, that melancholy of old age which it pierces one’s heart to look upon. At the end of dinner Fyodor Miheitch was beginning to ‘celebrate’ the hosts and guests, but Radilov looked at me and asked him to be quiet; the old man passed his hand over his lips, began to blink, bowed, and sat down again, but only on the very edge of his chair. After dinner I returned with Radilov to his study.
In people who are constantly and intensely preoccupied with one idea, or one emotion, there is something in common, a kind of external resemblance in manner, however different may be their qualities, their abilities, their position in society, and their education. The more I watched Radilov, the more I felt that he belonged to the class of such people. He talked of husbandry, of the crops, of the war, of the gossip of the district and the approaching elections; he talked without constraint, and even with interest; but suddenly he would sigh and drop into a chair, and pass his hand over his face, like a man wearied out by a tedious task. His whole nature—a good and warm-hearted one too—seemed saturated through, steeped in some one feeling. I was amazed by the fact that I could not discover in him either a passion for eating, nor for wine, nor for sport, nor for Kursk nightingales, nor for epileptic pigeons, nor for Russian literature, nor for trotting-hacks, nor for Hungarian coats, nor for cards, nor billiards, nor for dances, nor trips to the provincial town or the capital, nor for paper-factories and beet-sugar refineries, nor for painted pavilions, nor for tea, nor for trace-horses trained to hold their heads askew, nor even for fat coachmen belted under their very armpits—those magnificent coachmen whose eyes, for some mysterious reason, seem rolling and starting out of their heads at every movement…. ‘What sort of landowner is this, then?’ I thought. At the same time he did not in the least pose as a gloomy man discontented with his destiny; on the contrary, he seemed full of indiscrimating good-will, cordial and even offensive readiness to become intimate with every one he came across. In reality you felt at the same time that he could not be friends, nor be really intimate with anyone, and that he could not be so, not because in general he was independent of other people, but because his whole being was for a time turned inwards upon himself. Looking at Radilov, I could never imagine him happy either now or at any time. He, too, was not handsome; but in his eyes, his smile, his whole being, there was a something, mysterious and extremely attractive—yes, mysterious is just what it was. So that you felt you would like to know him better, to get to love him. Of course, at times the landowner and the man of the steppes peeped out in him; but all the same he was a capital fellow.
We were beginning to talk about the new marshal of the district, when suddenly we heard Olga’s voice at the door: ‘Tea is ready.’ We went into the drawing-room. Fyodor Miheitch was sitting as before in his corner between the little window and the door, his legs curled up under him. Radilov’s mother was knitting a stocking. From the opened windows came a breath of autumn freshness and the scent of apples. Olga was busy pouring out tea. I looked at her now with more attention than at dinner. Like provincial girls as a rule, she spoke very little, but at any rate I did not notice in her any of their anxiety to say something fine, together with their painful consciousness of stupidity and helplessness; she did not sigh as though from the burden of unutterable emotions, nor cast up her eyes, nor smile vaguely and dreamily. Her look expressed tranquil self-possession, like a man who is taking breath after great happiness or great excitement. Her carriage and her movements were resolute and free. I liked her very much.
I fell again into conversation with Radilov. I don’t recollect what brought us to the familiar observation that often the most insignificant things produce more effect on people than the most important.
‘Yes,’ Radilov agreed, ‘I have experienced that in my own case. I, as you know, have been married. It was not for long—three years; my wife died in child-birth. I thought that I should not survive her; I was fearfully miserable, broken down, but I could not weep—I wandered about like one possessed. They decked her out, as they always do, and laid her on a table—in this very room. The priest came, the deacons came, began to sing, to pray, and to burn incense; I bowed to the ground, and hardly shed a tear. My heart seemed turned to stone—and my head too—I was heavy all over. So passed my first day. Would you believe it? I even slept in the night. The next morning I went in to look at my wife: it was summer-time, the sunshine fell upon her from head to foot, and it was so bright. Suddenly I saw …’ (here Radilov gave an involuntary shudder) ‘what do you think? One of her eyes was not quite shut, and on this eye a fly was moving…. I fell down in a heap, and when I came to myself, I began to weep and weep … I could not stop myself….’
Radilov was silent. I looked at him, then at Olga…. I can never forget the expression of her face. The old lady had laid the stocking down on her knees, and taken a handkerchief out of her reticule; she was stealthily wiping away her tears. Fyodor Miheitch suddenly got up, seized his fiddle, and in a wild and hoarse voice began to sing a song. He wanted doubtless to restore our spirits; but we all shuddered at his first note, and Radilov asked him to be quiet.
‘Still what is past, is past,’ he continued; ‘we cannot recall the past, and in the end … all is for the best in this world below, as I think Voltaire said,’ he added hurriedly.
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘of course. Besides, every trouble can be endured, and there is no position so terrible that there is no escape from it.’
‘Do you think so?’ said Radilov. ‘Well, perhaps you are right. I recollect I lay once in the hospital in Turkey half dead; I had typhus fever. Well, our quarters were nothing to boast of—of course, in time of war—and we had to thank God for what we had! Suddenly they bring in more sick—where are they to put them? The doctor goes here and there—there is no room left. So he comes up to me and asks the attendant, “Is he alive?” He answers, “He was alive this morning.” The doctor bends down, listens; I am breathing. The good man could not help saying, “Well, what an absurd constitution; the man’s dying; he’s certain to die, and he keeps hanging on, lingering, taking up space for nothing, and keeping out others.” Well, I thought to myself, “So you are in a bad way, Mihal Mihalitch….” And, after all, I got well, and am alive till now, as you may see for yourself. You are right, to be sure.’
‘In any case I am right,’ I replied; ‘even if you had died, you would just the same have escaped from your horrible position.’
‘Of course, of course,’ he added, with a violent blow of his fist on the table. ‘One has only to come to a decision…. What is the use of being in a horrible position?… What is the good of delaying, lingering.’
Olga rose quickly and went out into the garden.
‘Well, Fedya, a dance!’ cried Radilov.
Fedya jumped up and walked about the room with that artificial and peculiar motion which is affected by the man who plays the part of a goat with a tame bear. He sang meanwhile, ‘While at our Gates….’
The rattle of a racing droshky sounded in the drive, and in a few minutes a tall, broad-shouldered and stoutly made man, the peasant proprietor, Ovsyanikov, came into the room.
But Ovsyanikov is such a remarkable and original personage that, with the reader’s permission, we will put off speaking about him till the next sketch. And now I will only add for myself that the next day I started off hunting at earliest dawn with Yermolaï, and returned home after the day’s sport was over … that a week later I went again to Radilov’s, but did not find him or Olga at home, and within a fortnight I learned that he had suddenly disappeared, left his mother, and gone away somewhere with his sister-in-law. The whole province was excited, and talked about this event, and I only then completely understood the expression of Olga’s face while Radilov was telling us his story. It was breathing, not with sympathetic suffering only: it was burning with jealousy.
Before leaving the country I called on old Madame Radilov. I found her in the drawing-room; she was playing cards with Fyodor Miheitch.
‘Have you news of your son?’ I asked her at last.
The old lady began to weep. I made no more inquiries about Radilov.