The Precipice by Ivan Goncharov


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, Boris’s aunt.
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 capital.
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 civil servant.
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 contradictory traits.
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 of him….
“What did I say just now?” interrupted the master, noticing Boris’s wandering glance.
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 actual syllables.
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 like nuts.
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 that?”
“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 troïka. 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 the grave….
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 pigeon….
“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.”
“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 why?”
“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 sunshine.
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 corners.
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 {1} was old-fashioned; she did not approve of lounging, but held herself upright and was simple and reserved in her manners.
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 be 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 to breakfast.
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 church.
{1} 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 sighed.
“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 now look!”
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 and byres.
“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 over there.”
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 by heart the names of all the ministers and the men in high commands and their past history; he could tell why one sea lay at a higher tide than another; he was the first to know what the English or the French had invented, and whether the inventions were useful or not. If there was any business to be arranged in the law courts, Tiet Nikonich arranged it, and sometimes concealed the sums that he spent in so doing. If he was found out, she scolded him; he could not conceal his confusion, begged her pardon, kissed her hand, and took his leave.
Tatiana Markovna was always at loggerheads with the bureaucracy of the neighbourhood. If soldiers were to be billeted on her, the roads to be improved, or the taxes collected, she complained of outrage, argued and refused to pay. She would hear nothing about the public interest. In her opinion everyone had his own business to mind. She strongly objected to the police, and especially to the Superintendent, who was in her view a robber. More than once Tiet Nikonich tried, without success, to reconcile her to the doctrine of the public interest; he had to be content if she was reconciled with the officials and the police.
This was the patriarchal, peaceful atmosphere which young Raisky absorbed. Grandmother and the little girls were mother and sisters to him, and Tiet Nikonich the ideal uncle.