The Ichmenyevs were very fond of each other. They were closely united by love and years of habit. Yet Nikolay Sergeyitch was not only now, but had, even in former days, in their happiest times, always been rather reserved with his Anna Andreyevna, sometimes even surly, especially before other people. Some delicate and sensitive natures show a peculiar perversity, a sort of chaste dislike of expressing themselves, and expressing their tenderness even to the being dearest to them, not only before people but also in private--even more in private in fact; only at rare intervals their affection breaks out, and it breaks out more passionately and more impulsively the longer it has been restrained. This was rather how Ichmenyev had been with his Anna Andreyevna from their youth upwards. He loved and respected her beyond measure in spite of the fact that she was only a good-natured woman who was capable of nothing but loving him, and that he was sometimes positively vexed with her because in her simplicity she was often tactlessly open with him. But after Natasha had gone away they somehow became tenderer to one another; they were painfully conscious of being left all alone in the world. And though Nikolay Sergeyitch was some- times extremely gloomy, they could not be apart for two hours at a time without distress and uneasiness. They had made a sort of tacit compact not to say a word about Natasha, as though she had passed out of existence. Anna Andreyevna did not dare to make any allusion to her in her husband's presence, though this restraint was very hard for her. She had long ago in her heart forgiven Natasha. It had somehow become an established custom that every time I came I should bring her news of her beloved and never-forgotten child.
The mother was quite ill if she did not get news for some time, and when I came with tidings she was interested in the smallest details, and inquired with trembling curiosity. My accounts relieved her heart; she almost died of fright once when Natasha had fallen ill, and was on the point of going to her herself. But this was an extreme case. At first she was not able to bring herself to express even to me a desire to see her daughter; and almost always after our talk, when she had extracted everything from me, she thought it needful to draw herself up before me and to declare that though she was interested in her daughter's fate, yet Natasha had behaved so wickedly that she could never be forgiven. But all this was put on. There were times when Anna Andreyevna grieved hopelessly, shed tears, called Natasha by the fondest names before me, bitterly complained against Nikolay Sergeyitch, and began in his presence to drop hints, though with great circumspection, about some people's pride, about hard- heartedness, about our not being able to forgive injuries, and God's not forgiving the unforgiving; but she never went further than this in his presence. At such times her husband immediately got cross and sullen and would sit silent and scowling, or begin suddenly talking of something else very loudly and awkwardly, or finally go off to his own room, leaving us alone, and so giving Anna Andreyevna a chance to pour out her sorrows to me in tears and lamentations. He always went off to his own room like this when I arrived, sometimes scarcely leaving time to greet me, so as to give me a chance to tell Anna Andreyevna all the latest news of Natasha. He did the same thing now.
"I'm wet through," he said, as soon as he walked into the room. "I'll go to my room. And you, Vanya, stay here. Such a business he's been having with his lodgings. You tell her, I'll be back directly."
And he hurried away, trying not even to look at us, as though ashamed of having brought us together. On such occasions, and especially when he came back, he was always very curt and gloomy, both with me and Anna Andreyevna, even fault-finding, as though vexed and angry with himself for his own softness and consideration.
"You see how he is," said Anna Andreyevna, who had of late laid aside all her stiffness with me, and all her mistrust of me; "that's how he always is with me; and yet he knows we under- stand all his tricks. Why should he keep up a pretence with me? Am I a stranger to him? He's just the same about his daughter. He might forgive her, you know, perhaps he even wants to forgive her. God knows! He cries at night, I've heard him. But he keeps up outwardly. He's eaten up with pride. Ivan Petrovitch, my dear, tell me quick, where was he going?"
"Nikolay Sergeyitch? I don't know. I was going to ask you."
"I was dismayed when he went out. He's ill, you know, and in such weather, and so late! I thought it must be for something important; and what can be more important than what you know of? I thought this to myself, but I didn't dare to ask. Why, I daren't question him about anything nowadays. My goodness! I was simply terror-stricken on his account and on hers. What, thought I, if he has gone to her? What if he's made up his mind to forgive her? Why, he's found out every- thing, he knows the latest news of her; I feel certain he knows it; but how the news gets to him I can't imagine. He was terribly depressed yesterday, and to-day too. But why don't you say something? Tell me, my dear, what has happened? I've been longing for you like an angel of God. I've been all eyes watching for you. Come, will the villain abandon Natasha?"
I told Anna Andreyevna at once all I knew. I was always completely open with her. I told her that things seemed drifting to a rupture between Natasha and Alyosha, and that this was more serious than their previous misunderstandings; that Natasha had sent me a note the day before, begging me to come this evening at nine o'clock, and so I had not intended to come and see them that evening. Nikolay Sergeyitch himself had brought me. I explained and told her minutely that the position was now altogether critical, that Alyosha's father, who had been back for a fortnight after an absence, would hear nothing and was taking Alyosha sternly in hand; but, what was most important of all, Alyosha seemed himself not disinclined to the proposed match, and it was said he was positively in love with the young lady. I added that I could not help guessing that Natasha's note was written in great agitation. She wrote that to-night every- thing would be decided, but what was to be decided I did not know. It was also strange that she had written yesterday but had only asked me to come this evening, and had fixed the hour-nine o'clock. And so I was bound to go, and as quickly as possible.
"Go, my dear boy, go by all means!" Anna Andreyevna urged me anxiously. "Have just a cup of tea as soon as he comes back.... Ach, they haven't brought the samovar! Matryona Why are you so long with samovar? She's a saucy baggage! ... Then when you've drunk your tea, find some good excuse and get away. But be sure to come to-morrow and tell me everything. And run round early! Good heavens! Something dreadful may have happened already! Though how could things be worse than they are, when you come to think of it! Why, Nikolay Sergeyitch knows everything, my heart tells me he does. I hear a great deal through Matryona, and she through Agasha, and Agasha is the god-daughter of Marya Vassilyevna, who lives in the prince's house ... but there, you know all that. My Nikolay was terribly angry to-day. I tried to say one thing and another and he almost shouted at me. And then he seemed sorry, said he was short of money. Just as though he'd been making an outcry about money. You know our circumstances. After dinner he went to have a nap. I peeped at him through the chink (there's a chink in the door he doesn't know of). And he, poor dear, was on his knees, praying before the shrine. I felt my legs give way under me when I saw it. He didn't sleep, and he had no tea; he took up his hat and went out. He went out at five o'clock. I didn't dare question him: he'd have shouted at me. He's taken to shouting --generally at Matryona, but sometimes at me. And when he starts it makes my legs go numb, and there's a sinking at my heart. Of course it's foolishness, I know it's his foolishness, but still it frightens me. I prayed for a whole hour after he went out that God would send him some good thought. Where is her note? Show it me!"
I showed it. I knew that Anna Andreyevna cherished a secret dream that Alyosha, whom she called at one time a villain and at another a stupid heartless boy, would in the end marry Natasha, and that the prince, his father, would consent to it. She even let this out to me, though at other times she regretted it, and went back on her words. But nothing would have made her venture to betray her hopes before Nikolay Sergeyitch, though she knew her husband suspected them, and even indirectly reproached her for them more than once. I believe that he would have cursed Natasha and shut her out of his heart for ever if he had known of the possibility of such a marriage.
We all thought so at the time. He longed for his daughter with every fibre of his being, but he longed for her alone with every memory of Alyosha cast out of her heart. It was the one condition of forgiveness, and though it was not uttered in words it could be understood, and could not be doubted when one looked at him.
"He's a silly boy with no backbone, no backbone, and he's cruel, I always said so," Anna Andreyevna began again. "And they didn't know how to bring him up, so he's turned out a regular weather-cock; he's abandoning her after all her love. What will become of her, poor child? And what can he have found in this new girl, I should like to know."
"I have heard, Anna Andreyevna," I replied, "that his pro- posed fiancée is a delightful girl. Yes, and Natalya Nikolaevna says the same thing about her."
"Don't you believe it!" the mother interrupted. "Delightful, indeed! You scribblers think every one's delightful if only she wears petticoats. As for Natasha's speaking well of her, she does that in the generosity of her heart. She doesn't know how to control him; she forgives him everything, but she suffers herself. How often he has deceived her already. The cruel- hearted villains! I'm simply terrified, Ivan Petrovitch! They're all demented with pride. If my good man would only humble himself, if he would forgive my poor darling and fetch her home! If only I could hug her, if I could look at her! Has she got thinner?"
"She has got thin, Anna Andreyevna."
"My darling! I'm in terrible trouble, Ivan Petrovitch! All last night and all to-day I've been crying ... but there! ... I'll tell you about it afterwards. How many times I began hinting to him to forgive her; I daren't say it right out, so I begin to hint at it, in a tactful way. And my heart's in a flutter all the time: I keep expecting him to get angry and curse her once for all. I haven't heard a curse from him yet ... well, that's what I'm afraid of, that he'll put his curse upon her. And what will happen then? God's punishment falls on the child the father has cursed. So I'm trembling with terror every day. And you ought to be ashamed, too, Ivan Petrovitch, to think you've grown up in our family, and been treated like a son by both of us, and yet you can speak of her being delightful too. But their Marya Vassilyevna knows better. I may have done wrong, but I asked her in to coffee one day when my good man had gone out for the whole morning. She told me all the ins and outs of it. The prince, Alyosha's father, is in shocking relations with this countess. They say the countess keeps reproaching him with not marrying her, but he keeps putting it off. This fine countess was talked about for her shameless behaviour while her husband was living. When her husband died she went abroad: she used to have all sorts of Italians and Frenchmen about her, and barons of some sort--it was there she caught Prince Pyotr Alexandrovitch. And meantime her stepdaughter, the child of her first husband, the spirit contractor, has been growing up. This countess, the stepmother, has spent all she had, but the stepdaughter has been growing up, and the two millions her father had left invested for her have been growing too. Now, they say, she has three millions. The prince has got wind of it, so he's keen on the match for Alyosha. (He's a sharp fellow! He won't let a chance slip!) The count, their relative, who's a great gentleman at court you remember, has given his approval too: a fortune of three millions is worth considering. 'Excellent', he said, 'talk it over with the countess.' So the prince told the countess of his wishes. She opposed it tooth and nail. She's an unprincipled woman, a regular termagant, they say! They say some people won't receive her here; it's very different from abroad. 'No,' she says, 'you marry me, prince, instead of my stepdaughter's marrying Alyosha.' And the girl, they say, gives way to her stepmother in everything; she almost worships her and always obeys her. She's a gentle creature, they say, a perfect angel! The prince sees how it is and tells the countess not to worry herself. 'You've spent all your money,' says he, 'and your debts you can never pay. But as soon as your stepdaughter marries Alyosha there'll be a pair of them; your innocent and my little fool. We'll take them under our wing and be their guardians together. Then you'll have plenty of money, What's the good of you're marrying me?' He's a sharp fellow, a regular mason! Six months ago the countess wouldn't make up her mind to it, but since then they say they've been staying at Warsaw, and there they've come to an agreement. That's what I've heard. All this Marya Vassilyevna told me from beginning to end. She heard it all on good authority. So you see it's all a question of money and millions, and not her being delightful!"
Anna Andreyevna's story impressed me. It fitted in exactly with all I had heard myself from Alyosha. When he talked of it he had stoutly declared that he would never marry for money. But he had been struck and attracted by Katerina Fyodorovna. I had heard from Alyosha, too, that his father was contemplating marriage, though he denied all rumour of it to avoid irritating the countess prematurely. I have mentioned already that Alyosha was very fond of his father, admired him and praised him; and believed in him as though he were an oracle.
"She's not of a count's family, you know, the girl you call delightful!" Anna Andreyevna went on, deeply resenting my praise of the young prince's future fiancée. "Why, Natasha would be a better match for him. She's a spirit-dealer's daughter, while Natasha is a well-born girl of a good old family. Yesterday (I forgot to tell you) my old man opened his box-you know, the wrought-iron one; he sat opposite me the whole evening, sorting out our old family papers. And he sat so solemnly over it. I was knitting a stocking, and I didn't look at him; I was afraid to. When he saw I didn't say a word he got cross, and called me himself, and he spent the whole evening telling me about our pedigree. And do you know, it seems that the Ichmenyevs were noblemen in the days of Ivan the Terrible, and that my family, the Shumilovs, were well-known even in the days of Tsar Alexey Mihalovitch; we've the documents to prove it, and it's mentioned in Karamzin's history too, so you see, my dear boy, we're as good as other people on that side. As soon as my old man began talking to me I saw what was in his mind. It was clear he felt bitterly Natasha's being slighted. It's only through their wealth they're set above us. That robber, Pyotr Alexandrovitch, may well make a fuss about money; everyone knows he's a cold- hearted, greedy soul. They say he joined the Jesuits in secret when he was in Warsaw. Is it true?"
"It's a stupid rumour," I answered, though I could not help being struck by the persistence of this rumour.
But what she had told me of her husband's going over his family records was interesting. He had never boasted of his pedigree before. "It's all the cruel-hearted villains!" Anna Andreyevna went on. "Well, tell me about my darling. Is she grieving and crying? Ach, it's time you went to her! (Matryona! She's a saucy baggage.) Have they insulted her? Tell me, Vanya?"
What could I answer her? The poor lady was in tears. I asked her what was the fresh trouble of which she had been about to tell me just now.
"Ach, my dear boy! As though we hadn't trouble enough! It seems our cup was not full enough! You remember, my dear, or perhaps you don't remember, I had a little locket set in gold - a keepsake, and in it a portrait of Natasha as a child. She was eight years old then, my little angel. We ordered it from a travelling artist at the time. But I see you've forgotten! He was a good artist. He painted her as a cupid. She'd such fair hair in those days, all fluffy. He painted her in a little muslin smock, so that her little body shows through, and she looked so pretty in it you couldn't take your eves off her. I begged the artist to put little wings on her, but he wouldn't agree. Well after all our dreadful troubles, I took it out of its case and hung it on a string round my neck; so I've been wearing it beside my cross, though I was afraid he might see it. You know he told me at the time to get rid of all her things out of the house, or burn them, so that nothing might remind us of her. But I must have her portrait to look at, anyway; sometimes I cry, looking at it, and it does me good. And another time when I'm alone I keep kissing it as though I were kissing her, herself. I call her fond names, and make the sign of the cross over it every night. I talk aloud to her when I'm alone, ask her a question and fancy she has answered, and ask her another. Och, Vanya, dear, it makes me sad to talk about it! Well, so I was glad he knew nothing of the locket and hadn't noticed it. But yesterday morning the locket was gone. The string hung loose. It must have worn through and I'd dropped it. I was aghast. I hunted and hunted high and low-it wasn't to be found. Not a sign of it anywhere, it was lost! And where could it have dropped? I made sure I must have lost it in bed, and rummaged through everything. Nowhere! If it had come off and dropped, some one might have picked it up, and who could have found it except him or Matryona? One can't think of it's being Matryona, she's devoted to me heart and soul (Matryona, are you going to bring that samovar?). I keep thinking what will happen if he's found it! I sit so sad and keep crying and crying and can't keep back my tears. And Nikolay Sergeyitch is kinder and kinder to me as though he knows what I am grieving about, and is sorry for me. 'Well I've been wondering, how could he tell? Hasn't he perhaps really found the locket and thrown it out of the window? In anger he's capable of it, you know. He's thrown it out and now he's sad about it himself and sorry he threw it out. I've been already with Matryona to look under the window--I found nothing. Every trace has vanished. I've been crying all night. It's the first night I haven't made the sign of the cross over her. Och, it's a bad sign, Ivan Petrovitch, it's a bad sign, it's an omen of evil; for two days I've been crying without stopping. I've been expecting you, my dear, as an angel of God, if only to relieve my heart . . ." and the poor lady wept bitterly.
"Oh yes, I forgot to tell you," she began suddenly, pleased at remembering. "Have you heard anything from him about an orphan girl?"
"Yes, Anna Andreyevna. He told me you had both thought of it, and agreed to take a poor girl, an orphan, to bring up. Is that true?"
"I've never thought of it, my dear boy, I've never thought of it; I don't want any orphan girl. She'll remind me of our bitter lot, our misfortune! I want no one but Natasha. She was my only child, and she shall remain the only one. But what does it mean that he should have thought of an orphan? What do you think, Ivan Petrovitch? Is it to comfort me, do you suppose, looking at my tears, or to drive his own daughter out of his mind altogether, and attach himself to another child? What did he say about me as you came along? How did he seem to you--morose, angry? Tss! Here he is! Afterwards, my dear, tell me afterwards.... Don't forget to come to-morrow."
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