At seven o'clock punctually I was at Masloboev's. He greeted me with loud exclamations and open arms. He was, of course, half drunk. But what stuck me most was the extraordinary preparation that had been made for my visit. It was evident that I was expected. A pretty brass samovar was boiling on a little round table covered with a handsome and expensive tablecloth. The tea table glittered with crystal, silver and china. On another table, which was covered with a tablecloth of a different kind, but no less gorgeous, stood plates of excellent sweets, Kiev preserves both dried and liquid, fruit paste, jelly, French preserves, oranges, apples, and three or four sorts of nuts; in fact, a regular fruit shop. On a third table, covered with a snow white cloth, there were savouries of different sorts--caviar, cheese, a pie, sausage, smoked ham, fish and a row of fine glass decanters containing spirits of many sorts, and of the most attractive colours--green, ruby, brown and gold. Finally on a little table on one side--also covered with a white cloth--there were two bottles of champagne. On a table before the sofa there were three bottles containing Sauterne, Lafitte, and Cognac, very expensive brands from Eliseyev's. Alexandra Semyonovna was sitting at the tea table, and though her dress and general get-up was simple, they had evidently been the subject of thought and attention, and the result was indeed very successful. She knew what suited her, and evidently took pride in it. She got up to meet me with some ceremony. Her fresh little face beamed with pleasure and satisfaction. Masloboev was wearing gorgeous Chinese slippers, a sumptuous dressing gown, and dainty clean linen. Fashionable studs and buttons were conspicuous on his shirt everywhere where they could possibly be attached. His hair had been pomaded, and combed with a fashionable side parting.
I was so much taken aback that I stopped short in the middle of the room and gazed open-mouthed, first at Masloboev and then at Alexandra Semyonovna, who was in a state of blissful satisfaction.
"What's the meaning of this, Masloboev? Have you got a party this evening?" I cried with some uneasiness.
"No, only you!" he answered solemnly.
"But why is this?" I asked (pointing to the savouries). "Why, you've food enough for a regiment!"
"And drink enough! You've forgotten the chief thing--drink!" added Masloboev.
"And is this only on my account?
"And Alexandra Semyonovna's. It was her pleasure to get it all up."
"Well, upon my word. I knew that's how it would be," exclaimed Alexandra Semyonovna, flushing, though she looked just as satisfied. "I can't receive a visitor decently, or I'm in fault at once."
"Ever since the morning, would you believe it, as soon as she knew you were coming for the evening, she's been bustling about; she's been in agonies . . . ."
"And that's a fib! It's not since early morning, it's since last night. When you came in last night you told me the gentleman was coming to spend the whole evening."
"You misunderstood me."
"Not a bit of it. That's what you said. I never tell lies. And why shouldn't I welcome a guest? We go on and on, and no one ever comes to see us, though we've plenty of everything. Let our friends see that we know how to live like other people."
"And above all see what a good hostess and housekeeper you are," added Masloboev. "Only fancy, my friend, I've come in for something too. She's crammed me into a linen shirt, stuck in studs--slippers, Chinese dressing-gown--she combed my hair herself and pomaded it with bergamot; she wanted to sprinkle me with scent--creme brulee, but I couldn't stand that. I rebelled and asserted my conjugal authority."
"It wasn't bergamot. It was the best French pomatum out of a painted china pot," retorted Alexandra Semyonovna, firing up. "You judge, Ivan Petrovitch; he never lets me go to a theatre, or a dance, he only gives me dresses, and what do I want with dresses? I put them on and walk about the room alone. The other day I persuaded him and we were all ready to go to the theatre. As soon as I turned to fasten my brooch he went to the cupboard, took one glass after another until he was tipsy. So we stayed at home. No one, no one, no one ever comes to see us. Only of a morning people of a sort come about business, and I'm sent away. Yet we've samovars, and a dinner service and good cups--we've everything, all presents. And they bring us things to eat too. We scarcely buy anything but the spirits; and the pomade and the savouries there, the pie, the ham and sweets we bought for you. If anyone could see how we live! I've been thinking for a whole year: if a visitor would come, a real visitor, we could show him all this and entertain him. And folks would praise things and we should be pleased. And as for my pomading him, the stupid, he doesn't deserve it. He'd always go about in dirty clothes. Look what a dressing gown he's got on. It was a present. But does he deserve a dressing gown like that? He'd rather be tippling than anything. You'll see. He'll ask you to take vodka before tea."
"Well! That's sense indeed! Let's have some of the silver seal and some of the gold, Vanya, and then with souls refreshed we'll fall upon the other beverages."
"There, I knew that's how it would be! "Don't be anxious, Sashenka. We'll drink a cup of tea, too, with brandy in it, to your health."
"Well, there it is! " she cried, clasping her hands. "It's caravan tea, six roubles the pound, a merchant made us a present of it the day before yesterday, and he wants to drink it with brandy. Don't listen to him, Ivan Petrovitch, I'll pour you out a cup directly. You'll see . . . you'll see for yourself what it's like!"
And she busied herself at the samovar. I realized that they were reckoning on keeping me for the whole evening. Alexandra Semyonovna had been expecting visitors for a whole year, and was now prepared to work it all off on me This did not suit me at all.
"Listen, Masloboev," I said, sitting down. "I've not come to pay you a visit. I've come on business; you invited me yourself to tell me something. . . ."
"Well, business is business, but there's a time for friendly conversation too."
"No, my friend, don't reckon upon me. At half-past eight I must say good-bye. I've an appointment. It's a promise."
"Not likely. Good gracious, what a way to treat me! What a way to treat Alexandra Semyonovna. Just look at her, she's overwhelmed. What has she been pomading me for: why I'm. covered with bergamot. Just think!"
"You do nothing but make jokes, Masloboev. I swear to Alexandra Semyonovna that. I'll dine with you next week, or Friday if you like. But now, my boy, I've given my word; or rather it's absolutely necessary for me to be at a certain place, You'd better explain what you meant to tell me."
"Then can you really only stay till half-past eight?" cried Alexandra Semyonovna in a timid and plaintive voice, almost weeping as she handed me a cup of excellent tea.
"Don't be uneasy, Sashenka; that's all nonsense" Masloboev put in. "He'll stay. That's nonsense. But I'll tell you what, Vanya, you'd much better let me know where it is you always go. What is your business? May I know? You keep running off somewhere every day. You don't work. . . ."
"But why do you want to know? I'll tell you perhaps afterwards. You'd better explain why you came to see me yesterday when I told you myself I shouldn't be at home."
"I remembered afterwards. But I forgot at the time. I really did want to speak to you about something. But before everything I had to comfort Alexandra Semyonovna. 'Here,' says she, 'is a person, a friend, who has turned up. Why not invite him?' And here she's been pestering me about you for the last four days. No doubt they'll let me off forty sins for the bergamot in the next world, but I thought why shouldn't he spend an evening with us in a friendly way? So I had recourse to strategy: I wrote to you that I had such business that if you didn't come it would quite upset our apple-cart."
I begged him not to do like this in the future, but to speak to me directly. But this explanation did not altogether satisfy me.
"Well, but why did you run away from me this morning?" I asked.
"This morning I really had business. I'm not telling the least little fib."
"Not with the prince?"
"Do you like our tea?" Alexandra Semyonovna asked, in honeyed accents. For the last five minutes she had been waiting for me to praise the tea, but it never occurred to me.
"It's splendid, Alexandra Semyonovna, superb. I have never drunk anything like it."
Alexandra Semyonovna positively glowed with satisfaction and flew to pour me out some more.
"The prince!" cried Masloboev, "the prince! That prince, my boy, is a rogue, a rascal such as ... Well! I can tell you, my boy, though I'm a rogue myself, from a mere sense of decency I shouldn't care to be in his skin. But enough. Mum's the word! That's all I can tell you about him."
"But I've come, among other things, on purpose to ask you about him. But that will do later. Why did you give my Elena sweetmeats and dance for her when I was away yesterday? And what can you have been talking about for an hour and a half!"
"Elena is a little girl of twelve, or perhaps eleven, who is living for the time at Ivan Petrovitch's," Masloboev exclaimed, suddenly addressing Alexandra Semyonovna. "Look, Vanya, look," he went on, pointing at her, "how she flushed up when she heard I had taken sweets to an unknown girl. Didn't she give a start and turn red as though we'd fired a pistol at her? ... I say, her eyes are flashing like coals of fire! It's no use, Alexandra Semyonovna, it's no use to try and hide it! She's jealous. If I hadn't explained that it was a child of eleven she'd have pulled my hair and the bergamot wouldn't have saved me!"
"It won't save you as it is!"
And with these words Alexandra Semyonovna darted at one bound from behind the tea table, and before Masloboev had time to protect his head she snatched at a tuft of his hair and gave it a good pull.
"So there! So there! Don't dare to say I'm jealous before a visitor! Don't you dare! Don't you dare! Don't you dare! "
She was quite crimson, and though she laughed, Masloboev caught it pretty hotly.
"He talks of all sorts of shameful things," she added seriously, turning to me.
"Well, Vanya, you see the sort of life I lead! That's I must have a drop of vodka," Masloboev concluded, setting his hair straight and going almost at a trot to the decanter But Alexandra Semyonovna was beforehand with him. She skipped up to the table, poured some out herself, handed it him, and even gave him a friendly pat on the cheek. Masloboev winked at me, triumphantly clicked with his tongue, an solemnly emptied his glass.
"As for the sweets, it's difficult to say," he began, sitting down on the sofa beside me. "I bought them at a greengrocer's shop the other day when I was drunk, I don't know why. Perhaps it was to support home industries and manufactures, don't know for sure. I only remember that I was walking along the street drunk, fell in the mud, clutched at my hair and cried at being unfit for anything. I forgot about the sweets, of course so they remained in my pocket till yesterday when I sat down on your sofa and sat on them. The dances, too, were a question of inebriety. Yesterday I was rather drunk, and when I'm drunk, if I'm contented with my lot I sometimes dance. That's all. Except, perhaps, that that little orphan excited my pity besides, she wouldn't talk to me, she seemed cross. And so danced to cheer her up and gave her the fruit drops."
"And you weren't bribing her to try and find something out from her? Own up, honestly, didn't you come then on purpose knowing I shouldn't be at home, to talk to her tête-à-tête, to get something out of her? You see, I know you spent an hour and a half with her, declared that you had known her dead mother, and that you questioned her about something."
Masloboev screwed up his eyes and laughed roguishly.
"Well, it wouldn't have been a bad idea," he said.
"Vanya, that was not so. Though, indeed, why shouldn't I question her if I got a chance; but it wasn't that. Listen, my friend, though as usual I'm rather drunk now, yet you may be sure that with evil intent Filip will never deceive you, with evil intent, that is."
"Yes, but without evil intent? "Well . . . even without evil intent. But, damn it all, let's have a drink and then to business. It's not a matter of much consequence," he went on after a drink; "that Bubnov woman had no sort of right to keep the girl. I've gone into it all. There was no adoption or anything of that sort. The mother owed her money, and so she got hold of the child. Though the Bubnov woman's a sly hag and a wicked wretch, she's a silly woman like all women. The dead woman had a good passport and so everything was all right. Elena can live with you, though it would be a very good thing if some benevolent people with a family would take her for good and bring her up. But meanwhile, let her stay with you. That's all right. I'll arrange it all for you. The Bubnov woman won't dare to stir a finger. I've found out scarcely anything certain about Elena's mother. She was a woman of the name of Salzmann."
"Yes, so Nellie told me."
"Well, so there the matter ends. Now, Vanya," he began with a certain solemnity, "I've one great favour to ask of you. Mind you grant it. Tell me as fully as you can what it is you're busy about, where you're going, and where you spend whole days at a time. Though I have heard something, I want to know about it much more fully."
Such solemnity surprised me and even made me uneasy.
"But what is it? Why do you want to know? You ask so solemnly."
"Well, Vanya, without wasting words, I want to do you a service. You see, my dear boy, if I weren't straight with you I could get it all out of you without being so solemn. But you suspect me of not being straight--just now, those fruit drops; I understood. But since I'm speaking with such seriousness, you may be sure it's not my interest but yours I'm thinking of. So don't have any doubts, but speak out the whole truth."
"But what sort of service? Listen, Masloboev, why won't you tell me anything about the prince? That's what I want. That would be a service to me."
"About the prince? H'm! Very well, I'll tell you straight out. I'm going to question you in regard to the prince now."
"I'll tell you how. I've noticed, my boy, that he seems to be somehow mixed up in your affairs; for instance, he questioned me about you. How he found out that we knew each other is not your business. The only thing that matters is that you should be on your guard against that man. He's a treacherous Judas, and worse than that too. And so, when I saw that he was mixed up in your affairs I trembled for you. But of course I knew nothing about it; that's why I asked you to tell me, that I may judge. . . . And that's why I asked you to come her today. That's what the important business is. I tell you straight out."
"You must tell me something, anyway, if only why I need to be afraid of the prince."
"Very good, so be it. I am sometimes employed, my boy, in certain affairs. But I'm trusted by certain persons just because I'm not a chatterbox. Judge for yourself whether I should talk to you. So you mustn't mind if I speak somewhat generally, very generally in fact, simply to show what a scoundrel he is. Well, to begin with, you tell your story."
I decided there was really no need to conceal anything in my affairs from Masloboev. Natasha's affairs were not a secret; moreover I might expect to get some help for her from Masloboev. Of course I passed over certain points as far as possible in my story. Masloboev listened particularly attentively to all that related to Prince Valkovsky; he stopped me in many places, asked me about several points over again, so that in the end I told him the story rather fully. The telling of it lasted half an hour.
"H'm! That girl's got a head," Masloboev commented.
"If she hasn't guessed quite correctly about the prince, it's a good thing anyway that she recognized from the first the sort of man she had to deal with, and broke off all relations with him. Bravo, Natalya Nikolaevna! I drink to her health." (He took a drink.) "It's not only brains, it must have been her heart too, that saved her from being deceived. And her heart didn't mislead her. Of course her game is lost. The prince will get his way and Alyosha will give her up. I'm only sorry for Ichmenyev--to pay ten thousand to that scoundrel. Why, who took up his case, who acted for him? Managed it himself, I bet! E-ech! just like all these noble, exalted people! They're no good for anything! That's not the way to deal with the prince. I'd have found a nice little lawyer for Ichmenyev--ech!"
And he thumped on the table with vexation.
"Well, now about Prince Valkovsky?"
"Ah, you're still harping on the prince. But what am I to say about him? I'm sorry I've offered to, I only wanted, Vanya, to warn you against that swindler, to protect you, so to say, from his influence. No one is safe who comes in contact with him. So keep your eyes open, that's all. And here you've been imagining I had some mysteries of Paris I wanted to reveal to you. One can see you're a novelist. Well, what am I to tell you about the villain? The villain's a villain. . . . Well, for example, I'll tell you one little story, of course without mentioning places, towns, or persons, that is, without the exactitude of a calendar. You know that when he was very young and had to live on his official salary, he married a very rich merchant's daughter. Well, he didn't treat that lady very ceremoniously, and though we're not discussing her case now, I may mention in passing, friend Vanya, that he has all his life been particularly fond of turning such affairs to profit. Here's another example of it. He went abroad. There. . . ."
"Stop, Masloboev, what journey abroad are you speaking of? In what year?"
"Just ninety-nine years and three months ago. Well, there he seduced the daughter of a certain father, and carried her off with him to Paris. And this is what he did! The father was some sort of a manufacturer, or was a partner in some enterprise of that sort. I don't know for sure. What I tell you is what I've gathered from my own conjectures, and what I've concluded from other facts. Well, the prince cheated him, worming himself into his business too. He swindled him out and out, and got hold of his money. The old man, of course, had some legal documents to prove that the prince had had the money from him. The prince didn't want to give it back; that is, in plain Russian, wanted to steal it. The old man had a daughter, and she was a beauty, and she had an ideal lover, one of the Schiller brotherhood, a poet, and at the same time a merchant, a young dreamer; in short a regular German, one Pfefferkuchen."
"Do you mean to say Pfefferkuchen was his surname?"
"Well, perhaps it wasn't Pfefferkuchen. Hang the man, he doesn't matter. But the prince made up to the daughter, and so successfully that she fell madly in love with him. The prince wanted two things at that time, first to possess the daughter, and secondly the documents relating to the money he had had from the old man. All the old man's keys were in his daughter's keeping. The old man was passionately fond of his daughter, so much so that he didn't want her to be married. Yes, really. He was jealous of every suitor she had, he didn't contemplate parting with her, and he turned Pfefferkuchen out. He was a queer fish the father, an Englishman. . . ."
"An Englishman? But where did it all happen?"
"I only called him an Englishman, speaking figuratively, and you catch me up. It happened in the town of Santa-fe-da-Bogota, or perhaps it was Cracow, but more likely it was in the principality of Nassau, like the label on the seltzer water bottles; certainly it was Nassau. Is that enough for you? Well, so the prince seduced the girl and carried her off from her father, and managed to induce the girl to lay hands on the documents and take them with her. There are cases of love like that, you know, Vanya. Fugh! God have mercy upon us! She was an honest girl, you know, noble, exalted. It's true she very likely didn't know much about the documents. The only thing that troubled her was that her father might curse her. The prince was equal to the occasion this time too; he gave her a formal, legal promise of marriage in writing. By so doing he persuaded her that they were only going abroad for a time, for a holiday tour, and that when the old father's anger had subsided they would return to him married, and would, the three of them, live happy ever after, and so on, to infinity. She ran away, the old father cursed her and went bankrupt. She was followed to Paris by Frauenmilch, who chucked up everything, chucked up his business even; he was very much in love with her."
"Stop, who's Frauenmilch?"
"Why, that fellow! Feurbach, wasn't it? Damn the fellow, Pfefferkuchen! Well, of course, the prince couldn't marry her: what would Countess Hlestov have said? What would Baron Slops have thought? So he had to deceive her. And he did deceive her, too brutally. To begin with, he almost beat her, and secondly, he purposely invited Pfefferkuchen to visit them. Well, he used to go and see them and became her friend. They would spend whole evenings alone, whimpering together, weeping over their troubles, and he would comfort her. To be sure, dear, simple souls! The prince brought things to this pass on purpose. Once, he found them late at night, and pretended that they had an intrigue, caught at some pretext; said he'd seen it with his own eyes. Well, he turned them both out of the house, and took his departure to London for a time. She was just on the eve of her confinement; when he turned her out she gave birth to a daughter, that is, not a daughter but a son, to be sure, a little son. He was christened Volodka. Pfefferkuchen stood godfather. Well, so she went off with Pfefferkuchen. He had a little money. She travelled in Switzer land and Italy, through all the poetical places to be sure, most appropriately. She cried all the time, and Pfefferkuchen whimpered, and many years passed like that, and the baby grew into a little girl. And everything went right for the prince, only one thing was wrong, he hadn't succeeded in getting back the promise of marriage. 'You're a base man,' she had said to him at parting. 'You have robbed me, you have dishonoured me and now you abandon me. Good-bye. But I won't give you back your promise. Not because I ever want to marry you, but because you're afraid of that document. So I shall always keep it in my hands.' She lost her temper in fact, but the prince felt quite easy. Such scoundrels always come off well in their dealings with so-called lofty souls. They're so noble that it's always easy to deceive them, and besides they invariably confine themselves to lofty and noble contempt instead of practically applying the law to the case if it can be applied. That young mother, for instance, she took refuge in haughty contempt, and though she kept the promise of marriage, the prince knew, of course, that she'd sooner hang herself than make use of it; so he felt secure for the time. And though she spat in his nasty face, she had her Volodka left on her hands; if she had died what would have become of him? But she didn't think about that. Bruderschaft, too, encouraged her and didn't think about it. They read Schiller. At last Bruderschaft sickened of something and died."
"You mean Pfefferkuchen?"
"To be sure--hang him! And she . . ."
"Stay. How many years had they been travelling?"
"Exactly two hundred. Well, she went back to Cracow.
Her father wouldn't receive her, cursed her. She died, and the prince crossed himself for joy. I was there too, drank goblets not a few, our ears full of mead, but our mouths full of need; they gave me a flip, and I gave them the slip. . . . Let's drink, brother Vanya."
"I suspect that you are helping him in that business, Masloboev."
"You will have it so, will you?
"Only I can't understand what you can do in it."
"Why, you see, when she went back under another name to Madrid after being away for ten years, all this had to be verified, and about Bruderschaft too, and about the old man and about the kid, and whether she was dead, and whether she'd any papers, and so on, to infinity. And something else besides, too. He's a horrid man, be on your guard, Vanya, and remember one thing about Masloboev, don't let anything make you call him a scoundrel. Though he's a scoundrel (to my thinking there's no man who isn't) he's not a scoundrel in his dealings with you. I'm very drunk, but listen. If ever, sooner or later, now or next year, it seems to you that Masloboev has hoodwinked you (and please don't forget that word hoodwinked), rest assured that it's with no evil intent. Masloboev is watching over you. And so don't believe your suspicions, but come to Masloboev and have it out with him like a friend. Well, now, will you have a drink?"
"Something to eat?"
"No, brother, excuse me."
"Well then, get along with you. It's a quarter to nine and you're in a hurry. It's time for you to go."
"Well, what next? He's been drinking till he's drunk and now he sends away a guest. He's always like that. Ach, you shameless fellow!" cried Alexandra Semyonovna, almost in tears.
"A man on foot's poor company for a man on horseback, Alexandra Semyonovna; we shall be left alone to adore on another. And this is a general! No, Vanya, I'm lying, you're not a general, but I'm a scoundrel! Only see what I look like now! What am I beside you? Forgive me, Vanya, don't judge me and let me pour out . . ."
He embraced me and burst into tears. I prepared to go away.
"Good heavens! And we've prepared supper for you!" cried Alexandra Semyonovna in terrible distress. "And will you come to us on Friday?"
"I will, Alexandra Semyonovna. Honour bright, I will."
"Perhaps you look down on him because he's so . . . tipsy. Don't look down upon him, Ivan Petrovitch! He's a good-hearted man, such a good-hearted man, and how he loves you. He talks to me about you day and night, nothing but you. He bought your books on purpose for me. I haven't read the yet. I'm going to begin tomorrow. And how glad I shall be when you come! I never see anyone. No one ever comes to sit with us. We've everything we can want, but we're always alone. Here I've been sitting listening all the while you've been talking, and how nice it's been. . . . So good-by till Friday."
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