Before I had time to run out into the street, before I had time to consider how to act, or what to do, I suddenly saw a droshky standing at the gate of our buildings, and Alexandra Semyonovna getting out of it leading Nellie by the arm. She was holding her tightly as though she were afraid she might run away again. I rushed up to them.
"Nellie, what's the matter?" I cried, "where have you been, why did you go?"
"Stop a minute, don't be in a hurry; let's make haste upstairs. There you shall hear all about it," twittered Alexandra Semyonovna. "The things I have to tell you, Ivan Petrovitch," she whispered hurriedly on the way. "One can only wonder ... Come along, you shall hear immediately."
Her face showed that she had extremely important news.
"Go along, Nellie, go along. Lie down a little," she said as soon as we got into the room, "you're tired, you know; it's no joke running about so far, and it's too much after an illness; lie down, darling, lie down. And we'll go out of the room for a little, we won't get in her way; let her have a sleep."
And she signed to me to go into the kitchen with her.
But Nellie didn't lie down, she sat down on the sofa and hid her face in her hands.
We went into the other room, and Alexandra Semyonovna told me briefly what had happened. Afterwards I heard about it more in detail. This is how it had been.
Going out of the flat a couple of hours before my return and leaving the note for me, Nellie had run first to the old doctor's. She had managed to find out his address beforehand. The doctor told me that he was absolutely petrified when he saw her, and "could not believe his eyes" all the while she was there. "I can't believe it even now," he added, as he finished his story "and I never shall believe it." And yet Nellie actually had been at his house. He had been sitting quietly in the armchair in his study in his dressing-gown, drinking his coffee, when she ran in and threw herself on his neck before he had time to realize it. She was crying, she embraced and kissed him, kissed his hands, and earnestly though incoherently begged him to let her stay with him, declaring that she wouldn't and couldn't live with me any longer, and that's why she had left me; that she was unhappy; that she wouldn't laugh at him again or talk about new dresses, but would behave well and learn her lessons, that she would learn to "wash and get up his shirt-front" (probably she had thought over her whole speech on the way or perhaps even before), and that, in fact, she would be obedient and would take as many powders as he liked every day; and that as for her saying she wanted to marry him that had only been a joke, and she had no idea of the kind. The old German was so dumbfounded that he sat open-mouthed the whole time, forgetting the cigar he held in his hand till it went out.
"Mademoiselle," he brought out at last, recovering his powers of speech, "so far as I can understand you, you ask me to give you a situation in my household. But that's impossible. As you see, I'm very much cramped and have not a very considerable income ... and, in fact, to act so rashly without reflection ... is awful! And, in fact, you, so far as I can see, have run away from home. That is reprehensible and impossible. . . . And what's more, I only allowed you to take a short walk in charge of your benefactor, and you abandon your benefactor, and run off to me when you ought to be taking care of yourself and ... and ... taking your medicine. And, in fact ... in fact ... I can make nothing of it . . ."
Nellie did not let him finish. She began to cry and implored him again, but nothing was of use. The old man was more and more bewildered, and less and less able to understand. At last Nellie gave him up and crying "Oh, dear!" ran out of the room. "I was ill all that day," the old doctor said in conclusion, "and had taken a decoction in the evening . . ."
Nellie rushed off to the Masloboevs. She had provided herself with their address too, and she succeeded in finding them, though not without trouble. Masloboev was at home. Alexandra Semyonovna clasped her hands in amazement when she heard Nellie beg them to take her in. When she asked her why she wanted it, what was wrong, whether she was unhappy with me, Nellie had made no answer, but flung herself sobbing on a chair. "She sobbed so violently, so violently," said Alexandra Semyonovna, "that I thought she would have died." Nellie begged to be taken if only as a housemaid or a cook, said she would sweep the floors and learn to do the washing (she seemed to rest her hopes especially on the washing and seemed for some reason to think this a great inducement for them to take her). Alexandra Semyonovna's idea was to keep her till the matter was cleared up, meanwhile letting me know. But Filip Filippovitch had absolutely forbidden it, and had told her to bring the runaway to me at once. On the way Alexandra Semyonovna had kissed and embraced her, which had made Nellie cry more than ever. Looking at her, Alexandra Semyonovna too had shed tears. So both of them had been crying all the way in the cab.
"But why, Nellie, why don't you want to go on staying with him? What has he done. Is he unkind to you?" Alexandra Semyonovna asked, melting into tears.
"Well, why then?"
"Nothing ... I don't want to stay with him ... I'm always so nasty with him and he's so kind ... but with you I won't be nasty, I'll work," she declared, sobbing as though she were in hysterics.
"Why are you so nasty to him, Nellie?"
And that was all I could get out of her," said Alexandra Semyonovna, wiping her tears. "Why is she such an unhappy little thing? Is it her fits? What do you think, Ivan Petrovitch?"
We went in to Nellie. She lay with her face hidden in the pillow, crying. I knelt down beside her, took her hands, and began to kiss them. She snatched her hands from me and sobbed more violently than ever. I did not know what to say. At that moment old Ichmenyev walked in.
"I've come to see you on business, Ivan, how do you do? he said, staring at us all, and observing with surprise that I was on my knees.
The old man had been ill of late. He was pale and thin, but as though in defiance of someone, he neglected his illness, refused to listen to Anna Andreyevna's exhortations, went about his daily affairs as usual, and would not take to his bed.
"Good-bye for the present," said Alexandra Semyonovna, staring at the old man. "Filip Filippovitch told me to be back as quickly as possible. We are busy. But in the evening at dusk I'll look in on you, and stay an hour or two."
"Who's that?" the old man whispered to me, evidently thinking of something else.
"Hm! Well, I've come on business, Ivan."
I knew on what business he had come, and had been expecting his visit. He had come to talk to me and Nellie and to beg her to go to them. Anna Andreyevna had consented at last to adopt an orphan girl. This was a result of secret confabulations between us. I had persuaded the old lady, telling her that the sight of the child, whose mother, too, had been cursed by an unrelenting father, might turn our old friend's heart to other feelings. I explained my plan so clearly that now she began of herself to urge her husband to take the child. The old man readily fell in with it; in the first place he wanted to please his Anna Andreyevna, and he had besides motives of his own ... But all this I will explain later and more fully. I have mentioned already that Nellie had taken a dislike to the old man at his first visit. Afterwards I noticed that there was a gleam almost of hatred in her face when Ichmenyev's name was pronounced in her presence. My old friend began upon the subject at once, without beating about the bush. He went straight up to Nellie, who was still lying down, hiding her head in the pillow, and taking her by the hand asked her whether she would like to come and live with him and take the place of his daughter.
"I had a daughter. I loved her more than myself," the old man finished up, "but now she is not with me. She is dead. Would you like to take her place in my house and . . . in my heart?" And in his eyes that looked dry and inflamed from fever there gleamed a tear.
"No, I shouldn't," Nellie answered, without raising her head.
"Why not, my child? You have nobody belonging to you. Ivan cannot keep you with him for ever, and with me you'd be as in your own home."
"I won't, because you're wicked. Yes, wicked, wicked," she added, lifting up her head, and facing the old man. "I am wicked, we're all wicked, but you're more wicked than anyone."
As she said this Nellie turned pale, her eyes flashed; even her quivering lips turned pale, and were distorted by a rush of strong feeling. The old man looked at her in perplexity.
"Yes, more wicked than I am, because you won't forgive your daughter. You want to forget her altogether and take another child. How can you forget your own child? How can you love me? Whenever you look at me you'll remember I'm a stranger and that you had a daughter of your own whom you'd forgotten, for you're a cruel man. And I don't want to live with cruel people. I won't! I won't!"
Nellie gave a sob and glanced at me.
"The day after tomorrow is Easter; all the people will be kissing and embracing one another, they all make peace, they all forgive one another ... I know.... But you ... only you . . . ugh, cruel man! Go away!"
She melted into tears. She must have made up that speech beforehand and have learnt it by heart in case my old friend should ask her again.
My old friend was affected and he turned pale. His face betrayed the pain he was feeling.
"And why, why does everybody make such a fuss over me? I won't have it, I won't have it!" Nellie cried suddenly, in a sort of frenzy. "I'll go and beg in the street."
"Nellie, what's the matter? Nellie, darling," I cried involuntarily, but my exclamation only added fuel to the flames.
"Yes, I'd better go into the street and beg. I won't stay here!" she shrieked sobbing. "My mother begged in the street too, and when she was dying she said to me, 'Better be poor and beg in the street than . . .' 'It's not shameful to beg. I beg of all, and that's not the same as begging from one. To beg of one is shameful, but it's not shameful to beg of all'; that's what one beggar-girl said to me. I'm little, I've no means of earning money. I'll ask from all. I won't! I won't! I'm wicked, I'm wickeder than anyone. See how wicked I am!"
And suddenly Nellie quite unexpectedly seized a cup from the table and threw it on the floor.
"There, now it's broken," she added, looking at me with a sort of defiant triumph. "There are only two cups," she added, "I'll break the other ... and then how will you drink your tea?"
She seemed as though possessed by fury, and seemed to get enjoyment from that fury, as though she were conscious that it was shameful and wrong, and at the same time were spurring herself on to further violence.
"She's ill, Vanya, that's what it is," said the old man, "or ... or I don't understand the child. Good-bye!"
He took his cap and shook hands with me. He seemed crushed. Nellie had insulted him horribly. Everything was in a turmoil within me.
"You had no pity on him, Nellie!" I cried when we were left alone. "And aren't you ashamed? Aren't you ashamed No, you're not a good girl! You really are wicked!"
And just as I was, without my hat, I ran after the old man, I wanted to escort him to the gate, and to say at least a few words to comfort him. As I ran down the staircase I was haunted by Nellie's face, which had turned terribly white at my reproaches.
I quickly overtook my old friend.
"The poor girl has been ill-treated, and has sorrow of her own, believe me, Ivan, and I began to tell her of mine," he said with a bitter smile. "I touched upon her sore place. They say that the well-fed cannot understand the hungry, but I would add that the hungry do not always understand the hungry. Well, good-bye!"
I would have spoken of something else; but the old man waved me off.
"Don't try to comfort me. You'd much better look out that your girl doesn't run away from you. She looks like it," he added with a sort of exasperation, and he walked away from me with rapid steps, brandishing his stick and tapping it on the pavement.
He had no idea of being a prophet.
What were my feelings when, on returning to my room, I found, to my horror, that Nellie had vanished again! I rushed into the passage, looked for her on the stairs, called her name, even knocked at the neighbours' doors and inquired about her. I could not and would not believe that she had run away again. And how could she have run away? There was only one gateway to the buildings; she must have slipped by us when I was talking to my old friend. But I soon reflected, to my great distress, that she might first have hidden somewhere on the stairs till I had gone back, and then have slipped off so that I should not meet her. In any case she could not have gone far.
In great anxiety I rushed off to search for her again, leaving my rooms unfastened in case she should return.
First of all I went to the Masloboevs'. I did not find either of them at home. Leaving a note for them in which I informed them of this fresh calamity, and begging them if Nellie came to let me know at once, I went to the doctor's. He was not at home either. The servant told me that there had been no visit since that of the day before. What was to be done? I set off for Mme. Bubnov's and learnt from my friend, the coffin-maker's wife, that her landlady had for some reason been detained at the police station for the last two days; and Nellie had not been seen there since that day. Weary and exhausted I went back to the Masloboevs'. The same answer, no one had come, and they had not returned home themselves. My note lay on the table.
What was I to do?
In deadly dejection I returned home late in the evening. I ought to have been at Natasha's that evening; she had asked me in the morning. But I had not even tasted food that day. The thought of Nellie set my whole soul in a turmoil.
"What does it mean?" I wondered. "Could it be some strange consequence of her illness? Wasn't she mad, or going out of her mind? But, good God, where was she now? Where should I look for her?" I had hardly said this to myself when I caught sight of Nellie a few steps from me on the Vm Bridge. She was standing under a street lamp and she did not see me. I was on the point of running to her but I checked myself. "What can she be doing here now?" I wondered in perplexity, and convinced that now I should not lose her, I resolved to wait and watch her. Ten minutes passed. She was still standing, watching the passers-by. At last a well-dressed old gentleman passed and Nellie went up to him. Without stopping he took something out of his pocket and gave it to her. She curtsied to him. I cannot describe what I felt at that instant. It sent an agonizing pang to my heart, as if something precious, something I loved, had fondled and cherished, was disgraced and spat upon at that minute before my very eyes. At the same time I felt tears dropping.
Yes, tears for poor Nellie, though at the same time I felt great indignation; she was not begging through need; she was not forsaken, not abandoned by someone to the caprice of destiny. She was not escaping from cruel oppressors, but from friends who loved and cherished her. It was as though she wanted to shock or alarm someone by her exploits, as though she were showing off before someone. But there was something secret maturing in her heart.... Yes, my old friend was right; she had been ill-treated; her hurt could not be healed, and she seemed purposely trying to aggravate her wound by this mysterious behaviour, this mistrustfulness of us all; as though she enjoyed her own pain by this egoism of suffering, if I may so express it. This aggravation of suffering and this rebelling in it I could understand; it is the enjoyment of man, of the insulted and injured, oppressed by destiny, and smarting under the sense of its injustice. But of what injustice in us could Nellie complain? She seemed trying to astonish and alarm us by her exploits, her caprices and wild pranks, as though she really were asserting herself against us ... But no! Now she was alone. None of us could see that she was begging. Could she possibly have found enjoyment in it on her own account? Why did she want charity? What need had she of money? After receiving the gift she left the bridge and walked to the brightly lighted window of a shop. There she proceeded to count her gains. I was standing a dozen paces from her. She had a fair amount of money in her hand already. She had evidently been begging since the morning. Closing her hand over it she crossed the road and went into a small fancy shop. I went up at once to the door of the shop, which stood wide open, and looked to see what she was doing there.
I saw that she laid the money on the counter and was handed a cup, a plain tea-cup, very much like the one she had broken that morning, to show Ichmenyev and me how wicked she was. The cup was worth about four pence, perhaps even less. The shop man wrapped it in paper, tied it up and gave it to Nellie, who walked hurriedly out of the shop, looking satisfied.
"Nellie!" I cried when she was close to me, "Nellie!"
She started, glanced at me, the cup slipped from her hands, fell on the pavement and was broken. Nellie was pale; but looking at me and realizing that I had seen and understood everything she suddenly blushed. In that blush could be detected an intolerable, agonizing shame. I took her hand and led her home. We had not far to go. We did not utter one word on the way.
On reaching home I sat down. Nellie stood before me, brooding and confused, as pale as before, with her eyes fixed on the floor. She could not look at me.
"Nellie, you were begging?"
"Yes," she whispered and her head drooped lower than ever.
"You wanted to get money to buy a cup for the one broken this morning?
"Yes . . ."
"But did I blame you, did I scold you, about that cup? Surely, Nellie, you must see what naughtiness there is in your behaviour? Is it right? Aren't you ashamed? Surely . . ."
"Yes," she whispered, in a voice hardly audible, and a tear trickled down her cheek.
"Yes . . ." I repeated after her. "Nellie, darling, if I've not been good to you, forgive me and let us make friends."
She looked at me, tears gushed from her eyes, and she flung herself on my breast.
At that instant Alexandra Semyonovna darted in.
"What? She's home? Again? Ach, Nellie, Nellie, what is the matter with you? Well, it's a good thing you're at home, anyway. Where did you find her, Ivan Petrovitch?"
I signed to Alexandra Semyonovna not to ask questions and she understood me. I parted tenderly from Nellie, who was still weeping bitterly, and asking kind-hearted Alexandra Semyonovna to stay with her till I returned home, I ran off to Natasha's. I was late and in a hurry.
That evening our fate was being decided. There was a great deal for Natasha and me to talk over. Yet I managed to slip in a word about Nellie and told her all that had happened in full detail. My story greatly interested Natasha and made a great impression on her, in fact.
"Do you know what, Vanya," she said to me after a moment's thought. "I believe she's in love with you."
"What ... how can that be?" I asked, wondering.
"Yes, it's the beginning of love, real grown-up love."
"How can you, Natasha! Nonsense! Why, she's a child!"
"A child who will soon be fourteen. This exasperation is at your not understanding her love; and probably she doesn't understand it herself. It's an exasperation in which there's a great deal that's childish, but it's in earnest, agonizing. Above all she's jealous of me. You love me so that probably even when you're at home you're always worrying, thinking and talking about me, and so don't take much notice of her. She has seen that and it has stung her. She wants perhaps to talk to you, longs to open her heart to you, doesn't know how to do it, is ashamed, and doesn't understand herself; she is waiting for an opportunity, and instead of giving her such an opportunity you keep away from her, run off to me, and even when she was ill left her alone for whole days together. She cries about it; she misses you, and what hurts her most of all is that you don't notice it. Now, at a moment like this, you have left her alone for my sake. Yes, she'll be ill tomorrow because of it. And how could you leave her? Go back to her at once. . ."
"I should not have left her, but . . ."
"Yes, I know. I begged you to come, myself. But now go."
"I will, but of course I don't believe a word of it."
"Because it's all so different from other people. Remember her story, think it all over and you will believe, it. She has not grown up as you and I did."
I got home late, however. Alexandra Semyonovna told me that again Nellie had, as on the previous evening, been crying a great deal and "had fallen asleep in tears," as before.
"And now I'm going, Ivan Petrovitch, as Filip Filippovitch told me. He's expecting me, poor fellow."
I thanked her and sat down by Nellie's pillow. It seemed dreadful to me myself that I could have left her at such a moment.
For a long time, right into the night, I sat beside her, lost in thought.... It was a momentous time for us all.
But I must describe what had been happening during that fortnight.
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