Virgin Soil by Ivan S. Turgenev
THE guests turned out to be no other than our old friends Mashurina and Ostrodumov. They were both sitting in the poorly- furnished drawing room of Markelov's house, smoking and drinking beer by the light of a kerosene lamp. Neither of them showed the least astonishment when Nejdanov came in, knowing beforehand that Markelov had intended bringing him back, but Nejdanov was very much surprised on seeing them. On his entrance Ostrodumov merely muttered "Good evening," whilst Mashurina turned scarlet and extended her hand. Markelov began to explain that they had come from St. Petersburg about a week ago, Ostrodumov to remain in the province for some time for propaganda purposes, while Mashurina was to go on to K. to meet someone, also in connection with the cause. He then went on to say that the time had now come for them to do something practical, and became suddenly heated, although no one had contradicted him. He bit his lips, and in a hoarse, excited tone of voice began condemning the horrors that were taking place, saying that everything was now in readiness for them to start, that none but cowards could hold back, that a certain amount of violence was just as necessary as the prick of the lancet to the abscess, however ripe it might be! The lancet simile was not original, but one that he had heard somewhere. He seemed to like it, and made use of it on every possible occasion.
Losing all hope of Mariana's love, it seemed that he no longer cared for anything, and was only eager to get to work, to enter the field of action as soon as possible. He spoke harshly, angrily, but straight to the point like the blow of an axe, his words falling from his pale lips monotonously, ponderously, like the savage bark of a grim old watch dog. He said that he was well acquainted with both the peasants and factory men of the neighbourhood, and that there were possible people among them. Instanced a certain Eremy, who, he declared, was prepared to go anywhere at a moment's notice. This man, Eremy, who belonged to the village Goloplok, was constantly on his lips. At nearly every tenth word he thumped his right hand on the table and waved the left in the air, the forefinger standing away from the others. This sinewy, hairy hand, the finger, hoarse voice, flashing eyes, all produced a strong impression on his hearers.
Markelov had scarcely spoken to Nejdanov on the journey, and all his accumulated wrath burst forth now. Ostrodumov and Mashurina expressed their approval every now and again by a look, a smile, a short exclamation, but a strange feeling came over Nejdanov. He tried to make some sort of objection at first, pointing out the danger of hasty action and mentioned certain former premature attempts. He marvelled at the way in which everything was settled beyond a shadow of a doubt, without taking into consideration the special circumstances, or even trying to find out what the masses really wanted. At last his nerves became so highly strung that they trembled like the strings of an instrument, and with a sort of despair, almost with tears in his eyes, he began speaking at the top of his voice, in the same strain as Markelov, going even farther than he had done. What inspired him would be difficult to say; was it remorse for having been inactive of late, annoyance with himself and with others, a desire to drown the gnawings of an inner pain, or merely to show off before his comrades, whom he had not seen for some time, or had Markelov's words really had some effect upon him, fired his blood? They talked until daybreak; Ostrodumov and Mashurina did not once rise from their seats, while Markelov and Nejdanov remained on their feet all the time. Markelov stood on the same spot for all the world like a sentinel, and Nejdanov walked up and down the room with nervous strides, now slowly, now hurriedly. They spoke of the necessary means and measures to be employed, of the part each must take upon himself, selected and tied up various bundles of pamphlets and leaflets, mentioned a certain merchant, Golushkin, a nonconformist, as a very possible man, although uneducated, then a young propagandist, Kisliakov, who was very clever, but had an exaggerated idea of his own capabilities, and also spoke of Solomin...
"Is that the man who manages a cotton factory?" Nejdanov asked, recalling what Sipiagin had said of him at table.
"Yes, that is the man," Markelov replied. "You should get to know him. We have not sounded him as yet, but I believe he is an extremely capable man."
Eremy of Goloplok was mentioned again, together with Sipiagin's servant, Kirill, and a certain Mendely, known under the name of "Sulks." The latter it seemed was not to be relied upon. He was very bold when sober, but a coward when drunk, and was nearly always drunk.
"And what about your own people?" Nejdanov asked of Markelov. "Are there any reliable men among them?"
Markelov thought there were, but did not mention anyone by name, however. He went on to talk of the town tradespeople, of the public-school boys, who they thought might come in useful if matters were to come to fisticuffs. Nejdanov also inquired about the gentry of the neighbourhood, and learned from Markelov that there were five or six possible young men--among them, but, unfortunately, the most radical of them was a German, "and you can't trust a German, you know, he is sure to deceive you sooner or later!" They must wait and see what information Kisliakov would gather. Nejdanov also asked about the military, but Markelov hesitated, tugged at his long whiskers, and announced at last that with regard to them nothing certain was known as yet, unless Kisliakov had made any discoveries.
"Who is this Kisliakov? " Nejdanov asked impatiently.
Markelov smiled significantly.
"He's a wonderful person," he declared. "I know very little of him, have only met him twice, but you should see what letters he writes! Marvellous letters! I will show them to you and you can judge for yourself. He is full of enthusiasm. And what activity the man is capable of! He has rushed over the length and breadth of Russia five or six times, and written a twelve-page letter from every place!
Nejdanov looked questioningly at Ostrodumov, but the latter was sitting like a statue, not an eyebrow twitching. Mashurina was also motionless, a bitter smile playing on her lips.
Nejdanov went on to ask Markelov if he had made any socialist experiments on his own estate, but here Ostrodumov interrupted him.
"What is the good of all that?" he asked. "All the same, it will have to be altered afterwards."
The conversation turned to political channels again. The mysterious inner pain again began gnawing at Nejdanov's heart, but the keener the pain, the more positively and loudly he spoke. He had drunk only one glass of beer, but it seemed to him at times that he was quite intoxicated. His head swam around and his heart beat feverishly.
When the discussion came to an end at last at about four o'clock in the morning, and they all passed by the servant asleep in the anteroom on their way to their own rooms, Nejdanov, before retiring to bed, stood for a long time motionless, gazing straight before him. He was filled with wonder at the proud, heart-rending note in all that Markelov had said. The man's vanity must have been hurt, he must have suffered, but how nobly he forgot his own personal sorrows for that which he held to be the truth. "He is a limited soul," Nejdanov thought, " but is it not a thousand times better to be like that than such . . . such as I feel myself to be?
He immediately became indignant at his own self-depreciation.
"What made me think that? Am I not also capable of self- sacrifice? Just wait, gentlemen, and you too, Paklin. I will show you all that although I am aesthetic and write verses--"
He pushed back his hair with an angry gesture, ground his teeth, undressed hurriedly, and jumped into the cold, damp bed.
"Goodnight, I am your neighbour," Mashurina's voice was heard from the other side of the door.
"Goodnight," Nejdanov responded, and remembered suddenly that during the whole evening she had not taken her eyes off him.
"What does she want? " he muttered to himself, and instantly felt ashamed. "If only I could get to sleep!
But it was difficult for him to calm his overwrought nerves, and the sun was already high when at last he fell into a heavy, troubled sleep.
In the morning he got up late with a bad headache. He dressed, went up to the window of his attic, and looked out upon Markelov's farm. It was practically a mere nothing; the tiny little house was situated in a hollow by the side of a wood. A small barn, the stables, cellar, and a little hut with a half- bare thatched roof, stood on one side; on the other a small pond, a strip of kitchen garden, a hemp field, another hut with a roof like the first one; in the distance yet another barn, a tiny shed, and an empty thrashing floor--this was all the "wealth" that met the eye. It all seemed poor and decaying, not exactly as if it had been allowed to run wild, but as though it had never flourished, like a young tree that had not taken root well.
When Nejdanov went downstairs, Mashurina was sitting in the dining room at the samovar, evidently waiting for him. She told him that Ostrodumov had gone away on business, in connection with the cause, and would not be back for about a fortnight, and that their host had gone to look after his peasants. As it was already at the end of May, and there was no urgent work to be done, Markelov had thought of felling a small birch wood, with such means as he had at his command, and had gone down there to see after it.
Nejdanov felt a strange weariness at heart. So much had been said the night before about the impossibility of holding back any longer, about the necessity of making a beginning. "But how could one begin, now, at once?" he asked himself. It was useless talking it over with Mashurina, there was no hesitation for her. She knew that she had to go to K., and beyond that she did not look ahead. Nejdanov was at a loss to know what to say to her, and as soon as he finished his tea took his hat and went out in the direction of the birch wood. On the way he fell in with some peasants carting manure, a few of Markelov's former serfs. He entered into conversation with them, but was very little the wiser for it. They, too, seemed weary, but with a normal physical weariness, quite unlike the sensation experienced by him. They spoke of their master as a kind-hearted gentleman, but rather odd, and predicted his ruin, because be would go his own way, instead of doing as his forefathers had done before him. "And he's so clever, you know, you can't understand what he says, however hard you may try. But he's a good sort." A little farther on Nejdanov came across Markelov himself.
He as surrounded by a whole crowd of labourers, and one could see from the distance that he was trying to explain something to them as hard as he could, but suddenly threw up his arms in despair, as if it were of no use. His bailiff, a small, short-sighted young man without a trace of authority or firmness in his bearing, was walking beside him, and merely kept on repeating, "Just so, sir," to Markelov's great disgust, who had expected more independence from him. Nejdanov went up to Markelov, and on looking into his face was struck by the same expression of spiritual weariness he was himself suffering from. Soon after greeting one another, Markelov began talking again of last night's "problems" (more briefly this time), about the impending revolution, the weary expression never once leaving his face. He was smothered in perspiration and dust, his voice was hoarse, and his clothes were covered all over with bits of wood shavings and pieces of green moss. The labourers stood by silently, half afraid and half amused. Nejdanov glanced at Markelov, and Ostrodumov's remark, "What is the good of it all? All the same, it will have to be altered afterwards," flashed across his mind. One of the men, who had been fined for some offence, began begging Markelov to let him off. The latter got angry, shouted furiously, but forgave him in the end. "All the same, it will have to be altered afterwards."
Nejdanov asked him for horses and a conveyance to take him home. Markelov seemed surprised at the request, but promised to have everything ready in good time. They turned back to the house together, Markelov staggering as he walked.
"What is the matter with you? " Nejdanov asked.
"I am simply worn out!" Markelov began furiously. "No matter what you do, you simply can't make these people understand anything! They are utterly incapable of carrying out an order, and do not even understand plain Russian. If you talk of 'part', they know what that means well enough, but the word 'participation' is utterly beyond their comprehension, just as if it did not belong to the Russian language. They've taken it into their heads that I want to give them a part of the land!"
Markelov had tried to explain to the peasants the principles of cooperation with a view to introducing it on his estate, but they were completely opposed to it. "The pit was deep enough before, but now there's no seeing the bottom of it," one of them remarked, and all the others gave forth a sympathetic sigh, quite crushing poor Markelov. He dismissed the men and went into the house to see about a conveyance and lunch.
The whole of Markelov's household consisted of a man servant, a cook, a coachman, and a very old man with hairy ears, in a long- skirted linen coat, who had once been his grandfather's valet. This old man was for ever gazing at Markelov with a most woe- begone expression on his face. He was too old to do anything, but was always present, huddled together by the door.
After a lunch of hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, and cold hash (the man handing them pepper in an old pomade pot and vinegar in an old eau-de-cologne bottle), Nejdanov took his seat in the same carriage in which he had come the night before. This time it was harnessed to two horses, not three, as the third had been newly shod, and was a little lame.
Markelov had spoken very little during the meal, had eaten nothing whatever, and breathed with difficulty. He let fall a few bitter remarks about his farm and threw up his arms in despair. "All the same, it will have to be altered afterwards!
Mashurina asked Nejdanov if she might come with him as far as the town, where she had a little shopping to do. "I can walk back afterwards or, if need be, ask the first peasant I meet for a lift in his cart."
Markelov accompanied them to the door, saying that he would soon send for Nejdanov again, and then.., then (he trembled suddenly, but pulled himself together) they would have to settle things definitely. Solomin must also come. He (Markelov) was only waiting to hear from Vassily Nikolaevitch, and that as soon as he heard from him there would be nothing to hinder them from making a "beginning," as the masses (the same masses who failed to understand the word "participation") refused to wait any longer!
"Oh, by the way, what about those letters you wanted to show me? What is the fellow's name . . . Kisliakov?" Nejdanov asked.
"Later on... I will show them to you later on. We can do it all at the same time."
The carriage moved.
"Hold yourself in readiness!" Markelov's voice was heard again, as he stood on the doorstep. And by his side, with the same hopeless dejection in his face, straightening his bent back, his hands clasped behind him, diffusing an odour of rye bread and mustiness, not hearing a single word that was being said around him, stood the model servant, his grandfather's decrepit old valet.
Mashurina sat smoking silently all the way, but when they reached the town gates she gave a loud sigh.
"I feel so sorry for Sergai Mihailovitch," she remarked, her face darkening.
"He is over-worked, and it seems to me his affairs are in a bad way," Nejdanov said.
"I was not thinking of that."
"What were you thinking of then?"
"He is so unhappy and so unfortunate. It would be difficult to find a better man than he is, but he never seems to get on."
Nejdanov looked at her.
"Do you know anything about him?"
"Nothing whatever, but you can see for yourself. Goodbye, Alexai Dmitritch." Mashurina clambered out of the carriage.
An hour later Nejdanov was rolling up the courtyard leading to Sipiagin's house. He did not feel well after his sleepless night and the numerous discussions and explanations.
A beautiful face smiled to him out of the window. It was Madame Sipiagina welcoming him back home.
"What glorious eyes she has!" he thought.