Chapter XVIII

STRANGE was the state of Nejdanov's soul. In the last two days so many new sensations, new faces. . . . For the first time in his life he had come in close contact with a girl whom in all probability he loved. He was present at the beginning of the movement for which in all probability he was to devote his whole life.... Well? Was he glad? No.... Was he wavering? Was he afraid? Confused? Oh, certainly not! Did he at any rate feel that straining of the whole being, that longing to be among the first ranks, which is always inspired by the first approach of the battle? Again, No. Did he really believe in this cause? Did he believe in his love? "Oh, cursed aesthetic! Sceptic!" his lips murmured inaudibly. Why this weariness, this disinclination to speak, unless it be shouting or raving? What is this inner voice that he wishes to drown by his shrieking? But Mariana, this delightful, faithful comrade, this pure, passionate soul, this wonderful girl, does she not love him indeed? And these two beings in front of him, this Markelov and Solomin, whom he as yet knew but little, but to whom he was attracted so much, were they not excellent types of the Russian people--of Russian life--and was it not a happiness in itself to be closely connected with them? Then why this vague, uneasy, gnawing sensation? Why this sadness? If you're such a melancholy dreamer, his lips murmured again, what sort of a revolutionist will you make? You ought to write verses, languish, nurse your own insignificant thoughts and sensations, amuse yourself with psychological fancies and subtleties of all sorts, but don't at any rate mistake your sickly, nervous irritability and caprices for the manly wrath, the honest anger, of a man of convictions! 0h Hamlet! Hamlet! Thou Prince of Denmark! How escape from the shadow of thy spirit? How cease to imitate thee in everything, even to revelling shamelessly in one's own self-depreciation? Just then, as the echo of his own thoughts, he heard a familiar squeaky voice exclaim, "Alexai! Alexai! Hamlet of Russia! Is it you I behold?" and raising his eyes, to his great astonishment, saw Paklin standing before him! Paklin, in Arcadian attire, consisting of a summer suit of flesh-colour, without a tie, a large straw hat, trimmed with pale blue ribbon, pushed to the back of his head, and patent shoes!

He limped up to Nejdanov quickly and seized his hand.

"In the first place," he began, "although we are in the public garden, we must for the sake of old times embrace and kiss.. . One! two! three! Secondly, I must tell you, that had I not run across you to-day you would most certainly have seen me tomorrow. I know where you live and have come to this town expressly to see you ... how and why I will tell you later. Thirdly, introduce me to your friends. Tell me briefly who they are, and tell them who I am, and then let us proceed to enjoy ourselves!

Nejdanov responded to his friend's request, introduced them to each other, explaining who each was, where he lived, his profession, and so on.

"Splendid!" Paklin exclaimed. "And now let me lead you all far from the crowd, though there is not much of it here, certainly, to a secluded seat, where I sit in hours of contemplation enjoying nature. We will get a magnificent view of the governor's house, two striped sentry boxes, three gendarmes, and not a single dog! Don't be too much surprised at the volubility of my remarks with which I am trying so hard to amuse you. According to my friends, I am the representative of Russian wit . . . probably that is why I am lame."

Paklin conducted the friends to the "secluded seat" and made them sit down, after having first got rid of two beggar women installed on it. Then the young people proceeded to "exchange ideas," a rather dull occupation mostly, particularly at the beginning, and a fruitless one generally.

"Stop a moment!" Paklin exclaimed, turning to Nejdanov, "I must first tell you why I've come here. You know that I usually take my sister away somewhere every summer, and when I heard that you were coming to this neighbourhood I remembered there were two wonderful creatures living in this very town, husband and wife, distant relations of ours . . . on our mother's side. My father came from the lower middle class and my mother was of noble blood." (Nejdanov knew this, but Paklin mentioned the fact for the benefit of the others.) "These people have for a long time been asking us to come and see them. Why not? I thought. It's just what I want. They're the kindest creatures and it will do my sister no end of good. What could be better? And so here we are. And really I can't tell you how jolly it is for us here! They're such dears! Such original types! You must certainly get to know them! What are you doing here? Where are you going to dine? And why did you come here of all places?"

"We are going to dine with a certain Golushkin--a merchant here," Nejdanov replied.

"At what time? "

"At three o'clock."

"Are you going to see him on account. . . on account--"

Paklin looked at Solomin who was smiling and at Markelov who sat enveloped in his gloom.

"Come, Aliosha, tell them--make some sort of Masonic sign . . tell them not to be on ceremony with me . . . I am one of you--of your party."

"Golushkin is also one of us," Nejdanov observed.

"Why, that's splendid! It is still a long way off from three o'clock. Suppose we go and see my relatives!"

What an idea! How can...

"Don't be alarmed, I take all the responsibility upon myself. Imagine, it's an oasis! Neither politics, literature, nor anything modern ever penetrates there. The little house is such a squat one, such as one rarely sees nowadays; the very smell in it is antique; the people antique, the air antique. . .whatever you touch is antique, Catherine II. powder, crinolines, eighteenth century! And the host and hostess ... imagine a husband and wife both very old, of the same age, without a wrinkle, chubby, round, neat little people, just like two poll-parrots; and kind to stupidity, to saintliness, there is no end to their kindness! I am told that excessive kindness is often a sign of moral weakness. . . . I cannot enter into these subtleties, but I know that my dear old people are goodness itself. They never had any children, the blessed ones! That is what they call them here in the town; blessed ones! They both dress alike, in a sort of loose striped gown, of such good material, also a rarity, not to be found nowadays. They are exactly like one another, except that one wears a mob-cap, the other a skull-cap, which is trimmed with the same kind of frill, only without ribbons. If it were not for these ribbons, you would not know one from the other, as the husband is clean-shaven. One is called Fomishka, the other Fimishka. I tell you one ought to pay to go and look at them! They love one another in the most impossible way; and if you ever go to see them, they welcome you with open arms. And so gracious; they will show off all their little parlour tricks to amuse you. But there is only one thing they can't stand, and that is smoking, not because they are nonconformists, but because it doesn't agree with them.... Of course, nobody smoked in their time. However, to make up for that, they don't keep canaries-- this bird was also very little known in their day. I'm sure you'll agree that that's a comfort at any rate! Well? Will you come?"

"I really don't know," Nejdanov began.

"Wait a moment! I forgot to tell you; their voices, too, are exactly alike; close your eyes and you can hardly tell which is speaking. Fomishka, perhaps, speaks just a little more expressively. You are about to enter on a great undertaking, my dear friends; may be on a terrible conflict. . . Why not, before plunging into the stormy deep, take a dip in to--"

"Stagnant water," Markelov put in.

"Stagnant if you like, but not putrid. There are ponds in the steppes which never get putrid, although there is no stream flowing through them, because they have springs at the bottom. My old people have their springs flowing in the depths of their hearts, as pure and as fresh as can be. The question is this: do you want to see how people lived a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago? If so, then make haste and follow me. Or soon the day, the hour will come--it's bound to be the same hour for them both- -when my little parrots will be thrown off their little perches-- and everything antique will end with them. The squat little house will tumble down and the place where it stood will be overgrown with that which, according to my grandmother, always grows over the spot where man's handiwork has been--that is, nettles, burdock, thistles, wormwood, and dock leaves. The very street will cease to be--other people will come and never will they see anything like it again, never, through all the long ages!"

"Well," Nejdanov exclaimed, "let us go at once!"

"With the greatest of pleasure," Solomin added. "That sort of thing is not in my line, still it will be interesting, and if Mr. Paklin really thinks that we shall not be putting anyone out by our visit . . . then . . . why not--"

"You may be at ease on that score!" Paklin exclaimed in his turn. "They will be delighted to see you--and nothing more. You need not be on ceremony. I told you--they were blessed ones. We will get them to sing to us! Will you come too, Mr. Markelov?"

Markelov shrugged his shoulders impatiently.

"You can hardly leave me here alone! We may as well go, I suppose." The young people rose from the seat.

"What a forbidding individual that is you have with you," Paklin whispered to Nejdanov, indicating Markelov. "The very image of John the Baptist eating locusts ... only locusts, without the honey! But the other is splendid!" he added, with a nod of the head in Solomin's direction. "What a delightful smile he has! I've noticed that people smile like that only when they are far above others, but without knowing it themselves."

"Are there really such people? " Nejdanov asked.

"They are scarce, but there are," Paklin replied.