Virgin Soil by Ivan S. Turgenev
THE sky was overcast with low-hanging clouds, and though it was light enough to see the cart-ruts winding along the road, still to the right and left no separate object could be distinguished, everything blending together into dark, heavy masses. It was a dim, unsettled kind of night; the wind blew in terrific gusts, bringing with it the scent of rain and wheat, which covered the broad fields. When they passed the oak which served as a signpost and turned down a by-road, driving became more difficult, the narrow track being quite lost at times. The coach moved along at a slower pace.
"I hope we're not going to lose our way!" Nejdanov remarked; he had been quite silent until then.
"I don't think so," Markelov responded. "Two misfortunes never happen in one day."
"But what was the first misfortune?"
"A day wasted for nothing. Is that of no importance?"
"Yes . . . certainly . . . and then this Golushkin! We shouldn't have drank so much wine. My head is simply splitting."
"I wasn't thinking of Golushkin. We got some money from him at any rate, so our visit wasn't altogether wasted."
"But surely you're not really sorry that Paklin took us to his . . . what did he call them . . . poll-parrots?
"As for that, there's nothing to be either sorry or glad about. I'm not interested in such people. That wasn't the misfortune I was referring to."
"What was it then?"
Markelov made no reply, but withdrew himself a little further into his corner, as if he were muffling himself up. Nejdanov could not see his face very clearly, only his moustache stood out in a straight black line, but he had felt ever since the morning that there was something in Markelov that was best left alone, some mysteriously unknown worry.
"I say, Sergai Mihailovitch," Nejdanov began, "do you really attach any importance to Mr. Kisliakov's letters that you gave me today? They are utter nonsense, if you'll excuse my saying so."
Markelov drew himself up.
"In the first place," he began angrily, "I don't agree with you about these letters--I find them extremely interesting . . . and conscientious! In the second place, Kisliakov works very hard and, what is more, he is in earnest; he BELIEVES in our cause, believes in the revolution! And I must say that you, Alexai Dmitritch, are very luke-warm--YOU don't believe in our cause!"
"What makes you think so? " Nejdanov asked slowly.
"It is easy to see from your very words, from your whole behaviour. Today, for instance, at Golushkin's, who said that he failed to see any elements that we could rely on? You! Who demanded to have them pointed out to him? You again! And when that friend of yours, that grinning buffoon, Mr. Paklin, stood up and declared with his eyes raised to heaven that not one of us was capable of self-sacrifice, who approved of it and nodded to him encouragingly? Wasn't it you? Say what you like of yourself . . .think what you like of yourself, you know best . . . that is your affair, but I know people who could give up everything that is beautiful in life--even love itself--to serve their convictions, to be true to them! Well, YOU . . . couldn't have done that, today at any rate!"
"Today? Why not today in particular?"
"Oh, don't pretend, for heaven's sake, you happy Don Juan, you myrtle-crowned lover!" Markelov shouted, quite forgetting the coachman, who, though he did not turn round on the box, must have heard every word. It is true the coachman was at that moment more occupied with the road than with what the gentlemen were saying behind him. He loosened the shaft-horse carefully, though somewhat nervously, she shook her head, backed a little, and went down a slope which had no business there at all.
"I'm afraid I don't quite understand you," Nejdanov observed.
Markelov gave a forced, malicious laugh.
"So you don't understand me! ha, ha, ha! I know everything, my dear sir! I know whom you made love to yesterday, whom you've completely conquered with your good looks and honeyed words! I know who lets you into her room . . . after ten o'clock at night!"
"Sir!" the coachman exclaimed suddenly, turning to Markelov, "hold the reins, please. I'll get down and have a look. I think we've gone off the track. There seems a sort of ravine here."
The carriage was, in fact, standing almost on one side. Markelov seized the reins which the coachman handed to him and continued just as loudly:
"I don't blame you in the least, Alexai Dmitritch! You took advantage of. . . . You were quite right. No wonder that you're not so keen about our cause now . . . as I said before, you have something else on your mind. And, really, who can tell beforehand what will please a girl's heart or what man can achieve what she may desire?"
"I understand now," Nejdanov began; "I understand your vexation and can guess . . . who spied on us and lost no time in letting you know--"It does not seem to depend on merit," Markelov continued, pretending not to have heard Nejdanov, and purposely drawling out each word in a sing-song voice, "no extraordinary spiritual or physical attractions. . . . Oh no! It's only the damned luck of all . . . bastards!"
The last sentence Markelov pronounced abruptly and hurriedly, but suddenly stopped as if turned to stone.
Nejdanov felt himself grow pale in the darkness and tingled all over. He could scarcely restrain himself from flying at Markelov and seizing him by the throat. "Only blood will wipe out this insult," he thought.
"I've found the road!" the coachman cried, making his appearance at the right front wheel, " I turned to the left by mistake--but it doesn't matter, we'll soon be home. It's not much farther. Sit still, please!"
He got onto the box, took the reins from Markelov, pulled the shaft-horse a little to one side, and the carriage, after one or two jerks, rolled along more smoothly and evenly. The darkness seemed to part and lift itself, a cloud of smoke could be seen curling out of a chimney, ahead some sort of hillock, a light twinkled, vanished, then another. . . . A dog barked.
"That's our place," the coachman observed. "Gee up, my pretties!"
The lights became more and more numerous as they drove on.
"After the way in which you insulted me," Nejdanov said at last, "you will quite understand that I couldn't spend the night under your roof, and I must ask you, however unpleasant it may be for me to do so, to be kind enough to lend me your carriage as soon as we get to your house to take me back to the town. Tomorrow I shall find some means of getting home, and will then communicate with you in a way which you doubtless expect.
Markelov did not reply at once.
"Nejdanov," he exclaimed suddenly, in a soft, despairing tone of voice, "Nejdanov! For Heaven's sake come into the house if only to let me beg for your forgiveness on my knees! Nejdanov! forget . . . forget my senseless words! Oh, if some one only knew how wretched I feel!" Markelov struck himself on the breast with his fist, a groan seemed to come from him. "Nejdanov. Be generous. . . . Give me your hand. . . . Say that you forgive me!"
Nejdanov held out his hand irresolutely--Markelov squeezed it so hard that he could almost have cried out.
The carriage stopped at the door of the house.
"Listen to me, Nejdanov," Markelov said to him a quarter of an hour later in his study, "listen." (He addressed him as "thou," and in this unexpected "THOU" addressed to a man whom he knew to be a successful rival, whom he had only just cruelly insulted, wished to kill, to tear to pieces, in this familiar word "thou" there was a ring of irrevocable renunciation, sad, humble supplication, and a kind of claim . . .) Nejdanov recognised this claim and responded to it by addressing him in the same way. "Listen! I've only just told you that I've refused the happiness of love, renounced everything to serve my convictions. .
It wasn't true, I was only bragging! Love has never been offered to me, I've had nothing to renounce! I was born unlucky and will continue so for the rest of my days . . . and perhaps it's for the best. Since I can't get that, I must turn my attention to something else! If you can combine the one with the other . . . love and be loved . . . and serve the cause at the same time, you're lucky! I envy you . . . but as for myself . . . I can't. You happy man! You happy man! I can't."
Markelov said all this softly, sitting on a low stool, his head bent and arms hanging loose at his sides. Nejdanov stood before him lost in a sort of dreamy attentiveness, and though Markelov had called him a happy man, he neither looked happy nor did he feel himself to be so.
"I was deceived in my youth," Markelov went on; "she was a remarkable girl, but she threw me over . . . and for whom? For a German! for an adjutant! And Mariana--"
He stopped. It was the first time he had pronounced her name and it seemed to burn his lips.
"Mariana did not deceive me. She told me plainly that she did not care for me. . . There is nothing in me she could care for, so she gave herself to you. Of course, she was quite free to do so."
"Stop a minute!" Nejdanov exclaimed. "What are you saying? What do you imply by the words 'gave herself'? I don't know what your sister told you, but I assure you--"
"I didn't mean physically, but morally, that is, with the heart and soul," Markelov interrupted him. He was obviously displeased with Nejdanov's exclamation. "She couldn't have done better. As for my sister, she didn't, of course, wish to hurt me. It can make no difference to her, but she no doubt hates you and Mariana too. She did not tell me anything untrue . . . but enough of her!"
"Yes," Nejdanov thought to himself, "she does hate us." It's all for the best," Markelov continued, still sitting in the same position. "The last fetters have been broken; there is nothing to hinder me now! It doesn't matter that Golushkin is an ass, and as for Kisliakov's letters, they may perhaps be absurd, but we must consider the most important thing. Kisliakov says that everything is ready. Perhaps you don't believe that too."
Nejdanov did not reply.
"You may be right, but if we've to wait until everything, absolutely everything, is ready, we shall never make a beginning. If we weigh all the consequences beforehand we're sure to find some bad ones among them. For instance, when our forefathers emancipated the serfs, do you think they could foresee that a whole class of money-lending landlords would spring up as a result of the emancipation? Landlords who sell a peasant eight bushels of rotten rye for six roubles and in return for it get labour for the whole six roubles, then the same quantity of good sound rye and interest on top of that! Which means that they drain the peasants to the last drop of blood! You'll agree that our emancipators could hardly have foreseen that. Even if they had foreseen it, they would still have been quite right in freeing the serfs without weighing all the consequences beforehand! That is why I have decided!"
Nejdanov looked at Markelov with amazement, but the latter turned to one side and directed his gaze into a corner of the room. He sat with his eyes closed, biting his lips and chewing his moustache.
"Yes, I've decided!" he repeated, striking his knee with his brown hairy hand. "I'm very obstinate. . . It's not for nothing that I'm half a Little Russian."
He got up, dragged himself into his bedroom, and came back with a small portrait of Mariana in a glazed frame.
"Take this," he said in a sad, though steady voice. "I drew it some time ago. I don't draw well, but I think it's like her." (It was a pencil sketch in profile and was certainly like Mariana.) "Take it, Alexai; it is my bequest, and with this portrait I give you all my rights. . . . I know I never had any . . . but you know what I mean! I give you up everything, and her. . . . She is very good, Alexai--"
Markelov ceased; his chest heaved visibly.
"Take it. You are not angry with me, are you? Well, take it then. It's no use to me . . . now.
Nejdanov took the portrait, but a strange sensation oppressed his heart. It seemed to him that he had no right to take this gift; that if Markelov knew what was in his, Nejdanov's, heart, he would not have given it him. He stood holding the round piece of cardboard, carefully set in a black frame with a mount of gold paper, not knowing what to do with it. "Why, this is a man's whole life I'm holding in my hand," he thought. He fully realised the sacrifice Markelov was making, but why, why especially to him? Should he give back the portrait? No! that would be the grossest insult. And after all, was not the face dear to him? Did he not love her?
Nejdanov turned his gaze on Markelov not without some inward misgiving. "Was he not looking at him, trying to guess his thoughts?" But Markelov was standing in a corner biting his moustache.
The old servant came into the room carrying a candle. Markelov started.
"It's time we were in bed, Alexai," he said. "Morning is wiser than evening. You shall have the horses tomorrow. Goodbye."
"And goodbye to you too, old fellow," he added turning to the servant and slapping him on the shoulder. "Don't be angry with me!"
The old man was so astonished that he nearly dropped the candle, and as he fixed his eyes on his master there was an expression in them of something other, something more, than his habitual dejection.
Nejdanov retired to his room. He was feeling wretched. His head was aching from the wine he had drunk, there were ringing noises in his ears, and stars jumping about in front of his eyes, even though he shut them. Golushkin, Vasia the clerk, Fomishka and Fimishka, were dancing about before him, with Mariana's form in the distance, as if distrustful and afraid to come near. Everything that he had said or done during the day now seemed to him so utterly false, such useless nonsense, and the thing that ought to be done, ought to be striven for, was nowhere to be found; unattainable, under lock and key, in the depths of a bottomless pit.
He was filled with a desire to go to Markelov and say to him, "Here, take back your gift, take it back!"
"Ugh! What a miserable thing life is!" he exclaimed.
He departed early on the following morning. Markelov was already standing at the door surrounded by peasants, but whether he had asked them to come, or they had come of their own accord, Nejdanov did not know.. Markelov said very little and parted with him coldly, but it seemed to Nejdanov that he had something of importance to communicate to him.
The old servant made his appearance with his usual melancholy expression.
The carriage soon left the town behind it, and coming out into the open country began flying at a furious rate. The horses were the same, but the driver counted on a good tip, as Nejdanov lived in a rich house. And as is usually the case, when the driver has either had a drink, or expects to get one, the horses go at a good pace.
It was an ordinary June day, though the air was rather keen. A steady, high wind was blowing, but raising no dust in the road, owing to last night's rain. The laburnums glistened, rustling to and fro in the breeze; a ripple ran over everything. From afar the cry of the quail was carried over the hills, over the grassy ravines, as if the very cry was possessed of wings; the rooks were bathing in the sunshine; along the straight, bare line of the horizon little specks no bigger than flies could be distinguished moving about. These were some peasants re-ploughing a fallow field.
Nejdanov was so lost in thought that he did not see all this. He went on and on and did not even notice when they drove through Sipiagin's village.
He trembled suddenly as he caught sight of the house, the first story and Mariana's window. "Yes," he said to himself, a warm glow entering his heart, "Markelov was right. She is a good girl and I love her."