Chapter II
 

AT the sight of visitors he stopped in the doorway, took them in at a glance, threw off his cap, dropped the books on to the floor, walked over to the bed, and sat down on the very edge. An expression of annoyance and displeasure passed over his pale handsome face, which seemed even paler than it really was, in contrast to his dark-red, wavy hair.

Mashurina turned away and bit her lip; Ostrodumov muttered, "At last!"

Paklin was the first to approach him.

"Why, what is the matter, Alexai Dmitritch, Hamlet of Russia? Has something happened, or are you just simply depressed, without any particular cause?

"Oh, stop! Mephistopheles of Russia!" Nejdanov exclaimed irritably. "I am not in the mood for fencing with blunt witticisms just now."

Paklin laughed.

"That's not quite correct. If it is wit, then it can't be blunt. If blunt, then it can't be wit."

"All right, all right! We know you are clever!

"Your nerves are out of order," Paklin remarked hesitatingly. "Or has something really happened?"

"Oh, nothing in particular, only that it is impossible to show one's nose in this hateful town without knocking against some vulgarity, stupidity, tittle-tattle, or some horrible injustice. One can't live here any longer!"

"Is that why your advertisement in the papers says that you want a place and have no objection to leaving St. Petersburg? " Ostrodumov asked.

"Yes. I would go away from here with the greatest of pleasure, if some fool could be found who would offer me a place!"

"You should first fullfil your duties here," Mashurina remarked significantly, her face still turned away.

"What duties?" Nejdanov asked, turning towards her.

Mashurina bit her lip. "Ask Ostrodumov."

Nejdanov turned to Ostrodumov. The latter hummed and hawed, as if to say, "Wait a minute."

"But seriously," Paklin broke in, "have you heard any unpleasant news?"

Nejdanov bounced up from the bed like an india-rubber ball. "What more do you want?" he shouted out suddenly, in a ringing voice. "Half of Russia is dying of hunger! The Moscow News is triumphant! They want to introduce classicism, the students' benefit clubs have been closed, spies everywhere, oppression, lies, betrayals, deceit! And it is not enough for him! He wants some new unpleasantness! He thinks that I am joking. . . . Basanov has been arrested," he added, lowering his voice. "I heard it at the library."

Mashurina and Ostrodumov lifted their heads simultaneously.

"My dear Alexai Dmitritch," Paklin began, "you are upset, and for a very good reason. But have you forgotten in what times and in what country we are living? Amongst us a drowning man must himself create the straw to clutch at. Why be sentimental over it? One must look the devil straight in the face and not get excited like children--"

"Oh, don't, please!" Nejdanov interrupted him desperately, frowning as if in pain. "We know you are energetic and not afraid of anything--"

"I--not afraid of anything?" Paklin began.

"I wonder who could have betrayed Basanov? "Nejdanov continued. "I simply can't understand!"

"A friend no doubt. Friends are great at that. One must look alive! I once had a friend, who seemed a good fellow; he was always concerned about me and my reputation. 'I say, what dreadful stories are being circulated about you!' he would greet me one day. 'They say that you poisoned your uncle and that on one occasion, when you were introduced into a certain house, you sat the whole evening with your back to the hostess and that she was so upset that she cried at the insult! What awful nonsense! What fools could possibly believe such things!' Well, and what do you think? A year after I quarrelled with this same friend, and in his farewell letter to me he wrote, 'You who killed your own uncle! You who were not ashamed to insult an honourable lady by sitting with your back to her,' and so on and so on. Here are friends for you!"

Ostrodumov and Mashurina exchanged glances.

"Alexai Dmitritch!" Ostrodumov exclaimed in his heavy bass voice; he was evidently anxious to avoid a useless discussion. "A letter has come from Moscow, from Vassily Nikolaevitch."

Nejdanov trembled slightly and cast down his eyes.

"What does he say? " he asked at last.

"He wants us to go there with her." Ostrodumov indicated to Mashurina with his eyebrows.

"Do they want her too?'

"Yes."

"Well, what's the difficulty?

"Why, money, of course."

Nejdanov got up from the bed and walked over to the window.

"How much do you want?"

"Not less than fifty roubles."

Nejdanov was silent.

"I have no money just now," he whispered at last, drumming his fingers on the window pane, "but I could get some. Have you got the letter?"

"Yes, it . . . that is . . . certainly. . ."

"Why are you always trying to keep things from me?" Paklin exclaimed. "Have I not deserved your confidence? Even if I were not fully in sympathy with what you are undertaking, do you think for a moment that I am in a position to turn around or gossip?"

"Without intending to, perhaps," Ostrodumov remarked.

"Neither with nor without intention! Miss Mashurina is looking at me with a smile . . . but I say--"

"I am not smiling!" Mashurina burst out.

"But I say," Paklin went on, "that you have no tact. You are utterly incapable of recognising your real friends. If a man can laugh, then you think that he can't be serious--"

"Is it not so?" Mashurina snapped.

"You are in need of money, for instance," Paklin continued with new force, paying no attention to Mashurina; "Nejdanov hasn't any. I could get it for you."

Nejdanov wheeled round from the window.

"No, no. It is not necessary. I can get the money. I will draw some of my allowance in advance. Now I recollect, they owe me something. Let us look at the letter, Ostrodumov."

Ostrodumov remained motionless for a time, then he looked around, stood up, bent down, turned up one of the legs of his trousers, and carefully pulled a piece of blue paper out of his high boot, blew at it for some reason or another, and handed it to Nejdanov. The latter took the piece of paper, unfolded it, read it carefully, and passed it on to Mashurina. She stood up, also read it, and handed it back to Nejdanov, although Paklin had extended his hand for it. Nejdanov shrugged his shoulders and gave the secret letter to Paklin. The latter scanned the paper in his turn, pressed his lips together significantly, and laid it solemnly on the table. Ostrodumov took it, lit a large match, which exhaled a strong odour of sulphur, lifted the paper high above his head, as if showing it to all present, set fire to it, and, regardless of his fingers, put the ashes into the stove. No one moved or pronounced a word during this proceeding; all had their eyes fixed on the floor. Ostrodumov looked concentrated and business-like, Nejdanov furious, Paklin intense, and Mashurina as if she were present at holy mass.

About two minutes went by in this way, everyone feeling uncomfortable. Paklin was the first to break the silence.

"Well?" he began. "Is my sacrifice to be received on the altar of the fatherland? Am I permitted to bring, if not the whole at any rate, twenty-five or thirty roubles for the common cause?"

Nejdanov flared up. He seemed to be boiling over with annoyance, which was not lessened by the solemn burning of the letter--he was only waiting for an opportunity to burst out.

"I tell you that I don't want it, don't want, don't want it! I'll not allow it and I'll not take it! I can get the money. I can get it at once. I am not in need of anyone's help!

"My dear Alexai," Paklin remarked, "I see that you are not a democrat in spite of your being a revolutionist!"

"Why not say straight out that I'm an aristocrat?"

"So you are up to a certain point."

Nejdanov gave a forced laugh.

"I see you are hinting at the fact of my being illegitimate. You can save yourself the trouble, my dear boy. I am not likely to forget it."

Paklin threw up his arms in despair.

"Aliosha! What is the matter with you? How can you twist my words so? I hardly know you today."

Nejdanov shrugged his shoulders.

"Basanov's arrest has upset you, but he was so careless--"

He did not hide his convictions," Mashurina put in gloomily. "It is not for us to sit in judgment upon him!"

"Quite so; only he might have had a little more consideration for others, who are likely to be compromised through him now."

"What makes you think so?" Ostrodumov bawled out in his turn. "Basanov has plenty of character, he will not betray anyone. Besides, not every one can be cautious you know, Mr. Paklin."

Paklin was offended and was about to say something when Nejdanov interrupted him.

"I vote we leave politics for a time, ladies and gentlemen!" he exclaimed.

A silence ensued.

"I ran across Skoropikin today," Paklin was the first to begin. "Our great national critic, aesthetic, and enthusiast! What an insufferable creature! He is forever boiling and frothing over like a bottle of sour kvas. A waiter runs with it, his finger stuck in the bottle instead of a cork, a fat raisin in the neck, and when it has done frothing and foaming there is nothing left at the bottom but a few drops of some nasty stuff, which far from quenching any one's thirst is enough to make one ill. He's a most dangerous person for young people to come in contact with."

Paklin's true and rather apt comparison raised no smile on his listeners' faces, only Nejdanov remarked that if young people were fools enough to interest themselves in aesthetics, they deserved no pity whatever, even if Skoropikin did lead them astray.

"Of course," Paklin exclaimed with some warmth--the less sympathy he met with, the more heated he became--" I admit that the question is not a political one, but an important one, nevertheless. According to Skoropikin, every ancient work of art is valueless because it is old. If that were true, then art would be reduced to nothing more or less than mere fashion. A preposterous idea, not worth entertaining. If art has no firmer foundation than that, if it is not eternal, then it is utterly useless. Take science, for instance. In mathematics do you look upon Euler, Laplace, or Gauss as fools? Of course not. You accept their authority. Then why question the authority of Raphael and Mozart? I must admit, however, that the laws of art are far more difficult to define than the laws of nature, but they exist just the same, and he who fails to see them is blind, whether he shuts his eyes to them purposely or not."

Paklin ceased, but no one uttered a word. They all sat with tightly closed mouths as if feeling unutterably sorry for him.

"All the same," Ostrodumov remarked, " I am not in the least sorry for the young people who run after Skoropikin."

"You are hopeless," Paklin thought. "I had better be going."

He went up to Nejdanov, intending to ask his opinion about smuggling in the magazine, the "Polar Star", from abroad (the "Bell" had already ceased to exist), but the conversation took such a turn that it was impossible to raise the question. Paklin had already taken up his hat, when suddenly, without the slightest warning, a wonderfully pleasant, manly baritone was heard from the passage. The very sound of this voice suggested something gentle, fresh, and well-bred.

"Is Mr. Nejdanov at home?"

They all looked at one another in amazement.

"Is Mr. Nejdanov at home?" the baritone repeated.

"Yes, he is," Nejdanov replied at last.

The door opened gently and a man of about forty entered the room and slowly removed his glossy hat from his handsome, closely cropped head. He was tall and well-made, and dressed in a beautiful cloth coat with a gorgeous beaver collar, although it was already the end of April. He impressed Nejdanov and Paklin, and even Mashurina and Ostrodumov, with his elegant, easy carriage and courteous manner. They all rose instinctively on his entrance.