- At Home
Auntie Dasha looked after the estate. Tightly laced, with
jingling bracelets on her wrists, she went into the kitchen, the
granary, the cattle-yard, tripping along with tiny steps,
wriggling her spine; and whenever she talked to the steward or
to the peasants, she used, for some reason, to put on a
pince-nez. Vera's grandfather always sat in the same place,
playing patience or dozing. He ate a very great deal at dinner
and supper; they gave him the dinner cooked to-day and what was
left from yesterday, and cold pie left from Sunday, and salt
meat from the servants' dinner, and he ate it all greedily. And
every dinner left on Vera such an impression, that when she saw
afterwards a flock of sheep driven by, or flour being brought
from the mill, she thought, "Grandfather will eat that." For the
most part he was silent, absorbed in eating or in patience; but
it sometimes happened at dinner that at the sight of Vera he
would be touched and say tenderly:
"My only grandchild! Verotchka!"
And tears would glisten in his eyes. Or his face would turn
suddenly crimson, his neck would swell, he would look with fury
at the servants, and ask, tapping with his stick:
"Why haven't you brought the horse-radish?"
In winter he led a perfectly inactive existence; in summer he
sometimes drove out into the fields to look at the oats and the
hay; and when he came back he would flourish his stick and
declare that everything was neglected now that he was not there
to look after it.
"Your grandfather is out of humour," Auntie Dasha would whisper.
"But it's nothing now to what it used to be in the old days:
'Twenty-five strokes! The birch!' "
Her aunt complained that every one had grown lazy, that no one
did anything, and that the estate yielded no profit. Indeed,
there was no systematic farming; they ploughed and sowed a
little simply from habit, and in reality did nothing and lived
in idleness. Meanwhile there was a running to and fro, reckoning
and worrying all day long; the bustle in the house began at five
o'clock in the morning; there were continual sounds of "Bring
it," "Fetch it," "Make haste," and by the evening the servants
were utterly exhausted. Auntie Dasha changed her cooks and her
housemaids every week; sometimes she discharged them for
immorality; sometimes they went of their own accord, complaining
that they were worked to death. None of the village people would
come to the house as servants; Auntie Dasha had to hire them
from a distance. There was only one girl from the village living
in the house, Alyona, and she stayed because her whole family --
old people and children -- were living upon her wages. This
Alyona, a pale, rather stupid little thing, spent the whole day
turning out the rooms, waiting at table, heating the stoves,
sewing, washing; but it always seemed as though she were only
pottering about, treading heavily with her boots, and were
nothing but a hindrance in the house. In her terror that she
might be dismissed and sent home, she often dropped and broke
the crockery, and they stopped the value of it out of her wages,
and then her mother and grandmother would come and bow down at
Auntie Dasha's feet.
Once a week or sometimes oftener visitors would arrive. Her aunt
would come to Vera and say:
"You should sit a little with the visitors, or else they'll
think that you are stuck up."
Vera would go in to the visitors and play vint with them for
hours together, or play the piano for the visitors to dance; her
aunt, in high spirits and breathless from dancing, would come up
and whisper to her:
"Be nice to Marya Nikiforovna."
On the sixth of December, St. Nikolay's Day, a large party of
about thirty arrived all at once; they played vint until late at
night, and many of them stayed the night. In the morning they
sat down to cards again, then they had dinner, and when Vera
went to her room after dinner to rest from conversation and
tobacco smoke, there were visitors there too, and she almost
wept in despair. And when they began to get ready to go in the
evening, she was so pleased they were going at last, that she
"Do stay a little longer."
She felt exhausted by the visitors and constrained by their
presence; yet every day, as soon as it began to grow dark,
something drew her out of the house, and she went out to pay
visits either at the works or at some neighbours', and then
there were cards, dancing, forfeits, suppers. . . .The young
people in the works or in the mines sometimes sang Little
Russian songs, and sang them very well. It made one sad to hear
them sing. Or they all gathered together in one room and talked
in the dusk of the mines, of the treasures that had once been
buried in the steppes, of Saur's Grave. . . . Later on, as they
talked, a shout of "Help!" sometimes reached them. It was a
drunken man going home, or some one was being robbed by the pit
near by. Or the wind howled in the chimneys, the shutters
banged; then, soon afterwards, they would hear the uneasy church
bell, as the snow-storm began.
At all the evening parties, picnics, and dinners, Auntie Dasha
was invariably the most interesting woman and the doctor the
most interesting man. There was very little reading either at
the works or at the country-houses; they played only marches and
polkas; and the young people always argued hotly about things
they did not understand, and the effect was crude. The
discussions were loud and heated, but, strange to say, Vera had
nowhere else met people so indifferent and careless as these.
They seemed to have no fatherland, no religion, no public
interests. When they talked of literature or debated some
abstract question, it could be seen from Dr. Neshtchapov's face
that the question had no interest for him whatever, and that for
long, long years he had read nothing and cared to read nothing.
Serious and expressionless, like a badly painted portrait, for
ever in his white waistcoat, he was silent and incomprehensible
as before; but the ladies, young and old, thought him
interesting and were enthusiastic over his manners. They envied
Vera, who appeared to attract him very much. And Vera always
came away from the visits with a feeling of vexation, vowing
inwardly to remain at home; but the day passed, the evening
came, and she hurried off to the works again, and it was like
that almost all the winter.
She ordered books and magazines, and used to read them in her
room. And she read at night, lying in bed. When the clock in the
corridor struck two or three, and her temples were beginning to
ache from reading, she sat up in bed and thought, "What am I to
do? Where am I to go?" Accursed, importunate question, to which
there were a number of ready-made answers, and in reality no
answer at all.
Oh, how noble, how holy, how picturesque it must be to serve the
people, to alleviate their sufferings, to enlighten them! But
she, Vera, did not know the people. And how could she go to
them? They were strange and uninteresting to her; she could not
endure the stuffy smell of the huts, the pot-house oaths, the
unwashed children, the women's talk of illnesses. To walk over
the snow-drifts, to feel cold, then to sit in a stifling hut, to
teach children she disliked -- no, she would rather die! And to
teach the peasants' children while Auntie Dasha made money out
of the pot-houses and fined the peasants -- it was too great a
farce! What a lot of talk there was of schools, of village
libraries, of universal education; but if all these engineers,
these mine-owners and ladies of her acquaintance, had not been
hypocrites, and really had believed that enlightenment was
necessary, they would not have paid the schoolmasters fifteen
roubles a month as they did now, and would not have let them go
hungry. And the schools and the talk about ignorance -- it was
all only to stifle the voice of conscience because they were
ashamed to own fifteen or thirty thousand acres and to be
indifferent to the peasants' lot. Here the ladies said about Dr.
Neshtchapov that he was a kind man and had built a school at the
works. Yes, he had built a school out of the old bricks at the
works for some eight hundred roubles, and they sang the prayer
for "long life" to him when the building was opened, but there
was no chance of his giving up his shares, and it certainly
never entered his head that the peasants were human beings like
himself, and that they, too, needed university teaching, and not
merely lessons in these wretched schools.
And Vera felt full of anger against herself and every one else.
She took up a book again and tried to read it, but soon
afterwards sat down and thought again. To become a doctor? But
to do that one must pass an examination in Latin; besides, she
had an invincible repugnance to corpses and disease. It would be
nice to become a mechanic, a judge, a commander of a steamer, a
scientist; to do something into which she could put all her
powers, physical and spiritual, and to be tired out and sleep
soundly at night; to give up her life to something that would
make her an interesting person, able to attract interesting
people, to love, to have a real family of her own. . . . But
what was she to do? How was she to begin?
One Sunday in Lent her aunt came into her room early in the
morning to fetch her umbrella. Vera was sitting up in bed
clasping her head in her hands, thinking.
"You ought to go to church, darling," said her aunt, "or people
will think you are not a believer."
Vera made no answer.
"I see you are dull, poor child," said Auntie Dasha, sinking on
her knees by the bedside; she adored Vera. "Tell me the truth,
are you bored?"
"My beauty, my queen, I am your willing slave, I wish you
nothing but good and happiness. . . . Tell me, why don't you
want to marry Nestchapov? What more do you want, my child? You
must forgive me, darling; you can't pick and choose like this,
we are not princes. . . . Time is passing, you are not
seventeen. . . . And I don't understand it! He loves you,
"Oh, mercy!" said Vera with vexation. "How can I tell? He sits
dumb and never says a word."
"He's shy, darling. . . . He's afraid you'll refuse him!"
And when her aunt had gone away, Vera remained standing in the
middle of her room uncertain whether to dress or to go back to
bed. The bed was hateful; if one looked out of the window there
were the bare trees, the grey snow, the hateful jackdaws, the
pigs that her grandfather would eat. . . .
"Yes, after all, perhaps I'd better get married!" she thought.