WHEN Lavretsky reached home, he was met at the door of the drawing-room by a tall, thin man, in a thread-bare blue coat, with a wrinkled, but lively face, with dishevelled grey whiskers, a long straight nose, and small fiery eyes. This was Mihalevitch, who had been his friend at the university. Lavretsky did not at first recognise him, but embraced him warmly directly he told his name.
They had not met since their Moscow days. Torrents of exclamations and questions followed; long-buried recollections were brought to light. Hurriedly smoking pipe after pipe, tossing off tea at a gulp, and gesticulating with his long hands, Mihalevitch related his adventures to Lavretsky; there was nothing very inspiriting in them, he could not boast of success in his undertakingsbut he was constantly laughing a hoarse, nervous laugh. A month previously he had received a position in the private counting-house of a spirit-tax contractor, two hundred and fifty miles from the town of O, and hearing of Lavretskys return from abroad he had turned out of his way so as to see his old friend. Mihalevitch talked as impetuously as in his old friend. youth; made as much noise and was as effervescent as of old. Lavretsky was about to acquaint him with his position, but Mihalevitch interrupted him, muttering hurriedly, I have heard, my dear fellow, I have heardwho could have anticipated it? and at once turned the conversation upon general subjects.
I must set off to-morrow, my dear fellow, he observed; to-day if you will excuse it, we will sit up late. I want above all to know what you are like, what are your views and convictions, what you have become, what life has taught you. (Mihalevitch still preserved the phraseology of 1830.) As for me, I have changed in much; the waves of life have broken over my breastwho was it said that?though in what is important, essential I have not changed; I believe as of old in the good, the true: but I do not only believeI have faith now, yes, I have faith, faith. Listen, you know I write verses; there is no poetry in them, but there is truth. I will read you aloud my last poem; I have expressed my truest convictions in it. Listen. Mihalevitch fell to reading his poem: it was rather long, and ended with the following lines:
As he uttered the two last lines, Mihalevitch all but shed tears; a slight spasmthe sign of deep emotionpassed over his wide mouth, his ugly face lighted up. Lavretsky listened, and listened to himand the spirit of antagonism was aroused in him; he was irritated by the ever-ready enthusiasm of the Moscow student, perpetually at boiling-point. Before a quarter of an hour had elapsed a heated argument had broken out between them, one of these endless arguments, of which only Russians are capable. After a separation of many years spent in two different worlds, with no clear understanding of the others ideas or even of their own, catching at words and replying only in words, they disputed about the most abstract subjects, and they disputed as though it were a matter of life and death for both: they shouted and vociferated so that every one in the house was startled, and poor Lemm, who had locked himself up in his room directly after Mihalevitch arrived, was bewildered, and began even to feel vaguely alarmed.
Well, if you are not a pessimist you are a scepteec, thats still worse. Mihalevitchs talk had a strong flavour of his mother-country, Little Russia. And what right have you to be a scepteec? You have had ill-luck in life, let us admit; that was not your fault; you were born with a passionate loving heart, and you were unnaturally kept out of the society of women: the first woman you came across was bound to deceive you.
Well, its for you to straighten yourself! Whats the good of being a man, a male animal? And however that may be, is it possible, is it permissible, to reduce a personal, so to speak, fact to a general law, to an infallible principle?
I have found out now what to call you, cried the same Mihalevitch, at three oclock in the morning. You are not a sceptic, nor a pessimist, nor a Voltairean, you are a loafer, and you are a vicious loafer, a conscious loafer, not a simple loafer. Simple loafers lie on the stove and do nothing because they dont know how to do anything; they dont think about anything either, but you are a man of ideasand yet you lie on the stove; you could do somethingand you do nothing; you lie idle with a full stomach and look down from above and say, Its best to lie idle like this, because whatever people do, is all rubbish, leading to nothing.
And, besides that, you are all, all the tribe of you, continued Mihalevitch, cultivated loafers. You know which leg the German limps on, you know whats amiss with the English and the French, and your pitiful culture goes to make it worse, your shameful idleness, your abominable inactivity is justified by it. Some are even proud of it: Im such a clever fellow, they say, I do nothing, while these fools are in a fuss. Yes! and there are fine gentlemen among usthough I dont say this as to youwho reduce their whole life to a kind of stupor of boredom, get used to it, live in it, likelike a mushroom in white sauce, Mihalevitch added hastily, and he laughed at his own comparison. Oh! this stupor of boredom is the ruin of Russians. Ours is the age for work, and the sickening loafer
There, what a thing to ask! I cant tell you that, brother; that, every one ought to know for himself, retorted the Desmosthenes ironically. A landowner, a nobleman, and not know what to do? You have no faith, or else you would know; no faithand no intuition.
And what a time what a place for men to think of loafing! he cried at four oclock, in a voice, however, which showed signs of sleepiness; among us! now! in Russia where every separate individuality has a duty resting upon him, a solemn responsibility to God, to the people, to himself. We are sleeping, and the time is slipping away; we are sleeping.
Permit me to observe, remarked Lavretsky, that we are not sleeping at present, but rather preventing others from sleeping. We are straining our throats like the cockslisten! there is one crowing for the third time.
Mihalevitch set off the next day, in spite of all Lavretskys efforts to keep him. Fedor Ivanitch did not succeed in persuading him to remain; but he talked to him to his hearts content. Mihalevitch, it appeared, had not a penny to bless himself with. Lavretsky had noticed with pain the evening before all the tokens and habits of years of poverty: his boots were shabby, a button was off on the back of his coat, his hands were unused to gloves, his hair wanted brushing; on his arrival, he had not even thought of asking to wash, and at supper he ate like a shark, tearing his meat in his fingers, and crunching the bones with his strong black teeth. It appeared, too, that he had made nothing out of his employment, that he now rested all his hopes on the contractor who was taking him solely in order to have an educated man in his office.
For all that Mihalevitch was not discouraged, but as idealist or cynic, lived on a crust of bread, sincerely rejoicing or grieving over the destinies of humanity, and his own vocation, and troubling himself very little as to how to escape dying of hunger. Mihalevitch was not married: but had been in love times beyond number, and had written poems to all the objects of his adoration; he sang with especial fervour the praises of a mysterious black-tressed noble Polish lady. There were rumours, it is true, that this noble Polish lady was a simple Jewess, very well known to a good many cavalry officersbut, after all, what do you thinkdoes it really make any difference?
With Lemm, Mihalevitch did not get on; his noisy talk and brusque manners scared the German, who was unused to such behaviour. One poor devil detects another by instinct at once, but in old age he rarely gets on with him, and that is hardly astonishing, he has nothing to share with him, not even hopes.
Before setting off, Mihalevitch had another long discussion with Lavretsky, foretold his ruin, if he did not see the error of his ways, exhorted him to devote himself seriously to the welfare of his peasants, and pointed to himself as an example, saying that he had been purified in the furnace of suffering; and in the same breath called himself several times a happy man, comparing himself with the fowl of the air and the lily of the field.
Ah, brother, dont be a snob! retorted Mihalevitch, good-naturedly, but thank God rather that there is pure plebeian blood in your veins too. But I see you want some pure, heavenly creature to draw you out of your apathy.
Even when he had taken his seat in the carriage, to which his flat, yellow, strangely light trunk was carried, he still talked; muffled in a kind of Spanish cloak with a collar, brown with age, and a clasp of two lions paws; he went on developing his views on the destiny of Russia, and waving his swarthy hand in the air, as though he were sowing the seeds of her future prosperity. The horses started at last.
His head, with a foraging cap pulled down over his eyes, disappeared. Lavretsky was left standing alone on the steps, and he gazed steadily into the distance along the road till the carriage disappeared out of sight. Perhaps he is right, after all, he thought as he went back into the house; perhaps I am a loafer. Many of Mihalevitchs words had sunk irresistibly into his heart, though he had disputed and disagreed with him. If a man only has a good heart, no one can resist him.