AH, why it’s you, Masloboev!” I cried, suddenly recognizing him as an old schoolfellow who had been at my provincial gymnasium. “Well, this is a meeting! ”
“Yes, a meeting indeed! We’ve not met for six years. Or rather, we have met, but your excellency hasn’t deigned to look at me. To be sure, you’re a general, a literary one that is, eh!...”
He smiled ironically as he said it.
“Come, Masloboev,, old boy, you’re talking nonsense!” I interrupted. “Generals look very different from me even if they are literary ones, and besides, let me tell you, I certainly do remember having met you twice in the street. But you obviously. avoided me. And why should I go up to a man if I see he’s trying to avoid me? And do you know what I believe? If you weren’t drunk you wouldn’t have called to me even now. That’s true, isn’t it? Well, how are you? I’m very, very glad to have met you, my boy.”
“Really? And I’m not compromising you by my . . . ‘unconventional’ appearance? But there’s no need to ask that. It’s not a great matter; I always remember what a jolly chap you were, old Vanya. Do you remember you took a thrashing for me? You held your tongue and didn’t give me away, and, instead of being grateful, I jeered at you for a week afterwards. You’re a blessed innocent! Glad to see you, my dear soul!” (We kissed each other.) “How many years I’ve been pining in solitude — ‘From morn till night, from dark till light but I’ve not forgotten old times. They’re not easy to forget. But what have you been doing, what have you been doing?”
“I? Why, I’m pining in solitude, too.”
He gave me a long look, full of the deep feeling of a man slightly inebriated; though he was a very good-natured fellow at any time.
“No, Vanya, your case is not like mine,” he brought out at last in a tragic tone. “I’ve read it, Vanya, you know, I’ve read it, I’ve read it! ... But I say, let us have a good talk! Are you in a hurry?”
“I am in a hurry, and I must confess I’m very much upset about something. I’ll tell you what’s better. Where do you live?”
“I’ll tell you. But that’s not better; shall I tell you what is better?”
“Why, this, do you see?” and he pointed out to me a sign a few yards from where we were standing. “You see, confectioner’s and restaurant; that is simply an eating-house, but it’s a good place. I tell you it’s a decent place, and the vodka — there’s no word for it! It’s come all the way from Kiev on foot. I’ve tasted it, many a time I’ve tasted it, I know; and they wouldn’t dare offer me poor stuff here. They know Filip Filippitch. I’m Filip Filippitch, you know. Eh? You make a face? No, let me have my say. Now it’s a quarter past eleven; I’ve just looked. Well, at twenty-five to twelve exactly I’ll let you go. And in the meantime we’ll drain the flowing bowl. Twenty minutes for an old friend. Is that right?”
“If it will really be twenty minutes, all right; because, my dear chap, I really am busy.”
“Well, that’s a bargain. But I tell you what. Two words to begin with: you don’t look cheerful ... as though you were put out about something, is that so?”
“I guessed it. I am going in for the study of physiognomy, you know; it’s an occupation, too. So, come along, we’ll have a talk. In twenty minutes I shall have time in the first place to sip the cup that cheers and to toss off a glass of birch wine, and another of orange bitters, then a Parfait amour, and anything else I can think of. I drink, old man! I’m good for nothing except on a holiday before service. But don’t you drink. I want you just as you are. Though if you did drink you’d betray a peculiar nobility of soul. Come along! We’ll have a little chat and then part for another ten years. I’m not fit company for you, friend Vanya!”
“Don’t chatter so much, but come along. You shall have twenty minutes and then let me go.”
To get to the eating-house we had to go tip a wooden staircase of two flights, leading from the street to the second storey. But on the stairs we suddenly came upon two gentlemen, very drunk. Seeing us they moved aside, staggering.
One of them was a very young and youthful-looking lad, with an exaggeratedly stupid expression of face, with only a faint trace of moustache and no beard. He was dressed like a dandy, but looked ridiculous, as though he were dressed up in someone else’s clothes. He had expensive-looking rings on his fingers, an expensive pin in his tie, and his hair was combed up into a crest which looked particularly absurd. He kept smiling and sniggering. His companion, a thick-set, corpulent, bald-headed man of fifty, with a puffy, drunken, pock-marked face and a nose like a button, was dressed rather carelessly, though he, too, had a big pin in his tie and wore spectacles. The expression of his face was malicious and sensual. His nasty, spiteful and suspicious-looking little eyes were lost in fat and seemed to be peeping through chinks. Evidently they both knew Masloboev, but the fat man made a momentary grimace of vexation on seeing us, while the young man subsided into a grin of obsequious sweetness. He even took off his cap. He was wearing a cap.
“Excuse us, Filip Filippitch,” he muttered, gazing tenderly at him.
“I beg your pardon — I’m . . . . “ (He flicked at his collar.).
Mitroshka’s in there. So it seems he’s a scoundrel, Filip Filippitch.
“Well, what’s the matter?”
“Why, it seems so.... Why, last week he” (here he nodded towards his companion) “got his mug smeared with sour cream in a shocking place, all through that chap Mitroshka . . . khe-e.”
His companion, looking annoyed, poked him with his elbow.
“You should come with us, Filip Filippitch. We’d empty a half-dozen. May we hope for your company?”
“No, my dear man, I can’t now,” answered Masloboev, “I’ve business.”
“Khe-e! And I’ve a little business, too concerning you....”
Again his companion nudged him with his elbow.
Masloboev was unmistakably trying not to look at them. But no sooner had we entered the outer room, along the whole length of which ran a fairly clean counter, covered with eatables, pies, tarts, and decanters of different-coloured liqueurs, when Masloboev drew me into a corner and said:
“The young fellow’s Sizobryuhov, the son of the celebrated corn-dealer; he came in for half a million when his father died, and now he’s having a good time. He went to Paris, and there he got through no end of money. He’d have spent all there, perhaps, but he came in for another fortune when his uncle died, and he came back from Paris. So he’s getting through the rest of it here. In another year he’ll be sending the hat round. He’s as stupid as a goose. He goes about in the best restaurants and in cellars and taverns, and with actresses, and he’s trying to get into the hussars — he’s just applied for a commission. The other, the old fellow, Arhipov, is something in the way of a merchant, too, or an agent; he had something to do with government contracts, too. He’s a beast, a rogue, and now he’s a pal of Sizobryuhov’s. He’s a Judas and a Falstaff both at once; he’s twice been made bankrupt, and he’s a disgusting, sensual brute, up to all sorts of tricks. I know one criminal affair in that line that he was mixed up in ; but he managed to get off. For one thing, I’m very glad I met him here; I was on the look-out for him. . . . He’s plucking Sizobryuhov now, of course. He knows all sorts of queer places, which is what makes him of use to young fellows like that. I’ve had a grudge against him for ever so long. Mitroshka’s got a bone to pick with him, too — that dashing-looking fellow with the gipsy face in the smart tunic, standing by the window. He deals in horses; he’s known to all the hussars about here. I tell you, he’s such a clever rogue that he’ll make a false bank-note before your very eyes, and pass it off upon you though you’ve seen it. He wears a tunic, though it’s a velvet one, and looks like a Slavophile (though I think it suits him); but put him into a fine dress-coat, or something like it, and take him to the English club and call him the great landowner, count Barabanov; he’ll pass for a count for two hours, play whist, and talk like a count, and they’ll never guess; he’ll take them in. He’ll come to a bad end. Well, Mitroshka’s got a great grudge against the fat man, for Mitroshka’s hard up just now. Sizobryuhov used to be very thick with him, but the fat man’s carried him off before Mitroshka had time to fleece him. If they met in the eating-house just now there must be something up. I know something about it, too, and can guess what it is, for Mitroshka and no one else told me that they’d be here, and be hanging about these parts after some mischief. I want to take advantage of Mitroshka’s hatred for Arhipov, for I have my own reasons, and indeed I came here chiefly on that account. I don’t want to let Mitroshka see, and don’t you keep looking at him, but when we go out he’s sure to come up of himself and tell me what I want to know. . . . Now come along, Vanya, into the other room, do you see? Now, Stepan,” he said, addressing the waiter, “you understand what I want.”
“And you’ll bring it.”
“Mind you do. Sit down, Vanya. Why do you keep looking at me like that? I see you’re looking at me. Are you surprised? Don’t be surprised. Anything may happen to a man, even what he’s never dreamed of . . . especially in the days when . . . well, in the days when we used to cram Cornelius Nepos together. And, Vanya, be sure of one thing: though Masloboev may have strayed from the true path his heart is still unchanged, it’s only circumstances that have altered. Though I may be in the soot I’m no dirtier than the rest. I set up for being a doctor, and I trained as a teacher of Russian literature, and I wrote an article on Gogol, and thought of going to the gold-diggings, and meant to get married. A living soul longs for something sweet in life, and she consented, though I was so poor I had nothing to tempt a cat with. I was on the point of borrowing a pair of good boots for the marriage ceremony, for mine had been in holes for eighteen months. . . . But I didn’t get married. She married a teacher and I went as a counting-house clerk, not a commercial counting-house, but just a counting-house. But then the tune changed. Years have rolled by, and though I’m not in the service, I make enough to jog along: I take bribes without ruth and yet stand firm for the truth. I hunt with the hounds and I run with the hare. I have principles. I know, for instance, that one can’t fight single-handed, and I mind my own business. My business is chiefly in the confidential line, you understand.”
“You’re not some sort of detective, are you?”
“No, not exactly a detective, but I do take up jobs, partly professionally, and partly on my own account, It’s this way Vanya: I drink vodka. But as I haven’t drunk my wits away, I know what lies before me. My time is past; there’s no washing a black nag white. One thing I will say: if the man in me were not echoing still I should not have come up to you today, Vanya. You’re right, I’d met you and seen you before, and many a time I longed to speak, but still I didn’t dare, and put it off. I’m not worthy of you. And you were right, Vanya, when you said that I spoke this time only because I was drunk and though this is all awful rot we’ll finish with me now. We’d better talk of you. Well, my dear soul, I’ve read it! I’ve read. it through. I’m talking of your first-born. When I read it, I almost became a respectable man, my friend. I was almost becoming one, but I thought better of it, and preferred to remain a disreputable man. So there it is. . . .”
And he said much more. He got more and more drunk, and became very maudlin, almost lachrymose. Masloboev had always been a capital fellow, but cunning, and as it were precocious; he had been a shrewd, crafty, artful dodger from his school-days upwards, but he really had a good heart; he was a lost man. Among Russians there are many such. They often have great abilities, but everything seems topsy-turvy in them, and what’s more they are quite capable of acting against their conscience in certain cases through weakness, and not only come to ruin, but know beforehand that they are on the road to ruin. Masloboev, for instance, was drowning in vodka.
“One more word now, friend,” he went on. “I heard what a noise your fame made at first; I read several criticisms on you afterwards. (I really did; you imagine I never read anything.) I met you afterwards in shabby boots, in the mud without goulashes, with a battered hat, and I drew my own conclusions. You’re going in for being a journalist now, eh?”
“Joined the literary hacks, I suppose?”
“That’s about it.”
“Well, I tell you what then, my boy: drinking’s better. Here I drink; I lie on the sofa (and I have a capital sofa with springs), and I imagine myself Homer, or Dante, or some Frederick Barbarossa — one can fancy what one likes, you know, but you can’t fancy yourself a Dante, or a Frederick Barbarossa, in the first place because you want to be yourself, and secondly because all wishing is forbidden you; for you’re a literary hack. I have fancy, but you have reality. Listen, tell me openly straight-forwardly, speaking as a brother (if you won’t you’ll offend and humiliate me for ten years), don’t you want money? I’ve plenty. Oh, don’t make faces. Take some of it, pay off the entrepreneurs, throw off the yoke, then, when you’re secure of a year’s living, settle down to a cherished idea, write a great book. Eh? What do you say?”
“Listen, Masloboev! I appreciate your brotherly offer, but I can’t make any answer at present, and the reason why is a long story. There are circumstances. But I promise that I’ll tell you everything afterwards, like a brother. I thank you for your offer. I promise that I’ll come to you, and I’ll come often. But this is what I want to tell you. You have been open with me, and so I’ve made up my mind to ask your advice, especially as I believe you’re first-rate in such affairs.”
I told him the whole story of Smith and his granddaughter, beginning with the scene in the restaurant. Strange to say, as I told my tale it seemed to me from his eyes that he knew something about the story. I asked him.
“No, not exactly,” he answered, “though I had heard something about Smith, a story of some old man dying in a restaurant. But I really do know something about Mme. Bubnov. Only two months ago I got some money out of that lady. je prends mon bien ou je le trouve, and that’s the only respect in which I am like Moliere. Though I squeezed a hundred roubles out of her, I vowed at the time I’d wring another five hundred out of her before I’d done. She’s a nasty woman! She’s in an unmentionable line of business. That wouldn’t matter, but sometimes it goes too far. Don’t imagine I’m a Don Quixote, please. The point is that I may make a very good thing of it, and when I met Sizobryuhov half an hour ago I was awfully pleased. Sizobryuhov was evidently brought here, and the fat man brought him, and as I know what the fat man’s special trade is, I conclude ... oh, well, I’ll show him up! I’m very glad I heard from you about that girl; it’s another clue for me. I undertake all sorts of private jobs, you know, and I know some queer people! I investigated a little affair for a prince not long ago, an affair, I tell you, one wouldn’t have expected from that prince. Or would you care to hear another story about a married woman? You come and see me, old man, and I shall have subjects ready for you that people will never believe in if you write about them. . . .”
“And what was the name of that prince?” I asked, with a foreboding of something.
“What do you want to know for? All right, it’s Valkovsky.”
“Yes. Do you know him?
“Yes, but not very well. Well, Masloboev, I shall come to you to inquire about that gentleman more than once again,” I said, getting up. “You’ve interested me greatly.”
“Well, old boy, you can come as often as you like. I can tell you fine tales, though only within certain limits, do you understand? Or else one loses one’s credit and honour, in business, that is, and all the rest of it.”
“All right, as far as honour permits.”
I was really agitated. He noticed it.
“Well, what do you say about the story I told you? Have you thought of something?”
“Your story? Well, wait a couple of minutes. I will pay.”
He went up to the buffet, and there, as though by chance, stood close by the young man in the tunic, who was so unceremoniously called Mitroshka. It seemed to me that Masloboev knew him a good deal better than he had admitted to me. Anyway, it was evident that they were not meeting for the first time.
Mitroshka was a rather original-looking fellow. In his sleeveless tunic and red silk shirt, with his sharp but handsome features, with his young-looking, swarthy face, and his bold, sparkling eyes he made a curious and not unattractive impression. There was an assumption of jauntiness in his gestures, and yet at the moment he was evidently restraining himself, aiming rather at an air of businesslike gravity and sedateness.
“Look here, Vanya,” said Masloboev, when he rejoined me, “look me up this evening at seven o’clock, and I may have something to tell you. By myself, you see, I’m no use; in old days I was, but now I’m only a drunkard and have got out of the way of things. But I’ve still kept my old connexions; I may find out something. I sniff about among all sorts of sharp people; that’s how I get on. In my free time, that is when I’m sober, I do something myself, it’s true, through friends, too . . . mostly in the investigation line.... But that’s neither here nor there. Enough. Here’s my address, in Shestilavotchny Street. But now, my boy, I’m really too far gone. I’ll swallow another — and home. I’ll lie down a bit. If you come I’ll introduce you to Alexandra Semyonovna, and if there’s time we’ll discuss poetry.”
“Well, and that too?”
“All right; that, too, perhaps.”
“Perhaps I will come. I’ll certainly come.”