Everything has grown quiet in Moscow. At rare, rare intervals the squeak of wheels is heard somewhere along the winter street. There are no lights in the windows now, and the street lamps are extinguished. From the churches float bell sounds which, as they sway above the sleeping city, remember the morning in prayer. The streets are empty. At rare intervals somewhere a nocturnal cab driver kneads sand and snow with narrow runners and, reaching the next corner, falls asleep, waiting for a fare. An old woman passes on her way to church where already, reflected on the golden mountings, asymmetrically placed wax candles burn with a rare, red light. Working folk are already rising after the long winter night, and going to their labours.
For the gentlefolk, however, it is still evening.
In one of the windows of Chevalier’s, light shines illegally from behind a closed shutter. At the entrance stand a carriage, a sleigh and cabs, their backs crowded close together. There is a post troika there, too. The yardkeeper, muffled up and shrinking from the cold, seems to be hiding round the corner of the house.
‘What are they beating the air about now?’ thinks the lackey who sits in the entrance hall with a pinched and sunken face. ‘This always happens when I’m on duty!’ From an adjacent brightly lit room come the voices of three young men who are having supper. They sit in the room at a table on which stand the remains of supper and wine. One of the men, small, rather neat, thin and not very good-looking, is watching his departing companion with tired, kindly eyes. Another, a tall man, lies beside the table that is strewn with empty bottles, toying with the key of his watch. A third, in a new-looking sheepskin jacket, is pacing about the room, stopping now and then to crack an almond in fingers that are rather thick and strong, but with clean nails, and keeps smiling at something; his eyes and face are burning. He speaks with warmth and gestures of the hands; but it is plain that he cannot find the words, and all the words that come to him seem inadequate to express everything that has welled up within his heart. He smiles all the time.
‘Now I can say everything!’ says the man who is leaving for the south. ‘It’s not that I’m trying to justify myself, but I should like you, at least, to understand me as I understand myself, and not in the way that vulgar opinion looks upon this matter. You say I am guilty in her regard,’ he says to the other, who is looking at him with kindly eyes.
‘Yes, you are,’ replies the small, not very good-looking man, and even more kindliness and weariness seem to be reflected in his gaze.
‘I know why you say that,’ the man who is leaving goes on. ‘You think that to be loved is as great a happiness as to love, and if a man once attains it, it will be enough to last him for the whole of his life.’
‘Yes, quite enough, my dear fellow! More than enough,’ continues the small, not very good-looking man, opening his eyes and closing them again.
‘But why shouldn’t one love, too?’ says the man who is leaving, falls into reflection and looks at his friend almost with compassion. ‘Why shouldn’t one be the one who loves? Love doesn’t come just like that. No, to be loved is a misfortune, it’s a misfortune when one feels guilty because one isn’t giving what one can’t give. Oh my God!’ He made a gesture with his arm. ‘I mean, if only it could have happened reasonably, and not all topsy-turvy: it always seems to happen in a way that’s somehow alien to us, and doesn’t suit us. Why, it’s as if I’d stolen that feeling of love. And you think the same; don’t try to deny it, you can’t help thinking so. But can you credit it: of all the stupid and vile things I’ve managed to do in my life, and there have been many, of this one thing alone I do not repent, and cannot repent. Neither at the beginning nor later on did I lie, either to myself or to her. It seemed to me that at last I had fallen in love, but then I saw it was an involuntary lie, that one cannot love like that, and I could go no further; and she went. Was I to blame because I couldn’t go on? What was I to do?’
‘Well, it’s all over now!’ said his friend, lighting a cigar in order to ward off sleep. ‘There’s just one thing: you haven’t yet been in love, and you don’t know what it means to be in love.’
The man in the sheepskin jacket was about to say something again, and he clutched his head. But what he wanted to say remained unsaid.
‘Haven’t been in love! No, it’s true, I haven’t. But on the other hand within me there’s a desire to love, and nothing could be stronger than that desire! But then again, does such a love even exist? Something unfinished always remains at the end. Well, what can one say? I’ve made a mess, made a mess of my life. But now it’s all over, you’re right. And I feel that a new life is beginning.’
‘Of which you will again make a mess,’ said the man who was lying on the sofa toying with the key of his watch; but the man who was leaving did not hear him.
‘I’m both sad and glad to be going,’ he continued. ‘Why sad? I don’t know.’
And the man who was leaving began to talk only about himself, failing to notice that this did not interest the others as much as it did him. A man is never such an egoist as at the moment of emotional rapture. It seems to him that at that moment there is nothing more excellent and interesting than himself.
‘Dmitry Andreich! The coachman won’t wait any longer!’ said a young house serf, entering in a fur coat, a scarf tied round his head. ‘The horses have been there since twelve, and it’s four now!’
Dmitry Andreich cast a glance at his servant Vanyusha. In Vanyusha’s scarf, in his felt boots, in his sleepy face, he heard the voice of a different life that summoned him – a life of toil, privations and activity.
‘Indeed it is! Farewell!’ he said, feeling for the undone fastener on his coat.
In spite of advice to give the coachman another tip, he put on his cap and stood in the middle of the room. The friends exchanged kisses once, twice, paused and then kissed for a third time. The man in the sheepskin jacket went over to the table, drank the glass of champagne that stood on it, took the small, not very good-looking man’s hand, and blushed.
‘No, I’ll say it all the same . . . I must and can be frank with you, because I love you. I mean, you love her, don’t you? I’ve always thought so – yes?
‘Yes,’ replied his friend, smiling even more gently.
‘And perhaps . . .’
‘If you please, sir, I’ve been told to put out the candles,’ said the sleepy lackey, who had listened to the last part of the conversation and wondered why the gentlefolk always talked about the same thing. ‘Whom shall I make the bill out to, sir? Yourself, sir?’ he added, turning to the tall man, and knowing in advance whom to turn to.
‘Yes, to me,’ said the tall man. ‘How much?’
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