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Chapter 10

  • We were approaching Christmas. The weather of these weeks was wonderfull_eautiful, sharply cold, the sky pale bird's-egg blue, the ice and the sno_littering, shining with a thousand colours. There began now a strang_elationship between Markovitch and myself.
  • There was something ineffectual and pessimistic about me that made Russian_ften feel in me a kindred soul. At the Front, Russians had confided in m_gain and again, but that was not astonishing, because they confided in ever_ne. Nevertheless, they felt that I was less English than the rest, and rathe_lamed me in their minds, I think, for being so. I don't know what it was tha_uddenly decided Markovitch to "make me part of his life." I certainly did no_n my side make any advances.
  • One evening he came to see me and stayed for hours. Then he came two or thre_imes within the following fortnight. He gave me the effect of not caring i_he least whether I were there or no, whether I replied or remained silent,
  • whether I asked questions or simply pursued my own work. And I, on my side,
  • had soon in my consciousness his odd, irascible, nervous, pleading, shy an_oastful figure painted permanently, so that his actual physical presenc_eemed to be unimportant. There he was, as he liked to stand up against th_hite stove in my draughty room, his rather dirty nervous hands waving i_ront of me, his thin hair on end, his ragged beard giving his eyes an adde_xpression of anxiety. His body was a poor affair, his legs thin an_ncertain, an incipient stomach causing his waistcoat suddenly to fall inward_omewhere half-way up his chest, his feet in ill-shapen boots, and his nec_bsurdly small inside his high stiff collar. His stiff collar jutting sharpl_nto his weak chin was perhaps his most striking feature. Most Russians of hi_areless habits wore soft collars or students' shirts that fastened tigh_bout the neck, but this high white collar was with Markovitch a sign and _ymbol, the banner of his early ambitions; it was the first and last of him.
  • He changed it every day, it was always high and sharp, gleaming and clean, an_t must have hurt him very much. He wore with it a shabby black tie that ra_s far up the collar as it could go, and there was a sense of pathos an_truggle about this tie as though it were a wild animal trying to escape ove_n imprisoning wall. He would stand clutching my stove as though it assure_is safety in a dangerous country; then suddenly he would break away from i_nd start careering up and down my room, stopping for an instant to gaz_hrough my window at the sea and the ships, then off again, swinging his arms,
  • his anxious eyes searching everywhere for confirmation of the ambitions tha_till enflamed him.
  • For the root and soul of him was that he was greatly ambitious. He had bee_orn, I learnt, in some small town in the Moscow province, and his father ha_een a schoolmaster in the place—a kind of Perodonov, I should imagine, fro_he things that Markovitch told me about him. The father, at any rate, was _ean, malicious, and grossly sensual creature, and he finally lost his pos_hrough his improper behaviour towards some of his own small pupils. Th_amily then came to evil days, and at a very early age young Markovitch wa_ent to Petrograd to earn what he could with his wits. He managed to secur_he post of a secretary to an old fellow who was engaged in writing the lif_f his grandfather—a difficult book, as the grandfather had been a voluminou_etter-writer, and this correspondence had to be collected and tabulated. Fo_onths, and even years, young Markovitch laboriously endeavoured to arrang_hese old yellow letters, dull, pathetic, incoherent. His patron grew slowl_mbecile, but through the fogs that increasingly besieged him saw only thi_ne thing clearly, that the letters must be arranged. He kept Markovitc_elentlessly at his table, allowing him no pleasures, feeding him miserabl_nd watching him personally undress every evening lest he should have secrete_ertain letters somewhere on his body. There was something almost sadis_pparently in the old gentleman's observation of Markovitch's labours.
  • It was during these years that Markovitch's ambitions took flame. He wa_lways as he told me having "amazing ideas." I asked him—What kind of ideas?
  • "Ideas by which the world would be transformed…. Those letters were all old,
  • you know, and dusty, and yellow, and eaten, some of them, by rats, and they'_ie on the floor and I'd try to arrange them in little piles according t_heir dates…. There'd be rows of little packets all across the floor…, an_hen somehow, when one's back was turned, they'd move, all of their own wicke_urpose—and one would have to begin all over again, bending with one's bac_ching, and seeing always the stupid handwriting…. I hated it, Iva_ndreievitch, of course I hated it, but I had to do it for the money. And _ived in his house, too, and as he got madder it wasn't pleasant. He wanted m_o sleep with him because he saw things in the middle of the night, and he'_atch hold of me and scream and twist his fat legs round me… no, it wasn'_greeable.  _On ne sympatichne saff-szem_. He wasn't a nice man at all. Bu_hile I was sorting the letters these ideas would come to me and I would be o_ire…. It seemed to me that I was to save the world, and that it would not b_ifficult if only one might be resolute enough. That was the trouble—to b_esolute. One might say to oneself, 'On Friday October 13th I will do so an_o, and then on Saturday November 3rd I will do so and so, and then o_ecember 24th it will be finished.' But then on October 13th one is, may be,
  • in quite another mood—one is even ill possibly—and so nothing is done and th_hole plan is ruined. I would think all day as to how I would make mysel_esolute, and I would say when old Feodor Stepanovitch would pinch my ear an_eny me more soup, 'Ah ha, you wait, you old pig-face—you wait until I'v_astered my resolution—and then I'll show you!' I fancied, for instance, tha_f I could command myself sufficiently I could just go to people and say, 'Yo_ust have bath-houses like this and this'—I had all the plans ready, you know,
  • and in the hottest room you have couches like this, and you have a machin_hat beats your back—so, so, so—not those dirty old things that leave bits o_reen stuff all over you—and so on, and so on. But better ideas than that,
  • ideas about poverty and wealth, no more kings, you know, nor police, but no_our cheap Socialism that fellows like Boris Nicolaievitch shout about; no,
  • real happiness, so that no one need work as I did for an old beast who didn'_ive you enough soup, and have to keep quiet, all the same and say nothing.
  • Ideas came like flocks of birds, so many that I couldn't gather them all bu_ad sometimes to let the best ones go. And I had no one to talk to abou_hem—only the old cook and the girl in the kitchen, who had a child by ol_eodor that he wouldn't own,—but she swore it was his, and told every one th_ime when it happened and where it was and all…. Then the old man fel_ownstairs and broke his neck, and he'd left me some money to go on with th_etters…."
  • At this point Markovitch's face would become suddenly triumphantly malevolent,
  • like the face of a schoolboy who remembers a trick that he played on a hate_aster. "Do you think I went on with them, Ivan Andreievitch? no, not I… but _ept the money."
  • "That was wrong of you," I would say gravely.
  • "Yes—wrong of course. But hadn't he been wrong always? And after all, isn'_verybody wrong? We Russians have no conscience, you know, about anything, an_hat's simply because we can't make up our minds as to what's wrong and what'_ight, and even if we do make up our minds it seems a pity not to let yoursel_o when you may be dead to-morrow. Wrong and right…. What words!… Who knows?
  • Perhaps it would have been the greatest wrong in the world to go on with th_etters, wasting everybody's time, and for myself, too, who had so many ideas,
  • that life simply would never be long enough to think them all out."
  • It seemed that shortly after this he had luck with a little invention, an_his piece of luck was, I should imagine, the ruin of his career, as pieces o_uck so often are the ruin of careers. I could never understand what precisel_is invention was, it had something to do with the closing of doors, somethin_hat you pulled at the bottom of the door, so that it shut softly and didn'_reak with the wind. A Jew bought the invention, and gave Markovitch enoug_oney to lead him confidently to believe that his fortune was made. Of cours_t was not, he never had luck with an invention again, but he was burstin_ith pride and happiness, set up house for himself in a little flat on th_assily Ostrov—and met Vera Michailovna. I wish I could give some true idea o_he change that came over him when he reached this part of his story. When h_ad spoken of his childhood, his father, his first struggles to live, his lif_ith his old patron, he had not attempted to hide the evil, the malice, th_nvy that there was in his soul. He had even emphasised it, I might fancy, fo_y own especial benefit, so that I might see that he was not such a weak,
  • romantic, sentimental creature as I had supposed—although God knows I ha_ever fancied him romantic. Now when he spoke of his wife his whole bod_hanged. "She married me out of pity," he told me. "I hated her for that, an_ loved her for that, and I hate and love her for it still."
  • Here I interrupted him and told him that perhaps it was better that he shoul_ot confide in me the inner history of his marriage.
  • "Why not?" he asked me suspiciously.
  • "Because I'm only an acquaintance, you scarcely know me. You may regret i_fterwards when you're in another mood."
  • "Oh, you English!" he said contemptuously; "you're always to be trusted. As _ation you're not, but as one man to another you're not interested enough i_uman nature to give away secrets."
  • "Well, tell me what you like," I said. "Only I make no promises abou_nything."
  • "I don't want you to," he retorted; "I'm only telling you what every on_nows. Wasn't I aware from the first moment that she married me out of pity,
  • and didn't they all know it, and laugh and tell her she was a fool. She kne_hat she was a fool too, but she was very young, and thought it fine t_acrifice herself for an idea. I was ill and I talked to her about my future.
  • She believed in it, she thought I could do wonderful things if only some on_ooked after me. And at the same time despised me for wanting to be looke_fter…. And then I wasn't so ugly as I am now. She had some money of her own,
  • and we took in lodgers, and I loved her, as I love her now, so that I coul_iss her feet and then hate her because she was kind to me. She only cares fo_er sister, Nina; and because I was jealous of the girl and hated to see Ver_ood to her I had her to live with us, just to torture myself and show that _as stronger than all of them if I liked…. And so I am, than her beastly uncl_he doctor and all the rest of them—let him do what he likes…."
  • It was the first time that he had mentioned Semyonov.
  • "He's coming back," I said.
  • "Oh, is he?" snarled Markovitch. "Well, he'd better look out." Then his voice,
  • his face, even the shape of his body, changed once again. "I'm not a bad man,
  • Ivan Andreievitch. No, I'm not…. You think so of course, and I don't mind i_ou do. But I love Vera, and if she loved me I could do great things. I coul_stonish them all. I hear them say, 'Ah, that Nicholas Markovitch, he's n_ood… with his inventions. What did a fine woman like that marry such a ma_or?' I know what they say. But I'm strong if I like. I gave up drink when _ished. I can give up anything. And when I succeed they'll see—and then we'l_ave enough money not to need these people staying with us and despising us…."
  • "No one despises you, Nicolai Leontievitch," I interrupted.
  • "And what does it matter if they do?" he fiercely retorted. "I despis_hem—all of them. It's easy for them when everything goes well with them, bu_ith me everything goes wrong. Everything!… But I'm strong enough to mak_verything go right—and I will."
  • This was, for the time, the end of his confidences. He had, I was sure,
  • something further to tell me, some plan, some purpose, but he decided suddenl_hat he would keep it to himself, although I am convinced that he had onl_old me his earlier story in order that I might understand this new idea o_is. But I did not urge him to tell me. My interest in life had not ye_ufficiently revived; it was, after all, none of my business.
  • For the rest, it seemed that he had been wildly enthusiastic about the war a_ts commencement. He had had great ideas about Russia, but now he had given u_ll hope. Russia was doomed; and Germany, whom he hated and admired, would ea_er up. And what did it matter? Perhaps Germany would "run Russia," and the_here would be order and less thieving, and this horrible war would stop. Ho_oolish it had been to suppose that any one in Russia would ever do anything.
  • They were all fools and knaves and idle in Russia—like himself.
  • And so he left me.