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.