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Chapter 3, In the Veaborg Quarter ...
IN the Veaborg Quarter peace and quietness reigned supreme. They reigned in its unwashed streets, with their wooden sidewalks, and in its lean gardens amid the nettle-encumbered ditches, where a goat with a ragged cord around its neck was diligently engaged in cropping the herbage and snatching dull intervals of slumber. At midday, however, the high, smart boots of a clerk clattered along a sidewalk, the muslin curtain at a window was pulled aside to admit the features of a Civil Service official's lady, and for a brief moment there showed itself over a garden fence the fresh young face of a girl—then the face of a companion—then the face which had first appeared, as two maidens laughed and tittered during the process of swinging each other on a garden swing.
Also in the abode of Oblomov's landlady all was quiet. Had you entered the little courtyard, you would have happened upon an idyllic scene. The poultry would have started running hither and thither in fussy alarm, and the dogs given tongue in furious accents, while Akulina would have paused in her pursuit of milking the cow, and the dvornik in his task of chopping firewood, in order that they might gaze unhampered at the visitor. "Whom do you wish to see?" the dvornik would have inquired; and on your mentioning Oblomov's name, or that of the mistress of the house, he would have pointed to the steps of the front door, and then resumed his task of wood-chopping; whereupon the visitor would have followed the neat, sanded path to the steps (which he would have found covered with a plain, clean carpet of some sort), and, reaching for the brightly polished knob of the doorbell, would have had the door opened to him by Anisia, one of the children, the landlady herself, or Zakhar. Everything in Agafia Matvievna's establishment smacked of an opulence and a domestic sufficiency which had been lacking in the days when she had shared house with her brother, Tarantiev's bosom friend. The kitchen, the lumberroom, and the pantry were alike fitted with cupboards full of china, crockery, and household wares of every sort; while in cases were set out Oblomov's plate and articles of silver (long ago redeemed, and never since pledged). In short, the place abounded in such commodities as are to be found in the abode of every frugal housewife. Also, so carefully was everything packed in camphor and other preservatives that when Agafia Matvievna went to open the doors of the cupboards she could scarcely stand against the overwhelming perfume of mingled narcotics which came forth, and had to turn her head aside for a few moments. Hams hung from the ceiling of the storeroom (to avoid damage by mice), and, with them, cheeses, loaves of sugar, dried fish, and bags of nuts and preserved mushrooms. On a table stood tubs of butter, pots of sour cream, baskets of apples, and God knows what else besides, for it would require the pen of a second Homer to describe in full, and in detail, all that had become accumulated in the various corners and on the various floors of this little nest of domestic life. As for the kitchen, it was a veritable palladium of activity on the part of the mistress and her efficient assistant, Anisia. Everything was kept indoors and in its proper place; throughout there prevailed a system of orderliness and cleanliness ; and only into one particular nook of the house did a ray of light, a breath of air, the good housewife's eye, and the nimble, all-furbishing hand of the domestic never penetrate. That nook was Zakhar's den. Lacking a window, it was so constantly plunged in darkness that its resemblance to a lair rather than to a human habitation was rendered the more complete. Whenever Zakhar surprised in his den the mistress of the house (come thither to plan a cleaning or various improvements) he explained to her, in forcible terms, that it was not a woman's business to sweep out a place where faggots, blacking, and boots ought to lie, and that it mattered not a jot that clothes should be tossed in a heap on the floor, or that the bed in the stove corner had become overspread with dust, seeing that it was he, and not she, whose function it was to repose upon that bed. As for a besom, a few planks, a couple of bricks, the remains of a barrel, and two blocks of wood which he always kept in his room, he could not, he averred, get on in his domestic duties without them (though why that was so he left to the imagination). Finally, according to his own statement, neither the dust nor the cobwebs in the least inconvenienced him—to which he begged to add a reminder that, since he never obtruded his nose into the kitchen, he should be the more pleased if he could be left alone by those to whom the kitchen was at all times open. Once, when he surprised Anisia in his sanctum, he threatened her so furiously with uplifted fist that the case was referred to the court of superior instance—that is to say, to Oblomov himself, who walked supinely to the door of the den, inserted his head therein, scanned the apartment and its contents, sneezed, and returned mutely to his own quarters.
"What have you gained by it all?" said Zakhar to the mistress and her myrmidon, who had accompanied Oblomov, in the hope that his participation in the affair would lead to a change of some sort. Then the old valet laughed to himself in a way which twisted his eyebrows and whiskers askew.
In the other rooms of the house, however, everything looked bright and clean and fresh. The old stuff curtains had disappeared, and the doors and windows of the drawing-room and the study were hung with blue and green drapery and muslin curtains—the work of Agafia Matvievna's own hands. Indeed, for days at a time Oblomov, prone upon his sofa, had watched her bare elbows flicker to and fro as she plied needle and thread; nor had he once gone to sleep to the sound of thread being alternately inserted and bitten off, as had been his custom in the old days at Oblomovka.
"Enough of work," he had nevertheless said to her at intervals, "Pray cease your labours for a while."
"Nay," she had always replied, "God loves those who toil."
Nor was his coffee prepared for him with less care, attention, and skill than had been the case before he had changed his old quarters for his present ones. Giblet soup, macaroni with Parmesan cheese, soup concocted of kvass and herbs, home-fed pullets—all these dishes succeeded one another in regular rotation, and by so doing helped to make agreeable breaks in the otherwise monotonous routine of the little establishment. Nor did the sun, whenever shining, fail to brighten his room from morning till night—thanks to the fact that the market-gardens on either side of the building prevented that luminary's rays from being shaded off by any obstacle. Outside, ducks quacked cheerfully, while, within, a geranium, added to a few hyacinths which the children had brought home, filled the little apartment with a perfume which mingled pleasantly with the smoke of Havana cigars and the scent of the cinnamon or the vanilla which the mistress of the house would be preparing with bare, energetic arms.
Thus Oblomov lived in a sort of gilded cage—a cage within which, as in a diorama, the only changes included alternations of day and night and of the seasons. Of changes of the disturbing kind which stir up the sediment from the bottom of life's bowl—a sediment only too frequently both bitter and obnoxious—there were none. Ever since the day when Schtoltz had cleared him of debt, and Tarantiev and Tarantiev's friend had taken themselves off for good, every adverse element had disappeared from Oblomov's existence, and there surrounded him only good, kind, sensible folk who had agreed to underpin his existence with theirs, and to help him not to notice it, nor to feel it, as it pursued its even course. Everything was, as it were, at peace, and of that peace, that inertia, Oblomov represented the complete, the natural, embodiment and expression. After passing in review and considering his mode of life, he had sunk deeper and deeper therein, until finally he had come to the conclusion that he had no farther to go, and nothing farther to seek, and that the ideal of his life would best be preserved where he was—albeit without poetry, without those finer shades wherewith his imagination had once painted for him a spacious, careless course of manorial life on his own estate and among his own peasantry and servants.
Upon his present mode of life he looked as a continuation of the Oblomovkan existence (only with a different colouring of locality, and, to a certain extent, of period). Here, as at Oblomovka, he had succeeded in escaping life, in driving a bargain with it, and ensuring to himself an inviolable seclusion. Inwardly he congratulated himself on having left behind him the irksome, irritating demands and menaces of mundane existence—on having placed a great distance between himself and the horizon where there may be seen flashing the lightning-bolts of keen pleasure, and whence come the thunder-peals of sudden affliction, and where flicker the false hopes and the splendid visions of average happiness, and where independence of thought gradually engulfs and devours a man, and where passion slays him outright, and where the intellect fails or triumphs, and where humanity engages in constant warfare, and leaves the field of battle in a state of exhaustion and of ever-unsatisfied, ever-insatiable desire. Never having experienced the consolations to be won in combat, he had none the less renounced them, and felt at ease only in a remote corner to which action and fighting and the actual living of life were alike strangers.
Yet moments there were when his imagination stirred within him again, and when there recurred to his mind forgotten memories and unrealized dreams, and when he felt in his conscience whispered reproaches for having made of his life so little as he had done. And whenever that occurred he slept restlessly, awoke at intervals, leaped out of bed, and shed chill tears of hopelessness over the bright ideal that was now extinguished for ever. He shed them as folk shed them over a dead friend whom with bitter regret they recognize to have been neglected during his lifetime. Then he would glance at his surroundings, hug to himself his present blessings, and grow comforted on noting how quietly, how restfully, the sun was rising amid a blaze of glory. Thus he had come to a decision that not only was his life compounded in the best manner for expressing the possibilities to which the idealistic-peaceful side of human existence may attain, but also that it had been expressly created for, and preordained to, that purpose. To others, he reflected, let it fall to express life's restless aspects ; to others let it be given to exercise forces of construction and destruction; to each man be allotted his true métier.
Such the philosophy which our Plato of Oblomovka elaborated for the purpose of lulling himself to sleep amid the problems and the stern demands of duty and of destiny. He had been bred and nourished to play the part, not of a gladiator in the arena but of a peaceful onlooker at the struggle. Never could his diffident, lethargic spirit have faced either the raptures or the blows of life. Hence he expressed only one of its aspects, and had no mind either to succeed in it, or to change anything in it, or to repent of his decision. As the years flowed on both emotion and repining came to manifest themselves at rarer and rarer intervals, until, by quiet, imperceptible degrees, he became finally interned in the plain, otiose tomb of retirement which he had fashioned with his own hands, even as desert anchorites who have turned from the world dig for themselves a material sepulchre. Of reorganizing his estate, and removing thither with his household, he had given up all thought. The steward whom Schtoltz had placed in charge of Oblomovka regularly sent him the income therefrom, and the peasantry proffered him flour and poultry at Christmastide, and everything on the estate was prospering.
Meanwhile he ate heartily and much, even as he had done at Oblomovka. Also, he walked and worked sluggishly and little—again, as he had done at Oblomovka. Lastly, in spite of his advancing years, he drank beer and vodka à raisin with complete insouciance, and took to sleeping ever more and more protractedly after dinner.
But suddenly a change occurred. One day, after his usual quota of slumber and day dreams, he tried to rise from the sofa, but failed, and his tongue refused to obey him. Terrified, he could compass only a gesture when he tried to call for help. Had he been living with Zakhar alone, he might have continued to signal for assistance until next morning, or have died, and not been found there till the following day; but, as it was, the eyes of his landlady had been watching over him like the eyes of Providence itself, and it cost her no skill of wit, but only an instinct of the heart, to divine that all was not well with Oblomov. No sooner had the instinct dawned upon her than Anisia was dispatched in a cab for a doctor, while Agafia Matvievna herself applied ice to the patient's head, and extracted from her medicine chest the whole armoury of smelling-bottles and fomentations which custom and report had designated for use at such a juncture. Even Zakhar managed to get one of his boots on, and, thus shod, to fuss around his master in company with the doctor, the mistress of the house, and Anisia.
At length, blood having been let, Oblomov returned to consciousness, and was informed that he had just sustained an apoplectic stroke, and that he must adopt a different course of life. Henceforth, vodka, beer, wine, coffee, and rich food were, with certain exceptions, to be prohibited, while in their place there were prescribed for him daily exercise and a regular amount of sleep of an exclusively nocturnal nature. Even then these remedies would have come to nothing but for Agafia Matvievna's watchfulness; but she had the wit so to introduce the system that the entire household involuntarily assisted in its working. Thus, partly by cunning and partly by kindness, she contrived to wean Oblomov from his attractive indulgences in wine, postprandial slumber, and fish pasties. For instance, as soon as ever he began to doze, either a chair would be upset in an adjoining room, or, of its own volition, some old and worthless crockery would begin flying into splinters, or the children would start making a noise, and be told, fortissimo, to be gone. Lastly, should even this not prove effective, her own kindly voice would be heard calling to him, in order to ask him some question or another.
Also, the garden path was lengthened, and on it Oblomov accomplished, morning and evening, a constitutional of some two hours' duration. With him there would walk the landlady—or, if she could not attend, one of the children, or his old friend, the irresponsible and to every man both humble and agreeable Alexiev. One morning Oblomov, leaning on the boy Vania's arm, slowly paced the path. By this time Vania had grown into almost a youth, and found it hard to restrict his brisk, rapid step to Oblomov's more tardy gait. As the elder man walked he made little use of one of his legs, which was a trace of the stroke which he had recently sustained.
"Let us go indoors now, Vaniushka," he said; wherefore they directed their steps towards the door. But to meet them there issued Agafia Matvievna.
"Why are you coming in so early?" she inquired.
"Early, indeed? Why, we have paced the path twenty times each way, and from here to the fence is a distance of fifty sazhens; wherefore we have covered two versts in all."
"And how many times do you say you have paced it?" she inquired of Vania.
"Do not lie, but look me straight in the face," she continued, fixing him with her gaze. "I have been watching you the whole time. Remember next Sunday. Possibly I might not let you go to the party that night."
"Well, mother," the boy said at length, "we have paced the path only twelve times."
"Ah, you rogue!" exclaimed Oblomov. "You were nipping off acacia-leaves all the time, whereas I was keeping the most careful account."
"Then you must go and do some more walking," decided the landlady. "Besides, the fish soup is not yet ready." And she closed the door upon the pair.
Oblomov, much against his will, completed another eight pacings of the path, and then entered the dining-room. On the large round table the fish soup was now steaming, and all hastened to take their usual seats—Oblomov in solitary state on the sofa, the landlady on his right, and the rest in due sequence.
"I will help you to this herring, as it is the fattest," said Agafia Matvievna.
"Very well," he remarked. "Only, I think that a pie would go well with it."
"Oh dear! I have forgotten the pies! I meant to make some last night, but my memory is all gone to pieces!" The artful Agafia Matvievna! "Besides, I am afraid that I have forgotten the cutlets and the cabbage. In fact, you must not expect very much of a dinner to-day." This was addressed ostensibly to Alexiev.
"Never mind," he replied. "I can eat anything."
"But why not cook him some pork and peas, or a beef-steak?" asked Oblomov.
"I did go to the butcher's for a beefsteak, but there was not a single morsel of good beef left. However, I have made Monsieur Alexiev a cherry compôte instead. I know he likes that." The truth was that cherry compôte was not bad for Oblomov wherefore the complacent Alexiev had no choice but both to eat it and to like it.
After dinner no power on earth could prevent Oblomov from assuming a recumbent position; so, to obviate his going to sleep, the landlady was accustomed to place beside him his coffee, and then to inspire her children to play games on the floor, so that, willy-nilly, Oblomov should be forced to join in their sport. Presently she withdrew to the kitchen to see if the coffee was yet ready, and, meanwhile, the children's clatter died away. Almost at once a gentle snore arose in the room—then a louder one—then one louder still; and when Agafia Matvievna returned with the steaming coffee-pot she encountered such a volume of snoring as would have done credit to a post-house.
Angrily she shook her head at Alexiev.
"It is not my fault," he said deprecatingly. "I tried to stir up the children, but they would not listen to me."
Swiftly depositing the coffee-pot upon the table, she caught up little Andriusha from the floor, and gently seated him upon the sofa by Oblomov's side; whereupon the child wriggled towards him, climbed his form until he had reached his face, and grasped him firmly by the nose.
"Hi! Hullo! Who is that?" cried Oblomov uneasily as he opened his eyes.
"You had gone to sleep, so Andriusha climbed on to the sofa and awoke you," replied the landlady kindly.
"I had gone to sleep, indeed?" retorted Oblomov, laying his arm around the little one. "Do you think I did not hear him creeping along on all fours? Why, I hear everything. To think of the little rascal catching me by the nose! I'll give it him! But there, there." Tenderly embracing the child, he deposited him on the floor again, and heaved a profound sigh. "Tell us the news, Ivan Alexiev," he said.
"You have heard it all. I have nothing more to tell."
"How so? You go into society, and I do not. Is there nothing new in the political world?"
"It is being said that the earth is growing colder every day, and that one day it will become frozen altogether."
"Away with you! Is that politics?"
A silence ensued. Oblomov quietly relapsed into a state of coma that was neither sleeping nor waking. He merely let his thoughts wander at will, without concentrating them upon anything in particular as calmly he listened to the beating of his heart and occasionally blinked his eyes. Thus he sank into a vague, enigmatical condition which partook largely of the nature of hallucination. In rare instances there come to a man fleeting moments of abstraction when he seems to be reliving past stages of his life. Whether he has previously beheld in sleep the phenomena which are passing before his vision, or whether he has gone through a previous existence and has since forgotten it, we cannot say; but at all events he can see the same persons around him as were present in the first instance, and hear the same words as were uttered then.
So was it with Oblomov now. Gradually there spread itself about him the hush which he had known long ago. He could hear the beating of the well-known pendulum, the snapping of the thread as it was bitten off, and the repetition of familiar whispered sentences like "I cannot make the thread go through the eye of the needle. Pray do it for me, Masha—your eyesight is keener than mine."
Lazily, mechanically he looked into his landlady's face; and straightway from the recesses of his memory there arose a picture which, somewhere, had been well known to him.
To his vision there dawned the great, dark drawing-room in the house of his youth, lit by a single candle. At the table his mother and her guests were sitting over their needlework, while his father was silently pacing up and down. Somehow the present and the past had become fused and interchanged, so that, as the little Oblomov, he was dreaming that at length he had reached the enchanted country where the rivers run milk and honey, and bread can be obtained without toil, and every one walks clad in gold and silver.
Once again he could hear the old legends and the old folk-tales, mingled with the clatter of knives and crockery in the kitchen. Once again he was pressing close to his nurse to listen to her tremulous, old woman's voice. "That is Militrissa Kirbitievna," she was saying as she pointed to the figure of his landlady. Also, the same clouds seemed to be floating in the blue zenith that used to float there of yore, and the same wind to be blowing in at the window, and ruffling his hair, and the same cock of the Oblomovkan poultry-yard to be strutting and crowing below. Suddenly a dog barked. Some other guest must be arriving! Would it be old Schtoltz and his little boy from Verklevo? Yes, probably, for to-day is a holiday. And in very truth it is they—he can hear their footsteps approaching nearer and nearer! The door opens, and "Andrei!" he exclaims excitedly, for there, sure enough, stands his friend—but now grown to manhood, and no longer a little boy! …