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The Story Of A Provincial THE director said to me: "I only keep you out of respect for your worthy father, or you would have gone long since." I replied: "You flatter me, your Excellency, but I suppose I am in a position to go." And then I heard him saying: "Take the fellow away, he is getting on my nerves." Two days later I was dismissed. Ever since I had been grown up, to the great sorrow of my father, the municipal architect, I had changed my position nine times, going from one department to another, but all the departments were as like each other as drops of water; I had to sit and write, listen to inane and rude remarks, and just wait until I was dismissed. When I told my father, he was sitting back in his chair with his eyes shut. His thin, dry face, with a dove-coloured tinge where he shaved (his face was like that of an old Catholic organist), wore an expression of meek submission. Without answering my greeting or opening his eyes, he said: "If my dear wife, your mother, were alive, your life would be a constant grief to her. I can see the hand of Providence in her untimely d**h. Tell me, you unhappy boy," he went on, opening his eyes, "what am I to do with you?" When I was younger my relations and friends knew what to do with me; some advised me to go into the army as a volunteer, others were for pharmacy, others for the telegraph service; but now that I was twenty-four and was going grey at the temples and had already tried the army and pharmacy and the telegraph service, and every possibility seemed to be exhausted, they gave me no more advice, but only sighed and shook their heads. "What do you think of yourself?" my father went on. "At your age other young men have a good social position, and just look at yourself: a lazy lout, a beggar, living on your father!" And, as usual, he went on to say that young men were going to the dogs through want of faith, materialism, and conceit, and that amateur theatricals should be prohibited because they seduce young people from religion and their duty. "To-morrow we will go together, and you shall apologise to the director and promise to do your work conscientiously," he concluded. "You must not be without a position in society for a single day." "Please listen to me," said I firmly, though I did not anticipate gaining anything by speaking. "What you call a position in society is the privilege of capital and education. But people who are poor and uneducated have to earn their living by hard physical labour, and I see no reason why I should be an exception." "It is foolish and trivial of you to talk of physical labour," said my father with some irritation. "Do try to understand, you idiot, and get it into your brainless head, that in addition to physical strength you have a divine spirit; a sacred fire, by which you are distinguished from an a** or a reptile and bringing you nigh to God. This sacred fire has been kept alight for thousands of years by the best of mankind. Your great-grandfather, General Pologniev, fought at Borodino; your grandfather was a poet, an orator, and a marshal of the nobility; your uncle was an educationalist; and I, your father, am an architect! Have all the Polognievs kept the sacred fire alight for you to put it out?" "There must be justice," said I. "Millions of people have to do manual labour." "Let them. They can do nothing else! Even a fool or a criminal can do manual labour. It is the mark of a slave and a barbarian, whereas the sacred fire is given only to a few!" It was useless to go on with the conversation. My father worshipped himself and would not be convinced by anything unless he said it himself. Besides, I knew quite well that the annoyance with which he spoke of unsk**ed labour came not so much from any regard for the sacred fire, as from a secret fear that I should become a working man and the talk of the town. But the chief thing was that all my schoolfellows had long ago gone through the University and were making careers for themselves, and the son of the director of the State Bank was already a collegiate a**essor, while I, an only son, was nothing! It was useless and unpleasant to go on with the conversation, but I still sat there and raised objections in the hope of making myself understood. The problem was simple and clear: how was I to earn my living? But he could not see its simplicity and kept on talking with sugary rounded phrases about Borodino and the sacred fire, and my uncle, and the forgotten poet who wrote bad, insincere verses, and he called me a brainless fool. But how I longed to be understood! In spite of everything, I loved my father and my sister, and from boyhood I have had a habit of considering them, so strongly rooted that I shall probably never get rid of it; whether I am right or wrong I am always afraid of hurting them, and go in terror lest my father's thin neck should go red with anger and he should have an apoplectic fit. "It is shameful and degrading for a man of my age to sit in a stuffy room and compete with a typewriting-machine," I said. "What has that to do with the sacred fire?" "Still, it is intellectual work," said my father. "But that's enough. Let us drop the conversation and I warn you that if you refuse to return to your office and indulge your contemptible inclinations, then you will lose my love and your sister's. I shall cut you out of my will—that I swear, by God!" With perfect sincerity, in order to show the purity of my motives, by which I hope to be guided all through my life, I said: "The matter of inheritance does not strike me as important. I renounce any rights I may have." For some unexpected reason these words greatly offended my father. He went purple in the face. "How dare you talk to me like that, you fool!" he cried to me in a thin, shrill voice. "You scoundrel!" And he struck me quickly and dexterously with a familiar movement; once—twice. "You forget yourself!" When I was a boy and my father struck me, I used to stand bolt upright like a soldier and look him straight in the face; and, exactly as if I were still a boy, I stood erect, and tried to look into his eyes. My father was old and very thin, but his spare muscles must have been as strong as whip-cord, for he hit very hard. I returned to the hall, but there he seized his umbrella and struck me several times over the head and shoulders; at that moment my sister opened the drawing-room door to see what the noise was, but immediately drew back with an expression of pity and horror, and said not one word in my defence. My intention not to return to the office, but to start a new working life, was unshakable. It only remained to choose the kind of work—and there seemed to be no great difficulty about that, because I was strong, patient, and willing. I was prepared to face a monotonous, laborious life, of semi-starvation, filth, and rough surroundings, always overshadowed with the thought of finding a job and a living. And—who knows—returning from work in the Great Gentry Street, I might often envy Dolyhikov, the engineer, who lives by intellectual work, but I was happy in thinking of my coming troubles. I used to dream of intellectual activity, and to imagine myself a teacher, a doctor, a writer, but my dreams remained only dreams. A liking for intellectual pleasures—like the theatre and reading—grew into a pa**ion with me, but I did not know whether I had any capacity for intellectual work. At school I had an unconquerable aversion for the Greek language, so that I had to leave when I was in the fourth cla**. Teachers were got to coach me up for the fifth cla**, and then I went into various departments, spending most of my time in perfect idleness, and this, I was told, was intellectual work. My activity in the education department or in the municipal office required neither mental effort, nor talent, nor personal ability, nor creative spiritual impulse; it was purely mechanical, and such intellectual work seemed to me lower than manual labour. I despise it and I do not think that it for a moment justifies an idle, careless life, because it is nothing but a swindle, and only a kind of idleness. In all probability I have never known real intellectual work. It was evening. We lived in Great Gentry Street—the chief street in the town—and our rank and fashion walked up and down it in the evenings, as there were no public gardens. The street was very charming, and was almost as good as a garden, for it had two rows of poplar-trees, which smelt very sweet, especially after rain, and acacias, and tall trees, and apple-trees hung over the fences and hedges. May evenings, the scent of the lilac, the hum of the co*kchafers, the warm, still air—how new and extraordinary it all is, though spring comes every year! I stood by the gate and looked at the pa**ers-by. With most of them I had grown up and had played with them, but now my presence might upset them, because I was poorly dressed, in unfashionable clothes, and people made fun of my very narrow trousers and large, clumsy boots, and called them macaroni-on-steamboats. And I had a bad reputation in the town because I had no position and went to play billiards in low cafés, and had once been taken up, for no particular offence, by the political police. In a large house opposite, Dolyhikov's, the engineer's, some one was playing the piano. It was beginning to get dark and the stars were beginning to shine. And slowly, answering people's salutes, my father pa**ed with my sister on his arm. He was wearing an old top hat with a broad curly brim. "Look!" he said to my sister, pointing to the sky with the very umbrella with which he had just struck me. "Look at the sky! Even the smallest stars are worlds! How insignificant man is in comparison with the universe." And he said this in a tone that seemed to convey that he found it extremely flattering and pleasant to be so insignificant. What an untalented man he was! Unfortunately, he was the only architect in the town, and during the last fifteen or twenty years I could not remember one decent house being built. When he had to design a house, as a rule he would draw first the hall and the drawing-room; as in olden days schoolgirls could only begin to dance by the fireplace, so his artistic ideas could only evolve from the hall and drawing-room. To them he would add the dining-room, nursery, study, connecting them with doors, so that in the end they were just so many pa**ages, and each room had two or three doors too many. His houses were obscure, extremely confused, and limited. Every time, as though he felt something was missing, he had recourse to various additions, plastering them one on top of the other, and there would be various lobbies, and pa**ages, and crooked staircases leading to the entresol, where it was only possible to stand in a stooping position, and where instead of a floor there would be a thin flight of stairs like a Russian bath, and the kitchen would always be under the house with a vaulted ceiling and a brick floor. The front of his houses always had a hard, stubborn expression, with stiff, French lines, low, squat roofs, and fat, pudding-like chimneys surmounted with black cowls and squeaking weatherco*ks. And somehow all the houses built by my father were like each other, and vaguely reminded me of a top hat, and the stiff, obstinate back of his head. In the course of time the people of the town grew used to my father's lack of talent, which took root and became our style. My father introduced the style into my sister's life. To begin with, he gave her the name of Cleopatra (and he called me Misail). When she was a little girl he used to frighten her by telling her about the stars and our ancestors; and explained the nature of life and duty to her at great length; and now when she was twenty-six he went on in the same way, allowing her to take no one's arm but his own, and somehow imagining that sooner or later an ardent young man would turn up and wish to enter into marriage with her out of admiration for his qualities. And she adored my father, was afraid of him, and believed in his extraordinary intellectual powers. It got quite dark and the street grew gradually empty. In the house opposite the music stopped. The gate was wide open and out into the street, careering with all its bells jingling, came a troika. It was the engineer and his daughter going for a drive. Time to go to bed! I had a room in the house, but I lived in the courtyard in a hut, under the same roof as the coach-house, which had been built probably as a harness-room—for there were big nails in the walls—but now it was not used, and my father for thirty years had kept his newspapers there, which for some reason he had bound half-yearly and then allowed no one to touch. Living there I was less in touch with my father and his guests, and I used to think that if I did not live in a proper room and did not go to the house every day for meals, my father's reproach that I was living on him lost some of its sting. My sister was waiting for me. She had brought me supper unknown to my father; a small piece of cold veal and a slice of bread. In the family there were sayings: "Money loves an account," or "A copeck saves a rouble," and so on, and my sister, impressed by such wisdom, did her best to cut down expenses and made us feed rather meagrely. She put the plate on the table, sat on my bed, and began to cry. "Misail," she said, "what are you doing to us?" She did not cover her face, her tears ran down her cheeks and hands, and her expression was sorrowful. She fell on the pillow, gave way to her tears, trembling all over and sobbing. "You have left your work again!" she said. "How awful!" "Do try to understand, sister!" I said, and because she cried I was filled with despair. As though it were deliberately arranged, the paraffin in my little lamp ran out, and the lamp smoked and guttered, and the old hooks in the wall looked terrible and their shadows flickered. "Spare us!" said my sister, rising up. "Father is in an awful state, and I am ill. I shall go mad. What will become of you?" she asked, sobbing and holding out her hands to me. "I ask you, I implore you, in the name of our dear mother, to go back to your work." "I cannot, Cleopatra," I said, feeling that only a little more would make me give in. "I cannot." "Why?" insisted my sister, "why? If you have not made it up with your chief, look for another place. For instance, why shouldn't you work on the railway? I have just spoken to Aniuta Blagovo, and she a**ures me you would be taken on, and she even promised to do what she could for you. For goodness sake, Misail, think! Think it over, I implore you!" We talked a little longer and I gave in. I said that the thought of working on the railway had never come into my head, and that I was ready to try. She smiled happily through her tears and clasped my hand, and still she cried, because she could not stop, and I went into the kitchen for paraffin.