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A Desperate Character
by [?]

Translated from the Russian



… We were a party of eight in the room, and we were talking of contemporary affairs and men.

‘I don’t understand these men!’ observed A.: ‘they’re such desperate fellows…. Really desperate…. There has never been anything like it before.’

‘Yes, there has,’ put in P., a man getting on in years, with grey hair, born some time in the twenties of this century: ‘there were desperate characters in former days too, only they were not like the desperate fellows of to-day. Of the poet Yazikov some one has said that he had enthusiasm, but not applied to anything–an enthusiasm without an object. So it was with those people–their desperateness was without an object. But there, if you’ll allow me, I’ll tell you the story of my nephew, or rather cousin, Misha Poltyev. It may serve as an example of the desperate characters of those days.

He came into God’s world, I remember, in 1828, at his father’s native place and property, in one of the sleepiest corners of a sleepy province of the steppes. Misha’s father, Andrei Nikolaevitch Poltyev, I remember well to this day. He was a genuine old-world landowner, a God-fearing, sedate man, fairly–for those days–well educated, just a little cracked, to tell the truth–and, moreover, he suffered from epilepsy…. That too is an old-world, gentlemanly complaint…. Andrei Nikolaevitch’s fits were, however, slight, and generally ended in sleep and depression. He was good-hearted, and of an affable demeanour, not without a certain stateliness: I always pictured to myself the tsar Mihail Fedorovitch as like him. The whole life of Andrei Nikolaevitch was passed in the punctual fulfilment of every observance established from old days, in strict conformity with all the usages of the old orthodox holy Russian mode of life. He got up and went to bed, ate his meals, and went to his bath, rejoiced or was wroth (both very rarely, it is true), even smoked his pipe and played cards (two great innovations!), not after his own fancy, not in a way of his own, but according to the custom and ordinance of his fathers–with due decorum and formality. He was tall, well built, and stout; his voice was soft and rather husky, as is so often the case with virtuous people in Russia; he was scrupulously neat in his dress and linen, and wore white cravats and full-skirted snuff-coloured coats, but his noble blood was nevertheless evident; no one could have taken him for a priest’s son or a merchant! At all times, on all possible occasions, and in all possible contingencies, Andrei Nikolaevitch knew without fail what ought to be done, what was to be said, and precisely what expressions were to be used; he knew when he ought to take medicine, and just what he ought to take; what omens were to be believed and what might be disregarded … in fact, he knew everything that ought to be done…. For as everything had been provided for and laid down by one’s elders, one had only to be sure not to imagine anything of one’s self…. And above all, without God’s blessing not a step to be taken!–It must be confessed that a deadly dulness reigned supreme in his house, in those low-pitched, warm, dark rooms, that so often resounded with the singing of liturgies and all-night services, and had the smell of incense and Lenten dishes almost always hanging about them!

Andrei Nikolaevitch–no longer in his first youth–married a young lady of a neighbouring family, without fortune, a very nervous and sickly person, who had had a boarding-school education. She played the piano fairly, spoke boarding-school French, was easily moved to enthusiasm, and still more easily to melancholy and even tears…. She was of unbalanced character, in fact. She regarded her life as wasted, could not care for her husband, who, ‘of course,’ did not understand her; but she respected him, … she put up with him; and being perfectly honest and perfectly cold, she never even dreamed of another ‘affection.’ Besides, she was always completely engrossed in the care, first, of her own really delicate health, secondly, of the health of her husband, whose fits always inspired in her something like superstitious horror, and lastly, of her only son, Misha, whom she brought up herself with great zeal. Andrei Nikolaevitch did not oppose his wife’s looking after Misha, on the one condition of his education never over-stepping the lines laid down, once and for all, within which everything must move in his house! Thus, for instance, at Christmas-time, and at New Year, and St. Vassily’s eve, it was permissible for Misha to dress up and masquerade with the servant boys–and not only permissible, but even a binding duty…. But, at any other time, God forbid! and so on, and so on.