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A Reckless Character
by [?]

Translated From The Russian
By Isabel Hapgood



There were eight of us in the room, and we were discussing contemporary matters and persons,

“I do not understand these gentlemen!” remarked A.–“They are fellows of a reckless sort…. Really, desperate…. There has never been anything of the kind before.”

“Yes, there has,” put in P., a grey-haired old man, who had been born about the twenties of the present century;–“there were reckless men in days gone by also. Some one said of the poet Yazykoff, that he had enthusiasm which was not directed to anything, an objectless enthusiasm; and it was much the same with those people–their recklessness was without an object. But see here, if you will permit me, I will narrate to you the story of my grandnephew, Misha Polteff. It may serve as a sample of the recklessness of those days.”

He made his appearance in God’s daylight in the year 1828, I remember, on his father’s ancestral estate, in one of the most remote nooks of a remote government of the steppes. I still preserve a distinct recollection of Misha’s father, Andrei Nikolaevitch Polteff. He was a genuine, old-fashioned landed proprietor, a pious inhabitant of the steppes, sufficiently well educated,–according to the standards of that epoch,–rather crack-brained, if the truth must be told, and subject, in addition, to epileptic fits…. That also is an old-fashioned malady…. However, Andrei Nikolaevitch’s attacks were quiet, and they generally terminated in a sleep and in a fit of melancholy.–He was kind of heart, courteous in manner, not devoid of some pomposity: I have always pictured to myself the Tzar Mikhail Feodorovitch as just that sort of a man.

Andrei Nikolaevitch’s whole life flowed past in the punctual discharge of all the rites established since time immemorial, in strict conformity with all the customs of ancient-orthodox, Holy-Russian life. He rose and went to bed, he ate and went to the bath, he waxed merry or wrathful (he did both the one and the other rarely, it is true), he even smoked his pipe, he even played cards (two great innovations!), not as suited his fancy, not after his own fashion, but in accordance with the rule and tradition handed down from his ancestors, in proper and dignified style. He himself was tall of stature, of noble mien and brawny; he had a quiet and rather hoarse voice, as is frequently the case with virtuous Russians; he was neat about his linen and his clothing, wore white neckerchiefs and long-skirted coats of snuff-brown hue, but his noble blood made itself manifest notwithstanding; no one would have taken him for a priest’s son or a merchant! Andrei Nikolaevitch always knew, in all possible circumstances and encounters, precisely how he ought to act and exactly what expressions he must employ; he knew when he ought to take medicine, and what medicine to take, which symptoms he should heed and which might be disregarded … in a word, he knew everything that it was proper to do…. It was as though he said: “Everything has been foreseen and decreed by the old men–the only thing is not to devise anything of your own…. And the chief thing of all is, don’t go even as far as the threshold without God’s blessing!”–I am bound to admit that deadly tedium reigned in his house, in those low-ceiled, warm, dark rooms which so often resounded from the chanting of vigils and prayer-services,[2] with an odour of incense and fasting-viands,[3] which almost never left them!


The Vigil-service (consisting of Vespers and Matins, or Compline and Matins) may be celebrated in unconsecrated buildings, and the devout not infrequently have it, as well as prayer-services, at home.–TRANSLATOR.

[3] Meaning the odour of the oil which must be used in preparing food, instead of butter, during the numerous fasts.–TRANSLATOR.

Andrei Nikolaevitch had married, when he was no longer in his first youth, a poor young noblewoman of the neighbourhood, a very nervous and sickly person, who had been reared in one of the government institutes for gentlewomen. She played far from badly on the piano; she spoke French in boarding-school fashion; she was given to enthusiasm, and still more addicted to melancholy, and even to tears…. In a word, she was of an uneasy character. As she considered that her life had been ruined, she could not love her husband, who, “as a matter of course,” did not understand her; but she respected, she tolerated him; and as she was a thoroughly honest and perfectly cold being, she never once so much as thought of any other “object.” Moreover, she was constantly engrossed by anxieties: in the first place, over her really feeble health; in the second place, over the health of her husband, whose fits always inspired her with something akin to superstitious terror; and, in conclusion, over her only son, Misha, whom she reared herself with great zeal. Andrei Nikolaevitch did not prevent his wife’s busying herself with Misha–but on one condition: she was never, under any circumstances, to depart from the limits, which had been defined once for all, wherein everything in his house must revolve! Thus, for example: during the Christmas holidays and Vasily’s evening preceding the New Year, Misha was not only permitted to dress up in costume along with the other “lads,”–doing so was even imposed upon him as an obligation….[4] On the other hand, God forbid that he should do it at any other time! And so forth, and so forth.