Yet, even on the eve of the official announcement, every one had learnt of the matter, and was discussing it. Mimi never left her room that day, and wept copiously. Katenka kept her company, and only came out for luncheon, with a grieved expression on her face which was manifestly borrowed from her mother. Lubotshka, on the contrary, was very cheerful, and told us after luncheon that she knew of a splendid secret which she was going to tell no one.
"There is nothing so splendid about your secret," said Woloda, who did not in the least share her satisfaction. "If you were capable of any serious thought at all, you would understand that it is a very bad lookout for us."
Lubotshka stared at him in amazement, and said no more. After the meal was over, Woloda made a feint of taking me by the arm, and then, fearing that this would seem too much like "affection," nudged me gently by the elbow, and beckoned me towards the salon.
"You know, I suppose, what the secret is of which Lubotshka was speaking?" he said when he was sure that we were alone. It was seldom that he and I spoke together in confidence: with the result that, whenever it came about, we felt a kind of awkwardness in one another's presence, and "boys began to jump about" in our eyes, as Woloda expressed it. On the present occasion, however, he answered the excitement in my eyes with a grave, fixed look which said: "You need not be surprised, for we are brothers, and we have to consider an important family matter." I understood him, and he went on:
"You know, I suppose, that Papa is going to marry Avdotia Epifanov?"
I nodded, for I had already heard so. "Well, it is not a good thing," continued Woloda.
"Why?" he repeated irritably. "Because it will be so pleasant, won't it, to have this stuttering 'colonel' and all his family for relations! Certainly she seems nice enough, as yet; but who knows what she will turn out to be later? It won't matter much to you or myself, but Lubotshka will soon be making her debut, and it will hardly be nice for her to have such a 'belle mere' as this--a woman who speaks French badly, and has no manners to teach her."
Although it seemed odd to hear Woloda criticising Papa's choice so coolly, I felt that he was right.
"Why is he marrying her?" I asked.
"Oh, it is a hole-and-corner business, and God only knows why," he answered. "All I know is that her brother, Peter, tried to make conditions about the marriage, and that, although at first Papa would not hear of them, he afterwards took some fancy or knight-errantry or another into his head. But, as I say, it is a hole-and-corner business. I am only just beginning to understand my father "--the fact that Woloda called Papa "my father" instead of "Papa" somehow hurt me--"and though I can see that he is kind and clever, he is irresponsible and frivolous to a degree that-Well, the whole thing is astonishing. He cannot so much as look upon a woman calmly. You yourself know how he falls in love with every one that he meets. You know it, and so does Mimi."
"What do you mean?" I said.
"What I say. Not long ago I learnt that he used to be in love with Mimi herself when he was a young man, and that he used to send her poetry, and that there really was something between them. Mimi is heart-sore about it to this day"--and Woloda burst out laughing.
"Impossible!" I cried in astonishment.
"But the principal thing at this moment," went on Woloda, becoming serious again, and relapsing into French, "is to think how delighted all our relations will be with this marriage! Why, she will probably have children!"
Woloda's prudence and forethought struck me so forcibly that I had no answer to make. Just at this moment Lubotshka approached us.
"So you know?" she said with a joyful face.
"Yes," said Woloda. "Still, I am surprised at you, Lubotshka. You are no longer a baby in long clothes. Why should you be so pleased because Papa is going to marry a piece of trash?"
At this Lubotshka's face fell, and she became serious.
"Oh, Woloda!" she exclaimed. "Why 'a piece of trash' indeed? How can you dare to speak of Avdotia like that? If Papa is going to marry her she cannot be 'trash.'"
"No, not trash, so to speak, but--"
"No 'buts' at all!" interrupted Lubotshka, flaring up. "You have never heard me call the girl whom you are in love with 'trash!' How, then, can you speak so of Papa and a respectable woman? Although you are my elder brother, I won't allow you to speak like that! You ought not to!"
"Mayn't I even express an opinion about--"
"No, you mayn't!" repeated Lubotshka. "No one ought to criticise such a father as ours. Mimi has the right to, but not you, however much you may be the eldest brother."
"Oh you don't understand anything," said Woloda contemptuously. "Try and do so. How can it be a good thing that a 'Dunetchka' of an Epifanov should take the place of our dead Mamma?"
For a moment Lubotshka was silent. Then the tears suddenly came into her eyes.
"I knew that you were conceited, but I never thought that you could be cruel," she said, and left us.
"Pshaw!" said Woloda, pulling a serio-comic face and makebelieve, stupid eyes. "That's what comes of arguing with them." Evidently he felt that he was at fault in having so far forgot himself as to descend to discuss matters at all with Lubotshka.
Next day the weather was bad, and neither Papa nor the ladies had come down to morning tea when I entered the drawing-room. There had been cold rain in the night, and remnants of the clouds from which it had descended were still scudding across the sky, with the sun's luminous disc (not yet risen to any great height) showing faintly through them. It was a windy, damp, grey morning. The door into the garden was standing open, and pools left by the night's rain were drying on the damp-blackened flags of the terrace. The open door was swinging on its iron hinges in the wind, and all the paths looked wet and muddy. The old birch trees with their naked white branches, the bushes, the turf, the nettles, the currant-trees, the elders with the pale side of their leaves turned upwards--all were dashing themselves about, and looking as though they were trying to wrench themselves free from their roots. From the avenue of lime-trees showers of round, yellow leaves were flying through the air in tossing, eddying circles, and strewing the wet road and soaked aftermath of the hayfield with a clammy carpet. At the moment, my thoughts were wholly taken up with my father's approaching marriage and with the point of view from which Woloda regarded it. The future seemed to me to bode no good for any of us. I felt distressed to think that a woman who was not only a stranger but young should be going to associate with us in so many relations of life, without having any right to do so--nay, that this young woman was going to usurp the place of our dead mother. I felt depressed, and kept thinking more and more that my father was to blame in the matter. Presently I heard his voice and Woloda's speaking together in the pantry, and, not wishing to meet Papa just then, had just left the room when I was pursued by Lubotshka, who said that Papa wanted to see me.
He was standing in the drawing-room, with his hand resting on the piano, and was gazing in my direction with an air at once grave and impatient. His face no longer wore the youthful, gay expression which had struck me for so long, but, on the contrary, looked sad. Woloda was walking about the room with a pipe in his hand. I approached my father, and bade him good morning.
"Well, my children," he said firmly, with a lift of his head and in the peculiarly hurried manner of one who wishes to announce something obviously unwelcome, but no longer admitting of reconsideration, "you know, I suppose, that I am going to marry Avdotia Epifanov." He paused a moment. "Hitherto I had had no desire for any one to succeed your mother, but"--and again he paused--"it-it is evidently my fate. Dunetchka is an excellent, kind girl, and no longer in her first youth. I hope, therefore, my children, that you will like her, and she, I know, will be sincerely fond of you, for she is a good woman. And now," he went on, addressing himself more particularly to Woloda and myself, and having the appearance of speaking hurriedly in order to prevent us from interrupting him, "it is time for you to depart, while I myself am going to stay here until the New Year, and then to follow you to Moscow with"--again he hesitated a moment--"my wife and Lubotshka." It hurt me to see my father standing as though abashed and at fault before us, so I moved a little nearer him, but Woloda only went on walking about the room with his head down, and smoking.
"So, my children, that is what your old father has planned to do," concluded Papa--reddening, coughing, and offering Woloda and myself his hands. Tears were in his eyes as he said this, and I noticed, too, that the hand which he was holding out to Woloda (who at that moment chanced to be at the other end of the room) was shaking slightly. The sight of that shaking hand gave me an unpleasant shock, for I remembered that Papa had served in 1812, and had been, as every one knew, a brave officer. Seizing the great veiny hand, I covered it with kisses, and he squeezed mine hard in return. Then, with a sob amid his tears, he suddenly threw his arms around Lubotshka's dark head, and kissed her again and again on the eyes. Woloda pretended that he had dropped his pipe, and, bending down, wiped his eyes furtively with the back of his hand. Then, endeavouring to escape notice, he left the room.
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