Author: Saltykov, Mikhail Evgrafovich, 1826-1889
Families — Russia — Fiction
A Family of Noblemen
The Gentlemen Golovliov
A FAMILY OF NOBLEMEN
MIKHAÏL Y. SALTYKOV
TRANSLATED BY A. YARMOLINSKY
BONI & LIVERIGHT, INC.
THE FAMILY COUNCIL
AS BECOMES GOOD KINSFOLK
FAMILY ACCOUNTS SETTLED
THE GOOD LITTLE NIECE
FORBIDDEN FAMILY JOYS
THE DESERTED MANOR-HOUSE
THE FAMILY COUNCIL
Anton Vasilyev, the manager of a remote estate, was giving his mistress, Arina Petrovna Golovliov, an account of his trip to Moscow. He had gone there to collect the money due from those of her peasant serfs who bought the right to live in the city by paying her a tax. When he had finished with his report, she told him he might retire, but he lingered on irresolutely, as though he had something else to say, yet could not make up his mind to say it.
Arina Petrovna knew her servants through and through; she knew the meaning of their slightest gestures, she could even divine their inmost thoughts. And her steward’s manner immediately aroused her disquietude.
“What else?” she asked, looking at him keenly.
“That’s all,” he replied evasively.
“Don’t lie. There is something else. I can see it by your eyes.”
Anton Vasilyev still hesitated and continued to shift from one foot to the other.
“What is it? Tell me!” she shouted imperiously. “Out with it, out with it! And don’t wag your whole body like a dog, Telltale!”
Arina Petrovna liked to call her managers and domestics by nicknames. She used Telltale for Anton Vasilyev, not because she had found him to carry gossip treacherously, but simply because he had a loose tongue.
The centre of the estate that he managed was an important trading village in which there were many taverns. He liked to take a glass of tea in a tavern and boast of his mistress’s great power. And in the course of his boasting he would sometimes unconsciously blab out secrets. His mistress was always with a lawsuit on her hands, so that her trusty’s garrulousness sometimes brought her sly stratagems to the surface before they could be executed.
“Yes, I have got something else to say,” Anton finally mumbled.
“What is it?” Arina Petrovna asked excitedly.
An imperious woman, with an extraordinarily lively imagination, she instantly pictured all sorts of disagreeable opposition and antagonism, and the thought so instantly took complete possession of her that she turned white and jumped up from her chair.
“Stepan Vladimirych’s house in Moscow has been sold,” Anton said after a pause.
“It’s been sold.”
“Why? How? Tell me.”
“For debts, I suppose. Of course it can’t be because of something nice.”
“The police, the court, sold it, I suppose?”
“I suppose so. They say it was sold at auction for 8,000 rubles.”
Arina Petrovna dropped back heavily into her armchair and gazed fixedly at the window panes. She was so stunned by the news that she seemed to have lost consciousness for a while. Had she heard that Stepan Vladimirych had killed somebody, or that the Golovliov peasant serfs had risen in revolt and refused to render the service due her on her estates, or that serfdom had been abolished, she would not have been so shocked. Her lips trembled, her eyes stared vacantly into the distance, but she saw nothing. She did not even see the little girl, Duniashka, run past the window carrying something hidden under her apron; she did not see the child stop suddenly on beholding her mistress and wheel round and then dart back guiltily to where she had come from. Such suspicious conduct at any other time would have led to a thorough investigation. Finally Arina Petrovna came to herself and managed to bring out:
“A good joke, I must say.” After which there again followed several minutes of ominous silence.
“So the police sold the house for eight thousand?” she asked again.
“So that’s what he’s done with his patrimony! Splendid! The blackguard!”
Arina Petrovna felt that the news called for a prompt decision, but nothing occurred to her. Her thoughts ran confusedly in exactly opposite directions. On the one hand she thought: “The police sold it. But the police could not have sold it in a minute. An inventory must first have been taken, then an appraisal made, and then the sale must have been advertised. Sold for eight thousand when I myself two years ago paid twelve thousand rubles for it, not a penny less. Had I only known it was going to be up for sale, I could have bought it myself for eight thousand rubles.”
Her other thoughts ran: “The police sold it for eight thousand. That’s what he’s done with his patrimony. To sell one’s patrimony for eight thousand rubles!”
“Who told you?” she asked, realizing finally that the house had been sold and the chance to secure it cheaply was gone forever.
“Ivan Mikhailov, the inn-keeper.”
“Why didn’t he let me know in time?”
“I suppose he was afraid.”
“Afraid? I’ll teach him to be afraid. I’ll make him come here from Moscow, and the moment he comes I’ll have him drafted into the army. He was afraid!”
Although on the decline, serfdom still existed. Anton Vasilyev had known his mistress to impose the most peculiar punishments, but, even so, her present decision was so unexpected that it made him miserable. He thought of his nickname Telltale. Ivan Mikhailov was an upright peasant, and Anton never dreamed that misfortune would touch him. Besides, Ivan Mikhailov was his friend and godfather. Now, all of a sudden, he was to be made a soldier just because he, Anton Vasilyev, the Telltale, could not hold his tongue.
“Forgive him—Ivan Mikhailov, I mean,” he pleaded.
“Go away, you mollycoddler,” she shouted in a voice so loud that he lost all desire to intercede any further for his friend.
Arina Petrovna was sixty years old, still of sound health and accustomed to have her own way in everything. Her manner was severe. She lived alone, and managed the huge Golovliov estate all by herself, without having to answer to any one else. She calculated closely, almost parsimoniously, was not intimate with her neighbors, was gracious to the local authorities, and exacted implicit obedience from her children. They were not to do anything without first asking themselves, “What would mamenka say about it?” She was independent, inflexible, even stubborn, though her stubbornness was not so much native as due chiefly to the circumstance that there was not one person in the whole Golovliov family that could oppose her. Her husband was a trifling creature, and drank. Arina Petrovna used to say of herself that she was neither a widow nor a married woman. Some of the children were in St. Petersburg, the others took after their father and were relegated to the class of “horrid creatures,” who were unfit for household duties. In these circumstances Arina Petrovna soon began to feel all left alone, and grew totally disaccustomed to family life, although the word “family” was constantly on her lips, and outwardly she seemed to be exclusively guided in all her work by the desire to build up the family estate and keep the family affairs in order.
The head of the family, Vladimir Mikhailych Golovliov, was known from his youth as a dissolute, quarrelsome fellow, with nothing in his character that would be sympathetic to a serious, active woman like Arina Petrovna. He led a lazy, good-for-nothing existence, usually stayed locked up in his room, where he imitated the warble of the starlings, the crowing of cocks, and the like, and composed ribald doggerel. In bursts of confidence he would boast that he had been a friend of the poet Barkov, intimating that the poet had blessed him on his deathbed. Arina Petrovna disliked her husband’s verses from the very first. “Nasty stuff!” “Trash!” she called them. And since Vladimir Mikhailych’s very object in marrying had been to have someone ever at hand to listen to his poetry, the result was that quarrels soon began, which grew worse and worse and more frequent until they ended with Arina Petrovna utterly indifferent and contemptuous of her clown husband, and Vladimir Mikhailych hating his wife sincerely, with a hatred considerably mixed with fear. The husband called the wife a “hag” and a “devil”; the wife called the husband a “windmill” and a “balalaika without strings.”
They lived together in this way for more than forty years, and it never occurred to either of them that there was anything unnatural in such a life. Time did not diminish Vladimir Mikhailych’s quarrelsomeness; on the contrary, it took on a still sharper edge. Apart from the poetical exercising in Barkov’s spirit that he did, he began to drink and to lie in wait eagerly for the servant girls in the corridors. At first Arina Petrovna looked on this new occupation of her husband’s with repugnance. She even got wrought up over it, not so much from jealousy as that she felt it to be an interference with her authority. After a while, however, she shrugged her shoulders, and merely watched out that the “dirty wenches” should not fetch brandy for their master.
From that time on, having said to herself once for all that her husband was not a companion, she directed her efforts exclusively to one object, the building up of the estate. And in the forty years of her married life she actually succeeded in multiplying her property tenfold. With astonishing patience and acumen she kept her eye on the near and distant villages, found out in secret ways the relations that existed between the neighboring landowners and the board of trustees, and always appeared at the auctions like snow on the head. In this fantastic hunt for new acquisitions Vladimir Mikhailych receded more and more into the background, turned seedy and at last dropped out of social life completely. He was now a decrepit old man already, keeping his bed almost the whole time. On the rare occasions that he left his room it was only to stick his head through the half-open door of his wife’s bedroom and shout: “Devil!” After which he would go back and close himself up in his own room again.
Arina Petrovna was not much happier in her children. She was of a celibate nature, so to speak, independent and self-sufficient, and her children were nothing to her but a useless burden. The only times when she breathed freely was when she was alone with her accounts and her household affairs, and when no one interfered with her business talks with her managers, stewards, housekeepers, and so on. In her eyes, children were one of the preordained things in life that she felt she had no right to protest against. Nevertheless they did not touch a single chord in her inner being, which was given over wholly to the numberless details of the household.
There were four children, one daughter and three sons. Of the oldest son and the daughter she did not even like to speak; toward the youngest son she was indifferent. It was only for the middle one, Porfisha, that she cherished any feeling at all, a feeling not of love, but of something very akin to fear.
Stepan Vladimirych, the oldest son, passed in the family by the name of Simple Simon, or The Saucebox. He was very young when he was put into the class of “horrid creatures,” and from childhood up played the rôle of half pariah, half clown. Unfortunately he was a bright child, susceptible to the impressions of his environment. From his father he inherited an irresistible inclination to play tricks, from his mother the ability to divine the weak sides of people’s natures. The first characteristic soon made him his father’s favorite, which still further intensified his mother’s dislike of him. Often when the mother was absent on business, the father and the boy would betake themselves into the study adorned with the portrait of Barkov, read ribald poems, and gossip, the chief butt of their raillery being the “hag,” that is to say, Arina Petrovna. The “hag,” instinctively divining their occupation, would drive up to the front steps very quietly, then tiptoe to the study door and listen to their fun-making. The murderous punishment of Simple Simon followed swift and cruel. But Stiopka was not subdued. He was impervious either to blows or to admonitions, and in half an hour was back again at his tricks. He would cut up Aniutka’s, the servant girl’s, scarf, or he would stick flies into Vasiutka’s mouth while he slept, or he would run into the kitchen and carry off a cake (Arina Petrovna kept her children half hungry), which he always divided with his brothers.
“You ought to be killed,” his mother said. “I’ll kill you, and I won’t have to answer for it either. Even God won’t punish me for it.”
This humiliation, constantly put upon a nature soft, yielding and forgetful, did not remain without its effect. It did not embitter him, nor did it make him rebellious. It made him servile, disposed to buffoonery, with no sense of the fitness of things, and devoid of all foresight and prudence. Such natures yield to all influences and may become almost anything—drunkards, beggars, buffoons, even criminals.
At the age of twenty Stepan Golovliov graduated from the gymnasium in Moscow and entered the university. But his student’s life was a bitter one. In the first place, his mother gave him just enough money to keep him from dying of hunger. Secondly, he did not show the least inclination to work. Instead, he developed an accursed talent, which expressed itself chiefly in mimickry. And he suffered from a desire for constant companionship. He hated to be alone a single instant. So he played the light rôle of hanger-on and parasite, and thanks to his readiness for any prank he soon became the favorite of the rich students. However, though they received him into their society, they looked on him, not as one of them, but as a clown; and the reputation clung to him. Once placed on such a plane, he naturally slid down lower and lower, and at the end of the fourth year was thoroughly confirmed in his clownship. Nevertheless, thanks to his receptive ability and good memory, he passed the examinations successfully and received his bachelor’s degree.
When he appeared before his mother with the diploma, she merely shrugged her shoulders and said: “Well, that’s funny.” Then, after letting him spend a month in the country, she shipped him back to St. Petersburg with an allowance of a hundred rubles a month. Now there began for him endless visits to various government offices. He had neither patrons nor the determination to make his own way by hard work. The lad’s mind had lost so completely the habit of concentration that bureaucratic tasks such as the drawing up of briefs and case abstracts were beyond his power. After four years of struggle Stepan was forced to admit that there was no hope of his ever rising above the rank of a government clerk. In reply to his lamentations, Arina Petrovna wrote him a stern letter which began with the words: “I was sure that would happen,” and wound up with a command to return at once to Moscow. There, at the conclave of Arina Petrovna’s favorite peasants, it was decided to place Simple Simon in the Aulic Court, entrusting him to the care of a pettifogger who from time immemorial had been the legal adviser of the Golovliov family.
What Stepan Vladimirych did in the Aulic Court and how he behaved there is a mystery. What is certain is that at the end of the third year he was there no longer. Then Arina Petrovna took a heroic measure. She “threw her son a bone,” which was also supposed to fill the part of the “parental blessing,” that is to say, the patrimony. “The bone” consisted of a house in Moscow, for which she had paid twelve thousand rubles.
For the first time in his life Stepan Golovliov breathed freely. The house promised to bring him an income of a thousand silver rubles, a sum which in comparison with his former income, seemed like genuine prosperity. He kissed his mamma’s hand effusively, and promised to justify her kindness, whereupon Arina Petrovna said: “That’s better; but mind you, you numskull, that’s all you get from me!” But, alas! so little was he used to handling money, so absurd was his estimation of real values in life, that before long what he thought to be a fabulous revenue proved insufficient. In five or six years he was totally ruined, and was only too glad to enter the militia, which was then being organized. No sooner, however, did the militia troops reach Kharkov than peace was concluded, and Golovliov went back to Moscow, dressed in a somewhat threadbare uniform and high boots. By this time his house had already been sold, and the only thing he owned was a hundred rubles. He began “speculating” with this capital, that is, he tried his luck at cards, but in a short time he lost all he had. Then he conceived the plan of visiting his mother’s well-to-do peasants who lived in Moscow. Some of them invited him to dinner, others, yielding to his importunings, gave him tobacco or lent him small sums of money. At last the hour came when he found himself before a blind wall, as it were. He was already almost forty years old, and had to confess to himself that his nomadic existence was too much for his strength. There was only one thing left to him, to take the road leading to Golovliovo.
After Stepan Vladimirych, the oldest child, came Anna Vladimirovna, about whom Arina Petrovna did not like to speak either. The truth of the matter was, the old lady had placed definite expectations in Annushka, but she, far from fulfilling her mother’s hopes, had perpetrated a scandal which set the whole district agog. When Annushka left the girls’ boarding-school, Arina Petrovna installed her at the village, hoping to make of her a sort of unpaid private secretary and bookkeeper, but instead Annushka eloped one fine night with cornet Ulanov and married him.
“They have married like dogs, without a parent’s blessing!” complained Arina Petrovna. “Lucky, though, that he submitted to a wedding ceremony at all. Another man would have taken advantage of her—and vanished into thin air. A fine chance for catching a bird.”
With her daughter Arina Petrovna dealt as peremptorily as she had with her hated son. She bestowed “a bone” upon her too, in the shape of five thousand rubles and a wretched little village of thirty souls and a manor-house going with it, so dilapidated that the wind blew through the gaping paneless windows and there was not one sound board in the flooring. In two years the young couple had gone through the money, and the cornet took himself off, deserting his wife and two twin girls, Anninka and Lubinka. Three months later the mother died, and Arina Petrovna, willy-nilly, had to take the little orphans into her own house. She installed them in a side-wing and entrusted them to the care of Palashka, old and one-eyed. “The Lord’s mercy is great,” remarked Arina Petrovna. “The little orphans won’t eat much of my bread, but they’ll be a solace to me in my old age. God has given me two daughters instead of one.” At the same time she wrote to her son, Porfiry Vladimirych: “Your dear sister died as she lived, indecently, and now her two children are hanging round my neck.”
What we are going to say may seem cynical, but we feel it our duty to state that the granting of the heritage to Stepan and Anna did not by any means impair Arina Petrovna’s financial condition. On the contrary, in reducing the number of shareholders it contributed indirectly to the rounding out of the family estate. For Arina Petrovna was a woman of strict principles, and once having “thrown them a bone,” she considered her obligations toward her unloved children completely and definitely settled. In regard to her grandchildren it never entered her mind that in due time she would have to part with something for them. All she cared for was to draw all the income possible from the small estate of her deceased daughter and deposit it in the Chamber of Trustees. “There I am,” she would say, “laying by money for the orphans. For feeding and bringing them up I take nothing from them. For the bread they eat it is God who will pay me.”
As for the younger children, Porfiry and Pavel, th