ONE evening she and Schtoltz were pacing the poplar avenue in their garden. She was suffering from her usual inexplicable lack of energy, and finding herself able to return but the briefest of answers to what he said.
"By the way," he remarked, "the nurse tells me that Olinka is troubled with a night cough. Ought we not to send for the doctor to-morrow?"
"No. I have given her some hot medicine, and am going to keep her indoors for the present," answered Olga dully.
In silence they walked to the end of the avenue.
"Why have you sent no reply to that letter from your friend Sonichka?" he inquired. "This is the third letter that you have left unanswered."
"I would rather forget her altogether," was Olga's brief rejoinder.
"Then you are not well?" he continued after a pause.
"Oh yes; nothing is the matter with me. Why should you think otherwise?"
"Then you are ennuyée?"
She clasped her hands upon his shoulder. "No," she said, in a tone of assumed cheerfulnessÄyet a tone in which the note of ennui was only too plainly apparent.
He led her clear of the shade of the trees, and turned her face to the moonlight.
"Look at me," he commanded. He gazed intently into her eyes.
"One would say that you were unhappy," he commented. "Your eyes have a strange expression in them which I have noticed more than once before. What is the matter with you, Olga?"
She took him by the sleeve and drew him back into the shade.
"Are you aware," she said with forced gaiety, "that I am hungry for supper?"
"No, no," he protested. "Do not make a jest of this."
"Unhappy, indeed?" she said reproachfully, halting in front of him. "Yes, I am unhappy—but only from excess of happiness." So tender was her tone, and so caressing the note in her voice, that he bent down and kissed her.
With that she grew bolder. The jesting supposition that she could be unhappy inspired her to greater frankness.
"No, I am not ennuyée," she went on; "nor should I ever be so. You know that well, yet you refuse. to believe my words. Nor am I ill. It is merely that, that—well, that sometimes a feeling of depression comes over me. You are a difficult man to conceal things from. Sometimes I feel depressed, though I could not say why."
She laid her head upon his shoulder.
"Nevertheless, what is the reason of it?" he asked her gently as he bent over her.
"I do not know," she repeated.
"Yet there must be a reason of some sort. If that reason lies neither in me nor in your surroundings, it must lie in yourself. Sometimes such depression is a symptom of ill-health. Are you sure that you are quite well?"
"At all events I feel so," she replied gravely. "See for yourself how I eat and walk and sleep and work! Yet every now and then there comes over me a mood in which life seems to me incomplete… . Do not mind this, however. It is nothing—nothing at all."
"Tell me more," he urged. "Certainly life is incomplete, but what would you add to it?"
"And sometimes," she continued, "I grow afraid lest everything should be about to be changed, or to come to an end; while at other times I find myself torturing my brain with a stupid wondering as to what more is to be expected from the future. This happiness of ours, this life, with its joys and sorrows"—she had dropped her voice to a whisper, in a sort of shame at her own questionings—"I know to be quite natural; yet something seems still to be drawing me onwards, and to be making me dissatisfied with my lot. How ashamed I feel of my folly and fancifulness! But do not notice me: this despondency of mine will soon pass away, and I shall once more become bright and cheerful."
She pressed herself closer with a timid caress, as though she were asking pardon for what she termed her "folly." He questioned her as to her symptoms as a physician might have done, and, in return, she described to him her dull self-interrogations, her confusion of soul. Meanwhile Schtoltz paced the avenue with his head on his breast and his mind filled with doubt and anxiety—anxiety at the fact that he so little understood his wife. At length she, in her turn, drew him into the light of the moon, and gazed inquiringly into his eyes.
"What are you thinking of?" she asked bashfully. "Are you smiling at my foolishness? Yes, 'tis very foolish, this despondency of mine. Do you not think so?"
He made no reply.
"Why do you not speak?" she urged impatiently.
"You have long been keeping silence," he replied, "although always you have known how solicitous I am on your account. Permit me, therefore, to keep silence and reflect."
"Yet, if you do that, I shall feel uneasy. Never ought I to have spoken out. Pray say something."
"What am I to say?" he asked meditatively. "It may be that a nervous breakdown is hanging over you. Should that be so, the doctor, not I, will have to decide how best you can be treated. I will send for him to-morrow. In any case, if the mischief is not that, then—"
"Then what?" she queried, shaking his arm.
"It is over-imagination on your part. You are too full of life, and have hitherto been maturing." He was speaking rather to himself than to her.
"Pray utter your thoughts aloud, Andrei," she said beseechingly. "I cannot bear it when you go muttering to yourself like that. I have told you of my follies, and you merely bow your head and mumble something into your beard. In this dark spot such conduct makes me feel uncomfortable."
"I am at a loss what to say. You tell me, 'Depression comes over me,' and 'I find myself troubled with disturbing questions.' What am I to make of that? Let us speak on the subject again later, and in the meanwhile consider matters. Possibly you require a course of sea-bathing, or something of the kind."
"But you said to yourself: 'Hitherto you have been maturing.' What did you mean by that?"
"I was thinking that, that—" He spoke slowly and hesitatingly, as though he were distrustful of his own thoughts and ashamed of his own words. "You see, there are moments when symptoms of this kind betoken that, if a woman has nothing radically wrong with her health, she has reached maturity—has arrived at the stage when life's growth becomes arrested, and there remains for her no further problem to solve."
"Then you mean that I am growing old?" she interrupted sharply. "How can you say that? I am still young and strong." And she drew herself up as she spoke.
"Do not fear," he said. "You are not of the kind that will ever grow old. True, in old age one's energies fail, and one ceases to battle with life; but that is a very different thing. Provided it be what I take it to be, your sense of depression and weariness is a sign of vigour. Frequently the gropings of a vivid, excitable intellect transcend the limits of everyday existence, and, finding no answer to what that intellect demands of life, become converted into despondency and a temporary dissatisfaction with life. The meaning of it is that the soul is sorrowful at having to ask life its secret. Perhaps such is the case with you. If so, you need not term it folly."
She sighed, but, apparently, with relief at the thought that the danger was over, and that she had not fallen in her husband's estimation.
"I am quite happy," she repeated, "nor do I spend my time in dreaming, nor is my life monotonous. What more, then, is there for me to have? What do these questionings portend? They harass me like a sickness."
"They are a spur to encourage a weak, groping intellect which has lacked full preparation. True, such depression and self-questionings have caused many to lose their senses; but to others they seem mere formless visions, a mere fever of the brain."
"To think that just when one's happiness is full to overflowing, and one is thoroughly in love with life, there should come upon one a taint of sorrow!" she murmured.
"Yes; such is the payment exacted for the Promethean fire. You must not only endure, you must even love and respect, the sorrow and the doubts and the self-questionings of which you have spoken: for they constitute the excess, the luxury, of life, and show themselves most when happiness is at its zenith, and has alloyed with it no gross desires. Such troubles are powerless to spring to birth amid life which is ordinary and everyday; they cannot touch the individual who is forced to endure hardship and want. That is why the bulk of the crowd goes on its way without ever experiencing the cloud of doubt, the pain of self-questioning. To him or to her, however, who voluntarily goes to meet those difficulties they become welcome guests, not a scourge."
"But one can never get even with them. To almost every one they bring sorrow and indifference."
"Yes; but that does not last. Later they serve to shed light upon life, for they lead one to the edge of the abyss whence there is no return—then gently force one to turn once more and look upon life. Thus they seem to challenge one's tried faculties in order that the latter may be prevented from sinking wholly into inertia."
"And to think, also, that one should be disturbed by phantoms at all!" she lamented. "When all is bright, one's life suddenly becomes overshadowed with some sinister influence. Is there no resource against it?"
"Yes, there is one. That resource lies in life itself. Without such phantoms and such questionings life would soon become a wearisome business."
"Then what ought I to do? To submit to them, and to wear out my heart?"
"No," he replied. "Rather, arm yourself with resolution, and patiently, but firmly, pursue your way." With that he embraced her tenderly. "You and I are not Titans; it is not for us to join the Manfreds and the Fausts of this world in going out to do battle with rebellious problems. Rather, let us decline the challenge of such difficulties, bow our heads, and quietly live through the juncture until such time as life shall have come to smile again, and happiness be once more ours."
"But suppose they decline to pass us by? Will not our doubts and fears continue to increase?"
"No; for we shall accept them as a new verse in life's poem. In this case, however, there is no fear of that. Your trouble is not peculiar to you alone; it is an infectious malady common to all humanity, of which a touch has visited you with the rest. Invariably does a human being feel lost when he or she first breaks away from life and finds no support in place of it. May God send that in the present instance this mood of yours be what I believe it to be, and not a forerunner of some bodily illness. That would be worse, for it would be the one thing before which I should be nerveless and destitute of weapons. Surely that cloud, that depression, those doubts, those self-questionings of yours, are not going to deprive us of our happiness, of our—?"
He did not complete his question, for, before he could do so, she had flung herself upon him in a frantic embrace.
"Nothing shall ever do that!" she murmured in an access of renewed joy and confidence. "No, neither doubts nor sorrow nor sickness! No, nor yet—nor yet death itself!" Never had she seemed to love him as she did at that moment.
"Take care that Fate does not overhear what you have whispered," he interposed with a superstitious caution born of tender forethought for her. "Yes, take care that it does not rate you ungrateful, for it likes to have its gifts appreciated at their true worth. Hitherto you have been learning only about life: now you are going also to experience it. Soon, as life pursues its course, there will come to you fresh sorrows and travail; and, together, they will force you to look beyond the questions of which you have spoken, and therefore you must husband your strength."
Schtoltz uttered these words softly, and almost as though he were speaking to himself. And in the words was a note of despondency which seemed to say that already he could see approaching her "sorrows" and "travail."
She said nothing—she was too deeply struck with the mournful foreboding in his tone. Yet she trusted him implicitly—his voice alone inspired in her belief; and for that very reason his gravity affected her deeply, and concentrated her thoughts upon herself. Leaning upon him, she paced the avenue slowly and mechanically, with her soul awed to a silence which she could not break. Following her husband's eyes, she was gazing forward at the vista of life, and trying to discern the point where, according to his words, "sorrows and travail" were awaiting her. And as she did so she saw arise before her a vision in which there became revealed to her a sphere of life that was no longer to be bright and leisured and protected, that was no longer to be passed amid plenty, that was no longer to be spent alone with him. In that sphere she could descry only a long sequence of losses and privations, with copious tears, strict asceticism, involuntary renunciation of whims born of hours of ease, and new and unwonted sensations which should call forth from her cries of pain and disappointment. Yes, in that vision she saw before her only sickness, material ruin, the loss of her husband, and …
Shuddering and faltering, she, with a man's courageous curiosity, continued to gaze at this unfamiliar presentment of life, and timidly to review and to estimate her ability to cope with it. Only love, she saw, would never fail her—only love would over this new existence keep ever-faithful watch and ward. Yet it would be love of a different kind. From it there would be absent all ardent sighs and shining days and rapturous nights; as the years went on such things would come to seem children's sport compared with the non-intimate affection which life, now grown profound and menacing, would cause her to adopt for her guide. From that life came to her ears no sound of laughter and kisses and tremulous, soulful intercourse amid groves and flowers, while life and nature kept high holiday. No, such things were "withered and gone." The love beheld in that vision was a love which, unfading and indestructible, expressed itself on the features of husband and wife only during seasons of mutual sorrow, and shone forth only in slow, silent glances of mutual sympathy, and voiced itself only in a constant, joint endurance of the trials of life as he and she restrained the tears, and choked back the sobs, which those trials called forth. With that there came stealing into the midst of the doubts and fears which beset her other visions—visions remote but clear, inspiring but definite… .
Her husband's calm, assured reasoning, added to her own implicit confidence in him, helped Olga to succeed in shaking off both her enigmatical, singular misgivings and her visionary, menacing dreams concerning the future. Once more, therefore, she strode boldly forward. To the night of doubt there succeeded a brilliant morning of maternal and housewifely duties. On the one hand, there beckoned to her the flower garden and the meadows on the other hand there beckoned to her her husband's study. No longer did she play with life as with a means of carefree indulgence. Rather, life had become a season of mysterious, systematic waiting, and of getting ready.
Yet once, when Schtoltz happened to mention Oblomov's name, she let fall her sewing, and sank into a reverie.
"What of him?" later she asked. "Could we not find out how he is through some of his friends?"
"Even so, we should find out no more than we know already. Independently of his friends, I happen to be aware that he is alive and well, and living in the same rooms as formerly. But how he is spending his days, and whether he is morally dead or still there is flickering in him a last spark of vitality, it is impossible for an outsider to ascertain."
"Do not speak like that, Andrei," said Olga. "It hurts me to hear you do so. Were I not afraid, I would go in person to glean news of him." The tears had risen very near to her eyes.
"Next spring we ourselves shall be in Petrograd," he husband remarked. "Then we will find out."
"But it is not sufficient merely to find out: we ought also to do all we can for him."
"Already I have done what is possible. When one is with him he is ready to take any steps desired; but directly one's back is turned he relapses into slumber. 'Tis like trying to deal with a drunken man."
"Then why turn your back upon him ever? He ought to be treated firmly—he ought to be removed from his rooms and taken away. Were I to ask him, he would come with us into the country. I feel sure I should never get over it if I were to see him sink to rack and ruin. Perhaps my tears—"
"Might revive him, you think?"
"No, but at least compel him to look around him, and to exchange his life for something better. With us he would be out of the mire, and living among his equals."
"Surely you do not love him as you used to do?" Schtoltz asked half-jestingly.
"No, I do not," she replied (and as she did so her grave eyes seemed to be gazing back into the past). "Yet in him there is something for which I have an abiding affection, and to which I shall ever remain true."
"Shall I tell you what that something is?"
She nodded an assent.
"'Tis an honourable, trustworthy heart. That heart is the nugget given him of Nature, and he has carried it unsullied through all his life. Under life's stress he fell, lost his enthusiasm, and ended by going to sleep—a broken, disenchanted man who had lost his power to live, but not his purity and his intrinsic worth. Never a false note has that heart sounded; never a particle of mire has there clung to his soul; never a specious lie has he heeded; never to the false road has he been seduced by any possible attraction. Even were a whole ocean of evil and rascality to come seething about him, and even were the whole world to become infected with poison and be turned upside down, Oblomov would yet refuse to bow to the false image, and his soul would remain as clean, as radiant, and as without spot as ever. That soul is a soul of crystal transparency. Of men like him but few exist, so that they shine amid the mob like pearls. No price could be high enough to purchase his heart. Everywhere and always that heart would remain true to its trust. It is to this element in him that you have always remained true and it is owing to the same element in him that my task of keeping watch will never become a burden. In my day I have known many men with splendid qualities. Never have I known a man cleaner, brighter, and more simple than Oblomov. For many a man have I cherished an affection. Never for a man have I cherished an affection more ardent and lasting than that which I cherish for Oblomov. Once known, his personality is an entity for which one's love could never die … . Is that so? Have I divined aright?"
She said nothing: her eyes were fixed intently upon her work. At length she arose, ran to her husband, gazed into his eyes for a moment as she embraced him, and let her head sink forward upon his shoulder. During those few moments there had arisen to her memory Oblomov's kindly, pensive face, his tender, deprecating gaze, and the shy, wistful smile with which, at their last parting, he had met her reproaches. As she saw those things her heart ached with pity.
"You will never abandon him—you will never let him leave your sight?" she asked with her arms around her husband's neck.
"No, never I—not though an abyss should open between us, and a dividing wall arise!"
She kissed him.
"Nor shall I ever forget the words which you have just spoken," she murmured.