OFTEN Oblomov's old school friend had endeavoured—though in vain—to wean his comrade from the state of inertia in which he (Oblomov) was plunged. The pair were discussing the same subject in Oblomov's study.
"Once upon a time," said Schtoltz, "I remember you a slim, lively young fellow. Have you forgotten our joint readings of Rousseau, Schiller, Göethe, and Byron?"
"Have I forgotten them?" re-echoed Oblomov. "No. How could I forget them? How I used to dream over those books, and to whisper to myself my hopes for the future, and to make plans of all sorts!—though I kept them from you for fear lest you would laugh at them. But that expired at Verklevo; and never since has it been repeated. What is the reason, I would ask? Never have I gone through any great mental tempest or upheaval, my conscience is as clear as a mirror, and no adverse stroke of fortune has occurred to destroy my self-conceit. Yet for some reason or another I have gone to pieces." He sighed. "You see, Andrei, at no point in my life have I been touched with a fire which could either save me or destroy me. I have lived a life different from that of others. With me it has not been a morning dawn which, gradually broadening to a sultry, bustling noon, has faded, imperceptibly, naturally, into eventide. No, I began life with a quenching of the light of day, and, from the first moment that I realized myself, realized also that I was on the wane. I realized that fact as I sat at my desk in the chancellory, as I read, as I consorted with friends, as I squandered my means upon Minia, as I lounged on the Nevski Prospect, as I attended receptions where I was welcomed as an eligible parti, as I wasted my life and brains in fluctuating between town and country. Even my self-conceit—upon what was it flung away? Upon figuring in clothes made by a good tailor, upon gaining the entrée to well-known houses, upon having my hand shaken by Prince P—! Yet self-conceit ought to be the very salt of life. Whither is mine gone? Either I have never understood the life of which I speak or it was never suited to me. Oh, that I had never known or seen it, that no one had ever pointed it out to me For yourself, you entered and left my orbit like a bright, swift comet; and when you were gone I forgot everything, and began to fade."
As Schtoltz listened to Oblomov's words there was no trace of a contemptuous smile on his features.
"Not long ago," resumed Oblomov, "you said that my face had lost its freshness and colour. Yes, that is so. I am like a ragged, cast-off garment—though less from the effect of weather and wear and tear than from the fact that during the past twelve years there has lain within me a light that has ever been seeking an outlet, but has been doomed to illumine only its own prison. Now, therefore, unable to gain its freedom, it is becoming altogether extinguished. Am I alone in this, however? Look around you. The name of the tribe to which I belong is legion."
"Nevertheless, I intend to take you travelling with me," remarked Schtoltz, rising. "We will start to-morrow. It must be done now or never." With that he went to bed.
"Now or never." Somehow to Oblomov the words seemed a sort of threat. He approached his dusty writing-table, and took up a pen. Of ink there was none, nor yet a single scrap of writing-paper. Mechanically and at random he traced some letters in the dust with his finger. There resulted the word Oblomovstchina. He obliterated it with a quick movement of his sleeve. Often in his dreams had he seen the word written in letters of fire on the ceiling, even as once Belshazzar saw characters traced on the wall of his banqueting-room. "Now or never." Oblomov listened to this last despairing call of his reason and his energy, and, weighing in the balance what little volition still remained to him, considered to what end he could best devote that sorry fragment. Which was he to do? To go forward or to stand still? To go forward would mean divesting, not only his shoulders, but also his intellect, his soul, of his dressing-gown; it would mean sweeping away, not only from his chamber walls, but also from his eyes, the dust and the cobwebs. Yet how was he to take the first step necessary? Where was he to begin? He remembered Schtoltz's words : "Go to Oblomovka, and there learn what sowing and grinding mean, and why the peasant is poor or rich. Walk the fields, attend the local elections, visit the mills, and linger by the river wharves."
Yes, that was what Schtoltz had said. But it would mean going forward, and going forward unceasingly. In that case farewell to the poetic ideal of life! Such a course would connote work in a smithery rather than life: it would entail a continual round of heat and of clatter. What would be the good of it? Would it not be better to stand still? To stand still would merely mean occasionally putting on a shirt inside out, dinners with Tarantiev, thinking as little as possible of anything, leaving "A Voyage to Africa" unread to the end, and attaining a peaceful old age in the flat of which Tarantiev had spoken. "Now or never." "To be or not to be." Oblomov rose from his chair, but, failing at once to insert his foot into a slipper, sat down again.
Two weeks later Schtoltz departed for England, after exacting from Oblomov a pledge to join him later in Paris, Oblomov even went to the length of procuring a passport, ordering an expensive travelling coat, and purchasing a cap. The furniture of the flat was to be removed to the quarters of Tarantiev's crony in the Veaborg Quarter, and stored in the three rooms until its owner's return.
A month went by—three months; yet Oblomov still did not start. Schtoltz, who had reached Paris long ago, continued to send him letter after letter, but they remained unanswered. Why so? Was it because the ink in the inkstand had become dried up and no writing-paper was available? No; both ink, pens, and paper were present in abundance. Indeed, more than once Oblomov sat down to write, and did so fluently, and, at times, as expressively and eloquently as he had done in the days when, with Schtoltz, he had dreamed of the strenuous life, and of travelling. Likewise he had taken to rising at seven o'clock in the morning, and to reading, and to carrying books about with him. Also, his face had lost its look of dreaminess, weariness, ennui—there was colour in his cheek, a sparkle in his eye, and an air almost of adventurousness—at least, almost of self-assurance—about his whole bearing. Lastly, no longer was the dressing-gown to be seen, for Tarantiev had carried it off to his friend's flat, along with the rest of Oblomov's effects. Thus Oblomov wore better clothes than had been his wont, and even sang cheerfully as he moved about. Why so? The reason was that there had come into his life two friends of Schtoltz's, in the shape of a pretty girl named Olga Sergievna Ilyinitch and her aunt. On his first visit to them he was overcome with constraint. "How gladly I would take off my gloves!" he thought to himself. "And how hot the room is! And how unused to this sort of thing I have grown!"
"Besides, she will keep looking at me," was his further reflection as diffidently he scanned his clothes. He even wiped his face with his handkerchief, lest a smut should have settled on his nose. Also, he touched his tie, to make sure that its folds had not come undone, as had sometimes happened with him. But no—all was as it should be. Yet she would persist in regarding him attentively. Next, a footman tendered him a cup of tea, with a plate of biscuits. He tried to subdue his nervousness, and to unbend; but in the act of unbending he seized such a handful of cracknels, biscuits, and sugared buns that the girl tittered and the rest of those present gazed at the pile with unconcealed interest.
"My God, she is still looking at me!" he thought to himself. "What on earth am I to do with all these biscuits?"
Without looking, he could tell that Olga had risen from her seat and moved to another corner. This helped to relieve his breast of a certain amount of weight. None the less she continued to contemplate him, in order to see what he would do with the confectionery.
"Probably I had best eat them as quickly as possible," he thought; with which he fell to hurriedly selecting one after another. Luckily all were of the sort which melts in the mouth. When only two of them remained he heaved a sigh of relief, and decided to glance towards the corner where he knew Olga to be seated. Horrors! She was standing by a bust, with one hand resting on its pedestal, and her eyes closely observing him! Nay, she had even come out of her corner to get a closer view of him! Without doubt she must have noted his awkwardness with the biscuits!
True, at supper she sat at the other end of the table, and ate and talked as though she were in no way concerned with him; yet never once did he throw a timid glance in her direction (in the hope that she was not looking his way) but straightway he encountered her gaze—a gaze which, though good-humoured, was also charged with curiosity. That was enough. He hastened to take leave of her aunt, who invited him to come and dine another day. He bowed, and moved away across the drawing-room without raising his eyes. Presently he encountered a screen, with behind it, the grand piano. He looked again—and behold, behind the screen was seated Olga! She was still gazing at him with intent curiosity. Also, she seemed to him to be smiling.
"Certainly Andrei has often told me that I put on pairs of odd socks, and my shirt inside out," he reflected as he drove home. From that moment he could not get Olga's glance out of his head. In bed he lay on his back and tried to adopt the most comfortable attitudes; yet still he could not sleep… .
One fine morning Tarantiev came and carried off the rest of Oblomov's furniture; with the result that its owner spent three such days as he had never before experienced—days during which he was bedless and sofa-less, and therefore driven to dine at the house of Olga's aunt. Suddenly he noticed that opposite the aunt's house there stood an untenanted villa. Consequently he hired it (furnished) at sight, and went to live there. Thereafter he spent his whole time with Olga—he read with her, he culled flowers with her, he walked by the lake and over the hills with her. Yes, he, Oblomov! How came this about? It came about thus.
On the evening of the fateful dinner-party at the aunt's house Oblomov experienced the same torture during the meal as he had done on the previous occasion. Every word that he spoke he uttered with an acute sense that over him, like a searchlight, there was hovering that glance, and that it was burning and irritating him, and that it was stimulating his nerves and blood. Surely, on the balcony, he thought, he would be able, when ensconced behind a cloud of tobacco smoke, to succeed in momentarily concealing himself from that silent, that insistent gaze?
"What does it all mean?" he said to himself as he rocked himself to and fro. "Why, it is sheer torture! Have I made myself ridiculous? At no one else would she dare to stare as she does at me. I suppose it is because I am quieter than the rest. However, I will make an agreement with her. I will tell her, in so many words, that her eyes are dragging my very soul out of my body."
Suddenly she appeared on the threshold of the balcony. He handed her a chair, and she took a seat beside him.
"Are you so very ennuyé?" she inquired. "Ennuyé, yes—but not much so. I have pursuits of my own."
"Ah? Schtoltz tells me that you are engaged in drawing up a scheme of some sort?"
"Yes. I want to live upon my estate, and am making a few preparations for doing so."
"And you are going abroad?"
"Undoubtedly—as soon as ever Schtoltz is ready to accompany me.
"Shall you be very glad to go?"
He looked at her. A smile was hovering on her face, and illuminating her eyes, and gradually spreading over her cheeks. Only her lips remained as pressed together as usual. He lacked the spirit to continue his lies calmly.
"However, I—I am rather a lazy person, he began. "But, but—"
Suddenly he felt vexed to think that she should have extracted from him a confession of his lethargy. "What is she to me?" he thought. "Am I afraid of her?"
"Lazy?" she exclaimed with a scarcely perceptible touch of archness. "What? A man be lazy? That passes my comprehension."
"Why should it?" was his inward comment. "It is all simple enough. I have taken to sitting at home more and more, and therefore Schtoltz thinks that I—"
"But I expect you write a great deal?" she went on. "And have you read much?" Somehow her gaze seemed very intent.
"No, I cannot say that I have." The words burst from him in a sudden fear lest she should see fit to put him through a course of literary examination.
"What do you mean?" she inquired, laughing. Then he too laughed.
"I thought that you were going to cross-question me about some novel or another," he explained. "But, you see, I never read such things."
"Then you thought wrong. I was only going to ask you about a few books of travel."
He glanced at her quickly. Her lips were still compressed, but the rest of her face was smiling.
"I must be very careful with her," he reflected.
"What do you read?" she asked with seeming curiosity.
"It happens that I am particularly fond of books of travel," he replied.
"Travels in Africa, for instance?" There was quiet demureness in the tone. He reddened at the not wholly unreasonable conjecture that she was aware not only of what he read but of how he read.
"And are you also musical?" she continued, in order to relieve him of his embarrassment. At this moment Schtoltz (who had now returned from abroad) appeared on the scene.
"Ha, Ilya!" he cried. "I have told Olga Sergievna that you adore music, and that to-night she must sing something— 'Casta Diva,' for example."
"Why did you speak for me at all?" protested Oblomov. "I am by no means an adorer of music."
"What?" Schtoltz exclaimed. "Why, the man is offended! I introduce him as a person of taste, and here is he stumbling over himself to destroy his good reputation!"
"I am only declining the rôle of connoisseur," said Oblomov. "'Tis too difficult and risky a rôle. Sometimes I can listen with pleasure to a cracked barrel-organ, and its tunes stick in my memory; while at other times I leave the Opera before the piece is half over. It all depends upon the mood in which I am. In fact, there are moments when I could close my ears even to Mozart."
"Then it is clear that you do love music," said Olga.
"Sing him something," requested Schtoltz.
"But suppose that Monsieur Oblomov were, at this very moment, to be feeling inclined to close his ears?" she said as she turned to him.
"I suppose I ought to utter some compliment or another," he replied. "But I cannot do so, and I would not, even if I could."
"Because," was Oblomov's naïve rejoinder, "things would be so awkward for me if I were to find that you sing badly."
"Even as, the other day, you found things awkward with the biscuits?" she retorted before she could stop herself. The next moment she reddened as though she would have given worlds to have been able to recall her words. "Pardon me," she added. "I ought not to have said that."
Oblomov had been unprepared, and was quite taken aback.
"That was a cruel advantage," he murmured.
"No—only a small revenge (and an unpremeditated one) for your failure to have had a compliment ready."
"Then perhaps I will have one ready when I have heard you sing."
"You wish me to sing, then?"
"No; he wishes it." Oblomov pointed to Schtoltz.
"But what of yourself?"
Oblomov shook his head deprecatingly.
"I could not wish for what I have not yet experienced," he said.
"You are very rude, Ilya," put in Schtoltz. "See what comes of lolling about at home and confining your efforts to having your socks put on for you."
"Pardon me," said Oblomov quickly, and without giving him time to finish. "I should find it no trouble to say: 'I shall be most glad, most delighted, to hear you sing, for of course you sing perfectly.' So," he went on, 'it will afford me the very greatest possible pleasure.' But do you really think it necessary?"
"At least you might express a desire that I should sing—if only out of curiosity.
"I dare not do so," replied Oblomov. "You are not an actress."
"Then it shall be for you that I will sing," she said to Schtoltz.
"While you, Ilya," he added, "can be getting your compliment ready."
Evening was closing in, and the lamp had been lit. Moonlike, it cast through the ivy-covered trellis a light so dim that the dusk still veiled the outlines of Olga's face and figure—it still shrouded them, as it were, in crêpe; while the soft, strong voice, vibrating with nervous tension, came ringing through the darkness with a note of mystery. At Schtoltz's prompting she sang several arias and romances, of which some expressed suffering, with a vague forecast of joy, while others expressed joy, coupled with a lurking germ of sorrow.
As Oblomov listened he could scarcely restrain his tears or the cry of ecstasy that was almost bursting from his soul. In fact, he would have undertaken the tour abroad if thereby he could have remained where he was at that moment, and then gone.
"Have I pleased you to-night?" she inquired of Schtoltz.
"Ask, rather, Oblomov," he replied. "Confess now, Ilya: how long is it since you felt as you are feeling at this moment?"
"Yet he might have felt like that this morning if 'a cracked barrel-organ' had happened to pass his window," put in Olga—but so kindly as to rob the words of their sarcasm.
"He never keeps his windows open," remarked Schtoltz. "Consequently he could not possibly hear what is going on outside."
That night Oblomov was powerless to sleep. He paced the room in a mood of thoughtful despondency, and at dawn left the house to roam the city, with his head and his heart full of God only knows what feelings and reflections
Three days later he called again at the aunt's.
"I want you," said Olga, "to feel thoroughly at home here."
"Then pray do not look at me as you are doing now, and as you have always done."
Instantly her glance lost its usual expression of curiosity, and became wholly softened to kindness.
"Why do you mind my looking at you so much?" she asked.
"I do not know. Somehow your gaze seems to draw from me everything that I would rather people did not learn—you least of all."
"Why so? You are a friend of Schtoltz's, and he is a friend of mine, and therefore—"
"And therefore there is no reason why you should know as much about me as he does," concluded Oblomov.
"No, there is no reason. But at least there is a possibility that I may do so."
"Yes—thanks to his talkativeness! Indeed a poor service!"
"Have you, then, any secrets to conceal—or even crimes?" With a little laugh she edged away from him.
"Perhaps," he said with a sigh.
"Yes, to put on odd socks is a grave crime," she remarked with demure timidity.
Oblomov seized his hat.
"I will not stand this!" he cried. "Yet you want me to feel at home here! As for Schtoltz, I detest him! He told you about the socks, I suppose?"
"Nay, nay," she said. "Pardon me this once, and I will try to look at you in quite a different way. As a matter of fact, 'tis you who are looking at me in rather an odd fashion."
True enough, he was gazing into her kindly, grey-blue eyes—he was doing so simply because he could not help it—and thinking to himself that never in all the world had he seen a maiden so beautiful.
"Something seems to pass from her into myself," he reflected. "And that something is making my heart beat and boil. My God, what a joy to the eye she is!"
"The important question," she went on, "is how to preserve you from feeling ennuyé."
"You can do that by singing to me again."
"Ah, I was expecting that compliment!" The words came from her in a sudden burst as of pleasure. "Do you know, had you not uttered that gasp after I had finished singing the other evening, I should never have slept all night—I should have cried my very eyes out."
"Why?" he asked.
"I do not know. I merely know that that time I sang as I had never done before. Do not ask me to sing now, however—I could not do it."
Nevertheless she did sing to him again; and, ah! what did that song not voice? It seemed to be charged with her very soul.
As she finished, his face was shining with the happiness of a spirit which has been moved to its utmost depths.
"Come!" she said. "Why do you look at me like that?"
Yet she knew why he was doing so, and a modest touch of triumph that she could so greatly have affected him filled her soul.
"Look at yourself in the mirror," she went on, "and you will see that your eyes are shining, and that—yes, really!—they have tears in them. How deeply you must feel music!"
No—it is not music that I am feeling," he replied slowly; "but—but love!"
Her glance met his, and instantly she saw that he had uttered the word in spite of himself, that the word had got him in its power, and that the word had voiced the truth.
Recovering himself, he picked up his hat, and left the room. When he had gone she remained standing like a statue by the piano—her eyes cast down, and her breast rising and falling tumultuously.