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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesOn The Eve: A Novel - Chapter 1
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On The Eve: A Novel - Chapter 1 Post by :astoller Category :Long Stories Author :Ivan Turgenev Date :May 2012 Read :2440

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On The Eve: A Novel - Chapter 1

I

On one of the hottest days of the summer of 1853, in the shade of a tall
lime-tree on the bank of the river Moskva, not far from Kuntsovo, two
young men were lying on the grass. One, who looked about twenty-three,
tall and swarthy, with a sharp and rather crooked nose, a high forehead,
and a restrained smile on his wide mouth, was lying on his back and
gazing meditatively into the distance, his small grey eyes half closed.
The other was lying on his chest, his curly, fair head propped on his
two hands; he, too, was looking away into the distance. He was three
years older than his companion, but seemed much younger. His moustache
was only just growing, and his chin was covered with a light curly down.
There was something childishly pretty, something attractively delicate,
in the small features of his fresh round face, in his soft brown eyes,
lovely pouting lips, and little white hands. Everything about him
was suggestive of the happy light-heartedness of perfect health and
youth--the carelessness, conceit, self-indulgence, and charm of youth.
He used his eyes, and smiled and leaned his head as boys do who know
that people look at them admiringly. He wore a loose white coat,
made like a blouse, a blue kerchief wrapped his slender throat, and a
battered straw hat had been flung on the grass beside him.

His companion seemed elderly in comparison with him; and no one would
have supposed, from his angular figure, that he too was happy and
enjoying himself. He lay in an awkward attitude; his large head--wide
at the crown and narrower at the base--hung awkwardly on his long neck;
awkwardness was expressed in the very pose of his hands, of his body,
tightly clothed in a short black coat, and of his long legs with their
knees raised, like the hind-legs of a grasshopper. For all that, it was
impossible not to recognise that he was a man of good education; the
whole of his clumsy person bore the stamp of good-breeding; and his
face, plain and even a little ridiculous as it was, showed a kindly
nature and a thoughtful habit. His name was Andrei Petrovitch Bersenyev;
his companion, the fair-haired young man, was called Pavel Yakovlitch
Shubin.

'Why don't you lie on your face, like me?' began Shubin. 'It's ever
so much nicer so; especially when you kick up your heels and clap them
together--like this. You have the grass under your nose; when you're
sick of staring at the landscape you can watch a fat beetle crawling on
a blade of grass, or an ant fussing about. It's really much nicer.
But you've taken up a pseudo-classical pose, for all the world like a
ballet-dancer, when she reclines upon a rock of paste-board. You should
remember you have a perfect right to take a rest now. It's no joking
matter to come out third! Take your ease, sir; give up all exertion, and
rest your weary limbs!'

Shubin delivered this speech through his nose in a half-lazy,
half-joking voice (spoilt children speak so to friends of the house who
bring them sweetmeats), and without waiting for an answer he went on:

'What strikes me most forcibly in the ants and beetles and other worthy
insects is their astounding seriousness. They run to and fro with such
a solemn air, as though their life were something of such importance!
A man the lord of creation, the highest being, stares at them, if you
please, and they pay no attention to him. Why, a gnat will even settle
on the lord of creation's nose, and make use of him for food. It's most
offensive. And, on the other hand, how is their life inferior to ours?
And why shouldn't they take themselves seriously, if we are to be
allowed to take ourselves seriously? There now, philosopher, solve that
problem for me! Why don't you speak? Eh?'

'What?' said Bersenyev, starting.

'What!' repeated Shubin. 'Your friend lays his deepest thoughts before
you, and you don't listen to him.'

'I was admiring the view. Look how hot and bright those fields are in
the sun.' Bersenyev spoke with a slight lisp.

'There's some fine colour laid on there,' observed Shubin. 'Nature's a
good hand at it, that's the fact!'

Bersenyev shook his head.

'You ought to be even more ecstatic over it than I. It's in your line:
you're an artist.'

'No; it's not in my line,' rejoined Shubin, putting his hat on the back
of his head. 'Flesh is my line; my work's with flesh--modelling flesh,
shoulders, legs, and arms, and here there's no form, no finish; it's all
over the place.... Catch it if you can.'

'But there is beauty here, too,' remarked Bersenyev.--'By the way, have
you finished your bas-relief?'

'Which one?'

'The boy with the goat.'

'Hang it! Hang it! Hang it!' cried Shubin, drawling--'I looked at the
genuine old things, the antiques, and I smashed my rubbish to pieces.
You point to nature, and say "there's beauty here, too." Of course,
there's beauty in everything, even in your nose there's beauty; but you
can't try after all kinds of beauty. The ancients, they didn't try after
it; beauty came down of itself upon their creations from somewhere or
other--from heaven, I suppose. The whole world belonged to them; it's
not for us to be so large in our reach; our arms are short. We drop our
hook into one little pool, and keep watch over it. If we get a bite, so
much the better, if not----'

Shubin put out his tongue.

'Stop, stop,' said Bensenyev, 'that's a paradox. If you have no sympathy
for beauty, if you do not love beauty wherever you meet it, it will not
come to you even in your art. If a beautiful view, if beautiful music
does not touch your heart; I mean, if you are not sympathetic----'

'Ah, you are a confirmed sympathetic!' broke in Shubin, laughing at the
new title he had coined, while Bersenyev sank into thought.

'No, my dear fellow,' Shubin went on, 'you're a clever person, a
philosopher, third graduate of the Moscow University; it's dreadful
arguing with you, especially for an ignoramus like me, but I tell you
what; besides my art, the only beauty I love is in women... in girls,
and even that's recently.'

He turned over on to his back and clasped his hands behind his head.

A few instants passed by in silence. The hush of the noonday heat lay
upon the drowsy, blazing fields.

'Speaking of women,' Shubin began again, 'how is it no one looks after
Stahov? Did you see him in Moscow?'

'No.'

'The old fellow's gone clean off his head. He sits for whole days
together at his Augustina Christianovna's, he's bored to death, but
still he sits there. They gaze at one another so stupidly.... It's
positively disgusting to see them. Man's a strange animal. A man with
such a home; but no, he must have his Augustina Christianovna! I don't
know anything more repulsive than her face, just like a duck's! The
other day I modelled a caricature of her in the style of Dantan. It
wasn't half bad. I will show it you.'

'And Elena Nikolaevna's bust?' inquired Bersenyev, 'is it getting on?'

'No, my dear boy, it's not getting on. That face is enough to drive one
to despair. The lines are pure, severe, correct; one would think there
would be no difficulty in catching a likeness. It's not as easy as one
would think though. It's like a treasure in a fairy-tale--you can't get
hold of it. Have you ever noticed how she listens? There's not a single
feature different, but the whole expression of the eyes is constantly
changing, and with that the whole face changes. What is a sculptor--and
a poor one too--to do with such a face? She's a wonderful creature--a
strange creature,' he added after a brief pause.

'Yes; she is a wonderful girl,' Bersenyev repeated after him.

'And she the daughter of Nikolai Artemyevitch Stahov! And after that
people talk about blood, about stock! The amusing part of it is that
she really is his daughter, like him, as well as like her mother, Anna
Vassilyevna. I respect Anna Vassilyevna from the depths of my heart,
she's been awfully good to me; but she's no better than a hen. Where
did Elena get that soul of hers? Who kindled that fire in her? There's
another problem for you, philosopher!'

But as before, the 'philosopher' made no reply. Bersenyev did not in
general err on the side of talkativeness, and when he did speak,
he expressed himself awkwardly, with hesitation, and unnecessary
gesticulation. And at this time a kind of special stillness had fallen
on his soul, a stillness akin to lassitude and melancholy. He had not
long come from town after prolonged hard work, which had absorbed him
for many hours every day. The inactivity, the softness and purity of the
air, the consciousness of having attained his object, the whimsical and
careless talk of his friend, and the image--so suddenly called up--of
one dear to him, all these impressions different--yet at the same time
in a way akin--were mingled in him into a single vague emotion, which at
once soothed and excited him, and robbed him of his power. He was a very
highly strung young man.

It was cool and peaceful under the lime-tree; the flies and bees seemed
to hum more softly as they flitted within its circle of shade. The fresh
fine grass, of purest emerald green, without a tinge of gold, did not
quiver, the tall flower stalks stood motionless, as though enchanted.
On the lower twigs of the lime-tree the little bunches of yellow flowers
hung still as death. At every breath a sweet fragrance made its way to
the very depths of the lungs, and eagerly the lungs inhaled it. Beyond
the river in the distance, right up to the horizon, all was bright and
glowing. At times a slight breeze passed over, breaking up the landscape
and intensifying the brightness; a sunlit vapour hung over the fields.
No sound came from the birds; they do not sing in the heat of noonday;
but the grasshoppers were chirping everywhere, and it was pleasant as
they sat in the cool and quietness, to hear that hot, eager sound of
life; it disposed to slumber and inclined the heart to reveries.

'Have you noticed,' began Bersenyev, eking out his words with
gesticulations, 'what a strange feeling nature produces in us?
Everything in nature is so complete, so defined, I mean to say, so
content with itself, and we understand that and admire it, and at the
same time, in me at least, it always excites a kind of restlessness, a
kind of uneasiness, even melancholy. What is the meaning of it? Is it
that in the face of nature we are more vividly conscious of all our
incompleteness, our indefiniteness, or have we little of that content
with which nature is satisfied, but something else--I mean to say, what
we need, nature has not?'

'H'm,' replied Shubin, 'I'll tell you, Andrei Petrovitch, what all that
comes from. You describe the sensations of a solitary man, who is not
living but only looking on in ecstasy. Why look on? Live, yourself, and
you will be all right. However much you knock at nature's door, she will
never answer you in comprehensible words, because she is dumb. She will
utter a musical sound, or a moan, like a harp string, but don't expect
a song from her. A living heart, now--that will give you your
answer--especially a woman's heart. So, my dear fellow, I advise you
to get yourself some one to share your heart, and all your distressing
sensations will vanish at once. "That's what we need," as you say. This
agitation, and melancholy, all that, you know, is simply a hunger of
a kind. Give the stomach some real food, and everything will be right
directly. Take your place in the landscape, live in the body, my dear
boy. And after all, what is nature? what's the use of it? Only hear the
word, love--what an intense, glowing sound it has! Nature--what a cold,
pedantic expression. And so' (Shubin began humming), 'my greetings to
Marya Petrovna! or rather,' he added, 'not Marya Petrovna, but it's all
the same! _Voo me compreny_.'

Bersenyev got up and stood with his chin leaning on his clasped hands.
'What is there to laugh at?' he said, without looking at his companion,
'why should you scoff? Yes, you are right: love is a grand word, a grand
feeling.... But what sort of love do you mean?'

Shubin too, got up. 'What sort? What you like, so long as it's there. I
will confess to you that I don't believe in the existence of different
kinds of love. If you are in love----'

'With your whole heart,' put in Bersenyev.

'Well, of course, that's an understood thing; the heart's not an apple;
you can't divide it. If you're in love, you're justified. And I wasn't
thinking of scoffing. My heart's as soft at this moment as if it had
been melted.... I only wanted to explain why nature has the effect on us
you spoke of. It's because she arouses in us a need for love, and is not
capable of satisfying it. Nature is gently driving us to other living
embraces, but we don't understand, and expect something from nature
herself. Ah, Andrei, Andrei, this sun, this sky is beautiful, everything
around us is beautiful, still you are sad; but if, at this instant, you
were holding the hand of a woman you loved, if that hand and the whole
woman were yours, if you were even seeing with her eyes, feeling not
your own isolated emotion, but her emotion--nature would not make you
melancholy or restless then, and you would not be observing nature's
beauty; nature herself would be full of joy and praise; she would
be re-echoing your hymn, because then you would have given her--dumb
nature--speech!'

Shubin leaped on to his feet and walked twice up and down, but Bersenyev
bent his head, and his face was overcast by a faint flush.

'I don't altogether agree with you,' he began: 'nature does not always
urge us... towards love.' (He could not at once pronounce the word.)
'Nature threatens us, too; she reminds us of dreadful... yes, insoluble
mysteries. Is she not destined to swallow us up, is she not swallowing
us up unceasingly? She holds life and death as well; and death speaks in
her as loudly as life.'

'In love, too, there is both life and death,' interposed Shubin.

'And then,' Bersenyev went on: 'when I, for example, stand in the spring
in the forest, in a green glade, when I can fancy the romantic notes of
Oberon's fairy horn' (Bersenyev was a little ashamed when he had spoken
these words)--'is that, too----'

'The thirst for love, the thirst for happiness, nothing more!' broke
in Shubin. 'I, too, know those notes, I know the languor and the
expectation which come upon the soul in the forest's shade, in its deep
recesses, or at evening in the open fields when the sun sets and the
river mist rises behind the bushes. But forest, and river, and fields,
and sky, every cloud and every blade of grass sets me expecting, hoping
for happiness, I feel the approach, I hear the voice of happiness
calling in everything. "God of my worship, bright and gay!" That was how
I tried to begin my sole poem; you must own it's a splendid first line,
but I could never produce a second. Happiness! happiness! as long as
life is not over, as long as we have the use of all our limbs, as long
as we are going up, not down, hill! Damn it all!' pursued Shubin with
sudden vehemence, 'we are young, and neither fools nor monsters; we will
conquer happiness for ourselves!'

He shook his curls, and turned a confident almost challenging glance
upwards to the sky. Bersenyev raised his eyes and looked at him.

'Is there nothing higher than happiness?' he commented softly.

'And what, for instance?' asked Shubin, stopping short.

'Why, for instance, you and I are, as you say, young; we are good men,
let us suppose; each of us desires happiness for himself.... But is that
word, happiness, one that could unite us, set us both on fire, and make
us clasp each other's hands? Isn't that word an egoistic one; I mean,
isn't it a source of disunion?'

'Do you know words, then, that unite men?'

'Yes; and they are not few in number; and you know them, too.'

'Eh? What words?'

'Well, even Art--since you are an artist--Country, Science, Freedom,
Justice.'

'And what of love?' asked Shubin.

'Love, too, is a word that unites; but not the love you are eager for
now; the love which is not enjoyment, the love which is self-sacrifice.'

Shubin frowned.

'That's all very well for Germans; I want to love for myself; I want to
be first.'

'To be first,' repeated Bersenyev. 'But it seems to me that to put
one's-self in the second place is the whole significance of our life.'

'If all men were to act as you advise,' commented Shubin with a
plaintive expression, 'none on earth would eat pine-apples; every one
would be offering them to other people.'

'That's as much as to say, pine-apples are not necessary; but you need
not be alarmed; there will always be plenty of people who like them
enough to take the bread out of other men's mouths to get them.'

Both friends were silent a little.

'I met Insarov again the other day,' began Bersenyev. 'I invited him to
stay with me; I really must introduce him to you--and to the Stahovs.'

'Who is Insarov? Ah, to be sure, isn't it that Servian or Bulgarian you
were telling me about? The patriot? Now isn't it he who's at the bottom
of all these philosophical ideas?'

'Perhaps.'

'Is he an exceptional individual?'

'Yes.'

'Clever? Talented?'

'Clever--talented--I don't know, I don't think so.'

'Not? Then, what is there remarkable in him?'

'You shall see. But now I think it's time to be going. Anna Vassilyevna
will be waiting for us, very likely. What's the time?'

'Three o'clock. Let us go. How baking it is! This conversation has set
all my blood aflame. There was a moment when you, too,... I am not an
artist for nothing; I observe everything. Confess, you are interested in
a woman?'

Shubin tried to get a look at Bersenyev's face, but he turned away and
walked out of the lime-tree's shade. Shubin went after him, moving
his little feet with easy grace. Bersenyev walked clumsily, with his
shoulders high and his neck craned forward. Yet, he looked a man of
finer breeding than Shubin; more of a gentleman, one might say, if that
word had not been so vulgarised among us.

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ON THE EVE By Ivan Turgenev Translated from the Russian By Constance Garnett (With an introduction by Edward Garnett) London: William Heinemann 1895 This exquisite novel, first published in 1859, like so many great works of art, holds depths of meaning which at first sight lie veiled under the simplicity and harmony of the technique. To the English reader _On the Eve is a charmingly drawn picture of a quiet Russian household, with a delicate analysis of a young girl's soul; but to Russians it is also a deep and penetrating diagnosis of the destinies of the Russia of the fifties.
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