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Chapter 6, One day, about noon, ...
ONE day, about noon, two gentlemen were walking along a pavement in the Veaborg Quarter, while behind them a carriage quietly paced. One of the gentlemen was Schtoltz, the other a literary friend of his—a stout individual with an apathetic face and sleepy, meditative eyes. As they drew level with a church, Mass had just ended, and the congregation was pouring into the street. In front of them a knot of beggars was collecting a rich and varied harvest.
"I wonder where these mendicants come from," said the literary gentleman, glancing at the reapers.
"Out of sundry nooks and corners, I suppose," replied the other carelessly.
"That is not what I meant. What I meant is, how have they descended to their present position of beggars? Have they come to it suddenly or gradually, for a good reason or for a bad one?"
"Why are you so anxious to know? Are you contemplating writing a 'Mysteries of Petrograd'?"
"Perhaps I am," the literary gentleman explained with an indolent yawn.
"Then here is a chance for you. Ask any one of them, and, for the sum of a rouble, he will sell you his story, which, jotted down, you could resell to the nobility. For instance, take this old man here. He looks a good example of the normal type. Hi, old man! We want you!"
The old man turned his head at the summons, doffed his cap, and approached the two gentlemen.
"Good sirs," he whined, "pray help a poor man who has been wounded in thirty battles and grown old in war."
"It is Zakhar!" exclaimed Schtoltz in astonishment. "It is you, Zakhar, is it not?" But Zakhar said nothing. Then suddenly he shaded his eyes from the sun, and, staring intently at Schtoltz, muttered—"Pardon me, your Honour—I do not recognize you. I am nearly blind."
"What? You have forgotten your old friend, the barin Schtoltz?" the other asked reproachfully.
"Dear, dear! Is it really your Honour? My bad sight has got the better of me."
Catching Schtoltz impetuously by the hand, the old man imprinted kiss after kiss upon the skirt of his coat.
"The Lord Himself has permitted a poor lost wretch to see a joyful day!" he said, half-laughing, half-crying. Over his face, and particularly over his nose, there had spread a purplish tinge, while his head was almost completely bald, and his whiskers, though still long, looked so matted and entangled as to resemble pieces of felt wherein snowballs have been wrapped. As for his clothing, it consisted of an old, faded cloak, with one of the lapels missing, and a pair of down-at-heel goloshes. In his hands was a cap from which the fur had become worn away.
"Ah, good sir!" he repeated. "Heaven has indeed granted me joy for to-day's festival!"
"But why are you in this state?" Schtoltz inquired. "Are you not ashamed of yourself?"
"Yes, your Honour; but what else could I do?" And Zakhar heaved a profound sigh. "How else was I to live? So long as Anisia was alive I had not to go wandering about like this, for I was given bite and sup whenever I wanted it; but she died of cholera (Heaven rest her soul!), and her brother straightway refused to support me, saying that I was nothing but an old hanger-on. From Michei Andreitch Tarantiev too I received shameful abuse, and neither of them—would you believe it, your Honour?—ever gave me a morsel of bread! Indeed, had it not been for the barinia, God bless her"—and Zakhar crossed himself—"I should long ago have perished of the cold; but for a while she gave me a bit of clothing, and as much bread as I could eat, and a place by the stove of a night. Then they took to rating her on my account; so at last I left the house to wander whither my eyes might lead me. This is the second year that I have been dragging out this miserable existence."
"But why did you not go and seek a situation?" Schtoltz inquired.
"Where was I to get one at this time of day, your Honour? True, I tried for two, but was unsuccessful. Things are not what they used to be: everything has changed for the worse. Nowadays masters require their lacqueys to look respectable, and the gentry no longer keep their halls chock-full of footmen. Indeed, 'tis seldom that you will find so many as two footmen in a house. Yes," he went on, "the gentry actually take off their own boots! They have even gone so far as to invent a machine to do it with!" Evidently the idea cut Zakhar to the heart. "Yes," he repeated, "our gentry are a shame and a disgrace to the country. They are fast coming to rack and ruin." A sigh of profound regret followed.
"At one place," presently he resumed, "I did obtain a situation. 'Twas with a German merchant, who engaged me to be his hall lacquey. After a while, however, he sent me to serve in the pantry. Now, was that my proper business? One day I was carrying some crockery across the room on a tray, and the floor happened to be smooth and slippery, and down I fell, and the tray and the crockery with me. So I was turned out of doors. Next, an old countess took a fancy to my looks. 'He is of respectable appearance,' she said to herself, and added me to her staff of Swiss lacqueys. The post was a light one, and bid fair to be permanent, too. All that I had to do was to sit as solemnly as possible on a chair, to cross one leg over the other, and, when any rascal called, not to answer him, but just to grunt and send the fellow away—or else give him a box on the ear. Of course, to the gentry one had to behave differently—just to wave one's staff like this." Zakhar gave an illustration of what he meant. "As I say, 'twas an easy job, and the lady, God bless her! was not over-difficult to please. But one day she happened to peep into my room and to see there a bug. With that she bristled up and shrieked as though it had been I who had invented bugs! When was a household ever without a bug? So the next time she passed me she pretended that I smelt of liquor, and dismissed me."
"Yes, and you smell of it now—and very strongly," remarked Schtoltz.
"To my sorrow, I suppose so," whined Zakhar, wrinkling his brow bitterly. "Well, then I tried to get a coachman's job, and took service with a gentleman; but one day I had my feet frost-bitten (for I was over-old and weak for the job), and another day the brute of a horse fell down and nearly broke my ribs, and another day I ran over an old woman and got taken to the police-station."
"Well, well! Instead of drinking and getting yourself into trouble, come to my house, and I will give you a corner there until it is time for us to return to the country. Do you hear?"
"Yes, your HonourÄyes; but, but—" Zakhar sighed again. "I would rather not leave these parts. You see, the grave is here—the grave where my old patron is lying." Zakhar sobbed. "Only to-day I have been there to commend his soul to God. What a barin the Lord God has taken from us! 'Twould have been good for us if he could have lived another hundred years. Yes, only to-day I have been visiting his grave. Whenever I am near the spot I go and sit beside it, and shed tears—ah, such tears! And sometimes, too, when all is quiet there, I seem to hear him calling to me once more, 'Zakhar! Zakhar!'—and shivers go running down my back. Never lived there such a barin as he! And how fond of yourself he was, your Honour! May the Lord remember him when the heavenly kingdom shall come!"
"You ought to see our little Andrei," said Schtoltz. "If you like, you can have charge of him." And he handed the old man some money.
"Yes, I will come! How could I not come when it is to see little Andrei Ilyitch? By this time he must be grown into a tall young gentleman. What joy the Lord has reserved for me this day! Yes, I will come, your Honour, and may God send you good health and many a long year of life!" But it was after a departing carriage that Zakhar was dispatching his benedictions.
"Did you hear the old beggar's story?" Schtoltz asked of his companion.
"Yes. Who was the Oblomov whom he mentioned?"
"He was—Oblomov. More than once I have spoken to you of him."
"Ah, I think I remember the name. Yes, he was a friend and comrade of yours, was he not? What became of him?"
"He came to rack and ruin—though for no apparent reason." As he spoke Schtoltz sighed heavily. Then he added: "His intellect was equal to that of his fellows, his soul was as clear and as bright as glass, his disposition was kindly, and he was a gentleman to the core. Yet he—he fell."
"Wherefore? What was the cause?"
"The cause?" re-echoed Schtoltz. "The cause was—the disease of Oblomovka."
"The disease of Oblomovka?" queried the literary gentleman in some perplexity. " What is that?"
"Some day I will tell you. For the moment leave me to my thoughts and memories. Hereafter you shall write them down, for they might prove of value to some one."
In time Schtoltz related to his friend what herein is to be found recorded.