II. Maksim Maksimich

“After parting with Maksim Maksimich, I made good time through the Terek and Daryal gorges and had breakfast at Kazbek and tea at Lars, driving into Vladikavkaz by supper time. I won’t bore you with descriptions of mountains, exclamations that mean nothing and canvases that convey nothing, especially to those who have never been in these places, nor with statistical observations which, I’m certain, no one would bother to read.

I stayed at an inn where all travelers stay and where, incidentally, there is no one to serve you a roast pheasant or a plate of cabbage soup, for the three veterans in charge are either so stupid or so drunk that there is nothing to be got from them.

I was told that I would have to stay there for another three days, because the “occasional” [okaziya , or detail] from Yekaterinograd[1] hadn’t come in yet, and therefore couldn’t set out on the return trip. What an occasion! But a bad pun is no consolation to a Russian and in order to while away the time I decided to write down Maksim Maksimich’s story about Bela, quite unaware that it would turn out to be the first link in a long chain of tales[2]. So you see how an occurrence insignificant in itself may have serious consequences… But perhaps you don’t know what an “occasional” is? It’s an escort of half a company of infantry and a gun detailed to protect the caravans[3] crossing Kabarda from Vladikavkaz to Yekarerinograd.

The first day was very boring, but early the next morning a carriage drove into the yard. It was Maksim Maksimich! We greeted each other like old friends. I offered him the use of my room. He didn’t stand on ceremony. He even clapped me on the shoulder, and his mouth twisted into what passed for a smile. An odd man!

Maksim Maksimich was well versed in the culinary arts and turned out a wonderful roast pheasant with an excellent pickled cucumber sauce. I must admit that without him I would’ve had only a cold snack. A bottle of Kakherian wine helped us overlook the modesty of the meal, which consisted of only one course. Afterwards we lit our pipes and settled down for a smoke, I near the window and he next to the stove where a fire was going, for the day was chilly and raw. We sat in silence-what was there to say?… He’d already told me all that was interesting about himself, and I had nothing to tell him. I looked out of the window. A long string of low houses, sprawling along the bank of the Terek, which here spreads wider and wider, was visible through the trees, while in the distance was the blue serrated wall of the mountains with Kazbek in its white cardinal’s hat peeping over it. Mentally I was bidding them goodbye. I felt sorry to leave them…

We sat that way for a long time. The sun was setting behind the frigid peaks and a milky mist was spreading through the valleys when we heard the tinkling of bells and the shouting of drivers outside. Several carts with grimy Armenians drove into the courtyard, followed by an empty carriage whose lightness, comfort and elegance gave it a distinctly foreign air. Behind walked a man with a huge mustache wearing a braided jacket. He was rather well dressed for a manservant, but the way he knocked the ashes from his pipe and shouted at the coachman left no doubt as to his position. He was obviously the pampered servant of an indolent gentleman-something of a Russian Figaro[4]. “tell me, my good man,” I called to him from the window, “is it the ‘occasional’?” He looked at me rather insolently, straightened his neckerchief and turned away. An Armenian who’d been walking beside him smiled and replied for him that it was indeed the “occasional” and that it would set out on the return trip the next morning. “Thank God!” said Maksim Maksimich who had just come to the window. “A fine carriage!” he added. “Probably some official on his way to conduct a hearing in Tiflis. You can see he doesn’t know our hills. No, my dear fellow, they’re not for the likes of you. Even an English carriage wouldn’t stand the jolting! I wonder who it is-let’s find out…” We went into the hallway, at the far end of which a door was open into a side room. The valet and the driver were lugging in suitcases.

“Listen, friend,” the captain asked the valet, “whose is that fine carriage, eh? A splendid carriage indeed!” The valet muttered something inaudible without turning and went on unstrapping a case. This was too much for Maksim Maksimich, who tapped the insolent fellow on the shoulder and said: “I’m talking to you, my man…”

“Whose carriage? My master’s.”

“And who is your master?”

“Pechorin.”

“What did you say? Pechorin? Good God! Did he ever serve in the Caucasus?” Maksim Maksimich exclaimed, pulling at my sleeve. His eyes lit up with joy.

“I believe so… but I haven’t been with him long.”

“Well, well, there you are! Grigoriy Aleksandrovich is his name, isn’t it? Your master and I used to know each other well,” he added, with a friendly slap on the valet’s shoulder that nearly made him lose his balance.

“Excuse me, sir, you are in my way,” said the latter, frowning.

“What of it, man! Don’t you know I’m an old friend of your master’s, we lived together, too. Now, where can I find him?”

The servant announced that Pechorin had stayed behind to dine and spend the night with Colonel N-.

“He won’t be here tonight?” said Maksim Maksimich. “Or perhaps you, my good man, will have some reason to see him? If you do, tell him Maksim Maksimich is here-you just tell him that and he’ll know… I’ll tip you eighty kopecks…”

The valet put on a superior air on hearing this modest offer, but nevertheless promised Maksim Maksimich to run his errand.

“He’ll come at once, I’m sure!” Maksim Maksimich told me triumphantly. “I’ll go out to the gates to meet him. Pity I don’t know N-.”

Maksim Maksimich sat down on a bench outside the gate and I went into my room. I must admit that I too awaited the appearance of this Pechorin with some eagerness, for though the captain’s story had not given me too favorable a picture of the man, some of his traits nevertheless struck me as quite remarkable. In an hour one of the veterans brought in a steaming samovar and a teapot. “Maksim Maksimich, will you have some tea?” I called to him from the window.

“Thank you, I really don’t care for any.”

“You’d better have some. It’s late already and getting chilly.”

“No, thank you …”

“Well, as you wish!” I said and sat down to tea alone. In ten minutes or so the old man came in. “I suppose you are right,” he said. “Better have some tea… You see, I was waiting. His man has been gone a long time-looks as if something has detained him.”

He hastily gulped down a cup of tea, refused a second, and went back to the gate, obviously upset. It was clear that the old man was hurt by Pechorin’s unconcern, all the more so since he had spoken to me so recently about their friendship, and only an hour before had been certain that Pechorin would come running as soon as he heard his name.

It was late and dark when I again opened the window and called to remind Maksim Maksimich that it was time to go to bed. He muttered something in reply and I urged him again to come in, but he didn’t answer.

Leaving a candle on the bench, I lay down on the couch, wrapped myself in my overcoat and was soon asleep. I would have slept peacefully all night had not Maksim Maksimich awakened me when he came in very late. He threw his pipe on the table, began pacing up and down the room, then fussed with the stove. Finally he lay down, coughing, spitting, and tossing about for a long time.

“Bedbugs bothering you?” I asked.

“Yes, bedbugs,” he replied with a heavy sigh.

I woke up early next morning, but Maksim Maksimich had already got up. I found him sitting on the bench at the gate. “I’ve got to see the commandant,” he said, “so if Pechorin comes will you please send for me?”

I promised to do so. He ran off as if his legs had regained the strength and agility of youth.

It was a fresh, fine morning. Golden clouds piled up on the mountains in a phantom range of summits. In front of the gates was a broad square, and beyond it the market place was seething with people, for it was Sunday. Bare-footed Ossetian boys, birchbark[5] baskets laden with honeycombs strapped to their backs, crowded around me, but I drove them away for I was too preoccupied to give them much thought. The good captain’s anxiety was beginning to claim me too.

Ten minutes had not passed when the man for whom we had been waiting appeared at the far end of the square. With him was Colonel N-, who left him at the inn and turned back towards the fort. I immediately sent one of the veterans for Maksim Maksimich.

Pechorin was met by his valet who reported that the horses would be harnessed in a moment, handed him a box of cigars, and, having received a few instructions, went off to carry them out. His master lit a cigar, yawned once or twice and sat down on a bench on the other side of the gate. Now I would like to draw you his portrait.

He was of medium height. His erect, lithe figure and broad shoulders suggested a strong physique equal to all the hardships of the road and variations of climate, unweakened by either the dissolute life of the capital or emotional storms. His dusty velvet coat was open except for the last two buttons, revealing an expanse of dazzlingly white shirt that betrayed the habits of a gentleman. His soiled gloves seemed to have been made for his small, aristocratic hands, and when he pulled off a glove, I was amazed at the slenderness of his white fingers. His walk was careless and indolent, but I noticed he didn’t swing his arms-a sure sign of a certain reticence of character. But these are my personal opinions based on my own observations, and I can’t compel you to accept them blindly. When he sank down on the bench his straight frame sagged as if he hadn’t a bone in his back. His whole posture now betrayed some nervous weakness. He sat as the thirty-year-old coquette[6] in balzac’s book might sit in a cushioned easy chair after an exhausting ball. At first glance I wouldn’t have thought him more[7] than twenty-three years old, though later I was ready to admit he looked thirty. There was something childlike in his smile. His skin was as delicate as a woman’s, and his naturally curly fair hair made a pleasing frame for his pale, noble brow on which only careful scrutiny could disclose a fine network of wrinkles that probably were a good deal more in evidence at times of anger or spiritual anxiety. In spite of his light hair, his mustache and eyebrows were black-as much a sign of pedigree in a man as a black mane and tail are in a white horse. To complete the portrait, I will say that he had a slightly turned-up nose and that his teeth were dazzlingly white and his eyes hazel-but about his eyes I must say a few more words.

Firstly, they didn’t laugh when he did. Have you ever had opportunity to observe this peculiarity in some people? It’s a sign either of evil nature or of deep constant sadness. They shone with a phosphorescent glow, if one may so put it, under half-closed eyelids. It was no reflection of spiritual warmth or fertile imagination. It was the flash of smooth steel, blinding but cold. His glance was brief but piercing and oppressive, it had the disturbing effect of an indiscreet question, and might have seemed audacious had it not been so calmly casual. Perhaps all these observations came to my mind only because I happened to know some details about his life, and another person might’ve obtained an entirely different impression, but since you won’t learn about him from anyone else, you’ll have to be satisfied with this portrayal. I must say in conclusion that, on the whole, he was handsome indeed and had one of those unusual faces that are particularly pleasing to society ladies.

The horses were harnessed, the bell attached to the shaft bow tinkled, and the valet had already reported twice to Pechorin that the carriage was waiting. But still there was no sign of Maksim Maksimich. Luckily Pechorin was deep in thought. He stared at the blue jagged ridge of the Caucasus, apparently in no hurry to be on his way. I crossed over to him. “If you would care to wait a while,” I said, “you will have the pleasure of meeting an old friend…”

“Ah, that’s right!” he replied quickly. “I was told about him yesterday. But where is he?” I looked out over the square and saw Maksim Maksimich running towards us for all he was worth… In a few minutes he had reached us. He could barely catch his breath, beads of perspiration rolled down his face, damp strands of gray hair that had escaped from under his cap stuck to his forehead, and his knees shook. He was about to throw his arms around Pechorin’s neck, but the latter extended his hand rather coldly, though his smile was pleasant enough. For a moment the captain was taken aback, then he eagerly gripped the hand with both of his. He was still unable to speak.

“This is a pleasure, dear Maksim Maksimich. How are you?” said Pechorin.

“And thou?…And you?…” faltered the old man, tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s a long time… a very long time… But where are you off to?”

“On my way to Persia… and then farther…”

“Not immediately, I hope? Won’t you stay awhile, my dear man? We haven’t seen each other for so long…”

“I must go, Maksim Maksimich,” was the reply.

“My God, what’s the hurry? I have so much to tell you and so many questions to ask… How are things, anyway? Retired, eh? What have you been doing?”

“I’ve been bored stiff,” replied Pechorin, smiling.

“Remember our life in the fort? Wonderful hunting country, wasn’t it? How you loved to hunt! Remember Bela?”

Pechorin turned white a little and turned away.

“Yes, I remember,” he said, deliberately yawning almost in the same breath.

Maksim Maksimich urged him to stay on for another hour or two. “We’ll have a fine dinner,” he said. “I have two pheasants and the Kakhetian here is excellent… not the same as in Georgia, of course, but the best to be had here. And we could talk… you’ll tell me about your stay in St. Petersburg, won’t you?”

“I really have nothing to tell, dear Maksim Maksimich. And I have to say goodbye now, for I must be off… In rather a hurry… It was kind of you not to have forgotten me,” he added, taking the old man’s hand.

The old man frowned. He was both grieved and hurt, though he did his best to conceal his feelings. “Forgotten!” he muttered. “No, I’ve forgotten nothing. Oh well, never mind… Only I didn’t expect our meeting would be like this.”

“Come, now,” said Pechorin, embracing him in a friendly way. “I don’t think I have changed. Ar any rate, it can’t be helped. We all are destined to go our several ways. God knows whether we’ll meet again.” This he said as he climbed into the carriage and the coachman was already gathering up the reins.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute!” Maksim Maksimich suddenly shouted, holding the carriage door. “It completely slipped my mind… I still have your papers, Grigoriy Aleksandrovich… Been carrying them around with me… Thought I’d find you in Georgia, never dreaming the Lord would have us meet here… What do you want me to do with them?”

“Whatever you want,” replied Pechorin. “Farewell!”

“So you are off to Persia… When do you expect to be back?” Maksim Maksimich shouted after him.

The carriage was already some distance off, but Pechorin waved in a way that could well be interpreted to mean: “I doubt whether I will return, nor is there any reason why I should!”

Long after the tinkling of the bell and the clatter of wheels against the flinty surface of the road had faded into the distance, the poor old fellow stood glued to the spot, lost in thought.

 

“Yes,” he said at last, trying his best to preserve a nonchalant air though tears of disappointment still showed in his eyes, “we were friends, of course, but what’s friendship nowadays? What am I to him? I’m neither rich nor titled, and besides, I’m much older. What a dandy his visit to St. Petersburg has made him! Look at that carriage, and the pile of luggage… and the haughty valet!” This he said with an ironic smile. “Tell me,” he went on, turning to me, “what do you think of it all! What sort of a demon is driving him to Persia now? Ridiculous, isn’t it? I knew all along, of course, that he was the flighty sort of fellow you can’t count on. It’s a pity though that he had to come to a bad end… but it couldn’t be otherwise, as you can see. I’ve always said that nothing good will come of those who forget old friends.” At that he turned away to conceal his agitation and began pacing up and down the courtyard beside his carriage, pretending to examine the wheels, while the tears kept filling up his eyes.

“Maksim Maksimich,” said I, walking up to him. “What were the papers Pechorin left with you?”

“The Lord knows! Some notes or other. . .”

“What do you intend to do with them?”

“Eh? I’ll have them made into cartridges.”

“You’d do better to give them to me.”

He looked at me in amazement, muttered something under his breath and began to rummage through his suitcase. He took out one notebook and threw it contemptuously on the ground. The second, the third and the tenth all shared the fate of the first. There was something childish about the old man’s resentment, and I was both amused and sorry for him.

“That’s the lot,” he said. “I congratulate you on your find.”

“And I may do whatever I want with them?”

“Print them in the newspapers if you like, what do I care? Yes, indeed, am I a friend of his or a relative? True, we shared the same roof for a long time, but then I’ve lived with all sorts of people.”

I took the papers and carried them off before the captain could change his mind. Soon we were told that the “occasional” would set out in an hour, and I gave orders to harness the horses. The captain came into my room as I was putting on my hat. He showed no sign of preparing for the journey. There was a strained coldness about him.

“Aren’t you coming, Maksim Maksimich?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I haven’t seen the commandant, and I have to deliver some government property to him.”

“But didn’t you go to see him?”

“Yes, of course,” he stammered, “but he wasn’t in and I didn’t wait for him.”

I understood what he meant. For the first time in his life, perhaps, the poor old man had neglected his duties for his personal convenience, to put it in official language, and this had been his reward!

“I’m very sorry, Maksim Maksimich,” I said, “very sorry indeed, that we have to part so soon.”

“How can we ignorant old fogies keep up with you haughty young men of the world? Here, with Circassian bullets flying about, you put up with us somehow… but if we chanced to meet later on you’d be ashamed to shake hands with the likes of us.”

“I haven’t deserved this reproach, Maksim Maksimich.”

“I’m just speaking at random, you know. Anyway, I wish you luck and a pleasant journey.”

We separated rather coldly. Good Maksim Maksimich was now an obstinate, cantankerous captain. And why? Because Pechorin through absent-mindedness or for some other reason had merely extended his hand when his old friend wanted to fling himself into his embrace. It’s sad to see a young man’s finest hopes and dreams shattered, to see him lose the rosy illusions with which he viewed man’s deeds and emotions, although there is still hope that he may exchange the old delusions for new ones no less transitory but also no less sweet. But what is there to exchange them for at Maksim Maksimich’s age? Without wishing it, the heart would harden and the soul wither…

 

I set out alone.

 

[1] now Krasnodar, North Caucasus, spa town perhaps 60 miles northwest of Vladikavkaz.

[2] the division into parts this way makes no sense (Nabokov called it “purely fortuitous”) and seems to have been an invention of the clumsy editor of the second edition. Russian literature did not yet have a tradition of the prose novel, while European printers at the time usually divided novels into separate volumes for convenience and sales. If one wanted to read the book in chronological order of the fictional events, it would be this way: Taman, Princess Mary, Bela (The Fatalist comes in the middle of this), Maksim Maksimich, and the Preface. However, the order Lermontov uses does spiral in on Pechorin’s character effectively. By the way, there are references in the book to “a long chain of tales” and teases about “a fat notebook” of remaining material, but, sorry, this is all we’ve got.

[3] the dry steppes, or rolling upland prairie hills north of the Caucasus, were crossed by (Bactrian) camel caravans.

[4] comic character from 1785 and later operas.

[5] Nabokov uses the term “bags” here because the local people were known to collect honey in goatskins.

[6] or coy woman: from his short novel, La femme de trente ans (1834)

[7] the age is of interest since he insults the young cadet, who was about 21, a few years before, in “Princess Mary,” and because a psychoanalytic interpretation of Pechorin’s personality indicates narcissism and inordinate concern about his appearance and being an adult, or at least so say some experts.

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