Everything in Lelechka’s nursery was bright, pretty, and cheerful. Lelechka’s sweet voice charmed her mother. Lelechka was a delightful child. There was no other such child, there never had been, and there never would be.
Lelechka’s mother, Serafima Aleksandrovna, was sure of that. Lelechka’s eyes were dark and large, her cheeks were rosy, her lips were made for kisses and for laughter. But it was not these charms in Lelechka that gave her mother the keenest joy. Lelechka was her mother’s only child. That was why every movement of Lelechka’s bewitched her mother. It was great bliss to hold Lelechka on her knees and to fondle her; to feel the little girl in her arms—a thing as lively and as bright as a little bird.
To tell the truth, Serafima Aleksandrovna felt happy only in the nursery. She felt cold with her husband.
Perhaps it was because he himself loved the cold—he loved to drink cold water, and to breathe cold air. He was always fresh and cool, with a frigid smile, and wherever he passed cold currents seemed to move in the air.
The Nesletyevs, Sergey Modestovich and Serafima Aleksandrovna, had married without love or calculation, because it was the accepted thing. He was a young man of thirty-five, she a young woman of twenty-five; both were of the same circle and well brought up; he was expected to take a wife, and the time had come for her to take a husband.
It even seemed to Serafima Aleksandrovna that she was in love with her future husband, and this made her happy. He looked handsome and well-bred; his intelligent grey eyes always preserved a dignified expression; and he fulfilled his obligations of a fiancé with irreproachable gentleness.
The bride was also good-looking; she was a tall, dark-eyed, dark-haired girl, somewhat timid but very tactful. He was not after her dowry, though it pleased him to know that she had something. He had connexions, and his wife came of good, influential people. This might, at the proper opportunity, prove useful. Always irreproachable and tactful, Nesletyev got on in his position not so fast that any one should envy him, nor yet so slow that he should envy any one else—everything came in the proper measure and at the proper time.
After their marriage there was nothing in the manner of Sergey Modestovich to suggest anything wrong to his wife. Later, however, when his wife was about to have a child, Sergey Modestovich established connexions elsewhere of a light and temporary nature. Serafima Aleksandrovna found this out, and, to her own astonishment, was not particularly hurt; she awaited her infant with a restless anticipation that swallowed every other feeling.
A little girl was born; Serafima Aleksandrovna gave herself up to her. At the beginning she used to tell her husband, with rapture, of all the joyous details of Lelechka’s existence. But she soon found that he listened to her without the slightest interest, and only from the habit of politeness. Serafima Aleksandrovna drifted farther and farther away from him. She loved her little girl with the ungratified passion that other women, deceived in their husbands, show their chance young lovers.
“Mamochka, let’s play priatki” (hide and seek), cried Lelechka, pronouncing the r like the l, so that the word sounded “pliatki.”
This charming inability to speak always made Serafima Aleksandrovna smile with tender rapture. Lelechka then ran away, stamping with her plump little legs over the carpets, and hid herself behind the curtains near her bed.
“Tiu-tiu, mamochka!” she cried out in her sweet, laughing voice, as she looked out with a single roguish eye.
“Where is my baby girl?” the mother asked, as she looked for Lelechka and made believe that she did not see her.
And Lelechka poured out her rippling laughter in her hiding place. Then she came out a little farther, and her mother, as though she had only just caught sight of her, seized her by her little shoulders and exclaimed joyously: “Here she is, my Lelechka!”
Lelechka laughed long and merrily, her head close to her mother’s knees, and all of her cuddled up between her mother’s white hands. Her mother’s eyes glowed with passionate emotion.
“Now, mamochka, you hide,” said Lelechka, as she ceased laughing.
Her mother went to hide. Lelechka turned away as though not to see, but watched her mamochka stealthily all the time. Mamma hid behind the cupboard, and exclaimed: “Tiu-tiu, baby girl!”
Lelechka ran round the room and looked into all the corners, making believe, as her mother had done before, that she was seeking—though she really knew all the time where her mamochka was standing.
“Where’s my mamochka?” asked Lelechka. “She’s not here, and she’s not here,” she kept on repeating, as she ran from corner to corner.
Her mother stood, with suppressed breathing, her head pressed against the wall, her hair somewhat disarranged. A smile of absolute bliss played on her red lips.
The nurse, Fedosya, a good-natured and fine-looking, if somewhat stupid woman, smiled as she looked at her mistress with her characteristic expression, which seemed to say that it was not for her to object to gentlewomen’s caprices. She thought to herself: “The mother is like a little child herself—look how excited she is.”
Lelechka was getting nearer her mother’s corner. Her mother was growing more absorbed every moment by her interest in the game; her heart beat with short quick strokes, and she pressed even closer to the wall, disarranging her hair still more. Lelechka suddenly glanced toward her mother’s corner and screamed with joy.
“I’ve found ‘oo,” she cried out loudly and joyously, mispronouncing her words in a way that again made her mother happy.
She pulled her mother by her hands to the middle of the room, they were merry and they laughed; and Lelechka again hid her head against her mother’s knees, and went on lisping and lisping, without end, her sweet little words, so fascinating yet so awkward.
Sergey Modestovich was coming at this moment toward the nursery. Through the half-closed doors he heard the laughter, the joyous outcries, the sound of romping. He entered the nursery, smiling his genial cold smile; he was irreproachably dressed, and he looked fresh and erect, and he spread round him an atmosphere of cleanliness, freshness and coldness. He entered in the midst of the lively game, and he confused them all by his radiant coldness. Even Fedosya felt abashed, now for her mistress, now for herself. Serafima Aleksandrovna at once became calm and apparently cold—and this mood communicated itself to the little girl, who ceased to laugh, but looked instead, silently and intently, at her father.
Sergey Modestovich gave a swift glance round the room. He liked coming here, where everything was beautifully arranged; this was done by Serafima Aleksandrovna, who wished to surround her little girl, from her very infancy, only with the loveliest things. Serafima Aleksandrovna dressed herself tastefully; this, too, she did for Lelechka, with the same end in view. One thing Sergey Modestovich had not become reconciled to, and this was his wife’s almost continuous presence in the nursery.
“It’s just as I thought… I knew that I’d find you here,” he said with a derisive and condescending smile.
They left the nursery together. As he followed his wife through the door Sergey Modestovich said rather indifferently, in an incidental way, laying no stress on his words: “Don’t you think that it would be well for the little girl if she were sometimes without your company? Merely, you see, that the child should feel its own individuality,” he explained in answer to Serafima Aleksandrovna’s puzzled glance.
“She’s still so little,” said Serafima Aleksandrovna.
“In any case, this is but my humble opinion. I don’t insist. It’s your kingdom there.”
“I’ll think it over,” his wife answered, smiling, as he did, coldly but genially.
Then they began to talk of something else.
Nurse Fedosya, sitting in the kitchen that evening, was telling the silent housemaid Darya and the talkative old cook Agathya about the young lady of the house, and how the child loved to play priatki with her mother—“She hides her little face, and cries ‘tiutiu’!”
“And the mistress herself is like a little one,” added Fedosya, smiling.
Agathya listened and shook her head ominously; while her face became grave and reproachful.
“That the mistress does it, well, that’s one thing; but that the young lady does it, that’s bad.”
“Why?” asked Fedosya with curiosity.
This expression of curiosity gave her face the look of a wooden, roughly-painted doll.
“Yes, that’s bad,” repeated Agathya with conviction. “Terribly bad!”
“Well?” said Fedosya, the ludicrous expression of curiosity on her face becoming more emphatic.
“She’ll hide, and hide, and hide away,” said Agathya, in a mysterious whisper, as she looked cautiously toward the door.
“What are you saying?” exclaimed Fedosya, frightened.
“It’s the truth I’m saying, remember my words,” Agathya went on with the same assurance and secrecy. “It’s the surest sign.”
The old woman had invented this sign, quite suddenly, herself; and she was evidently very proud of it.
Lelechka was asleep, and Serafima Aleksandrovna was sitting in her own room, thinking with joy and tenderness of Lelechka. Lelechka was in her thoughts, first a sweet, tiny girl, then a sweet, big girl, then again a delightful little girl; and so until the end she remained mamma’s little Lelechka.
Serafima Aleksandrovna did not even notice that Fedosya came up to her and paused before her. Fedosya had a worried, frightened look.
“Madam, madam,” she said quietly, in a trembling voice.
Serafima Aleksandrovna gave a start. Fedosya’s face made her anxious.
“What is it, Fedosya?” she asked with great concern. “Is there anything wrong with Lelechka?”
“No, madam,” said Fedosya, as she gesticulated with her hands to reassure her mistress and to make her sit down. “Lelechka is asleep, may God be with her! Only I’d like to say something—you see—Lelechka is always hiding herself—that’s not good.”
Fedosya looked at her mistress with fixed eyes, which had grown round from fright.
“Why not good?” asked Serafima Aleksandrovna, with vexation, succumbing involuntarily to vague fears.
“I can’t tell you how bad it is,” said Fedosya, and her face expressed the most decided confidence.
“Please speak in a sensible way,” observed Serafima Aleksandrovna dryly. “I understand nothing of what you are saying.”
“You see, madam, it’s a kind of omen,” explained Fedosya abruptly, in a shamefaced way.
“Nonsense!” said Serafima Aleksandrovna.
She did not wish to hear any further as to the sort of omen it was, and what it foreboded. But, somehow, a sense of fear and of sadness crept into her mood, and it was humiliating to feel that an absurd tale should disturb her beloved fancies, and should agitate her so deeply.
“Of course I know that gentlefolk don’t believe in omens, but it’s a bad omen, madam,” Fedosya went on in a doleful voice, “the young lady will hide, and hide…”
Suddenly she burst into tears, sobbing out loudly: “She’ll hide, and hide, and hide away, angelic little soul, in a damp grave,” she continued, as she wiped her tears with her apron and blew her nose.
“Who told you all this?” asked Serafima Aleksandrovna in an austere low voice.
“Agathya says so, madam,” answered Fedosya; “it’s she that knows.”
“Knows!” exclaimed Serafima Aleksandrovna in irritation, as though she wished to protect herself somehow from this sudden anxiety. “What nonsense! Please don’t come to me with any such notions in the future. Now you may go.”
Fedosya, dejected, her feelings hurt, left her mistress.
“What nonsense! As though Lelechka could die!” thought Serafima Aleksandrovna to herself, trying to conquer the feeling of coldness and fear which took possession, of her at the thought of the possible death of Lelechka. Serafima Aleksandrovna, upon reflection, attributed these women’s beliefs in omens to ignorance. She saw clearly that there could be no possible connexion between a child’s quite ordinary diversion and the continuation of the child’s life. She made a special effort that evening to occupy her mind with other matters, but her thoughts returned involuntarily to the fact that Lelechka loved to hide herself.
When Lelechka was still quite small, and had learned to distinguish between her mother and her nurse, she sometimes, sitting in her nurse’s arms, made a sudden roguish grimace, and hid her laughing face in the nurse’s shoulder. Then she would look out with a sly glance.
Of late, in those rare moments of the mistress’ absence from the nursery, Fedosya had again taught Lelechka to hide; and when Lelechka’s mother, on coming in, saw how lovely the child looked when she was hiding, she herself began to play hide and seek with her tiny daughter.
The next day Serafima Aleksandrovna, absorbed in her joyous cares for Lelechka, had forgotten Fedosya’s words of the day before.
But when she returned to the nursery, after having ordered the dinner, and she heard Lelechka suddenly cry “Tiu-tiu!” from under the table, a feeling of fear suddenly took hold of her. Though she reproached herself at once for this unfounded, superstitious dread, nevertheless she could not enter wholeheartedly into the spirit of Lelechka’s favourite game, and she tried to divert Lelechka’s attention to something else.
Lelechka was a lovely and obedient child. She eagerly complied with her mother’s new wishes. But as she had got into the habit of hiding from her mother in some corner, and of crying out “Tiu-tiu!” so even that day she returned more than once to the game.
Serafima Aleksandrovna tried desperately to amuse Lelechka. This was not so easy because restless, threatening thoughts obtruded themselves constantly.
“Why does Lelechka keep on recalling the tiu-tiu? Why does she not get tired of the same thing—of eternally closing her eyes, and of hiding her face? Perhaps,” thought Serafima Aleksandrovna, “she is not as strongly drawn to the world as other children, who are attracted by many things. If this is so, is it not a sign of organic weakness? Is it not a germ of the unconscious non-desire to live?”
Serafima Aleksandrovna was tormented by presentiments. She felt ashamed of herself for ceasing to play hide and seek with Lelechka before Fedosya. But this game had become agonising to her, all the more agonising because she had a real desire to play it, and because something drew her very strongly to hide herself from Lelechka and to seek out the hiding child. Serafima Aleksandrovna herself began the game once or twice, though she played it with a heavy heart. She suffered as though committing an evil deed with full consciousness.
It was a sad day for Serafima Aleksandrovna.
Lelechka was about to fall asleep. No sooner had she climbed into her little bed, protected by a network on all sides, than her eyes began to close from fatigue. Her mother covered her with a blue blanket. Lelechka drew her sweet little hands from under the blanket and stretched them out to embrace her mother. Her mother bent down. Lelechka, with a tender expression on her sleepy face, kissed her mother and let her head fall on the pillow. As her hands hid themselves under the blanket Lelechka whispered: “The hands tiu-tiu!”
The mother’s heart seemed to stop—Lelechka lay there so small, so frail, so quiet. Lelechka smiled gently, closed her eyes and said quietly: “The eyes tiu-tiu!”
Then even more quietly: “Lelechka tiu-tiu!”
With these words she fell asleep, her face pressing the pillow. She seemed so small and so frail under the blanket that covered her. Her mother looked at her with sad eyes.
Serafima Aleksandrovna remained standing over Lelechka’s bed a long while, and she kept looking at Lelechka with tenderness and fear.
“I’m a mother: is it possible that I shouldn’t be able to protect her?” she thought, as she imagined the various ills that might befall Lelechka.
She prayed long that night, but the prayer did not relieve her sadness.
Several days passed. Lelechka caught cold. The fever came upon her at night. When Serafima Aleksandrovna, awakened by Fedosya, came to Lelechka and saw her looking so hot, so restless, and so tormented, she instantly recalled the evil omen, and a hopeless despair took possession of her from the first moments.
A doctor was called, and everything was done that is usual on such occasions—but the inevitable happened. Serafima Aleksandrovna tried to console herself with the hope that Lelechka would get well, and would again laugh and play—yet this seemed to her an unthinkable happiness! And Lelechka grew feebler from hour to hour.
All simulated tranquillity, so as not to frighten Serafima Aleksandrovna, but their masked faces only made her sad.
Nothing made her so unhappy as the reiterations of Fedosya, uttered between sobs: “She hid herself and hid herself, our Lelechka!”
But the thoughts of Serafima Aleksandrovna were confused, and she could not quite grasp what was happening.
Fever was consuming Lelechka, and there were times when she lost consciousness and spoke in delirium. But when she returned to herself she bore her pain and her fatigue with gentle good nature; she smiled feebly at her mamochka, so that her mamochka should not see how much she suffered. Three days passed, torturing like a nightmare. Lelechka grew quite feeble. She did not know that she was dying.
She glanced at her mother with her dimmed eyes, and lisped in a scarcely audible, hoarse voice: “Tiu-tiu, mamochka! Make tiu-tiu, mamochka!”
Serafima Aleksandrovna hid her face behind the curtains near Lelechka’s bed. How tragic!
“Mamochka!” called Lelechka in an almost inaudible voice.
Lelechka’s mother bent over her, and Lelechka, her vision grown still more dim, saw her mother’s pale, despairing face for the last time.
“A white mamochka!” whispered Lelechka.
Mamochka’s white face became blurred, and everything grew dark before Lelechka. She caught the edge of the bed-cover feebly with her hands and whispered: “Tiu-tiu!”
Something rattled in her throat; Lelechka opened and again closed her rapidly paling lips, and died.
Serafima Aleksandrovna was in dumb despair as she left Lelechka, and went out of the room. She met her husband.
“Lelechka is dead,” she said in a quiet, dull voice.
Sergey Modestovich looked anxiously at her pale face. He was struck by the strange stupor in her formerly animated handsome features.
Lelechka was dressed, placed in a little coffin, and carried into the parlour. Serafima Aleksandrovna was standing by the coffin and looking dully at her dead child. Sergey Modestovich went to his wife and, consoling her with cold, empty words, tried to draw her away from the coffin. Serafima Aleksandrovna smiled.
“Go away,” she said quietly. “Lelechka is playing. She’ll be up in a minute.”
“Sima, my dear, don’t agitate yourself,” said Sergey Modestovich in a whisper. “You must resign yourself to your fate.”
“She’ll be up in a minute,” persisted Serafima Aleksandrovna, her eyes fixed on the dead little girl.
Sergey Modestovich looked round him cautiously: he was afraid of the unseemly and of the ridiculous.
“Sima, don’t agitate yourself,” he repeated. “This would be a miracle, and miracles do not happen in the nineteenth century.”
No sooner had he said these words than Sergey Modestovich felt their irrelevance to what had happened. He was confused and annoyed.
He took his wife by the arm, and cautiously led her away from the coffin. She did not oppose him.
Her face seemed tranquil and her eyes were dry. She went into the nursery and began to walk round the room, looking into those places where Lelechka used to hide herself. She walked all about the room, and bent now and then to look under the table or under the bed, and kept on repeating cheerfully: “Where is my little one? Where is my Lelechka?”
After she had walked round the room once she began to make her quest anew. Fedosya, motionless, with dejected face, sat in a corner, and looked frightened at her mistress; then she suddenly burst out sobbing, and she wailed loudly:
“She hid herself, and hid herself, our Lelechka, our angelic little soul!”
Serafima Aleksandrovna trembled, paused, cast a perplexed look at Fedosya, began to weep, and left the nursery quietly.
Sergey Modestovich hurried the funeral. He saw that Serafima Aleksandrovna was terribly shocked by her sudden misfortune, and as he feared for her reason he thought she would more readily be diverted and consoled when Lelechka was buried.
Next morning Serafima Aleksandrovna dressed with particular care—for Lelechka. When she entered the parlour there were several people between her and Lelechka. The priest and deacon paced up and down the room; clouds of blue smoke drifted in the air, and there was a smell of incense. There was an oppressive feeling of heaviness in Serafima Aleksandrovna’s head as she approached Lelechka. Lelechka lay there still and pale, and smiled pathetically. Serafima Aleksandrovna laid her cheek upon the edge of Lelechka’s coffin, and whispered: “Tiu-tiu, little one!”
The little one did not reply. Then there was some kind of stir and confusion around Serafima Aleksandrovna; strange, unnecessary faces bent over her, some one held her—and Lelechka was carried away somewhere.
Serafima Aleksandrovna stood up erect, sighed in a lost way, smiled, and called loudly: “Lelechka!”
Lelechka was being carried out. The mother threw herself after the coffin with despairing sobs, but she was held back. She sprang behind the door, through which Lelechka had passed, sat down there on the floor, and as she looked through the crevice, she cried out: “Lelechka, tiu-tiu!”
Then she put her head out from behind the door, and began to laugh.
Lelechka was quickly carried away from her mother, and those who carried her seemed to run rather than to walk.