For a beginning, he brought to the manor an old friend who lived on an estate some seventy versts away. Maxim had visited this friend, old Stavruchenko, from time to time; and now, learning that he had some young people staying with him, wrote to invite them all to the manor. The invitation was accepted gladly—on the old man's part, because of the years of friendship that bound him to Maxim, on the part of the young people, because of the glamour and the traditions that still clung to the name of Maxim Yatsenko. Of these young people, two were Stavruchenko's sons: the younger a Kiev University student, specialising—as the fad was in those days—in philology; the elder a musician, studying at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg. The third was a young cadet, the son of a neighbouring landowner.
Stavruchenko was a hale old man, though his head was entirely grey. He wore his moustache long and drooping, Cossack-fashion, and carried his pipe and tobacco-pouch tied to the sash that supported his vast Cossack pantaloons; spoke no language but Ukrainian; and, when he stood between his two sons, in their long white Ukrainian coats and embroidered Ukrainian shirts, had very much the look of Gogol's Taras Bulba. There was nothing in his character, however, of Bulba's romanticism. Stavruchenko was a landowner, and a very competent and practical-minded one. He had managed very well, all his life, under the feudal relationships that went with serfdom; and had now adapted himself equally well to the new relationships arising after the emancipation. He knew the peasantry as country landowners know them: he knew every husbandman in the village he owned, every cow in those husbandmen's barns, and—almost—every ruble in their purses.
But—though he never fought them with his fists—there was much of Bulba in old Stavruchenko's relations with his sons. They were constantly clashing, and clashing furiously, regardless of time and place. Wherever they might be, and in whatever company, the slightest word was liable to set off these unending debates. Oftener than not it was the old man who began it, by mocking at his sons as "idealistic lordlings".
The young people would flare up, and the old man's spirit, too, would rise; and the result would be the most desperate hubbub, in the course of which each side would hear no few uncomplimentary opinions.
All this was a reflection of the well-known variance of "fathers and sons", though in a far milder form than the expression generally implies. The young people of that day, away at school from childhood, saw the countryside only in their brief holiday periods, and therefore lacked such practical knowledge of the peasantry as distinguished their fathers, who lived year in, year out on their estates. When the tide of "love for the people" arose in our society—the young Stavruchenkos were at that time in their last years at secondary school—they, too, had begun to "study the people". But they had begun this study from the pages of books. Somewhat later, they had advanced to a second stage—direct observation of "the people's spirit", as manifested in folk art. "Going among the people"— dressed for the part, of course, in romantic Ukrainian coats and embroidered shirts—was at that period a very widespread tendency among the youth of the propertied classes in the South-West Territory. It was not the economic aspects of the people's life, to any great degree, that interested these young people. Going about the villages, they occupied themselves with recording the words and music of folk songs, noting down legends and superstitions, comparing written history with its reflection in folk tales about the past—in a word, "seeing" the peasantry through the poetic prism of romantic nationalism. This last, indeed, was a weakness to which the elder generation, too, was prone enough. But, for all that, the old folk and the young never seemed able to agree.
"Just you listen!" old Stavruchenko might say to Maxim, with a sly prod of the elbow in his ribs, when the student son was declaiming—his face flushed, his eyes ablaze. "The young son of a cur—he talks just like a book! A man might think he'd a head on his shoulders, really! Only—come, tell us, my fine scholar, how that Nechipor of mine got around you!"
The old man would twitch his moustache and shout with laughter, telling the story of his son and Nechipor with true Ukrainian humour. The young men would flush, but they were never at a loss for a reply.
They might not know this or that individual Nechipor or Fedko, of this or that particular village, they might say; but what they were studying was the entire people, in general and on the whole. They approached life from the loftiest viewpoint—the only one that permitted conclusions to be drawn, and broad generalisation achieved. They embraced vast perspectives at one glance, whereas certain of their practical-minded elders—confirmed inveterately in the age-old routine—failed to see the forest for the trees that blocked their view.
The old man was not displeased to hear his sons argue so learnedly.
"You can tell they've been to school," he would say, looking proudly about him—and then, turning back to his sons, "Say what you please, but that Fedko of mine can lead you anywhere he likes, like a pair of young calves—so he can! Whereas I can take that same rogue of a Fedko and stuff him in my tobacco-pouch, and down my pocket too. And that only goes to show you're just a pair of pups compared to an old dog like me."
One of these debates had just died down. The elder folk had gone indoors, and through the open windows Stavruchenko's voice could be heard, describing a series of comic incidents that kept his listeners laughing merrily.
The young folk remained where they were, out in the garden. The student had spread his coat out on the grass and thrown himself down on it, with somewhat deliberate carelessness. His elder brother, the musician, sat beside Evelina, on the earth bank running around the house; and the cadet, buttoned up to the chin, sat next to him. Pyotr, too, sat on this seat, a little apart from the others, leaning against a window-sill. Pyotr's head was bowed. He was thinking about the debate he had just heard, which had interested him deeply.
"What did you think, Panna Evelina, of all that talk?" the elder of the brothers asked. "You never said a word, all through it."
"Why, it was all very fine—all you said to your father, I mean. Only..."
Evelina did not at once answer. She laid her work down on her knees, smoothed it out carefully, and sat looking at it thoughtfully. It would have been difficult to say what she was thinking about: whether she should not have chosen a different canvas for the design she was embroidering, or—what answer to make to the question she had been asked.
All the young people were impatient to hear this answer. The student raised himself on his elbow and turned his face up to hers in lively curiosity. The musician sat watching her with calm, questioning eyes. Pyotr, too, tensed and lifted his head—then, after a moment, turned his face away.
"Only," Evelina continued, very low, still smoothing her embroidery on her knees, "it's not for every one to follow the same road in life. We have each our own destiny."
"Good Lord," the student exclaimed sharply, "what sober wisdom! Why, how old are you, Panna Evelina, if one may ask?"
"Seventeen," she answered simply—but immediately added, with naive, triumphant curiosity, "You thought I was much older, didn't you?"
The young men laughed.
"If I were asked your age," the musician said, "I'd be hard put to it to choose between thirteen and twenty-three. You seem a very child, at moments—truly! Yet you reason, at times, like a wise old lady."
"In serious matters one must reason seriously, Gavrilo Petrovich," the little woman declared mentorially; and she took up her embroidery.
A silence fell. Evelina's needle began to ply again. The visitors turned looks of curious interest on this tiny, yet so sober-minded young lady.