The winter passed cheerlessly. Card-playing was the rule everywhere in Moscow, and if any other recreation was attempted, such as singing, reading, drawing, the result was even more tedious. And since there were few talented people in Moscow, and the same singers and reciters performed at every entertainment, even the enjoyment of art gradually palled and became for many people a tiresome and monotonous social duty.
Moreover, the Laptevs never had a day without something vexatious happening. Old Laptev’s eyesight was failing; he no longer went to the warehouse, and the oculist told them that he would soon be blind. Fyodor had for some reason given up going to the warehouse and spent his time sitting at home writing something. Panaurov had got a post in another town, and had been promoted an actual civil councillor, and was now staying at the Dresden. He came to the Laptevs’ almost every day to ask for money. Kish had finished his studies at last, and while waiting for Laptev to find him a job, used to spend whole days at a time with them, telling them long, tedious stories. All this was irritating and exhausting, and made daily life unpleasant.
Pyotr came into the study, and announced an unknown lady. On the card he brought in was the name “Josephina Iosefovna Milan.”
Yulia Sergeyevna got up languidly and went out limping slightly, as her foot had gone to sleep. In the doorway appeared a pale, thin lady with dark eyebrows, dressed altogether in black. She clasped her hands on her bosom and said supplicatingly:
“M. Laptev, save my children!”
The jingle of her bracelets sounded familiar to him, and he knew the face with patches of powder on it; he recognised her as the lady with whom he had once so inappropriately dined before his marriage. It was Panaurov’s second wife.
“Save my children,” she repeated, and her face suddenly quivered and looked old and pitiful. “You alone can save us, and I have spent my last penny coming to Moscow to see you! My children are starving!”
She made a motion as though she were going to fall on her knees. Laptev was alarmed, and clutched her by the arm.
“Sit down, sit down . . .” he muttered, making her sit down. “I beg you to be seated.”
“We have no money to buy bread,” she said. “Grigory Nikolaevitch is going away to a new post, but he will not take the children and me with him, and the money which you so generously send us he spends only on himself. What are we to do? What? My poor, unhappy children!”
“Calm yourself, I beg. I will give orders that that money shall be made payable to you.”
She began sobbing, and then grew calmer, and he noticed that the tears had made little pathways through the powder on her cheeks, and that she was growing a moustache.
“You are infinitely generous, M. Laptev. But be our guardian angel, our good fairy, persuade Grigory Nikolaevitch not to abandon me, but to take me with him. You know I love him—I love him insanely; he’s the comfort of my life.”