A Christmas Tree and a
The other day I saw a wedding ... but no, I had better
tell you about the Christmas tree. The wedding was nice, I liked it very
much; but the other incident was better. I don't know how it was that,
looking at that wedding, I thought of that Christmas tree. This was what
happened. Just five years ago, on New Year's Eve, I was invited to a
children's party. The giver of the party was a well-known and
business-like personage, with connections, with a large circle of
acquaintances, and a good many schemes on hand, so that it may be
supposed that this party was an excuse for getting the parents together
and discussing various interesting matters in an innocent, casual way. I
was an outsider; I had no interesting matter to contribute, and so I
spent the evening rather independently. There was another gentleman
present who was, I fancied, of no special rank or family, and who, like
me, had simply turned up at this family festivity. He was the first to
catch my eye. He was a tall, lanky man, very grave and very correctly
dressed. But one could see that he was in no mood for merrymaking and
family festivity; whenever he withdrew into a corner he left off smiling
and knitted his bushy black brows. He had not a single acquaintance in
the party except his host. One could see that he was fearfully bored,
but that he was valiantly keeping up the part of a man perfectly happy
and enjoying himself. I learned afterwards that this was a gentleman
from the provinces, who had a critical and perplexing piece of business
in Petersburg, who had brought a letter of introduction to our host, for
whom our host was, by no means con amore, using his interest, and
whom he had invited, out of civility, to his children's party. He did
not play cards, cigars were not offered him, every one avoided entering
into conversation with him, most likely recognizing the bird from its
feathers; and so my gentleman was forced to sit the whole evening
stroking his whiskers simply to have something to do with his hands. His
whiskers were certainly very fine. But he stroked them so zealously
that, looking at him, one might have supposed that the whiskers were
created first and the gentleman only attached to them in order to stroke
In addition to this individual who assisted in this way at our host's
family festivity (he had five fat, well-fed boys), I was attracted, too,
by another gentleman. But he was quite of a different sort. He was a
personage. He was called Yulian Mastakovitch. From the first glance one
could see that he was an honoured guest, and stood in the same relation
to our host as our host stood in relation to the gentleman who was
stroking his whiskers. Our host and hostess said no end of polite things
to him, waited on him hand and foot, pressed him to drink, flattered
him, brought their visitors up to be introduced to him, but did not take
him to be introduced to any one else. I noticed that tears glistened in
our host's eyes when he remarked about the party that he had rarely
spent an evening so agreeably. I felt as it were frightened in the
presence of such a personage, and so, after admiring the children, I
went away into a little parlour, which was quite empty, and sat down in
an arbour of flowers which filled up almost half the room.
The children were all incredibly sweet, and resolutely refused to
model themselves on the "grown-ups," regardless of all the admonitions
of their governesses and mammas. They stripped the Christmas tree to the
last sweetmeat in the twinkling of an eye, and had succeeded in breaking
half the playthings before they knew what was destined for which.
Particularly charming was a black-eyed, curly-headed boy, who kept
trying to shoot me with his wooden gun. But my attention was still more
attracted by his sister, a girl of eleven, quiet, dreamy, pale, with
big, prominent, dreamy eyes, exquisite as a little Cupid. The children
hurt her feelings in some way, and so she came away from them to the
same empty parlour in which I was sitting, and played with her doll in
the corner. The visitors respectfully pointed out her father, a wealthy
contractor, and some one whispered that three hundred thousand roubles
were already set aside for her dowry. I turned round to glance at the
group who were interested in such a circumstance, and my eye fell on
Yulian Mastakovitch, who, with his hands behind his back and his head on
one side, was listening with the greatest attention to these gentlemen's
idle gossip. Afterwards I could not help admiring the discrimination of
the host and hostess in the distribution of the children's presents. The
little girl, who had already a portion of three hundred thousand
roubles, received the costliest doll. Then followed presents diminishing
in value in accordance with the rank of the parents of these happy
children; finally, the child of lowest degree, a thin, freckled,
red-haired little boy of ten, got nothing but a book of stories about
the marvels of nature and tears of devotion, etc., without pictures or
even woodcuts. He was the son of a poor widow, the governess of the
children of the house, an oppressed and scared little boy. He was
dressed in a short jacket of inferior nankin. After receiving his book
he walked round the other toys for a long time; he longed to play with
the other children, but did not dare; it was evident that he already
felt and understood his position. I love watching children. Their first
independent approaches to life are extremely interesting. I noticed that
the red-haired boy was so fascinated by the costly toys of the other
children, especially by a theatre in which he certainly longed to take
some part, that he made up his mind to sacrifice his dignity. He smiled
and began playing with the other children, he gave away his apple to a
fat-faced little boy who had a mass of goodies tied up in a
pocket-handkerchief already, and even brought himself to carry another
boy on his back, simply not to be turned away from the theatre, but an
insolent youth gave him a heavy thump a minute later. The child did not
dare to cry. Then the governess, his mother, made her appearance, and
told him not to interfere with the other children's playing. The boy
went away to the same room in which was the little girl. She let him
join her, and the two set to work very eagerly dressing the expensive
I had been sitting more than half an hour in the ivy arbour,
listening to the little prattle of the red-haired boy and the beauty
with the dowry of three hundred thousand, who was nursing her doll, when
Yulian Mastakovitch suddenly walked into the room. He had taken
advantage of the general commotion following a quarrel among the
children to step out of the drawing-room. I had noticed him a moment
before talking very cordially to the future heiress's papa, whose
acquaintance he had just made, of the superiority of one branch of the
service over another. Now he stood in hesitation and seemed to be
reckoning something on his fingers.
"Three hundred ... three hundred," he was whispering. "Eleven ...
twelve ... thirteen," and so on. "Sixteen—five years! Supposing it
is at four per cent.—five times twelve is sixty; yes, to that
sixty ... well, in five years we may assume it will be four hundred.
Yes!... But he won't stick to four per cent., the rascal. He can get
eight or ten. Well, five hundred, let us say, five hundred at least ...
that's certain; well, say a little more for frills. H'm!..."
His hesitation was at an end, he blew his nose and was on the point
of going out of the room when he suddenly glanced at the little girl and
stopped short. He did not see me behind the pots of greenery. It seemed
to me that he was greatly excited. Either his calculations had affected
his imagination or something else, for he rubbed his hands and could
hardly stand still. This excitement reached its utmost limit when he
stopped and bent another resolute glance at the future heiress. He was
about to move forward, but first looked round, then moving on tiptoe, as
though he felt guilty, he advanced towards the children. He approached
with a little smile, bent down and kissed her on the head. The child,
not expecting this attack, uttered a cry of alarm.
"What are you doing here, sweet child?" he asked in a whisper,
looking round and patting the girl's cheek.
"We are playing."
"Ah! With him?" Yulian Mastakovitch looked askance at the boy. "You
had better go into the drawing-room, my dear," he said to him.
The boy looked at him open-eyed and did not utter a word. Yulian
Mastakovitch looked round him again, and again bent down to the little
"And what is this you've got—a dolly, dear child?" he
"Yes, a dolly," answered the child, frowning, and a little shy.
"A dolly ... and do you know, dear child, what your dolly is made
"I don't know ..." the child answered in a whisper, hanging her
"It's made of rags, darling. You had better go into the drawing-room
to your playmates, boy," said Yulian Mastakovitch, looking sternly at
the boy. The boy and girl frowned and clutched at each other. They did
not want to be separated.
"And do you know why they gave you that doll?" asked Yulian
Mastakovitch, dropping his voice to a softer and softer tone.
"I don't know."
"Because you have been a sweet and well-behaved child all the
At this point Yulian Mastakovitch, more excited than ever, speaking
in most dulcet tones, asked at last, in a hardly audible voice choked
with emotion and impatience—
"And will you love me, dear little girl, when I come and see your
papa and mamma?"
Saying this, Yulian Mastakovitch tried once more to kiss "the dear
little girl," but the red-haired boy, seeing that the little girl was on
the point of tears, clutched her hand and began whimpering from sympathy
for her. Yulian Mastakovitch was angry in earnest.
"Go away, go away from here, go away!" he said to the boy. "Go into
the drawing-room! Go in there to your playmates!"
"No, he needn't, he needn't! You go away," said the little girl.
"Leave him alone, leave him alone," she said, almost crying.
Some one made a sound at the door. Yulian Mastakovitch instantly
raised his majestic person and took alarm. But the red-haired boy was
even more alarmed than Yulian Mastakovitch; he abandoned the little girl
and, slinking along by the wall, stole out of the parlour into the
dining-room. To avoid arousing suspicion, Yulian Mastakovitch, too, went
into the dining-room. He was as red as a lobster, and, glancing into the
looking-glass, seemed to be ashamed at himself. He was perhaps vexed
with himself for his impetuosity and hastiness. Possibly, he was at
first so much impressed by his calculations, so inspired and fascinated
by them, that in spite of his seriousness and dignity he made up his
mind to behave like a boy, and directly approach the object of his
attentions, even though she could not be really the object of his
attentions for another five years at least. I followed the estimable
gentleman into the dining-room and there beheld a strange spectacle.
Yulian Mastakovitch, flushed with vexation and anger, was frightening
the red-haired boy, who, retreating from him, did not know where to run
in his terror.
"Go away; what are you doing here? Go away, you scamp; are you after
the fruit here, eh? Get along, you naughty boy! Get along, you
sniveller, to your playmates!"
The panic-stricken boy in his desperation tried creeping under the
table. Then his persecutor, in a fury, took out his large batiste
handkerchief and began flicking it under the table at the child, who
kept perfectly quiet. It must be observed that Yulian Mastakovitch was a
little inclined to be fat. He was a sleek, red-faced, solidly built man,
paunchy, with thick legs; what is called a fine figure of a man, round
as a nut. He was perspiring, breathless, and fearfully flushed. At last
he was almost rigid, so great was his indignation and perhaps—who
knows?—his jealousy. I burst into loud laughter. Yulian
Mastakovitch turned round and, in spite of all his consequence, was
overcome with confusion. At that moment from the opposite door our host
came in. The boy crept out from under the table and wiped his elbows and
his knees. Yulian Mastakovitch hastened to put to his nose the
handkerchief which he was holding in his hand by one end.
Our host looked at the three of us in some perplexity; but as a man
who knew something of life, and looked at it from a serious point of
view, he at once availed himself of the chance of catching his visitor
"Here, this is the boy," he said, pointing to the red-haired boy,
"for whom I had the honour to solicit your influence."
"Ah!" said Yulian Mastakovitch, who had hardly quite recovered
"The son of my children's governess," said our host, in a tone of a
petitioner, "a poor woman, the widow of an honest civil servant; and
therefore ... and therefore, Yulian Mastakovitch, if it were possible
"Oh, no, no!" Yulian Mastakovitch made haste to answer; "no, excuse
me, Filip Alexyevitch, it's quite impossible. I've made inquiries;
there's no vacancy, and if there were, there are twenty applicants who
have far more claim than he.... I am very sorry, very sorry...."
"What a pity," said our host. "He is a quiet, well-behaved boy."
"A great rascal, as I notice," answered Yulian Mastakovitch, with a
nervous twist of his lip. "Get along, boy; why are you standing there?
Go to your playmates," he said, addressing the child.
At that point he could not contain himself, and glanced at me out of
one eye. I, too, could not contain myself, and laughed straight in his
face. Yulian Mastakovitch turned away at once, and in a voice calculated
to reach my ear, asked who was that strange young man? They whispered
together and walked out of the room. I saw Yulian Mastakovitch
afterwards shaking his head incredulously as our host talked to him.
After laughing to my heart's content I returned to the drawing-room.
There the great man, surrounded by fathers and mothers of families,
including the host and hostess, was saying something very warmly to a
lady to whom he had just been introduced. The lady was holding by the
hand the little girl with whom Yulian Mastakovitch had had the scene in
the parlour a little while before. Now he was launching into praises and
raptures over the beauty, the talents, the grace and the charming
manners of the charming child. He was unmistakably making up to the
mamma. The mother listened to him almost with tears of delight. The
father's lips were smiling. Our host was delighted at the general
satisfaction. All the guests, in fact, were sympathetically gratified;
even the children's games were checked that they might not hinder the
conversation: the whole atmosphere was saturated with reverence. I heard
afterwards the mamma of the interesting child, deeply touched, beg
Yulian Mastakovitch, in carefully chosen phrases, to do her the special
honour of bestowing upon them the precious gift of his acquaintance, and
heard with what unaffected delight Yulian Mastakovitch accepted the
invitation, and how afterwards the guests, dispersing in different
directions, moving away with the greatest propriety, poured out to one
another the most touchingly flattering comments upon the contractor, his
wife, his little girl, and, above all, upon Yulian Mastakovitch.
"Is that gentleman married?" I asked, almost aloud, of one of my
acquaintances, who was standing nearest to Yulian Mastakovitch. Yulian
Mastakovitch flung a searching and vindictive glance at me.
"No!" answered my acquaintance, chagrined to the bottom of his heart
by the awkwardness of which I had intentionally been guilty....
* * * * *
I passed lately by a certain church; I was struck by the crowd of
people in carriages. I heard people talking of the wedding. It was a
cloudy day, it was beginning to sleet. I made my way through the crowd
at the door and saw the bridegroom. He was a sleek, well-fed, round,
paunchy man, very gorgeously dressed up. He was running fussily about,
giving orders. At last the news passed through the crowd that the bride
was coming. I squeezed my way through the crowd and saw a marvellous
beauty, who could scarcely have reached her first season. But the beauty
was pale and melancholy. She looked preoccupied; I even fancied that her
eyes were red with recent weeping. The classic severity of every feature
of her face gave a certain dignity and seriousness to her beauty. But
through that sternness and dignity, through that melancholy, could be
seen the look of childish innocence; something indescribably na´ve,
fluid, youthful, which seemed mutely begging for mercy.
People were saying that she was only just sixteen. Glancing
attentively at the bridegroom, I suddenly recognized him as Yulian
Mastakovitch, whom I had not seen for five years. I looked at her. My
God! I began to squeeze my way as quickly as I could out of the church.
I heard people saying in the crowd that the bride was an heiress, that
she had a dowry of five hundred thousand ... and a trousseau worth ever
"It was a good stroke of business, though!" I thought as I made my
way into the street.