On that 19th of September I took one other "step."
For the first time since I arrived I had money in my pocket, for the sixty roubles I had saved up in two years I had given to my mother, as I mentioned before. But, a few days before, I had determined that on the day I received my salary I would make an "experiment" of which I had long been dreaming. The day before I had cut out of the paper an address; it was an advertisement that on the 19th of September at twelve o'clock in the morning, in such- and-such a street, at number so-and-so, there would be a sale by the local police authority of the effects of Mme. Lebrecht, and that the catalogue, valuation, and property for sale could be inspected on the day of the auction, and so on.
It was just past one. I hurried to the address on foot. I had not taken a cab for more than two years—I had taken a vow not to (or I should never have saved up my sixty roubles). I had never been to an auction, I had never ALLOWED myself this indulgence. And though my present step was only an EXPERIMENT yet I had made up my mind not to take even that step till I had left the grammar school, when I should break off with everything, hide myself in my shell, and become perfectly free. It is true that I was far from being in my shell and far from being free yet, but then I was only taking this step by way of an experiment—simply to look into it, as it were to indulge a fancy, and after that not to recur to it perhaps for a long while, till the time of beginning seriously. For every one else this was only a stupid little auction, but for me it was the first plank in the ship in which a Columbus would set out to discover his America. That was my feeling then.
When I arrived I went into the furthest corner of the yard of the house mentioned in the advertisement, and entered Mme. Lebrecht's flat, which consisted of an entry and four small low-pitched rooms. In the first room there was a crowd of about thirty persons, half of them people who had come to bargain, while the rest, judging from their appearance, were either inquisitive outsiders, or connoisseurs, or representatives of Mme. Lebrecht. There were merchants and Jews gloating over the objects made of gold, and a few people of the well-dressed class. The very faces of some of these gentlemen remain stamped in my memory. In the doorway leading to the room on the right there was placed a table so that it was impossible to pass; on it lay the things catalogued for sale. There was another room on the left, but the door into it was closed, though it was continually being opened a little way, and some one could be seen peeping through the crack, no doubt some one of the numerous family of Mme. Lebrecht, who must have been feeling very much ashamed at the time. At the table between the doors, facing the public, sat the warrant officer, to judge by his badge, presiding over the sale. I found the auction half over; I squeezed my way up to the table as soon as I went in. Some bronze candlesticks were being sold. I began looking at the things.
I looked at the things and wondered what I could buy, and what I could do with bronze candlesticks, and whether my object would be attained, and how the thing would be done, and whether my project would be successful, and whether my project were not childish. All this I wondered as I waited. It was like the sensation one has at the gambling table at the moment before one has put down a card, though one has come to do so, feeling, "if I like I'll put it down, if I don't I'll go away—I'm free to choose!" One's heart does not begin to throb at that point, but there is a faint thrill and flutter in it—a sensation not without charm. But indecision soon begins to weigh painfully upon one: one's eyes grow dizzy, one stretches out one's hand, picks up a card, but mechanically, almost against one's will, as though some one else were directing one's hand. At last one has decided and thrown down the card—then the feeling is quite different—immense. I am not writing about the auction; I am writing about myself; who else would feel his heart throbbing at an auction?
Some were excited, some were waiting in silence, some had bought things and were regretting it. I felt no sympathy with a gentleman who, misunderstanding what was said, bought an electro-plated milk- jug in mistake for a silver one for five roubles instead of two; in fact it amused me very much. The warrant officer passed rapidly from one class of objects to another: after the candlesticks, displayed earrings, after earrings an embroidered leather cushion, then a money-box—probably for the sake of variety, or to meet the wishes of the purchasers. I could not remain passive even for ten minutes. I went up to the cushion, and afterwards to the cash-box, but at the critical moment my tongue failed me: these objects seemed to me quite out of the question. At last I saw an album in the warrant officer's hand.
"A family album in real morocco, second-hand, with sketches in water-colour and crayon, in a carved ivory case with silver clasps— priced two roubles!"
I went up: it looked an elegant article, but the carving was damaged in one place. I was the only person who went up to look at it, all were silent; there was no bidding for it. I might have undone the clasps and taken the album out of the case to look at it, but I did not make use of my privilege, and only waved a trembling hand as though to say "never mind."
"Two roubles, five kopecks," I said. I believe my teeth were chattering again.
The album was knocked down to me. I at once took out the money, paid for it, snatched up the album, and went into a corner of the room. There I took it out of its case, and began looking through it with feverish haste—it was the most trumpery thing possible—a little album of the size of a piece of notepaper, with rubbed gilt edges, exactly like the albums girls used to keep in former days when they left school. There were crayon and colour sketches of temples on mountain-sides, Cupids, a lake with floating swans; there were verses:
On a far journey I am starting, From Moscow I am departing, From my dear ones I am parting. And with post-horses flying South.
They are enshrined in my memory!
I made up my mind that I had made a mess of it; if there ever was anything no one could possibly want it was this.
"Never mind," I decided, "one's bound to lose the first card; it's a good omen, in fact."
I felt thoroughly light-hearted.
"Ach, I'm too late; is it yours? You have bought it?" I suddenly heard beside me the voice of a well-dressed, presentable-looking gentleman in a blue coat. He had come in late.
"I am too late. Ach, what a pity! How much was it?"
"Two roubles, five kopecks."
"Ach, what a pity! Would you give it up?"
"Come outside," I whispered to him, in a tremor.
We went out on the staircase.
"I'll let you have it for ten roubles," I said, feeling a shiver run down my back.
"Ten roubles! Upon my word!"
"As you like."
He stared at me open-eyed. I was well dressed, not in the least like a Jew or a second-hand dealer.
"Mercy on us—why it's a wretched old album, what use is it to anyone? The case isn't worth anything certainly. You certainly won't sell it to anyone."
"I see you will buy it."
"But that's for a special reason. I only found out yesterday. I'm the only one who would. Upon my word, what are you thinking about!"
"I ought to have asked twenty-five roubles, but as there was, after all, a risk you might draw back, I only asked for ten to make sure of it. I won't take a farthing less."
I turned and walked away.
"Well, take four roubles," he said, overtaking me in the yard, "come, five!"
I strode on without speaking.
"Well, take it then!"
He took out ten roubles. I gave him the album.
"But you must own it's not honest! Two roubles—and then ten, eh?"
"Why not honest? It's a question of market."
"What do you mean by market!" He grew angry.
"When there's a demand one has a market—if you hadn't asked for it I shouldn't have sold it for forty kopecks."
Though I was serious and didn't burst out laughing I was laughing inwardly—not from delight—I don't know why myself, I was almost breathless.
"Listen," I muttered, utterly unable to restrain myself, but speaking in a friendly way and feeling quite fond of him. "Listen, when as a young man the late James Rothschild, the Parisian one, who left seventeen hundred million francs (he nodded), heard of the murder of the Duc de Berri some hours before anybody else he sent the news to the proper quarter, and by that one stroke in an instant made several millions—that's how people get on!"
"So you're a Rothschild, are you?" he cried as though indignant with me for being such a fool.
I walked quickly out of the house. One step, and I had made seven roubles ninety-five kopecks. It was a senseless step, a piece of child's play I admit, but it chimed in with my theories, and I could not help being deeply stirred by it. But it is no good describing one's feelings. My ten roubles were in my waistcoat pocket, I thrust in two fingers to feel it—and walked along without taking my hand out. After walking a hundred yards along the street I took the note out to look at it, I looked at it and felt like kissing it. A carriage rumbled up to the steps of a house. The house porter opened the door and a lady came out to get into the carriage. She was young, handsome and wealthy-looking, gorgeously dressed in silk and velvet, with a train more than two yards long. Suddenly a pretty little portfolio dropped out of her hand and fell on the ground; she got into the carriage. The footman stooped down to pick the thing up, but I flew up quickly, picked it up and handed it to the lady, taking off my hat. (The hat was a silk one, I was suitably dressed for a young man.) With a very pleasant smile, though with an air of reserve, the lady said to me: "Merci, m'sieu!" The carriage rolled away. I kissed the ten-rouble note.