Chapter XII
 

A GREAT many people came to dinner. When it was over, Nejdanov took advantage of the general bustle and slipped away to his own room. He wanted to be alone with his own thoughts, to arrange the impressions he had carried away from his recent journey. Valentina Mihailovna had looked at him intently several times during dinner, but there had been no opportunity of speaking to him. Mariana, after the unexpected freak which had so bewildered him, was evidently repenting of it, and seemed to avoid him. Nejdanov took up a pen to write to his friend Silin, but he did not know what to say to him. There were so many conflicting thoughts and sensations crowding in upon him that he did not attempt to disentangle them, and put them off for another day.

Kollomietzev had made one of the guests at dinner. Never before had this worthy shown so much insolence and snobbish contemptuousness as on this occasion, but Nejdanov simply ignored him.

He was surrounded by a sort of mist, which seemed to hang before him like a filmy curtain, separating him from the rest of the world. And through this film, strange to say, he perceived only three faces--women's faces--and all three were gazing at him intently. They were Madame Sipiagina, Mashurina, and Mariana. What did it mean? Why particularly these three? What had they in common, and what did they want of him?

He went to bed early, but could not fall asleep. He was haunted by sad and gloomy reflections about the inevitable end-- death. These thoughts were familiar to him, many times had he turned them over this way and that, first shuddering at the probability of annihilation, then welcoming it, almost rejoicing in it. Suddenly a peculiarly familiar agitation took possession of him... He mused awhile, sat down at the table, and wrote down the following lines in his sacred copy-book, without a single correction:

When I die, dear friend, remember
This desire I tell to thee:
Burn thou to the last black ember
All my heart has writ for me.
Let the fairest flowers surround me,
Sunlight laugh about my bed,
Let the sweetest of musicians
To the door of death be led.
Bid them sound no strain of sadness--
Muted string or muffled drum;
Come to me with songs of gladness--
Whirling in the wild waltz come!
I would hear--ere yet I hear not--
Trembling strings their cadence keep,
Chords that quiver: so I also
Tremble as I fall asleep.
Memories of life and laughter,
Memories of earthly glee,
As I go to the hereafter
All my lullaby shall be.

When he wrote the word "friend" he thought of Silin. He read the verses over to himself in an undertone, and was surprised at what had come from his pen. This scepticism, this indifference, this almost frivolous lack of faith--how did it all agree with his principles? How did it agree with what he had said at Markelov's? He thrust the copybook into the table drawer and went back to bed. But he did not fall asleep until dawn, when the larks had already begun to twitter and the sky was turning paler.

On the following day, soon after he had finished his lesson and was sitting in the billiard room, Madame Sipiagina entered, looked round cautiously, and coming up to him with a smile, invited him to come into her boudoir. She had on a white barege dress, very simple, but extremely pretty. The embroidered frills of her sleeves came down as far as the elbow, a broad ribbon encircled her waist, her hair fell in thick curls about her neck. Everything about her was inviting and caressing, with a sort of restrained, yet encouraging, caressiveness, everything; the subdued lustre of her half-closed eyes, the soft indolence of her voice, her gestures, her very walk. She conducted Nejdanov into her boudoir, a cosy, charming room, filled with the scent of flowers and perfumes, the pure freshness of feminine garments, the constant presence of a woman. She made him sit down in an armchair, sat down beside him, and began questioning him about his visit, about Markelov's way of living, with much tact and sweetness. She showed a genuine interest in her brother, although she had not once mentioned him in Nejdanov's presence. One could gather from what she said that the impression Mariana had made on her brother had not escaped her notice. She seemed a little disappointed, but whether it was due to the fact that Mariana did not reciprocate his feelings, or that his choice should have fallen upon a girl so utterly unlike him, was not quite clear. But most of all she evidently strove to soften Nejdanov, to arouse his confidence towards her, to break down his shyness; she even went so far as to reproach him a little for having a false idea of her.

Nejdanov listened to her, gazed at her arms, her shoulders, and from time to time cast a look at her rosy lips and her unruly, massive curls. His replies were brief at first; he felt a curious pressure in his throat and chest, but by degrees this sensation gave way to another, just as disturbing, but not devoid of a certain sweetness. . . . He was surprised that such a beautiful aristocratic lady of important position should take the trouble to interest herself in him, a simple student, and not only interest herself, but flirt with him a little besides. He wondered, but could not make out her object in doing so. To tell the truth, he was little concerned about the object. Madame Sipiagina went on to speak of Kolia, and assured Nejdanov that she wished to become better acquainted with him only so that she might talk to him seriously about her son, get to know his views on the education of Russian children. It might have seemed a little curious that such a wish should have come upon her so suddenly, but the root of the matter did not lie in what Valentina Mihailovna had said. She had been seized by a wave of sensuousness, a desire to conquer and bring to her feet this rebellious young man.

Here it is necessary to go back a little. Valentina Mihailovna was the daughter of a general who had been neither over-wise nor over-industrious in his life. He had received only one star and a buckle as a reward for fifty years' service. She was a Little Russian, intriguing and sly, endowed, like many of her countrywomen, with a very simple and even stupid exterior, from which she knew how to extract the maximum of advantage. Valentina Mihailovna's parents were not rich, but they had managed to educate her at the Smolny Convent, where, although considered a republican, she was always in the foreground and very well treated on account of her excellent behaviour and industriousness. On leaving the convent she settled with her mother (her brother had gone into the country, and her father, the general with the star and buckle, had died) in a very clean, but extremely chilly, apartment, in which you could see your own breath as you talked. Valentina Mihailovna used to make fun of it and declare it was like being in church. She was very brave in bearing with all the discomforts of a poor, pinched existence, having a wonderfully sweet temper. With her mother's help, she managed both to keep up and make new connections and acquaintances, and was even spoken of in the highest circles as a very nice well-bred girl. She had several suitors, had fixed upon Sipiagin from them all, and had very quickly and ingeniously made him fall in love with her. However, he was soon convinced that he could not have made a better choice. She was intelligent, rather good than ill-natured, at bottom cold and indifferent, but unable to endure the idea that anyone should be indifferent to her.

Valentina Mihailovna was possessed of that peculiar charm, the characteristic of all "charming" egoists, in which there is neither poetry nor real sensitiveness, but which is often full of superficial gentleness, sympathy, sometimes even tenderness. But these charming egoists must not be thwarted. They are very domineering and cannot endure independence in others. Women like Madame Sipiagina excite and disturb people of inexperienced and passionate natures, but are fond of a quiet and peaceful life themselves. Virtue comes easy to them, they are placid of temperament, but a constant desire to command, to attract, and to please gives them mobility and brilliance. They have an iron will, and a good deal of their fascination is due to this will. It is difficult for a man to hold his ground when the mysterious sparks of tenderness begin to kindle, as if involuntarily, in one of these unstirred creatures; he waits for the hour to come when the ice will melt, but the rays only play over the transparent surface, and never does he see it melt or its smoothness disturbed!

It cost Madame Sipiagina very little to flirt, knowing full well that it involved no danger for herself, but to take the lustre out of another's eyes and see them sparkle again, to see another's cheeks become flushed with desire and dread, to hear another's voice tremble and break down, to disturb another's soul--oh, how sweet it was to her soul! How delightful it was late at night, when she lay down in her snow-white bed to an untroubled sleep, to remember all these agitated words and looks and sighs. With what a self-satisfied smile she retired into herself, into the consciousness of her inaccessibility, her invulnerability, and with what condescension she abandoned herself to the lawful embrace of her well-bred husband! It was so pleasant that for a little time she was filled with emotion, ready to do some kind deed, to help a fellow creature. . . Once, after a secretary of legation, who was madly in love with her, had attempted to cut his throat, she founded a small alms- house! She had prayed for him fervently, although her religious feelings from earliest childhood had not been strongly developed.

And so she talked to Nejdanov, doing everything she could to bring him to her feet. She allowed him to come near her, she revealed herself to him, as it were, and with a sweet curiosity, with a half-maternal tenderness, she watched this handsome, interesting, stern radical softening towards her quietly and awkwardly. A day, an hour, a minute later and all this would have vanished without leaving a trace, but for the time being it was pleasant, amusing, rather pathetic, and even a little sad. Forgetting his origin, and knowing that such interest is always appreciated by lonely people happening to fall among strangers, she began questioning him about his youth, about his family... But guessing from his curt replies that she had made a mistake, Valentina Mihailovna tried to smooth things over and began to unfold herself still more before him, as a rose unfolds its fragrant petals on a hot summer's noon, closing them again tightly at the first approach of the evening coolness.

She could not fully smooth over her blunder, however. Having been touched on a sensitive spot, Nejdanov could not regain his former confidence. That bitterness which he always carried, always felt at the bottom of his heart, stirred again, awakening all his democratic suspicions and reproaches. "That is not what I've come here for," he thought, recalling Paklin's admonition. He took advantage of a pause in the conversation, got up, bowed slightly, and went out "very foolishly" as he could not help saying to himself afterwards.

His confusion did not escape Valentina Mihailovna's notice, and judging by the smile with which she accompanied him, she had put it down to her own advantage.

In the billiard room Nejdanov came across Mariana. She was standing with her back to the window, not far from the door of Madame Sipiagina's boudoir, with her arms tightly folded. Her face was almost in complete shadow, but she fixed her fearless eyes on Nejdanov so penetratingly, and her tightly closed lips expressed so much contempt and insulting pity, that he stood still in amazement.

"Have you anything to say to me?" he asked involuntarily.

Mariana did not reply for a time.

"No . . . yes I have, though not now."

"When?"

"You must wait awhile. Perhaps--tomorrow, perhaps--never. I know so little--what are you really like?"

"But," Nejdanov began, "I sometimes feel . . . that between us--"

"But you hardly know me at all," Mariana interrupted him. "Well, wait a little. Tomorrow, perhaps. Now I have to go to . . . my mistress. Goodbye, till tomorrow."

Nejdanov took a step or two in advance, but turned back suddenly.

"By the way, Mariana Vikentievna . . . may I come to school with you one day before it closes? I should like to see what you do there."

"With pleasure. . . But it was not the school about which I wished to speak to you."

"What was it then?"

"Tomorrow," Mariana repeated.

But she did not wait until the next day, and the conversation between her and Nejdanov took place on that same evening in one of the linden avenues not far from the terrace.