Virgin Soil by Ivan S. Turgenev
SHE came up to him first.
"Mr. Nejdanov," she began, "it seems that you are quite enchanted with Valentina Mihailovna."
She turned down the avenue without waiting for a reply; he walked by her side.
"What makes you think so?"
"Is it not a fact? In that case she behaved very foolishly today. I can imagine how concerned she must have been, and how she tried to cast her wary nets!"
Nejdanov did not utter a word, but looked at his companion sideways.
"Listen," she continued, "it's no use pretending; I don't like Valentina Mihailovna, and you know that well enough. I may seem unjust . . . but I want you to hear me first--"
Mariana's voice gave way. She suddenly flushed with emotion; under emotion she always gave one the impression of being angry.
"You are no doubt asking yourself, 'Why does this tiresome young lady tell me all this?' just as you must have done when I spoke to you . . . about Mr. Markelov."
She bent down, tore off a small mushroom, broke it to pieces, and threw it away.
"You are quite mistaken, Mariana Vikentievna," Nejdanov remarked. "On the contrary, I am pleased to think that I inspire you with confidence."
This was not true, the idea had only just occurred to him.
Mariana glanced at him for a moment. Until then she had persistently looked away from him.
"It is not that you inspire me with confidence exactly," she went on pensively; "you are quite a stranger to me. But your position- -and mine--are very similar. We are both alike-- unhappy; that is a bond between us."
"Are you unhappy?" Nejdanov asked.
"And you, are you not?" Mariana asked in her turn. Nejdanov did not say anything.
"Do you know my story?" she asked quickly. "The story of my father's exile? Don't you? Well, here it is: He was arrested, tried, convicted, deprived of his rank and everything . . . and sent to Siberia, where he died. My mother died too. My uncle, Mr. Sipiagin, my mother's brother, brought me up. . . I am dependent upon him-- he is my benefactor and-- Valentina Mihailovna is my benefactress. . . . I pay them back with base ingratitude because I have an unfeeling heart. . . But the bread of charity is bitter-- and I can't bear insulting condescensions-- and can't endure to be patronised. I can't hide things, and when I'm constantly being hurt I only keep from crying out because I'm too proud to do so."
As she uttered these disjointed sentences, Mariana walked faster and faster. Suddenly she stopped. "Do you know that my aunt, in order to get rid of me, wants to marry me to that hateful Kollomietzev? She knows my ideas. . . in her eyes I'm almost a nihilist-- and he! It's true he doesn't care for me. . . I'm not good-looking enough, but it's possible to sell me. That would also be considered charity."
"Why didn't you--" Nejdanov began, but stopped short.
Mariana looked at him for an instant.
"You wanted to ask why I didn't accept Mr. Markelov, isn't that so? Well, what could I do? He's a good man, but it's not my fault that I don't love him."
Mariana walked on ahead, as if she wished to save her companion the necessity of saying anything to this unexpected confession.
They both reached the end of the avenue. Mariana turned quickly down a narrow path leading into a dense fir grove; Nejdanov followed her. He was under the influence of a twofold astonishment; first, it puzzled him that this shy girl should suddenly become so open and frank with him, and secondly, that he was not in the least surprised at this frankness, that he looked upon it, in fact, as quite natural.
Mariana turned round suddenly, stopped in the middle of the path with her face about a yard from Nejdanov's, and looked straight into his eyes.
"Alexai Dmitritch," she said, "please don't think my aunt is a bad woman. She is not. She is deceitful all over, she's an actress, a poser-- she wants everyone to bow down before her as a beauty and worship her as a saint! She will invent a pretty speech, say it to one person, repeat it to a second, a third, with an air as if it had only just come to her by inspiration, emphasising it by the use of her wonderful eyes! She understands herself very well-- she is fully conscious of looking like a Madonna, and knows that she does not love a living soul! She pretends to be forever worrying over Kolia, when in reality does nothing but talk about him with clever people. She does not wish harm to any one... is all kindness, but let every bone in your body be broken before her very eyes . . . and she wouldn't care a straw! She would not move a finger to save you, and if by any chance it should happen to be necessary or useful to her. . .then heaven have mercy on you. . . ."
Mariana ceased. Her wrath was choking her. She could not contain herself, and had resolved on giving full vent to it, but words failed her. Mariana belonged to a particular class of unfortunate beings, very plentiful in Russia, whom justice satisfies, but does not rejoice, while injustice, against which they are very sensitive, revolts them to their innermost being. All the time she was speaking, Nejdanov watched her intently. Her flushed face, her short, untidy hair, the tremulous twitching of her thin lips, struck him as menacing, significant, and beautiful. A ray of sunlight, broken by a net of branches, lay across her forehead like a patch of gold. And this tongue of fire seemed to be in keeping with the keen expression of her face, her fixed wide-open eyes, the earnest sound of her voice.
"Tell me why you think me unhappy," Nejdanov observed at last. "Do you know anything about me?
"What do you know? Has anyone been talking to you about me?
"I know about your birth."
"Who told you?
"Why, Valentina Mihailovna, of course, whom you admire so much. She mentioned in my presence, just in passing you know, but quite intentionally, that there was a very interesting incident in your life. She was not condoling the fact, but merely mentioned it as a person of advanced views who is above prejudice. You need not be surprised; in the same way she tells every visitor that comes that my father was sent to Siberia for taking bribes. However much she may think herself an aristocrat, she is nothing more than a mere scandal-monger and a poser. That is your Sistine Madonna!"
"Why is she mine in particular?
Mariana turned away and resumed her walk down the path.
"Because you had such a long conversation together," she said, a lump rising in her throat.
"I scarcely said a word the whole time," Nejdanov observed. "It was she who did the talking."
Mariana walked on in silence. A turn in the path brought them to the end of the grove in front of which lay a small lawn; a weeping silver birch stood in the middle, its hollow trunk encircled by a round seat. Mariana sat down on this seat and Nejdanov seated himself at her side. The long hanging branches covered with tiny green leaves were waving gently over their heads. Around them masses of lily-of-the-valley could be seen peeping out from amidst the fine grass. The whole place was filled with a sweet scent, refreshing after the very heavy resinous smell of the pine trees.
"So you want to see the school," Mariana began; " I must warn you that you will not find it very exciting. You have heard that our principal master is the deacon. He is not a bad fellow, but you can't imagine what nonsense he talks to the children. There is a certain boy among them, called Garacy, an orphan of nine years old, and, would you believe it, he learns better than any of the others!
With the change of conversation, Mariana herself seemed to change. She turned paler, became more composed, and her face assumed an expression of embarrassment, as if she were repenting of her outburst. She evidently wished to lead Nejdanov into discussing some "question" or other about the school, the peasants, anything, so as not to continue in the former strain. But he was far from "questions" at this moment.
"Mariana Vikentievna," he began; "to be quite frank with you, I little expected all that has happened between us." (At the word "happened" she drew herself up.) "It seems to me that we have suddenly become very . . . very intimate. That is as it should be. We have for some time past been getting closer to one another, only we have not expressed it in words. And so I will also speak to you frankly. It is no doubt wretched for you here, but surely your uncle, although he is limited, seems a kind man, as far as one can judge. Doesn't he understand your position and take your part?"
"My uncle, in the first place, is not a man, he's an official, a senator, or a minister, I forget which; and in the second, I don't want to complain and speak badly of people for nothing. It is not at all hard for me here, that is, nobody interferes with me; my aunt's petty pin-pricks are in reality nothing to me. . . I am quite free."
Nejdanov looked at her in amazement.
"In that case . . . everything that you have just told me--"
"You may laugh at me if you like," she said. "If I am unhappy--it is not as a result of my own sorrows. It sometimes seems to me that I suffer for the miserable, poor and oppressed in the whole of Russia. . . No, it's not exactly that. I suffer-- I am indignant for them, I rebel for them. . . I am ready to go to the stake for them. I am unhappy because I am a 'young lady,' a parasite, that I am completely unable to do anything . . . anything! When my father was sent to Siberia and I remained with my mother in Moscow, how I longed to go to him! It was not that I loved or respected him very much, but I wanted to know, to see with my own eyes, how the exiled and banished live. . . How I loathed myself and all these placid, rich, well-fed people! And afterwards, when he returned home, broken in body and soul, and began humbly busying himself, trying to work . . . oh . . . how terrible it was! It was a good thing that he died . . . and my poor mother too. But, unfortunately, I was left behind. . . . What for? Only to feel that I have a bad nature, that I am ungrateful, that there is no peace for me, that I can do nothing-- nothing for anything or anybody!"
Mariana turned away-- her hand slid on to the seat. Nejdanov felt sorry for her; he touched the drooping hand. Mariana pulled it away quickly; not that Nejdanov's action seemed unsuitable to her, but that he should on no account think that she was asking for sympathy.
Through the branches of the pines a glimpse of a woman's dress could be seen. Mariana drew herself up.
"Look, your Madonna has sent her spy. That maid has to keep a watch on me and inform her mistress where I am and with whom. My aunt very likely guessed that I was with you, and thought it improper, especially after the sentimental scene she acted before you this afternoon. Anyhow, it's time we were back. Let us go."
Mariana got up. Nejdanov rose also. She glanced at him over her shoulder, and suddenly there passed over her face an almost childish expression, making her embarrassment seem charming.
"You are not angry with me, are you? You don't think I have been trying to win your sympathy, do you? No, I'm sure you don't," she went on before Nejdanov had time to make any reply; "you are like me, just as unhappy, and your nature . . . is bad, like mine. We can go to the school together tomorrow. We are excellent friends now, aren't we?
When Mariana and Nejdanov drew near to the house, Valentina Mihailovna looked at them from the balcony through her lorgnette, shook her head slowly with a smile on her lips, then returning through the open glass door into the drawing-room, where Sipiagin was already seated at preferences with their toothless neighbour, who had dropped in to tea, she drawled out, laying stress on each syllable: "How damp the air is! It's not good for one's health!"
Mariana and Nejdanov exchanged glances; Sipiagin, who had just scored a trick from his partner, cast a truly ministerial glance at his wife, looking her over from top to toe, then transferred this same cold, sleepy, but penetrating glance to the young couple coming in from the dark garden.