Chapter XXIV

JUST before dinner Sipiagin called his wife into the library. He wanted to have a talk with her alone. He seemed worried. He told her that the factory was really in a bad way, that Solomin struck him as a capable man, although a little stiff, and thought it was necessary to continue being aux petits soins with him.

"How I should like to get hold of him!" he repeated once or twice. Sipiagin was very much annoyed at Kollomietzev's being there. "Devil take the man! He sees nihilists everywhere and is always wanting to suppress them! Let him do it at his own house I He simply can't hold his tongue!"

Valentina Mihailovna said that she would be delighted to be aux petits soins with the new visitor, but it seemed to her that he had no need of these petits soins and took no notice of them; not rudely in any way, but he was quite indifferent; very remarkable in a man du commun.

"Never mind. . . . Be nice to him just the same!" Sipiagin begged of her.

Valentina Mihailovna promised to do what he wanted and fulfilled her promise conscientiously. She began by having a tete-a-tete with Kollomietzev. What she said to him remains a secret, but he came to the table with the air of a man who had made up his mind to be discreet and submissive at all costs. This "resignation" gave his whole bearing a slight touch of melancholy; and what dignity ... oh, what dignity there was in every one of his movements! Valentina Mihailovna introduced Solomin to everybody (he looked more attentively at Mariana than at any of the others), and made him sit beside her on her right at table. Kollomietzev sat on her left, and as he unfolded his serviette screwed up his face and smiled, as much as to say, "Well, now let us begin our little comedy!" Sipiagin sat on the opposite side and watched him with some anxiety. By a new arrangement of Madame Sipiagina, Nejdanov was not put next to Mariana as usual, but between Anna Zaharovna and Sipiagin. Mariana found her card (as the dinner was a stately one) on her serviette between Kollomietzev and Kolia. The dinner was excellently served; there was even a "menu"--a painted card lay before each person.

Directly soup was finished, Sipiagin again brought the conversation round to his factory, and from there went on to Russian manufacture in general. Solomin, as usual, replied very briefly. As soon as he began speaking, Mariana fixed her eyes upon him. Kollomietzev, who was sitting beside her, turned to her with various compliments (he had been asked not to start a dispute), but she did not listen to him; and indeed he pronounced all his pleasantries in a half-hearted manner, merely to satisfy his own conscience. He realised that there was something between himself and this young girl that could not be crossed.

As for Nejdanov, something even worse had come to pass between him and the master of the house. For Sipiagin, Nejdanov had become simply a piece of furniture, or an empty space that he quite ignored. These new relations had taken place so quickly and unmistakably that when Nejdanov pronounced a few words in answer to a remark of Anna Zaharovna's, Sipiagin looked round in amazement, as if wondering where the sound came from.

Sipiagin evidently possessed some of the characteristics for which certain of the great Russian bureaucrats are celebrated for.

After the fish, Valentina Mihailovna, who had been lavishing all her charms on Solomin, said to her husband in English that she noticed their visitor did not drink wine and might perhaps like some beer. Sipiagin called aloud for ale, while Solomin calmly turned towards Valentina Mihailovna, saying, "You may not be aware, madame, that I spent over two years in England and can understand and speak English. I only mentioned it in case you should wish to say anything private before me." Valentina Mihailovna laughed and assured him that this precaution was altogether unnecessary, since he would hear nothing but good of himself; inwardly she thought Solomin's action rather strange, but delicate in its own way.

At this point Kollomietzev could no longer contain himself. "And so you've been in England," he began, "and no doubt studied the manners and customs there. Do you think them worth imitating?"

"Some yes, others no."

"Brief but not clear," Kollomietzev remarked, trying not to notice the signs Sipiagin was making to him. "You were speaking of the nobility this morning. . . No doubt you've had the opportunity of studying the English landed gentry, as they call them there."

"No, I had no such opportunity. I moved in quite a different sphere. But I formed my own ideas about these gentlemen."

"Well, do you think that such a landed gentry is impossible among us? Or that we ought not to want it in any case?"

"In the first place, I certainly do think it impossible, and in the second, it's hardly worthwhile wanting such a thing."

"But why, my dear sir? " Kollomietzev asked; the polite tone was intended to soothe Sipiagin, who sat very uneasily on his chair.

"Because in twenty or thirty years your landed gentry won't be here in any case."

"What makes you think so?"

"Because by that time the land will fall into the hands of people in no way distinguished by their origin."

"Do you mean the merchants?"

"For the most part probably the merchants."

"But how will it happen?"

"They'll buy it, of course."

"From the gentry? "

"Yes; from the gentry."

Kollomietzev smiled condescendingly. "If you recollect you said the very same thing about factories that you're now saying about the land."

"And it's quite true."

"You will no doubt be very pleased about it!"

"Not at all. I've already told you that the people won't be any the better off for the change."

Kollomietzev raised his hand slightly. "What solicitude on the part of the people, imagine!"

"Vassily Fedotitch!" Sipiagin called out as loudly as he could, "they have brought you some beer! Voyons, simeon!" he added in an undertone.

But Kollomietzev would not be suppressed.

"I see you haven't a very high opinion of the merchant class," he began again, turning to Solomin, "but they've sprung from the people."

"So they have."

"I thought that you considered everything about the people, or relating to the people, as above criticism!"

"Not at all! You are quite mistaken. The masses can be condemned for a great many things, though they are not always to blame. Our merchant is an exploiter and uses his capital for that purpose. He thinks that people are always trying to get the better of him, so he tries to get the better of them. But the people--"

"Well, what about the people?" Kollomietzev asked in falsetto.

"The people are asleep."

"And would you like to wake them?"

"That would not be a bad thing to do."

"Aha! aha! So that's what--"

"Gentlemen, gentlemen!" Sipiagin exclaimed imperatively. He felt that the moment had come to put an end to the discussion, and he did put an end to it. With a slight gesture of his right hand, while the elbow remained propped on the table, he delivered a long and detailed speech. He praised the conservatives on the one hand and approved of the liberals on the other, giving the preference to the latter as he counted himself of their numbers. He spoke highly of the people, but drew attention to some of their weaknesses; expressed his full confidence in the government, but asked himself whether all its officials were faithfully fulfilling its benevolent designs. He acknowledged the importance of literature, but declared that without the utmost caution it was dangerous. He turned to the West with hope, then became doubtful; he turned to the East, first sighed, then became enthusiastic. Finally he proposed a toast in honour of the trinity: Religion, Agriculture, and Industry!

"Under the wing of authority!" Kollomietzev added sternly.

"Under the wing of wise and benevolent authority," Sipiagin corrected him.

The toast was drunk in silence. The empty space on Sipiagin's left, in the form of Nejdanov, did certainly make several sounds of disapproval; but arousing not the least attention became quiet again, and the dinner, without any further controversy, reached a happy conclusion.

Valentina Mihailovna, with a most charming smile, handed Solomin a cup of coffee; he drank it and was already looking round for his hat when Sipiagin took him gently by the arm and led him into his study. There he first gave him an excellent cigar and then made him a proposal to enter his factory on the most advantageous terms. "You will be absolute master there, Vassily Fedotitch, I assure you!" Solomin accepted the cigar and declined the offer about the factory. He stuck to his refusal, however much Sipiagin insisted.

"Please don't say 'no' at once, my dear Vassily Fedotitch! Say, at least, that you'll think it over until tomorrow!"

"It would make no difference. I wouldn't accept your proposal."

"Do think it over till tomorrow, Vassily Fedotitch! It won't cost you anything."

Solomin agreed, came out of the study, and began looking for his hat again. But Nejdanov, who until that moment had had no opportunity of exchanging a word with him, came up to him and whispered hurriedly:

"For heaven's sake don't go yet, or else we won't be able to have a talk!"

Solomin left his hat alone, the more readily as Sipiagin, who had observed his irresoluteness, exclaimed:

"Won't you stay the night with us?"

"As you wish."

The grateful glance Mariana fixed on him as she stood at the drawing-room window set him thinking.