Chapter XXVI
 

SOLOMIN'S refusal greatly offended Sipiagin; so much so, that he suddenly found that this home-bred Stevenson was not such a wonderful engineer after all, and that though he was not perhaps a complete poser, yet gave himself airs like the plebeian he was. "All these Russians when they imagine they know a thing become insufferable! Au fond Kollomietzev was right!" Under the influence of such hostile and irritable sensations, the statesman--en herbe--was even more unsympathetic and distant in his intercourse with Nejdanov. He told Kolia that he need not take lessons that day and that he must try to be more independent in future. He did not, however, dismiss the tutor himself as the latter had expected, but continued to ignore him. But Valentina Mihailovna did not ignore Mariana. A dreadful scene took place between them.

About two hours before dinner they suddenly found themselves alone in the drawing-room. They both felt that the inevitable moment for the battle had arrived and, after a moment's hesitation, instinctively drew near to one another. Valentina Mihailovna was slightly smiling, Mariana pressed her lips firmly together; both were pale. When walking across the room, Valentina Mihailovna looked uneasily to the right and left and tore off a geranium leaf. Mariana's eyes were fixed straight on the smiling face coming towards her. Madame Sipiagina was the first to stop, and drumming her finger-tips on the back of a chair began in a free and easy tone:

"Mariana Vikentievna, it seems that we have entered upon a correspondence with one another . . . Living under the same roof as we do it strikes me as being rather strange. And you know I am not very fond of strange things."

"I did not begin the correspondence, Valentina Mihailovna."

"That is true. As it happens, I am to blame in that. Only I could not think of any other means of arousing in you a feeling . . . how shall I say? A feeling--"

"You can speak quite plainly, Valentina Mihailovna. You need not be afraid of offending me."

"A feeling . . . of propriety."

Valentina Mihailovna ceased; nothing but the drumming of her fingers could be heard in the room.

"In what way do you think I have failed to observe the rules of propriety?" Mariana asked.

Valentina Mihailovna shrugged her shoulders.

"Ma chere, vous n'etes plus un enfant--I think you know what I mean. Do you suppose that your behaviour could have remained a secret to me, to Anna Zaharovna, to the whole household in fact? However, I must say you are not over-particular about secrecy. You simply acted in bravado. Only Boris Andraevitch does not know what you have done . . . But he is occupied with far more serious and important matters. Apart from him, everybody else knows, everybody!"

Mariana's pallor increased.

"I must ask you to express yourself more clearly, Valentina Mihailovna. What is it you are displeased about?"

"L'insolente!" Madame Sipiagina thought, but contained herself.

"Do you want to know why I am displeased with you, Mariana? Then I must tell you that I disapprove of your prolonged interviews with a young man who is very much beneath you in birth, breeding, and social position. I am displeased . . . no! this word is far too mild--I am shocked at your late . . . your night visits to this young man! And where does it happen? Under my own roof! Perhaps you see nothing wrong in it and think that it has nothing to do with me, that I should be silent and thereby screen your disgraceful conduct. As an honourable woman. . . oui, mademoiselle, je l'ai ete, je le suis, et je le serai tu'jours! I can't help being horrified at such proceedings!"

Valentina Mihailovna threw herself into an armchair as if overcome by her indignation. Mariana smiled for the first time.

"I do not doubt your honour-- past, present, and to come," she began; "and I mean this quite sincerely. Your indignation is needless. I have brought no shame on your house. The young man whom you alluded to . . . yes, I have certainly . . . fallen in love with him."

"You love Mr. Nejdanov?"

"Yes, I love him."

Valentina Mihailovna sat up straight in her chair.

"But, Mariana! he's only a student, of no birth, no family, and he is younger than you are!" (These words were pronounced not without a certain spiteful pleasure.) "What earthly good can come of it? What do you see in him? He is only an empty-headed boy."

"That was not always your opinion of him, Valentina Mihailovna."

"For heaven's sake leave me out of the question, my dear! . . . Pas tant d'esprit que ca, je vous prie. The thing concerns you and your future. Just consider for a moment. What sort of a match is this for you?"

"I must confess, Valentina Mihailovna, that I did not look at it in that light."

"What? What did you say? What am I to think? Let us assume that you followed the dictates of your heart, but then it must end in marriage sometime or other."

"I don't know . . . I had not thought of that."

"You had not thought of that? You must be mad!"

Mariana turned away.

"Let us make an end of this conversation, Valentina Mihailovna. It won't lead to anything. In any case we won't understand each other."

Valentina Mihailovna started up.

"I can't, I won't put an end to this conversation! It's far too serious . . . I am responsible for you before . . ."

Valentina Mihailovna was going to say God, but hesitated and added, "before the whole world! I can't be silent when I hear such utter madness! And why can't I understand you, pray? What insufferable pride these young people have nowadays! On the contrary, I understand you only too well . . . I can see that you are infected with these new ideas, which will only be your ruin. It will be too late to turn back then."

"Maybe; but believe me, even if we perish, we will not so much as stretch out a finger that you might save us!"

"Pride again! This awful pride! But listen, Mariana, listen to me," she added, suddenly changing her tone. She wanted to draw Mariana nearer to herself, but the latter stepped back a pace. "Ecoutez-moi, je vous en conjure! After all, I am not so old nor so stupid that it should be impossible for us to understand each other! Je ne suis pas une encroutee. I was even considered a republican as a girl . . no less than you. Listen, I won't pretend that I ever had any motherly feeling towards you . . . and it is not in your nature to complain of that . . . But I always felt, and feel now, that I owed certain duties towards you, and I have always endeavoured to fulfil them. Perhaps the match I had in my mind for you, for which both Boris Andraevitch and I would have been ready to make any sacrifice . . . may not have been fully in accordance with your ideas . . . but in the bottom of my heart--"

Mariana looked at Valentina Mihailovna, at her wonderful eyes, her slightly painted lips, at her white hands, the parted fingers adorned with rings, which the elegant lady so energetically pressed against the bodice of her silk dress.

Suddenly she interrupted her.

"Did you say a match, Valentina Mihailovna? Do you call that heartless, vulgar friend of yours, Mr. Kollomietzev, 'a match?'"

Valentina Mihailovna took her fingers from her bodice. "Yes, Mariana Vikentievna! I am speaking of that cultured, excellent young man, Mr. Kollomietzev, who would make a wife happy and whom only a mad-woman could refuse! Yes, only a mad-woman!"

"What can I do, ma tante? It seems that I am mad!"

"Have you anything serious against him?"

"Nothing whatever. I simply despise him." Valentina Mihailovna shook her head impatiently and dropped into her chair again.

"Let us leave him. Retournons a nos moutons. And so you love Mr. Nejdanov?"

"Yes."

"And do you intend to continue your interviews with him?"

"Yes."

"But supposing I forbid it?"

"I won't listen to you."

Valentina Mihailovna sprang up from her chair. "What! You won't listen to me! I see . . . And that is said to me by a girl who has known nothing but kindness from me, whom I have brought up in my own house, that is said to me . . . said to me--"

"By the daughter of a disgraced father," Mariana put in, sternly. "Go on, don't be on ceremonies!"

"Ce n'est pas moi qui vous le fait dire, mademoiselle! In any case, that is nothing to be proud of! A girl who lives at my expense--"

"Don't throw that in my face, Valentina Mihailovna! It would cost you more to keep a French governess for Kolia . . . It is I who give him French lessons!"

Valentina Mihailovna raised a hand holding a scented cambric pocket-handkerchief with a large white monogram embroidered in one corner and tried to say something, but Mariana continued passionately:

"You would have been right, a thousand times right, if, instead of counting up all your petty benefits and sacrifices, you could have been in a position to say 'the girl I loved' . . . but you are too honest to lie about that!" Mariana trembled feverishly. "You have always hated me. And even now you are glad in the bottom of your heart--that same heart you have just mentioned-- glad that I am justifying your constant predictions, covering myself with shame and scandal--you are only annoyed because part of this shame is bound to fall on your virtuous, aristocratic house!

"You are insulting me," Valentina Mihailovna whispered. "Be kind enough to leave the room!"

But Mariana could no longer contain herself. "Your household, you said, all your household, Anna Zaharovna and everybody knows of my behaviour! And every one is horrified and indignant . . . But am I asking anything of you, of all these people? Do you think I care for their good opinion? Do you think that eating your bread has been sweet? I would prefer the greatest poverty to this luxury. There is a gulf between me and your house, an interminable gulf that cannot be crossed. You are an intelligent woman, don't you feel it too? And if you hate me, what do you think I feel towards you? We won't go into unnecessary details, it's too obvious."

"Sortez, sortez, vous dis-je . . ." Valentina Mihailovna repeated, stamping her pretty little foot.

Mariana took a few steps towards the door.

"I will rid you of my presence directly, only do you know what, Valentina Mihailovna? They say that in Racine's "Bajazet" even Rachel's sortez! was not effective, and you don't come anywhere near her! Then, what was it you said . . . Je suis une honnete femme, je l'ai et le serai toujours? But I am convinced that I am far more honest than you are! Goodbye!"

Mariana went out quickly and Valentina Mihailovna sprang up from her chair. She wanted to scream, to cry, but did not know what to scream about, and the tears would not come at her bidding.

So she fanned herself with her pocket-handkerchief, but the strong scent of it affected her nerves still more. She felt miserable, insulted . . . She was conscious of a certain amount of truth in what she had just heard, but how could anyone be so unjust to her? "Am I really so bad?" she thought, and looked at herself in a mirror hanging opposite between two windows. The looking-glass reflected a charming face, somewhat excited, the colour coming and going, but still a fascinating face, with wonderful soft, velvety eyes. . .

"I? I am bad?" she thought again. . . . With such eyes?"

But at this moment her husband entered the room and she again covered her face with her pocket-handkerchief.

"What is the matter with you?" he asked anxiously. "What is the matter, Valia?" (He had invented this pet name, but only allowed himself to use it when they were quite alone, particularly in the country.)

At first she declared that there was nothing the matter, but ended by turning around in her chair in a very charming and touching manner and, flinging her arms round his shoulders (he stood bending over her) and hiding her face in the slit of his waistcoat, told him everything. Without any hypocrisy or any interested motive on her part, she tried to excuse Mariana as much as she could, putting all the blame on her extreme youth, her passionate temperament, and the defects of her early education. In the same way she also, without any hidden motive, blamed herself a great deal, saying, "With a daughter of mine this would never have happened! I would have looked after her quite differently!" Sipiagin listened to her indulgently, sympathetically, but with a severe expression on his face. He continued standing in a stooping position without moving his head so long as she held her arms round his shoulders; he called her an angel, kissed her on the forehead, declared that he now knew what course he must pursue as head of the house, and went out, carrying himself like an energetic humane man, who was conscious of having to perform an unpleasant but necessary duty.

At eight o'clock, after dinner, Nejdanov was sitting in his room writing to his friend Silin.

"MY DEAR VLADIMIR,--I write to you at a critical moment of my life. I have been dismissed from this house, I am going away from here. That in itself would be nothing--I am not going alone. The girl I wrote to you about is coming with me. We are drawn together by the similarity of our fate in life, by our loneliness, convictions, aspirations, and, above all, by our mutual love. Yes, we love each other. I am convinced that I could not experience the passion of love in any other form than that which presents itself to me now. But I should not be speaking the truth if I were to say that I had no mysterious fear, no misgivings at heart . . . Everything in front of us is enveloped in darkness and we are plunging into that darkness. I need not tell you what we are going for and what we have chosen to do. Mariana and I are not in search of happiness or vain delight; we want to enter the fight together, side by side, supporting each other. Our aim is clear to us, but we do not know the roads that lead to it. Shall we find, if not help and sympathy at any rate, the opportunity to work? Mariana is a wonderfully honest girl. Should we be fated to perish, I will not blame myself for having enticed her away, because now no other life is possible for her. But, Vladimir, Vladimir! I feel so miserable. . . I am torn by doubt, not in my feelings towards her, of course, but . . . I do not know! And it is too late to turn back. Stretch out your hands to us from afar, and wish us patience, the power of self- sacrifice, and love . . . most of all love. And ye, Russian people, unknown to us, but beloved by us with all the force of our beings, with our hearts' blood, receive us in your midst, be kind to us, and teach us what we may expect from you. Goodbye, Vladimir, goodbye!"

Having finished these few lines Nejdanov set out for the village.

The following night, before daybreak, he stood on the outskirts of the birch grove, not far from Sipiagin's garden. A little further on behind the tangled branches of a nut-bush stood a peasant cart harnessed to a pair of unbridled horses. Inside, under the seat of plaited rope, a little grey old peasant was lying asleep on a bundle of hay, covered up to the ears with an old patched coat. Nejdanov kept looking eagerly at the road, at the clumps of laburnums at the bottom of the garden; the still grey night lay around; the little stars did their best to outshine one another and were lost in the vast expanse of sky. To the east the rounded edges of the spreading clouds were tinged with a faint flush of dawn. Suddenly Nejdanov trembled and became alert. Something squeaked near by, the opening of a gate was heard; a tiny feminine creature, wrapped up in a shawl with a bundle slung over her bare arm, walked slowly out of the deep shadow of the laburnums into the dusty road, and crossing over as if on tip- toe, turned towards the grove. Nejdanov rushed towards her.

"Mariana?" he whispered.

"It's I!" came a soft reply from under the shawl.

"This way, come with me," Nejdanov responded, seizing her awkwardly by the bare arm, holding the bundle.

She trembled as if with cold. He led her up to the cart and woke the peasant. The latter jumped up quickly, instantly took his seat on the box, put his arms into the coat sleeves, and seized the rope that served as reins. The horses moved; he encouraged them cautiously in a voice still hoarse from a heavy sleep. Nejdanov placed Mariana on the seat, first spreading out his cloak for her to sit on, wrapped her feet in a rug, as the hay was rather damp, and sitting down beside her, gave the order to start. The peasant pulled the reins, the horses came out of the grove, snorting and shaking themselves, and bumping and rattling its small wheels the cart rolled out on to the road. Nejdanov had his arm round Mariana's waist, while she, raising the shawl with her cold fingers and turning her smiling face towards him, exclaimed: "How beautifully fresh the air is, Aliosha!"

"Yes," the peasant replied, "there'll be a heavy dew!"

There was already such a heavy dew that the axles of the cart wheels as they caught in the tall grass along the roadside shook off whole showers of tiny drops and the grass looked silver-grey.

Mariana again trembled from the cold.

"How cold it is!" she said gaily. "But freedom, Aliosha, freedom!