Chapter V
 

IN the drawing room of a large stone house with a Greek front-- built in the twenties of the present century by Sipiagin's father, a well-known landowner, who was distinguished by the free use of his fists--Sipiagin's wife, Valentina Mihailovna, a very beautiful woman, having been informed by telegram of her husband's arrival, sat expecting him every moment. The room was decorated in the best modern taste. Everything in it was charming and inviting, from the wails hung in variegated cretonne and beautiful curtains, to the various porcelain, bronze, and crystal knickknacks arranged upon the tables and cabinets; the whole blending together into a subdued harmony and brightened by the rays of the May sun, which was streaming in through the wide-open windows. The still air, laden with the scent of lily-of-the- valley (large bunches of these beautiful spring flowers were placed about the room), was stirred from time to time by a slight breeze from without, blowing gently over the richly grown garden.

What a charming picture! And the mistress herself, Valentina Mihailovna Sipiagina, put the finishing touch to it, gave it meaning and life. She was a tall woman of about thirty, with dark brown hair, a fresh dark complexion, resembling the Sistine Madonna, with wonderfully deep, velvety eyes. Her pale lips were somewhat too full, her shoulders perhaps too square, her hands rather too large, but, for all that, anyone seeing her as she flitted gracefully about the drawing room, bending from her slender waist to sniff at the flowers with a smile on her lips, or arranging some Chinese vase, or quickly readjusting her glossy hair before the looking-glass, half-closing her wonderful eyes, anyone would have declared that there could not be a more fascinating creature.

A pretty curly-haired boy of about nine burst into the room and stopped suddenly on catching sight of her. He was dressed in a Highland costume, his legs bare, and was very much befrizzled and pomaded.

"What do you want, Kolia?" Valentina Mihailovna asked. Her voice was as soft and velvety as her eyes.

"Mamma," the boy began in confusion, "auntie sent me to get some lilies-of-the-valley for her room. . . . She hasn't got any--"

Valentina Mihailovna put her hand under her little boy's chin and raised his pomaded head.

"Tell auntie that she can send to the gardener for flowers. These are mine. I don't want them to be touched. Tell her that I don't like to upset my arrangements. Can you repeat what I said?"

"Yes, I can," the boy whispered.

"Well, repeat it then."

"I will say . . . I will say . . . that you don't want."

Valentina Mihailovna laughed, and her laugh, too, was soft.

"I see that one can't give you messages as yet. But never mind, tell her anything you like."

The boy hastily kissed his mother's hand, adorned with rings, and rushed out of the room.

Valentina Mihailovna looked after him, sighed, walked up to a golden wire cage, on one side of which a green parrot was carefully holding on with its beak and claws. She teased it a little with the tip of her finger, then dropped on to a narrow couch, and picking up a number of the "Revue des Deux Mondes" from a round carved table, began turning over its pages.

A respectful cough made her look round. A handsome servant in livery and a white cravat was standing by the door.

"What do you want, Agafon?" she asked in the same soft voice.

"Simion Petrovitch Kollomietzev is here. Shall I show him in?

"Certainly. And tell Mariana Vikentievna to come to the drawing room.''

Valentina Mihailovna threw the "Revue des Deux Mondes" on the table, raised her eyes upwards as if thinking--a pose which suited her extremely.

From the languid, though free and easy, way in which Simion Petrovitch Kollomietzev, a young man of thirty-two, entered the room; from the way in which he brightened suddenly, bowed slightly to one side, and drew himself up again gracefully; from the manner in which he spoke, not too harshly, nor too gently; from the respectful way in which he kissed Valentina Mihailovna's hand, one could see that the new-comer was not a mere provincial, an ordinary rich country neighbour, but a St. Petersburg grandee of the highest society. He was dressed in the latest English fashion. A corner of the coloured border of his white cambric pocket handkerchief peeped out of the breast pocket of his tweed coat, a monocle dangled on a wide black ribbon, the pale tint of his suede gloves matched his grey checked trousers. He was clean shaven, and his hair was closely cropped. His features were somewhat effeminate, with his large eyes, set close together, his small flat nose, full red lips, betokening the amiable disposition of a well-bred nobleman. He was effusion itself, but very easily turned spiteful, and even vulgar, when any one dared to annoy him, or to upset his religious, conservative, or patriotic principles. Then he became merciless. All his elegance vanished like smoke, his soft eyes assumed a cruel expression, ugly words would flow from his beautiful mouth, and he usually got the best of an argument by appealing to the authorities.

His family had once been simple gardeners. His great-grandfather was called Kolomientzov after the place in which he was born; his grandfather used to sign himself Kolomietzev; his father added another I and wrote himself Kollomietzev, and finally Simion Petrovitch considered himself to be an aristocrat of the bluest blood, with pretensions to having descended from the well-known Barons von Gallenmeier, one of whom had been a field-marshal in the Thirty Years' War. Simion Petrovitch was a chamberlain, and served in the ministerial court. His patriotism had prevented him from entering the diplomatic service, for which he was cut out by his personal appearance, education, knowledge of the world, and his success with women. Mais quitter la Russie? Jamais! Kollomietzev was rich and had a great many influential friends. He passed for a promising, reliable young man un peu feodal dans ses opinions, as Prince B. said of him, and Prince B. was one of the leading lights in St. Petersburg official circles. Kollomietzev had come away on a two months' leave to look after his estate, that is, to threaten and oppress his peasants a little more. "You can't get on without that!" he used to say.

"I thought that your husband would have been here by now," he began, rocking himself from one leg to the other. He suddenly drew himself up and looked down sideways--a very dignified pose.

Valentina Mihailovna made a grimace.

"Would you not have come otherwise?"

Kollomietzev drew back a pace, horrified at the imputation.

"Valentina Mihailovna!" he exclaimed. "How can you possibly say such a thing?"

"Well, never mind. Sit down. My husband will be here soon. I have sent the carriage to the station to meet him. If you wait a little, you will be rewarded by seeing him. What time is it?

"Half-past two," Kollomietzev replied, taking a large gold enamelled watch out of his waistcoat pocket and showing it to Valentina Mihailovna. "Have you seen this watch? A present from Michael, the Servian Prince Obrenovitch. Look, here are his initials. We are great friends-- go out hunting a lot together. Such a splendid fellow, with an iron hand, just what an administrator ought to be. He will never allow himself to be made a fool of. Not he! Oh dear no!"

Kollomietzev dropped into an armchair, crossed his legs, and began leisurely pulling off his left glove.

"We are badly in need of such a man as Michael in our province here," he remarked.

"Why? Are you dissatisfied with things here?"

Kollomietzev made a wry face.

"It's this abominable county council! What earthly use is it? Only weakens the government and sets people thinking the wrong way." (He gesticulated with his left hand, freed from the pressure of the glove.) "And arouses false hopes." (Kollomietzev blew on his hand.) "I have already mentioned this in St. Petersburg, mais bah! They won't listen to me. Even your husband- -but then he is known to be a confirmed liberal!"

Valentina Mihailovna sat up straight.

"What do I hear? You opposed to the government, Monsieur Kollomietzev?

"I-- not in the least! Never! What an idea! Mais j'ai mon franc parler. I occasionally allow myself to criticise, but am always obedient."

"And I, on the contrary, never criticise and am never obedient."

"Ah! Mais c'est un mot! Do let me repeat it to my friend Ladislas. Vous savez, he is writing a society novel, read me some of it. Charming! Nous aurons enfin le grand monde russe peint par lui-meme."

"Where is it to be published?

"In the "Russian Messenger", of course. It is our "Revue des Deux Mondes". I see you take it, by the way."

"Yes, but I think it rather dull of late."

"Perhaps, perhaps it is. "The Russian Messenger", too, has also gone off a bit, using a colloquial expression.

Kollomietzev laughed. It amused him to have said "gone off a bit." "Mais c'est un journal qui se respecte," he continued, "and that is the main thing. I am sorry to say that I interest myself very little in Russian literature nowadays. It has grown so horribly vulgar. A cook is now made the heroine of a novel. A mere cook, parole d'honneur! Of course, I shall read Ladislas' novel. Il y aura le petit mot pour rire, and he writes with a purpose! He will completely crush the nihilists, and I quite agree with him. His ideas sont tres correctes."

"That is more than can be said of his past," Valentina Mihailovna remarked.

"Ah! jeton une voile sur les erreurs de sa jeunesse!" Kollomietzev exclaimed, pulling off his other glove.

Valentina Mihailovna half-closed her exquisite eyes and looked at him coquettishly.

"Simion Petrovitch!" she exclaimed, "why do you use so many French words when speaking Russian? It seems to me rather old- fashioned, if you will excuse my saying so."

"But, my dear lady, not everyone is such a master of our native tongue as you are, for instance. I have a very great respect for the Russian language. There is nothing like it for giving commands or for governmental purposes. I like to keep it pure and uncorrupted by other languages and bow before Karamzin; but as for an everyday language, how can one use Russian? For instance, how would you say, in Russian, de tout a l'heure, c'est un mot? You could not possibly say 'this is a word,' could you?"

"You might say 'a happy expression.'"

Kollomietzev laughed.

"A happy expression! My dear Valentina Mihailovna. Don't you feel that it savours of the schoolroom; that all the salt has gone out of it?

"I am afraid you will not convince me. I wonder where Mariana is?" She rang the bell and a servant entered.

"I asked to have Mariana Vikentievna sent here. Has she not been told? "

The servant had scarcely time to reply when a young girl appeared behind him in the doorway. She had on a loose dark blouse, and her hair was cut short. It was Mariana Vikentievna Sinitska, Sipiagin's niece on the mother's side.