Chapter VI
 

"I am sorry, Valentina Mihailovna," Mariana said, drawing near to her, "I was busy and could not get away."

She bowed to Kollomietzev and withdrew into a corner, where she sat down on a little stool near the parrot, who began flapping its wings as soon as it caught sight of her.

"Why so far away, Mariana?" Valentina Mihailovna asked, looking after her. "Do you want to be near your little friend? Just think, Simion Petrovitch," she said, turning to Kollomietzev, "our parrot has simply fallen in love with Mariana!"

"I don't wonder at it!"

"But he simply can't bear me!"

"How extraordinary! Perhaps you tease him."

"Oh, no, I never tease him. On the contrary, I feed him with sugar. But he won't take anything out of my hand. It is a case of sympathy and antipathy."

Mariana looked sternly at Valentina Mihailovna and Valentina Mihailovna looked at her. These two women did not love one another.

Compared to her aunt Mariana seemed plain. She had a round face, a large aquiline nose, big bright grey eyes, fine eyebrows, and thin lips. Her thick brown hair was cut short; she seemed retiring, but there was something strong and daring, impetuous and passionate, in the whole of her personality. She had tiny little hands and feet, and her healthy, lithesome little figure reminded one of a Florentine statuette of the sixteenth century. Her movements were free and graceful.

Mariana's position in the Sipiagin's house was a very difficult one. Her father, a brilliant man of Polish extraction, who had attained the rank of general, was discovered to have embezzled large state funds. He was tried and convicted, deprived of his rank, nobility, and exiled to Siberia. After some time he was pardoned and returned, but was too utterly crushed to begin life anew, and died in extreme poverty. His wife, Sipiagin's sister, did not survive the shock of the disgrace and her husband's death, and died soon after. Uncle Sipiagin gave a home to their only child, Mariana. She loathed her life of dependence and longed for freedom with all the force of her upright soul. There was a constant inner battle between her and her aunt. Valentina Mihailovna looked upon her as a nihilist and freethinker, and Mariana detested her aunt as an unconscious tyrant. She held aloof from her uncle and, indeed, from everyone else in the house. She held aloof, but was not afraid of them. She was not timid by nature.

"Antipathy is a strange thing," Kollomietzev repeated. "Everybody knows that I am a deeply religious man, orthodox in the fullest sense of the word, but the sight of a priest's flowing locks drives me nearly mad. It makes me boil over with rage."

"I believe hair in general has an irritating effect upon you, Simion Petrovitch," Mariana remarked. "I feel sure you can't bear to see it cut short like mine."

Valentina Mihailovna lifted her eyebrows slowly, then dropped her head, as if astonished at the freedom with which modern young girls entered into conversation. Kollomietzev smiled condescendingly.

"Of course," he said, "I can't help feeling sorry for beautiful curls such as yours, Mariana Vikentievna, falling under the merciless snip of a pair of scissors, but it doesn't arouse antipathy in me. In any case, your example might even . . . even . . . convert me!"

Kollomietzev could not think of a Russian word, and did not like using a French one, after what his hostess had said.

"Thank heaven," Valentina Mihailovna remarked, "Mariana does not wear glasses and has not yet discarded collars and cuffs; but, unfortunately, she studies natural history, and is even interested in the woman question. Isn't that so, Mariana?

This was evidently said to make Mariana feel uncomfortable, but Mariana, however, did not feel uncomfortable.

"Yes, auntie," she replied, " I read everything I can get hold of on the subject. I am trying to understand the woman question."

"There is youth for you!" Valentina Mihailovna exclaimed, turning to Kollomietzev. "Now you and I are not at all interested in that sort of thing, are we?

Kollomietzev smiled good-naturedly; he could not help entering into the playful mood of his amiable hostess.

"Mariana Vikentievna," he began, "is still full of the ideals . . . the romanticism of youth . . . which . . . in time--"

"Heaven, I was unjust to myself," Valentina Mihailovna interrupted him; "I am also interested in these questions. I am not quite an old lady yet."

"Of course. So am I in a way," Kollomietzev put in hastily. "Only I would forbid such things being talked about!"

"Forbid them being talked about?" Mariana asked in astonishment.

"Yes! I would say to the public, 'Interest yourselves in these things as much as you like, but talk about them... shhh...'" He layed his finger on his lips.

"I would, at any rate, forbid speaking through the press under any conditions!"

Valentina Mihailovna laughed.

"What? Would you have a commission appointed by the ministers for settling these questions?

"Why not? Don't you think we could do it better than these ignorant, hungry loafers who know nothing and imagine themselves to be men of genius? We could appoint Boris Andraevitch as president."

Valentina Mihailovna laughed louder still.

"You had better take care, Boris Andraevitch is sometimes such a Jacobin--"

"Jacko, jacko, jacko," the parrot screamed. Valentina Mihailovna waved her handkerchief at him. "Don't interrupt an intelligent conversation! Mariana, do teach him manners!"

Mariana turned to the cage and began stroking the parrot's neck with her finger; the parrot stretched towards her.

"Yes," Valentina Mihailovna continued, "Boris Andraevitch astonishes me, too, sometimes. There is a certain strain in him . . . a certain strain . . . of the tribune."

"C'est parce qu'il est orateur!" Kollomietzev exclaimed enthusiastically in French. "Your husband is a marvellous orator and is accustomed to success . . . ses propres paroles le grisent . . . and then his desire for popularity. By the way, he is rather annoyed just now, is he not? Il boude? Eh?"

Valentina Mihailovna looked at Mariana.

"I haven't noticed it," she said after a pause. "Yes," Kollomietzev continued pensively, "he was rather overlooked at Easter."

Valentina Mihailovna indicated Mariana with her eyes. Kollomietzev smiled and screwed up his eyes, conveying to her that he understood. "Mariana Vikentievna," he exclaimed suddenly, in an unnecessarily loud tone of voice, "do you intend teaching at the school again this year?"

Mariana turned round from the cage.

"Are you interested to know, Simion Petrovitch? "

"Certainly. I am very much interested."

"Would you forbid it?"

"I would forbid nihilists even so much as to think of schools. I would put all schools into the hands of the clergy, and with an eye on them I wouldn't mind running one myself!"

"Really! I haven't the slightest idea what I shall do this year. Last year things were not at all successful. Besides, how can you get a school together in the summer?

Mariana blushed deeply all the time she was speaking, as if it cost her some effort. She was still very self-conscious.

"Are you not sufficiently prepared?" Valentina Mihailovna asked sarcastically.

"Perhaps not."

"Heavens! " Kollomietzev exclaimed. "What do I hear? 0h ye gods! Is preparation necessary to teach peasants the alphabet?"

At this moment Kolia ran into the drawing room shouting "Mamma! mamma! Papa has come!" And after him, waddling on her stout little legs, appeared an old grey-haired lady in a cap and yellow shawl, and also announced that Boris had come.

This lady was Sipiagin's aunt, and was called Anna Zaharovna. Everyone in the drawing room rushed out into the hall, down the stairs, and on to the steps of the portico. A long avenue of chipped yews ran straight from these steps to the high road--a carriage and four was already rolling up the avenue straight towards them. Valentina Mihailovna, standing in front, waved her pocket handkerchief, Kolia shrieked with delight, the coachman adroitly pulled up the steaming horses, a footman came down headlong from the box and almost pulled the carriage door off its hinges in his effort to open it--and then, with a condescending smile on his lips, in his eyes, over the whole of his face, Boris Andraevitch, with one graceful gesture of the shoulders, dropped his cloak and sprang to the ground. Valentina Mihailovna gracefully threw her arms round his neck and they kissed three times. Kolia stamped his little feet and pulled at his father's coat from behind, but Boris Andraevitch first kissed Anna Zaharovna, quickly threw off his uncomfortable, ugly Scotch cap, greeted Mariana and Kollomietzev, who had also come out (he gave Kollomietzev a hearty shake of the hand in the English fashion), and then turned to his little son, lifted him under the arms, and kissed him.

During this scene Nejdanov half guiltily scrambled out of the carriage and, without removing his cap, stood quietly near the front wheel, looking out from under his eyebrows. Valentina Mihailovna, when embracing her husband, had cast a penetrating look over his shoulder at this new figure. Sipiagin had informed her that he was bringing a tutor.

Everyone continued exchanging greetings and shaking hands with the newly-arrived host as they all moved up the broad stairs, lined on either side with the principal men and maid servants. They did not come forward to kiss the master's hand (an Asiatic custom they had abandoned long ago), but bowed respectfully. Sipiagin responded to their salutations with a slight movement of the nose and eyebrows, rather than an inclination of the head.

Nejdanov followed the stream up the wide stairs. As soon as they reached the hall, Sipiagin, who had been searching for Nejdanov with his eyes, introduced him to his wife, Anna Zaharovna, and Mariana, and said to Kolia, "This is your tutor. Mind you do as he tells you. Give him your hand." Kolia extended his hand timidly, stared at him fixedly, but finding nothing particularly interesting about his tutor, turned to his "papa" again. Nejdanov felt uncomfortable, just as he had done at the theatre. He wore an old shabby coat, and his face and hands were covered with dust from the journey. Valentina Mihailovna said something kindly to him, but he did not quite catch what it was and did not reply. He noticed that she was very bright, and clung to her husband affectionately. He did not like Kolia's befrizzled and pomaded head, and when his eye fell on Kollomietzev, thought" What a sleek individual." He paid no attention to the others. Sipiagin turned his head once or twice in a dignified manner, as if looking round at his worldly belongings, a pose that set off to perfection his long drooping whiskers and somewhat small round neck. Then he shouted to one of the servants in a loud resonant voice, not at all husky from the journey, "Ivan! Take this gentleman to the green room and see to his luggage afterwards!" He then told Nejdanov that he could change and rest awhile, and that dinner would be served at five o'clock. Nejdanov bowed and followed Ivan to the "green" room, which was situated on the second floor.

The whole company went into the drawing room. The host was welcomed all over again. An old blind nurse appeared and made him a courtesy. Out of consideration for her years, Sipiagin gave her his hand to kiss. He then begged Kollomietzev to excuse him, and retired to his own room accompanied by his wife.