Sanine by Mikhail Petrovich Artzybashev
On the following evening Yourii went to the same spot where he had met Sina Karsavina and her companion. Throughout the day he had thought with pleasure of his talk with them on the previous evening, and he hoped to meet them again, discuss the same subjects, and perceive the same look of sympathy and tenderness in Sina's gentle eyes.
It was a calm evening. The air was warm, and a slight dust floated above the streets. Except for one or two passers-by, the boulevard was absolutely deserted. Yourii walked slowly along, his eyes fixed on the ground.
"How boring!" he thought. "What am I to do?"
Suddenly Schafroff, the student, walking briskly, and, swinging his arm, approached him with a friendly smile on his face.
"Why are you dawdling along like this, eh?" he asked, stopping short, and giving Yourii a big, strong hand.
"Oh! I am bored to death, and there's nothing to do. Where are you going?" asked Yourii, in a languid, patronizing tone. He always spoke thus to Schafroff, because, as a former member of the revolutionary committee he looked upon the lad as just an amateur revolutionist. Schafroff smiled as one thoroughly pleased with himself.
"We have got a lecture to-day," he said, pointing to a packet of thin pamphlets in coloured wrappers. Yourii mechanically took one, and, opening it, read the long, dry preface to a popular Socialistic address, once well known to him, but which he had quite forgotten.
"Where is the lecture to be given?" he asked with the same slightly contemptuous smile as he handed back the pamphlet.
"At the school," replied Schafroff, mentioning the one at which Sina Karsavina and Dubova were teachers. Yourii remembered that Lialia had once told him about these lectures, but he had paid no attention.
"May I come with you?" he asked.
"Why, of course!" replied Schafroff, eager to assent to this proposal. He looked upon Yourii as a real agitator, and, over-estimating his political abilities, felt a reverence for him that bordered on affection.
"I am greatly interested in such matters." Yourii felt it necessary to say this, being all the while glad that he had now got an engagement for the evening, and that he would see Sina again.
"Why, yes, of course," said Schafroff.
"Then, let us go."
They walked quickly along the boulevard and crossed the bridge, from each side of which came humid airs, and they soon reached the school where people had already assembled.
In the large, dark room with its rows of benches and desks the white cloth used for the magic lantern was dimly visible, and there were sounds of suppressed laughter. At the window, through which could be seen the dark green boughs of trees in twilight, stood Lialia and Dubova. They gleefully greeted Yourii.
"I am so glad that you have come!" said Lialia.
Dubova shook him vigorously by the hand.
"Why don't you begin?" asked Yourii, as he furtively glanced round, hoping to see Sina.
"So Sinaida Pavlovna doesn't attend these lectures?" he observed with evident disappointment.
At that moment a lucifer-match flashed close to the lecturer's desk on the platform, illuminating Sina's features. The light shone upon her pretty fresh face; she was smiling gaily.
"Don't I attend these lectures?" she exclaimed, as, bending down to Yourii, she held out her hand. He gladly grasped it without speaking, and leaning lightly on him she sprang from the platform. He felt her sweet, wholesome breath close to his face.
"It is time to begin," said Schafroff, who came in from the adjoining room.
The school attendant with heavy tread walked round the room, lighting one by one the large lamps which soon shed a bright light. Schafroff opened the door leading to the passage, and said in a loud voice: "This way, please!"
Shyly at first, and then in noisy haste, the people entered the lecture-room. Yourii scrutinized them closely; his keen interest as a propagandist was roused. There Were old folk, young men, and children. No one sat in the front row; but, later on, it was filled by several ladies whom Yourii did not know; by the fat school-inspector; and by masters and mistresses of the elementary school for boys and girls. The rest of the room was full of men in caftans and long coats, soldiers, peasants, women, and a great many children in coloured shirts and frocks.
Yourii sat beside Sina at a desk and listened while Schafroff read, calmly, but badly, a paper on universal suffrage. He had a hard, monotonous voice and everything he read sounded like a column of statistics. Yet everybody listened attentively with the exception of the intellectual people in the front row, who soon grew restless and began whispering to each other. This annoyed Yourii, and he felt sorry that Schafroff should read so badly. The latter was obviously tired, so Yourii said to Sina:
"Suppose I finish reading it for him? What do you say?"
Sina shot a kindly glance at him from beneath her drooping eye-lashes.
"Oh! yes, do read! I wish you would."
"Do you think it will matter?" he whispered, smiling at her as if she were his accomplice.
"Matter? Not in the least. Everybody will be delighted."
During a pause, she suggested this to Schafroff, who being tired and aware how badly he had read, accepted with pleasure.
"Of course! By all means!" he exclaimed, as usual, giving up his place to Yourii.
Yourii was fond of reading, and read excellently. Without looking at anyone, he walked to the desk on the platform and began in a loud, well modulated voice. Twice he looked down at Sina, and each time he encountered her bright, expressive glance. He smiled at her in pleasure and confusion, and then, turning to his book, began to read louder and with greater emphasis. To him it seemed as if he were doing a most excellent and interesting thing. When he had finished, there was some applause in the front seats. Yourii bowed gravely, and as he left the platform he smiled at Sina as much as to say, "I did that for your sake." There was some murmuring, and a noise of chairs being pushed back as the listeners rose to go. Yourii was introduced to two ladies who complimented him on his performance. Then the lamps were put out and the room became dark.
"Thank you very much," said Schafroff as he warmly shook Yourii's hand. "I wish that we always had some one to read to us like that."
Lecturing was his business, and so he felt obliged to Yourii as if the latter had done him a personal service, although he thanked him in the name of the people. Schafroff laid stress on the word "people." "So little is done here for the people," he said, as if he were telling Yourii a great secret, "and if anything is done, it is in a half- hearted, careless way. It is most extraordinary. To amuse a parcel of bored gentlefolk dozens of first-rate actors, singers and lecturers are engaged, but for the people a lecturer like myself is quite good enough." Schafroff smiled at his own bland irony. "Everybody's quite satisfied. What more do they want?"
"That is quite true," said Dubova. "Whole columns in the newspapers are devoted to actors and their wonderful performances; it is positively revolting; whereas here ..."
"Yet what a good work we're doing!" said Schafroff, with conviction, as he gathered his pamphlets together.
"Sancta Simplicitas!" ejaculated Yourii inwardly.
Sina's presence, however, and his own success inclined him to be tolerant. Indeed Schafroff's utter ingenuousness almost touched him.
"Where shall we go now?" asked Dubova, as they came out into the street.
Outside it was not nearly so dark as in the lecture-room, and in the sky a few stars shone.
"Schafroff and I are going to the Ratoffs," said Dubova. "Will you take Sina home?"
"With pleasure," said Yourii.
Sina lodged with Dubova in a small house that stood in a large, barren- looking garden. All the way thither she and Yourii talked of the lecture and its impression upon them, so that Yourii felt more and more convinced that he had done a good and great thing. As they reached the house, Sina said:
"Won't you come in for a moment?" Yourii gladly accepted. She opened the gate, and they crossed a little grass-grown courtyard beyond which lay the garden.
"Go into the garden, will you?" said Sina, laughing. "I would ask you to come indoors, but I am afraid things are rather untidy, as I have been out ever since the morning."
She went in, and Yourii sauntered towards the green, fragrant garden. He did not go far, but stopped to look round with intense curiosity at the dark windows of the house, as if something were happening there, something strangely beautiful and mysterious. Sina appeared in the doorway. Yourii hardly recognized her. She had changed her black dress, and now wore the costume of Little Russia, a thin bodice cut low, with short sleeves and a blue skirt.
"Here I am!" she said, smiling.
"So I see!" replied Yourii with a certain mysterious emphasis that she alone could appreciate.
She smiled once more, and looked sideways, as they walked along the garden-path between long grasses and branches of lilac. The trees were small ones, most of them being cherry-trees, whose young leaves had an odour of resinous gum. Behind the garden there was a meadow where wild flowers bloomed amid the long grass.
"Let us sit down here," said Sina.
They sat down by the, fence that was falling to pieces, and looked across the meadow at the dying sunset. Yourii caught hold of a slender lilac-branch, from which fell a shower of dew.
"Shall I sing something to you?" asked Sina.
"Oh! yes, do!" replied Yourii.
As on the evening of the picnic, Sina breathed deeply, and her comely bust was clearly denned beneath the thin bodice, as she began to sing, "Oh, beauteous Star of Love." Pure and passionate, her notes floated out on the evening air. Yourii remained motionless, gazing at her, with bated breath. She felt that his eyes were upon her, and, closing her own, she sang on with greater sweetness and fervour. There was silence everywhere as if all things were listening; Yourii thought of the mysterious hush of woodlands in spring when a nightingale sings.
As Sina ceased on a clear, high note, the silence seemed yet more intense. The sunset light had faded; the sky grew dark and more vast. The leaves and the grass quivered imperceptibly; across the meadow and through the garden there passed a soft, perfumed breeze; faint as a sigh. Sina's eyes, shining in the gloom, turned to Yourii.
"Why so silent?" she asked.
"It is almost too delightful here!" he murmured, and again he grasped a dewy branch of lilac.
"Yes, it is very beautiful," replied Sina dreamily.
"In fact it is beautiful to be alive," she added.
A thought, vague and disquieting, crossed Yourii's mind, but it vanished without taking any clear shape. Some one loudly whistled twice on the other side of the meadow, and then came silence, as before.
"Do you like Schafroff?" asked Sina suddenly, being inwardly amused at so apparently inept a question.
Yourii felt a momentary pang of jealousy, but with a slight effort he replied gravely. "He's a good fellow."
"How devoted he is to his work!"
Yourii was silent.
A faint grey mist rose from the meadow and the grass grew paler in the dew.
"It is getting damp," said Sina, shivering slightly.
Yourii unconsciously looked at her round, soft shoulders, feeling instantly confused, and she, aware of his glance became confused also, although it was pleasant to her.
"Let us go."
Regretfully they returned along the narrow garden-path, each brushing lightly against the other at times as they walked. All around seemed dark and deserted, and Yourii fancied that now the garden's own life was about to begin, a life mysterious and to all unknown. Yonder, amid the trees and across the dew-laden grass strange shadows soon would steal, as the dusk deepened, and voices whispered in green, silent places. This he said to Sina, and her dark eyes wistfully peered into the gloom. If, so Yourii thought, she were suddenly to fling all her clothing aside, and rush all white and nude and joyous over the dewy grass towards the dim thicket, this would not be in the least strange, but beautiful and natural; nor would it disturb the life of the green, dark garden, but would make this more complete. This, too, he had a wish to tell her, but he dared not do so, and spoke instead of the people and of lectures. But their conversation flagged, and then ceased, as if they were only wasting words. Thus they reached the gateway in silence, smiling to themselves, brushing the dew from the branches with their shoulders. Everything seemed as calm and happy and pensive as they were themselves. As before, the courtyard was dark and solitary, but the outer gate was open, and a sound of hasty footsteps in the house could be heard, and of the opening and shutting of drawers.
"Olga has come back," said Sina.
"Oh! Sina, is that you?" asked Dubova from within, and the tone of her voice suggested some sinister occurrence. Pale and agitated, she appeared in the doorway.
"Where were you? I have been looking for you. Semenoff is dying!" she said breathlessly.
"What!" exclaimed Sina, horror-struck.
"Yes, he is dying. He broke a blood-vessel. Anatole Pavlovitch says that he's done for. They have taken him to the hospital. It was dreadfully sudden. There We were, at the Raton's', having tea, and he was so merry, arguing with Novikoff about something or other. Then he suddenly began to cough, stood up, and staggered, and the blood spurted out, on to the table-cloth, and into a little saucer of jam ... all black, and clotted...."
"Does he know it himself?" asked Yourii with grim interest. He instantly remembered the moonlit night, the sombre shadow, and the weak, broken voice, saying, "You will be alive, and you'll pass my grave, and stop, whilst I ..."
"Yes, he seems to know," replied Dubova, with a nervous movement of the hands. "He looked at us all, and asked 'What is it?' And then he shook from head to foot and said, 'Already!' ... Oh! isn't it awful?" "It's too shocking!"
All were silent.
It was now quite dark, yet, though the sky was clear, to them it seemed suddenly to have grown gloomy and sad.
"Death is a horrible thing!" said Yourii, turning pale.
Dubova sighed, and gazed into vacancy. Sina's chin trembled, and she smiled helplessly. She could not feel so shocked as the others; young as she was, and full of life, she could not fix her thoughts on death. To her it was incredible, inconceivable that on a beautiful summer evening, radiantly pleasant such as this, some one should have to suffer and to die. It was natural, of course, but, for some reason or other, to her it seemed wrong. She was ashamed to have such a feeling, and strove to suppress it, endeavouring to appear sympathetic, an effort which made her distress seem greater than that of her companions.
"Oh! poor fellow! ... is he really...?"
Sina wanted to ask: "Is he really going to die very soon?" but the words stuck in her throat, and she plied Dubova with fatuous and incoherent questions.
"Anatole Pavlovitch says that he will die to-night or to-morrow morning," replied Dubova, in a dull voice.
"Shall we go to him?" whispered Sina. "Or do you think that we had better not? I don't know."
This was the question uppermost in the minds of them all. Should they go and see Semenoff die? Was it a right or wrong thing to do? They all wanted to go, and yet were fearful of what they should see. Yourii shrugged his shoulders.
"Let us go," he said. "Very likely they won't admit us, and perhaps, too--"
"Perhaps he might wish to see some one," added Dubova, as if relieved.
"Come on! We'll go!" said Sina with decision.
"Schafroff and Novikoff are there," added Dubova, as if to justify herself.
Sina ran indoors to fetch her hat and coat, and then they went sadly through the town to the large, grey, three-storied building, the hospital where Semenoff lay dying.
The long, vaulted passages were dark, and smelt strongly of iodoform and carbolic. As they passed the section for the insane, they heard a strident, angry voice, but no one was visible. They felt scared, and anxiously hastened towards a dark little window. An old, grey-haired peasant, with a long white beard and wearing a large apron came clattering along the passage in his heavy top-boots to meet them.
"Who is it that you wish to see?" he asked, stopping short.
"A student has been brought here--Semenoff--to-day!" stammered Dubova.
"No. 6, please, upstairs," said the attendant, and passed on. They could hear him spit noisily on the flooring and then wipe it with his foot. Upstairs it was brighter and cleaner; and the ceiling was not vaulted. A door with "Doctors' Room" inscribed on it stood ajar. A lamp was burning in this room where a jingling of bottles and glasses could be heard. Yourii looked inside, and called out. The jingling ceased, and Riasantzeff appeared, looking fresh and hearty, as usual.
"Ah!" he exclaimed in a cheery voice, being evidently accustomed to events such as that which saddened his visitors. "I am on duty to-day. How do you do, ladies?" Yet, frowning suddenly, he added with grave significance, "He seems to be still unconscious. Let us go to him. Novikoff and the others are there."
As they walked in single file along the clean, bare passage, past big white doors with black numbers on them, Riasantzeff said:
"A priest has been sent for. It's astonishing how quickly the end came. I was amazed. But latterly he caught cold, you know, and that was what did it. Here we are."
Riasantzeff opened a white door and went in, the others following in awkward fashion as they pushed against each other on the threshold.
The room was clean and spacious. Four of the six beds in it were empty, each one having its coarse grey coverlet folded neatly, and strangely suggestive of a coffin. On the fifth bed sat a little wizened old man in a dressing-gown, who glanced timidly at the newcomers; and on the sixth bed, beneath a similar coarse coverlet, lay Semenoff. At his side, in a bent posture, sat Novikoff, while Ivanoff and Schafroff stood by the window. To all of them it seemed odd and painful to shake hands in the presence of the dying man, yet not to do so seemed equally embarrassing, as though by such omission they hinted that death was near. Some greeted each other, and some refrained, while all stood still gazing with grim curiosity at Semenoff.
He breathed slowly and with difficulty. How different he looked from the Semenoff they knew! Indeed, he hardly seemed to be alive. Though his features and his limbs were the same, they now appeared strangely rigid and dreadful to behold. That which naturally gave life and movement to the bodies of other human beings no longer seemed to exist in his. Something horrible was being swiftly, secretly accomplished within his motionless frame, an important work that could not be postponed. All that remained to him of life was, as it were, concentrated upon this work, observing it with keen, inexplicable interest.
The lamp hanging from the ceiling shone clearly upon the dying man's lifeless visage. All standing there gazed upon it, holding their breath as if fearing to disturb something infinitely solemn; and in such silence the laboured, sibilant breathing of the patient sounded terribly distinct.
The door opened, and with short, senile steps a fat little priest entered, accompanied by his psalm-singer, a dark, gaunt man. With these came Sanine. The priest, coughing slightly, bowed to the doctors and to all present, who acknowledged his greeting with excessive politeness, and then remained perfectly silent as before. Without noticing anybody, Sanine took up his position by the window, eyeing Semenoff and the others with great curiosity as he sought to discern what the patient and those about him actually felt and thought. Semenoff remained motionless, breathing just as before.
"He is unconscious, is he?" asked the priest gently, without addressing anyone in particular.
"Yes," replied Novikoff, hastily.
Sanine murmured something unintelligible. The priest looked questioningly at him, but, as Sanine remained silent, he turned away, smoothed his hair back, donned his stole and in high-pitched, unctuous tones began to chant the prayers for the dying.
The psalm-singer had a bass voice, hoarse and disagreeable, so that the vocal contrast was a painfully discordant one as the sound of this chanting rose to the lofty ceiling. No sooner had it commenced than the eyes of all were fixed in terror upon the dying man. Novikoff, standing nearest to him, thought that Semenoff's eye-lids moved slightly, as if the sightless eyeballs had been turned in the direction of the chanting. To the others, however, Semenoff appeared as strangely motionless as before.
At the first notes Sina began to cry, gently but persistently, letting the tears course down her youthful, pretty face. All the others looked at her, and Dubova in her turn began to weep. To the men's eyes tears also rose, which by clenching their teeth they strove to keep back. Every time the chanting grew louder, the girls wept more freely. Sanine frowned, and shrugged his shoulders irritably, thinking how intolerable to Semenoff, if he heard it, such wailing must be when to healthy normal men it was so utterly depressing.
"Not so loud!" he said to the priest irritably.
The latter amiably bent forward to hear this remark, and, when he understood it, he frowned and only sang louder. His companion glared at Sanine and the others all looked at him as well, in fear and astonishment, as if he had said something offensive. Sanine showed his annoyance by a gesture, but said nothing.
When the chanting ceased, and the priest had wrapped up the crucifix in his stole, the suspense was more painful than ever. Semenoff lay there as rigid, as motionless as before. Suddenly the same thought, dreadful but irresistible, came into the minds of all. If only it could all end quickly! If only Semenoff would die! In fear and shame they sought to suppress this wish, exchanging timid glances.
"If only this were all over!" said Sanine in an undertone. "Ghastly, isn't it?"
"Yes!" replied Ivanoff.
They spoke almost in whispers, and it was plain that Semenoff could not hear them, but yet all the others looked shocked.
Schafroff was about to say something, but at that moment a new sound, indescribably plaintive, echoed through the room, sending a shiver through all.
"Ee--ee--ee!" moaned Semenoff.
And, as if he had got that mode of expression which he wanted, he continued to give out this long-drawn note, only interrupted by his laboured, hoarse breathing.
At first the others could not conceive what had happened to him, but soon Sina and Dubova and Novikoff began to weep. Slowly and solemnly the priest resumed his chanting. His fat good-tempered face showed evident sympathy and emotion. A few minutes passed. Suddenly Semenoff ceased moaning.
"It is all over," murmured the priest.
Then slowly, and with much effort, Semenoff moved his tightly-glued lips, and his face became contracted as if by a smile, The onlookers heard his hollow, weird voice that, issuing from the depth of his chest, sounded as if it came through a coffin-lid.
"Silly old fool!" he said, looking hard at the priest. His whole body trembled, his eyes rolled madly in their sockets, and he stretched himself at full length.
They had all heard these words, but no one moved; and for a moment the sorrowful expression vanished from the priest's fat, moist face. He looked about him anxiously, but encountered no one's glance. Only Sanine smiled.
Semenoff again moved his lips, yet no sound escaped from them, while one side drooped of his thin, fair moustache. Once more he stretched his limbs, and became longer and more terrible. There was no sound, nor the slightest movement whatever. Nobody wept now. The approach of death had been more grievous, more appalling than its actual advent; and it seemed strange that so harrowing a scene should have ended so simply and swiftly. For a few moments they stood beside the bed and looked at the dead, peaked features, as if they expected something else to happen. Wishful to rouse within themselves a sense of horror and pity, they watched Novikoff intently as he closed the dead man's eyes and crossed his hands on his breast. Then they went out quietly and cautiously. In the passages lamps were now lighted, and all seemed so familiar and simple that every one breathed more freely. The priest went first, tripping along with short steps. Desiring to say a few words of consolation to the young people, he sighed, and then began softly:
"Dear, dear! It is very sad. Such a young man, too. Alas! it is plain that he died unrepentant. But God is merciful, you know--"
"Yes, yes, of course," replied Schafroff, who walked next to him and wished to be polite.
"Does his family know?" asked the priest.
"I really can't tell you," said Schafroff.
They all looked at each other in astonishment, as it seemed odd and not altogether decent to be unable to say who Semenoff's people were.
"His sister is at the high school, I believe," observed Sine.
"Ah! I see! Well, good-bye!" said the priest, slightly raising his hat with his plump fingers.
"Good-bye!" they replied in unison.
On reaching the street, they sighed, as if relieved.
"Where shall we go now?" asked Schafroff.
After brief hesitation, they all took leave of each other, and went their different ways.