Chapter XIII.
 

While Sina Karsavina and Dubova were absent on a visit, Yourii's life seemed uneventful and monotonous. His father was engaged, either at the club or with household matters, and Lialia and Riasantzeff found the presence of a third person embarrassing, so that Yourii avoided their society. It thus became his habit to go to bed early and not to rise till the midday meal. All day long, when in his room, or in the garden, he brooded over matters, waiting for a supreme access of energy that should spur him on to do some great work.

This "great work" each day assumed a different form. Now it was a picture, or, again, it was a series of articles that should show the world what a huge mistake the social democrats had made in not giving Yourii a leading role in their party. Or else it was an article in favour of adherence to the people and of strenuous co-operation with it--a very broad, imposing treatment of the subject. Each day, however, as it passed, brought nothing but boredom. Once or twice Novikoff and Schafroff came to see him. Yourii also attended lectures and paid visits, yet all this seemed to him empty and aimless. It was not what he sought, or fancied that he sought.

One day he went to see Riasantzeff. The doctor had large, airy rooms filled with all such things as an athletic, healthy man needs for his amusement; Indian clubs, dumb-bells, rapiers, fishing-rods, nets, tobacco-pipes, and much else that savoured of wholesome, manly recreation.

Riasantzeff received him with frank cordiality, chatted pleasantly, offered him cigarettes, and finally asked him to go out shooting with him.

"I have not got a gun," said Yourii.

"Have one of mine. I have got five," replied Riasantzeff. To him, Yourii was the brother of Lialia, and he was anxious to be as kind to him as possible. He therefore insisted upon Yourii's acceptance of one of his guns, eagerly displaying them all, taking them to pieces, and explaining their make. He even fired at a target in the yard, so that at last Yourii laughingly accepted a gun and some cartridges, much to Riasantzeff's pleasure.

"That's first-rate!" he said, "I had meant to get some duck-shooting to-morrow, so we'll go together, shall we?"

"I should like it very much," replied Yourii.

When he got home he spent nearly two hours examining his gun, fingering the lock, and taking aim at the lamp. He then carefully greased his old shooting-boots.

On the following day, towards evening, Riasantzeff, fresh, hearty as ever, drove up in a droschky with a smart bay to fetch Yourii.

"Are you ready?" he called out to him through the open window.

Yourii, who had already donned cartridge-belt and game bag, and carried his gun, came out, looking somewhat overweighted and ill at ease.

"I'm ready, I'm ready," he said.

Riasantzeff, who was lightly and comfortably clad, seemed somewhat astonished at Yourii's accoutrements.

"You'll find those things too heavy," he said, smiling. "Take them all off and put them here. You needn't wear them till we get there." He helped Yourii to divest himself of his shooting-kit and placed them underneath the seat. Then they drove away at a good pace. The day was drawing to a close, but it was still warm and dusty. The droschky swayed from side to side so that Yourii had to hold tightly to the seat. Riasantzeff talked and laughed the whole time, and Yourii was compelled to join in his merriment. When they got out into the fields where the stiff meadow-grass lightly brushed against their feet it was cooler, and there was no dust.

On reaching a broad level field Riasantzeff pulled up the sweating horse and, placing his hand to his mouth, shouted, in a clear, ringing voice, "Kousma--a ... Kousma--a--a!"

At the extreme end of the field, like silhouettes, a row of little men could be descried who, at the sound of Riasantzeff's voice, looked eagerly in his direction.

One of the men then came across the field, walking carefully between the furrows. As he approached, Yourii saw that he was a burly, grey- haired peasant with a long beard and sinewy arms.

He came up to them slowly, and said, with a smile, "You know how to shout, Anatole Pavlovitch!"

"Good day, Kousma; how are you? Can I leave the horse with you?"

"Yes, certainly you can," said the peasant in a calm, friendly voice, as he caught hold of the horse's bridle. "Come for a little shooting, eh? And who is that?" he asked, with a kindly glance at Yourii.

"It is Nicolai Yegorovitch's son," replied Riasantzeff.

"Ah, yes! I see that he is just like Ludmilla Nicolaijevna! Yes, yes!"

Yourii was pleased to find that this genial old peasant knew his sister and spoke of her in such a simple, friendly way.

"Now, then, let us go!" said Riasantzeff, in his cheery voice, as he walked first, after getting his gun and game-bag.

"May you have luck!" cried Kousma, and then they could hear him coaxing the horse as he led it away to his hut.

They had to walk nearly a verst before they reached the marsh. The sun had almost set, and the soil, covered with lush grasses and reeds, felt moist beneath their feet. It looked darker, and had a damp smell, while in places water shimmered. Riasantzeff had ceased smoking, and stood with legs wide apart, looking suddenly grave as if he had to begin an important and responsible task. Yourii kept to the right, trying to find a dry comfortable place. In front of them lay the water which, reflecting the clear evening sky, looked pure and deep. The other bank, like a black stripe, could be discerned in the distance.

Almost immediately, in twos and threes, ducks rose and flew slowly over the water, starting up suddenly out of the rushes, and then passing over the sportsmen's heads, a row of silhouettes against the saffron sky. Raisantzeff had the first shot, and with success. A wounded duck tumbled sideways into the water, beating down the rushes with its wings.

"I hit it!" exclaimed Riasantzeff, as he gaily laughed aloud.

"He's really a good sort of fellow," thought Yourii, whose turn it was to shoot. He brought down his bird also, but it fell at such a distance that he could not find it, though he scratched his hands and waded knee-deep through the water. This disappointment only made him more keen; it was fine fun, so he thought.

Amid the clear, cool air from the river the gun-smoke had a strangely pleasant smell, and, in the darkening landscape, the merry shots flashed out with charming effect. The wounded wild fowl, as they fell, described graceful curves against the pale green sky where now the first faint stars gleamed. Yourii felt unusually energetic and gay. It was as if he had never taken part in anything so interesting or exhilarating. The birds rose more rarely now, and the deepening dusk made it more difficult to take aim.

"Hullo there! We must get home!" shouted Riasantzeff, from a distance.

Yourii felt sorry to go, but in accordance with his companion's suggestion he advanced to meet him, stumbling over rushes and splashing through the water which in the dusk was not distinguishable from dry soil. As they met, their eyes flashed, and they were both breathless.

"Well," asked Riasantzeff, "did you have any luck?"

"I should say so," replied Yourii, displaying his well-filled bag.

"Ah! you're a better shot than I am," said Riasantzeff pleasantly.

Yourii was delighted by such praise, although he always professed to care nothing for physical strength or skill. "I don't know about better," he observed carelessly, "It was just luck."

By the time they reached the hut it was quite dark. The melon-field was immersed in gloom, and only the foremost rows of melons shimmered white in the firelight, casting long shadows. The horse stood, snorting, beside the hut, where a bright little fire of dried steppe-grass burnt and crackled. They could hear men talking and women laughing, and one voice, mellow and cheery in tone, seemed familiar to Yourii.

"Why, it's Sanine," said Riasantzeff, in astonishment. "How did he get here?"

They approached the fire. Grey-bearded Kousma, seated beside it, looked up, and nodded to welcome them.

"Any luck?" he asked, in his deep bass voice, through a drooping moustache.

"Just a bit," replied Riasantzeff.

Sanine, sitting on a huge pumpkin, also raised his head and smiled at them.

"How is it that you are here?" asked Riasantzeff.

"Oh! Kousma Prokorovitch and I are old friends," explained Sanine, smiling the more.

Kousma laughed, showing the yellow stumps of his decayed teeth as he slapped Sanine's knee good-naturedly with his rough hand.

"Yes, yes," he said. "Sit down here, Anatole Pavlovitch, and taste this melon. And you, my young master, what is your name?"

"Yourii Nicolaijevitch," replied Yourii, pleasantly.

He felt somewhat embarrassed, but he at once took a liking to this gentle old peasant with his friendly speech, half Russian, half dialect.

"Yourii Nicolaijevitch! Aha! We must make each other's acquaintance, eh? Sit you down, Yourii Nicolaijevitch."

Yourii and Riasantzeff sat down by the fire on two big pumpkins.

"Now, then show us what you have shot," said Kousma.

A heap of dead birds fell out of the game-bags, and the ground was dabbled with their blood. In the flickering firelight they had a weird, unpleasant look. The blood was almost black, and the claws seemed to move. Kousma took up a duck, and felt beneath its wings.

"That's a fat one," he said approvingly. "You might spare me a brace, Anatole Pavlovitch. What will you do with such a lot?"

"Have them all!" exclaimed Yourii, blushing.

"Why all? Come, come, you're too generous," laughed the old man. "I'll just have a brace, to show that there's no ill-feeling."

Other peasants and their wives now approached the fire, but, dazzled by the blaze, Yourii could not plainly distinguish them. First one and then another face swiftly emerged from the gloom, and then vanished. Sanine, frowning, regarded the dead birds, and, turning away, suddenly rose. The sight of these beautiful creatures lying there in blood and dust, with broken wings, was distasteful to him.

Yourii watched everything with great interest as he greedily ate large, luscious slices of a ripe melon which Kousma cut off with his pocket- knife that had a yellow bone handle.

"Eat, Yourii Nicolaijevitch; this melon's good," he said. "I know your little sister, Ludmilla Nicolaijevna, and your father, too. Eat, and enjoy it."

Everything pleased Yourii; the smell of the peasants, an odour as of newly-baked bread and sheepskins; the bright blaze of the fire; the gigantic pumpkin upon which he sat; and the glimpse of Kousma's face when he looked downwards, for when the old man raised his head it was hidden in the gloom and only his eyes gleamed. Overhead there was darkness now, which made the lighted place seem pleasant and comfortable. Looking upwards, Yourii could at first see nothing, and then suddenly the calm, spacious heaven appeared and the distant stars.

He felt, however, somewhat embarrassed, not knowing what to say to these peasants. The others, Kousma, Sanine, and Riasantzeff, chatted frankly and simply to them about this or that, never troubling to choose some special theme for talk.

"Well, how's the land?" he asked, when there was a short pause in the conversation, though he felt that the question sounded forced and out of place.

Kousma looked up, and answered:

"We must wait, just wait a while, and see." Then he began talking about the melon-fields and other personal matters, Yourii feeling only more and more embarrassed, although he rather liked listening to it all.

Footsteps were heard approaching. A little red dog with a curly white tail appeared in the light, sniffing at Yourii and Riasantzeff, and rubbing itself against Sanine's knees, who patted its rough coat. It was followed by a little, old man with a sparse beard and small bright eyes. He carried a rusty single-barrelled gun.

"It is grandfather, our guardian," said Kousma. The old man sat down on the ground, deposited his weapon, and looked hard at Yourii and Riasantzeff.

"Been out shooting; yes, yes!" he mumbled, showing his shrivelled, discoloured gums. "He! He! Kousma, it's time to boil the potatoes! He! He!"

Riasantzeff picked up the old fellow's flint-lock, and laughingly showed it to Yourii. It was a rusty old barrel-loader, very heavy, with wire wound round it.

"I say," said he, "what sort of a gun do you call this? Aren't you afraid to shoot with it?"

"He! He! I nearly shot myself with it once! Stepan Schapka, he told me that one could shoot without ... caps? He! He! ... without caps! He said that if there were any sulphur left in the gun one could fire without a cap. So I put the loaded rifle on my knee like this, and fired it off at full cock with my finger, like this, see? Then bang! it went off! Nearly killed myself! He! He! Loaded the rifle, and bang!! Nearly killed myself!"

They all laughed, and there were tears of mirth in Yourii's eyes, so absurd did the little man seem with his tufted grey beard and his sunken jaws.

The old fellow laughed, too, till his little eyes watered. "Very nearly killed myself! He! He!"

In the darkness, and beyond the circle of light, one could hear laughter, and the voices of girls whom shyness had kept at a distance. A few feet away from the fire, and in quite a different place from where Yourii imagined him to be seated, Sanine struck a match. In the reddish flare of it Yourii saw his calm, friendly eyes, and beside him a young face whose soft eyes beneath their dark brows looked up at Sanine with simple joy.

Riasantzeff, as he winked to Kousma, said:

"Grandfather, hadn't you better keep an eye on your granddaughter, eh?"

"What's the good!" replied Kousma, with a careless gesture. "Youth is youth."

"He! He!" laughed the old man in his turn, as with his fingers he plucked a red-hot coal from the fire.

Sanine's laugh was heard in the darkness. The girls may have felt ashamed, for they had moved away, and their voices were scarcely audible.

"It is time to go," said Riasantzeff, as he got up. "Thank you, Kousma."

"Not at all," replied the other, as with his sleeve he brushed away the black melon-pips that had stuck to his grey beard. He shook hands with both of them, and Yourii again felt a certain repugnance to the touch of his rough, bony hand. As they retreated from the fire, the gloom seemed less intense. Above were the cold, glittering stars and the vast dome of heaven, serenely fair. The group by the fire, the horses, and the pile of melons all became blacker against the light.

Yourii tripped over a pumpkin and nearly fell.

"Look out!" said Sanine. "Good-bye!"

"Good-bye!" replied Yourii, looking round at the other's tall, dark form, leaning against which he fancied that he saw another, the graceful figure of a woman. Yourii's heart beat faster. He suddenly thought of Sina Karsavina, and envied Sanine.

Once more the wheels of the droschky rattled, and once again the good old horse snorted as it ran.

The fire faded in distance, as did the sound of voices and laughter. Stillness reigned. Yourii slowly looked upwards to the sky with its jewelled web of stars. As they reached the outskirts of the town, lights flashed here and there, and dogs barked. Riasantzeff said to Yourii:

"Old Kousma's a philosopher, eh?"

Seated behind, Yourii looked at Riasantzeff's Deck, and roused from his own melancholy thoughts, endeavoured to understand what he said.

"Oh!... Yes!" he replied hesitatingly.

"I didn't know that Sanine was such a gay dog," laughed Riasantzeff.

Yourii was not dreaming now, and he recalled the momentary vision of Sanine and that pretty girlish face illumined by the light of a match. Again he felt jealous, yet suddenly it occurred to him that Sanine's treatment of the girl was base and contemptible.

"No, I had no idea of it, either," said Yourii, with a touch of irony that was lost upon Riasantzeff, who whipped up the horse and, after a while, remarked:

"Pretty girl, wasn't she? I know her. She's the old fellow's grandchild,"

Yourii was silent. His contemplative mood was in a moment dispelled, and he now felt convinced that Sanine was a coarse, bad man.

Riasantzeff shrugged his shoulders, and at last blurted out:

"Deuce take it! Such a night, eh? It seems to have got hold of me, too. I say, suppose we drive back, and--"

Yourii did not at first understand what he meant.

"There are some fine girls there, you know. What do you say? Shall we go back?" continued Riasantzeff, sniggering.

Yourii blushed deeply. A thrill of animal lust shot through his frame, and enticing pictures rose up before his heated imagination. Yet, controlling himself, he answered, in a dry voice:

"No; it is time that we were at home." Then he added, maliciously: "Lialia is waiting for us."

Riasantzeff collapsed.

"Oh, yes, of course; yes, we ought to be back by now!" he hastily muttered.

Yourii ground his teeth, and, glaring at the driver's broad back in its white jacket, remarked aggressively:

"I have no particular liking for adventures of that sort."

"No, no; I understand. Ha! Ha!" replied Riasantzeff, laughing in a faint half-hearted way. After that he was silent.

"Damn it! How stupid of me!" he thought.

They drove home without uttering another word, and to each the way seemed endless.

"You will come in, won't you?" asked Yourii, without looking up.

"Er ... No! I have got to see a patient. Besides it is rather late," replied Riasantzeff hesitatingly.

Yourii got out of the droschky, not caring to take the gun or the game. Everything that belonged to Riasantzeff he now seemed to loathe. The latter called out to him.

"I say, you've left your gun!"

Yourii turned round, took this and the bag with an air of disgust. After shaking hands awkwardly with Riasantzeff, he entered the house. The latter drove on slowly for a short distance and then turned sharply into a side-street. The rattle of wheels on the road could now be heard in another direction. Yourii listened to it, furious, and yet secretly jealous. "A bad lot!" he muttered, feeling sorry for his sister.