Chapter XIV.
 

Having carried the things indoors, Yourii, for want of something else to do, went down the steps leading to the garden. It was dark as the grave, and the sky with it vast company of gleaming stars enhanced the weird effect. There, on one of the steps, sat Lialia; her little grey form was scarcely perceptible in the gloom.

"Is that you, Yourii?" she asked.

"Yes, it is," he replied, as he sat down beside her. Dreamily she leant her head on his shoulder, and the fragrance of her fresh, sweet girlhood touched his senses.

"Did you have good sport?" said Lialia. Then after a pause, she added softly, "and where is Anatole Pavlovitch? I heard you drive up."

"Your Anatole Pavlovitch is a dirty beast!" is what Yourii, feeling suddenly incensed, would have liked to say. However, he answered carelessly:

"I really don't know. He had to see a patient."

"A patient," repeated Lialia mechanically. She said no more, but gazed at the stars.

She was not vexed that Riasantzeff had not come. On the contrary, she wished to be alone, so that, undisturbed by his presence, she might give herself up to delicious meditation. To her, the sentiment that filled her youthful being was strange and sweet and tender. It was the consciousness of a climax, desired, inevitable, and yet disturbing, which should close the page of her past life and commence that of her new one. So new, indeed, that Lialia was to become an entirely different being.

To Yourii it was strange that his merry, laughing sister should have become so quiet and pensive. Depressed and irritable himself, everything, Lialia, the dark garden the distant starlit sky seemed to him sad and cold. He did not perceive that this dreamy mood concealed not sorrow, but the very essence and fulness of life. In the wide heaven surged forces immeasurable and unknown; the dim garden drew forth vital sap from the earth; and in Lialia's heart there was a joy so full, so complete, that she feared lest any movement, any impression should break the spell. Radiant as the starry heaven, mysterious as the dark garden, harmonies of love and yearning vibrated within her soul.

"Tell me, Lialia, do you love Anatole Pavlovitch very much?" asked Yourii, gently, as if he feared to rouse her.

"How can you ask?" she thought, but, recollecting herself, she nestled closer to her brother, grateful to him for not speaking of anything else but of her life's one interest--the man she adored.

"Yes, very much," she replied, so softly that Yourii guessed rather than heard what she said, striving to restrain her tears of joy. Yet Yourii thought that he could detect a certain note of sadness in her voice, and his pity for her, as his hatred of Riasantzeff, increased.

"Why?" he asked, feeling amazed at such a question.

Lialia looked up in astonishment, and laughed gently.

"You silly boy! Why, indeed! Because ... Well, have you never been in love yourself? He's so good, so honest and upright ..."

"So good-looking, and strong," she would have added, but she only blushed and said nothing.

"Do you know him well?" asked Yourii.

"I ought not to have asked that," he thought, inwardly vexed, "for, of course she thinks that he is the best man in the whole world."

"Anatole tells me everything," replied Lialia timidly, yet triumphantly.

Yourii smiled, and, aware now that there was no going back, retorted, "Are you quite sure?"

"Of course I am; why should I not be?" Lialia's voice trembled.

"Oh! nothing. I merely asked," said Yourii, somewhat confused.

Lialia was silent. He could not guess what was passing through her mind.

"Perhaps you know something about him?" she said suddenly. There was a suggestion of pain in her voice, which puzzled Yourii.

"Oh! no," he said, "not at all. What should I know about Anatole Pavlovitch?"

"But you would not have spoken like that, otherwise," persisted Lialia.

"All that I meant was--well," Yourii stopped short, feeling half ashamed, "well, we men, generally speaking, are all thoroughly depraved, all of us."

Lialia was silent for a while, and then burst out laughing.

"Oh! yes, I know that!" she exclaimed.

Her laughter to him seemed quite out of place.

"You can't take matters so lightly," he replied petulantly, "nor can you be expected to know everything that goes on. You have no idea of all the vile things of life; you are too young, too pure."

"Oh! indeed!" said Lialia, laughing, and flattered. Then in a more serious tone she continued, "Do you suppose that I have not thought of such things? Indeed, I have; and it has always pained and grieved me that we women should care so much for our reputation and our chastity, being afraid to take a step lest we--well, lest we should fall, while men almost look upon it as an heroic deed to seduce a girl. That is all horribly unjust, isn't it?"

"Yes," replied Yourii, bitterly, finding a certain pleasure in lashing his own sins, though conscious that he, Yourii, was absolutely different from other men. "Yes; that is one of the most monstrously unjust things in the world. Ask any one of us if he would like to marry" (he was going to say "a whore," but substituted) "a cocotte, and he will always tell you 'No.' But in what respect is a man really any better than a cocotte? She sells herself at least for money, to earn a living, whereas a man simply gives rein to his lust in wanton and shameless fashion."

Lialia was silent.

A bat darted backwards and forwards beneath the balcony, unseen, struck the wall repeatedly with its wings and then, with faint fluttering, vanished. Yourii listened to all these strange noises of the night, and then he continued speaking with increasing bitterness. The very of his voice drew him on.

"The worst of it is that not only do they all know this, and tacitly agree that it must be so, but they enact complete tragi-comedies, allowing themselves to become betrothed, and then lying to God and man. It is always the purest and most innocent girls, too," (he was thinking jealously of Sina Karsavina) "who become the prey of the vilest debauchees, tainted physically and morally. Semenoff once said to me, 'the purer the woman, the filthier the man who possesses her,' and he was right."

"Is that true?" asked Lialia, in a strange tone.

"Yes, most assuredly it is." Yourii smiled bitterly.

"I know nothing--nothing about it," faltered Lialia, with tears in her voice.

"What?" cried Yourii, for he had not heard her remark.

"Surely Tolia is not like the rest? It's impossible."

She had never spoken of him by his pet name to Yourii before. Then, all at once, she began to weep.

Touched by her distress, Yourii seized her hand.

"Lialia! Lialitschka! What's the matter? I didn't mean to--Come, come, my dear little Lialia, don't cry!" he stammered, as he pulled her hands away from her face and kissed her little wet fingers.

"No! It's true! I know it is!" she sobbed.

Although she had said that she had thought about this, it was in fact pure imagination on her part, for of Riasantzeff's intimate life she had never yet formed the slightest conception. Of course she knew that she was not his first love, and she understood what that meant, though the impression upon her mind had been a vague and never a permanent one.

She felt that she loved him, and that he loved her. This was the essential thing; all else for her was of no importance whatever. Yet now that her brother had spoken thus, in a tone of censure and contempt, she seemed to stand on the verge of a precipice; that of which they talked was horrible, and indeed irreparable, her happiness was at an end; of her love for Riasantzeff there could be no thought now.

Almost in tears himself, Yourii sought to comfort her, as he kissed her and stroked her hair. Yet still she wept, bitterly, hopelessly.

"Oh! dear! Oh! dear!" she sobbed, just like a child.

There, in the dusk, she seemed so helpless, so pitiful, that Yourii felt unspeakably grieved. Pale and confused, he ran into the house, striking his head against the door, and brought her a glass of water, half of which he spilt on the ground and over his hands.

"Oh! don't cry, Lialitschka! You mustn't cry like that! What is the matter? Perhaps Anatole Pavlovitch is better than the rest, Lialia!" he repeated in despair. Lialia, still sobbing, shook violently, and he teeth rattled against the rim of the glass.

"What is the matter, miss?" asked the maid-servant in alarm, as she appeared in the doorway. Lialia rose, and, leaning against the balustrade, went trembling and in tears towards her room.

"My dear little mistress, tell me, what is it? Shall I call the master, Yourii Nicolaijevitch?"

Nicolai Yegorovitch at that moment came out of his study, walking in slow, measured fashion. He stopped short in the doorway, amazed at the sight of Lialia.

"What has happened?"

"Oh! nothing! A mere trifle!" replied Yourii, with a forced laugh. "We were talking about Riasantzeff. It's all nonsense!"

Nicolai Yegorovitch looked hard at him and suddenly his face wore a look of extreme displeasure.

"What the devil have you been saying?" he exclaimed as, shrugging his shoulders, he turned abruptly on his heel and withdrew.

Yourii flushed angrily, and would have made some insolent reply, but a sudden sense of shame caused him to remain silent. Feeling irritated with his father, and grieved for Lialia, while despising himself, he went down the steps into the garden. A little frog, croaking beneath his feet, burst like an acorn. He slipped, and with a cry of disgust sprang aside. Mechanically he wiped his foot for a long while on the wet grass, feeling a cold shiver down his back.

He frowned. Disgust mental and physical made him think that all things were revolting and abominable. He groped his way to a seat, and sat there, staring vacantly at the garden, seeing only broad black patches amid the general gloom. Sad, dismal thoughts drifted through his brain.

He looked across to where in the dark grass that poor little frog was dying, or perhaps, after terrible agony, lay dead. A whole world had, as it were, been destroyed; an individual and independent life had come to a hideous and, yet utterly unnoticed and unheard.

And then, by ways inscrutable, Yourii was led to the strange, disquieting thought that all which went to make up a life, the secret instincts of loving or of hating that involuntarily caused him to accept one thing and to reject another; his intuitive sense regarding good or bad; that all this was merely as a faint mist, in which his personality alone was shrouded. By the world in its huge, vast entirety all his profoundest and most agonising experiences were as utterly and completely ignored as the death-agony of this little frog. In imagining that his sufferings and his emotions were of interest to others, he had expressly and senselessly woven a complicated net between himself and the universe. The moment of death sufficed to destroy this net, and to leave him, devoid of pity or pardon, utterly alone.

Once more his thoughts reverted to Semenoff and to the indifference shown by the deceased student towards all lofty ideals which so profoundly interested him, Yourii, and millions of his kind. This brought him to think of the simple joy of living, the charm of beautiful women, of moonlight, of nightingales, a theme upon which he had mournfully reflected on the day following his last sad talk with Semenoff.

At that time he had not understood why Semenoff attached importance to futile things such as boating or the comely shape of a girl, while deliberately refusing to be interested in the loftiest and most profound conceptions. Now, however, Yourii perceived that it could not have been otherwise for it was these trivial things that constituted life, the real life, full of sensations, emotions, enjoyments; and that all these lofty conceptions were but empty thoughts, vain verbiage, powerless to influence in the slightest the great mystery of life and death. Important, complete though these might be, other words, other thoughts no less weighty and important must follow in the future.

At this conclusion, evolved unexpectedly from his thoughts concerning good and evil, Yourii seemed utterly nonplussed. It was as though a great void lay before him, and, for a moment, his brain felt free and clear, as one in dream feels able to float through space just whither he will. It alarmed him. With all his might he strove to collect his habitual conceptions of life, and then the alarming sensation disappeared. All became gloomy and confused as before.

Yourii came near to admitting that life was the realization of freedom, and consequently that it was natural for a man to live for enjoyment. Thus Riasantzeff's point of view, though inferior, was yet a perfectly logical one in striving to satisfy his sexual needs as much as possible, they being the most urgent. But then he had to admit that the conceptions of debauchery and of purity were merely as withered leaves that cover fresh grown grass, and that girls romantic and chaste as Lialia or Sina Karsavina had the right to plunge into the stream of sensual enjoyment. Such an idea shocked him as being both frivolous and nasty, and he endeavoured to drive it from his brain and heart with his usual vehement, stern phrases.

"Well, yes," he thought, gazing upwards at the starry sky, "life is emotion, but men are not unreasoning beasts. They must master their passions; their desires must be set upon what is good. Yet, is there a God beyond the stars?"

As he suddenly asked himself this, a confused, painful sense of awe seemed to crush him to the ground. Persistently he gazed at a brilliant star in the tail of the Great Bear and recollected how Kousma the peasant in the melon-field had called this majestic constellation a "wheelbarrow." He felt annoyed, in a way, that such an irrelevant thought should have crossed his mind. He gazed at the black garden in sharp contrast to the shining sky, pondering, meditating.

"If the world were deprived of feminine purity and grace, that are as the first sweet flowers of spring, what would remain sacred to mankind?"

As he thought thus, he pictured to himself a company of lovely maidens, fair as spring flowers, seated in sunlight on green meadows beneath blossoming boughs. Their youthful breasts, delicately moulded shoulders, and supple limbs moved mysteriously before his eyes, provoking exquisitely voluptuous thrills. As if dazed, he passed his hand across his brow.

"My nerves are overwrought; I must get to bed," thought he. With sensuous visions such as these before his eyes, depressed and ill at ease, Yourii went hurriedly indoors. When in bed, after vain efforts to sleep, his thoughts reverted to Lialia and Riasantzeff.

"Why am I so indignant because Lialia is not Riasantzeff's only love?"

To this question he could find no reply. Suddenly the image of Sina Karsavina rose up before him, soothing his heated senses. Yet, though he strove to suppress his feelings, it became ever clearer to him why he wanted her to be just as she was, untouched and pure.

"Yes, but I love her," thought Yourii, for the first time, and it was this idea that banished all others, even bringing tears to his eyes. But in another moment he was asking himself with a bitter smile, "Why, then, did I make love to other women, before her? True, I did not know of her existence, yet neither did Riasantzeff know of Lialia. At that time we both thought that the woman whom we desired to possess was the real, the sole, the indispensable one. We were wrong then; perhaps we are wrong now. It comes to this, that we must either remain perpetually chaste, or else enjoy absolute sexual liberty, allowing women, of course, to do the same. Now, after all, Riasantzeff is not to blame for having loved other women before Lialia, but because he still carries on with several; and that is not what I do."

The thought made Yourii feel very proud and pure, but only for a moment, for he suddenly recollected his seductive vision of sweet, supple girls in sunlight. He was utterly overwhelmed. His mind became a chaos of conflicting thoughts.

Finding it uncomfortable to lie on his right side, he awkwardly turned over on to his left. "The fact is," he thought, "not one of all the women I have known could ever satisfy me for the whole of my life. Thus, what I have called true love is impossible, not to be realized; and to dream of such a thing is sheer folly."

Feeling just as uncomfortable when lying on his left side, he turned over again, restless and perspiring, beneath the hot coverlet; and now his head ached.

"Chastity is an ideal, but, to realize this, humanity would perish. Therefore, it is folly. And life? what is life but folly too?" He almost uttered the words in a loud voice, grinding his teeth with such fury that yellow stars flashed before his eyes.

So, till morning, he tossed from side to side, his heart and brain heavy with despairing thoughts. At last, to escape from them, he sought to persuade himself that he too, was a depraved, sensual egoist, and that his scruples were but the outcome of hidden lust. Yet this only depressed him the more, and relief was finally obtained by the simple question:

"Why, after all, do I torment myself in this way?"

Disgusted at all such futile processes of self-examination, Yourii, nerveless and exhausted, finally fell asleep.