Chapter XVII.
 

Sideways, on Sarudine's bed, sat Lida, in despair, convulsively twisting her handkerchief. As he came in he was struck by her altered appearance. Of the proud, high-spirited girl there was not a trace. He now saw before him a dejected woman, broken by grief, with sunken cheeks and lifeless eyes. These dark eyes instantly met his, and then as swiftly shunned his gaze. Instinctively he knew that Lida feared him, and a feeling of intense irritation suddenly arose within him. Closing the door with a bang, he walked straight up to her.

"You really are a most extraordinary person," he began, with difficulty checking his fierce wish to strike her. "Here am I, with a room full of people; your brother's there, too! Couldn't you have chosen some other time to come? Upon my word, it is too provoking!"

From the dark eyes there shot such a strange flash that Sarudine quailed. His tone changed. He smiled, showing his white teeth, and taking Lida's hand, sat down beside her on the bed.

"Well, well, it doesn't matter. I was only anxious on your account. I am ever so glad that you've come. I was longing to see you."

Sarudine raised her hot, perfumed little hand to his lips, and kissed it just above the glove.

"Is that the truth?" asked Lida. The curious tone of her voice surprised him. Again she looked up at him, and her eyes said plainly, "Is it true that you love me? You see how wretched I am, now. Not like I was once. I am afraid of you, and I feel all the humiliation of my present state, but I have no one except you that can help me."

"How can you doubt it?" replied Sarudine. The words sounded insincere, almost cold.

Again he took her hand and kissed it. He was entangled in a strange coil of sensations and of thoughts. Only two days ago on this very pillow had lain the dark tresses of Lida's dishevelled hair as he held her in his arms and their lips had met in a frenzy of passion uncontrolled. In that moment of desire the whole world and all his countless sensuous schemes of enjoyment with other women seemed realized and attained; the desire in deliberate and brutal fashion deeply to wrong this nature placed by passion within his power. And now, all at once, his feeling for her was one of loathing. He would have liked to thrust her from him; he wished never to see her or hear her again. So overpowering was this desire, that to sit beside her became positive torture. At the same time a vague dread of her deprived him of will-power and forced him to remain. He was perfectly aware that there was nothing whatever to bind him to her, and that it was with her own consent that he had possessed her, without any promise on his part. Each had given just as each had taken. Nevertheless he felt as if caught in some sticky substance from which he could not free himself. He foresaw that Lida would make some claim upon him, and that he must either consent, or else commit a base, vile act. He appeared to be as utterly powerless as if the bones had been removed from his legs and arms, and as if, instead of a tongue in his mouth, there were a moist rag. He wanted to shout at her, and let her know once for all that she had no right to ask anything of him, but his heart was benumbed by craven fear, and to his lips there rose a senseless phrase which he knew to be absolutely unfitting.

"Oh! women, women!"

Lida looked at him in horror. A pitiless light seemed to flash across her mind. In one instant she realized that she was lost. What she had given that was noble and pure, she had given to a man that did not exist. Her fair young life, her purity, her pride, had all been flung at the feet of a base, cowardly brute who instead of being grateful to her had merely soiled her by acts of coarse lubricity. For a moment she felt ready to wring her hands and fall to the ground in an agony of despair, but lightning-swift her mood changed to one of revenge and bitter hatred.

"Can't you really see how intensely stupid you are?" she hissed through her clenched teeth, as she looked straight into his eyes.

The insolent words and the look of hatred were so unsuited to Lida, gracious, feminine Lida, that Sarudine instinctively recoiled. He had not quite understood their import, and sought to pass them by with a jest.

"What words to use!" he said, surprised and annoyed.

"I'm not in a mood to choose my words," replied Lida bitterly, as she wrung her hands. Sarudine frowned.

"Why all these tragic airs?" he asked. Unconsciously allured by their beauty of outline, he glanced at her soft shoulders and exquisitely moulded arms. Her gesture of helplessness and despair made him feel sure of his superiority. It was as if they were being weighed in scales, one sinking when the other rose. Sarudine felt a cruel pleasure in knowing that this girl whom instinctively he had considered superior to himself was now made to suffer through him. In the first stage of their intimacy he had feared her. Now she had been brought to shame and dishonour; at which he was glad.

He grew softer. Gently he took her strengthless hands in his, and drew her closer to him. His senses were roused; his breath came quicker.

"Never mind! It'll be all right! There is nothing so dreadful about it, after all!"

"So you think, eh?" replied Lida scornfully. It was scorn that helped her to recover herself, and she gazed at him with strange intensity.

"Why, of course I do," said Sarudine, attempting to embrace her in a way that he knew to be effective. But she remained cold and lifeless.

"Come, now, why are you so cross, my pretty one?" he murmured in a gentle tone of reproof.

"Let me go! Let me go, I say!" exclaimed Lida, as she shook him off. Sarudine felt physically hurt that his passion should have been roused in vain.

"Women are the very devil!" he thought.

"What's the matter with you?" he asked testily, and his face flushed.

As if the question had brought something to her mind, she suddenly covered her face with both hands and burst into tears. She wept just as peasant-women weep, sobbing loudly, her face buried in her hands, her body being bent forward, while her dishevelled hair drooped over her wet, distorted countenance. Sarudine was utterly nonplussed. He smiled, though yet afraid that this might give offence, and tried to pull away her hands from her face. Lida stubbornly resisted, weeping all the while.

"Oh! my God!" he exclaimed. He longed to shout at her, to wrench her hands aside, to call her hard names,

"What are you whining for like this? You've gone wrong with me, worse luck, and there it is! Why all this weeping just to-day? For heaven's sake, stop!" Speaking thus roughly, he caught hold of her hand.

The jerk caused her head to oscillate to and fro. She suddenly stopped crying, and removed her hands from her tear-stained face, looking up at him in childish fear. A crazy thought flashed through her mind that anybody might strike her now. But Sarudine's manner again softened, and he said in a consoling voice:

"Come, my Lidotschka, don't cry any more! You're to blame, as well! Why make a scene? You've lost a lot, I know; but, still, we had so much happiness, too, didn't we? And we must just forget...." Lida began to sob once more.

"Oh! stop it, do!" he shouted. Then he walked across the room, nervously pulling his moustache, and his lips quivered.

In the room it was quite still. Outside the window the slender boughs of a tree swayed gently, as if a bird had just perched thereon. Sarudine, endeavouring to check himself, approached Lida, and gently placed his arm round her waist. But she instantly broke away from him and in so doing struck him violently on the chin, so that his teeth rattled.

"Devil take it!" he exclaimed angrily. It hurt him considerably, and the droll sound of his rattling teeth annoyed him even more. Lida had not heard this, yet instinctively she felt that Sarudine's position was a ridiculous one, and with feminine cruelty she took advantage of it.

"What words to use!" she said, imitating him.

"It's enough to make any one furious," replied Sarudine peevishly.

"If only I knew what was the matter!"

"You mean to say that you still don't know?" said Lida in a cutting tone.

There was a pause. Lida looked hard at him, her face red as fire. Sarudine turned pale, as if suddenly covered by a grey veil.

"Well, why are you silent? Why don't you speak? Speak! Say something to comfort me!" she shrieked, her voice becoming hysterical in tone. The very sound of it alarmed her.

"I ..." began Sarudine, and his under-lip quivered.

"Yes, you, and nobody else but you, worse luck!" she screamed, almost stifled with tears of rage and of despair.

From him as from her the mask of comeliness and good manners had fallen. The wild untrammelled beast became increasingly evident in each.

Ideas like scurrying mice rushed through Sarudine's mind. His first thought was to give Lida money, and persuade her to get rid of the child. He must break with her at once, and for ever. That would end the whole business. Yet though he considered this to be the best way, he said nothing.

"I really never thought that ..." he stammered.

"You never thought!" exclaimed Lida wildly. "Why didn't you? What right had you not to think?"

"But, Lida, I never told you that I ..." he faltered, feeling afraid of what he was going to say, yet conscious that he would yet do so, all the same.

Lida, however, had understood, without waiting for him to speak. Her beautiful face grew dark, distorted by horror and despair. Her hands fell limply to her side as she sat down on the bed.

"What shall I do?" she said, as if thinking aloud. "Drown myself?"

"No, no! Don't talk like that!"

Lida looked hard at him.

"Do you know, Victor Sergejevitsch, I feel pretty sure that such a thing would not displease you," she said.

In her eyes and in her pretty quivering mouth there was something so sad, so pitiful, that Sarudine involuntarily turned away.

Lida rose. The thought, consoling at first, that she would find in him her saviour with whom she would always live, now inspired her with horror and loathing. She longed to shake her fist at him, to fling her scorn in his face, to revenge herself on him for having humiliated her thus. But she felt that at the very first words she would burst into tears. A last spark of pride, all that remained of the handsome, dashing Lida, deterred her. In a tone of such intense scorn that it surprised herself as much as Sarudine, she hissed out,

"You brute!"

Then she rushed out of the room, tearing the lace trimming of her sleeve which caught on the bolt of the door.

Sarudine flushed to the roots of his hair. Had she called him "wretch," or "villain," he could have borne that calmly, but "brute" was such a coarse word so absolutely opposed to his conception of his own engaging personality, that it utterly stunned him. Even the whites of his eyes became bloodshot. He sniggered uneasily, shrugged his shoulders, buttoned and then unbuttoned his jacket, feeling thoroughly upset. But simultaneously a sense of satisfaction and relief waxed greater within him. All was at an end. It irked him to think that he would never again possess such a woman as Lida, that he had lost so comely and desirable a mistress. But he dismissed all such regret with a gesture of disdain.

"Devil take the lot! I can get hold of as many as I please!"

He put his jacket straight, and, his lips still quivering, lit a cigarette. Then assuming his wonted air of nonchalance, he returned to his guests.