Chapter I.
 

That important period in his life when character is influenced and formed by its first contact with the world and with men, was not spent by Vladimir Sanine at home, with his parents. There had been none to guard or guide him; and his soul developed in perfect freedom and independence, just as a tree in the field.

He had been away from home for many years, and, when he returned, his mother and his sister Lida scarcely recognized him. His features, voice, and manner had changed but little, yet something strange and new, and riper in his whole personality gave a light to his countenance and endowed it with an altered expression. It was in the evening that he came home, entering the room as quietly as if he had only left it five minutes before. As he stood there, tall, fair, and broad- shouldered, his calm face with its slightly mocking expression at the corners of the mouth showed not a sign of fatigue or of emotion, and the boisterous greeting of his mother and sister subsided of itself.

While he was eating, and drinking tea, his sister, sitting opposite, gazed steadfastly at him. She was in love with him, as most romantic girls usually are with their absent brother. Lida had always imagined Vladimir to be an extraordinary person, as strange as any to be found in books. She pictured his life as one of tragic conflict, sad and lonely as that of some great, uncomprehended soul.

"Why do you look at me like that?" asked Sanine, smiling.

This quiet smile and searching glance formed his usual expression, but, strange to say, they did not please Lida. To her, they seemed self- complacent, revealing nought of spiritual suffering and strife. She looked away and was silent. Then, mechanically, she kept turning over the pages of a book.

When the meal was at an end, Sanine's mother patted his head affectionately, and said:

"Now, tell us all about your life, and what you did there."

"What I did?" said Sanine, laughing. "Well, I ate, and drank, and slept; and sometimes I worked; and sometimes I did nothing!"

It seemed at first as if he were unwilling to speak of himself, but when his mother questioned him about this or that, he appeared pleased to narrate his experiences. Yet, for some reason or other, one felt that he was wholly indifferent as to the impression produced by his tales. His manner, kindly and courteous though it was in no way suggested that intimacy which only exists among members of a family. Such kindliness and courtesy seemed to come naturally from him as the light from a lamp which shines with equal radiance on all objects.

They went out to the garden terrace and sat down on the steps. Lida sat on a lower one, listening in silence to her brother. At her heart she felt an icy chill. Her subtle feminine instinct told her that her brother was not what she had imagined him to be. In his presence she felt shy and embarrassed, as if he were a stranger. It was now evening; faint shadows encircled them. Sanine lit a cigarette and the delicate odour of tobacco mingled with the fragrance of the garden. He told them how life had tossed him hither and thither; how he had often been hungry and a vagrant; how he had taken part in political struggles, and how, when weary, he had renounced these.

Lida sat motionless, listening attentively, and looking as quaint and pretty as any charming girl would look in summer twilight.

The more he told her, the more she became convinced that this life which she had painted for herself in such glowing colours was really most simple and commonplace. There was something strange in it as well. What was it? That she could not define. At any rate, from her brother's account, it seemed to her very simple, tedious and boring. Apparently he had lived just anywhere, and had done just anything; at work one day, and idle the next; it was also plain that he liked drinking, and knew a good deal about women. But life such as this had nothing dark or sinister about it; in no way did it resemble the life she imagined her brother had led. He had no ideas to live for; he hated no one; and for no one had he suffered. At some of his disclosures she was positively annoyed, especially when he told her that once, being very hard up, he was obliged to mend his torn trousers himself.

"Why, do you know how to sew?" she asked involuntarily, in a tone of surprise and contempt. She thought it paltry; unmanly, in fact.

"I did not know at first, but I soon had to learn," replied Sanine, who smilingly guessed what his sister thought.

The girl carelessly shrugged her shoulders, and remained silent, gazing at the garden. It seemed to her as if, dreaming of sunshine, she awoke beneath a grey, cold sky.

Her mother, too, felt depressed. It pained her to think that her son did not occupy the position to which, socially, he was entitled. She began by telling him that things could not go on like this, and that he must be more sensible in future. At first she spoke warily, but when she saw that he paid scarcely any attention to her remarks, she grew angry, and obstinately insisted, as stupid old women do, thinking her son was trying to tease her. Sanine was neither surprised nor annoyed: he hardly seemed to understand what she said, but looked amiably indifferent, and was silent.

Yet at the question, "How do you propose to live?" he answered, smiling, "Oh! somehow or other."

His calm, firm voice, and open glance made one feel that those words, which meant nothing to his mother, had for him a deep and precise significance.

Maria Ivanovna sighed, and after a pause said anxiously:

"Well, after all, it's your affair. You're no longer a child. You ought to walk round the garden. It's looking so pretty now."

"Yes, of course! Come along, Lida; come and show me the garden," said Sanine to his sister, "I have quite forgotten what it looks like."

Roused from her reverie, Lida sighed and got up. Side by side they walked down the path leading to the green depths of the dusky garden.

The Sanines' house was in the main street of the town, and, the town being small, their garden extended as far as the river, beyond which were fields. The house was an old mansion, with rickety pillars on either side and a broad terrace. The large gloomy garden had run to waste; it looked like some dull green cloud that had descended to earth. At night it seemed haunted. It was as if some sad spirit were wandering through the tangled thicket, or restlessly pacing the dusty floors of the old edifice. On the first floor there was an entire suite of empty rooms dismal with faded carpets and dingy curtains. Through the garden there was but one narrow path or alley, strewn with dead branches and crushed frogs. What modest, tranquil life there was appeared to be centred in one corner. There, close to the house, yellow sand and gravel gleamed, and there, beside neat flower-beds bright with blossom stood the green table on which in summer-time tea or lunch was set. This little corner, touched by the breath of simple peaceful life, was in sharp contrast to the huge, deserted mansion, doomed to inevitable decay.

When the house behind them had disappeared from view and the silent, motionless trees, like thoughtful witnesses, surrounded them, Sanine suddenly put his arm round Lida's waist and said in a strange tone, half fierce, half tender:

"You've become quite a beauty! The first man you love will be a happy fellow."

The touch of his arm with its muscles like iron sent a fiery thrill through Lida's soft, supple frame. Bashful and trembling, she drew away from him as if at the approach of some unseen beast of prey.

They had now reached the river's edge. There was a moist, damp odour from the reeds that swayed pensively in the stream. On the other side, fields lay dim in twilight beneath the vast sky where shone the first pale stars.

Stepping aside, Sanine seized a withered branch, broke it in two, and flung the pieces into the stream where swiftly circles appeared on its surface and swiftly vanished. As if to hail Sanine as their comrade, the reeds bent their heads.