Sanine by Mikhail Petrovich Artzybashev
Lida did not go home, but hurriedly turned her steps in an opposite direction. The streets were empty, the air stifling. Close to the wall and fence lay the short shadows, vanquished by the triumphant sun. Through mere force of habit, Lida opened her parasol. She never noticed if it was cold or hot, light or dark. She walked swiftly past the fences all dusty and overgrown with weeds, her head bowed, her eyes downcast. Now and again she met a few gasping pedestrians half- suffocated by the heat. Over the town lay silence, the oppressive silence of a summer afternoon.
A little white puppy had followed Lida. After eagerly sniffing her dress, it ran on in front, and, looking round, wagged its tail, as if to say that they were comrades. At the corner of a street stood a funny little fat boy, a portion of whose shirt peeped out at the back of his breeches. With cheeks distended and fruit-stained, he was vigorously blowing a wooden pipe.
Lida beckoned to the little puppy and smiled at the boy. Yet she did so almost unconsciously; her soul was imprisoned. An obscure force, separating her from the world, swept her onward, past the sunlight, the verdure, and all the joy of life, towards a black gulf that by the dull anguish within her she knew to be near.
An officer of her acquaintance rode by. On seeing Lida he reined in his horse, a roan, whose glossy coat shone in the sunlight.
"Lidia Petrovna!" he cried, in a pleasant, cheery voice, "Where are you going in all this heat?"
Mechanically her eyes glanced at his forage-cap, jauntily poised on his moist, sunburnt brow. She did not speak, but merely smiled her habitual, coquettish smile.
At that moment, ignorant herself as to what might happen, she echoed his question:
"Ah! where, indeed?"
She no longer felt angry with Sarudine. Hardly knowing why she had gone to him, for it seemed impossible to live without him, or bear her grief alone. Yet it was as if he had just vanished from her life. The past was dead. That which remained concerned her alone; and as to that she alone could decide.
Her brain worked with feverish haste, her thoughts being yet clear and plain. The most dreadful thing was, that the proud, handsome Lida would disappear, and in her stead there would be a wretched being, persecuted, besmirched, defenceless. Pride and beauty must be retained. Therefore, she must go, she must get away to some place where the mud could not touch her. This fact clearly established, Lida suddenly imagined herself encircled by a void; life, sunlight, human beings, no longer existed; she was alone in their midst, absolutely alone. There was no escape; she must die, she must drown herself. In a moment this became such a certainty that it was as if round her a wall of stone had arisen to shut her off from all that had been, and from all that might be.
"How simple it really is!" she thought, looking round, yet seeing nothing.
She walked faster now; and though hindered by her wide skirts, she almost ran, it seemed to her as if her progress were intolerably slow.
"Here's a house, and yonder there's another one, with green shutters; and then, an open space."
The river, the bridge, and what was to happen there--she had no clear conception of this. It was as a cloud, a mist that covered all. But such a state of mind only lasted until she reached the bridge.
As she leant over the parapet and saw the greenish, turbid water, her confidence instantly forsook her. She was seized with fear and a wild desire to live. Now her perception of living things came back to her. She heard voices, and the twittering of sparrows; she saw the sunlight, the daisies in the grass, and the little white dog, that evidently looked upon her as his rightful mistress. It sat opposite to her, put up a tiny paw, and beat the ground with its tail.
Lida gazed at it, longing to hug it convulsively, and large tears filled her eyes. Infinite regret for her beautiful, ruined life overcame her. Half fainting, she leant forward, over the edge of the sun-baked parapet, and the sudden movement caused her to drop one of her gloves into the water. In mute horror she watched it fall noiselessly on the smooth surface of the water, making large circles. She saw her pale yellow glove become darker and darker, and then filling slowly with water, and turning over once, as in its death- agony, sink down gradually with a spiral movement to the green depths of the stream. Lida strained her eyes to mark its descent, but the yellow spot grew ever smaller and more indistinct, and at last disappeared. All that met her gaze was the smooth, dark surface of the water.
"How did that happen, miss?" asked a female voice, close to her.
Lida started backwards, and saw a fat, snub-nosed peasant-woman who looked at her with sympathetic curiosity.
Although such sympathy was only intended for the lost glove, to Lida it seemed as if the good-natured, fat woman knew all, and pitied her. For a moment she was minded to tell her the whole story, and thus gain some relief, but she swiftly rejected the idea as foolish. She blushed, and stammered out, "Oh, it's nothing!" as she reeled backwards from the bridge.
"Here it's impossible! They would pull me out!" she thought.
She walked farther along the river-bank and followed a smooth foot-path to the left between the river and a hedge. On either side were nettles and daisies, sheep's parsley and ill-smelling garlic. Here it was calm and peaceful as in some village church. Tall willows bent dreamily over the stream; the steep, green banks were bathed in sunlight; tall burdocks flourished amid the nettles, and prickly thistles became entangled in the lace trimming of Lida's dress. One huge plant powdered her with its white seeds.
Lida had now to force herself to go farther, striving to overcome a mighty power within which held her back. "It must be! It must! It must!" she repeated, as, dragging herself along, her feet seemed to break their bonds at every step which took her farther from the bridge and nearer to the place at which unconsciously she had determined to stop.
On reaching it, when she saw the black, cold water underneath over- arching boughs, and the current swirling past a corner of the steep bank, then she realized for the first time how much she longed to live, and how awful it was to die. Yet die she must, for to live on was impossible. Without looking round, she flung down her other glove and her parasol, and, leaving the path, walked through the tall grasses to the water. In that moment a thousand thoughts passed through her brain. Deep in her soul, where long it had lain dormant, her childish faith awoke, as with simple fervour she repeated this short prayer, "Lord, save me! Lord, help me!" She suddenly recollected the refrain of a song that latterly she had been studying; for an instant she thought of Sarudine, and then she saw the face of her mother who seemed doubly dear to her in this awful moment. Indeed it was this last recollection which drove her faster to the river. Never till then had Lida so keenly realized that her mother and all those who loved her, did not love her for what she really was, with all her defects and desires, but only for that which they wished her to be. Now that she had strayed from the path that according to them was the only right one, these persons, and especially her mother, having loved her much, would now prove proportionately severe.
Then, as in a delirious dream, all became confused; fear, the longing to live, the sense of the inevitable, unbelief, the conviction that all was at an end, hope, despair, the horrible consciousness that this was the spot where she must die, and then the vision of a man strangely like her brother who leapt over a hedge and rushed towards her.
"You could not have thought of anything sillier!" cried Sanine, breathless.
By a strange coincidence it so happened that Lida had reached the very spot adjoining Sarudine's garden where first she had surrendered to him, a place, screened by dark trees from the light of the moon. Sanine had seen her in the distance, and had guessed her intention. At first he was for letting her have her way, but her wild, convulsive movements aroused his pity, and vaulting the garden-seats and the bushes he hastened to her rescue.
Her brother's voice had an alarming effect upon Lida. Her nerves, wrought to the utmost pitch by her inward conflict, suddenly gave way. She became giddy; everything swam before her eyes, and she no longer knew if she were in the water or on the river-bank. Sanine had just time to seize her firmly and drag her backwards, secretly pleased at his own strength and adroitness.
"There!" he said.
He placed her in a sitting posture against the hedge, and then looked about him.
"What shall I do with her?" he thought. Lida in that moment recovered consciousness, as pale and confused, she began to weep piteously. "My God! My God!" she sobbed, like a child.
"Silly thing!" said Sanine, chiding her good-humouredly.
Lida did not hear him, but, as he moved, she clutched at his arm, sobbing more violently.
"Ah! what am I doing?" she thought fearfully. "I ought not to weep; I must try and laugh it off, or else he'll guess what is wrong."
"Well, why are you so upset?" asked Sanine, as he patted her shoulder tenderly.
Lida looked up at him under her hat, timidly as a child, and stopped crying.
"I know all about it," said Sanine; "the whole story. I've done so for ever so long."
Though Lida was aware that several persons suspected the nature of her relations with Sarudine, yet when Sanine said this, it was as if he had struck her in the face. Her supple form recoiled in horror; she gazed at him dry-eyed, like some wild animal at bay.
"What's the matter, now? You behave as if I had trodden on your foot," laughed Sanine. Taking hold of her round, soft shoulders, which quivered at his touch, he tenderly drew her back to her former place by the hedge, and she obediently submitted.
"Come now, what is it that distresses you so?" he said. "Is it because I know all? Or do you think your misconduct with Sarudine so dreadful that you are afraid to acknowledge it? I really don't understand you. But, if Sarudine won't marry you, well--that is a thing to be thankful for. You know now, and you must have known before, what a base, common fellow he really is, in spite of his good looks and his fitness for amours. All that he has is beauty, and you have now had your fill of that."
"He of mine, not I of his!" she faltered. "Ah I well yes, perhaps I had! Oh! my God, what shall I do?"
"And now you are pregnant...."
Lida shut her eyes and bowed her head.
"Of course, it's a bad business," continued Sanine, gently. "In the first place, giving birth to children is a nasty, painful affair; in the second place, and what really matters, people would persecute you incessantly. After all, Lidotschka, my Lidotschka," he said with a sudden access of affection, "you've not done harm to anybody; and, if you were to bring a dozen babies into the world, the only person to suffer thereby would be yourself."
Sanine paused to reflect, as he folded his arms across his chest and bit the ends of his moustache.
"I could tell you what you ought to do, but you are too weak and too foolish to follow my advice. You are not plucky enough. Anyhow, it is not worth while to commit suicide. Look at the sun shining, at the calm, flowing stream. Once dead, remember, every one would know what your condition had been. Of what good, then, would that be to you? It is not because you are pregnant that you want to die, but because you are afraid of what other folk will say. The terrible part of your trouble lies, not in the actual trouble itself, but because you put it between yourself and your life which, as you think, ought to end. But, in reality, that will not alter life a jot. You do not fear folk who are remote, but those who are close to you, especially those who love you and who regard your surrender as utterly shocking because it was made in a wood, or a meadow, instead of in a lawful marriage-bed. They will not be slow to punish you for your offence, so, of what good are they to you? They are stupid, cruel, brainless people. Why should you die because of stupid, cruel, brainless people?"
Lida looked up at him with her great questioning eyes in which Sanine could detect a spark of comprehension.
"But what am I to do? Tell me, what ... what ..." she murmured huskily.
"For you there are two ways open: you must get rid of this child that nobody wants, and whose birth, as you must see yourself, will only bring trouble."
Lida's eyes expressed wild horror.
"To kill a being that knows the joy of living and the terror of death is a grave injustice," he continued; "but a germ, an unconscious mass of flesh and blood ..."
Lida experienced a strange sensation. At first shame overwhelmed her, such shame as if she were completely stripped, while brutal fingers touched her. She dared not look at her brother, fearing that for very shame they would both expire. But Sanine's grey eyes wore a calm expression, and his voice was firm and even in tone, as if he were talking of ordinary matters. It was this quiet strength of utterance and the profound truth of his words that removed Lida's shame and fear. Yet suddenly despair prevailed, as she clasped her forehead, while the flimsy sleeves of her dress fluttered like the wings of a startled bird.
"I cannot, no, I cannot!" she faltered, "I dare say you're right, but I cannot! It is so awful!"
"Well, well, if you can't," said Sanine, as he knelt down, and gently drew away her hands from her face, "we must contrive to hide it, somehow. I will see to it that Sarudine has to leave the town, and you --well, you shall marry Novikoff, and be happy. I know that if you had never met this dashing young officer, you would have accepted Sascha Novikoff. I am certain of it." At the mention of Novikoff's name Lida saw light through the gloom. Because Sarudine had made her unhappy, and she was convinced that Novikoff would never have done so, for an instant it seemed to her that all could easily be set right. She would at once get up, go back, say something or other, and life in all its radiant beauty would again lie before her. Again she would live, again she would love, only this time it would be a better life, a deeper, purer love. Yet immediately afterwards she recollected that this was impossible, for she had been soiled and degraded by an ignoble, senseless amour.
A gross word, which she scarcely knew and had never uttered, suddenly came into her mind. She applied it to herself. It was as if she had received a box on the ears.
"Great heavens! Am I really a ...? Yes, yes, of course, I am!"
"What did you say?" she murmured, ashamed of her own resonant voice.
"Well, what is it to be?" asked Sanine, as he glanced at her pretty hair falling in disorder about her white neck flecked by sunlight breaking through the network of leaves. A sudden fear seized him that he would not succeed in persuading her, and that this young, beautiful woman, fitted to bestow such joy upon others, might vanish into the dark, senseless void. Lida was silent. She strove to repress her longing to live, which, despite her will, had mastered her whole trembling frame. After all that had occurred, it seemed to her shameful not only to live, but to wish to live. Yet her body, strong and full of vitality, rejected so distorted an idea as if it were poison.
"Why this silence?" asked Sanine.
"Because it is impossible.... It would be a vile thing to do!... I...."
"Don't talk such nonsense!" retorted Sanine impatiently.
Lida looked up at him again, and in her tearful eyes there was a glimmer of hope.
Sanine broke off a twig, which he bit and then flung away.
"A vile thing!" he went on, "A vile thing! My words amaze you. Yet why? The question is one that neither you nor I can ever rightly answer. Crime! What is a crime? If a mother's life is in danger when giving birth to a child, and that living child, to save its mother, is destroyed that is not a crime, but an unfortunate necessity! But to suppress something that does not yet exist, that is called a crime, a horrible deed. Yes, a horrible deed, even though the mother's life, and, what is more, her happiness, depends upon it! Why must it be so? Nobody knows, but everybody loudly maintains that view, crying, 'Bravo!'" Sanine laughed sarcastically. "Oh! you men, you men! Men create for themselves phantoms, shadows, illusions, and are the first to suffer by them. But they all exclaim, 'Oh! Man is a masterpiece, noblest of all; man is the crown, the King of creation;' but a king that has never yet reigned, a suffering king that quakes at his own shadow."
For a moment, Sanine paused.
"After all, that is not the main point. You say that it is a vile thing. I don't know; perhaps it is. If Novikoff were to hear of your trouble, it would grieve him terribly; in fact, he might shoot himself, but yet he would love you, just the same. In that case, the blame would be his. But if he were a really intelligent man, he would not attach the slightest importance to the fact that you had already (excuse the expression!) slept with somebody else. Neither your body nor your soul have suffered thereby. Good Lord! Why, he might marry a widow himself, for instance! Therefore it is not that which prevents him, but the confused notions with which his head is filled. And, as regards yourself, if it were only possible for human beings to love once in their lives, then, a second attempt to do so would certainly prove futile and unpleasant. But this is not so. To fall in love, or to be loved, is just as delightful and desirable. You will get to love Novikoff, and, if you don't, well, we'll travel together, my Lidotschka; one can live, can't one, anywhere, after all?"
Lida sighed and strove to overcome her final scruples.
"Perhaps ... everything will come right again," she murmured. "Novikoff... he's so good and kind ... nice-looking, too, isn't he? Yes ... no... I don't know what to say."
"If you had drowned yourself, what then? The powers of good and evil would have neither gained nor lost thereby. Your corpse, bloated, disfigured, and covered with slime, would have been dragged from the river, and buried. That would have been all!"
Lida had a lurid vision of greenish, turbid water with slimy, trailing weeds and gruesome bubbles floating round her.
"No, no, never!" she thought, turning pale. "I would rather bear all the shame of it ... and Novikoff ... everything ... anything but that."
"Ah! look how scared you are!" said Sanine, laughing.
Lida smiled through her tears, and her very smile consoled her.
"Whatever happens, I mean to live!" she said with passionate energy.
"Good!" exclaimed Sanine, as he jumped up. "Nothing is more awful than the thought of death. But so long as you can bear the burden without losing perception of the sights and sounds of life, I say live! Am I not right? Now, give me your paw!"
Lida held out her hand. The shy, feminine gesture betokened childish gratitude.
"That's right ... What a pretty little hand you've got."
Lida smiled and said nothing.
But Sanine's words had not proved ineffectual. Hers was a vigorous, buoyant vitality; the crisis through which she had just passed had strained that vitality to the utmost. A little more pressure, and the string would have snapped. But the pressure was not applied, and her whole being vibrated once more with an impetuous, turbulent desire to live. She looked above, around her, in ecstasy, listening to the immense joy pulsating on every side; in the sunlight, in the green meadows, the shining stream, the calm, smiling face of her brother, and in herself. It was as if she now could see and hear all this for the first time. "To be alive!" cried a gladsome voice within her.
"All right!" said Sanine. "I will help you in your trouble, and stand by you when you fight your battles. And now, as you're such a beauty, you must give me a kiss."
Lida smiled; a smile mysterious as that of a wood-nymph. Sanine put his arms round her waist, and, as her warm supple form thrilled at his touch, his fond embrace became almost vehement. A strange, indefinable sense of joy overcame Lida, as she yearned for life ampler and more intense. It mattered not to her what she did. She slowly put both arms round her brother's neck and, with half-closed eyes, set her lips tight to give the kiss.
She felt unspeakably happy beneath Sanine's burning caress, and in that moment cared not who it was that kissed her, just as a flower warmed by the sun never asks whence comes such warmth.
"What is the matter with me?" she thought, pleasurably alarmed. "Ah! yes! I wanted to drown myself ... how silly! And for what? Oh! that's nice! Again! Again! Now, I'll kiss you! It's lovely! And I don't care what happens so long as I'm alive, alive!"
"There, now, you see," said Sanine, releasing her. "All good things are just good, and one mustn't make them out to be anything else."
Lida smiled absently, and slowly re-arranged her hair. Sanine handed her the parasol and glove. To find the other glove was missing at first surprised her, but instantly recollecting the reason, she felt greatly amused at the absurd importance which she had given to that trifling incident.
"Ah! well, that's over!" she thought, and walked with her brother along the river-bank. Fiercely the sun's rays beat upon her round, ripe bosom.