Chapter XX.
 

Novikoff, when he opened the door himself to Sanine, looked far from pleased at the prospect of such a visit. Everything that reminded him of Lida and of his shattered dream of bliss caused him pain.

Sanine noticed this, and came into the room smiling affably. All there was in disorder, as if scattered by a whirlwind. Scraps of paper, straw, and rubbish of all sorts covered the floor. On the bed and the chairs lay books, linen, surgical instruments and a portmanteau.

"Going away?" asked Sanine, in surprise. "Where?" Novikoff avoided the other's glance and continued to overhaul the things, vexed at his own confusion. At last he said:

"Yes, I've got to leave this place. I've had my official notice."

Sanine looked at him and then at the portmanteau. After another glance his features relaxed in a broad smile.

Novikoff was silent, oppressed by his sense of utter loneliness and his inconsolable grief. Lost in his thoughts, he proceeded to wrap up a pair of boots together with some glass tubes.

"If you pack like that," said Sanine, "when you arrive you'll find yourself minus either tubes or boots."

Novikoff's tear-stained eyes flashed back a reply. They said, "Ah! leave me alone! Surely you can see how sad I am!"

Sanine understood, and was silent.

The dreamy summer twilight-hour had come, and above the verdant garden the sky, clear as crystal, grew paler. At last Sanine spoke.

"Instead of going the deuce knows where, I think it would be much more sensible if you were to marry Lida."

Novikoff turned round trembling.

"I must ask you to stop making such stupid jokes!" he said in a shrill, hard voice. It rang out through the dusk, and echoed among the dreaming garden-trees.

"Why so furious?" asked Sanine.

"Look here!" began Novikoff hoarsely. In his eyes there was such an expression of rage that Sanine scarcely recognized him.

"Do you mean to say that it wouldn't be a lucky thing for you to marry Lida?" continued Sanine merrily.

"Shut up!" cried the other, staggering forward, and brandishing an old boot over Sanine's head.

"Now then! Gently! Are you mad?" said Sanine sharply, as he stepped backwards.

Novikoff flung the boot away in disgust, breathing hard.

"With that boot you were actually going to ..." Sanine stopped, and shook his head. He pitied his friend, though such behaviour seemed to him utterly ridiculous.

"It's your fault," stammered Novikoff in confusion.

And then, suddenly, he felt full of trust and sympathy for Sanine, strong and calm as he was. He himself resembled a little school-boy, eager to tell some one of his trouble. Tears filled his eyes.

"If you only knew how sad at heart I am," he murmured, striving to conquer his emotion.

"My dear fellow, I know all about it--everything," said Sanine kindly.

"No! You can't know all!" said Novikoff, as he sat down beside the other. He thought that no one could possibly feel such sorrow as his.

"Yes, yes, I do," replied Sanine, "I swear that I do; and if you'll promise not to attack me with your old boot, I will prove what I say. Promise?"

"Yes, yes! Forgive me, Volodja!" said Novikoff, calling Sanine by his first name which he had never done before. This touched Sanine, and he felt the more anxious to help his friend.

"Well, then, listen," he began, as he placed his hand in confidential fashion on the other's knee. "Let us be quite frank. You are going away, because Lida refused you, and because, at Sarudine's the other day, you had an idea that it was she who came to see him in private."

Novikoff bent forward, too distressed to speak. It was as if Sanine had re-opened an agonizing wound. The latter, noticing Novikoff's agitation, thought Inwardly, "You good-natured old fool!"

Then he continued:

"As to the relations between Lida and Sarudine, I can affirm nothing positively, for I know nothing, but I don't believe that...." He did not finish the sentence when he saw how dark the other's face became.

"Their intimacy," he went on, "is of such recent date that nothing serious can have happened, especially if one considers Lida's character. You, of course, know what she is."

There rose up before Novikoff the image of Lida, as he had once known and loved her; of Lida, the proud, high-spirited girl, lustrous-eyed, and crowned with serene, consummate beauty as with a radiant aureole. He shut his eyes, and put faith in Sanine's words.

"Well, and if they really did flirt a bit, that's over and ended now. After all, what is it to you if a girl like Lida, young and fancy-free, has had a little amusement of this sort? Without any great effort of memory I expect you could recall at least a dozen such flirtations of a far more dangerous kind, too."

Novikoff glanced trustfully at Sanine, afraid to speak, lest the faint spark of hope within him should be extinguished. At last he stammered out:

"You know, if I ..."; but he got no further. Words failed him, and tears choked his utterance.

"Well, if you what?" asked Sanine loudly, and his eyes shone. "I can but tell you this, that there is not and there never has been anything between Lida and Sarudine."

Novikoff looked at him in amazement.

"I ... well ... I thought ..." he began, feeling, to his dismay, that he could no longer believe what Sanine said.

"You thought a lot of nonsense!" replied Sanine sharply. "You ought to know Lida better than that. What sort of love can there be with all that hesitation and shilly-shallying?"

Novikoff, overjoyed, grasped the other's hand.

Then, suddenly Sanine's face wore a furious expression as he closely watched the effect of his words upon his companion.

Novikoff showed obvious pleasure at the thought of the woman he desired being immaculate. Into those honest sorrowful eyes, there came a look of animal jealousy and concupiscence.

"Oho!" exclaimed Sanine threateningly, as he got up. "Then what I have to tell you is this: Lida has not only fallen in love with Sarudine, but she has also had illicit relations with him, and is now enceinte."

There was dead silence in the room. Novikoff smiled a strange, sickly smile and rubbed his hands. From his trembling lips there issued a faint cry. Sanine stood over him, looking straight into his eyes. The wrinkled corners of his mouth showed suppressed anger.

"Well, why don't you speak?" he asked.

Novikoff looked up for a moment, but instantly avoided the other's glance, his features being still distorted by a vacuous smile.

"Lida has just gone through a terrible ordeal," said Sanine in a low voice, as if soliloquising. If I had not chanced to overtake her, she would not be living now, and what yesterday was a healthful, handsome girl would now be lying in the river-mud, a bloated corpse, devoured by crabs. The question is not one of her death--we must each of us die some day--yet how sad to think that with her all the brightness and joy created for others by her personality would also have perished. Of course, Lida is not the only one in all the world; but, my God! if there were no girlish loveliness left, it would be as sad and gloomy as the grave.

"For my part, I am eager to commit murder when I see a poor girl brought to ruin in this senseless way. Personally, it is a matter of utter indifference to me whether you marry Lida or go to the devil, but I must tell you that you are an idiot. If you had got one sound idea in your head, would you worry yourself and others so much merely because a young woman, free to pick and choose, had become the mistress of a man who was unworthy of her, and by following her sexual impulse had achieved her own complete development? Nor are you the only idiot, let me tell you. There are millions of your sort who make life into a prison, without sunshine or warmth! How often have you given rein to your lust in company with some harlot, the sharer of your sordid debauch? In Lida's case it was passion, the poetry of youth, and strength, and beauty. By what right, then, do you shrink from her, you that call yourself an intelligent, sensible man? What has her past to do with you? Is she less beautiful? Or less fitted for loving, or for being loved? Is it that you yourself wanted to be the first to possess her? Now then, speak!"

"You know very well that it is not that!" said Novikoff, as his lips trembled.

"Ah! yes, but it is!" cried Sanine. "What else could it be, pray?"

Novikoff was silent. All was darkness within his Soul, yet, as a distant ray of light through the gloom there came the thought of pardon and self-sacrifice.

Sanine, watching him, seemed to read what was passing through his mind.

"I see," he began, in a subdued tone, "that you Contemplate sacrificing yourself for her. 'I will descend to her level, and protect her from the mob,' and so on. That's what you are saying to your virtuous self, waxing big in your own eyes as a worm does in carrion. But it's all a sham; nothing else but a lie! You're not in the least capable of self- sacrifice. If, for instance, Lida had been disfigured by small-pox, perhaps you might have worked yourself up to such a deed of heroism. But after a couple of days you would have embittered her life, either spurning her or deserting her, or overwhelming her reproaches. At present your attitude towards yourself is one of adoration, as if you were an ikon. Yes, yes, your face is transfigured, and every one would say, 'Oh! look, there's a saint.' Yet you have lost nothing which you desired. Lida's limbs are the same as before; so are her passion and her splendid vitality. But of course, it is extremely convenient and also agreeable to provide oneself with enjoyment while piously imagining that one is doing a noble deed. I should rather say it was!"

At these words, Novikoff's self-pity gave place to a nobler sentiment.

"You take me to be worse than I am," he said reproachfully. "I am not so wanting in feeling as you think. I won't deny that I have certain prejudices, but I love Lida Petrovna, and if I were quite sure that she loved me, do you think that I should take a long while to make up my mind, because ..."

His voice failed him at this last word.

Sanine suddenly became quite calm. Crossing the room, he stood at the open window, lost in thought.

"Just now she is very sad," he said, "and will hardly be thinking of love. If she loves you or not, how can I tell? But it seems to me that if you came to her as the second man who did not condemn her for her brief amour, well.... Anyway, there's no knowing what she'll say!"

Novikoff sat there, as one in a dream. Sadness and joy produced within his heart a sense of happiness as gentle and elusive as the light in an evening sky.

"Let us go to her," said Sanine. "Whatever happens, it will please her to see a human face amid so many false masks that hide grimacing brutes. You're a bit of a fool, my friend, but in your stupidity there is something which others haven't got. And to think that for ever so long the world founded its hopes and happiness upon such folly! Come, let us go!"

Novikoff smiled timidly. "I am very willing to go to her. But will she care to see me?"

"Don't think about that," said Sanine, as he placed both hands on the other's shoulders. "If you are minded to do what's right, then, do it, and the future will take care of itself."

"All right; let us go," exclaimed Novikoff with decision. In the doorway he stopped and looking Sanine full in the face he said with unwonted emphasis:

"Look here, if it is in my power, I will do my best to make her happy. This sounds commonplace, I know, but I can't express my feelings in any other way."

"No matter, my friend," replied Sanine cordially, "I understand."