Chapter XXI.
 

The glow of summer lay on the town. Calm were the nights when the large, lustrous moon shone overhead and the air, heavy with odours from field and garden, pleasurably soothed the languid senses.

In the daytime people worked, or were engaged in politics or art; in eating, drinking, bathing, conversing. Yet, when the heat grew less, and the bustle and turmoil had ceased, while on the dim horizon the moon's round mysterious disc rose slowly above meadow and field, shedding on roofs and gardens a strange, cold light, then folk began to breathe more freely, and to live anew, having cast off, as it were, an oppressive cloak.

And, where youth predominated, life became ampler and more free. The gardens were filled with the melody of nightingales, the meadow-grasses quivered in response to the light touch of a maiden's gown, while shadows deepened, and in the warm dusk eyes grew brighter and voices more tender, for love was in the languid, fragrant air.

Yourii Svarogitsch and Schafroff were both keenly interested in politics, and in a recently formed society for mutual education, Yourii read all the latest books, and believed that he had now found his vocation in life, and a way to end all his doubts. Yet, however much he read, and despite all his activities, life had no charm for him, being barren and dreary. Only when in robust health, and when the physical part of him was roused by the prospect of falling in love, did life seem really desirable. Formerly all pretty young women had interested him in equal measure, yet among the rest he now singled out one in whom the charms of all the others were united, standing apart in her loveliness as a young birch tree stands in springtime on the border of a wood.

She was tall and shapely, her head was gracefully poised on her white, smooth shoulders, and her voice, in speech sonorous, was in singing sweet. Although her own talents for music and poetry were eminently pleasing to her, it was in physical effort that her intense vitality found its fullest expression. She longed to crush something against her bosom, to stamp her foot on the ground, to laugh and sing, and to contemplate good-looking young men. There were times when, in the blaze of noon or in the pale moonlight, she felt as if she must suddenly take off all clothing, rush across the grass, and plunge into the river to seek some one that with tender accents she longed to allure. Her presence troubled Yourii. In her company he became more eloquent, his pulses beat faster, and his brain was more alert. All day long his thoughts were of her, and in the evening it was she that he sought, though he never admitted to himself that he did so. He was for ever analysing his feelings, each sentiment withering as a blossom in the frost. Whenever he asked himself what it was that attracted him to Sina Karsavina, the answer was always "the sexual instinct, and nothing else." Without knowing why, this explanation provoked intense self- contempt.

Yet a tacit understanding had been established between them and, like two mirrors, the emotions of the one were reflected in the other.

Sina Karsavina never troubled to analyse her sentiments which, if they caused her slight apprehension, yet pleased her vastly. She jealously hid them from others, being determined to keep them entirely to herself. It distressed her much that she could not discover what was really at work in the handsome young fellow's heart. At times it seemed to her that there was nothing between them, and then she grieved as if for the loss of something precious. Nevertheless she was not averse to receiving the attentions of other men, and her belief that Yourii loved her gave her the elated manner of a bride-elect, making her doubly attractive to other admirers. She was powerfully fascinated by the presence of Sanine, whose broad shoulders, calm eyes, and deliberate manner won her regard. When Sina became aware of his effect upon her, she accused herself of want of self-control if not of immodesty; nevertheless she always continued to observe him with great interest.

On the very evening that Lida had undergone such a terrible ordeal, Yourii and Sina met at the library. They merely exchanged greetings, and went about their business, she to choose books, and he to look at the latest Petersburg newspapers. They happened, however, to leave the building together and walked along the lonely, moonlit streets side by side. All was silent as the grave, and one could only hear at intervals the watchman's rattle, and the distant bark of a dog.

On reaching the boulevard they were aware of a merry party sitting under the tress. They heard laughter; and the gleam of a lighted cigarette revealed for an instant a fair moustache. Just as they passed a man's voice sang:

          The heart affair lady
           Is wayward as the wind across the wheat...

When they got within a short distance of Sina's home they sat down on a bench where it was very dark. In front of them lay the broad street, all white in the moonlight, and the church topped by a cross that gleamed as a star above the black linden trees.

"Look! How pretty that is!" exclaimed Sina, as she pointed to the church. Yourii glanced admiringly at her white shoulder which, in the costume of Little Russia that she wore, was exposed to view. He longed to clasp her in his arms and kiss her full red lips. It seemed as if he must do so, and as if she expected and desired this. But he let the propitious moment pass, laughing gently, almost mockingly, to himself.

"Why do you laugh?"

"Oh! I don't know!--nothing!" replied Yourii nervously, trying to appear unmoved.

They were both silent as they listened to faint sounds that came to them through the darkness.

"Have you ever been in love?" asked Sina, suddenly.

"Yes," said Yourii slowly. 'Suppose I tell her?' he thought. Then, aloud, "I am in love now."

"With whom?" she asked, fearing to hear the answer, while yet certain that she knew it.

"With you, of course," replied Yourii, vainly assuming playful tone as he leant forward and gazed into her eyes, that shone strangely in the gloom. They expressed surprise and expectancy. Yourii longed to embrace her, yet again his courage failed him, and he pretended to stifle a yawn.

"He's only in fun!" thought Sina, growing suddenly cool.

She felt hurt at such hesitation on Yourii's part. To keep back her tears, she clenched her teeth, and in an altered tone exclaimed "Nonsense!" as she quickly got up.

"I am speaking quite seriously," began Yourii, with unnatural earnestness. "I love you, believe me, I do, passionately!"

Sina took up her books without saying a word.

"Why, why does he talk like this?" she thought to herself. "I've let him see that I care, and now he despises me."

Yourii bent down to pick up a book that had fallen.

"It is time to go home," she said coldly. Yourii felt grieved that she wanted to go just at that moment, but he thought at the same time that he had played his part quite successfully, and without in the least appearing commonplace. Then he said, impressively: "Au revoir!"

She held out her hand. He swiftly bent over it and kissed it. Sina started back, uttering a faint cry: "What are you doing?"

Though his lips had only just touched her soft little hand, his emotion was so great that he could only smile feebly as she hurried away, and soon he heard the click of her garden gate. As he walked homewards his face wore the same silly smile, while he breathed the pure night air, and felt strong, and glad of heart.