Chapter XXIII.
 

Gently, caressingly, the dusk, fragrant with the scent of blossoms, descended. Sanine sat at a table near the window, striving to read in the waning light a favourite tale of his. It described the lonely, tragic death of an old bishop, who, clad in his sacerdotal vestments and holding a jewelled cross, expired amid the odour of incense.

In the room the temperature was as cool as that outside, for the soft evening breeze played round Sanine's powerful frame, filling his lungs, and lightly caressing his hair. Absorbed in his book, he read on, while his lips moved from time to time, and he seemed like a big boy devouring some story of adventures among Indians. Yet, the more he read, the sadder became his thoughts. How much there was in this world that was senseless and absurd! How dense and uncivilized men were, and how far ahead of them in ideas he was!

The door opened and some one entered. Sanine looked up. "Aha!" he exclaimed, as he shut the book, "what's the news?"

Novikoff smiled sadly, as he took the other's hand.

"Oh! nothing," he said, as he approached the window, "It's all just the same as ever it was."

From where he sat Sanine could only see Novikoff's tall figure silhouetted against the evening sky, and for a long while he gazed at him without speaking.

When Sanine first took his friend to see Lida, who now no longer resembled the proud, high-spirited girl of heretofore, neither she nor Novikoff said a word to each other about all that lay nearest to their hearts. He knew that, after having spoken, they would be unhappy, yet doubly so if they kept silence. What to him was plain and easy they could only accomplish, he felt sure, after much suffering. "Be it so," thought he, "for suffering purifies and ennobles." Now, however, the propitious moment for them had come.

Novikoff stood at the window, silently watching the sunset. His mood was a strange one, begotten of grief for what was lost, and of longing for joy that was near. In this soft twilight he pictured to himself Lida, sad, and covered with shame. If he had but the courage to do it, this very moment he would kneel before her, with kisses warm her cold little hands, and by his great, all-forgiving love rouse her to a new life. Yet the power to go to her failed him.

Of this Sanine was conscious. He rose slowly, and said,

"Lida is in the garden. Shall we go to her?"

Novikoff's heart beat faster. Within it, joy and grief seemed strangely blended. His expression changed Somewhat, and he nervously fingered his moustache.

"Well, what do you say? Shall we go?" repeated Sanine calmly, as if he had decided to do something important. Novikoff felt that Sanine knew all that was troubling him, and, though in a measure comforted, he Was yet childishly abashed.

"Come along!" said Sanine gently, as taking hold of Novikoff's shoulders he pushed him towards the door.

"Yes ... I ..." murmured the latter.

A sudden impulse to embrace Sanine almost overcame him, but he dared not and could but glance at him with tearful eyes. It was dark in the warm, fragrant garden, and the trunks of the trees formed Gothic arches against the pale green of the sky.

A faint mist hovered above the parched surface of the lawn. It was as if an unseen presence wandered along the silent walks and amid the motionless trees, at whose approach the slumbering leaves and blossoms softly trembled. The sunset still flamed in the west behind the river which flowed in shining curves through the dark meadows. At the edge of the stream sat Lida. Her graceful figure bending forward above the water seemed like that of some mournful spirit in the dusk. The sense of confidence inspired by the voice of her brother forsook her as quickly as it had come, and once more shame and fear overwhelmed her. She was obsessed by the thought that she had no right to happiness, nor yet to live. She spent whole days in the garden, book in hand, unable to look her mother in the face. A thousand times she said to herself that her mother's anguish would be as nothing to what she herself was now suffering, yet whenever she approached her parent her voice faltered, and in her eyes there was a guilty look. Her blushes and strange confusion of manner at last aroused her mother's suspicion, to avoid whose searching glances and anxious questionings Lida preferred to spend her days in solitude. Thus, on this evening she was seated by the river, watching the sunset and brooding over her grief. Life, as it seemed to her, was still incomprehensible. Her view of it was blurred as by some hideous phantom. A series of books which she had read had served to give her greater freedom of thought. As she believed, her conduct was not only natural but almost worthy of praise. She had brought harm to no one thereby, only providing herself and another with sensual enjoyment. Without such enjoyment there would be no youth, and life itself would be barren and desolate as a leafless tree in autumn.

The thought that her union with a man had not been sanctioned by the church seemed to her ridiculous. By the free mind of a man such claims had long been swept aside. She ought really to find joy in this new life, just as a flower on some bright morning rejoices at the touch of the pollen borne to it on the breeze. Yet she felt unutterably degraded, and baser than the basest.

All such grand, noble ideas and eternal verities melted like wax at the thought of her day of infamy that was at hand. And instead of trampling underfoot the folk that she despised, her one thought was how best she might avoid or deceive them.

While concealing her grief from others, Lida felt herself attracted to Novikoff as a flower to the sunlight. The suggestion that he was to save her seemed base, almost criminal. It galled her to think that she should depend upon his affection and forgiveness, yet stronger far than pride was the passionate longing to live.

Her attitude towards human stupidity was one of fear rather than disdain; she could not look Novikoff in the face, but trembled before him, like a slave. Her plight was pitiable as that of a helpless bird whose wings have been clipped, and that can never fly again.

At times, when her suffering seemed intolerable, she thought with naive astonishment of her brother. She knew that, for him, nothing was sacred, that he looked at her, his sister, with the eyes of a male, and that he was selfish and immoral. Nevertheless he was the only man in whose presence she felt herself absolutely free, and with whom she could openly discuss the most intimate secrets of her life. She had been seduced. Well, what of that? She had had an intrigue. Very good. It was at her own wish. People would despise and humiliate her; what did it matter? Before her lay life, and sunshine, and the wide world; and, as for men, there were plenty to be had. Her mother would grieve. Well, that was her own affair. Lida had never known what her mother's youth had been, and after her death there would be no further supervision. They had met by chance on life's road, and had gone part of the way together. Was that any reason why they should mutually oppose each other?

Lida saw plainly that she would never have the same freedom which her brother possessed. That she had ever thought so was due to the influence of this calm, strong man whom she affectionately admired. Strange thoughts came to her, thoughts of an illicit nature.

"If he were not my brother, but a stranger!..." she said to herself, as she hastily strove to suppress the shameful and yet alluring suggestion.

Then she remembered Novikoff and like a humble slave longed for his pardon and his love. She heard steps and looked round. Novikoff and Sanine came to her silently across the grass. She could not discern their faces in the dusk, yet she felt that the dreaded moment was at hand. She turned very pale, and it seemed as if life was about to end.

"There!" said Sanine, "I have brought Novikoff to you. He will tell you himself all that he has to tell. Stay here quietly, while I will go and get some tea."

Turning on his heel, he walked swiftly away, and for a moment they watched his white shirt as he disappeared in the gloom. So great was the silence that they could hardly believe that he had gone farther than the shadow of the surrounding trees.

"Lidia Petrovna," said Novikoff gently, in a voice so sad and touching that it went to her heart.

"Poor fellow," she thought, "how good he is."

"I know everything, Lidia Petrovna," continued Novikoff, "but I love you just as much as ever. Perhaps some day you will learn to love me. Tell me, will you be my wife?"

"I had better not say too much about that," he thought, "she must never know what a sacrifice I am making for her."

Lida was silent. In such stillness one could hear the rippling of the stream.

"We are both unhappy," said Novikoff, conscious that these words came from the depth of his heart. "Together perhaps we may find life easier."

Lida's eyes were filled with tears of gratitude as she turned towards him and murmured, "Perhaps."

Yet her eyes said, God knows I will be a good wife to you, and love and respect you.

Novikoff read their message. He knelt down impetuously, and seizing her hand, kissed it passionately. Roused by such emotion, Lida forgot her shame.

"That's over!" she thought, "and I shall be happy again! Dear, good fellow!" Weeping for joy, she gave him both her hands, and bending over his head she kissed his soft, silky hair which she had always admired. A vision rose before her of Sarudine, but it instantly vanished.

When Sanine returned, having given them enough time, as he thought, for a mutual explanation, he found them seated, hand in hand, engaged in quiet talk.

"Aha! I see how it is!" said Sanine gravely.

"Thank God, and be happy."

He was about to say something else, but sneezed loudly instead.

"It's damp out here. Mind you don't catch cold," he added, rubbing his eyes.

Lida laughed. The echo of her voice across the river Hounded charming.

"I must go," said Sanine, after a pause.

"Where are you going?" asked Novikoff.

"Svarogitsch and that officer who admires Tolstoi, what's his name? a lanky German fellow, have called for me."

"You mean Von Deitz," said Lida, laughing.

"That's the man. They wanted us all to come with them to a meeting, but I said that you were not at home."

"Why did you do that?" asked Lida, still laughing; "we might have gone, too."

"No, you stop here," replied Sanine. "If I had anybody to keep me company, I should do the same."

With that he left them.

Night came on apace, and the first trembling star were mirrored in the swiftly flowing stream.