Chapter XXV.
 

Leaving the boulevard behind them, they passed along the dreary streets lying outside the town, though they were better lighted than the boulevard. The wood-pavement stood out clearly against the black ground, and above loomed the pale cloud-covered heaven, where here and there stars gleamed.

"Here we are," said Von Deitz as he opened a low door and disappeared through it. Immediately afterwards they heard the hoarse bark of a dog, and a voice exclaiming, "Lie down, Sultan." Before them lay a large empty courtyard at the farther side of which they discerned a black mass. It was a steam mill, and its narrow chimney pointed sadly to the sky. Round about it were dark sheds, but no trees, except in a small garden in front of the adjoining house. Through an open window a ray of light touched their green leaves.

"A dismal kind of place," said Sanine.

"I suppose the mill has been here a long while?" asked Yourii.

"Oh! yes, for ever so long!" replied Von Deitz who, as he passed, looked through the lighted window, and in a tone of satisfaction said, "Oho! Quite a lot of people, already."

Yourii and Sanine also looked in at the window and saw heads moving in a dim cloud of blue smoke. A broad-shouldered man with curly hair leant over the sill and called out, "Who's there?"

"Friends!" replied Yourii.

As they went up the steps they pushed against some one who shocks hands with them in friendly fashion.

"I was afraid that you wouldn't come!" said a cheery voice in a strong Jewish accent.

"Soloveitchik--Sanine," said Von Deitz, introducing the two, and grasping the former's cold, trembling hand.

Soloveitchik laughed nervously.

"So pleased to meet you!" he said. "I have heard so much about you, and, you know--" He stumbled backwards still holding Sanine's hand. In doing so he fell Against Yourii, and trod on Von Deitz's foot.

"I beg your pardon, Jakof Adolfovitch!" he exclaimed, as he proceeded to shake Von Deitz's hand with great energy. Thus it was some time before in the darkness they could find the door. In the ante-room, on tows of nails put up specially for this evening by orderly Soloveitchik, hung hats and caps, while close to the window were dark green bottles containing beer. Even the ante-room was filled with smoke.

In the light Soloveitchik appeared to be a young dark-eyed Jew with curly hair, small features, and bad teeth which, as he was continually smiling, were always displayed.

The newcomers were greeted with a noisy chorus of welcome. Yourii saw Sina Karsavina sitting on the window-sill, and instantly everything seemed to him bright and joyous, as if the meeting were not in a stuffy room full of smoke, but at a festival amid fair green meadows in spring.

Sina, slightly confused, smiled at him pleasantly.

"Well, sirs, I think we are all here, now," exclaimed Soloveitchik, trying to speak in a loud, cheery way with his feeble, unsteady voice, and gesticulating in ludicrous fashion.

"I beg your pardon, Yourii Nicolaijevitch; I seem to be always pushing against you," he said, laughing, as he lurched forward in an endeavour to be polite.

Yourii good-humouredly squeezed his arm.

"That's all right," he said.

"We're not all here, but deuce take the others!" cried a burly, good- looking student. His loud tradesman's voice made one feel that he was used to ordering others about.

Soloveitchik sprang forward to the table and rang a little bell. He smiled once more, and this time for sheer satisfaction at having thought of using a bell.

"Oh I none of that!" growled the student. "You've always got some silly nonsense of that sort. It's not necessary in the least."

"Well ... I thought ... that...." stammered Soloveitchik, as, looking embarrassed, he put the bell in his pocket.

"I think that the table should be placed in the middle of the room," said the student.

"Yes, yes, I am going to move it directly!" replied Soloveitchik, as he hurriedly caught hold of the edge of the table.

"Mind the lamp!" cried Dubova.

"That's not the way to move it!" exclaimed the student, slapping his knee.

"Let me help you," said Sanine.

"Thank you! Please!" replied Soloveitchik eagerly.

Sanine set the table in the middle of the room, and as he did so, the eyes of all were fixed on his strong back and muscular shoulders which showed through his thin shirt.

"Now, Goschienko, as the initiator of this meeting, it is for you to make the opening speech," said the pale-faced Dubova, and from the expression in her eyes it was hard to say if she were in earnest, or only laughing at the student.

"Ladies and gentlemen," began Goschienko, raising his voice, "everybody knows why we have met here to-night, and so we can dispense with any introductory speech."

"As a matter of fact," said Sanine, "I don't know why I came here, but," he added, laughing, "it may have been because I was told that there would be some beer."

Goschienko glanced contemptuously at him over the lamp, and continued:

"Our association is formed for the purpose of self-education by means of mutual readings, and debates, and independent discussions--"

"Mutual readings? I don't understand," interrupted Dubova in a tone of voice that might have been thought ironical.

Goschienko blushed slightly.

"I meant to say readings in which all take part. Thus, the aim of our association is for the development of individual opinion which shall lead to the formation in town of a league in sympathy with the social democratic party...."

"Aha!" drawled Ivanoff, as he scratched the back of his head.

"But with that we shall deal later on. At the commencement we shall not set ourselves to solve such great--"

"Or small ..." prompted Dubova.

"Problems," continued Goschienko, affecting not to hear. "We shall begin by making out a programme of such works as we intend to read, and I propose to devote the present evening to this purpose."

"Soloveitchik, are your workmen coming?" asked Dubova.

"Yes, of course they are!" replied Soloveitchik, jumping up as if he had been stung. "We have already sent to fetch them."

"Soloveitchik, don't shout like that!" exclaimed Goschienko.

"Here they are!" said Schafroff, who was listening to Goschienko's words with almost reverent attention.

Outside, the gate creaked, and again the dog's gruff bark was heard.

"They've come!" cried Soloveitchik as he rushed out of the room.

"Lie down, Sultan!" he shouted from the house-door.

There was a sound of heavy footseps of coughing, and of men's voices. Then a young student from the Polytechnic School entered, very like Goschienko, except that he was dark and plain. With him, looking awkward and shy, came two workmen, with grimy hands, and wearing short jackets over their dirty red shirts. One of them was very tall and gaunt, whose clean-shaven, sallow face bore the mark of years of semi- starvation, perpetual care and suppressed hatred. The other had the appearance of an athlete, being broad-shouldered and comely, with curly hair. He looked about him as a young peasant might do when first coming to a town. Pushing past them, Soloveitchik began solemnly, "Gentlemen, these are--"

"Oh! that'll do!" cried Goschienko, interrupting him, as usual. "Good evening, comrades."

"Pistzoff and Koudriavji," said the Polytechnic student.

The men strode cautiously into the room, stiffly grasping the hands held out to give them a singularly courteous welcome. Pistzoff smiled confusedly, and Koudriavji moved his long neck about as if the collar of his shirt were throttling him. Then they sat down by the window, near Sina.

"Why hasn't Nicolaieff come?" asked Goschienko sharply.

"Nicolaieff was not able to come," replied Pistzoff.

"Nicolaieff is blind drunk," added Koudriavji in a dry voice.

"Oh! I see," said Goschienko, as he shook his head. This movement on his part, which seemed to express compassion, exasperated Yourii, who saw in the big student a personal enemy.

"He chose the better part," observed Ivanoff.

Again the dog barked in the courtyard.

"Some one else is coming," said Dubova.

"Probably, the police," remarked Goschienko with feigned indifference.

"I am sure that you would not mind if it were the police," cried Dubova.

Sanine looked at her intelligent eyes, and the plait of fair hair falling over her shoulder, which almost made her face attractive.

"A smart girl, that!" he thought.

Soloveitchik jumped up as if to run out, but, recollecting himself, pretended to take a cigarette from the table. Goschienko noticed this, and, without replying to Dubova, said:

"How fidgety you are, Soloveitchik!"

Soloveitchik turned crimson and blinked his eyes ruefully. He felt vaguely conscious that his zeal did not deserve to be so severely rebuked. Then Novikoff noisily entered.

"Here I am!" he exclaimed, with a cheery smile.

"So I see," replied Sanine.

Novikoff shook the other's hand and whispered hurriedly, as if by way of excuse, "Lidia Petrovna has got visitors."

"Oh! yes."

"Have we only come here to talk?" asked the Polytechnic student with some irritation. "Do let us make a start."

"Then you have not begun yet?" said Novikoff, evidently pleased. He shook hands with the two workmen, who hastily rose from their seats. It was embarrassing to meet the doctor as a fellow-comrade, when at the hospital he was wont to treat them as his inferiors.

Goschienko, looking rather annoyed, then began.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are naturally all desirous to widen our outlook, and to broaden our views of life; and, believing that the best method of self-culture and of self-development lies in a systematic course of reading and an interchange of opinions regarding the books read, we have decided to start this little club...."

"That's right," sighed Pistzoff approvingly, as he looked round at the company with his bright, dark eyes.

"The question now arises: What books ought we to read? Possibly some one here present could make a suggestion regarding the programme that should be adopted?"

Schafroff put on his glasses and slowly stood up. In his hand he held a small note-book.

"I think," he began in his dry, uninteresting voice, "I think that our programme should be divided into two parts. For the purpose of intellectual development two elements are undoubtedly necessary: the study of life from Its earliest stages, and the study of life as it actually is."

"Schafroff's getting quite eloquent," cried Dubova.

"Knowledge of the former can be gained by reading standard books of historical and scientific value, and knowledge of the latter, by belles lettres, which bring us face to face with life."

"If you go on talking to us like this, we shall soon fall fast asleep." Dubova could not resist making this remark, and in her eyes there was a roguish twinkle. "I am trying to speak in such a way as to be understood by all," replied Schafroff gently.

"Very well! Speak as best you can!" said Dubova with a gesture expressing her resignation.

Sina Karsavina laughed at Schafroff, too, in her pretty way, tossing back her head and showing her white, shapely throat. Hers was a rich, musical laugh.

"I have drawn up a programme--but perhaps it would bore you if I read it out?" said Schafroff, with a furtive glance at Dubova. "I propose to begin with 'The Origin of the Family' side by side with Darwin's works, and, in literature, we could take Tolstoi."

"Of course, Tolstoi!" said Von Deitz, looking extremely pleased with himself as he proceeded to light a cigarette.

Schafroff paused until the cigarette was lighted, and then continued his list:

"Tchekhof, Ibsen, Knut Hamsun--"

"But we've read them all!" exclaimed Sina Karsavina.

Her delightful voice thrilled Yourii, and he said:

"Of course! Schafroff forgets that this is not a Sunday school. What a strange jumble, too! Tolstoi and Knut Hamsun--"

Schafroff blandly adduced certain arguments in support of his programme, yet in so diffuse a way that no one could understand him.

"No," said Yourii with emphasis, delighted to observe Sina Karsavina looking at him, "No, I don't agree with you." He then proceeded to expound his own views on the subject, and the more he spoke, the more he strove to win Sina's approval, mercilessly attacking Schafroff's scheme, and even those points with which he himself was in sympathy.

The burly Goschienko now gave his views on the subject. He considered himself the cleverest, most eloquent and most cultured of them all; moreover in a little club like this, which he had organized, he expected to play first fiddle. Yourii's success annoyed him, and he felt bound to go against him. Being ignorant of Svarogitsch's opinions, he could not oppose them en bloc, but only fixed upon certain weak points in his argument with which he stubbornly disagreed.

Thereupon a lengthy and apparently interminable discussion ensued. The Polytechnic student, Ivanoff, and Novikoff all began to argue at once, and through clouds of tobacco-smoke hot, angry faces could be seen, while words and phrases were hopelessly blent in a bewildering chaos devoid at last of all meaning.

Dubova gazed at the lamp, listening and dreaming. Sina Karsavina paid no attention, but opened the window facing the garden, and, folding her arms, leaned over the sill and looked out at the night. At first she could distinguish nothing, but gradually out of the gloom the dark trees emerged, and she saw the light on the garden-fence and the grass. A soft, refreshing breeze fanned her shoulders and lightly touched her hair.

Looking upwards, Sina could watch the swift procession of the clouds. She thought of Yourii and of her love. Her mood, if pleasurably pensive, was yet a little sad. It was so good to rest there, exposed to the cool night wind, and listen with all her heart to the voice of one man which to her ears sounded clearer and more masterful than the rest. Meanwhile the din grew greater, and it was evident that each person thought himself more cultivated and intelligent than his neighbours and was striving to convert them. Matters at last became so unpleasant that the most peaceable among them lost their tempers.

"If you judge like that," shouted Yourii, his eyes flashing, for he was anxious not to yield in the presence of Sina, though she could only hear his voice, "then we must go back to the origin of all ideas...."

"What ought we, then, in your opinion to read?" said the hostile Goschienko.

"What you ought to read? Why, Confucius, the Gospels, Ecclesiastes ..."

"The Psalms and the Apocrypha," was the Polytechnic student's mocking interruption.

Goschienko laughed maliciously, oblivious of the fact himself had never read one of these works.

"Of what good would that be?" asked Schafroff in a tone of disappointment.

"It's like they do in church!" tittered Pistzoff.

Yourii's face flushed.

"I am not joking. If you wish to be logical, then ..."

"Ah! but what did you say to me just now about Christ?" cried Von Deitz exultantly.

"What did I say?...If one wishes to study life, and to form some definite conception of the mutual relationship of man to man, surely the best way is to get a thorough knowledge of the Titanic work of those who, representing the best models of humanity, devoted their lives to the solution of the simplest and most complex problems with regard to human relationships."

"There I don't agree with you," retorted Goschienko.

"But I do," cried Novikoff hotly.

Once more all was confusion and senseless uproar, during which it was impossible to hear either the beginning or the end of any utterance.

Reduced to silence by this war of words, Soloveitchik sat in a corner and listened. At first the expression on his face was one of intense, almost childish interest, but after a while his doubt and distress were shown by lines at the corners of his mouth and of his eyes.

Sanine drank, smoked, and said nothing. He looked thoroughly bored, and when amid the general clamour some of the voices became unduly violent, he got up, and extinguishing his cigarette, said:

"I say, do you know, this is getting uncommonly boring!"

"Yes, indeed!" cried Dubova.

"Sheer vanity and vexation of spirit!" said Ivanoff, who had been waiting for a fitting moment to drag in this favourite phrase of his.

"In what way?" asked the Polytechnic student, angrily.

Sanine took no notice of him, but, turning to Yourii, said:

"Do you really believe that you can get a conception of life from any book?"

"Most certainly I do," replied Yourii, in a tone of surprise.

"Then you are wrong," said Sanine. "If this were really so, one could mould the whole of humanity according to one type by giving people works to read of one tendency. A conception of life is only obtained from life itself, in its entirety, of which literature and human thought are but an infinitesimal part. No theory of life can help one to such a conception, for this depends upon the mood or frame of mind of each individual, which is consequently apt to vary so long as man lives. Thus, it is impossible to form such a hard and fast conception of life as you seem anxious to ..."

"How do you mean--'impossible'?" cried Yourii angrily.

Sanine again looked bored, as he answered:

"Of course it's impossible. If a conception of life were the outcome of a complete, definite theory, then the progress of human thought would soon be arrested; in fact it would cease. But such a thing is inadmissible. Every moment of life speaks its new word, its new message to us, and, to this we must listen and understand it, without first of all fixing limits for ourselves. After all, what's the good of discussing it? Think what you like. I would merely ask why you, who have read hundreds of books from Ecclesiastes to Marx, have not yet been able to form any definite conception of life?"

"Why do you suppose that I have not?" asked Yourii, and his dark eyes flashed menacingly. "Perhaps my conception of life may be a wrong one, but I have it."

"Very well, then," said Sanine, "why seek to acquire another?"

Pistzoff tittered.

"Hush!" cried Koudriavji contemptuously, as his neck twitched.

"How clever he is!" thought Sina Karsavina, full of naive admiration for Sanine. She looked at him, and then at Svarogitsch, feeling almost bashful, and yet strangely glad. It was as if the two disputants were arguing as to who should possess her.

"Thus, it follows," continued Sanine, "that you do not need what you are vainly seeking. To me it is evident that every person here to-night is endeavouring to force the others to accept his views, being himself mortally afraid lest others should persuade him to think as they do. Well, to be quite frank, that is boring."

"One moment! Allow me!" exclaimed Goschienko.

"Oh I that will do!" said Sanine, with a gesture of annoyance. "I expect that you have a most wonderful conception of life, and have read heaps of books. One can see that directly. Yet you lose your temper because everybody doesn't agree with you; and, what is more, you behave rudely to Soloveitchik, who has certainly never done you any harm." Goschienko was silent, looking utterly amazed, as if Sanine had said something most extraordinary.

"Yourii Nicolaijevitch," said Sanine cheerily, "you must not be angry with me because I spoke somewhat bluntly just now. I can see that in your soul discord reigns."

"Discord?" exclaimed Yourii, reddening. He did not know whether he ought to be angry or riot. Just as it had done during their walk to the meeting, Sanine's calm, friendly voice pleasantly impressed him.

"Ah! you know yourself that it is so!" replied Sanine, with a smile. "But it won't do to pay any attention to such childish nonsense. Life's really too short."

"Look here," shouted Goschienko, purple with rage, "You take far too much upon yourself!"

"Not more than you do."

"How's that?"

"Think it out for yourself," said Sanine. "What you say and do is far ruder and more unamiable than anything that I say."

"I don't understand you!"

"That's not my fault."

"What?"

To this Sanine made no reply, but taking up his cap, said:

"I'm off. It is getting a bit too dull for me."

"You're right! And there's no more beer!" added Ivanoff, as he moved towards the ante-room.

"We shan't get along like this; that's very clear," said Dubova.

"Walk back with me, Yourii Nicolaijevitch," cried Sina.

Then, turning to Sanine, she said "Au revoir!"

For a moment their eyes met. Sina felt pleasurably alarmed.

"Alas!" cried Dubova, as she went out, "our little club has collapsed before it has even been properly started."

"But why is that?" said a mournful voice, as Soloveitchik, who was getting in every one's way, stumbled forward.

Until this moment his existence had been ignored, and many were struck by the forlorn expression of his countenance.

"I say, Soloveitchik," said Sanine pensively, "one day I must come and see you, and we'll have a chat,"

"By all means! Pray do so!" said Soloveitchik, bowing effusively.

On coming out of the lighted room, the darkness seemed so intense that nobody was able to see anybody else, and only voices were recognizable. The two workmen kept aloof from the others, and, when they were at some distance, Pistzoff laughed and said:

"It's always like that, with them. They meet together, and are going to do such wonders, and then each wants to have it his own way. That big chap was the only one I liked."

"A lot you understand when clever folk of that sort talk together!" replied Koudriavji testily, twisting his neck about as if he were being throttled.

Pistzoff whistled mockingly in lieu of answer.