Chapter XXVII.
 

Volochine owned immense works in St. Petersburg upon which the existence of thousands of his employes depended.

At the present time, while a strike was in progress, be had turned his back upon the crowd of hungry, dirty malcontents, and was enjoying a trip in the provinces. Libertine as he was, he thought of nothing but women, and in young, fresh, provincial women he displayed an intense, in fact, an absorbing interest. He pictured them as delightfully shy and timid, yet sturdy as a woodland mushroom, and their provocative perfume of youth and purity he scented from afar.

Volochine had clothed his puny little body in virgin white, after sprinkling himself from head to foot with various essences; and, although he did not exactly approve of Sarudine's society, he hailed a droschky and hastened to the latter's rooms.

Sarudine was sitting at the window, drinking cold tea.

"What a lovely evening!" he kept saying to himself, as he looked out on the garden. But his thoughts were elsewhere. He felt ashamed and afraid.

He was afraid of Lida. Since their interview, he had not set eyes on her. To him she seemed another Lida now, unlike the one that had surrendered to his passion.

"Anyhow," he thought, "the matter is not at an end yet. The child must be got rid of ... or shall I treat the whole thing as a joke? I wonder what she is doing now?"

He seemed to see before him Lida's handsome, inscrutable eyes, and her lips tightly compressed, vindictive, menacing.

"She may be going to pay me out? A girl of that sort isn't one to be trifled with. At all costs I shall have to ..."

The prospect of a huge scandal vaguely suggested itself, striking terror to his craven heart.

"After all," he thought, "what could she possibly do?" Then suddenly it all seemed quite clear and simple. "Perhaps she'll drown herself? Let her go to the deuce! I didn't force her to do it! They'll say that she was my mistress--well, what of that? It only proves that I am a good- looking fellow. I never said that I would marry her. Upon my word, it's too silly!" Sarudine shrugged his shoulders, yet the sense of oppression was not lessened. "People will talk, I expect, and I shan't be able to show myself," he thought, while his hand trembled slightly as he held the glass of cold, over-sweetened tea to his lips.

He was as smart and well-groomed and scented as ever, yet it seemed as if, on his face, his white jacket, and his hands, and even on his heart, there was a foul stain which became even greater.

"Bah! After a while it will all blow over. And it's not the first time, either!" Thus he sought to soothe his conscience, but an inward voice refused to accept such consolation.

Volochine entered gingerly, his boots creaking loudly, and his discoloured teeth revealed by a condescending smile. The room was instantly filled with an odour of musk and of tobacco, quite overpowering the fresh scents of the garden.

"Ah! how do you do, Pavel Lvovitsch!" cried Sarudine as he hastily rose.

Volochine shook hands, sat down by the window and proceeded to light a cigar. He looked so elegant and self-possessed, that Sarudine felt somewhat envious, and endeavoured to assume an equally careless demeanour; but ever since Lida had flung the word "brute" in his face, he had felt ill at ease, as if every one had heard the insult and was secretly mocking him.

Volochine smiled, and chatted about various trifling matters. Yet he found it difficult to keep up such superficial conversation. "Woman" was the theme that he longed to approach, and it underlay all his stale jokes and stories of the strike at his St. Petersburg factory.

As he lighted another cigar he took the opportunity of looking hard at Sarudine. Their eyes met, and they instantly understood each other. Volochine adjusted his pince-nez and smiled a smile that found its reflection In Sarudine's face which suddenly acquired a look of lust.

"I don't expect you waste much of your time, do you?" said Volochine, with a knowing wink.

"Oh! as for that, well, what else is there to do?" replied Sarudine, shrugging his shoulders slightly.

Then they both laughed, and for a while were silent. Volochine was eager to have details of the other's conquests. A little vein just below his left knee throbbed convulsively. Sarudine, however, was not thinking of such piquant details, but of the distressing events of the last few days. He turned towards the garden and drummed with his fingers on the window-sill.

Yet Volochine was evidently waiting, and Sarudine felt that he must keep to the desired theme of conversation.

"Of course, I know," he began, with an exaggerated air of nonchalance, "I know that to you men-about-town these country wenches are extraordinarily attractive. But you're wrong. They're fresh and plump, it's true, but they've no chic; they don't know how to make love artistically."

In a moment Volochine was all animation. His eyes sparkled, and there was a change in the tone of his voice.

"No, that's quite true. But after a while all that sort of thing is apt to become boring. Our Petersburg women are not well made. You know what I mean? They're just bundles of nerves; they've no limbs on them. Now here ..."

"Yes, you're right," said Sarudine, growing interested in his turn, as he twirled his moustache complacently.

"Take off her corset, and the smartest Petersburg woman becomes--Oh! by the way, have you heard the latest?" said Volochine, interrupting himself.

"No, I dare say not," replied Sarudine, leaning forward, eagerly.

"Well," said the other, "it's an awfully good story about a Parisian cocotte." Then, with much wealth of detail, Volochine proceeded to relate a spicy anecdote that pleased his companion vastly.

"Yes," said Volochine in conclusion, as he rolled his eyes, "shape's everything in a woman. If she hasn't got that, well, for me she simply doesn't exist."

Sarudine thought of Lida's beauty, and he shrank from discussing it with Volochine. However, after a pause, he observed with much affectation:

"Every one to his taste. What I like most in a woman; is the back; that sinuous line, don't you know...."

"Yes," drawled Volochine nervously.

"Some women, especially very young ones, have got ..."

The orderly now entered treading clumsily in his heavy boots. He had come to light the lamp, and during the process of striking matches and jingling the glass shade, Sarudine and Volochine were silent.

As the flame of the lamp rose, only their glittering eyes and the glowing cigarette-ends could be seen. When the soldier had gone out, they returned to their subject, the word "Woman" forming the theme of talk that became at times grotesque in its obscenity. Sarudine's instinctive longing to boast, and to eclipse Volochine led him at last to speak of the splendid woman who had yielded to his charms, and gradually to reveal his own secret lasciviousness. Before the eyes of Volochine, Lida was exhibited as in a state of nudity, her physical attributes and her passion all being displayed as though she were some animal for sale at a fair. By their filthy thoughts she was touched and polluted and held up to ridicule. Their love of woman knew no gratitude for the enjoyment given to them; they merely strove to humiliate and insult the sex, to inflict upon it indescribable pain.

The smoke-laden atmosphere of the room had become stifling. Their bodies at fever heat, exhaled an unwholesome odour, as their eyes gleamed and their voices sounded shrill and rabid as those of wild beasts.

Beyond the window lay the calm, clear moonlit night. Bur for them the world with all its wealth of colour and sound had vanished; all that their eyes beheld was a vision of woman in her nude loveliness. Soon their imagination became so heated that they felt a burning desire to see Lida, whom now they had dubbed Lidka, by way of being familiar. Sarudine had the horses harnessed, and they drove to a house situated on the outskirts of the town.