Sanine by Mikhail Petrovich Artzybashev
It was about six o'clock. The sun still shone brightly, but in the garden there were already faint green shadows. The air was full of light and warmth and peace. Maria Ivanovna was making jam, and under the green linden-tree there was a strong smell of boiling sugar and raspberries. Sanine had been busy at the flower-beds all the morning, trying to revive some of the flowers that suffered most from the dust and heat.
"You had better pull up the weeds first," suggested his mother, as from time to time she watched him through the blue, quivering stream. "Tell Grounjka, and she'll do it for you."
Sanine looked up, hot and smiling. "Why?" said he, as he tossed back his hair that clung to his brow. "Let them grow as much as they like. I am fond of everything green."
"You're a funny fellow!" said his mother, as she shrugged her shoulders, good-humouredly. For some reason or other, his answer had pleased her.
"It is you yourselves that are funny," said Sanine, in a tone of conviction. He then went into the house to wash his hands, and, coming back, sat down at his ease in a wicker arm-chair near the table. He felt happy, and in a good temper. The verdure, the sunlight and the blue sky filled him with a keener sense of the joy of life. Large towns with their bustle and din were to him detestable. Around him were sunlight and freedom; the future gave him no anxiety; for he was disposed to accept from life whatever it could offer him. Sanine shut his eyes tight, and stretched himself; the tension of his sound, strong muscles gave him pleasurable thrills.
A gentle breeze was blowing. The whole garden seemed to sigh. Here and there, sparrows chattered noisily about their intensely important but incomprehensible little lives, and Mill, the fox-terrier, with ears erect and red tongue lolling out, lay in the long grass, listening. The leaves whispered softly; their round shadows quivered on the smooth gravel path.
Maria Ivanovna was vexed at her son's calmness. She was fond of him, just as she was fond of all her children, and for that very reason she longed to rouse him, to wound his self-respect, if only to force him to heed her words and accept her view of life. Like an ant in the sand, she had employed every moment of a long existence in building up the frail structure of her domestic well-being. It was a long, bare, monotonous edifice, like a barrack or a hospital, built with countless little bricks that to her, as an incompetent architect, constituted the graces of life, though in fact they were petty worries that kept her in a perpetual state of irritation or of anxiety.
"Do you suppose things will go on like this, later on?" she said, with lips compressed, and feigning intense interest in the boiling jam.
"What do you mean by 'later on'?" asked Sanine, and then sneezed.
Maria Ivanovna thought that he had sneezed on purpose to annoy her, and, absurd though such a notion was, looked cross.
"How nice it is to be here, with you!" said Sanine, dreamily.
"Yes, it's not so bad," she answered, drily. She was secretly pleased at her son's praise of the house and garden that to her were as lifelong kinsfolk.
Sanine looked at her, and then said, thoughtfully:
"If you didn't bother me with all sorts of silly things, it would be nicer still."
The bland tone in which these words were spoken seemed at variance with their meaning, so that Maria Ivanovna did not know whether to be vexed or amused.
"To look at you, and then to think that, as a child, you were always rather odd," said she, sadly, "and now--"
"And now?" exclaimed Sanine, gleefully, as if he expected to hear something specially pleasant and interesting.
"Now you are more crazy than ever!" said Maria Ivanovna sharply, shaking her spoon.
"Well, all the better!" said Sanine, laughing. After a pause, he added, "Ah! here's Novikoff!"
Out of the house came a tall, fair, good-looking man. His red silk shirt, fitting tight to his well-proportioned frame, looked brilliant in the sun; his pale blue eyes had a lazy, good-natured expression.
"There you go! Always quarrelling!" said he, in a languid, friendly tone. "And in Heaven's name, what about?"
"Well, the fact is, mother thinks that a Grecian nose would suit me better, while I am quite satisfied with the one that I have got."
Sanine looked down his nose and, laughing, grasped the other's big, soft hand.
"So, I should say!" exclaimed Maria Ivanovna, pettishly.
Novikoff laughed merrily; and from the green thicket, came a gentle echo in reply, as if some one yonder heartily; shared his mirth.
"Ah! I know what it is! Worrying about your future."
"What, you, too?" exclaimed Sanine, in comic alarm.
"It just serves you right."
"Ah!" cried Sanine. "If it's a case of two to one, I had better clear out."
"No, it is I that will soon have to clear out," said Maria Ivanovna with sudden irritation at which she herself was vexed. Hastily removing her saucepan of jam, she hurried into the house, without looking back. The terrier jumped up, and with ears erect watched her go. Then it rubbed its nose with its front paw, gave another questioning glance at the house and ran off into the garden.
"Have you got any cigarettes?" asked Sanine, delighted at his mother's departure.
Novikoff with a lazy movement of his large body produced a cigarette- case.
"You ought not to tease her so," said he, in a voice of gentle reproof. "She's an old lady."
"How have I teased her?"
"Well, you see--"
"What do you mean by 'well, you see?' It is she who is always after me. I have never asked anything of anybody, and therefore people ought to leave me alone."
Both remained silent.
"Well, how goes it, doctor?" asked Sanine, as he watched the tobacco- smoke rising in fantastic curves above his head.
Novikoff, who was thinking of something else, did not answer at once.
"In what way?"
"Oh! in every way. Everything is so dull and this little town bores me to death. There's nothing to do."
"Nothing to do? Why it was you that complained of not having time to breathe!"
"That is not what I mean. One can't be always seeing patients, seeing patients. There is another life besides that."
"And who prevents you from living that other life?"
"That is rather a complicated question."
"In what way is it complicated? You are a young, good-looking, healthy man; what more do you want?"
"In my opinion that is not enough," replied Novikoff, with mild irony.
"Really!" laughed Sanine. "Well, I think it is a very great deal."
"But not enough for me," said Novikoff, laughing in his turn. It was plain that Sanine's remark about his health and good looks had pleased him, and yet it had made him feel shy as a girl.
"There's one thing that you want," said Sanine, pensively.
"And what is that?"
"A just conception of life. The monotony of your existence oppresses you; and yet, if some one advised you to give it all up, and go straight away into the wide world, you would be afraid to do so."
"And as what should I go? As a beggar? H .. m!"
"Yes, as a beggar, even! When I look at you, I think: there is a man who in order to give the Russian Empire a constitution would let himself be shut up in Schlusselburg [Footnote: A fortress for political prisoners.] for the rest of his life, losing all his rights, and his liberty as well. After all, what is a constitution to him? But when it is a question of altering his own tedious mode of life, and of going elsewhere to find new interests, he at once asks, 'how should I get a living? Strong and healthy as I am, should I not come to grief if I had not got my fixed salary, and consequently cream in my tea, my silk shirts, stand-up collars, and all the rest of it?' It's funny, upon my word it is!"
"I cannot see anything funny in it at all. In the first case, it is the question of a cause, an idea, whereas in the other--"
"Oh! I don't know how to express myself!" And Novikoff snapped his fingers.
"There now!" said Sanine, interrupting. "That's how you always evade the point. I shall never believe that the longing for a constitution is stronger in you than the longing to make the most of your own life."
"That is just a question. Possibly it is."
Sanine waved his hand, irritably.
"Oh! don't, please! If somebody were to cut off your finger, you would feel it more than if it were some other Russian's finger. That is a fact, eh?"
"Or a cynicism," said Novikoff, meaning to be sarcastic when he was merely foolish.
"Possibly. But, all the same, it is the truth. And now though in Russia and in many other States there is no constitution, nor the slightest sign of one, it is your own unsatisfactory life that worries you, not the absence of a constitution. And if you say it isn't, then you're telling a lie. What is more," added Sanine, with a merry twinkle in his eyes, "you are worried not about your life but because Lida has not yet fallen in love with you. Now, isn't that so?"
"What utter nonsense you're talking!" cried Novikoff, turning as red as his silk shirt. So confused was he, that tears rose to his calm, kindly eyes.
"How is it nonsense, when besides Lida you can see nothing else in the whole world? The wish to possess her is written in large letters on your brow."
Novikoff winced perceptibly and began to walk rapidly up and down the path. If anyone but Lida's brother had spoken to him in this way it would have pained him deeply, but to hear such words from Sanine's mouth amazed him; in fact at first he scarcely understood them.
"Look here," he muttered, "either you are posing, or else--"
"Or else--what?" asked Sanine, smiling.
Novikoff looked aside, shrugged his shoulders, and was silent. The other inference led him to regard Sanine as an immoral, bad man. But he could not tell him this, for, ever since their college days, he had always felt sincere affection for him, and it seemed to Novikoff impossible that he should have chosen a wicked man as his friend. The effect on his mind was at once bewildering and unpleasant. The allusion to Lida pained him, but, as the goddess whom he adored, he could not feel angry with Sanine for speaking of her. It pleased him, and yet he felt hurt, as if a burning hand had seized his heart and had gently pressed it.
Sanine was silent, and smiled good-humouredly.
After a pause he said:
"Well, finish your statement; I am in no hurry!"
Novikoff kept walking up and down the path, as before. He was evidently hurt. At this moment the terrier came running back excitedly and rubbed against Sanine's knees, as if wishful to let every one know how pleased he was.
"Good dog!" said Sanine, patting him.
Novikoff strove to avoid continuing the discussion, being afraid that Sanine might return to the subject which for personally was the most interesting in the whole world. Anything that did not concern Lida seemed le to him--dull.
"And--where is Lidia Petrovna?" he asked mechanically, albeit loth to utter the question that was uppermost in his mind.
"Lida? Where should she be? Walking with officers on the boulevard, where all our young ladies are to be found at this time of day."
A look of jealousy darkened his face, as Novikoff asked:
"How can a girl so clever and cultivated as she waste her time with such empty-headed fools?"
"Oh! my friend," exclaimed Sanine, smiling, "Lida is handsome, and young, and healthy, just as you are; more so, in fact, because she has that which you lack--keen desire for everything. She wants to know everything, to experience everything--why, here she comes! You've only got to look at her to understand that. Isn't she pretty?"
Lida was shorter and much handsomer than her brother. Sweetness combined with supple strength gave to her whole personality charm and distinction. There was a haughty look in her dark eyes, and her voice, of which she was proud, sounded rich and musical. She walked slowly down the steps, moving with the lithe grace of a thoroughbred, while adroitly holding up her long grey dress. Behind her, clinking their spurs, came two good-looking young officers in tightly-fitting riding- breeches and shining top-boots.
"Who is pretty? Is it I?" asked Lida, as she filled the whole garden with the charm of her voice, her beauty and her youth. She gave Novikoff her hand, with a side-glance at her brother, about whose attitude she did not feel quite clear, never knowing whether he was joking or in earnest. Grasping her hand tightly, Novikoff grew very red, but his emotions were unnoticed by Lida, used as she was to his reverent, bashful glance that never troubled her.
"Good evening, Vladimir Petrovitch," said the elder, handsomer and fairer of the two officers, rigid, erect as a spirited stallion, while his spurs clinked noisily.
Sanine knew him to be Sarudine, a captain of cavalry, one of Lida's most persistent admirers. The other was Lieutenant Tanaroff, who regarded Sarudine as the ideal soldier, and strove to copy everything he did. He was taciturn, somewhat clumsy, and not so good-looking as Sarudine. Tanaroff rattled his spurs in his turn, but said nothing.
"Yes, you!" replied Sanine to his sister, gravely.
"Why, of course I am pretty. You should have said indescribably pretty!" And, laughing gaily, Lida sank into a chair, glancing again at Sanine. Raising her arms and thus emphasizing the curves of her shapely bosom, she proceeded to remove her hat, but, in so doing, let a long hat-pin fall on the gravel, and her veil and hair became disarranged.
"Andrei Pavlovitch, do please help me!" she plaintively cried to the taciturn lieutenant.
"Yes, she's a beauty!" murmured Sanine, thinking aloud, and never taking his eyes off her. Once more Lida glanced shyly at her brother.
"We're all of us beautiful here," said she.
"What's that? Beautiful? Ha! Ha!" laughed Sarudine, showing his white, shining teeth. "We are at best but the modest frame that serves to heighten the dazzling splendour of your beauty."
"I say, what eloquence, to be sure!" exclaimed Sanine, in surprise. There was a slight shade of irony in his tone.
"Lidia Petrovna would make anybody eloquent," said Tanaroff the silent, as he tried to help Lida to take off her hat, and in so doing ruffled her hair. She pretended to be vexed, laughing all the while.
"What?" drawled Sanine. "Are you eloquent too?"
"Oh! let them be!" whispered Novikoff, hypocritically, though secretly pleased.
Lida frowned at Sanine, to whom her dark eyes plainly said:
"Don't imagine that I cannot see what these people are. I intend to please myself. I am not a fool any more than you are, and I know what I am about."
Sanine smiled at her.
At last the hat was removed, which Tanaroff solemnly placed on the table.
"Look! Look what you've done to me, Andrei Pavlovitch!" cried Lida half peevishly, half coquettishly. "You've got my hair into such a tangle! Now I shall have to go indoors."
"I'm so awfully sorry!" stammered Tanaroff, in confusion.
Lida rose, gathered up her skirts, and ran indoors laughing, followed by the glances of all the men. When she had gone they seemed to breathe more freely, without that nervous sense of restraint which men usually experience in the presence of a pretty young woman. Sarudine lighted a cigarette which he smoked with evident gusto. One felt, when he spoke, that he habitually took the lead in a conversation, and that what he thought was something quite different from what he said.
"I have just been persuading Lidia Petrovna to study singing seriously. With such a voice, her career is assured."
"A fine career, upon my word!" sullenly rejoined Novikoff, looking aside.
"What is wrong with it?" asked Sarudine, in genuine amazement, removing the cigarette from his lips.
"Why, what's an actress? Nothing else but a harlot!" replied Novikoff, with sudden heat. Jealousy tortured him; the thought that the young woman whose body he loved could appear before other men in an alluring dress that would exhibit her charms in order to provoke their passions.
"Surely it is going too far to say that," replied Sarudine, raising his eyebrows.
Novikoff's glance was full of hatred. He regarded Sarudine as one of those men who meant to rob him of his beloved; moreover, his good looks annoyed him.
"No, not in the least too far," he retorted. "To appear half nude on the stage and in some voluptuous scene exhibit one's personal charms to those who in an hour or so take their leave as they would of some courtesan after paying the usual fee! A charming career indeed!"
"My friend," said Sanine, "every woman in the first instance likes to be admired for her personal charms."
Novikoff shrugged his shoulders irritably.
"What a silly, coarse statement!" said he.
"At any rate, coarse or not, it's the truth," replied Sanine. "Lida would be most effective on the stage, and I should like to see her there."
Although in the others this speech roused a certain instinctive curiosity, they all felt ill at ease. Sarudine, who thought himself more intelligent and tactful than the rest, deemed it his duty to dispel this vague feeling of embarrassment.
"Well, what do you think the young lady ought to do? Get married? Pursue a course of study, or let her talent be lost? That would be a crime against nature that had endowed her with its fairest gift."
"Oh!" exclaimed Sanine, with undisguised sarcasm, "till now the idea of such a crime had never entered my head."
Novikoff laughed maliciously, but replied politely enough to Sarudine.
"Why a crime? A good mother or a female doctor is worth a thousand times more than an actress."
"Not at all!" said Tanaroff, indignantly.
"Don't you find this sort of talk rather boring?" asked Sanine.
Sarudine's rejoinder was lost in a fit of coughing. They all of them really thought such a discussion tedious and unnecessary; and yet they all felt somewhat offended. An unpleasant silence reigned.
Lida and Maria Ivanovna appeared on the verandah. Lida had heard her brother's last words, but did not know to what they referred.
"You seem to have soon become bored!" cried she, laughing. "Let us go down to the river. It is charming there, now."
As she passed in front of the men, her shapely figure swayed slightly, and there was a look of dark mystery in her eyes that seemed to say something, to promise something.
"Go for a walk till supper-time," said Maria Ivanovna.
"Delighted," exclaimed Sarudine. His spurs clinked, as he offered Lida his arm.
"I hope that I may be allowed to come too," said Novikoff, meaning to be satirical, though his face wore a tearful expression.
"Who is there to prevent you?" replied Lida, smiling, at him over her shoulder.
"Yes, you go, too," exclaimed Sanine. "I would come with you if she were not so thoroughly convinced that I am her brother."
Lida winced somewhat, and glanced swiftly at Sanine, as she laughed, a short, nervous laugh.
Maria Ivanovna was obviously displeased.
"Why do you talk in that stupid way?" she bluntly exclaimed. "I suppose you think it is original?"
"I really never thought about it at all," was Sanine's rejoinder.
Maria Ivanovna looked at him in amazement. She had never been able to understand her son; she never could tell when he was joking or in earnest, nor what he thought or felt, when other comprehensible persons felt and thought much as she did herself. According to her idea, a man was always bound to speak and feel and act exactly as other men of his social and intellectual status were wont to speak and feel and act. She was also of opinion that people were not simply men with their natural characteristics and peculiarities, but that they must be all cast in one common mould. Her own environment encouraged and confirmed this belief. Education, she thought, tended to divide men into two groups, the intelligent and the unintelligent. The latter might retain their individuality, which drew upon them the contempt of others. The former were divided into groups, and their convictions did not correspond with their personal qualities but with their respective positions. Thus, every student was a revolutionary, every official was bourgeois, every artist a free thinker, and every officer an exaggerated stickler for rank. If, however, it chanced that a student was a Conservative, or an officer an Anarchist, this must be regarded as most extraordinary, and even unpleasant. As for Sanine, according to his origin and education he ought to have been something quite different from what he was; and Maria Ivanovna felt as Lida, Novikoff and all who came into contact with him felt, that he had disappointed expectation. With a mother's instinct she quickly saw the impression that her son made on those about him; and it pained her.
Sanine was aware of this. He would fain have reassured her, but was at a loss how to begin. At first he thought of professing sentiments that were false, so that she might be pacified; however, he only laughed, and, rising, went indoors. There, for a while, he lay on his bed, thinking. It seemed as if men wished to turn the whole world into a sort of military cloister, with one set of rules for all, framed with a view to destroy all individuality, or else to make this submit to one vague, archaic power of some kind. He was even led to reflect upon Christianity and its fate, but this bored him to such an extent that he fell asleep, and did not wake until evening had turned to night.
Maria Ivanovna watched him go, and she, too, sighing deeply, became immersed in thought. Sarudine, so she said to herself, was obviously paying court to Lida, and she hoped that his intentions were serious.
"Lida's already twenty, and Sarudine seems to be quite a nice sort of young man. They say he'll get his squadron this year. Of course, he's heavily in debt--But oh! why did I have that horrid dream? I know it's absurd, yet somehow I can't get it out of my head!"
This dream was one that she had dreamed on the same day that Sarudine had first entered the house. She thought that she saw Lida, dressed all in white, walking in a green meadow bright with flowers.
Maria Ivanovna sank into an easy chair, leaning her head on her hand, as old women do, and she gazed at the darkening sky. Thoughts gloomy and tormenting gave no respite, and there was an indefinable something caused her to feel anxious and afraid.