Chapter XXIX.
 

On the following day Dounika, bare-headed and barefooted, came running to Sanine who was gardening.

"Vladimir Petrovitch," she exclaimed, and her silly face had a scared look, "the officers have come, and they wish to speak to you." She repeated the words like a lesson that she had learnt by heart.

Sanine was not surprised. He had been expecting a challenge from Sarudine.

"Are they very anxious to see me?" he asked in a jocular tone.

Dounika, however, must have had an inkling of something dreadful, for instead of hiding her face she gazed at Sanine in sympathetic bewilderment.

Sanine propped his spade against a tree, tightened his belt and walked towards the house with his usual jaunty step.

'What fools they are! What absolute idiots!' he said to himself, as he thought of Sarudine and his seconds. By this no insult was intended; it was just the sincere expression of his own opinion.

Passing through the house, he saw Lida coming out of her room. She stood on the threshold; her face white as a shroud, and her eyes, anxious and distressful. Her lips moved, yet no sound escaped from them. At that moment she felt that she was the guiltiest, most miserable woman in all the world.

In an arm-chair in the morning-room sat Maria Ivanovna, looking utterly helpless and panic-stricken. Her cap that resembled a cock's comb was poised sideways on her head, and she gazed in terror at Sanine, unable to utter a word. He smiled at her and was inclined to stop for a moment, yet he preferred to proceed.

Tanaroff and Von Deitz were sitting in the drawing-room bolt upright, with their heads close together, as if in their white tunics and tight riding-breeches they felt extremely uncomfortable. As Sanine entered they both rose slowly and with some hesitation, apparently uncertain how to behave.

"Good day, gentlemen," said Sanine in a loud voice, as he held out his hand.

Von Deitz hesitated, but Tanaroff bowed in such an exaggerated way that for an instant Sanine caught sight of the closely cropped hair at the back of his neck.

"How can I be of service to you?" continued Sanine, who had noticed Tanaroff's excessive politeness, and was surprised at the assurance with which he played his part in this absurd comedy.

Von Deitz drew himself up and sought to give an expression of hauteur to his horse-like countenance; unsuccessfully, however, owing to his confusion. Strange to say, it was Tanaroff, usually so stupid and shy, who addressed Sanine in firm, decisive fashion.

"Our friend, Victor Sergejevitsch Sarudine has done us the honour of asking us to represent him in a certain matter which concerns you and himself." The sentence was delivered with automatic precision.

"Oho!" said Sanine with comic gravity, as he opened his mouth wide.

"Yes, sir," continued Tanaroff, frowning slightly. "He considers that your behaviour towards him was not--er--quite ..."

"Yes, yes, I understand," interrupted Sanine, losing patience.

"I very nearly kicked him out of the house, so that 'not--er--quite' is hardly the right way of putting it."

The speech was lost upon Tanaroff, who went on:

"Well, sir, he insists on your taking back your words."

"Yes, yes," chimed in the lanky Von Deitz, who kept shifting the position of his feet, like a stork.

Sanine smiled.

"Take them back? How can I do that? 'As uncaged bird is spoken word!'"

Too perplexed to reply, Tanaroff looked Sanine full in the face.

"What evil eyes he has!" thought the latter.

"This is no joking matter," began Tanaroff, looking flushed and angry. "Are you prepared to retract your words, or are you not?"

Sanine at first was silent.

"What an utter idiot!" he thought, as he took a chair and sat down.

"Possibly I might be willing to retract my words in order to please and pacify Sarudine," he began, speaking seriously, "the more so as I attach not the slightest importance to them. But, in the first place, Sarudine, being a fool, would not understand my motive, and, instead of holding his tongue, would brag about it. In the second place, I thoroughly dislike Sarudine, so that, under these circumstances, I don't see that there is any sense in my retractation."

"Very well, then..." hissed Tanaroff through his teeth.

Von Deitz stared in amazement, and his long face turned yellow.

"In that case..." began Tanaroff, in a louder and would-be threatening tone.

Sanine felt fresh hatred for the fellow as he looked at his narrow forehead and his tight breeches.

"Yes, yes, I know all about it," he interrupted. "But one thing, let me tell you; I don't intend to fight Sarudine."

Von Deitz turned round sharply.

Tanaroff drew himself up, and said in a tone of contempt.

"Why not, pray?"

Sanine burst out laughing. His hatred had vanished as swiftly as it had come.

"Well, this is why. First of all, I have no wish to kill Sarudine, and secondly, I have even less desire to be killed myself."

"But ..." began Tanaroff scornfully.

"I won't, and there's an end of it!" said Sanine, as he rose. "Why, indeed? I don't feel inclined to give you any explanation. That were too much to expect, really!"

Tanaroff's profound contempt for the man who refused to fight a duel was blended with the implicit belief that only an officer could possibly possess the pluck and the fine sense of honour necessary to do such a thing. That is why Sanine's refusal did not surprise him in the least; in fact, he was secretly pleased.

"That is your affair," he said, in an unmistakably contemptuous tone, "but I must warn you that ..."

Sanine laughed.

"Yes, yes, I know, but I advise Sarudine not to ..."

"Not to--what?" asked Tanaroff, as he picked up his cap from the window-sill.

"I advise him not to touch me, or else I'll give him such a thrashing that ..."

"Look here!" cried Von Deitz, in a fury. "I'm not going to stand this... You ... you are simply laughing at us. Don't you understand that to refuse to accept a challenge is ... is ..."

He was as red as a lobster, his eyes were starting from his head, and there was foam on his lips.

Sanine looked curiously at his mouth, and said:

"And this is the man whose calls himself a disciple of Tolstoi!"

Von Deitz winced, and tossed his head.

"I must beg of you," he spluttered, ashamed all the while at thus addressing a man with whom till now he had been on friendly terms. "I must beg of you not to mention that. It has nothing whatever to do with this matter."

"Hasn't it! though?" replied Sanine. "It has a great deal to do with it."

"Yes, but I must ask you," croaked Von Deitz, becoming hysterical.

"Really, this is too much! In short ..."

"Oh! That'll do!" replied Sanine, drawing back in disgust from Von Deitz, from whose mouth saliva spurted. "Think what you like; I don't care. And tell Sarudine that he is an ass!"

"You've no right, sir, I say, you've no right," shouted Von Deitz.

"Very good, very good," said Tanaroff, quite satisfied

"Let us go."

"No!" cried the other, plaintively, as he waved his lanky arms. "How dare he? ... what business I ... It's simply ..."

Sanine looked at him, and, making a contemptuous gesture, walked out of the room.

"We will deliver your message to our brother-officer," said Tanaroff, calling after him.

"As you please," said Sanine, without looking round. He could hear Tanaroff trying to pacify the enraged Von Deitz, and thought to himself, "As a rule the fellow's an utter fool, but put him on his hobby-horse, and he becomes quite sensible."

"The matter cannot be allowed to rest thus!" cried the implacable Von Deitz, as they went out.

From the door of her room, Lida gently called "Volodja!"

Sanine stood still.

"What is it?"

"Come here; I want to speak to you."

Sanine entered Lida's little room where, owing to the trees in front of the window, soft green twilight reigned. There was a feminine odour of perfume and powder.

"How nice it is in here," said Sanine, with a sigh of relief.

Lida stood facing the window, and green reflected lights from the garden flickered round her cheeks and shoulders.

"What do you want with me?" he asked kindly.

Lida was silent, and she breathed heavily.

"Why, what is the matter?"

"Are you--not going to fight a duel?" she asked hoarsely, without looking round.

"No."

Lida was silent.

"Well, what of that?" said Sanine.

Lida's chin trembled. She turned sharply round and murmured quickly:

"I can't understand that, I can't..."

"Oh!" exclaimed Sanine, frowning. "Well, I'm very sorry for you."

Human stupidity and malice surrounded him on all sides. To find such qualities alike in bad folk and good folk, in handsome people as in ugly, proved utterly disheartening.

He turned on his heels and went out.

Lida watched him go, and then, holding her head with both hands, she flung herself upon the bed. The long black plait lay at full length along the white coverlet. At this moment Lida, strong, supple and beautiful in spite of her despair, looked younger, more full of life than ever. Through the window came warmth and radiance from the garden, and the room was bright and pleasant. Yet of all this Lida saw nothing.