Sanine by Mikhail Petrovich Artzybashev
On that same evening Sanine went to see Soloveitchik. The little Jew was sitting alone on the steps of his house, gazing at the bare, deserted space in front of it where several disused pathways crossed the withered grass. Depressing indeed was the sight of the vacant sheds, with their huge, rusty locks, and of the black windows of the mill. The whole scene spoke mournfully of life and activity that long had ceased.
Sanine instantly noticed the changed expression of Soloveitchik's face. He no longer smiled, but seemed anxious and worried. His dark eyes had a questioning look.
"Ah! good evening," he said, as in apathetic fashion he took the other's hand. Then he continued gazing at the calm evening sky, against which the black roofs of the sheds stood out in ever sharper relief.
Sanine sat down on the opposite side of the steps, lighted a cigarette, and silently watched Soloveitchik, whose strange demeanour interested him.
"What do you do with yourself here?" he asked, after a while.
Languidly the other turned to him his large, sad eyes.
"I just live here, that's all. When the mill was at work, I used to be in the office. But now it's closed, and everybody's gone away except myself."
"Don't you find it lonely, to be all by yourself, like this?"
Soloveitchik was silent.
Then, shrugging his shoulders, he said: "It's all the same to me."
They remained silent. There was no sound but the rattling of the dog's chain.
"It's not the place that's lonely," exclaimed Soloveitchik with sudden vehemence. "But it's here I feel it, and here," He touched his forehead and his breast.
"What's the matter with you?" asked Sanine calmly.
"Look here," continued Soloveitchik, becoming more excited, "you struck a man to-day, and smashed his face in. Perhaps you have ruined his whole life. Pray don't be offended at my speaking to you like this. I have thought a great deal about it all, sitting here, as you see, and wondering, wondering. Now, if I ask you something, will you answer me?"
For a moment his features were contorted by his usual set smile.
"Ask me whatever you like," replied Sanine, kindly. "You're afraid of offending me, eh? That won't offend me, I assure you. What's done is done; and, if I thought that I had done wrong, I should be the first to say so."
"I wanted to ask you this," said Soloveitchik, quivering with excitement. "Do you realize that perhaps you might have killed that man?"
"There's not much doubt about that," replied Sanine. "It would have been difficult for a man like Sarudine to get out of the mess unless he killed me, or I killed him. But, as regards killing me, he missed the psychological moment, so to speak; and at present he's not in a fit condition to do me harm. Later on he won't have the pluck. He's played his part."
"And you calmly tell me all this?"
"What do you mean by 'calmly?'" asked Sanine. "I couldn't look on calmly and see a chicken killed, much less a man. It was painful to me to hit him. To be conscious of one's own strength is pleasant, of course, but it was nevertheless a horrible experience--horrible, because such an act in itself was brutal. Yet my conscience is calm. I was but the instrument of fate. Sarudine has come to grief because the whole bent of his life was bound to bring about a catastrophe; and the marvel is that others of his sort do not share his fate. These are the men who learn to kill their fellow-creatures and to pamper their own bodies, not knowing why or wherefore. They are lunatics, idiots! Let them loose, and they would cut their own throats and those of other folk as well. Am I to blame because I protected myself from a madman of this type?"
"Yes, but you have killed him," was Soloveitchik's obstinate reply.
"In that case you had better appeal to the good God who made us meet."
"You could have stopped him by seizing hold of his hands."
Sanine raised his head.
"In a moment like that one doesn't reflect. And how would that have helped matters? His code of honour demanded revenge at any price. I could not have held his hands for ever. It would only have been an additional insult, nothing more."
Soloveitchik limply waved his hand, and did not reply. Imperceptibly the darkness closed round them. The fires of sunset paled, and beneath the deserted sheds the shadows grew deeper, as if in these lonely places mysterious, dreadful beings were about to take up their abode during the night. Their noiseless footsteps may have made Sultan uneasy, for he suddenly crept out of his kennel and sat in front of it, rattling his chain.
"Perhaps you're right," observed Soloveitchik sadly, "but was it absolutely necessary? Would it not have been better if you had borne the blow?"
"Better?" said Sanine. "A blow's always a painful thing. And why? For what reason?"
"Oh! do, please, hear me out," interrupted Soloveitchik, with a pleading gesture. "It might have been better--"
"For Sarudine, certainly,"
"No, for you, too; for you, too."
"Oh! Soloveitchik," replied Sanine, with a touch of annoyance, "a truce to that silly old notion about moral victory; and a false notion, too. Moral victory does not consist in offering one's cheek to the smiter, but in being right before one's own conscience. How this is achieved is a matter of chance, of circumstances. There is nothing so horrible as slavery. Yet most horrible of all is it when a man whose inmost soul rebels against coercion and force yet submits thereto in the name of some power that is mightier than he."
Soloveitchik clasped his head with both hands, as one distraught.
"I've not got the brains to understand it all," he said plaintively. "And I don't in the least know how I ought to live."
"Why should you know? Live as the bird flies. If it wants to move its right wing, it moves it. If it wants to fly round a tree, it does so."
"Yes, a bird may do that, but I'm not a bird; I'm a man," said Soloveitchik with naive earnestness.
Sanine laughed outright, and for a moment the merry sound echoed through the gloomy courtyard.
Soloveitchik shook his head. "No," he murmured sadly, "all that's only talk. You can't tell me how I ought to live. Nobody can tell me that."
"That's very true. Nobody can tell you that. The art of living implies a talent; and he who does not possess that talent perishes or makes shipwreck of his life."
"How calmly you say that! As if you knew everything! Pray don't be offended, but have you always been like that--always so calm?" asked Soloveitchik, keenly interested.
"Oh! no; though certainly my temperament has usually been calm enough, but there were times when I was harassed by doubts of all kinds. At one time, indeed, I dreamed that the ideal life for me was the Christian life."
Sanine paused, and Soloveitchik leaned forward eagerly as if to hear something of the utmost importance.
"At that time I had a comrade, a student of mathematics, Ivan Lande by name. He was a wonderful man, of indomitable moral force; a Christian, not from conviction, but by nature. In his life all Christianity was mirrored. If struck, he did not strike back; he treated every man as his brother, and in woman he did not recognize the sexual attraction. Do you remember Semenoff?"
Soloveitchik nodded, as with childish pleasure.
"Well, at that time Semenoff was very ill. He was living in the Crimea, where he gave lessons. There, solitude and the presentiment of his approaching death drove him to despair. Lande heard of this, and determined to go thither and save this lost soul. He had no money, and no one was willing to lend any to a reputed madman. So he went on foot, and, after walking over a thousand versts, died on the way, and thus sacrificed his life for others."
"And you, oh! do tell me," cried Soloveitchik with flashing eyes, "do you recognize the greatness of such a man?"
"He was much talked about at the time," replied Sanine thoughtfully. "Some did not look upon him as a Christian, and for that reason condemned him. Others said that he was mad and not devoid of self- conceit, while some denied that he had any moral force; and, since he would not fight, they declared that he was neither prophet nor conqueror. I judge him otherwise. At that time he influenced me to the point of folly. One day a student boxed my ears, and I became almost mad with rage. But Lande stood there, and I just looked at him and-- Well, I don't know how it was, but I got up without speaking, and walked out of the room. First of all I felt intensely proud of what I had done, and secondly I hated the student from the bottom of my heart. Not because he had struck me, but because to him my conduct must have been supremely gratifying. By degrees the falseness of my position became clear to me, and this set me thinking. For a couple of weeks I was like one demented, and after that I ceased to feel proud of my false moral victory. At the first ironical remark on the part of my adversary I thrashed him until he became unconscious. This brought about an estrangement between Lande and myself. When I came to examine his life impartially, I found it astonishingly poor and miserable."
"Oh! how can you say that?" cried Soloveitchik. "How was it possible for you to estimate the wealth of his spiritual emotions?"
"Such emotions were very monotonous. His life's happiness consisted in the acceptance of every misfortune without a murmur, and its wealth, in the total renunciation of life's joys and material benefits. He was a beggar by choice, a fantastic personage whose life was sacrificed to an idea of which he himself had no clear conception."
Soloveitchik wrung his hands.
"Oh! you cannot imagine how it distresses me to hear this!" he exclaimed.
"Really, Soloveitchik, you're quite hysterical," said Sanine, in surprise. "I have not told you anything extraordinary. Possibly the subject is, to you, a painful one?"
"Oh! most painful. I am always thinking, thinking, till my head seems as if it would burst. Was all that really an error, nothing more? I grope about, as in a dark room, and there is no one to tell me what I ought to do. Why do we live? Tell me that."
"Why? That nobody knows."
"And should we not live for the future, so that later on, at least, mankind may have a golden age?"
"There will never be a golden age. If the world and mankind could become better all in a moment, then, perhaps, a golden age would be possible. But that cannot be. Progress towards improvement is slow, and man can only see the step in front of him, and that immediately behind him. You and I have not lived the life of a Roman slave, nor that of some savage of the Stone Age, and therefore we cannot appreciate the boon of our civilization. Thus, if there should ever be a golden age, the men of that period will not perceive any difference between their lives and those of their ancestors. Man moves along an endless road, and to wish to level the road to happiness would be like adding new units to a number that is infinite."
"Then you believe that it all means nothing--that all is of no avail?"
"Yes, that is what I think."
"But what about your friend Lande? You yourself were--"
"I loved Lande," said Sanine gravely, "not because he was a Christian, but because he was sincere, and never swerved from his path, being undaunted by obstacles either ridiculous or formidable. It was as a personality that I prized Lande. When he died, his worth ceased to exist."
"And don't you think that such men have an ennobling influence upon life? Might not such men have followers or disciples?"
"Why should life be ennobled? Tell me that, first of all. And, secondly, one doesn't want disciples. Men like Lande are born so. Christ was splendid; Christians, however, are but a sorry crew. The idea of his doctrine was a beautiful one, but they have made of it a lifeless dogma."
Tired with talking, Sanine said no more. Soloveitchik remained silent also. There was great stillness around them, while overhead the stars seemed to maintain a conversation wordless and unending. Then Soloveitchik suddenly whispered something that sounded so weird that Sanine, shuddering, exclaimed:
"What's that you said?"
"Tell me," muttered Soloveitchik, "tell me what you think. Suppose a man can't see his way clear, but is always thinking and worrying, as everything only perplexes and terrifies him--tell me, wouldn't it be better for him to die?"
"Well," replied Sanine, who clearly read the other's thoughts, "perhaps death in that case would be better. Thinking and worrying are of no avail. He only ought to live who finds joy in living; but for him who suffers, death is best."
"That is what I thought, too," exclaimed Soloveitchik, and he excitedly grasped Sanine's hand. His face looked ghastly in the gloom; his eyes were like two black holes.
"You are a dead man," said Sanine with inward apprehension, as he rose to go; "and for a dead man the best place is the grave. Good-bye."
Soloveitchik apparently did not hear him, but sat there motionless. Sanine waited for a while and then slowly walked away. At the gate he stopped to listen, but could hear nothing. Soloveitchik's figure looked blurred and indistinct in the darkness. Sanine, as if in response to a strange presentiment, said to himself:
"After all, it comes to the same thing whether he lives on like this or dies. If it's not to-day, then it will be to-morrow." He turned sharply round; the gate creaked on its hinges, and he found himself in the street.
On reaching the boulevard he heard, at a distance, some one running along and sobbing as if in great distress. Sanine stood still. Out of the gloom a figure emerged, and rapidly approached him. Again Sanine felt a sinister presentiment.
"What's the matter?" he called out.
The figure stopped for a moment, and Sanine was confronted by a soldier whose dull face showed great distress.
"What has happened?" exclaimed Sanine.
The soldier murmured something and ran on, wailing as he went. As a phantom he vanished in the night.
"That was Sarudine's servant," thought Sanine, and then it flashed across him:
"Sarudine has shot himself!"
For a moment he peered into the darkness, and his brow grew cold. Between the dread mystery of night and the soul of this stalwart man a conflict, brief yet terrible, was in progress.
The town was asleep; the glimmering roadways lay bare and white beneath the sombre trees; the windows were like dull, watchful eyes glaring at the gloom. Sanine tossed his head and smiled, as he looked calmly in front of him.
"I am not guilty," he said aloud. "One more or less--"
Erect and resolute, he strode onward, an imposing spectre in the silent night.