Chapter XXXV.
 

Early that morning, soon after sunrise, Ivanoff and Sanine walked forth from the town. The dew sparkled in the sunlight, and the damp grass seen in shadow appeared grey. Along the side of the road flanked by gnarled willows, pilgrims were slowly wending their way to the monastery. The red and white kerchiefs covering their heads and their bright-hued coats and shirts gave colour and picturesqueness to the scene. The monastery bells rang out in the cool morning air, and the sound floated across the steppe, away to the dreaming woods in the dim blue distance. A troika came jingling along the highroad, and the rough voices of the pilgrims as they talked could be distinctly heard.

"We've come out a little too early," said Ivanoff.

Sanine looked round about him, contented and happy.

"Well, let us wait a while," he replied.

They sat down on the sand, close to the hedge, and lit their cigarettes.

Peasants walking along behind their carts turned to look at them, and market-women and girls as they rattled past in rickety traps pointed at the wayfarers amid bursts of merry, mocking laughter. Ivanoff took not the slightest notice of them, but Sanine smiled and nodded in response.

At last there appeared on the steps of a little white house with a bright green roof the proprietor of the "Crown" tavern, a tall man in his shirt-sleeves who noisily unlocked the door, while yawning incessantly. A woman wearing a red kerchief on her head slipped in after him.

"The very thing!" cried Ivanoff. "Let's go there."

So they went to the little inn and bought vodka and fresh gherkins from the woman with the red kerchief.

"Aha! you seem to be pretty flush of money, my friend," said Ivanoff, as Sanine produced his purse.

"I've had an advance," replied the latter, smiling. "Much to my mother's annoyance, I have accepted the secretaryship of an assurance agency. In this way I was able to get a little cash as well as maternal contempt."

When they regained the high-road, Ivanoff exclaimed:

"Oh! I feel ever so much better now!"

"So do I. Suppose we take off our boots?"

"All right."

Having taken off their boots and socks, they walked barefoot through the warm, moist sand, which was a delightful experience after trudging along in heavy boots.

"Jolly, isn't it?" said Sanine, as he drew a deep breath.

The sun's rays had now become far hotter. The town lay well in their rear as the two wayfarers plodded bravely on towards the blue, nebulous horizon. Swallows sat in rows on the telegraph-wires. A passenger-train with its blue, yellow and green carriages rolled past on the adjacent line, and the faces of drowsy travellers could be seen at the windows.

Two saucy-looking girls in white hats stood on the platform at the end of the train and watched the two bare-footed men with astonishment. Sanine laughed at them, and executed a wild impromptu dance.

Before them lay a meadow where walking barefoot in the long lush grass was an agreeable relief.

"How delightful!" cried Ivanoff.

"Life's worth living to-day," rejoined his companion. Ivanoff glanced at Sanine; he thought those words must surely remind him of Sarudine and the recent tragedy. Yet seemingly it was far from Sanine's thoughts, which surprised Ivanoff somewhat, yet did not displease him.

After crossing the meadow, they again got on to the main road which was thronged as before with peasants in their carts, and giggling girls. Then they came to trees, and reeds, and glittering water, while above them, at no great distance on the hill-side, stood the monastery, topped by a cross that shone like some golden star.

Painted rowing-boats lined the shore, where peasants in bright-coloured shirts and vests lounged. After much haggling and good-humoured banter, Sanine hired one of the little boats. Ivanoff was a deft and powerful oarsman, and the boat shot forward across the water like a living thing. Sometimes the oars touched reeds or low-hanging branches which for a long while after such contact trembled above the deep, dark stream. Sanine steered with so much erratic energy that the water foamed and gurgled round the rudder. They reached a narrow backwater where it was shady and cool. So transparent was the stream that one could see the bottom covered with yellow pebbles, where shoals of little pink fish darted backwards and forwards.

"Here's a good place to land," said Ivanoff, and his voice sounded cheery beneath the dark branches of the overhanging trees. As the boat with a grating sound touched the bank, he sprang lightly ashore. Sanine, laughing, did likewise.

"You won't find a better," he cried, plunging knee-deep through the long grasses.

"Anywhere's good in the sun, I say," replied Ivanoff, as from the boat he fetched the vodka, the bread, the cucumbers, and a little packet of hors d'oeuvres. All these he placed on a mossy slope in the shade of the trees, and here he lay down at full length.

"Lucullus dines with Lucullus," he said.

"Lucky man!" replied Sanine.

"Not entirely," added Ivanoff, with a droll expression of discontent, "for he's forgotten the glasses."

"Never mind! We can manage, somehow."

Full of the sheer joy of living in this warm sunlight and green shade, Sanine climbed up a tree and began cutting off a bough with his knife, while Ivanoff watched him as the little white chips kept falling on to the turf below. At last the bough fell, too, when Sanine climbed down, and began to scoop it out, leaving the bark intact.

In a short time he had made a pretty little drinking-cup.

"Let's have a dip afterwards, shall we?" said Ivanoff, who was watching Sanine's craftsmanship with interest.

"Not a bad idea," replied Sanine, as he tossed the newly-made cup into the air and caught it.

Then they sat down on the grass and did ample justice to their appetising little meal.

"I can't wait any longer. I'm going to bathe."

So saying, Ivanoff hastily stripped, and, as he could not swim, he plunged into shallow water where the even sandy bottom was clearly visible.

"It's lovely!" he cried, jumping about, and splashing wildly.

Sanine watched him and then in leisurely fashion he also undressed, and took a header into the deeper part of the stream.

"You'll be drowned," cried Ivanoff,

"No fear!" was the laughing rejoinder, when Sanine, gasping, had risen to the surface.

The sound of their merry voices rang out across the river, and the green pasture-land. After a time they left the cool water, and lying down, naked in the grass, rolled over and over in it.

"Jolly, isn't it?" said Ivanoff, as he turned to the sun his broad back on which little drops of water glistened.

"Here let us build tabernacles!"

"Deuce take your tabernacles," cried Sanine merrily; "No tabernacles for me!"

"Hurrah!" shouted Ivanoff, as he began dancing a wild, barbaric dance. Sanine burst out laughing, and leaped about in the same way. Their nude bodies gleamed in the sun, every muscle showing beneath the tense skin.

"Ouf!" gasped Ivanoff.

Sanine went on dancing by himself, and finished up by turning a somersault, head foremost.

"Come along, or I shall drink up all the vodka," cried his companion.

Having dressed, they ate the remainder of their provisions, while Ivanoff sighed ruefully for a draught of ice-cold beer.

"Let's go, shall we?" he said.

"Right!"

They raced at full speed to the river-bank, jumped into their boat, and pushed off.

"Doesn't the sun sting!" said Sanine, who was lying at full length in the bottom of the boat.

"That means rain," replied Ivanoff. "Get up and steer, for God's sake!"

"You can manage quite well by yourself," was the reply.

Ivanoff struck the water with his oars, so that Sanine got thoroughly splashed.

"Thank you," said the latter, coolly.

As they passed a green spot they heard laughter and the sound of merry girlish voices. It being a holiday, townsfolk had come thither to enjoy themselves.

"Girls bathing," said Ivanoff.

"Let's go and look at them," suggested Sanine.

"They would see us."

"No they wouldn't. We could land here, and go through the reeds."

"Leave them alone," said Ivanoff, blushing slightly.

"Come on."

"No, I don't like to...."

"Don't like to?"

"Well, but ... they're girls ... young ladies ... I don't think it's quite proper."

"You're a silly fool!" laughed Sanine, "Do you mean to say that you wouldn't like to see them?"

"Perhaps I should, but ..."

"Very well, then, let's go. No mock modesty! What man wouldn't do the same, if he had the chance?"

"Yes, but if you reason like that, you ought to watch them openly. Why hide yourself?"

"Because it's so much more exciting," said Sanine gaily.

"I dare say, but I advise you not to--"

"For chastity's sake, I suppose?"

"If you like."

"But chastity is the very thing that we don't possess!"

"If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out!" said Ivanoff.

"Oh! please don't talk nonsense, like Yourii Svarogitsch! God didn't give us eyes that we might pluck out."

Ivanoff smiled, and shrugged his shoulders.

"Look here, my boy," said Sanine, steering towards the bank, "if the sight of girls bathing were to rouse in you no carnal desire, then you would have a right to be called chaste. Indeed, though I should be the last to imitate it, such chastity on your part would win my admiration. But, having these natural desires, if you attempt to suppress them, then I say that your so-called chastity is all humbug."

"That's right enough, but, if no check were placed upon desires, great harm might result."

"What harm, pray? Sensuality, I grant you, sometimes has evil results, but it's not the fault of sensuality."

"Perhaps not, but...."

"Very well, then, are you coming?"

"Yes, but I'm--"

"A fool, that's what you are! Gently! Don't make such a noise," said Sanine, as they crept along through the fragrant grass and rustling reeds.

"Look there!" whispered Ivanoff, excitedly.

From the smart frocks, hats and petticoats lying on the grass, it was evident that the party of bathers had come out from the town. Some were merrily splashing about in the water which dripped in silver beads from their round, soft limbs. One stood on the bank, erect and lithe, and the sunlight enhanced the plastic beauty of her form that quivered as she laughed.

"Oh! I say!" exclaimed Sanine, fascinated by the sight.

Ivanoff started backwards as in alarm.

"What's the matter?"

"Hush! It's Sina Karsavina!"

"So it is!" said Sanine aloud. "I didn't recognize her. How charming she looks!"

"Yes, doesn't she?" said the other, chuckling.

At that moment laughter and loud cries told them that they had been overheard. Karsavina, startled, leaped into the clear water from which alone her rosy face and shining eyes emerged. Sanine and Ivanoff fled precipitately, stumbling back through the tall rushes to their boat.

"Oh! how good it is to be alive!" said Sanine, stretching himself.

          Down the river, floating onward,
           Ever onward, to the sea.

So he sang in his clear, resonant voice, while behind the trees the sound of girlish laughter could still be heard. Ivanoff looked at the sky.

"It's going to rain," he said.

The trees had become darker, and a deep shadow passed swiftly across the meadow.

"We shall have to run for it!"

"Where? There's no escape, now," cried Sanine cheerfully.

Overhead a leaden-hued cloud floated nearer and nearer. There was no wind; the stillness and gloom had increased.

"We shall get soaked to the skin," said Ivanoff, "so do give me a cigarette, to console me."

Faintly the little yellow flame of the match flickered in the gloom. A sudden gust of wind swept it away. One big drop of rain splashed the boat, and another fell on to Sanine's brow. Then came the downpour. Pattering on the leaves, the rain hissed as it touched the surface of the water. All in a moment from the dark heaven it fell in torrents, and only the rush and the splash of it could be heard.

"Nice, isn't it?" said Sanine, moving his shoulders to which his wet shirt was sticking.

"Not so bad," replied Ivanoff, who had crouched at the bottom of the boat.

Very soon the rain ceased, though the clouds had not dispersed, but were massed behind the woods where flashes of lighting could be seen at intervals.

"We ought to be getting back," said Ivanoff.

"All right. I'm ready."

They rowed out into the current. Black, heavy clouds hung overhead, and the flashes of lightning became incessant; white scimitars that smote the sullen sky. Though now it did not rain, a feeling of thunder was in the air. Birds with wet and ruffled plumage skimmed the surface of the river, while the trees loomed darkly against the blue-grey heavens.

"Ho! ho!" cried Ivanoff.

When they had landed and were plodding through the wet sand, the gloom became more intense.

"We're in for it, now."

Nearer, ever nearer to earth the huge cloud approached, like some dreadful grey-bellied monster. There was a sudden gust of wind, and leaves and dust were whirled round and round. Then, a deafening crash, as if the heavens were cleft asunder, when the lightning blazed and the thunder broke.

"Oho--ho--ho!" shouted Sanine, trying to outvie the clamour of the storm. But his voice, even to himself, was inaudible.

When they reached the fields, it was quite dark. Their pathway was lit by vivid flashes, and the thunder never ceased.

"Oh! Ha! Ho!" shouted Sanine.

"What's that?" cried Ivanoff.

At that moment a vivid flash revealed to him Sanine's radiant face, the only answer to his question. Then, a second flash showed Sanine, with arms outstretched, gleefully apostrophizing the tempest.