Sanine by Mikhail Petrovich Artzybashev
In the large corridor of the hospice there was an odour of samovars, and bread, and incense. A strong, active monk was hurrying along, carrying a huge tea-urn.
"Father," exclaimed Yourii, confused somewhat at addressing him thus, and imagining that the monk would be equally embarrassed.
"What is it, pray?" asked the other politely, through clouds of steam from the samovar.
"Is there not a party of visitors here, from the town?"
"Yes, in number seven," replied the monk promptly, as if he had anticipated such a question. "This way, please, on the balcony."
Yourii opened the door. The spacious room was darkened by dense clouds of tobacco-smoke. Near the balcony there was more light, and one could hear the jingling of bottles and glasses above the noisy talk and laughter.
"Life is an incurable malady." It was Schafroff who spoke.
"And you are an incurable fool!" shouted Ivanoff, in reply, "Can't you stop your eternal phrase-making?"
On entering, Yourii received a boisterous welcome. Schafroff jumped up, nearly dragging the cloth off the table as he seized Yourii's hand, and murmured effusively:
"How awfully good of you to come! I am so glad! Really, it's most kind of you! Thank you ever so much!"
Yourii as he took a seat between Sanine and Peter Ilitsch, proceeded to look about him. The balcony was brightly lighted by two lamps and a lantern, and outside this circle of light there seemed to be a black, impenetrable wall. Yet Yourii could still perceive the greenish lights in the sky. the silhouette of the mountain, the tops of the nearest trees, and, far below, the glimmering surface of the river. From the wood moths and chafers flew to the lamp, and, fluttering round it, fell on to the table, slowly dying there a fiery death. Yourii, as he pitied their fate, thought to himself:
"We, too, like insects, rush to the flame, and flutter round every luminous idea only to perish miserably at the last. We imagine that the idea is the expression of the world's will, whereas it is nothing but the consuming fire within our brain."
"Now then, drink up!" said Sanine, as in friendly fashion he passed the bottle to Yourii.
"With pleasure," replied the latter, dejectedly, and it immediately occurred to him that this was about the best thing, in fact the only thing that remained to be done.
So they all drank and touched glasses. To Yourii vodka tasted horrible. It was burning and bitter as poison. He helped himself to the hors d'oeuvres, but these, too, had a disagreeable flavour, and he could not swallow them.
"No!" he thought. "It doesn't matter if it's death, or Siberia, but get away from here I must! Yet, where shall I go? Everywhere it's the same thing, and there's no escaping from one's self. When once a man sets himself above life, then life in any form can never satisfy him, whether he lives in a hole like this, or in St. Petersburg."
"As I take it," cried Schafroff, "man, individually, is a mere nothing."
Yourii looked at the speaker's dull, unintelligent countenance, with its tired little eyes behind their glasses, and thought that such a man as that was in truth nothing.
"The individual is a cypher. It is only they who emerge from the masses, yet are never out of touch with them, and who do not oppose the crowd, as bourgeois heroes usually do--it is only they who have real strength."
"And in what does such strength consist, pray?" asked Ivanoff aggressively, as he leant across the table. "Is it in fighting against the actual government? Very likely. But in their struggle for personal happiness, how can the masses help them?"
"Ah! there you go! You're a super-man, and want happiness of a special kind to suit yourself. But, we men of the masses, we think that in fighting for the welfare of others our own happiness lies. The triumph of the idea--that is happiness!"
"Yet, suppose the idea is a false one?"
"That doesn't matter. Belief's the thing!" Schafroff tossed his head stubbornly.
"Bah!" said Ivanoff in a contemptuous tone, "every man believes that his own occupation is the most important and most indispensable thing in the whole world. Even a ladies' tailor thinks so. You know that perfectly well, but apparently you have forgotten it; therefore, as a friend I am bound to remind you of the fact."
With involuntary hatred Yourii regarded Ivanoff's flabby, perspiring face, and grey, lustreless eyes.
"And, in your opinion, what constitutes happiness, pray?" he asked, as his lips curled in contempt.
"Well, most assuredly not in perpetual sighing and groaning, or incessant questionings such as, 'I sneezed just now. Was that the right thing to do? Will it not cause harm to some one? Have I, in sneezing, fulfilled my destiny?'"
Yourii could read hatred in the speaker's cold eyes, and it infuriated him to think that Ivanoff considered himself his superior intellectually, and was laughing at him.
"We'll soon see," he thought.
"That's not a programme," he retorted, striving to let his face express intense disdain, as well as reluctance to pursue the discussion.
"Do you really need one? If I desire, and am able, to do something, I do it. That's my programme!"
"A fine one indeed!" exclaimed Schafroff hotly, Yourii merely shrugged his shoulders and made no reply.
For a while they all went on drinking in silence. Then Yourii turned to Sanine and proceeded to expound his views concerning the Supreme Good. He intended Ivanoff to hear what he said, though he did not look at him. Schafroff listened with reverence and enthusiasm. While Ivanoff who had partly turned his back to Yourii received each new statement with a mocking "We've heard all that before!"
At last Sanine languidly interposed.
"Oh! do stop all this," he said. "Don't you find it terribly boring? Every man is entitled to his own opinion, surely?"
He slowly lit a cigarette and went out into the courtyard. To his heated body the calm, blue night was deliciously soothing. Behind the wood the moon rose upward, like a globe of gold, shedding soft, strange light over the dark world. At the back of the orchard with its odour of apples and plums the other white-walled hospice could be dimly seen, and one of the lighted windows seemed to peer down at Sanine through its fence of tender leaves. Suddenly a sound was heard of naked feet pattering on the grass, and Sanine saw the figure of a boy emerge from the gloom.
"What do you want?" he asked.
"I want to see Mademoiselle Karsavina, the schoolteacher," replied the bare-footed urchin, in a shrill voice.
To Sanine the name instantly recalled a vision of Sina, standing at the water's edge in all her nude, sunlit loveliness.
"I have got a letter for her," said the boy.
"Aha! She must be at the hospice over the way, as she is not here. You had better go there."
The lad crept away, barefoot, like some little animal, disappearing so quickly in the darkness that it seemed as if he had hidden himself behind a bush.
Sanine slowly followed, breathing to the full the soft, honey-sweet air of the garden.
He went close up to the other hospice, so that the light from the window as he stood under it fell full upon his calm, pensive face, and illuminated large, heavy pears hanging on the dark orchard trees. By standing on tip-toe Sanine was able to pluck one, and, just as he did so he caught sight of Sina at the window.
He saw her in profile, clad in her night-dress. The light on her soft, round shoulders gave them a lustre as of satin. She was lost in her thoughts, that seemingly made her joyous yet ashamed, for her eyelids quivered, and on her lips there was a smile. To Sanine it was like the ecstatic smile of a maiden ripe and ready for a long, entrancing kiss. Riveted to the spot, he stood there and gazed.
She was musing on all that had just happened, and her experiences, if they had caused delight, had yet provoked shame. "Good heavens!" thought she, "am I really so depraved?" Then for the hundredth time she blissfully recalled the rapture that was hers as she first lay in Yourii's arms. "My darling! My darling!" she murmured, and again Sanine watched her eyelids tremble, and her smiling lips. Of the subsequent scene, distressful in its unbridled passion, she preferred not to think, instinctively aware that the memory of it would only bring disenchantment.
There was a knock at the door.
"Who is there?" asked Sina, looking up. Sanine plainly saw her white, soft neck.
"Here's a letter for you," cried the boy outside.
Sina rose and opened the door. Splashed with wet mud to the knees, the boy entered, and snatching his cap from his head, said:
"The young lady sent me."
"Sinotschka," wrote Dubova, "if possible, do come back to town this evening. The Inspector of Schools has arrived, and will visit our school to-morrow morning. It won't look well if you are not there."
"What is it?" asked Sina's old aunt.
"Olga has sent for me. The school-inspector has come," replied Sina, pensively.
The boy rubbed one foot against another.
"She wished me to tell you to come back without fail," he said.
"Are you going?" asked the aunt.
"How can I? Alone, in the dark?"
"The moon is up," said the boy. "It's quite light out-of-doors."
"I shall have to go," said Sina, still hesitating.
"Yes, yes, go, my child. Otherwise there might be trouble."
"Very well, then, I'll go," said Sina, nodding her head resolutely.
She dressed quickly, put on her hat and took leave of her aunt.
"Good-bye, my dear. God be with you."
Sina turned to the boy. "Are you coming with me?" The urchin looked shy and confused, as, again rubbing his feet together, he muttered, "I came to be with mother. She does washing here, for the monks."
"But how am I to go alone, Grischka?"
"All right! Let's go," replied the lad, in a tone of vigorous assent.
They went out into the dark-blue, fragrant night.
"What a delightful scent!" she exclaimed, immediately uttering a startled cry, for in the darkness she had stumbled against some one.
"It is I," said Sanine, laughing.
Sina held out her trembling hand.
"It's so dark that one can't see," she said, by way of excuse.
"Where are you going?"
"Back to the town. They've sent for me."
"No, the little boy's going with me. He's my cavalier."
"Cavalier! Ha! Ha!" repeated Grischka merrily, stamping his bare feet.
"And what are you doing here?" she asked.
"Oh! we're just having a drink together."
"You said 'we'?"
"Yes--Schafroff, Svarogitsch, Ivanoff ..."
"Oh! Yourii Nicolaijevitsch is with you, is he?" asked Sina, and she blushed. To utter the name of him she loved sent a thrill through her as though she were looking down into some precipice.
"Why do you ask?"
"Because--er--I met him," she answered, blushing deeper.
Sanine gently held her proffered hand in his.
"If you like, I will row you across to the other side. Why should you go all that way round?"
"Oh! no, please don't trouble," said Sina, feeling strangely shy.
"Yes, let him row you across," said little Grischka persuasively, "for there's such a lot of mud on the bank."
"Very well, then. You can go back to your mother."
"Aren't you afraid to cross the fields alone?" asked the boy.
"I will accompany you as far as the town," said Sanine.
"But what will your friends say?"
"Oh! that doesn't matter. They'll stop there till dawn. Besides, they've bored me enough as it is."
"Well, it is very kind of you, I am sure. Grischka you can go."
"Good-night, Miss," said the boy, as he noiselessly disappeared. Sina and Sanine were left there alone.
"Take my arm," he suggested, "or else you may fall."
Sina placed her arm in his, feeling a strange emotion as she touched his muscles that were hard as steel. Thus they went on in the darkness, through the woods to the river. In the wood it was pitch-dark, as if all the trees had been fused and melted in a warm, impenetrable mist.
"Oh! how dark it is!"
"That doesn't matter," whispered Sanine in her ear. His voice trembled slightly. "I like woods best at night time. It is then that man strips off his everyday mask and becomes bolder, more mysterious, more interesting."
As the sandy soil slipped beneath their feet, Sina found it difficult to save herself from falling. It was this darkness and this physical contact with a supple, masterful male to whom she had always been drawn, that now caused her most exquisite agitation. Her face glowed, her soft arm shared its warmth with that of Sanine's, and her laughter was forced and incessant.
At the foot of the hill it was less dark. Moonlight lay on the river, and a cool breeze from its broad surface fanned their cheeks. Mysteriously the wood receded in the gloom, as though it had given them into the river's charge.
"Where is your boat?"
"There it is."
The boat lay sharply defined against the bright, smooth surface of the stream. While Sanine got the oars into position, Sina, balancing herself with outstretched arms, took her place in the stern. All at once the moonlight and the luminous reflections from the water gave a fantastic radiance to her form. Pushing off the boat from land, Sanine sprang into it. With a slight grating sound the keel slid over the sand and cut the water, as the boat swam into the moonlight, leaving broad ripples in its wake.
"Let me row," said Sina, suddenly endued with strange, overmastering strength. "I love rowing."
"Very well, sit here, then," said Sanine, standing in the middle of the boat.
Again her supple form brushed lightly past him and as, with his finger- tips, she touched his proffered hand, he could glance downwards at her shapely bosom....
Thus they floated down the stream. The moonlight, shining upon her pale face with its dark eyebrows and gleaming eyes, gave a certain lustre to her simple white dress. To Sanine it seemed as if they were entering a land of faerie, far removed from all men, outside the pale of human law and reason.
"What a lovely night!" exclaimed Sina.
"Lovely, isn't it?" replied Sanine in an undertone.
All at once, she burst out laughing.
"I don't know why, but I feel as if I should like to throw my hat into the water, and let down my hair," she said, yielding to a sudden impulse.
"Then do it, by all means," murmured Sanine.
But she grew ill at ease and was silent.
Under the stimulating influence of the calm, sultry, unfathomable night, her thoughts again reverted to her recent experiences. It seemed to her impossible that Sanine should not know of these, and it was just this which made her joy the more intense. Unconsciously she longed to make him aware that she was not always so gentle and modest, but that she could also be something vastly different when she threw off the mask. It was this secret longing that made her flushed and elated.
"You have known Yourii Nicolaijevitsch for a long while, haven't you?" she asked in a faltering voice, irresistibly impelled to hover above an abyss.
"No," replied Sanine. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh! I merely asked. He's a clever fellow, don't you think?"
Her tone was one of childish timidity, as if she sought to obtain something from a person far older than herself, who had the right to caress or to punish her.
Sanine smiled at her, as he said;
"Ye ... es!"
From his voice Sina knew that he was smiling, and she blushed deeply.
"No ... but, really he is.... Well, he seems to be very unhappy." Her lip quivered.
"Most likely. Unhappy he certainly is. Are you sorry for him?"
"Of course I am," said Sina with feigned naivete.
"It's only natural," said Sanine, "but 'unhappy' means to you something different from what it really is. You think that a man spiritually discontented, who is for ever analysing his moods and his actions counts, not as a deplorably unhappy person, but as one of extraordinary individuality and power. Such perpetual self-analysis appears to you a fine trait which entitles that man to think himself better than all others, and deserving not merely of compassion, but of love and esteem."
"Well, what else is it, if not that?" asked Sina ingenuously.
She had never talked so much to Sanine before. That he was an original, she knew by hearsay; and she now felt agreeably perturbed at encountering so novel and interesting a personality.
"There was a time when man lived the narrow life of a brute, not holding himself responsible for his actions nor his feelings. This was followed by the period of conscious life, and at its outset man was wont to overestimate his own sentiments and needs and desires. Here, at this stage, stands Svarogitsch. He is the last of the Mohicans, the final representative of an epoch of human evolution which has disappeared for evermore. He has absorbed, as it were, all the essences of that epoch, which have poisoned his very soul. He does not really live his life; each act, each thought is questioned. 'Have I done right?' 'Have I done wrong?' In his case this becomes almost absurd. In politics he is not sure whether it is not beneath his dignity to rank himself with others, yet, if he retires from politics, he wonders if it is not humiliating to stand aloof. There are many such persons. If Yourii Svarogitsch forms an exception, it is solely on account of his superior intelligence."
"I do not quite understand you," began Sina timidly. "You speak of Yourii Nicolaijevitsch as if he himself were to blame for not being other than what he is. If life fails to satisfy a man, then that man stands above life."
"Man cannot be above life," replied Sanine, "for he himself is but a fraction of it. He may be dissatisfied, but the cause for such discontent lies in himself. He either cannot or dare not take from life's treasures enough for his actual needs. There are people who spend their lives in a prison. Others are afraid to escape from it, like some captive bird that fears to fly away when set free.... The body and spirit of man form one complete harmonious whole, disturbed only by the dread approach of death. But it is we ourselves who disturb such harmony by our own distorted conception of life. We have branded as bestial our physical desires; we have become ashamed of them; we have shrouded them in degrading forms and trammels. Those of us who by nature are weak, do not notice this, but drag on through life in chains, while those who are crippled by a false conception of life, it is they who are the martyrs. The pent-up forces crave an outlet; the body pines for joy, and suffers torment through its own impotence. Their life is one of perpetual discord and uncertainty, and they catch at any straw that might help them to a newer theory of morals, till at last so melancholy do they become that they are afraid to live, afraid to feel."
"Yes, yes," was Sina's vigorous assent.
A host of new thoughts invaded her mind. As with shining eyes she glanced round, the splendour of the night, the beauty of the calm river and of the dreaming woods in moonlight seemed to penetrate her whole being. Again she was possessed by that vague longing for sheer dominant strength that should yield her delight.
"My dream is always of some golden age," continued Sanine, "when nothing shall stand between man and his happiness, and when, fearless and free, he can gave himself up to all attainable enjoyments."
"Yes, but how is he to do that? By a return to barbarism?"
"No. The epoch when man lived like a brute was a miserable, barbarous one, and our own epoch, in which the body, dominated by the mind, is kept under and set in the background lacks sense and vigour. But humanity has not lived in vain. It has created new conditions of life which give no scope either for grossness or asceticism."
"Yes, but what of love? Does not that impose obligations upon us?" asked Sina hurriedly.
"No. If love imposes grievous obligations, it is through jealousy, and jealousy is the outcome of slavery. In any form slavery causes harm. Men should enjoy what love can give them fearlessly and without restrictions. If this were so, love would be infinitely richer and more varied in all its forms, and more influenced by chance and opportunity."
"I hadn't the least fear just now," was Sina's proud reflection. She suddenly looked at Sanine, feeling as if this were her first sight of him. There he sat, facing her, in the stern, a fine figure of a man; dark-eyed, broad-shouldered, intensely virile.
"What a handsome fellow!" she thought. A whole world of unknown forces and emotions lay before her. Should she enter that world? She smiled at her now curiosity, trembling all over. Sanine must have guessed what was passing in her mind. His breath came quicker, almost in gasps.
In passing through a narrow part of the stream, the oars caught in the trailing foliage and slipped from Sina's hands.
"I can't get along here, it's so narrow," she said timidly. Her voice sounded gentle and musical as the rippling of the stream.
Sanine stood up, and moved towards her.
"What is it?" she asked in alarm.
"It's all right, I am only going to ..."
Sina rose in her turn, and attempted to get to the rudder.
The boat rocked so violently that she well nigh lost her balance, and involuntarily she caught hold of Sanine, after falling almost into his arms. At that moment, almost unconsciously, and never believing it possible, she gently prolonged their contact. It was this touch of her that in a moment fired his blood, while she, sensible of his ardour, irresistibly responded thereto.
"Ah!" exclaimed Sanine, in surprise and delight.
He embraced her passionately, forcing her backwards, so that her hat fell off.
The boat rocked with greater violence, as invisible wavelets dashed against the shore.
"What are you doing?" she cried, in a faint voice. "Let me go! For heaven's sake! ... What are you doing? ..."
She struggled to free herself from those arms of steel, but Sanine crushed her firm bosom closer, closer to his own, till such barriers as there had been between them ceased to exist.
Around them, only darkness; the moist odour of the river and the reeds; an atmosphere now hot, now cold; profound silence. Suddenly, unaccountably, she lost all power of volition and of thought; her limbs relaxed, and she surrendered to another's will.