Chapter III.
 

It was already quite dark when the others returned from their walk. Their clear, merry voices rang out through the soft dusk that veiled the garden. Lida ran, flushed and laughing, to her mother. She brought with her cool scents from the river that blended delightfully with the fragrance of her own sweet youth and beauty which the companionship of sympathetic admirers heightened and enhanced.

"Supper, mamma, let's have supper!" she cried playfully dragging her mother along. "Meanwhile Victor Sergejevitsch is going to sing something to us."

Maria Ivanovna, as she went out to get supper ready, thought to herself that Fate could surely have nothing but happiness in store for so beautiful and charming a girl as her darling Lida.

Sarudine and Tanaroff went to the piano in the drawing-room, while Lida reclined lazily in the rocking-chair on the veranda. Novikoff, mute, walked up and down on the creaking boards of the veranda floor, furtively glancing at Lida's face, at her firm, full bosom, at her little feet shod in yellow shoes, and her dainty ankles. But she took no heed of him nor of his glances, so enthralled was she by the might and magic of a first passion. She shut her eyes, and smiled at her thoughts.

In Novikoff's soul there was the old strife; he loved Lida, yet he could not be sure of her feelings towards himself. At times she loved him, so he thought; and again, there were times when she did not. If he thought 'yes,' how easy and pleasant it seemed for this young, pure, supple body to surrender itself to him. If he thought 'no,' such an idea was foul and detestable; he was angry at his own lust, deeming himself vile, and unworthy of Lida.

At last be determined to be guided by chance.

"If I step on the last board with my right foot, then I've got to propose; and if with the left, then--"

He dared not even think of what would happen in that case.

He trod on the last board with his left foot. It threw him into a cold sweat; but he instantly reassured himself.

"Pshaw! What nonsense! I'm like some old woman! Now then; one, two, three--at three I'll go straight up to her, and speak. Yes, but what am I going to say? No matter! Here goes! One, two, three! No, three times over! One, two, three! One, two--"

His brain seemed on fire, his mouth grew parched, his heart beat so violently that his knees shook.

"Don't stamp like that!" exclaimed Lida, opening her eyes. "One can't hear anything."

Only then was Novikoff aware that Sarudine was singing.

The young officer had chosen that old romance,

          I loved you once! Can you forget?
           Love in my heart is burning yet.

He did not sing badly, but after the style of untrained singers who seek to give expression by exaggerated tone-colour. Novikoff found nothing to please him in such a performance.

"What is that? One of his own compositions?" asked he, with unusual bitterness.

"No! Don't disturb us, please, but sit down!" said Lida, sharply. "And if you don't like music, go and look at the moon!"

Just then the moon, large, round and red, was rising above the black tree-tops. Its soft evasive light touched the stone steps, and Lida's dress, and her pensive, smiling face. In the garden the shadows had grown deeper; they were now sombre and profound as those of the forest.

Novikoff sighed, and then blurted out.

"I prefer you to the moon," thinking to himself, "that's an idiotic remark!"

Lida burst out laughing.

"What a lumpish compliment!" she exclaimed.

"I don't know how to pay compliments," was Novikoff's sullen rejoinder.

"Very well, then, sit still and listen," said Lida, shrugging her shoulders, pettishly.

          But you no longer care, I know,
           Why should I grieve you with my woe?

The tones of the piano rang out with silvery clearness through the green, humid garden. The moonlight became more and more intense and the shadows harder. Crossing the grass, Sanine sat down under a linden-tree and was about to light a cigarette. Then he suddenly stopped and remained motionless, as if spell-bound by the evening calm that the sounds of the piano and of this youthfully sentimental voice in no way disturbed, but rather served to make more complete.

"Lidia Petrovna!" cried Novikoff hurriedly, as if this particular moment must never be lost. "Well?" asked Lida mechanically, as she looked at the garden and the moon above it and the dark boughs that stood out sharply against its silver disc.

"I have long waited--that is--I have been anxious to say something to you," Novikoff stammered out.

Sanine turned his head round to listen.

"What about?" asked Lida, absently.

Sarudine had finished his song and after a pause began to sing again. He thought that he had a voice of extraordinary beauty, and he much liked to hear it.

Novikoff felt himself growing red, and then pale. It was as if he were going to faint.

"I--look here--Lidia Petrovna--will you be my wife?"

As he stammered out these words he felt all the while that he ought to have said something very different and that his own emotions should have been different also. Before he had got the words out he was certain that the answer would be "no"; and at the same time he had an impression that something utterly silly and ridiculous was about to occur.

Lida asked mechanically, "Whose wife?" Then suddenly, she blushed deeply, and rose, as if intending to speak. But she said nothing and turned aside in confusion. The moonlight fell full on her features.

"I--love you!" stammered Novikoff.

For him, the moon no longer shone; the evening air seemed stifling, the earth, he thought, would open beneath his feet.

"I don't know how to make speeches--but--no matter, I love you very much!"

("Why, very much?" he thought to himself, "as if I were alluding to ice-cream.")

Lida played nervously with a little leaf that had fluttered down into her hands. What she had just heard embarrassed her, being both unexpected and futile; besides, it created a novel feeling of disagreeable restraint between herself and Novikoff whom from her childhood she had always looked upon as a relative, and whom she liked.

"I really don't know what to say! I had never thought about it."

Novikoff felt a dull pain at his heart, as if it would stop beating. Very pale, he rose and seized his cap.

"Good-bye," he said, not hearing the sound of his own voice. His quivering lips were twisted into a meaningless smile.

"Are you going? Good-bye!" said Lida, laughing nervously and proffering her hand.

Novikoff grasped it hastily, and without putting on his cap strode out across the grass, into the garden. In the shade he stood still and gripped his head with both hands.

"My God! I am doomed to such luck as this! Shoot myself? No, that's all nonsense! Shoot myself, eh?" Wild, incoherent thoughts flashed through his brain. He felt that he was the most wretched and humiliated and ridiculous of mortals.

Sanine at first wished to call out to him, but checking the impulse, he merely smiled. To him it was grotesque that Novikoff should tear his hair and almost weep because a woman whose body he desired would not surrender herself to him. At the same time he was rather glad that his pretty sister did not care for Novikoff.

For some moments Lida remained motionless in the same place, and Sanine's curious gaze was riveted on her white silhouette in the moonlight. Sarudine now came from the lighted drawing-room on to the veranda. Sanine distinctly heard the faint jingling of his-spurs. In the drawing-room Tanaroff was playing an old-fashioned, mournful waltz whose languorous cadences floated on the air. Approaching Lida, Sarudine gently and deftly placed his arm round her waist. Sanine could perceive that both figures became merged into one that swayed in the misty light.

"Why so pensive?" murmured Sarudine, with shining eyes, as his lips touched Lida's dainty little ear, Lida was at once joyful and afraid. Now, as on all occasions when Sarudine embraced her, she felt a strange thrill. She knew that in intelligence and culture he was her inferior, and that she could never be dominated by him; yet at the same time she was aware of something delightful and alarming in letting herself be touched by this strong, comely young man. She seemed to be gazing down into a mysterious, unfathomable abyss, and thinking, "I could hurl myself in, if I chose."

"We shall be seen," she murmured half audibly.

Though not encouraging his embrace, she yet did not shrink from it; such passive surrender excited him the more.

"One word, just one!" whispered Sarudine, as he crushed her closer to him, his veins throbbing with desire; "will you come?"

Lida trembled. It was not the first time that he had asked her this question, and each time she had felt strange tremors that deprived her of her will.

"Why?" she asked, in a low voice as she gazed dreamily at the moon.

"Why? That I may have you near me, and see you, and talk to you. Oh! like this, it's torture! Yes, Lida, you're torturing me! Now, will you come?"

So saying, he strained her to him, passionately. His touch as that of glowing iron, sent a thrill through her limbs; it seemed as if she were enveloped in a mist, languorous, dreamy, oppressive. Her lithe, supple frame grew rigid and then swayed towards him, trembling with pleasure and yet with fear. Around her all things had undergone a curious, sudden change. The moon was a moon no longer; it seemed close, close to the trellis-work of the veranda, as if it hung just above the luminous lawn. The garden was not the one that she knew, but another garden, sombre, mysterious, that, suddenly approaching, closed round her. Her brain reeled. She drew back, and with strange languor, freed herself from Sarudine's embrace.

"Yes," she murmured with difficulty. Her lips were white and parched.

With faltering steps she re-entered the house, conscious of something terrible yet alluring that inevitably drew her to the brink of an abyss.

"Nonsense!" she reflected. "It's not that at all. I am only joking. It just interests me, and it amuses me, too."

Thus did she seek to persuade herself, as she stood facing the darkened mirror in her room, wherein she only saw herself en silhouette against the glass door of the brightly lighted dining-room. Slowly she raised both arms above her head, and lazily stretched herself, watching meanwhile the sensuous movements of her supple body.

Left to himself, Sarudine stood erect and shook his shapely limbs. His eyes were half closed, and, as he smiled, his teeth shone beneath his fair moustache. He was accustomed to have luck, and on this occasion he foresaw even greater enjoyment in the near future. He imagined Lida in all her voluptuous beauty at the very moment of surrender. The passion of such a picture caused him physical pain.

At first, when he paid court to her, and after that, when she had allowed him to embrace her and kiss her, Lida had always made him feel somewhat afraid. While he caressed her, there was something strange, unintelligible in her dark eyes, as though she secretly despised him She seemed to him so clever, so absolutely unlike other women to whom he had always felt himself obviously superior, and so proud, that for a kiss he looked to receive a box on the ear. The thought of possessing her was almost disquieting. At times he believed that she was just playing with him and his position appeared simply foolish and absurd. But to-day, after this promise, uttered hesitatingly, in faltering tones such as he had heard other women use, he felt suddenly certain of his power and that victory was near. He knew that things would be just as he had desired them to be. And to this sense of voluptuous expectancy was added a touch of spite: this proud, pure, cultured girl should surrender to him, as all the others had surrendered; he would use her at his pleasure, as he had used the rest. Scenes libidinous and debasing rose up before him. Lida nude, with hair dishevelled and inscrutable eyes, became the central figure in a turbulent orgy of cruelty and lust. Suddenly he distinctly saw her lying on the ground; he heard the swish of the whip; he observed a blood-red stripe on the soft, nude, submissive body. His temples throbbed, he staggered backwards, sparks danced before his eyes. The thought of it all became physically intolerable. His hand shook as he lit a cigarette; again his strong limbs twitched convulsively, and he went indoors. Sanine who had heard nothing yet who had seen and comprehended all, followed him, roused almost to a feeling of jealousy.

"Brutes like that are always lucky," he thought to himself, "What the devil does it all mean? Lida and he?"

At supper, Maria Ivanovna seemed in a bad temper. Tanaroff as usual said nothing. He thought what a fine thing it would be if he were Sarudine, and had such a sweetheart as Lida to love him. He would have loved her in quite a different way, though. Sarudine did not know how to appreciate his good fortune. Lida was pale and silent, looking at no one. Sarudine was gay, and on the alert, like a wild beast that scents its prey. Sanine yawned as usual, ate, drank a good deal of brandy and apparently seemed longing to go to sleep. But when supper was over, he declared his intention of walking home with Sarudine. It was near midnight, and the moon shone high overhead. Almost in silence the two walked towards the officer's quarters. All the way Sanine kept looking furtively at Sarudine, wondering if he should, or should not, strike him in the face.

"Hm! Yes!" he suddenly began, as they got close to the house, "there are all sorts of blackguards in this world!"

"What do you mean by that?" asked Sarudine, raising his eyebrows.

"That is so; speaking generally. Blackguards are the most fascinating people."

"You don't say so?" exclaimed Sarudine, smiling.

"Of course they are. There's nothing so boring in all the world as your so-called honest man. What is an honest man? With the programme of honesty and virtue everybody has long been familiar; and so it contains nothing that is new. Such antiquated rubbish robs a man of all individuality, and his life is lived within the narrow, tedious limits of virtue. Thou shalt not steal, nor lie, nor cheat, nor commit adultery. The funny thing is, that all that is born is one! Everybody steals, and lies, and cheats and commits adultery as much as he can."

"Not everybody," protested Sarudine loftily.

"Yes, yes; everybody! You have only got to examine a man's life in order to get at his sins. Treachery, for instance. Thus, after rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, when we go quietly to bed, or sit down to table, we commit acts of treachery."

"What's that you say?" cried Sarudine, half angrily.

"Of course we do. We pay taxes; we serve our time in the army, yes; but that means that we harm millions by warfare and injustice, both of which we abhor. We go calmly to our beds, when we should hasten to rescue those who in that very moment are perishing for us and for our ideas. We eat more than we actually want, and leave others to starve, when, as virtuous folk, our whole lives should be devoted to their welfare. So it goes on. It's plain enough. Now a blackguard, a real, genuine blackguard is quite another matter. To begin with he is a perfectly sincere, natural fellow."

"Natural?"

"Of course he is. He does only what a man naturally does. He sees something that does not belong to him, something that he likes--and, he takes it. He sees a pretty woman who won't give herself to him, so he manages to get her, either by force or by craft. And that is perfectly natural, the desire and the instinct for self-gratification being one of the few traits that distinguish a man from a beast. The more animal an animal is, the less it understands of enjoyment, the less able it is to procure this. It only cares to satisfy its needs. We are all agreed that man was not created in order to suffer, and that suffering is not the ideal of human endeavour."

"Quite so," said Sarudine.

"Very well, then, enjoyment is the aim of human life. Paradise is the synonym for absolute enjoyment, and we all of us, more or less, dream of an earthly paradise. This legend of paradise is by no means an absurdity, but a symbol, a dream."

"Yes," continued Sanine, after a pause, "Nature never meant men to be abstinent, and the sincerest men are those who do not conceal their desires, that is to say, those who socially count as blackguards, fellows such as--you, for instance."

Sarudine started back in amazement.

"Yes, you," continued Sanine, affecting not to notice this, "You're the best fellow in the world, or, at any rate, you think you are. Come now, tell me, have you ever met a better?"

"Yes, lots of them," replied Sarudine, with some hesitation. He had not the least idea what Sanine meant, nor if he ought to appear amused or annoyed.

"Well, name them, please," said Sanine.

Sarudine shrugged his shoulders, doubtfully.

"There, you see!" exclaimed Sanine gaily. "You yourself are the best of good fellows, and so am I; yet we both of us would not object to stealing, or telling lies or committing adultery--least of all to committing adultery."

"How original!" muttered Sarudine, as he again shrugged his shoulders.

"Do you think so?" asked the other, with a slight shade of annoyance in his tone. "Well, I don't! Yes, blackguards, as I said, are the most sincere and interesting people imaginable, for they have no conception of the bounds of human baseness. I always feel particularly pleased to shake hands with a blackguard."

He immediately grasped Sarudine's hand and shook it vigorously as he looked him full in the face. Then he frowned, and muttered curtly, "Good-bye, good-night," and left him.

For a few moments Sarudine stood perfectly still and watched him depart. He did not know how to take such speeches as these of Sanine; he became at once bewildered and uneasy. Then he thought of Lida, and smiled. Sanine was her brother, and what he had said was really right after all. He began to feel a sort of brotherly attachment for him.

"An amusing fellow, by Gad!" he thought, complacently, as if Sanine in a way belonged to him, also. Then he opened the gate, and went across the moonlit courtyard to his quarters.

On reaching home, Sanine undressed and got into bed, where he tried to read "Thus spake Zarathustra" which he had found among Lida's books. But the first few pages were enough to irritate him. Such inflated imagery left him unmoved. He spat, flung the volume aside, and soon fell fast asleep.