Sanine by Mikhail Petrovich Artzybashev
Colonel Nicolai Yegorovitch Svarogitsch who lived in the little town awaited the arrival of his son, a student at the Moscow Polytechnic.
The latter was under the surveillance of the police and had been expelled from Moscow as a suspected person. It was thought that he was in league with revolutionists. Yourii Svarogitsch had already written to his parents informing them of his arrest, his six months' imprisonment, and his expulsion from the capital, so that they were prepared for his return. Though Nicolai Yegorovitch looked upon the whole thing as a piece of boyish folly, he was really much grieved, for he was very fond of his son, whom he received with open arms, avoiding any allusion to this painful subject. For two whole days Yourii had travelled third-class, and owing to the bad air, the stench, and the cries of children, he got no sleep at all. He was utterly exhausted, and had no sooner greeted his father and his sister Ludmilla (who was always called Lialia) than he lay down on her bed, and fell asleep.
He did not wake until evening, when the sun was near the horizon, and its slanting rays, falling through the panes, threw rosy squares upon the wall. In the next room there was a clatter of spoons and glasses; he could hear Lialia's merry laugh, and also a man's voice both pleasant and refined which he did not know. At first it seemed to him as if he were still in the railway-carriage and heard the noise of the train, the rattle of the window-panes and the voices of travellers in the next compartment. But he quickly remembered where he was, and sat bolt upright on the bed. "Yes, here I am," he yawned, as, frowning, he thrust his fingers through his thick, stubborn black hair.
It then occurred to him that he need never have come home. He had been allowed to choose where he would stay. Why, then, did he return to his parents? That he could not explain. He believed, or wished to believe, that he had fixed upon the most likely place that had occurred to him. But this was not the case at all. Yourii had never had to work for a living; his father kept him supplied with funds, and the prospect of being alone and without means among strangers seemed terrible to him. He was ashamed of such a feeling, and loth to admit it to himself. Now, however, he thought that he had made a mistake. His parents could never understand the whole story, nor form any opinion regarding it; that was quite plain. Then again, the material question would arise, the many useless years that he had cost his father--it all made a mutually cordial, straightforward understanding impossible. Moreover, in this little town, which he had not seen for two years, he would find it dreadfully dull. He looked upon all the inhabitants of petty provincial towns as narrow-minded folk, incapable of being interested in, or even of understanding those philosophical and political questions which for him were the only really important things of life.
Yourii got up, and, opening the window, leaned out. Along the wall of the house there was a little flower-garden bright with flowers, red, yellow, blue, lilac and white. It was like a kaleidoscope. Behind it lay the large dusky garden that, as all gardens in this town, stretched down to the river, which glimmered like dull glass between the stems of the trees. It was a calm, clear evening. Yourii felt a vague sense of depression. He had lived too long in large towns built of stone, and though he liked to fancy that he was fond of nature, she really gave him nothing, neither solace, nor peace, nor joy, and only roused in him a vague, dreamy, morbid longing.
"Aha! You're up at last! it was about time," said Lialia, as she entered the room.
Oppressed as he was by the sense of his uncertain position and by the melancholy of the dying day, Yourii felt almost vexed by his sister's gaiety and by her merry voice.
"What are you so pleased about?" he asked abruptly.
"Well, I never!" cried Lialia, wide-eyed, while she laughed again, just as if her brother's question had reminded her of something particularly amusing.
"Imagine your asking me why I am so pleased? You see, I am never bored. I have no time for that sort of thing."
Then, in a graver tone, and evidently proud of her last remark, she added.
"We live in such interesting times that it would really be a sin to feel bored. I have got the workmen to teach, and then the library takes up a lot of my time. While you were away, we started a popular library, and it is going very well indeed."
At any other time this would have interested Yourii, but now something made him indifferent. Lialia looked very serious, waiting, as a child might wait, for her brother's praise. At last he managed to murmur.
"With all that to do, can you expect me to be bored?" said Lialia contentedly.
"Well, anyhow, everything bores me," replied Yourii involuntarily. She pretended to be hurt.
"That's very nice of you, I am sure. You've hardly been two hours in the house, and asleep most of the time, yet you are bored already!"
"It is not my fault, but my misfortune," replied Yourii, in a slightly arrogant tone. He thought it showed superior intelligence to be bored rather than amused.
"Your misfortune, indeed!" cried Lialia, mockingly. "Ha! Ha!" She pretended to slap him. "Ha! Ha!"
Yourii did not perceive that he had already recovered his good humour. Lialia's merry voice and her joy of living had speedily banished his depression which he had imagined to be very real and deep. Lialia did not believe in his melancholy, and therefore his remarks caused her no concern.
Yourii looked at her, and said with a smile.
"I am never merry."
At this Lialia laughed, as though he had said something vastly droll.
"Very well, Knight of the Rueful Countenance, if you aren't you aren't. Never mind, come with me, and I will introduce you to a charming young man. Come!"
So saying she took her brother's hand, and laughingly led him along.
"Stop! Who is this charming young man?"
"My fiance," cried Lialia, as, joyful and confused, she twisted sharply round so that her gown was puffed out. Yourii knew already, from his father's and sister's letters, that a young doctor recently established in the town had been paying court to Lialia, but he was not aware that their engagement was a fait accompli.
"You don't say so?" said he, in amazement. It seemed to him so strange that pretty, fresh-looking little Lialia, almost a child, should already have a lover, and should soon become a bride--a wife. It touched him to a vague sense of pity for his sister. Yourii put his arm round Lialia's waist and went with her into the dining-room where in the lamp-light shone the large, highly polished samovar. At the table, by the side of Nicolai Yegorovitch sat a well-built young man, not Russian in type, with bronzed features and keen bright eyes.
He rose in simple, friendly fashion to meet Yourii.
"Anatole Pavlovitch Riasantzeff!" cried Lialia, with a gesture of comic solemnity.
"Who craves your friendship and indulgence," added Riasantzeff, joking in his turn.
With a sincere wish to become friends, the two shook hands. For a moment it seemed as if they would embrace, but they refrained, merely exchanging frank, amicable glances.
"So this is her brother, is it?" thought Riasantzeff, in surprise, for he had imagined that a brother of Lialia, short, fair, and merry, would be short, fair and merry too. Yourii, on the contrary was tall, thin and dark, though as good-looking as Lialia, and with the same regular features.
And, as Yourii looked at Riasantzeff, he thought to himself: "So this is the man who in my little sister Lialia, as fresh and fair as a spring morning, loves the woman; loves her just as I myself have loved women." Somehow, it hurt him to look at Lialia and Riasantzeff, as if he feared that they would read his thoughts.
The two men felt that they had much that was important to say to each other. Yourii would have liked to ask:
"Do you love Lialia? Really and truly? It would be sad, and indeed shameful, if you were to betray her; she's so pure, so innocent!"
And Riasantzeff would have liked to answer:
"Yes, I love your sister deeply; who could do anything else but love her? Look how pure and sweet, and charming she is; how fond she is of me; and what a pretty dimple she's got!"
But instead of all this, Yourii said nothing, and Riasantzeff asked:
"Have you been expelled for long?"
"For five years," was Yourii's answer.
At these words Nicolai Yegorovitch, who was pacing up and down the room, stopped for a moment and then, recollecting himself, he continued his walk with the regular, precise steps of an old soldier. As yet he was ignorant of the details of his son's exile, and this unexpected news came as a shock.
"What the devil does it all mean?" he muttered to himself.
Lialia understood this movement of her father's. She was afraid of scenes, and tried to change the conversation.
"How foolish of me," she thought, "not to have remembered to tell Anatole!"
But Riasantzeff did not know the real facts, and, replying to Lialia's invitation to have some tea, he again began to question Yourii.
"And what do you think of doing now?"
Nicolai Yegorovitch frowned, and said nothing. Yourii at once knew what his father's silence meant; and before he had reflected upon the consequences of such an answer he replied, defiantly and with irritation,
"Nothing for the moment."
"How do you mean--nothing?" asked Nicolai Yegorovitch, stopping short. He had not raised his voice, but its tone clearly conveyed a hidden reproach.
"How can you say such a thing? As if I were obliged always to have you round my neck! How can you forget that I am old, and that it is high time that you earned your own living? I say nothing. Live as you like! But can't you yourself understand?" The tone implied all this. And the more it made Yourii feel that his father was right in thinking as he did, the more he took offence.
"Yes, nothing! What do you expect me to do?" he asked provocatively.
Nicolai Yegorovitch was about to make a cutting retort, but said nothing, merely shrugging his shoulders and with measured tread resuming his march from one corner of the room to the other. He was too well-bred to wrangle with his son on the very day of his arrival. Yourii watched him with flashing eyes, being hardly able to control himself and ready on the slightest chance to open the quarrel. Lialia was almost in tears. She glanced imploringly from her brother to her father. Riasantzeff at last understood the situation, and he felt so sorry for Lialia, that, clumsily enough, he turned the talk into another channel.
Slowly, tediously, the evening passed. Yourii would not admit that he was blameworthy, for he did not agree with his father that politics were no part of his business. He considered that his father was incapable of understanding the simplest things, being old and void of intelligence. Unconsciously he blamed him for his old age and his antiquated ideas: they enraged him. The topics touched upon by Riasantzeff did not interest him. He scarcely listened, but steadily watched his father with black, glittering eyes. Just at supper-time came Novikoff, Ivanoff and Semenoff.
Semenoff was a consumptive student who for some months past had lived in the town, where he gave lessons. He was thin, ugly, and looked very delicate. Upon his face, which was prematurely aged, lay the fleeting shadow of approaching death. Ivanoff was a schoolmaster, a long-haired, broad-shouldered, ungainly man. They had been walking on the boulevard, and hearing of Yourii's arrival had come to salute him. With their coming things grew more cheerful. There was laughter and joking, and at supper much was drunk. Ivanoff distinguished himself in this respect. During the few days that followed his unfortunate proposal to Lida, Novikoff had become somewhat calmer. That Lida had refused him might have been accidental, he thought; it was his fault, indeed, as he ought to have prepared her for such an avowal. Nevertheless it was painful to him to visit the Sanines. Therefore he endeavoured to meet Lida elsewhere, either in the street, or at the house of a mutual friend. She, for her part, pitied him, and, in a way, blamed herself which caused her to treat him with exaggerated cordiality, so that Novikoff once more began to hope.
"What do you say to this?" he asked, just as they were all going, "Let's arrange a picnic at the convent, shall we?"
The convent, situated on a hill at no great distance from the town, was a favourite place for excursions. It was near the river, and the road leading to it was good.
Devoted as she was to every kind of amusement such as bathing, rowing and walks in the woods, Lialia welcomed the idea with enthusiasm.
"Yes, of course! Of course! But when is it to be?"
"Well, why not to-morrow?" said Novikoff.
"Who else shall we ask?" asked Riasantzeff, equally pleased at the prospect of a day's outing. In the woods he would be able to hold Lialia in his arms, to kiss her, and feel that the sweet body he coveted was near.
"Let us see. We are six. Suppose we ask Schafroff?"
"Who is he?" inquired Yourii.
"Oh! he's a young student."
"Very well; and Ludmilla Nicolaievna will invite Karsavina and Olga Ivanovna."
"Who are they?" asked Yourii once more.
Lialia laughed. "You will see!" she said, kissing the tips of her fingers and looking very mysterious.
"Aha!" said Yourii, smiling. "Well, we shall see what we shall see!"
After some hesitation, Novikoff with an air of indifference, remarked:
"We might ask the Sanines too."
"Oh! we must have Lida," cried Lialia, not because she particularly liked the girl, but because she knew of Novikoff's passion, and wished to please him. She was so happy herself in her own love, that she wanted all those about her to be happy also.
"Then we shall have to invite the officers, too," observed Ivanoff, maliciously.
"What does that matter? Let us do so. The more the merrier!"
They all stood at the front door, in the moonlight.
"What a lovely night!" exclaimed Lialia, as unconsciously she drew closer to her lover. She did not wish him to go yet. Riasantzeff with his elbow pressed her warm, round arm.
"Yes, it's a wonderful night!" he replied, giving to these simple words a meaning that they two alone could seize.
"Oh! you, and your night!" muttered Ivanoff in his deep bass. "I'm sleepy, so good-night, sirs!"
And he slouched off, along the street, swinging his arms like the sails of a windmill.
Novikoff and Semenoff went next, and Riasantzeff was a long while saying good-bye to Lialia, pretending to talk about the picnic.
"Now, we must all go to bye-bye," said Lialia, laughingly, when he had taken his leave. Then she sighed, being loth to leave the moonlight, the soft night air, and all for which her youth and beauty longed. Yourii remembered that his father had not yet retired to rest, and feared that, if they met, a painful and useless discussion would be inevitable.
"No!" he replied, his eyes fixed on the faint blue mist about the river, "No! I don't want to go to sleep. I shall go out for a while."
"As you like," said Lialia, in her sweet, gentle voice. Stretching herself, she half closed her eyes like a cat, smiled at the moonlight, and went in. For a few minutes Yourii stood there, watching the dark shadows of the houses and the trees; then he went in the same direction that Semenoff had taken.
The latter had not gone far, walking slowly and stooping as he coughed. His black shadow followed him along the moonlit road. Yourii soon overtook him and at once noticed how changed he was. During supper Semenoff had joked and laughed more perhaps than anyone else, but now he walked along, gloomy and self-absorbed, and in his hollow cough there was something hopeless and threatening like the disease from which he suffered.
"Ah! it's you!" he said, somewhat peevishly, as Yourii thought.
"I wasn't sleepy. I'll walk back with you, if you like."
"Yes, do!" replied Semenoff, carelessly.
"Aren't you cold?" asked Yourii, merely because this distressing cough made him nervous.
"I am always cold," replied Semenoff irritably.
Yourii felt pained, as if he had purposely touched a sore point.
"Is it a long while since you left the University?" he asked.
Semenoff did not immediately reply.
"A long while," he said, at last.
Yourii then spoke of the feeling that actually existed among the students and of what they considered most important and essential. He began simply and impassively, but by degrees let himself go, expressing himself with fervour and point.
Semenoff said nothing, and listened.
Then Yourii deplored the lack of revolutionary spirit among the masses. It was plain that he felt this deeply.
"Did you read Bebel's last speech?" he asked.
"Yes, I did," replied Semenoff.
"Well, what do you say?"
Semenoff irritably flourished his stick, which had a crooked handle. His shadow similarly waved a long black arm which made Yourii think of the black wings of some infuriated bird of prey.
"What do I say?" he blurted out. "I say that I am going to die."
And again he waved his stick and again the sinister shadow imitated his gesture. This time Semenoff also noticed it.
"Do you see?" said he bitterly. "There, behind me, stands Death, watching my every movement. What's Bebel to me? Just a babbler, who babbles about this. And then some other fool will babble about that. It is all the same to me! If I don't die to-day, I shall die to-morrow."
Yourii made no answer. He felt confused and hurt.
"You, for instance," continued Semenoff, "you think that it's very important, all this that goes on at the University, and what Bebel says. But what I think is that, if you knew for certain, as I do, that you were going to die you would not care in the least what Bebel or Nietzsche or Tolstoi or anybody else said."
Semenoff was silent.
The moon still shone brightly, and ever the black shadow followed in their wake.
"My constitution's done for!" said Semenoff suddenly in quite a different voice, thin and querulous. "If you knew how I dread dying.... Especially on such a bright, soft night as this," he continued plaintively, turning to Yourii his ugly haggard face and glittering eyes. "Everything lives, and I must die. To you that sounds a hackneyed phrase, I feel certain. 'And I must die.' But it is not from a novel, not taken from a work written with 'artistic truth of presentment.' I really am going to die, and to me the words do not seem hackneyed. One day you will not think that they are, either. I am dying, dying, and all is over!"
Semenoff coughed again.
"I often think that before long I shall be in utter darkness, buried in the cold earth, my nose fallen in, and my hands rotting, and here in the world all will be just as it is now, while I walk along alive. And you'll be living, and breathing this air, and enjoying this moonlight, and you'll go past my grave where I lie, hideous and corrupted. What do you suppose I care for Bebel, or Tolstoi or a million other gibbering apes?" These last words he uttered with sudden fury. Yourii was too depressed to reply.
"Well, good-night!" said Semenoff faintly. "I must go in." Yourii shook hands with him, feeling deep pity for him, hollow-chested, round- shouldered, and with the crooked stick hanging from a button of his overcoat. He would have liked to say something consoling that might encourage hope, but he felt that this was impossible.
"Good-bye!" he said, sighing.
Semenoff raised his cap and opened the gate. The sound of his footsteps and of his cough grew fainter, and then all was still. Yourii turned homewards. All that only one short half-hour ago had seemed to him bright and fair and calm--the moonlight, the starry heaven, the poplar trees touched with silvery splendour, the mysterious shadows--all were now dead, and cold and terrible as some vast, tremendous tomb.
On reaching home, he went softly to his room and opened the window looking on to the garden. For the first time in his life he reflected that all that had engrossed him, and for which he had shown such zeal and unselfishness was really not the right, the important thing. If, so he thought, some day, like Semenoff, he were about to die, he would feel no burning regret that men had not been made happier by his efforts, nor grief that his life-long ideals remained unrealized. The only grief would be that he must die, must lose sight, and sense, and hearing, before having had time to taste all the joys that life could yield.
He was ashamed of such a thought, and, putting it aside, sought for an explanation.
"Life is conflict."
"Yes, but conflict for whom, if not for one's self, for one's own place in the sun?"
Thus spake a voice within. Yourii affected not to hear it and strove to think of something else. But his mind reverted to this thought without ceasing; it tormented him even to bitter tears.