Chapter V.
 

When Lida Sanine received Lialia's invitation, she showed it to her brother. She thought that he would refuse; in fact, she hoped as much. She felt that on the moonlit river she would again be drawn to Sarudine, and would again experience that sensation at once delicious and disquieting. At the same time she was ashamed that her brother should know that it was Sarudine, of all people, whom he cordially despised.

But Sanine at once accepted with pleasure.

The day was an ideal one; bright sunlight and a cloudless sky.

"No doubt there will be some nice girls there, whose acquaintance you may care to make," said Lida, mechanically.

"Ah! that's good!" said Sanine. "The weather is lovely, too; so let's go!"

At the time appointed, Sarudine and Tanaroff drove up in the large lineika belonging to their squadron with two big regimental horses.

"Lidia Petrovna, we are waiting for you," cried Sarudine, looking extremely smart in white, and heavily scented.

Lida in a light gauzy dress with a collar and waist-band of rose- coloured velvet ran down the steps and held out both her hands to Sarudine. For a moment he grasped them tightly, as he glanced admiringly at her person.

"Let us go, let us go," she exclaimed, in excitement, and confusion, for she knew the meaning of that glance.

Very soon the lineika was swiftly rolling along the little-used road across the steppes. The tall stems of the grass bent beneath the wheels; the fresh breeze as it lightly touched the hair, made the grasses wave on either side. Outside the town they overtook another carriage containing Lialia, Yourii, Riasantzeff, Novikoff, Ivanoff and Semenoff. They were cramped and uncomfortable, yet all were merry and in high spirits. Only Yourii, after last night's talk, was puzzled by Semenoff's behaviour. He could not understand how the latter could laugh and joke like the others. After all that he had told him, such mirth seemed strange. "Was it all put on?" he thought, as he furtively glanced at Semenoff. He shrank from such an explanation. From both carriages there was a lively interchange of wit and raillery. Novikoff jumped down and ran races through the grass with Lida. Apparently there was a tacit understanding between them to appear to be the best of friends, for they kept merrily teasing each other all the time.

They now approached the hill on whose summit stood the convent with its glittering cupolas and white stone walls. The hill was covered by woods, and the curled tips of the oak-trees looked like wool. There were oak-trees also on the islands at the foot of it, where the broad, calm river flowed.

Leaving the road, the horses trotted over the moist, rich turf in which the carriage-wheels made deep ruts. There was a pleasant odour of earth and of green leaves.

At the appointed place, a meadow, seated on the grass were a young student and two girls wearing the dress of Little Russia. Being the first to arrive, they were busily preparing tea and light refreshments. When the carriage stopped, the horses snorted and whisked away flies with their tails. Everybody jumped down, enlivened and refreshed by the drive and the sweet country air. Lialia bestowed resounding kisses upon the two girls who were making tea, and introduced them to her brother and to Sanine, whom they regarded with shy curiosity. Lida suddenly remembered that the two men did not know each other. "Allow me," she said to Yourii, "to introduce to you my brother Vladimir." Sanine smiled and grasped Yourii's hand, but the latter scarcely noticed him. Sanine found everybody interesting and liked making new acquaintances. Yourii considered that very few people in this world were interesting, and always felt disinclined to meet strangers. Ivanoff knew Sanine slightly and liked what he had about him. He was the first to go up to him and begin talking, while Semenoff ceremoniously shook hands with him.

"Now we can all enjoy ourselves after these tiresome formalities," cried Lialia.

At first a certain stiffness prevailed, for many of the party were complete strangers to each other. But as they began to eat, when the men had had several liqueurs, and the ladies wine, such constraint gave way to mirth. They drank freely, and there was much laughter and joking. Some ran races and others clambered up the hill-side. All around was so calm and bright and the green woods so fair, that nothing sad or sinister could cast its shadows on their souls.

"If everybody were to jump about and run like this," said Riasantzeff, flushed and breathless, "nine-tenths of the world's diseases would not exist."

"Nor the vices either," added Lialia.

"Well, as regards vice there will always be plenty of that," observed Ivanoff, and although no one thought such a remark either witty or wise, it provoked hearty laughter.

As they were having tea, it was the sunset hour. The river gleamed like gold, and through the trees fell slanting rays of warm red light.

"Now for the boat!" cried Lida, as, holding up her skirts, she ran down to the river-bank. "Who'll get there first?"

Some ran after her, while others followed at a more leisurely pace, and amid much laughter they all got into a large painted boat.

"Let her go!" cried Lida, in a merry voice of command. The boat slid away from the shore leaving behind it two broad stripes on the water that disappeared in ripples at the river's edge.

"Yourii Nicolaijevitch, why are you so silent?" asked Lida.

Yourii smiled. "I've got nothing to say."

"Impossible!" she answered, with a pretty pout, throwing back her head as if she knew that all men thought her irresistible.

"Yourii doesn't like talking nonsense," said Semenoff. "He requires...."

"A serious subject, is that it?" exclaimed Lida, interrupting.

"Look! there is a serious subject!" said Sarudine, pointing to the shore.

Where the bank was steep, between the gnarled roots of a rugged oak one could see a narrow aperture, dark and mysterious, which was partially hidden by weeds and grasses.

"What is that?" asked Schafroff, who was unfamiliar with this part of the country.

"A cavern," replied Ivanoff.

"What sort of cavern?"

"The devil only knows! They say that once it was a coiners' den. As usual they were all caught. Rather hard lines, wasn't it?" said Ivanoff.

"Perhaps you'd like to start a business of that sort yourself and manufacture sham twenty-copeck pieces?" asked Novikoff.

"Copecks? Not I! Roubles, my friend, roubles!"

"H--m!" muttered Sarudine, shrugging his shoulders. He did not like Ivanoff, whose jokes to him were unintelligible.

"Yes, they were all caught, and the cave was filled up; it gradually collapsed, and no one ever goes into it now. As a child I often used to creep in there. It is a most interesting place."

"Interesting? I should rather think so!" exclaimed Lida.

"Victor Sergejevitsch, suppose you go in? You're one of the brave ones."

"Why?" asked Sarudine, somewhat perplexed.

"I'll go!" exclaimed Yourii, blushing to think that the others would accuse him of showing off.

"It's a wonderful place!" said Ivanoff by way of encouragement.

"Aren't you going too?" asked Novikoff.

"No, I'd rather stop here!"

At this they all laughed.

The boat drew near the bank and a wave of cold air from the cavern passed over their heads.

"For heaven's sake, Yourii, don't do such a silly thing!" said Lialia, trying to dissuade her brother. "It really is silly of you!"

"Silly? Of course it is." Yourii, smiling, assented. "Semenoff, just give me that candle, will you?"

"Where shall I find it?"

"There is one behind you, in the hamper."

Semenoff coolly produced the candle.

"Are you really going?" asked a tall girl, magnificently proportioned. Lialia called her Sina, her surname being Karsavina.

"Of course I am. Why not?" replied Yourii, striving to show utter indifference. He recollected having done this when engaged in some of his political adventures. The thought for some reason or other was not an agreeable one.

The entrance to the cavern was damp and dark. "Brrr!" exclaimed Sanine, as he looked in. To him it seemed absurd that Yourii should explore a disagreeable, dangerous place simply because others watched him doing it. Yourii, as self-conscious as ever, lighted the candle, thinking inwardly, "I am making myself rather ridiculous, am I not?" But so far from seeming ridiculous, he won admiration, especially from the ladies, who were in an agreeable state of curiosity bordering on alarm. He waited till the candle burnt more brightly and then, laughing to avoid being laughed at, disappeared in the darkness. The light seemed to have vanished, also. They all suddenly felt concern for his safety and intense curiosity as to what would happen.

"Look out for wolves!" cried Riasantzeff.

"It's all right. I've got a revolver!" came the answer. It sounded faint and weird.

Yourii advanced slowly and with caution. The sides of the cavern were low, uneven, and damp as the walls of a large cellar. The ground was so irregular that twice Yourii just missed falling into a hole. He thought it would be best to turn back, or to sit down and wait a while so that he could say that he had gone a good way in.

Suddenly he heard the sound of footsteps behind him slipping on the wet clay, and of some one breathing hard. He held the light aloft.

"Sinaida Karsavina!" he exclaimed in amazement.

"Her very self!" replied Sina gaily, as she caught up her dress and jumped lightly over a hole. Yourii was glad that she, this merry, handsome girl, had come, and he greeted her with laughing eyes.

"Let us go on," said Sina shyly.

Yourii obediently advanced. No thoughts of danger troubled him now, and he was specially careful to light the way for his companion. He perceived several exits, but all were blocked. In one corner lay a few rotten planks, that looked like the remains of some old coffin.

"Not very interesting, eh?" said Yourii, unconsciously lowering his voice. The mass of earth oppressed him.

"Oh! yes it is!" whispered Sina, and as she looked round her wide eyes gleamed in the candle-light. She was nervous, and instinctively kept close to Yourii for protection. This Yourii noticed. He felt a strange sympathy for his fair, frail companion.

"It is like being buried alive," she continued. "We might scream, but nobody would hear us."

"Of course not," laughed Yourii.

Then a sudden thought caused his brain to reel. This beautiful girl, so fresh, so desirable, was at his mercy. No one could see or hear them.... To Yourii such a thought seemed unutterably base. He quickly banished it, and said:

"Suppose we try?"

His voice trembled. Could Sina have read his thoughts?

"Try what?" she asked. "Suppose I fire?" said Yourii, producing his revolver.

"Will the earth fall in on us?"

"I don't know," he replied, though he felt certain that nothing would happen. "Are you afraid?"

"Oh no! Fire away!" said Sina, as she retreated a step or so. Holding out the revolver, he fired. There was a flash, and a dense cloud of smoke enveloped them, as the echo of the report slowly died away.

"There! That's all," said Yourii.

"Let us go back."

They retraced their steps, but as Sina walked on in front of Yourii the sight of her round, firm hips again brought sensuous thoughts to his mind that he found it hard to ignore.

"I say, Sina Karsavina!" His voice faltered. "I am going to ask you an interesting psychological question. How was it that you did not feel afraid to come here with me? You said yourself that if we screamed no one would hear us.... You don't know me in the least!"

Sina blushed in the darkness and was silent. At last she murmured. "Because I thought that you were to be trusted."

"And suppose that you had been mistaken?"

"Then, I should ... have drowned myself," said Sina almost inaudibly.

The words filled Yourii with pity. His passion subsided, and he felt suddenly solaced.

"What a good little girl!" he thought, sincerely touched by such frank, simple modesty.

Proud of her reply, and gratified by his silent approval, Sina smiled at him, as they returned to the entrance of the cavern. Meanwhile she kept wondering why his question had not seemed offensive or shameful to her, but, on the contrary, quite agreeable.