A GREAT many people came to dinner. When it was over, Nejdanov took advantag_f the general bustle and slipped away to his own room. He wanted to be alon_ith his own thoughts, to arrange the impressions he had carried away from hi_ecent journey. Valentina Mihailovna had looked at him intently several time_uring dinner, but there had been no opportunity of speaking to him. Mariana,
after the unexpected freak which had so bewildered him, was evidentl_epenting of it, and seemed to avoid him. Nejdanov took up a pen to write t_is friend Silin, but he did not know what to say to him. There were so man_onflicting thoughts and sensations crowding in upon him that he did no_ttempt to disentangle them, and put them off for another day.
Kollomietzev had made one of the guests at dinner. Never before had thi_orthy shown so much insolence and snobbish contemptuousness as on thi_ccasion, but Nejdanov simply ignored him.
He was surrounded by a sort of mist, which seemed to hang before him like _ilmy curtain, separating him from the rest of the world. And through thi_ilm, strange to say, he perceived only three faces—women's faces—and al_hree were gazing at him intently. They were Madame Sipiagina, Mashurina, an_ariana. What did it mean? Why particularly these three? What had they i_ommon, and what did they want of him?
He went to bed early, but could not fall asleep. He was haunted by sad an_loomy reflections about the inevitable end— death. These thoughts wer_amiliar to him, many times had he turned them over this way and that, firs_huddering at the probability of annihilation, then welcoming it, almos_ejoicing in it. Suddenly a peculiarly familiar agitation took possession o_im… He mused awhile, sat down at the table, and wrote down the followin_ines in his sacred copy-book, without a single correction:
When I die, dear friend, remember This desire I tell to thee: Burn thou to th_ast black ember All my heart has writ for me. Let the fairest flower_urround me, Sunlight laugh about my bed, Let the sweetest of musicians To th_oor of death be led. Bid them sound no strain of sadness— Muted string o_uffled drum; Come to me with songs of gladness— Whirling in the wild walt_ome! I would hear—ere yet I hear not— Trembling strings their cadence keep,
Chords that quiver: so I also Tremble as I fall asleep. Memories of life an_aughter, Memories of earthly glee, As I go to the hereafter All my lullab_hall be.
When he wrote the word "friend" he thought of Silin. He read the verses ove_o himself in an undertone, and was surprised at what had come from his pen.
This scepticism, this indifference, this almost frivolous lack of faith—ho_id it all agree with his principles? How did it agree with what he had sai_t Markelov's? He thrust the copybook into the table drawer and went back t_ed. But he did not fall asleep until dawn, when the larks had already begu_o twitter and the sky was turning paler.
On the following day, soon after he had finished his lesson and was sitting i_he billiard room, Madame Sipiagina entered, looked round cautiously, an_oming up to him with a smile, invited him to come into her boudoir. She ha_n a white barege dress, very simple, but extremely pretty. The embroidere_rills of her sleeves came down as far as the elbow, a broad ribbon encircle_er waist, her hair fell in thick curls about her neck. Everything about he_as inviting and caressing, with a sort of restrained, yet encouraging,
caressiveness, everything; the subdued lustre of her half-closed eyes, th_oft indolence of her voice, her gestures, her very walk. She conducte_ejdanov into her boudoir, a cosy, charming room, filled with the scent o_lowers and perfumes, the pure freshness of feminine garments, the constan_resence of a woman. She made him sit down in an armchair, sat down besid_im, and began questioning him about his visit, about Markelov's way o_iving, with much tact and sweetness. She showed a genuine interest in he_rother, although she had not once mentioned him in Nejdanov's presence. On_ould gather from what she said that the impression Mariana had made on he_rother had not escaped her notice. She seemed a little disappointed, bu_hether it was due to the fact that Mariana did not reciprocate his feelings,
or that his choice should have fallen upon a girl so utterly unlike him, wa_ot quite clear. But most of all she evidently strove to soften Nejdanov, t_rouse his confidence towards her, to break down his shyness; she even went s_ar as to reproach him a little for having a false idea of her.
Nejdanov listened to her, gazed at her arms, her shoulders, and from time t_ime cast a look at her rosy lips and her unruly, massive curls. His replie_ere brief at first; he felt a curious pressure in his throat and chest, bu_y degrees this sensation gave way to another, just as disturbing, but no_evoid of a certain sweetness… . He was surprised that such a beautifu_ristocratic lady of important position should take the trouble to interes_erself in him, a simple student, and not only interest herself, but flir_ith him a little besides. He wondered, but could not make out her object i_oing so. To tell the truth, he was little concerned about the object. Madam_ipiagina went on to speak of Kolia, and assured Nejdanov that she wished t_ecome better acquainted with him only so that she might talk to him seriousl_bout her son, get to know his views on the education of Russian children. I_ight have seemed a little curious that such a wish should have come upon he_o suddenly, but the root of the matter did not lie in what Valentin_ihailovna had said. She had been seized by a wave of sensuousness, a desir_o conquer and bring to her feet this rebellious young man.
Here it is necessary to go back a little. Valentina Mihailovna was th_aughter of a general who had been neither over-wise nor over-industrious i_is life. He had received only one star and a buckle as a reward for fift_ears' service. She was a Little Russian, intriguing and sly, endowed, lik_any of her countrywomen, with a very simple and even stupid exterior, fro_hich she knew how to extract the maximum of advantage. Valentina Mihailovna'_arents were not rich, but they had managed to educate her at the Smoln_onvent, where, although considered a republican, she was always in th_oreground and very well treated on account of her excellent behaviour an_ndustriousness. On leaving the convent she settled with her mother (he_rother had gone into the country, and her father, the general with the sta_nd buckle, had died) in a very clean, but extremely chilly, apartment, i_hich you could see your own breath as you talked. Valentina Mihailovna use_o make fun of it and declare it was like being in church. She was very brav_n bearing with all the discomforts of a poor, pinched existence, having _onderfully sweet temper. With her mother's help, she managed both to keep u_nd make new connections and acquaintances, and was even spoken of in th_ighest circles as a very nice well-bred girl. She had several suitors, ha_ixed upon Sipiagin from them all, and had very quickly and ingeniously mad_im fall in love with her. However, he was soon convinced that he could no_ave made a better choice. She was intelligent, rather good than ill-natured,
at bottom cold and indifferent, but unable to endure the idea that anyon_hould be indifferent to her.
Valentina Mihailovna was possessed of that peculiar charm, the characteristi_f all "charming" egoists, in which there is neither poetry nor rea_ensitiveness, but which is often full of superficial gentleness, sympathy,
sometimes even tenderness. But these charming egoists must not be thwarted.
They are very domineering and cannot endure independence in others. Women lik_adame Sipiagina excite and disturb people of inexperienced and passionat_atures, but are fond of a quiet and peaceful life themselves. Virtue come_asy to them, they are placid of temperament, but a constant desire t_ommand, to attract, and to please gives them mobility and brilliance. The_ave an iron will, and a good deal of their fascination is due to this will.
It is difficult for a man to hold his ground when the mysterious sparks o_enderness begin to kindle, as if involuntarily, in one of these unstirre_reatures; he waits for the hour to come when the ice will melt, but the ray_nly play over the transparent surface, and never does he see it melt or it_moothness disturbed!
It cost Madame Sipiagina very little to flirt, knowing full well that i_nvolved no danger for herself, but to take the lustre out of another's eye_nd see them sparkle again, to see another's cheeks become flushed with desir_nd dread, to hear another's voice tremble and break down, to distur_nother's soul—oh, how sweet it was to her soul! How delightful it was late a_ight, when she lay down in her snow-white bed to an untroubled sleep, t_emember all these agitated words and looks and sighs. With what a self-
satisfied smile she retired into herself, into the consciousness of he_naccessibility, her invulnerability, and with what condescension sh_bandoned herself to the lawful embrace of her well-bred husband! It was s_leasant that for a little time she was filled with emotion, ready to do som_ind deed, to help a fellow creature… Once, after a secretary of legation, wh_as madly in love with her, had attempted to cut his throat, she founded _mall alms- house! She had prayed for him fervently, although her religiou_eelings from earliest childhood had not been strongly developed.
And so she talked to Nejdanov, doing everything she could to bring him to he_eet. She allowed him to come near her, she revealed herself to him, as i_ere, and with a sweet curiosity, with a half-maternal tenderness, she watche_his handsome, interesting, stern radical softening towards her quietly an_wkwardly. A day, an hour, a minute later and all this would have vanishe_ithout leaving a trace, but for the time being it was pleasant, amusing,
rather pathetic, and even a little sad. Forgetting his origin, and knowin_hat such interest is always appreciated by lonely people happening to fal_mong strangers, she began questioning him about his youth, about his family…
But guessing from his curt replies that she had made a mistake, Valentin_ihailovna tried to smooth things over and began to unfold herself still mor_efore him, as a rose unfolds its fragrant petals on a hot summer's noon,
closing them again tightly at the first approach of the evening coolness.
She could not fully smooth over her blunder, however. Having been touched on _ensitive spot, Nejdanov could not regain his former confidence. Tha_itterness which he always carried, always felt at the bottom of his heart,
stirred again, awakening all his democratic suspicions and reproaches. "Tha_s not what I've come here for," he thought, recalling Paklin's admonition. H_ook advantage of a pause in the conversation, got up, bowed slightly, an_ent out "very foolishly" as he could not help saying to himself afterwards.
His confusion did not escape Valentina Mihailovna's notice, and judging by th_mile with which she accompanied him, she had put it down to her ow_dvantage.
In the billiard room Nejdanov came across Mariana. She was standing with he_ack to the window, not far from the door of Madame Sipiagina's boudoir, wit_er arms tightly folded. Her face was almost in complete shadow, but she fixe_er fearless eyes on Nejdanov so penetratingly, and her tightly closed lip_xpressed so much contempt and insulting pity, that he stood still i_mazement.
"Have you anything to say to me?" he asked involuntarily.
Mariana did not reply for a time.
"No … yes I have, though not now."
"You must wait awhile. Perhaps—tomorrow, perhaps—never. I know so little—wha_re you really like?"
"But," Nejdanov began, "I sometimes feel … that between us—"
"But you hardly know me at all," Mariana interrupted him. "Well, wait _ittle. Tomorrow, perhaps. Now I have to go to … my mistress. Goodbye, til_omorrow."
Nejdanov took a step or two in advance, but turned back suddenly.
"By the way, Mariana Vikentievna … may I come to school with you one da_efore it closes? I should like to see what you do there."
"With pleasure… But it was not the school about which I wished to speak t_ou."
"What was it then?"
"Tomorrow," Mariana repeated.
But she did not wait until the next day, and the conversation between her an_ejdanov took place on that same evening in one of the linden avenues not fa_rom the terrace.