JUST before dinner Sipiagin called his wife into the library. He wanted t_ave a talk with her alone. He seemed worried. He told her that the factor_as really in a bad way, that Solomin struck him as a capable man, although _ittle stiff, and thought it was necessary to continue being aux petits soin_ith him.
"How I should like to get hold of him!" he repeated once or twice. Sipiagi_as very much annoyed at Kollomietzev's being there. "Devil take the man! H_ees nihilists everywhere and is always wanting to suppress them! Let him d_t at his own house I He simply can't hold his tongue!"
Valentina Mihailovna said that she would be delighted to be aux petits soin_ith the new visitor, but it seemed to her that he had no need of these petit_oins and took no notice of them; not rudely in any way, but he was quit_ndifferent; very remarkable in a man du commun.
"Never mind… . Be nice to him just the same!" Sipiagin begged of her.
Valentina Mihailovna promised to do what he wanted and fulfilled her promis_onscientiously. She began by having a tete-a-tete with Kollomietzev. What sh_aid to him remains a secret, but he came to the table with the air of a ma_ho had made up his mind to be discreet and submissive at all costs. This
"resignation" gave his whole bearing a slight touch of melancholy; and wha_ignity … oh, what dignity there was in every one of his movements! Valentin_ihailovna introduced Solomin to everybody (he looked more attentively a_ariana than at any of the others), and made him sit beside her on her righ_t table. Kollomietzev sat on her left, and as he unfolded his serviett_crewed up his face and smiled, as much as to say, "Well, now let us begin ou_ittle comedy!" Sipiagin sat on the opposite side and watched him with som_nxiety. By a new arrangement of Madame Sipiagina, Nejdanov was not put nex_o Mariana as usual, but between Anna Zaharovna and Sipiagin. Mariana foun_er card (as the dinner was a stately one) on her serviette betwee_ollomietzev and Kolia. The dinner was excellently served; there was even a
"menu"—a painted card lay before each person.
Directly soup was finished, Sipiagin again brought the conversation round t_is factory, and from there went on to Russian manufacture in general.
Solomin, as usual, replied very briefly. As soon as he began speaking, Marian_ixed her eyes upon him. Kollomietzev, who was sitting beside her, turned t_er with various compliments (he had been asked not to start a dispute), bu_he did not listen to him; and indeed he pronounced all his pleasantries in _alf-hearted manner, merely to satisfy his own conscience. He realised tha_here was something between himself and this young girl that could not b_rossed.
As for Nejdanov, something even worse had come to pass between him and th_aster of the house. For Sipiagin, Nejdanov had become simply a piece o_urniture, or an empty space that he quite ignored. These new relations ha_aken place so quickly and unmistakably that when Nejdanov pronounced a fe_ords in answer to a remark of Anna Zaharovna's, Sipiagin looked round i_mazement, as if wondering where the sound came from.
Sipiagin evidently possessed some of the characteristics for which certain o_he great Russian bureaucrats are celebrated for.
After the fish, Valentina Mihailovna, who had been lavishing all her charms o_olomin, said to her husband in English that she noticed their visitor did no_rink wine and might perhaps like some beer. Sipiagin called aloud for ale, while Solomin calmly turned towards Valentina Mihailovna, saying, "You may no_e aware, madame, that I spent over two years in England and can understan_nd speak English. I only mentioned it in case you should wish to say anythin_rivate before me." Valentina Mihailovna laughed and assured him that thi_recaution was altogether unnecessary, since he would hear nothing but good o_imself; inwardly she thought Solomin's action rather strange, but delicate i_ts own way.
At this point Kollomietzev could no longer contain himself. "And so you'v_een in England," he began, "and no doubt studied the manners and custom_here. Do you think them worth imitating?"
"Some yes, others no."
"Brief but not clear," Kollomietzev remarked, trying not to notice the sign_ipiagin was making to him. "You were speaking of the nobility this morning… No doubt you've had the opportunity of studying the English landed gentry, a_hey call them there."
"No, I had no such opportunity. I moved in quite a different sphere. But _ormed my own ideas about these gentlemen."
"Well, do you think that such a landed gentry is impossible among us? Or tha_e ought not to want it in any case?"
"In the first place, I certainly do think it impossible, and in the second, it's hardly worthwhile wanting such a thing."
"But why, my dear sir? " Kollomietzev asked; the polite tone was intended t_oothe Sipiagin, who sat very uneasily on his chair.
"Because in twenty or thirty years your landed gentry won't be here in an_ase."
"What makes you think so?"
"Because by that time the land will fall into the hands of people in no wa_istinguished by their origin."
"Do you mean the merchants?"
"For the most part probably the merchants."
"But how will it happen?"
"They'll buy it, of course."
"From the gentry? "
"Yes; from the gentry."
Kollomietzev smiled condescendingly. "If you recollect you said the very sam_hing about factories that you're now saying about the land."
"And it's quite true."
"You will no doubt be very pleased about it!"
"Not at all. I've already told you that the people won't be any the better of_or the change."
Kollomietzev raised his hand slightly. "What solicitude on the part of th_eople, imagine!"
"Vassily Fedotitch!" Sipiagin called out as loudly as he could, "they hav_rought you some beer! Voyons, simeon!" he added in an undertone.
But Kollomietzev would not be suppressed.
"I see you haven't a very high opinion of the merchant class," he began again, turning to Solomin, "but they've sprung from the people."
"So they have."
"I thought that you considered everything about the people, or relating to th_eople, as above criticism!"
"Not at all! You are quite mistaken. The masses can be condemned for a grea_any things, though they are not always to blame. Our merchant is an exploite_nd uses his capital for that purpose. He thinks that people are always tryin_o get the better of him, so he tries to get the better of them. But th_eople—"
"Well, what about the people?" Kollomietzev asked in falsetto.
"The people are asleep."
"And would you like to wake them?"
"That would not be a bad thing to do."
"Aha! aha! So that's what—"
"Gentlemen, gentlemen!" Sipiagin exclaimed imperatively. He felt that th_oment had come to put an end to the discussion, and he did put an end to it.
With a slight gesture of his right hand, while the elbow remained propped o_he table, he delivered a long and detailed speech. He praised th_onservatives on the one hand and approved of the liberals on the other, giving the preference to the latter as he counted himself of their numbers. H_poke highly of the people, but drew attention to some of their weaknesses; expressed his full confidence in the government, but asked himself whether al_ts officials were faithfully fulfilling its benevolent designs. H_cknowledged the importance of literature, but declared that without th_tmost caution it was dangerous. He turned to the West with hope, then becam_oubtful; he turned to the East, first sighed, then became enthusiastic.
Finally he proposed a toast in honour of the trinity: Religion, Agriculture, and Industry!
"Under the wing of authority!" Kollomietzev added sternly.
"Under the wing of wise and benevolent authority," Sipiagin corrected him.
The toast was drunk in silence. The empty space on Sipiagin's left, in th_orm of Nejdanov, did certainly make several sounds of disapproval; bu_rousing not the least attention became quiet again, and the dinner, withou_ny further controversy, reached a happy conclusion.
Valentina Mihailovna, with a most charming smile, handed Solomin a cup o_offee; he drank it and was already looking round for his hat when Sipiagi_ook him gently by the arm and led him into his study. There he first gave hi_n excellent cigar and then made him a proposal to enter his factory on th_ost advantageous terms. "You will be absolute master there, Vassil_edotitch, I assure you!" Solomin accepted the cigar and declined the offe_bout the factory. He stuck to his refusal, however much Sipiagin insisted.
"Please don't say 'no' at once, my dear Vassily Fedotitch! Say, at least, tha_ou'll think it over until tomorrow!"
"It would make no difference. I wouldn't accept your proposal."
"Do think it over till tomorrow, Vassily Fedotitch! It won't cost yo_nything."
Solomin agreed, came out of the study, and began looking for his hat again.
But Nejdanov, who until that moment had had no opportunity of exchanging _ord with him, came up to him and whispered hurriedly:
"For heaven's sake don't go yet, or else we won't be able to have a talk!"
Solomin left his hat alone, the more readily as Sipiagin, who had observed hi_rresoluteness, exclaimed:
"Won't you stay the night with us?"
"As you wish."
The grateful glance Mariana fixed on him as she stood at the drawing-roo_indow set him thinking.