A House of Gentlefolk/Chapter XL
Meanwhile, down-stairs, preference was going on merrily in the drawing-room; Marya Dmitrievna was winning, and was in high good-humour. A servant came in and announced that Panshin was below.
Marya Dmitrievna dropped her cards and moved restlessly in her arm-chair; Varvara Pavlovna looked at her with a half-smile, then turned her eyes towards the door. Panshin made his appearance in a black frock-coat buttoned up to the throat, and a high English collar. "It was hard for me to obey; but you see I have come," this was what was expressed by his unsmiling, freshly shaven countenance.
"Well, Woldemar," cried Marya Dmitrievna, "you used to come in unannounced!"
Panshin only replied to Marya Dmitrievna by a single glance. He bowed courteously to her, but did not kiss her hand. She presented him to Varvara Pavlovna; he stepped back a pace, bowed to her with the same courtesy, but with still greater elegance and respect, and took a seat near the card-table. The game of preference was soon over. Panshin inquired after Lisaveta Mihalovna, learnt that she was not quite well, and expressed his regret. Then he began to talk to Varvara Pavlovna, diplomatically weighing each word and giving it its full value, and politely hearing her answers to the end. But the dignity of his diplomatic tone did not impress Varvara Pavlovna, and she did not adopt it. On the contrary, she looked him in the face with light-hearted attention and talked easily, while her delicate nostrils were quivering as though with suppressed laughter. Marya Dmitrievna began to enlarge on her talent; Panshin courteously inclined his head, so far as his collar would permit him, declared that, "he felt sure of it beforehand," and almost turned the conversation to the diplomatic topic of Metternich himself. Varvara Pavlovna, with an expressive look in her velvety eyes, said in a low voice, "Why, but you too are an artist, un confrere," adding still lower, "venez!" with a nod towards the piano. The single word venez thrown at him, instantly, as though by magic, effected a complete transformation in Panshin's whole appearance. His care-worn air disappeared; he smiled and grew lively, unbuttoned his coat, and repeating "a poor artist, alas! Now you, I have heard, are a real artist; he followed Varvara Pavlovna to the piano . . . .
"Make him sing his song, 'How the Moon Floats,'" cried Marya Dmitrievna.
"Do you sing?" said Varvara Pavlovna, enfolding him in a rapid radiant look. "Sit down."
Panshin began to cry off.
"Sit down," she repeated insistently, tapping on a chair behind him.
He sat down, coughed, tugged at his collar, and sang his song.
"Charmant," pronounced Varvara Pavlovna, "you sing very well, vous avez du style, again."
She walked round the piano and stood just opposite Panshin. He sang it again, increasing the melodramatic tremor in his voice. Varvara Pavlovna stared steadily at him, leaning her elbows on the piano and holding her white hands on a level with her lips. Panshin finished the song.
"Charmant, charmant idee," she said with the calm self-confidence of a connoisseur. "Tell me, have you composed anything for a woman's voice, for a mezzo-soprano?"
"I hardly compose at all," replied Panshin. "That was only thrown off in the intervals of business . . . but do you sing?"
"Oh! sing us something," urged Marya Dmitrievna.
Varvara Pavlovna pushed her hair back off her glowing cheeks and gave her head a little shake.
"Our voices ought to go well together," she observed, turning to Panshin; "let us sing a duet. Do you know Son geloso, or La ci darem or Mira la bianca luna?"
"I used to sing Mira la bianca luna, once," replied Panshin, "but long ago; I have forgotten it."
"Never mind, we will rehearse it in a low voice. Allow me."
Varvara Pavlovna sat down at the piano, Panshin stood by her. They sang through the duet in an undertone, and Varvara Pavlovna corrected him several times as they did so, then they sang it aloud, and then twice repeated the performance of Mira la bianca lu-u-na. Varvara Pavlovna's voice had lost its freshness, but she managed it with great skill. Panshin at first was hesitating, and a little out of tune, then he warmed up, and if his singing was not quite beyond criticism, at least he shrugged his shoulders, swayed his whole person, and lifted his hand from time to time in the most genuine style. Varvara Pavlovna played two or three little things of Thalberg's, and coquettishly rendered a little French ballad. Marya Dmitrievna did not know how to express her delight; she several times tried to send for Lisa. Gedeonovsky, too, was at a loss for words, and could only nod his head, but all at once he gave an unexpected yawn, and hardly had time to cover his mouth with his! hand. This yawn did not escape Varvara Pavlovna; she at once turned her back on the piano, observing, "Assez de musique comme ca; let us talk," and she folded her arms. "oui, assez de musique," repeated Panshin gaily, and at once he dropped into a chat, alert, light, and in French. "Precisely as in the best Parisian salon," thought Marya Dmitrievna, as she listened to their fluent and quick-witted sentences. Panshin had a sense of complete satisfaction; his eyes shone, and he smiled. At first he passed his hand across his face, contracted his brows, and sighed spasmodically whenever he chanced to encounter Marya Dmitrievna's eyes. But later on he forgot her altogether, and gave himself up entirely to the enjoyment of a half-worldly, half-artistic chat. Varvara Pavlovna proved to be a great philosopher; she had a ready answer for everything; she never hesitated, never doubted about anything; one could see that she had conversed much with clever men of all kinds. All her ideas, all her feelings revolved round Paris. Panshin turned the conversation upon literature; it seemed that, like himself, she read only French books. George Sand drove her to exasperation, Balzac she respected, but he wearied her; in Sue and Scribe she saw great knowledge of human nature, Dumas and Feval she adored. In her heart she preferred Paul de Kock to all of them, but of course she did not even mention his name. To tell the truth, literature had no great interest for her. Varvara Pavlovna very skilfully avoided all that could even remotely recall her position; there was no reference to love in her remarks; on the contrary, they were rather expressive of austerity in regard to the allurements of passion, of disillusionment and resignation. Panshin disputed with her; she did not agree with him . . . . but, strange to say! . . . at the very time when words of censure-often of severe censure--were coming from her lips, these words had a soft caressing sound, and her eyes spoke . . . precisely what those lovely eyes spoke, it was hard to say; but at least their utterances were anything but severe, and were full of undefined sweetness.
Panshin tried to interpret their secret meaning, he tried to make his own eyes speak, but he felt he was not successful; he was conscious that Varvara Pavlovna, in the character of a real lioness from abroad, stood high above him, and consequently was not completely master of himself. Varvara Pavlovna had a habit in conversation of lightly touching the sleeve of the person she was talking to; those momentary contacts had a most disquieting influence on Vladimir Nikolaitch. Varvara Pavlovna possessed the faculty of getting on easily with every one; before two hours had passed it seemed to Panshin that he had known her for an age, and Lisa, the same Lisa whom, at any-rate, he had loved, to whom he had the evening before offered his hand, had vanished as it were into a mist. Tea was brought in; the conversation became still more unconstrained. Marya Dmitrievna rang for the page and gave orders to ask Lisa to come down if her head were better. Panshin, hearing Lisa's name, fell to discussing self-sacrifice and the question which was more capable of sacrifice--man or woman. Marya Dmitrievna at once became excited, began to maintain that woman is more the ready for sacrifice, declared that she would prove it in a couple of words, got confused and finished up by a rather unfortunate comparison. Varvara Pavlovna took up a music-book and half-hiding behind it and bending towards Panshin, she observed in a whisper, as she nibbled a biscuit, with a serene smile on her lips and in her eyes, "Elle n'a pas invente la poudre, la bonne dame." Panshin was a little taken aback and amazed at Varvara Pavlovna's audacity; but he did not realise how much contempt for himself was concealed in this unexpected outbreak, and forgetting Marya Dmitrievna's kindness and devotion, forgetting all the dinners she had given him, and the money she had lent him, he replied (luckless mortal!) with the same smile and in the same tone, "je crois bien," and not even, je crois bien, but j'crois ben!
Varvara flung him a friendly glance and got up. Lisa came in: Marfa Timofyevna had tried in vain to hinder her; she was resolved to go through with her sufferings to the end. Varvara Pavlovna went to meet her together with Panshin, on whose face the former diplomatic expression had reappeared.
"How are you?" he asked Lisa.
"I am better now, thank you," she replied.
"We have been having a little music here; it's a pity you did not hear Varvara Pavlovna, she sings superbly, en artiste consommee."
"Come here, my dear," sounded Marya Dmitrievna's voice.
Varvara Pavlovna went to her at once with the submissiveness of a child, and sat down on a little stool at her feet. Marya Dmitrievna had called her so as to leave her daughter, at least for a moment, alone with Panshin; she was still secretly hoping that she would come round. Besides, an idea had entered her head, to which she was anxious to give expression at once.
"Do you know," she whispered to Varvara Pavlovna, "I want to endeavour to reconcile you and your husband; I won't answer for my success, but I will make an effort. He has, you know, a great respect for me." Varvara Pavlovna slowly raised her eyes to Marya Dmitrievna, and eloquently clasped her hands.
"You would be my saviour, ma tante," she said in a mournful voice: "I don't know how to thank you for all your kindness; but I have been too guilty towards Fedor Ivanitch; he can not forgive me."
"But did you--in reality--" Marya Dmitrievna was beginning inquisitively.
"Don't question me," Varvara Pavlovna interrupted her, and she cast down her eyes. "I was young, frivolous. But I don't want to justify myself."
"Well, anyway, why not try?" Don't despair," rejoined Marya Dmitrievna, and she was on the point of patting her on the cheek, but after a glance at her she had not the courage. "She is humble, very humble," she thought, "but still she is a lioness."
"Are you ill?" Panshin was saying to Lisa meanwhile.
"Yes, I am not well."
"I understand you," he brought out after a rather protracted silence. "Yes, I understand you."
"I understand you," Panshin repeated significantly; he simply did not know what to say.
Lisa felt embarrassed, and then "so be it!" she thought. Panshin assumed a mysterious air and kept silent, looking severely away.
"I fancy though it's struck eleven," remarked Marya Dmitrievna.
Her guests took the hint and began to say good-bye. Varvara Pavlovna had to promise that she would come to dinner the following day and bring Ada. Gedeonovsky, who had all but fallen asleep sitting in his corner, offered to escort her home. Panshin took leave solemnly of all, but at the steps as he put Varvara Pavlovna into her carriage he pressed her hand, and cried after her, "au revoir!" Gedeonovsky sat beside her all the way home. She amused herself by pressing the tip of her little foot as though accidentally on his foot; he was thrown into confusion and began paying her compliments. She tittered and made eyes at him when the light of a street lamp fell into the carriage. The waltz she had played was ringing in her head, and exciting her; whatever position she might find herself in, she had only to imagine lights, a ballroom, rapid whirling to the strains of music--and her blood was on fire, her eyes glittered strangely, a smile strayed about her lips, and something of bacchanalian grace was visible over her whole frame. When she reached home Varvara Pavlovna bounded lightly out of the carriage--only real lionesses know how to bound like that--and turning round to Gedeonovsky she burst suddenly into a ringing laugh right in his face.
"An attractive person," thought the counsellor of state as he made his way to his lodgings, where his servant was awaiting him with a glass of opodeldoc: "It's well I'm a steady fellow--only, what was she laughing at?"
Marfa Timofyevna spent the whole night sitting beside Lisa's bed.