On the Eve/XV

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XV
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Anna Vassilyevna, as the reader knows already, liked staying at home; but at times she manifested, quite unexpectedly, an irresistible longing for something out of the common, some extraordinary partie du plaisir, and the more troublesome the partie du plaisir was, the more preparations and arrangements it required, and the greater Anna Vassilyevna's own agitation over it, the more pleasure it gave her. If this mood came upon her in winter, she would order two or three boxes to be taken side by side, and, inviting all her acquaintances, would set off to the theatre or even to a masquerade; in summer she would drive for a trip out of town to some spot as far off as possible. The next day she would complain of a headache, groan and keep her bed; but within two months the same craving for something 'out of the common' would break out in her again. That was just what happened now. Some one chanced to refer to the beautiful scenery of Tsaritsino before her, and Anna Vassilyevna suddenly announced an intention of driving to Tsaritsino the day after tomorrow. The household was thrown into a state of bustle; a messenger galloped off to Moscow for Nikolai Artemyevitch; with him galloped the butler to buy wines, pies, and all sorts of provisions; Shubin was commissioned to hire an open carriage—the coach alone was not enough—and to order relays of horses to be ready; a page was twice despatched to Bersenyev and Insarov with two different notes of invitation, written by Zoya, the first in Russian, the second in French; Anna Vassilyevna herself was busy over the dresses of the young ladies for the expedition. Meanwhile the partie du plaisir was very near coming to grief. Nikolai Artemyevitch arrived from Moscow in a sour, ill-natured, frondeurish frame of mind. He was still sulky with Augustina Christianovna; and when he heard what the plan was, he flatly declared that he would not go; that to go trotting from Kuntsovo to Moscow and from Moscow to Tsaritsino, and then from Tsaritsino again to Moscow, from Moscow again to Kuntsovo, was a piece of folly; and, 'in fact,' he added, 'let them first prove to my satisfaction, that one can be merrier on one spot of the globe than another spot, and I will go.' This, of course, no one could prove to his satisfaction, and Anna Vassilyevna was ready to throw up the partie du plaisir for lack of a solid escort; but she recollected Uvar Ivanovitch, and in her distress she sent to his room for him, saying: 'a drowning man catches at straws.' They waked him up; he came down, listened in silence to Anna Vassilyevna's proposition, and, to the general astonishment, with a flourish of his fingers, he consented to go. Anna Vassilyevna kissed him on the cheek, and called him a darling; Nikolai Artemyevitch smiled contemptuously and said: quelle bourde! (he liked on occasions to make use of a 'smart' French word); and the following morning the coach and the open carriage, well-packed, rolled out of the Stahovs' court-yard. In the coach were the ladies, a maid, and Bersenyev; Insarov was seated on the box; and in the open carriage were Uvar Ivanovitch and Shubin. Uvar Ivanovitch had himself beckoned Shubin to him; he knew that he would tease him the whole way, but there existed a queer sort of attachment, marked by abusive candour, between the 'primeval force' and the young artist. On this occasion, however, Shubin left his fat friend in peace; he was absent-minded, silent, and gentle.

The sun stood high in a cloudless blue sky when the carriage drove up to the ruins of Tsaritsino Castle, which looked gloomy and menacing, even at mid-day. The whole party stepped out on to the grass, and at once made a move towards the garden. In front went Elena and Zoya with Insarov; Anna Vassilyevna, with an expression of perfect happiness on her face, walked behind them, leaning on the arm of Uvar Ivanovitch. He waddled along panting, his new straw hat cut his forehead, and his feet twinged in his boots, but he was content; Shubin and Bersenyev brought up the rear. 'We will form the reserve, my dear boy, like veterans,' whispered Shubin to Bersenyev. 'Bulgaria's in it now!' he added, indicating Elena with his eyebrows.

The weather was glorious. Everything around was flowering, humming, singing; in the distance shone the waters of the lakes; a light-hearted holiday mood took possession of all. 'Oh, how beautiful; oh, how beautiful!' Anna Vassilyevna repeated incessantly; Uvar Ivanovitch kept nodding his head approvingly in response to her enthusiastic exclamations, and once even articulated: 'To be sure! to be sure!' From time to time Elena exchanged a few words with Insarov; Zoya held the brim of her large hat with two fingers while her little feet, shod in light grey shoes with rounded toes, peeped coquettishly out from under her pink barege dress; she kept looking to each side and then behind her. 'Hey!' cried Shubin suddenly in a low voice, 'Zoya Nikitishna is on the lookout, it seems. I will go to her. Elena Nikolaevna despises me now, while you, Andrei Petrovitch, she esteems, which comes to the same thing. I am going; I'm tired of being glum. I should advise you, my dear fellow, to do some botanising; that's the best thing you could hit on in your position; it might be useful, too, from a scientific point of view. Farewell!' Shubin ran up to Zoya, offered her his arm, and saying: Ihre Hand, Madame caught hold of her hand, and pushed on ahead with her. Elena stopped, called to Bersenyev, and also took his arm, but continued talking to Insarov. She asked him the words for lily-of-the-valley, clover, oak, lime, and so on in his language. . . 'Bulgaria's in it!' thought poor Andrei Petrovitch.

Suddenly a shriek was heard in front; every one looked up. Shubin's cigar-case fell into a bush, flung by Zoya's hand. 'Wait a minute, I'll pay you out!' he shouted, as he crept into the bushes; he found his cigar-case, and was returning to Zoya; but he had hardly reached her side when again his cigar-case was sent flying across the road. Five times this trick was repeated, he kept laughing and threatening her, but Zoya only smiled slyly and drew herself together, like a little cat. At last he snatched her fingers, and squeezed them so tightly that she shrieked, and for a long time afterwards breathed on her hand, pretending to be angry, while he murmured something in her ears.

'Mischievous things, young people,' Anna Vassilyevna observed gaily to Uvar Ivanovitch.

He flourished his fingers in reply.

'What a girl Zoya Nikitishna is!' said Bersenyev to Elena.

'And Shubin? What of him?' she answered.

Meanwhile the whole party went into the arbour, well known as Pleasant View arbour, and stopped to admire the view of the Tsaritsino lakes. They stretched one behind the other for several miles, overshadowed by thick woods. The bright green grass, which covered the hill sloping down to the largest lake, gave the water itself an extraordinarily vivid emerald colour. Even at the water's edge not a ripple stirred the smooth surface. One might fancy it a solid mass of glass lying heavy and shining in a huge font; the sky seemed to drop into its depths, while the leafy trees gazed motionless into its transparent bosom. All were absorbed in long and silent admiration of the view; even Shubin was still; even Zoya was impressed. At last, all with one mind, began to wish to go upon the water. Shubin, Insarov, and Bersenyev raced each other over the grass. They succeeded in finding a large painted boat and two boatmen, and beckoned to the ladies. The ladies stepped into the boat; Uvar Ivanovitch cautiously lowered himself into it after them. Great was the mirth while he got in and took his seat. 'Look out, master, don't drown us,' observed one of the boatmen, a snubnosed young fellow in a gay print shirt. 'Get along, you swell!' said Uvar Ivanovitch. The boat pushed off. The young men took up the oars, but Insarov was the only one of them who could row. Shubin suggested that they should sing some Russian song in chorus, and struck up: 'Down the river Volga' . . . Bersenyev, Zoya, and even Anna Vassilyevna, joined in—Insarov could not sing—but they did not keep together; at the third verse the singers were all wrong. Only Bersenyev tried to go on in the bass, 'Nothing on the waves is seen,' but he, too, was soon in difficulties. The boatmen looked at one another and grinned in silence.

'Eh?' said Shubin, turning to them, 'the gentlefolks can't sing, you say?' The boy in the print shirt only shook his head. 'Wait a little snubnose,' retorted Shubin, 'we will show you. Zoya Nikitishna, sing us Le lac of Niedermeyer. Stop rowing!' The wet oars stood still, lifted in the air like wings, and their splash died away with a tuneful drip; the boat drifted on a little, then stood still, rocking lightly on the water like a swan. Zoya affected to refuse at first. . . . Allons' said Anna Vassilyevna genially. . . . Zoya took off her hat and began to sing: O lac, l'annee a peine a fini sa carriere!'

Her small, but pure voice, seemed to dart over the surface of the lake; every word echoed far off in the woods; it sounded as though some one were singing there, too, in a distinct, but mysterious and unearthly voice. When Zoya finished, a loud bravo was heard from an arbour near the bank, from which emerged several red-faced Germans who were picnicking at Tsaritsino. Several of them had their coats off, their ties, and even their waistcoats; and they shouted bis! with such unmannerly insistence that Anna Vassilyevna told the boatmen to row as quickly as possible to the other end of the lake. But before the boat reached the bank, Uvar Ivanovitch once more succeeded in surprising his friends; having noticed that in one part of the wood the echo repeated every sound with peculiar distinctness, he suddenly began to call like a quail. At first every one was startled, but they listened directly with real pleasure, especially as Uvar Ivanovitch imitated the quail's cry with great correctness. Spurred on by this, he tried mewing like a cat; but this did not go off so well; and after one more quail-call, he looked at them all and stopped. Shubin threw himself on him to kiss him; he pushed him off. At that instant the boat touched the bank, and all the party got out and went on shore.

Meanwhile the coachman, with the groom and the maid, had brought the baskets out of the coach, and made dinner ready on the grass under the old lime-trees. They sat down round the outspread tablecloth, and fell upon the pies and other dainties. They all had excellent appetites, while Anna Vassilyevna, with unflagging hospitality, kept urging the guests to eat more, assuring them that nothing was more wholesome than eating in the open air. She even encouraged Uvar Ivanovitch with such assurances. 'Don't trouble about me!' he grunted with his mouth full. 'Such a lovely day is a God-send, indeed!' she repeated constantly. One would not have known her; she seemed fully twenty years younger. Bersenyev said as much to her. 'Yes, yes.' she said; 'I could hold my own with any one in my day.' Shubin attached himself to Zoya, and kept pouring her out wine; she refused it, he pressed her, and finished by drinking the glass himself, and again pressing her to take another; he also declared that he longed to lay his head on her knee; she would on no account permit him 'such a liberty.' Elena seemed the most serious of the party, but in her heart there was a wonderful sense of peace, such as she had not known for long. She felt filled with boundless goodwill and kindness, and wanted to keep not only Insarov, but Bersenyev too, always at her side. . . . Andrei Petrovitch dimly understood what this meant, and secretly he sighed.

The hours flew by; the evening was coming on. Anna Vassilyevna suddenly took alarm. 'Ah, my dear friends, how late it is!' she cried. 'All good things must have an end; it's time to go home.' She began bustling about, and they all hastened to get up and walk towards the castle, where the carriages were. As they walked past the lakes, they stopped to admire Tsaritsino for the last time. The landscape on all sides was glowing with the vivid hues of early evening; the sky was red, the leaves were flashing with changing colours as they stirred in the rising wind; the distant waters shone in liquid gold; the reddish turrets and arbours scattered about the garden stood out sharply against the dark green of the trees. 'Farewell, Tsaritsino, we shall not forget to-day's excursion!' observed Anna Vassilyevna. . . . But at that instant, and as though in confirmation of her words, a strange incident occurred, which certainly was not likely to be forgotten,

This was what happened. Anna Vassilyevna had hardly sent her farewell greeting to Tsaritsino, when suddenly, a few paces from her, behind a high bush of lilac, were heard confused exclamations, shouts, and laughter; and a whole mob of disorderly men, the same devotees of song who had so energetically applauded Zoya, burst out on the path. These musical gentlemen seemed excessively elevated. They stopped at the sight of the ladies; but one of them, a man of immense height, with a bull neck and a bull's goggle eyes, separated from his companions, and, bowing clumsily and staggering unsteadily in his gait, approached Anna Vassilyevna, who was petrified with alarm.

'Bonzhoor, madame,' he said thickly, 'how are you?'

Anna Vassilyevna started back.

'Why wouldn't you,' continued the giant in vile Russian, 'sing again when our party shouted bis, and bravo?'

'Yes, why?' came from the ranks of his comrades.

Insarov was about to step forward, but Shubin stopped him, and himself screened Anna Vassilyevna.

'Allow me,' he began, 'honoured stranger, to express to you the heartfelt amazement, into which you have thrown all of us by your conduct. You belong, as far as I can judge, to the Saxon branch of the Caucasian race; consequently we are bound to assume your acquaintance with the customs of society, yet you address a lady to whom you have not been introduced. I assure you that I individually should be delighted another time to make your acquaintance, since I observe in you a phenomenal development of the muscles, biceps, triceps and deltoid, so that, as a sculptor, I should esteem it a genuine happiness to have you for a model; but on this occasion kindly leave us alone.'

The 'honoured stranger' listened to Shubin's speech, his head held contemptuously on one side and his arms akimbo.

'I don't understand what you say,' he commented at last. 'Do you suppose I'm a cobbler or a watchmaker? Hey! I'm an officer, an official, so there.'

'I don't doubt that——' Shubin was beginning.

'What I say is,' continued the stranger, putting him aside with his powerful arm, like a twig out of the path—'why didn't you sing again when we shouted bis? And I'll go away directly, this minute, only I tell you what I want, this fraulein, not that madam, no, not her, but this one or that one (he pointed to Elena and Zoya) must give me einen Kuss, as we say in German, a kiss, in fact; eh? That's not much to ask.'

'Einen Kuss, that's not much,' came again from the ranks of his companions, Ih! der Stakramenter! cried one tipsy German, bursting with laughter.

Zoya clutched at Insarov's arm, but he broke away from her, and stood directly facing the insolent giant.

'You will please to move off,' he said in a voice not loud but sharp.

The German gave a heavy laugh, 'Move off? Well, I like that. Can't I walk where I please? Move off? Why should I move off?'

'Because you have dared to annoy a lady,' said Insarov, and suddenly he turned white, 'because you're drunk.'

'Eh? me drunk? Hear what he says. Horen Sie das, Herr Provisor? I'm an officer, and he dares . . . Now I demand satisfaction. Einen Kuss will ich.'

'If you come another step nearer——' began Insarov.

'Well? What then'

'I'll throw you in the water!'

'In the water? Herr Je! Is that all? Well, let us see that, that would be very curious, too.'

The officer lifted his fists and moved forward, but suddenly something extraordinary happened. He uttered an exclamation, his whole bulky person staggered, rose from the ground, his legs kicking in the air, and before the ladies had time to shriek, before any one had time to realise how it had happened, the officer's massive figure went plop with a heavy splash, and at once disappeared under the eddying water.

'Oh!' screamed the ladies with one voice. 'Mein Gott!' was heard from the other side. An instant passed . . . and a round head, all plastered over with wet hair, showed above water, it was blowing bubbles, this head; and floundering with two hands just at its very lips. 'He will be drowned, save him! save him!' cried Anna Vassilyevna to Insarov, who was standing with his legs apart on the bank, breathing heavily.

'He will swim out,' he answered with contemptuous and unsympathetic indifference. 'Let us go on,' he added, taking Anna Vassilyevna by the arm. 'Come, Uvar Ivanovitch, Elena Nikolaevna.'

'A—a—o—o' was heard at that instant, the plaint of the hapless German who had managed to get hold of the rushes on the bank.

They all followed Insarov, and had to pass close by the party. But, deprived of their leader, the rowdies were subdued and did not utter a word; but one, the boldest of them, muttered, shaking his head menacingly: 'All right . . . we shall see though . . . after that'; but one of the others even took his hat off. Insarov struck them as formidable, and rightly so; something evil, something dangerous could be seen in his face. The Germans hastened to pull out their comrade, who, directly he had his feet on dry ground, broke into tearful abuse and shouted after the 'Russian scoundrels,' that he would make a complaint, that he would go to Count Von Kizerits himself, and so on.

But the 'Russian scoundrels' paid no attention to his vociferations, and hurried on as fast as they could to the castle. They were all silent, as they walked through the garden, though Anna Vassilyevna sighed a little. But when they reached the carriages and stood still, they broke into an irrepressible, irresistible fit of Homeric laughter. First Shubin exploded, shrieking as if he were mad, Bersenyev followed with his gurgling guffaw, then Zoya fell into thin tinkling little trills, Anna Vassilyevna too suddenly broke down, Elena could not help smiling, and even Insarov at last could not resist it. But the loudest, longest, most persistent laugh was Uvar Ivanovitch's; he laughed till his sides ached, till he choked and panted. He would calm down a little, then would murmur through his tears: 'I—thought—what's that splash—and there—he—went plop.' And with the last word, forced out with convulsive effort, his whole frame was shaking with another burst of laughter. Zoya made him worse. 'I saw his legs,' she said, 'kicking in the air.' 'Yes, yes,' gasped Uvar Ivanovitch, 'his legs, his legs—and then splash!—there he plopped in!'

'And how did Mr. Insarov manage it? why the German was three times his size?' said Zoya.

'I'll tell you,' answered Uvar Ivanovitch, rubbing his eyes, 'I saw; with one arm about his waist, he tripped him up, and he went plop! I heard—a splash—there he went.'

Long after the carriages had started, long after the castle of Tsaritsino was out of sight, Uvar Ivanovitch was still unable to regain his composure. Shubin, who was again with him in the carriage, began to cry shame on him at last.

Insarov felt ashamed. He sat in the coach facing Elena (Bersenyev had taken his seat on the box), and he said nothing; she too was silent. He thought that she was condemning his action; but she did not condemn him. She had been scared at the first minute; then the expression of his face had impressed her; afterwards she pondered on it all. It was not quite clear to her what the nature of her reflections was. The emotion she had felt during the day had passed away; that she realised; but its place had been taken by another feeling which she did not yet fully understand. The partie de plaisir had been prolonged too late; insensibly evening passed into night. The carriage rolled swiftly along, now beside ripening cornfields, where the air was heavy and fragrant with the smell of wheat; now beside wide meadows, from which a sudden wave of freshness blew lightly in the face. The sky seemed to lie like smoke over the horizon. At last the moon rose, dark and red. Anna Vassilyevna was dozing; Zoya had poked her head out of window and was staring at the road. It occurred to Elena at last that she had not spoken to Insarov for more than an hour. She turned to him with a trifling question; he at once answered her, delighted. Dim sounds began stirring indistinctly in the air, as though thousands of voices were talking in the distance; Moscow was coming to meet them. Lights twinkled afar off; they grew more and more frequent; at last there was the grating of the cobbles under their wheels. Anna Vassilyevna awoke, every one in the carriage began talking, though no one could hear what was said; everything was drowned in the rattle of the cobbles under the two carriages, and the hoofs of the eight horses. Long and wearisome seemed the journey from Moscow to Kuntsovo; all the party were asleep or silent, leaning with their heads pressed into their respective corners; Elena did not close her eyes; she kept them fixed on Insarov's dimly-outlined figure. A mood of sadness had come upon Shubin; the breeze was blowing into his eyes and irritating him; he retired into the collar of his cloak and was on the point of tears. Uvar Ivanovitch was snoring blissfully, rocking from side to side. The carriages came to a standstill at last. Two men-servants lifted Anna Vassilyevna out of the carriage; she was all to pieces, and at parting from her fellow travellers, announced that she was 'nearly dead'; they began thanking her, but she only repeated, 'nearly dead.' Elena for the first time pressed Insarov's hand at parting, and for a long while she sat at her window before undressing; Shubin seized an opportunity to whisper to Bersenyev:

'There, isn't he a hero; he can pitch drunken Germans into the river!'

'While you didn't even do that,' retorted Bersenyev, and he started homewards with Insarov.

The dawn was already showing in the sky when the two friends reached their lodging. The sun had not yet risen, but already the chill of daybreak was in the air, a grey dew covered the grass, and the first larks were trilling high, high up in the shadowy infinity of air, whence like a solitary eye looked out the great, last star.