Virgin Soil, by Ivan Turgenev

XXII

NEJDANOV changed his clothes hurriedly and went in to give Kolia his lesson. On the way he ran across Sipiagin in the dining-room. He bowed to him with chilling politeness, muttered through his teeth, “Got back all right?” and went into his study. The great statesman had already decided in his ministerial mind that as soon as the vacation came to an end he would lose no time in packing off to St. Petersburg “this extremely revolutionary young tutor,” but meanwhile would keep an eye on him. “Je n’ai pas eu la main heureuse cette fois-ci”, he thought to himself, still “j’aurais pu tomber pire”. Valentina Mihailovna’s sentiments towards Nejdanov however, were not quite so negative; she simply could not endure the idea that he, “a mere boy,” had slighted her! Mariana had not been mistaken, Valentina Mihailovna had listened at the door in the corridor; the illustrious lady was not above such proceedings. Although she had said nothing to her “flighty” niece during Nejdanov’s absence, still she had let her plainly understand that everything was known to her, and that if she had not been so painfully sorry for her, and did not despise her from the bottom of her heart, she would have been most frightfully angry at the whole thing.

An expression of restrained inward contempt played over her face. She raised her eyebrows in scorn and pity when she looked at or spoke to Mariana, and she would fix her wonderful eyes, full of tender remonstrance and painful disgust, on the willful girl, who, after all her “fancies and eccentricities,” had ended by kissing an insignificant undergraduate . . . in a dark room!

Poor Mariana! Her severe, proud lips had never tasted any man’s kisses.

Valentina Mihailovna had not told her husband of the discovery she had made. She merely contented herself by addressing a few words to Mariana in his presence, accompanied by a significant smile, quite irrelevant to the occasion. She regretted having written to her brother, but was, on the whole, more pleased that the thing was done than be spared the regret and the letter not written.

Nejdanov got a glimpse of Mariana at lunch in the dining-room. It seemed to him that she had grown thinner and paler. She was not looking her best on that day, but the penetrating glance she turned on him directly he entered the room went straight to his heart. Valentina Mihailovna looked at him constantly, as though she were inwardly congratulating him. “Splendid! Very smart!” he read on her face, while she was studying his to find out if Markelov had shown him the letter. She decided in the end that he had.

On hearing that Nejdanov had been to the factory of which Solomin was the manager, Sipiagin began asking him various questions about it, but was soon convinced from the young man’s replies that he had seen nothing there and dropped into a majestic silence, as if reproaching himself for having expected any practical knowledge from such an inexperienced individual! On going out of the room Mariana managed to whisper to Nejdanov: “Wait for me in the birch grove at the end of the garden. I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

“She is just as familiar with me as Markelov was,” he thought to himself, and a strange, pleasant sensation came over him. How strange it would have seemed to him if she had suddenly become distant and formal again, if she had turned away from him. He felt that such a thing would have made him utterly wretched, but was not sure in his own mind whether he loved her or not. She was dear to him and he felt the need of her above everything — this he acknowledged from the bottom of his heart.

The grove Mariana mentioned consisted of some hundreds of big old weeping-birches. The wind had not fallen and the long tangled branches were tossing hither and thither like loosened tresses. The clouds, still high, flew quickly over the sky, every now and again obscuring the sun and making everything of an even hue. Suddenly it would make its appearance again and brilliant patches of light would flash out once more through the branches, crossing and recrossing, a tangled pattern of light and shade. The roar of the trees seemed to be filled with a kind of festive joy, like to the violent joy with which passion breaks into a sad, troubled heart. It was just such a heart that Nejdanov carried in his bosom. He leaned against the trunk of a tree and waited. He did not really know what he was feeling and had no desire to know, but it seemed to him more awful, and at the same time easier, than at Markelov’s. Above everything he wanted to see her, to speak to her. The knot that suddenly binds two separate existences already had him in its grasp. Nejdanov thought of the rope that is flung to the quay to make fast a ship. Now it is twisted about the post and the ship stops . . . Safe in port! Thank God!

He trembled suddenly. A woman’s dress could be seen in the distance coming along the path. It was Mariana. But whether she was coming towards him or going away from him he could not tell until he noticed that the patches of light and shade glided over her figure from below upwards. So she was coming towards him; they would have glided from above downwards had she been going away from him. A few moments longer and she was standing before him with her bright face full of welcome and a caressing light in her eyes. A glad smile played about her lips. He seized the hand she held out to him, but could not say a single word; she also was silent. She had walked very quickly and was somewhat out of breath, but seemed glad that he was pleased to see her. She was the first to speak.

“Well,” she began, “tell me quickly what you’ve decided.”

Nejdanov was surprised.

“Decided? Why, was it necessary to decide anything just now?”

“Oh, you know what I mean. Tell me what you talked about, whom you’ve seen — if you’ve met Solomin. Tell me everything, everything. But wait a moment; let us go on a little further. I know a spot not quite so conspicuous as this.”

She made him come with her. He followed her obediently over the tall thin grass.

She led him to the place she mentioned, and they sat down on the trunk of a birch that had been blown down in a storm.

“Now begin!” she said, and added directly afterwards, “I am so glad to see you again! I thought these two days would never come to an end! Do you know, I’m convinced that Valentina Mihailovna listened to us.”

“She wrote to Markelov about it,” Nejdanov remarked.

“Did she?”

Mariana was silent for a while. She blushed all over, not from shame, but from another, deeper feeling.

“She is a wicked, spiteful woman!” she said slowly and quietly. “She had no right to do such a thing! But it doesn’t matter. Now tell me your news.”

Nejdanov began talking and Mariana listened to him with a sort of stony attention, only stopping him when she thought he was hurrying over things, not giving her sufficient details. However, not all the details of his visit were of equal interest to her; she laughed over Fomishka and Fimishka, but they did not interest her. Their life was too remote from hers.

“It’s just like hearing about Nebuchadnezzar,” she remarked.

But she was very keen to know what Markelov had said, what Golushkin had thought (though she soon realised what sort of a bird he was), and above all wanted to know Solomin’s opinion and what sort of a man he was. These were the things that interested her. “But when? when?” was a question constantly in her mind and on her lips the whole time Nejdanov was talking, while he, on the other hand, seemed to try and avoid everything that might give a definite answer to that question. He began to notice himself that he laid special stress on those details that were of least interest to Mariana. He pulled himself up, but returned to them again involuntarily. Humorous descriptions made her impatient, a sceptic or dejected tone hurt her. It was necessary to keep strictly to everything concerning the “cause,” and however much he said on the subject did not seem to weary her. It brought back to Nejdanov’s mind how once, before he had entered the university, when he was staying with some friends of his in the country one summer, he had undertaken to tell the children some stories; they had also paid no attention to descriptions, personal expressions, personal sensations, they had also demanded nothing but facts and figures. Mariana was not a child, but she was like a child in the directness and simplicity of her feelings.

Nejdanov was sincerely enthusiastic in his praise of Markelov, and expressed himself with particular warmth about Solomin. While uttering the most enthusiastic expressions about him, he kept asking himself continually why he had such a high opinion of this man. He had not said anything very brilliant and, in fact, some of his words were in direct opposition to his (Nejdanov’s) own convictions. “His head is screwed on the right way,” he thought. “A cool, steady man, as Fimishka said; a powerful man, of calm, firm strength. He knows what he wants, has confidence in himself, and arouses confidence in others. He has no anxieties and is well-balanced! That is the main thing; he has balance, just what is lacking in me!” Nejdanov ceased speaking and became lost in meditation. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Alexai! What is the matter with you?” Mariana asked.

He took her tiny, strong hand from his shoulder and kissed it for the first time. Mariana laughed softly, surprised that such a thing should have occurred to him. She in her turn became pensive.

“Did Markelov show you Valentina Mihailovna’s letter?” she asked at last.

“Yes, he did.”

“Well, and how is he?”

“Markelov? He is the most honourable, most unselfish man in existence! He —”

Nejdanov wanted to tell Mariana about the portrait, but pulled himself up and added, “He is the soul of honour!”

“Oh yes, I know.”

Mariana became pensive again. She suddenly turned to Nejdanov on the trunk they were both sitting on and asked quickly:

“Well? What have you decided on?”

Nejdanov shrugged his shoulders.

“I’ve already told you, dear, that we’ve decided nothing as yet; we must wait a little longer.”

“But why?”

“Those were our last instructions.” (“I’m lying,” Nejdanov thought to himself.)

“From whom?”

“Why, you know . . . from Vassily Nikolaevitch. And then we must wait until Ostrodumov comes back.”

Mariana looked questioningly at Nejdanov. “But tell me, have you ever seen this Vassily Nikolaevitch?

“Yes. I’ve seen him twice . . . for a minute or two.’’

“What is he like? Is he an extraordinary man?”

“I don’t quite know how to tell you. He is our leader now and directs everything. We couldn’t get on without discipline in our movement; we must obey someone.” (“What nonsense I’m talking!” Nejdanov thought.)

“What is he like to look at?

“Oh, he’s short, thick-set, dark, with high cheek-bones like a Kalmick . . . a rather coarse face, only he has very bright, intelligent eyes.”

“And what does he talk like?”

“He does not talk, he commands.”

“Why did they make him leader?”

“He is a man of strong character. Won’t give in to anyone. Would sooner kill if necessary. People are afraid of him.”

“And what is Solomin like?” Mariana asked after a pause.

“Solomin is also not good-looking, but has a nice, simple, honest face. Such faces are to be found among schoolboys of the right sort.”

Nejdanov had described Solomin accurately.

Mariana gazed at him for a long, long time, then said, as if to herself:

“You have also a nice face. I think it would be easy to get on with you.”

Nejdanov was touched; he took her hand again and raised it to his lips.

“No more gallantries!” she said laughing. Mariana always laughed when her hand was kissed. “I’ve done something very naughty and must ask you to forgive me.”

“What have you done?”

“Well, when you were away, I went into your room and saw a copy- book of verses lying on your table” (Nejdanov shuddered; he remembered having left it there), “and I must confess to you that I couldn’t overcome my curiosity and read the contents. Are they your verses?”

“Yes, they are. And do you know, Mariana, that one of the strongest proofs that I care for you and have the fullest confidence in you is that I am hardly angry at what you have done?”

“Hardly! Then you are just a tiny bit. I’m so glad you call me Mariana. I can’t call you Nejdanov, so I shall call you Alexai. There is a poem which begins, ‘When I die, dear friend, remember,’ is that also yours?”

“Yes. Only please don’t talk about this any more. . .Don’t torture me.”

Mariana shook her head.

“It’s a very sad poem . . . I hope you wrote it before we became intimate. The verses are good though . . . as far as I can judge. I think you have the making of a literary man in you, but you have chosen a better and higher calling than literature. It was good to do that kind of work when it was impossible to do anything else.”

Nejdanov looked at her quickly.

“Do you think so? I agree with you. Better ruin there, than success here.”

Mariana stood up with difficulty.

“Yes, my dear, you are right!” she exclaimed, her whole face beaming with triumph and emotion, “you are right! But perhaps it may not mean ruin for us yet. We shall succeed, you will see; we’ll be useful, our life won’t be wasted. We’ll go among the people . . . Do you know any sort of handicraft? No? Never mind, we’ll work just the same. We’ll bring them, our brothers, everything that we know. . .If necessary, I can cook, wash, sew . . . You’ll see, you’ll see. . . . And there won’t be any kind of merit in it, only happiness, happiness —”

Mariana ceased and fixed her eyes eagerly in the distance, not that which lay before her, but another distance as yet unknown to her, which she seemed to see. . . . She was all aglow.

Nejdanov bent down to her waist.

“Oh, Mariana!” he whispered. “I am not worthy of you!”

She trembled all over.

“It’s time to go home!” she exclaimed, “or Valentina Mihailovna will be looking for us again. However, I think she’s given me up as a bad job. I’m quite a black sheep in her eyes.”

Mariana pronounced the last words with such a bright joyful expression that Nejdanov could not help laughing as he looked at her and repeating, “black sheep!”

“She is awfully hurt,” Mariana went on, “that you are not at her feet. But that is nothing. The most important thing is that I can’t stay here any longer. I must run away.”

“Run away? “ Nejdanov asked.

“Yes. . . . You are not going to stay here, are you? We’ll go away together. . . . We must work together. . .You’ll come with me, won’t you?”

“To the ends of the earth!” Nejdanov exclaimed, his voice ringing with sudden emotion in a transport of gratitude. “To the ends of the earth!” At that moment he would have gone with her wherever she wanted, without so much as looking back.

Mariana understood him and gave a gentle, blissful sigh.

“Then take my hand, dearest — only don’t kiss it — press it firmly, like a comrade, like a friend — like this!”

They walked home together, pensive, happy. The young grass caressed their feet, the young leaves rustled about them, patches of light and shade played over their garments — and they both smiled at the wild play of the light, at the merry gusts of wind, at the fresh, sparkling leaves, at their own youth, and at one another.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05