The free and easy deportment of Madame Polozov would probably for the first moment have disconcerted Sanin — though he was not quite a novice and had knocked about the world a little — if he had not again seen in this very freedom and familiarity a good omen for his undertaking. ‘We must humour this rich lady’s caprices,’ he decided inwardly; and as unconstrainedly as she had questioned him he answered, ‘Yes; I am going to be married.’
‘To whom? To a foreigner?’
‘Did you get acquainted with her lately? In Frankfort?’
‘And what is she? May I know?’
‘Certainly. She is a confectioner’s daughter.’
Maria Nikolaevna opened her eyes wide and lifted her eyebrows.
‘Why, this is delightful,’ she commented in a drawling voice; ‘this is exquisite! I imagined that young men like you were not to be met with anywhere in these days. A confectioner’s daughter!’
‘I see that surprises you,’ observed Sanin with some dignity; ‘but in the first place, I have none of these prejudices . . . ’
‘In the first place, it doesn’t surprise me in the least,’ Maria Nikolaevna interrupted; ‘I have no prejudices either. I’m the daughter of a peasant myself. There! what can you say to that? What does surprise and delight me is to have come across a man who’s not afraid to love. You do love her, I suppose?’
‘Is she very pretty?’
Sanin was slightly stung by this last question. . . . However, there was no drawing back.
‘You know, Maria Nikolaevna,’ he began, ‘every man thinks the face of his beloved better than all others; but my betrothed is really beautiful.’
‘Really? In what style? Italian? antique?’
‘Yes; she has very regular features.’
‘You have not got her portrait with you?’
‘No.’ (At that time photography was not yet talked off. Daguerrotypes had hardly begun to be common.)
‘What’s her name?’
‘Her name is Gemma.’
‘And your father’s?’
‘Do you know,’ Maria Nikolaevna said, still in the same drawling voice, ‘I like you very much, Dimitri Pavlovitch. You must be an excellent fellow. Give me your hand. Let us be friends.’
She pressed his hand tightly in her beautiful, white, strong fingers. Her hand was a little smaller than his hand, but much warmer and smoother and whiter and more full of life.
‘Only, do you know what strikes me?’
‘You won’t be angry? No? You say she is betrothed to you. But was that . . . was that quite necessary?’
Sanin frowned. ‘I don’t understand you, Maria Nikolaevna.’
Maria Nikolaevna gave a soft low laugh, and shaking her head tossed back the hair that was falling on her cheeks. ‘Decidedly — he’s delightful,’ she commented half pensively, half carelessly. ‘A perfect knight! After that, there’s no believing in the people who maintain that the race of idealists is extinct!’
Maria Nikolaevna talked Russian all the time, an astonishingly pure true Moscow Russian, such as the people, not the nobles speak.
‘You’ve been brought up at home, I expect, in a God-fearing, old orthodox family?’ she queried. ‘You’re from what province?’
‘Oh! so we’re from the same part. My father . . . I daresay you know who my father was?’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘He was born in Tula. . . . He was a Tula man. Well . . . well. Come, let us get to business now.’
‘That is . . . how come to business? What do you mean to say by that?’
Maria Nikolaevna half-closed her eyes. ‘Why, what did you come here for?’ (when she screwed up her eyes, their expression became very kindly and a little bantering, when she opened them wide, into their clear, almost cold brilliancy, there came something-ill-natured . . . something menacing. Her eyes gained a peculiar beauty from her eyebrows, which were thick, and met in the centre, and had the smoothness of sable fur). ‘Don’t you want me to buy your estate? You want money for your nuptials? Don’t you?’
‘And do you want much?’
‘I should be satisfied with a few thousand francs at first. Your husband knows my estate. You can consult him — I would take a very moderate price.’
Maria Nikolaevna tossed her head from left to right. ‘In the first place,’ she began in deliberate tones, drumming with the tips of her fingers on the cuff of Sanin’s coat, ‘I am not in the habit of consulting my husband, except about matters of dress — he’s my right hand in that; and in the second place, why do you say that you will fix a low price? I don’t want to take advantage of your being very much in love at the moment, and ready to make any sacrifices. . . . I won’t accept sacrifices of any kind from you. What? Instead of encouraging you . . . come, how is one to express it properly? — in your noble sentiments, eh? am I to fleece you? that’s not my way. I can be hard on people, on occasion — only not in that way.’
Sanin was utterly unable to make out whether she was laughing at him or speaking seriously, and only said to himself: ‘Oh, I can see one has to mind what one’s about with you!’
A man-servant came in with a Russian samovar, tea-things, cream, biscuits, etc., on a big tray; he set all these good things on the table between Sanin and Madame Polozov, and retired.
She poured him out a cup of tea. ‘You don’t object?’ she queried, as she put sugar in his cup with her fingers . . . though sugar-tongs were lying close by.
‘Oh, please! . . . From such a lovely hand . . . ’
He did not finish his phrase, and almost choked over a sip of tea, while she watched him attentively and brightly.
‘I spoke of a moderate price for my land,’ he went on, ‘because as you are abroad just now, I can hardly suppose you have a great deal of cash available, and in fact, I feel myself that the sale . . . the purchase of my land, under such conditions is something exceptional, and I ought to take that into consideration.’
Sanin got confused, and lost the thread of what he was saying, while Maria Nikolaevna softly leaned back in her easy-chair, folded her arms, and watched him with the same attentive bright look. He was silent at last.
‘Never mind, go on, go on,’ she said, as it were coming to his aid; ‘I’m listening to you. I like to hear you; go on talking.’
Sanin fell to describing his estate, how many acres it contained, and where it was situated, and what were its agricultural advantages, and what profit could be made from it . . . he even referred to the picturesque situation of the house; while Maria Nikolaevna still watched him, and watched more and more intently and radiantly, and her lips faintly stirred, without smiling: she bit them. He felt awkward at last; he was silent a second time.
‘Dimitri Pavlovitch’ began Maria Nikolaevna, and sank into thought again. . . . ‘Dimitri Pavlovitch,’ she repeated. . . . ‘Do you know what: I am sure the purchase of your estate will be a very profitable transaction for me, and that we shall come to terms; but you must give me two days. . . . Yes, two days’ grace. You are able to endure two days’ separation from your betrothed, aren’t you? Longer I won’t keep you against your will — I give you my word of honour. But if you want five or six thousand francs at once, I am ready with great pleasure to let you have it as a loan, and then we’ll settle later.’
Sanin got up. ‘I must thank you, Maria Nikolaevna, for your kindhearted and friendly readiness to do a service to a man almost unknown to you. But if that is your decided wish, then I prefer to await your decision about my estate — I will stay here two days.’
‘Yes; that is my wish, Dimitri Pavlovitch. And will it be very hard for you? Very? Tell me.’
‘I love my betrothed, Maria Nikolaevna, and to be separated from her is hard for me.’
‘Ah! you’re a heart of gold!’ Maria Nikolaevna commented with a sigh. ‘I promise not to torment you too much. Are you going?’
‘It is late,’ observed Sanin.
‘And you want to rest after your journey, and your game of “fools” with my husband. Tell me, were you a great friend of Ippolit Sidorovitch, my husband?’
‘We were educated at the same school.’
‘And was he the same then?’
‘The same as what?’ inquired Sanin. Maria Nikolaevna burst out laughing, and laughed till she was red in the face; she put her handkerchief to her lips, rose from her chair, and swaying as though she were tired, went up to Sanin, and held out her hand to him.
He bowed over it, and went towards the door.
‘Come early tomorrow — do you hear?’ she called after him. He looked back as he went out of the room, and saw that she had again dropped into an easy-chair, and flung both arms behind her head. The loose sleeves of her tea-gown fell open almost to her shoulders, and it was impossible not to admit that the pose of the arms, that the whole figure, was enchantingly beautiful.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01