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The sun shone as brightly as in spring, yet in the calm, clear air the touch of autumn could be felt. Here and there the trees showed brown and yellow leaves in which the wistful voice of a bird occasionally broke the silence, while large insects buzzed lazily above their ruined kingdom of faded grasses and withered flowers where luxuriant weeds now waxed apace.
Yourii sauntered through the garden. Lost in his thoughts, he gazed at the sky, at the green and yellow leaves, and the shining water, as if he were looking on them all for the last time, and must fix them in his memory so as never to forget them. He felt vague sorrow at his heart, for it seemed as though with every moment something precious was passing away from him that could never be recalled; his youth that had brought him no joy; his place as an active sharer in the great and useful work upon which all his energies had once been concentrated. Yet why he should have thus lost ground he could not tell. He was firmly convinced that he possessed latent powers that should revolutionize the world, and a mind far broader in its outlook than that of anyone else; but he could not explain why he had this conviction, and he would have been ashamed to admit the fact even to his most intimate friend.
"Ah! well," he thought, gazing at the red and yellow reflections of the foliage in the stream, "perhaps what I do is the wisest and the best. Death ends it all, however one may have lived or tried to live. Oh! there comes Lialia," he murmured, as he saw his sister approaching. "Happy Lialia! She lives like a butterfly, from day to day, wanting nothing, and troubled by nothing. Oh! if I could live as she does."
Yet this was only just a passing thought, for in reality he would on no account have wished to exchange his own spiritual tortures for the feather-brain existence of a Lialia.
"Yourii! Yourii!" she exclaimed in a shrill voice though she was not more than three paces distant from him. Laughing roguishly, she handed him a little rose-coloured missive.
Yourii suspected something.
"From whom?" he asked, sharply,
"From Sinotschka Karsavina," said Lialia, shaking her finger at him, significantly.
Yourii blushed deeply. To receive through his sister a little pink, scented letter like this seemed utterly silly; in fact ridiculous. It positively annoyed him. Lialia, as she walked beside him, prattled in sentimental fashion about his attachment to Sina, just as sisters will, who are intensely interested in their brothers' love-affairs. She said how fond she was of Sina, and how delighted she would be if they made a match of it, and got married.
At the luckless word "married," Yourii's face grew redder still, and in his eyes there was a malevolent look. He saw before him an entire romance of the usual provincial type; rose-pink billets-doux, sisters as confidantes, orthodox matrimony, with its inevitable commonplace sequel, home, wife, and babies--the one thing on earth that he dreaded most.
"Oh! Enough of all that twaddle, please!" he said in so sharp a tone that Lialia was amazed.
"Don't make such a fuss!" she exclaimed, pettishly. "If you are in love, what does it matter? I can't think why you always pose as such an extraordinary hero."
This last sentence had a touch of feminine spite in it, and the shaft struck home. Then, with a graceful movement of her dress which disclosed her dainty open-work stockings, she turned abruptly on her heel like some petulant princess, and went indoors.
Yourii watched her, with anger in his dark eyes, as he tore open the envelope.
"If you have time, and the wish to do so, will you come to the monastery to-day? I shall be there with my aunt. She is preparing for the Communion, and will be in church the whole time. It will be dreadfully dull for me and I want to talk to you about lots of things. Do come. Perhaps I ought not to have written to you, but, anyhow, I shall expect you."
In a moment all that had occupied his thoughts vanished, as with a thrill of pleasure almost physical he read and read the letter. This pure, charming girl in one short phrase had thus in naive, trusting fashion revealed to him the secret of her love. It was as though she had come to him, helpless and pained, unable to resist the love that made her give herself up to him, yet not knowing what might befall. So near to him now seemed the goal, that Yourii trembled at the thought of possession. He strove to smile ironically, but the effort failed. His whole being was filled with joy, and such was his exhilaration that, like a bird, he felt ready to soar above the tree-tops, away, afar, into the blue, sunlit air.
Towards evening he hired a droschky and drove towards the monastery, smiling on the world timidly, almost in confusion. On reaching the landing-stage he took a boat, and was rowed by a stalwart peasant to the hill.
It was not until the boat got clear of the reeds into the broad, open stream that he became conscious that his happiness was entirely due to the little rose-coloured letter.
"After all, it's simple enough," he said to himself, by way of explanation. "She has always lived in that sort of world. It's just a provincial romance. Well, what if it is?"
The water rippled gently on each side of the boat that brought him nearer and nearer to the green hill. On reaching the shore, Yourii in his excitement gave the boatman half a rouble and began to climb the slopes. Signs of approaching dusk were already perceptible. Long shadows lay at the foot of the hill, and heavy mists rose from the earth, hiding the yellow tint of the foliage, so that the forest looked as green and dense as in summer. The court-yard of the monastery was silent and solemn as the interior of a church. The grave, tall poplars looked as if they were praying, and like shadows the dark forms of monks moved hither and thither. At the church-porch lamps glimmered, and in the air there was a faint odour either of incense or of faded poplar-leaves.
"Hullo, Svarogitsch!" shouted some one behind him.
Yourii turned round, and saw Schafroff, Sanine, Ivanoff and Peter Ilitch, who came across the court-yard, talking loudly and merrily. The monks glanced apprehensively in their direction and even the poplars seemed to lose something of their devotional calm.
"We've all come here, too," said Schafroff, approaching Yourii whom he revered.
"So I see," muttered Yourii irritably.
"You'll join our party, won't you?" asked Schafroff as he came nearer.
"No, thank you, I am engaged," said Yourii, with some impatience.
"Oh! that's all right! You'll come along with us, I know," exclaimed Ivanoff, as he good-humouredly caught hold of his arm. Yourii endeavoured to free himself, and for a while a droll struggle took place.
"No, no, damn it all, I can't!" cried Yourii, almost angry now. "Perhaps I'll join you later." Such rough pleasantry on Ivanoff's part was not at all to his liking.
"All right," said Ivanoff, as he released him, not noticing his irritation. "We will wait for you, so mind you come."
Thus, laughing and gesticulating, they departed. The court-yard became silent and solemn as before. Yourii took off his cap, and in a mood half-mocking, half shy, he entered the church. He at once perceived Sina, close to one of the dark pillars. In her grey jacket and round straw-hat she looked like a school-girl. His heart beat faster. She seemed so sweet, so charming, with her black hair in a neat coil at the back of her pretty white neck. It was this air de pensioner while being a tall, well-grown, shapely young woman, that to him was so intensely alluring. Conscious of his gaze, she looked round, and in her dark eyes there was an expression of shy pleasure.
"How do you do?" said Yourii, speaking in a low voice that yet was not low enough. He was not sure if he ought to shake hands in a church. Several members of the congregation looked round, and their swart, parchment-like faces made him feel more uncomfortable. He actually blushed, but Sina, seeing his confusion, smiled at him, as a mother might, with love in her eyes, and Yourii stood there, blissful and obedient.
Sina gave no further glances, but kept crossing herself with great zeal. Yet Yourii knew that she was only thinking of him, and it was this consciousness that established a secret bond between them. The blood throbbed in his veins, and all seemed full of mystery and wonder. The dark interior of the church, the chanting, the dim lights, the sighs of worshippers, the echoing of feet of those who entered or went out--of all this Yourii took careful note, as in such solemn silence he could plainly hear the beating of his heart. He stood there, motionless, his eyes fixed on Sina's white neck and graceful figure, feeling a joy that bordered on emotion. He wanted to show every one that, although faith he had none in prayers, or chants, or lights, he yet was not opposed to them. This led him to contrast his present happy frame of mind with the distressful thoughts of the morning.
"So that one really can be happy, eh?" he asked himself, answering the question at once. "Of course one can. All my thoughts regarding death and the aimlessness of life are correct and logical, yet in spite of it all, a man can sometimes be happy. If I am happy, it is all due to this beautiful creature that only a short time ago I had never seen."
Suddenly the droll thought came to him that, long ago, as little children, perhaps they had met and parted, never dreaming that some day they would fall violently in love with each other, and that she would give herself to him in all her ripe, radiant nudity. It was this last thought that brought a flush to his cheeks and for a while he felt afraid to look at her. Meanwhile she who his wanton fancy had thus unclothed stood there in front of him, pure and sweet, in her little grey jacket and round hat, praying silently that his love for her might be as tender and deep as her own. In some way her virginal modesty must have influenced Yourii, for the lustful thoughts vanished, and tears of emotion filled his eyes. Looking upwards, he saw the gleaming gold above the altar, and the sacred cross round which the yellow tapers shone, and with a fervour long since forgotten he mentally ejaculated:
"O God, if thou dost exist, let this maiden love me, and let my love for her be always as great as at this moment."
He felt slightly ashamed at his own emotion, and sought to dismiss it with a smile.
"It's all nonsense, after all," he thought.
"Come," said Sina in a whisper that sounded like a sigh.
Solemnly, as if in their souls they bore away with them all the chanting, and the prayers, the sighs and mystic lights, they went out across the court-yard, side by side, and passed through the little door leading to the mountain-slope. Here there was no living soul. The high white wall and time-worn turrets seemed to shut them out from the world of men. At their feet lay the oak forest; far below shone the river like a mirror of silver, while in the distance fields and meadows were merged in the dim horizon-line.
In silence they advanced to the edge of the slope, aware that they ought to do something, to say something, yet feeling all the while that they had not sufficient courage. Then Sina raised her head, when, unexpectedly yet quite simply and naturally, her lips met Yourii's. She trembled and grew pale as he gently embraced her, and for the first time felt her warm, supple body in his arms. A bell chimed in that silence. To Yourii it seemed to celebrate the moment in which each had found the other. Sina, laughing, broke away from him and ran back.
"Auntie will wonder what has become of me! Wait here, and I'll be back soon."
Afterwards Yourii could never remember if she had said this to him in a loud, clear voice that echoed through the woodland, or if the words had floated to him like a soft whisper on the evening breeze. He sat down on the grass and smoothed his hair with his hand.
"How silly, and yet how delightful it all is!" he thought, smiling. In the distance he heard Sina's voice.
"I'm coming, auntie, I'm coming."
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