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For some time past Yourii Svarogitsch had been working at painting, of which he was fond, and to which he devoted all his spare time. It had once been his dream to become an artist, but want of money, in the first place, and also his political activity prevented this, so that now he painted occasionally, as a pastime, without any special end in view.
For this reason, indeed, and because he had no training, art gave him no pleasant satisfaction; it was a source of chagrin and of disenchantment. Whenever his work did not prove successful, he became irritable and depressed; if, on the other hand, it came out well, he fell into a sort of gloomy reverie, conscious of the futility of his efforts that brought him neither happiness nor success. Yourii had taken a great fancy to Sina Karsavina. He liked tall, well-formed young women with fine voices and romantic eyes. He thought her beauty and purity of soul were what attracted him, though really it was because she was handsome and desirable. However, he tried to persuade himself that, for him, her charm was a spiritual, not a physical one, this being, as he thought, a nobler, finer definition, though it was precisely this maidenly purity and innocence of hers which fired his blood and aroused desire. Ever since the evening when he first met her, he had felt a vague yet vehement longing to sully her innocence, a longing indeed that the presence of any handsome woman provoked.
And now that his thoughts were set on a comely girl, blithe, wholesome, and full of the joy of life, Yourii had an idea that he would paint Life. As most new ideas were wont to do, this one stirred him to enthusiasm, and on this occasion he believed that he would bring his task to a successful end.
Having prepared a huge canvas, he set to work with feverish haste, as if he dreaded delay. When he first touched the canvas with colour, producing a harmonious and pleasing effect, he felt a thrill of delight, and the picture that was to be stood clearly before him with all its details. As, however, the work progressed, so technical difficulties became more numerous, and with these Yourii felt unable to cope. All that in his imagination seemed luminous and beautiful and strong, became thin and feeble on the canvas. Details no longer fascinated him, but were annoying and depressing. In fact, he ignored them and began to paint in a broad, slap-dash style. Thus, instead of a clear, powerful portrayal of life, the picture became ever more plain of a tawdry, slovenly female. There was nothing original or charming about such a dull stereotyped piece of work, so he thought; a veritable imitation of a Moukh drawing, banal in idea as in execution; and, as usual, Yourii became sad and gloomy.
Had it not for some reason or other seemed shameful to weep, he would have wept, hiding his face in the pillow, and sobbing aloud. He longed to complain to some one about something, but not about his own incompetence. Instead of this he gazed ruefully at the picture thinking that life generally was tedious and sad and feeble, containing nothing of interest to him, personally. It horrified him to look forward to living, as he would have to do, for many years in this little town.
"Why, it is simply death!" thought Yourii, as his brow grew cold as ice. Then he felt a desire to paint "Death." Seizing a knife, he angrily began to scrape off his picture of "Life." It vexed him that that which he had wrought with such enthusiasm should disappear with such difficulty. The colour did not come off easily; the knife slipped and twice cut the canvas. Then he found that chalk would make no mark on the oil paint. This greatly troubled him. With a brush he commenced to sketch in his subject in ochre, and then painted slowly, carelessly, in a spiritless, dejected way. His present work, however, did not lose, but gained by such slipshod methods and by the dull, heavy colour scheme. The original idea of "Death" soon disappeared of itself; and so Yourii proceeded to depict "Old Age" as a lean hag tottering along a rough road in the dusk. The sun had sunk, and against the livid sky sombre crosses were seen en silhouette. Beneath the weight of a heavy black coffin the woman's bony shoulders were bent, and her expression was mournful and despairing, as with one foot she touched the brink of an open grave. It was a picture appalling in its misery and gloom. At lunch-time they sent for Yourii, but he did not go, and continued working. Later on, Novikoff came to tell him something, but he neither listened nor replied. Novikoff sighed, and sat down on the sofa. He liked to be quiet and think matters over. He only came to see Yourii because, at home, by himself, he was sad and worried. Lida's refusal still distressed him, and he could not be sure if he felt grieved or humiliated. As a straightforward, indolent fellow, he had so far heard nothing of the local gossip concerning Lida and Sarudine. He was not jealous, but only sorrowful that the dream which brought happiness so near to him had fled.
Novikoff thought that his life was a failure, but it never occurred to him to end it, since to live on was futile. On the contrary, now that his life had become a torture to him, he considered that it was his duty to devote it to others, putting his own happiness aside. Without being able to account for it, he had a vague desire to throw up everything and go to St. Petersburg where he could renew his connection with "the party" and rush headlong to death. This was a fine, lofty thought, so he believed, and the knowledge that it was his lessened his grief, and even gladdened him. He became grand in his own eyes, crowned as with a shining aureole, and his sadly reproachful attitude towards Lida almost moved him to tears.
Then he suddenly felt bored. Yourii went on painting, and gave him no attention whatever. Novikoff got up lazily and approached the picture. It was still unfinished, and for that reason produced the effect of a somewhat powerful sketch. Yourii had got as far as he could go. Novikoff thought it was wonderful, as with open mouth he gazed in childish admiration at the artist.
"Well?" said Yourii, stepping backwards.
Personally, he thought it the most interesting picture that he had ever seen, though certainly it had defects both obvious and considerable. Why he was of this opinion he could not tell, but if Novikoff had thought the picture a bad one, he would have felt thoroughly hurt and annoyed. However, Novikoff murmured ecstatically,
"Ve ... ry fine indeed!"
Yourii felt as if he were a genius despising his own work. He sighed and flung down his brush which stained the edge of the couch, and he moved away without looking at the picture.
"Ah! my friend!" he exclaimed. He was on the point of confessing to himself and to Novikoff the doubt which destroyed his pleasure in succeeding, as he felt that he could never do anything with what was now a promising sketch. However, after a moment of reflection he merely said:
"All that is of no use at all!"
Novikoff thought that this was pose on his friend's part, and mindful of his own bitter disappointment he inwardly observed:
Then after a while he asked:
"How do you mean that it is of no use?"
To this question Yourii could give no exact answer, and he remained silent. Novikoff examined the picture once more, and then lay down on the sofa.
"I read your article in the Krai," he said. "It was pretty hot."
"The deuce take it!" replied Yourii, angrily, yet unable to account for his anger, as he remembered Semenoff's words. "What good will it do? It won't stop executions and robberies and violence; they will go on just as before. Articles won't help matters. For what purpose, pray? To be read by two or three idiots! Much good that is! After all, what business is it of mine? And why dash one's brains out against a wall?"
Passing before his eyes, Yourii seemed to see the early years of his political activity; the secret meetings, propaganda, risks and reverses, his own enthusiasm and the profound apathy of those whom he was so eager to save. He walked up and down the room, gesticulating.
"Then, it is not worth while doing anything," drawled Novikoff, and, thinking of Sanine, he added,
"Egoists, that's all you are!"
"No, it's not!" replied Yourii vehemently, influenced by his memories of the past and by the dusk that gave a grey look to all things in the room.
"If one speaks of Humanity, of what good are all our efforts in the cause of constitutions or of revolutions if one cannot even approximately estimate what humanity really requires? Perhaps in this liberty of which we dream lie the germs of future degeneracy, and man, having realized his ideal, will go back, walking once more on all fours? Thus, all would have to be recommenced. And if I care for nothing but myself, what then? What do I gain by it? The most I could do would be to get fame by my talents and achievements, intoxicated by the respect of my inferiors, that is to say by the respect of those whom I do not esteem and whose veneration ought to be valueless to me. And then? To go on living, living, until the grave--nothing after that! And the crown of laurels would fit my skull so closely, that I should soon find it irksome!"
"Always about himself!" muttered Novikoff, mockingly.
Yourii did not hear him, being morbidly pleased with his own eloquence. There was a beautiful gloom about his utterances, so he thought; they seemed to ennoble him, to heighten his sense of self-respect.
"At the worst, I should become a genius misjudged, a ridiculous dreamer, a theme for humorous tales, a foolish individual, of no use to anybody!"
"Aha!" cried Novikoff, as he rose from the couch, "Of no use to anybody. You admit that yourself, then?"
"How absurd you are!" exclaimed Yourii, "do you really think that I don't know for what to live and in what to believe? Possibly I should gladly submit to crucifixion if I believed that my death could save the world. But I don't believe this; and whatever I did would never alter the course of history; moreover, my help would be so slight, so insignificant, that the world would not have suffered a jot if I had never existed. Yet, for the sake of such infinitesimal help, I am obliged to live, and suffer, and sorrowfully wait for death."
Yourii did not perceive that he was now talking of something quite different, replying, not to Novikoff, but to his own strange, depressing thoughts. Suddenly he remembered Semenoff, and stopped short. A cold shiver ran down his spine.
"The fact is, I dread the inevitable," he said in a low tone, as he looked stolidly at the darkening window. "It is natural, I know, and that I can do nothing to avoid it, but yet it is awful--hideous!"
Novikoff, though inwardly horrified at the truth of such a statement, replied:
"Death is a necessary physiological phenomenon."
"What a fool!" thought Yourii, as he irritably exclaimed,
"Good gracious me! What does it matter if our death is necessary to anyone else or not?"
"How about your crucifixion?"
"That is a different thing," replied Yourii, with some hesitation.
"You are contradicting yourself," observed Novikoff in a slightly patronising tone.
This greatly annoyed Yourii. Thrusting his fingers through his unkempt black hair, he vehemently retorted:
"I never contradict myself. It stands to reason that if, of my own free will, I choose to die--"
"It's all the same," continued Novikoff obdurately, in the same tone. "All of you want fireworks, applause, and the rest of it. It's nothing else but egoism!"
"What if it is? That won't alter matters."
The discussion became confused. Yourii felt that he had not meant to say that, but the thread escaped him which a moment before had seemed so clear and tense. He paced up and down the room, endeavouring to overcome his vexation, as he said to himself.
"Sometimes one is not in the humour. At other times one can speak as clearly as if the words were set before one's eyes. Sometimes I seem to be tongue-tied, and I express myself clumsily. Yes, that often happens."
They were both silent. Yourii at last stopped by the window and took up his cap.
"Let us go for a stroll," he said.
"All right," Novikoff readily assented, secretly hoping, while joyful yet distressed, that he might meet Lida Sanine.
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