In the evening of this day Olympiada sent a letter to Ilya by her servant:
"Be at the corner of Kusnezkaya Street, by the Public Baths, at nine o'clock."
As Ilya read the words, he felt his body contract internally, and he shivered as if with cold. Once more he saw the contemptuous expression on the face of his mistress, and in his ears rang her rough, insulting words: "Couldn't you come some other time?"
He looked the letter all over, and could not determine why Olympiada had appointed this particular meeting place. Then all at once, he feared to understand, and his heart beat fiercely. He was punctual. The sight of Olympiada's tall figure among the many women who were walking, singly or in couples, near the public baths, increased his anxiety and restlessness. She wore an old fur jacket and a veil. He could only see her eyes. He stood before her in silence.
"Come!" she said, and added, softly: "Turn up your coat-collar!"
They walked through the passage of the building, keeping their faces turned aside, and disappeared quickly into a private room. Olympiada quickly threw aside her veil, and Ilya took new courage at the sight of her calm face, its colour heightened by the cold. Almost immediately he felt, however, that he disliked to see her so unmoved. She sat down on the divan, and said, looking in his face in a friendly way:
"Well, my lad! We'll soon appear together before the police?"
"Why?" asked Ilya, and wiped the hoar frost from his moustache.
"How stupid you can seem! As if you didn't know!" cried Olympiada quietly, with a tinge of mockery. Then her brows contracted, and she said, seriously, in a low tone:
"D'you know the police agent was at my house to-day. What d'you say to that?"
Ilya looked at her, and said, drily:
"What's that to me? Don't trouble me with your police, or anything else. Tell me simply why you've brought me here, with all this precaution."
Olympiada looked at him searchingly, then said, with a mocking laugh: "Oh, you'll still play the innocent—but there's no time for that. Listen. When the police officer examines you and asks you when you got to know me, and whether you visited me often, say just the plain truth—exactly—do you hear?"
"I hear," said Ilya, and smiled.
"And if he asks you about the old man, say you never saw him, never; that you know nothing of him, that you never heard that any one was keeping me—d'you understand?"
She looked Ilya through and through with an air of command. He felt an evil thought push up in him, that yet gave him pleasure. He thought that Olympiada feared him, and he found in himself a desire to torture her. He knit his brows and looked in her face with a furtive smile, but said nothing. A spasm of fear twitched her features, and she stepped back a pace, pale, whispering softly: "What is the matter? Why do you look like that? Ilya, Ilya!"
"Tell me, why should I lie?" he asked, showing his teeth scornfully. "I have seen the old man at your house."
Then, resting his elbows on the marble-topped table, he went on slowly and quietly, with a sudden access of bitter anger:
"I did see him once, and I thought: 'This is the man who stands in my way and has spoilt my life;' and if I did not strangle him then and there——"
"Don't tell lies!" cried Olympiada, loudly, and struck the table. "It is a lie! He was not in your way."
"How was he not?"
"He did nothing to you. You had only to wish it, and I'd have given him the go-by. Didn't I tell you I'd show him the door right away, if you wanted it? You smile there and you don't say anything. You never really loved me. It was your own choice to share with him. You worthless——"
"Stop! Be quiet!" cried Ilya. He sprang up, but at once sat down again, as though the woman had crushed him by her accusation.
"I will not be quiet!" she cried aloud. "I loved you because you were good-looking and wholesome; and you, what have you done to me? Did you ever say: 'Choose—him or me!' Did you ever say it? No! You were nothing but a love-sick tom-cat, like all the others."
Ilya started at this insulting reproach. There was a darkness before his eyes, and with clenched fist he sprang up again.
"Stop! How dare you?"
"You'll strike me, will you? Well, then, do it!" and her eyes flashed threateningly and she ground her teeth. "Strike me, and I'll tear the door open and cry out that you killed him and planned it with me. Well, do it!"
For a moment Ilya was paralysed with fear, but the feeling only touched his heart and vanished at once. Only he breathed with difficulty, as though unseen hands had him by the throat.
Again he sank back on the divan, was silent for a while, then gave a forced laugh. He saw Olympiada bite her lips and look as if seeking something round the dirty room, full of a damp, soapy vapour. Then she sat down on the divan close to the door, let her head fall, and said:
"Laugh away, you devil!"
"I will, certainly."
"When I saw you, I said 'that's the man for me, he'll help me, save me.'"
"Lipa," said Ilya gently.
She sat motionless and did not answer.
"Lipa," he repeated, and then with a sense as of hurling himself into an abyss, he said slowly, clearly:
"I did strangle the old man, by God!"
She shuddered, lifted her head and looked at him with wide eyes. Her lips began to tremble and she stammered:
"Silly boy, how frightened you are!"
Ilya understood that it was she who felt the fear, and did not want to believe his words. He got up, moved nearer, and sat down beside her, smiling vaguely. She caught his head to her breast, and whispered in her deep voice, as she kissed his hair: "Ilushka! Ilushka! Why do you hurt me so? I was so glad you killed him, the old sneak."
"Yes, I did it," he said, and nodded his head.
"Sh!" said the woman, anxiously. "I'm glad he's out of the way. That's what should happen to them all—all who ever touched me. You are the only man I ever met. You are the first, my dear one."
Her words drew him closer to her. He nestled with his face against her breast, till he could hardly breathe, but would not loosen his embrace, for he felt she was the only human being that was really near to him, and that more than ever now he needed her.
"When you stand there fresh and healthy, and look at me angrily, then I feel the degradation of my life, and I love you even for that, because of your pride."
Great tears fell on Ilya's face, and as their falling moved him, over his own cheeks flowed a stream that freed his soul. She took his head in her hands, kissed eyes and cheeks, and lips, and said:
"I know it's only my beauty holds you—your heart doesn't love me, and it condemns me. You can't forgive me my life, and that old man."
"Don't speak of him," said Ilya. He dried his face with her kerchief and rose up calm.
"Let come what may," he said slowly and firmly. "If God means to punish, He finds the way. I thank you, Lipa, for your words, what you say is right. I am guilty towards you. I thought you were—only such a one as——and you are——forgive me dear!"
He stammered with dry lips and dim eyes. Slowly, he smoothed his disordered hair with a trembling hand, and said in a dull, hopeless way:
"I am guilty of everything. Why? Why? Oh! Satan!"
"Olympiada caught his hand; he sank on the divan beside her and said, not heeding her whispered words:
"Do you understand? I strangled him; do you believe it?"
"Sh!" cried Olympiada, in an anxious muffled voice. "What are you saying?"
She embraced him closely, and looked into his face with troubled eyes.
"Let me go! it—it happened all of a sudden—God knows I didn't mean to do it. I only wanted to see his hateful face again, that's why I went into the shop. I had no intention,—and then it came in a moment, the devil urged me and God did not hold me back. I shouldn't have taken the money, that was silly, ah!"
He sighed deeply, and the hard rind of his heart seemed to loosen. Olympiada was quivering at his story, she held him even closer and whispered brokenly, disconnectedly. Presently she said: "It was a good thing you took the money, they'll think now it was for robbery, and not for jealousy; that would be worse for us."
"I don't feel sorry," said Ilya thoughtfully. "I won't repent. God may punish me! Men are not my judges; what sort of judges would they be! I know no men without sin, not one. I'll wait."
"O God," stammered Olympiada. "What is it? What will happen? Dear, I'm quite stupid. I can't think clearly—but let's go away from here—it's time."
She stood up and swayed like a drunken woman. But when she had fastened her veil, she said of a sudden, quite calmly:
"What's going to happen, Ilya? Will it go hard——?"
Ilya shook his head.
"Tell the magistrate everything, just as it was; that is, not everything, but——"
"I'll say it. Do you think I won't stand up for myself, or that I want to go to Siberia for this old wretch and a matter of two thousand roubles? No? I've something else to do with my life!"
His face was red with excitement, and his eyes shone. She came close to him and said in a whisper:
"Did you really only take two thousand roubles?"
"Two thousand and a little more."
"Poor boy; no luck even there!" and the tears shone in her eyes.
Ilya, smiled and said bitterly:
"Ah! d'you think I did it for the money? you know better—wait!—let me go first."
"Come and see me soon; there's no need for us to hide; come soon."
They parted with a long passionate kiss. As soon as Ilya reached the street he hailed a droshky. As he went he kept looking back to see if he were followed. His heart was lighter and a warm, tender feeling for Olympiada awaked in it. By no word or look had she wounded him, when he made his confession, she had rather taken on herself a part of the guilt than thrust him away. One minute before, when she did not know, she was ready to destroy him; he had read it in her face; then suddenly she had changed; he smiled gently as he thought of it.
Next day Ilya felt like the quarry that finds the huntsman on its track. Petrusha met him in the bar room early; he answered Ilya's greeting with a nod, and looked at him strangely, searchingly. Terenti looked hard at him, sighed and said nothing, Jakov met him in Masha's room, and said with a terrified face:
"Last night the Ward Superintendent was here; he asked father all about you. Why did he do that?"
"What did he ask about?" said Ilya quietly.
"Everything—how you live, if you drink brandy, if you go with women,—he mentioned some Olympiada; didn't you know her, he asked. Why did he want to know all this?"
"Heaven knows;" answered Ilya, and left him.
That evening came another letter from Olympiada.
"They've questioned me about you. I have said everything exactly; there's nothing in all that, and it isn't risky. Don't be anxious. I kiss you dearest."
He threw the letter at once in the fire. In Filimonov's house as well as in the bar, the talk was all of the murder. Ilya listened with a distinct sense of pleasure. He liked to pass near men who were discussing his deed, asking for details, which were invented freely, and thought with pleasure what profound amazement he could bring on them if he said:
"I did it—I!"
Some praised the cleverness of the criminal, some pointed out that he had failed to get all the money, some seemed to fear, lest he should yet be arrested, but not one single voice was heard to lament the victim, no one uttered on his account so much as a friendly word. Ilya despised them that they had no pity for the merchant, though he himself had none. He thought no more of Poluektov, only realising that he had taken a burden of guilt on himself and would be punished at some future time. This thought, in the present, disturbed him not at all; he bound it into his conscience and it became a part of his soul. It was like a bruise from a blow, it did not hurt if it were not disturbed.
He was deeply convinced that the hour must come when the vengeance of God would overtake him. God knows everything, and would not forgive the transgressor of His law: but this calm steady readiness to meet the punishment, any day, any hour, enabled Ilya to feel and behave as he did before the murder. Only he watched men more closely, and traced their weaknesses more zealously. This pleased him, though he realised that he was in no way exonerated thereby.
He was gloomier, more reserved, but from morning to night, as usual, he carried his wares about the town, visited alehouses, observed men, and listened to their talk. One day he thought of the money he had hidden and wondered if he would conceal it elsewhere. But at once he said to himself: "It's no good. Let it be. If they look and find it, I'll confess."
There was as yet no search after the money, and it was the sixth day before Ilya was summoned before the magistrate. Before he went, he changed his linen, put on his best jacket, and brushed his boots till they shone. He went in a sleigh. It jolted over the uneven streets till he had difficulty in holding himself upright and motionless. He felt his body so tensely strung that he feared to break something in him by a sudden movement. He mounted the steps of the Court House slowly and carefully, as though he were wearing clothes of glass.
The magistrate was a young man, with curly hair and a hooked nose, wearing gold-rimmed spectacles. When he saw Ilya, he first rubbed his thin white hands, then removed his spectacles and polished the lenses with his handkerchief, looking the while at Ilya with his big dark eyes. Ilya bowed silently.
"Good-day! Sit down there."
He indicated a chair at a big table covered with a dull red cloth. Ilya sat down, carefully pushing away with his elbow a pile of legal documents lying at the edge of the table. The magistrate noticed the movement, politely moved the papers, and sat down opposite Ilya. Without speaking, he began to turn the leaves of a book, and measured Ilya with sidelong glances. Ilya disliked the silence. He turned away and looked round the room. It was the first time he had seen a place so orderly and so richly furnished. All round the walls hung framed portraits and pictures. In one Christ was represented, walking, lost in thought, His head bowed, alone and sad, among ruins. Corpses of men and scattered weapons lay at his feet, and in the background, a dense black smoke rose up into the sky. Something was burning. Ilya looked long at this picture, and tried to understand what it represented. So much so that he was on the point of asking when suddenly the magistrate shut his book with a bang. Ilya started and looked at him. The magistrate's face wore a weary, dull expression, his lips were depressed oddly at the corners, as though some one had hurt his feelings.
"Well," he said, and tapped the table with his finger, "you are Ilya Jakovlevitch Lunev, aren't you?"
"You can guess why I have summoned you?"
"No," answered Ilya, and took another fleeting look at the picture. Then his eyes travelled over the solid, fine furniture, and he was conscious of the perfume the magistrate had been using. It distracted his thoughts and calmed him to observe his surroundings, and envy rose in his heart.
"This is how distinguished people live." The thought went through his head. "It must be very profitable to catch thieves and murderers. I wonder what he gets."
"You can't guess?" repeated the magistrate. "Has Olympiada said nothing to you?"
"No. It's some time since I saw her."
The magistrate threw himself back in his chair, and the corners of his lips went down.
"How long?" he asked.
"I don't know, eight or nine days perhaps."
"Ah! is that so? tell me, did you often meet old Poluektov at her house?"
"The old man who was murdered a little while ago?" asked Ilya, and looked his questioner in the eyes.
"Yes, that's the man."
"I never met him."
The magistrate fired off his questions quickly with a certain nonchalance, and when Ilya, who answered very cautiously, was slow to reply, he drummed impatiently on the table with his fingers.
"You knew that Olympiada Petrovna was kept by Poluektov?" he asked suddenly, and looked sharply through his spectacles.
Ilya reddened at the glance, which seemed in some way to wound him.
"No," he said in a dull tone.
"Oh! yes, she was kept by him," repeated the magistrate, angrily,—"to my thinking that is not good," he added, as he saw Ilya about to answer.
"How should there be anything good in it?" said Ilya softly, at length.
But Ilya said no more.
"And you—you've known her a long time?"
"More than a year."
"You were intimate with her before her acquaintance with Poluektov?"
"You're a cunning fox," thought Ilya, and said quietly:
"How can I say, when I didn't know that she lived with the man that's dead."
The magistrate drew his lips together and whistled, and began to finger the pile of documents. Ilya looked again at the picture; he felt that his interest in it helped him to keep calm. From somewhere, the clear, gay laugh of a child came to his ear. Then a happy, gentle, woman's voice sang tenderly: "My Annie, my little one, my darling, my dear."
"That picture appears to interest you greatly."
"Where is Christ supposed to be going?" asked Ilya.
The magistrate looked in his face with a weary, disillusioned expression, and said after a pause:
"You can see. He's come down to earth to see how men fulfil His commands. He's going over a battle-field—round about are dead men, houses destroyed, fire plundering."
"Can't He see that from Heaven?"
"H'm, it's rather an allegory, it's represented like that, so as to be plainer, to show how little real life agrees with the teaching of Christ, that is——But come, I must ask you a question or two yet."
Ilya turned from the picture and looked in the magistrate's face; a number of little unimportant questions followed, annoying Ilya like autumn flies. He grew tired and felt his attention growing slack and his carefulness wither under the monotonous dull sound. He grew angry with the magistrate, who set these questions, as he well understood, on purpose to weary him.
"Can you tell me perhaps," said the magistrate quickly, apparently without any particular intent, "where you were on Thursday between two o'clock and three."
"In the ale-house; I was having tea."
"Ah! in which inn then? Where?"
"In the Plevna."
"How is it you are so certain that you were there just at that time?"
The magistrate's face looked tense, he leaned over the table and stared into Ilya's face with flaming eyes. Ilya did not reply at once. After a second or two he sighed and said with composure:
"Just before I went in, I asked the time of a policeman."
The magistrate leaned back again, and began to tap his finger-nails with a blue pencil.
"The policeman told me it was twenty minutes to two, or something like that."
"He knows you?"
"Have you no watch?"
"Have you ever before asked him the time?"
"Yes, it has happened."
"The town hall is near, there's a clock."
"One forgets to look, and then it was snowing."
"Were you long in the Plevna?"
"Till the news came of the murder."
"Where did you go then?"
"I went to look."
"Did any one see you there, in front of the shop?"
"That policeman saw me, he sent me off—pushed me."
"Very good, very important for you," said the magistrate approvingly, then asked at once without looking at Ilya:
"Did you ask the time before the murder or after?"
Ilya saw the drift of the question. He turned sharp round in his chair full of rage against this man with the shining white linen, the thin fingers, well-tended nails, and gold spectacles in front of piercing dark eyes.
Instead of answering, he asked:
"How can I tell?"
The magistrate coughed drily, and rubbed his hands till the fingers cracked.
"Well done," he said in a tone of displeasure. "Splendid!—yes."
And he shifted his chair as though tired.
"Very good; one or two questions now and I'll let you go. Do you know, by any chance, that policeman's name?"
"Jeremin, Matvey Ivanovitch."
The magistrate's tone was bored and indifferent; obviously he did not expect now to hear anything interesting.
Ilya answered, always on the look out for another question like the one as to the time of the murder. Every word echoed in his breast again as though it plucked a tense string in an empty space. But no more cunning questions came.
"As you went down the street that day, did you not meet a tall man in a short fur jacket and black lambs-wool cap? Do you remember?"
"No," said Ilya harshly.
"Now, listen. I'll read over your statement to you, and you will sign it."
He held a sheet of paper covered with writing before his face, and began to read quickly and monotonously. When he had finished, he put a pen in Ilya's hand. Ilya bent down, signed, rose slowly from his chair, and said in a loud, assured voice, looking at the magistrate: "Good-day!"
A short, condescending nod was his answer, and the magistrate bent over his desk, and began to write. Ilya stood thinking. He would gladly have said something more to this man who had held him so long on the rack. In the quiet, only the scratch of the pen was heard, then the woman's voice, singing, "Dance away, dance away, dolly."
"What do you want now?" asked the magistrate, and raised his head.
"Nothing," said Ilya gloomily.
"I told you, you can go."
"All right, then."
They looked angrily at one another, and Ilya felt something heavy, terrifying, grow in his breast. He turned sharp round and went out into the street. A cold wind greeted him, and for the first time he noticed that he was sweating profusely. Half-an-hour later he was sitting with Olympiada. She opened the door to him herself, having seen him from the window. She met him with almost a mother's joy. Her face was pale, and she gazed restlessly about with wide-open eyes.
"My clever boy!" she cried, when Ilya told her that he had just come from the magistrate. "Tell me, tell me, how did you get on?"
"The brute," said Ilya, in wrath. "He set traps for me."
"He can't help it," remarked Olympiada, in a tone of common sense. "Let him be; it's his infernal duty."
"Why didn't he say straight out—'So-and-so, this is what people think of you.'"
"Did you tell him everything straight out?" she asked, smiling.
"I!" cried Ilya in astonishment. "Why, yes—as a matter of fact—ah, devil take him!"
He seemed quite abashed and said after a while:
"And as I sat there, I thought, by God, I was right!"
"Now, thank heaven, it's all passed over all right."
Ilya looked at her with a smile. "I didn't need to lie much. I'm lucky, after all, Lipa!"
He laughed again in a strange way.
"The secret police are always at my heels," said Olympiada, in a low voice, "and after you too."
"Of course," said Ilya, full of scorn and anger. "They go sniffing around, and want to hem me in, like the beaters do to the wolf in the forest. But they won't do it; they're not the men for that; and I'm not a wolf, but an unlucky man. I didn't mean to strangle any one. Fate strangles me—as Pashka says in his poem—and it strangles Pashka too, and Jakov, and all of us."
"Never mind, Ilushka. Everything will go right now."
Ilya got up, walked to the window, and said, with a despairing voice, as he looked at the street:
"All my life I've had to wallow in the mud. I've always been pushed into things I disliked—hated. I've never met a soul I could look at really happily. Is there nothing pure in life, nothing noble? Now, I've strangled this—this man of yours,—why? I've only smirched myself, and damned myself. I took money. I ought not."
"Don't be sorry!" She tried to console him. "He isn't worth it."
"I'm not sorry for him; only I want to get myself straight. Every one tries, else he can't live. That magistrate, he lives like a sugar-plum in its box. No one will strangle him. He can be good and upright in his pretty nest."
"Never mind, we'll go away together from this place."
"No. I'll go nowhere," cried Ilya fiercely, and wheeled round to her, and added, seeming to threaten some unknown person.
"No—no—patience! I'll wait and see what will come; I'll fight it out still," and he strode up and down the room, and shook his head defiantly.
"Oh!" said Olympiada, in an injured tone. "You won't go with me, because you're afraid of me; you think I should always have a hold on you, you think I should use what I know—you're wrong, my dear. I'll never drag you with me by force."
She spoke quietly, but her lips twitched as though she were in pain.
"What did you say?" asked Ilya, quite surprised.
"I won't compel you, don't be frightened; go where you will!"
"Wait a moment," said Ilya, as he sat down near her, and took her hand.
"I didn't understand what you said."
"Don't pretend!" she cried, and drew away her hand. "I know you're proud, and passionate; you can't forgive the old man; you hate my life—you think that it's all come about through me."
"You're talking foolishly," said Ilya, quietly. "I don't blame you in the very least, I know that for men like me there are no women who are pretty and fine and pure as well. Such women are dear, they are only for the rich, and we must love the soiled and those who are spat upon and abused."
"Then leave me, the spat upon and abused!" cried Olympiada, springing up from her chair. "Go away—go away!"
But suddenly tears shone in her eyes and she covered Ilya with a flood of burning words, like hot coals.
"I myself, of my own will crept into this pit, because there's money in it. I meant to climb up the ladder again with the money, begin a decent life—and you helped me, I know, and I love you, and will love you though you strangle twenty men; it isn't your goodness I love, but your pride, and your youth, your curly head and your strong arms and your dark eyes, and your reproaches that pierce my heart. I shall be grateful for all this till I die.—I'll kiss your feet."
She threw herself at his feet, and embraced his knees.
"God is my witness, I sinned to save my soul. I must be dearer to Him if I don't end my life in this filth, but struggle through it and lead a clean life. Then I will entreat His forgiveness. I will not endure this torment all my life; they have soiled me with mud and filth; all my tears will never wash me clean."
At first Ilya tried to free himself and raise her from the ground, but she clung close to him, pressed her head against his knees and laid her cheek at his feet. And she spoke on with a low, passionate, gasping voice. Presently he caressed her with a trembling hand, raised her, embraced her, and laid her head on his shoulder, her hot cheek pressed close to his, and as she lay supported by his arms on her knees before him, she whispered:
"Does it do any one any good if a woman who has sinned once spends almost her whole life in humiliation? When I was a girl and my stepfather came near me to make me impure, I stuck a knife in him. I did it without a thought. Then they made me drunk with wine and ruined me. I was a girl, so tidy, so pretty and red-cheeked as an apple. I cried for myself. I hurt myself. I cried for my beauty. I didn't want it! I didn't want it! And then I said to myself: 'It's all the same now. There's no going back. Good,' I thought, 'at least I'll sell my shame as dear as I can.' I never kissed from my heart till I kissed you. I always just lived in filth and rioting."
Her words were lost in a soft whisper. Suddenly she tore herself from Ilya's embrace. "Let me go!" she cried, and thrust him away.
But he held her closer, and began to kiss her face, passionately, despairingly.
"Let me go! You hurt me!" she said.
"I can say nothing," said Ilya, feverishly. "Only one thing—no one has had pity on us, and we need have pity on no one. You spoke so beautifully! Come, let me kiss you. How else can I make it up to you? My dear! My dearest! I love you! Ah, I don't know how I love you. I've no words to tell you."
Her lamentation had really roused in him a burning feeling of affection for this woman. Her sorrow and his misfortune were molten together, and their hearts came nearer and nearer. They held one another in a close embrace, and softly told one another all the long sufferings they had endured from life. A courageous, fierce feeling rose in Ilya's heart.
"We were not born for fortune, we two," said the woman, and shook her head hopelessly.
"Good! Then we will celebrate out misfortune! Shall we go to the mines, to Siberia, together? Eh? Ah, there's time for that. As yet we will enjoy our pain and our love. Now they might burn me with red-hot irons, my heart is so light. I repent nothing!"
Outside the window, the sky was a monotonous grey. A cold mist enwrapped the earth and settled in white rime on the trees. In the little garden, a young birch-tree swayed its thin branches gently, and shook the snow away. The winter evening came on.