It was only after dinner, in the drawing-room, while musicians discoursed Offenbach and Rossini from behind a screen of fern and flower, that Vassili found an opportunity of addressing himself directly to Etta. In part she desired this opportunity, with a breathless apprehension behind her bright society smile. Without her assistance he never would have had it.
The utterances of Vassili Petrovitch, which his lethargic, sober-minded friend regarded as indicating temporary insanity in the speaker, represented fairly the mental condition of very many Russian nobles at that time, and were not without a certain foundation.
De Chauxville shrugged his shoulders in deprecation, possibly with contempt for any system of watching. "May one call it an affaire de coeur?" asked Vassili, with his grim smile. "Certainly. Are not all private affairs such, one way or the other?" "And you want a passport?" "Yes a special one." "I will see what I can do." "Thank you."
Vassili hated the pope, because he had ordered Te Deums in Rome, in celebration of a victory which the Poles had obtained over the Russians, and had called the Russians heretics. But still the bait the pope presented was too alluring not to be caught at. In the labyrinthine mazes of politics, however, there were obstacles to the development of this policy which years only could remove.
"Would it help you if I were to go?" put in Chichikov. "Pray enlighten me as to the matter." Vassili glanced at the speaker, and thought to himself: "What a passion the man has for travelling!" "Yes, pray give me an idea of the kind of fellow," repeated Chichikov, "and also outline to me the affair." "I should be ashamed to trouble you with such an unpleasant commission," replied Vassili.
I inquired in French. "No one can do anything for me except God and the blessed Virgin," she replied peevishly, "and they are punishing me for my sins. Yes, for my sins," she went on, raising her voice and speaking in a rambling delirious way, "because I have consorted with infidels and blasphemers. Vassili was good to me; we were happy with our little Ivan, till that devil came along.
As soon as she saw him she said: 'Oh, Vassili, what brings you to this accursed place? Vassili told her why he had come, and all he had seen and heard on the way. The girl said: 'You have not been sent here to collect rents, but for your own destruction, and that the serpent may devour you.
"Wait, some one will break your head yet." She smiled, still silent. Then she sighed deeply and said: "That's enough! now farewell!" And suddenly turning on her heels she left him and came back. Vassili shouted after her and shook his fists. Malva, as she walked, took pains to place each foot in the deep impressions of Vassili's feet, and when she succeeded she carefully effaced the traces.
The action, moreover, is demonstrative, which makes the Russian different from other northern nations of an older civilization and a completer self-control. "Then," said Vassili, "if I understand M. le Baron aright, it is a question of private and personal affairs that suggests this journey to Russia?" "Precisely." "In no sense a mission?" suggested the other, sipping his liqueur thoughtfully.
'I did; this old wide-spreading oak. Tell me where you are going. 'I am going to the Serpent King to receive twelve years' rent from him. 'When the time comes, remember me and ask the king: "Rotten to the roots, half dead but still green, stands the old oak. Is it to stand much longer on the earth?" Vassili went on further. He came to a river and got into the ferryboat.