"Now let us see to what category of mortals to assign this young person," said Bazarov to Arkady as, on the following day, the pair mounted the staircase of the hotel where Madame Odintsov was staying. "Somehow I seem to scent impropriety in the air."
"You surprise me!" burst forth Arkady. "Do you, Bazarov, do you hold with the narrow-minded morality which——"
"Idiot!" exclaimed Bazarov contemptuously. "Do you not know that both in our jargon and in the understanding of the ordinary person the term 'improper' has now come to mean the same as 'proper'? In any case I seem to scent money here. You yourself told me, did you not, that Madame's marriage was a very strange one?—though, for my part, I look upon marrying a rich old man as anything but a strange proceeding—rather, as a measure of prudence. True, I place little reliance upon the gossip of townsfolk, but at least I prefer to suppose that that gossip has, as our cultured Governor would say, 'a basis in fact.'"
Arkady did not respond, but knocked at the door of Madame's suite; and, the door having been opened, a liveried man-servant ushered the visitors into a large, hideously furnished room of the type which is always to be found in Russian hotels—the only exception in the present case being that the apartment was adorned with flowers. Presently Madame herself entered, clad in a plain morning gown, and looking even younger in the spring sunlight than she had done in the ballroom. Arkady duly presented Bazarov, and, as he did so, remarked with surprise that his friend seemed confused, while Madame was as imperturbable as ever. This gaucherie on his part Bazarov realised, and felt vexed at.
"Phaugh!" he thought to himself. "The idea that I should be afraid of a woman!"
Yet, like Sitnikov, he could only subside into a chair, and fall to talking with an exaggerated emphasis to the woman who sat with her brilliant eyes riveted with such attention upon him.
Anna Sergievna Odintsov had had for a father one Sergei Nikolaievitch Loktev, a well-known gambler, speculator, and beau. After fifteen years of flaunting it in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and dissipating his whole substance, he had been forced to retire to the country, where soon afterwards he had died and left to his daughter Anna (aged twenty) and his daughter Katerina (aged twelve) only a small joint competence. As for the girls' mother (who had come of the impoverished house of the Princes X.), she had expired during the heyday of her husband's career in St. Petersburg. Anna's position after her father's death was therefore a very difficult one, for the brilliant education which she had received in the capital had in no way fitted her for the care of a household and an estate, nor yet for the endurance of a life in the country. Moreover, she possessed not a single acquaintance in that country neighbourhood, nor any one to whom to turn for advice, since her father had done his best to avoid associating with his neighbours, in that he had despised them as much as they, in their several ways, had despised him. Howbeit, Anna kept her head, and straightway sent for her mother's sister, the Princess Avdotia Stepanovna X., who, a malicious, presuming old woman, annexed, on the day of her arrival, all the best rooms in the house, raged and stormed from morning till night, and even declined to walk in the garden unless she could be accompanied by her only serf, a sullen-looking lacquey who wore a faded green livery, a blue collar, and a three-cornered hat. Nevertheless Anna put up with these tantrums of her aunt's, superintended the education of her sister, and resigned herself to the idea of living in seclusion for the rest of her life. But fate had ordained otherwise. That is to say, a certain Odintsov—a rich, bloated, unwieldy, soured, semi-imbecile hypochondriac of forty-six who was, nevertheless, neither stupid nor cruel—happened to see her, and became so enamoured that he offered her marriage: and to this proposal she consented. For six years the pair lived together, before the husband died, leaving her all his property. The following year she spent in the country; after which she went abroad with her sister—but only as far as Germany, since she quickly wearied of foreign parts, and was only too thankful to return to her beloved Nikolsköe, which lay some forty versts from the provincial town of ——. At Nikolsköe she had at her disposal a splendid, tastefully furnished mansion, a beautiful garden, and a range of orangeries (the late Odintsov having denied himself in nothing); but inasmuch as she made but rare appearances in the town, and then only on flying visits connected with business, the provincial gentry conceived a grudge against her, and took to gossiping of her marriage with Odintsov, and relating such impossible tales as that she had assisted her father in his nefarious schemes, that she had had her reasons for going abroad, and that certain unfortunate results of that tour had had to be concealed. "I tell you," the ardent retailer of such fables would say, "that she has been through the mill right enough." Eventually these rumours reached her ears, but she ignored them altogether, since her nature was at once bold and independent.
Seating herself at full length in an armchair, and crossing one hand over the other, she set herself to listen to Bazarov's harangue. Contrary to his usual custom, he spoke without restraint, for he was clearly anxious to interest his listener. Arkady again felt surprised at this, though he failed to detect whether or not Bazarov was succeeding in his aim, seeing that Anna Sergievna's face gave no clue to the effect produced, so fixedly did her features retain their faintly polite expression, so unvaryingly did her beautiful eyes reflect unruffled attention. True, at first Bazarov's vehemence gave her an unpleasant impression as of a bad smell or a jarring note; but in time she began to understand that it came of his being ill at ease, and she felt flattered at the fact. Only the paltry repelled her; and no one could well have accused Bazarov of that quality. Indeed wonders were never to cease for Arkady, since, though he had expected Bazarov to talk to Madame Odintsov as to a woman of intellect—to speak to her of his views and convictions (seeing that she had expressed a desire to behold a man who had "the temerity to believe in nothing"), he discoursed only on medicine, homoeopathy, and botany. At the same time, Madame had not wasted her life of solitude, but had read a large number of standard works, and could express herself in the best of Russian; and though at one point she diverted the conversation to music, she no sooner perceived that he declined to recognise the existence of the art than she returned to botany, even though Arkady would gladly have continued the discussion of the importance of national melodies. In passing, her treatment of Arkady as a younger brother remained the same. What she valued in him was, evidently, the good humour and simplicity of youth—nothing more. Thus there was held, for three hours, an animated, but intermittent, discursive conversation.
At length the friends rose to say farewell. With a kindly glance Anna Sergievna offered them her beautiful white hand; then, after a moment's reflection, said irresolutely, but with a pleasant smile:
"If neither of you fear finding the time tedious, will you come and pay me a visit at Nikolsköe?"
"I should deem it the greatest pleasure!" cried Arkady.
"And you, Monsieur Bazarov?"
Bazarov merely bowed: which again surprised Arkady, while also he noticed that his friend's face looked flushed.
"Well?" the younger man said as the pair issued into the street. "Are you still of the opinion that she is, is——?"
"I cannot say. But what an icicle she has made of herself!" There was a pause. "At all events, she is an imposing personage, a grande dame who lacks but a train to her gown and a coronet to her head."
"But none of our grandes dames speak Russian as she does," remarked Arkady.
"No; for she has undergone a rebirth, and eaten of our bread."
"And what a charm is hers!"
"You mean, what a splendid body—the very thing for a dissecting theatre!"
"Stop, stop, for God's sake! Her body differs from all other women's."
"No need to lose your temper, young innocent. Have I not said that she stands in the front rank of women? Yes, we must pay her that visit."
"The day after to-morrow. Nothing else is to be done here, for we need not stay to drink champagne with the Kukshin woman, and listen to the harangues of your kinsman, the Liberal bigwig. Not we! The day after to-morrow, therefore, let us give the whole thing the go-by. A propos, my father's place lies near Nikolsköe. For Nikolsköe is on the ---- road, is it not?"
"Optime! Then we shall gain nothing by delay: only fools and clever people procrastinate. Her anatomy, I repeat, is splendid."
Within three days, in bright, but not too warm, weather, the two friends were bowling along the road to Nikolsköe. With a will did the well-fed stage horses trot out, and lightly swish their flanks with their plaited, knotted tails; and as Arkady glanced along the road, he, for some unknown reason, smiled.
"Congratulate me!" cried Bazarov of a sudden. "To-day is the 22nd of June—the feast of my Patron Saint. Certainly he looks after me, does he not?" Then the speaker added in a lower tone: "But to-day, also, they are expecting me at home.... Well, let them expect me."