ALL this happened long, long ago, at a time when humanity knew nothing of the horrors of war, and the monumental changes of the Revolution still lay in the dim and distant future.
It happened in those years when Russia still writhed in the clutches of darkest reaction, in the days of the Czar; the actors of this little drama were "emigrants," men and women who had been exiled, or had fled from their mother country because of political activity in behalf of the stricken masses of their native land.
Since then a new world has dawned in Russia, but these pitiful, human tragedies still exist.
It is for us to learn and to try to understand.
Seven months, seven long, endless months had passed since last she had seen him. When they had parted, it had been with the firm determination never to meet again.
His head buried in her shoulder and his eyes closed with the agony of their suffering, he had told her of his decision. He no longer had the strength to carry on the struggle, and to bear the constant conflicts their love had brought. His face was so thin, she thought, as she gazed at him, thin and worn with care and suffering, yet pathetically childlike and weak in its abject helplessness.
The doctors had found that his wife was suffering from a serious heart disease and must have absolute rest and freedom from excitement.
"I should feel like a criminal, no, like an executioner, if I caused her the slightest uneasiness. You understand, Natascha, that I must release her from this martyrdom of uncertainty, to give her every chance to recover? .... I can't carry on this deception any longer. Then there are the children. Sascha's sharp little eyes are beginning to suspect... the children must feel that I belong to them unstintingly, with all my heart and soul."
"But is that possible, Ssenja? Can you return to your family after all that has happened between us? Will you be able to forget how near, how dear we have been to each other? Where else will you find that complete, wordless understanding that has bound us together? Won't you be lonely without me?"
There was not a thought of herself in her anxious remonstrances – only of him, and of the life that lay before him.
"What else is there to do? I have no choice! Will I be lonely, Natascha? My heart will be cold and miserable – oh, more than I can tell you." He drew her close into his arms and closed his eyes in silence. "Natascha, I see no other way." As if to drive away the troubled thoughts, his lips sought hers with a man's searching, coaxing kisses, and her heart responded in anxious, troubled willingness.
It did not occur to her to resist his pleading caresses, although unconsciously she was disturbed, aye, almost offended by them.
On a dreary, rainy day they had parted. She had decided to leave on an early train and had already risen from the bed on which he still lay calmly asleep. She glanced at him occasionally as she automatically dressed and packed her belongings, and her soul was frozen and numb with bitterness.
"Already?" he asked in astonishment, when she came, in hat and coat, to bid him good-bye.
She sat down on the bed beside him and softly stroked his forehead, as a mother fondles her child when it is ill.
"Why this hurry to get away? Must you go this morning? Come, stay till this evening, and see me off. You can take the night train."
It was the whim of a man spoiled by the self-effacing adoration and rivalry of two loving women.
At any other time, she reflected, she would have responded to this plea for another hour of her presence, for a single hour of her time, with impassioned gratitude. Somehow, in this grim hour of leave-taking, however, his request struck her as unfair.
"You know why I must take the morning train. If I wait until this evening, I shall be late for the party meeting to-morrow."
"And what if you are? Would that be such a great misfortune? They will manage without you."
He drew her down to the bed and kissed her, but she refused to respond to his blandishments. A thrust, like that of a long, fine needle, had penetrated her heart. Would he never realize how cruelly such thoughtless remarks could hurt? How was it possible for a comrade to speak so slightingly of her work for their common cause, when he must feel that it, alone, would give her the strength to endure this last, irrevocable break, this final parting?
As she sat in the train that was bearing her away from him forever, looking out of the window through a fine net-work of rain into the unfamiliar landscape of a strange country, she still writhed under the restless, depressing hurt in her heart. His unkind words and the off-hand gesture with which he had dismissed her work overshadowed the anguish of this last, decisive parting.
So this was the importance he attached to her work for the cause? "They would get along without her!" The thought persisted, and would not be shaken off. Not until evening, when the shadows fell and the compartment emptied, as the travelers, one by one, arrived at their various destinations, did she begin to feel the misery of their parting. She sobbed bitterly at the thought that she would never see his tender, thoughtful, intelligent eyes again, and mourned for his smile, his gentle smile that sat so strangely on the face of this self-confident, universally admired man.
In parting they had promised not to write, and to make no attempt to see each other again.
"Only remember that I am in the world somewhere," she had tried to console him. "If ever you should need me. .. ." She had not been able to finish the sentence, but his deeply grateful look told her that he understood.
At the time it had all seemed so clear in its inevitability. Now she could not believe that it was true, as one cannot grasp the death of a beloved person until long after he is gone.
It was not the first time that they had decided to part. But always after two or three weeks of silence, a telegram or a letter filled with wild longing, self-reproach and urgent pleading had called her back to his side.
He needed her, he missed the hours of fruitful discussion with her that helped him to clear up his own ideas and to plan his work.
More than once, after such a parting, she had received a letter that plunged, without even the formality of an introductory salutation, into some difficulty that his task presented – a continuation, as it were, of some previously considered matter. Such letters invariably closed with a persuasive plea for a new rendezvous. How much of the romance of their love lay in this assurance that she was essential for his work!
This time, day had followed day, month followed month, without a line, without a message from him.
She plunged into her activities with rebellious pertinacity, trying to overcome the indifference that refused to be shaken off. Bit by bit, as her work threw her together with others similarly engaged, who lived for the same problems and responded to the same interests, her drooping spirits revived. Days came and went in which, she discovered with amazement, she did not once think of him, nor did she know whether or not to regret that this was so. Only late in the evening when she opened the door to her room, the lonely room of an "unattached" woman, after an exhausting day of intense application, the old, well-known nostalgia would take possession of her.
Sometimes, in spite of physical exhaustion, she would write to him, long, throbbing letters that reflected the weary body and the lonesome, forsaken soul that called to him for comfort. ... "Ssenjetschka, Ssenjetschka! You must feel how terribly alone I am! Why did you leave me? It is so disheartening to be so forsaken. Surely you might have remained my friend and comrade. I would gladly have given Anjuta all your solicitude, all your tenderness and your caresses for a little warmth, for a little human, friendly warmth...."
They were never sent to him, these letters, but it eased her heart, and gave her relief to pour out her woes to him. While she wrote she felt so convincingly that only outward, tangible considerations had come between them, that she would find warmth and understanding in his nearness if he were not so far away, if he but lived here in the same city with her, where they could meet as comrades and friends.
At such times Natascha forgot the restlessness that troubled her when she was with him, forgot that trouble and lonesomeness no longer vanished in his presence, that she would always have to stand alone, face to face with life, that she would always have to be strong for both of them, to bear their common burdens. She forgot that the days she spent with him demanded redoubled energy, that she always left him weary, exhausted, and glad to be able to return, unhampered, to the work she loved.
Strange how these chill hours of loneliness drew a rosy curtain over the frustrations of the past!
"I feel as if I were a widow," she wrote in one of these profitless letters. "I wander through the spots we visited together, where we worked and thought and felt as one. We were one, one in thought and one in soul, were we not, my dearest, in those days that will never return? ... It was this spiritual nearness that set fire to our hearts and inflamed our passion.... More than once I have been ready to curse this unholy love that has chastened the glorious, glowing, light-winged happiness that this friendship gave us. Had we remained friends instead of becoming lovers, Ssenja, you would not have had to leave me." But there were other hours too, hours of dismal disillusionment, when her faith in their oneness of mind and spirit tottered before the limitations of actuality. Memory recalled slighting disregard and cruel thoughtlessness until it would seem as if their friendship, too, had been a delusion.
"Did he ever really love me, love me, as I understand love?" Natascha would ask herself dismally in these wretched hours of self-analysis. "If he really loved me, could he have torn me out of his heart, cast me, homeless, out of his soul, so lightly? ... Is it possible that he does not feel how I am suffering? Was there no nearness, no understanding between us .... a figment of my imagination, an artificial product of my own desires? ...How much energy and strength, how much precious time this dream has devoured!" she would reflect angrily, when she recalled how her work, how the cause itself had suffered because she had held herself free for him, turning over work and responsibilities to others, missing important meetings and coming late to others so that she might be at his side. Her reputation as a faithful, conscientious worker had suffered irreparable harm because of this.
Deep down in her heart she upbraided him for the price this love of theirs exacted. In these long hours of self-communion she told him the full, unvarnished truth of her feeling toward him, of the bitterness that had collected and had been suppressed through all these years in her wounded, lacerated heart.
His photograph, an old one that he had given her in the early stage of their acquaintance, soon after she had met him at a literary gathering, stood among books, piles of paper and manuscripts that were everywhere in her room.
She often smiled when she recalled their first meeting. Familiar though she was with his name and work – she had written a number of pamphlets popularizing his theories and was generally regarded as one of his followers – she had never made his acquaintance.
"Do you know who is here this evening," the man who was her close friend at that time had asked her. "Your much admired Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch."
"Honestly? Show him to me, please. Where is he? Oh, I must see him!" She was radiant at the prospect of meeting him, and looked like a little girl in her eagerness.
"Hurry! Hurry! Where is he?"
"Calm yourself! You will probably be disappointed." Her friend was obviously displeased with her excitement. "I should call him a colorless sort of person, myself. As a man .. ."
"What does that matter? Am I interested in the man?"
She shrugged her shoulders impatiently. "Sometimes you are very stupid."
"If you wish it, of course I shall bring him to you." Her friend departed while Natascha waited, smiling with pleasure and curiosity at the prospect of knowing in person this man whose thoughts had been so close to hers. She saw Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch struggle against her friend's attempts to bring him to her, and was highly amused when the latter finally took his unwilling victim by the arm and dragged him bodily toward her.
"He is bashful," she excused him in her thoughts. Ever afterward she had looked on this Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch as a very exceptional sort of person, with awkward, but pathetically appealing manners.
She met him frequently after that, and each new meeting was suffused with the fragrance of an unconscious, spring-like happiness.
She had known no lonesomeness in that first year of their acquaintance. Courageous, strong and confident in her power to surmount every obstacle in her path. ... There had been cares, unpleasantness, even unhappiness, but it was all beautified, softened and rarified by a radiant exultation. ... Hindrances? ... Nothing could daunt her. The way of her life lay along a bold, precipitous path whose every winding enticed her hopefully onward – higher – higher. ...
"How can you live alone like this," friends often asked wonderingly, the women particularly. "Without a family, without a soul that belongs to you?"
She had broken off all relations with her friends with an abruptness that was foreign to her usual considerate nature.
"Isn't it depressing to live like this? I should become melancholy."
She laughed merrily in answer. No, quite the contrary. It was great to be alone again, free to come and go as one pleased. She was happy because her wings were not bound by distracting ,encounters, truly glad to be a single woman again. She had her work and needed nothing else. Life was so delightful, so exquisitely, captivatingly delightful!
Alone? Had she not her friends, who were close to her heart? "When she spoke of friends, however, she always thought of him, of him and of his wife and children. She loved them all because they were a part of him, and accepted Anjuta's pronounced femininity and her lack of comprehension for the standards by which she, the unmarried woman, directed her life, although she was occasionally shocked by her petit-bourgeois outlook. However, Anjuta was simple and good, and, above all, frank and honest. There was no room for prevarication in her scheme of things. Her tongue spoke what her mind thought, and she adored her husband with an almost religious devotion, a devotion Natascha understood and shared. How could one help but love him, this splendid, fearless, honest thinker!
At times, it is true, Anjuta's habit of displaying her marital felicity before Natascha, to tease her with her bachelordom, became slightly exasperating.
"I can't help but pity you, my dear. What is a woman's life without a man? It lacks the natural pivot about which a woman's life should turn. Oh, yes, I know, not everyone is fortunate enough to have a husband like Ssenja. Some marriages are anything but happy. But to a woman who lives as I do, in a sort of perpetual honeymoon after twelve years of marriage, the lot of a woman like yourself, whom no one needs for his happiness, seems empty indeed.... Imagine it.... Ssenja is still so ridiculously in love with me... just to show you. ... I know I shouldn't be telling this to another, but you are our friend..." and she would relate some intimate detail of her life with Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch to show Natascha how deeply he was still in love with her.
Natascha, who was always unpleasantly affected by these indiscreet intimacies, would interrupt them with a peculiar feeling of resentment not only toward Anjuta, but toward Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch as well. Somehow these pictures of the legitimate husband seemed to obscure the beloved face of the friend and thinker from her vision. For days after Anjuta told a story of this sort she would avoid him until the impression it created was gradually wiped out.
Occasionally it seemed to her as if Anjuta were telling her these cloying intimacies with a very definite purpose, perhaps even adding picturesque details of her own invention to torment Natascha. But these were pin-pricks, after all. They disappeared and were forgotten in the airy happiness of their growing intimacy which gave wings to her work and courage to fight for her place in life, while it illuminated the solitude of her little bachelor room.
Until there came this sudden, unexpected outburst of passion.... Had it, after all, been so sudden? Looking back, Natascha could see that it had germinated and grown in their hearts long before she became aware of its existence. She, with all her consummate faith in her knowledge of life, who had so often laughingly maintained that she would never be caught in the meshes of a romantic love-affair again, had lost her head. What did it matter that Natascha had sworn never to love again, that she had shunned its aches and wounds, this struggle and this failure of two people to understand each other; what mattered her protestations that she wanted only the friendship and understanding that came from common work and responsibilities?
Life had decided differently.
THEY were traveling together in a crowded third class railroad compartment to a party conference in another city. His wife who had been particularly loath to let him go, had found countless excuses to keep him at home.
Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch was still undecided when Natascha had gone to their home on the evening before to ascertain his intentions.
"As a matter of fact, it is positively inexcusable on my part to so much as think of staying away. If I stay away, they [the opposing party faction] will take advantage of my absence and our motion will be defeated.... Still.... It looks as if I should not be able to go. Witjuscha is ill and Anjuta can hardly stand on her feet, she is so worn out with the strain. I can't square it with my conscience to leave her here alone. However ... suppose you drop in to-morrow morning on your way to the station.... Perhaps...."
Her way to the station lay in an entirely different direction, to be sure, but Natascha came.
She was received by his wife's disgruntled face. The self-conscious expression on his features betrayed the altercation that must have gone before.
He had decided not to go, he told her. Yet in the same breath he proved to her, once more, how essential it was that he be present at the conference.
"My absence will have far-reaching consequences, you will see. I know even now that our motion will be defeated.... Still... on the other hand ... Witja is still feverish and Anjuta feels ill.., it is really most unfortunate just now, during this really important conference...."
"I am sure we will manage quite nicely," she reassured him. "We will do everything in our power to carry out your wishes, you may rest assured." Not for an instant had she guessed the real reason for his anxiety to go with her.
She hurried to the station, not at all displeased at the prospect of a few hours for undisturbed reflection in which she could decide on the details of the motion she was to present, and lay out a plan of action to secure its adoption.
Mid-winter frost was in the air. Natascha walked briskly up and down the chilly station platform, her hands thrust deep into her muff, her mind already busily engaged with the work before her. She was tense but self-confident; her spirits thrilled with the joy of approaching battle. She would fight for their motion to the bitter finish, to bring back the glad tidings....
"Natalja Alexandrowna! Natalja Alexandrowna!"
Natascha turned quickly.
"Here I am, after all."
Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch stood before her, panting heavily, with a whimsical gleam of triumph in his eyes.
"I tore myself away, after all ... I was actually cruel. ... I'm sorry for Anjuta, but .. ." He took her arm familiarly while Natascha looked in wonderment at the strange expression of crafty exultation that persisted on his face.
The railway compartment was already overcrowded, and they were forced to sit very close to each other. Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch continued to gaze at Natascha with eyes that for the first time betrayed the man behind the gold-rimmed glasses.
Natascha was disconcerted, and it added to her confusion to notice that his hand trembled when he touched her. His agitation had already infected her calmness with its intensity. Eyes, seeking and precipitously avoiding each other, spoke their own language as the sweet, delirious current, tormenting and enticing alike, bound her more and more closely to the man who sat beside her.
At one of the longer stops they left the car for a breath of air. They breathed its keen, wintry freshness with a sigh of relief because they had escaped from this beautiful but disturbing dream. The smoke-darkened city was far away.
They spoke of indifferent, trivial matters, and the oppressive tension gradually vanished. Neither felt the desire to return to the crowded train.
But, back in the compartment once more, the mischievous boy with his arrow again began to exercise his magic. The sultry atmosphere and the enforced nearness of their bodies evoked an irresistible charm. Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch sought Natascha's hand and she did not withdraw it.
Hesitatingly he began to speak of his life at home, of his wife's suffering and ill-health, and of her inordinate jealousy. But although he spoke of Anjuta, they both understood that it was of his love for her, for Natascha, that he was telling. He had always pitied Anjuta more than he loved her; in fact he had married her because he felt sorry for her. She had never understood him. He had lived beside her like a stranger, locked up within himself, alone with his thoughts and his aspirations. Then Natascha had come and everything had changed. Life has become light and joyous, and he was no longer alone. She had the key to his soul. She was essential to his happiness. His love for her had passed through every stage of happiness and pain, but he had never dared to hope that she, too, could care for him. He had trembled before her like a love-sick school-boy. Did she know the jealous tortures he had suffered because of that friend who had introduced them, and how he had rejoiced when the break between them came – how he had loved her all these years, tenderly and hopelessly?
She listened to him in speechless astonishment, and was glad – yes, glad – despite the anxiety this confession caused her. But she no longer found the face of her friend, the thinker, in the impassioned features of this man beside her. How different he was, this new, strange Ssenja, from the thoughtful man with the childish smile of whom she had grown so fond!
The new Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch sat close beside her, and sought her eyes without evasion, now. What was to become of it all? Life without her was impossible. Yet there they were, his family and his children. Anjuta – he would never leave Anjuta.
"What shall we do? Why should we do anything? Have I asked for anything? It has been happiness enough for me to be your friend."
"My dearest!" Oblivious to the staring strangers about them, he threw his arms about her and kissed her temples. "It is so sweet to be with you ... so sweet."
Her lips smiled, but there were tears in her eyes.
"I am crying because I am so happy," she explained.
He pressed her close and whispered: "My precious, my beloved Natascha!"
At their destination they left the train in a daze, and were met by a number of comrades who escorted them first to the inn at which they were to stay, and thence to the conference. The first day passed without undue animosity. Natascha and Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch, keyed to the highest pitch with suppressed excitement, were taken back to the inn amid much banter and laughter by a group of sympathetic comrades. She loved them all, every one of them. Even the opponents were her dear friends and comrades that day. She was drunk with joy. She wanted to laugh, to be among others as happy as she; she wished this glorious day would never end. It would be different later – to-day she was happy. She would have to suffer for her love.
Ah, sooner than she expected.
It was on the last day of the conference.
The strain of three days of endless discussion followed by three sleepless nights was beginning to tell on Natascha. She found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on her work as secretary, to follow the thoughts of these strange speakers in their florid, frequently affected, oratorical flights and to record them correctly.
When she read her notes on the day's proceedings at the end of the session, it appeared that she had misquoted one of her opponents, so that the meaning of his words had been distorted. The opposition raged.
They insisted that it had been done as a clever maneuver on the part of the opposing party.
Natascha was helplessly confused.
Suddenly Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch plunged into the discussion with a bitter attack upon her for her carelessness. She understood, of course, that it was done to save his group from the aspersions of its opponents. He was placing the responsibility where it belonged – on Natascha's shoulders – in order to show that they, as a faction, had nothing to do with it.
After the session was over they all walked to the inn together, furiously discussing; Natascha alone was silent, trying hard to suppress her tears.
They were alone at last.
Crying bitterly she threw herself on his breast. She made no attempt to explain her tears; Ssenja would understand how she felt, since he, too, must feel unhappy over the situation into which her unfortunate error had forced them.
Had it been necessary to censure her quite so vigorously? Of course she realized that he must place the interests of their faction above her personal feelings.... She wanted to tell him that she understood. But he must express some regret, some contrition for having had to do it. Let the others believe, if they pleased, that she had tried to gain an unfair advantage by trickery. He must know that it had been a mistake, that only her extreme exhaustion was responsible.
"You understand, Ssenja, don't you? You understand... ?"
"Of course I understand, my poor little girl.... I know how hard it is for you to leave me. But what else can we do?"
Had she heard aright? Her tears ceased and she looked at him, uncomprehending.
"You know that the very thought of parting makes me suffer," he was saying. "But we will continue to love each other ... you will come to visit us as usual ... you must, or Anjuta will suspect that something has happened. Come, now, stop crying. Ah, how I longed for you all day long! Let me kiss you."
After that, could she tell him the reason for her tears? If he did not understand the cause of her misery, if he could find it in his heart to seek a last caress before they took leave from each other when she was so downcast and unhappy – could she hope to make him understand .. .?
He kissed away two great tears that ran across her cheeks.
"Don't cry, my little one. We will see each other often."
In the train they sat with a number of other comrades. At the station, back in the great, smoky city once more, they took formal leave ... as strangers.
LOOKING back at it now, she understood the reason for her unhappiness more clearly than she had seen it at the time. Now she knew that the bitter tears she had shed when she had reached her room had not been the lonesome tears of a woman whose lover has left her for the first time. They were tears of sorrow over the first of many wounds that were yet to pierce her heart. Was it possible that Ssenja did not understand that a heart, wounded again and again, ceases to love, that love seeps slowly, drop after drop, out of the tiny wounds that never heal because they were made by thoughtlessness and misunderstanding?
After these seven months of lonely reflection, Natascha was beginning to understand the cause for her restlessness, to see what it was that left a residue of humiliation at the bottom of each cup of passion. Again and again she had come to him, honestly ready to bare her soul, but he saw only her, Natascha, and paid no heed to the voice that tried to reach him from within.... He took the woman into his arms while her soul, her innermost being, stretched out its arms to him in vain, and remained lonesome and forgotten. Had he ever known Natascha?
To be sure, his mind was always full of petty cares. Life had not been kind to him. He lived in an atmosphere of constant material misfortune and financial crises, of jealousy and suspicion, tormented by a nagging wife whose constant claims on his time and energy were hampering his efficiency.
"Yesterday Anjuta almost poisoned herself"...
Some such story overshadowed every one of the stolen hours they spent together. "I came in just in time to prevent her from swallowing the contents of a bottle of morphine. What can rye do, Natascha? Where is there a way out of it all?" Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch would bury his head in her lap while she softly fondled his beloved head. At first these tales of attempted suicide had shocked her, until their frequent repetition dulled her anxiety and made them seem ridiculous. She could not find it in her heart to laugh at Anjuta for these silly extravagances, however. She was too honestly sorry for her. But that she should rob him of his precious time, that she filled his mind so full of her everlasting petty cares that he had no time for serious concentration – that was unforgivable. Had she no comprehension of his greatness, that she refused to see that the energy and strength of a man like this were too precious to be wasted on every-day cares?
Natascha herself spared him wherever she could. She never told him of her cares and tribulations; before his own they bowed down and disappeared. With her he should always find tenderness and deepest, fullest understanding. She longed to take his-burdens upon her own shoulders, to free the thinker, the worker, for greater, more important responsibilities...
"How strong, how splendid you are," he said with a sigh. "You can stand alone in the world. You are so different from poor Anjuta. She would go under without my protection."
Natascha laughed at him as at a child. Dared she be weak where he was concerned? She must be his refuge, his comforter, the bringer of light and cheerfulness. After cares and tears and petty troubles at home he must find a holiday when he came to Natascha.
There were times, exasperating days, when mishap seemed to lurk in her path, when she lost patience with this, her self-imposed role, and a spirit of revolt would raise its head. Why did he always pity Anjuta? Surely Natascha's life was anything but easy. ... There was her work – hard, grinding, responsible work. Others saw and appreciated her worth. Had Ssenja ever given it a single thought?
"Oh, Ssenja, my dearest, I am so tired." Sometimes Natascha tried to win a bit of sympathy for her own aggravations. "They [the other faction] have instituted a veritable drive against me. Have you heard of their new resolution?"
"Please, don't let's talk about that. It really isn't worth getting excited about. Let me tell you the trouble I am in now. Anjuta is sick again, and the doctor says she must have absolute rest. I should have a nurse for the children, but how can I pay? You know the straits I am in as it is. Oh, Natascha, when I look at Anjuta and see how she works herself to skin and bone, how she gives herself completely to myself and the children, I realize what a criminal, what an egoist, what an entirely worthless scoundrel I am!"
Could Natascha think of herself when life was so bitter for him, for her idol, the light of her life?
There were rare occasions, moments of quiet relaxation from his own trials, when it would occur to Ssenja that Natascha was always, always the giver, that he was the receiver in their love for each other.
"Natascha, I know that our love is bringing you nothing but suffering. I am too selfish to love you as you deserve to be loved. Some day you will realize how I have misused your affection, and you will grow tired of me. Natascha, what will become of me then? You cannot know what your love means to me."
"I think I know, Ssenja. If I didn't, I don't believe I could bear it."
"I am your best friend, Natascha, though I may not always show it. I want you to believe that, dearest.... Sometimes there is a great chasm between us. ... I feel you withdrawing from me. You don't tell me everything about yourself. That is it, Natascha. It hurts. You must know that this close understanding between us, thiS absolute confidence and honesty is the most precious part of your love for me?"
"Yes, Ssenja, that is most important of all. We must understand one another. Each must know every thought that passes through the other's mind. You don't know how often I am hurt and unhappy because I miss this oneness between us.... At such times I grow cold and inexpressibly discouraged. I want you to care for more than just the woman in me."
"My little stupid."
"You were right, Ssenja. There are some things I haven't told you. Why? I don't know myself. I want to tell you everything."
"You must tell me. What is it? There is something, then, that you have kept from me?"
"No, you don't understand. It isn't a secret simply little, unimportant happenings that trouble me, and I hesitate to tell you about them."
"What, for instance, is troubling you now?"
"Well, then, these visits of Comrade Anton's. He has been coming to see me quite frequently of late, and then he sits and sits ... looking at me in such a peculiar way – oh, you know what I mean – for hours at a time. I hate it, but I can't refuse to let him come, can I? We are working together, and the poor fellow is lonesome. ... I'm a little sorry for him."
"What have his visits to do with your work together? I must admit, that is something I cannot understand. You will pardon me, but I find this pity of yours a bit overdone. He sits in her room and looks at her for hours with love-lorn eyes and she pities him! How am I to know how far this pity of yours will take you? It seems to me it should not be difficult to get rid of a person who annoys one with that sort of thing. Of course, if you like his courtship...."
"Ssenjetschka! How can you say that? ... how can you misunderstand me so?" Natascha laughed in spite of her indignation. Jealous,... and of Comrade Anton. The dear, delightful imbecile! Didn't he know after all these months with her that she idolized him? He dominated her every thought. Why, his figure with its slight studious stoop was dearer and more appealing to her than anything else in the world. Who was there that could compare with Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch? Who had his crystal-clear soul? Who could think as logically, as brilliantly as he? This jealousy of his was so amazingly naive that she could not be angry at him, although at times it became exceedingly disagreeable. Hadn't he been jealous of the violinist at the concert and sulked all the way home? Hadn't he talked himself into a rage and given her her "freedom?" Perhaps he had forgotten that disgraceful scene in the street car when she had exchanged a few bantering words with the conductor?
"Can't a woman look at a man without falling in love with him?" she demanded laughingly, when he came to his senses after one such incident. He had smiled a little shamefacedly, quite conscious of the wrong he had done her.
But Natascha felt that he distrusted her because of what he knew of her past.
"You yourself told me that you loved him the one with the black hair, I mean. How much did you love him? As much as you love me?"
"Much, much more, of course. ...Would I have sent him away so light-heartedly if I had loved him more? You know all about it. You saw it all. And still you do not believe that I love you? For all your cleverness you are sometimes exasperatingly stupid!"
"Other men are so much more persuasive than I, and know how to pay court to women. I shall never learn how to be a cavalier, Natascha."
"But that is exactly why I love you so much, Ssenjetschka. You are such a darling because you are like that."
"Darling! A fine darling you have picked for yourself!" he scoffed, embarrassed. But, nevertheless, he was soothed by her protestations.
In Natascha these scenes left traces of a vague hurt. She could not understand how he, he who had condemned others so unsparingly for the unhappiness their distrust had caused her, could himself so little control his jealousy. He had often comforted her in the earlier days of their acquaintance when she uttered vain regrets for the past, had been her haven of refuge when others had hurt and affronted her. He had been forbearance itself, he had ministered to her with an understanding one rarely finds, except where one woman understands and feels for another. She had teasingly called him Ssenjetschka-an echo of the past. ...
The Ssenja of those by-gone days, the friend and confidant, and this Ssenja, her illegal husband, were two different persons altogether. Natascha saw this more and more clearly in the seven months since they had parted.
Was it only this failure to think and feel with her that was driving them apart? As she recalled scenes of their life together, other ugly reminiscences forced their way forward. There were times when he had not even spared the woman in her. He who was mercy and thoughtfulness itself toward the Anjuta who so often abused and misused his goodness, could be incredibly ruthless where Natascha was concerned. No one had ever hurt her so cruelly, and the conviction that it was done unconsciously mitigated but could not wipe out the sense of outrage that persisted. It had begun in their first night together, in the little inn to which the comrades had brought them.
The comrades had departed at last and Natascha fled to her room, tremblingly assuring herself again and again that it was true. He loved her! This fearless thinker, this greatly admired, universally beloved revolutionist loved her! Sheer, great, immeasurable happiness!
She was preparing for bed when a knock at the door caught her with a tooth-brush in her hand. Before she could answer, Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch stepped into the room and turned the key in the lock.
Natascha, startled into immobility, stood gazing at him, a brush full of tooth-powder still in her mouth.
"How funny you look. Like a little boy!"
And disregarding Natascha's stunned perplexity he gathered her in his arms.
"You smell of peppermint," he laughed.
"Wait, let me ... at least let me wash this powder from my mouth."
She did not know what to say – she simply struggled to release herself from a position that was physically uncomfortable and distasteful to her. But he kissed her lips that were covered with powder, her neck and her bare shoulders with greedy, searching kisses. In that first night she felt no response to his caresses. They were strange, uncomfortable and unaccustomed. When she recalled his impetuous ardor in their first night together she remembered only the taste of peppermint toothpowder, and its disagreeable grittiness.
When he fell asleep at last, exhausted with burntout passion, she leaned over the head that rested on her shoulder with ineffable yearning. Not until then did the compassionate tenderness that was her love for him return to her. Worshipfully, just touching it gently with her lips, she kissed the high, thoughtful forehead of his proud, beautiful head.
At no time, neither then nor later, was there mere physical desire or flaming passion in the love she gave him. She gave her body with the deep, pure joy with which the priestess of old offered herself to the priest at the shrine of her temple. She was giving herself to her god. To him Natascha was the first woman to waken a great, passionate desire within him; he craved her passionate response. Not the god, but the man in him claimed her love.