IN these long months since she had left him she had often tried to understand her love for him. Had it brought her only suffering and resentment? Surely there had been breath-taking, delirious moments of unalloyed happiness as well!
She recalled long, sultry evenings in the first summer of their love, evenings she had spent with his family in the exotic strangeness of a southern landscape. He had brought his wife and children to the seashore near the little mountain village where she was spending a hard-earned vacation with a younger brother who was still at school. They were still trying to observe outward appearances, and she visited his family and met his wife at frequent intervals. He insisted on this, for Anjuta's sake. ... The old times, when it had been a precious privilege to enter his household, seemed to have returned again.
In these long summer evenings she experienced the spring-time of their love. They were frequently together, but always in the presence of others. A peculiar enchantment pervaded these meetings, a charm that enhanced their desire for one another and filled each day with the sweet torture of restless hope and expectancy. ... There were stolen hand-clasps, meaningful glances, half smiles that they alone caught and understood, and a longing exquisitely enhanced by their constant nearness and the impossibility of fulfillment.
They spoke much and happily of their work and the problems that engaged the movement at that moment. Sometimes they argued and quarreled as relentlessly as if they were strangers.
But the evenings – evenings on the porch – mysterious lights of a distant town, water throbbing in the rays of the moon....
What of those others, his wife and their friends, who sat beside them? Natascha and Ssenja were hardly conscious of their presence. They were alone together in the witchery of a southern summer night.
Natascha had only to throw herself back into her wicker chair and close her eyes to feel his nearness. She needed only to stretch out her hand to touch his body ... and dared not do it. Desire grew – her body was aflame with it, aflame with the knowledge that he, too, was being drawn to her, that he was longing to be with her. ... She would open her eyes in the moonlight, to catch a quick glance – a smile....
She laughed – she was so happy, so full of a sweet contentment no words could express.
Thus they would sit until midnight, fitfully speaking. Long silences, brisk discussions. And her soul trembled and sang, waiting, waiting and believing in a future full of joy and gladness.
"Time to go home!"
Natascha would sigh out of the fullness of her happiness as she rose to take her leave.
"We will see you home."
All together they would go with her along the road that lay milky-white in the silver of the moonlight. He, close beside her – a fleeting touch of his shoulder set her pulses racing faster and more madly than the most fervent caress when he was alone with her.
A last pressure of his hand at the gate, another quick, significant smile as they parted!
After they had all disappeared down the road into the darkness Natascha remained in the dim garden, unable, as yet, to bear the presence of others – her heart was too full, the night too marvelous, too irresistibly enchanting.... Ah, to be able to spread one's wings and fly into the darkly beckoning, star-lit sky! To run, swiftly, swiftly, down the hill to his house, to fall about his neck,....or...
Foolish, sweetly-mad, gusty, disconnected thoughts and desires.
Sweet, oppressive, all-pervading fragrance of southern night-blooms.
A short, colorful summer. Short, and far-away as a dream.
Had there been no happiness in her love but this? Never again?
She tried to remember, tried hard; her brews furrowed darkly as she recalled the days that followed, for memory brought only painful, stolen, tainted hours, hours of hurt, hours of suffering.
Then her eyes grew light again.
Ah, yes, she remembered. She remembered. To think that she had forgotten!
The following spring ... she was engaged on her last larger piece of writing, working feverishly and without rest, completely oblivious to everything about her.
And then ... his telegram.
She took a case of books to the tiny room on the outskirts of the city where she kept her tryst with him, to fill with work the long, irksome hours between his visits that she would otherwise have spent in impatient idleness. There he would find her when he came to the little room among the acacia blossoms, engrossed in her task, cheeks flushed and the mist of authorship in her eyes.
That month had been one of unalloyed delight. What had made it so? – her love? – her work? At the time she neither thought nor asked...enough to know that it was beautiful, that her spirits soared, that there was life, the life that one feels only in childhood and early youth, in every fibre of her being.
At night she would get up from their bed to tear open the windows and admit the heavy fragrance of acacia blossoms, to look out at the fitfully-fantastic patterns the moon painted through the leaves on the grass, and on the table with the tea-cups that remained there from a late repast.
It seemed a pity to sleep, a pity not to feel the intense, throbbing wonder in her heart.
She recalled one night, just before they left – a hot, oppressive night.
Surrounded by dark-green shadows and fragrant flowers it seemed to Natascha as if she had never known before what life could mean.
She leaned far out of the window, drew a branch of acacia toward her and plucked a fragrant, tenderly-white cluster of blossoms.
"How beautiful it is! How beautiful!"
She wanted to laugh, to wake Ssenjetschka to tell him how much she loved him, how happy she was...
"Nataschka, where are you?"
"Ssenja, what a wonderful night. ... Look at these flowers, Ssenja. Do you smell them?" She bent over him tenderly holding the scent-laden flowers to his nostrils.
"My love, it is like the fragrance of your own sweet soul – tender and maddening." His lips touched the fingers that held the acacia-twig.
To Natascha it seemed as if her quivering heart were rising to unimagined heights. No, her love had brought her more than suffering: precious moments, sweet, inimitable hours that would never return had been hers as well – ephemeral, fragile happiness.
Would it never return? Never?
THE last few weeks had overwhelmed Natascha I and her comrades with unexpected work demanding, intense, attentive application, and as always when the need arose, living, vital human beings, devoted to the cause, sprang up on every side to carry it through.
Natascha found a new satisfaction in the atmosphere of intense endeavor that surrounded her. For the first time she knew the satisfaction of being a tiny cog in a powerful mechanism beginning to rotate in resistless accomplishment. The frank devotion of her colleagues restored to Natascha some of her old vivacity and her laughter rang often and cheerily through the long, dark corridors of the dreary apartment in which they worked. Her comrades would smile indulgently.
"How happy our Natalja Alexandrowna has become!"
"She is probably in love," commented the comrade who worked at her side, matter-of-factly, and without looking up from his work he asked, "Is it true, Natalja Alexandrowna? Have you fallen in love?"
"And with whom, pray? With you, perhaps? Who else do I ever see, Wanjetschka?"
"Oh, these women are sly! Shakespeare already said ... you see how they are. Now she wants to put it all on me. No, my dear Nataschka, you won't fool me. I am not so easily led about by the nose. I see everything."
And throwing back his thick mane of hair, he looked at her out of mock-serious eyes, while Natascha continued to tease him. She was truly fond of Wanjetschka. In his gold-rimmed glasses and slow, thoughtful manner of speech there was something that reminded her of Ssenja.
It was late when Natascha hurried home that evening. Her back ached, her eyes burned and her throat was dry and parched, but a soul content and at peace forgets physical weariness. The first steps of the work they had launched were accomplished, and the movement was driving forward with gratifying swiftness under its own impulse, along well-ordered paths.
As she wearily climbed the stairs, she thought gratefully of the cup of tea and the new periodical with the much-discussed article of a greatly-admired comrade that awaited her. "After all," she reflected, "it is good to live alone. It gives one the moral right, after a hard day's work, to spend the evening as one pleases. If Ssenja were here, now, there would be this to do and that to attend to for him. I might have to start off, now, to the other end of the town to meet him, or have to fuss over a stupid supper at home."
As it was, a cup of tea and an hour's reading would bring the hard working-day to a perfect end.
"Has anyone been here?" she asked the landlady, as usual.
"Some books came this morning, and there is a telegram... ." "A telegram?" Her heart beat tumultuously. How silly of her ... something official, of course...
It lay on her desk near the package of books, and beside it a gray envelope with his thrilling, never-to-be forgotten handwriting.
Natascha's limbs trembled so violently that she had to sit down to steady herself.
Which should she open first? The telegram? The letter?
The telegram read: Arrive in H. on twenty-eighth, Expect you at station. Wire. Ssenja.
A year ago a message like this would have sent her whirling madly about the room. She would have counted the days, the hours. ...
Now the hand that held the telegram sank helplessly into her lap.
Not a line for seven long months. Not a single sign of life – and now this! Did he know what she was doing? He knew nothing of her life or her work, nothing of the thrilling months of gruelling labor she had behind her. She might have been arrested, she might have died – he would have been none the wiser. "Come!" Just as if they had parted yesterday! As if nothing had happened between them, and he had not, with his own hand, inflicted a mortal wound to her love for him.
Should she go to him again to spend hours beside a man who was deaf to her inner voice, sit beside one who saw only her profile, never the whole Natascha? Should she lie in his arms and yet feel that she was far, far away from him because he saw only what he chose to see of her?
No, no. She would not go! She would not be caught again! Enough!
Natascha threw back her head with that characteristic gesture for which the comrades used to tease her, and took her pen to answer forthwith with a decisive refusal. But how to address it? His home was out of the question;his wife would plague him to distraction. To H.? He would not get there before the twenty-eighth. Suppose he were going there just to meet her again? The thought of his disappointment at finding her refusal there was almost more than she could bear. His letter would tell her what was taking him there.
As she read, her indignation wilted and disappeared and with it the feeling of neglect and hurt, giving place to a warm flood of tenderness for this gentle thinker with the tender soul who had written her these humbly pleading, abjectly self-reproachful lines. Far from being indifferent to her fate he had followed her activity from a distance, greedily collecting every hit of information he could get concerning her activity. He knew that she was engaged in difficult, responsible work and had rejoiced that she had found a congenial occupation to distract her thoughts from the pain he knew he had inflicted. ... He, however, had found that feelings are stronger than reason. It was useless to struggle against them. There had not been a day when he had not longed for her.
His relations with his wife were unchanged, worse, if anything. He had become more critical and more irritable, and his home life was becoming a veritable hell. Work, under those circumstances, progressed slowly. Recently, however, he had chanced on an interesting thought that seemed worth following up, and in search of material he had made the acquaintance of a professor in H. who had placed his library at Ssenja's disposal. For that reason, and because he must talk it over with Natascha, who would help him develop it more fully, he had decided to spend the next month and a half or two months in H.
Should they let this wonderful opportunity slip by without seeing each other again? Natascha must come! Secretly, of course, as always. No one must know where or for what purpose she was going (because of Anjuta). She would manage somehow. A postscript begged her to supply herself with the necessary funds, since his own finances were in a more than precarious condition. This was not new to her. She had always been financially better off than he, and they had always arranged their meetings on that basis, she palling the expenses that arose. Obviously he could not be expected to deprive his family at home for this purpose, particularly since the question of finances was always a sore one. His family life was the typical life of the Russian refugee of that period – irregular income and constant indebtedness. Natascha, on the other hand, had a regular income and steady employment.
"I am like a man who keeps a tryst with a strange woman, and naturally pays all expenditures of such an occasion," she thought with a slightly rueful smile.
This time Ssenja's demand brought her up short, however.
"Easy enough to write – supply yourself with the necessary funds! Where am I to get the money? The journey alone will cost more than I possess."
What was she to do? The party had been in urgent need of funds and she had given all she had, retaining just enough to provide for her frugal needs.
What was she to do?
Natascha was no longer in doubt as to her intentions. That question had decided itself irrevocably while she persued his letter. But she must find some way out of all the difficulties and hindrances that stood in the way of her going. Above all, this money question would have to be decided.
She began to calculate. What she had would just pay her trip to H. Where to get the rest – that was the question. Pawn her watch? She would get so little for it that it would not be worth the trouble. Telegraphing to her relatives was too distasteful to be considered – they would probably answer in a letter full of hints and recriminations.
A peculiar person, her Ssenja. Was she a millionairess? Did it never occur to him that it might be difficult for her to raise such a sum at a moment's notice? For an instant a feeling of resentment took possession of her. He paid no attention to her difficulties – ever. Like a child....
This comparison touched and softened her at once.
Exactly. A child, a great, over-grown child. Great minds were like that – like children in practical matters. That was natural.
She spent the rest of the evening, till far into the night, over her plans, but the more earnestly she reflected, the further it seemed to remove her from any way out of the difficulty.
Would she have to forego this visit to him because of a little stupid money?
Natascha sat up desperately in her bed and beat her hands together in her anguish.
Money was by no means the only consideration, of course. There were her work, and the responsibilities she had assumed. True, she had planned it so well that it was running smoothly on its own momentum. She would probably find someone to take her place for three or four weeks. But all this was more easily said than done. What would the comrades think of her? It was not pleasant to feel their disapproving eyes. A look of condemnation or an unfriendly malicious comment had more than once depressed her for a whole day. She would have to speak to Donzeff who, she knew, disapproved of her and called her "the fine lady" behind her hack. He would naturally resent this sudden departure and would see in it, not without justification, new proof of his contention that she was unreliable. "Just as I said. Natalja Alexandrowna is too much concerned with matters outside of the movement."
She could almost hear his unpleasant, grating voice as he walked from one corner of the room to the other with his slightly halting gait. She resolutely put him out of her mind, and refused to consider what would happen after she returned...That would take care of itself afterwards; now she must find some way out. Ssenjetschka must not be disappointed, and she herself... above everything else she must see him again. She felt that she would lose him irrevocably if she failed to answer his call at this time, and the thought, with its bitter finality, was more than she could bear.
Rather die than that!
When she came to the office earlier than was her wont on the following morning, her weary eyes fell with a gleam of hope on Wanjetschka, throning on a high chair, alone in the room in the midst of a cloud of cigarette smoke. He was underscoring a paragraph here and a sentence there in some newspapers that lay before him.
"I have the honor to report to her Highness Natalja Alexandrowna and to wish her the best of health," he mocked, without, however, raising his head.
"Good morning, Wanjetschka."
Wanjetschka caught a trace of self-pity in her voice and threw her a quick look over his glasses.
"What is troubling your Highness? Melancholy?"
"Oh, Wanjetschka, don't ask me."
Natascha gestured hopelessly. She felt herself so unfairly treated by life that even his laughing sympathy touched her.
"So, so," he exclaimed, more seriously now. "What is this? ... Something new? But why cry all your tears to yourself? Tell me about it, if things have come to such a pass."
He pushed his papers away, but, afraid of irritating Natascha with too great a show of curiosity, still persisted in this bantering pose of a friend ready to hear another's confession.
Natascha, hungry for a sympathetic ear, poured out a confused story of half-truths ... that she must leave town at once but that it was impossible for her to do so because of her work, that she had no money. On the other hand, if she did not go, a misfortune, a terrible misfortune might result....
"In short, it is a matter of life and death."
Tears ran from her eyes unashamed.
Wanjetschka knew Natascha as a thoroughly efficient worker, he knew her in her angry and in her despondent moods; that she could cry like an unreasonable child – that was an unexpected light on her character.
"Well, well, I wouldn't let my head hang in this fashion if I were you. Tears coin no money, you know. Now try to be sensible for a moment and tell me how much you need. Much?"
"That is just it, Wanjetschka. So much that it is practically out of the question."
And Natascha named the figure.
"Well, that is a round sum, I'll confess. We won't find it in our pockets. But why do you squander your own capital so thoughtlessly if you need money so badly. Of what use are these grand gestures when the party calls for funds if you yourself have to go begging afterwards?"
"But Wanjetschka, I don't need this for myself.... You don't seem to realize how important this is. If I don't go down there – if I don't get hold of this damned money somehow ... in a word, the life of a human being, perhaps of two, depends on it."
"So it's an escape you are talking about? You are trying to help someone get away from the police?" At last Wanjetschka believed he understood.
"Put it that way, if you will...."
"Why didn't you say so at once instead of beating about the bush with your 'personal reasons.' The lady must leave us, whether for a week or forever she doesn't say. If you had told me at once that it's a matter of conspiracy, would I have bothered you with questions? I am not curious. I know that one does not ask unnecessary questions in such affairs, and that what you do not tell me I am not supposed to know. But help ... ? If it is possible, of course I will help."
Natascha did not answer, but she was quite satisfied with Wanjetschka's interpretation of her predicament, particularly since he was evidently pondering on the possibility of procuring the desired funds for her. After all, was it a crime to deceive him concerning the purpose for which the money was to be used? She was merely trying to borrow on good security, and was fully prepared to pledge the royalties of her last literary work in return. The article was already in type.
"Never mind your financial schemes just now. First we must find someone who has money to give.... There is an old gentleman ... but I am afraid he has been too thoroughly plucked by our comrades in the past to be approachable. He will probably refuse to give again."
"Wanjetschka, I know whom you mean. Try it, please, for my sake. It will be easier if you go to him. Tell him that the money is to go through my hands, that I hold myself personally responsible for its repayment. ... I'll give you a note at once if you think it is best. .. ."
"Easy, easy, now. Not a cent within a mile of her and she is handing out receipts.... You are a financier, I must say. But here I am chattering away when I should be telephoning. ... Ah, Natalja Alexandrowna, a fine one you are to distract an honest workingman from his labor, tempting him from the straight and narrow path of duty."
Two days later Wanjetschka handed Natascha an envelope with great show of ceremony.
"Here you are. I have met the enemy and he is ours!"
"Wanjetschka, you darling!" She was ready to kiss him.
"What is all this ... darling and kisses, indeed! Such a fuss over a little, unimportant matter.
But now the receipt, my lady, if you please. The old man is a hard customer. He groaned...times are so bad and he has given so much that he has nothing for himself. Well, then I told him that you were ready to offer security and mentioned your willingness to give your personal receipt. He became soft at once. Here, here, don't put that envelope into your pocket without counting the money. How do you know I haven't cheated you? Perhaps I took half of it for myself."
"You would be welcome to every penny of it, Wanjetschka."
"This is a fine state of affairs. Why do you ask for twice as much as you need, pray, if one-half the amount is sufficient? Or do you intend to buy yourself a sable coat with the rest? Ah, your Highness, there is something mighty mysterious about this whole business. ...Who is this whose life is to be saved? ... Don't come to me to act as best man at a wedding, or to function at a christening when it is all over."
Natascha laughed happily and squeezed his hand.
"I am so grateful to you, Wanjetschka, so grateful."
At the door Wanjetschka turned back to her once more.
"In that case, you may send me a post-card from the place where you are going. It would be interesting to see it."
He laughed impishly at her evident discomfiture.
"I promise not to breathe a word to another mortal soul. I will keep it a secret to the end of my days ... but as to myself – I am interested. If you trust me, send me a card. Unless I receive one from you, you may consider our friendship at an end."
Wanjetschka pulled his fur cap over his forehead with an expression of severe grandiloquence and disappeared behind the door.
NATASCHA was in a fever of expectancy. Time in the railroad carriage was standing still. At times Natascha's heart expanded joyously at the prospect of meeting her lover, then it lay still, counting the minutes and hours that stretched between her and the moment when she would see him again. The last hours became exquisite torture. Suppose he did not come to the station! Where would she find him? Would she have to spend a wretched night in the dreary inn of a strange town – alone? When the station lights appeared outside the windows of the train at last, her heart beat so violently that she looked at her neighbors in alarm, so sure she was that they must have heard it. Tuk-tuk-tuk – it was causing her actual physical pain, and sent the blood like an unpleasant, icy douche through her veins. Her hands were tremblingly, uselessly numb as she leaned far out of the window for a glimpse of him.
Was he there? Was he there?
The station ... milling crowds ... people – so many of them! Would he be able to find her? Would he see her?
There he was. Of course, that was he.
Her heart beat louder still, but this time in exultant, joyous throbs.
In the long hours in the railroad compartment she had tried to picture their meeting. She would fall about his neck, disregarding the indifferent public about them.
How different this reality from her highly colored expectations.
Jumping hurriedly from the carriage-steps she stumbled and fell, umbrella, bag and purse flying ungracefully in different directions. She bent to pick up her scattered belongings and Ssenja helped her before he had a chance to greet her. Then he gave her his hand.
Natascha pressed it without a word, as if he were a stranger.
"Come quickly, Natascha ... all these people there may be someone who knows us. I shall go ahead. You follow."
Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch marched to the exit of the station with studied unconcern, as if he had nothing in the world to do with Natascha who, trying hard to make herself believe that she had already seen him, hurried anxiously after him, lest she fall behind and lose sight of him.
In the fleeting glance she had been able to give him it had seemed to her that he was changed. There was something different, strange about him. Had he become stouter? Or was his beard longer than he was accustomed to wearing it? This fear of his of meeting chance acquaintances was not new to her; this was not the first of these disagreeable walks through a strange city where no one had ever seen them before. To-day Ssenja's foolish mania, and even more the fact that he had not found a word of welcome for her after these long months of absence irritated her unaccountably.
They crossed a large, empty plaza under blinking lanterns to a hotel where a uniformed porter received them and a boy with shining buttons took her bag. In the elevator that carried them up to their rooms Ssenja approached her familiarly for the first time and tried to take her hand. Instinctively she drew back with a warning look at the boy with the buttons.
"That is all right," he reassured her. "I told them that I was expecting my wife and took a room for two. ...We will move to another hotel later on. To-night.... You see, I have learned from experience."
Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch chuckled as he looked at her archly through his gold-rimmed glasses. Natascha smiled a bleak little smile that drowned the light that had been glowing in her eyes all day so happily that her fellow-passengers had looked at her again and again. There had been so much dreamy bliss in those eyes. Now there was only anxious questioning.
Had she really met the man she so longed to see? Or was this man who stood beside her another – a stranger...?
The boy with the shiny buttons opened the door of a very ordinary hotel room with a flourish and bade them good-night after he had carried in her bag.
"Let me look at you. Thinner? Or are you worn out after the trip?"
He took her passionately into his arms.
"Ssenjetschka, wait a moment. Let me take off my hat."
Natascha struggled out of his embrace with hands upraised, trying vainly to remove the hat that resisted her efforts because the hatpin had become entangled with her veil.
But Ssenjetschka paid no attention to her outcries. He pressed her to him and kissed her wildly.
"My sweet girl, my beloved. ... I wanted you so, I wanted you so!"
The hat was still on her head, but Natascha lay across the wide bed, his hot breath scorching her face. She felt only extreme discomfort. Her hat was pulling at her hair, hair-pins were boring into her head. ... Ssenja himself seemed far, far away.
Bruised and broken, the beautiful shining happiness that had brought her to him as if on wings. Bruised and broken by Ssenja with his impetuous, brutally-inconsiderate caresses.
"Let me kiss you, Natascha. Give me your lips. Why do you turn away? Do you love me?"
Natascha silently pressed his head to her breast, the dear head she loved so much.
She smiled, but there were tears in her eyes. Tears of happiness he thought.
Let him think as he wished. Natascha knew that her soul was weeping over the shattered fragments of another dream, that her heart was bleeding from another wound that would never, never heal.
He was asleep, and Natascha sat at the head of the bed staring steadily into the darkness before her, trying in vain to comprehend what had happened.
"He loves me. Is it me he loves, or the woman that is I? That in me which belongs to my sex, not me. Is it for this I left my work, and went into debt? Was it for this that I rushed, heaven alone knows where, excited, happy, believing in something fine and beautiful ... ? Oh, what a fool, what a fool I was!"
Something had happened that could never be undone. She wanted to wring her hands and burst into tears!
Had she ever possessed the Ssenjetschka of her fond memories, had this man with his passionate love ever been her friend, her comrade? Had it not always been Ssenja, the man, who loved Natascha, the woman?
Why had she come? A thousand miles away she had not been as lonesome as she was, here, at his side. A thousand miles away there had been memories,, dreams, hope ... here the dream was gone. Gone forever!
When Natascha arose the next morning there was a strange coolness in her soul. She was indifferent, indolent....
"Tell me about everything that has happened to you since I saw you last."
They were sitting at their morning coffee in the disorderly – and to Natascha for that reason – most uncomfortable hotel room. Natascha had no desire to talk. Yesterday – ah, yesterday, in her way to him she had pictured it all in glowing colors. She felt that she would never finish her recital of the events of the months that had passed. They would sit together until late into the night, talking, planning. She had tried to recall every characteristic incident that might be of interest to him, had called back to mind the internal party life of the last half-year for discussions and problems that might have escaped his notice. She had even resolved to do penance for doubting his love for her, to abase herself before him and to drive away the hurt her confession would cause with tender words of deepest understanding. But first they must find each other again, must feel that their souls were swinging in the glorious harmony of love. Then, only then, as the great, final chord, their senses would break down all barriers and passion would burn up all that was strange and foreign between them in its hot, consuming flames.
That was their meeting as she had dreamed it. But after this bridal night Natascha had lost her desire to speak. Her answers were languid and disspirited.
"You seem to be out of sorts," he remarked, scanning her face intently.
"Not at all. I am simply tired. Not enough sleep."
"Poor little girl! What is to become of you if one night with me wears you out like this?"
There was a quizzically self-conscious smile on his face as he said this, that brought an unwilling frown to Natascha's brow. She struggled for self-control lest some unaccustomed, sharp word slip past her lips.
A knock at the door.
Ssenja hastened to open.
From Anjuta. It had been sent general delivery, but the hotel address had been reported to the postoffice. Kokotchka had the measles and was keeping Anjuta in constant attendance. She was just about worn out.
"As usual," Ssenja sighed.
As he stood before her with his legs spread and his head bowed down, there was something so childishly touching in his glum figure that Natascha's old tenderness for this man, who was so strong and determined in the big things of life and so weak and helpless in its trivialities, filled her entire being once more.
This, this was the Ssenja she loved, this poor, pathetic, touchingly helpless creature. ...
In an instant she was beside him, holding his head in her arms and gently kissing his eyes. ... Somehow she felt that she had just found him again, as if she had neither seen him nor been with him before.
"Wait a moment, Natascha. Not now, please."
Again he had misunderstood her innocent demonstrativeness. "We must think this over. What am I to do about this, do you suppose?"
He spoke with a discouraged movement of his hands and Natascha caught them, the dear, helpless, impractical hands, in her own and stammered:
"Just now I felt ... as if I had just this moment come back to you, Only just now! You are such a great man, Ssenja. All the world looks to you for advice and direction, and then some little thing like this occurs and you are so forlorn! I am so happy, so happy because I have found you again. I thought I had lost you forever ... that I had been deceived in you. That was so dreadful, Ssenja. But you are here, after all .. ."
On the following day they went to another hotel. Natascha went first to register in the large, conventional hotel they had chosen, Ssenja taking a room on the same floor a few hours later. Since he had come to work, she had insisted on a comfortable, spacious room for him, while she contented herself with a small, unprepossessing cubby-hole, trying to make it as presentable as possible for his coming by changing the position of the tiny sofa, distributing the books she had brought, and buying a few flowers.
He came unexpectedly, as always, and found Natascha at the desk where she was writing the promised card to Wanjetschka.
"So this is where you are hiding. I've been wandering up and down corridors looking for your room for the last half hour. The room numbers are arranged in the most erratic fashion – 57, for instance, is directly beside 85...
"Your room is quite charming. I've been killing time by strolling about the city, and now, I suppose, it is too late to take a nap. Goodness, almost six o'clock. I will have to go to the professor's house at once."
"But why? Surely the morning will be time enough for that."
"No. No. Suppose Anjuta should write to him that I left home on the twenty-eighth?"
"In that case you will simply tell her that you did not go to him at once when you arrived. Surely that is simple enough. What under the sun should make her think that I am here, when she knows that we had definitely decided to see nothing more of one another?"
"As if that made any difference! Don't you know Anjuta? No, if I fail to report at the professor's house to-day, I will not have a peaceful hour while I am here. One can never tell how a thing like that will come out and cause no end of trouble. Whether you like it or not, Natascha, I must go to-day."
Natascha realized the uselessness of further protestations. His fear that Anjuta might suspect her presence in H. amounted to a positive mania. She said no more.
"What were you doing while I was away? Writing?"
His eyes had caught sight of the post-card on the table and returned with a frown to her embarrassed countenance. Correspondence from their meeting places was always strictly prohibited. They had made it a practice to send mail by way of an absolutely reliable third person. Yet there lay Wanjetschka's post-card, with the name of the town in Natascha's handwriting plainly visible over a picture of the locality.
"To whom are you sending that card?" Ssenja demanded, unpleasantly affected by the disturbance in Natascha's face. He bent over the table to read the address.
Trying vainly to conceal her discomfiture by a jocular pretence Natascha covered the card with her hand.
"I shall not tell you. I won't let you see it. This is my secret."
"Secret? Now I insist on seeing it. Give me that card at once. I demand it. If you do not give it to me willingly, I shall use force."
They struggled laughingly for a moment, but their faces betrayed the seriousness behind their play.
"Well, this is a fine state of affairs, I must say. When have you had secrets from me before?... You never used to hide your letters from me."
"I don't want you to read my letters. You have no right to ask it.... How dare you! This is tyranny!"
He had managed to pry apart the fingers that clutched the card, and held it in his hand.
"Don't you dare read that card! Don't dare, I tell you ... ! This is an outrage!" Natascha's voice was tense with fury as she snatched the card from his unsuspecting hand and tore it into bits before she threw it into the waste basket.
They looked at each other with angry, measuring eyes.
"This is an imposition, a vulgar, coarse imposition. Don't you dare read my letters! Don't you dare !"
Natascha was panting, her cheeks glowed and her lips unconsciously repeated the bitter words again and again.
"Natascha! Natascha! What does this mean? It is true, then?" He sank to the sofa and covered his face with his hands, a picture of tragedy.
"Is what true?" Natascha looked at him curiously.
"That you have already found another lover. That you left another man behind you, a man of whom you are fond... ?"
"Are you mad? ... What gives you the right to think that?"
"I received two anonymous letters with all sorts of details. .. ."
"And you believed them?"
"I burned them up at once ... but after this....what am I to think? Your embarrassment when I came in, your incredible stubbornness, this anger ... you never spoke to me in this tone before. Oh, Natascha, Natascha! Can it be true? How can I bear it? Why did you come if you care for another? Tell me openly. Anything is better than this uncertainty."
"Ssenja, please come to your senses. Think what you are saying. Why should I lie to you? What could bring me here to you if I loved an- Other?"
"Pity for you?"
"You have such a good heart."
His face was so drawn with pain, his eyes so full of genuine sorrow that Natascha could not help smiling.
"Dear, silly Ssenjetschka! How could you believe that for a moment? Don't you know what you are to me?"
Kneeling down before him she embraced and kissed him. He resisted at first and refused to be caught by her caresses and tricks.
"And the letter?" he demanded, distrustfully.
"The letter? ... Oh, Ssenja. Read it then, if you insist on being so stupid."
She hurried to the table, pulled out and overturned the basket so that the pieces lay on the floor before her. And while they crouched on the floor to fit the pieces together, she told him of her financial transactions and of the help that Wanjetschka had given her.
Ssenja knew Wanjetschka. This, to be sure, was no rival. The innocently pleasant tone of the postcard reassured him completely.
"You don't know how you frightened me, Nataschinka. Now, tell me if you please, what was the meaning of this senseless comedy? What made you act in this incomprehensible manner?"
His tone was gruff.
"I felt that you would be angry at me for writing from here. Still, could I have refused to do him this favor after all he did for us? He won't betray us, of that you may be sure. He would die rather than tell, after the promise he gave me."
"Yes, I understand. Nevertheless, Natascha, it is very careless of you to write from here. One never knows what may happen. The card may fall into indiscreet hands.... Furthermore, what will Wanjetschka think ... ?"
"Let him think what he pleases.'A romance' he will think. With whom? That does not concern him."
"No, don't say that. He may happen to find out that I was here – how can one tell? After that there would be guesses and talk. As you please, of course, but I beg you again, to write to no one from here, not even to Wanjetschka."
His tone as he said this was firm, almost commanding.
"If it displeases you, very well. I shall not send the card."
Ssenja sent another searching glance in her direction.
"But you are offended. Because you have found a master, I suppose, who permits himself to issue orders." He embraced her. "What is one to do with you women? One need only look the other way for a moment and you do things like this. What now? Offended again?"
He knew this gesture of hers – she had thrown back her head with an angry movement.
"Come, sweetheart, come. Don't be angry at me. I was just teasing. You know I'm not angry. On the contrary, I am happy and grateful to you for taking a load off my heart. You can't imagine how uneasy I have been, and how your fury just now frightened me. I ... I thought I had lost you. I can't live without you."
He embraced her and pressed his face caressingly to her breast.
"I am so contented when I am with you, Natascha, I want to stay near you always, ... Good heavens!
"The professor! Why, it's almost seven o'clock. I must run. Good-bye, Natascha. Till this evening." He hastened away while Natascha collected the fragments of the card to Wanjetschka from the floor and dropped them thoughtfully into the basket once more.
She was so tired. She wished she were back at home again, feeling somewhere in the background of consciousness: We have become strangers to one another.
SENJA returned in a highly elated frame of mind, full of new thoughts his conversation with the professor had started. The professor's research work had recently taken him along the lines of Ssenja's own investigations.
"You can't imagine the thrill of finding someone to whom one can speak without expounding fundamentals, who shows by the way he approaches a subject that he understands it and forces one by the soundness of his observations to re-evaluate one's own theses. ... As I talked with him I saw again and again where I had given the subject insufficient study. Other questions, I find, will require complete reorientation on my part. It is of vital importance to discuss these matters with someone who has real knowledge, and I am only just beginning to realize how starved I have been for intelligent intercourse as an inspiration and a help to my work."
Could Ssenja but have guessed that each word he uttered was piercing her heart like a long, fine needle, leaving a painful wound! In his eyes then, Natascha had never been an intelligent person with whom one might discuss one's problems? Poor deluded fool that she had been all these years, to have imagined that she inspired and helped his work, that she had become indispensable to him!
"What did the professor tell you that was so extraordinarily clever," she asked," that even you begin to doubt the validity of your own theses?" There was a sharp challenge in her voice, but Ssenja paid no attention to it. He was quite evidently in no mood to discuss his conversation with the professor with her. To-morrow – some other time, perhaps. But Natascha insisted. She asked questions and demanded answers with unusual pertinacity and defended Ssenja's erstwhile theses as passionately as if she herself and her mental integrity were being questioned.... Had Natascha allowed Ssenja to look into her heart he would have been astounded to discover the real cause for her strange agitation. Natascha was jealous, jealous, for the first time in her life – she who had never felt a trace of resentment over his exaggerated consideration for his wife, who had honestly shared his fear for Anjuta's health and life during her recent pregnancy and delivery – at a time when they already loved each other. This professor whom she had never seen, whom she might never know, was arousing a blind tormenting jealousy in her heart. It would be so easy for him to occupy the place she held in Ssenja's life, making her superfluous where she had believed herself irreplaceable.
With exasperating, superficial sketchiness Ssenja repeated the professor's contentions, as if they could be of no possible interest to her. His manner intimated that he was simply submitting to her unreasonable, childish curiosity. Natascha vindictively attacked what she considered a fallacy in the professor's logic and propounded her point of view extravagantly, but he bluntly declined to enter into the matter.
"You have simply failed to follow his line of thought, which is a great deal more complicated than you seem to realize," and with this he turned the conversation from the.subject with infuriating boredom in his voice. "I am really tired," he added with a yawn. "Time to go to sleep.... Goodnight, Natascha."
"Going already? I had been counting on a few hours with you this evening to talk matters over. I have hardly seen you all day."
"What is there to talk about? It is after midnight, and we can talk to-morrow. I've had practically no sleep for days, and need a good night's rest to be fresh for work to-morrow. The professor and I are going to the library together."
He kissed her dutifully but at the door he turned back to her once more.
"You know, Nataschka, this was a splendid idea of mine – to come here, I mean. This has been a gratifying, profitable day. Sleep well, Natascha." Nodding amiably once more, he went out.
Noisily Natascha pushed the bolt.
Gone – without a thought of her and the intolerable, lonesome day she had spent. "Splendid, profitable day," indeed. This condescending attitude when he spoke to her, as if she were a frivolous light-o-love instead of a comrade deeply interested in his work! This had never happened to her before, nor would she ever forget or forgive this humiliation. The assurance that he understood and approved of her opinions, that he was objectively interested in her work and valued her opinions had helped her to bear criticism, failure and attacks with equanimity. Was it possible that he had pretended interest in her work only because she was a woman who appealed to the man in him? Would he have shown her the same interested attention if she had been an unprepossessing frump, or would he have turned the conversation from her objections as he had done this evening?
"I shall go to him at once to tell him how I feel. To-morrow I will return to my comrades and my work. This is no life for a self-respecting woman, this endless chain of humiliations. I no longer love him. I believe I hate him."
Resolutely she went to the door, but as her hand touched the knob a picture of the probable outcome of her visit flashed across her mind as the futility of any attempt to make him understand dawned on her. She returned to bed in helpless anger.
It was becoming more and more impossible to break through the wall of misunderstanding that was arising between them. Words that escaped their angry lips clung to it making it more and more impenetrable.
Very well, then. Since he refused to listen to her, let matters remain as they were between them. She would try to explain no more. To-morrow she would tell him calmly and undramatically: "I am going home. They need me there." Let him stay here with his professor!
She tugged furiously at the laces of her shoes. She would go to sleep, to stop thinking. ... With the perversity of inanimate objects the laces had become twisted and tangled into an inextricable knot.
"Is that so?" she murmured grimly. "This is how I settle such affairs." In a wide are the torn laces flew to the floor; her dress was tumbled on the chair in a disorderly heap – let it rumple! She pulled at her hair with vindictive jerks, and clenched her teeth as she prepared for the night. Yet, unconsciously, she had been making herself as attractive as possible, and the sight of her figure in the glass, swathed in the brightly colored dressing gown that Ssenja had christened the "gown of Circe" when he first saw her in it, threw her once more into a fit of deepest depression. She couldn't leave without having shown herself in it again – she remembered how he loved to wrap her in its voluminous folds. She couldn't leave him – where would she find the strength to battle with life, if she were never to see him again?
What was more natural than that she should go to him, to appeal to him and make him the arbiter of his own shortcomings, that she might forgive him all the hurt that the blind Ssenja had inflicted on her this day? Not angrily, as she had wanted to go at first. ... He would listen to her and she would make him understand. What was it worth, this understanding they were so proud of, if she must conceal the thing that lay nearest her heart? She would not be able to sleep at any rate, until she had spoken to him.
Cautiously, lest she meet someone in the long corridor that led to Ssenjetschka'-s room, she crept along over the soft carpet into which her feet sank unpleasantly. Sixty-four, sixty-six, sixty-eight...here it was. ... Those were his shoes.
Should she go in ... better not, perhaps. More than an hour had passed since he had left the room; he would be fast asleep. But the desire to see him and to stroke his beloved head, the urgent need of banishing these unendurable doubts, to melt this ice that held her soul in its clammy embrace, impelled her to turn the knob of the door. It opened with a shrill squeak ... the light of the corridor fell across the sleeper's face.
"What is it? ... Who is it?" ... He blinked at her with his near-sighted eyes without recognition.
"It is I, Ssenjetschka."
She closed the door and knelt down beside his bed.
"You, Nataschka. Well, well, so you came after all..."
An undertone in his voice betrayed a smug masculine self-satisfaction that cut her to the quick.
"Ssenjetschka, I came because I felt so badly! I was so bitter and alone. .. ."
"Come, come, now, need you apologize for coming to me? You simply can't go to sleep, knowing that I am so close by. Ah, what is this you are wearing, temptress?" He gathered her into his arms and tried to draw her into his bed.
She resisted half-heartedly, but responded to his kisses.
"Let me go, Ssenjetschka. You mustn't. I didn't come for this.... There is something I must speak to you about. I came only to warm my heart – to be near you.
"Come, you with your 'I only came for this' and 'I only came for that!' You women are a peculiar lot – always looking for some excuse or pretense to hide the fact that you, too, have sinful desires. We men are always wicked seducers. Here this lady comes to me of her own free will, wakes me out of my sleep, and now, if you please, what a touch-me-not she pretends to be. ... Have I offended you? I was just teasing, little silly. You know how glad I am that you came to me, you sweet, wonderful creature.... Here my little girl comes to warm her heart and must sit on the cold floor. Come in here to me."
Natascha's negligee formed a brilliant splash of color on the hotel room carpet.
"Not another word now. I want to sleep." Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch interrupted another attempt at what he called "her psychological dissertations." "The day is the time for talk. Now I want to rest. You forget that I must work to-morrow, and won't be able to, unless my head is clear."
He turned his face to the wall and wrapped the blankets about him; Natascha lay on her back, her hands under her head, disgust and resentment in her heart.
Always this offensive change in his attitude toward her – before and after. Coldness and strangeness while Natascha felt closer, nearer to him, the happier their union, the more ardent his caresses, the more fervent the assurance that they loved each other had been.
She looked sadly at his familiar neck ... the same, beloved head, the same, clever Ssenjetschka. Gently she kissed the nape of his neck and softly arose from his bed. But her soul was as cold and lonesome as before.
"Sleep well, Ssenjetschka. You will sleep more soundly if I go to my room. Won't you kiss me before I go?"
She bent over him.
"Haven't we kissed enough for to-night? That is something I can't understand in you ... sometimes you seem positively insatiable, it seems almost like an affliction!" Natascha drew back as if she had been struck. Was this the interpretation he put on her longing for a little warmth?
Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch pressed his head into the pillow while she slowly dressed in the dark room before going through that endless corridor with its red, disagreeably soft carpet once more. At the corner where the corridor turned, the nightporter sat at his usual place by a small table.
When Natascha passed him he looked at her with a shamelessly derisive look and murmured a word whose insulting import she could only surmise.... Natascha shuddered.