THE days in H. had become a life of voluntary I solitary confinement. These periods of "retirement" during their carefully planned meetings had amused her hugely when they first entered upon their clandestine relations. She called Ssenja her "pascha" and herself his "harem odalisk." This sudden transition from a life of nervous, effervescent activity in constant human companionship to this complete isolation from life and people had appealed to her sense of the ludicrous.
The comrades had never expressed surprise at her sudden disappearances. Some of them believed that she was bound by family ties that forced these periodic absences upon her, while others attributed them to mysterious "conspiratic" activity.
These brief interruptions of her hurried, nerve-racking life had always been welcome periods of relaxation and repose. This time the role of odalisk oppressed and irritated her. She dared not leave the hotel, lest some chance acquaintance meet her on the street. She must not remain too long in the reading-room lest Ssenja, returning to her room, leave again without having met her. Ssenja's complete absorption in his work and even more – it seemed to Natascha – in the professor and his hospitable family, left her alone for long hours that dragged along in tedious, irksome and fruitless expectation of his coming. He drank his morning coffee with his eyes on the clock lest he be late for his appointment, he stayed at the professor's house for dinner and spent most of his evenings there.
Natascha had to content herself with fragmentary remnants of his busy days, stolen hours when he escaped the professor's house under the pretense of important letters to be written and notes to be filed. He always came to her in the best of spirits, but consistently steered conversation away from any but the most superficial topics. Most of all he liked to lie on the sofa while Natascha prepared tea, pretending to appreciate his enjoyment of it. He told her less and less about his work and was almost niggardly in his reports of conversations with the professor.
Her antipathy to the professor grew to even greater proportions in consequence. The old "archive rat" with his scholarship was deluding Ssenja into distrusting his own opinions.
"I'm amazed at your naivete," she once remarked to him. "What makes you so idiotically frank with the professor? You spread out your theses for him before you have satisfied yourself concerning them. By the time you are ready to write he will have used them for his own purposes, with the added advantage of his own professional intellectuality."
The off-hand manner in which she spoke was calculated to irritate Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch out of his placidity.
"How childish that is, Natascha. You are becoming almost as bad as Anjuta. Since when do colleagues make it a practice to steal each other's ideas?"
"Of course, you will not believe that such things happen. You have never heard of an incident of that kind! Just the same, if I were in your place, I should be just a little more discreet ... not quite so naive..."
Though Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch objected, she felt that the seed of distrust so cleverly planted had taken root, and the thought gave her a momentary glow of satisfaction.
But after he had gone she relapsed into deep depression. She was aghast at the depths of vileness she had uncovered in her own nature. Was this despicable desire to hurt the professor's standing in her lover's eyes the fruit of her jealousy? She was beginning to understand some of Anjuta's inexplicable meannesses of the past.
Thenceforth she schooled herself to listen to her lover's praise of the professor and his family without comment. More, she tried to stifle the seeds of distrust she herself had planted in his soul by openly enthusing over the professor's intelligence and character. But she knew that the germ was still alive.
Morning after morning she left her bed with the unspoken hope – "to-day he will stay here with me...well, not a whole day, of course, but a few hours, at any rate, to give us a chance for an honest heart-to-heart talk." But day after day passed in discouraging sameness. There were kisses, light badinage at tea-time, there were caresses at night but never a moment's close communion. Natascha tried to work. She had promised to write a pamphlet whose date of delivery was drawing uncomfortably near, but her work refused to progress. It dragged heavily from an unwilling pen, and each day found her increasingly dissatisfied with the results of the previous day's sterile efforts. Ssenja did not once ask her how her work was progressing. Time ran through her fingers like sand, squandered for useless, senseless futilities.
By way of the forwarding address she had left behind, Natascha had received a large bundle of letters, some personal, others connected with party affairs, the latter with the disturbing news that two prominent comrades were "ill" (arrested) and expressing the fear that their illness would be prolonged, possibly with serious, threatening consequences. Natascha's subsequent days were overshadowed with the portent of disaster. What right had she to remain here in H.? Yet she could not tear herself from Ssenja's side while this feeling of strangeness between them persisted. "If I leave now," she assured herself over and over again, "I shall consume myself in self-reproach. ... I must come to some understanding with him before I leave."
She had made up her mind to force the issue that evening, but he returned even later than usual from a formal supper that had been given in his honor, slightly intoxicated and in a highly gratified state of good humor. He did not notice the clouds on Natascha's face.
"I ate and drank so much I can hardly move. I believe I am a bit under the weather, too, but that will pass off in a little while. Have you been longing for me? Come, a little kiss behind your pretty ear...."
"Please don't, Ssenja." – She withdrew impatiently. "I have more important things to think of. I have letters.... Katerina Petrowna and Nikanor have been arrested."
"You don't say. ... This is bad business."
"It affects me particularly. ... I can't begin to tell you how badly I feel." Suddenly, to her own wonderment, she burst into tears, not so much because her comrades were in prison as for herself.... Would life never bring her anything but failure and this endless chain of sorrow and aggravation? ... What was to become of the work they had so hopefully launched, now these two were gone? If only she herself had remained at her post they would be needing her there.
"Well, look here, Natascha, this won't do at all. You mustn't let go like that! Head up, little girl, this is no time for tears." There was a suggestion of reproof in his tone – he was thoroughly tired of women's tears. "In all probability it is only half as bad as it seems. You'll see, everything will come out nicely in the end."
"It isn't only of them I'm thinking. Everything – what is the sense of living? Nothing but unhappiness!"
"Do you know, that time I worked by the Volga. .. ." Ssenja tried to distract her thoughts by telling her of an episode out of his revolutionary experiences that seemed just the thing for the purpose. Natascha knew every one of them by heart and listened absently. What had all this to do with it? She wanted to speak of her doubts and suffering!
"So you see the difficulties one encounters...and I am still here to tell about it. ... I haven't even lost my enthusiasm for charming women, as you see. Natascha, I don't believe you've heard a word I've spoken!"
"I've been listening, Ssenja. But there is something I must speak to you about.... I'm going to leave to-morrow. I haven't the peace of mind to stay here any longer."
"Nonsense. To go now would be to court danger. I won't allow it. You, with your temperamental nature, are bound to get into trouble.Wait until things have calmed down again. After all they don't need you nearly as much as you think. You may be sure they will manage very nicely without you."
Natascha objected strenuously, trying eagerly to make him appreciate the importance of her person to the movement at this particular moment.
"Please, Natascha, don't be childish. Do you want me to believe they won't he able to find anyone to attend to that? They will take care of it – better than you..."
She read a number of letters to him, every one of them urging her to return, but they failed to impress him.
"And who is it that writes these letters? The hysterical Marja Michailowna ... all woman's talk. If Donzeff had written, I would believe the matter to be serious enough ... but Marja Michailowna don't pay any attention to it. There isn't the slightest excuse for excitement."
Unwittingly Ssenja had touched her sorest spot. Why had not Donzeff written to her? If he had called her to her post even Ssenja would have seen how indispensible she was. In that case she would have left at once, without another thought.
Ssenja should have realized how Donzeff's failure to recall her had pained her. Must he underscore it? He never tried to understand what was going on in her mind, never took the trouble to consider what wounds his careless words inflicted.
When Ssenja left her for his room she was distant and cool, but he paid no attention to it. Alone, dejection and fear laid hold of her once more, fear of her own unwept, unspoken suffering.
She would speak and if Ssenja still failed to understand the break between them would inevitably follow. Anything was better than this hunger for understanding. She would beat her wings against his indifference no longer.
Over the unpleasantly soft carpet of the corridor once more, quickly ~at first but going more slowly as she approached his door. She stopped and listened. All was silent. He was probably fast asleep – he usually slept as soon as his head touched the pillow. She reached for the knob, only to withdraw her hand with a dark flush – so vividly had the picture of his sleep-drenched eyes and his questions at her last visit recalled themselves to her mind.
No, no, anything but that! She could not bear to be misunderstood to-night, and the thought of what was sure to follow.... She hurried along the corridor, past the astonished night porter and back to her room once more. "Now what in the world made her change her mind," the man in the corner wondered curiously. "Quarreled, I suppose," he decided.
AGAIN and again Natascha opened the door of her room to peer anxiously down the corridor, dimly illuminated by a shadowy night light. Everything was empty and still.
A distant cough or the glimpse of a manly figure at the turn of the long hall made her heart leap – no, it was not he. What could it mean? He had never returned as late as this before. Had he met with an accident?
She went to his room once more in the faint hope that he had gone directly to bed without having first stopped in to see her. The porter watched her maneuvers inquisitively, and grinned wickedly whenever she passed him. There was something unspeakably impertinent in his demeanor, but to-day Natascha paid no attention.
Ssenja had left the hotel early that morning, and the fact that he had not, as was his invariable custom, come back for at least a brief visit in the course of the day, served only to increase her uneasiness.
If something had happened to him, he would have telephoned. It was unthinkable that he had stayed at the professor's house so late that he had remained for the night! If that were the case, his lack of consideration for her was unforgivable. It must have occurred to him that she would worry. Would he have left Anjuta in this position?
Natascha threw herself on her bed, only to jump up again and again whenever she thought she heard a sound in the corridor. But there was always the same unfriendly hotel, the same dreary, dimly lighted expanse of carpeted emptiness. But for this beastly carpet she would have heard his foot-steps...someone was snoring ... a cough!
Everything was quiet and empty once more. A church-tower clock in the distance....Dinn. Dinn. Dinn. Dinn.
Half past four. Would this awful night never end?
She clung desperately to a single, forlorn hope...the morning would bring a contrite Ssenja, who would explain in his usual ridiculously childish manner that he had thoughtlessly permitted the professor to detain him until it had been too late to return to the hotel.
"How could I telephone," he would argue. "The professor would have guessed at once. ..."
He would look at her uncertainly, expecting the curtain lecture that usually accompanied such occurrences at home, and would breathe a sigh of relief when Natascha smiled instead, smoothing his recalcitrant hair and kissing his troubled brow. "Don't apologize, Ssenja," she would say, "of course I understand."
"You are so good, so understanding."
Both would breathe easily once more and she would be able to laugh over her foolish fears of the night.
"It's all because of my silly nerves. I shall go to sleep at once, and will probably be fast asleep when he comes. I must leave the door unlocked."
She forced herself to lie down and actually succeeded in falling to sleep, but in her troubled dreams she continued to listen for him. A movement in the corridor found her sitting up in bed, listening with a madly beating heart. No, that was in the next room. Someone was scrubbing the floor and two chamber-maids were conversing in undertones. The gray, misty shimmer of early morning came in through the lowered shades. What time was it? Shortly after eight o'clock.
Natascha got up and dressed with deliberate slowness, listening to every sound and once more opening the door to look out on the corridor, gray and more hopeless still now that the light was out. Better not to have looked out at all, she chided herself, to look out again a moment later because something told her that his familiar figure in its dear, shabby, old hat with its wide brim was at this moment turning the corner of the corridor.
To think that she had doubted her love for him! This night had proved to her how much she loved, how much she needed him. She was prepared to reprove herself severely for the reproaches she had heaped on him for his absence that night, for her ill-tempered resentment and every trace of ill-feeling she had entertained against him. If only he would come! If only nothing had happened to him! Perhaps he had been to her room after she had fallen asleep – the sudden hope robbed her of all caution; with streaming hair, oblivious to the comb in her hand, she ran along the corridor. Hotel guests who met her stepped aside in surprise, and the scrub-woman who was wiping up the floor pushed her pail aside grumbingly. Natascha had stumbled over it in her haste, slopping some of the water over the carpet.
Ssenja's room was empty, the bed untouched.
She sat down on his bed and decided to wait for him there. She felt closer to him in his room; his possessions were there – an old pair of trousers hung over the hack of a chair. Suppose Anjuta had arrived in H. and poor Ssenja had lost his head at the dread thought that they might meet? How could she reassure him? Let him know that he might bring Anjuta to the hotel without fear?
Should she telephone to the professor's house? Perhaps Anjuta was there.
The thought that Anjuta might have arrived drove her precipitously from the bed to examine the room with keen, searching eyes for tell-tale evidence of her own presence. Books? Personal belongings? Finding nothing she returned to her room.
Ten o'clock...half past ten...eleven half past eleven ... one o'clock. Natascha no longer listened for his foot-steps. She assured herself that she had long-ago ceased to expect him at all, that every hope of ever seeing Ssenja again had died. Perhaps he was dead ... that alone would explain his failure to find some way of allaying the fear he must know was driving her mad. Perhaps he had been arrested. But why? Here? Still, this complete silence... something terrible, something incomprehensibly awful must have happened.
Natascha closed her eyes. The light of day blinded and tormented her. Throughout the endlessly long night she had longed for daylight ... because she had hoped. ... And then, just as she had decided to look for him no longer, someone knocked loudly at the door.
A messenger offered her a letter. Her trembling hands could hardly open the envelope.
"I have been through an unexpected and disagreeable experience. At dinner, yesterday, I was seized with such violent abdominal pains that my host put me to bed at once and sent for a physician. My temperature was so high that he at first feared an attack of appendicitis. He gave me two morphine injections to allay the pain which was indescribably severe. To-day, however, I am feeling much more comfortable, and the doctor who was just here assures me that everything is satisfactory and hopes there will be no need of an operation. My temperature is lower, but still above normal; I still suffer pain, but it is bearable. Above all I must have rest, absolute rest ... don't worry about me.
"You can't conceive of kindlier care than that which I am receiving here. The professor and his family took turns at my bed-side all through the night. As a pretext for writing to you I am sending for some books. I told them of a Russian family I had met at the hotel who would get them from my room for me. Please remember, under no circumstances are you to write or to telephone. I kiss your hands.
"Poor Ssenja." "Any answer?" The messenger was still waiting for her to finish reading the letter.
"Yes ... that is ... wait a moment. I'll get the books at once." She hurried to Ssenja's room as if to get something there, still trying to adjust herself to this new state of affairs. Could she write him a single line telling him of her anxiety and of her love, of her boundless, endless love for him? Could she not reassure him, tell him not to worry about her, that she was satisfied to know that he was alive, that he was there, that he was free.
She would have liked to slip a little note into the package, but dared not. Someone might see, and Ssenja would have to explain. He was so awkward at finding explanations, poor fellow.
She gave the books to the messenger and was alone in her room once more. Her luncheon coffee stood on the table before her, as cold and tasteless as the dejected mood that had overtaken her.
Three long, empty days and restless nights with fantastic, enervating dreams. More than once she woke with a shocked feeling of disaster. "Ssenja! What is happening to him?"
Once she distinctly heard his voice calling to her, and shuddered with a horrified sense of evil premonition.
Several times each day she inquired whether a message – a telegram, perhaps, or a telephone-call, had been left for her. "No, nothing! Was the gentleman keeping the room?"
Of course – the gentleman was ill, and therefore staying with friends where he would receive better care than was possible in a hotel room. ... Why had she given this explanation, as if her position required justification? What did it matter? Did anything matter? Ssenja's illness had undoubtedly taken a turn for the worse after all, for if he were conscious he would have found some means of communicating with her.
Time dragged ... minutes seemed hours....
On the evening of the third day Natascha decided to telephone to the professor's house to inquire concerning Ssenja's condition. She could not spend another night in this awful uncertainty. She quailed at the thought of the tortures its sleepless hours would bring. No matter what came of it, she must know. She rang for the servant.
She stared undecidedly at the man who answered her summons. A momentary urge had prompted her to call him and she was at a loss to decide on her further course of action. She must be careful to make no mistake.
She ordered tea. "Cream or lemon?"
She watched him disappear with his white, shimmering napkin under his arm and then continued her endless journey up and down the room with a heavy, aching heart, trying to escape the tormenting visions that made her groan and wring her hands in despair.
The clock on the near-by tower struck nine. Natascha rang once more.
The servant stood before her. Could he guess how difficult it was for her to explain to him how and where he was to telephone, what to ask, and what not to ask? Under no condition was he to say "Madame." Only "the Russian friends .. ."
Would he remember? If only he did not say "Madame."
To Natascha that seemed of vital importance.
Again she wandered up and down the room, then sat, tense as the string of a violin, on the edge of a chair. She could feel her heartbeats in her throat so painfully that she could not swallow. In another moment she 'would know – what? The seconds crawled.... What was keeping him?....Five seven ... ten minutes. Why didn't he return? Perhaps the answer was so appalling that he could not bring himself to tell her! Natascha was shaken by icy tremors. A thought flashed through her mind – who knows, in a few moments she might be looking back with longing at this tortuous respite ... with the faint ray of hope it still held.
A knock at the door.
Her eyes pleaded. Hurry! Hurry! But the waiter continued to move with exasperating indolence. His napkin had become entangled in the door-knob, and he stopped fussily to disengage it.
"The gentleman thanks his 'Russian friends' for their kind inquiry (a faintly derisive smile curled the lips under the moustache) and begs me to report that he is feeling a great deal better. He has been out of bed and about his room, and is just preparing to retire."
Natascha neither moved nor spoke.
"Is that all, Madame? Nothing else?"
She was alone.
She had believed that she would sob with rapture if the waiter's answer brought her a single tiny ray of hope for Ssenja's life. Only a short half hour ago she would willingly have given half her life for the message she had just received. Yet here she stood in the middle of her room, without joy...perplexed, rather, and overwhelmed with the growing certainty that she had been deeply offended and abused.
Ssenja, kind, tender, sensitive Ssenja, who feared to inflict the slightest pain on Anjuta, had not moved a finger to put an end to her torment! All these days he had left her without a sign, had not thought it worth while to let her know that he was almost well. Would he have the courage, after this, to tell her that he still loved her? This was more than she could ever forgive.
NATASCHA awoke greatly refreshed after a sound night's sleep. Deep down in the bottom of her soul the conviction that she had been grossly wronged persisted, but she paid no attention. Ssenja was alive and out of danger. In a few days she would see him again. Then, yes, then she would speak to him. She would explain to him that love, thus casually treated, must die, that not even a love as great as theirs could persist and live in such an atmosphere of constant tension. The string that is drawn too tightly is bound to break.
She enjoyed her coffee that morning – the first time since Ssenja's absence – and even smiled at the chambermaid who told her how lovely the weather was outside.
Then she turned her attention to her party letters – incredible that she should have neglected her comrades so long.
She wrote a number of replies and prepared them for mailing, and as she sealed the last envelope some impulse prompted her to make another attempt at the ill-fated pamphlet at which she had worked when first she came here, with so little success. She was in the mood for work. Easily and without constraint the words that had eluded her so provokingly came to her now; thought followed thought in gratifying, logical sequence. Natascha paid no attention to the passage of time until twilight darkened the room.
Then she leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms with a feeling of intense satisfaction. Peace and clearness of mind had come back to her and she was overjoyed to think that she was to finish the pamphlet after all. It was good to have one's mind free for work, not to be sitting forlornly waiting for a message that did not come, a prisoner of absurd worries over Ssenja's condition. He was out of danger and so well taken care of at the professor's house that he forgot even to think of Natascha – a realization that was not without its sting of bitterness. But she drove such ruminations resolutely from her mind.
Life and action were what she wanted now. She wanted to see people again. This hermit's life that she had been leading was senseless and absurd. She decided to go to the post-office to mail her letters and then to have a cup of coffee in one of the brightly lighted cafes nearby.
She was putting on her hat before the mirror when the door opened and Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch stepped into the room.
"Ssenja, you?" she exclaimed. There was more astonishment than joy in her voice.
"Yes, here I am, Natascha, absolutely worn out, as you see, after my illness. The doctor advised me to wait until to-morrow, but I decided to come tonight. I could not wait any longer."
"Come, lie down here at once, Ssenjetschka.
Oh, you poor thing, how thin you are! Your eyes are still sick, Ssenja. Why did you come back before you were quite well, dear?"
"I longed for you so, I was so restless..."
"A cushion for your head? Do you want me to take off your shoes? ... Here, let me put this cover over you.... Will you have some tea? Lemon, or would you prefer it with cream? I'll ring and order it at once while I get everything ready." By dint of solicitous fussing Natascha unconsciously tried to hide from herself the astounding fact that she was neither happy nor excited over his return.
Where was the ardent impatience with which she had waited for him? Where the frenzied happiness she had expected to feel when he arrived? Ssenja had come at the wrong moment, scattering the mood of care-free abandon that had come as a release from a period of intolerable nervous tension.
"I'm perfectly comfortable, Natascha. Come, sit here, beside me. It's so good to be With you again!... You had your hat on when I came. Were you going out? Do you go walking when I'm away? Is that how you preserve your incognito?"
"I assure you this would have been the first time. I haven't once put my nose outside the door, all the time you were away. But these letters – see for yourself how many there are – had to be mailed."
"Nevertheless it was foolhardy, just now suppose Anjuta should take it into her head to come? ... That reminds me ... I asked you not to telephone to the professor's house.... I must say you pay surprisingly little attention to my requests. I was afraid of something like this all the while I was ill. After you called up yesterday I hadn't another moment's peace until I had decided to come here – at any cost. Who knows – you might have presented yourself there in person if I had not returned. .. ."
"Ah, then it was this that brought you back to me?"
The brittle edge in her voice made Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch throw a quick, searching glance in her direction.
"No, Natascha, not that alone. I told you how I longed to be with you. .. ."
Ssenja had never heard Natascha like this before.
"So you longed to be with me? You, you say this, after letting me wait day after day for a word from you, after you tortured and martyred me with a cruelty so refined, so unspeakable. .. ."
"Natascha! What are you saying? Was it my fault that I became ill? How have I martyred you? In what way? You may be sure nothing was further from my intentions. Why, Natascha, you speak just like Anjuta ... perhaps she is right, after all, when she says that I torture those I love Anjuta ... you ... oh, this is frightful."
He buried his head in his hands. His crumpled figure expressed hopeless resignation to an undeserved fate. Natascha relented at once.
"Ssenja, Ssenjetschka, my dear friend. You were right. I don't know what I am saying, I don't know what is the matter with me. Try to understand what I suffered while you were away, how I feared for your life, not knowing ... Ssenja, the thoughts I thought, the fears I lived through – because I love you, do you hear, Simeon!"
For both of them this name had an especial significance, and he smiled at her as she kneeled by his side and caressed his head.
"Let me kiss your forehead ... how often I dreamed of this! How often I thought of the time when I would kiss the brow of my beloved again!"
"Mad creature, you frightened me with your awful laughter. I know, poor thing, your nerves have had more than enough to bear. Life is beautiful, Natascha. Don't come so close to me, dear."
"It is so good to have you with me again – just to know that you still are ... do you understand?"
"I understand, my love. But I am still weak after my illness and your nearness excites me. The doctor says that the attack was brought about chiefly through my generally nervous condition and ordered absolute rest. You won't be angry, will you, if I ask you not to come so near to me?"
Natascha arose and turned from him at once, lest he read the reproach in her eyes. She wanted human warmth, human tenderness – what he referred to had not entered her head.
While she prepared tea Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch lay on the couch smoking a cigarette and told her of the course his illness had taken, of the professor's family and their friendly solicitude and of his anxious fear that she might take it into her head to come to the professor's home. It had been almost impossible to get in touch with her.
"If you had sent the tiniest note. You might have sent for some books again ... surely you might have thought of something!"
"You know how stupid I am at that sort of thing. So I simply came here as soon as I could drag myself away."
He drank his tea while she read aloud the letters she had received – some disquieting, others encouraging. In general the party seemed to be in a promising condition, with the possibility of important developments in the near future. They discussed these possibilities eagerly, taking into account the position of the opposing wing, and both agreed that the situation would precipitate new conflicts between them, a probability that made Natascha burn to get away at once, back to living, thrilling work.
"Talking here with you makes one forget everything else in the world," Ssenja suddenly interrupted her. "It is getting late and I promised the doctor to be back by half-past seven. Why, it is eight o'clock already. How time flies. I hope the professor does not take it into his head to come and call for me. He is so conscientiously worried about me."
"You are going back? You won't stay here tonight?"
"They wouldn't hear of it. ... Oh, yes, I wanted to tell you. .. ." He tried not to look at her as he spoke and she knew that the disclosure he was about to make would be unpleasant: – "I want.to suggest that you go to W."
"To W? But why?"
"They say it is a very interesting old town with beautiful buildings and quaint streets – and I know you love beautiful surroundings." He spoke to her as if he were urging a child to take some disagreeable medicine. "I don't understand."
"Wouldn't you care to see it?" He looked at her pleadingly. "You see, – oh, I suppose I may as well confess – I won't have a peaceful hour while you are here. I had to write Anjuta about my illness and well, you know Anjuta. She may take it into her head to come here at any moment. Everything considered, I believe you had better go to W. You will be quieter and safer there."
Natascha bowed her head low over her half-finished cup of tea to hide two great tears that welled up into her eyes, but Ssenja saw them.
"I know, sweetheart. It is hard to ask you to leave me again." He stroked her head with tender, if somewhat condescending sympathy.
"Why to W.? The sensible thing to do would be to go directly back to work again."
Her tears had ceased and she looked at him in serious, if somewhat resentful earnestness.
"You misunderstand me. As the library here closes for the holidays at the end of the week I have already told the professor of my intention to spend these days in W. to make the old town's acquaintance. You go to W. and I will follow in a few days."
"This is so strange and so peculiar ... tell me if I am in your way and I will leave at once. That will be easier for everyone."
"Little goose, how can you speak of being in my way? You know that I ask this of you only because of Anjuta. Think if she should suddenly make her appearance here!" To him this was an unanswerable argument. "Can't you imagine her uneasiness, even now? I am moving to the professor's house – that is the understanding. You will go to W. and I shall follow on Friday. Then we will spend the whole day together, nothing to part or to disturb us, no professor. ... Doesn't that sound attractive?"
"But you forget that I must leave on Tuesday. My leave.. ."
"Oh, we'll see about that. If everything seems peaceful on the horizon we will make ourselves a present of a day or two. The important consideration is that we can be together there in absolute safety, with no danger of untoward disturbance. I will be in quite a different state of mind ... here there is always something between us. ... I am nervous right now because I'm afraid the professor may decide to come after me. .. ."
"I shall think it over. We'll speak of it again to-morrow." Natascha hated to submit without a struggle.
"Why to-morrow? I want you to leave to-day. The train leaves ... let me see – I've made a note of it somewhere." He held his note-book close to his near-sighted eyes and turned its pages. "Here it is. There is a train at 10:30 that will get you there at 1:30 to-night. That is quite convenient – an express train. You will have lots of time to get ready. Now, Nataschenka, don't look so unhappy or I will think that I have offended you. ... I feel just as badly to have you go, you may believe me, but it is only for a few days, after all. I shall be with you on Friday. Let me know where you are staying – send a telegram to the usual name, general delivery. Take a room for both of us, and tell them that your husband will join you later." This evidently was an afterthought to compensate Natascha for her disappointment.
"And now, will you help me pack my belongings so that I may have them taken to the professor's house? You'll attend to the hotel bill I suppose. By the way, if you need money – the professor offered to let me have some if I should need it. Don't look so down-hearted, Natascha. It hurts me."
"Never mind me, Ssenja. That will pass. Just lie here on the sofa. I'll do your packing."
Natascha was in his room, tugging at the straps of his suit-case when he entered with a rueful face.
"Why didn't you stay where you were," she scolded. "You see, I've finished packing already."
"I thought you might be sitting here crying that bothered me as I lay there. I had to come over to look after you. I love you, Natascha."
He said this so soberly that Natascha smiled in spite of herself. But the chill did not vanish from her soul. He loved her, but what did if mean to her, this love of his? Stabs, suffering, hurt...
"Come, dress, Ssenjetschka. You will be late and the professor's wife will scold you. .. ."
"I believe you are jealous of her. She is a very old lady... ."
Natascha smiled. "You are a child, Ssenjetschka, you are so ridiculously unable to understand. Now go, take care of yourself and get well. Your manuscript is in the portfolio, here. These are your books. Good-bye, Ssenjetschka." They embraced.
"What a cool duty-kiss."
"JuSt the sort of kiss a well-behaved wife should give her husband. Far be it from me to try to seduce you," she replied teasingly and hurried to call the porter who was to carry his baggage.
At the door Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch embraced her once more and whispered anxiously:
"You aren't angry, are you? My sweet girl, you don't know how much I need you. It is all because of Anjuta. .. ."
At the turn of the corridor he looked back to wave a last farewell. She had the impression that there was something he wanted to say, to explain to her. Natascha waved her handkerchief flippantly.
"Don't fall in love with the professor's wife. Come soon."
At that his face lit up, and, seemingly reassured, he walked around the corner with his old determined stride. Natascha returned to her room along the familiar, detestable carpet, her head bowed in deep thought.
W. WAS a charming old town. Its beautiful churches, and the hushed, ancient streets tempted tourists away from the beaten paths to stop for a few days in its gentle atmosphere. It was not hard to find a clean, reasonably priced inn where she was given a delightful room, simple and unpretentious in its lines, and without the dusty accessories, carpets and hangings that so often disfigure such places. It was bathed in sunlight from windows that looked out – not as in H. over roofs and chimneys or down into a narrow court-yard – but across a hushed, wide-flung square of venerable houses, every one of which had looked down on the passing of many generations.
When Natascha got up in the morning, and raised the shades to smile out into the hot rays of the springtime sun, she felt the urgent joy of existence racing through her veins again. It was long since she had known that simple joy of living that was wafted in to her on the fragrant spring breezes that played about her face with the spring-song of the birds from the neighboring garden.
"Life! This is life. Why must I live through such torment, when life itself is so lovely? Why?"
She turned to her work at once and lost herself in its pages, writing steadily and smoothly, without difficulty or hesitation. It seemed to her that she could continue to write like this forever. She promised herself, however, a little later in the day, to stroll about the delightful old town with its somnolent houses and its towers and domes whose architectural ornamentation looked to her like lace-work turned to stone. She reveled in this liberty to come and go as she pleased once more, as a pupil enjoys her vacation from the rigors of school life. She smiled as she wandered about the streets, smiled as she ordered her dinner in a modest restaurant, smiled at the hot sun that burned her cheeks, and was still smiling when she tumbled into bed with that delicious feeling of physical and mental weariness that comes at the end of a day's pleasurable occupation.
On Friday Natascha went to the post-office to ask for mail. A number of letters had been forwarded, among them one from Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch. What did it mean – new disappointment? Perhaps he had decided not to come after all....
She put it with the rest, unopened, into her leather bag.
In the tiny park, where birds were vieing with one another in their cheerful twittering, hiding in the rich, dark green of the evergreen that lent a colorful background to the rose-red of almond and apricot blossoms, Natascha opened her letters.
Her comrades were urging her to return, for the political situation was approaching a crisis that should find everyone at his post. They were all at a loss for an explanation of her persistent silence, and were becoming somewhat anxious and perplexed.
She must go back, no matter what Ssenja's letter had to say. She almost wished that he were not coming.... she would leave on the following day.
With this secret hope in the background of her mind she opened his letter last of all.
But it appeared that Ssenja had written immediately after her departure, dimly conscious of the shadow that rested on their love. The letter was unexpectedly tender.
"The hurt in your eyes when I saw you last still haunts me. ... I feel like a criminal. ... You will never know what your love has been to me. The assurance of your love means more than I can tell, more than mere words can express. The sun would go out of my life if I should have to live without you."
Not so long ago, Natascha would have choked over a letter like this. With her hands pressed over her eyes she would have feasted hungrily on the protestations of love it contained. Now she smiled, a little ruefully, a little bitterly. Too late. Too late.
A post-script added that he was counting the hours till they would meet again.
She dropped the letter into her bag beside the others, her mind wandering back to Wanjetschka – one of the letters had mentioned him in passing – as she did so. She thought of him shame-facedly, conscious of the post-card she had neglected to send. The dear, good fellow. What a comrade he had been in her hour of need!
She went to a stationery shop at once, chose an attractive post-card and sent a light, facetious greeting, promising a speedy return and assuring him that she was homesick, terribly homesick for all of them. Even for Donzeff.
It was true. She was longing to see them all again, her co-workers and comrades.
As she walked back to the inn the long corridor with its irritating red carpet and the man-servant who dozed at the table came back to her mind. She saw herself at Ssenjetschka's door with hair flying....a mendicant....
"Better not think of it.... How degrading it was!"
A telegram had come during her absence. "Coming to-morrow, 1:30 A. M. Meet me at train."
"My husband will arrive to-night," she told the clerk in passing as she went to her room, determined to use the last hours of uninterrupted freedom to finish her pamphlet.
HALF an hour before the specified time Natascha was at the station, only to find that the bulletin-board announced a delay in the train's arrival. The porter could give no explanation but a gentleman nearby, overhearing her questions, lifted his hat and volunteered the required information. The train would be forty-five minutes late. A cloud-burst had washed out the road-bed further up the line. No, no one had been hurt. He was waiting for his mother who was to arrive on the same train.
Natascha regarded him a little more closely. He was tall with a gray moustache and black, lively eyes. Altogether he appealed to her at once.
He continued to speak. His mother was coming to visit him, after an absence of almost two months. That was a very long time. He wished his mother could live with him permanently.
"A mother's love is the only love that is unselfish, the only love I can respect."
He spoke with the frank lack of reticence that characterized the people of his southerly region.
"Would it be bold to ask for whom you are waiting?" he continued.
"A friend? Your husband?"
"My husband." It had slipped past her lips, in spite of herself and she felt herself reddening with embarrassment.
"How long have you been married?"
"Well, now, that depends...." Natascha laughed.
"Aha, I understand, I understand. I have my own views on this subject. Usually women disagree with me, but in my eyes a wife and a sweetheart are one and the same thing. On the contrary: a free union fetters a man much more than a legitimate marriage. I am not referring to legal, formal bonds, of course, but to inner, moral obligations...this lack of freedom, this dependence on another's inner experiences, the eternal dissatisfaction of the woman one loves, the spiritual bills she presents....
"She is always being hurt by trifles. I have gone through the entire gamut of such an experience. could tell you ... by the way, are you a German?"
"No," Natascha laughed. "A Russian and a writer. You may speak freely. I am not afraid of life and truth."
"A writer?" He raised his hat respectfully. "I have the greatest respect for a woman who pursues a profession. My mother was a teacher. But that has nothing to do with the relations of men and women to each other. Lies, nothing but lies on either side, lies for the peace of mind of the loved one, lies from fear, from habit. ... Are men and women ever themselves after they are married? Mind you, I make no difference between legal marriage and that voluntary bond that holds two persons together. Are they ever themselves when they are together, as they are with their friends and colleagues, or with other sexually indifferent persons? Do you ever fully express your real thoughts and feelings when you are with your husband? Can you give full play to your moods or to those impulses that are, possibly, the best that is in you? No. It is all play-acting, pose and prevarication.. ."
He piled up indictment after indictment against marriage with reckless, somewhat disjointed abandon, but Natascha believed she understood. She amended and supplemented his speculations with an illustration here and a pertinent remark there, so that he nodded appreciatively at the fullness of her comprehension. "That is it. That is it!" he agreed.
Natascha spoke hastily and sketchily, as if she were hurrying to tell this stranger everything she had thought and suffered. ... He listened to her gravely, looking steadily into her face as she talked, now and then adding an apt word to her story. It was Natascha who first noticed that the hands of the clock were approaching the time scheduled for the train's arrival. How extraordinarily quickly the time had passed on the dismal, gray station.
"I am truly grateful to the good fortune that presented me with this opportunity. I will not be so indiscreet as to ask for your name, but may I assure you, without flattery, that this is the first time I have had the privilege of meeting a young woman with so mature an outlook on life? You note that I say young: I have often met older women who think as I do, though they rarely care to speak of it. But they know much... my mother is a case in point.
"My mother is an extraordinary woman, and I am proud and happy to be able to give her every pleasure that money can buy, now that she is old. I worked for it with my own hands. I am a grape farmer. I was the youngest of eight brothers – began life as an errand boy in a wine cellar. My mother was a teacher. We never knew our father."
As the time for the train's arrival drew nearer, the station platform had gradually filled with waiting people. The train was approaching. Natascha once more shook hands with her new acquaintance, who respectfully lifted his hat and raised her hand as if to kiss it, but then desisted.
Their eyes met for a brief glance, then Natascha was lost in the crowd that stood by the tracks.
The train rolled into the station, filling it with a dense cloud of smoke.
"At last? Have you been impatient, poor girl? How is my Natascha? You are looking splendidly ... rosy-cheeked and well ... like a little girl. Have you been homesick? This last hour in the train dragged so endlessly, I almost got out and walked."
He was not afraid to embrace her here, he even kissed her fondly and took her arm, launching into a recital of the shrewd maneuvers it had taken to escape the professor's all-too-insistent hospitality.
"Here we will be alone together, just we two, with plenty of time to talk over everything that troubles us. Another honeymoon – how many will that be, Natascha .. .?" He pressed her hand ecstatically.
"My dearest, I am so madly happy to see you!"
Natascha smiled, and looked at him as unemotionally as one regards a stranger. She was amazed at her complete aloofness. Why had this never been possible before?
At the station entrance they approached Natascha's casual acquaintance of the station platform, tenderly guiding a tiny gray-haired woman who clung devotedly to his arm. Natascha, afraid of the questions and the suspicious cross-examination, the tiresome explanations and denials that recognition would mean, pretended not to see him, though she secretly rebelled against this slavery to the moods and whims of another. She was becoming thoroughly tired of it.
In the cab that took them to their destination Ssenja caught her in his arms and sought her lips.
"Say you love me, dear. I have been so lonesome, so afraid. ... You were hurt, weren't you? It was a mistake to send you here. This idiotic nervousness of mine! You know one loses all sense of proportion when one has been ill. You understood that, didn't you, Natascha?"
"Yes, I realized that."
"Then you are not angry? You are not as happy as usual over my coming." His eyes sought hers questioningly. "Perhaps you no longer care?.."
He said it softly, with a choked gasp, as if he dared not utter the thought that had suddenly come to him.
"I care for you? I don't care for you at all!" She tried to drive away his depression with her bantering tone, but she felt that it lacked conviction. Ssenja sighed unhappily and fell back into his seat, and Natascha felt a sharp stab of pity. She was honestly sorry to hurt him. To distract him she told him of the letters she had received, and he was soon listening with undivided interest. By the time they reached the inn they were arguing with the complete absorption with which two colleagues discuss a matter of mutual interest.
The sun stood high in the heavens when Natascha raised the shade and opened the window the morning after.
"Look, Ssenja, how beautiful! Aren't these houses charming? Those birds...spring is here!"
"To be sure. ... And I am here with you in paradise."
He came to her and threw his arm about her shoulder. Silently, each busy with his own thoughts, they stood by the window. Natascha's soul was calm and unruffled. She had the queer sensation that it was not she, at all, but some one else who was experiencing this, while she was standing by and looking on. For Ssenja she felt the sympathetic affection one feels for an agreeable, more or less casual acquaintance. She had accepted his caresses that night with a spirit of somewhat bored submission; she had not once responded to his passion. Under one pretext or another she tried to distract his attention.
"You must be more careful, Ssenjetschka, or you will be ill again. Let me tell you what I saw yesterday." She treated him as an older person treats an unreasonable child. It was she, not he, who struck the note that dominated their intercourse. Hitherto she had been his obedient echo. Now, unconsciously, it seemed to her, he followed while she led the way.
Ssenja, for his part, was entirely happy. He had been in mortal terror of Natascha's "psychological dissertations" ever since he had left her, and was highly gratified to find her actually cheerful and not at all inclined to dwell on his shortcomings. Though he had never been able to comprehend her inexplicable moods, they often made him acutely unhappy. They burdened him with a sense of wrong-doing. He was at no time conscious of anything but the desire to make her completely happy, only to find that every effort he made to understand and please her seemed somehow to complicate the situation. It had been just so with Anjuta. Now this same feeling of inadequacy to cope with the vagaries of the female mind was disturbing his relations with Natascha with increasing frequency.
Here, in W., they seemed to have found firm ground again. They had found each other again-to use one of Natascha's favorite expressions – and Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch was happy and light-hearted in consequence.
Breakfast was jolly. Ssenja ate enormously, and insisted that Natascha would make a splendid housewife. He was hugely delighted with his new quarters. Natascha played the hostess charmingly; she was entertaining an agreeable, welcome guest.
"I thought I should be able to manage a longer stay here, but the library opens on Tuesday and the professor invited a number of guests to go with us to examine some material out of the archives. For Tuesday, unfortunately. That means I should leave here on Monday."
"Monday? That would suit me excellently."
"What do you mean?"
"That in that case I shall also leave on Monday. You know how conscience-stricken I feel, sitting here in idleness when they are waiting for me so anxiously at home."
"What difference will a day or two make? I don't see why we should be in such a hurry to leave here?"
"A day or two may make a great deal of difference in a tense political situation .. ."
"You know how the comrades exaggerate."
Natascha relapsed into silence. As usual, he thought only of himself. She had never been able to persuade him to give her a single hour of his time. He must go. ... Anjuta expected him his will was law and there was no relenting, no appeal from his decision. That she, too, had responsibilities and important claims on her time, that every added hour she spent with him was a sacrifice, a loss to herself and to the movement – that he had never been willing to admit.
"DO you remember," she reflected, "the time we met in N.-two years ago?"
"To be sure. Why?"
"Do you remember how sick I became while we were there? I lay alone in a hotel room with a high fever, and there was not a soul that knew me in the entire city. ... Do you remember how I begged you to stay with me one day more ... just one day more? What did it mean to Anjuta – a single day out of a life-time with you? You know how rarely I ask for anything, but I begged and pleaded with you then. But you left me and I remained behind, ill, delirious... ."
Ssemjon Ssemjonowitsch looked crestfallen.
"Why speak of that now?"
"To show you how much a day means where you are concerned. Only my needs and my wishes count for nothing. Is that your conception of equality?" Natascha spoke with unusual calm.
"You can't truly say that I disregard your wishes. Aren't you just a little unjust, my dear? When have I acted against your will? Tell me? Is it fair to prefer charges without giving facts? If I act unjustly, I do it unconsciously, against my will. You can't truthfully say that I am against equality for man and woman."
"Well, let's not discuss it. It isn't important. I just happened to think of it and mentioned it."
She tried to change the subject, but Ssenja answered absently and paced the room thoughtfully for a while. Suddenly his face cleared and the gentle smile that Natascha had loved so dearly played about his lips, the quizzical look was in his eyes as he looked at her over his glasses.
"Well, my dear, I am off to the barber's. When I get back, we will look at the town together."
He went over to her, kissed her eyes and then her hands with sober tenderness, and hurriedly left the room.
"Hurry back," she called after him, "or it will be dark before we start."
He reappeared much sooner than she had expected.
"Here already? Don't tell me that you have been to the barber's."
He looked at her with that mysterious, quizzical look still in his eyes.
"What have you been up to?" Natascha laughed in spite of herself, and was curious, too. Thus mothers smile at the mysterious secrets of their children.
"How can I guess. Tell me, Ssenjetschenka."
She shook him with mock impatience.
He stuck out his tongue at her like a child.
"I sent the professor a telegram."
"A telegram? What for?"
"To tell him that I shall not return before Friday."
He had expected Natascha to fall about his neck in radiant appreciation of his thoughtfulness. Instead she dropped her hands hopelessly at her side and looked at him with a strange expression on her face.
"You sent a telegram, changed the day of departure without consulting me? How could you? How dared you?...
"When you knew that I must leave here on Tuesday, at the latest."
"Well, I must say, I simply can't make you out. Weren't you offended when I said I wanted to leave on Monday? For your sake, to show you how much I want to please you, to prove to you that you mean more to me than my work or anything else. ... I thought this would please you ... and now..."
He bristled with righteous resentment.
Natascha tried to explain, but suddenly desisted. What was the use? They would always think and speak past one another. They seemed neither to hear nor to understand each other any longer. Ssenjetschka wanted only to please her. In his eyes the telegram to the professor was an extraordinary concession, a proof of the greatness of his love for her. Formerly... ah, how happy this would have made her. Too late. Too late.
Somehow she would have to get out of this impossible situation.
She rapidly figured up what it would cost them to stay and showed him, as regretfully as she could, that it would be reckless for them to remain beyond Wednesday. Their finances simply did not permit it. Then, too, what would the professor think? Suppose Anjuta should come to H....
She spoke like an experienced mother who knows the soul of her child. Not a word of herself. She even thanked him for wanting to spend a few more days with her.
His ruffled feathers gradually smoothed out, so that he was in a cheerful, yes, delighted mood once more when they walked through the village streets, arm in arm, a few hours later.
Natascha showed him the sights of the town, with the warm appreciation with which one regards a delightful relative who is an agreeable, but by no means essential, part of one's life.
"Do you know, Natascha, I believe these have been the happiest days we have spent together for a very long time," Ssenja said as he locked his trunk. He was leaving an hour before Natascha.
"Do you think so?"
"Don't you? There were moments, it is true, when I could not quite understand you. Sometimes I felt, for an instant, that you were getting away from me. But as soon as I listened into your soul (he was using Natascha's words) I came closer to you again, and this strangeness disappeared. Isn't that so? You have been cheerful, you laughed more than usual. I don't remember having seen you so happy... oh, for ever so long...I am going away happy...almost happy. .. ."
The last words came like an afterthought. He suddenly knelt down before her and buried his face in her lap....
"Ssenja, what is it?..."
"I can't help it. A dreadful feeling sometimes takes hold of me, a fear that I am to lose you....
I know it is stupid, but when it takes hold of me I am as helpless as a little child left alone by its mother in a great dark woods. Is it possible, Natascha, that we should ever become indifferent to one another? Tell me, truly, dear, do you still love me?"
His eyes searched hers with an intensity she had never seen in them before.
"Ssenja, this isn't at all like you. Are you beginning to entertain my psychological misgivings, silly Ssenjetschka ?"
She laughed at him. Had he noticed that she had not answered his question?
"Yes, it seems, does it not, that we have exchanged roles?"
He spoke thoughtfully and softly stroked her hand.
"There is something I can't explain. What is there that is not as it used to be? Nothing ... and yet...there is a difference. I am so afraid..."
Natascha was struck. Was it possible that now, when everything was over, he was beginning to understand her? Did he see what she herself was afraid to recognize?
"We, who have lived through so much together in these years of our friendship could not become strange to each other. ... I am too fond of you for that. ... You have become my little brother, my trusted friend. .. ." She stroked his head, the clever, thoughtful head she had once loved so agonizingly.
"Farewell, my dear, beloved..." her heart contracted and she could not stem the tears that rushed to her eyes. She was parting from the great love that had been hers, from the suffering it had brought her, from the happiness that had been theirs together. Gone ... gone ... never to return again.
Natascha's tears were the usual, inevitable end of every parting. They comforted Ssenja.
Everything, then, was as it had always been.
Natascha stood on the station platform. Ssenja was already in the car. The train would start in a moment.
"Now you are going East and I am going West.... When and where shall we meet again? Not soon, I'm afraid. But we have seen each other again and have gathered fresh courage for the future. It was wonderful, was it not, Natascha? It was wonderful!" He wanted a word of confirmation from her lips.
"Yes. The town is charming – a poem. I am leaving here with new thoughts – I stole them from you."
"Don't try to flatter me, as if you hadn't a clever little head of your own. You will write to me, won't you, as long as I am in H.?"
"I am already dreaming of meeting you again."
"By the way," she interrupted him in a businesslike tone, "will you formulate more exactly the proposition you asked me to take up with the comrades at home?"
The door slammed.
"Good-bye, Natascha. Till we meet again.... I am so grateful to you. .. ."
"For everything. ... Give me your hand. Don't be unhappy! We will meet again, soon. You must go back, dear. The train is moving."
Ssenja leaned far out of the window for a last glimpse of the girl as she stood on the station platform. He waved the familiar old gray hat that had always seemed so touching to her. Queer that she had not noticed how shabby it was before. That flabby brim hanging down over his face.
The train was vanishing into darkness. Natascha did not peer after it with hungry eyes as she used to do, feeling that the soul had left her body to hurry after it. She went to the outer station door with others who had seen their friends to the train, wondering anew at her composure. A leave-taking like a thousand others, with the depressing feeling of finality that one always had on such occasions. Nothing more. But Natascha knew that this was the end. They had taken their last farewell from one another.
Some time in the future life might throw them together for common work again. Only that. The great love that had throbbed in her heart all these years was gone forever. Nothing, neither tenderness nor pleading, not even understanding, could bring it back to life again.
Too late! In the train her thoughts were already far away from Ssenja and the love she had borne him. Her head was heavy with cares. There were her papers – she would look them over at once, destroy some, transcribe others into code, file some for future reference....
She was back at her work again. Long, long ago there had been a great, wonderful, beautiful love, – but it was gone. It had seeped out of her heart, through the countless tiny wounds that Ssenja, in his man-like failure to understand, had inflicted.