Alexandra Kollontai's Red Love
Lisa had hardly left for work in the morning when the door opened and Marya Semyonovna appeared, a black lace shawl wrapped about her head, She was gasping for breath. It was hot – midsummer.
“Good morning, Vassilissa Dementyevna. I’m bringing you a letter from your husband. He wanted me to take a cab, to get here faster. But where can one be found nowadays? I’m all out of breath.”
As Vasya tore open the envelope bearing the address of the office, her fingers seemed petrified.
“Vasya! What does this mean? What are you doing to me? Why do you torture me so unmercifully? Do you want a scandal throughout the district to give my enemies new material to ruin me? You’ve often said you were my friend; but you’ve joined my foes. You’ve destroyed my soul. I can’t go on with this life. If you no longer love me, say so openly. Why do you stab me from behind. You know I love only you. Everything else everyone says about me is nonsense, ephemeral. Listen to me! I swear to you that I was not with Savelyev yesterday! I swear to you that I kept faith with you where I was yesterday. My heart beats for you only. I’m all worn out, Vasya. Have pity. Come to me, let me look into your dear eyes and tell you everything. The whole truth! If you’re my friend and comrade, you’ll come. If not – then, good-bye. But this you must know: that I won’t live without you.
“Your wretched Volodya.”
Vasya read the letter twice. Now her heart was filled with tenderness, and the tears welled up in her eyes. “Ephemeral.” “I love only you.” Then again she raged: She had “tortured” him! He asked her to pity him! Had he had pity with her? Had he not tormented her? Her eyes were dry, her pale lips pressed together in a thin line.
“Wretched!” You don’t say! Wretched! All night long he had made love to another woman; he had given her blue silk. How she had begged him yesterday: Stay! She had put all her soul into her eyes. But he had pushed her away; had shouted at her like a real law ful husband, and had gone. Now he wrote: “I love only you!” He was lying. He did not love her. A fine sort of love, that! Only pain and bitterness! Yet why had he written “Goodbye! But this you must know: that I won’t live without you.” Surely he wouldn’t... ? Nonsense. It was merely a threat, to make her relent, to make her come to him at once, like a fool.
She read the letter once more.
In the meanwhile Marya Semyonovna seemed quite unconcerned, wiping off her perspiration, fanning herself with her handkerchief.
“Vladimir Ivanovitch came home yesterday almost as soon as you had gone. He asked where you were He went into the study and began to write. About midnight he came into the kitchen to ask whether you had come back. ‘No,’ I said, and he went away. Then he took Ivan Ivanovitch to the door, and went into the bedroom. He must have seen your note there. I heard him crying like a heart-broken little child. And he didn’t lie down all night, but walked around all the time. This morning he didn’t even drink tea. „I don’t want anything,’ he said to me. ‘Go and look for Vassilissa Dementyevna. Go to all her friends, till you find her. Don’t you dare come back without her! ”
Vasya listened, aching with the old love for Vladimir. He had waited for her alone through the night, had wept and suffered, had called her, Vasya. And how hard it had been for her. How she had yearned for him. She had been jealous. So the threads that had bound their hearts together were not broken; their love was not gone entirely! Why prolong the agony? Should she go back? Back to him for a good talk?
“What was Vladimir Ivanovitch doing when you left? Was he going to the office?”
“When I left? Why, he was just telephoning to the ‘little lady,’ probably wanted to tell her his troubles. Or maybe he wanted her to share in his joy. Who can understand these men? If only there’ll be no scandal!”
He had called up the “little lady”? Now? At such a time? He had written a letter to Vasya, and then telephoned to his lady? Lisa might be right. He was clinging to Vasya only to avoid a scandal. If his wife had not been held in such high esteem he would not have bothered about her. And he was calling her only to humiliate her again. No! She had had enough. She would not go to him, would not fall into the trap. Her head was reeling.
“Tell Vladimir Ivanovitch that there’s no answer. That’s all. And hurry. Please go!”
“I can’t go any faster. And it doesn’t pay to hurry in such things. You should have thought of this before, Vassilissa Dementyevna. Of course, Vladimir Ivanovitch did wrong by you, for you’re his wife; but you aren’t altogether in the right either. Who would leave such a young man all alone for months? And if you think about it, Vladimir Ivanovitch is a good husband after all. Always worrying about you. Always wanting to know whether you’re drinking your cocoa, whether I’ve fetched fresh eggs for you. He cares more for your clothes than you do. He’s never refused you anything. And where women are concerned – who is blameless there? You’re his wife; people respect you. But on the other side? He pays her and gives her presents – that’s all.”
As Marya Semyonovna spoke Vasya’s heart was growing heavier. How simple everything would be if she, too, could think that. But Marya Semyonovna did not understand just what had hurt her. Vladimir was no longer her friend. She had lost faith in him; and how could they live together without faith?
“Don’t you think you ought to wait till evening, Vassilissa Dementyevna? Couldn’t I go home and tell your husband that you want to think things over, and will give your answer in the evening? That’d be more sensible. But to talk this way, deciding on the spur of the moment – . It’s easy to make a mistake when you’re angry. I want to save you regrets and tears.”
“No, Marya Semyonovna. Don’t try to persuade me. It’ll be as I’ve said. I’m never coming back. It’s all over.”
Her lips trembled as she spoke, and big tears rolled slowly down her hollow cheeks.
“Well, it’s your own business. I’ve said enough. You have to do the deciding!” And Mary Semyonovna went.
Again Vasya wanted to moan like a wounded animal, to sob loudly so that she could be heard throughout the house and on the street; for it was all over. There was no going back. Farewell, Volodya. Farewell.
Vasya wept inconsolably, until finally she fell asleep, buried in Lisa’s pillow. For she had not closed her eyes all night.
She was awakened by the sound of an auto chugging away under her window.
Whose car? She jumped to her feet. Was Vladimir coming for her? Hope and joy awoke in her heart. She pushed the window open – Vassya, the boy, was standing at the door.
“Vassilissa Dementyevna, something terrible has happened. Vladimir Ivanovitch has taken poison.”
“How? What?” Vasya flew over to the boy, seized his hand. “Is he dead?”
“No, not yet. He’s still alive. But he’s writhing; he’s in agony. He’s calling for you. Ivan Ivanovitch sent me in the car.”
Hatless, barely dressed, Vasya entered the auto. Her teeth were chattering, she was trembling as from a fever.
She had killed him! Had hurt him mortally! She had refused her pity and her help. And he had begged for her in the morning – how he had begged for her!
She stared before her with wide-open eyes. They expressed not sorrow, but death, the inevitable.
Vassya didn’t see her eyes. He was telling, with an important air, just what had occurred. He liked the idea of such interesting things happening.
Vladimir Ivanovitch had gone to the office in the morning; then, after half an hour, he had come home. He had gone into the study, and Vassya had seen him going to the closet where he kept samples of dyes that were being tested for their stability. Then Vassya was busy sweeping in the courtyard. When he had finished and returned to the house, he heard someone groaning in the study. He went in to see what was wrong. There was Vladimir Ivanovitch lying on the sofa, only the whites of his eyes showing, his mouth open and foaming. And then the fun began...
Vassya had run for the doctor, who lived around the corner. He was just eating. But Vassya told him how matters stood: “The man’s dying, you can eat later.” Vassya had to make two hurried trips to the druggist in the car. Ivan Ivanovitch came over. The whole house was turned upside down.
Vasya listened without hearing a word. She herself was more dead than alive. Nothing remained but Vladimir and his sufferings. They filled her mind completely. If Volodya should die her life would be at an end, too. There would be only emptiness, an emptiness more dreadful than the grave.
She entered the house with the boy. Ivan Ivanovitch was just taking the doctor to the door.
“Is he alive?”
“We’re doing everything possible. We won’t be able to know anything definite before the morning.”
She tiptoed into the bedroom. Vladimir’s groans became more and more distinct. She seemed to be moaning herself. Could Vladimir be detached from her, from Vasya? The bedroom was changed, different. The rug was rolled up, the bed had been moved. But the bed was empty. Where was Volodya? Something big, white, long lay on the divan. Its face was a bluish gray, its eyes were closed. The moaning stopped.
What was that? Was he dead?
The physician turned on her furiously.
“Silence! No hysterics!”
Assisted by a white-capped nurse, the doctor was busy with Vladimir. Both looked grave and severe; they did not let Vasya come near Vladimir.
He opened his eyes and breathed more rapidly; he was alive!
“Doctor,” Vasya whispered pleadingly, “tell me the truth. Is there any hope?”
“There’s always hope as long as the heart is beating,” the doctor answered angrily, as if she were asking silly questions.
What did that mean? “As long as the heart is beating?” And suppose it should stop?
But she asked nothing more. The doctor was busy; he and the nurse were raising Vladimir’s head, pouring something into his mouth.
Once more Vladimir began to moan. Short, plaintive cries. Vasya listened. She no longer felt anything, but was absolutely numb, as if grief had paralyzed her senses, as if her being had stopped.
Twilight, and darkness. The night-lamp burning in the bed-room. Other physicians came, consulted. The errand-boy was rushed to the Health Bureau for special medicine.
Vasya was not permitted to see Vladimir; nor did he ask for her. He seemed unconscious, occasionally uttered short, sobbing moans. She thought that as he moaned his spirit was leaving him, that his soul was struggling against his body; but the body refused to liberate the soul.
Helplessly superfluous, Vasya walked among the physicians, knowing' of nothing she could do.
Suddenly it struck her like a thunderbolt: there must be rumors afloat, in the city. People would say: A Communist – and a suicide! Why? And the gossiping would begin. She would have to hurry, hurry, to forestall gossip. She would have to think of something. What happened and why? An inspiration: mushrooms! He had had mushrooms for breakfast, and now he was near death. She remembered such a case in her grandmother’s village while she had visited there. A tailor, who had come from the city to visit his brother, had gathered some mushrooms himself, had cooked them, eaten them, and died.
Vasya began to telephone. Michailo Pavlovitch came first. She would tell him the details when she saw him; now she merely wanted to tell him of the tragedy. Briefly, it was this: Vladimir Ivanovitch had been poisoned by mushrooms, and lay on the point of death. Then she telephoned the Chairman, and other Comrades.
She had prompted Ivan Ivanovitch, who was explaining matters to the members of the administration, advising the office. And very minutely she told Vassya, the errand-boy, and Marya Semyonovna what they would have to say. Vassya, keen and quick-witted, curled his lip, shrugged his shoulders, and said nothing. Let it be so! It was all the same to him. Marya Semyonovna, however, was offended, pressed her lips together and folded her hands over her apron. She re f used to agree to the mushroom story.
“How can a man be poisoned so badly by mushrooms? Everybody’ll say: ‘Why wasn’t the cook more careful?’ ”
But Vasya insisted. The story had been told to everybody: he had eaten mushrooms, and they had made him ill.
“Have it your own way! But it wasn’t a very clever idea. If it had been something else – but mushrooms! Who would cook bad mushrooms?”
Vasya left the kitchen. Marya Semyonovna, however, couldn’t regain her composure, banged about furiously with the pots. “Here they make a mess of things, get everything all mixed up, and now I’m to blame. First they make a bed the devil himself couldn’t sleep in, and now I have to lie in it, if you please! Marya Semyonovna is responsible! I can’t tell the difference between good and bad mushrooms! How can they insult a person like that? I’ve been in the kitchen for twenty years – there’s no other cook like me; I’m as good as a chef! You should see my pile of references. Even the late Madame Gollolobova, the general’s wife, who always was so proud, never called me anything but Marya Semyonovna; and the Pokatilovs, the millionaires, gave me a gold watch and chain for Christmas because my sauces were so good. And now just look at what they’ve thought up! ‘Marya Semyonovna gave the manager poisonous mushrooms!’ I didn’t think such an outrage was possible. Didn’t I do everything I could? I felt sorry for this Vassilissa, never breathed a word to her about her husband’s sweetheart But that’s how people are! Nothing but injustice! And they’re Communists...!”
“Why are you angry, Marya Semyonovna? Why do you feel offended?” Vassya spoke thoughtfully, eating his soup the while with great relish.
“Does it make any difference what they tell us to say? The truth will out. You won’t be held responsible; they've invented the story about the mushrooms only to keep down the scandal. But I like it. It’s an interesting business! There’s passion for you! What are the movies compared to this?”
“And you’re having a good time, you silly boy! A person’s dying, and you think it’s fun! What has the world come to! Nobody cares about life. The least little thing happens, and – bing, bang – they’ve shot the fellow. That’s why people don’t really want to live any more. It’s all because they’ve forgotten God!”
“Oh, forget about God yourself! I’m not a Communist, but I don’t believe in God, either.”
“And it’s wrong of you not to believe. There he sits and chatters without doing any work. Why don’t you help me clear away the plates? These fellows, these doctors use up so many dishes. They’re forever wanting tea and everything else. God’s will be done. That’s what I told that dressed-up minx, the maid of Vladimir Ivanovitch’s sweetheart. I was just finished with serving supper for the doctors when she comes running in by the back door, rustling her skirts, wearing a little batiste apron, sporting a butterfly on her head, and wagging her tail. ‘My lady sent me to find out how Vladimir Ivanovitch is getting on.’ ‘He’s getting on so well,’ I said, ‘that I guess he’ll be standing before his God pretty soon, for God punishes everyone for his sins. But as for your mistress, that hussy, just tell her she’d better go to church and do penance. After all, she’s the only one who’s to blame.’ ”
In Vassilissa’s presence, Marya Semyonovna was very silent. But the moment she found someone else to talk to there was no stopping the torrent of her words.
The house grew still. People had come during the day: members of the administration, fellow workers; the physicians had been consulting. Lisa shared the night-watch with Vasya, so that she would not be alone as she suffered and waited for the end. Lisa felt that she, too, was partly responsible; for she had aroused Vasya against Vladimir.
“Don’t say that, Lisa. I worked myself up against him. It took mortal danger to make me realize that nothing in the world is dearer to me than he. How can I live without him? His blood will be on my head.”
Her curly head supported on her hand, Vasya sat beside Vladimir’s bed, thinking. Suppose Volodya should die, so that she could no longer live with him – what then? The Revolution The Party? The Party could use only those who had no crime on their conscience. But Vasya would never be able to forget that she had killed Vladimir. If there had been some good reason.... But because of a woman’s jealousy. If he had had crooked dealings with thieves like Savelyev, if he had acted against the interests of the people, there would have been a reason. But to make her friend die because of a woman! And such a friend! She had thought he did not love her. But he must have loved her, since he had gone to his death. So life without her meant nothing to him? In spite of her sorrow this realization moved her to tears, to sweet, penitent tears. Gazing at her beloved man, Vasya whispered tenderly: “Will you forgive me, my darling? Will you be able to forget, my dear friend?”
He stirred, moved his head restlessly.
Gently Vasya raised his head from the pillow, as the nurse had shown her, and gave him water.
Vladimir drank. His eyes opened and looked at her, but seemed not to see her:
“Do you feel better, Volodetchka?”
She bent over him anxiously.
He didn’t answer. He opened his eyes and closed them again.
“Is Ivan Ivanovitch here?” he asked feebly.
“No, he’s gone. Do you want him?”
He nodded. “Call him – phone him.”
“But the doctor forbade you to bother about business.”
Vladimir looked impatient and fretful.
“Please don’t torment me, now at least. Get him.” His eyes closed.
Vasya felt a dagger. Why had he said that? “Please don’t torment me, now at least!” So he had not forgiven her for causing him this mortal agony.
She summoned Ivan Ivanovitch.
When he came, Vladimir asked Vasya to leave him alone with Ivan Ivanovitch. She went into the garden. The red roses had withered away, but the dahlias were in full bloom. The sun was blazing down on her hands, her shoulders, her head. It no longer caressed her as in the spring, hut burned painfully. The garden was neglected, the honeysuckle vines entwined the lilac bushes like ivy. The sky was not blue – the heat made it look like molten silver.
Vasya walked over the baking ground.
No. Vladimir wouldn’t forgive her! He would not forget. If she had come when he called her that morning, nothing would have happened. Now she had lost him – lost him forever. Not her adored lover, but her friend, her comrade. Volodya would not trust her any more, would not lean on her again. Vasya was standing beside the acacia tree that had been so full of white blossoms in the spring. She closed her eyes. Why hadn’t she poisoned herself? Why did she still live?
“Vassilissa Dementyevna, Vladimir Ivanovitch wants you,” Ivan Ivanovitch called to her as he entered the car and went away.
Where was he going? Was he taking a message to Vladimir’s friend? But Vasya no longer cared.
The past would never return.
It was hot. The scorching sun of summer was exhausting. The shades had been lowered. Vladimir was sleeping; Vasya knelt at the foot of his bed, driving away the flies.
He had to sleep, to regain his strength. He had suffered enough.
Vasya and Volodya were alone in the house; Marya Semyonovna had gone shopping. Vassya, the boy, had been sent away.
Vasya liked being alone with Volodya. She felt as if he belonged to her, as if he were her property. He was so weak and helpless.
If only he could understand, if only he could read her heart. He would see how ardently she loved him, how she was suffering, how she longed for his caresses, how her loneliness starved her. Why was Volodya always so taciturn, so hostile toward her? He never looked into her eyes. When she did not arrange the pillows quite properly he would say irritably: “And that calls itself a nurse! She doesn’t even know how to fix the pillows.”
Of course, one can’t expect much from a, sick man; still – why was he like that? Could he really not forgive her? Never? And if they stayed together would it always be as now, lonely, dismal, bleak?
She looked at Vladimir, at the dear, familiar face with its long eye-lashes. Vasya had fallen in love with them at the very beginning. And he had been captivated by her hair. But her hair was gone....
It was like the old fairy-tale. Her hair had bewitched him; when it was cut off her lover left her. How they had loved each other then, in ’17. And later, when the White offensive began. The night when, together, they arrested the conspirators. “If I fall, Vasya, don’t lose a single hour of your work; your tears can wait till later.” “And the same goes for you, Volodya. We promise each other.” They had held each other’s hands, had looked into each other’s eyes, and had gone to their work, without delay. It had been cold then, the stars had been shining, the snow had creaked under their feet as Vasya and Vladimir had gone with their men.
At the memory Vasya’s heart grew tender; as if the warmth radiating from her lost happiness were melting it. Vasya had not wept when the disaster had come upon her; she had not lamented, had forgotten herself. But now the tears were running down her cheeks. Not bitter, scalding tears, but gently sorrowful ones. She was weeping for the happiness of long ago.
“Vasya – why – Vasya! – what is it?”
Volodya had raised his head from the pillows, and was looking at her. His eyes were distant no longer, no longer seemed to look past her. They weren’t cold. They were “his” eyes, Volodya’s loving, sympathetic eyes, although their expression still was sad.
“What is it, Vasyuk? Why are you crying, poor child?”
He laid his hand on her curls lovingly.
“Volodya, my darling. Will you forgive me? Will you forgive?”
“Silly Vasya. What do you want me to forgive? Now, stop crying, so we can talk. Sit down here, closer to me. Here we live our lives side by side, saying nothing and suffering so.”
“But you must not get excited now – I’m afraid for you, dear. Some other time.”
“No, it wouldn’t go so well some other time. Let me talk, Vasya. I’m so wretched. That’s why I wanted to die. And even now, though I want to live, I see no way out....”
“We’ll look for it together, Volodya. After all, I’m not a stranger to you.”
“Are you sure you know everything, Vasya?”
She nodded. “I know.”
“Now you understand what was hurting me? And you were always reproaching me with silly things, forever harping on Savelyev.”
“I know, Volodya.”
“And you made another mistake. Did you think that was love? Did you? No, Vasya, I love only you, you, my guardian angel, you, my faithful friend. But there, Vasya, it’s different, entirely different. Call it whatever you want, call it lack of self-control, whatever you want, only not love! But you were jealous of me, you suspected me, spied on me.”
“Never, Volodya. Never.”
“How can you say that? Think of the blue silk! Think of your cross-examinations: ‘Why do you smell of perfume?’ And ‘Where does Savelyev live? Show me!’ ”
“I didn’t spy on you, Volodya; no, I didn’t. But I was imagining all sorts of dreadful things. I wanted to drive away those fancies, Volodya. I wanted to believe in you, to keep my faith in you.”
“Oh, don’t talk about your fancies! You were jealous all the same. You didn’t say so openly, but you tormented me, tortured me. Why go over all that? We’re both to blame!”
Silence. Both were thinking.
“Is our life to go on like this, Volodya?” Vasya, asked mournfully.
“I don’t know, Vasya. I’m lost myself. I don't know what to do.”
Again both were silent. Both had much to say; but they could not reach each other.
“Might you not really be happier with the other girl, Volodya?” Vasya asked cautiously. She was surprised that the question did not hurt her.
“Vasya, Vasya! I see that you don’t trust me. Can’t you see whom I love? Didn’t I try to kill myself because I had lost you?” There was reproach in both his voice and his eyes.
Her heart was trembling with joy.
They embraced; their lips sought each other.
“No, not like that, Vasya! Calm down, Vasyuk! My strength hasn’t come back yet, you see – I can't even kiss you....”
Smiling, Vladimir patted Vasya’s head; but his eyes were sad again. No; the wall between them could not be broken down. They could not find the path that led through the thorny hedge of misunderstanding from one heart to the other.