Alexandra Kollontai's Red Love
Vladimir had returned to his work for the first time, had gone to the office. Vasya was rejoicing in her freedom. In the morning she rushed to the Party Committee, and thence to the hemp-binding works. Lisa was asking for help, preparations had to be made for the meeting of the union.
On the way to the Party Committee Vasya smiled. She felt as though she had escaped from a cage. Everything delighted her. She felt as if she had not seen her Comrades for an incredibly long time; and they were glad, too. They had missed her. Vasya was a general favorite. She did so much, gossiped not at all, and sympathized with everybody’s troubles. The moment she reached Party headquarters she was given work to do – she had to determine what was to be discussed at the meeting, and to classify the material with the speakers.
Vasya looked at the clock. Impossible! It way almost eight! Vladimir must have waited for her impatiently. Had they given him a dinner conforming with the doctor’s orders? Vasya had forgotten all about it.
She walked with Lisa, discussing the news that a Comrade of the Central Administration had brought from Moscow. Many peculiar things were happening in the Party these days. Lisa was in complete disagreement with the new policy; she stood with the boys of the factory. They were going to put up their own candidates at the Party Conference – there would be another fight against the Chairman.
Vasya envied her. Since her arrival she had taken no really active part in anything, as if she were not a member of the Party, but only a “sympathizer.”
“That’s because you’re a manager’s wife. If you had been living by yourself you would have come back to work very soon.”
Vasya sighed. Lisa didn’t have to tell her that; she knew it herself. But she had no time to think of such things. As soon as Vladimir should have completely recovered she would go back to her province.
“Oh, you won’t go! You’re much too fond of your Vladimir Ivanovitch. You’re only a wife nowadays,” Lisa objected irritably.
Vasya remained silent. What could she say? Lisa was right; but she did not complain. She had gone through too much. Let Volodya only live, live without suffering.
When Vasya came home he was not there.
“Where is Vladimir Ivanovitch? Hasn’t he come back yet?”
“Of course he came back. He was here from three o’clock, and waited for you to come for dinner. But he couldn’t wait so long. When you didn’t come he ate with Ivan Ivanovitch. They went away not long ago,” Marya Semyonovna told her. “But there’s a note for you on the table.”
Vasya took it up.
“Dear Vasya, we’ve agreed always to be frank with each other; and you said you’d always understand me. I absolutely must be there today. I’ll tell you why later. Then you’ll understand that I couldn’t help it. I beg you to stand by our agreement, and not to grieve. Your Volodya.”
When Vasya had read the note her hands dropped on her lap.
Again? So it was not over. But why had she thought it was over? Had Volodya ever said so? Hadn’t she known that Ivan Ivanovitch was always going back and forth, forming the connecting link between Vladimir and the other woman? Volodya was honest, as she had begged him to be. Frankness, only frankness! Why did it hurt so? Why did bitter resentment and indignation rise in her heart, as if Volodya had deceived her again?
Marya Semyonovna was setting the table and looking disapprovingly at Vasya.
“Do you want to eat?” she asked. “Are you starting this business all over again? Nobody eats, and a person is expected to cook! Then there’ll be more of your endless quarrels and tears. You may resent it or not, Vassilissa Dementyevna, but I must tell you the truth; you’re not the woman for Vladimir Ivanovitch. Now you’re broken-hearted over his letter, and you’re crying because he’s gone to his mistress. But I tell you that you’re to blame, too. The man just rose up from the dead, so to speak. He took poison on account of you. But the moment he walked out the door you were gone yourself. If it were your work, it would be different. Business demands its rights. But you just run around from one meeting to another, enlightening our silly women. Why don’t you clean up your own house before you try to teach others? It’s a disgrace to work for you!”
Banging the door, she disappeared into the kitchen. But after a few minutes Marya Semyonovna returned, a little gentler, with a hot omelet and a cup of cocoa.“
Eat, Vassilissa Dementyevna, and stop thinking. You can’t think of everything, after all.
Marya Semyonovna sat down at the table beside Vasya and recounted her own experiences. Something of the sort had happened in the house of the late Madame Gollolobova, the general’s wife. All on account of the French governess. But then the general and his wife were reconciled and lived together very well until she died. What was more, they even were happy.
Vasya listened half-heartedly, but did not interrupt. She had come to know Marya Semyonovna during Vladimir’s illness. Marya Semyonovna pitied Vasya, and recognized one of her own people in her. She hated the specialists, the doctors, and the managers, thought them all burshuis. But now Vasya had to listen to Marya Semyonovna’s endless stories of how the millionaire Pokatilovs had lived; and what the general’s wife used to like for dinner. They bored Vasya; but she didn’t want to hurt Marya Semyonovna’s feelings. She was a kindly old soul, though she seemed rather sulky at first glance.
Her stories were particularly disagreeable to Vasya just now. She wanted to weigh everything, to clear up matters in her own mind, to think things over from beginning to end.“
Thanks for the supper, Marya Semyonovna. Now I’ll have to go to my papers.”
“Is that all you ate? If I’d known that I wouldn't have cooked anything for you. You’ll kill yourself, Vassilissa Dementyevna; and the whole business isn't worth that. For, to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t give a kopek for Vladimir Ivanovitch’s sweetheart! She isn’t worth your little finger.”
Lisa had said the same thing.
“Why do you say that, Marya Semyonovna? She is supposed to be so very beauti ful.”
“What’s beautiful in her? She’s painted and powdered like a clown, She isn’t interested in anything but clothes, so that she can get more and more out of the men.”
“Do you know her? Did you ever see her?”
“Of course I know her. How often didn’t she sleep here before you came, the dressed-up hussy! She has all sorts of notions. She has to have hot water at night, needs this, that, and the other. She pretends she’s a lady, and says she’s been used to this life since she was a child. But she’s lying – she doesn’t look like that. Real gentlefolk are more polite. They always say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ to the servants. But this hussy can only give orders: ‘Bring me this! Do that! Clear these things away!’ ”
“What’s her name?”
“Her name? Nina Constantinovna. I can’t remember her last name. Everybody in town calls her just Nina Constantinovna.”
“I’d like to see her sometime,” Vasya said thoughtfully, turning Volodya’s note in her hands.
“Nothing could be simpler. She goes walking in the City Park every day when the band plays. Let’s go there tomorrow, and you can take a look at the minx. In the old days that kind used to walk the streets of Moscow at night.”
“When the music plays, you say? All right, Marya Semyonovna; let’s go there. Maybe I’ll feel better after I’ve seen her.”
Marya Semyonovna shook her head doubtfully; but she made no attempt to dissuade Vasya. She was anxious to see how the two rivals would look at each other.
Vasya went through the dark house. She didn’t want any light; she felt that the darkness soothed her. She could not sleep.
In the morning everything seemed fine; Volodya was well and working again, and she, too, was busy. For she would soon return to her province. She didn’t want to be the “manager’s lady”. Since she and Vladimir had agreed always to be frank, she felt better. But the pain was still there. It was not jealousy. Nor had Vladimir broken his word; he had told the truth to Vasya as to a friend. Still, she did not feel quite happy.
She scolded herself: what in the world did she want? Surely she had not thought that Vladimir had come back to her altogether, that he had torn the other out of his heart. But that was just it. That was what Vasya had thought, hoped for, longed for.
And what was the upshot of it all? They had suffered so much, and had progressed not an inch. Vladimir was again spending his evenings with the other woman while Vasya wandered alone through the dark house. He had no pity for her. Whom did he love? Her, Vasya, his friend and comrade, or the other? He said he loved Vasya; but it wasn’t true. These thoughts only increased her suffering. If she knew that he had stopped loving her she would go away. But as matters stood, how could she go? Suppose she was mistaken. Suppose he should attempt suicide again. Vasya could not leave Vladimir. How could she live far away from him with this agony in her heart? It was more bearable when he was there.
Come what might, she loved Vladimir. If she didn’t love him could she suffer such torment because of him? She loved him: but she understood him less every day. As if they had entered a forest by two divergent paths. The farther they penetrated into the forest the greater the distance between them. She loved Volodya; but in her heart she condemned him more and more. Why had he had anything to do with such a creature P If it had been one of her own people, a Communist girl, she would not have felt so hurt. But this was a real burshuika. Volodya himself had told Vasya that she was a stranger, a young lady of the aristocracy. Spoiled. She could not understand the Bolsheviki and the Communists, but longed for her old life. She had been brought up in luxury. There had been seventeen servants in her home. She had had a horse of her own, accustomed to the side-saddle. Her father had been a White soldier. Her mother had died during the Revolution. Her brother, an officer, had been reported missing. Only she was left. She had looked for work. As she knew many languages she was taken on in the administrative offices as a secretary. Volodya met her there; she fell in love with him, wrote him letters.
Vasya was far away, Volodya was always alone.
So their affair began. It was soon noticed in the office; Nina Constantinovna was frowned upon, and had to give up her position. Savelvev made her his secretary.
Only his secretary?” Vasya couldn t hold back the question. For one thing, she wanted to irritate Vladimir; besides, she wanted to learn the truth about the other.
“What sort o f gossip are your repeating there?” Vladimir flared up. “Aren’t you ashamed to say such vile things? I didn’t think you would sling mud at her, like any other woman. Why, Vasya? It doesn't become you!”
He told Vasya that Savelyev was a sort of father or guardian, to Nina Constantinovna. He had known her parents; and when Nina stood alone in the world he took care of her, gave her advice and material assistance, procured the position in the administrative office for her. Then, when she left, he helped her again. She had to vacate her room. Where could she go? To Vladimir? That couldn’t be done. Savelyev offered to take her into his house. But Nina Constantinovna didn’t want that. Was she to be left on the street? Savelyev found a small house where he arranged to have his office, and offered Nina a home there. “For he is something like a guardian of hers. He feels sorry for her, takes care of her...."
“And makes love to her!” Again Vasya could not control herself. She was angry; Volodya spoke too favorably of her. He always had been a trusting soul. Vasya, however, was suspicious of the girl. Everybody said she was a regular one....
“It’s a lie, a slanderous lie! Why do you find pleasure in repeating such filth? If you want to know the truth, ask me. Nina thinks of no one. Nina loves only me. And even if it were true, Savelyev would not be the only one to make love to her. Do you know Maklezov, of the Foreign Trade Office? He offered her a life of luxury, but Nina showed him the door. I won’t deny that Savelyev may like Nina. Maybe his love for her isn’t purely paternal. But Nina can’t stand him – as a man, that is. There’s nothing doing there. It’s not to be thought of. I know Nina, you can be sure of that.”
She saw that he was growing quite excited, as if he wanted to convince not Vasya, but himself. But what hurt her most was Savelyev’s connection with everything. She had disliked him from the first day. There had been a reason for the S. C. telling her that Vladimir Ivanovitch ought to keep away from him.
“But I don’t see why Savelyev has to be mixed up with it. That’s why they say that you keep her together, share and share alike.”
“If anyone dares say that to you, spit in his face! You must understand me, Vasya. That’s the terrible part of it, that Nina was a virgin when I took her. She was pure....”
Vasya felt a stab in her heart, as if a fine needle were piercing it. Long ago, in ’17, at that evening tea in Vasya’s room, he had said:
“I’m keeping my heart for a pure girl.” And then that first night, he had caressed her and said: No one in the world can be purer than you.”
“Pure? What nonsense are you talking there, Vladimir? What has the body to do with purity? You're beginning to think like a burshui!”
“Try to understand me, Vasya. I don’t think so, but she does. It’s a great tragedy for her that I took her without marrying her. Now, she thinks, she’s ‘lost.’ You can’t know what she suffers. She cries all the time. Try to understand, Vasysa. She thinks differently than we proletarians do. The first man who has her has to marry her, too”
“Why didn’t you tell me that before? Who's preventing you from marrying her? I?”
“Oh, Vasya, Vasya. You’re so clever – but when it comes to love you’re a woman, like all the rest. How can I marry her, Vasya? We’re strangers – we’re different in every respect. It’s not love. It's rather pity. You can see it yourself.”
Only pity? Really? She wanted to believe it was only pity.
“If you don’t love or understand each other, why don’t you separate? It’s tormenting both of you!” Vasya didn’t mention herself.
“How can I leave her? It’s not such a simple matter, Vasya. Where can she go if I leave her? On the street? Should Savelyev keep her? Or should she register as a prostitute?”
“Why all this fuss? Let her look for work!”
“Work! That’s more easily said than done nowadays, when everybody’s laying off. Besides, what sort of work? After all, Nina can’t go into a factory!”
Vasya wanted to say: Why not into a factory? Why not, that hussy? But she wanted to spare Vladimir. He was not yet well, and the doctor had ordered him to avoid all excitement. He was already visibly affected by their conversation.
Later, as she roamed through the dark house, Vasya was sorry. Why hadn’t she cried out the truth? Why hadn’t she told Vladimir everything she thought of the woman? She didn’t believe that Nina Constantinovna loved him. She was merely ensnaring him, to gain a double advantage. Vasya hated her, not because she was reputed to be of loose character, but because her heart was not pure. Plenty of prostitutes were better than the so-called decent women. Vasya remembered the curly-haired Sinka, who had been shot by the Whites, and who cried, as she died: “Long live the Soviet Government! Long live the Revolution!” She had been on the streets, the lowest of the low; but when the Revolution broke out she revealed herself, undertook the most difficult and most dangerous tasks. She had worked in the Cheka with all her heart and soul. Vasya could have understood Vladimir’s falling in love with a woman like that. But this “lady,” this burskuika! She was a stranger, after all. And she had no heart, she was simply fooling Vladimir. He, trusting soul, believed in her. That was what hurt so badly. Vasya would never be able to reconcile herself to that.
What was her hold on him? His pity for her? I’m so weak, so helpless! He said she had been pure! Pure! Rut now there remained not the tiniest trace of that purity. She had exchanged it long ago for presents from men. He, however, still believed in her, Vasya was furious at the other woman.
“How long are you going to run around the house this way, Vassilissa Dementyevna?” grumbled Marya Semyonovna, breaking Vasya’s train of thought. “You ought to take care of yourself; you need your strength for your meetings. Why don’t you try to sleep? There’s no sense in your staying up for your husband. You won’t want to have him in your room anyway, when he comes from the other one. I’ll make his bed in the drawing-room.”
Vasya threw her arms about Marya Semyonovna. But she felt even more sad. A stranger was sorry for her. But he, her lover, her husband, her friend, pitied only the other, the heartless, wily woman who wound herself about him like a serpent.
“Are you asleep, Vasyuk?” Coming into the bedroom, Vladimir lit the lamp. Vasya lay in bed, her eyes wide open. How could she sleep with this agony in her heart?
“No, I’m not asleep.”
“Is Vasyuk angry with me?”
He sat down on the bed and tried to kiss Vasya. She pushed him away vehemently.
“So you are angry with me. What about our agreement? I told you the truth as I would a friend. You asked me to, yourself. And now... ? Is it better to lie?”
Vasya did not answer.
“It’s not good for us, darling, to begin our squabbles and reproaches all over again. Why are you angry? Because I visited Nina? Just think it over, Vasya. I was together with you all the time; and she is alone. Do you think she didn’t worry and suffer enough when I was ill?”
Vasya wanted to scream: “What has that to do with me?” But she pressed her lips together. She said nothing; only her heart was beating furiously.
“You must not think that anything happened, Vasyuk. I wasn’t alone with her. Savelyev was there, too, and Ivan Ivanovitch came in. We had something to discuss. Would you like to know why I was there today? Well, Vasya – I went there to say good-bye, Why do you stare so? Don’t you believe me? Ask Ivan Ivanovitch. That’s why I had him come here, so that he would arrange everything. Help Nina Constantinova to get away from here, pay her rent, and all the rest of it.”
“Where is she going?” Vasya’s voice sounded hollow.
“To Moscow. Savelyev will take her there; he has relatives there, with whom Nina will live. And she will look for a position. It’ll be easier for all of us that way.”
Vasya remained silent. There was suspicion in her eyes.
Why the sudden change? What had happened? Didn’t he love her any more?
“Let’s not talk about love. That’s quite another question. But Nina, too, understands that things can’t go on this way. She’s fully made up her mind to go to Moscow; she decided that long ago. She told me she would go the morning you went away from me. She telephoned me, and said she would not go on with this life. Either the one thing or the other. Or she would go to Moscow....”
“Ah, so that’s it. That’s why you took poison! One woman had gone, and the other was threatening to leave if you didn’t marry her. Now I see it all. You were afraid you’d lose her! What a fool I am. What a silly fool. I thought it was because of me that you were despondent and wanted to die.” Vasya laughed bitterly, hysterically. “How you twist everything, Vasya. How spiteful you’ve become. You’re not the Vasyuk you used to be,” Vladimir said sadly, getting up from the bed. “There’s really no sense in our talking. I wanted to tell you everything, so there would be no secrets between us. But now I see that the more truthful I am the worse matters become. You’ve become different, cruel.”
“Oh, no! Stop, Volodya!” Vasya’s voice was like breaking glass, quivered with all the despair of her heart. “If we’re going to talk things over, let’s do it. Why do you send her to Moscow? You love her, not me. If you loved me you would have stayed with me today. But you consider only her, you pity only her.”
“Vasya, Vasya. How unjust you are. If you only knew what Nina has gone through in these months. She is so young – almost a child. She hasn’t a single close friend. Everybody slings mud at her. And why, Vasya? Because she had the misfortune of falling in love with me. You, Vasya, have your Party, your friends. But she has only me. I’m her only protector, her only supporter.”
Walking up and down the room, his hand on his back, Vladimir told Vasya that Nina had expected a child. His child – his dream! So much joy, and so much sorrow.
“Where is the child?” Vasya asked, trembling.
“You surely don’t think Nina could have kept it! The scandal! And how you would have suffered! We thought of you. Nina cried her heart out. But for your sake, Vasya, we decided to do even that.”
For her sake? He had discussed it with a strange woman, had “thought of her” with a strange woman, of her, Vasya, as if she were not his friend and comrade, but some enemy. He had not come to her with his troubles, but to the other, to Nina. So she was nearer to him – she, not Vasya, belonged with him now.
“The day you came I found out that Nina was pregnant. Now you know what was tormenting me, Vasya”
She nodded silently.
Vladimir went on, telling her that Nina had gone to another city, to prevent gossip. Savelyev had found a place for her to live there. And she had had her abortion there. But the operation had not gone off smoothly. There had been complications. Vladimir had gone to see her.
“Was that when the shipping clerks were going to strike?”
“Yes, about that time.”
Hm.... So that was why he had wept in the dining room that day. On account of Nina. Not because of the shipping clerks, of course.
“And she came back the morning Savelyev arrived, didn’t she?” Vasya went on.
Neither spoke; both waited. Now the hard, cruel words would come again. Later they would regret them; but they could not be taken back. They distorted love, mutilating it until it was like a pockmarked face. No more beauty, no more heart-warming happiness.
“Vasya!” Vladimir broke the oppressive silence. “Why all this heartache? Who’s to blame? I swear to you, I spared you, spared you as long as I could.”
“That wasn’t necessary, Volodya. I only wanted you to believe that I’m your friend.”
Sitting down again beside her, Vladimir took her hand.
“Yes, Vasya, I know you’re my friend. That’s why it’s so hard for me.” He laid his head on Vasya’s shoulder, as he had always used to do. Stroking that head, Vasya felt a sweet joy tempering her pain. In spite of everything he was there, with her! He still loved her, in his way.
“Mightn’t it be better, Volodya, if I go away, and she stays?” she asked cautiously.
“Don’t start with that again, Vasya. Don’t torture me. Instead of helping me you drive me off the right path. I’ve revealed my soul to you as to a friend. I’m keeping no secrets from you. And here you say you want to go away.”
“For your sake, Volodya; i f you love her.”
“What do you mean by love, Vasya? Love must be returned; and I feel it so clearly, that Nina and I have nothing in common, that she isn’t a comrade, that she can never be a friend like you to me. I'm sorry for her, I take care of her. What would become of her if I were to leave her, if we were to part? I feel responsible for her. Can’t you understand? After all, she was a virgin when I took her.”
“That’s nonsense, Volodya. Why are you responsible for her? She wasn’t a child; she must have known what she was doing. Besides, who bothers about such things nowadays?”
“You have proletarian ideas; but Nina is different. It’s a real tragedy for her.”
“I know. That’s why I say I’ll go away and you should marry her.”
“There you go again, Vasya! Didn’t I beg you not to torment me? Besides it’s too late. Everything's been decided. Nina Constantinovna goes to Moscow Thursday. That’s all there’s to it! Let’s stop talking about it.”
Vladimir spoke so calmly, with so much assurance, that she had to believe him.
“But you be patient, Vasya, for another few days. Don’t do anything rash. She’ll go away, and we'll live as before. No, it’ll be better than ever before. Now we have suffered together, and that’ll bring us closer to each other.”
Volodya put his arms around Vasya, and kissed her eyes.
“I’d like to sleep with you tonight, Vasyuk. Do you mind? I’m so tired, my head’s reeling.”
Lying down, he laid his head on Vasya’s shoulder, and fell asleep at once.
Vasya, however, did not sleep. If he loved her, he would have caressed her. If he loved her, he would have understood her grief. She gazed at him. That familiar head, hiding such strange, incomprehensible thoughts. Those long lashes, veiling tender glances not meant for her. Those warm lips, covering another woman with yearning kisses, arousing her passion.
She pushed Voldya’s head from her shoulder. He was a stranger to her!
“Why do you drive your precious Voldya away?” Vladimir whispered in his sleep.
“Your precious Voldya?” Whose pet name was that? Not Vasya’s. He had confused them. He thought of the other even in his sleep.
Vasya scowled at her sleeping husband. Was that her lover? Had he once been her friend and comrade? Was he the man whom she had loved when, together, they had fought for the Soviet?
He was a stranger. A stranger.
She shivered. She was so lonely.