In the year 1840, the theatre at Wiesbaden was a poor affair even externally, and its company, for affected and pitiful mediocrity, for studious and vulgar commonplaceness, not one hair’s-breadth above the level, which might be regarded up to now as the normal one in all German theatres, and which has been displayed in perfection lately by the company in Carlsruhe, under the ‘illustrious’ direction of Herr Devrient. At the back of the box taken for her ‘Serenity Madame von Polozov’ (how the waiter devised the means of getting it, God knows, he can hardly have really bribed the stadt-director!) was a little room, with sofas all round it; before she went into the box, Maria Nikolaevna asked Sanin to draw up the screen that shut the box off from the theatre.
‘I don’t want to be seen,’ she said, ‘or else they’ll be swarming round directly, you know.’ She made him sit down beside her with his back to the house so that the box seemed to be empty. The orchestra played the overture from the Marriage of Figaro. The curtain rose, the play began.
It was one of those numerous home-raised products in which well-read but talentless authors, in choice, but dead language, studiously and cautiously enunciated some ‘profound’ or ‘vital and palpitating’ idea, portrayed a so-called tragic conflict, and produced dulness . . . an Asiatic dulness, like Asiatic cholera. Maria Nikolaevna listened patiently to half an act, but when the first lover, discovering the treachery of his mistress (he was dressed in a cinnamon-coloured coat with ‘puffs’ and a plush collar, a striped waistcoat with mother-of-pearl buttons, green trousers with straps of varnished leather, and white chamois leather gloves), when this lover pressed both fists to his bosom, and poking his two elbows out at an acute angle, howled like a dog, Maria Nikolaevna could not stand it.
‘The humblest French actor in the humblest little provincial town acts better and more naturally than the highest German celebrity,’ she cried in indignation; and she moved away and sat down in the little room at the back. ‘Come here,’ she said to Sanin, patting the sofa beside her. ‘Let’s talk.’
Maria Nikolaevna glanced at him. ‘Ah, I see you’re as soft as silk! Your wife will have an easy time of it with you. That buffoon,’ she went on, pointing with her fan towards the howling actor (he was acting the part of a tutor), ‘reminded me of my young days; I, too, was in love with a teacher. It was my first . . . no, my second passion. The first time I fell in love with a young monk of the Don monastery. I was twelve years old. I only saw him on Sundays. He used to wear a short velvet cassock, smelt of lavender water, and as he made his way through the crowd with the censer, used to say to the ladies in French, “Pardon, excusez” but never lifted his eyes, and he had eyelashes like that!’ Maria Nikolaevna marked off with the nail of her middle finger quite half the length of the little finger and showed Sanin. ‘My tutor was called — Monsieur Gaston! I must tell you he was an awfully learned and very severe person, a Swiss — and with such an energetic face! Whiskers black as pitch, a Greek profile, and lips that looked like cast iron! I was afraid of him! He was the only man I have ever been afraid of in my life. He was tutor to my brother, who died . . . was drowned. A gipsy woman has foretold a violent death for me too, but that’s all moonshine. I don’t believe in it. Only fancy Ippolit Sidoritch with a dagger!’
‘One may die from something else than a dagger,’ observed Sanin.
‘All that’s moonshine! Are you superstitious? I’m not a bit. What is to be, will be. Monsieur Gaston used to live in our house, in the room over my head. Sometimes I’d wake up at night and hear his footstep — he used to go to bed very late — and my heart would stand still with veneration, or some other feeling. My father could hardly read and write himself, but he gave us an excellent education. Do you know, I learnt Latin!’
‘You? learnt Latin?’
‘Yes; I did. Monsieur Gaston taught me. I read the Æneid with him. It’s a dull thing, but there are fine passages. Do you remember when Dido and Æneas are in the forest? . . . ’
‘Yes, yes, I remember,’ Sanin answered hurriedly. He had long ago forgotten all his Latin, and had only very faint notions about the Æneid.
Maria Nikolaevna glanced at him, as her way was, a little from one side and looking upwards. ‘Don’t imagine, though, that I am very learned. Mercy on us! no; I’m not learned, and I’ve no talents of any sort. I scarcely know how to write . . . really; I can’t read aloud; nor play the piano, nor draw, nor sew — nothing! That’s what I am — there you have me!’
She threw out her hands. ‘I tell you all this,’ she said, ‘first, so as not to hear those fools (she pointed to the stage where at that instant the actor’s place was being filled by an actress, also howling, and also with her elbows projecting before her) and secondly, because I’m in your debt; you told me all about yourself yesterday.’
‘It was your pleasure to question me,’ observed Sanin.
Maria Nikolaevna suddenly turned to him. ‘And it’s not your pleasure to know just what sort of woman I am? I can’t wonder at it, though,’ she went on, leaning back again on the sofa cushions. ‘A man just going to be married, and for love, and after a duel. . . . What thoughts could he have for anything else?’
Maria Nikolaevna relapsed into dreamy silence, and began biting the handle of her fan with her big, but even, milkwhite teeth.
And Sanin felt mounting to his head again that intoxication which he had not been able to get rid of for the last two days.
The conversation between him and Maria Nikolaevna was carried on in an undertone, almost in a whisper, and this irritated and disturbed him the more. . . .
When would it all end?
Weak people never put an end to things themselves — they always wait for the end.
Some one sneezed on the stage; this sneeze had been put into the play by the author as the ‘comic relief’ or ‘element’; there was certainly no other comic element in it; and the audience made the most of it; they laughed.
This laugh, too, jarred upon Sanin.
There were moments when he actually did not know whether he was furious or delighted, bored or amused. Oh, if Gemma could have seen him!
‘It’s really curious,’ Maria Nikolaevna began all at once. ‘A man informs one and in such a calm voice, “I am going to get married”; but no one calmly says to one, “I’m going to throw myself in the water.” And yet what difference is there? It’s curious, really.’
Annoyance got the upper hand of Sanin. ‘There’s a great difference, Maria Nikolaevna! It’s not dreadful at all to throw oneself in the water if one can swim; and besides . . . as to the strangeness of marriages, if you come to that . . . ’
He stopped short abruptly and bit his tongue.
Maria Nikolaevna slapped her open hand with her fan.
‘Go on, Dimitri Pavlovitch, go on — I know what you were going to say. “If it comes to that, my dear madam, Maria Nikolaevna Polozov,” you were going to say, “anything more curious than your marriage it would be impossible to conceive. . . . I know your husband well, from a child!” That’s what you were going to say, you who can swim!’
‘Excuse me,’ Sanin was beginning. . . .
‘Isn’t it the truth? Isn’t it the truth?’ Maria Nikolaevna pronounced insistently.
‘Come, look me in the face and tell me I was wrong!’
Sanin did not know what to do with his eyes. ‘Well, if you like; it’s the truth, if you absolutely insist upon it,’ he said at last.
Maria Nikolaevna shook her head. ‘Quite so, quite so. Well, and did you ask yourself, you who can swim, what could be the reason of such a strange . . . step on the part of a woman, not poor . . . and not a fool . . . and not ugly? All that does not interest you, perhaps, but no matter. I’ll tell you the reason not this minute, but directly the entr’acte is over. I am in continual uneasiness for fear some one should come in. . . . ’
Maria Nikolaevna had hardly uttered this last word when the outer door actually was half opened, and into the box was thrust a head — red, oily, perspiring, still young, but toothless; with sleek long hair, a pendent nose, huge ears like a bat’s, with gold spectacles on inquisitive dull eyes, and a pince-nez over the spectacles. The head looked round, saw Maria Nikolaevna, gave a nasty grin, nodded. . . . A scraggy neck craned in after it. . . .
Maria Nikolaevna shook her handkerchief at it. ‘I’m not at home! Ich bin nicht zu Hause, Herr P. . . .! Ich bin nicht zu Hause. . . . Ksh-sk! ksh-sh-sh!’
The head was disconcerted, gave a forced laugh, said with a sort of sob, in imitation of Liszt, at whose feet he had once reverently grovelled, ‘Sehr gut, sehr gut!’ and vanished.
‘What is that object?’ inquired Sanin.
‘Oh, a Wiesbaden critic. A literary man or a flunkey, as you like. He is in the pay of a local speculator here, and so is bound to praise everything and be ecstatic over every one, though for his part he is soaked through and through with the nastiest venom, to which he does not dare to give vent. I am afraid he’s an awful scandalmonger; he’ll run at once to tell every one I’m in the theatre. Well, what does it matter?’
The orchestra played through a waltz, the curtain floated up again. . . . The grimacing and whimpering began again on the stage.
‘Well,’ began Maria Nikolaevna, sinking again on to the sofa. ‘Since you are here and obliged to sit with me, instead of enjoying the society of your betrothed — don’t turn away your eyes and get cross — I understand you, and have promised already to let you go to the other end of the earth — but now hear my confession. Do you care to know what I like more than anything?’
‘Freedom,’ hazarded Sanin.
Maria Nikolaevna laid her hand on his hand.
‘Yes, Dimitri Pavlovitch,’ she said, and in her voice there was a note of something special, a sort of unmistakable sincerity and gravity, ‘freedom, more than all and before all. And don’t imagine I am boasting of this — there is nothing praiseworthy in it; only it’s so and always will be so with me to the day of my death. I suppose it must have been that I saw a great deal of slavery in my childhood and suffered enough from it. Yes, and Monsieur Gaston, my tutor, opened my eyes too. Now you can, perhaps, understand why I married Ippolit Sidoritch: with him I’m free, perfectly free as air, as the wind. . . . And I knew that before marriage; I knew that with him I should be a free Cossack!’
Maria Nikolaevna paused and flung her fan aside.
‘I will tell you one thing more; I have no distaste for reflection . . . it’s amusing, and indeed our brains are given us for that; but on the consequences of what I do I never reflect, and if I suffer I don’t pity myself — not a little bit; it’s not worth it. I have a favourite saying: Cela ne tire pas à conséquence — I don’t know how to say that in Russian. And after all, what does tire à consequence? I shan’t be asked to give an account of myself here, you see — in this world; and up there (she pointed upwards with her finger), well, up there — let them manage as best they can. When they come to judge me up there, I shall not be I! Are you listening to me? Aren’t you bored?’
Sanin was sitting bent up. He raised his head. ‘I’m not at all bored, Maria Nikolaevna, and I am listening to you with curiosity. Only I . . . confess . . . I wonder why you say all this to me?’
Maria Nikolaevna edged a little away on the sofa.
‘You wonder? . . . Are you slow to guess? Or so modest?’
Sanin lifted his head higher than before.
‘I tell you all this,’ Maria Nikolaevna continued in an unmoved tone, which did not, however, at all correspond with the expression of her face, ‘because I like you very much; yes, don’t be surprised, I’m not joking; because since I have met you, it would be painful to me that you had a disagreeable recollection of me . . . not disagreeable even, that I shouldn’t mind, but untrue. That’s why I have made you come here, and am staying alone with you and talking to you so openly. . . . Yes, yes, openly. I’m not telling a lie. And observe, Dimitri Pavlovitch, I know you’re in love with another woman, that you’re going to be married to her. . . . Do justice to my disinterestedness! Though indeed it’s a good opportunity for you to say in your turn: Cela ne tire pas à conséquence!’
She laughed, but her laugh suddenly broke off, and she stayed motionless, as though her own words had suddenly struck her, and in her eyes, usually so gay and bold, there was a gleam of something like timidity, even like sadness.
‘Snake! ah, she’s a snake!’ Sanin was thinking meanwhile; ‘but what a lovely snake!’
‘Give me my opera-glass,’ Maria Nikolaevna said suddenly. ‘I want to see whether this jeune première really is so ugly. Upon my word, one might fancy the government appointed her in the interests of morality, so that the young men might not lose their heads over her.’
Sanin handed her the opera-glass, and as she took it from him, swiftly, but hardly audibly, she snatched his hand in both of hers.
‘Please don’t be serious,’ she whispered with a smile. ‘Do you know what, no one can put fetters on me, but then you see I put no fetters on others. I love freedom, and I don’t acknowledge duties — not only for myself. Now move to one side a little, and let us listen to the play.’
Maria Nikolaevna turned her opera-glass upon the stage, and Sanin proceeded to look in the same direction, sitting beside her in the half dark of the box, and involuntarily drinking in the warmth and fragrance of her luxurious body, and as involuntarily turning over and over in his head all she had said during the evening — especially during the last minutes.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01