THE day the revolution started my Aunt Natasha was drunk. Not that I realized this at first. She’d gone to a name-day party the previous evening, and I hadn’t heard her come in. But there was nothing unusual about this. Aunt Natasha is very dignified when drunk, and therefore quiet. She is also dignified when sober. I love Aunt Natasha. She adopted me after the death of my parents, whom I can’t remember, although no one would have blamed her had she shifted the responsibility. My other blood relative, Uncle Matthias, cans caviar for exportation and owns a television set; but he was determined not to own me.
Aunt Natasha is not young, and her husband, the general, died before the war. I can’t remember him; nor, I sometimes think, can she. Unless he was a very odd general: gentleness, according to her, was his dominant characteristic. Almost aggressively gentle herself, Aunt Natasha had lately taken to vegetarianism — although we made an exception whenever Uncle Matthias sent us caviar, which he didn’t do often, luckily for Aunt Natasha’s principles. Because she never cheated, maintaining that to say “fishes’ eggs don’t count” would be adding hypocrisy to wrongdoing, the thought of which made her scatter hairpins.
These hairpins often served as barometers. For example, when strewn over the floor of her room in the morning, they indicated that Aunt Natasha had been drunk the night before. We never discussed this, not because the matter embarrassed her, but because it didn’t, so there was nothing to discuss. It was behavior of this kind that made Uncle Matthias say Aunt Natasha was merely a child in his I-am-a-man-of-the-world-and-youcan’t-fool-me voice. But he isn’t and you can. He meant that despite hairpins he considered Aunt Natasha fundamentally simple and good. But having recently been a child myself, I know that children are not necessarily either simple or good.
This morning was a school holiday, but I got up at the usual time because I’d made a date to have my first permanent wave at eight o’clock, and the hairdresser lived way over on the other side of town. I’d been saving my chess winnings for this permanent. In several contemporary novels recommended by the library committee the heroines’ natural hair and freedom from cosmetics are particularly admired by the heroes. Here I think the authors are deviating from the truth—except when they prevaricate by making the natural hair consist of rebellious curls. Anyway, mine being rebelliously straight, I was longing for this permanent. Longing makes me hungry, so I hurried out of bed and across the room to the tin safe where we keep food.
In it were a bowl of bean soup, half a baked potato, and some stale hornashen. I put half the soup in a saucepan, but the gas was so low the soup was barely tepid when I wanted it. Eating half the half potato, I daydreamed of other kinds of food. My deskinate, Elsa, whose father is a porter at the American Embassy, once gave me a magazine full of big, colored advertisements: hamburgers, hot dogs, avocado pears, waffles with maple syrup, lemon meringue pie, and steaks bigger than my hand. Most of all I should have liked to try a layer cake that looked as snow does at the pole just after penguins have hobbled across it. Meanwhile I ate the potato slowly, so as to make it last. It was somewhat moldy, but I enjoyed the burned part.
While eating I stood beside the dressmaking dummy and looked out the window. It is mainly because some of Boris’ jobs with horses have enabled him to win friends and influence people in one or two government offices that Aunt Natasha can carry on private dressmaking without being molested. In general, former property owners can operate only on sufferance; and in the case of shopkeepers it’s not long before they’re accused of sabotage. At this time of the morning there was usually a procession of people going by to work. They would hurry along in dark clothes, few ever looking right or left, their movements staccato as those of extras in the early Charlie Chaplin films shown at the Cinema Museum. But this morning the street was empty, except for a cat. It advanced prudently, stopping now and again to examine the gutter. Once it jumped on a leaf. It was an orange cat. Wondering uninterestedly where everyone had gone, I finished dressing. I didn’t wash as, the tap being in Aunt Natasha’s room, this would have meant disturbing her. There is a shower on the landing, but seldom any water, and never any hot water except when the janitor’s wife wants to take a bath, a rare event.
As I was about to leave I suddenly remembered that Elsa had given me a glass tube of AlkaSeltzer tablets in exchange for my doing her French translation. Her father had picked them out of an embassy trash basket, a place in which he often found objects of interest. Aunt Natasha had appreciated the last lot, so would be glad to see these. I managed to turn the handle soundlessly, and was about to tiptoe in when I saw that her bed was empty.
Fear broke out over me like sweat. Worrying as she did over me — in case I might be run over, for example, although there is very little traffic to be run over by — Aunt Natasha rightly assumed I worried over her, and she never slept away from home without warning me, even at curfew periods. My hand sticking to the door knob, I guessed at friends she might have felt like visiting after the party: old Nina, who is a masseuse but has no telephone and lives on the other side of town, between the Powder Tower and the deserted canal; Olga, who is officially a bad typist and unofficially an excellent fortuneteller; Boris, who is Aunt Natasha’s oldest friend and now trains circus horses — and at this point there was a loud hammering on the front door. The bell had been out of order for several months, and the electrician’s waiting list was longer than a bus queue on a wet night. If nagged, the electrician would fly into a rage and announce he had only one pair of hands. Sometimes he even accused the impatient of being bourgeois.
“Coming,” I shouted, thinking with relief that Aunt Natasha had merely lost her key, “coming, darling,” then I stopped. Outside stood not Aunt Natasha, but a policeman. I felt as if there were a large cold stone in my stomach. But I tried to look pleasant. They can make trouble, not theoretically but in practice, if one doesn’t. After giving me a disapproving stare, he asked, in that smoothly dire voice that so often goes with a uniform, did Aunt Natasha live here? Yes, I said, swallowing “of course” just in time. Oh, he said, sneerily, then I’d better know she was at the Racnik hospital, having been taken ill in a public thoroughfare. The stone pressed deeper into my stomach, but I just managed to control myself. If one shows distress they are apt to think one has reprehensible motives for this. Which is often the case, from their viewpoint. Instead of trying “My aunt is inclined to be delicate,” which might have led to their sending her to a Home, I said, “Thanks very much, I’ll come right away.” Then something odd happened. The policeman smiled sympathetically, so I smiled back, and for a few seconds it was as if there were no uniform making a third person in the doorway.
WHEN I got to the end of the street I realized I hadn’t asked the policeman the Racnik’s address. But he’d bicycled out of sight, so I turned back and across the big square to the post office. At this hour the square usually belongs to the men in dark blue, with peaked caps, who sweep up the leaves. Children on their way to school often annoy the men by shuffling their feet in the piled-up leaves, and when the sweepers brandish their brooms the twigs make angry crackling sounds. But today no one was touching the leaves, which lay where they had fallen, in heaps almost as bright as the orange cat. There was a faint smell of burning.
To my surprise, the post office was closed. There was no one outside but a speckled cat, caressing itself against a grating, and when I looked back across the square the only living creature in sight was another cat. There was no queue outside the bookstore, though there had been one all day yesterday, owing to the arrival of copies of two French books, Cyrano de Bergerac and a novel by Gilbert Cesbron.
Behind the post office I ran into one of the sweepers, his peaked cap on backwards. When I asked the way to the Racnik he looked annoyed and turned his back. When I tried to insist, he shooed me off with his broom. Next I tried the baker’s. The baker was outside, pulling down the iron shutters. All he would say, out of the side of his mouth, was “You don’t want to go there now.”On the railway embankment three children were playing marbles with pebbles. They’d never heard of the Racnik. In front of the closed gymnasium some young men in raincoats were running, their elbows close to their sides, their knees high. A small boy held the side door of the church of the Knights of the Cross open so that a man wearing a crash helmet could wheel his motorcycle inside. Far down the arcaded street that leads to tall old houses with high-pitched gabled roofs, there was a small detonation. Today, looking back on all this, I realize nothing was quite as usual that morning; but at the time I was thinking only of Aunt Natasha. Sometimes, when one is called to the hospital, there has been an accident.
I crossed the river — dark-green as magnolia leaves this morning, with here and there coffeecolored streaks of alluvial mud — by the bridge of statues. The wind was tugging frantically at the flag over the castle. At the end of February 11th Avenue, there was a smell of gasoline. It came from a straggling crowd of people carrying jugs and making for the war memorial. This consists mainly of an old tank the color of dried mustard, and it is only time that has transformed it into a memorial. Tanks fill me with terror. Bombs and bullets can kill unexpectedly, quickly, almost painlessly; but no one could see a tank coming nearer and nearer without knowing what to expect. After seeing that old him about the siege of Berlin, I used to have nightmares in which I was slowly chased by an army of giant tortoises, their soft heads gently swaying outside their hard shells, their necks looking like crumpled wrappingpaper.
Running from the crowd, I found myself in a street I didn’t know. At the end of it stood a gray statue of a liberator, speckled white by pigeons’ droppings. An old woman was sitting on the steps at the liberator’s feet, mending the cane seat of a chair. She had no front teeth and smelled of garlic. When I asked her the way to the Racnik she made growling noises. I just managed to make out that I’d better be careful, it was one thing to get in but quite another to get out, they’re devils in them hospitals, also that the Racnik was second on the left from the Victory Arch. I’ve forgotten who was victorious there, but many people were killed and some of their names are carved on the arch. Whenever we are advised to think of posterity, it strikes me that we are someone’s posterity. This is not altogether an encouraging thought.
Beyond the arch people were running to and fro, shouting. I try to acquire courage, but doubt I ever shall. Shouts, waving arms, and people gnashing as if their teeth were secret weapons make me tremble. I was beginning to fear I would never find the hospital when there it was, just past the statue of a reformer who was burned several hundreds of years ago: a big handsome building with windows, some of them paneless, surmounted by fragments of carved coats of arms. Immediately inside was a desk marked “Inquiries.” A man in a grayish overall said Aunt Natasha certainly wasn’t there, speaking as if my suggesting she might be were an insult. But another man, who was filling in forms, suddenly looked over his spectacles and said oh yes she was, on the second floor. He even accompanied me to the elevator, which had a placard on it saying “Temporarily out of order.” In our apartment block the elevator wore a similar placard for eighteen months, after which Aunt Natasha stole it. She said the information had grown stale, not to say monotonous. Sometimes, when just a little drunk, she used to hang this placard round her neck.
THE hospital stairs were painted a mustard color like that of the memorial tank. I tried unsuccessfully to imagine anyone’s going into a paint store and exclaiming, “Ah, that’s just the color I’d like.” There were smells of anesthetics, frying, and lavatories. The first ward I entered contained about twenty beds, close together, in each an old woman with tangled gray or white hair, and several front teeth missing. Looking at the hairs, each distinct as twisted wire, strewn over the battered scalps, I thought of the last ballet Aunt Natasha and I went to — and of how lucky Juliet was to die young, beautiful, and still expecting something from life.
Aunt Natasha wasn’t there, so I ran out, and into a nurse with a dirty apron, who said she’d never heard of Aunt Natasha, and I’d no business wandering around as if I owned the place. So I said placatingly that I was just going, and went down the passage and hid behind a wardrobe until she was out of sight. The second ward contained the same kind of old women as the first, inanimate as objects washed up after a storm, except for an occasional flicker in their eyes, such as one sees in the eyes of animals behind bars. Immediately I entered the third ward, a hand rose from the furthest bed, and with it a faint but jaunty cry. So relieved that I was almost prepared to scold, I ran and clutched Aunt Natasha. All her hairpins were gone, and her soft moth-colored hair floated round her shoulders, giving her the look of an elderly actress miscast as Desdemona.
‘’Look, Resi darling,” she pointed at her black eye, “wouldn’t you know I’d go and fall on my face. You’ll have to conceal me, in the unlikely event of Matthias calling.” She gave a deep infectious laugh. Uncle Matthias is not related to Aunt Natasha by blood, only by law, and distantly.
“How . . .” Then I stopped. In such circumstances, Aunt Natasha never remembers recent happenings. “What about coming home?”
“An excellent idea. So good of you to come, my darling. They were being quite tiresome about letting me out. Forms,” she waved her long beautiful grubby hands, “filling in f-o-r-m-s, the great twentieth-century vocation. You’d think that . . .” Suddenly bored by this topic, she turned to the bed nearest hers. “Mrs. Wieder has kindly suggested that her husband might be able to do us a favor now and again. He’s a butcher, and devoted to the circus.”
This was the first I’d heard of our vegetarian period being over, and I looked with interest at Mrs. Wieder, who was mumbling what sounded like an apology.
“By all means,” said Aunt Natasha graciously and, as if she’d been waiting for this signal, Mrs. Wieder popped a set of large false teeth into her mouth. They didn’t altogether improve her appearance, but they did alter it. “You’re very welcome,” she said, distinctly, and she bowed, in as far as one can bow lying in bed. Aunt Natasha bowed back, on the same lines, but with different effect. The difference between Aunt Natasha and Mrs. Wieder was like that between bombed baroque and a prefabricated house that has collapsed because it wasn’t put together properly in the first place.
Getting drunk must give pleasure or so many people wouldn’t do it. In Aunt Natasha’s case I think it reminds her of when she was young and beautiful, since at that time many of her friends drank a lot. It was part of the way they lived, like keeping tame bears, going to hear gypsies sing, having the kind of love affairs that go with tiaras, and never getting up from the table feeling one could immediately eat as much again. Yet she did not exactly regret that life, having thought it wrong even when living it. As a young bride, an admirer of Peter Stolypin, she assembled all the peasants on her country estate and announced she meant to share her land with them. She was amazed when they replied they needed time to consider her offer, and very hurt when they refused it on the grounds that she wouldn’t be giving property away if there weren’t something wrong with it. But although Aunt Natasha disapproved of that old life, it had left traces in her, like creases in a piece of cloth that only a hot iron can smooth out — and, now and again, one of these traces would get us into worse trouble than we were in at the Racnik.
When at last I found the nurse in charge of dehospitalization, she grumbled and thrust a handful of printed forms at me. I have known many shortages, but never one of forms. Aunt Natasha won’t use them for lavatory paper, she says one must draw the line somewhere, and that in any case they would be just as nefarious in this capacity as in that for which they were intended. On the forms in question Aunt Natasha was required to certify that all her personal belongings had been returned to her in good and due form. In fact they were returned in a sackcloth bag with a list pinned to it: “one beret, one coat, one skirt (torn), one pair of boots, one purse (empty), one glove (left hand), one key, one packet of cigarettes (squashed).”
Greeting these elatedly, Aunt Natasha climbed out of bed. With her hair drifting over the shoulders of the grubby white cotton hospital nightshirt that stuck out around her legs, thin as a flamingo’s, in their wrinkled pinkish-beige stockings, she looked more than ever like a miscast actress. One of her stockings was torn. I knotted my handkerchief, to remind me to buy thread.
Before leaving, Aunt Natasha bowed enthusiastically to so many people that I was afraid we were in for a busy week socially. She likes few things better than having our two rooms crammed with people all talking at the tops of their voices, while she adds cabbage to the pot of slowly cooking soup. At school we’re often told to remember that older people find it hard to adjust themselves to modern life, but Aunt Natasha is in many respects better adjusted to it than I am. The facts of life don’t shock her.
WHEN at last we got away into the street, I saw that, for all her buoyancy, Aunt Natasha wasn’t feeling her best. For one thing, she made a fuss about lacking an umbrella, insisting she’d had one on arrival, therefore the hospital must have stolen it. She became very agitated, connecting this imaginary theft with some of the executions she saw during the last war. The lampposts to which these particular people were strung are just around the corner from us. Her black eye was more apparent now than it had been indoors, and her hastily rolled-up hair made bulges in her dusty old beret.
Luckily there was no one about except a scurrying hunchback at whom Aunt Natasha looked longingly. Although she disapproved theoretically of superstition, she liked to touch a hunchback’s hump but was too considerate to do so except in a crowded streetcar, where no one noticed. Similarly, she disliked seeing people break up the still burning remains of fagots with a poker, thus sending their dead relatives to hell. When taxed with this, she would deny it, adding that in the first place the relatives were probably in hell anyway, and in the second that hell didn’t exist. Then she would go right on touching humps, restraining pokers and, when very slightly drunk, tossing glasses over her left shoulder. Luckily, most of our glasses were in fact plastic cups.
We waited for about fifteen minutes, and still no streetcar came. The wind tugged at our clothes and made our teeth chatter. Somewhere in an upper room a radio was turned on. A large voice orated angrily, then was interrupted by a passage from The Bartered Bride. When this stopped abruptly, there was silence except for the wind.
“We really must get our radio mended,” said Aunt Natasha apologetically.
“We will.” But I knew we couldn’t afford to just now. Suddenly exhausted by the thought of all we couldn’t afford, I said: “Look, it’s cold, and we’re tired, so let’s try and find a taxi in Government Square, and then” — I put my hand in my pocket and made sure the money was there — “then let’s stop at the delicatessen downstairs and get some salami.” Aunt Natasha had loved salami before vegetarianism set in.
“Do you think we could manage a bottle of beer, too?” She tried to make the question sound casual.
“I guess so.” I touched the coins again.
“I could do with a glass of beer.”
The way she spoke brought tears to my eyes, partly because it was she, partly because certain kinds of small greediness seem to me beautiful: on the side of life.
“Of course,” I said warmly, “of course. You shall have —” and it was then that the tank came down the street.
As it crashed along, wobbling slightly, like the giant tortoises in my nightmare, Aunt Natasha pulled me behind a lamppost. I don’t know what good we thought a lamppost would do us. There was a man standing up in the middle of the tank, only his head and shoulders visible above the manhole, and on his face a ferociously constipated look. I made my stare respectful enough for two — one cannot look respectful with a black eye — and at last the tank turned a corner.
AT THE crossroads, between the remains of the synagogue burned by the Germans and the Roman Catholic Church shelled by the Russians, we saw a young man with a camera running as if pursued. He was going so fast that when he suddenly stopped we both jumped. He stood as if hypnotized, just across the street from us. We Could see he was unusually handsome, and looked friendly. Suddenly he raised his arms, slowly and gracefully and purposefully, like a conductor during slow music. A dreamy smile spread over his face, and the camera hanging around his neck swayed like a pendulum. Moving nearer, we saw a surprised look come into his eyes, which were light gray and very clear. His arms were still uplifted when, all at once, he crumpled and fell.
Kneeling beside him, I turned to Aunt Natasha. Her face had a greenish tinge. Closing his eyes, she said, “Even the young may be glad to rest.”
I nodded. But the idea that he would never open them again was so disturbing that I began to cry. One hand on his shoulder, one arm round me, Aunt Natasha looked hesitantly around the crossroads, empty except for the three of us, and said, “Something unusual’s happening, don’t you think?” A press card in the young man’s pocket showed him to have been a foreign journalist, aged twenty-five. Underneath him a bloodstain spread, like ink in blotting paper. Distant rat-tattat sounds came nearer.
“Better go through the park,” I said. Riots usually took place near the shoe factories or university, at the other end of town. Aunt Natasha took my hand. Like hers it was clammy. From the corner we looked back at the young man, lying as if asleep, alone with his camera. Suddenly half a dozen men in raincoats jumped out of a doorway and ran past us, yelling. We couldn’t hear what they said, but their tone made us run too. They were carrying machine guns. As we ran, I prayed that the delicatessen would be open. Aunt Natasha looked ill, and I knew she’d not eaten in the hospital, because whenever one of us eats out she saves a bit for the other.
The park gates were shut, but not locked. Two men wearing armlets were carrying a loaded stretcher up the bandstand steps, while a girl with her hair tied up in a yellow scarf tossed music stands over the balustrade. As the metal landed on the grass it made small thudding sounds. We did not talk much. Once Aunt Natasha said, “It’ll be all right" for my benefit, and I said, “I’m sure it will" for hers.
On the other side of the park most of the streets were empty. Our footsteps sounded abnormally loud, and a sensation of being followed made us break into a run every now and again. Once we were brought up short by small clashes overhead and, looking up, saw a woman frantically closing shutters. We realized then that many of the houses we’d passed had had drawn shutters, although it was not yet midmorning. When we reached the post office square we saw why the nearby streets were empty. It was seething with people, some of them tugging at the grille over the post office door and yelling.
By flattening ourselves against the wall, we managed to slide into the Avenue of the Revolution and down Neruda Street to our block. But it was no longer ours. It was burning. People zigzagged crazily to and fro, like ants from an overturned heap. For a second Aunt Natasha and I stood still. Everything suddenly seemed to me shifty and treacherous. I’ve never understood why anyone finds it difficult to believe chairs and tables are made of constantly moving atoms. Nothing is reliable in this moving world but love, and the loved die as easily as the unloved.
All at once the rushing to and fro stopped. Everyone began streaming in the same direction, old people with bundles, women with babies, children with guns and toys, many of them crying or shouting, others staring blankly ahead, their shoulders hunched up. Tearing round a corner, the janitor’s child butted into us. He carried a jug smelling of gasoline and shouted breathlessly: “Boris — looking for you — delicatessen.”
Running through the smoke clouds, past the crumbling buildings and crazed people, we felt a horrid kind of relief: something we’d dreaded had happened, so there was that much less need for dread. Reliable as ever, Boris was standing on the delicatessen doorstep, peering into the smoke, his white hair on end, his face and riding boots the same reddish-brown. When I noticed the salami sticking out of his pocket, I nearly cried. It was so like him to have just what Aunt Natasha wanted at this minute.
“Natasha! Resi! My darlings! Where were you? Never mind now! Thank heaven you’re here,”and he tugged us out of the sea of smoke, round the corner, and down by the used canal, where he’d parked his horse box. In it were nine people and three horses. The driver started the engine as we climbed inside.
While we rumbled alongside the canal and, later, between snow-powdered stretches of furrowed brown land, everyone began discussing what was happening, not realizing what was, so that the talk was like a collective effort to do a huge jigsaw puzzle no one had ever seen completed. Aunt Natasha’s black eye didn’t look out of place here, as she sat up very straight, congratulating Boris on having brought the horses along. She seemed to be feeling much better, and when Boris asked with anguish what would have happened if he hadn’t found us, she replied with satisfaction, “Just as well I wasn’t home this morning, in the circumstances, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,”Boris and I chorused, “yes, darling, it was.”We would have said “yes, darling” to whatever she pronounced, so glad were we to have her here, black eye and all, all including the look of effrontery induced in her by a successfully overcome hangover. Watching Boris pat her shoulder in the fond way he keeps for her and horses, it struck me that one of his reasons for loving Aunt Natasha was the same as one of mine, namely he had never done anything to make him wish later that he’d been nicer to her. So where she was concerned, he felt no remorse, only undiluted love.
When it grew dark, my head began to nod. Presently I fell asleep and, dreaming fitfully of the young man with a camera, was jolted through the darkness and across my first frontier, into another country.
WHEN the rear flap of the horse box crashed down, gusts of cold damp air swirled in and a crowd of people pressed forward, some in uniform, some armed. After an instant’s silence, they all began talking at once and continued, with increasing volume, until interrupted by Boris, who jumped out, his usually ruddy face pale in the moonlight, and caught their questions as a seal catches fish. We couldn’t hear all the debate, but it wasn’t long before Boris’ expression changed to one of sly pleasure, as if he had pulled off an unexpected deal. Then he vaulted up, drew the flap after him, and on we went.
Presently we left the dirt track and began rumbling over stones. Edging round, I looked out front through a grating. We were in the middle of a city — or so I thought, seeing the shadowy outlines of twisted old houses with overhanging upper stories. Then we turned into a wider street of palatial buildings with carved grilles over their windows and escutcheons over their doors. A brilliant river of moonlight flowed down the middle of it, deepened here and there by golden squares reflected from lit-up shop windows. At home there are so few street lights that visitors and drunks often fall over the sidewalk after dark. In one of these shop windows I could just see clusters of jewels like petrified flowers. I was wishing we could get hold of one —jewelry is so easy to hide, transport, and sell, though Aunt Natasha says one should place no reliance on pearls when it struck me that these were probably only display goods, like the pink cardboard pig with a wax apple in its mouth that has been in our butcher’s window for as long as I can remember.
All at once, the lights went out. The transparent golden windows became darkly opaque, reflecting moonlit fragments of buildings and gliding movements like those of fish in an aquarium. Lights going out usually signify trouble, so I turned to see if Aunt Natasha looked as frightened as I felt. A ray of moonlight swept, like the hand of a demented clock, from one side of her face to the other, making her absent-minded smile look like a smile in what we were encouraged to call decadent modern abstract painting. Later, I discovered that she had been preoccupied just then by the problem of Sasha, Boris’ recently lamed horse. When in great trouble, Aunt Natasha is apt to select a minor vexation and concentrate on this. Last time there was an abortive rising, a lion got sick in Boris’ circus, and Aunt Natasha spoke so feelingly of noble animals pining, far from their natural habitat, that she almost convinced us the lion’s predicament was worse than ours, and more interesting. By the time I’d discovered that this particular lion had been born and bred in a circus, the animal had recovered and there was no more street fighting in our district. Boris says this habit of Aunt Natasha’s shouldn’t be discouraged, as it is her form of mental therapy and doesn’t prevent her from meeting disaster with courage.
The minute our horse box jolted to a standstill, more uniforms appeared, but mostly on women, unarmed. While I was thinking “officials" and seeing some of the sickening pictures that word conjures up, Boris said, “Ah, the Red Cross,”sounding gratified and as if it were up to him to put everyone at ease. It has been said that if the devil showed up at his front door, Boris’ first thought would be that the poor fellow must be tired after his long journey. Flickering torchlight and shifting shadows made every gesture mysterious as a conjurer’s. Suddenly hands were clapped, and a peremptory voice asked what languages we possessed. When I said I knew some French, English, and German, the old woman from our delicatessen shop inquired so indignantly, “And how did you learn them?” that, instead of saying Aunt Natasha had taught me, I muttered “at school,” which was plausible.
“Splendid,” said the peremptory voice. “We shall have to enroll you as a helper.”
My heart gave a thump. I didn’t want to be enrolled in any capacity, anywhere. Just then Aunt Natasha winked at me and, looking round the big cobbled square, I noticed a fountain decorated by statues of caracoling horses. Thinking of Boris’ horses, I felt this to be a good omen, and remembered, too, that last time Olga told our fortunes she’d said we would shortly be going on a journey that would provide a solution for many problems.
MEANWHILE Boris was talking to a Red Cross man, gesticulating like a juggler, as if this were the only way to keep the foreign words flying. Before Aunt Natasha and I realized what was happening, he had hugged us, said, “Must see to the horses first — separate sleeping quarters for the men — will be round early tomorrow,”climbed back into the horse box accompanied by the Red Cross man, and driven away. As he vanished, my knees began to tremble. Perhaps Boris was being trapped into prison.
“Come on, my darling,” said Aunt Natasha, in her whistling-in-the-dark voice. Keeping close to her, I followed the crowd into a large house with pale-yellow-light coming through its open front door. In the hall three Red Cross workers sat writing at tables covered with papers. As we shuffled past them we were each given a square of cardboard with the word “refugee” written on it in capitals and, underneath, the date and a number.
When Anna from the delicatessen received her card, she held it up until it almost touched the tip of her big snub nose, and burst into noisy sobs. The woman who’d given her the piece of cardboard looked puzzled and exasperated as she asked what was the matter.
“The matter?” cried Anna indignantly. “It’s this!” She stubbed her fat forefinger against the card just as she does when inspecting children’s shopping lists in order to cry out at the exorbitance of their parents’ demands. “This, this, this! To think I should live to hear myself called a refugee.”
“But there’s nothing dishonorable about being a refugee —”
“That only shows how little you know about refugees.” Anna was shouting now. Like most shopkeepers never allotted enough goods to satisfy their customers, she always had raging self-defense ready to combat the slightest hint of adverse criticism. “Refugees! Dirty, nine times out of ten, prefer their own outlandish habits to ours, ungrateful like as not — and not above thieving. Refugees! My family’s an honorable one, I’ll have you know, my grandfather founded our store, built it up from nothing, and it’s been in the family ever since — wars, risings, strikes, upsets, nothing’s been able to dislodge us. And now . . . Suddenly her rage subsided, she looked down at the piece of cardboard, gave a hiccup-like sob and said, as if to herself, “I always thought refugees were other people.”
“Who would have thought the old woman had so much blood in her?” whispered Aunt Natasha.
“A misquotation from Shakespeare.”
We had been reading Shakespeare’s historical plays at school, and although he wrote over three centuries ago, in another country, and about royalty, his plots seemed full of actuality and perhaps for that reason were frightening. “How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds makes deeds ill done,” for example, covers any police informer or persons officially paid for being wicked.
At the end of the passage was a door, its upper part made of colored glass lozenges through which light came faintly, with sinister effect. In the huge room behind it, shadowy figures were lighting candles stuck into bottles. Now and again a uniform button caught the light and sparkled. Someone whispered that the electricity had fused. Later, I found this had been true; at the time I wondered why the speaker bothered to lie: so far as we were concerned it was too late for reassurance. Drafts kept the candle flames in motion, so that the mobile shadows made the room seem like a tent of billowing tapestries. The floor was scattered with straw, on which about thirty women and children, and several dogs, huddled asleep.
When we trooped in, a baby wailed and then stopped as if a hand had been clapped over its mouth, a dog growled softly, and from a trippedover basket came indignant cluckings. This suddenly reminded me of a school debate on the subject of incubators. Ilona, a star pupil, had spoken in favor of incubators, saying that hens who have never laid in so-called natural conditions don’t know the difference, and that even if they did it would be criminally irresponsible to attribute more importance to the putative suffering of hens than to egg production. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Ladislaus, a handsome, well-liked boy who sincerely believed almost everything we were told officially, declared himself in opposition and said it was wicked to keep hens shut up in boxes, with harsh light always in their eyes and electric shocks to provoke them to lay: an egg wasn’t just something to eat, but the result of a hen’s wandering in a barnyard with other creatures, stirring up dust just for the pleasure of it, enjoying the sun’s warmth on its feathers, pecking officiously at nothings, communing with itself in small burping sounds; in other words, an egg was the result of a certain amount of hen’s happiness. It was a good speech. But Ilona won. Afterwards, although he and I weren’t in the same grade, Ladislaus suggested that we walk home together; I should have liked this, but it turned out that we lived in opposite directions. All this happened two years ago. Now, listening to the refugee hen’s soft querulousness, I wondered what had happened to Ladislaus.
HAVING pushed two heaps of straw together, Aunt Natasha and I did what we call making spoons — that is, each lying on the right side, me in front, and Aunt Natasha’s arms round my waist. We started this that winter when all the pipes froze and there was only black market fuel. By spreading both coats over us, we built a kind of tent. As we settled down, Aunt Natasha made a sign of the cross over me, which was unusual. The straw smelled pleasant, and as drowsiness spread through me I reflected that, whatever the truth of the matter, Mary and Joseph would surely have been astonished had anyone told them, when they were in that stable, that nearly two thousand years later people in distant countries would make the sign of the cross in remembrance of that baby and feel safer for having done so. I was half asleep when I suddenly became aware of Aunt Natasha’s crying. Twisting round I whispered: “What is it? Oh, darling, don’t . . .”
“Go to sleep, my pet, I wanted not to wake you.”
“You didn’t. I was thinking. Please tell me.”
“You can’t do anything, darling.”
“I can sympathize.”
Aunt Natasha’s arms tightened around me. After a pause she said quietly, but with a despair that alarmed me, “Boris . . .”
Had Boris yearned for Aunt Natasha, I should have thought this natural, in keeping with his general attitude toward her; but she had always seemed to me to take him not exactly for granted
— I knew that old and true affection united them
— but with some of the detachment that marked her relations with everyone but me, for whom she felt the particular love one has for someone one has protected. When the Chinese want to wish anyone harm, they say, “May you live at an interesting period of history.” Aunt Natasha had already lived through several interesting periods, and I think it was this that had developed detachment in her, the only alternative being bitterness, which wouldn’t have suited her nature.
“He promised to come for us in the morning,” I said. “He always keeps his promises.”
“When he can . . . but suppose they won’t let him?”
The fears that had kept after me ever since I was a child in nursery school, determined to follow Aunt Natasha’s advice — never tell anyone a lie, but don’t tell everyone the truth — pressed closer to me. Pushing back the tent, I leaned up on my elbow. In the pale flickering light Aunt Natasha’s tearravaged face looked older than I’d ever seen it before. There were deep ash-colored hollows under her eyes, deep folds in her thin neck.
“Suppose they won’t let him,”she repeated as if hypnotized. “Oh, I can’t ... I cannot bear to live through that again.”
In the past Aunt Natasha and I had often spent hours in conversations beginning “Tell me something about you I don’t know.” Thanks to lack of false modesty, she was very good at this: she loved hearing stories about anyone — if I hadn’t wanted to supply her with fresh material, I should have paid far less attention to people at school — and she assumed that her own stories would be equally well received. So I knew a good deal about her, and although I realized her life contained much of which I was ignorant, I had assumed that this ignorance concerned only persons sealed up in her past — not Boris, who was part of our shared present.
This discovery of the strange in the familiar disturbed me more than anything else had since we crossed the frontier, and I worried about it until suddenly checked by the thought that I might have forgotten to turn the gas off before going to the Racnik. Presently I realized that, as our house was now rubble, a little more or less gas was of no importance. This stopped my worrying and almost immediately I fell asleep.
IN MY dream I was Standing beside a lake, trying to lace my skating boots. The sound of the Skaters’ Waltz increased my feverish longing to be on the ice, but suddenly my fingers refused to move. The music grew louder, became deafening, and I woke to hear the Skaters’ Waltz blaring overhead. Turning, I found my eyes exactly level with a pair of large yellow boots.
These belonged to a big man in a purplish-gray suit, with thick black mustaches, the left one of which kept brushing against the violin he was strenuously playing. Dazed, I sat up and picked the straw out of my hair. Noticing me, the violinist grimaced a smile and bowed, without stopping playing. All round the room people were picking straw out of their hair, and standing among us were a score of performers, each equipped with a music stand and all playing fortissimo.
When the music stopped, I asked the man with the mustaches what was happening. After another grimace-smile he said that he and his colleagues from a small town just this side of the frontier had been temporarily evacuated, as a precautionary measure. They had in any case been due to give a concert here today, and as this was — here he coughed apologetically — this was in fact the municipal room used for rehearsals, they had been advised to carry on as usual.
“I suppose you don’t smoke?” he asked, his head tilted as if playing the violin had given him a permanent crick in the neck.
“No, but my aunt, here, does.”
“Would you like —”
He offered me a yellow cigarette with a cardboard filter, then said I could keep the whole pack. I accepted half, which amounted to six cigarettes, three for Aunt Natasha, three for Boris. Looking sad and guilty, the violinist asked where were we from? Before I could tell him, three metallic taps made him look away. The conductor raised his baton, and the William Tell Overture began thumping over us. This is music Aunt Natasha particularly dislikes, and she woke immediately, looking indignant even before her eyes were completely open.
“Deplorable! A really deplorable noise . . . Ah, there you are, darling.” Smiling at me, she sat up, gently shaking straw from her hair. She didn’t seem in the least surprised at being roused by an orchestra, only by that orchestra’s choice of music.
“Why William Tell?” she asked. “Not that I’ve anything against him as a man, on the contrary, but this music would be an insult to an oppressor, let alone a liberator.”
During a crescendo our Red Cross woman came in, looking distraught. She spoke to the conductor, who tapped his music stand, then stood still, glowering. The din had just ceased when a trombone player scattered a few last notes. Several people frowned at him, and he looked as embarrassed as if he’d belched on a platform during a speech by someone more important than himself. A few seconds later the musicians piled their stands and left.
Immediately afterwards a horde of women, children, babies, and some animals pressed into the room. They looked as we had last night, but more so. The first arrivals flung themselves on any unoccupied straw, and a foxy-looking dog rushed at the clucking basket and, after a preliminary sniff, began barking. The old woman who owned the basket screamed; so did two babies; and another dog, with a deep mournful bark, attacked the foxy one. Everyone began talking at once. One could hear truncated remarks. “What I always say is . . . it’s disgraceful . . . enough trouble without . . . what I always say is ... no better than savages . . . some dogs are better citizens than . . . what I always say is . . .” Presently two Red Cross workers rushed in, separated the dogs, calmed the old woman, and, clapping their hands, proclaimed: “If you’ll all sit down, rations will be served.” As if by magic, everyone was seated and every face looked at the doorway, through which came the smell of food.
Slices of black bread and mugs of hot soup were distributed, and Aunt Natasha and I were lucky, each getting a big lump of potato in her share. We drank the soup and saved the bread. I showed Aunt Natasha the cigarettes. Delighted, she opened her coat, displaying a bottle of schnapps tucked inside. Boris had produced it in the horse box. “Let’s go and find him.” She seemed to have jumped over her nocturnal grief, perhaps because day is a less fearful time than night.
But the Red Cross people wouldn’t let us out the front door. Not just yet, they said, apologetically at first, then irritated — all the more so because they clearly felt they ought not to be — by Aunt Natasha’s insistence. “We know how you feel,” they chorused, “we do indeed, and as soon as we’ve got everyone listed . . . but with so many pouring in . . . there’s the medical aspect too ... so if you’ll just wait . . .”
“Wait!” said Aunt Natasha, and I realized she hadn’t surmounted last night’s grief. Waiting has always been as much a part of our life as rationing, queuing, or filling in forms, and Aunt Natasha is generally calmer about this than I am.
As SOON as Aunt Natasha was sure no one was watching us, she started down a passage leading to the back of the house. It was a wide but twisty passage, scattered with disparate objects: a billiard table with a hole in its green baize, a brokennosed plaster cherub, a coat stand with deer’s antlers supporting a couple of Pickelhaube helmets, a stuffed peacock with a dusty Tyrolese hat over its head and neck, a bronze figure of a man playing a violin, and several pairs of skis. Presently we found a cupboard underneath a staircase. It contained brooms, brushes, cloths, and pails, and also room for us. We upturned two pails and sat down behind the bamboo curtain that served as a door. With one of the cloths I cleaned our boots, while Aunt Natasha put the bread and schnapps on a third upended pail. Then she lit a cigarette. We felt triumphant at having achieved privacy.
“We shall hear Boris,” said Aunt Natasha confidently. “When he doesn’t find us in that dormitorium, he’ll examine the rest of the house.” She raised the bottle and poured some schnapps down her throat.
“Darling, why did you say ‘again’ last night about Boris not being with us? Were you thinking of that time when he was on tour with the circus?” I asked.
“Oh no, long before that. You weren’t born then, my darling.”
“Oh . . .” Aunt Natasha had not talked of the far-off past for a long time and, as she sounded melancholy, I said uncertainly, “Well, at least that’s over and done with now.”
Aunt Natasha shook her head. “Nothing’s ever over.” She held the bottle of schnapps to the light and squinted at it. “Because everything has prolongations in time. Repercussions. There’s no escaping continuity. If I’d married Boris when I ought to have, for example, we wouldn’t be here now.”
“Where would we be?”
“Russia, Italy, America, maybe dead — but not here. Incidentally, darling, did you keep that bit of cardboard they gave you last night?”
“No idea what I did with mine. Do you think it matters?”
“Probably not,” I said, although in my experience anything to do with papers always matters more than the papers’ owners do. I fully expect to be ordered to fill in a form when I come to die. Not wishing to dwell on this, I asked, “When should you have married Boris? And why didn’t you?”
“Because when I was your age I had no sense of proportion. Injustice repelled me, and the least exhibition of unkindness made me deeply melancholy. Yet whenever a handsome young man complimented me, life ceased to be a vale of tears, and I was beside myself with joy. My French governess used to say that I was pas sérieuse, and she was justified that winter in Petersburg when my brother Yakov unexpectedly came on leave.”
“You never told me you’d had a brother,” I said, taken aback. Perhaps because I had so few relatives, a brother still seemed to me more important than a lover; and even today I tend to overestimate love’s fraternal elements.
“Yakov’s been dead a long while, and until now Uncle Matthias was a safer connection for you.” Here she peered through the bamboo curtain to make sure no one could overhear us. It did not take much alcohol to make Aunt Natasha scent conspiracies all around us. But on more than one occasion she had been proved right, as when she declared that the janitor’s cousin was a police informer and not long afterwards he was found stabbed to death in an alley behind the wartime Thief Market. In some respects Aunt Natasha was more clairvoyant than Olga. “Please go on about your brother,” I said anxiously.
“Yakov was one of the most charming human beings I’ve ever known—good-looking, goodhearted, no fool. A typical young officer at a time when war was still rather more the concern of soldiers than of scientists.”
Depression seized me. This was the kind of antiscientific remark often made by older people, but never until now by Aunt Natasha. I didn’t mind her being antiscicntific, nor anti-anything else she wanted to be, but her showing signs of age upset me. As if sensing this, she quickly added, “Of course, war was just as wicked then as now; being killed by a bomb, whatever its formula, is neither physically nor morally worse than having a bayonet thrust in one’s stomach.”
“Or a tank.”
“Or a tank. But there used to be more scope for individual exploits. Well, it was near the feast of Saint Nicholas when Yakov arrived. The cold took one’s breath away; hats froze on people’s heads; and once the Christmas market on the Neva started — a mile of booths either side; oh, how pretty it looked — then great expanses of the river were reserved for skating. Yakov was a wonderful skater — how we two skated !”
Something in her tone made me shiver. I tried to look through Aunt Natasha as she was now — tired, creased, witchlike on a pail, a broom in one hand, a bottle of schnapps in the other— to that young girl skimming between the festive booths on the Neva. Trying to exorcise distress by concentrating on something practical., I asked, “Did you buy things at the market booths?”
Aunt Natasha shook her head. “I didn’t need things in those days.”
“I see.” But it was easier to imagine a mile of glittering shops on a frozen river than a state in which one didn’t need things.
“What Yakov and I liked was to get away from the crowds, past the washerwomen kneeling beside holes in the ice —”
“Didn’t the washerwomen freeze?”
“No. They used to say they were accustomed to it. But they had a poor reputation as washers. Rich people sent their laundry to London.”
They sent their laundry to London? School and reading had given me a rough idea of the errors of the old regime, but no account of justly revenged oppression had made the difference between then and now as vivid to me as did the notion of dirty clothes crossing a continent.
“Yakov and I used to make friends with the washerwomen because we were fascinated by their holes in the ice. It was rumored that murderers used them for dumping bodies, and murder still seemed unusual to girls raised as I had been. Well, soon after Benediction —”
“What was that?”
“Benediction of the Waters, in front of the Winter Palace, on January sixth, in memory of the baptism of Christ. Soon after that Yakov invited home a younger friend, a brother officer: Boris.”
“Was that the first time you met him?”
“No, oh no, that was just the trouble.”
“How do you mean?”
“I was so ready to admire Yakov’s friends that had I met Boris for the first time then I should undoubtedly have fallen in love with him. But unfortunately he was the son of old friends of my parents, and I’d known him as a shy adolescent in civilian clothes. My pacifism didn’t prevent my admiring soldiers.”
“You didn’t like Boris?” Feeling betrayed, I squeezed Aunt Natasha’s hand to show her I felt nothing of the sort.
“Yes indeed, we were devoted to each other, rather as you and I are.”
“What could be better?”
“Nothing, my pet. As you realize, being young, and as I realize, being old; but in between there are stages at which devotion does not suffice. Boris was like a brother, and I didn’t need another brother just then. I needed to tremble, to yearn, to feel myself part of a drama, you understand.”
With my mind I understood, but with nothing else. I had never wanted to be part of a drama. On the contrary. Drama alarms me, except in art, safely framed, between covers.
“Go on,” I said.
“Gradually I realized my parents intended me to marry Boris. I discovered later that Boris’ parents had for years wanted him to marry me, but my parents had thought his fortune inadequate. Now his older brothers had been killed in a railway accident, so Boris was well off, and both our parents were in agreement.”
“I suppose Boris loved you then just as he does now?” As usual I longed for evidence of stability.
“Not as he does now.” Her laugh was mischievous, indulgent. Aunt Natasha and I laughed a great deal together, and I liked all her ways of laughing—even her drunken one had a kind of joyous gusto — but it hadn’t struck me before, as it did now, that no woman could laugh as she laughed without having once been sure of arousing admiration, bestowing pleasure.
“Whenever I spoke to other young men,” she continued, her words soaked in laughter, “or danced with them, Boris became pale and furious and despairing—”
“Then why did you?”
“Because I liked him to look pale and furious and despairing. What I cared about then was not him, but his effect on me, mine on him. I was still at the stage of wanting to try life as a boy tries the edge of a new pocket knife.”
Melancholy swept over me like cold air. I had never wanted anyone to look pale and furious and despairing on my account, and couldn’t imagine doing so. Usually I felt quite proud of the common sense developed in me by the fact that a household must contain one person who can mend fuses; but now this common sense seemed to me something poor and makeshift, shockingly inferior to the emotions common to Aunt Natasha and the older ballets.
“I felt so sure,” she added, “that no matter how badly I behaved he would understand that it meant nothing. But of course he didn’t.”
“Why of course?” Had Boris too been very unlike his present self?
“Because he had his own feelings to grapple with. When one’s very young and in love, one’s so dazzled by one’s own feelings that one has in fact very little eyesight to spare for the other person. It’s the time of egotistical love.”
So FAR I hadn’t thought much about love, other than domestic love. Schoolwork and my share of the housekeeping kept me busy, and Aunt Natasha and I were so contented together that I had very little unemployed imagination. I expected to marry, just as I expected to grow a centimeter or two more; but, perhaps because I also expected marriage to involve housing and other problems not mentioned in connection with love by Pushkin or Shakespeare, I had never felt drawn to soft ruminations on the subject. My sexual instincts were still unaroused, and to me, love meant Aunt Natasha.
“What happened then?”
“Something dreadful. ”
Immediately thinking of fatal accidents, I felt a great weariness. People sometimes speak of the monotony of life, but this seems to me negligible compared with the monotony of death. In the Middle Ages artists often painted allegorical pictures representing the Dance of Death; but if I were a painter now I would paint a nonallegorical picture with naked men, women, and children, their ribs showing clearly under their grimy skin, all packed close as pickled herrings in a gas chamber, waiting for death from unnatural causes. As always when I thought of concentration camps, I trembled internally, partly from anger and partly from fear, each emotion increasing the other.
“It started harmlessly enough,” admitted Aunt Natasha. “Always beware, my darling, of things that start harmlessly. It started by our going to the theater to see a visiting French company play Racine’s Bérénice.”
“The Emperor Titus gives up Queen Bérénice, whom he loves, because he puts his duty to his country first?”
“That’s right.” Aunt Natasha’s tone suggested that she saw nothing right about it. “The actor who played Titus was the handsomest man I’d ever seen, and he had something I was not then equipped to recognize as animal magnetism. I was, however, equipped to feel it. Unfortunately, he was of quite a good upper-class family in spite of being an actor — that was the way my family talked, and so did everyone we knew —so we met him socially and, naturally, I fell madly in love with him. I use the word madly advisedly,” said Aunt Natasha, pausing, a long nicotine-stained forefinger upraised, “because the unreality of the situation kept my feelings flying the way a balloon is kept up by air. Beware of passions for actors unless you’re an actress. When Bérénice said:
Seigneur que taut de mars me sépare de vous
I sobbed aloud, to the gratification of my French governess. Not even my mother realized what this signified; having made up her mind I was to marry Boris, she thought I was no more in need of surveillance than a pie safely out of the oven. So when we met socially I was able to talk to Titus without arousing unfavorable comment at home.”
“His name wasn’t really Titus?”
“No, but, do you know, I can’t remember exactly what it was. Let me see . . .”
This gave me a shock. Knowing the goodness of Aunt Natasha’s heart, I could not but think her memory must be failing. Then she relieved me by adding: “Yes, I can. It’s just come back to me; his Christian name was Louis. I remember it well, because I used to call him Alexis. And I ran away with him.”
“Paris. That, at least, was our intention. But don’t get the idea poor Alexis was a scheming seducer. Someone once said that in such cases the victim is nearly always the culprit, and I certainly was. Alexis really meant to marry me in Paris. Like many successful actors, he was deeply bourgeois and behaved in a most respectful manner once my maid and I were settled in the sleeping car for Königsberg.”
“That’s the kind of thing I meant when I said I was very foolish at your age. I could imagine running away from home, crossing Europe with a stranger, breaking Boris’ heart, upsetting my family, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I might manage to dress myself without a maid.”
As I nodded, thinking of the laundry sent to London, Aunt Natasha glanced at her clothes and at mine — our coarse Straw-bedizened sweaters, rumpled skirts, thread stockings, heavy boots — and suddenly burst out laughing. Without knowing why, I joined in. We laughed and laughed, tears pouring down our cheeks. Whenever one of us managed to stop for a few minutes, the other was overcome by a wild uncontrollable laughter.
“I think we’re growing hysterical,” said Aunt Natasha with interest.
“Go on. So there you were in the Königsberg sleeper —”
“So delighted with my compartment that I almost forgot Alexis. It had such a neat plump sofa that turned into a bed with a spring mattress. I’d never had one to myself before, only shared with a cousin who kicked in her sleep. We had about thirty hours’ worth of cornfields and fir woods, stopping occasionally at little stations where we were given glasses of tea and lemon. At night I looked out of the window for bears and wolves, which seemed to me essential to an elopement, but all I saw was my own misty reflection in the glass. We got to Wierzbolow, at the frontier, without trouble, and I jumped out in a mood of the greatest exhilaration. Everything seemed to me delightful, delicious; not only Alexis and the life we would lead in Paris, but the faint winter sunlight making the snow sparkle, the porters with their long white aprons, scarlet shirts, and huge jack boots, until the stationmaster appeared, flanked by local officials, and respectfully announced he had orders I was to return to Petersburg, and Alexis to leave Russia at once.”
“Yes. No need to invent bears and wolves on the return journey. Next time I saw Alexis — oh, years later that was — I remembered his having told me in the train that when making one’s face up for an old part one must draw a line from the inner corner of the eyebrow to the outer corner of the eye, to create the illusion of sagging flesh.” For a second Aunt Natasha laid her fingers on the place where her own flesh now sagged. “By that time poor Alexis didn’t need grease paint to create an illusion of age.”
“What happened when you got home?”
“Well, there was no suggestion, as I had hoped there might be, that a treasure had almost been lost. Once the family doctor had declared I was as good as new where my matrimonial prospects were concerned, my father treated me to embarrassed silence, my mother to irony and contempt. Even Yakov was angry, on Boris’ account.”
“Were you very unhappy?”
“Very? No. Despite all the unpleasantness, I couldn’t take my disgrace altogether seriously. I was very immature for my age, so none of my actions seemed to me final, and I thought it odd of other people to behave as if they were.”
“What about Boris?”
“He was away on duty, and I wasn’t allowed to write or receive letters until some months later, when I was told that in order that I should not bring further disgrace on my family whom God knows had done nothing to deserve it, I was being given an undeserved opportunity to marry a friend of my father’s. I was in no mood to appreciate a middle-aged man with an old name, a passion for hunting, and what people like us used to call ‘no money.’ ” Here she laughed and shook her head. “But I saw no alternative and did like the idea of being a married woman. Besides, I thought Boris would rue the day when he came back and found me married.”
“You still wanted to make him despair?”
“Yes, but now I intended to make it up to him. I had grown up a little. I didn’t expect my future husband to occupy much of my time, and for once I was right. When he wasn’t hunting, he was shooting or fishing, which meant he came home so sleepy that he was barely capable of climbing into his own bed. Poor fellow, I grew very fond of him. He gave me a pet raccoon.”
“But I thought he was a general.”
“Oh no. It was my second husband who was a general.”
“Your second husband? But what about Boris?”
“What about him indeed,” boomed Boris’ voice, as he flung aside fistfuls of bamboo curtain. “And what are you two doing here? I was quite distracted when I couldn’t find you. I’ve been prowling all over the house, and a very odd place it is, there’s a room upstairs full of stuffed owls and Nuremberg musical boxes. What were you doing, darlings?”
“Talking of the past,” said Aunt Natasha.
Boris groaned. “Your sense of timing has always been arbitrary, but . . .”
“Have some schnapps, my dear, and this,” she handed him bread, “is for you.”
“And I’d brought this for you.” He produced a slice of pumpernickel. “Excellent stabling they’ve given us. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
“No good trying the front door just now,” I warned him.
“I know. I’ve been investigating the position. There’s a lavatory down the passage with a large low window overlooking a quiet back street. No snoopers.”
“You’re so thorough,” said Aunt Natasha.
A few minutes later we were all three walking cautiously down Boris’ snooperless street.
Miss Stirling’s novel will be continued in the DecemberATLANTIC.