Russian literature of the 1800s is full of anxiety, self analysis and angst. It’s also quite lengthy. For today’s challenge, I produced a long short story (just under 7,000 words) that tries to capture the flavour of the Russian novel in condensed form. We have Pushkin, we have vodka, we have Russian insults – and the ending is satisfyingly depressing, in keeping with the genre. Take your time with this one, and приятного аппетита!
Dreams and Dust
I’ve lived to bury my desires,
And see my dreams corrode with rust;
Now all that’s left are fruitless fires
That turn my dreams to dust. (Alexander Pushkin)
“And Dimitri has written to you while he has been away?” The Countess Natascha Petrovsky sipped her tea delicately, watching the younger girl’s face to confirm her suspicions.
Irina Yahontov studied her friend a little warily from beneath lowered lashes. She was almost bursting with happiness, it was true; but she was equally aware that the other woman was a rumourmonger: scandal spilled from her lips like cake crumbs whenever the two took tea together. She did not want this beautiful thing with Dimitri to become tarnished by others’ dissection of it. His love for her was a delicate rose and she wanted to let it bloom unhindered.
“He has written,” she admitted at last.
Oh, she was greedy for gossip!
“He is well.” Then, as her friend pouted with impatience, Irina took pity on her. “He has declared his intentions and has also written to Papa, asking his permission to marry me!”
“Well, well, well!” The countess’s voice held a note of admiration. “So our little Dimitri has finally landed himself a girl with money!”
“What do you mean?” Irina asked, a little naïvely.
Natascha shrugged. “He is a handsome man, certainly, but he has broken countless hearts before he met you – hearts of girls without the roubles your father possesses, or a family name as well respected as yours.” She smiled sweetly. “Still, I am sure he will be faithful – or at least discreet. After all, he wouldn’t want to lose your father’s money.”
“Are you telling me Dimitri doesn’t really love me?” Irina felt tortured with self-doubt. No, it couldn’t be true: when they had met for the first time at Count Oleg’s winter ball, the young clerk had been the soul of attentiveness, dancing not one, nor even two but three! waltzes with her, and then he had taken her out onto the terrace and given her a white rose. Its petals were still pressed between the pages of Pushkin’s poetry.
The Countess politely ignored the tears falling into Irina’s teacup. “Darling, you mustn’t take these things to heart. You are young and have no experience of the world, but in time to come, he will take other lovers and so will you. What is important is that you will be his wife and that means that other men will automatically find you more attractive.” She smiled secretively. “There is nothing sweeter than forbidden fruit,” she murmured.
“I think perhaps you should leave now.” Irina’s voice quivered with hurt. “I have a headache,” she improvised, “and need to lie down.”
“As you wish.” Natascha sounded amused. It would be better, she reflected, not to let the little Yahontov girl know just how well she was acquainted with Dimitri. That was all in the past – or at least, it had been for some months. “I’m very happy for you,” she added, kissing Irina on both cheeks before turning to leave. “I look forward to my invitation to the wedding!”
Once she was sure the countess had gone, Irina threw herself face down on the chaise-longue and wept bitterly until she thought her heart would burst with grief. The Countess’s casual remarks about infidelity had both shocked and wounded her. At first, she had felt sure that Dimitri wouldn’t treat her in that way, but now …
Rising to her feet, she crossed the room to study her face in the ornate gilded mirror that hung over the fireplace. Her gentle features were reasonably pretty, but she still looked like a child. Would Dimitri really remain true to her when there were so many beautiful women in Moscow to dazzle him? Forming her lips into a pout, she tried to look coquettish. It was no use: she looked more constipated than anything else. Oh, Dimitri! How would she ever hold onto him?
The sound of the salon door opening interrupted her reverie. Her mother was entering the room, almost exploding with excitement.
“Irina!” She clasped her bewildered daughter to her bosom. “My little girl! Your father has just received a visitor in his study – and what do you think is the purpose of their conversation?” When Irina did not answer, Madame Yahontov enlightened her: “He has come to ask for your hand in marriage!”
“Dimitri is here?” At once Irina felt more hopeful.
“Dimitri?” Her mother sounded puzzled. “Mikhail Baronsky is with your father. You know that he has always admired you.”
“I can’t marry dyadya Mikhail!” Irina uttered in shock, using the nickname from her childhood. “He’s old!”
“He’s thirty-five,” her mother corrected.
“That’s still almost twice my age,” Irina protested.
“Mikhail is a good man – wealthy too. It is an advantageous match, zaya.” Her daughter did not respond, so Madame Yahontov tried again. “It is what your father wishes and you know he wants only the best for you. The betrothal will be announced next week – once you and Mikhail have had the opportunity to spend some time together; and then I was thinking, perhaps a summer wedding? That would give us three months to put your trousseau together.”
The ballroom felt airless and stuffy in the unseasonably warm April evening. Irina fanned herself with the white ostrich plumes her mother had insisted on giving her as an accessory to the pastel blue ballgown, aware that she would have to disillusion the man by her side. Mikhail had escorted her here tonight, at her parents’ request; and although she would once have felt delighted to be attending Count Oleg’s Spring Ball (“So much more exclusive than the winter one!” Natascha had whispered in her ear earlier), she was now filled with dread that Dimitri would be here and would see her with another man.
Her heart pounded as her eyes scanned the room, desperately searching for the dark curly hair she knew so well. Disappointed, she returned her attention to Baronsky, noting the beads of perspiration that had already soaked his shirt. His trousers were too tight, she thought dispassionately: his girth overhung the dark green cummerbund like a loaf of bread escaping from its tin.
“May I get you some more champagne?” he asked now. “Or a little caviar, perhaps? The blinis are good tonight.”
She shook her head, then froze in horror. Dimitri Vassilyev had just entered the room. His eye caught sight of her with Mikhail and he frowned his displeasure.
“Irina? What’s wrong? You are as pale as a sheet!” Her companion sounded concerned.
“I … nothing …” She was unable to form a coherent reply, aware only that Dimitri’s face was thunder as he glared at them both.
“You need some fresh air,” Mikhail declared. Pulling her to her feet, he whisked her out of the French windows and out into the rose garden. “Now then, lyubimaya, tell me what is wrong.”
Irina looked at her feet. Mikhail was a good man and he would make a good husband – but she loved Dimitri. How could she tell him this? It would crush her dyadya if she admitted that she did not want to marry him.
“I have something to tell you,” she began in a small voice.
“You love someone else.” He said it so easily that she felt surprised. “I saw you looking at that man a few minutes ago,” he continued. “The one who was gazing at you as if his heart would break if he did not have you.” He paused. “You had the same look in your own eyes.”
She glanced up at him now, her heart beating fast.
“I will not marry you against your will, little one,” he said, softly pushing a lock of hair away from her face. “If you love someone else, you must tell your father.”
“He has no money.” Now that she had confessed it, she saw what an insurmountable obstacle this was. The only daughter of Sergei Yahontov would never be allowed to marry a penniless individual.
“Then you must live on love,” Mikhail said simply. “If he truly feels for you as you do for him, you will find a way.” He reached out and stroked her cheek. “I have loved you since the first time I saw you, but I could not bear to make you unhappy. I will tell your father I have reconsidered: perhaps he will look more favourably on this other suitor then.”
“You are a good man, Mikhail Baronsky,” Irina told him, “and you deserve a much better wife than a foolish girl like me.”
“Goodbye, Irina.” He kissed her lightly. “I see your beau approaching. I will leave the two of you alone.”
She watched him leave, her heart flooding with affection for him, hoping that he would find himself a bride before long.
“You forgot me quickly, then.”
She span around, startled by the venom in Dimitri’s voice. “I don’t understand.”
“Your new lover!” He spat the words out in disgust.
“Baronsky is an old family friend,” she began, not sure why she should need to defend herself.
“I saw him kiss you! Do you let all your old family friends make love to you in rose gardens?”
But he turned away from her, still sulking at the perceived betrayal.
“You don’t understand how much I’ve longed for you to return,” she heard herself say. Placing a placatory hand on his arm, she added, “You are the only one my heart has ever loved – you must know that.”
“Then prove it,” he muttered.
Her heart stood still.
“Prove that you love me,” he insisted.
Dimitri, I …”
“There’s a summer house not far from here,” he whispered. “We could be private – no one would know we were there.”
Against her better judgement, she let him lead her through the gardens and down towards the ornamental lake. Moonlight glittered on the water as he pulled her into the summerhouse and shut the door.
“Do you know how much I have longed for this?” he asked her as he began kissing her neck.
“We shouldn’t,” she protested, but he ignored her pleas.
“You are mine, lyubimaya, and I need to make sure that you belong to me.”
In the silence that surrounded them, no one else heard her sobs.
Dawn was breaking as they stole back to the house. Dimitri held her hand in his; nevertheless, Irina felt as if her heart was ripped in two. How could he have done this to her? Worse still, how had she let him? She had struggled – at first; but his hands had held her down, forcing her into compliance. In the end, she had just let it happen, repeating to herself over and over again, “Dimitri loves me. Dimitri loves me.” But was it love if a man took what he wanted without consent?
Mikhail ran up anxiously as they approached. “Where have you been? The carriage is waiting.”
“We went for a walk.” The lie wrenched from her lips. She could not tell him the truth. “Mikhail, this is Dimitri Vassilyev. Dimitri, Mikhail is a friend of my father’s.”
The two men clicked their heels as they respectfully bowed to one another, but Irina could feel the animosity between them.
“I must go, Dimitri. When will I see you again?”
“I will write,” he said carelessly, his voice sounding strangely cold. “Goodbye, Gospodin Baronsky.”
She did not let her tears fall until she was safely inside the carriage.
Two weeks later, she had not received any letters from Dimitri. Her heart twisted as she thought of the night in the summerhouse. Who would want her now? She was no longer innocent, but it seemed she had let someone unworthy rob her of her greatest possession.
Mikhail Baronsky had been true to his word, tactfully breaking off the engagement and telling her father that he thought a younger husband might be a better choice. Each day, she half expected Dimitri to turn up on the doorstep, begging an audience with her papa, but he did not come. Her eyes dulled with disappointment and her skin became unnaturally pale. She felt as if she were dying of a broken heart.
Eventually, her mother noted her pallor and, thinking that the girl was pining for Baronsky, devised a plan. They would visit the dressmaker, she told Irina, and then afterwards take tea in the Perlov Tea House. She did not mention that she had also invited the ex-fiancé.
Irina moved through her dress fitting as one in a dream. Consumed with guilt over giving herself to Dimitri, she was nevertheless desperate to see him again. Surely he would not expect her to do that again now he knew she was his? So lost was she in self-analysis that she did not hear any of the dressmaker’s questions and Madame Yahontov was forced to answer for her daughter. “Yes, the length is fine … No, the grey, not the red … With a black trim.”
Finally, the ordeal was over and the two women made their way on foot to Ulitsa Mayasnitskaya and the waiting tea rooms. Once inside, they were shown to a table near the window and sank down into their chairs in relief.
“Isn’t that Mikhail?” Irina’s mother said suddenly, waving across the room.
Sure enough, Baronsky came hurrying up, delighted to see his adopted niece again.
“How foolish of me!” Madame Yahontov exclaimed a moment later. “I seem to have left something important at the dressmaker’s.”
“Allow me to be of service.” Baronsky sprang to his feet.
“No, no. I’ll go myself. You young ones sit here and chat.” The older woman rose to her feet and swept out of the building before the other two had a chance to stop her.
Irina, looked awkwardly at Baronsky. She was sure her mother had done this on purpose, but to what avail?
Baronsky spoke first. “You’re not happy, are you?”
A tear rolled down Irina’s cheek. She felt suddenly overwhelmed by life.
“Would you like to tell me about it?”
She shook her head, too embarrassed to admit her deflowering. If anyone found out …
Baronsky tried to catch the attention of a waiter but to no avail. “Excuse me a moment.” He left his seat and made his way towards one of the smartly uniformed servers.
He had been gone only seconds when she became aware of a figure looming over her. “Still running around with that oaf, I see,” a voice said bitterly.
“Dimitri!” He was the last person she had expected to see.
“I saw you through the window, taking tea with your lover.”
His accusation squeezed her heart.
“There is nothing between Mikhail and me,” she insisted.
“We need to talk,” he said grimly. “Not here – I have a carriage outside.”
“I must tell someone,” she said, looking around wildly for Mikhail.
“Here,” he said, producing a pencil and paper. “You can leave a note.”
She quickly scribbled, “Something has arisen. I will be back shortly” and deposited the note on the table before letting Dimitri lead her outside. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Mikhail picking up her missive; but the carriage door was already closing and she had no way of letting him know what was really going on.
She had thought they would merely sit in Dimitri’s carriage, but once inside, he nodded to the coachman and the vehicle moved smartly away.
“Where are we going?” she asked fearfully.
“To my lodgings,” he told her. “We can be private there.”
The memory of the summerhouse assaulted her with these words and she felt the bile rise in her throat.
“Stop the carriage!” she begged. “I feel faint.”
But they were already pulling to a halt. Dimitri handed her down from the conveyance onto a narrow street filled with dismal looking buildings. The door he unlocked had cracked and peeling paint and one of the front windows was broken. “It’s all poverty can afford,” he said defiantly when he saw her look askance. Inside the dingy hallway, several rooms led off the central corridor. He produced another key and proceeded to open the door closest to them. Taking her by the hand, he almost dragged her into the darkened chamber, fumbling with the shutters to allow some light to penetrate.
Irina surveyed her surroundings. A narrow bed covered with a thin blanket was pushed against one of the walls. Apart from that, the room held very little: there was a rickety table, propped up with a book, a splintered chair, a wash stand and a small cupboard. How could anyone live like this? she thought in dismay, trying not to make her shock visible.
He motioned to her to sit down on the bed, so she did so, hearing springs creak in an alarming manner.
“I can’t offer you tea,” he announced, “but I have some vodka somewhere …” He began moving things around on the table until he found what he was looking for.
She refused his offer of a drink, already regretting her decision to come here. “You said we needed to talk about something,” she reminded him.
“Yes.” He came and sat down next to her, staring at the glass in his hand. “You hurt me,” he began without preamble. “I wrote to you when I was away in Saint Petersburg and I thought we had an understanding, then I came back and found you with another man.”
“I told you …” she began, but he would not listen.
“And then, today, I saw you with that same man. Why are you doing this to me, Irina?”
She looked down at her lap, fighting back the tears. Why wouldn’t he listen to her? He must know how much she loved him. After all …
“You hurt me,” he repeated, “and so now I am going to hurt you – so that you know what it feels like and how important it is that you are honest with me.” Putting his glass on the floor, he grabbed her face and turned it towards him. “When I was in Saint Petersburg,” he enunciated each word slowly and carefully, “I met a woman – an older woman – and she became my mistress.”
She recoiled as if slapped, feeling the room beginning to spin.
“Did you love her?” she managed at last.
He shook his head. “No, but I made love to her – many times. She was much more experienced than you. I can honestly say it was a pleasure.”
Every word a knife in her soul. Anguish bled out from her in rivers of pain.
“You were … intimate with her, and all the while, you were writing to me, telling me you loved me?” None of it made sense.
“I do love you. But you must understand: I never thought I would enjoy you without being married to you.” He tried again. “She was there and you weren’t.”
She looked at the callous, cavalier man in front of her and no longer recognised him. The Dimitri she knew had promised her his heart, but this one …
“I know I’ve hurt you,” he said now, more gently this time. “But you needed to know what it felt like.”
She had not ripped his soul from his body, playing with it the way a cat bats an almost dead mouse around the room.
“I’ll still marry you,” he said magnanimously, “but you have to promise never to see that lover of yours again.”
She nodded mutely. It was all she could do.
Once more, he offered her the vodka and this time she took it gratefully, letting the fiery liquid sear the back of her throat as she tried to blot out the unbearable pain. Once more, he kissed her; and once more, his hands began pushing her skirts aside, seeking to satisfy his own need whilst she wept silently. She was ruined already: what further harm could he do to her?
Afterwards, they lay still, the weight of his body on top of her, and she thought that never before had she known such utter sorrow.
Three weeks later, she realised she was with child.
At first, she did not interpret the signs: the nausea each morning, the loss of appetite, the general feeling of malaise. She put her physical discomfort down to guilt – she had been sneaking off on her own each day, allegedly for a walk; and each day, Dimitri was waiting in a carriage to take her back to the pitiful room with the broken furniture and the lumpy mattress. Each time it happened, she wept – before, during and afterwards; but he seemed immune to her tears. “Can I help it that I find you so irresistible?” he would say to her and, “You should be flattered – most women would love their husbands to pay them so much attention.”
In God’s eyes, he was her husband: they had become one flesh over and over again; and yet she knew instinctively what her father would say.
“How can you live like this?” she asked him one day.
He shrugged. “I make a little money from my job as a clerk, but that goes nowhere. You don’t know what it’s like – you’ve always lived in the lap of luxury.”
“But there must be other clerks who live in better places than this,” she argued. “Could you not at least buy some decent furniture?”
She soon learned the answer to her own questions when she realised how much of his wage went on vodka and gambling – two vices he had always hidden from her until now.
He was the one to divine her condition. They had visited his room and for once he was showing her consideration, taking her out to a tea room for sustenance. “Not the Perlov,” he added hastily when her eyes lit up at the suggestion. She was still touched by his thoughtfulness: he so rarely asked her what she wanted.
Dimitri ordered tea for them both and vatrushka. She looked at the ring of dough and her stomach heaved. The waiter regarded her with some concern.
“I just need a little fresh air,” she said weakly.
Dimitri led her out into the street, his gaze travelling over her face and body. “You’re pregnant,” he remarked coarsely. “Is it mine?”
“You know no one else ever touched me.” She felt wounded by his question but she was too unwell to make a fuss.
By way of response, he kissed her on the mouth, not caring if anyone was passing by. “Sergei Yahontov will have to let me marry you now,” he muttered. “He won’t entertain having a bastard for a grandchild.”
He insisted on driving her back to her house instead of making her walk from the end of the lane as he usually did. “It’s time I spoke with your father,” he said when she protested that she could go in by herself.
The meeting did not go well. Yahontov was outraged that his daughter had deceived him – and with a mere clerk at that! He threatened to disinherit Irina immediately if she dared to marry this adventurer – child or no child.
“Then you must live with the knowledge that you have forced your only daughter to live in a hovel!” Dimitri told him coldly, his face white with rage.
Irina wept quietly in the corner, but since she was always weeping these days, no one paid much attention to her.
“Write to me when your father changes his mind,” was Dimitri’s parting shot to his lover as he stormed out of the room.
A little later, Mikhail Baronsky visited the house as was his custom on a Friday evening. He and Sergei usually played chess together, but tonight the master of the house was incandescent with anger. Mikhail listened in horror as Sergei railed against the scoundrel who had seduced his daughter and then expected a marriage dowry.
“As if I would give that negodyay anything!” he exclaimed. “As for Irina – what could she possibly see in a fellow like that?”
Mikhail was silent, thinking of the younger man’s handsome face and the dashing figure he cut on the dance floor. He could understand women being dazzled by the charming manners and the flirtatious eyes, but a part of him wished that his favourite had shown more sense.
“You’re not really cutting her off without a kopek, are you?” he enquired.
“I would rather die than see any of my money go to fund that moshennik!” came the reply.
Irina was crying into her pillow when the gentle knock sounded at her bedroom door. “May I come in?” her dyadya asked.
Dimitri had forbidden her to see Baronsky, but he had also insulted her father and left her all alone with only her parents’ wrath for company. Besides, the idea that she could ever love someone like Mikhail was ridiculous! He was losing his hair for one thing and he carried far too much weight.
She would have been wary of any other man entering her boudoir, but when Mikhail came in, she breathed a sigh of relief. He was always so kind to her. One of her fondest memories was of the way he had always brought her special presents when he visited the house in her childhood: a nightingale in a cage, a basket of sugarplums, a kitten with fur the colour of smoke.
“Has Papa told you?” She knew the two men would have had time to talk by now.
Mikhail nodded. “He is very upset, zaya.”
“Couldn’t you talk to him?” she pleaded. “He would listen to you, I am sure.”
“What can I do, little one?” He threw up his hands in despair.
“If you could just make Papa see sense,” she murmured. “We don’t need much money – just enough to live on in comfort, in a little house of our own and not that dreadful room Dimitri currently rents.” Her eyes were wide and blue as she looked at him imploringly. “We wouldn’t have to stay in Moscow. I’m sure Dimitri could find work anywhere.”
Mikhail’s heart was torn. More than anything, he wished he could marry Irina and take her away to his country estate where she and her child could live in safety from Vassilyev. But she loved the man! And he was her baby’s father. It was at that moment that Baronsky made a decision that would change the lives of several people, including himself.
“Where does Dimitri live?” he asked casually.
Irina named the street. It was easy to remember since she had visited it over twenty times. Baronsky made a mental note of the address, then took his leave, promising to come back soon. If all went well, he would be returning with a marriage proposal of his own.
The hour was late when he arrived at the dismal building. “Wait here,” Baronsky told his coachman, comforting himself with the thought that the man in his employ was sufficiently well-built to look after himself should the occasion arise. No one answered the first few knocks on the door, but then a dubious-looking woman thrust her head out of a ground floor window, asking him what he wanted.
“I’m looking for a Dimitri Vassilyev,” Baronsky said politely. “I have a business proposal for him.”
A few minutes later, a dishevelled Dimitri appeared at the door. “What do you want?” he snarled at the older man.
“This is not something I wish to discuss on a doorstep,” Baronsky said gravely.
With ill grace, Dimitri let him inside. Baronsky couldn’t be certain, but he thought the room they entered was the one from which the fille de joie had addressed him.
Vassilyev poured himself a glass of vodka without offering one to his guest. “I take it you’re here because of Irina?”
“I told the little slut not to see you again,” Dimitri growled.
Baronsky ignored the insult. “I have a proposition for you.”
“Go on.” Dimitri seemed interested in spite of himself.
“I’m sure that you would rather live somewhere far more salubrious than this.” Baronsky waved his hand around the room. “I could give you enough money to afford a much better lifestyle.”
“A lifestyle without Irina,” Dimitri said flatly.
Baronsky nodded again.
“Because you want to marry her,” Dimitri guessed. “You’re twice her age, but you want to rescue her from the drunken philanderer she prefers to you.”
“I have an estate in the country.” Baronsky’s voice was tight. “I could take her away from Moscow and give her a good life. And you would have a better life yourself without her.”
“But your little plaything has my baby in her belly,” Dimitri mocked. When Baronsky didn’t respond, Dimitri’s eyes widened. “You knew already?”
Baronsky seemed to have turned into one of those wooden dolls whose head nods incessantly. “Well?” he demanded, somewhat abruptly. “What do you say?”
“How do you think Irina will react,” Dimitri began, “when I tell her that you tried to buy her from me?” When the other man did not answer, he continued, “You’re right that she would be happier in the countryside, but she will be my wife, not yours. This estate of yours – it must have servants who look after it for you while you’re away.”
“Well, yes, but …” Baronsky felt flustered. This was not how the conversation was supposed to go.
“Tell them you no longer need their services,” Dimitri instructed. “Irina and I will run the house for you – with the requisite number of maids and cooks and so forth. I will, of course, expect a small renumeration for my trouble, and in return, I will not tell Irina that it is your house or that you tried to bribe me to give her up.”
Baronsky’s face was white.
“You really don’t have any alternative,” Dimitri mused. “If I stay here, Irina will have to live in this room with me, and her life expectancy will immediately diminish. Thankfully, I drink enough vodka to keep the germs and diseases at bay, but an innocent young creature such as she …” He paused meaningfully.
“I will speak to her father tomorrow.” Mikhail knew when he was beaten.
“I think the marriage should take place as soon as possible,” Dimitri said smoothly. “After all, Irina will need time to get used to her new house before the baby comes along.”
After a small, private ceremony which Sergei Yahontov refused to attend, the happy couple set off in a coach for the countryside near Kolomna. Irina was overjoyed that her clever Dimitri had found them a house in the country, and when she saw the impressive building, her delight knew no bounds.
“Your aunt must have thought very highly of you to leave you this!” she remarked innocently.
“Yes,” Dimitri agreed, “her death was most fortuitous, coming as it did when we were most in need of money.”
And so the two of them settled into a peaceable existence. Dimitri did not drink less, but he bought more expensive vodka than he had before and perhaps this accounted for his kinder manner towards his wife. Irina had a beautiful boudoir, ten times nicer than the one at her father’s house, and the bed was quite large enough to accommodate Dimitri as well if he felt in the mood to visit his wife’s room. Now that they were married, she no longer tolerated his lovemaking but had begun to enjoy it.
Some seven months later, their daughter was born. Irina wrote to tell her father but he did not respond. She assumed her was still angry with her. She was also a little upset that dyadya Mikhail had not sent his congratulations – she had not seen him since the night he talked to her just before the wedding.
The Countess Natascha visited, declaring the baby to be milyy. “And so big for a seven months’ child!” she said admiringly.
“Well, my dear,” the Countess continued, “you have succeeded where others have failed. Who would have guessed that all it would take to make Dimitri settle down was a baby! Of course,” her tone grew reflective, “it helps that you have your uncle’s house to live in. I’m sure your father wouldn’t have been so generous.”
Irina felt suddenly cold. “What do you mean?” she said sharply. “Dimitri inherited this house when his aunt died.”
Natascha laughed, and it was not a pleasant sound.
“This is Mikhail Baronsky’s estate, child. I’ve visited before – when the rightful owner was here.” Noting her friend’s expression, she said hurriedly, “Whatever arrangement the two of them came to, I’m sure they were only thinking of you.”
Irina wept once her friend had gone. She could not believe that Dimitri had lied to her. But what was it her beloved Pushkin had once said? ‘A deception that elevates us is dearer than a host of low truths.’ He had brought her here to make her happy, she was sure of it. Whereas Mikhail … Perhaps his betrayal hurt more.
She could not mention this to her husband. He was happy enjoying the life of a country gentleman, going out riding every day and quite often visiting other local gentlemen in the evenings for a game or six of cards. She hoped that he was being careful with his money for a house like this could not be cheap to run, even if Mikhail was letting them live there, as she suspected, rent free.
From time to time, Dimitri urged her to get to know some of their neighbours – if you could call them neighbours when the nearest house was several miles away. She had dutifully taken tea with a number of them in the early days, but their sophistication frightened her: they were all so worldly-wise – more Natascha’s sort of people than her own.
The baby was three months old when Dimitri announced that he had hired a nursemaid. “The child takes up too much of your time,” he told her. “You are overtired and you cannot perform your wifely duties.”
She knew this was an oblique reference to her refusal to allow him access to her boudoir, but she had lost all desire for him since the latter stages of her confinement and the thought of him putting another baby inside her filled her with dread.
The girl, when she arrived, turned out to be an unexpected ally. Closer in age to Irina than any of the other women she knew, Svetlana was a comely maiden with large dark eyes and a plait that snaked down her back. She was devoted to little Anastasia but agreed with Dimitri that the baby needed to sleep in the nursery rather than in the bed with Irina.
“I will place a mattress of my own next to her cradle,” she promised, “and if she wakes in the night and cries, I will comfort her.” Then, turning to Dimitri, she added, “And you must let your wife sleep! She is exhausted from all the constant feeding.”
Dimitri sulked, but cheered up at the prospect of inviting his friends round to play cards when Svetlana suggested that it would be nicer for Irina if her husband wasn’t disappearing every night.
Of course, Dimitri could not invite the men without the women and so Irina found herself hosting an elegant soirée in the drawing room while her husband and his cronies sat around the large table in the dining room, drinking copious amounts of vodka and gambling to their hearts’ content. After a while, the talk turned to acquaintances in Moscow and she was surprised to hear Baronsky’s name mentioned in conjunction with a well-known opera singer.
“And is he really going to marry the creature?” one of the wives asked languidly. “I would have thought that several steps beneath him – after all, he was once engaged to Sergei Yahontov’s daughter, wasn’t he? I wonder why that match was broken off?”
Irina’s cheeks burned with embarrassment as she said stiffly, “Actually, that was me. And the match was broken off because he knew I was in love with Dimitri.”
The other woman shrugged. “Mikhail loved you, you loved Dimitri, Dimitri loved …” She broke off suddenly, leaving Irina wondering how the sentence ended.
“If you’ll excuse me a moment …” She made her voice as steady as possible. “I think my baby is crying. I must go and attend to her.”
She escaped the room before any of the others could point out that she had a nursemaid to do that.
Outside, in the corridor, Irina tried to stop her heart from fluttering with anxiety. Natascha’s long ago words came back to haunt her: “he will take other lovers and so will you.” Were all marriages like this, then? Was fidelity really so elusive?
The dining room door was slightly ajar and she could hear the murmur of the men’s voices as they chatted over their cards.
“I see her once a fortnight when I visit Moscow on business,” one of them remarked. “She’s a welcome diversion: Ludmila lost her appeal six months after we married.”
There was a burst of laughter at this. Irina froze. Were all men so callous?
“Well, you know what Pushkin said.” This was Dimitri’s voice. “With womankind, the less we love them, the easier they are to charm.”
More laughter. Irina crept away, heading for the nursery and the one person whose love she could be sure of.
Anastasia was thriving. As the months passed, she grew chubbier each day – and so did Svetlana. Wrapped up in her own misery, Irina did not realise the truth until it was too late. Once it dawned on her that the girl was with child, her heart went out to her, although Svetlana refused to say who the father was. She must have been tumbled under a haystack by one of the local farm boys, Irina guessed, asking the nursemaid gently if she wanted to marry the lad – she was sure Dimitri would spare some roubles for a dowry; but Svetlana shook her head and refused to discuss it further.
A while later, Irina was wakened one night by the sound of Anastasia wailing. It was not like Svetlana to let her cry for so long, she thought, getting out of bed and pulling a wrapper around herself. Tiptoeing to the nursery, she thought she detected noises coming from Dimitri’s room: a moaning and groaning that suggested her husband was ill.
“Dimitri?” The door was unlocked. She opened it and walked into the room, suddenly understanding who it was that had impregnated the nursemaid.
At first they did not notice her. When they did, Svetlana let out a scream and tried to pull the covers over their heads. Dimitri, meanwhile, seemed quite unabashed, rising from the bed and crossing the room to greet his wife with a kiss on the cheek.
“It was nice of you to visit,” he said coolly, “but as you can see, I already have a prior appointment.”
He had removed her from the room before she had a chance to protest.
Irina wept, of course, but not as much as she had done before. She liked Svetlana and since their children would be siblings, it seemed only natural to let her stay on – although she now started taking a few drops of laudanum before bed each night so that she would sleep through any unpleasantness that might be occurring in Dimitri’s bedroom.
Her husband’s son was born a few months later: a darling little boy with Svetlana’s hair and Dimitri’s eyes. He was named Alexei and Irina felt glad that Anastasia would not have to grow up an only child as she, Irina, had done herself.
She heard from others that Baronsky had not married his opera singer: she had found another beau, even older and richer. It was a small consolation when weighed against all the other disasters in her life, but she was glad that her dear dyadya was not going to demean himself by marrying someone unworthy.
The seasons passed and little Anastasia became an adorable toddler, following her mother everywhere she went. She was devoted to her half-brother and would sit watching his cradle for hours, a serious expression on her otherwise sweet face.
Dimitri was hardly ever home these days. He would leave every morning to go riding, returning only as twilight began creeping in. She no longer missed him: whatever fruitless fires had once burned within her had effectively turned her dreams to dust long ago.
From time to time, as she thumbed through her well worn copy of Pushkin, a white rose petal would flutter from the pages, reminding her that she was just the trembling leaf that winter left behind; and then she would find herself thinking of Baronsky and of the love she had failed to appreciate when it was within her grasp.