Lady N—'s Story
ONE late afternoon, ten years ago, the examining magistrate, Peter Sergeitch, and I rode to the station together at hay-making time to fetch the mail.
The weather was superb, but as we were riding home we heard thunder growling, and saw an angry black cloud coming straight toward us. The storm was approaching and we were riding into its very teeth. Our house and the village church were gleaming white upon its breast, and the tall, silvery poplars were glistening against it. The scent of rain and of new-mown hay hung in the air. My companion was in high spirits, laughing and talking the wildest nonsense.
"How splendid it would be," he cried, "if we should suddenly come upon some antique castle of the Middle Ages with towers battlemented, moss-grown, and owl-haunted, where we could take refuge from the storm and where a bolt of lightning would end by striking us !"
But at that moment the first wave swept across the rye and oat fields, the wind moaned, and whirling dust filled the air. Peter Sergeitch laughed and spurred his horse.
"How glorious!" he cried. "How glorious!"
His gay mood was infectious. I, too, laughed to think that in another moment we should be wet to the skin, and perhaps struck by lightning.
The blast and the swift pace thrilled us, and set our blood racing; we caught our breath against the gale and felt like flying birds.
The wind had fallen when we rode into our courtyard, and heavy drops of rain were drumming on the roof and lawn. The stable was deserted.
Peter Sergeitch himself unsaddled the horses, and led them into their stalls. I stood at the stable door waiting for him, watching the descent of the slanting sheets of rain. The sickly sweet scent of hay was even stronger here than it had been in the fields. The air was dark with thunder-clouds and rain.
"What a flash !" cried Peter Sergeitch coming to my side after an especially loud, rolling thunderclap that, it seemed, must have cleft the sky in two. "Well?"
He stood on the threshold beside me breathing deeply after our swift ride, with his eyes fixed on my face. I saw that his glance was full of admiration.
"Oh, Natalia!" he cried. "I would give anything on earth to be able to stand here for ever looking at you. You are glorious to-day."
His look was both rapturous and beseeching, his face was pale, and drops of rain were glistening on his beard and moustache; these, too, seemed to be looking lovingly at me.
"I love you ! " he cried. " I love you and I am happy because I can see you. I know that you cannot be my wife, but I ask nothing, I desire nothing; only know that I love you. Don't answer me, don't notice me, only believe that you are very dear to me, and suffer me to look at you."
His ecstasy communicated itself to me. I saw his rapt look, I heard the tones of his voice mingling with the noise of the rain, and stood rooted to the spot as if bewitched. I longed to look at those radiant eyes and listen to those words for ever.
"You are silent! Good!" said Peter Sergeitch. "Do not speak!"
I was very happy. I laughed with pleasure, and ran through the pouring rain into the house. He laughed too, and ran after me.
We burst in wet and panting and tramped noisily up-stairs like two children. My father and brother, unaccustomed to seeing me laughing and gay, looked at me in surprise and began to laugh with us.
The storm blew over, the thunder grew silent, but the rain-drops still glistened on Peter Sergeitch's beard. He sang and whistled and romped noisily with the dog all the evening, chasing him through the house and nearly knocking the butler carrying the samovar off his feet. He ate a huge supper, talking all kinds of nonsense the while, swearing that if you eat fresh cucumbers in winter you can smell the spring in your nostrils.
When I went to my room I lit the candle and threw the casement wide open. A vague sensation took hold of me. I remembered that I was free and healthy, well-born and rich, and that I was beloved, but chiefly that I was well-born and rich—well-born and rich ! Goodness, how delightful that was ! Later, shrinking into bed to escape the chill that came stealing in from the garden with the dew, I lay and tried to decide whether I loved Peter Sergeitch or not. Not being able to make head or tail of the question, I went to sleep.
Next morning when I awoke and saw the shadows of the lindens and the trembling patches of sunlight that played across my bed, the events of yesterday rose vividly before me. Life seemed rich, and varied, and full of beauty. I dressed quickly and ran singing into the garden.
And then, what happened ? Nothing ! When winter came and we moved to the city, Peter Sergeitch seldom came to see us. Country acquaintances are only attractive in the country. In town, in the winter, they lose half their charm. When they come to call they look as if they were wearing borrowed clothes, and they stir their tea much too long. Peter Sergeitch sometimes spoke of love, but his words did not sound as enchanting as they had in the country. Here we felt more keenly the barrier between us, I was titled and rich; he was poor and was not even a noble, but an examining magistrate, the son of a deacon. Both of us—I because I was very young, and he, heaven knows why—considered this barrier very great and very high. He smiled affectedly when he was with us in town and criticised high society; if any one beside himself was in the drawing-room he remained morosely silent. There is no barrier so high but that it may be surmounted, but, from what I have known of him, the modern hero of romance is too timid, too indolent and lazy, too finical and ready to accept the idea that he is a failure cheated by life, to make the struggle. Instead, he carps at the world, and calls it vile, forgetting that his own criticism at last becomes vile in itself.
I was beloved; happiness was near, seemed almost to be walking at my side; my path was strewn with roses, and I lived without trying to understand myself, not knowing what I was expecting nor what I demanded from life. And so time went on and on— Men with their love passed near me; bright days and warm nights flew by; the nightingales sang; the air was sweet with new-mown hay—all these things, so dear, so touching to remember, flashed by me swiftly, unheeded, as they do by every one, leaving no trace behind them, until they vanished like mist. Where is it all now?
My father died; I grew older. All that had been so enchanting, so gracious, so hope-inspiring; the sound of rain, the rolling of thunder, dreams of happiness, and words of love, all these grew to be a memory alone. I now see before me a level, deserted plain, bounded by a dark and terrible horizon, without a living soul upon it.
A bell rang. It was Peter Sergeitch. When I see the winter trees, remembering how they decked themselves in green for me in summer-time, I whisper:
"Oh, you darling things!"
And when I see the people with whom I passed my own springtime, my heart grows warm and sad, and I whisper the same words.
Peter Sergeitch had moved to the city long ago through the influence of my father. He was a little elderly now, and a little stooping. It was long since he had spoken any words of love, he talked no nonsense now, and was dissatisfied with his occupation. He was a little ailing, and a little disillusioned; he snapped his fingers at life, and would have been glad to have had it over. He took his seat in the chimney-corner and looked silently into the fire. Not knowing what to say, I asked:
"Well, what news have you?"
"None at all."
Silence fell once more. The ruddy firelight played across his melancholy features.
I remembered our past, and suddenly my shoulders shook; I bent my head and wept bitterly. I felt unbearably sorry for myself and for this man, and I longed passionately for those things which had gone by, and which life now denied us. I no longer cared for my riches or my title.
I sobbed aloud with my head in my hands murmuring: "My God, my God, our lives are ruined!"
He sat silent and did not tell me not to weep. He knew that tears must be shed, and that the time for them had come. I read his pity for me in his eyes, and I, too, pitied him and was vexed with this timid failure who had not been able to mould his life or mine aright.
As I bade him farewell in the hall he seemed purposely to linger there, putting on his coat. He kissed my hand in silence twice, and looked long into my tear-stained face. I was sure that he was remembering that thunder-storm, those sheets of rain, our laughter, and my face as it had then been. He tried to say something; he would have done so gladly, but nothing came. He only shook his head and pressed my hand—God bless him !
When he had gone, I went back into the study and sat down on the carpet before the fire. Grey ashes were beginning to creep over the dying embers. The wintry blast was beating against the windows more angrily than ever and chanting some tale in the chimney.
The maid servant came in and called my name, thinking that I had fallen asleep.