sprkfv.net

 


 

Jody

That night I was unable to sleep. Not, of course, because of my adventure with that stupid old man. And even less because of the lieutenant. It was Maria's whisper as, flinging herself forward over the windowsill, she had said, "Fernando... do not dare... do not dare to go!" that would not permit me to close my eyes. I had caught in it a kind of tenderness, or fear, perhaps, which I had interpreted as tenderness - but at any rate some new emotion for me, unexpectedly new, and brightening my prospects more than I had ever dared hope.
     With the early morning I arose. I tried to work but it was no good; I abandoned my brushes and walked to the suburbs. When after half an hour's walking I again found myself facing Maria's little garden it was still early morning. The sun's oblique rays were bathing her little house, twined with greenery, and the garden breathed fragrance. The windows of the little house were open wide, but within reigned peace and silence. One had the feeling that the little house was nodding and basking in the rays of the morning sun. The wicket gate was open, but I could not quite bring myself to go through it. I merely stood lost in contemplation of this scene of sweet slumber, never even wondering, as I usually did, how well it would look on canvas. Thus I stood for rather a long time, and would probably have remained there had I not suddenly raised my head at the sound of human voices, which rudely dispelled the dream, returning me unceremoniously to life. The sounds were, of course, coming from next door. Giving the little house a final look I set off home. As I passed his gate I caught sight of the old man. He was standing with his back to me, and in front of him was a most charming-looking youth with blond curls and an anxious face. In a curt and methodical voice the old man was giving him a telling-off, and the youth was casting his eyes to right and to left, evidently uncertain how to escape the old man and his lecture.
     "Well, that one won't get any inheritance!" I thought, and I felt sorry for the curly-headed youth.
     When I got home I spent the whole day pacing from one end of the room to the other, and it was only when it had begun to grow dark that I went back to Maria's. Hardly had I grasped the handle of the gate than I had to stop, as some quite unaccustomed sounds could be heard from the window. I thought it sounded like someone inconsolably weeping, sobbing aloud. My heart tightened within me at the thought that it might be Maria. I was about to open the gate when I froze in that position. Suddenly the door screeched, opened, and out of it came the lieutenant. Some truly earth-shattering event must have taken place for him to have forgotten that it was the duty of every brave soldier to leap out through the window.
     "Instead of standing there listening why don't you knock and come in?" he snapped at me immediately.
     "Look here, lieutenant," I said, "I would ask you to..."
     "And I would also ask you something," the lieutenant cut in. "I would ask you to stay at home, paint your pictures and not engage in your artistic pursuits anywhere else."
     "Now look here, Sir," I cried, jerking the gate open and directing my steps straight towards him. But he ducked out of the way and, stepping aside, flung the door wide open before me.
     "Will the duke be so good," he hissed, "and just look how clever you have been and what the result of it is."
     With these words, rattling his sword and clicking his heels, he walked out of the garden. I rushed into the house and saw Maria stretched out upon the couch and sobbing in such despair that I came to a standstill, rooted to the spot.
     "Maria, for the love of God, what has happened?" I mouthed.
     "Go away..." I heard through sobs. I found a carafe of water, brought her a glass and helped her to sit up.
     "You... you..." she said, her teeth chattering against the glass, "have made... a... disreputable woman of me."
     And instead of finishing her sentence she began a redoubled fit of sobbing.
     "I?... of you?... For pity's sake, Maria," I got out, stammering, I was so taken aback.
     But Maria was not thinking, she was sobbing.
     "No, I am serious, listen," I said in a voice that was different, firm now, sitting down on the couch and taking her hands. "Stop crying and speak properly. This is a serious matter. What was that you said about a disreputable woman?"
     "I didn't say it, it was the old man..." Maria sobbed.
     "The old man again?" I cried, starting to boil with anger. I drew her up by her arms and made her sit on the couch.
     "Tell me this instant what the old man said!" I shouted, clenching my fists.
     I was not shouting at Maria - heaven forbid. Was I capable of raising my voice against her even one tiny fraction? I was shouting because everything inside me was. Or, if you prefer, I was shouting at her invisible neighbour, whom I imagined before me. But whatever its motive, my shouting had an effect on Maria: she stopped crying and began to speak more coherently, though still with a break in her voice.
     "Today I was standing in my garden..."
     "Well?"
     "And the old man was standing in his, near the ladder you left against the wall last night..."
     "Yes?" I whispered, beginning to grow very excited.
     "He put his hands on the ladder and said to me in a loud voice, "The difference between a respectable woman and a disreputable one is that..."
     At this point her voice was engulfed by a great wave of sobs.
     "Yes, go on," I said, gripping her hand.
     "...is that a respectable woman has respectable visitors, and a disreputable one has scoundrels."
     I leapt to my feet. Everything swam before my eyes. Maria was weeping like a child.
     "He said that?" I exclaimed, still unable to believe my ears.
     "Yes, he did," Maria muttered through sobs. "And to underline the point he struck his hand against the ladder..."
     "Aha! Aha!" I screamed out. "Then we shall speak to him not with words but with actions!"
     Everything was dancing around me. I could not think how I could have forgotten about the ladder. I knew for certain that I was going to do something, though what exactly had not yet taken shape within my spinning head. I only felt regret that we were not living in the Middle Ages, when it was permissible to slay one's enemy at the crossroads. I looked out of the window - and again felt regret: Maria's neighbour, that brute who had dared to raise his voice against her, was slowly walking along the street and disappearing from view around the bend. The moon silhouetted his form in sharp relief. At the bend he paused, turned back, as though in reflection, then moved on further and vanished.
     An unexpected realization dawned within my brain. The old man did not have his dog with him. It was plain that the dog had stayed at home. My plan was as follows: without delay, I would kill the good-for-nothing dog and leave a note on its carcass that said: "The difference between a dog and an old donkey is that the dog is killed first, and the old donkey after."
     "Maria, I swear that the injury done to you shall receive a harsh revenge!" I cried as I ran out of the house.
     Maria's garden, the wall and the garden of her neighbour flashed before me. Jumping into his garden, I seized yesterday's ladder and ran over to his house with it, placed it against the balcony on the second storey and climbed up on to the balcony. I found myself in the neighbour's house. He lived alone - that was well-known - and I was not afraid of meeting anyone. All I wanted was the dog, and I expected it to rush out at me, barking. I did not even have a knife on me, but I was ready to administer justice to it with my bare hands. For some reason, however, the dog was silent - asleep, perhaps. I quickly left the balcony and entered the first room I came to, the only one on the upper floor. This was the old man's bedroom. It was quiet and empty. I ran down to the ground floor, but there too silence reigned. The moon's rays, falling through the window, lit the room in long stripes. I pushed open the door of the last room and entered the study, but the dog was not in the study either. It must have run off after its owner, and I had evidently failed to notice it when I had caught sight of the old skinflint out in the street. An insane fury took possession of me: here I was, inside the dwelling, inside the very heart, one might even have said, of Maria's enemy - yet I could not put my plan into action! With all my might I struck my fist on the table, and into the blow I put all my powerless frenzy.
     Suddenly my gaze fell on the papers that were lying on the table. This was the notorious will. I pounced upon the heap of closely written sheets and seized hold of them. Perhaps it was not a will at all; at any rate, there were rather too many sheets and they were rather too densely covered in tiny handwriting. It was indeed almost certain that this was not a will - I had only called it that because that was what Maria had told me it was. What difference did it make? With a sharp movement I whipped an entire bundle of papers off the table and, crumpling them up, stuffed them into my pocket, with another movement overturning an inkpot on those that remained.
     In the silence I heard the sound of the gate opening. For some unknown reason the old man had already come back. I rushed headlong upstairs and found myself in the bedroom. There I stopped. It was out of the question for me to go out on to the balcony until the old man had entered the house, otherwise he might see me. I listened hard. In the silence I plainly heard first the clink of a key being inserted into the lock, and then two sonorous turns. At that same moment the poodle came rushing upstairs, barking loudly.
     With one leap I was out on the balcony. Clambering down into the garden I seized the ladder and, holding it in my hands, ran over to the wall, this time, however, not the one that adjoined Maria's house, but the one that gave on to the street. The poodle was already on the balcony, and its frenzied barking filled the whole garden and the whole neighbourhood. I jumped down from the wall into the street and looked around. There was not a soul to be seen. No one had observed me on my way out of someone else's garden. I walked a few paces and slipped in through Maria's gate.
     She met me in the doorway and seized my hand. Her face was pale, her eyes wide. And oh Lord, how black they were that night! An entire abyss opened before me.
     "Here is the old night-owl's will," I said, handing her the crumpled mass of papers.
     Amazement, suspicion and admiration - all of those things flickered at once in her eyes that were now raised to me and were as wide open as before.
     "You've been inside his house?" she whispered.
     "Yes, of course!" I exclaimed, kissing her hand and noticing in joyful amazement that she had not drawn it away.
     "You're a madman," Maria whispered, looking round at the window, through which her neighbour's house was visible.
     "I bet he's angry now," I smiled, "whatever his name is..."
     Maria's arm tenderly entwined my neck.
     "Arthur Schopenhauer," she said. "Some foreigner."
     I really do not know how that barbarous name has remained in my memory. At that moment I felt only her arm gently, tenderly entwining my neck, all I could see were her black eyes gazing ardently at me...
     I did not return home until late in the morning. It was the happiest night of my life.

Petrograd, 20 July - Essentuki, 30 July 1917

(translated by David McDuff)

Story first published in 1991 by Faber and Faber, London; Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary 1927 and other writings, translated and edited by Oleg Prokofiev and Christopher Palmer.

     Back