Here’s an old story. Set, in this particular translation, in St. Petersburg. In the 1880’s, shall we say?
X is married, happily up to a point, with two daughters he adores. He is comfortably situated, a writer with a tenured post at the University, and a dutiful and loving wife who keeps a warm and welcoming home,. His novels are translated into French, German and English; and he is well known, widely respected and sought after in company. Y is in a similar social position, with a hard-working husband (a high ranking railway official of some kind) who worships her, a son she loves and for whom she harbours ambition. She is quiet, Finnish, quick to smile. X is older than Y, by almost 20 years.
X and Y have met a few times at the theatre in the company of mutual acquaintances, and have nodded at one another, and exchanged a few words. Y has an identical twin sister, called Z, who is also a theatre-goer, and who also moves within the outer reaches of X’s circle of friends.
At the moment of the beginning of this telling of the story, X did not know the names of either Y or Z. He thought of them as the Finnish sisters, if he thought of them at all. If he had been asked, he could not have told Y and Z apart.
Early one morning, whilst walking in the Summer Garden, X saw a woman at some distance, coming towards him, the low sun from behind lighting her white hair like a halo. He could imagine her shape against her clothes.
He thought, ‘That is a beautiful woman. Although she is too far away for me to see in detail – whether she is young or old, for example, I cannot tell, (though the colour of her hair leads me to suspect that she is perhaps in her early sixties) – I can see that this woman is a great beauty.’
As she came closer, X saw that the woman was not in her sixties, but rather in her mid-thirties. Closer still, X realised that the woman was, in fact, Y – Y and not Z. And X further realised, therefore, that Y was very beautiful.
He raised his hat. She smiled, and stopped, and spoke as if they were old friends.
“Oh, X,” she said. “I am glad to have met you, you of all people. I have been so worried about my son. He is doing badly at school, but I am sure that’s because it is the wrong school for him. I’m wondering if I might find him a place at the Classical Gymnasium… I’m sure you are the man to tell me.” He noticed that, despite her accent, she spoke beautiful Russian.
“Of course. It will be a pleasure to tell you what I can.”
Y talked of her son’s troubles at school, while X listened. From time to time, she would look up at him from under her fringe, and smile. X smiled back, and told her what he knew of the Classical Gymnasium, and how she might find her son a place there.
Then Y said,
“My husband is not interested. He does not love our son. He said to me last night that he wishes our son was grown-up, and moved away.” She looked up at X, and pushed her hair back from her face.
“I’m sure…” said X, thinking to find some conciliatory words. But he could not find them. He did not understand how a father could not love his child. Her beauty had come as a surprise, and it unsettled him.
“It has been a pleasure to talk… but I must get to my office.”
“I have kept you,” she said.
“Not at all. Not at all… but…”
“Perhaps we’ll meet again. Let me know if I can help with your son.”
Again, he raised his hat, and they parted.
For the next few days, X thought of Y, thought of her openness and trust, and her smile, and he found himself smiling in turn.
Ten days or so later, X was making his way home after dining with friends. It was an evening such as can only be experienced in Petersburg, a June evening, still with some light of the sun in the western sky, but also with a full moon overhead, and a few stars visible in the east. He stopped – to tie his bootlace, or to fumble in his pockets for matches – when Y came round the corner. They almost collided.
X said, “I’m sorry, it is so rude of me, but I don’t know your name.”
Again, that smile.
“Y”, she said.
“I know. Which way are you going? May I walk with you?”
“It would be a huge pleasure. How is your son getting on?”
They walked for an hour, turning this way and that, rather than take the streets which might cause them to part. Y spoke of her childhood; summers by the side of a Finnish lake, clearing snow from the street outside her Grandfather’s house.
“I have never been to Finland. I am told it is very beautiful. I should love to go.”
“Go in summer. To the Lakes. It is very beautiful.”
“You could come and be my translator.”
“I would be little use; I am from Åland; my first language is Swedish. Besides, everyone speaks Russian! You’d be fine. I have a book at home about Finland, in Russian. With illustrations. Would you like to see it?”
They stopped at a turning where it was clear they could no longer postpone going in opposite directions.
“Is your home far from here?” asked X.
“Not far, X. We are almost neighbours. Do not worry about me; I’m sure I won’t be attacked.”
“Goodnight Y’, said X, using her name for the first time.
‘What a charming mistress she would make’, thought X as he came up to his front door. ‘It is some years since I’ve taken a mistress, but I feel ready again. I have the discretion necessary to keep a mistress, though a married mistress with a son will pose new challenges. But, no, it will be worth it. I shall show her great respect.’ A few days later, however, it became clear to X that his wish to make Y his mistress was not going to be possible, for the following complicating reason; he had fallen in love with her.
He had been riding in a carriage on Nevsky Prospekt when he saw Y come out from Gostiny Dvor with a large bunch of sweet peas (presumably just bought from a florist inside the arcade). She buried her face in the flowers, her white hair framing the blooms. Witnessing this sensual act, X felt himself lift from his seat. As the carriage hurried past, he turned, and waved, almost toppling over; and she smiled and raised her flowers in greeting. He craned his neck to see her, and watched her disappear into a dot.
X felt as though he had swallowed a melon, whole, which now sat in his stomach. X dropped back into his seat.
The carriage driver called, “Is everything alright sir?”
“Yes, thank you,” said X, but he knew it wasn’t true. Everything was not alright. He had read his Stendahl, and he knew what had happened. At first, he was indifferent to the charms of Y, had not noticed them at all. Then, after he noticed them for the first time in the park, and most especially after the evening walk, he felt hope that he might be able to enjoy those charms in a civilised manner. But in that momentary glimpse of Y with her face in flowers, all her imperfections had become charms, and all her charms turned to shimmering crystal.
X was angry with himself. ‘It is true’ he thought, ‘there is no fool like an old fool. Y would make such a fine mistress; but I have fallen in love with her, and this cannot be. I cannot betray my wife like that. I am a man of honour. It is unfortunate (and painful) but it cannot be helped. I am not ready for a mistress, after all.’
But now, his every waking thought was of Y, and when he could see her again. He had no way of contacting her; and knew that this was good. ‘This will pass,’ he thought, ‘as it passed when I was a callow youth, first come up to Petersburg, and fallen in love with my tutor’s daughter.’
Ah, but he longed to see Y!
When next he saw her, a few days later, it was once again in the park, though this time she was walking with her son. She laughed, and pulled her hair away from her face. Her son fidgeted while X and Y talked.
“I have not forgotten that I promised to lend you that book,” she said.
As they talked, and greatly to his surprise, X found that he had, quite unintentionally, dropped all his guards. When last he had found himself in this state, thirty and more years ago, he had been unable to say so much as good-day to his tutor’s daughter; but now he talked to Y as though she was the only person in the whole of Russia who could possibly understand him. He talked as he had not talked for years. And she listened to him. To flirt with this woman was one thing, a game which might once have been amusing, but to talk to her like this; from his heart – this was not a game; it was ruination He knew that to talk this way was to threaten the destruction of all that he held close; and must lead to the loss of his daughters, and therefore his life. And with her standing before him, when X heard her voice, her laugh, he could feel the abyss opening beneath his feet. Yet he could not stop himself. For twenty minutes or more they stood talking.
Y’s son continued to fidget.
“You have been very patient, young man. I hear you’re trying to get into the Classical Gymnasium. If you are as patient with your books, I’m sure you’ll pass the entrance exam.”
“What do you say?” said Y.
“Thank you sir.”
“We shall be friends, I’m certain.”
Y looked up at X, and touched his arm.
“Thank you X,” she said.
He made his way home in rage and joy. Rage at himself, (he could hardly bear to admit it to himself, but it had to be faced) for falling in love. Joy, because she had touched him. Rage, because he could not be friends with Y, or take her as his mistress, as he had hoped. Joy, joy, because he loved her.
Finding his wife and daughters not at home, X sat in his study, and tried to concentrate on a recent issue of a philological journal. He heard a carriage in the street, and the doorbell ring; and moments later he stood up, dropping the journal to the floor, as the servant announced Y.
“I hope you don’t mind… but I’ve brought you that book about Finland.”
“Mind? No, of course not… please, will you have some tea? Marta… tea for two.”
“No, I don’t want to intrude.”
“Of course, you must. I insist. Marta, the tea.”
And so Y sat in X’s study for an hour. He sat with his hand on his chin while she talked of her sister Z, of her parents, of her coming to Petersburg. And when the clock chimed four, and she rose to leave, Y said,
“Thank you for letting me waste your time.”
“My dear Y, talking to you is the best possible use I could make of my time, I assure you.”
‘ He showed her to the door himself, and the smile that she gave as she turned and walked down the steps to the street would stay in his memory always, to burn and to console.
Yet how could she behave like that? How could she dare to come here? What if his wife had been at home, or his daughters? And what was he thinking, inviting her for tea? Old Marta might gossip to the other servants, and then his wife would surely come to hear of the visit. And what then? What would he say to his wife if she asked him who his caller had been? It was clear what course he must take. He must tell his wife that Y had called, and then he must see Y no more. But, the sound of her voice. The trust she showed him in her talk, and the ease with which he could talk to her. That smile as she turned to leave. The melon he had been holding in his stomach for weeks turned over.
And X did not tell his wife when she returned.
He did not see Y again for almost a fortnight; a fortnight in which he thought of her through all his days. But once in that time he saw Z, at the theatre; and he knew it was Z. It was extraordinary to him that it should be so clear which sister he loved, when they appeared identical at first glance. But as X looked he saw that Z’s face was harder than Y’s, and less quick to smile – and the closer he looked, the more the resemblance slipped away.
One afternoon, he was walking through Gostiny Dvor looking for a present for one of his daughters and he thought, ‘Here I am, and I don’t know when I’ll ever see her again. It might be never; Petersburg is big, our paths might simply not cross – or she might move away, and I might never see her again, never know where she had gone. Or, I might turn the next corner and…’
And she was there. She was there. Round the next corner.
And they were next to the door of a tea house.
And he invited her to join him, and she agreed;
“Though I’m not really dressed…”
and, again, they talked, and again, the clock chimed, four, five, six, this time unnoticed.
But now it chimes seven.
She stands up, with her hand over her mouth.
‘Oh! My son! I promised I would kiss him goodnight.’
‘Then, you must go, dear Y.’
He walks her to the door of the tea house. They stand on the pavement, looking at one another, not speaking. And then she takes a step closer to him, and turns her face to him, and blushes, and says,
‘I hope we meet again soon.’
And he takes her face in his hands, and he kisses her.
Here is a turning point in the story. They have become lovers. How is their affair to be conducted? Do they sit together in the park, or in cafes holding hands under the table? Do they write letters? How often do they meet, and what is said between them? Do they arrange it so that they can make love? If so, how is it arranged? It hardly matters. Happiness, for both of them, whatever form it takes, can now only be found in one another’s company. When they are apart, it is torture. When they are with their families, it is a living horror. Y cannot allow her husband to touch her, which breaks his heart. X feels a deep compassion for his loving wife, and holds her close to him, trying to give her comfort and strength. His wife sees that X is unhappy, and insists that they visit Koktebel on the Black Sea coast for a month. But X’s unhappiness deepens whilst they are away. During his absence, Y is frantic. She does not eat during the month, and on his return, when X and Y meet at last, she is weightless in his arms.
And so it carries on; for a season? A year? Several years? But it cannot last. A final crisis is reached. Are they perhaps discovered, unmasked, threatened with exposure? I do not think so, because they are not ashamed. In one of Chekhov’s versions of this story, perhaps his best known, X and Y realise that, despite everything, despite all the pain it will cause to their families, they have to be together. I do not think our X and Y have that choice, because they both feel that they cannot find a lasting happiness in the shadow of the misery of others. In the great telling of this story by the English writer Evelyn Waugh, Y tells X that she must leave him, because to be together is a sin in the eyes of God. That doesn’t seem quite right in this case, though I suspect our lovers faced a moral crisis – Y’s husband being taken ill, or X’s wife being discovered by her husband crying in loneliness and desperation, knowing that she is betrayed, but not how.
Or it could be that they realised at the same moment that the time for their parting had come; yes, that seems right. They part, after a last desperate meeting, by mutual agreement; and it cannot be borne.
It cannot be borne. X keeps a pearl handled pistol in the secret drawer of his bureau. He takes it out, loads a bullet, and holds it in his lap. Y stares into the black waters of the Neva, and thinks she might find peace there. She takes a step. But then something happens. Perhaps X has forgotten to lock his study door; a child runs in laughing, and asks for help with her French grammar. Perhaps Y sees moonlight on the water, or hears music from a high window. She steps back. Something has changed. Y cries; X hugs his daughter to him, and whispers I love you into her hair.
And so life, diminished, continues. Over time, grief turns from a wound to a bruise. Bruises must be shielded, or they can still cause pain. X avoids the Summer Garden in particular. In spring, there is an unusual cherry tree with white blossom, the white of her hair, which he cannot bear to see. He also avoids the theatre so far as possible, but professional obligation means that X must from time to time attend performances, though he excuses himself when he can, because it was at the theatre that he first saw Y. It is now never more than twice a year that he goes.
Once, perhaps nine or ten years since the parting with Y, X saw Z in an interval for the first time in a long time, and pushed his way through the crowd towards her. They talked of the play. After a time, X said,
“How is Y? Please tell me something of your sister.”
“Haven’t you heard? Her husband died, and she has moved back to Mariehamn. Several years ago.”
X felt his head spin, and was sure that he must faint.
“I did not know.”
“Her son is an officer in the Army’”
“She… she has not remarried?”
“No. I should not have…”
“And you, X? You are well? Your wife is well? Your daughters?”
“They are well. My daughters are married. I am a grandfather.”
“You are lucky.”
“Do you write to your sister?”
“Of course. Once a month.”
“Perhaps…. in your next letter…. you could tell her that we met. And that I am well, and a grandfather.”
“I will. I know that you were friends. She spoke of you often. She will be glad to hear of it.”
The bell rang for the second half of the performance. X took Z’s hand, and pressed it to his lips.
Now, sometimes on summer evenings, X sits drinking tea in a café opposite the Finland station, watching for one among the newly arrived passengers emerging from the platforms in gouts of steam, watching for one who never comes.