Natalia Ivanovna Speaks
The queen of spades goes on the king of hearts. And then the black five on the red six. That ace goes up – and the deuce and the trey.
One card was laid upon another endlessly. My eyes to them with a kind of trancelike fascination. The solitaire work out. I tried again and again. When my luck would I tried an easier one. And that one I won.
Feverishly my hand shuffled the cards, mixed them. A harsh snapping sound—perhaps this time!
Evening after evening I sat in the friendly garden room, a recluse by my own unforgiving frame of mind, my heart stubborn, rebe llious, and hard, a victim of a never ending train of thoughts and bitter recriminations. I would not write to Gleb. How write of things I could not feel? How could I say what I mean? In my heart there was nothing but resentment, jealousy, and frustration.
"He didn't want to stay with you and you were not strong to hold him. He left you—he left you." The words kept; themselves in my mind.
"Lisa, please write to me." I could still hear his pleading as he stood at the railing looking down at me. No, I would not write.
The queen of dubs on the king of diamonds. He left me - I could also leave him. Let him go warring to his heart's content! I could go back home to Sweden. Better still, I could go to Murmansk, enroll as a nurse, and work there. And there he could find me— if he wished.
The days stretched ahead endlessly. The summer was going, fall would come, and then the winter, and there I sat in Archangel alone. Alone with the whole purpose of my being here forfeited, working at that boring job of translating reports meaningless to me, com pletely senseless, a life empty of ideas and of purpose.
The jack of clubs goes on the queen of diamonds.
He had said, "There is no place for women at the front." What about nurses? Aren't they of any use? This time perhaps the luck of the solitaire would change and I would make it. The mere handling of the cards gave me a certain measure of relief.
My thoughts raced on, then struck a new and jarring note. How would I have felt if the country my husband insisted on fighting for had been Sweden , my native land, instead of Russia ? Would I feel the same resentment? The thought was upsetting.
Weeks passed. Apart from going to work at the American Military Mission and to the Officers' Club for lunch, I went nowhere, spoke to no one, did nothing but play solitaire. I was caught in an impasse of circular unreason; like water caught in an eddy I swirled and flowed but made no progress.
Then another idea came. On that first night when I arrived in Archangel and Lieutenant Smith had taken me to the Kovalevskys', I had immediately felt an unwilling attraction to Natalia Ivanovna. I say unwilling, for I had sensed that her kind of honesty and purp osefulness could become intensely demanding. In her large brown eyes and in the way she spoke, I had read an insistence on the critical fundamentals of life. One might call this substance, or simply char acter. But it had appealed to me because it induced confidence.
Gleb admired her greatly, this had been obvious at once. Perhaps she would understand my feelings—perhaps she would understand my problem and sympathize. With a quick hand I pushed together the cards, their edges soft from much handling.
The evening was lovely outside. The sun threw long slanting beams across the treetops, which filtered through the gathering shadows down onto the wooden sidewalk.
Natalia Ivanovna sat at the table in her untidy living room. She was alone in the house. Beside her the samovar sang softly. The last cup of clear tea stood cooling at her elbow.
"Sit down, Luisa Oskarovna," she said without rising, hardly looking up from the book she was reading. We sat in silence for several minutes.
"What are you reading, Natalia Ivanovna?"
"Tolstoi." She pushed the book away from her.
I said that Gleb loved Tolstoi, that he was his favorite author, especially War and Peace, and that I had read parts of it but found it a bit heavy to read in Russian.
"It's his best book. It's Russia !" Natalia Ivanovna's voice blos somed with tender affection as if she had spoken of a lover.
" Russia — Russia ! Tell me, Natalia Ivanovna, what is Russia , the Russia you are speaking of like that? To me Russia is nothing. I don't know it, I hate it!" And then suddenly all the thoughts harbored in bitterness deep inside me poured forth: "Gleb should not have left me, Natalia Ivanovna. I almost hate him for leaving me!" At last I was able to express in words all the pain that had been plaguing me for so long.
The sound was like a period after a sentence. When Natalia Ivanovna spoke again, her voice was subdued and slightly vibrant:
" Russia is indescribable and unfathomable. Russia is all and nothing. Russia is as perplexing as an unsolved riddle, simple as a straight line. Russia is inexorable to her children and sublime to her lovers. Russia is here," she laid her hand on her breast, "here in the heart of every Russian, no matter how badly she may hurt us or how mercilessly she may crush our hopes or steal our lives, so that she may go on eternally. We who are born within her immense expanse are tied to her with indestructible bonds. We can never detach ourselves from her—never!"
" Russia is taking Gleb from me," Natalia Ivanovna."
"You should give Gleb to Russia ."
"I can't—I won't!"
"This you cannot escape, Luisa Oskarovna. Russia needs her true sons now more than ever in her great crisis. How do you think we Russians feel about this intervention by foreigners? It is humiliating beyond words to be obliged to accept help from these strangers to fight our own domestic battles. It's an unenviable necessity, a bitter confession of our weakness. Every true Russian feels this sorely and suffers under it, Gleb too. Could he have stayed behind in the shelter of foreign flags now, when every Russian should fill the fore most position on our front, whether our cause is won or lost? Would you honor him for it?"
In the long silence that followed, every word she had said reechoed between us.
"But can't you understand, Natalia Ivanovna ..." I pleaded desperately.
"Yes, I understand." She put warm emphasis into every word.
"To me Gleb is everything— Russia is nothing."
"To Gleb Russia is even more than you."
"Oh, such hard words, Natalia Ivanovna! Why do you say them? Why don't you help me instead? For weeks I've been trying to realize what happened that Gleb should have hurt me so. But I cannot understand...."
"It doesn't matter."
"How can you say that? I shall lose Gleb! Can't you see? It's inevitable!"
"You may." Her voice was quite toneless. "It's natural." I did not understand what she meant, or, if I did, I didn't dare translate it into words.
Once again a prolonged silence fell between us. Natalia Ivanovna sat motionless, her hands passively folded in her lap. Only her large brown eyes seemed living and warm.
"I must go," I said at length, rising.
"Yes, you must go," she answered gently.
I left her. Back in my lonely room, I felt more desolate than ever. Natalia Ivanovna, the only person I had thought would understand and help me, had spoken in riddles. I went to bed and tried to sleep. Outside the white night filtered through the open windows and its soft transparent twilight would not allow forgetfulness.
The short riotous springtime of the far north had come and gone, and now the fierce subarctic summer, with a heat that withered the grass and flowers and bred clouds of flies and mosquitoes, painted the lowlands a sun-baked brown.
On a stifling hot day while I was having lunch at the Officers' Club, Lieutenant Smith came over to my table.
"Your husband—did you see him? Marching at the head of his company, leading the singing? He's one of the best singers we have around here."
I sat dumfounded. Gleb home? Without telling me? My heart beating in my throat, I hurried back to the office.
A moment later he stood before me, sun-tanned, fresh, and happy, caked mud on his uniform and high boots, just as he had come from the front.
"Lisa, I'm home!" His face shone.
But my heart was obstinate and I steeled myself against him.
"So I see," I murmured, and busied myself with the typewriter.
The expectant smile drained from his face.
"Let's go home, Lisa."
Silently I put my things away. We left and, walking single file along Sadovaya Street , we passed through the gate of the yellow house among the trees. Gleb opened the flimsy double doors to our sunny room and closed them behind us.
"Lisa, look at me! Don't turn away!" He put his hands on my shoulders. "I've come back to you for two short days. I've been in charge of a company putting through telegraph lines ninety-two versts through no man's land from Pinega to Mezen on the northeastern shore of the White Sea . We crossed swamps and tundra, often sink ing up to our armpits in mud and water. Look at my clothes! Flies and mosquitoes by the millions. We slept in our wet uniforms; your picture here in my breastpocket got all wet. And, Lisa, I thought of you all the time. On the steamer from Mezen all the way to Archangel I thought only of the moment when I'd be seeing you again. I hoped you'd see me marching with my men down the Troitsky Prospekt and be proud of me. Oh, Lisa, all these days and nights I've longed for you—how much you'll never know."
As I listened, the passion and persuasion in his voice reached my heart and the hardness inside slowly dissolved. The bitter arguments evaporated; the massive grievance I had felt abated like dust in a summer's rain. In that undefended moment a strange feeling came over me that now, for better or for worse, I was entering the portals of Russia without return.
Two short days we had together in abandoned happiness, two days that also were marked by a change in plans. To be together, we agreed, was the most important. And as Gleb's place was at the
Pinega front, there also should I be. I enrolled in the Russian Red Cross and soon received my orders to report at the Pinega Military Hospital . I was to leave Archangel in about a week, depending on when transportation would be available. My superior at the American Military Mission received my resignation with a benign smile, and I left my good friends there with regret.
When Gleb's leave came to an end, a Russian nursing sister in her white veil and black apron with a large red cross on the breast saw him off. This time no tears dimmed my eyes as I watched him and his men boarding the river boat on their way back to the front. Very soon I too would be leaving Archangel for this unlikely place called Pinega. But all apprehension had disappeared with the pride of having been, at last, accepted as an authentic part of Gleb's life.
As I stood on the quay with the fresh wind from the river billowing my veil, the company filed past me one by one. Loaded with creaking accouterments and with their caps jauntily cocked over one ear, bearded men and smooth-faced youths saluted my red cross and respectfully murmured, "Dosvtdanye, sisteritsa."
The wheels of the river boat began to turn, churning the clay-laden water, and the vessel slid away from the dock into the broad river. Led by Gleb's warm tenor, the soldiers started to sing. I stood there waving until the sound of their voices died away across the water.