“Vive la république!”
I see her before she sees me. They are completely wrapped in each other, dancing down the hall, Natalie wearing a rain-spotted tricolour, Natasha soaked to the skin. It must be raining and not merely grey. They must have been dancing in the rain, like the fools they are. Pretty fools.
I wait in the drawing room with Kolya. “Vive la république, Kolya.” I know he can't understand, but it is the most important event so far in his young life. But even as I talk to my son, I watch my Natalie, dancing with her little friend Natasha Tuchkov, looking as beautiful as when I married her. Her dark head stands in splendid contrast with Natasha's fair curls, matted by rain. Her cheeks are as pink as any schoolgirl, and I do not know whether to watch her or take her in my arms.
And then she kisses her. Not in the way we kiss, but in the way we kiss. It surprises westerners, but we Russians are a friendly people. If one does not kiss a friend in greeting, then something has soured in the relationship. But the way Natalie kisses her, it is not as a mere friend. She kisses her the way Emma Herwegh kisses her husband George. The way she used to kiss me. And what can I do? She is still Natalie. We had once knelt down and pledged ourselves to each other, me and Natalie and Nick and Maria. She is composed entirely of love. How can I be angry with her for that? But I am angry. Or at least annoyed.
They burst in on us. “Vive la république!” Natalie shouts to me, smiling as she did on our wedding day.
“Where did you get that?” I snap, suddenly annoyed that she is wrapped in a tricolour and a woman, though I know where the woman came from.
Natasha replies for her - something about them being handed out in the street. I don't care, really, and the fact that they appear to share a brain irks me. I am not sorry for snapping at Natalie, especially as neither of them seems to notice. They make another little dance step, Natalie turning Natasha as if she is the man and Natasha the girl.
“It's a present for you from Natasha!” Natalie gaily insists. A free flag, a gift from Natasha who has enough money to winter in Rome rather than Sokolovo.
I try to thank her - there was simply no other response - but I am now faced with the unpleasant fact that Natalie is dressed only in her corset and petticoats. What had they been doing? “You’ve got no clothes on.”
“I’m wearing them!” Does Natasha not understand how serious their behaviour now is?
“She arrived wet through,” Natalie is trying to explain, but I barely hear it. Wet through, yes, but you are damp, too, and were wearing a flag you got in the street. What possessed the two of you to change clothes in the carriage, probably with the shades up so anyone could see? And you come in dancing. “I made her put on my dress.”
Why could you not wait until you arrived home? I want to thunder at her, perhaps even to slap her, but Benoit’s presence stays my hand. “Your dress? As if you had only one dress? I had no idea. I thought I had installed an entire dress shop.”
But she is not chastened in the least. “I want her to smell of me.” She is too gay to even be defiant. She does not understand how much her behaviour can hurt me. “And I want to smell of her.”
Natasha’s familiarity is growing more irksome by the second. She sniffs Natalie’s hair. “You smell of camellias.” Only a lover bothers to sniff a woman’s hair. A lover.
My mother enters. I am profoundly embarrassed that she should witness Natalie in this moment of madness, but Natalie seems not to care. “Natalie! Suppose the servant came in!” He has already been in. “Look at your terrible mother, Kolya. If this is what goes on in a republic!” I would almost be on Natalie’s side now, except that she has begun to dance with Natasha again, not even bothering to look at Kolya. “There is a letter for you,” my mother tries to interrupt, but they go on dancing.
“It’s from me!” Natasha cries, and they stop only long enough to kiss again, that profoundly intimate kiss.
It is enough time for me to throw that infuriating tricolour over Natalie’s shoulders at the sound of the door chime. Benoit dashes through, earning a look of annoyance from my mother - she continues to despair of servants who are not serfs - and a curious glance from Kolya, who cannot hear the door and thus wonders what the rush is. Natalie and Natasha have broken apart, at last, but they are still lost in each other, ignorant of the approaching guest.
Luckily it is only Sazonov. The moment they perceive him, they run off together, giggling, pushing past him to go up the stairs, hand in hand. “Who was the young . . . ?” Sazonov half asks.
I try to answer as tactfully as I might, but as true as I might. “My wife has fallen in love.” I wonder if he can hear the strain in my voice. “We met the family in Rome - they are neighbours of Ogarev back home.”
We talk of the possibilities this revolution has brought about, Turgenev comes and we talk some more, and all the time, in the back of my head, Natalie and Natasha kiss and embrace.
I remember nothing anymore of what was said, yet I know I did not dwell on them as I do now. I play that day over and over in my head, and I remember nothing beyond their dances and their embraces. I should have recognised sooner that that was the day I lost my Natalie.
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