Genius isn’t a matter of matching art to nature better than he can do it, it’s nature itself - revealing itself through the exalted feelings of the artist, because the world isn’t a collection of different things, . . . it’s all one thing, like the ultimate work of art trying to reach its perfection through us, its most conscious part, and we fall short most of the time. We can’t all be artists, of course, so the rest of us do the best we can at what’s our consolation, we fall short at love.
Natasha practically flew into Natalie’s arms. “Wasn’t it horrid?”
“Were you out at all?”
“Four whole days stuck inside in this heat!” She pretended to faint dramatically onto the sofa, where Natalie quickly dropped down beside her.
“Unable to open the windows - who knows what you might have seen or heard more clearly.”
“It almost makes one long for home.”
“There were omnibuses full of corpses. Almost?”
“How could I possibly bear to leave you? I meant the heat more than the shooting.”
“You weren’t out. You didn’t see any of it for yourself.”
“Four whole days stuck inside. And no post!”
“It was an eternity. How can I possibly let you go back to Russia? Alexander spent two days arguing with himself because I would have no part in it. And that was after he nearly got himself arrested.”
“Arrested?” Natasha cried.
“He and Annenkov went out on Sunday to see what was going on. He was gone for hours, finally came back escorted by men in army uniform, all of us in the house had to swear that he was whom he said he was while they examined his passport. And then he started ranting about books and bread and I just stayed with his mother and the children as much as possible. Benoit would have had Sasha cheering on the Garde Mobile from the windows if I had paid more attention to Alexander and less to the children.”
“The past few days make one absolutely sick of politics.”
“So much arguing over nothing. I hate when Alexander argues with his friends - they all seem to feel it too much, when he only argues as a means of play, and then we never see anyone again. Except Turgenev.”
“And George,” Natalie sighed dreamily. “Every time I fear Alexander will at last chase him away, he comes round again because I understand him.”
Natasha laid her head on Natalie’s shoulder. “As you understand me?”
“George is my child. I know him for what I give to him, what he needs of me. You are my Consuelo, the restoration of my soul, my life eternal, and I wish only that I could give to you half of what I take.”
Natasha kissed Natalie, not with the customary friendly chastity of the past few months, but with a forceful eagerness that could not be wholly attributed to the four days of separation, the longest they had been apart since the journey back to Paris in May.
Natalie certainly noticed the eagerness with which Natasha clung to her lips, but her loving and innocent nature perceived nothing radically different in the quality of the embrace. They had lain together on the sofa and kissed many times, even in front of George, even in front of Alexander. It was the outward manifestation of their love. Natalie did note a difference, however, in how Natasha had placed her hand on Natalie’s thigh, nearly between her legs, moving her fingers in a decidedly insinuating manner.
“There is something you could give me,” Natasha said, a little withdrawn but not shy.
“Anything, my dear. Oh, anything.”
Natasha moved her fingers again, brushing against the layers of fabric covering Natalie’s parts and setting her tingling in a way only Alexander had done before. “Let me touch you.”
“Isn’t that again something you would do for me?”
“Then touch me.” She lifted her skirts and petticoats with one hand and reached for Natalie’s hand with the other.
Natalie allowed Natasha to place her hand in the hot, moist cavern created by body heat and too many petticoats on a hot June day. The rough curls of hair were wet and slick with sweat and possibly something more. Natasha closed her eyes and sighed with pleasure as Natalie stroked her. Natalie was less anxious to continue the experiment, however, feeling rather odd and slightly dirty in having her hand so close to Natasha’s interior. This was not love; this was the animal portion of the body coming through in all its musky temptation, obliterating the higher feelings that brought lovers closer to heaven than was otherwise possible on earth. She withdrew her hand and wiped her fingers carefully, one by one, on her handkerchief.
“What is wrong?” Natasha asked.
“Nothing, nothing, my darling,” Natalie answered distractedly, with a hint of the coldness so many of Alexander’s friends had thought they saw in her normally retiring manner.
“Might I touch you? Please?” Natasha begged.
Natalie sighed, hoping Natasha might take it as acceptance rather than disapproval. “If it will make you happy. I will do anything for your happiness; you know that.”
“I know.” Natasha kissed her as she had before. Natalie lifted her skirt to assist Natasha’s entrance. It was a novel sensation to the woman who, as a child, had never dared to touch herself in exploration or pleasure in her fear of being caught and deemed dirty. Alexander had only ventured there as his rights and duty as a husband permitted. No fingers but those of the midwife, and her own in the act of washing, had come to that place before Natasha. To be brought tingling by the fingers of a girl rather than the manhood of her husband was not merely a surprise, but a pleasure mingled with fear. For if it were so pleasant, and so easily repeated with her own fingers, what link did it have with their transcendent love?
The sound of the bell startled them, and Natasha quickly withdrew her hand, to Natalie’s sorrow and relief. “I suppose real life has begun again, if I am not your only visitor.”
“Yes. How quickly the world moves on,” Natalie replied haltingly.
“Was I wrong?” Natasha asked softly.
“No. No, of course not, you are never wrong.” Natalie’s voice caressed each word with love. “But isn’t what we have something better - something higher - than mere physical pleasure?”
“You’re right. Of course you’re right. Our animal nature - I’m sorry. I must learn to tame my wildness.”
Natalie took her by both hands. “No. You must never tame your nature. You must be what you are, what I love. And that love is so much more than the animal parts.”
“That love is divine, a gift from God.”
“It is God. It is everything. Love is the Absolute.”
“It is without egoism. I faltered. I wanted. That is my trouble - I always want. Thank you for setting me right.” Natasha kissed her again, with less wildness and more of the comfort Natalie had expected when she arrived that afternoon.
“It is you who have set me right, Consuelo di mi alma.”
“I should go.”
“No, stay, please.”
“No, I really think it is best.” Natasha stood and smoothed her skirt. “I will go home and send you a letter, and everything will come right by morning.”
“Of course!” Natalie exclaimed, her eyes shining. She could not help looking forward to the prospect of a letter - the letters were, in so many ways, more fulfilling than the conversations because they could be lived over and over, permanent proof of Natasha’s brilliant expression of the sentiments they shared.
The servant passed in the hall. “Benoit?” Natalie called.
“Qui est là?”
“M. Turgenev. Et la poste.”
“Turgenev is here? I should pay my respects on the way out.”
“You don’t have to go.”
“I will come tomorrow. Perhaps George will be here.”
“Dear George. I wonder how he made it through the last few days.”
“He can’t have enjoyed hearing gunshots again. Do you think he had bad dreams of the ditch?”
Natalie had to stop herself from giggling. “That is terribly unkind.”
“You know you were thinking it, too.”
She permitted herself a small giggle and kissed Natasha. “You will come tomorrow.”
“Of course. Au revoir, mon coeur.”
Natalie heard the sound of voices downstairs, but she ignored them as she stared at her reflection in the mirror. Why did she expect to see some difference? Why did she suddenly feel as if she had betrayed herself in some way? It was nothing, a bit of play, surely something that other girls, who had friends or sisters, had done or were doing. Natasha would not do anything else. What else could it be, in any case? Adultery? Hardly. Alexander loved Natasha. She loved Natasha. And what could there be between her and a girl? It was a bit of play, nothing more. She was too old for a bit of ridiculous play; it would not be repeated.
The voices downstairs grew louder. She knew instinctively that it was Alexander quarreling again, and she was grateful that it was Turgenev, who had no opinions, receiving his fury. A howl, however, sent her running down the stairs.
“No more blather please,” she heard Turgenev say as she entered the room. “Blather, blather, blather. Enough!”
“Alexander . . . ?” she asked, her own worries forgotten in the desolation writ on her husband’s face.
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