“How many minutes in a day?”
“Figure it yourself - sixty multiplied by twenty-four,” Varenka answered tiredly. “You’re supposed to be the genius.”
“Forgive me,” Stankevich muttered. “I’ve been tired of late.”
“Cures are always tiring. Sometimes the cure for my marriage is worse than the disease. Before I came to Italy, I mean,” she quickly corrected.
“One thousand, four hundred, and forty,” Stankevich slowly pronounced.
“Minutes in a day. Do you ever find that there are people in this world that you feel you’ve known already? That are so much a part of you that the moment you meet, you know you’ve found that answering echo of your inner life?”
“I married Dyakov - you’ll have to ask someone else.”
“It was like that with Liubov. Have you heard from her lately?”
Varenka merely shook her head, trying to appear to concentrate on the shirt she was mending.
“You would tell me if something had happened, wouldn’t you?” he asked with a slight edge to his voice.
“Of course,” she snapped. “I told you Michael was going to Berlin. I tell you everything I know.”
He tried to shrug off her anger. “You are out of sorts today.”
“So are you. What makes you so happy?”
“The answering echo of my inner life.” It was surprisingly easy to return to the dream, despite the harshness of Varenka’s voice.
“That’s what you and Liuba called each other.”
“I’ve found another. Isn’t it curious we did not meet in Moscow? I should travel to Italy, and here I find a true Russian Hegelian.”
“He told us himself he studied in Petersburg. You sound like a schoolboy in the throes of first passion. ‘Answering echo of my inner life’,” she mocked. “How can you dare to replace Liuba like that?”
“It is not replacement!” Stankevich answered defensively. “It is merely friendship! Really, Varenka. Ivan Turgenev as a sweetheart?” He started to laugh nervously but fell to coughing instead.
Like a clockwork figure, Varenka brought the basin so he could spit out the blood and a glass of water so he could rinse his mouth. She fluffed the pillows before he lay back again, all without expression. He did not even bother to thank her for the ministrations: it was the established rhythm of more than eighteen months.
When his breath returned, so did his train of thought. “Two thousand, eight hundred, and eighty minutes. That is how long I have known him. Read me the last letter.”
“You know it by heart.”
“I have to finish this. Read it yourself.”
“But when you read it, I picture Tatiana writing it.”
A tap at the door forced Varenka to bite her tongue. “Ah, it’s you. Good. Nicholas, Ivan Sergeyvich is here,” she said sweetly, almost mockingly. “I’m going into town.” She stuffed the shirt into her basket, grabbed up her reticule, and swept from the room, giving Stankevich a final glare as she made her departure.
“A pleasure to see you, Varvara Alexandrovna,” Turgenev called after her, though she did not answer. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.” Stankevich looked thoughtful. “I should like to go for a walk, I think.”
“I should like that of all things.”
“I would be grateful for the use of your arm.”
“Gladly. Have you actually seen Rome, or have you merely spent some time in this sanitarium?”
“Varenka and I did a great deal of sight-seeing when we first came. That was some time ago. I tire too easily now.”
“How long have you been here?”
“A year or so, I suppose. Varenka joined me in Berlin, but we came here not long after. She had talked of going elsewhere, but not a word in the past couple of days.”
“You’ve certainly been here long enough. Any place populated entirely by tourists grows to be a bore very quickly. I intend to go back to Berlin fairly soon. I don’t entirely have the luxury of floating around Europe as much as I’d like - I must take a degree, and thus I must return to Berlin.”
“That is unfortunate,” Stankevich replied sadly.
“You are moving on anyway, if Varvara Alexandrovna has her way.”
“But not yet. Say you will stay longer. Please.” He tried not to seem as if he were begging, but he feared he had failed miserably.
“I must return at the beginning of June.”
“By which calendar?”
“I do not think moving on will alleviate the boredom. Varenka doesn’t talk much anymore. I think she keeps things from me.”
“She goes shopping but never buys anything. I rarely see Sasha - her son. She reads letters from home to me but rarely lets me read them. She never brings up Liubov. I think my fiancée must be dead, but no one will tell me, and all I can do is play along like a good little invalid. How can I be happy if all I have around me are illusions? Something of real life is necessary. And without Liuba, all that is left in Russia is Belinsky. I couldn’t borrow enough from my father to pay for Varenka’s passage to Berlin, so I cannot bring Belinsky here. Yet even with my love for him, the longer I stay in the west, the less desire I have to ever return to Russia. There’s no point in it.”
“How does Varvara Alexandrovna feel?”
Stankevich sighed. “We don’t talk. And how can I admit to her that I am certain of the worst? She hasn’t lied to me, I don’t think. Tatiana writes the letters with very bland news of Liubov. Liuba was too weak to write for a long time. With Michael’s debts and three younger sons to set up in life, the Bakunins couldn’t afford to send her to the Caucasus, much less to Italy. Varenka sold her wedding gifts and borrowed from her husband in order to come. My father would not agree to the marriage with us both in this state. I thought if I could just get better, rather than worse, not even necessarily cured, that I could go back and convince my father of the appropriateness of the marriage. Then we could go wherever necessary for her. But I only got worse in Berlin, and Carlsbad did not help in the least, and now I am here, and it is too late, only no one will tell me. I’m an invalid, not an idiot.”
“No one would dream of calling you an idiot.”
“Then why does no one tell me anything? I’m sure I know it already, but I cannot manage to isolate the one reason from the potential reasons.”
“Perhaps they fear you will give up if you know the whole truth.”
“Give up?” Stankevich asked incredulously.
“Die. You said yourself there is no reason to return to Russia without the prospect of your fiancée.”
“But why would I give up on life when there is the prospect of friends like you?”
“Two days ago that was not the case.”
“I have never hung my entire life on the necessity of a single person or several persons. Philosophy has always been more important.” Stankevich looked up into the younger man’s eyes. “Even with Liuba. And especially with you.”
“Why do you insist on that?”
“Varenka thinks I am in love with you. Her brother being what he is, I cannot say I am entirely surprised she would jump to that conclusion. But Michael is Michael.”
“And Nicholas is Nicholas.” Turgenev pulled him down onto a bench. “I never said I was in love with you.”
“Nor I you.” But Stankevich turned and kissed him tenderly. “I haven’t the time left for love. And you are leaving me to go to Berlin, in any case.”
“But a tender friendship is allowed.”
“You are the only thing that seems real anymore. The most ludicrous inhabitant of this establishment, and you seem the most real.”
“And your fiancée? What if she is not dead?”
“It is too late for us both. We have to stop being Hamlets.”
“Accept the rationality of the objective world.”
Turgenev smiled and kissed him again.
Ivan ~ Fiction ~ Varenka ~ Home