“Is everything packed?” Varenka asked Nicholas without looking at him. “I’ve all of Sasha’s things in his trunk, and I believe I have everything of mine.”
“I’ve everything I brought here. Wasn’t there another trunk when we came?” Nicholas sat down and began to cough with the exertion of packing the contents of their room.
“No,” Varenka answered firmly. He didn’t need to know how much she had pawned and outright sold just to maintain their presence in Rome. The impending journey to Florence had required the sale of that trunk, some commissioned embroidery, and the mending of every shirt in the villa, or so it seemed. She did not want to think how she was ever to get out of Florence should Nicholas die there. She poked further into the remaining trunk. “Have you got Tata’s letters?”
“No.” There was an odd tone in Nicholas’ voice. Defiance?
“Why not? I haven’t got them.”
“I burned them.”
“When did Liuba die?”
“What? She’s not dead,” Varenka answered distractedly. She was never meant to be a nurse, why was she even here at all? I could wish you in hell, Michael, she thought.
“I may be a dying man, Varvara Alexandrovna, but I am not an imbecile.” She had never heard such hardness in his voice, and it had been years since he had used such formal address with her.
“When we arrived in Carlsbad. The news followed us from Berlin.” Varenka didn’t dare look at him. She had sworn to Tatiana that she would not tell Nicholas. She had given up mourning her sister, just to avoid killing the man Liubov had loved so much, and yet when asked directly, she was too tired to bother keeping the secret.
“More than a year ago, then,” he replied dully.
“Did you really think such news would kill me?”
“If you loved her, then what was left in the world for you without her? And if you didn’t die of it, then she misplaced all her love, and I have misplaced my trust.” She was crying now.
“Mama?” Sasha had come in unnoticed, peering at her around the open lid of the trunk.
“Oh, darling, I’m sorry.” She pulled him into her arms.
“Ivan Sergeyvich brought me a kite!”
“Did he?” She looked up to find Turgenev. Quickly, she tried to brush away the tears on her cheeks. “That was kind of you, though it will get no use in Florence.”
“But he will be glad of it should you follow the rest of Italy into the country in the full heat of summer. Sasha tells me you leave tomorrow.”
“That is correct.”
“Then at least I have caught you in time. I must take leave of you now.”
“To Berlin already?” Nicholas asked, caught off guard.
“Already? I should have gone earlier. This place has done nothing for my bladder. I ought at least to have my education, if I cannot have my health.”
What a rude thing to say in the presence of a dying man, Varenka thought. “Come for a walk with me, Sasha. Let the lovers have their goodbye in peace,” she shot at Nicholas.
“What did you say to her?” she heard Turgenev quietly ask Nicholas as she left.
“We are going to play a little game,” she whispered to Sasha. “You are going to stand here, quiet as a mouse, while I see that Ivan Sergeyvich does not harm Nicholas.”
“But Ivan Sergeyvich is a nice man,” Sasha complained.
“It is the nice men one must be most careful of.” Creeping back to the door, Varenka saw them embrace. And kiss, as Russian men will do. And kiss as two lovers will do. She fell back to the wall, head in her hands, unable to stop the tears. She had only thought it a cruel joke, the way she had tried to make Nicholas see that his descriptions of his friend were the same as his descriptions of Liuba. But he had never kissed Liuba so frankly, of that she was certain. Varenka had never kissed her husband so frankly, and they had been married five years.
“Shh, sweetheart.” She tried to dry her eyes again, but her tears continued to flow. Sasha threw his arms around her waist, as high as he could reach. She absent-mindedly stroked his hair while she dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief.
“Varvara Alexandrovna.” Turgenev bowed to her. “Are you all right?”
“You, of all people, you dare to ask if I am all right?” She choked back her tears, determined to face him properly. “You, who come in here and tear up our lives, you ask if I am all right? Of course I am not all right. But I will be soon. I am glad you are going. Glad that our final night in Rome will not be spent in your company. Glad that Nicholas will see no more of you, you deceitful seducer!”
“Yes, seducer!” she snapped. “The answering echo of his inner life? Do you even know what it means?” She took his silence for denial. “Good. I’m glad there’s one thing you haven’t thoroughly sullied. Get out of here. Take your coach to the border. I’m glad I will never see you again!”
“I’m sorry to have offended you, Varvara Alexandrovna. I am terribly sorry that you see anything wrong in my friendship with Nicholas.”
“Just go.” She returned to the room, Sasha trailing unnoticed behind her. “And you! You are as bad as he! Do you even know what you have done? Or do you know and not even care! I have given all of my life to you and Liuba, Nicholas. All of it.” She forged ahead through the sobs that threatened to cut her off. “I married Dyakov so Liuba would be free for you. I left him and came to you because I thought it best for her. I’ve sold everything I’ve ever had just to stay with you. I have tried to keep you alive because I can do nothing else for Liuba now. And what do you give me in return? You betray her, you betray me, and you betray yourself. Ivan Sergeyvich has been nothing but a menace since he arrived. I have held my peace for three weeks while you walked with him, talked with him, made love with him! Why do you do this to us?”
“You betrayed me,” Nicholas replied bitingly. “I loved her. She should have been my wife. And you did not tell me until today that she had died.”
“You took up with that man before you ever knew!”
“I knew someone was telling me lies. Possibly both you and Tatiana. No more details of importance. ‘Father might sell the forest, but he hasn’t decided yet.’ ‘Michael is trying to go to Berlin, but he doesn’t yet know when he can leave’ - or, more truthfully, Michael has not yet found a new friend both rich and stupid enough to pay, since hell would have to freeze over before he would bow to your father and study agriculture. Did you really think I wouldn’t notice that suddenly all you said of Liuba was ‘Liuba is feeling rather better’ or something equally bland? I may be dying, but I am not a child.”
“I never said you were!”
“Sasha has more freedom than I do! He knows more truth than I do. I’m treated as if I were a baby, with no understanding. I taught Michael all the philosophy he barely managed to impart to you, and I should think that alone would grant me rather more benefit than you are inclined to give.”
“Benefit? You killed my sister!”
“She was ill! She would have died had she married that horrid cavalry officer your father tried to marry her to. And been more miserable in her life before that death!” He began to cough, but she ignored it in her anger.
“Oh, and you know everything about women, just because you once kissed some naked breasts in a summerhouse! Yes, Michael told everyone, but you were the fool who told him in the first place, so don’t wince. It should be obvious that Michael can’t keep a secret if his life depends on it. You should have been with her. You should have given her some reason to hold on.”
“Blame whomever you like, but it is not my fault. Can’t you understand that I loved her?”
“I thought you did, but I saw you kiss him! You never kissed Liuba like that, did you?”
“Not precisely. I once kissed your brother,” he added defiantly. “You wouldn’t understand.” Now he was condescending rather than pleading. “There are different kinds of love. There are different kinds of desire. I can love Turgenev, and I can love your brother, but in a different way to how I loved Liuba.”
“You kissed him like a lover.”
“How would you know?” Nicholas snapped.
She turned away as if he had slapped her across the face. “I gave everything to you, for Liuba’s sake, yet longer I stay here, the more I think I might actually love Dyakov. He let me go. He gave me money. He wants me to be happy. What have you given me? Exile. A burden. Loneliness beyond imagination. What can I do at the end? I cannot afford to either stay or leave. And now you throw failure in my face. Have you no other weapons left? Or is this all you seek, to drag me through the dirt?”
“I never meant - I mean - I’ve lived so long in my head. I forget.”
“You forget that everyone else has feelings? Is that where all this German philosophy has brought us?”
“Yes. No. I can’t - we’ve both been wrong. You’ve been trapped in Kant and I’ve ignored the whole point of Hegel. Reality. Something of the real world is necessary for happiness. With me in Berlin and Liuba at home or dead, she wasn’t real. You hate Dyakov when you are with him, but in his absence, you love him. We’ve been ignoring reality, living in our dream worlds. But Turgenev is real. He understands me, and I understand him. Yes, I love him. And I love Michael. Not in the same way I loved Liubov. Not in the same way as each other. I cannot imagine marrying Turgenev. But he is real. I needed him. And so did you, even if you don’t acknowledge it.”
“I’ve been plenty aware of reality. I’m trying to raise a son, support both of us, and look after you. You have the luxury of being an invalid. I don’t. All I have is reality, and yes, everything I have had to do is rational. The only thing irrational is that you have taken to calling Ivan Sergeyvich the answering echo of your inner life! It’s not right!”
“But it’s true. In Liuba’s absence. Why can there only be one of anything, ever? Why cannot I have friends?” She had no answer. He pressed on. “These past weeks have been good for me, Varenka. I feel better, really. I want to see Florence. It won’t be expensive, I promise. I’ve enough money for all three of us right now.”
“You and your thousands of souls. I daresay I stand a better chance of salvation,” she said sarcastically.
“I’m sure you do,” he replied evenly.
“Are you mocking me?”
“No. I swear it. Why must we argue? We’re going to Florence tomorrow. You have me to yourself again. Is that it? Are you jealous of Turgenev?”
She was taken aback by how patently wrong he was. “Jealous? Of that fop? I’m not in love with you. The only reason I’m still here is for Liuba. Why must you and he make that so difficult?”
“I didn’t mean to. I didn’t think. I will always love Liuba. I’m sorry. I am glad you are here. Truly.”
Varenka was unsure if she ought to believe him. But he did look sorry, she thought, sorry like a scolded child. She started to put out her hand to him. So much emotion today was really not good for him. How selfish she had been!
“Mama?” Sasha whined, interrupting her.
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry.” She pulled her son to her in place of her patient. “Look at the time. You must be starving. Nicholas and I have made up. Let’s find some dinner.”
I’m still going to kill Michael the first chance I get, Varenka thought as she led her charges to the dining room.
Nicholas ~ Fiction ~ Home