Tatiana (part 3 of 3)
It was clear how Olga felt about him. She was like mother. Practical. So, my sister soon swapped her mourning garb for her wedding crown, and mother’s approval and blessings were bestowed upon Olga and her new match, the lancer from the local garrison, and both seemed happy.
I, on the other hand, was another matter. I had become a burden on my poor mother, I must be settled and I could not let a little thing like waiting for love stand in my way. If I insisted on love, I could find it outside the marriage bed. I was then laughed at for saying if I did marry, I’d be faithful.
The noble lady whom I amused so much with my odd ideas was a wealthy invalid cousin of mother, who’d dragged me to Moscow to visit the princess after my sister’s marriage. Princess Alina eventually overcame her amusement, following a brief examination and valuation of my skin. She promised mother that she would make a return on her investment of staying for one season in Moscow (all we could afford), upon her presentation of me in a few select circles. If my début made no impression, then I was destined to become a spinster. Or a courtesan. Needless to say, neither of the above seemed like much of an option.
So, once again, I found myself in my finery of pale fabrics, made finer by the princess. Even the gleaming damasked gloves, which enveloped beyond my elbows, were so blinding that I was afraid to touch let alone hold anything except the equally new fan, over which I peered before the mirror. A pair of wide washed pools stared back, lost beneath the shadow of the hair that had been swept clear of the bare shoulders and piled high in the latest fashion. I thought my eyes were better brought out by the blues and reds that danced in the patterns of my ‘old woman’s’ scarf and the cornflower shade of my favourite cotton dress, which had framed my face and form, once. Back home. Amid the fresh landscape of our tiny hamlet. By the twilight-hued brook. In the garden, through the glass doors that first revealed him. I should have realised then that glass between us was as impenetrable as the one before me now. With a flick of the wrist, the blades and skirts fanned and concealed me as I about-turned and faced the first of many enormous doorways that would both part before me and become closed forever.
The laughter, the bowing, the Mazurkas and Waltzes; it was even nosier than I remembered at my name day party. Even with this noble circle, of which I skimmed the circumference, I was as easy as a flightless bird in a wood full of poachers. To mother’s despair, I refused to dance and my lukewarm enthusiasm put off most not completely oblivious or too intoxicated to ask. I considered the latter state myself, then decided that I’d rather swallow a jug of mother’s lingonberry water than any of the liquid glittering in the tall crystalware that whisked by in trays and threw distorted glimpses back at the revellers, before being emptied into the emptier vessels that flirted and plotted around me. However, mother and my other aunts were satisfied when they spotted the eyes of another fixed on me. I reluctantly turned to look at the man, a general, who maintained his watch but refrained from yet approaching me, occupied with his own circle of simpering subordinates. As the women gushed over the large gold epaulettes and the polished stars pinned on his breast, I saw that he wore the dress uniform well. In spite of his grand accoutrements and stiff stance, though the latter seemed more the result of old wounds, his gaze was kind.
I lost track of the number of balls I was invited to and compelled to attend that season and beyond. My old life in Praskovya became merely a recurring dream. The most recent of the habitual letters from Olga, who still lived near the old place but usually spoke too little of it, mentioned that a grown up Yuri had brought the news that his grandmother, our old Nyanya, had passed away. As I said a prayer for the kindly soul, I wondered what Nyanya as well as father would have made of me, amid the grand circles of Moscow and later Petersburg that I drifted through, propped up and pushed along by the current of convention that was as inexorable as the hardening of a scar.
As time passed and winter settled again, I became adept at polite refusals when asked to dance and at distracting people, including myself, with the type of charming, cultured and empty con-verr-sa-syon that would have made our former tutor Triquet proud. Indeed, I was at another such ball in the middle of feigning such interest in another such person, this time the Spanish envoy pronouncing the superiority of Haydn and Mozart and other Westerners over our Tchaikovsky, when I was asked if I could be introduced to someone. I automatically obeyed and turned. And saw a ghost.
It was him. And yet it wasn’t. The astonished eyes as they took in my appearance, before remembering to return my easy bow, were the same stormy shade I remembered from three years ago. Yet the storm had abated, leaving a vulnerability in the Yevgeny Onegin now introduced to me by my husband. The latter laughed as his cousin’s surprise reared again and finally explained that I’d in fact been his wife for the last two years. After Onegin apologised for his lack of correspondence with Gremin and promptly offered his congratulations, I calmly enquired as to how long he’d been back in Petersburg and if he’d come straight from our province. After his brief, vague answers, I made my excuses and left them, in order to return to my own guests. Feeling his searching eyes follow me as I drifted to the other side of the large room, my practiced gait was as composed as my soul was not.
In truth, my senses were in total confusion. But I knew that my actions wouldn’t betray me. I’d had too much practice of masking my emotions after marrying the aristocratic general whom everyone was certain would never marry and were thus amazed when Prince Gremin picked a country nobody with no distinguishable beauty or connections to recommend her. I was grateful for my husband’s quiet kindness, of course, and performed my wifely duties without complaint. However, I was so used to false looks and smiles from everyone else that it was inevitable that I’d adopt them myself, if I were to survive amongst the Petersburg elite who forever watched.
But none watched so much as Onegin. I thought it was merely his relation to my husband and homesickness after his long exile that he was thrown into our path so much that season. As always though, it was his eyes that gave him away. At first, it was surprise at my transformation, then confusion at my consistent civility, and finally frustration at my lack of warmth at his pointed attention whenever he complimented me or unsuccessfully attempted to return a forgotten shawl or handkerchief after yet another ball or concert. He soon stopped trying to talk, but his relentless gaze became unbearable, like that of a hungry brown bear that had once chased me across a frozen wilderness in a nightmare, wounded and desperate.
And then came the letter. I could barely read his beautiful, faltering script. For the first time in a long time my anger outweighed my reason. I was aware of the unsociability, the philandering and the dissipation that had ruled his days. The idea that he sought to knock at and knock over the foundations of my precarious new existence for what could only be his brief triumph thus hurt me like a reopened old wound. And not, I was unashamed to think, for any lofty notions of dishonour or fear of scandal; but for the irrevocable destruction of a treasured and pure memory.
I made no reply to his declaration. Except to ignore him altogether with all but the heat of my reproachful gaze whenever I was forced to face the stormy heat of his.
As the air grew steadily icier, I used this as an excuse to keep indoors. My kind soldier didn’t question my growing seclusion, accepting the lowering of the already low temperatures as reason enough for not venturing out, and he tended to sleep in himself on the mornings that did not require his presence at state duties. I, on the other hand, rose as early as I’d always done, even though I no longer had Nyanya to hinder and later help with the morning preparations back in our little home. Now, with more servants than I could ever use myself, I decided one frosty morning to turn to my old novels to while away my quiet mornings, appreciating the irony of how the unions that these heroines longed for were eclipsed by my enviable marriage and palatial residence… As my mind wandered, I put down my favourite book with a little more force than necessary, then picked up the fallen paper that had been hidden in its pages.
I lost track of how long I sat in my drawing room in that same pose. I was startled when the door opened and in he walked.
For the second time in my life I thought I saw a ghost. A fine frosting of flakes clung to Onegin, whose skin was as cold as the look in his eyes was not. As I sat unmoving, part of me couldn’t help admiring his beautiful frock coat and hat, but noted the unsureness of his bow. As he raised his eyes, I realised too late that I’d forgotten to hide the letter whose now surprised author caught me holding. I turned away, but he saw that my hot tears fell fast as I clutched the back of my chair. Abandoning his restraint, he fell at my feet and our cold hands entwined. But before he could say anything I began, asking him why he was here. My voice seemed new, the long restrained emotion a stranger.
My bitterness struck him like the winter wind and he finally parted his mouth. The storybook mellifluous tones perfectly expressed the words I’d once ached to hear, but all I could wonder was how many other wealthy, unavailable noblewomen had heard them before. My voice hardened further as I refuted his words, saying that he could not be in love with me, for the girl that he’d once rejected was the real me, unlike the hollow nobility he thought he now saw.
I knew he’d interrupt, but I continued, as he’d once done years ago. I told him that I didn’t blame him for his former rejection, for his icy but honourable reasons. Though no doubt noble enough for him now, I would give it all back for the life I had, even for the pain of the love I had for him then, for the love I had for him still… The last words slipped out as I turned to the blurred, beautiful and broken man before me and my ringed hand hovered on the side of his face. The brush of his lips on my palm and the briefer incandescence in those stormy eyes were already eclipsed by the lengthening shadow of my words. His gaze hardened, but I locked eyes with him one last time.
He must understand, I was another man’s wife, I had given him my word and I would keep it… He began to shake his head and the twin hurricanes in his eyes made me dizzy and I almost gave in to the force of that passion.
But I didn’t.
‘I’m sorry…’ I whispered and tore my gaze and body away from the man I left on the floor, the only man I would ever love, and the enormous doorway closed behind me.