Acting Apart

Short story by

PAUL BROWNSEY

 

            It had all been nonsense.  “Forever shall I be faithful to the duty of a married woman,” she had cried, in the peculiar language of poetic drama, not the language of life.  Her eyes had shone, her bosom had been elevated as though to welcome the sword of martyrdom.  “My husband’s glory was of the battlefield; mine shall be the glory of a virtuous wife.”

There had been much more of the same. 

Thus, she had dismissed Yevgeny Onegin.

It had been nonsense because in Prince Gremin, Tatyana had married a man old enough to be her grandfather. Forever would be a brief interlude; then she would be free to marry again.  She must have known this even while she quivered in her ecstasy of renunciation and the polonaise snapped its grand heartless rhythms in the adjoining ballroom.

Striding –  did he sometimes break into a run?    along Nevsky Prospekt at a pace that caused stares, Onegin asked himself where it had come from, this sickness that caused women – and men, too –  to step aside from the simple facts of their lives and force themselves into scenes that might have come from novels or Italian operas.  Before the drama of Tatyana’s grand renunciation of him there had been, years before, when he was a visitor at her father’s house, the drama of her grand declaration of eternal love for him, made in a letter carefully composed to exhibit spontaneous unrestraint.  The same sickness had infected poor Lensky, whose response to Onegin’s harmless and entirely aimless flirting with his sweetheart, little Olga, had been to fling himself into the role of outraged lover from whom honour demanded the drama of a duel.  And he had died in consequence, for he had obliged Onegin to shoot at him, and a sensible man does not treat the conventions of society with contempt, foolish though the conventions may be to the eye of reason.

The same eye of reason disclosed to Onegin that he, too, had been prey to the self-dramatising sickness.  His response to Tatyana’s grand renunciation had been to embrace the Young Werther role, writhing in despair at his beloved’s marriage to another.  (Youngish Werther, anyway!)  Mightn’t he actually have blown his brains out if his friend Hermann hadn’t snatched the pistol from him?  And there, in Kazansky Cathedral, mocking him with its colonnade shaped like a woman’s embracing arms, he’d stood in vain through hours of mumbo-jumbo in hope of a divine presence because he’d heard she attended there.  He’d even flung himself to the floor in a full prostration –  he, an unbeliever!  Yet for all the intensity with which he’d felt his despair, it had still been this mad play-acting.  He had hidden from himself the same knowledge that Tatyana had hidden from herself in order that it shouldn’t impede her performance of the faithful wife forever renouncing her true love: the fact that her married state was bound to be brief.

That knowledge had been released into consciousness only now, unlocked by solemn newspaper columns reporting the death of Prince Gremin.  As he swerved around the squad of prostitutes sweeping the cobbles as punishment for plying their trade the night before, he did not neglect to ask himself whether this descent on the general’s house wasn’t a further exercise in drama, the scene in which, just when the heroine’s abandonment is at its most intense, the rejected lover she really loves, sweeps in to sweep her off.

That was not the way to look at it.  On the contrary, it would pre-empt drama.  It would be a simple acknowledgement by two rational creatures of facts they both knew full well and would thus eliminate at a stroke the play of hints and manoeuvres, contrived meetings that looked accidental, letters left on tables as in that English novel about old lovers that the French had translated.  Such directness might shock the conventions, but a sensible man knew when not to take the conventions seriously. 

Conventions created drama.

But already she was gone.  A servant in dirty ill-assorted clothes attempted the hauteur he might have seen his former master display in sending a pedlar packing to inform Onegin that immediately after the funeral of “his Great and Very Noble Prince Highness” and without waiting for any of the memorial services, “her Great and Very Noble Princess Highness” had departed for an estate in the Ukraine. 

“The name of the estate is…?”  Would a journey of a thousand versts and an unheralded invasion of Tatyana’s distant seclusion cross the border from directness into drama?

The servant’s face opened in what seemed an attempt at a smile of warmth and recognition.  “God be with you, Pavel Davidovitch,” he said.  In a rush a newcomer had ascended the steps behind Onegin and was entering the house like one who had the freedom of it.

“The God of my fathers and yours, Fedya,” the man called gaily in reply, then halted to compose himself as though only now realising that he had overtaken a gentleman.  He bowed to Onegin and disappeared indoors.  Certain features of the man’s image lingered while Onegin retraced his steps to his lodging and his thoughts discovered the reason why Tatyana had fled to the Ukraine.  She pretended a grief-stricken retreat from society, fearing that if she remained in St Petersburg the force of her love for Onegin, which she had not omitted to confess to him in the course of her grand renunciation so as to make it perfect, would, now that she was free to marry him, drive her to some impetuous action which would mire her in scandal.   A woman could not flout convention as a man could.  The man had a swarthy face, a hooked nose. 

The man who had the freedom of Tatyana’s house, whom the servant had greeted while leaving Onegin unanswered, was a Jew.

Yes, he looked like a gentleman, and to the eye of reason, rather than to the eyes of good upstanding Russians, most of whom were blockheads, was it obvious that a Jew could not be a gentleman?  But Our Father the Tsar had decreed that the Jews should remain in their Pale in the territories to the south and west, forbidden to contaminate the pure heartland of Holy Mother Russia, where the knowledge still lay close to the soul that the incursion of the admirable and odious Napoleon must have been due to sins committed by the Russian people.  And could the Tsar’s decree be other than a good and wise decree?    for according to the principle of autocracy so happily ruling in Russia, the only measure of what was good and wise was what the Tsar decreed.  Still, though the Tsar ruled by the grace of God, he did not quite possess God’s omnipotence.  Like lice in barracks, Jews could be found in St Petersburg and Moscow if you looked for them, and many impecunious persons, such as Onegin’s friend Hermann, looked for them.

That thought reared up like one of the bronze horses erected a few years later on the Anichkov Bridge.

If a Jew could come and go as he pleased in the house of Prince Gremin, then Gremin, like poor Hermann, must have been in hock to the moneylenders.  And in that case –  and the fact that the door had been opened by a scarecrow of a servant made it the more likely    then love (Onegin’s own love for Tatyana, her love for him) had a powerful second.  If anything remained of Tatyana’s old self-dramatising devotion to her prince, perhaps even causing her to toy with the idea of remaining a widow to his memory forever (even a virgin forever?    there had been no child of the marriage), prudence would soon knock it on the head.  Her husband’s money gone to the Jews and thus not available to keep her in the style to which, from an unpretentious country home, she had become accustomed – well, this was not calculated to inhibit her love for a gentleman of large and unburdened estates. 

And the same prudence made him patient.  The envisioned pursuit of Tatyana to the Ukraine would indeed be drama, not befitting people whose lives were governed by reason.  She would be back.  He could wait for the meeting.  And there should be no further attempt to confront her in her home, where, he felt obscurely, influences lurked that might work against the progress of reason on earth that the German philosopher promised. 

It was at the Prussian ambassador’s, many months later, that he learned that she was back in St Petersburg; at the house of a senior official in the army ministry who had recently been ennobled, that she declined many invitations on account of headaches; from a doctor with whom he played kaisa billiards, that he had recommended air for the headaches; from a beggar, that, in her carriage, she had passed the very spot where, an hour before, Onegin had been stationed in case an airing took her that way.  Each piece of news brought a fear that her need of money, far from aiding his cause, might damage it, for it would be just like her to say that she wouldn’t marry him because she couldn’t be sure that love alone, in dramatic purity, was her motive.  At a ball, as a polonaise played, which could be a good omen or a bad, their eyes locked from afar; he could not find her later but his reason forbade him to yield to the belief that the crowd was deliberately keeping them apart. 

Could one say that destiny was slowly engineering a meeting between them, their wills playing no part in the process?  But of course, one did not believe in destiny; to believe in it was to accept that one’s life was a play written by another. 

If destiny did bring about their meeting, it deputed the details to old Countess X.  She was said to possess the secret of winning at gambling and Onegin’s friend Hermann had some crackpot scheme to clear his debts by beguiling the old lady into revealing her secret, a scheme he pursued by wooing some girl who was her ward.  Accompanying Hermann to the Countess’s apartment, Onegin learned that Tatyana was expected at a forthcoming music party at which guests were to be ravished by the piano-playing of the celebrated Irishman, John Field, revisiting the city of his first triumphs.  Onegin professed so intense a love of nocturnes so insistently that if Countess X did not extend an invitation to him, it must count as a snub of the first order; and she managed both snub and invitation together, saying, “You make it abundantly clear, sir, that my party would be incomplete if you did not have the kindness to attend.”

On the night of the nocturnes ladies and gentlemen nodded to them as though their rhythm were that of a trepak, and were so appreciative that for the most part their conversation did not drown the music.  Tatyana arrived when people were already seating themselves for the music and greeted Onegin with a distant but calm bow, then rather drew attention to herself by listening to the music in a distant but calm silence.  At the interval, when some crowded around the Irishman, who was old and ill and plainly drunk, with praise, and others, with even more enthusiasm, exited in the direction of the refreshments, Tatyana did neither, risking comment as she hastened to the library.  Here Onegin discovered her at another, smaller piano, picking out notes, for all the world as though she had not stationed herself there for their long-fated encounter.

He fired his bullet immediately, like a rational person.  “You love me and I love you.”

She absorbed the shot without ceasing to trace the notes of Field’s Nocturne in C Major.

“Tatyana, those are the only facts.  The rest is play-acting.  Your grand renunciation was all nonsense, and you know it.  Will you lie about your heart or about the fidelity of mine to you?” 

“That is the melody, is it not?  Yes, I acknowledge the fidelity of your passion for me and I shall not lie about my heart.”  The words seemed not attended to, so intent was she on repeating some notes.

“Tatyana!  Oh, my dearest, my angel!”  But it was awkward to embrace her as she sat at the keyboard, and so insecure was his balance as he stooped to do so that, though he registered the heat of her flesh through silk, her vigorous push overbalanced him to the floor.

 “I will not lie about my heart.  It is pledged to another.  I shall marry Pavel Davidovitch Edlin.”

“And who the devil is that?”  But that was how outraged fathers in novels addressed daughters who had professed a liking for someone unsuitable.  For that matter, her It is pledged to another was literature-speak, too.  Could people not help this, performing like automatons whose voices and phrases and tones and poses came from the books they’d read, the conversations they’d heard, the scenes they’d witnessed?  It was as though people weren’t real, uniquely expressing their own unique feelings and thoughts, but were mere channels for something else that could not be resisted.

He struggled to his feet and struggled to find a different way of putting his question until recognition flooded in and the latter was unnecessary.

            “The Jew!”

            “A good man!”  Her eyes blazed into his, then elevated themselves to the icon shelf that conventional respectability exacted even from a notorious free-thinker like Countess X.

 “How can you, a Russian woman, marry a Jew?”  And when he had said that, and in the silence that threatened to continue forever, he knew he had spoken words that were written by another and that the drama in which they figured was not his own, yet he also knew he could not have helped himself. 

He said, “I humbly beg your forgiveness.”

 “I forgive you.  One has to say that, it is what we are taught, what well-bred people say.”  Something in her broke open and fury cried, “But I do not forgive you!”  Then the fury in her went out, and it was as though positions were reversed and she were begging his forgiveness. “He came to see my husband on behalf of a mother, a widow, whose son had been taken by the army for twenty-five years, as they do with the Jews, the young men.  He pleaded with my husband to spare her son.  I knew that saving this boy would be good.”  Her pleading manner vanished.  “I discovered I wanted this more intensely than I had ever wanted anything.”  Pause.  “I made sure that certain papers disappeared.  The boy returned to his mother.  I seemed to have discerned a purpose for my life.  Since then I have interested myself in the fate of our Jews.”

 “And if you were troubled by the new disease you would marry a man with the cholera.”  But he said it gently, almost tenderly, remembering his efforts to ease the lot of his serfs in the face of his neighbours’ hostility, and wondering whether this piece of devotion on his part to the good of others could furnish an argument about how well he and Tatyana were suited.

“I am engaged with others in establishing a Committee for the Friendship of Christians and Jews.  We shall endeavour to bring to the knowledge of the Tsar how loyal our Jews wish to be and how merciless and brutal are those who act in his name.  Through my love for my husband all my powers shall be at the service of good.  My happiness shall lie in the happiness of a suffering people from whom the lash and the shackles are withdrawn!”

“No-one,” he shouted, frantic at the ineffable stupidity of her project, “will pay the slightest attention to your committee of Russians and Jews.” 

“Not Russians and Jews.  Christians and Jews.”  Her bosom lifted in the old way and her eyes shone in the old way.

But he had a bullet left to pierce this performance, get to her soul. 

 “Would I be right to infer that before your husband died you nourished a guilty passion for his successor?  I will not say that you deceived him as the world understands that phrase, but it appears you went behind his back to effect what your new husband wanted.”

“Your reproach is not that I nourished a guilty passion while my husband was alive, but that I did not nourish a guilty passion for you.”

“But you loved me, you did.  You told me so on the night -”

 “- on the night of my grand renunciation, as you call it.  But that, you have perceived, was all nonsense, play-acting.  All nonsense, and that must damn whatever confession of love for you it may have included.”

She had risen from the piano, and the manner in which she swept from the room showed how well she had learnt the deportment befitting the exalted role in society brought to her by Prince Gremin.  “Tanya, don’t get all princessy,” he cried after her, but the music was beginning again and she did not return.

The tune was a Russian song, In the Garden.  In the garden at her father’s house he told Tatyana to forget the love she had professed in her letter.  Why was Field playing a Russian song?     Wasn’t he here to play his own compositions?  That was a conundrum to challenge a philosopher.  “The tune is mere coincidence, for there is no destiny to mock us.”  After Field, composer of a piano fantasia on In the Garden, was gone, they found Onegin in the library, saying that aloud to no-one, again and again. SLQ

 

 PaulBrownsey-photo

Paul Brownsey has published around 80 short stories in Europe and North America.  His book, His Steadfast Love and Other Stories, was published by Lethe Press, New Jersey, USA.