Valerie Bryusov: Protection: a Christmas story
COLONEL R. told me this story. We were staying together at the estate of our mutual relatives, the M's. It was Christmas-time, and in the drawingroom one evening the talk turned on ghosts. The Colonel took no part in thc conversation, but when we were alone together — we slept in the same room — he told me the following story.
This happened five-and-twenty years ago, and more: it was in the middle of the seventies. I had only just got my commission. Our regiment was stationed at *, a small provincial town in the government of X. We spent our time as officers usually do: we drank, played cards, and paid attentions to women.
Among the people living in the neighbourhood, one stood out above the rest, Mme. C—— Elena Grigorievna. Strictly speaking, she did not belong to the society there, for until lately she had always lived at Petersburg. But being left a widow a year previously she had settled down to live on her country estate, about ten versts from the town. She was somewhat over thirty years of age, but in her eyes, almost unnaturally large, there was something childlike, which gave her an inexplicablc charm. All our officers werc attracted by her; but I fell in love witll her, as only twenty can fall in love.
The commander of our company was a relative of Elena Grigorievna, and we obtained access to her house. She had become somewhat tired of being a recluse, and liked to have visits from young folks, though she lived almost alone. We sometimes went to dinner, and spent whole evenings there. But she behaved with so much tact and goodness that no one could boast of thc slightest intimacy with her. Even malicious provincial tongues could bring no gossip against her.
I was sick of love for her. What tortured me more than all was the impossibility of frankly confessing my love. I would have done anything in the world just to fall on my knees before Elena Grigorievna and say aloud to her: "I love you." Youth is a little like intoxication. For the sake of having half an hour alone with her whom I loved, I resolved on a dcsperate measure. There was much snow that winter. In the Christmas holidays there was not a day but the wind raised the dry snow from the ground into the air in whirling eddies. I chose an evening when the weather was particularly bad, ordered my horse to be saddled, and set out over the fields.
I don't know how it was I didn't perish by the way. Everywhere the snow was whirling and the air was so thick with it that at two paces from me there stood, as it were, grey,walls of snow. On the road the snow was almost up to one's knees. Twenty times I lost my way. Twenty times my horse refused to go further. I had a flask of cognac with me, and but for it I should have frozen. It took me just on three hours to travel thc ten versts.
By some sort of miracle I arrived at the house. It was already late, and I hardly succeeded in knocking up the servants. When the watchman recognised me he exclaimed in wonder. I was all over snow, covered with ice, and looked like a Christmas mummer. Of course I had prepared a story to account for my appearance. My calculations were not at fault. Elena Grigorievna was obliged to receive me and she orderd a room to be prepared for me to stay the night.
In half an hour's time I was seated in the dining room, alone with her. She pressed me to have supper, wine, tea. The logs crackled on the open fire, the light of a hanging-lamp enclosed us in a circle which to me seemed magical. I felt not the slightest tiredness and was more in love than ever.
I was young, handsome, and certainly no fool. I had every right to the notice of a woman. But Elena Grigorievna, with unusual dexterity, evaded all talk of love. She compelled me to talk to her exactly as if we had been at a party in the midst of many other people. She laughed at my witticisms, but pretended not to understand any of my hints.
In spite of this, a special kind of intimacy sprang up between us, allowing us to speak more openly. And at length, knowing that it was nearly time to say goodnight, I made up my mind. My consciousness, as it were, reminded me that such a suitable occasion would not repeat itself. "If you don't take advantage of today," said I to myself, "you have only yourself to blame." By a great effort of will, I suddenly broke off the conversation in the middle of a word, and in a moment, somewhat incoherently and awkwardly, I said out all that had been hidden in my soul.
"Why are we pretending, Elena Grigorievna? You know very well why I came to-day. I came to tell you that I love you. And now I say it to you. I cannot but love you and I want you to love me. Drive me away and I will humbly depart. If you don't tell me to go I shall take it as a sign that you love me. I don't want anything in between. I want either your anger or your love."
The childlike eyes of Elena Grigorievna became cold. They looked like crystal. I read such a clear answer in her countenance that I got up without another word and wanted to go off straight away. But she stoppcd me.
"That's enough! Where are you going? Don't behave like a little boy. Sit down."
She made me sit down near her and began to speak to me as if she had been an elder sister talking to a wayward child.
"You are too young yet, and love is something new to you. If another woman were in my place you would fall in love with her. In a month's time you would begin to love a third. But there is another kind of love which drains the depths of the soul. Such a love I had for Sergey, my husband, who is dead. I have given to him all I can ever feel. However much you may speak to me of love, I shall hear you no more than if I were dead. You must understand that I have no longer any capacity to attach any meaning to such words. It's just as if you spoke to someone who could not hear you. Reconcile yourself to this. You can no more be offended than if you were unable to make a dead woman love you."
Elena Grigorievna spoke with a slight smile. This appeared to me to be almost insulting. I imagined that she was laughing at me, in thus putting forward her own love for her dead husband. I felt myself grow pale. I remember the tears springing to my eyes. ...