A STORY OF LOVE, DISOBEDIENCE, AND PASSION FOR LIFE
For Pavel Mamaev
1. THE PRODIGAL SON
When Klim Rogov ran away from home, he took what his father cherished most—his dreams of Klim’s bright future. At the time, it felt gratifying. Did you seriously think I would want to follow in your footsteps and become a Public Prosecutor, a man who preys and profits on others people’s misfortunes? Klim had thought. No way, Father. No way.
Ten years had passed, and Klim found himself once again standing indecisively on the threshold of his family house on a balmy summer’s night. It was shabby and overgrown with lilac and ivy but still luxurious with two marble bears guarding the entrance and a white balcony protruding like the open drawer of a dresser.
There had been a time when Klim had dreamed of his triumphant return to his hometown as a successful foreign journalist whose writing had made him famous all over Argentina. But in the summer of 1917, this would not have been the safest guise to assume in Russia. Klim’s home country had been at war with Germany for three years now, its economy had collapsed, and the railroads were packed with armed deserters. Foreigners with their fancy suitcases were easy pickings for them, and Klim decided it would be wiser to melt in with the local population. He grew a layer of dark stubble, acquired a soldier’s uniform and a shabby trunk for his belongings, and arrived in Nizhny Novgorod looking more like an opera villain than an heir to a fortune.
He felt uneasy in the knowledge that the moment he knocked on the door and reentered the once forbidden family home, the life that he had cultivated for himself would become irrelevant and meaningless. Cousin Lubochka, who was renting the second floor in his father’s house, would come running to greet him, and the sleepy servants would gather at the doorway, oohing and aahing at him. The renowned traveler and journalist would once again be regarded as no more than his father’s son, and he had no idea where that was going to lead him.
Klim took a key out of his pocket, the only thing from home that had survived his extensive travels around the world.
I wonder if Father ordered the lock to be changed?
But the key turned, and the door opened noiselessly. With his heart pounding, Klim found the switch on the wall—a familiar gesture that had never faded from his memory.
Nothing had changed in the hallway. There was the same big mirror in the silver frame in patina and shoe horns and brushes on the carved shoe rack. A set of knight’s armor complete with a lance and shield was still standing in the corner. Klim lifted the visor on the helmet and peered inside. When he was a child, he had convinced himself that there would be the body of a tiny knight inside that had become shrunken and mummified over time.
There was a patter of footsteps, and a young maid with loose dark curly hair ran into the hallway.
“How did you get in here?” she asked in a frightened voice.
“I just walked through the door,” he replied with a smile. “I’m Klim Rogov, the heir.”
The girl was lovely, slim, big-eyed, and graceful, and even her dull black outfit looked good on her.
“How long have you been working here?” Klim asked.
“Oh…” She looked confused as if she didn’t know what to say. “Not that long.”
Klim walked around the hallway and examined the familiar things that had not changed at all: the hall stand with legs chewed by one of his puppies, and the carpet still bearing the traces of a “chemistry experiment” that had gone wrong.
He patted the maid on the shoulder. “Would you take care of my trunk, please?”
That’s the type of a girl that should be cuddled and tempted with sweets, he thought.
His gaze went from the open door to the library, and Klim forgot about everything else around him. He entered the room and froze, touched and overwhelmed by his memories. The light from the electric lamp was reflected in the glass doors of the bookcases and gilt spines of the books. Once, this room had been both a treasure trove and torture chamber for Klim. He remembered himself sitting in a red armchair and taking delight in the humor of Mark Twain, but it was also here, at the desk covered with ink-stained leather, that he had repeatedly copied out Latin phrases under the strict supervision of his father. Dura lex sed lex—“The law is harsh, but it is the law.”
There was still an inkwell in the form of a compass on the desk, and the map of the world still hung on the wall. The colored pins dotted all over it indicated the cities Klim had visited. Before he had escaped from home, it had been just Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Berlin where his mother had taken him shortly before her death, but now, pins were scattered all over Persia, China, and Argentina.
It seemed Lubochka had shown Klim’s father all the letters she had received from his “prodigal son” after all.
Klim noticed his own framed photograph on the desk—goodness me! He had sent it two years ago when he had been invited to Casa Rosada, the pink presidential palace, for the first time. What emotions had been going through Father’s head when he looked at this picture? Had he remembered yelling at Klim, “You’ll end up serving hard labor! Stand up straight when I’m talking to you, you dunce.”
Klim heard the lock click softly, and he raised his head. Had he been locked in?
“Hey! Stop fooling around!” he raised his voice, but the maid didn’t answer.
Klim pulled the heavy oak door. “What if I’m the type of man to bear a grudge?” he asked even louder. “Are you not afraid that you might lose your job?”
He heard women’s voices behind the door.
“I have no idea how he got into the house!” the maid said. “Someone probably told him that you’re waiting for Mr. Rogov and that Dr. Sablin is on the night shift.”
“We must call someone,” the other woman replied.
“Do you have any weapons?”
“Well… only the knight’s lance, I think.”
Klim pounded the door with his fist. “Lubochka, open up! It is really me.”
The women behind the door gasped, the lock was opened, and a delicate lady with a porcelain complexion and a mass of wild and frizzy hair threw herself on Klim’s neck.
“I’ve missed you so much!” Lubochka said, laughing and crying and kissing him on the cheeks.
They stared at each other, hardly able to believe their eyes.
“Look at you!” Lubochka exclaimed. “A beard, a soldier’s tunic… you look like a deserter!”
Klim also couldn’t believe that the little girl he had teased as a child, calling her a “dandelion clock,” was now an elegant young lady with a wedding ring on her finger.
The vigilant maid looked at them, confused. “I’d better be going,” she said, taking a step backward.
It was well after midnight, but Klim and Lubochka were still sitting in the library and talking in much the same way they had in their childhood.
“Do you remember our parents had put us to bed,” said Klim, “and we tiptoed to the drawing-room door to eavesdrop on the adults playing the piano?”
Lubochka nodded. “Do you remember my father taking us to dance classes? You wore white knitted gloves, and you were always the very best student. And the instructor told me, ‘Mam’selle, you have perspired so much that your clothes are wringing wet. Go and change.’ I could have died of shame.”
There was so much to share! And it was so nice to see each other again and talk as if they had never been separated for the past decade.
“I wish you’d never run away,” Lubochka said. “We all loved you so much… especially your father.”
“I find that difficult to imagine,” Klim said, smiling wryly.
Father had felt he had the right to lash out at Klim whenever he pleased, either with sharp words or with his fists. At work, his father had been strict but fair, and at home, he had been polite—albeit aloof—in dealing with the servants. But with his son, it had been different.
“He regarded me as his own property—” Klim began, but Lubochka interrupted him.
“That’s not true! Why do you think he left you the fortune?”
“Out of revenge to force me to come back all the way across the Pacific Ocean and Siberia. While I was on the train, deserters tried to rob me five times.”
“But they didn’t, did they?”
“I’m good at boxing,” Klim said, rising. “Remember, you asked me to bring you phonograph needles? I’ve got you some. Has your maid already taken care of my luggage?”
Lubochka frowned. “What maid?”
“The one who locked me in the library.”
“That’s my friend, Countess Nina Odintzova. My husband is working tonight at the hospital, and I asked her to stay with me. I’m afraid of being on my own in such a big house. And there are no servants besides the cook.”
Klim was at a loss for words.
“And why does this countess of yours wear a maid’s uniform?”
“It’s not a uniform; it’s her mourning dress. Her husband was killed in action.”
Klim was mortified. As far as he remembered, he had addressed the countess in the most familiar terms and threatened to fire her.
“I’ll bring her round, and you’ll make it up,” Lubochka said and went after her friend.
But it turned out that Nina had already gone home. Alone in the middle of the night.
Two years earlier, Lubochka had been flattered to be the wife of a brilliant surgeon, but her marriage had resulted in bitter disappointment.
Dr. Sablin was mild mannered and polite, but just as the color-blind are incapable of perceiving certain shades, so he was incapable of feeling delight in a woman. He had no idea how to pay a compliment, never made any physical show of affection, and had only confessed his love for Lubochka once—on the day he had proposed marriage. His passion for his wife consisted of occasional inquiries after her health and regular contributions to the housekeeping money.
For a long time, Lubochka refused to admit that she was bored to death with Sablin and his eternal conversations about the war and medicine. In order to prove to herself that her life still had some meaning and that at least some people needed her, she started throwing parties. The guests danced, talked, and proposed toasts “to our beautiful hostess,” and Lubochka felt pleasantly flattered by these gatherings. They warmed her soul and provided temporary relief like a mustard plaster to the chest.
Then Klim came and destroyed her fragile equilibrium. Lubochka had never told him that she had been madly in love with him as a child. As God was her witness, she had desperately hoped that he had changed and become unworthy of her feelings, but she realized immediately that this was not the case.
She couldn’t stop marveling at his tanned face and smiling brown eyes while he was reading his thick book in Spanish or drinking his Argentinean mate tea through a silver straw called a bombilla, not from a cup but from a calabash gourd with a silver rim and stand.
Klim took little interest in the news about the war and the impotent Provisional Government that was attempting to rule the country after the Tsar’s abdication. He didn’t want to hear about ration cards and asked the cook to buy the best products even if they were the most expensive. To Lubochka this seemed both shocking and delightful—it was as though the affairs of the world simply didn’t apply to Klim.
She tactfully asked him what he was going to do now that he was so rich. He told her jokingly that he was thinking about taking up a career as Tsar Koschei, the famous Russian folk villain who spent his whole time counting his hoard of gold and entertaining himself by kidnapping fair maidens.
Many of Lubochka’s girlfriends would have been over the moon if he were to kidnap them and take them away to the wonderful country that he would describe to them at her soirees. According to Klim, there were sea lions in Argentina, meat was cheaper than bread, and palm trees and cypresses grew right in the streets.
However, Lubochka was not destined to see these miracles. It did not occur to Klim to even think of treating her as a woman. She constantly noticed the unflattering difference between her casual, elegant cousin and her shy husband who looked out at everyone from under lowered brows and tried to walk as little as possible to hide his lameness. He had been shot in the leg during the Russo-Japanese War and had had a limp ever since, which kept him away from the front now.