The door was thrown wide open. Two thin arms seized Galina Petrovna, crushing her against a trembling chest. “Galina! Darling! It’s you!”
“Marussia!” Galina Petrovna’s lips sank into the powder on a flabby cheek and her nose into the thin, dry hair sprinkled with a perfume that smelled like vanilla.
Maria Petrovna had always been the beauty of the family, the delicate, spoiled darling whose husband carried her in his arms through the snow to the carriage in winter. She looked older than Galina Petrovna now. Her skin was the color of soiled linen; her lips were not red enough, but her eyelids were too red.
A door crashed open behind her and something came flying into the anteroom; something tall, tense, with a storm of hair and eyes like automobile headlights; and Galina Petrovna recognized Irina, her niece, a young girl of eighteen with the eyes of twenty-eight and the laughter of eight. Behind her, Acia, her little sister, waddled in slowly and stood in the doorway, watching the newcomers sullenly; she was eight years old, needed a haircut and one garter.
Galina Petrovna kissed the girls; then she raised herself on tiptoe to plant a kiss on the cheek of her brother-in-law, Vasili Ivanovitch. She tried not to look at him. His thick hair was white; his tall, powerful body stooped. Had she seen the Admiralty tower stooping, Galina Petrovna would have felt less alarmed.
Vasili Ivanovitch spoke seldom. He said only: “Is that my little friend Kira?” The question was warmer than a kiss.
His sunken eyes were like a fireplace where the last blazing coals fought against slow, inevitable ashes. He said: “Sorry Victor isn’t home. He’s at the Institute. The boy works so hard.” His son’s name acted like a strong breath that revived the coals for a moment.
Before the revolution, Vasili Ivanovitch Dunaev had owned a prosperous fur business. He had started as a trapper in the wilderness of Siberia, with a gun, a pair of boots, and two arms that could lift an ox. He wore the scar of a bear’s teeth on his thigh. Once, he was found buried in the snow; he had been there for two days; his arms clutched the body of the most magnificent silver fox the frightened Siberian peasants had ever seen. His relatives heard no word from him for ten years. When he returned to St. Petersburg, he opened an office of which his relatives could not afford the door knobs; and he bought silver horseshoes for the three horses that galloped with his carriage down Nevsky.
His hands had provided the ermines that swept many marble stairways in the royal palaces; the sables that embraced many shoulders white as marble. His muscles and the long hours of the frozen Siberian nights had paid for every hair of every fur that passed through his hands.
He was sixty years old; his backbone had been as straight as his gun; his spirit—as straight as his backbone.
When Galina Petrovna raised a steaming spoonful of millet to her lips in her sister’s dining room, she threw a furtive glance at Vasili Ivanovitch. She was afraid to study him openly; but she had seen the stooped backbone; she wondered about the spirit.
She saw the changes in the dining room. The spoon she held was not the monogrammed silverware she remembered; it was of heavy tin that gave a metallic taste to the mush. She remembered crystal and silver fruit vases on the buffet; one solitary jug of Ukrainian pottery adorned it now. Big rusty nails on the walls showed the places where old paintings had hung.
Across the table, Maria Petrovna was talking with a nervous, fluttering hurry, a strange caricature of the capricious manner that had charmed every drawing room she entered. Her words were strange to Galina Petrovna, words like milestones of the years that had been parted and of what had happened in those years.
“Ration cards—they’re for Soviet employees only. And for students. We get only two ration cards. Just two cards for the family—and it isn’t easy. Victor’s student card at the Institute and Irina’s at the Academy of Arts. But I’m not employed anywhere, so I get no card, and Vasili. . . .”
She stopped short, as if her words, running, had skidded too far. She looked at her husband, furtively, a glance that seemed to cringe. Vasili Ivanovitch was staring into his plate and said nothing.
Maria Petrovna’s hands fluttered up eloquently: “These are hard times, God have pity on us, these are hard times. Galina, do you remember Lili Savinskaia, the one who never wore any jewelry except pearls? Well, she’s dead. She died in 1919. It was like this: they had nothing to eat for days, and her husband was walking in the street and he saw a horse that fell and died of hunger, and there was a mob fighting for the body. They tore it to pieces, and he got some. He brought it home and they cooked it, and ate, and I suppose the horse hadn’t died of hunger only, for they both got terribly sick. The doctors saved him, but Lili died. . . . He lost everything in 1918, of course. . . . His sugar business—it was nationalized the same day when our fur store. . . .”
She stopped short again, her eyelids trembling over a glance at Vasili Ivanovitch. Visili Ivanovitch said nothing.
“More,” said little Acia sullenly and extended her plate for a second helping of millet.
“Kira!” Irina called brightly across the table, her voice very clear and loud, as if to sweep away all that had been said. “Did you eat fresh fruit in the Crimea?”
“Yes. Some,” Kira answered indifferently.
“I’ve been dreaming, yearning and dying for grapes. Don’t you like grapes?”
“I never notice what I eat,” said Kira.
“Of course,” Maria Petrovna hurried on, “Lili Savinskaia’s husband is working now. He’s a clerk in a Soviet office.
taking employment, after all. . . .” She looked openly at Vasili Ivanovitch and waited, but he did not answer.
Galina Petrovna asked timidly: “How’s . . . how’s our old house?”
“Yours? On Kamenostrovsky? Don’t even dream of it. A sign painter lives there now. A real proletarian. God knows
you’ll find an apartment, Galina. People are crowded like dogs.”
Alexander Dimitrievitch asked hesitantly: “Have you heard what . . . about the factory . . . what happened to my factory?”
“Closed,” Vasili Ivanovitch snapped suddenly. “
couldn’t run it. Closed. Like everything else.”
Maria Petrovna coughed. “Such a problem for you, Galina, such a problem! Are the girls going to school? Or—how are you going to get ration cards?”
“But—I thought—with the NEP and all, you have private stores now.”
“Sure—NEP, their New Economic Policy, sure, they allow private stores now, but where will you get the money to buy there? They charge you ten times more than the ration cooperatives. I haven’t been in a private store yet. We can’t afford it. No one can afford it. We can’t even afford the theater. Victor’s taken me to a show once. But Vasili—Vasili won’t set foot inside a theater.”
Vasili Ivanovitch raised his head, his eyes stern, and said solemnly: “When your country is in agony, you don’t seek frivolous recreations. I’m in mourning—for my country.”
“Lydia,” Irina asked in her sweeping voice, “aren’t you in love yet?”
“I do not answer indecent questions,” said Lydia.
“I’ll tell you, Galina,” Maria Petrovna hurried and coughed, choked, and went on, “I’ll tell you the best thing to do: Alexander must take a job.”
Galina Petrovna sat up straight, as if she had been slapped in the face. “A
“Well . . . all jobs are Soviet jobs.”
“Not as long as I live,” Alexander Dimitrievitch stated with unexpected strength.
Vasili Ivanovitch dropped his spoon and it clattered into his plate; silently, solemnly, he stretched his big fist across the table and shook Alexander Dimitrievitch’s hand and threw a dark glance at Maria Petrovna. She cringed, swallowed a spoonful of millet, coughed.
“I’m not saying anything about you, Vasili,” she protested timidly. “I know you don’t approve and . . . well, you never will. . . . But I was just thinking they get bread cards, and lard, and sugar, the Soviet employees do—sometimes.”
“When I have to take Soviet employment,” said Vasili Ivanovitch, “you’ll be a widow, Marussia.”
“I’m not saying anything, Vasili, only. . . .”
“Only stop worrying. We’ll get along. We have so far. There are still plenty of things to sell.”
Galina Petrovna looked at the nails on the walls; she looked at her sister’s hands, the famous hands that artists had painted and a poem had been written about—“Champagne and Maria’s hands.” They were frozen to a dark purple, swollen and cracked. Maria Petrovna had known the value of her hands; she had learned how to keep them in sight constantly, how to use them with the pliant grace of a ballerina. It was a habit she had not lost. Galina Petrovna wished she would lose it; the soft, fluttering gestures of those hands were only one more reminder.
Vasili Ivanovitch was speaking suddenly. He had always been reticent in the expression of his feelings. But one subject aroused him and then his expressions were not restrained: “All this is temporary. You all lose faith so easily. That’s the trouble with our spineless, snivelling, impotent, blabbering, broad-minded, drooling intelligentsia! That’s why we are where we are. No faith. No will. Thin gruel for blood. Do you think all this can go on? Do you think Russia is dead? Do you think Europe is blind? Watch Europe. She hasn’t said her last word yet. The day will come—soon—when these bloody assassins, these foul scoundrels, that Communist scum. . . .”
The door bell rang.
The old servant shuffled to open the door. They heard a man’s steps, brisk, resonant, energetic. A strong hand threw the dining-room door open.
Victor Dunaev looked like a tenor in an Italian grand opera, which was not Victor’s profession; but he had the broad shoulders, the flaming black eyes, the wavy, unruly black hair, the flashing smile, the arrogantly confident movements. As he stopped on the threshold, his eyes stopped on Kira; as she turned in her chair, they stopped on her legs.
“It’s little Kira, isn’t it?” were the first sounds of his strong, clear voice.
“It was,” she answered.
“Well, well, what a surprise! What a most pleasant surprise! . . . Aunt Galina, younger than ever!” He kissed his aunt’s hand. “And my charming cousin Lydia!” His dark hair brushed Lydia’s wrist. “Sorry to be so late. Meeting at the Institute. I’m a member of the Students’ Council. . . . Sorry, Father. Father doesn’t approve of any elections of any sort.”
“Sometimes even elections are right,” said Vasili Ivanovitch without disguising the paternal pride in his voice; and the warmth in his stern eyes suddenly made them look helpless.
Victor whirled a chair about and sat next to Kira. “Well, Uncle Alexander,” he flashed a row of sparkling white teeth at Alexander Dimitrievitch, “you’ve chosen a fascinating time to return to Petrograd. A difficult time, to be sure. A cruel time. But most fascinating, like all historical cataclysms.”
Galina Petrovna smiled with admiration: “What are you studying, Victor?”
“Institute of Technology. Electrical engineer. Greatest future in electricity. Russia’s future. . . . But Father doesn’t think so. . . . Irina, do you ever comb your hair? What are your plans, Uncle Alexander?”
“I’ll open a store,” Alexander Dimitrievitch announced solemnly, almost proudly.
“But it will take some financial resources, Uncle Alexander.”
“We’ve managed to save a little, in the south.”
“Lord in Heaven!” cried Maria Petrovna. “You’d better spend it quickly. At the rate that new paper money is going down—why, bread was sixty thousand rubles a pound last week—and it’s seventy-five thousand now!”
“New enterprises, Uncle Alexander, have a great future in this new age,” said Victor.
“Until the government squashes them under its heel,” Vasili Ivanovitch said gloomily.
“Nothing to fear, Father. The days of confiscations are past. The Soviet government has a most progressive policy outlined.”
“Outlined in blood,” said Vasili Ivanovitch.
“Victor, they’re wearing the funniest things in the south,” Irina spoke hurriedly. “Did you notice Kira’s wooden sandals?”
“All right, League of Nations. That’s her name. Trying to keep peace. I would
to see the sandals.”
Kira raised her foot indifferently. Her short skirt concealed little of her leg; she did not notice the fact, but Victor and Lydia did.
“At your age, Kira,” Lydia remarked pointedly, “it’s time to wear longer skirts.”
“If one has the material,” Kira answered indifferently. “I never notice what I wear.”
“Nonsense, Lydia darling,” Victor stated with finality, “short skirts are the height of feminine elegance and feminine elegance is the highest of the Arts.”
That night, before retiring, the family gathered in the drawing room. Maria Petrovna painfully counted out three logs, and a fire was lighted in the fireplace. Little flames flickered over the glazed abyss of darkness beyond the big, bare, curtainless windows; little sparks danced in the polished curves of the hand-carved furniture, leaving in shadows the torn brocade; golden spangles played in the heavy gold frame of the only picture in the room, leaving in shadows the picture itself: a painting of Maria Petrovna twenty years ago, with a delicate hand resting on an ivory shoulder, mocking the old knitted shawl which the living Maria Petrovna clutched convulsively over her trembling shoulders when she coughed.