She was always polite and hospitable to Klim and graciously accepted his well-meaning offerings—a hedgehog that he had brought home in his hat, some dark purple plums, or a string of perch from the river. But she always seemed to keep herself at a distance when she felt that he was trying to get too close. He couldn’t work out if this was because she was afraid of upsetting Mr. Fomin or whether a lingering affection for her dead husband still existed. Count Odintzov’s portraits littered the house, and she was constantly glancing at them in a sad reverie.
The villagers regarded Nina as a feisty businesswoman. Zhora told Klim that after her husband had died, she had sold off an oak wood on the estate to a timber merchant. The merchant had offered her five thousand rubles, and she had signed the contract on the spot. Much later, she had found out that it had been worth six times the price she had gotten for it. Now, she haggled over everything and made no concessions, not even to the nuns who came to buy currant leaves for their pickled cucumbers.
“We’re fast learners,” Zhora told Klim with pride. “By birthright, we shouldn’t have any of these privileges or a high level of education, but Nina has now earned herself a mill of her own, and I’m going to finish university, become a diplomat, and marry Elena Bagrova. She’s the daughter of a prominent merchant and the owner of a steamboat line. He said he wouldn’t have any objections.”
Every morning, they would all wander out to the village: Nina to the factory, Elena to the market, and Klim and Zhora as their bodyguards. Klim fashioned a bolas, an Argentinean hunting weapon, out of a couple stones and some rope and taught Zhora how to throw it like the gaucho cowboys of Argentina. Zhora soon learned how to knock a pair of old boots from the top of a log and promised Nina that if any deserter were to attack her, he would knock their boots off too.
Klim was surprised at the energy and passion that Nina invested in her small mill. It clearly wasn’t worth twenty-seven thousand rubles. The squat stone building contained two flax combing machines and eight spinners. In the dusty, noisy shop next door, soldiers’ wives wove tarpaulin while in the outbuildings, women cut and sewed mittens and rifle straps, their babies crawling around half-naked under their mothers’ feet.
Nina frowned at the sight of the dirty-faced, sickly children and promised to set up a kindergarten for her workers. But where was she going to find the money?
“My first priority is to replace the tension gear,” she told Klim as if justifying herself to his silent reproaches. “It keeps breaking the fiber.”
It seemed so strange to Klim to hear Nina talking knowledgeably with the foremen at the mill or bargaining with vendors over the vats for the retting solution. How could she combine such delicate femininity with such fierce strength and willpower?
Klim called her “my filigree girl”; to him, she was as strong as metal yet as delicate and fine as lace. She was mysterious, incomprehensible, and utterly adorable.
Sometimes, they would go out foraging for mushrooms in the forest, following unknown paths that were as dark as tunnels. The moss-covered earth was light and springy after the previous day’s rain, and the scent of the autumn leaves, mushrooms, and the nearby river permeated the air that blew in on the breeze.
Zhora and Elena forged on ahead, and Nina followed them in her felt hat and hunting jacket, an alder cone tangled in the braid of her hair. Wandering in a daze behind her, Klim dreamed of catching up with her, pulling her toward him, and kissing her full on the lips.
Nina glanced back at him mischievously. “I deliberately left you a very good mushroom on the side of the path back there. Didn’t you notice it?”
“I didn’t see a thing.”
“Great mushroom hunter you are,” she said, laughing.
They came back to the manor house—exhausted not so much by the walk as by all the intoxicating smells and sights of autumn. They sat together companionably on the sunlit terrace, Nina and Elena cleaning the mushrooms that stained their hands dark while Zhora and Klim threaded the caps and stalks onto thin switches to dry in the sun.
Sometimes Zhora would invent an excuse, and he and Elena would go off “on a very important errand.” Although it was clear that the true mission of their “errand” was to kiss in the gazebo at the far end of the garden.
Klim would stay behind with Nina, and these were the moments he enjoyed the most.
He minutely observed the light brown birthmark on her scalp right at the parting, the pattern of the veins on the back of her hand, and the topography of her dress with all its pleats, valleys, plains, and hills.
Nina asked Klim about his adventures, but not in the way that Lubochka and her friends did. They all wanted to hear about his romantic and heroic exploits, but Nina asked different sorts of questions: “What did you live on? How did you learn the languages? What was the most difficult thing you had to do?”
“The most difficult thing was to run across the roofs of Tehran after a thief who had stolen my only shirt,” Klim answered, jokingly. “If I hadn’t caught him, I’d have had to go to work wrapped in a prayer mat.”
“I’m being serious!” Nina protested.
So, Klim confided to her what had been the most difficult part of living abroad. “When you live in your own country, you are valued by your friends and relatives, your entire clan. But in a foreign land, you very soon realize that no one needs you. If you are an immigrant, you have to be a hundred times smarter and more ingenious to get people to notice you.”
“I feel like I’ve been an immigrant from birth,” Nina said, smiling. “But I’ve only ever been abroad once. My husband took me to Paris for our honeymoon.”
I don’t care if your husband is constantly on your mind, Klim thought. I don’t even mind about that Chairman of the Provisions Committee or whoever he is. Just as long as you’re by my side.
Klim was gripped by a sharp and unbearable feeling of impermanence. He might be allowed to spend the next day with Nina and perhaps the day after that, and then everything would be over.
Klim woke up early, but the house was already empty. He paced the dusty rooms and met Zhora dressed in a city-style suit in the entryway.
“Are you leaving?” Klim asked.
“Mr. Fomin sent a telegram,” Zhora said, excitedly. “He’s managed to get a state loan for us.”
Nina entered the house, a happy smile lighting up her face. “Thank goodness! Now, we’ll have the money, and I’ll be able to pay you back.”
She tried to walk past Klim, but he grabbed her hand—an unpardonable gesture. “We need to talk.”
She glanced at him in surprise but followed him to the billiard room with its huge semi-circular window and billiard table spread with yellowing newspapers.
Looking at her against the light in her mourning dress, Klim suppressed a painful shudder.
“Nina, come with me to Buenos Aires!” he burst out suddenly. “This place is only full of sad memories for you. There is nothing to keep you here in Russia.”
She frowned. “How could I go? I have my family and the mill.”
“Nina, listen to me—let Sofia Karlovna live in your house. I’ll give Zhora money—let him finish school and go to university. Don’t sell yourself to Fomin!”
“What do you mean by ‘selling myself?’ First, you see me as a housemaid and then as a woman for sale?”
“You’ve got me wrong—”
“I’ve got you quite right!”
Klim felt as if the blood had drained from his heart. “What will happen to you if you go back to your Mr. Fomin?” he asked, his voice broken.
“And what will happen to me in that Buenos Aires of yours? You yourself said how terrible it is to be a stranger in a strange land.”
“I’ll take care of everything. I have money and proper connections—”
“And what if we have a fight? What would I do then? Walk the streets?”
Nina left the room, brushing against one of the newspapers as she went out. It slipped from the table to the floor with a quiet rustle. Its headline read, “Offensive becomes bogged down, resulting in heavy losses.”
“Zhora, did you take the butter?” Klim heard Nina’s voice in the hall. “I left it on the kitchen windowsill.”
She spoke in a perfectly even and ordinary voice as if nothing had happened at all.
3. THE COUP
Lubochka was wracked with unrequited love. Klim had passed her over for a shameless imposter, a woman Lubochka had foolishly believed to be her friend.
Sablin could sense that something was wrong and had come to the conclusion that his wife was having a bout of “nerves.” In an attempt to help her, he brought Lubochka a thick medical book describing the symptoms of and remedies for melancholia. She threw it across the drawing room in a fit of temper.
“You should never have married a real live woman with feelings and warm blood in her veins!” Lubochka cried. “The best match for you would have been a skeleton from a dissection room. Then you could have counted her ribs whenever you liked and stood her in the corner if you felt she was getting in your way.”
“Darling, do be reasonable—” Sablin began, but Lubochka didn’t care about being reasonable anymore. Her heart was broken, and nobody could care less.
When Klim came back from the country, Lubochka could tell immediately that something was wrong. Pale and tight-lipped, he entered the house, and without stopping to greet her, he headed straight to his room.