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The weather had turned for the better since the last night. She had retired to her room when he arrived at half past ten. So early! He was astonished. She used to wander like mad all over the house till the small hours, in the old days. Things change, he thought. But not here, they are the same here, he reminded himself. It is me who has changed, who needs to remember.
He had not recognized the servants either, except for one or two. Was it now Varya’s daughter? So young and naive. And that footman just passed was the old Ulrich’s son? He was almost happy sitting there before the fire and sipping warm coffee. He had dozed, remembering his old childish fantasies.
Someone must have helped him to his room upstairs, undressed him, and put on the red comforting nightgown. He rose early, refreshed and expectant of the morning, and dressing quickly, came out in the garden. The cold autumn breeze woke something old in him, not memories, but fleeting moments of emotions experienced in the past. I am getting to be an old nostalgic fool, he chided himself, not really minding. I always was, even in my early childhood when I had formed no real memories, he laughed.
In the orange light of the early morning, and the new sun beginning to climb the eastern sky, and under the trees laden with ripening fruits, he stood sniffing the air. There was an unpleasant thought scraping against his mind that he tried to shrug off. He did not want to back off now. She would have woken up and been told of his visit. She would be getting ready to come down.
A bluish light, curling upwards, settled on everywhere. He saw her as if through a veil, sitting at the center of the huge table, her face turned sideways towards the girl unfolding her napkin. The breakfast looked delicious, causing a dull ache in the hollow of his belly. He reached for the bread, so fresh and inviting. The children were staring at him, puzzled. He knew vaguely that they were her grandkids through his young brothers and sisters. He smiled at them, wondering if no one had really ever told them about him.
Then he became aware of her eyes on him. And a strange fear tugged at his heart, because in the depth of his soul he felt something rise. Something that had lain there coiled, unseen, for so many years. Could it be so? His breath caught in his throat. Had his doubts about himself been true? He concentrated on her withered hands, and how they shook when grasping things. This was an old trick of his; try pity when all else fails.
Her skin grooved, her once proud figure slumped forward, and her gray hair scantily covering the scalp. He tried to list all the time’s depredations, while the other part of his mind recalled in her the noble, elegant lady; the heart of the society. He hoped he would succeed. It was just a matter of faith. He needed to trust the good God.
The boy on his left wanted to pick up the butter plate. Too late he realized that the plate was too heavy for the boy’s small hands, and the next instant it had dropped. The cups and saucers were shattered, the spilt tea mixed with the butter. It was all a great mess. Two maids hurried over.
Suddenly he dredged up the courage to look directly at her. She was observing everything with a calm resignation. Was it now restraint on her face? He decided not. He was no longer astonished at anything. Not at her behavior. Not at the acts of his own heart.
He saw the child’s unafraid face, and the little knot of forgiveness started unspooling through his ribcage.
She sensed his staring and turned to lock her eyes into his. Then the corner of her lips were raised in a beautiful smile and, instantly, the whole image of her old self that he had been trying to put together emerged before him. A sob was forming in his throat. My dear Nikolay, she said, very softly.
He tried raking up the old resentment, to set a defense against his own weakness. Then wordless, he swallowed up the sob.