The Real Irene
The girl had been alone and friendless in that gray metropolis before she had met Mrs. Kelly. She had been sent to an aunt who lived there by distant relatives after her father’s death, but when she had arrived at the given address, the aunt had moved, and no one knew where. The girl had written to her relatives and expected a letter but none came.
She was forced to contact an agency which placed governesses. She entered an opulent household due to her command of languages, acquired from her father who had been a philologist. The girl, however, was beautiful, though she was not aware of it, and soon drew attention to herself. Before she knew it, she was ruined. She found a little pension close by, but her money ran out. When she returned to the agency, she found its doors closed to her. She knew how penniless girls ended up when turned out on the streets. Then, by chance, she was approached by Mrs. Kelly. The year was 1878, the city, Paris, the girl’s name, Irina Vladimirovna Alexeyeva.
The day had been a balmy one, but toward evening the wind had turned and now the night was foggy and cool.
‘Number 12, Rue Chabanais,’ the older of the two gentleman ordered the cab. The older man was tall, well dressed and heavyset. Years of good living had left his once handsome face florid and bloated. Still, behind the good natured facade, he retained a keen intelligence. He was accompanied by a younger man, who stood a little over six feet and was so excessively slender as to appear a good deal taller. His dark hair, piercing gaze, firm chin and sharp nose gave him the air of a brilliant bird of prey. The younger man seemed both amused by, and detached from, the circumstances.
His nephew had a fine mind but a cold nature, the older man thought, but it was so with the English. This outing was just what was needed to thaw him out.
The two men disembarked in front of an undistinguished and unassuming facade, but passing through its doors found themselves in a grotto, met by a black man in a Moorish costume. He ushered them past a second set of doors where they were met by Mrs. Kelly.
‘This way, please,’ she said, leading them to a mirrored and excessively rich salon where gentlemen dallied with young women in various states of repose.
‘Hmmm,’ Mrs. Kelly said, looking over the younger man who met her gaze unflinchingly, ‘I think, yes, he would suit the Persian room.’ She glanced over at the uncle who was already being entertained by two scantily dressed young women. ‘Do follow me,’ she said to the young man, leading him up the stairs.
‘Will he know what to do?’ one of the women asked the uncle while tickling his beard.
‘He is English, my dear, but I don’t suppose one act is too different from the other,’ the uncle replied, as the two girls burst into laughter.
The young man was left alone in the room. He seated himself and crossing his legs, took a cigarette from a case and put it in a holder.
‘Ha!’ he exclaimed, looking around him at the mock Persian décor. He sat, smoking, seemingly preoccupied by personal thoughts, indifferent to his surroundings.
A dark woman entered the room. She was veiled apart from her glittering eyes, which were amber in hue, and wore a long embroidered coat over sheer trousers. Persian slippers, and many rings on her fine fingers completed her outfit. She ascertained at once that the young man had an acetic temperament. Generally that type developed rarefied tastes in time, she thought wearily. But he was still young, and so without hesitation, she lit a hookah that had been prepared with hashish, passed it to him, and sat on a cushion at his feet.
As the young man smoked, she said:
‘In Persia there was a sultan, who, betrayed by his wife, made a vow never to trust a woman again. True to his word, whenever he would spend the night with one of his concubines, he would have her beheaded in the morning to avoid emotional entanglements.
In his harem there was a clever girl named Shahrazad, who determined she would live, hatched a plan to keep the sultan’s interest. She would begin a story to entertain him, but before it was finished, it would lead into another story and another, and so she fascinated him for one thousand and one nights, until he had fallen in love with her and decided to spare her.’
The young man raised his brows. The girl had a lovely voice, clear as a bell, though her consonants, save her rolling R’s were soft. Not Persian, he surmised, though she was from the east.
‘This is the story of the golden apples,’ said the girl, and proceeded to tell the tale of a sultan and his vizier, who down by the dockyards, where they had gone among the common people, had found the body of a beautiful woman who had been rolled into a rug and thrown into the sea. Who could have done such a thing, they wondered, when a grieving man appeared to tell the tale.
The woman was his wife, he said, and had been ill and craving apples, and he so in love with her that he would have gratified her every wish. He sneaked into the sultan’s orchards, and there risking his life, had stolen three golden apples and brought them back to her.
But the next day, as he was returning from his shop, for he was a merchant, he saw a slave tossing one of the golden apples in the air. “Oh, where did you get that golden apple?” a passer-by asked. “I have gotten them from my lover, a beautiful woman who would do anything to please me,” the slave replied.
And so the merchant came home and saw his wife still abed and two of the apples next to her and the third missing. And so in his madness, he fell upon her, and when he had killed her, he rolled her in the carpet and threw her in the sea.
When he returned home, he saw his young son weeping and asked what had passed that ailed him so. And his son told him, “I stole one of the golden apples from my mother, but when I went outdoors to play, a slave snatched it away from me.”
And so, weeping and lamenting, the merchant asked the sultan to punish him for the murder of his wife. But the Sultan said, “Let us hear from the slave, for it is surely he who set the events in motion.” And so a search was instigated, until the man was found.
As the merchant prepared for death, he kissed his children goodbye, and as he kissed them, he found a golden apple in his little daughter’s pocket. “How came this to be in your possession?” he asked. “I bought it from a slave,” she said, “who sold it to me for three dinars.”
Then the slave was found, and weeping, confessed to the sultan that he had made up the story of the lover and had stolen the apple from a boy, and yet had sold it for three dinars to a little girl who was craving apples. And the sultan said in awe, “Was any tale more strange than this?”
“If you spare the merchant and the slave, then I will tell you a tale more wondrous,” said the vizier. And so Shahrazad launched into a new tale.’
The story ended as his pipe was done. ‘The merchant acted rashly before he had all the facts in hand,’ the young man said.
‘Indeed he did.’ The woman stood and made to remove her veil, which was attached to a tiny flat hat.
‘Leave it,’ he said.
He watched her remove her garland of flowers, he watched as she took off her garment of rain. He saw her through a haze of blue smoke, an expanse of whittled whiteness, imprinted by braided rope, like a tattoo, where she had lain. But the Englishman was unused to affection, and as the girl approached him, he was crippled with shame.
‘Why did you tell me that story?’ he asked.
The girl shrugged, releasing her hair. ‘I don’t know. I suppose that for some men it enhances the fantasy of the Persian room. And, of course, there is the element of death, of the beautiful innocent wife, and the potential death of Shahrazad, which may heighten arousal – in some men,’ she added. She didn’t know why she was speaking to him this way, but he had made her feel self-conscious and strange.
‘And what story would you tell me, if we weren’t in this room?’ he asked.
Well, he really is strange, she thought, lying back on the silk pillows that were scattered about the carpet. She propped herself up on one elbow.
‘I would tell you of wolves in a snowy land, where the wind blows all winter and the trees creak when frost is upon them, and the nights are so dark, dark as the blackest tunnel, dark as death itself. I would tell you of the white maiden, who was abandoned in the forest by her wicked stepmother and left to fend for herself, and of the wolf, who ran alone, separated from his pack, until he grew wild and solitary, roaming the great forest, watching with his brilliant, intelligent eyes, indifferent to human pain.’
The young man’s lip twitched and formed a semblance of a smile. ‘The wolf becomes the maiden’s lover?’
‘Yes, because not even a lone wolf can remain so eternally.’
‘Can he not?’
‘He becomes the maiden’s lover for a short time, yes.’
‘And then he leaves her?’
‘He is a wolf. It would be his nature to rip out her throat and leave her bleeding in the snow.’
‘But before he does that?’
‘Before he does that, he would cast off his pelt and wrap it around them, and he would lie next to the maiden in the cold, cold snow.’
The young man removed his jacket, vest and tie, and mirroring her pose, lay next to her, observing the length of her body.
She sank back onto the pillows. ‘The wolf, attracted to the maiden’s hair would take hold of it,’ she said.
‘Like this?’ The man ran his fingers through her dark auburn hair. His touch was unexpectedly delicate, and though the girl shivered almost imperceptibly, he noticed. He traced his finger across her brow and the bridge of her nose, stopping short of the veil.
‘The wolf had never seen a human girl before and was curious, and so he touched that delicate part of her neck where he knew her blood ran,’ she said, moving his hand to the spot. He gripped her neck, stopped and stroked it, and watched the mild throbbing of her pulse accelerate. He touched her ear, a small pink shell, and ran his fingers across her chin and her marble shoulders. He crossed her arms, her long thin palms, and began again at the central river of tiny golden hairs that lie between her breasts, growing downward, which sprang to life before his fingers. And then he stopped short, hesitating.
She saw his pupils dilate, and rolled over on her belly, boldly gazing at him. The wolf was swift and merciless. Grabbing the girl’s hair and sinking his teeth into her shoulder, he covered her body with his.
The woods were dark, the snow was cold, three drops of blood upon it. He rent her veil, he bit her lips, her breasts were marked with bruises. He held her down, he turned her around, soundlessly, his green eyes open. He shattered her and split her lengthwise, he rolled on her until they lay crosswise; he entered her, their mutual eternities suspended. Three gypsies on a road, a flash of knife, their footprints told of two remaining, illicit lovers, who had become bold. In Babylon, he had her stoned, and wept alone amidst his gold. And near a Hindu temple she stepped on his foot; she, the creeper, he, the root. In Florence, he played the mandolin and sang, to turn her head, dissatisfied until she lay dead, at her husband’s hand. In feudal Japan, she was the daimyo and he, the concubine; in Africa, child lovers who were sold eastward into Arabia. Once, she was his mother on the steppe. In a cave in Spain, they huddled together and watched a magician, with antlers on his head, whirl about before a great hunt.
The girl opened her lips to him; he was a wolf, he was a snake, he was a seed planted deep within her. She was the sea, he was the wave, rocking the girl away from that vulgar room, away from that monstrous house of pleasure.
‘I have to pee,’ she said.
‘Pee on me.’
‘I couldn’t,’ she smiled, and disappearing behind a screen for an instant, expelled a hot golden rush of water, the absence of which made her feel empty and abandoned.
The young man was waiting for her on the bed, his arms outstretched, pale and slender as a white ash. Astride him, she held him in, employing the thousand and one tricks of the orient she had learned. ‘Don’t move,’ she said. The young man observed her with his brilliant hawk’s eyes: her haloed crown and grave expression, and her rippling belly, as she tightened and moiled. He moved her hair from her face, and brought his mouth to hers. Swiftly sitting up, he cradled the girl on his lap. He wrapped his arms around her; he enfolded her in his embrace. The girl’s heart broke, she softened and became tender, pressing her lips to his head.
He laid her back among the pillows, he clasped his hands about her hips. He crushed her soul with his pressure, he wrenched her body with his grip. He leveled her and breaking her, drew her together, until they were once again face to face. The girl entwined her legs around him, she clasped her hands about his neck. He assaulted her with a fervor and pierced her shrouded space. Between agony and rapture, and the slow circumlocution of time, the memory of the evening’s delirium folded itself within them, long before they were prepared to separate.
The boy remained within her, the wolf was under her skin, and the ash impaled her, until they were ready to begin again. She caressed him with her gaze, touching him gently. Slowly, stealthily, she stroked him to a frenzy. The two lovers lay side by side, looking into each other’s eyes, the pull of an unknown spirit between them. Her legs about him, entangled, they met the morning light, and the man kissed her lips, her eyes, her hair, with the mournfulness of an elegy that had long been sung, and made love to her with a sadness that was beyond death, beyond his inviolate solitude, beyond anything that had happened since or would happen again. When they fell apart, he clasped her fingers between his.
‘And when the wolf had finished, he left the maiden in the snow,’ she said.
‘It is his nature to be alone.’ The young man rose swiftly and put on his clothes. But the girl couldn’t look at him and closed her eyes.
‘We’ve received an invitation from the Somervilles’ for the weekend,’ the stout gentleman said to his companion, a thin man, who sat looking out the window of their shared rooms.
‘Not another dull house party.’ The thin man was clouded in a shroud of smoke. ‘Go alone, I have no patience for that sort of thing.’
‘You’ve been cooped up in here for weeks, bored silly. It would do you good to get out.’
The thin man harrumphed and continued to smoke.
‘They’ve invited someone new whom I’d like to meet. I’ve quite enjoyed his short stories.’
‘Oh, and who might that be?’
‘A Frenchman; writes under the name of I.V. Alexandre. The stories are unusual. Light, even. Seemingly nothing happens during the course of the story, and yet it does,’ the stout man paused, thinking aloud.
‘I.V.? Alexander? The name would suggest a Russian.’
‘Yes, that would account for the melancholic nature of the tales. Well, perhaps you are right, and he is one of those Frenchified Russians. Still, I would like to get a closer look at him.’
‘Why, then you shall,’ the thin man rose from his chair swiftly and unexpectedly.
‘You’ve changed your mind?’
The thin man smiled, ‘Pack your bags!’ he said.
‘Who would have said that I.V. was a woman, and a very attractive one at that,’ the stout man mused as he and his companion took a turn about the Somervilles’ park.
‘Is she? I hadn’t noticed,’ the thin man was preoccupied by his own musings. ‘Lady writers,’ he added with disdain.
‘That’s quite unfair of you, particularly as you are unfamiliar with her work.’
‘Is it? Well, perhaps it is!’ he said. But his companion noted the thin man was unusually agitated though no one but himself would have known it. Inexplicably, he felt like goading the thin man. ‘It’s 1898. The world is changing. Women are now entering its ranks.’
The thin man walked on swiftly but said nothing. He was about to point out an unusual flowering hedge, but a distant form appearing on the path made him hesitate. A tall, dark haired woman wearing a lavender gray costume approached. It had just rained, and the leaves were beginning to prematurely yellow. Somehow the slick wet walk, and the gray and yellow colors made an impression on the stout man, which he considered charming and a bit sad. His companion looked away.
‘Ah! Miss Alexandre,’ said the stout man, ‘We were just discussing you.’
The woman started and put her gloved hand to her throat, and then caught hold of herself.
‘And what were you saying, Mister Johnson?’ she asked the stout man.
‘Norwood thought you might be a Russian.’
‘That is true enough, but I have lived these twenty years in France,’ she said quietly, sensing Johnson was sympathetic towards her. Johnson pointed out a hidden path with his walking stick, and they followed Norwood who walked slightly ahead of them.
‘And how came you to live in France?’ Johnson seemed unusually inquisitive for an Englishman, but she was used to answering questions from admirers of her work.
‘I was sent to an aunt in Paris after the death of my parents. Unfortunately, the lady was old and infirm and perished shortly after my arrival. I went to work as a governess, and then later through the patronage of a lady to whom I gave language lessons, I made the acquaintance of my publisher.’
‘And you found over-night success?’
‘Not at all. I gave lessons for many years and sold my early stories to newspapers.’
‘A paragon,’ Norwood trilled.
The woman colored and lowered her head. Johnson sensed she was hurt by this remark and took her elbow to steer her around a puddle. ‘I understand you’ll be giving a reading tonight. I’m very much looking forward to it.’
‘Yes. I will be.’ The woman had regained her composure almost instantaneously.
‘Is it something new that you’ve been working on?’ he asked.
‘Yes, yes it is.’ Her eyes sparkled brightly. ‘I’m rather excited about it. I don’t often think highly of my work, but even I think it might be good.’
‘Well, I’m sure your many fans think very highly of your work,’ Johnson said pleasantly and continued chatting in a light hearted vein until they reached the conservatory leading back to the main house.
‘Until tonight, then,’ he said, taking the lady’s hand. His companion said nothing.
‘Really, Norwood, I know you have a low opinion of women, but you might at least try to be civil,’ he said.
‘It seems that you, my dear Johnson, are civil enough for the both of us,’ Norwood replied.
The guests were gathered in the salon where the hostess had assembled a number of chairs in rows. I.V. Alexandre sat toward the side, waiting for them to take their places, and after a brief introduction by their hostess, Beryl Somerville, she mounted a dais at the head of the room, facing the audience.
‘This is a new story that I have been working on,’ she said. ‘I hope you enjoy it.’
‘Irena Pavlova Ushakovskaya’s left shoe was pinching her foot as she hurried down the alee of trees, hop- limping a bit to make up for it. Two men, new arrivals in Bad Urwald were approaching in the opposite direction. She slowed down, realizing she must look absurd. She would have to be late meeting her aunt, Maria Federovna, a formidable old lady, who was having a treatment at the spa that day.
The two men passed her, nodding in her direction. The elder was a portly gentleman, evidently used to good living; the taller man was young and sleek as a whippet. Irena lowered her chin but looked at them shyly. She had not had much society in her young life. Her father was a scholar and had retired to the country due to ill health when she had been very young. Last year after a sudden illness, he had died, and Irena had gone to live with her aunt in Moscow. Maria Federovna was always ailing but that did not dampen her irascible temper, nor her indefatigable quest for treatments which would alleviate her discomfort and restore her to good health.
No sooner had Irena Pavlova come to live with her than they were off to a distant monastery to seek a miraculous cure from a penitent monk who failed to ameliorate whatever it was that ailed the old lady. Then they had gone to Yalta, and now they were here. Maria Federovna drank the waters and was rolled in mud up to her neck and hosed off on a regular basis. Though she claimed to feel somewhat better, she nevertheless complained incessantly of her aches, and would send Irena Pavlova running half way across town to retrieve her pills whenever she forgot them.
Irena Pavlova arrived at the main building, a historicist mish-mash that was pleasantly yellowed and trimmed with cream paint. Her aunt was being wheeled out by the attendant and already had a sour look on her face. Irena took hold of her chair and pushed her forward.
“I have the most painful headache. It’s been tormenting me since last night,” her aunt said, continuing to complain, while Irena clucked sympathetically.
Miss Alexandre continued to read. Her audience was charmed by the naiveté of her protagonist, her humanity in the face of poverty, her lack of social standing, and her enormous hope. All this was described in the most ordinary way: the cheap too tight-shoes, the cut-down dress, her angularity and social awkwardness. They listened as she described Irena’s growing fascination with the two new arrivals, the older gentleman and his young English nephew. They listened as Irena allowed her imagination to run away with her.
Norwood was expressionless, listening with his eyes closed. Irina Vladimirovna continued:
The Englishman was sitting on the terrace with his back toward her, smoking and looking at the setting sun. The land was lush and green, and the sky had turned a lilac hue. Irena Pavlova became quite chilled, but she did not step inside to fetch a wrap. She sat there imagining how she would say something brilliant to him that would fascinate him and make him love her.
The Englishman finished smoking and rose to leave. She stumbled after him, and in her rush, inadvertently dropped a glove. He immediately observed it and stooped, handing it over to her. They stood side by side for a moment looking at the evening; at the rosy darkening sky and the blue clouds approaching from a distance. But Irena Pavlova could not think of a single thing to say; she was mortified by the shabbiness of the glove that she now held in her hand, which spoke to the enormous distance between them.
“Well, goodnight,” the Englishman said, touching the rim of his hat.
Irina Pavlova looked at his receding form; she looked at him walking out of her life, (for they were to depart the next morning for Moscow), and thought, he’ll never know me; he’ll never know all the things I have inside of me that have never come to expression. And then she thought, it’s worse than that, much worse. He never noticed me at all.’
Norwood was one of the last to leave the room. ‘He noticed her, Miss Alexandre. I’m certain of it,’ he said as he passed, leaving his hosts wondering exactly what he meant by that statement.
In the year 1922, Norwood was passing a London bookshop when he caught sight of the photograph of a woman in the window. No doubt they thought her face would sell the new book. He estimated she would be fifty-seven or eight now, but she was still lovely. He normally did not care for literature, but he had followed her career, and now he stopped and purchased a copy.
Arriving in his rooms, he ordered a pot of black coffee and changing into his dressing gown and slippers, lit the first of many Egyptian cigarettes he would smoke that evening.
The book was odd in a sense, since he found himself immediately immersed in the running monologue of the protagonist, a woman who had lost her son in the war. While she fantasized about the potential futures the boy missed by his brutal and untimely death, she recalled her own lost opportunities. It was different in style from her previous work, but not in substance, Norwood thought, and all her characters were unable to overcome their own limitations in the face of an indifferent world. He read into evening, until he came to the following passage.
“I’m unable to release the memory of that single incident from my life, she thought. I keep going back to it, and revolving around it, eternally. It haunts me, not for the loss of any significant status that I might have had up to that time, or the loss of good opinion. I’ve never cared for those things and have made my own way in the world, in spite of them.
And yet how could he and I come together in such a way and then part, knowing that a connection was made, a connection that, despite its brevity, touched me to the core of my being and rattled me forever after. My son, an extension of myself, lived out my own unspoken life to some degree, but despite that closeness, even as a child, he retained his own inviolate space and individuality and had hidden thoughts that I could never share, though I was content to watch him in his secret world, his play land of invisible friends and terrifying monsters, which he conquered daily. Even when he would rush into my lap for comfort, and bury his head in my skirts, it would only be for momentary reassurance, and then he would be off again, to slay dragons and fight knights.
What soul’s moment, though fleeting, was captured in that encounter? Not the familiarity of a lifetime’s common utterances, not the shattered brilliance of shared thought, nor the anxiety of growing sentiment, nor its painful and premature loss. What could it have possibly meant, and why did it seem more significant and real than thousands of days that were lived out in the closeness of our little family circle, the excursions and holidays, the planned menus, the school lessons and conversations, the mud on our shoes, the soggy umbrellas in the stand near the door, the books that lie open on the divan?
And I have to wonder, what could it have meant to him, a man entirely unused to love, though robust in his physicality. Was it just another experience to be tried on, simply for the sake of experience, or did he feel something too? The body, I fear, has its own essence, its own being, and its own messages to impart to us. It’s no dumb thing to be willed and conquered, but something that is magical and divine in itself, and yet we despise the love that arises from the body and call it coarse and commonplace, and regard it as less lofty than the love imbued by chilly spirit or sentimental soul. But to a man of science, who lived for the most part in his mind, could it have been anything but a tawdry encounter in a provincial town with an awkward and lonely girl, who had nothing to offer but herself?’
Norwood put the book down. Three references to him in thirty years’ time. The first had been in an odd book of tales within tales she had written under an assumed name for a collector of erotica, a friend of Mrs. Kelly’s, taking place in a house of pleasure, which he had come across by chance in a Parisian bookstall. The second, in a grouping of short stories set on the continent featuring the girl and the thin Englishman: in a spa; in the household of his uncle where she was a governess; in a small seaside town where he betrayed and abandoned her; on a tour of Italy, where she spurned him to follow an uninspired artistic career; and now this. Of course, he knew she had never had children or married, just as he himself had not. Irina, he thought, he noticed you. He was not indifferent, but he made a mistake, though you yourself were not blameless.
He waited for your imminent arrival that autumn, after he had seen you again at the Somervilles’. Every moment he spent waiting was a joy and a torment to him; and the lakes had never seemed as beautiful, and nature never as filled with wonder. He knew you would come, and he would bury his face in your skirts, and erase the years of loneliness that had meant little compared to that final night that had turned to morning. He had been fully alive and awake then. But you did not come, just as he had not when you waited for him all those years ago when you were both young, waited for him in the dying twilight of day at bottom of the agreed upon lane, waiting until night fell. He realized that his fear of life had caused him to make that grave mistake, one which you could never forgive.
Norwood crumpled the paper. He knew he would never write about what he had felt, nor what had happened between them. He knew he would never tell her that she was the most real thing that had ever happened to him or would ever happen to him again.