Before long Bertrand came almost every day, at times even several times a day. Glowing, in rude health, and smelling of some or other subtle and probably expensive perfume, he would barge into the sitting room, walk unashamedly over to his wife, kiss, all but lick, her dainty little fingers, then chart an unhurried course towards Nikolai.
He’d throw open the door without knocking, launch himself into the armchair, take out a cigarette, light it. At first, he would sit in silence, take silent drags of the cigarette, tap the ash silently into an ashtray, look about as if something might have changed in his absence.
‘Why are you always sitting in the dark?’ Bertrand might ask.
‘I like it this way,’ Nikolai might answer.
Bertrand would fall silent again, and Nikolai had no desire to talk.
Nikolai was particularly distressed whenever Vera came into the room: to remove the ashtray overflowing with stubs, wipe the ash strewn table, to ask, feigning solicitude, how he felt, how his headache was, if he needed anything, whether he would he like a cup of tea or an empty bottle cleared away — any kind of excuse to come and preen before Bertrand, whom she allegedly did not notice at all, though he was sitting in an armchair directly across from Nikolai. Bertrand — not in the least encumbered by Nikolai’s presence — would not take his eyes off her, unable to disguise how enraptured he was by her.
‘An unusual and astonishing beauty,’ Bertrand would say, when Vera finally left the room. ‘Such rare perfection of form! Not to mention how her breasts strain through her sweater, as though there wasn’t room enough in there! You have a treasure, but treasures have a way of slipping through your fingers. They get stolen!’
And he’d laugh, pleased with the inappropriate joke that was worn threadbare from daily repetition, and which scarcely deserved to pass as one.
‘Do you remember the strange legend of the queen who agreed to surrender all her feminine charms for a single night, in exchange for the life of her lover — who’d then be executed when morning came? A rather dubious legend, not so? But it only seems suspect until a woman whose beauty suddenly becomes dearer to you than the world itself, crosses your life’s path. Whom you’d give your life to hold, if only for a short while — give up a life with all its possible joys and pleasures, possible meetings with impossibly beautiful women, amorous adventures, and splendid delights with other lady-friends — delights a good deal longer-lived and full, than one such tragic-romantic night. By the way, some such desperadoes do not manage it at all that night: maybe because of thoughts of the morrow’s execution, or from the dire sadness that his bliss, so ardently yearned for and so acute, was to be short-lived. Maybe he dare not lay a finger on the ‘sacred splendour’ of the cruel beauty; the young man could perhaps just not get it up, due to the secret anxieties of sensitive souls of possibly being unable to fulfil the expectations of the beloved, who has so courteously spread her legs. Many varied reasons, it goes without saying.’
‘And you know, without exaggeration, for a woman like yours I’d sacrifice a great deal.’ Bertrand licked his lips; they were always moist. ‘But give my life for her… I think not!’
He’d laugh, whole-heartedly and at length.
‘Exchange life — a drawn out, almost endless span of time — for a single night of ardour, one perhaps not as passionate as your fondest imaginings, that is the real question. Half my life, more or less, I’d surrender with barely a quibble. It’s quite strange, really, why you should have such luck. Others dare not even dream of women like these, but you possess one, she’s all yours, it’s your bed she lies in. A wife. Belonging to you. Are you one of the fortunate few, then? Living a charmed life? By the way, are you lucky at games? They say that those unlucky at cards are lucky in love. And the other way around.’
Nikolai would light a cigarette and begin to pace the darkened room. He’d pour himself some vodka and drink it slowly, with small sips, straining it through clenched teeth. The vodka didn’t always help, it all depended how much he’d drunk before Bertrand’s arrival.
And meanwhile, the other wouldn’t rest from talking incessantly, as he watched Nikolai with lazy and mocking eyes, pacing the small narrow room from the window to the bed. How many paces were there? Five paces lengthways, if you counted once. The little room was no more than five metres long. But if you counted all of such an evening with Bertrand in attendance, then he probably paced many, many kilometres. Why do I put up with him?
I once took my son to the zoo. There was a wolf that ran up and down a ridiculously small cage: two solid walls, the third with an opening simulating the entrance to a lair or something, the natural habitat of a wolf, and enclosed by a brown (again, just like in nature) set of bars, up to which he kept on pacing, and from which he’d hurriedly move back towards the opposite wall — and so on and so forth, here, there, to the bars, to the wall, to the bars, to the wall, as though he were in training, preparing for some lupine marathon, unable to comprehend that it was all over. There wasn’t a life to live anymore, and there never will be, and all that was left was the cage, and beyond it, curious zoo visitors. Like this young man with the scar across his forehead, and beside him a slip of a boy, with clear childlike eyes that stared with fear and awe at the scary, grey, wild, fanged and clawed wolf. In the adjacent cage there lived an even more pathetic creature, some kind of silly racoon that always stood on its hind legs, ceaselessly rubbing the thick steel bars with its front paws. In some places the naked steel not only shone but was also noticeably thinner. The stupid creature naïvely hoping to outwit fate, eventually wearing away the steel bars, leaving the hospitality of the zoo, quietly escaping into the vastness of the woods. What vastness, which woods, when this racoon knows only how to stand at the bars and rub them with his paws, and devour his rations, especially concocted by zoologists and conveniently provided by the zoo-keepers? Or were it nature lovers who had caught him, unintentionally separating him from his beloved?
‘Do you know what’s important to a real woman?’ Bertrand meanwhile continued. ‘A woman like yours, for instance? Certain noble virtues perhaps: beauty, elegance, lofty thoughts, talent, loyalty, and tenderness? Don’t be a naïve fool. Strength,’ Bertrand clenched a fist. ‘Strength. A woman likes to feel brute force. Just as we demand beauty above all else, from a woman, so a true woman demands strength from a man. First and foremost in the trousers, of course… Some women hold this kind of strength above all else!’
Bertrand smiled a long time, as if doubting whether to voice his next thought out loud.
‘You know what I’d do if she were mine? I’d caress her legs, if she were mine, caress and bite them… Lightly, just a little, tenderly, softly. With just this caress, if done with expertise, it is entirely possible to make a sensual woman scream, faint, and bring her to the sweetest kind of…’
‘Don’t you dare speak of her!’ Nikolai stopped by Bertrand’s chair and raised his arm threateningly. At times he was dizzy with overwhelming hatred for this man. He’d stumble and fall disgracefully onto the floor, bringing the chair and table down with him; if the ashtray was empty, and there happened to be nothing breakable on the table then it wasn’t so terrible.
‘You’re drunk and your nerves are shot. And besides, I don’t mean anything negative by it. If you were at all capable of rational thought right now, you’d understand that my adoration of your spouse is purely platonic. I am in awe of her beauty, like any civilised human being, nothing more, so calm down.’
‘I’m perfectly calm’ Nikolai would say, rising heavily to his feet, and pacing again, matching his steps to the rhythm of the blood throbbing at his temples, measured and heavy. His pulse was very slow, especially when he was drunk. Or did it only seem that way?
When Bertrand finished his cigarette, he’d take a long while crumpling it in the ashtray, and then at once light up another with a click of his gold lighter; he rarely took a drag on it, almost never, but liked, for some reason, to have one smoking away in his fingers.
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