Bertrand would come up to Nikolai from behind and slap him on the back with his heavy hand: time to sleep.
‘Up, up onto your frisky little legs and off to bed you go! I’ll even sing you a lullaby. Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop… When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all… Like it?’
Nikolai would crawl into bed, wrap himself in the covers, and the room would spin around him; sitting up at the table was even worse, the sharp edge of something or the other would poke him in the face, and his neck and back would grow stiff. By now it would be hard to walk, everything was spinning, the floor surged and tilted, and things disappeared before his eyes, just to appear again, or come to a momentary halt, and then disappear again, and so on, without end.
Sleep wouldn’t come, and besides, it was crucial to know what time Vera would come home tonight: immediately after the performance, or later. And if she came home late, that could mean that she had spent time with someone else. And God forbid, God forbid it was true! — he clenched his fists and punched the wall with all his might, but his fists didn’t feel the blows, not even when they were covered in blood.
** ** **
At the sound of the shutting door, Bertrand would run to the hallway, while Nikolai lifted his head with effort and searched for the green clock-face on a table by the window; today too, she came back on time. And yesterday, if he remembered correctly, she’d been on time, but the day before that, what happened the day before that? And what difference did it make?
He’d fall back onto the pillow and listen to Bertrand kissing Vera’s fingers in the hall. When she entered the bedroom Nikolai lay facing the wall, motionless, eyes closed, trying to breathe evenly until Vera fell asleep. And when she had, he’d turn to her, get up quietly — exhausted and worn out by her day, she wouldn’t hear him — then turn on the night-lamp by the window, return to the bed, look at her face. This happened almost every single night, but strangely, he could not look his fill of her, could not satiate his eyes the way you could quench thirst with water, hunger with food, fatigue with lengthy rest, and so on. Somehow he couldn’t manage to satisfy his thirst for her beauty, so warm in sleep, so dearly familiar, and perfect as always, he just couldn’t. Or was Bertrand right, and did he just not know how to because he was a mediocre, grey, useless man? Her hair covered her face, which always paled in sleep, her lips too were pale and almost indistinguishable in the darkness, she breathed quietly, shuddered, saw something frightening in her dreams, and then he wanted to embrace her, hold her tight, console her, say: I’m here, you have nothing to fear with me by your side, I would sooner die than let anyone harm you. Sometimes she whispered in her sleep and, with a sigh, turned onto her other side, and then he had to wait, sometimes for hours, until she returned to him, pale, sleeping, fine. He was afraid to kiss her for fear of interrupting her slumbers, sat motionless in the chair, sometimes dozed off, but always woke up before her, so she never discovered him there by her bedside, secretly guarding her sleep. It was pathetic of course, pathetic and criminal: delighting in her beauty which was sacred to him, as was everything else connected with this woman, who had by a trick of fate, by a lucky configuration of the stars, been handed to him and had become his wife. Had borne him a son, and buried him soon thereafter — not once blaming Nikolai for the death of the poor boy. Why not? It had been his fault alone, hadn’t it? Why then, didn’t she blame him, he who was practically a murderer?
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