A blog mostly about Russian literature and translation issues, as retailed by a small stuffed dinosaur.
Friday, 22 April 2016
A mystery couple, or (no) love at first sight
In the process of avoiding doing my real work, I was amused and intrigued to read this account of the unpromising first meeting between this couple (who would go on to become famous for their mutual devotion, among other achievements). Can you guess who they are? Clue: the author whose memoirs are quoted below would become famous as Russia's first female philatelist. All errors in translation are my own.
Answers on a postcard, please, or in the comments section below.
[The] study turned out to be a large room with two windows, very bright on that sunny day, but at other times quite depressing. The room was dreary and hushed; one felt somehow oppressed by the gloom and the silence.
A soft couch stood on the far side of the room, covered with well-worn brown fabric; in front of it was a round table laid with a red cloth. On the table was a lamp and two or three albums; around it were soft chairs and armchairs. Above the table, in a walnut frame, hung a portrait of a lady with an extremely thin face, in a black dress and cap. "That must be his wife," I thought, not knowing whether he was married. [...] Opposite another large sofa was a writing table [...]. The study was perfectly ordinary, just like others I had seen in the homes of less than wealthy families.
Somewhat untidier artist's version of a room based on this room
I sat, listening. I kept fancying that at any moment I would hear children shouting or the noise of a child's drum; or that the door would open and the same thin lady whose portrait I had been examined would walk in. But instead he entered and, after apologizing for being late, asked me: "How long have you been a stenographer?"
"Just a year and a half."
"And has your teacher got a lot of pupils?"
"At first more than a hundred and fifty signed up, but now only about twenty-five of us are left."
"Why so few?"
"Well, many thought that stenography would be very easy to learn, but then they saw that you couldn't pick it up in a few days, so they gave up their classes."
"That's how we are with every new task," he said, "we take it up with enthusiasm, then swiftly cool off and cast it aside. They see that they must work, but who cares to work these days?"
At first glance, he seemed to me quite old. But just as soon as he started speaking, he became younger, and I thought that he could hardly be more than thirty-five or thirty-seven. He was of average height and held himself very straight. His light chestnut, even slightly reddish, hair was thickly oiled and carefully combed. But what struck me most were his eyes; one was dark brown, but the other was colourless because the pupil had expanded across the whole eye. This difference between his eyes lent his gaze a mysterious quality. His face, pale and sickly, seemed extremely familiar to me, probably because I had seen his portrait before. He wore a rather tired blue cloth jacket, but his cuffs and collar were snow-white.
Within five minutes a maid brought us two glasses of very strong tea, almost black. There were two rolls on the tray. I took a glass. I didn't want any tea, and the room was hot, but I began drinking so as not to seem too stiff [церемонной]. I sat by the wall at a small table, while he sometimes sat at his writing desk and sometimes ranged about the room smoking, often stubbing out his cigarette and lighting a new one. He even offered me a cigarette. I refused.
"Did you, perhaps, refuse from delicacy?" he said.
I hastened to assure him that not only did I not smoke, but I did not even like to see ladies smoking.
Finally he said that he was assuredly not in the right mood to dictate to me now, but could I perhaps return at about eight o'clock. Then he would begin dictating his novel. Returning again was very inconvenient for me, but, not wishing to delay the work, I agreed.
As he was bidding me good-bye, he said:
"I was glad when Olkhin sent me a young lady stenographer, and not a man. Do you know why?"
"Why might that be?"
"Because a man would more than likely drink, and you, I hope, don't drink?"
I had a dreadful desire to laugh, but I restrained my smile.
"I most certainly won't drink; you may rest assured of it," I replied in a serious tone.
I left his house in a most unhappy frame of mind. I hadn't liked him, and he made an onerous impression. I thought that we would scarcely be able to work together, and my dreams of independence threatened to scatter like dust... This was the more painful for me as, the day before, my good-hearted mother had been so happy about the start of my new employment.