Gentle Breathing by Ivan Bunin

In the cemetery above a fresh mound of earth stands a new cross of oak–strong, heavy, smooth, a pleasant thing to look at. It is April, but the days are grey. From a long way off one can see through the bare trees the tomb-stones in the cemetery–a spacious, real country or cathedral town cemetery; the cold wind goes whistling, whistling through the china wreath at the foot of the cross. In the cross itself is set a rather large bronze medallion, and in the medallion is a portrait of a smart and charming school-girl, with happy, astonishingly vivacious eyes.

It is Olga Meschersky.

As a little girl there was nothing to distinguish her in the noisy crowd of brown dresses which made its discordant and youthful hum in the corridors and class-rooms; all that one could say of her was that she was just one of a number of pretty, rich, happy little girls, that she was clever, but playful, and very careless of the precepts of her class-teacher. Then she began to develop and to blossom, not by days, but by hours. At fourteen, with a slim waist and graceful legs, there was already well developed the outline of her breasts and all those contours of which the charm has never yet been expressed in human words; at fifteen she was said to be a beauty. How carefully some of her school friends did their hair, how clean they were, how careful and restrained in their movements! But she was afraid of nothing–neither of ink-stains on her fingers, nor of a flushed face, nor of dishevelled hair, nor of a bare knee after a rush and a tumble. Without a thought or an effort on her part, imperceptibly there came to her everything which so distinguished her from the rest of the school during her last two years–daintiness, smartness, quickness, the bright and intelligent gleam in her eyes. No one danced like Olga Meschersky, no one could run or skate like her, no one at dances had as many admirers as she had, and for some reason no one was so popular with the junior classes. Imperceptibly she grew up into a girl and imperceptibly her fame in the school became established, and already there were rumours that she is flighty, that she cannot live without admirers, that the schoolboy, Shensin, is madly in love with her, that she, too, perhaps loves him, but is so changeable in her treatment of him that he tried to commit suicide….

During her last winter, Olga Meschersky went quite crazy with happiness, so they said at school. It was a snowy, sunny, frosty winter; the sun would go down early behind the grove of tall fir-trees in the snowy school garden; but it was always fine and radiant weather, with a promise of frost and sun again to-morrow, a walk in Cathedral Street, skating in the town park, a pink sunset, music, and that perpetually moving crowd in which Olga Meschersky seemed to be the smartest, the most careless, and the happiest. And then, one day, when she was rushing like a whirlwind through the recreation room with the little girls chasing her and screaming for joy, she was unexpectedly called up to the headmistress. She stopped short, took one deep breath, with a quick movement, already a habit, arranged her hair, gave a pull to the corners of her apron to bring it up on her shoulders, and with shining eyes ran upstairs. The headmistress, small, youngish, but grey-haired, sat quietly with her knitting in her hands at the writing-table, under the portrait of the Tsar.

“Good morning, Miss Meschersky,” she said in French, without lifting her eyes from her knitting. “I am sorry that this is not the first time that I have had to call you here to speak to you about your behaviour.”

“I am attending, madam,” answered Olga, coming up to the table, looking at her brightly and happily, but with an expressionless face, and curtsying so lightly and gracefully, as only she could.

“You will attend badly–unfortunately I have become convinced of that,” said the headmistress, giving a pull at the thread so that the ball rolled away over the polished floor, and Olga watched it with curiosity. The headmistress raised her eyes: “I shall not repeat myself, I shall not say much,” she said.

Olga very much liked the unusually clean and large study; on frosty days the air in it was so pleasant with the warmth from the shining Dutch fire-place, and the fresh lilies-of-the-valley on the writing-table. She glanced at the young Tsar, painted full-length in a splendid hall, at the smooth parting in the white, neatly waved hair of the headmistress; she waited in silence.

“You are no longer a little girl,” said the headmistress meaningly, beginning to feel secretly irritated.

“Yes, madam,” answered Olga simply, almost merrily.

“But neither are you a woman yet,” said the headmistress, still more meaningly, and her pale face flushed a little. “To begin with, why do you do your hair like that? You do it like a woman.”

“It is not my fault, madam, that I have nice hair,” Olga replied, and gave a little touch with both hands to her beautifully dressed hair.

“Ah, is that it? You are not to blame!” said the headmistress. “You are not to blame for the way you do your hair; you are not to blame for those expensive combs; you are not to blame for ruining your parents with your twenty-rouble shoes. But, I repeat, you completely forget that you are still only a schoolgirl….”

And here Olga, without losing her simplicity and calm, suddenly interrupted her politely:

“Excuse me, madam, you are mistaken–I am a woman. And, do you know who is to blame for that? My father’s friend and neighbour, your brother, Alexey Mikhailovitch Malyntin. It happened last summer in the country….”

And a month after this conversation, a Cossack officer, ungainly and of plebeian appearance, who had absolutely nothing in common with Olga Meschersky’s circle, shot her on the platform of the railway station, in a large crowd of people who had just arrived by train. And the incredible confession of Olga Meschersky, which had stunned the headmistress, was completely confirmed; the officer told the coroner that Meschersky had led him on, had had a liaison with him, had promised to marry him, and at the railway station on the day of the murder, while seeing him off to Novocherkask had suddenly told him that she had never thought of marrying him, that all the talk about marriage was only to make a fool of him, and she gave him her diary to read with the pages in it which told about Malyntin.

“I glanced through those pages,” said the officer, “went out on to the platform where she was walking up and down, and waiting for me to finish reading it, and I shot her. The diary is in the pocket of my overcoat; look at the entry for July 10 of last year.”

And this is what the coroner read:

“It is now nearly two o’clock in the morning. I fell sound asleep, but woke up again immediately…. I have become a woman to-day! Papa, mamma, and Tolya had all gone to town, and I was left alone. I cannot say how happy I was to be alone. In the morning I walked in the orchard, in the field, and I went into the woods, and it seemed to me that I was all by myself in the whole world, and I never had such pleasant thoughts before. I had lunch by myself; then I played for an hour, and the music made me feel that I should live for ever, and be happier than any one else had ever been. Then I fell asleep in papa’s study, and at four o’clock Kate woke me, and said that Alexey Mikhailovitch had come. I was very glad to see him; it was so pleasant to receive him and entertain him. He came with his pair of Viatka horses, very beautiful, and they stood all the time at the front door, but he stayed because it was raining, and hoped that the roads would dry towards evening. He was very sorry not to find papa at home, was very animated and treated me very politely, and made many jokes about his having been long in love with me. Before tea we walked in the garden, and the weather was charming, the sun shining through the whole wet garden; but it grew quite cold, and he walked with me, arm in arm, and said that he was Faust with Margarete. He is fifty-six, but still very handsome, and always very well dressed–the only thing I didn’t like was his coming in a sort of cape–he smells of English eau-de-Cologne, and his eyes are quite young, black; his beard is long and elegantly parted down the middle, it is quite silvery. We had tea in the glass verandah, and suddenly I did not feel very well, and lay down on the sofa while he smoked; then he sat down near me, and began to say nice things, and then to take my hand and kiss it. I covered my face with a silk handkerchief, and several times he kissed me on the lips through the handkerchief…. I can’t understand how it happened; I went mad; I never thought I was like that. Now I have only one way out…. I feel such a loathing for him that I cannot endure it….”

The town in these April days has become clean and dry, its stones have become white, and it is easy and pleasant to walk on them. Every Sunday, after mass, along Cathedral Street which leads out of the town, there walks a little woman in mourning, in black kid gloves, and with an ebony sunshade. She crosses the yard of the fire-station, crosses the dirty market-place by the road where there are many black smithies, and where the wind blows fresher from the fields; in the distance, between the monastery and the gaol, is the white slope of the sky and the grey of the spring fields; and then, when you have passed the muddy pools behind the monastery wall and turn to the left, you will see what looks like a large low garden, surrounded by a white wall, on the gates of which is written “The Assumption of Our Lady.” The little woman makes rapid little signs of the cross, and always walks on the main path. When she gets to the bench opposite the oak cross she sits down, in the wind and the chilly spring, for an hour, two hours, until her feet in the light boots, and her hand in the narrow kid glove, grow quite cold. Listening to the birds of spring, singing sweetly even in the cold, listening to the whistling of the wind through the porcelain wreath, she sometimes thinks that she would give half her life if only that dead wreath might not be before her eyes. The thought that it is Olga Meschersky who has been buried in that clay plunges her into astonishment bordering upon stupidity: how can one associate the sixteen-year-old school-girl, who but two or three months ago was so full of life, charm, happiness, with that mound of earth and that oak cross. Is it possible that beneath it is the same girl whose eyes shine out immortally from this bronze medallion, and how can one connect this bright look with the horrible event which is associated now with Olga Meschersky? But in the depths of her soul the little woman is happy, as are all those who are in love or are generally devoted to some passionate dream.

The woman is Olga Meschersky’s class-mistress, a girl over thirty, who has for long been living on some illusion and putting it in the place of her actual life. At first the illusion was her brother, a poor lieutenant, in no way remarkable–her whole soul was bound up in him and in his future, which, for some reason, she imagined as splendid, and she lived in the curious expectation that, thanks to him, her fate would transport her into some fairyland. Then, when he was killed at Mukden, she persuaded herself that she, very happily, is not like others, that instead of beauty and womanliness she has intellect and higher interests, that she is a worker for the ideal. And now Olga Meschersky is the object of all her thoughts, of her admiration and joy. Every holiday she goes to her grave–she had formed the habit of going to the cemetery after the death of her brother–for hours she never takes her eyes off the oak cross; she recalls Olga Meschersky’s pale face in the coffin amid the flowers, and remembers what she once overheard: once during the luncheon hour, while walking in the school garden, Olga Meschersky was quickly, quickly saying to her favourite friend, the tall plump Subbotin:

“I have been reading one of papa’s books–he has a lot of funny old books–I read about the kind of beauty which woman ought to possess. There’s such a lot written there, you see, I can’t remember it all; well, of course, eyes black as boiling pitch–upon my word, that’s what they say there, boiling pitch!–eye-brows black as night, and a tender flush in the complexion, a slim figure, hands longer than the ordinary–little feet, a fairly large breast, a regularly rounded leg, a knee the colour of the inside of a shell, high but sloping shoulders–a good deal of it I have nearly learnt by heart, it is all so true; but do you know what the chief thing is? Gentle breathing! And I have got it; you listen how I breathe; isn’t it gentle?”

Now the gentle breathing has again vanished away into the world, into the cloudy day, into the cold spring wind….

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