Irina Odoevtseva

Artwork by Olaya Barr

“It must be snowing in Russia by now . . . ”

Tatiana Alexandrovna shrugged.

“Well, yes, obviously. It must be snowing in Russia and it must be night-time in America. What fascinating things you come out with.”

“Perhaps . . . But I was thinking about the time I was hiding out at our place in Sosnovka, when the Bolsheviks were searching for me. How they threatened to burn the place down. How we sat there in the dark all night, too scared even to light a candle, as the wolves howled in the park. But outside everything was white with snow. Do you remember how we wanted to escape, how we dreamt of fleeing to safety? Back then, Paris and Nice seemed like a distant paradise. Of course, now we can see that everything here is pathetic and dull. You know, Tanya, maybe we would have been happier in Russia . . . ”

She shrugged again.

“Maybe. I don’t know. We’re poor, and poor people are miserable wherever they are.”

“Yes, but all these Americans and Brits—they’re rich, and yet I think that they, too, are . . . ”

“Oh, stop, please. What do you know about rich people?”

They were walking along the Promenade des Anglais, struggling to weave their way through the strolling crowds. People walking towards them would stare at Tatiana Alexandrovna, which worried her. Were they staring because she was so beautiful or because of the way she was dressed? Her clothes were neat, but very plain.

She took a mirror out of her handbag.

“How dreadful. My hat has faded horribly in this sun.”

“You’re the prettiest girl here, isn’t that enough?”

She narrowed her eyes and looked out towards the sea.

“What do I care about that! I’d rather have diamonds.”

A motor car drove by them. A middle-aged woman with bright ginger hair sat inside.

“Just like hers. And her car.”

He took her arm.

“Oh, but she’s old and ridiculous, while you—”

She jerked her arm away.

“How many times do I have to tell you! It’s uncouth to link arms here. Honestly, you’d have us look like a pair of shopkeepers.”

They walked all the way back to their hotel in silence.

“Seryozha, go, buy us some bread for lunch.”

The fat, self-important proprietor sat at reception. She only ever bowed if they bowed first. “Because we’re Russian and you’re a taxi driver,” Tatiana Alexandrovna would complain to her husband.

Back in her room, she took off her dress and hung it up in the wardrobe—“God knows when I’ll get the chance to have a new one made.” Putting on a house gown, she got to frying a beef steak on their tiny stove. “Good grief, what has my life come to . . . !”

Her husband returned, carrying a loaf of bread. A large orange was sticking out of his pocket.

“Let’s eat, Tanichka, I’m starving!”

She put the steak in front of him and sat down across the table.

“Where’s yours?”

“I don’t want any, I’m not hungry.”

“No! That’s not on. You must eat. You’re skinny enough as it is. You’ll get sick if you keep this up.”

“So what if I do? I’ll get sick and then I’ll die. That’s the best thing that can happen to me now.”

“What on earth are you on about, Tanya?”

“What am I on about? Only that I’d rather die than carry on like this.”

“But Tanya . . . I don’t understand . . . ”

“You don’t understand? No, of course you don’t. You obviously think that I’m happy enough as it is. My husband adores me and doesn’t make me work. He even treats me sometimes—brings me oranges. What else could I possibly want?”

He stood in front of her, looking confused.

“But don’t you remember Petersburg? We had nothing there either and you never complained.”

“So? Would you have me sit around darning your socks for the rest of my life? And bring me oranges to cheer me up? In Petersburg, everyone was barely scraping by. Whereas here . . . here I can’t cope!”

“Look, Tanichka, if you’re struggling, then I’ll take on another job—a night job. Berg’s already offered me something . . . It’ll be easy. Then I’ll be earning much more and—”

“And then you’ll buy me a new hat and some fake pearls. Thanks, but no thanks.”

“But Tanichka—”

“Now, Johnson! Johnson promised me anything I wanted. But I’m an honest woman. I’m your wife. I will not be unfaithful. No. I would rather die of unhappiness.”

He took her hand.

“Listen . . . Do you . . . Do you love him?”

“Love him? Are you mad? What’s love got to do with it! I’m twenty-seven already. Soon I’ll be old and ugly. This may be my last chance at life.”

She laid her head on the table and wept loudly. He gently stroked her hair.

“Don’t cry, please, don’t cry. You’re just tired. You’re emotional. It will pass. You love me, don’t you . . . at least a little bit?”

She sat up.

“No. I stopped loving you long ago. Without you, I’d be rich. And happy.”

“Oh. So that’s how it is . . . What a shame you didn’t tell me this before.”

He fell silent. She carried on sobbing. He passed her a glass of water.

“Have some of this, calm yourself down.”

She wiped her eyes.

“Thank you. It’s too late to change anything now anyway. Don’t be angry, Seryozha.”

“I’m not angry.”

She walked over to the sink and started dabbing her face with a wet towel.

“I’m going to go and lie down for a bit now, Tanya. I need to leave early today.”

“Fine. I’ll go out for a walk, then, so as not to disturb you.”

She stood in front of the mirror, powdering her face and painting her eyelashes. He could tell, from how meticulously she was doing it, that she was going on a date with Johnson.

She brushed back her short, black hair and put on her hat.

“You can’t tell that I’ve been crying, can you?”

“No, not at all.”

She picked up her gloves.

“Well, goodbye, Seryozha. Take care of yourself.”

“Tanichka . . . ”


“Are you leaving without even kissing me goodbye?”

“I thought you were angry. I behaved horribly and I’m ashamed of myself.”

He put his arms around her.

“Tanya . . . ”

She sat down on the edge of the bed, looking at him guiltily.

“Forgive me, Seryozha . . . Just . . . forget all the stupid things I said. Make sure you eat before you go and make yourself some tea, too. Anyway, I’ll be off now, or you won’t get enough sleep.”

She started to get up, but he held her hand.

“Wait, let me look at you for just one more minute . . . ”

“What’s the matter with you, Seryozha?”

“Nothing, you can go now.”

She kissed him again.

“Take care of yourself now. When will you be back—by twelve?”

“I love you, Tanya.”

“Of course you do. I love you too. Goodbye now.”

She smiled at him absent-mindedly and, so that he wouldn’t detain her any longer, hurried out of the room.



Tatiana Alexandrovna looked at the clock.

“It’s a quarter to ten. I must go home.”

“What’s the hurry? Your husband won’t be back yet.”

She shook her head stubbornly.

“I must.”

In life, Tatiana Alexandrovna split everything into things she could do and things she couldn’t do.

She could go for drives with Johnson, take tea and lunch with him, but she couldn’t come home after ten—that wouldn’t have been “proper,” and she never did things that were not “proper.”

They left the restaurant and got into a motor car.

“Must we part now? I don’t want to let you go.”

She looked out of the window in silence.

“Now look here, I’m bored of this game. Your reluctance is cute—every woman has her own way of flirting. But this has gone on too long. Let’s be frank. If you come with me tonight, then I will get that bracelet for you tomorrow. You know, the wide one.”

“That bracelet? . . . ” She never could walk past the display window it was in without stopping to admire it. She felt that that wide band of diamonds contained all the happiness that was so inaccessible to her. She even had dreams about it.

“You’ll get me that bracelet? Really?” she sighed. “But, no, I won’t go with you . . . I can’t go with you . . . ”

“As you wish.” He was clearly angry. “As you wish. I would advise you to think it over. I’ll wait until midnight. Call me if you change your mind.”

The car drew to a halt.

“Goodnight, I won’t call you.”

“But I’ll still wait. And if you don’t call, then I’ll leave for London in the morning.”

“What a pity,” she tried to smile. “In that case, farewell.”



Tatiana Alexandrovna walked up the stairs. “So that’s that.” Of course, she knew that it couldn’t go on forever, but it happened so suddenly . . .

She opened the door, walked into her room and turned on the lights. The bed was carefully made. Sergei had tidied before he left, because she didn’t like mess. It looked just like it always did—everything was in its place. But she instantly felt that something was amiss. What was it? She looked around nervously.

There was a note on top of the dresser. A note of only two lines: “I don’t want to stand in your way. You’re free. Farewell. Be happy.”

What? Had he left? Impossible . . . She opened the wardrobe. Both his grey suit and his jacket were gone. The suitcase wasn’t there either. So . . . Sergei had left . . .

She sat down on the bed. Tears streamed down her face. Seryozha . . . What am I to do now? Seryozha had left, Johnson was leaving . . . She threw her hat down on the floor, buried her head in a pillow and cried.

Then she got up and read the note again: “Be happy,” she sobbed. "Some happiness! 'You’re free.' Free?" She hadn’t quite grasped the full meaning of the word, but her heart was already racing.

“Free? I’m free? Then Johnson won’t leave and I’ll be happy. Oh, God!” She sat down on a chair, clasping the note to her chest. “I’m free! Free!”

She suddenly had a vision of Charlie Chaplin in La Ruée vers l’or, jumping for joy, ecstatically tearing feathers out of a pillow. It was a shame that she couldn’t do that. But what about Johnson? . . . Was he still waiting? She ran to the telephone.

“Hello? Hello? Is that you?”

“Yes, it’s me. I knew you would call.”

“No, you didn’t. You didn’t know anything. My husband has left . . . Do you understand? He’s left me . . . ”

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

“It’s good, it’s very good! I’m free now. Come and get me, quickly. Oh, I’m happy, so happy! Aren’t you?”

She hung up and ran upstairs, jumping three steps at a time.

As Tatiana Alexandrovna got dressed, she thought about the lady’s maid that would wait on her tomorrow. “Here are your stockings, my lady.”

She put on her only pair of silk stockings and slowly rolled them up her legs: “Marie, throw these stockings away, or keep them for yourself if you like. These shoes, too.”

“Thank you, my lady.”

Yes, that’s what the maid would say.

She put on a plain white dress. It was so simple and yet so charming. She felt like a queen dressing up as a shepherdess. How fun!

“You look lovely even in these old rags. Now, just imagine how you will look in real dresses! You’re a happy woman now, Tatiana Alexandrovna!”

She smiled to herself in the mirror and glanced at her wrist: “Tomorrow, I’ll be wearing the bracelet and I shan’t be living here any more.”

The mirror showed a reflection of the orange, which was still lying on the table. She touched it. It was a shame she couldn’t keep it—it was her husband’s last gift to her, after all.



Sergei’s letters were infrequent and dry.

“ . . . I arrived in London the day before yesterday and felt instantly at home. In Berlin, I had felt uneasy. It was snowing there and the snow was melting; it was altogether too similar to Petersburg. Whereas here! You wouldn’t believe the traffic around the City. You have to wait a quarter of an hour just to cross the road. In London, you feel that your feet are firmly on the ground, and that has a marvellous effect on me. My affairs are going well . . . ”

That was his third letter.

“My dear Seryozha,” Tatiana Alexandrovna wrote. “Sorry for not replying sooner. I am so happy that you don’t miss me too much. It was so sensible of you to leave. We were just torturing ourselves unnecessarily. I live at the Hotel Negresco now, in that corner suite with the yellow curtains that we used to look up at so often. The carnival is on and I’m having such a fun time.”

Then another letter arrived.

“ . . . It’s been three months since I left. Three months is a long time. Last night I was at a restaurant with a chance acquaintance—another Russian, and an ex-officer too. We drank a lot, reminiscing about Russia and about the Bolsheviks. At one point he suddenly turned to me with a crazed look in his eyes. “Do you realise,” he said, “that there is no Russia and there are no Bolsheviks. None of that. We’ve made it all up in our heads.” I laughed. But I was drunk then. “Maybe,” I thought, “there is no Tanya either, and there was no life that we shared.” All of a sudden, I felt light and happy. We drank and we laughed. And this morning I awoke happy . . .

“ . . . I love Amsterdam. It’s the cleanest city in the world. They wash it and scrub it all day long . . .

“ . . . I went into a patisserie and saw two young ladies sitting across from me. One of them was very pretty. She had blonde hair, bright eyes, and freckles on her cheeks. I looked at her and wondered how I had even managed to notice that she was pretty. Because in all the seven years that we were together, I just hadn’t looked at another woman in that way. I walked out, bought a bunch of violets from a flower girl on the street and told her to deliver them to the patisserie. The girl accepted the flowers and smiled at me. I was outside, watching her through the window. I gave her a little bow and went home.

“See, I have little romances of my own now too . . . ”

After reading this letter, Tatiana Alexandrovna screwed up her face and wiped her brow with her hand.

“Are you in some sort of trouble?” said Johnson.

“How can I have any trouble now that I have you?”

He kissed her hand in thanks.

“So, what shall we do today? Would you like to go to Monte Carlo, my dear?”

“No, I am afraid I feel a migraine coming on. But you should go. You so enjoy playing. I should rest.”

Johnson left. Tatiana Alexandrovna sat and looked out of the window for a long time—at the grey sea and the wet, rain-sodden promenade. Then she put on a waterproof cloak and went outside.

Fishermen were dragging a boat ashore. Water poured from people's umbrellas.

“This rain . . . It’s sure to last.” When she got to the bottom of the hill, she hesitated. “Maybe I should go back.” But slowly she started climbing the stairs. “How steep this hill is!”

The rain battered the leaves on the trees. The fog obscured the sea from view almost entirely. The ground was wet and slippery. The park at the top was deserted and silent. Wet, grey pines and wet, grey stones. An eagle with ruffled feathers sat in a large cage. He looked at her with his indifferent, evil eyes, spread his wings noisily and flew up to sit on his perch.

Tatiana Alexandrovna came to a standstill at the white marble graveyard. “So many statues, so many crosses! And here I am, though I could have died long ago and been lying here, just like they all are.” She clasped her hands to her chest before letting them fall. “What shall I do? Life is going by and I’m still not happy . . . ”

On her way down, she took the road through the Italian quarter.

“I had it easier before. Back then, I thought that money bought you happiness, whereas now I have nothing to dream about.”

The streets were very narrow, dirty, and winding. Wet clothes hung from the lines. Almost all the shutters were closed. “What is everyone up to? Not sleeping, surely? Oh, of course, it’s Sunday today.”

She turned a corner, walked a short distance and turned again.

“I think I’m lost!” It was almost dark, but the street lamps weren’t lit. Strips of light shone through some of the shutters. Her thoughts were anxious and muddled. Then suddenly she heard a door slam somewhere behind her. A tall man in a leather coat—the kind taxi drivers wear—overtook her. He walked quickly, with wide strides.

“My God, that’s Sergei!”

“Seryozha!” she shouted. She could barely breathe from excitement and joy.

The man in the leather coat turned around—a dark stranger’s face stared back at her in surprise.

She stopped short. “I’m going mad. Sergei is in Amsterdam. And even if it were him—what’s that to me? We’re strangers now . . . And he got over it so quickly . . . ”

Finally, the streets became wider and livelier. She hailed a passing cab. She was cold and uncomfortable. “Never mind, I’ll be home shortly. Home?”

She thought of the large white building of the hotel, of the absurd bronze statues. “How can anyone even call that home?”



The maid fussed over Tatiana Alexandrovna, rubbing her feet with eau de cologne.

“Madame is sure to catch cold. Madame must go to bed immediately. There’s so much flu going round.”

“I will. You may go now. I’ll get undressed myself.”

This was her room . . . These were her dresses and her jewellery that she had dreamt of so much, so long ago. What did she need them for? A thick carpet covered the floor, but it felt like she was standing on the bare rocks and sodden earth from that exhausting, endless walk . . . The fire was blazing, but she was cold, as if she was still in the rain and the fog. “I think I’ve caught cold . . . Oh, what does it matter . . . ”

She got up and switched on all the lights. “I had my own life, my own husband, after all . . . Now what do I have? I have nothing. And nothing can help me. And I only have myself to blame.”

The lights shone brightly. Cars drove up and down the embankment. “Is it too late? No, no, it’s never too late . . . It’s never too late . . . It’s never too late if you love someone.”

She wrote the letter in one go, without any corrections. “I think that’s it? He will understand, regardless . . . ” She rang for a servant. “Send this immediately.”



There was a knock at the door.

“It’s me. I was told that you’re ill.”

“No, I just have a headache. I’ll be better in the morning, don’t worry. I’m sorry I can’t let you in now—I’m already in bed. Did you play well?”

“Very well. I picked your age and won twice over. You bring me luck, dear.”


“Goodnight. I hope you feel better in the morning.”

Tatiana Alexandrovna undressed and got into bed. “It’s the fourth today. He’ll get the letter on the eighth. Ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth. Yes, he could be here by the twelfth.” She put her hands behind her head. “Seryozha, my darling, come quickly . . . There’s nothing I want, just to be with you.”



Tatiana Alexandrovna left the telegraph office. Johnson was waiting for her.

“Where shall we go for lunch? How about that little restaurant on the cliffs?”

“I don’t care.”

In the restaurant, sitting across from Johnson, she thought: “What a horrible, loud tie. And that pearl—so garish.”

“What’s the matter?” Johnson asked solicitously.

“The matter? Nothing is the matter.”

“You have a strange look on your face. You’re not in love, are you?”

“So what if I am?”

Her tone was confrontational and he grew serious.

“Well, my dear, I can turn a blind eye to many things . . . But it would depend on who you are in love with.”

She rearranged the carnations in the vase between them.

“I’m in love with my husband,” she said dreamily.

“With your husband? Oh, please! He’s no threat.” Johnson laughed loudly.

“No threat? Why not?”

“Because he hasn’t a cent!”

“Are you only threatened by the rich?”

“Of course!”

She blushed.

“I don’t need your money.”

“Perhaps not, but you need the things that it buys.”

“Do you really think so?” She undid the clasp of her bracelet. “Watch me—I’m going to throw it into the sea.”

“Don’t do that. We’ll have to find it. We’ll have to hire divers. Let’s spend that money on something else instead—some little trinket for you, how about it?”

“No, I don’t want anything. Leave me alone.”

“I hate all these Russian personality traits—the melancholy and the madness. You’ve always been so much fun, not like a Russian at all.”

“Really? But I am a Russian, after all. And I hate Americans.”

“Oh,” he said slowly, hurt. But then he softened. “My dear, you must be unwell. All this started a week ago when you had your migraine. We must call a doctor today.”



Ten days passed. There were no answers to the letters or the telegrams.

“That’s just fine. Is he angry? Did he fall in love with that girl with the freckles? Has he left?”

The hotel receptionists bowed. “No, there are no letters for Madame. Madame shouldn’t worry—as soon as something arrives, we’ll bring it right up.”

But still she checked several times a day.


“It’s easier in public . . . The music stops you from thinking . . . When you dance, you almost don’t feel anxious.” Tatiana Alexandrovna looks at the colourless eyes of the American—her gentleman friend Johnson. “Maybe there’s a letter waiting for me at home . . . ”

“What a lively season this year, don’t you think?”

She nods.

“You dance well, even compared to American girls.”

She says nothing.

“Did you go to the tennis championships?”


“Very interesting, isn’t it?”


“Tennis is a noble game.”

“Yes.”—“The letter must have arrived by now.”

“How fast do you go?”

“How fast do I go?”

“Yes, I mean in the car.”

“Oh that’s what you mean . . . I haven’t been counting.”

The music stops and he starts again. “Do you like golf?”

In the motor car, Johnson kisses her hand.

“You haven’t been this much fun for a while. I hope everything will be OK now, won’t it dear?”

“Yes, it will now.”

A lackey hands her an envelope.

“What a thick letter! And why is the address written in someone else’s handwriting?”

Tatiana Alexandrovna runs to her room. “I knew it!”

“Don’t forget that we’re going to the Opéra and will take dinner early,” Johnson calls after her.

“Yes, yes,” she says, and slams the door.

She reads it, but it doesn’t make any sense. It’s in French. Typewritten . . . Bright purple letters dance on the page in front of her: “Poste privée. Correspondence from any country. Secrecy guaranteed.”

“Our client . . . placed an order . . . five letters . . . from selected cities . . . direct to you the last . . . letters received from you . . . pursuant to his instructions . . . ”

Her telegrams and letters fell out of the envelope, unopened, followed by a sheet of paper covered in Sergei’s messy handwriting.

“ . . . Dear Tanya. I think that by now you must be settled into your new life and it’s time you knew the truth. I got to Marseilles and I intend to go no further. From here, I wrote several fictitious letters which will all be sent to you. Of everything I wrote only one thing is true—I met an acquaintance and we drank all night and we are still drinking now, even though day has broken. You don’t like this sort of thing, but please—don’t be angry, it doesn’t matter now anyway. This situation came to be when an umbrella came to me! Farewell, Madame Pierpont Morgan!”

And at the bottom it said:

“My angel, if only you knew how much I don’t want to die.”

translated from the Russian by Irina Steinberg

Used by permission of Galina Dursthoff. Irina Odoevtsova’s Isolde will be published by Pushkin Press in 2019.