Ivan Turgenev’s “The Lieutenant,” is a short story about a naive naval officer who helps a young woman who is crying on the street, claiming she’s been robbed. He is drawn into an increasingly bizarre situation, from which he cannot extricate himself, and he ends up beaten, lying in a ditch, also a robbery victim. The sexual tension in this short story is strikingly modern, and my update only moves the location to Norfolk, Virginia (the site of a major naval base), and moves some communication onto electronic media.
That evening Kevin told us his story again. He used to repeat it punctually once a month and we heard it every time with fresh satisfaction though we knew it almost by heart, in all its details. Those details overgrew, if one may so express it, the original trunk of the story itself as fungi grow over the stump of a tree. Knowing too well the character of our companion, we did not trouble to fill in his gaps and incomplete statements. But now Kevin is dead and there will be no one to tell his story and so we venture to bring it before the notice of the public.
It happened four years ago when Kevin was young and naive. He said of himself that he was at that time a handsome fellow, with eyes like a falcon’s. We took his word for it, though we saw nothing of that sort in him; in our eyes Kevin was a man of very ordinary exterior, with a simple and sleepy-looking face and a heavy, clumsy figure. But what of that? There is no beauty the years will not mar! With all that, Kevin was a worthy man. Enough of these parentheses, however; let us come to the story itself.
It happened in the spring near Norfolk, at that time a new post for Kevin. (He was a lieutenant in the navy.) He was a trustworthy and prudent officer. And Kevin certainly was distinguished by his prudence and, in spite of his youth, his behavior was exemplary; he studiously avoided every impropriety of conduct, rarely touched cards, did not drink and, even fought shy of society so that of his comrades, the quiet ones, called him “a regular girl” and the rowdy ones called him much worse.
Kevin had only one failing, he had a tender heart for the fair sex; but even in that direction he succeeded in restraining his impulses and did not allow himself to indulge in any “foolishness.” He got up and went to bed early, was conscientious in performing his duties and his usual recreation consisted in long evening walks around Norfolk. Kevin strolled, often stopped, admired the beauties of nature, and took many nature pics.
He felt acute pleasure only when he happened to meet “a charmer,” that is, some pretty girl with a scarf flung over her shoulders, and long hair. But he was shy, so did not address the “charmer,” but smiled ingratiatingly and looked long and attentively after her. Then he would heave a deep sigh, go home with the same sedate step, sit down, and often go on Craigslist, looking at the “Women Seeking Men,” ads. He knew to be careful; his dad was a police superintendent.
One day, as he was returning home along an empty side-street at dusk, Kevin heard behind him hurried footsteps and incoherent words mingled with sobs. He looked round and saw a girl about twenty with an extremely pleasing but distressed and tear-stained face. She seemed familiar to him; he had seen her (smiling) pic on Craigslist, but hadn’t the nerve to respond.
Now, however, she seemed to have been overtaken by some great and unexpected grief. She was running and stumbling as she ran, talking to herself, exclaiming, gesticulating; her fair hair was in disorder and her scarf had slipped off her shoulders and trailing the ground. (The girl was dressed like a young lady; not like a working girl.)
Kevin stepped aside; his feeling of compassion overpowered his fear of doing something foolish and, when she caught him up, he politely asked her the cause of her tears.
The girl stopped and apparently for the first moment did not clearly understand what he wanted of her; but at once, as though glad of the opportunity of expressing herself, began speaking in slightly imperfect English. “Oh, dear, Mr. Officer,” she began and tears rained down her charming cheeks, “It is beyond everything! It’s awful, beyond words! We have been robbed. The cook has carried off everything, everything, including my aunt’s silver, including our clothes. Yes, even our clothes, and linens, yes, and my aunt’s purse. There was $2500, and everything! And I told all that to the police officer and the police officer said, ‘Go away, I don’t believe you, I don’t believe you. You are the same sort yourselves.’ I said, ‘But you are the politsiia!’ And he said, ‘I won’t listen to you.’ It was so insulting, Mr. Officer! ‘Go away,’ he said. But where am I to go?” The girl sobbed convulsively, almost wailing, and utterly distracted, leaned against Kevin’s arm.
He was overcome with confusion and stood rooted to the spot, only repeating from time to time, “There, there!” while he gazed at the delicate nape of the disheveled damsel’s neck, as it shook from her sobs.
“We can’t stand here in the street,” he said, lightly touching her shoulder with his forefinger. “Will you let me see you home? You can explain your trouble to me and of course I will make every effort to help.”
The girl raised her head and seemed for the first time to see the young man who might be said to be holding her in his arms. She was disconcerted, turned away, and still sobbing moved a little aside. Kevin repeated his suggestion.
The girl looked at him askance through her hair, which had fallen over her face and was wet with tears. (At this point Kevin always assured us that this glance pierced through him “like a bullet,” and even attempted once to reproduce this marvelous glance for our benefit) and laying her hand within the crooked arm of the obliging lieutenant, set off with him for her lodging.
Kevin had had very little to do with ladies and so was at a loss how to begin the conversation, but his companion chattered away fluently, continually drying her eyes and shedding fresh tears. Within a few minutes Kevin had learnt that her name was Emily Karlovna, that she came from Russia and that she had come to Norfolk to stay with her aunt who was from Russia, too. He learned that her papa had been in the army but had died from “his chest,” that her aunt had a Mexican cook, a very good and inexpensive cook, but she had no papers, and that this cook had that very day robbed them and run away. Emily had to go to the politizia. But here the memories of the police sergeant, of the insult she had received from him, surged up again, and sobs broke out afresh. Kevin was once more at a loss what to say to comfort her. But the girl, whose impressions seemed to come and go very rapidly, stopped suddenly and holding out her hand, said calmly, “And this is where we live!”
It was a wretched little house that looked as though it had sunk into the ground, with four little windows looking into the street. The dark green of geraniums blocked them up within; a candle was burning in one of them; night was already coming on. A wooden fence with a hardly visible gate stretched from the house and was almost of the same height. The girl went up to the gate and finding it locked knocked on it impatiently with the iron ring of the padlock. Heavy footsteps were audible behind the fence as though someone in slippers trodden down at heel were carelessly shuffling towards the gate, and a husky female voice asked some question in Russian, which Kevin did not understand; like a regular American, he knew no language but English.
The girl answered in Russian, too; the gate opened, admitted the girl and then was slammed almost in the face of Kevin who had time, however, to make out in the summer twilight the outline of a stout, elderly woman in a red dress. Struck with amazement, Kevin remained for some time motionless in the street; but at the thought that he, a naval officer (Kevin had a very high opinion of his rank) had been so discourteously treated, he was moved to indignation and turning on his heel he went homewards. He had not gone ten paces when the gate opened again and the girl, who had had time to whisper to the old woman, appeared in the gateway and called out aloud, “Where are you going, Mr. Officer?! Please come in.”
Kevin hesitated a little; he turned back, however.
This new acquaintance, whom we will call Emily, led him through a dark, damp little foyer into a fairly large but low-pitched and untidy room with a huge cupboard against the further wall and a sofa covered with leather; above the doors and between the windows hung three portraits in oils with the paint peeling off, two representing bishops in clerical caps and one a Turk in a turban; cardboard boxes were lying about in the corners; there were chairs of different sorts and a crooked-legged card table on which a man’s cap was lying beside an unfinished glass of beer.
Kevin was followed into the room by the old woman in the red dress, whom he had noticed at the gate, and who turned out to be a very unprepossessing woman with sullen pig-like eyes and a grey moustache over her puffy upper lip.
Emily said, “This is my aunt, Madame Fritsche.”
Kevin thought it his duty to introduce himself. Madame Fritsche looked at him from under her brows, made no response, but asked her niece in Russian whether she would like some tea.
“Ah, yes, tea!” answered Emily. “You will have some tea, won’t you, Mr. Officer? Yes, auntie, give us some tea! But why are you standing, Mr. Officer? Sit down! Oh, how ceremonious you are!”
When Emily talked she continually turned her head from one side to another and jerked her shoulders; birds make similar movements when they sit on a bare branch with sunshine all round them.
Kevin sank into a chair and asked about the theft.
But Emily at once interrupted him. “Don’t trouble yourself, it’s all right. Auntie has just told me that the principal things have been found.” (Madame Fritsche mumbled something to herself and went out of the room.) “And there was no need to go to the police at all; but I can’t control myself because I am so… quick. But I will think no more about it!”
Kevin looked at Emily. Her face indeed showed no trace of care now. Everything was smiling in that pretty little face: the eyes, fringed with almost white lashes, and the lips and the cheeks and the chin and the dimples in the chin, and even the tip of her turned-up nose. She went up to the little mirror beside the cupboard and, humming through her teeth, began tidying her hair.
Kevin followed her movements intently. He found her very charming.
Later that night, she sent him a text. (He’d given her his number, in case she had more trouble with the thefts.)
“You must excuse me,” she began, “for having brought you home with me. Perhaps you disliked it?”
“Oh, not at all!”
“As I have told you already, I am so quick. I act first and think afterwards, though sometimes I don’t think at all. What is your full name, Mr. Officer Kevin? May I ask you?”
“My name is Kevin Yergunov.”
“Yergu… Oh, it’s not a nice name! I mean it’s difficult for me. I shall call you Mr. Florestan. At Russia we had a Mr. Florestan. He sold dresses in his shop and was a handsome man, as good-looking as you. But how broad-shouldered you are! A regular sturdy American! I like the Americans. My papa was an officer too. Where are you serving?”
“On the USS Black Sea.”
“Oh. Do sailors get a good salary?” she texted.
“No. Not really.”
“Oh, that’s not right! What kind of weapon do you carry?”
“None, really. A sidearm sometimes, but not often,” he texted.
“Good. Then I don’t have to worry you will shoot me. ☺”
Kevin laughed out loud in his living room, as she did in hers.
“How old are you?” she asked suddenly.
“And I am nineteen! Hey, are you on FB?” she asked.
“Yes,” Kevin texted. He grabbed his iPad and signed on. A minute later, there was a friend request from her. He clicked “Confirm.” Now he looked intently at her profile pic. In it, her rosy face quivered with laughter. He felt more and more attracted to her.
“BRB” Emily texted.
Kevin sat silent, waiting. A few minutes later, his phone vibrated.
“Can you sing, Mr. Florestan?”
“Not really, no.”
“Do you play the guitar? I can. I have an acoustic guitar but the strings are broken. I must buy some new ones. You will give me the money, won’t you, Mr. Officer? I’ll sing you a lovely Russian song.” In her living room, Emily heaved a sigh and shut her eyes. He didn’t respond immediately, so she began typing. “Can you dance? I’ll teach you.” She stood up and pirouetted, then typed some more. “Oh, say we will have some dancing, Mr. Florestan! But what are you going to call me?”
Kevin grinned and blushed to his ears. “I’ll call you: hot Emily!”
“No, no! You must call me: maya devushka. Repeat it after me.”
“With pleasure, but I find it diff—”
“Nevermind. Say: maya.”
In his living room, Kevin said it out loud.
“Now dev-u-sh-ka,” she texted.
He tried it out loud, though he wasn’t sure he had it right.
“Do you know what that means? That’s the very nicest word for a young lady in Russian. I’ll explain it to you when I see again. If I see you again? But here is auntie bringing the samovar. I must have my tea.”
“Good night,” Kevin texted.
The next evening, Kevin went to Madame Fritsche’s again, and stayed till midnight. He had not spent such a pleasant evening since his arrival at Norfolk. It is true that it occurred to him that it was not seemly for an officer to be associating with such persons as this native of Russia and her auntie, but Emily was so pretty, babbled so amusingly, and bestowed such friendly looks upon him, that he dismissed his rank and made up his mind for once to enjoy himself.
Only one circumstance disturbed him and left an impression that was not quite agreeable. When his conversation with Emily and Madame Fritsche was in full swing, the door from the foyer opened a crack, and a man’s hand in a dark cuff with three tiny silver buttons on it was stealthily thrust in. The hand then stealthily laid a big bundle on the chair near the door. Both women instantly darted to the chair and began examining the bundle.
“These are the wrong spoons!” cried Emily, but her aunt nudged her with her elbow and carried away the bundle without tying up the ends.
It seemed to Kevin that one end was spattered with something red, like blood. “What is it?” he asked Emily. “Are more of your stolen things being returned to you?”
“Yes,” answered Emily, as it were, reluctantly. “Some more.”
“Was it your cook found them?”
Emily frowned. “What cook? We haven’t any cook anymore.”
“Some other man, then?”
“No men come to see us.”
“But — I just saw the cuff of a man’s coat or jacket. And, besides, this cap—” Kevin gestured at a Virginia is for Lovers baseball cap on a chair.
“Men never, never come to see us,” Emily repeated emphatically. “What did you see? You saw nothing! And that cap is mine.”
“You wear that?”
“I wear it to keep the sun off my face.”
“Who brought you the bundle, then?”
Emily made no answer and, pouting, followed Madame Fritsche out of the room. Ten minutes later she came back alone, and when Kevin tried to question her again, she gazed at his forehead, said that it was disgraceful for a gentleman to be so inquisitive (as she said this, her face changed a little, as it were, darkened), and taking a pack of old cards from the card table drawer, asked if he wanted to play hearts.
Kevin laughed, took the cards, and all evil thoughts immediately slipped out of his mind.
But they came back to him that very day. When he had got out of the gate into the street, had said good-bye to Emily, shouted to her for the last time, “Good-bye, maya devushka,” a short man darted by him and turning for a minute in his direction (it was past midnight but the moon was shining rather brightly), displayed a lean face with thick black eyebrows and moustache, black eyes, and a big nose.
The man at once rushed round the corner and it struck Kevin that he recognized not his face, for he had never seen it before, but the cuff of his sleeve. Three silver buttons gleamed distinctly in the moonlight. There was a stir of uneasy perplexity in the soul of the prudent lieutenant. When he got home, he paced. His sudden acquaintance with charming Emily and the agreeable hours spent in her company was only part of his agitation.
Whatever Kevin’s apprehensions may have been, they were quickly dissipated and left no trace. He took to visiting the two ladies from Russia frequently. The susceptible lieutenant was soon on friendly terms with Emily. At first he was ashamed of the acquaintance and concealed his visits; later, he got over being ashamed and no longer concealed his visits; it ended by his being more eager to spend his time with his new friends than with anyone and greatly preferring their society to the cheerless solitude of his own four walls.
Madame Fritsche herself no longer made the same unpleasant impression upon him, though she still treated him morosely and ungraciously. Persons in straitened circumstances like Madame Fritsche particularly appreciate a liberal expenditure in their visitors, and Kevin was a little stingy, so his presents for the most part took the shape of wine, flowers, cupcakes. Only once he let himself go and presented Emily with a light pink silk scarf, and that very day she burnt a hole in his gift with a candle.
He began to upbraid her and he was angry; she laughed in his face. Kevin was forced at last to admit to himself that he had not only failed to win the respect of the ladies from Russia, but had even failed to gain their confidence: he was never admitted at once, without preliminary scrutinizing; he was often kept waiting; sometimes he was sent away without the slightest ceremony and when they wanted to conceal something from him they would converse in Russian in his presence.
Emily gave him no account of her doings and replied to his questions in an offhand way as though she had not heard them; and, worst of all, some of the rooms in Madame Fritsche’s house, which was a fairly large one, though it looked like a hovel from the street, were never opened to him. For all that, Kevin did not give up his visits; on the contrary, he paid them more and more frequently: he was seeing living people, anyway. His vanity was gratified by Emily’s continuing to call him Mr. Florestan, considering him exceptionally handsome, and declaring in her frequent texts that he had eyes “like a bird of paradise!”
One day in the very height of summer, Kevin, who had spent the whole morning in the sun at work, dragged himself tired and exhausted to the little gate that had become so familiar to him. He knocked and was admitted. He shambled into the so-called drawing room and immediately lay down on the sofa. Emily went up to him and mopped his wet brow with a towel.
“How tired you are, poor thing!” she said. “You might at least unbutton your collar!”
“I am exhausted,” groaned Kevin. “I’ve been on my feet all day in the baking sun. It’s awful! I meant to go home, but I wanted to see you. But now I believe I could have a nap.”
“Well, why not? Go to sleep, my little chick. No one will disturb you here.”
“But I am embarrassed.”
“Why? Go to sleep. And I’ll sing you—what do you call it?—a lully-bye.” She began singing in Russian.
“Can I have water first?”
“Here is a glass of water for you. Fresh as crystal! Wait, I’ll put a pillow under your head.”
“Thank you. I’ll just have a tiny doze, that’s all.” Kevin closed his eyes and fell asleep immediately.
Emily sang, swaying side to side, and softly laughing at her song. “What a big baby I have got!” she thought. “A boy!”
An hour and a half later, the lieutenant awoke. Emily was on her knees close beside him; the expression of her face struck him as queer. She jumped up at once, walked away to the window and put something away in her pocket.
Kevin stretched. “I’ve had a good long snooze, it seems!” he observed, yawning. “Come here.”
Emily went up to him. He sat up quickly, thrust his hand into her pocket and took out a small pair of scissors.
“Hey!” Emily could not help exclaiming.
“It’s a pair of scissors?” muttered Kevin.
“Why, of course. What did you think it was: a pistol? Oh, how funny you look! You’re as rumpled as a pillow and your hair is all standing up at the back.” Emily went off into a giggle.
“That’s enough,” muttered Kevin, and he got up from the sofa. “That’s enough giggling about nothing. If you can’t think of anything more sensible, I’ll go home.”
Emily stopped laughing. “Come, stay; I won’t—but you must brush your hair.”
“No, never mind. I’d better go,” said Kevin, and took up his cap.
Emily pouted. “How cross you are! Just like a Russian man: Now he is going. Yesterday, you promised me fifty dollars, and today you give me nothing and go away.”
“I haven’t any cash on me,” Kevin muttered grumpily in the doorway. “Good-bye.”
Emily looked after him and shook her finger. “No money! Oh, what deceivers these officers are! Auntie, come here, I have something to tell you.”
That evening as Kevin was undressing to go to bed, he noticed that the upper edge of his leather wallet had come unsewn for about an inch. He didn’t pay much attention to this apparently trivial circumstance, just reminded himself to be careful with it.
The whole of the next day Kevin devoted to his official duties; he did not leave the house after dinner. Right into the night, he was typing out a report to his superior officer.
The next morning, he found a long text waiting for him.
“Mr. Florestan,” Emily wrote, “Are you really so cross with me that you didn’t stop by or text yesterday? Please don’t be mad if you don’t want your Emily to weep bitterly. Come at 5 o’clock today.” (The message ended with a sad-faced emoticon.)
Kevin was surprised at the accomplishment of his charmer. He responded, “I’ll be there.”
Kevin kept his word: five o’clock had not struck when he was standing before Madame Fritsche’s gate. But to his surprise he did not find Emily at home; he was met by the lady of the house herself who informed him that Emily had been obliged by unforeseen circumstances to go out but she would soon be back and begged him to wait. Madame Fritsche had on a neat white cap; she smiled, spoke in an ingratiating voice, and evidently tried to give an affable expression to her morose countenance, which had acquired a positively sinister aspect. “Sit down, sit down, sir,” she said, putting a chair out for him, “And we will offer you some refreshment.”
Madame Fritsche went out of the room and returned shortly afterwards with a cup of coffee. It turned out to be of dubious quality but Kevin drank the whole cup with relish. He was at a loss to explain why Madame Fritsche was suddenly so affable and what it all meant.
For all that Emily did not come back and he was beginning to lose patience and feel bored when all at once he heard through the wall the sounds of a guitar. First there was the sound of one chord, then a second and a third and a fourth—the sound continually growing louder and fuller.
Kevin was surprised: Emily certainly had a guitar but it only had three strings: he had not yet bought her any new ones; besides, Emily was not at home. Who could it be? Again a chord was struck and so loudly that it seemed as though it were in the room. Kevin turned round and almost cried out in a fright.
Before him, in a low doorway which he had not till then noticed stood a strange figure, neither a child nor a grown-up girl. She was wearing a white dress with a bright-colored pattern on it and red shoes with high heels; her thick black hair, held together by a gold fillet, fell like a cloak from her little head over her slender body. Her big eyes shone with somber brilliance under the soft mass of hair; her bare, dark-skinned arms were loaded with bracelets and her hands covered with rings, held a guitar. Her face was scarcely visible, it looked so small and dark; all that was seen was the crimson of her lips and the outline of a straight and narrow nose.
Kevin stood up, petrified, and stared at the strange creature without blinking. She too gazed at him without stirring an eyelid. At last he recovered himself and moved with small steps towards her.
The dark face began gradually smiling. There was a sudden gleam of white teeth, the head was raised, and lightly flinging back the curls, displayed itself in all its startling and delicate beauty.
Kevin, advancing closer, said, “Hey, who are you?”
“Come here, come here,” the she responded in a husky voice, with a halting unRussian intonation and incorrect accent, and she stepped back two paces.
Kevin followed her through the doorway and found himself in a tiny room without windows, the walls and floor of which were covered with thick rugs. He was overwhelmed by a strong smell of musk. Two yellow wax candles were burning on a round table in front of a low sofa. In the corner stood a bed.
“But excuse me, who are you?” he repeated.
“Sister of Emily.”
“You are her sister? And you live here?”
Kevin wanted to touch her, but she drew back. “How is it Emily has never spoken of you?”
“She could not.”
“You’re… in hiding?”
“There are reasons.”
Again Kevin reached out to touch her, again she stepped back. “So that’s why I never saw you. I never even suspected your existence. And the old lady, Madame Fritsche, is your aunt, too?”
“You don’t sound very Russian. What’s your name?”
“Calibri! That’s an odd name.” He thought, Isn’t it a font?
Calibri gave a short, queer laugh, like a clink of glass in her throat. She shook her head, looked round, laid her guitar on the table, and going quickly to the door, abruptly shut it. She moved briskly and nimbly with a rapid, hardly audible sound like a lizard.
“Why did you shut the door?” asked Kevin.
Calibri put her fingers to her lips. “Emily, not want her to hear.”
Kevin grinned. “You’re not jealous, are you?”
Calibri raised her eyebrows. “What?”
“Jealous. Angry,” Kevin explained.
“How old are you?”
“Seventeen, you mean?”
Kevin scrutinized his fantastic companion closely. “How beautiful you are!” he said, emphatically.
Calibri laughed again, looking round with her magnificent eyes. “Yes, I am a beauty! Sit down, and I’ll sit down beside.”
“By all means! Are you really Emily’s sister? You are not in the least like her.”
“Yes, I am sister. Cousin. Here, take a flower. A nice flower. It smells.”
She took out of her belt a sprig of white lilac, sniffed it, bit off a petal and gave him the whole sprig. “I will sing to you,” she said and took up the guitar. She flung back her mane of hair, struck several chords, looking carefully at the tips of her fingers and at the top of the guitar, then suddenly began singing in a voice unexpectedly strong and agreeable, but guttural to his ears, rather savage. She sang a mournful song, utterly unRussian. and in a language quite unknown to Kevin. “Good?” she asked, “Want more?”
“I should be delighted,” answered Kevin. “But why do you look like that, as though you were grieving?”
“I will be more merry.” She sang another song, that sounded like a dance, in the same unknown language.
Kevin sat as though he were in a dream. His head was going round. It was all so unexpected. And the scents, the singing, the candles in daytime. And Calibri kept coming closer to him, too; her hair shone and rustled, and there was a glow of warmth from her, and that melancholy face. “A ghost,” thought Kevin. He felt awkward. “Tell me, what put it into your head to invite me today?”
“You are young, handsome, like I like.”
“But what will Emily say? She texted me and she is sure to be back soon.”
“You not tell her nothing! Trouble! She will kill me!”
Kevin laughed. “As though she were so fierce!”
Calibri gravely shook her head. “And to Madame Fritsche, too, nothing. No, no, no!” She tapped herself lightly on the forehead. “Do you understand, officer?”
Kevin frowned. “It’s a secret, then?”
“Very well. I won’t say a word. Only you ought to give me a kiss for that.”
“No, afterwards… when you are going.”
“That’s a fine idea!” Kevin was bending down to her but she slowly drew herself back and stood stiffly erect like a snake startled in the grass. Kevin stared at her. “All right, then.”
Calibri pondered. All at once there was the muffled sound of tapping repeated three times at even intervals somewhere in the house. Calibri laughed, almost snorted. “Today—no, tomorrow—yes. Come tomorrow.”
“At what time?”
“Seven in the evening.”
“And what about Emily?”
“Emily will not be here.”
“As you like. And now must I go?”
Kevin got up. “Good-bye. And where is my a kiss?”
Calibri suddenly gave a little jump and swiftly flinging both arms round his neck, gave him not precisely a kiss but a peck at his lips. He tried in his turn to kiss her but she instantly darted back and stood behind the sofa.
“Tomorrow at seven o’clock, then?” he said with some confusion.
She nodded, running her fingers through her long hair.
Kevin went out and shut the door after him. He heard Calibri run up to it at once. The key clicked in the lock.
There was no one in Madame Fritsche’s drawing room. Kevin made his way to the passage at once. He did not want to meet Emily. Madame Fritsche met him on the steps.
“Ah, you are going, Mr. Lieutenant?” she said, with the same affected and sinister smile. “You won’t wait for Emily?”
Kevin put on his cap. “I haven’t time to wait any longer, madam. I may not come tomorrow, either. Please tell her so.”
“Very good, I’ll tell her. But I hope you haven’t been bored, Mr. Lieutenant?”
“No, I haven’t been bored.”
Kevin returned home and stretching himself on his bed sank into meditation. He was unutterably perplexed. “What is going on?” he said more than once. Why had Emily texted him to come? She had made an appointment and not come!
He took out his phone and read the texts again. But there was nothing to be deduced. And was it possible that Madame Fritsche knew nothing about it? And she—who was she? Yes, who was she? The fascinating Calibri; he looked forward with impatience to the following evening, though secretly he was almost afraid of this pretty doll.
Next day Kevin went shopping before dinner, and bought a tiny gold cross on a little velvet ribbon. At six o’clock in the evening Kevin shaved carefully and put on a smart new uniform. He took a great deal more trouble over his personal appearance on this occasion than when he went to see Emily, not because he liked Calibri better, but there was something enigmatic about her, something that stirred the imagination of the young lieutenant.
Madame Fritsche greeted him as she had done the day before and as though she had conspired with him in a plan of deception, informed him again that Emily had gone out for a short time and asked him to wait. Kevin nodded and sat down on a chair. Madame Fritsche smiled again, that is, showed her yellow tusks and withdrew without offering him any coffee.
Kevin instantly fixed his eyes on the mysterious door. It remained closed. He coughed loudly once or twice so as to make known his presence. He held his breath, strained his ears. He heard not the faintest sound or rustle; everything was still as death.
Kevin got up, approached the door on tiptoe and, fumbling in vain with his fingers, pressed his knee against it. It was no use. Then he bent down and once or twice articulated in a loud whisper, “Calibri! Calibri!”
No one responded. Kevin drew himself up, straightened his uniform, and, after standing still a little while, walked with resolute steps to the window and began drumming on the pane. He began to feel vexed, indignant; his dignity as an officer began to assert itself. “What nonsense is this?” he thought at last. “Who do they take me for? If they go on like this, I’ll knock with my fists. She will be forced to answer! The old woman will hear. So what? That’s not my fault.”
He turned swiftly on his heel and the door stood half open.
Kevin immediately hastened into the secret room again on tiptoe. Calibri was lying on the sofa in a white dress with a broad sash. Covering the lower part of her face with a handkerchief, she was laughing, a noiseless but genuine laugh. She had done up her hair, this time plaiting it into two long, thick plaits intertwined with pink ribbon; the same slippers adorned her tiny, crossed feet but the feet themselves were bare and looking at them one might fancy that she had on dark, silky stockings.
The sofa stood in a different position, nearer the wall; and on the table he saw on a Chinese tray a bright-colored, round-bellied coffee pot beside a cut glass sugar bowl and two blue China cups. The guitar was lying there, too, and blue-grey smoke rose in a thin coil from a big, aromatic candle.
Kevin went up to the sofa and bent over Calibri, but before he had time to utter a word she held out her hand and, still laughing in her handkerchief, put her little, rough fingers into his hair and instantly ruffled the well-arranged curls on the top of his head.
“What next?” exclaimed Kevin, not displeased. “You naughty girl!”
Calibri took the handkerchief from her face. “Better now?” She moved away to the further end of the sofa and drew her feet up under her. “Sit down, there.”
Kevin sat down on the spot indicated. “Why do you move away?” he said, after a brief silence. “Surely you are not afraid of me?”
Calibri curled herself up and looked at him sideways. “I am not afraid. No.”
“You must not be shy with me,” Kevin said. “Do you remember your promise yesterday to give me a kiss?”
Calibri put her arms round her knees, laid her head on them and looked at him again. “I remember.”
“I should hope so. And you must keep your word.”
“Yes, I must.”
“In that case,” Kevin was beginning, and he moved nearer.
Calibri freed her plaits, and with one of them gave him a flick on his hand. “Not so fast, sir!”
Kevin was embarrassed. “So this is how it is?”
Calibri craned her neck like a bird, listening.
Kevin was alarmed. “Emily?” he asked.
“Do you hear something?”
“Nothing.” With a birdlike movement, again Calibri drew back her little oval-shaped head with its pretty parting and the short growth of tiny curls on the nape of her neck where her plaits began, and again curled herself up into a ball. “Nothing.”
“Nothing! Then now I’ll—” Kevin craned toward Calibri but at once pulled back his hand. There was a drop of blood on his finger. “What is this?” he cried, shaking his finger. “You have a pin somewhere?”
Calibri was slowly thrusting a long golden pin into her sash.
“Or are you a wasp?”
Apparently Calibri was pleased. She laughed and repeated, “Yes, I will sting. I will sting.”
Kevin looked at her and thought, “She is laughing but her face is melancholy.”
“Look what I am going to show you,” he said aloud. Kevin got out his present and waved it in the air. “Look at it. Isn’t it nice?”
Calibri raised her eyes indifferently. “Ah! A cross! We don’t wear.”
“What? You don’t wear a cross? Are you an atheist, or what?”
“We don’t wear,” repeated Calibri, and, suddenly starting, looked back over her shoulder. “Would you like me to sing?” she asked hurriedly.
Kevin put the cross in the pocket of his uniform and he, too, looked round. “What is it?” he muttered.
“A mouse,” Calibri said hurriedly, and suddenly to Kevin’s complete surprise, she flung her smooth, supple arms round his neck and gave him a rapid kiss. He pressed Calibri in his arms but she slipped away like a snake—her waist was hardly thicker than the body of a snake—and leapt to her feet. “Wait,” she whispered, “You must have some coffee first.”
“Nonsense! Coffee afterwards.”
“No, now. Now hot, after cold.” She took hold of the coffee pot by the handle and, lifting it high, began pouring out two cups. The coffee fell in a thin, as it were, twirling stream; Calibri leaned her head on her shoulder and watched it fall. “There, put in the sugar. Drink. And I’ll drink.”
Kevin put a lump of sugar in the cup and drank it off at one draught. The coffee struck him as very strong and bitter. Calibri looked at him, smiling, and faintly dilated her nostrils over the edge of her cup. She slowly put it down on the table.
“Why don’t you drink it?” asked Kevin.
“Not all, now.”
“Do sit down beside me, at least.”
“In a minute.” She bent her head and, still keeping her eyes fixed on him, picked up the guitar. “Only I will sing first.”
“Yes, yes, only sit down.”
“And I will dance. Shall I?”
“Dance? Well, I should like to see that. But can’t that be afterwards?”
“No, now. But I love you very much.”
“You love me? Dance away, then.”
Calibri stood on the further side of the table and running her fingers several times over the strings of the guitar and to Kevin’s surprise—he was expecting a lively, merry song—began singing a slow, monotonous song, accompanying each separate sound, which seemed as though it were wrung out of her by force, with a rhythmical swaying of her body. She did not smile, and indeed knitted her brows, her delicate, high, rounded eyebrows, between which a dark blue mark, probably burnt in with gunpowder, stood out sharply, looking like a letter of an Asian alphabet.
She almost closed her eyes but their pupils glimmered dimly under the drooping lids, fastened as before on Kevin. And he, too, could not look away from those marvelous, menacing eyes, from that dark-skinned face that gradually began to glow, from the half-closed and motionless lips, from the two black snakes rhythmically moving on both sides of her graceful head. Calibri went on swaying without moving from the spot and only her feet were working; she kept lightly shifting them, lifting first the toe and then the heel. Once she rotated rapidly and uttered a piercing shriek, waving the guitar high in the air. Then the same monotonous movement accompanied by the same monotonous singing began again.
Kevin sat quietly on the sofa and went on looking at Calibri; he felt something strange and unusual in himself: he was conscious of great lightness and freedom, too great lightness, in fact; he seemed, as it were, unconscious of his body, as though he were floating. At the same time shudders ran down him, a sort of agreeable weakness crept over his legs, and his lips and eyelids tingled with drowsiness. He had no desire now, no thought of anything. Only he was wonderfully at ease, as though someone were lulling him, “singing him to lully-bye,” as Emily had put it.
He whispered to himself, “little doll!” At times the face of the “little doll” grew misty. “Why is that?” Kevin wondered. “From the smoke,” he reassured himself. “There is such a blue smoke here.” And again someone was lulling him and even whispering in his ear something so sweet, only for some reason it was always unfinished. But then all of a sudden on the little doll’s face the eyes opened till they were immense, incredibly big, like the arches of a bridge. The guitar dropped, and striking against the floor, clanged somewhere at the other end of the earth.
Some near and dear friend of Kevin’s embraced him firmly and tenderly from behind and set his tie straight. Kevin saw just before his own face the big nose, the thick moustache, and the piercing eyes of the stranger with the three buttons on his cuff. Although the eyes were in the place of the moustache and the nose itself seemed upside down, Kevin was not in the least surprised, but, on the contrary, thought that this was how it ought to be. He was even on the point of saying to the nose, “Hullo, brother,” but he changed his mind and preferred to set off with Calibri at once for their forthcoming wedding.
And a little boat appeared: he lifted his foot to get into it and through clumsiness he stumbled and hurt himself rather badly, so that for some time he did not know where anything was, yet he managed it and getting into the boat, floated on the big river, which, as the River of Time, flows to Constantinople in the map on the walls of the Norfolk High School.
With great satisfaction he floated down the river and watched a number of red ducks that met him; they would not let him come near them, however, and, diving, changed into round, pink spots. And Calibri was going with him, too, but to escape the sultry heat she hid, under the boat and from time to time knocked on the bottom of it.
And here at last was Constantinople. The houses, as houses should, looked like Tyrolese hats; and the Turks had all big, sedate faces; only it did not do to look at them too long: they began wriggling, making faces and at last melted away altogether like thawing snow. And here was the palace in which he would live with Calibri. And how well everything was arranged in it! Walls with gold on them, everywhere epaulettes, people blowing trumpets in the corners and one could float into the drawing room in the boat. Of course, there was a portrait of Mohamed. Only Calibri kept running ahead through the rooms and her plaits trailed after her on the floor and she would not turn round, and she kept growing smaller and smaller. And now it was not Calibri, but a boy in a jacket and he was the boy’s tutor and he had to climb after the boy into a telescope, and the telescope got narrower and narrower, till at last he could not move, neither backward nor forward, and something fell on his back. There was earth in his mouth.
Kevin opened his eyes. It was daylight and everything was still. There was a smell of vinegar and mint. Above him and at his sides there was something white; he looked more intently: it was the canopy of a bed. He wanted to raise his head, but he could not; his hand, but he could not do that, either. What was going on?
He dropped his eyes. A long body lay stretched before him and over it a blanket. The body proved to be his, Kevin’s body. He tried to cry out but no sound came. He tried again, did his very utmost, and there was the sound of a feeble moan.
He heard heavy footsteps. A nurse stood gazing at him. And he gazed at the nurse. A big mug was put to Kevin’s lips. He drank some cold water. His tongue was loosened. “Where am I?”
The old guy glanced at him once more, went away and came back with a man in doctor’s coat.
“Where am I?” repeated Kevin.
“Well, he will live,” said the man. “You are in the hospital,” he added.
Kevin began to feel surprised, but sank into forgetfulness again.
Next morning, the doctor appeared again. Kevin came to himself. The doctor congratulated him on his recovery, and ordered the bandages round his head to be changed.
“What? My head? Why, am I—”
“You mustn’t excite yourself,” the doctor interrupted. “Lie still and rest.”
“But where is my wallet? It has my money and my credit cards— ”
Another week passed. Kevin was so much better that the doctors found it possible to tell him what had happened to him. This is what he learned.
At seven o’clock in the evening on the 16th of June he had visited the house of Madame Fritsche for the last time and on the 17th of June at dinner time, that is, nearly twenty-four hours later, a road worker found him in a ravine near the highway, a mile and a half from Norfolk, with a broken head and crimson bruises on his neck. His uniform had been unbuttoned, all his pockets turned inside out, his cap was not to be found, nor his wallet. From the trampled grass, from the broad track upon the dirt, it could be inferred that the luckless lieutenant had been dragged to the bottom of the ravine and only there had been gashed on his head. There were no traces of blood on his track from the road while there was a perfect pool of blood round his head. There could be no doubt that his assailants had first drugged him, then tried to strangle him and, taking him out of town by night, had dragged him to the ravine and there given him the final blow. It was only thanks to his truly iron constitution that Kevin had not died. He had returned to consciousness on July 22, that is, five weeks later.
Kevin immediately informed the authorities of the circumstances of the case, and gave the address of Madame Fritsche. The police raided the house but they found no one there; the birds had flown. They got hold of the owner of the house, but they could not get much sense out of him, a very old and deaf man. He lived in a different part of town and all he knew was that four months before he had let his house to a Russian woman. She had been joined by another woman, so he stated, but what was their calling did not know; and whether they had other people living with them had not heard and did not know.
An investigation ensued; appeared that Madame Fritsche, together with her companion, whose real name was Frederika, had left Norfolk about the 20th of June, but where they had gone was unknown. The mysterious man with three buttons on his cuff and the dark-skinned foreign girl with an immense mass of hair, no one had seen.
As soon as Kevin was discharged from the hospital, he visited the house that had been so fateful for him. In the little room where he had talked to Calibri and where there was still a smell of musk, there was a second secret door; the sofa had been moved in front of it on his second visit and through it no doubt the murderer had come and seized him from behind. The investigation remained open: The suspects had disappeared completely.
He was at first firmly convinced that Emily was to blame for all his trouble and had originated the plot. He pictured the pretty, good-natured face of Emily, her clear eyes. But when he had finally left the hospital and gone home, he learned one circumstance, which perplexed and nonplussed him. On the day after he was brought half dead to the hospital, a girl whose description corresponded exactly to that of Emily had rushed to his apartment with tear-stained face and disheveled hair and asked a neighbor about him. She had then dashed off like mad to the hospital. At the hospital, she had been told that Kevin would certainly die and she had at once disappeared, with a look of despair on her face.
It was evident that she had not foreseen, had not expected, the attempted murder. Or perhaps she had herself been deceived and had not received her promised share? Had she been overwhelmed by sudden remorse? And yet she had left Norfolk afterwards with that loathsome old woman who had certainly known all about it. Kevin was lost in conjecture and bored his neighbor a good deal by making him continually describe over and over again the appearance of the girl and repeat her words.
A year and a half later, Kevin received an email from Emily, in Russian, which he promptly dropped into Google translate. The machine translation was rough; but here it is:
“My precious, unforgettable and incomparable Florestan! Mr. Lieutenant!
“How often I felt impelled to write to you! And I have always unfortunately put it off, though the thought that you may regard me as having had a hand in that awful crime has always been the most appalling thought to me! Oh, dear Mr. Lieutenant! Believe me, the day when I learnt that you were alive and well was the happiest day of my life! But I do not mean to justify myself altogether. I will not tell a lie! I knew you carried cash and credit cards, and I even said in joke that it wouldn’t be bad to take a little of your money! But the old wretch (she was not my aunt) plotted with that godless monster Luigi and his accomplice!
I swear by my mother’s tomb, I don’t know to this day who those people were! I only know that his name was Luigi and that they both came from Romania and were certainly criminals and were hiding from the police and had money and precious things! Luigi was a dreadful individual, to kill a man meant nothing at all to him! He spoke every language; it was he who that time got our things back from the cook! Don’t ask how! He was capable of anything, he was an awful man! He assured the old woman that he would only drug you a little and then take you out of town and put you down somewhere and would say that he knew nothing about it but that it was your fault, that you had taken too much wine somewhere!
But even then the wretch had it in his mind that it would be better to kill you so that there would be no one to tell the tale! He stole my phone and sent you that text and the old woman got me away by lying! I suspected nothing and I was afraid of Luigi! He used to say to me, ‘I’ll cut your throat, I’ll cut your throat like a chicken’s!’”
“I am very much ashamed, Mr. Lieutenant! Even now I shed bitter tears at these memories! But afterwards I was horribly frightened and could not help going away, for if the police had found us, what would have happened to us then? That accursed Luigi fled at once as soon as he heard that you were alive. But I soon parted from them all and though now I am often without a crust of bread, my heart is at peace! You will ask me perhaps why I came to Norfolk? But I can give you no answer!”
“I will finish by asking of you a favor, a very, very important one: whenever you remember your little friend Emily, do not think of her as a black-hearted criminal! God sees my heart. I have a bad morality and I am flaky, but I am not a criminal. And I shall always love and remember you, my incomparable Florestan, and shall always wish you everything good on this earthly globe.”
“Well, did you answer her?” we asked Kevin.
“I meant to, I meant to many times. But how? I don’t know Russian, though I could have used Google translate I guess, but I did not write.”
And always as he finished his story, Kevin sighed, shook his head and said, “That’s what it is to be young!” And if among his audience was some new person who was hearing the famous story for the first time, he would take his hand, lay it on his skull and make him feel the scar of the wound. It really was a fearful wound and the scar reached from one ear to the other.