Lyu to Konstantin
Kremskoye, 5th May 19—
Having taken up my post, I will outline the situation as I find it here. I do not doubt that my plan will succeed; indeed, the circumstances appear even more favourable than might have been expected. The whole family seems well disposed towards me and I detect no hint of any suspicion, which is entirely natural, as only we in the know could fear the contrary. If the governor has made enquiries into my person, this cannot have done any harm, as all the way from elementary school to university my reports have been outstanding. The one thing that might paint me in a damaging light – my quarrel with my father – is mitigated by the fact that his domineering and eccentric personality is widely known. But I rather think that he has not undertaken such enquiries; the man is so completely free of mistrust that in his position his behaviour would be verging on naivety if it were not more a reflection of his fearlessness and his poor judgement of people. Besides, my appointment seems to be entirely his wife’s doing. An anxious woman by nature, ever since she received the threatening letter she thinks only of how she can protect her husband’s life. Mistrust is not a feature of her character either; whilst she senses implausible dangers lurking at every turn, she would offer the murderer a spoonful of soup if she felt the poor man’s belly were crying out for a drop of something warm.
She told me that the letter you wrote gave her the idea of seeking a young man who, under the pretext of working as her husband’s secretary, would protect him from possible attacks without his realizing it. She had failed, however, to keep her fears or her plan secret from her husband. Eventually he gave in to her incessant pleading for the sake of peace, but also because he has been suffering recently from a type of neuralgia in his right arm, which is making writing difficult. His one stipulation was that – at night-time at least – he should be under the sole protection of his wife. The two of them laughed and he added that his wife was such a dab hand at making the bedroom secure that he could confidently place his trust in her. She never went to bed without first checking every single cupboard and especially the curtains, all of which she regarded as potential hiding places for criminals. Of course, she said spiritedly, one had to be circumspect, but she certainly wasn’t afraid; why, she even left the windows open at night because she liked the fresh air. She was, however, toying with the idea of having bars fixed in front of them. For seeing as all the doors to the house were locked, those people with malicious intent would have no choice but to climb in through the window. Still, she did concede that she feels less apprehensive now that I am here. As she uttered these words there was something tremendously endearing about her expression. I said, ‘I do hope so. Any worries you might have now I would deem an affront to my professional pride.’ During our conversation their son came into the room. He gave me a look of concern and said, ‘Are you starting today already?’ This made us all laugh so much that it lightened the atmosphere at once. The son, his name is Velya, is a handsome and terribly droll young chap, not much younger than I, but he still behaves as a child of five, albeit with a slightly different set of toys. He is studying law in the hope of one day pursuing a diplomatic career, although you would not suppose any of this. Velya is a smart, modern individual with numerous unrestrained impulses. His susceptibility knows no bounds. All one can say about his character is that he has none, and this makes him thoroughly inconsequential. Things only interest him in so far as he can adorn them with his witticisms, the great and irresistible charm of which lies in the languid way he utters them.
Besides the son there are two daughters, Jessika and Katya, between twenty and twenty-three. Both are sweet, blonde creatures, so similar they could be twins. Initially they were prejudiced against me because they consider their mother’s fear to be foolish and they were concerned that their summer seclusion might be disturbed. But as they find me handsome and stylish, and Velya, who is their role model, feels drawn to me, they’re gradually coming round to the idea of my being here. I don’t know why, but these three children remind me of little canaries huddled close together on their perch, chirruping away. There is something childishly harmless about the family overall, which could make me and my mission appear ridiculous to my eyes, but I’m sufficiently acquainted with the human soul to know that at its foundation is bottomless pride. Hatred, even ill-will assumes a certain familiarity with these people; deep down they feel themselves to be alone in a world that belongs to them. None of the others here are of particular significance and do not encroach upon their peace. The servants consist of a coachman, Ivan, who likes to drink – Velya calls him ‘the gaffer’ – and three maids. All of them are old-school Russians: they still feel like serfs, worship their masters and yet pass judgement on them with an unwitting sense of superiority because they are closer to the primary source of life. Dear creatures who, like animals, fill me with a certain awe. Such are my initial impressions. You’ll be hearing more from me soon.
This is an extract from The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Published by Peirene Press on 24th February 2017.