A Mockery of a Love Affair
Richmond, Early Spring of 1858
This is an alternate universe of the proceedings of Alexander Herzen's life in the 1850s, and many details are taken from Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy, specifically the latter two installments, Shipwreck and Salvage. His mother and son, Kolya, were still drowned at sea, in January of 1851, roughly contemporaneous to his discovery of his wife Natalie's affair with George Herwegh. In reality, Natalie died shortly after her son, but in this realization of the story, Natalie and Alexander take their leave of the company of the Herweghs in their grief, retiring to England and the solitude of Richmond, where Alexander can continue to write and do his work in as much peace as he can reasonably expect. In the spring of 1856, having left Berlin, Nicholas Ogarev and Natalie (Natasha) Ogarev make their triumphal return to their friends, Natasha sensitive as always to Natalie's continuing state of grief and Nick wanting to continue the work they had committed to at the age of 13. As happened in reality, Alexander and Natasha become involved in an affair, though it is cut significantly shorter due to the presence of Natalie, and Natasha becomes pregnant in 1858. Other than the addition of Natalie to the scenario, and the elimination of Malwida von Meysenbug, it is much as it was during the period when the house in Richmond was inhabited by Alexander, the Ogarevs, and Alexander and Natalie's remaining children, Sasha, Tata, and Olga. The setting is the exterior of the Herzen home in Richmond, overlooking the garden.
"Alexander, you should talk to Natalie."
"I'd rather not right at the moment, Nick. I think this particular fire has as much fuel as it can handle." Alexander sighs, and sinks further into his chair overlooking the garden, pointedly avoiding meeting his best friend's eyes, preferring to descend instead into his own guilt, where at the least he was comfortable in some perverse way.
"Dammit Sasha, my wife is having your child, could you please have the decency to go in there and talk to Natalie! Even if I tried to pass the brat off as my own, she would know."
"And what shall I tell her, Nick? That for once I was stupid enough to believe in the universal love she was convinced was the truth, that threw her into the lies and manipulations of that idiot Herwegh, and as a result, her best friend is now carrying my child? That while she was nearly dead with grief I was too stupid to see the disaster looming just around the corner because of my own folly?"
There is a crash as a small vodka glass breaks on the terra cotta ground of the veranda, Nicholas' hand remaining clenched in the position to hold the glass even as the shards lay at his feet. "I will not let you play the victim with this, Sasha!"
"The victim? For god's sake Nick – "
He is cut off before he can continue, Nicholas spinning on him viciously, whirling himself into a frenzy. "Oh yes, the poor grief stricken father, whose wife is incapacitated by depression and drifts away from him, whose best friend's wife throws herself into his arms when he's helpless to resist! You made your bed this time Alexander, and I'll be damned if you're going to theorize and proselytize your way out of it!"
"Nick, you are my best friend, we've known each other for more than thirty years for god's sake! When have I ever… " Alexander's voice trails off, afraid of the answer to his question. He had been arrogant, controlling, many of the things Nick accused him of being. He had made many of his own disasters in his life, but he had tried, unknowingly perhaps, to console himself in grief or outrage, to blame those individuals and institutions he had pledged at the age of thirteen to fight against, every setback and tragedy an encouragement towards the end goal of freedom.
"You haven't done a thing the rest of us have or would have, Sasha. God knows you could have, but you haven't. When you aren't getting my wife pregnant you're a damned saint."
"You're talking like Michael."
"I feel like I'm talking to Michael." Nicholas slumped bitterly into a chair, reaching for another glass on the table beside him and pouring more vodka into it.
"Nick, please don't, don't make yourself ill on my account."
"I'm not making myself ill, I'm making myself slightly inebriated. And given the circumstances, I think I have every right. You, on the other hand, should go talk to your wife, now. Before she finds out from that gossiping nurse and gets even more upset than she already is."
"It's too late for that." Natalie's voice came from behind them, where she stood just outside the large French doors, a full satchel in her hand, and the servants bustling about with more luggage.
"Natalie, I'm sorry." Alexander had stood from his seat, but now was still, unsure if he should cross the space between them. She seemed so cold, so distant, hardly the same woman he had been so madly in love with. He was still in love with her, he would always be in love with her no matter what, but it wasn't the same, neither of them were. Little Kolya's death, that horrible night when their marriage and their family had suffered such blows, first with that letch George Herwegh and then the tragedy at sea, had driven a wedge of grief and betrayal between them so deep it couldn't be helped.
"Don't apologize Alexander, just let me go." Her eyes were dry, her voice expressionless, and it was the most horrific thing Alexander had ever seen in his life.
"Natalie… god my little Natalie… what's happened to you? What's happened to all of us?" There were tears in his eyes as he crossed the veranda in a few steps, clasping her hands tightly in his own when he reached her. "Please, we'll leave together. We'll go to Paris, or back to Italy even, Geneva…" No, not Geneva. Not without Kolya. "Natalie, please, we're letting Kolya's death kill both of us as well."
"Maybe that's what I want!" Her voice was hard and ringing, echoing off the paving stones of the veranda and whistling through the trees that lined the garden. "Maybe Hegel is wrong, maybe they're all wrong. I'm ready to believe all that idiocy they fed us in church when I was young, just to believe I can see him again… my little Kolya… he must have been so cold…" Tears obscured her eyes, streaming down her cheeks, only half aware as Alexander clutched her desperately to his chest.
"You know I'm nothing alone Natalie, nothing without you here. It's been years, years that we've been miserable, the only thing that kept either of us sane was Nick and Natasha being here." Natalie opened her mouth, her face growing angry at the mention of Natasha, before he raised his hand to silence her protest. "No, listen to me Natalie. You of all people should understand, with the way you love everyone. Natasha, that infantile moron George, you loved them both as much as you love me and I accept that now, I understand why. I didn't stop loving you after Kolya and mother died, when we were both so lost in those seas of grief, but we couldn't save each other. We were in no shape to be of use, we needed other people. I thank God they were here, our best friends, the only people who could have saved us then."
"Natasha saved you, and what of me? I was ignored, I was abandoned, while you nursed your egoistic mourning and left me to my own sorrow and the blackness of my own soul when no one I thought I could count on cared. First you spent every possible hour chained to your desk, then when Nick and Natasha came, oh it was like magic! Suddenly things would be better, the children were happy again, they had people who could play with them and spoil them and wouldn't burst into tears and lie in bed all day lost in morbid contemplation."
"I did you a great wrong, my Natalie. I did." His voice was soft, his face suddenly weary. They had grown so old, without realizing it. They were not the young revolutionaries they had once been. They were the old guard now, the fading generation. "I'm sorry, I wish I had seen how much we were both ruining ourselves."
"We've grown old while were sleepwalking, Alexander." Her hand rested on his cheek for a moment, wiping a tear from his skin, before turning and slipping back inside the house noiselessly.
"Go get Natasha please, Nick." Alexander waved him out, knowing he had stood passively watching the scene all along, before falling into his chair again. "My little Kolya, look what has happened!"
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