THE OTHER

St Petersburg

River Fontanka, looking towards Trinity Cathedral and Old Kalinkin Bridge

Beyond Kalinkin Bridge

Beyond Kalinkin Bridge, far from the centre of town, lived Baroness T. She wrote poetry, which she published herself under a pseudonym in her own magazine.

When a crowd of us had been making merry of an evening, did not want to part company, and had nowhere else to go, somebody would invariably suggest we visit the Baroness. The only question was whether we could find a hansom-cab driver to take us such a distance. At the house beyond Kalinkin Bridge a warm reception was always waiting. The sleepy maid was never surprised. Fifteen minutes later, the lady of the house &mdash heavily made-up, likewise sleepy, but smiling &mdash would come sailing out in a luxurious peignoir. "Ah, how kind of you to drop in... Slave" (here her voice took on imperious tones)... "Slave," she would shout into the distance, "bring us something to eat."

Another fifteen minutes later, the 'slave' &mdash the Baroness's husband, a naval officer &mdash would throw open the doors leading into the dining-room: "Gentlemen, supper is served."

The dining-room was spacious and well-furnished. In one corner stood a human skeleton, its bony fingers gripping a wreath of electric flowers and with a red lamp glowing in each eye socket.

The supper served by the 'slave' was not notable for its luxuriousness, but made up for it by being accompanied by an inexhaustible supply of wine and vodka. The Baroness showed her guests how to behave, while her husband mostly smoked in silence. He was remembered only at the cry of: "Slave: more Madeira! Slave: bring me a handkerchief!" He would carry out these commands and then melt into the background until the next summons.

"Baroness, tell us the story of your skeleton."

"Ah, it's such a terrible thing. He was madly in love with me. His name was Ivan. He was dark-skinned, handsome... He used to bring me flowers, hang around waiting for me on the streets. I responded to all his entreaties with "No, no, no." One day he came to me terribly pale: "Baroness, I've come for your final decision." I looked him up and down: "You know my answer: No"."

He left town for his country estate (he was terribly rich) and set about learning to shoot. He spent a whole year learning, but, can you imagine, was such a bad learner that he was a whole day and night dying in agony. The horror of it! He bequeathed his skeleton to me."

The Baroness raised her handkerchief to her eyes.

"Ivan, Ivan, why did you do it!"

"After that you didn't withdraw to a monastery?"

"I went even further than that: I started writing poetry. My verses are engraved on his gravestone."

The skeleton was small, yellow. It trembled when you touched it and shook its electric wreath.

"He used to stand in my bedroom," the Baroness added languidly, "But I had to have him carried out: several times he broke his supporting wire and fell on my bed."