We were approaching Christmas. The weather of these weeks was wonderfully beautiful, sharply cold, the sky pale bird’s-egg blue, the ice and the snow glittering, shining with a thousand colours. There began now a strange relationship between Markovitch and myself.
There was something ineffectual and pessimistic about me that made Russians often feel in me a kindred soul. At the Front, Russians had confided in me again and again, but that was not astonishing, because they confided in every one. Nevertheless, they felt that I was less English than the rest, and rather blamed me in their minds, I think, for being so. I don’t know what it was that suddenly decided Markovitch to “make me part of his life.” I certainly did not on my side make any advances.
One evening he came to see me and stayed for hours. Then he came two or three times within the following fortnight. He gave me the effect of not caring in the least whether I were there or no, whether I replied or remained silent, whether I asked questions or simply pursued my own work. And I, on my side, had soon in my consciousness his odd, irascible, nervous, pleading, shy and boastful figure painted permanently, so that his actual physical presence seemed to be unimportant. There he was, as he liked to stand up against the white stove in my draughty room, his rather dirty nervous hands waving in front of me, his thin hair on end, his ragged beard giving his eyes an added expression of anxiety. His body was a poor affair, his legs thin and uncertain, an incipient stomach causing his waistcoat suddenly to fall inwards somewhere half-way up his chest, his feet in ill-shapen boots, and his neck absurdly small inside his high stiff collar. His stiff collar jutting sharply into his weak chin was perhaps his most striking feature. Most Russians of his careless habits wore soft collars or students’ shirts that fastened tight about the neck, but this high white collar was with Markovitch a sign and a symbol, the banner of his early ambitions; it was the first and last of him. He changed it every day, it was always high and sharp, gleaming and clean, and it must have hurt him very much. He wore with it a shabby black tie that ran as far up the collar as it could go, and there was a sense of pathos and struggle about this tie as though it were a wild animal trying to escape over an imprisoning wall. He would stand clutching my stove as though it assured his safety in a dangerous country; then suddenly he would break away from it and start careering up and down my room, stopping for an instant to gaze through my window at the sea and the ships, then off again, swinging his arms, his anxious eyes searching everywhere for confirmation of the ambitions that still enflamed him.