They did not, however, command my attention. I could think of nothing but the little crushed figure next to me. I stole a look at her and saw that a large tear was hanging on one eyelash ready to fall. I looked hurriedly away. Poor child! And her birthday! I cursed Lawrence for his clumsiness. What did it matter if she had put her hand on his knee? He ought to have taken it and patted it. But it was more than likely, as I knew very well, that he had never even noticed her action. He was marvellously unaware of all kinds of things, and it was only too possible that Nina scarcely existed for him. I longed to comfort her, and I did then a foolish thing. I put out my hand and let it rest for a moment on her dress.
Instantly she moved away with a sharp little gesture.
Five minutes later I heard a little whisper: “Durdles, it’s so hot here—and I hate these naked men. Shall we go? Ask Vera—”
The first bout had just come to an end. The little man with the swelling chest was alone, strutting up and down, and answering questions hurled at him from the gallery.
“Uncle Vanya, where’s Michael of Odessa?”
“Ah, he’s a soldier in the army now.”
“Uncle Vanya... Uncle Vanya... Uncle Vanya...”
“Well, well, what is it?”
“Why isn’t Chornaya Maska, wrestling to-night?”
“Ah, he’s busy.”
“What’s he busy with?”
“Never mind, he’s busy.”
“What’s he busy with?... Uncle Vanya... Uncle Vanya...”
“Isn’t it true that Michael’s dead now?”
“So they say.”
“Is it true?”
“Uncle Vanya... Uncle Vanya....”
The message had passed along that Nina was tired and wanted to go. We all moved out through the passage and into the cold fresh air.
“It was quite time,” said Vera. “I was going to suggest it myself.”
“I hope you liked it,” said Lawrence politely to Nina.
“No, I hated it,” she answered furiously, and turned her back on him.
It could not be said that the birthday party was promising very well.
And yet for the first half-hour it really seemed that it would “go” very well indeed. It had been agreed that it was to be absolutely a “family” party, and Uncle Ivan, Semyonov, and Boris Grogoff were the only additions to our number. Markovitch was there of course, and I saw at once that he was eager to be agreeable and to be the best possible host. As I had often noticed before, there was something pathetic about Markovitch when he wished to be agreeable. He had neither the figure nor the presence with which to be fascinating, and he did not know in the least how to bring out his best points.