Lieutenant Schmidt’s Ideal Lady

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    1. The Lady at the Kiev Racecourse

    A new century not long begun:
    a young man, unhappily married
    and between trains, is at a loose end
    on a sultry Kiev afternoon.

    He goes to the races: sees a lady
    in the crowd, the most beautiful lady
    imaginable. Her black eyes, her hair,
    the darkest night flowing like water.

    He thinks she might be Spanish; he pictures her
    on a warm shore he has only seen
    from the deck of his ship. She is swept away
    on the tide of racegoers; he never meets her,

    never hears her voice. This does not displease him:
    he is a man who lives in fancy
    and will simply love her for ever.
    That night, he takes the train to Sevastopol.

     

    1. The Lady on the Night Train to Sevastopol

    Now you must know, the train was lit by candles
    held in lanterns, as the manner was,
    and they swayed so with the wheels’ rocking,
    the carriage was all fitful, shifting shadows.

    But a woman stepped in, and he glimpsed
    by the guttering light the face from the racetrack;
    he was sure of it. He told her his love:
    she was married, of course; she would be,

    but then so was he, and virtuous.
    They talked in the dark, exchanged names and addresses,
    then she got off half an hour down the line
    at Darnitsa. Back on his ship, he writes her

    letters like love poems, tells her his dreams
    of freedom, revolution, a new country.
    Hers to him are in prose, everyday gossip
    on commonplace matters: this he never notices.

     

    1. The Lady Who Came to Ochakov

    Waiting for the firing squad, the Lieutenant
    begs his sister (who would rather spend
    what time she can with him than go
    on a fool’s errand) to fetch The Lady.

    So she is found, and even her husband
    urges her to the journey, so loved
    is the Lieutenant. And she comes to him,
    and when she enters his cell, he pales,

    because the woman on the night train
    is not, after all, the racecourse lady,
    the one and only. He sees a housewife,
    no great wit or beauty, a good heart

    who has come a long way in winter to comfort
    a man’s last hours. He steps forward
    and holds the realness of her, the human warmth
    that does what it can against the dark.

    Note: The facts behind this poem are related in ‘Southern Adventure’, vol. 5 of Konstantin Paustovsky’s autobiography Story of a Life, Harvill Press 1969, tr. Kyril FitzLyon.


    Sheenagh Pugh is Welsh but lives in Shetland. Her last collection was Short Days, Long Shadows from Seren.