Painting : Ilya Repin, 1896
I wondered if she was the oddest creature I had ever seen.
Her appearance was dishevelled – the hair tangled and uncurled at the temples and nape, the hem of her skirt dropped and fraying. A blue and scarlet feather hung from her hat band, dulled and heavy with grease.
Her clothes had been good once, the fabrics expensive though worn, the tailoring better than my own, if my untutored eye was any judge.
On three consecutive evenings I passed as she stood on the north bank of the lake, her pale jacket seeming to float before the black, clinging pine trees like a child’s paper boat on a pond.
Each time I saw her, I considered introducing myself. But then each time she was held in a moment of intense concentration, gazing not at the glassy, limitless waters, but at the ground, at a criss-cross of sticks or a fir cone half buried by mud. I almost crouched beside the spotted hound lying sphinx-like at her heels, but his mind seemed to drift elsewhere too, perhaps to the far shore, to a chase of hares and twitching squirrels.
On the fourth evening I took the same path, saw the hound, head lowered to his paws beside a trail of boot prints. The imprints began deep and dark, but soon faded, growing shallow where the water had lapped them away.
It struck me as I rushed back to the house, in the shadow of the pines, in the slap and hush of the water –
I never saw her face.