King, queen, knave by Vladimir Nabokov

By Vladimir Nabokov

The unconventional is the tale of Dreyer, a prosperous and boisterous owner of a men's garments emporium store.  Ruddy, self-satisfied, and carefully masculine, he's completely repugnant to his beautiful yet chilly middle-class spouse Martha.  Attracted to his funds yet repelled by means of his oblivious ardour, she longs for his or her nephew as an alternative, the myopic Franz. Newly arrived in Berlin, Franz quickly repays his uncle's condescension in his aunt's mattress.

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Her face was serious, her eyes cold, a little dark down, the sign of passion, glistened above her upper lip, and a gleam of sun brought out the creamy texture of her neck at the throat with its two delicate transverse lines as if traced with a fingernail across it, one above the other: also a token of all kinds of marvels, according to one of his schoolmates, a precocious expert. The man must be a foreigner, judging by his soft collar and tweeds. Franz, however, was mistaken. “I’m thirsty,” said the man with a Berlin accent.

He knit his brows under her radiant and indifferent gaze and, when she turned away, mentally calculated, as though his fingers had rattled across the counters of a secret abacus, how many days of his life he would give to possess this woman. The door slid open, and an excited waiter, the herald of some frightful disaster, thrust his head in, barked his message, and dashed on to the next compartment to cry his news. Basically Martha was opposed to those fraudulent frivolous meals, with the railway company charging you exorbitant prices for mediocre food, and this almost physical sensation of needless expense, mixed with the feeling that someone, snug and robust, wanted to cheat her proved to be so strong that were it not for a ravenous hunger she would certainly not have gone that long vacillating way to the dining car.

Franz glanced at his wrist, at the watch face sturdily protected by its metal mesh. A lot of time, however, had escaped from that prison cell. There was a most repulsive taste in his mouth. He carefully wiped with a special square of cloth his glasses, and made his way out into the corridor in search of the toilet. As he stood there holding on to an iron handle, he found it strange and dreadful to be connected to a cold hole where his stream glistened and bounced, with the dark headlong-rushing naked earth so near, so fateful.

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