The Hat

‘Hedda Hopper, Hollywood,’ Weegee, ca. 1948. Courtesy ICP.

 

Varenka Zvezdochetova, a member of the chorus of the Private Opera, could have done with a bit more sleep, but she awoke in high spirits all the same.

She was short on sleep because she had stayed up half the night trying on a new hat – a deep-blue hat with a deep-blue bow and a deep-blue bird, a true bluebird of happiness. And she was in high spirits because the poet Sineus Truvorov had promised to take her out for a drive.

The poet was someone very interesting.

He had not yet written any poems – he was still trying to come up with a pen name – but in spite of this he was very poetic and mysterious, perhaps even more so than many a real poet with real, ready-made poems.

Varenka quickly got dressed, grabbed her new hat and once again began trying it on.

‘Absolutely stunning! Especially like this, from the side…’

Oh! What a woman can get away with when she’s wearing a hat like this! Things that a woman wearing any old hat wouldn’t even dare to dream of.

She can be arch, she can be tempestuous, or dreamy, or haughty. She can be anything – and whatever she does she can carry it off with style.

For the sake of comparison, Varenka took out her shabby old black hat and started putting on first it, then the dark blue dream. She pinned on each hat, fastened her veil and tried out identical expressions with both. How tasteless, how pathetic they looked under the wings of the bluebird of happiness.

At the sound of the bell and a familiar voice she dashed headlong into the front hall.

The poet with no poems was already standing there, smiling and gazing at her adoringly.

‘Let’s get going the driver’s waiting…’

She wanted to run back to her room and look at herself in the mirror one more time, but he wouldn’t let her. He just bundled her into her coat and pulled her to the door.

‘There’s something about you today,’ he whispered pressing her elbow to his side. ‘I don’t understand what it is, but I just can’t take my eyes off you.’

‘I know what it is,’ thought Varenka. ‘It is my new hat.’

But she did not say this to the poet. Let him think she is always this pretty. After all, where would a true confession get her?

In response she just smiled and gave him a playful sideways look, and he pressed her arm still closer. How lovely it was out of doors! It was a city spring smelling of mould and cats, but the sun was the real thing, the same sun that shone on the fields and meadows all over the world, the entire silly round world, and whirling about the sun were high-spirited little clouds – the lamb’s fleece clouds of spring.

On the bridge a little boy was selling lilies of the valley.

He was running after carriages, calling out in a heart-rending voice that he was selling the flowers at a loss.

The driver flicked the reins and the boy dropped behind. Mud splashed out from under the wheels – the high spirited mud of spring. It splashed right onto the boy and a lady who was passing by. Varenka felt rich and important, and modestly pursed her lips so that the passers-by she had splashed with mud would not be too jealous.

‘You are particularly lovely today,’ said the poet joyfully. ‘You are utterly, utterly remarkable…’

Indeed she was remarkable on this day. Her awareness of her own elegance lent her a certain boldness and gaiety of spirit.

Ah, if only she were rich, and every day, every single day, she could put on a new hat, and every day she would be beautiful in some new way!

‘How do you like my new hat?’ she couldn’t help but ask.

He glanced at it distractedly and said, ‘Oh yes, very much.’

‘Don’t you love this deep blue?’

‘Blue? Well, yes … but it’s a very dark blue, almost black.’

Varenka smirked. How poorly men understood colours! Even poets. Yes! Even when they are poets!

On the stairs they said goodbye. He had to hurry off somewhere. But, after he had gone down a few steps, he suddenly ran back up and kissed Varenka right on the lips.

And then, leaning over the banister, she watched him go. She watched him adoringly, and brightly, and exultantly – in the way you can watch only when you are wearing a new hat, a hat with a bluebird of happiness on the brim.

Humming to herself, she went to her room.

Ah, if only she were rich, and every day she could wear a new…

She stopped in her tracks and her jaw fell open in surprise, practically in fright: there, on the table, next to its box, lay her deep-blue hat, her new deep-blue hat, with the deep-blue ribbon and the bluebird.

‘Good heavens! I don’t believe it!’

She ran to the mirror.

Yes, she was wearing her old black hat!

It must have been when she was trying on and comparing the two hats. She’d put on the old one, and when the poet appeared she had gotten confused and forgotten which hat she was wearing…

‘That means he liked me for myself, and not because of the hat. How very strange! But what made me so very pretty today?’

She sat down on her bed and fell into thought.

Her brilliant philosophy about the happiness of those who were richly endowed with hats began to totter. It began to totter and then it collapsed – and there was nothing to plug the gap it left behind.

Varenka sighed, sat down in front of the mirror and began trying on first one hat, and then the other…

 

Teffi (1872-1952) was a Russian writer and playwright, and the pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya. The Hat was written in 1918.