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A DESPERATE CHARACTER
AND OTHER STORIES
BY IVAN TURGENEV
Translated from the Russian
By CONSTANCE GARNETT
THE NOVELS OF IVAN TURGENEV
Complete in Fifteen Volumes.
ii. A House of Gentlefolk.
iii. On the Eve.
iv. Fathers and Children.
vi. & vii. Virgin Soil. 2 Vols.
viii, & ix. A Sportsman's Sketches. 2 Vols.
x. Dream Tales and Prose Poems.
xi. The Torrents of Spring and other Stories.
xii. A Lear of the Steppes and other Stories.
xiii. The Diary of a Superfluous Man and other Stories.
xiv. A Desperate Character and other Tales.
xv. The Jew and other Stories.
TO JOSEPH CONRAD
WHOSE ART IN ESSENCE OFTEN RECALLS
THE ART AND ESSENCE OF TURGENEV
The six tales now translated for the English reader were written by
Turgenev at various dates between 1847 and 1881. Their chronological
_The Brigadier_, 1867
_A Strange Story_, 1869
_Punin and Baburin_, 1874
_Old Portraits_, 1881
_A Desperate Character_, 1881
_Pyetushkov_ is the work of a young man of twenty-nine, and its lively,
unstrained realism is so bold, intimate, and delicate as to contradict
the flattering compliment that the French have paid to one another--that
Turgenev had need to dress his art by the aid of French mirrors.
Although _Pyetushkov_ shows us, by a certain open _naivete_ of style,
that a youthful hand is at work, it is the hand of a young master,
carrying out the realism of the 'forties'--that of Gogol, Balzac, and
Dickens--straightway, with finer point, to find a perfect equilibrium
free from any bias or caricature. The whole strength and essence of the
realistic method has been developed in _Pyetushkov_ to its just limits.
The Russians are _instinctive_ realists, and carry the warmth of life
into their pages, which warmth the French seem to lose in clarifying
their impressions and crystallising them in art. _Pyetushkov_ is not
exquisite: it is irresistible. Note how the reader is transported bodily
into Pyetushkov's stuffy room, and how the major fairly boils out of the
two pages he lives in! (pp. 301, 302). That is _realism_ if you like. A
woman will see the point of _Pyetushkov_ very quickly. Onisim and
Vassilissa and the aunt walk and chatter around the stupid Pyetushkov,
and glance at him significantly in a manner that reveals everything
about these people's world. All the servants who appear in the tales in
this volume are hit off so marvellously that one sees the lower-class
world, which is such a mystery to certain refined minds, has no secrets
Of a different, and to our taste more fascinating, _genre_ is _The
Brigadier_. It is greater art because life's prosaic growth is revealed
not merely realistically, but also poetically, life as a tiny part of
the great universe around it. The tale is a microcosm of Turgenev's own
nature; his love of Nature, his tender sympathy for all humble, ragged,
eccentric, despised human creatures; his unfaltering keenness of gaze
into character, his fine sense of proportion, mingle in. _The
Brigadier_, to create for us a sense of the pitiableness of man's tiny
life, of the mere human seed which springs and spreads a while on earth,
and dies under the menacing gaze of the advancing years. 'Out of the
sweetness came forth strength' is perhaps the best saying by which one
can define Turgenev's peculiar merits in _The Brigadier_.
_Punin and Baburin_ presents to us again one of those ragged ones, one
of 'the poor in spirit,' the idealist Punin, a character whose portrait
challenges Dostoievsky's skill on the latter's own ground. That
delicious Punin! and that terrible grandmother's scene with Baburin! How
absolutely Slav is the blending of irony and kindness in the treatment
of Punin, Cucumber, and Pyetushkov, few English readers will understand.
All the characters in _Punin and Baburin_ are so strongly drawn, so
intensely alive, that, like Rembrandt's portraits, they make the living
people, who stand looking at them, absurdly grey and lifeless by
comparison! Baburin is a Nihilist before the times of Nihilism, he is a
type of the strong characters that arose later in the movement of the
A pre-Nihilistic type is also the character of Sophie in _A Strange
Story_. But the chief value of this last psychological study is that it
gives the English mind a clue to the fundamental distinction that marks
off the Russian people from the peoples of the West. Sophie's
words--'You spoke of the will--that's what must be broken' (p.
61)--define most admirably the deepest aspiration of the Russian soul.
To be lowly and suffering, to be despised, sick, to be under the lash of
fate, to be trampled under foot by others, _to be_ unworthy, all this
secret desire of the Russian soul implies that the Russian has little
_will_, that he finds it easier to resign himself than to make the
effort to be powerful, triumphant, worthy. It is from the resignation
and softness of the Russian nature that all its characteristic virtues
spring. Whereas religion with the English mind is largely an anxiety to
be moral, to be _right_ and righteous, to be 'a chosen vessel of the
Lord,' religion with the Russian implies a genuine abasement and loss of
self, a bowing before the will of Heaven, and true brotherly love. The
Western mind rises to greatness by concentrating the will-power in
action, by assertion of all its inner force, by shutting out forcibly
whatever might dominate or distract or weaken it. But the Russian mind,
through its lack of character, will-power, and hardness, rises to
greatness in its acceptance of life, and in its sympathy with all the
unfortunate, the wretched, the poor in spirit. Of course in practical
life the Russian lacks many of the useful virtues the Western peoples
possess and has most of their vices; but certainly his pity, charity,
and brotherliness towards men more unfortunate than himself largely
spring from his fatalistic acceptance of his own unworthiness and
weakness. So in Sophie's case the desire for self-sacrifice, and her
impregnable conviction that to suffer and endure is _right_, is truly
Russian in the sense of letting the individuality go _with_ the stream
of fate, not _against_ it. And hence the formidable spirit of the
youthful generation that sacrificed itself in the Nihilistic movement:
the strenuous action of 'the youth' once set in movement, the spirit of
self-sacrifice impelled it calmly towards its goal despite all the
forces and threats of fate. Sophie is indeed an early Nihilist born
before her time.
We have said that the lack of will in the Russian nature is at the root
of Russian virtues and vices, and in this connection it is curious to
remark that a race's soul seems often to grow out of the race's
_aspiration towards what it is not in life_. Is not the French
intellect, for example, so cool, clear-headed, so delicately analytic of
its own motives, that through the principle of _counterpoise_ it strives
to lose itself and release itself in continual rhetoric and emotional
positions? Is not the German mind so alive to the material facts of
life, to the necessity of getting hold of concrete advantages in life,
and of not letting them go, that it deliberately slackens the bent bow,
and plunges itself and relaxes itself in floods of abstractions, and
idealisations, and dreams of sentimentality? Assuredly it is because the
Russian is so inwardly discontented with his own actions that he is such
a keen and incisive critic of everything _false_ and exaggerated, that
he despises all French rhetoric and German sentimentalism. And in this
sense it is that the Russian's lack of will comes in to deepen his soul.
He surrenders himself thereby to the universe, and, as do the Asiatics,
does not let the tiny shadow of his fate, dark though it may be, shut
out the universe so thoroughly from his consciousness, as does the
aggressive struggling will-power of the Western man striving to let his
individuality have full play. The Russian's attitude may indeed be
compared to a bowl which catches and sustains what life brings it; and
the Western man's to a bowl inverted to ward off what drops from the
impassive skies. The mental attitude of the Russian peasant indeed
implies that in blood he is nearer akin to the Asiatics than Russian
ethnologists have wished to allow. Certainly in the inner life of
thought, intellectually, morally, and emotionally, he is a half-way
house between the Western and Eastern races, just as geographically he
spreads over the two continents. By natural law his destiny calls him
towards the East. Should he one day spread his rule further and further
among the Asiatics and hold the keys of an immense Asiatic empire, well!
future English philosophers may feel thereat a curious fatalistic
A DESPERATE CHARACTER 1
A STRANGE STORY 40
PUNIN AND BABURIN 77
OLD PORTRAITS 172
THE BRIGADIER 210
A DESPERATE CHARACTER
... We were a party of eight in the room, and we were talking of
contemporary affairs and men.
'I don't understand these men!' observed A.: 'they're such desperate
fellows.... Really desperate.... There has never been anything like
'Yes, there has,' put in P., a man getting on in years, with grey hair,
born some time in the twenties of this century: 'there were desperate
characters in former days too, only they were not like the desperate
fellows of to-day. Of the poet Yazikov some one has said that he had
enthusiasm, but not applied to anything--an enthusiasm without an
object. So it was with those people--their desperateness was without an
object. But there, if you'll allow me, I'll tell you the story of my
nephew, or rather cousin, Misha Poltyev. It may serve as an example of
the desperate characters of those days.
He came into God's world, I remember, in 1828, at his father's native
place and property, in one of the sleepiest corners of a sleepy province
of the steppes. Misha's father, Andrei Nikolaevitch Poltyev, I remember
well to this day. He was a genuine old-world landowner, a God-fearing,
sedate man, fairly--for those days--well educated, just a little
cracked, to tell the truth--and, moreover, he suffered from epilepsy....
That too is an old-world, gentlemanly complaint.... Andrei
Nikolaevitch's fits were, however, slight, and generally ended in sleep
and depression. He was good-hearted, and of an affable demeanour, not
without a certain stateliness: I always pictured to myself the tsar
Mihail Fedorovitch as like him. The whole life of Andrei Nikolaevitch
was passed in the punctual fulfilment of every observance established
from old days, in strict conformity with all the usages of the old
orthodox holy Russian mode of life. He got up and went to bed, ate his
meals, and went to his bath, rejoiced or was wroth (both very rarely, it
is true), even smoked his pipe and played cards (two great
innovations!), not after his own fancy, not in a way of his own, but
according to the custom and ordinance of his fathers--with due decorum
and formality. He was tall, well built, and stout; his voice was soft
and rather husky, as is so often the case with virtuous people in
Russia; he was scrupulously neat in his dress and linen, and wore white
cravats and full-skirted snuff-coloured coats, but his noble blood was
nevertheless evident; no one could have taken him for a priest's son or
a merchant! At all times, on all possible occasions, and in all possible
contingencies, Andrei Nikolaevitch knew without fail what ought to be
done, what was to be said, and precisely what expressions were to be
used; he knew when he ought to take medicine, and just what he ought to
take; what omens were to be believed and what might be disregarded ...
in fact, he knew everything that ought to be done.... For as everything
had been provided for and laid down by one's elders, one had only to be
sure not to imagine anything of one's self.... And above all, without
God's blessing not a step to be taken!--It must be confessed that a
deadly dulness reigned supreme in his house, in those low-pitched, warm,
dark rooms, that so often resounded with the singing of liturgies and
all-night services, and had the smell of incense and Lenten dishes
almost always hanging about them!
Andrei Nikolaevitch--no longer in his first youth--married a young
lady of a neighbouring family, without fortune, a very nervous and
sickly person, who had had a boarding-school education. She played the
piano fairly, spoke boarding-school French, was easily moved to
enthusiasm, and still more easily to melancholy and even tears....
She was of unbalanced character, in fact. She regarded her life as
wasted, could not care for her husband, who, 'of course,' did not
understand her; but she respected him, ... she put up with him; and
being perfectly honest and perfectly cold, she never even dreamed of
another 'affection.' Besides, she was always completely engrossed in
the care, first, of her own really delicate health, secondly, of the
health of her husband, whose fits always inspired in her something
like superstitious horror, and lastly, of her only son, Misha, whom
she brought up herself with great zeal. Andrei Nikolaevitch did not
oppose his wife's looking after Misha, on the one condition of his
education never over-stepping the lines laid down, once and for all,
within which everything must move in his house! Thus, for instance, at
Christmas-time, and at New Year, and St. Vassily's eve, it was
permissible for Misha to dress up and masquerade with the servant
boys--and not only permissible, but even a binding duty.... But, at
any other time, God forbid! and so on, and so on.
I remember Misha at thirteen. He was a very pretty boy, with rosy little
cheeks and soft lips (indeed he was soft and plump-looking all over),
with prominent liquid eyes, carefully brushed and combed, caressing and
modest--a regular little girl! There was only one thing about him I did
not like: he rarely laughed; but when he did laugh, his teeth--large
white teeth, pointed like an animal's--showed disagreeably, and the
laugh itself had an abrupt, even savage, almost animal sound, and there
were unpleasant gleams in his eyes. His mother was always praising him
for being so obedient and well behaved, and not caring to make friends
with rude boys, but always preferring feminine society. 'A mother's
darling, a milksop,' his father, Andrei Nikolaevitch, would call him;
'but he's always ready to go into the house of God.... And that I am
glad to see.' Only one old neighbour, who had been a police captain,
once said before me, speaking of Misha, 'Mark my words, he'll be a
rebel.' And this saying, I remember, surprised me very much at the time.
The old police captain, it is true, used to see rebels on all sides.
Just such an exemplary youth Misha continued to be till the eighteenth
year of his age, up to the death of his parents, both of whom he lost
almost on the same day. As I was all the while living constantly at
Moscow, I heard nothing of my young kinsman. An acquaintance coming from
his province did, it is true, inform me that Misha had sold the paternal
estate for a trifling sum; but this piece of news struck me as too
wildly improbable! And behold, all of a sudden, one autumn morning there
flew into the courtyard of my house a carriage, with a pair of splendid
trotting horses, and a coachman of monstrous size on the box; and in the
carriage, wrapped in a cloak of military cut, with a beaver collar two
yards deep, and with a foraging cap cocked on one side, _a la diable
m'emporte_, sat ... Misha! On catching sight of me (I was standing at
the drawing-room window, gazing in astonishment at the flying equipage),
he laughed his abrupt laugh, and jauntily flinging back his cloak, he
jumped out of the carriage and ran into the house.
'Misha! Mihail Andreevitch!' I was beginning, ... 'Is it you?'
'Call me Misha,'--he interrupted me. 'Yes, it's I, ... I, in my own
person.... I have come to Moscow ... to see the world ... and show
myself. And here I am, come to see you. What do you say to my
horses?... Eh?' he laughed again.
Though it was seven years since I had seen Misha last, I recognised him
at once. His face had remained just as youthful and as pretty as
ever--there was no moustache even visible; only his cheeks looked a
little swollen under his eyes, and a smell of spirits came from his
lips. 'Have you been long in Moscow?' I inquired.
'I supposed you were at home in the country, looking after the
'Eh! The country I threw up at once! As soon as my parents died--may
their souls rest in peace--(Misha crossed himself scrupulously, without
a shade of mockery) at once, without a moment's delay, ... _ein, zwei,
drei!_ ha, ha! I let it go cheap, damn it! A rascally fellow turned up.
But it's no matter! Anyway, I am living as I fancy, and amusing other
people. But why are you staring at me like that? Was I, really, to go
dragging on in the same old round, do you suppose? ... My dear fellow,
couldn't I have a glass of something?'
Misha spoke fearfully quick and hurriedly, and, at the same time, as
though he were only just waked up from sleep.
'Misha, upon my word!' I wailed; 'have you no fear of God? What do you
look like? What an attire! And you ask for a glass too! And to sell such
a fine estate for next to nothing....'
'God I fear always, and do not forget,' he broke in.... 'But He is good,
you know--God is.... He will forgive! And I am good too.... I have
never yet hurt any one in my life. And drink is good too; and as for
hurting,... it never hurt any one either. And my get-up is quite the most
correct thing.... Uncle, would you like me to show you I can walk
straight? Or to do a little dance?'
'Oh, spare me, please! A dance, indeed! You'd better sit down.'
'As to that, I'll sit down with pleasure.... But why do you say nothing
of my greys? Just look at them, they're perfect lions! I've got them on
hire for the time, but I shall buy them for certain, ... and the
coachman too.... It's ever so much cheaper to have one's own horses. And
I had the money, but I lost it yesterday at faro. It's no matter, I'll
make it up to-morrow. Uncle, ... how about that little glass?'
I was still unable to get over my amazement. 'Really, Misha, how old are
you? You ought not to be thinking about horses or cards, ... but going
into the university or the service.'
Misha first laughed again, then gave vent to a prolonged whistle.
'Well, uncle, I see you're in a melancholy humour to-day. I'll come
back another time. But I tell you what: you come in the evening to
Sokolniki. I've a tent pitched there. The gypsies sing, ... such
goings-on.... And there's a streamer on the tent, and on the streamer,
written in large letters: "The Troupe of Poltyev's Gypsies." The
streamer coils like a snake, the letters are of gold, attractive for
every one to read. A free entertainment--whoever likes to come! ... No
refusal! I'm making the dust fly in Moscow ... to my glory! ... Eh? will
you come? Ah, I've one girl there ... a serpent! Black as your boot,
spiteful as a dog, and eyes ... like living coals! One can never tell
what she's going to do--kiss or bite! ... Will you come, uncle? ...
Well, good-bye, till we meet!'
And with a sudden embrace, and a smacking kiss on my shoulder, Misha
darted away into the courtyard, and into the carriage, waved his cap
over his head, hallooed,--the monstrous coachman leered at him over his
beard, the greys dashed off, and all vanished!
The next day I--like a sinner--set off to Sokolniki, and did actually
see the tent with the streamer and the inscription. The drapery of the
tent was raised; from it came clamour, creaking, and shouting. Crowds of
people were thronging round it. On a carpet spread on the ground sat
gypsies, men and women, singing and beating drums, and in the midst of
them, in a red silk shirt and velvet breeches, was Misha, holding a
guitar, dancing a jig. 'Gentlemen! honoured friends! walk in, please!
the performance is just beginning! Free to all!' he was shouting in a
high, cracked voice. 'Hey! champagne! pop! a pop on the head! pop up to
the ceiling! Ha! you rogue there, Paul de Kock!'
Luckily he did not see me, and I hastily made off.
I won't enlarge on my astonishment at the spectacle of this
transformation. But, how was it actually possible for that quiet and
modest boy to change all at once into a drunken buffoon? Could it all
have been latent in him from childhood, and have come to the surface
directly the yoke of his parents' control was removed? But that he had
made the dust fly in Moscow, as he expressed it--of that, certainly,
there could be no doubt. I have seen something of riotous living in my
day; but in this there was a sort of violence, a sort of frenzy of
self-destruction, a sort of desperation!
For two months these diversions continued.... And once more I was
standing at my drawing-room window, looking into the courtyard.... All
of a sudden--what could it mean? ... there came slowly stepping in at the
gate a pilgrim ... a squash hat pulled down on his forehead, his hair
combed out straight to right and left below it, a long gown, a leather
belt ... Could it be Misha? He it was!
I went to meet him on the steps.... 'What's this masquerade for?'
'It's not a masquerade, uncle,' Misha answered with a deep sigh: since
all I had I've squandered to the last farthing--and a great repentance
too has come upon me--so I have resolved to go to the Sergiev monastery
of the Holy Trinity to expiate my sins in prayer. For what refuge was
left me? ... And so I have come to you to say good-bye, uncle, like a
I looked intently at Misha. His face was just the same, rosy and fresh
(indeed it remained almost unchanged to the end), and the eyes, liquid,
affectionate, and languishing--and the hands, as small and white.... But
he smelt of spirits.
'Well,' I pronounced at last, 'it's a good thing to do--since there's
nothing else to be done. But why is it you smell of spirits?'
'A relic of the past,' answered Misha, and he suddenly laughed, but
immediately pulled himself up, and, making a straight, low bow--a monk's
bow--he added: 'Won't you help me on my way? I'm going, see, on foot to
'To-day ... at once.'
'Why be in such a hurry?'
'Uncle, my motto always was, "Make haste, make haste!"'
'But what is your motto now?'
'It's the same now.... Only, make haste towards _good_!'
And so Misha went off, leaving me to ponder on the vicissitudes of
But he soon reminded me of his existence. Two months after his visit, I
got a letter from him, the first of those letters, of which later on he
furnished me with so abundant a supply. And note a peculiar fact: I
have seldom seen a neater, more legible handwriting than that
unbalanced fellow's. And the wording of his letters was exceedingly
correct, just a little flowery. Invariable entreaties for assistance,
always attended with resolutions to reform, vows, and promises on his
honour.... All of it seemed--and perhaps was--sincere. Misha's
signature to his letters was always accompanied by peculiar strokes,
flourishes, and stops, and he made great use of marks of exclamation.
In this first letter Misha informed me of a new 'turn in his fortune.'
(Later on he used to refer to these turns as plunges, ... and frequent
were the plunges he took.) He was starting for the Caucasus on active
service for his tsar and his country in the capacity of a cadet! And,
though a certain benevolent aunt had entered into his impecunious
position, and had sent him an inconsiderable sum, still he begged me to
assist him in getting his equipment. I did what he asked, and for two
years I heard nothing more of him.
I must own I had the gravest doubts as to his having gone to the
Caucasus. But it turned out that he really had gone there, had, by
favour, got into the T---- regiment as a cadet, and had been serving in
it for those two years. A perfect series of legends had sprung up there
about him. An officer of his regiment related them to me.
I learned a great deal which I should never have expected of him.--I
was, of course, hardly surprised that as a military man, as an officer,
he was not a success, that he was in fact worse than useless; but what I
had not anticipated was that he was by no means conspicuous for much
bravery; that in battle he had a downcast, woebegone air, seemed
half-depressed, half-bewildered. Discipline of every sort worried him,
and made him miserable; he was daring to the point of insanity when only
his _own personal_ safety was in question; no bet was too mad for him to
accept; but do harm to others, kill, fight, he could not, possibly
because his heart was too good--or possibly because his 'cottonwool'
education (so he expressed it), had made him too soft. Himself he was
quite ready to murder in any way at any moment.... But others--no.
'There's no making him out,' his comrades said of him; 'he's a flabby
creature, a poor stick--and yet such a desperate fellow--a perfect
madman!' I chanced in later days to ask Misha what evil spirit
drove him, forced him, to drink to excess, risk his life, and so
on. He always had one answer--'wretchedness.'
'But why are you wretched?'
'Why! how can you ask? If one comes, anyway, to one's self, begins to
feel, to think of the poverty, of the injustice, of Russia.... Well,
it's all over with me! ... one's so wretched at once--one wants to put a
bullet through one's head! One's forced to start drinking.'
'Why ever do you drag Russia in?'
'How can I help it? Can't be helped! That's why I'm afraid to think.'
'It all comes, and your wretchedness too, from having nothing to do.'
'But I don't know how to do anything, uncle! dear fellow! Take one's
life, and stake it on a card--that I can do! Come, you tell me what I
ought to do, what to risk my life for? This instant ... I'll ...'
'But you must simply live.... Why risk your life?'
'I can't! You say I act thoughtlessly.... But what else can I do? ... If
one starts thinking--good God, all that comes into one's head! It's only
Germans who can think! ...'
What use was it talking to him? He was a desperate man, and that's all
one can say.
Of the Caucasus legends I have spoken about, I will tell you two or
three. One day, in a party of officers, Misha began boasting of a sabre
he had got by exchange--'a genuine Persian blade!' The officers
expressed doubts as to its genuineness. Misha began disputing. 'Here
then,' he cried at last; 'they say the man that knows most about sabres
is Abdulka the one-eyed. I'll go to him, and ask.' The officers
wondered. 'What Abdulka? Do you mean that lives in the mountains? The
rebel never subdued? Abdul-khan?' 'Yes, that's him.' 'Why, but he'll
take you for a spy, will put you in a hole full of bugs, or else cut
your head off with your own sabre. And, besides, how are you going to
get to him? They'll catch you directly.' 'I'll go to him, though, all
the same.' 'Bet you won't!' 'Taken!' And Misha promptly saddled his
horse and rode off to Abdulka. He disappeared for three days. All felt
certain that the crazy fellow had come by his end. But, behold! he came
back--drunk, and with a sabre, not the one he had taken, but another.
They began questioning him. 'It was all right,' said he; 'Abdulka's a
nice fellow. At first, it's true, he ordered them to put irons on my
legs, and was even on the point of having me impaled. Only, I explained
why I had come, and showed him the sabre. "And you'd better not keep
me," said I; "don't expect a ransom for me; I've not a farthing to bless
myself with--and I've no relations." Abdulka was surprised; he looked at
me with his solitary eye. "Well," said he, "you are a bold one, you
Russian; am I to believe you?" "You may believe me," said I; "I never
tell a lie." (And this was true; Misha never lied.) Abdulka looked at me
again. "And do you know how to drink wine?" "I do," said I; "give me as
much as you will, I'll drink it." Abdulka was surprised again; he called
on Allah. And he told his--daughter, I suppose--such a pretty creature,
only with an eye like a jackal's--to bring a wine-skin. And I began to
get to work on it. "But your sabre," said he, "isn't genuine; here, take
the real thing. And now we are pledged friends." But you've lost your
bet, gentlemen; pay up.'
The second legend of Misha is of this nature. He was passionately fond
of cards; but as he had no money, and could never pay his debts at cards
(though he was never a card-sharper), no one at last would sit down to a
game with him. So one day he began urgently begging one of his comrades
among the officers to play with him! 'But if you lose, you don't pay.'
'The money certainly I can't pay, but I'll put a shot through my left
hand, see, with this pistol here!' 'But whatever use will that be to
me?' 'No use, but still it will be curious.' This conversation took
place after a drinking bout in the presence of witnesses. Whether it was
that Misha's proposition struck the officer as really curious--anyway he
agreed. Cards were brought, the game began. Misha was in luck; he won a
hundred roubles. And thereupon his opponent struck his forehead with
vexation. 'What an ass I am!' he cried, 'to be taken in like this! As if
you'd have shot your hand if you had lost!--a likely story! hold out
your purse!' 'That's a lie,' retorted Misha: 'I've won--but I'll shoot
my hand.' He snatched up his pistol--and bang, fired at his own hand.
The bullet passed right through it ... and in a week the wound had
Another time, Misha was riding with his comrades along a road at
night ... and they saw close to the roadside a narrow ravine like a deep
cleft, dark--so dark you couldn't see the bottom. 'Look,' said one of
the officers, 'Misha may be a desperate fellow, but he wouldn't leap
into that ravine.' 'Yes, I'd leap in!' 'No, you wouldn't, for I dare say
it's seventy feet deep, and you might break your neck.' His friend knew
his weak point--vanity.... There was a great deal of it in Misha. 'But
I'll leap in anyway! Would you like to bet on it? Ten roubles.' 'Good!'
And the officer had hardly uttered the word, when Misha and his horse
were off--into the ravine--and crashing down over the stones. All were
simply petrified.... A full minute passed, and they heard Misha's voice,
dimly, as it were rising up out of the bowels of the earth: 'All right!
fell on the sand ... but it was a long flight! Ten roubles you've lost!'
'Climb out!' shouted his comrades. 'Climb out, I dare say!' echoed
Misha. 'A likely story! I should like to see you climb out. You'll have
to go for torches and ropes now. And, meanwhile, to keep up my spirits
while I wait, fling down a flask....'
And so Misha had to stay five hours at the bottom of the ravine; and
when they dragged him out, it turned out that his shoulder was
dislocated. But that in no way troubled him. The next day a bone-setter,
one of the black-smiths, set his shoulder, and he used it as though
nothing had been the matter.
His health in general was marvellous, incredible. I have already
mentioned that up to the time of his death he kept his almost childishly
fresh complexion. Illness was a thing unknown to him, in spite of his
excesses; the strength of his constitution never once showed signs of
giving way. When any other man would infallibly have been seriously ill,
or even have died, he merely shook himself, like a duck in the water,
and was more blooming than ever. Once, also in the Caucasus ... _this_
legend is really incredible, but one may judge from it what Misha was
thought to be capable of.... Well, once, in the Caucasus, in a state of
drunkenness, he fell down with the lower half of his body in a stream of
water; his head and arms were on the bank, out of water. It was
winter-time, there was a hard frost, and when he was found next morning,
his legs and body were pulled out from under a thick layer of ice, which
had formed over them in the night--and he didn't even catch cold!
Another time--this was in Russia (near Orel, and also in a time of
severe frost)--he was in a tavern outside the town in company with seven
young seminarists (or theological students), and these seminarists were
celebrating their final examination, but had invited Misha, as a
delightful person, a man of 'inspiration,' as the phrase was then. A
very great deal was drunk, and when at last the festive party got ready
to depart, Misha, dead drunk, was in an unconscious condition. All the
seven seminarists together had but one three-horse sledge with a high
back; where were they to stow the unresisting body? Then one of the
young men, inspired by classical reminiscences, proposed tying Misha by
his feet to the back of the sledge, as Hector was tied to the chariot of
Achilles! The proposal met with approval ... and jolting up and down
over the holes, sliding sideways down the slopes, with his legs torn and
flayed, and his head rolling in the snow, poor Misha travelled on his
back for the mile and a half from the tavern to the town, and hadn't as
much as a cough afterwards, hadn't turned a hair! Such heroic health had
nature bestowed upon him!
From the Caucasus he came again to Moscow, in a Circassian dress, a
dagger in his sash, a high-peaked cap on his head. This costume he
retained to the end, though he was no longer in the army, from which he
had been discharged for outstaying his leave. He stayed with me,
borrowed a little money ... and forthwith began his 'plunges,' his
wanderings, or, as he expressed it, 'his peregrinations from pillar to
post,' then came the sudden disappearances and returns, and the showers
of beautifully written letters addressed to people of every possible
description, from an archbishop down to stable-boys and mid-wives! Then
came calls upon persons known and unknown! And this is worth noticing:
when he made these calls, he was never abject and cringing, he never
worried people by begging, but on the contrary behaved with propriety,
and had positively a cheerful and pleasant air, though the inveterate
smell of spirits accompanied him everywhere, and his Oriental costume
gradually changed into rags. 'Give, and God will reward you, though I
don't deserve it,' he would say, with a bright smile and a candid blush;
'if you don't give, you'll be perfectly right, and I shan't blame you
for it. I shall find food to eat, God will provide! And there are people
poorer than I, and much more deserving of help--plenty, plenty!' Misha
was particularly successful with women: he knew how to appeal to their
sympathy. But don't suppose that he was or fancied himself a
Lovelace....Oh, no! in that way he was very modest. Whether it was that
he had inherited a cool temperament from his parents, or whether indeed
this too is to be set down to his dislike for doing any one harm--as,
according to his notions, relations with a woman meant inevitably doing
a woman harm--I won't undertake to decide; only in all his behaviour
with the fair sex he was extremely delicate. Women felt this, and were
the more ready to sympathise with him and help him, until at last he
revolted them by his drunkenness and debauchery, by the desperateness of
which I have spoken already.... I can think of no other word for it.
But in other relations he had by that time lost every sort of delicacy,
and was gradually sinking to the lowest depths of degradation. He once,
in the public assembly at T----, got as far as setting on the table a
jug with a notice: 'Any one, to whom it may seem agreeable to give the
high-born nobleman Poltyev (authentic documents in proof of his
pedigree are herewith exposed) a flip on the nose, may satisfy this
inclination on putting a rouble into this jug.' And I am told there
were persons found willing to pay for the privilege of flipping a
nobleman's nose! It is true that one such person, who put in only one
rouble and gave him _two_ flips, he first almost strangled, and then
forced to apologise; it is true, too, that part of the money gained in
this fashion he promptly distributed among other poor devils ... but
still, think what a disgrace!
In the course of his 'peregrinations from pillar to post,' he made his
way, too, to his ancestral home, which he had sold for next to nothing
to a speculator and money-lender well known in those days. The
money-lender was at home, and hearing of the presence in the
neighbourhood of the former owner, now reduced to vagrancy, he gave
orders not to admit him into the house, and even, in case of necessity,
to drive him away. Misha announced that he would not for his part
consent to enter the house, polluted by the presence of so repulsive a
person; that he would permit no one to drive him away, but was going to
the churchyard to pay his devotions at the grave of his parents. So in
fact he did.
In the churchyard he was joined by an old house-serf, who had once been
his nurse. The money-lender had deprived this old man of his monthly
allowance, and driven him off the estate; since then his refuge had been
a corner in a peasant's hut. Misha had been too short a time in
possession of his estate to have left behind him a particularly
favourable memory; still the old servant could not resist running to the
churchyard as soon as he heard of his young master's being there. He
found Misha sitting on the ground between the tombstones, asked for his
hand to kiss, as in old times, and even shed tears on seeing the rags
which clothed the limbs of his once pampered young charge.
Misha gazed long and silently at the old man. 'Timofay!' he said at
last; Timofay started.
'What do you desire?'
'Have you a spade?'
'I can get one.... But what do you want with a spade, Mihailo
'I want to dig myself a grave, Timofay, and to lie here for time
everlasting between my father and mother. There's only this spot left me
in the world. Get a spade!'
'Yes, sir,' said Timofay; he went and got it. And Misha began at once
digging in the ground, while Timofay stood by, his chin propped in his
hand, repeating: 'It's all that's left for you and me, master!'
Misha dug and dug, from time to time observing: 'Life's not worth
living, is it, Timofay?'
'It's not indeed, master.'
The hole was already of a good depth. People saw what Misha was about,
and ran to tell the new owner about it. The money-lender was at first
very angry, wanted to send for the police: 'This is sacrilege,' said he.
But afterwards, probably reflecting that it was inconvenient anyway to
have to do with such a madman, and that it might lead to a scandal,--he
went in his own person to the churchyard, and approaching Misha, still
toiling, made him a polite bow. He went on with his digging as though he
had not noticed his successor. 'Mihail Andreitch,' began the
money-lender, 'allow me to ask what you are doing here?'
'You can see--I am digging myself a grave.'
'Why are you doing so?'
'Because I don't want to live any longer.'
The money-lender fairly threw up his hands in amazement. 'You don't
want to live?'
Misha glanced menacingly at the money-lender. 'That surprises you?
Aren't you the cause of it all? ... You? ... You? ... Wasn't it you,
Judas, who robbed me, taking advantage of my childishness? Aren't you
flaying the peasants' skins off their backs? Haven't you taken from
this poor old man his crust of dry bread? Wasn't it you? ... O God!
everywhere nothing but injustice, and oppression, and evil-doing....
Everything must go to ruin then, and me too! I don't care for life, I
don't care for life in Russia!' And the spade moved faster than ever in
'Here's a devil of a business!' thought the money-lender; 'he's
positively burying himself alive.' 'Mihail Andreevitch,' he began
again: 'listen. I've been behaving badly to you, indeed; they told me
falsely of you.'
Misha went on digging.
'But why be desperate?'
Misha still went on digging, and kept throwing the earth at the
money-lender's feet, as though to say, 'Here you are, land-grabber.'
'Really, you 're wrong in this. Won't you be pleased to come in to have
some lunch, and rest a bit?'
Misha raised his head. 'So that's it now! And anything to drink?'
The money-lender was delighted. 'Why, of course ... I should think so.'
'You invite Timofay too?'
'Well, ... yes, him too.'
Misha pondered. 'Only, mind ... you made me a beggar, you know.... Don't
think you can get off with one bottle!'
'Set your mind at rest ... there shall be all you can want.'
Misha got up and flung down the spade.... 'Well, Timosha,' said he to
his old nurse; 'let's do honour to our host.... Come along.'
'Yes, sir,' answered the old man.
And all three started off to the house together. The money-lender knew
the man he had to deal with. At the first start Misha, it is true,
exacted a promise from him to 'grant all sorts of immunities' to the
peasants; but an hour later, this same Misha, together with Timofay,
both drunk, were dancing a galop in the big apartments, which still
seemed pervaded by the God-fearing shade of Andrei Nikolaevitch; and an
hour later still, Misha in a dead sleep (he had a very weak head for
spirits), laid in a cart with his high cap and dagger, was being driven
off to the town, more than twenty miles away, and there was flung under
a hedge.... As for Timofay, who could still keep on his legs, and only
hiccupped--him, of course, they kicked out of the house; since they
couldn't get at the master, they had to be content with the old servant.
Some time passed again, and I heard nothing of Misha.... God knows what
he was doing. But one day, as I sat over the samovar at a
posting-station on the T---- highroad, waiting for horses, I suddenly
heard under the open window of the station room a hoarse voice, uttering
in French the words: 'Monsieur ... monsieur ... prenez pitie d'un pauvre
gentil-homme ruine.' ... I lifted my head, glanced.... The
mangy-looking fur cap, the broken ornaments on the ragged Circassian
dress, the dagger in the cracked sheath, the swollen, but still rosy
face, the dishevelled, but still thick crop of hair.... Mercy on us!
Misha! He had come then to begging alms on the high-roads. I could not
help crying out. He recognised me, started, turned away, and was about
to move away from the window. I stopped him ... but what could I say to
him? Give him a lecture? ... In silence I held out a five-rouble note;
he, also in silence, took it in his still white and plump, though
shaking and dirty hand, and vanished round the corner of the house.
It was a good while before they gave me horses, and I had time to give
myself up to gloomy reflections on my unexpected meeting with Misha; I
felt ashamed of having let him go so unsympathetically.
At last I set off on my way, and half a mile from the station I observed
ahead of me, in the road, a crowd of people moving along with a curious,
as it seemed rhythmic, step. I overtook this crowd--and what did I see?
Some dozen or so beggars, with sacks over their shoulders, were walking
two by two, singing and leaping about, while in front of them danced
Misha, stamping time with his feet, and shouting, 'Natchiki-tchikaldy,
tchuk, tchuk, tchuk! ... Natchiki-tchikaldy, tchuk, tchuk, tchuk!'
Directly my carriage caught them up, and he saw me, he began at once
shouting, 'Hurrah! Stand in position! right about face, guard of the
The beggars took up his shout, and halted; while he, with his peculiar
laugh, jumped on to the carriage step, and again yelled: Hurrah!
'What's the meaning of this?' I asked with involuntary astonishment.
'This? This is my company, my army--all beggars, God's people, friends
of my heart. Every one of them, thanks to you, has had a glass; and
now we are all rejoicing and making merry! ... Uncle! Do you know it's
only with beggars, God's people, that one can live in the world ... by
God, it is!'
I made him no answer ... but at that moment he struck me as such
a kind good creature, his face expressed such childlike
simple-heartedness.... A light seemed suddenly as it were to dawn upon
me, and I felt a pang in my heart.... 'Get into the carriage,' I said
to him. He was taken aback....
'What? Into the carriage?'
'Yes, get in, get in,' I repeated; 'I want to make you a suggestion. Sit
down.... Come along with me.'
'Well, as you will.' He sat down. 'Well, and you, my honoured friends,
my dear comrades,' he added, addressing the beggars, 'fare-well, till we
meet again.' Misha took off his high cap, and bowed low. The beggars all
seemed overawed.... I told the coachman to whip up the horses, and the
carriage rolled off.
The suggestion I wanted to make Misha was this: the idea suddenly
occurred to me to take him with me to my home in the country, about
five-and-twenty miles from that station, to rescue him, or at least to
make an effort to rescue him. 'Listen, Misha,' I said; 'will you come
along and live with me? ... You shall have everything provided you; you
shall have clothes and linen made you; you shall be properly fitted out,
and you shall have money to spend on tobacco, and so on, only on one
condition, that you give up drink.... Do you agree?'
Misha was positively aghast with delight; he opened his eyes wide,
flushed crimson, and suddenly falling on my shoulder, began kissing me,
and repeating in a broken voice, 'Uncle ... benefactor ... God reward
you.' ... He burst into tears at last, and taking off his cap fell to
wiping his eyes, his nose, his lips with it.
'Mind,' I observed; 'remember the condition, not to touch strong drink.'
'Damnation to it!' he cried, with a wave of both arms, and with this
impetuous movement, I was more than ever conscious of the strong smell
of spirits with which he seemed always saturated.... 'Uncle, if you
knew what my life has been.... If it hadn't been for sorrow, a cruel
fate.... But now I swear, I swear, I will mend my ways, I will show
you.... Uncle, I've never told a lie--you can ask whom you like.... I'm
honest, but I'm an unlucky fellow, uncle; I've known no kindness from
Here he broke down finally into sobs. I tried to soothe him, and
succeeded so far that when we reached home Misha had long been lost in a
heavy sleep, with his head on my knees.
He was at once assigned a room for himself, and at once, first thing,
taken to the bath, which was absolutely essential. All his clothes, and
his dagger and cap and torn boots, were carefully put away in a loft; he
was dressed in clean linen, slippers, and some clothes of mine, which,
as is always the way with poor relations, at once seemed to adapt
themselves to his size and figure. When he came to table, washed, clean,
and fresh, he seemed so touched and happy, he beamed all over with such
joyful gratitude, that I too felt moved and joyful.... His face was
completely transformed.... Boys of twelve have faces like that on Easter
Sundays, after the communion, when, thickly pomaded, in new jacket and
starched collars, they come to exchange Easter greetings with their
parents. Misha was continually--with a sort of cautious
incredulity--feeling himself and repeating: 'What does it mean? ... Am I
in heaven?' The next day he announced that he had not slept all night,
he had been in such ecstasy.
I had living in my house at that time an old aunt with her niece; both
of them were extremely disturbed when they heard of Misha's presence;
they could not comprehend how I could have asked him into my house!
There were very ugly rumours about him. But in the first place, I knew
he was always very courteous with ladies; and, secondly, I counted on
his promises of amendment. And, in fact, for the first two days of his
stay under my roof Misha not merely justified my expectations but
surpassed them, while the ladies of the household were simply enchanted
with him. He played piquet with the old lady, helped her to wind her
worsted, showed her two new games of patience; for the niece, who had a
small voice, he played accompaniments on the piano, and read Russian and
French poetry. He told both the ladies lively but discreet anecdotes; in
fact, he showed them every attention, so that they repeatedly expressed
their surprise to me, and the old lady even observed how unjust people
sometimes were.... The things--the things they had said of him ... and
he such a quiet fellow, and so polite ... poor Misha! It is true that at
table 'poor Misha' licked his lips in a rather peculiar, hurried way, if
he simply glanced at the bottle. But I had only to shake my finger at
him, and he would turn his eyes upwards, and lay his hand on his
heart ... as if to say, I have sworn.... 'I am regenerated now,' he
assured me.... 'Well, God grant it be so,' was my thought.... But
this regeneration did not last long.
The first two days he was very talkative and cheerful. But even on the
third day he seemed somehow subdued, though he remained, as before, with
the ladies and tried to entertain them. A half mournful, half dreamy
expression flitted now and then over his face, and the face itself was
paler and looked thinner. 'Are you unwell?' I asked him.
'Yes,' he answered; 'my head aches a little.' On the fourth day he was
completely silent; for the most part he sat in a corner, hanging his
head disconsolately, and his dejected appearance worked upon the
compassionate sympathies of the two ladies, who now, in their turn,
tried to amuse him. At table he ate nothing, stared at his plate, and
rolled up pellets of bread. On the fifth day the feeling of compassion
in the ladies began to be replaced by other emotions--uneasiness and
even alarm. Misha was so strange, he held aloof from people, and kept
moving along close to the walls, as though trying to steal by unnoticed,
and suddenly looking round as though some one had called him. And what
had become of his rosy colour? It seemed covered over by a layer of
earth. 'Are you still unwell?' I asked him.
'No, I'm all right,' he answered abruptly.
'Are you dull?'
'Why should I be dull?' But he turned away and would not look me
in the face.
'Or is it that wretchedness come over you again?' To this he made no
reply. So passed another twenty-four hours.
Next day my aunt ran into my room in a state of great excitement,
declaring that she would leave the house with her niece, if Misha was to
remain in it.
'Why, we are dreadfully scared with him.... He's not a man, he's a
wolf,--nothing better than a wolf. He keeps moving and moving about, and
doesn't speak--and looks so wild.... He almost gnashes his teeth at me.
My Katia, you know, is so nervous.... She was so struck with him the
first day.... I'm in terror for her, and indeed for myself too.' ... I
didn't know what to say to my aunt. I couldn't, anyway, turn Misha out,
after inviting him.
He relieved me himself from my difficult position. The same day,--I was
still sitting in my own room,--suddenly I heard behind me a husky and
angry voice: 'Nikolai Nikolaitch, Nikolai Nikolaitch!' I looked round;
Misha was standing in the doorway with a face that was fearful,
black-looking and distorted. 'Nikolai Nikolaitch!' he repeated ... (not
'What do you want?'
'Let me go ... at once!'
'Let me go, or I shall do mischief, I shall set the house on fire or cut
some one's throat.' Misha suddenly began trembling. 'Tell them to give
me back my clothes, and let a cart take me to the highroad, and let me
have some money, however little!'
'Are you displeased, then, at anything?'
'I can't live like this!' he shrieked at the top of his voice. 'I can't
live in your respectable, thrice-accursed house! It makes me sick, and
ashamed to live so quietly! ... How _you_ manage to endure it!'
'That is,' I interrupted in my turn, 'you mean--you can't live without
'Well, yes! yes!' he shrieked again: 'only let me go to my
brethren, my friends, to the beggars! ... Away from your
respectable, loathsome species!'
I was about to remind him of his sworn promises, but Misha's frenzied
look, his breaking voice, the convulsive tremor in his limbs,--it was
all so awful, that I made haste to get rid of him; I said that his
clothes should be given him at once, and a cart got ready; and taking
a note for twenty-five roubles out of a drawer, I laid it on the
table. Misha had begun to advance in a menacing way towards me,--but
on this, suddenly he stopped, his face worked, flushed, he struck
himself on the breast, the tears rushed from his eyes, and muttering,
'Uncle! angel! I know I'm a ruined man! thanks! thanks!' he snatched
up the note and ran away.
An hour later he was sitting in the cart dressed once more in his
Circassian costume, again rosy and cheerful; and when the horses
started, he yelled, tore off the peaked cap, and, waving it over his
head, made bow after bow. Just as he was going off, he had given me a
long and warm embrace, and whispered, 'Benefactor, benefactor ...
there's no saving me!' He even ran to the ladies and kissed their hands,
fell on his knees, called upon God, and begged their forgiveness! Katia
I found afterwards in tears.
The coachman, with whom Misha had set off, on coming home informed me
that he had driven him to the first tavern on the highroad--and that
there 'his honour had stuck,' had begun treating every one
indiscriminately--and had quickly sunk into unconsciousness.
From that day I never came across Misha again, but his ultimate fate I
learned in the following manner.
Three years later, I was again at home in the country; all of a sudden a
servant came in and announced that Madame Poltyev was asking to see me.
I knew no Madame Poltyev, and the servant, who made this announcement,
for some unknown reason smiled sarcastically. To my glance of inquiry,
he responded that the lady asking for me was young, poorly dressed, and
had come in a peasant's cart with one horse, which she was driving
herself! I told him to ask Madame Poltyev up to my room.
I saw a woman of five-and-twenty, in the dress of the small tradesman
class, with a large kerchief on her head. Her face was simple, roundish,
not without charm; she looked dejected and gloomy, and was shy and
awkward in her movements.
'You are Madame Poltyev?' I inquired, and I asked her to sit down.
'Yes,' she answered in a subdued voice, and she did not sit down. 'I am
the widow of your nephew, Mihail Andreevitch Poltyev.'
'Is Mihail Andreevitch dead? Has he been dead long? But sit down, I
She sank into a chair.
'It's two months.'
'And had you been married to him long?'
'I had been a year with him.'
'Where have you come from now?'
'From out Tula way.... There's a village there,
Znamenskoe-Glushkovo--perhaps you may know it. I am the daughter of the
deacon there. Mihail Andreitch and I lived there.... He lived in my
father's house. We were a whole year together.'
The young woman's lips twitched a little, and she put her hand up to
them. She seemed to be on the point of tears, but she controlled
herself, and cleared her throat.
'Mihail Andreitch,' she went on: 'before his death enjoined upon me to
go to you; "You must be sure to go," said he! And he told me to thank
you for all your goodness, and to give you ... this ... see, this little
thing (she took a small packet out of her pocket) which he always had
about him.... And Mihail Andreitch said, if you would be pleased to
accept it in memory of him, if you would not disdain it.... "There's
nothing else," said he, "I can give him" ... that is, you....'
In the packet there was a little silver cup with the monogram of Misha's
mother. This cup I had often seen in Misha's hands, and once he had even
said to me, speaking of some poor fellow, that he really was destitute,
since he had neither cup nor bowl, 'while I, see, have this anyway.'
I thanked her, took the cup, and asked:
'Of what complaint had Misha died? No doubt....'
Then I bit my tongue ... but the young woman understood my unuttered
hint.... She took a swift glance at me, then looked down again, smiled
mournfully, and said at once: 'Oh no! he had quite given that up, ever
since he got to know me ... But he had no health at all! ... It was
shattered quite. As soon as he gave up drink, he fell into ill health
directly. He became so steady; he always wanted to help father in his
land or in the garden, ... or any other work there might be ... in spite
of his being of noble birth. But how could he get the strength? ... At
writing, too, he tried to work; as you know, he could do that work
capitally, but his hands shook, and he couldn't hold the pen properly.
... He was always finding fault with himself; "I'm a white-handed poor
creature," he would say; "I've never done any good to anybody, never
helped, never laboured!" He worried himself very much about that.... He
used to say that our people labour,--but what use are we? ... Ah,
Nikolai Nikolaitch, he was a good man--and he was fond of me ... and
I... Ah, pardon me....'
Here the young woman wept outright. I would have consoled her, but I did
not know how.
'Have you a child left you?' I asked at last.
She sighed. 'No, no child.... Is it likely?' And her tears flowed faster
'And so that was how Misha's troubled wanderings had ended,' the old man
P. wound up his narrative. 'You will agree with me, I am sure, that I'm
right in calling him a desperate character; but you will most likely
agree too that he was not like the desperate characters of to-day;
still, a philosopher, you must admit, would find a family likeness
between him and them. In him and in them there's the thirst for
self-destruction, the wretchedness, the dissatisfaction.... And what it
all comes from, I leave the philosopher to decide.'
BOUGIVALLE, _November_ 1881.
A STRANGE STORY
Fifteen years ago--began H.--official duties compelled me to spend a few
days in the principal town of the province of T----. I stopped at a very
fair hotel, which had been established six months before my arrival by a
Jewish tailor, who had grown rich. I am told that it did not flourish
long, which is often the case with us; but I found it still in its full
splendour: the new furniture emitted cracks like pistol-shots at night;
the bed-linen, table-cloths, and napkins smelt of soap, and the painted
floors reeked of olive oil, which, however, in the opinion of the
waiter, an exceedingly elegant but not very clean individual, tended to
prevent the spread of insects. This waiter, a former valet of Prince
G.'s, was conspicuous for his free-and-easy manners and his
self-assurance. He invariably wore a second-hand frockcoat and slippers
trodden down at heel, carried a table-napkin under his arm, and had a
multitude of pimples on his cheeks. With a free sweeping movement of his
moist hands he gave utterance to brief but pregnant observations. He
showed a patronising interest in me, as a person capable of appreciating
his culture and knowledge of the world; but he regarded his own lot in
life with a rather disillusioned eye. 'No doubt about it,' he said to me
one day; 'ours is a poor sort of position nowadays. May be sent flying
any day!' His name was Ardalion.
I had to make a few visits to official persons in the town. Ardalion
procured me a coach and groom, both alike shabby and loose in the
joints; but the groom wore livery, the carriage was adorned with an
heraldic crest. After making all my official calls, I drove to see a
country gentleman, an old friend of my father's, who had been a long
time settled in the town.... I had not met him for twenty years; he had
had time to get married, to bring up a good-sized family, to be left a
widower and to make his fortune. His business was with government
monopolies, that is to say, he lent contractors for monopolies loans at
heavy interest.... 'There is always honour in risk,' they say, though
indeed the risk was small.
In the course of our conversation there came into the room with
hesitating steps, but as lightly as though on tiptoe, a young girl of
about seventeen, delicate-looking and thin. 'Here,' said my
acquaintance, 'is my eldest daughter Sophia; let me introduce you. She
takes my poor wife's place, looks after the house, and takes care of her
brothers and sisters.' I bowed a second time to the girl who had come in
(she meanwhile dropped into a chair without speaking), and thought to
myself that she did not look much like housekeeping or looking after
children. Her face was quite childish, round, with small, pleasing, but
immobile features; the blue eyes, under high, also immobile and
irregular eyebrows, had an intent, almost astonished look, as though
they had just observed something unexpected; the full little mouth with
the lifted upper lip, not only did not smile, but seemed as though
altogether innocent of such a practice; the rosy flush under the tender
skin stood in soft, diffused patches on the cheeks, and neither paled
nor deepened. The fluffy, fair hair hung in light clusters each side of
the little head. Her bosom breathed softly, and her arms were pressed
somehow awkwardly and severely against her narrow waist. Her blue gown
fell without folds--like a child's--to her little feet. The general
impression this girl made upon me was not one of morbidity, but of
something enigmatical. I saw before me not simply a shy, provincial
miss, but a creature of a special type--that I could not make out. This
type neither attracted nor repelled me; I did not fully understand it,
and only felt that I had never come across a nature more sincere. Pity
... yes! pity was the feeling that rose up within me at the sight of
this young, serious, keenly alert life--God knows why! 'Not of this
earth,' was my thought, though there was nothing exactly 'ideal' in the
expression of the face, and though Mademoiselle Sophie had obviously
come into the drawing-room in fulfilment of those duties of lady of the
house to which her father had referred.
He began to talk of life in the town of T----, of the social amusements
and advantages it offered. 'We're very quiet here,' he observed; 'the
governor's a melancholy fellow; the marshal of the province is a
bachelor. But there'll be a big ball in the Hall of the Nobility the day
after to-morrow. I advise you to go; there are some pretty girls here.
And you'll see all our _intelligentsi_ too.'
My acquaintance, as a man of university education, was fond of using
learned expressions. He pronounced them with irony, but also with
respect. Besides, we all know that moneylending, together with
respectability, developes a certain thoughtfulness in men.
'Allow me to ask, will you be at the ball?' I said, turning to my
friend's daughter. I wanted to hear the sound of her voice.
'Papa intends to go,' she answered, 'and I with him.'
Her voice turned out to be soft and deliberate, and she articulated
every syllable fully, as though she were puzzled.
'In that case, allow me to ask you for the first quadrille.'
She bent her head in token of assent, and even then did not smile.
I soon withdrew, and I remember the expression in her eyes, fixed
steadily upon me, struck me as so strange that I involuntarily looked
over my shoulder to see whether there were not some one or some thing
she was looking at behind my back.
I returned to the hotel, and after dining on the never-varied
'soupe-julienne,' cutlets, and green peas, and grouse cooked to a dry,
black chip, I sat down on the sofa and gave myself up to reflection. The
subject of my meditations was Sophia, this enigmatical daughter of my
old acquaintance; but Ardalion, who was clearing the table, explained my
thoughtfulness in his own way; he set it down to boredom.
'There is very little in the way of entertainment for visitors in our
town,' he began with his usual easy condescension, while he went on at
the same time flapping the backs of the chairs with a dirty
dinner-napkin--a practice peculiar, as you're doubtless aware, to
servants of superior education. 'Very little!'
He paused, and the huge clock on the wall, with a lilac rose on its
white face, seemed in its monotonous, sleepy tick, to repeat his words:
'Ve-ry! ve-ry!' it ticked. 'No concerts, nor theatres,' pursued Ardalion
(he had travelled abroad with his master, and had all but stayed in
Paris; he knew much better than to mispronounce this last word, as the
peasants do)--'nor dances, for example; nor evening receptions among the
nobility and gentry--there is nothing of the kind whatever.' (He paused
a moment, probably to allow me to observe the choiceness of his
diction.) 'They positively visit each other but seldom. Every one sits
like a pigeon on its perch. And so it comes to pass that visitors have
simply nowhere to go.'
Ardalion stole a sidelong glance at me.
'But there is one thing,' he went on, speaking with a drawl, 'in case
you should feel that way inclined....'
He glanced at me a second time and positively leered, but I suppose did
not observe signs of the requisite inclination in me.
The polished waiter moved towards the door, pondered a moment, came
back, and after fidgeting about uneasily a little, bent down to my ear,
and with a playful smile said:
'Would you not like to behold the dead?'
I stared at him in perplexity.
'Yes,' he went on, speaking in a whisper; 'there is a man like that
here. He's a simple artisan, and can't even read and write, but he does
marvellous things. If you, for example, go to him and desire to see any
one of your departed friends, he will be sure to show him you.'
'How does he do it?'
'That's his secret. For though he's an uneducated man--to speak bluntly,
illiterate--he's very great in godliness! Greatly respected he is among
the merchant gentry!'
'And does every one in the town know about this?'
'Those who need to know; but, there, of course--there's danger from the
police to be guarded against. Because, say what you will, such doings
are forbidden anyway, and for the common people are a temptation; the
common people--the mob, we all know, quickly come to blows.'
'Has he shown you the dead?' I asked Ardalion.
Ardalion nodded. 'He has; my father he brought before me as if living.'
I stared at Ardalion. He laughed and played with his dinner-napkin, and
condescendingly, but unflinchingly, looked at me.
'But this is very curious!' I cried at last. 'Couldn't I make the
acquaintance of this artisan?'
'You can't go straight to him; but one can act through his mother. She's
a respectable old woman; she sells pickled apples on the bridge. If you
wish it, I will ask her.'
Ardalion coughed behind his hand. 'And a gratuity, whatever you think
fit, nothing much, of course, should also be handed to her--the old
lady. And I on my side will make her understand that she has nothing to
fear from you, as you are a visitor here, a gentleman--and of course you
can understand that this is a secret, and will not in any case get her
into any unpleasantness.'
Ardalion took the tray in one hand, and with a graceful swing of the
tray and his own person, turned towards the door.
'So I may reckon upon you!' I shouted after him.
'You may trust me!' I heard his self-satisfied voice say: 'We'll talk to
the old woman and transmit you her answer exactly.'
* * * * *
I will not enlarge on the train of thought aroused in me by the
extraordinary fact Ardalion had related; but I am prepared to admit that
I awaited the promised reply with impatience. Late in the evening
Ardalion came to me and announced that to his annoyance he could not
find the old woman. I handed him, however, by way of encouragement, a
three-rouble note. The next morning he appeared again in my room with a
beaming countenance; the old woman had consented to see me.
'Hi! boy!' shouted Ardalion in the corridor; 'Hi! apprentice! Come
here!' A boy of six came up, grimed all over with soot like a kitten,
with a shaved head, perfectly bald in places, in a torn, striped smock,
and huge goloshes on his bare feet. 'You take the gentleman, you know
where,' said Ardalion, addressing the 'apprentice,' and pointing to me.
'And you, sir, when you arrive, ask for Mastridia Karpovna.'
The boy uttered a hoarse grunt, and we set off.
* * * * *
We walked rather a long while about the unpaved streets of the town of
T----; at last in one of them, almost the most deserted and desolate of
all, my guide stopped before an old two-story wooden house, and wiping
his nose all over his smock-sleeve, said: 'Here; go to the right.' I
passed through the porch into the outer passage, stumbled towards my
right, a low door creaked on rusty hinges, and I saw before me a stout
old woman in a brown jacket lined with hare-skin, with a parti-coloured
kerchief on her head.
'Mastridia Karpovna?' I inquired.
'The same, at your service,' the old woman replied in a piping voice.
'Please walk in. Won't you take a chair?'
The room into which the old woman conducted me was so littered up with
every sort of rubbish, rags, pillows, feather-beds, sacks, that one
could hardly turn round in it. The sunlight barely struggled in through
two dusty little windows; in one corner, from behind a heap of boxes
piled on one another, there came a feeble whimpering and wailing.... I
could not tell from what; perhaps a sick baby, or perhaps a puppy. I sat
down on a chair, and the old woman stood up directly facing me. Her face
was yellow, half-transparent like wax; her lips were so fallen in that
they formed a single straight line in the midst of a multitude of
wrinkles; a tuft of white hair stuck out from below the kerchief on her
head, but the sunken grey eyes peered out alertly and cleverly from
under the bony overhanging brow; and the sharp nose fairly stuck out
like a spindle, fairly sniffed the air as if it would say: I'm a smart
one! 'Well, you're no fool!' was my thought. At the same time she smelt
I explained to her the object of my visit, of which, however, as I
observed, she must be aware. She listened to me, blinked her eyes
rapidly, and only lifted her nose till it stuck out still more sharply,
as though she were making ready to peck.
'To be sure, to be sure,' she said at last; 'Ardalion Matveitch did say
something, certainly; my son Vassinka's art you were wanting.... But we
can't be sure, my dear sir....'
'Oh, why so?' I interposed. 'As far as I'm concerned, you may feel
perfectly easy.... I'm not an informer.'
'Oh, mercy on us,' the old woman caught me up hurriedly, 'what do you
mean? Could we dare to suppose such a thing of your honour! And on what
ground could one inform against us? Do you suppose it's some sinful
contrivance of ours? No, sir, my son's not the one to lend himself to
anything wicked ... or give way to any sort of witchcraft.... God forbid
indeed, holy Mother of Heaven! (The old woman crossed herself three
times.) He's the foremost in prayer and fasting in the whole province;
the foremost, your honour, he is! And that's just it: great grace has
been vouchsafed to him. Yes, indeed. It's not the work of his hands.
It's from on high, my dear; so it is.'
'So you agree?' I asked: 'when can I see your son?'
The old woman blinked again and shifted her rolled up handkerchief from
one sleeve to the other.
'Oh, well, sir--well, sir, I can't say.'
'Allow me, Mastridia Karpovna, to hand you this,' I interrupted, and I
gave her a ten-rouble note.
The old woman clutched it at once in her fat, crooked fingers, which
recalled the fleshy claws of an owl, quickly slipped it into her sleeve,
pondered a little, and as though she had suddenly reached a decision,
slapped her thighs with her open hand.
'Come here this evening a little after seven,' she said, not in her
previous voice, but in quite a different one, more solemn and subdued;
'only not to this room, but kindly go straight up to the floor above,
and you'll find a door to your left, and you open that door; and you'll
go, your honour, into an empty room, and in that room you'll see a
chair. Sit you down on that chair and wait; and whatever you see, don't
utter a word and don't do anything; and please don't speak to my son
either; for he's but young yet, and he suffers from fits. He's very
easily scared; he'll tremble and shake like any chicken ... a sad
thing it is!'
I looked at Mastridia. 'You say he's young, but since he's your son ...'
'In the spirit, sir, in the spirit. Many's the orphan I have under my
care!' she added, wagging her head in the direction of the corner, from
which came the plaintive whimper. 'O--O God Almighty, holy Mother of
God! And do you, your honour, before you come here, think well which of
your deceased relations or friends--the kingdom of Heaven to
them!--you're desirous of seeing. Go over your deceased friends, and
whichever you select, keep him in your mind, keep him all the while till
my son comes!'
'Why, mustn't I tell your son whom ...'
'Nay, nay, sir, not one word. He will find out what he needs in your
thoughts himself. You've only to keep your friend thoroughly in mind;
and at your dinner drink a drop of wine--just two or three glasses; wine
never comes amiss.' The old woman laughed, licked her lips, passed her
hand over her mouth, and sighed.
'So at half-past seven?' I queried, getting up from my chair.
'At half-past seven, your honour, at half-past seven,' Mastridia
Karpovna replied reassuringly.
* * * * *
I took leave of the old woman and went back to the hotel. I did not
doubt that they were going to make a fool of me, but in what way?--that
was what excited my curiosity. With Ardalion I did not exchange more
than two or three words. 'Did she see you?' he asked me, knitting his
brow, and on my affirmative reply, he exclaimed: 'The old woman's as
good as any statesman!' I set to work, in accordance with the
'statesman's' counsel, to run over my deceased friends.
After rather prolonged hesitation I fixed, at last, on an old man who
had long been dead, a Frenchman, once my tutor. I selected him not
because he had any special attraction for me; but his whole figure was
so original, so unlike any figure of to-day, that it would be utterly
impossible to imitate it. He had an enormous head, fluffy white hair
combed straight back, thick black eyebrows, a hawk nose, and two large
warts of a pinkish hue in the middle of the forehead; he used to wear a
green frockcoat with smooth brass buttons, a striped waistcoat with a
stand-up collar, a jabot and lace cuffs. 'If he shows me my old
Dessaire,' I thought, 'well, I shall have to admit that he's a
At dinner I followed the old dame's behest and drank a bottle of
Lafitte, of the first quality, so Ardalion averred, though it had a
very strong flavour of burnt cork, and a thick sediment at the bottom
of each glass.
* * * * *
Exactly at half-past seven I stood in front of the house where I had
conversed with the worthy Mastridia Karpovna. All the shutters of the
windows were closed, but the door was open. I went into the house,
mounted the shaky staircase to the first story, and opening a door on
the left, found myself, as the old woman had said, in a perfectly empty,
rather large room; a tallow candle set in the window-sill threw a dim
light over the room; against the wall opposite the door stood a
wicker-bottomed chair. I snuffed the candle, which had already burnt
down enough to form a long smouldering wick, sat down on the chair and
began to wait.
The first ten minutes passed rather quickly; in the room itself there
was absolutely nothing which could distract my attention, but I listened
intently to every rustle, looked intently at the closed door.... My
heart was throbbing. After the first ten minutes followed another ten
minutes, then half an hour, three-quarters of an hour, and not a stir of
any kind around! I coughed several times to make my presence known; I
began to feel bored and out of temper; to be made a fool of in just that
way had not entered into my calculations. I was on the point of getting
up from my seat, taking the candle from the window, and going
downstairs.... I looked at it; the wick again wanted snuffing; but as I
turned my eyes from the window to the door, I could not help starting;
with his back leaning against the door stood a man. He had entered so
quickly and noiselessly that I had heard nothing. He wore a simple blue
smock; he was of middle height and rather thick-set. With his hands
behind his back and his head bent, he was staring at me. In the dim
light of the candle I could not distinctly make out his features. I saw
nothing but a shaggy mane of matted hair falling on his forehead, and
thick, rather drawn lips and whitish eyes. I was nearly speaking to him,
but I recollected Mastridia's injunction, and bit my lips. The man, who
had come in, continued to gaze at me, and, strange to say, at the same
time I felt something like fear, and, as though at the word of command,
promptly started thinking of my old tutor. _He_ still stood at the door
and breathed heavily, as though he had been climbing a mountain or
lifting a weight, while his eyes seemed to expand, seemed to come closer
to me--and I felt uncomfortable under their obstinate, heavy, menacing
stare; at times those eyes glowed with a malignant inward fire, a fire
such as I have seen in the eyes of a pointer dog when it 'points' at a
hare; and, like a pointer dog, _he_ kept _his_ eyes intently following
mine when I 'tried to double,' that is, tried to turn my eyes away.
* * * * *
So passed I do not know how long--perhaps a minute, perhaps a quarter of
an hour. He still gazed at me; I still experienced a certain discomfort
and alarm and still thought of the Frenchman. Twice I tried to say to
myself, 'What nonsense! what a farce!' I tried to smile, to shrug my
shoulders.... It was no use! All initiative had all at once 'frozen up'
within me--I can find no other word for it. I was overcome by a sort of
numbness. Suddenly I noticed that he had left the door, and was standing
a step or two nearer to me; then he gave a slight bound, both feet
together, and stood closer still.... Then again ... and again; while the
menacing eyes were simply fastened on my whole face, and the hands
remained behind, and the broad chest heaved painfully. These leaps
struck me as ridiculous, but I felt dread too, and what I could not
understand at all, a drowsiness began suddenly to come upon me. My
eyelids clung together ... the shaggy figure with the whitish eyes in
the blue smock seemed double before me, and suddenly vanished
altogether! ... I shook myself; he was again standing between the door
and me, but now much nearer.... Then he vanished again--a sort of mist
seemed to fall upon him; again he appeared ... vanished again ...
appeared again, and always closer, closer ... his hard, almost gasping
breathing floated across to me now.... Again the mist fell, and all of a
sudden out of this mist the head of old Dessaire began to take distinct
shape, beginning with the white, brushed-back hair! Yes: there were his
warts, his black eyebrows, his hook nose! There too his green coat with
the brass buttons, the striped waistcoat and jabot.... I shrieked, I got
up.... The old man vanished, and in his place I saw again the man in the
blue smock. He moved staggering to the wall, leaned his head and both
arms against it, and heaving like an over-loaded horse, in a husky voice
said, 'Tea!' Mastridia Karpovna--how she came there I can't say--flew to
him and saying: 'Vassinka! Vassinka!' began anxiously wiping away the
sweat, which simply trickled from his face and hair. I was on the point
of approaching her, but she, so insistently, in such a heart-rending
voice cried: 'Your honour! merciful sir! have pity on us, go away, for
Christ's sake!' that I obeyed, while she turned again to her son.
'Bread-winner, darling,' she murmured soothingly: 'you shall have tea
directly, directly. And you too, sir, had better take a cup of tea at
home!' she shouted after me.
* * * * *
When I got home I obeyed Mastridia and ordered some tea; I felt
tired--even weak. 'Well?' Ardalion questioned me, 'have you been? did
you see something?'
'He did, certainly, show me something ... which, I'll own, I had not
anticipated,' I replied.
'He's a man of marvellous power,' observed Ardalion, carrying off the
samovar; 'he is held in high esteem among the merchant gentry.' As I
went to bed, and reflected on the incident that had occurred to me, I
fancied at last that I had reached some explanation of it. The man
doubtless possessed a considerable magnetic power; acting by some means,
which I did not understand of course, upon my nerves, he had evoked
within me so vividly, so definitely, the image of the old man of whom I
was thinking, that at last I fancied that I saw him before my eyes....
Such 'metastases,' such transferences of sensation, are recognised by
science. It was all very well; but the force capable of producing such
effects still remained, something marvellous and mysterious. 'Say what
you will,' I thought, 'I've seen, seen with my own eyes, my dead tutor!'
* * * * *
The next day the ball in the Hall of Nobility took place. Sophia's
father called on me and reminded me of the engagement I had made with
his daughter. At ten o'clock I was standing by her side in the middle
of a ballroom lighted up by a number of copper lamps, and was preparing
to execute the not very complicated steps of the French quadrille to
the resounding blare of the military band. Crowds of people were there;
the ladies were especially numerous and very pretty; but the first
place among them would certainly have been given to my partner, if it
had not been for the rather strange, even rather wild look in her eyes.
I noticed that she hardly ever blinked; the unmistakable expression of
sincerity in her eyes did not make up for what was extraordinary in
them. But she had a charming figure, and moved gracefully, though with
constraint. When she waltzed, and, throwing herself a little back, bent
her slender neck towards her right shoulder, as though she wanted to
get away from her partner, nothing more touchingly youthful and pure
could be imagined. She was all in white, with a turquoise cross on a
I asked her for a mazurka, and tried to talk to her. But her answers
were few and reluctant, though she listened attentively, with the same
expression of dreamy absorption which had struck me when I first met
her. Not the slightest trace of desire to please, at her age, with her
appearance, and the absence of a smile, and those eyes, continually
fixed directly upon the eyes of the person speaking to her, though they
seemed at the same time to see something else, to be absorbed with
something different.... What a strange creature! Not knowing, at last,
how to thaw her, I bethought me of telling her of my adventure of the
* * * * *
She heard me to the end with evident interest, but was not, as I had
expected, surprised at what I told her, and merely asked whether he was
not called Vassily. I recollected that the old woman had called him
'Vassinka.' 'Yes, his name is Vassily,' I answered; 'do you know him?'
'There is a saintly man living here called Vassily,' she observed; 'I
wondered whether it was he.'
'Saintliness has nothing to do with this,' I remarked; 'it's simply
the action of magnetism--a fact of interest for doctors and students
I proceeded to expound my views on the peculiar force called magnetism,
on the possibility of one man's will being brought under the influence
of another's will, and so on; but my explanations--which were, it is
true, somewhat confused--seemed to make no impression on her. Sophie
listened, dropping her clasped hands on her knees with a fan lying
motionless in them; she did not play with it, she did not move her
fingers at all, and I felt that all my words rebounded from her as from
a statue of stone. She heard them, but clearly she had her own
convictions, which nothing could shake or uproot.
'You can hardly admit miracles!' I cried.
'Of course I admit them,' she answered calmly. 'And how can one help
admitting them? Are not we told in the gospel that who has but a grain
of faith as big as a mustard seed, he can remove mountains? One need
only have faith--there will be miracles!'
'It seems there is very little faith nowadays,' I observed; 'anyway, one
doesn't hear of miracles.'
'But yet there are miracles; you have seen one yourself. No; faith is
not dead nowadays; and the beginning of faith ...'
'The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,' I interrupted.
'The beginning of faith,' pursued Sophie, nothing daunted, 'is
self-abasement ... humiliation.'
'Humiliation even?' I queried.
'Yes. The pride of man, haughtiness, presumption--that is what must be
utterly rooted up. You spoke of the will--that's what must be broken.'
I scanned the whole figure of the young girl who was uttering such
sentences.... 'My word, the child's in earnest, too,' was my thought. I
glanced at our neighbours in the mazurka; they, too, glanced at me, and
I fancied that my astonishment amused them; one of them even smiled at
me sympathetically, as though he would say: 'Well, what do you think of
our queer young lady? every one here knows what she's like.'
'Have you tried to break your will?' I said, turning to Sophie again.
'Every one is bound to do what he thinks right,' she answered in a
dogmatic tone. 'Let me ask you,' I began, after a brief silence, 'do you
believe in the possibility of calling up the dead?'
Sophie softly shook her head.
'There are no dead.'
'There are no dead souls; they are undying and can always appear, when
they like.... They are always about us.'
'What? Do you suppose, for instance, that an immortal soul may be at
this moment hovering about that garrison major with the red nose?'
'Why not? The sunlight falls on him and his nose, and is not the
sunlight, all light, from God? And what does external appearance
matter? To the pure all things are pure! Only to find a teacher, to
find a leader!'
'But excuse me, excuse me,' I put in, not, I must own, without malicious
intent. 'You want a leader ... but what is your priest for?'
Sophie looked coldly at me.
'You mean to laugh at me, I suppose. My priestly father tells me what I
ought to do; but what I want is a leader who would show me himself in
action how to sacrifice one's self!'
She raised her eyes towards the ceiling. With her childlike face, and
that expression of immobile absorption, of secret, continual perplexity,
she reminded me of the pre-raphaelite Madonnas....
'I have read somewhere,' she went on, not turning to me, and hardly
moving her lips, 'of a grand person who directed that he should be
buried under a church porch so that all the people who came in should
tread him under foot and trample on him.... That is what one ought to
do in life.'
Boom! boom! tra-ra-ra! thundered the drums from the band.... I must own
such a conversation at a ball struck me as eccentric in the extreme; the
ideas involuntarily kindled within me were of a nature anything but
religious. I took advantage of my partner's being invited to one of the
figures of the mazurka to avoid renewing our quasi-theological
A quarter of an hour later I conducted Mademoiselle Sophie to her
father, and two days after I left the town of T----, and the image of
the girl with the childlike face and the soul impenetrable as stone
slipped quickly out of my memory.
Two years passed, and it chanced that that image was recalled again to
me. It was like this: I was talking to a colleague who had just
returned from a tour in South Russia. He had spent some time in the
town of T----, and told me various items of news about the
neighbourhood. 'By the way!' he exclaimed, 'you knew V. G. B. very
well, I fancy, didn't you?'
'Of course I know him.'
'And his daughter Sophia, do you know her?'
'I've seen her twice.'
'Only fancy, she's run away!'
'Well, I don't know. Three months ago she disappeared, and nothing's
been heard of her. And the astonishing thing is no one can make out whom
she's run off with. Fancy, they've not the slightest idea, not the
smallest suspicion! She'd refused all the offers made her, and she was
most proper in her behaviour. Ah, these quiet, religious girls are the
ones! It's made an awful scandal all over the province! B.'s in
despair.... And whatever need had she to run away? Her father carried
out her wishes in everything. And what's so unaccountable, all the
Lovelaces of the province are there all right, not one's missing.'
'And they've not found her up till now?'
'I tell you she might as well be at the bottom of the sea! It's one rich
heiress less in the world, that's the worst of it.'
This piece of news greatly astonished me. It did not seem at all in
keeping with the recollection I had of Sophia B. But there! anything
* * * * *
In the autumn of the same year fate brought me--again on official
business--into the S---- province, which is, as every one knows, next to
the province of T----. It was cold and rainy weather; the worn-out
posting-horses could scarcely drag my light trap through the black slush
of the highroad. One day, I remember, was particularly unlucky: three
times we got 'stuck' in the mud up to the axles of the wheels; my driver
was continually giving up one rut and with moans and grunts trudging
across to the other, and finding things no better with that. In fact,
towards evening I was so exhausted that on reaching the posting-station
I decided to spend the night at the inn. I was given a room with a
broken-down wooden sofa, a sloping floor, and torn paper on the walls;
there was a smell in it of kvas, bast-mats, onions, and even
turpentine, and swarms of flies were on everything; but at any rate I
could find shelter there from the weather, and the rain had set in, as
they say, for the whole day. I ordered a samovar to be brought, and,
sitting on the sofa, settled down to those cheerless wayside reflections
so familiar to travellers in Russia.
They were broken in upon by a heavy knocking that came from the common
room, from which my room was separated by a deal partition. This sound
was accompanied by an intermittent metallic jingle, like the clank of
chains, and a coarse male voice boomed out suddenly: 'The blessing of
God on all within this house. The blessing of God! the blessing of God!
Amen, amen! Scatter His enemies!' repeated the voice, with a sort of
incongruous and savage drawl on the last syllable of each word.... A
noisy sigh was heard, and a ponderous body sank on to the bench with the
same jingling sound. 'Akulina! servant of God, come here!' the voice
began again: 'Behold! Clothed in rags and blessed! ... Ha-ha-ha! Tfoo!
Merciful God, merciful God, merciful God!' the voice droned like a
deacon in the choir. 'Merciful God, Creator of my body, behold my
iniquity.... O-ho-ho! Ha-ha! ... Tfoo! And all abundance be to this house
in the seventh hour!'
'Who's that?' I asked the hospitable landlady, who came in with
'That, your honour,' she answered me in a hurried whisper, 'is a
blessed, holy man. He's not long come into our parts; and here he's
graciously pleased to visit us. In such weather! The wet's simply
trickling from him, poor dear man, in streams! And you should see the
chains on him--such a lot!'
'The blessing of God! the blessing of God!' the voice was heard again.
'Akulina! Hey, Akulina! Akulinushka--friend! where is our paradise? Our
fair paradise of bliss? In the wilderness is our paradise, ...
para-dise.... And to this house, from beginning of time, great
happiness, ... o ... o ... o ...' The voice muttered something
inarticulate, and again, after a protracted yawn, there came the hoarse
laugh. This laugh broke out every time, as it were, involuntarily, and
every time it was followed by vigorous spitting.
'Ah, me! Stepanitch isn't here! That's the worst of it!' the landlady
said, as it were to herself, as she stood with every sign of the
profoundest attention at the door. 'He will say some word of salvation,
and I, foolish woman, may not catch it!'
She went out quickly.
* * * * *
In the partition there was a chink; I applied my eye to it. The crazy
pilgrim was sitting on a bench with his back to me; I saw nothing but
his shaggy head, as huge as a beer-can, and a broad bent back in a
patched and soaking shirt. Before him, on the earth floor, knelt a
frail-looking woman in a jacket, such as are worn by women of the
artisan class--old and wet through--and with a dark kerchief pulled down
almost over her eyes. She was trying to pull the holy man's boots off;
her fingers slid off the greasy, slippery leather. The landlady was
standing near her, with her arms folded across her bosom, gazing
reverently at the 'man of God.' He was, as before, mumbling some
At last the woman succeeded in tugging off the boots. She almost fell
backwards, but recovered herself, and began unwinding the strips of rag
which were wrapped round the vagrant's legs. On the sole of his foot
there was a wound.... I turned away.
'A cup of tea wouldn't you bid me get you, my dear?' I heard the hostess
saying in an obsequious voice.
'What a notion!' responded the holy man. 'To indulge the sinful body....
O-ho-ho! Break all the bones in it ... but she talks of tea! Oh, oh,
worthy old woman, Satan is strong within us.... Fight him with hunger,
fight him with cold, with the sluice-gates of heaven, the pouring,
penetrating rain, and he takes no harm--he is alive still! Remember the
day of the Intercession of the Mother of God! You will receive, you will
receive in abundance!'
The landlady could not resist uttering a faint groan of admiration.
'Only listen to me! Give all thou hast, give thy head, give thy shirt!
If they ask not of thee, yet give! For God is all-seeing! Is it hard for
Him to destroy your roof? He has given thee bread in His mercy, and do
thou bake it in the oven! He seeth all! Se ... e ... eth! Whose eye is
in the triangle? Say, whose?'
The landlady stealthily crossed herself under her neckerchief.
'The old enemy is adamant! A ... da ... mant! A ... da ... mant!' the
religious maniac repeated several times, gnashing his teeth. 'The old
serpent! But God will arise! Yes, God will arise and scatter His
enemies! I will call up all the dead! I will go against His enemy....
'Have you any oil?' said another voice, hardly audible; 'let me put some
on the wound.... I have got a clean rag.'
I peeped through the chink again; the woman in the jacket was still
busied with the vagrant's sore foot.... 'A Magdalen!' I thought.
'I'll get it directly, my dear,' said the woman, and, coming into my
room, she took a spoonful of oil from the lamp burning before the
'Who's that waiting on him?' I asked.
'We don't know, sir, who it is; she too, I suppose, is seeking
salvation, atoning for her sins. But what a saintly man he is!'
'Akulinushka, my sweet child, my dear daughter,' the crazy pilgrim was
repeating meanwhile, and he suddenly burst into tears.
The woman kneeling before him lifted her eyes to him.... Heavens! where
had I seen those eyes?
The landlady went up to her with the spoonful of oil. She finished her
operation, and, getting up from the floor, asked if there were a clean
loft and a little hay.... 'Vassily Nikititch likes to sleep on hay,'
'To be sure there is, come this way,' answered the woman; 'come this
way, my dear,' she turned to the holy man, 'and dry yourself and rest.'
The man coughed, slowly got up from the bench--his chains clanked
again--and turning round with his face to me, looked for the holy
pictures, and began crossing himself with a wide movement.
I recognised him instantly: it was the very artisan Vassily, who had
once shown me my dead tutor!
His features were little changed; only their expression had become still
more unusual, still more terrible.... The lower part of his swollen face
was overgrown with unkempt beard. Tattered, filthy, wild-looking, he
inspired in me more repugnance than horror. He left off crossing
himself, but still his eyes wandered senselessly about the corners of
the room, about the floor, as though he were waiting for something....
'Vassily Nikititch, please come,' said the woman in the jacket with a
bow. He suddenly threw up his head and turned round, but stumbled and
tottered.... His companion flew to him at once, and supported him under
the arm. Judging by her voice and figure, she seemed still young; her
face it was almost impossible to see.
'Akulinushka, friend!' the vagrant repeated once more in a shaking
voice, and opening his mouth wide, and smiting himself on the breast
with his fist, he uttered a deep groan, that seemed to come from the
bottom of his heart. Both followed the landlady out of the room.
I lay down on my hard sofa and mused a long while on what I had seen. My
mesmeriser had become a regular religious maniac. This was what he had
been brought to by the power which one could not but recognise in him!
* * * * *
The next morning I was preparing to go on my way. The rain was falling
as fast as the day before, but I could not delay any longer. My
servant, as he gave me water to wash, wore a special smile on his
face, a smile of restrained irony. I knew that smile well; it
indicated that my servant had heard something discreditable or even
shocking about gentlefolks. He was obviously burning with impatience
to communicate it to me.
'Well, what is it?' I asked at last.
'Did your honour see the crazy pilgrim yesterday?' my man began at once.
'Yes; what then?'
'And did you see his companion too?'
'Yes, I saw her.'
'She's a young lady, of noble family.'
'It's the truth I'm telling you; some merchants arrived here this
morning from T----; they recognised her. They did tell me her name, but
I've forgotten it.'
It was like a flash of enlightenment. 'Is the pilgrim still
here?' I asked.
'I fancy he's not gone yet. He's been ever so long at the gate, and
making such a wonderful wise to-do, that there's no getting by. He's
amusing himself with this tomfoolery; he finds it pay, no doubt.'
My man belonged to the same class of educated servants as Ardalion.
'And is the lady with him?'
'Yes. She's in attendance on him.'