Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
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.'
* * * * *
I went out on to the steps, and got a view of the crazy pilgrim. He was
sitting on a bench at the gate, and, bent down with both his open hands
pressed on it, he was shaking his drooping head from right to left, for
all the world like a wild beast in a cage. The thick mane of curly hair
covered his eyes, and shook from side to side, and so did his pendulous
lips.... A strange, almost unhuman muttering came from them. His
companion had only just finished washing from a pitcher that was hanging
on a pole, and without having yet replaced her kerchief on her head, was
making her way back to the gate along a narrow plank laid across the
dark puddles of the filthy yard. I glanced at her head, which was now
entirely uncovered, and positively threw up my hands with astonishment:
before me stood Sophie B.!
She turned quickly round and fixed upon me her blue eyes, immovable as
ever. She was much thinner, her skin looked coarser and had the
yellowish-ruddy tinge of sunburn, her nose was sharper, and her lips
were harder in their lines. But she was not less good-looking; only
besides her old expression of dreamy amazement there was now a different
look--resolute, almost bold, intense and exalted. There was not a trace
of childishness left in the face now.
I went up to her. 'Sophia Vladimirovna,' I cried, 'can it be you? In
such a dress ... in such company....'
She started, looked still more intently at me, as though anxious to find
out who was speaking to her, and, without saying a word to me, fairly
rushed to her companion.
'Akulinushka,' he faltered, with a heavy sigh, 'our sins, sins ...'
'Vassily Nikititch, let us go at once! Do you hear, at once, at once,'
she said, pulling her kerchief on to her forehead with one hand, while
with the other she supported the pilgrim under the elbow; 'let us go,
Vassily Nikititch: there is danger here.'
'I'm coming, my good girl, I'm coming,' the crazy pilgrim responded
obediently, and, bending his whole body forward, he got up from the
seat. 'Here's only this chain to fasten....'
I once more approached Sophia, and told her my name. I began beseeching
her to listen to me, to say one word to me. I pointed to the rain,
which was coming down in bucketsful. I begged her to have some care for
her health, the health of her companion. I mentioned her father.... But
she seemed possessed by a sort of wrathful, a sort of vindictive
excitement: without paying the slightest attention to me, setting her
teeth and breathing hard, she urged on the distracted vagrant in an
undertone, in soft insistent words, girt him up, fastened on his
chains, pulled on to his hair a child's cloth cap with a broken peak,
stuck his staff in his hand, slung a wallet on her own shoulder, and
went with him out at the gate into the street.... To stop her actually
I had not the right, and it would have been of no use; and at my last
despairing call she did not even turn round. Supporting the 'man of
God' under his arm, she stepped rapidly over the black mud of the
street; and in a few moments, across the dim dusk of the foggy morning,
through the thick network of falling raindrops, I saw the last glimpse
of the two figures, the crazy pilgrim and Sophie.... They turned the
corner of a projecting hut, and vanished for ever.
* * * * *
I went back to my room. I fell to pondering. I could not understand it;
I could not understand how such a girl, well brought up, young, and
wealthy, could throw up everything and every one, her own home, her
family, her friends, break with all her habits, with all the comforts of
life, and for what? To follow a half-insane vagrant, to become his
servant! I could not for an instant entertain the idea that the
explanation of such a step was to be found in any prompting, however
depraved, of the heart, in love or passion.... One had but to glance at
the repulsive figure of the 'man of God' to dismiss such a notion
entirely! No, Sophie had remained pure; and to her all things were pure;
I could not understand what Sophie had done; but I did not blame her,
as, later on, I have not blamed other girls who too have sacrificed
everything for what they thought the truth, for what they held to be
their vocation. I could not help regretting that Sophie had chosen just
_that_ path; but also I could not refuse her admiration, respect even.
In good earnest she had talked of self-sacrifice, of abasement ... in
_her_, words were not opposed to acts. She had sought a leader, a guide,
and had found him, ... and, my God, what a guide!
Yes, she had lain down to be trampled, trodden under foot.... In the
process of time, a rumour reached me that her family had succeeded at
last in finding out the lost sheep, and bringing her home. But at home
she did not live long, and died, like a 'Sister of Silence,' without
having spoken a word to any one.
Peace to your heart, poor, enigmatic creature! Vassily Nikititch is
probably on his crazy wanderings still; the iron health of such
people is truly marvellous. Perhaps, though, his epilepsy may have
done for him.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.