The Witch

I

Yarmola the gamekeeper, my servant, cook, and fellow-hunter, entered the room with a load of wood on his shoulder, threw it heavily on the floor, and blew on his frozen fingers.

“What a wind there is outside, sir,” he said, squatting on his heels in front of the oven door. “We must make a good fire in the stove. Will you give me a match, please?”

“It means we shan’t have a chance at the hares tomorrow, eh? What do you think, Yarmola?”

“No.⁠ ⁠… Out of the question.⁠ ⁠… Do you hear the snowstorm? The hares lie still⁠—no sound.⁠ ⁠… You won’t see a single track tomorrow.”

Fate had thrown me for a whole six months into a dull little village in Volhymnia, on the border of Polyessie, and hunting was my sole occupation and delight. I confess that at the time when the business in the village was offered me, I had no idea that I should feel so intolerably dull. I went even with joy. “Polyessie⁠ ⁠… a remote place⁠ ⁠… the bosom of Nature⁠ ⁠… simple ways⁠ ⁠… primitive natures,” I thought as I sat in the railway carriage, “completely unfamiliar people, with strange customs and a curious language⁠ ⁠… and there are sure to be thousands of romantic legends, traditions, and songs!” At that time⁠—since I have to confess, I may as well confess everything⁠—I had already published a story with two murders and one suicide in an unknown newspaper, and I knew theoretically that it was useful for writers to observe customs.

But⁠—either the peasants of Perebrod were distinguished by a particularly obstinate uncommunicativeness, or I myself did not know how to approach them⁠—my relations with them went no further than that when they saw me a mile off they took off their caps, and when they came alongside said sternly, “God with you,” which should mean “God help you.” And when I attempted to enter into conversation with them they looked at me in bewilderment, refused to understand the simplest questions, and tried all the while to kiss my hands⁠—a habit that has survived from their Polish serfdom.

I read all the books I had with me very soon. Out of boredom⁠—though at first it seemed to me very unpleasant⁠—I made an attempt to get to know the local “intellectuals,” a Catholic priest who lived fifteen versts away, the gentleman organist who lived with him, the local police-sergeant, and the bailiff of the neighbouring estate, a retired noncommissioned officer. But nothing came of it.

Then I tried to occupy myself with doctoring the inhabitants of Perebrod. I had at my disposal castor-oil, carbolic acid, boracic, and iodine. But here, besides the scantiness of my knowledge, I came up against the complete impossibility of making a diagnosis, because the symptoms of all patients were exactly the same: “I’ve got a pain inside,” and “I can’t take bite nor sup.”

For instance an old woman comes to me. With a disturbed look she wipes her nose with the forefinger of her right hand. I catch a glimpse of her brown skin as she takes a couple of eggs from her bosom, and puts them on the table. Then she begins to seize my hands in order to plant a kiss on them. I hide them and persuade the old woman: “Come, granny⁠ ⁠… don’t.⁠ ⁠… I’m not a priest.⁠ ⁠… I have no right.⁠ ⁠… What’s the matter with you?”

“I’ve got a pain in the inside, sir; just right inside, so that I can’t take nor bite nor sup.”

“Have you had it long?”

“How do I know?” she answers with a question. “It just burns, burns all the while. Not a bite, nor a sup.”

However much I try, I can get no more definite symptoms.

“Don’t you worry,” the non.-com. bailiff once said to me. “They’ll cure themselves. It’ll dry on them like a dog. I beg you to note I use only one medicine⁠—sal-volatile. A peasant comes to me. ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘I’m ill,’ says he. I just run off for the bottle of sal-volatile. ‘Sniff!’⁠ ⁠… he sniffs.⁠ ⁠… ‘Sniff again⁠ ⁠… go on!’ He sniffs again. ‘Feel better?’ ‘I do seem to feel better.’ ‘Well, then, be off, and God be with you.’ ”

Besides I did not at all like the kissing of my hands. (Some just fell at my feet and did all they could to kiss my boots.) For it wasn’t by any means the emotion of a grateful heart, but simply a loathsome habit, rooted in them by centuries of slavery and brutality. And I could only wonder at the non.-com. bailiff and the police-sergeant when I saw the imperturbable gravity with which they shoved their enormous red hands to the peasants’ lips.⁠ ⁠…

Only hunting was left. But with the end of January came such terrible weather that even hunting was impossible. Every day there was an awful wind, and during the night a hard icy crust formed on the snow, on which the hares could run without leaving a trace. As I sat shut up in the house listening to the howling wind, I felt terribly sad, and I eagerly seized such an innocent distraction as teaching Yarmola the gamekeeper to read and write.

It came about quite curiously. Once I was writing a letter, when suddenly I felt that someone was behind me. Turning round I saw Yarmola, who had approached noiselessly, as his habit was, in his soft bast shoes.

“What d’you want, Yarmola?” I asked.

“I was only looking how you write. I wish I could.⁠ ⁠… No, no⁠ ⁠… not like you,” he began hastily, seeing me smile. “I only wish I could write my name.”

“Why do you want to do that?” I was surprised. (It must be remembered that Yarmola is supposed to be the poorest and laziest peasant in the whole of Perebrod. His wages and earnings go in drink. There isn’t such another scarecrow even among the local oxen. I thought that he would have been the last person to find reading and writing necessary.) I asked him again, doubtfully:

“What do you want to know how to write your name for?”

“You see how it stands, sir.” Yarmola answered with extraordinary softness. “There isn’t a single man who can read and write in the village. When there’s a paper to be signed or some business to be done on the council or anything⁠ ⁠… nobody can.⁠ ⁠… The mayor only puts the seal; but he doesn’t know what’s in the paper. It would be a good thing for everybody if one of us could write his name.”

Yarmola’s solicitude⁠—Yarmola, a known poacher, an idle vagabond, whose opinion the village council would never dream of considering⁠—this solicitude of his for the public interest of his native village somehow moved me. I offered to give him lessons myself. What a job it was⁠—my attempt to teach him to read and write! Yarmola, who knew to perfection every path in the forest, almost every tree; who could find his whereabouts day and night, no matter where he was; who could distinguish all the wolves, hares, and foxes of the neighbourhood by their spoor⁠—this same Yarmola could not for the life of him see why, for instance, the letters m and a together make ma. In front of that problem he usually thought painfully for ten minutes and more, and his lean swarthy face with its sunken black eyes, which had been completely absorbed into a stiff black beard and a generous moustache, betrayed an extremity of mental strain.

“Come, Yarmola, say ma. Just say ma simply,” I urged him. “Don’t look at the paper. Look at me, so. Now say ma.”

Yarmola would then heave a deep sigh, put the hornbook on the table, and announce with sad determination:

“No, I can’t.⁠ ⁠…”

“Why can’t you? It’s so easy. Just say ma simply, just as I say it.”

“No, sir, I cannot⁠ ⁠… I’ve forgotten.”

All my methods, my devices and comparisons were being shattered by this monstrous lack of understanding. But Yarmola’s longing for knowledge did not weaken at all.

“If I could only write my name!” Yarmola begged me bashfully. “I don’t want anything else. Only my name: Yarmola Popruzhuk⁠—that’s all.”

When I finally abandoned the idea of teaching him to read and write properly, I began to show him how to sign his name mechanically. To my amazement this method seemed to be the easiest for Yarmola, and at the end of two months he had very nearly mastered his name. As for his Christian name we had decided to make the task easier by leaving it out altogether.

Every evening, after he had finished filling the stoves, Yarmola waited on patiently until I called him.

“Well, Yarmola, let’s have a go at it,” I would say. He would sidle up to the table, lean on it with his elbows, thrust his pen through his black, shrivelled, stiff fingers, and ask me, raising his eyebrows:

“Shall I write?”

“Yes, write.”

Yarmola drew the first letter quite confidently⁠—P.2 (This letter was called “a couple of posts and a crossbeam on top.”) Then he looked at me questioningly.

“Why don’t you go on writing? Have you forgotten?”

“I’ve forgotten.” Yarmola shook his head angrily.

“Heavens, what a fellow you are! Well, make a wheel.”

“Ah, a wheel, a wheel!⁠ ⁠… I know.⁠ ⁠…” Yarmola cheered up, and diligently drew an elongated figure on the paper, in outline very like the Caspian Sea. After this labour he admired the result in silence for some time, bending his head now to the left, then to the right, and screwing up his eyes.

“Why have you stopped there? Go on.”

“Wait a little, sir⁠ ⁠… presently.”

He thought for a couple of minutes and then asked timidly:

“Same as the first?”

“Right. Just the same.”

So little by little we came to the last letter k, which we knew as “a stick with a crooked twig tilted sideways in the middle of it.”

“What do you think, sir?” Yarmola would say sometimes after finishing his work and looking at it with great pride; “if I go on learning like this for another five or six months I shall be quite a learned chap. What’s your idea?”

II

Yarmola was squatting on his heels in front of the stove door, poking the coals in the stove, while I walked from corner to corner of the room. Of all the twelve rooms of the huge country house I occupied only one⁠—the lounge that used to be. The other rooms were locked up, and there, grave and motionless, mouldered the old brocaded furniture, the rare bronzes, and the eighteenth-century portraits.

The wind was raging round the walls of the house like an old naked, frozen devil. Towards evening the snowstorm became more violent. Someone outside was furiously throwing handfuls of fine dry snow at the windowpanes. The forest near by moaned and roared with a dull, hidden, incessant menace.⁠ ⁠…

The wind stole into the empty rooms and the howling chimneys. The old house, weak throughout, full of holes and half decayed, suddenly became alive with strange sounds to which I listened with involuntary anxiety. Into the white drawing-room there broke a deep-drawn sigh, in a sad worn-out voice. In the distance somewhere the dry and rotten floorboards began to creak under someone’s heavy, silent tread. I think that someone in the corridor beside my room is pressing with cautious persistence on the door-handle, and then, suddenly grown furious, rushes all over the house madly shaking all the shutters and doors. Or he gets into the chimney and whines so mournfully, wearily, incessantly⁠—now raising his voice higher and higher, thinner and thinner, all the while, till it becomes a wailing shriek, then lowering it again to a wild beast’s growling. Sometimes this terrible guest would rush into my room too, run with a sudden coldness over my back and flicker the lamp flame, which gave a dim light from under a green paper shade, scorched at the top.

There came upon me a strange, vague uneasiness. I thought: Here am I sitting, this bad, stormy night, in a rickety house, in a village lost in woods and snowdrifts, hundreds of miles from town life, from society, from woman’s laughter and human conversation.⁠ ⁠… And I began to feel that this stormy evening would drag on for years and tens of years. The wind will whine outside the windows, as it is whining now; the lamp will burn dimly under the paltry green shade, as it burns now; I will walk just as breathlessly up and down my room, and the silent, intent Yarmola will sit so by the stove, a strange creature, alien to me, indifferent to everything in the world, indifferent that his family has nothing to eat, to the raging wind, and my own vague consuming anxiety.

Suddenly I felt an intolerable desire to break this anxious silence with some semblance of a human voice, and I asked:

“Why is there such a wind today? What do you think, Yarmola?”

“The wind?” Yarmola muttered, lazily lifting his head. “Don’t you really know?”

“Of course I don’t. How could I?”

“Truly, you don’t know?” Yarmola livened suddenly. “I’ll tell you,” he continued with a mysterious note in his voice. “I’ll tell you this. Either a witch is being born, or a wizard is having a wedding-party.”

“A witch?⁠ ⁠… Does that mean a sorceress in your place?”

“Exactly⁠ ⁠… a sorceress.”

I caught up Yarmola eagerly. “Who knows,” I thought, “perhaps I’ll manage to get an interesting story out of him presently, all about magic, and buried treasure, and devils.”

“Have you got witches here, in Polyessie?” I asked.

“I don’t know⁠ ⁠… may be,” Yarmola answered with his usual indifference, bending down to the stove again. “Old folks say there were once.⁠ ⁠… May be it’s not true.⁠ ⁠…”

I was disappointed. Yarmola’s characteristic trait was a stubborn silence, and I had already given up hope of getting anything more out of him on this interesting subject. But to my surprise he suddenly began to talk with a lazy indifference as though he was addressing the roaring stove instead of me.

“There was a witch here, five years back.⁠ ⁠… But the boys drove her out of the village.”

“Where did they drive her to?”

“Where to? Into the forest, of course⁠ ⁠… where else? And they pulled her cottage down as well, so that there shouldn’t be a splinter of the cursed den left.⁠ ⁠… And they took her to the cross roads.⁠ ⁠…”

“Why did they treat her like that?”

“She did a great deal of harm. She quarrelled with everybody, poured poison beneath the cottages, tied knots in the corn.⁠ ⁠… Once she asked a village woman for fifteen kopeks. ‘I haven’t got a sixpence,’ says she. ‘Right,’ she says, ‘I’ll teach you not to give me a sixpence.’ And what do you think, sir? That very day the woman’s child began to be ill. It grew worse and worse and then died. Then it was that the boys drove her out⁠—curse her for a witch.”

“Well⁠ ⁠… where’s the witch now?” I was still curious.

“The witch?” Yarmola slowly repeated the question, as his habit was. “How should I know?”

“Didn’t she leave any relatives in the village?”

“No, not one. She didn’t come from our village; she came from the Big Russians, or the gipsies. I was still a tiny boy when she came to our village. She had a little girl with her, a daughter or grandchild.⁠ ⁠… They were both driven out.”

“Doesn’t anyone go to her now⁠—to get their fortunes told or to get medicine?”

“The womenfolk do,” Yarmola said scornfully.

“Ah, so it’s known where she lives?”

“I don’t know.⁠ ⁠… Folks say she lives somewhere near the Devil’s Corner.⁠ ⁠… You know the place⁠—the marsh behind the Trine road. She lives in that same marsh. May her mother burn in hell!”

“A witch living ten versts from my house⁠ ⁠… a real live Polyessie witch!” The idea instantly intrigued and excited me.

“Look here, Yarmola,” I said to the forester. “How could I get to know the witch?”

“Foo!” Yarmola spat in indignation. “That’s a nice thing!”

“Nice or nasty, I’m going to her all the same. As soon as it gets a little warmer, I’ll go off at once. You’ll come with me, of course?”

Yarmola was so struck by my last words that he jumped right off the floor.

“Me?” he cried indignantly. “Not for a million! Come what may, I’m not going with you.”

“Nonsense; of course, you’ll come.”

“No, sir, I will not⁠ ⁠… not for anything.⁠ ⁠… Me?” he cried again, seized with a new exasperation, “go to a witch’s den? God forbid! And I advise you not to either, sir.”

“As you please.⁠ ⁠… I’ll go all the same.⁠ ⁠… I’m very curious to see her.”

“There’s nothing curious there,” grunted Yarmola, angrily slamming the door of the stove.

An hour later, when he had taken the samovar off the table and drunk his tea in the dark passage and was preparing to go home, I asked him:

“What’s the witch’s name?”

“Manuilikha,” replied Yarmola with sullen rudeness.

Though he had never expressed his feelings, he seemed to have grown greatly attached to me. His affection came from our mutual passion for hunting, from my simple behaviour, the help I occasionally gave his perpetually hungry family, and above all, because I was the only person in the world who did not scold him for his drunkenness⁠—a thing intolerable to Yarmola. That was why my determination to make the acquaintance of the witch put him into such an ugly temper, which he relieved only by sniffing more vigorously, and finally by going off to the back-staircase and kicking his dog Riabchik with all his might. Riabchik jumped aside and began to howl desperately, but immediately ran after Yarmola, still whining.

III

About three days after the weather grew warmer. Very early one morning Yarmola came into my room and said carelessly:

“We shall have to clean the guns, sir.”

“Why?” I asked, stretching myself under the blankets.

“The hares have been busy in the night. There are any amount of tracks. Shall we go after them?”

I saw that Yarmola was waiting impatiently to go to the forest, but he hid his hunter’s passion beneath an assumed indifference. In fact, his single-barrelled gun was in the passage already. From that gun not a single woodcock had ever escaped, for all that it was adorned with a few tin patches, and spliced over the places where rust and powder gas had corroded the iron.

No sooner had we entered the forest than we came on a hare’s track. The hare broke out into the road, ran about fifty yards along it, and then made a huge leap into the fir plantation.

“Now, we’ll get him in a moment,” Yarmola said. “Since he’s shown himself, he’ll die here. You go, sir.⁠ ⁠…” He pondered, considering by certain signs known only to himself where he should post me. “You go to the old inn. And I’ll get round him from Zanilin. As soon as the dog starts him I’ll give you a shout.”

He disappeared instantly, as it were, plunging into a thick jungle of brushwood. I listened. Not a sound betrayed his poacher movements; not a twig snapped under his feet, in their bast shoes. Without hurrying myself I came to the inn, a ruined and deserted hut, and I stopped on the edge of a young pine forest beneath a tall fir with a straight bare trunk. It was quiet as it can be quiet only in a forest on a windless winter day. The branches were bent with the splendid lumps of snow which clung to them, and made them look wonderful, festive, and cold. Now and then a thin little twig broke off from the top, and with extreme clearness one could hear it as it fell with a tiny cracking noise, touching other twigs in its fall. The snow glinted rose in the sun and blue in the shadow. I fell under the quiet spell of the grave cold silence, and I seemed to feel time passing by me, slowly and noiselessly.

Suddenly far away in the thicket came the sound of Riabchik’s bark⁠—the peculiar bark of a dog following a scent, a thin, nervous, trilling bark that passes almost into a squeak. I heard Yarmola’s voice immediately, calling angrily after the dog: “Get him! Get him!” the first word in a long-drawn falsetto, the second in a short bass note.

Judging from the direction of the bark, I thought the dog must be running on my left, and I ran quickly across the meadow to get level with the hare. I hadn’t made twenty steps when a huge grey hare jumped out from behind a stump, laid back his long ears and ran leisurely across the road with high delicate leaps, and hid himself in a plantation. After him came Riabchik at full tilt. When he saw me he wagged his tail faintly, snapped at the snow several times with his teeth, and chased the hare again.

Suddenly Yarmola plunged out from the thicket as noiselessly as the dog.

“Why didn’t you get across him, sir?” he exclaimed, clicking his tongue reproachfully.

“But it was a long way⁠ ⁠… more than a couple of hundred yards.” Seeing my confusion, Yarmola softened.

“Well, it doesn’t matter.⁠ ⁠… He won’t get away from us. Go towards the Irenov road. He’ll come out there presently.”

I went towards the Irenov road, and in a couple of minutes I heard the dog on a scent again somewhere near me. I was seized with the excitement of the hunt and began to run, keeping my gun down, through a thick shrubbery, breaking the branches and giving no heed to the smart blows they dealt me. I ran for a very long time, and was already beginning to lose my wind, when the dog suddenly stopped barking. I slowed my pace. I had the idea that if I went straight on I should be sure to meet Yarmola on the Irenov road. But I soon realised that I had lost my way as I ran, turning the bushes and the stumps without a thought of where I was going. Then I began to shout to Yarmola. He made no answer.

Meanwhile I was going further. Little by little the forest grew thinner. The ground fell away and became full of little hillocks. The prints of my feet on the snow darkened and filled with water. Several times I sank in it to my knees. I had to jump from hillock to hillock; my feet sank in the thick brown moss which covered them as it were with a soft carpet.

Soon the shrubbery came to an end. In front of me there was a large round swamp, thinly covered with snow; out of the white shroud a few little mounds emerged. Among the trees on the other side of the swamp, the white walls of a hut could be seen. “It’s the Irenov gamekeeper lives there, probably,” I thought. “I must go in and ask the way.”

But it was not so easy to reach the hut. Every minute I sank in the bog. My high boots filled with water and made a loud sucking noise at every step, so that I could hardly drag them along.

Finally I managed to get through the marsh, climbed on top of a hillock from whence I could examine the hut thoroughly. It was not even a hut, but one of the chicken-legged erections of the fairy tales. The floor was not built on to the ground, but was raised on piles, probably because of the flood-water which covers all the Irenov forest in the spring. But one of the sides had subsided with age, and this gave the hut a lame and dismal appearance. Some of the window panes were missing; their place was filled by some dirty rags that bellied outwards.

I pressed the latch and opened the door. The room was very dark and violet circles swam before my eyes, which had so long been looking at the snow. For a long time I could not see whether there was anyone in the hut.

“Ah! good people, is anyone at home?” I asked aloud.

Something moved near the stove. I went closer and saw an old woman, sitting on the floor. A big heap of hen feathers lay before her. The old woman was taking each feather separately, tearing off the down into a basket. The quills she threw on to the floor.

“But it’s Manuilikha, the Irenov witch.” The thought flashed into my mind, as soon as I examined her a little more attentively. She had all the features of a witch, according to the folktales; her lean hollow cheeks descended to a long, sharp, hanging chin, which almost touched her hook nose. Her sunken, toothless mouth moved incessantly as though she were chewing something. Her faded eyes, once blue, cold, round, protruding, looked exactly like the eyes of a strange, ill-boding bird.

“How d’you do, granny?” I said as affably as I could. “Your name’s Manuilikha, isn’t it?”

Something began to bubble and rattle in the old woman’s chest by way of reply. Strange sounds came out of her toothless, mumbling mouth, now like the raucous cawing of an ancient crow, then changing abruptly into a hoarse, broken falsetto.

“Once, perhaps, good people called me Manuilikha.⁠ ⁠… But now they call me What’s-her-name, and duck’s the name they gave me. What do you want?” she asked in a hostile tone, without interrupting her monotonous occupation.

“You see, I’ve lost my way, granny. Do you happen to have any milk?”

“There’s no milk,” the old woman cut me short, angrily. “There’s a pack of people come straggling about the forest here.⁠ ⁠… You can’t keep them all in food and drink.⁠ ⁠…”

“You’re unkind to your guests, granny.”

“Quite true, my dear sir. I’m quite unkind. We don’t keep a store cupboard for you. If you’re tired, sit down a while. Nobody will turn you out. You know what the proverb says: ‘You can come and sit by our gate, and listen to the noise of a feasting; but we are clever enough to come to you for a dinner.’ That’s how it is.”

These turns of speech immediately convinced me that the old woman really was a stranger in those parts. The people there have no love for the expressive speech, adorned with curious words, which a Russian of the north so readily displays. Meanwhile the old woman continued her work mechanically, mumbling under her nose, quicker and more indistinctly all the while. I could catch only separate disconnected words. “There now, Granny Manuilikha.⁠ ⁠… And who he is nobody knows.⁠ ⁠… My years are not a few.⁠ ⁠… He fidgets his feet, chatters and gossips⁠—just like a magpie.⁠ ⁠…”

I listened for some time, and the sudden thought that I was with a mad woman aroused in me a feeling of revolting fear.

However, I had time to catch a glimpse of everything round me. A huge blistered stove occupied the greater part of the hut. There was no icon in the place of honour. On the walls, instead of the customary huntsmen with green moustaches and violet-coloured dogs, and unknown generals, hung bunches of dried herbs, bundles of withered stalks and kitchen utensils. I saw neither owl nor black cat; instead, two speckled fat starlings glanced at me from the stove with a surprised, suspicious air.

“Can’t I even have something to drink, granny?” I asked, raising my voice.

“It’s there, in the tub,” the old woman nodded.

The water tasted brackish, of the marsh. Thanking the old woman, though she paid me not the least attention, I asked her how I could get back to the road.

She suddenly lifted up her head, stared at me with her cold birdlike eyes, and murmured hurriedly:

“Go, go⁠ ⁠… young man, go away. You have nothing to do here. There’s a time for guests and a time for none.⁠ ⁠… Go, my dear sir, go.”

So nothing was left to me but to go. But there flashed into my mind a last resource to soften the sternness of the old woman, if only a little. I took out of my pocket a new silver sixpence and held it out to Manuilikha. I was not mistaken; at the sight of the money the old woman began to stir, her eyes widened, and she stretched out her crooked, knotted, trembling fingers for the coin.

“Oh no, Granny Manuilikha, I shan’t give it to you for nothing,” I teased, hiding the coin. “Tell me my fortune.”

The brown wrinkled face of the witch changed to a discontented grimace. She hesitated and looked irresolutely at my hand that closed over the coin. Her greed prevailed.

“Very well then, come on,” she mumbled, getting up from the floor with difficulty. “I don’t tell anybody’s fortune nowadays, my dear.⁠ ⁠… I have forgotten.⁠ ⁠… I am old, my eyes don’t see. But I’ll do it for you.”

Holding on to the wall, her bent body shaking at every step, she got to the table, took a pack of dirty cards, thick with age, and pushed them over to me.

“Take the cards, cut with your left hand.⁠ ⁠… Nearest the heart.”

Spitting on her fingers she began to spread the surround. As they fell on the table the cards made a noise like lumps of dough and arranged themselves in a correct eight-pointed star.⁠ ⁠… When the last card fell on its back and covered the king, Manuilikha stretched out her hand to me.

“Cross it with gold, my dear, and you will be happy, you will be rich,” she began to whine in a gipsy beggar’s voice.

I pushed the coin I had ready into her hand. Quick as a monkey, the old woman stowed it away in her jaw.

“Something very important is coming to you from afar off,” she began in the usual voluble way. “A meeting with the queen of diamonds, and some pleasant conversation in an important house. Very soon you will receive unexpected news from the king of clubs. Certain troubles are coming, and then a small legacy. You will be with a number of people; you will get drunk.⁠ ⁠… Not very drunk, but I can see a spree is there. Your life will be a long one. If you don’t die when you are sixty-seven, then.⁠ ⁠…”

Suddenly she stopped, and lifted up her head as though listening. I listened too. A woman’s voice sounded fresh, clear, and strong, approaching the hut singing. And I recognised the words of the charming Little Russian song:

“Ah, is it the blossom or not the bloom
That bends the little white hazel-tree?
Ah, is it a dream or not a dream
That bows my little head.⁠ ⁠…”

“Well, now, be off, my dear.” The old woman began to bustle about anxiously, pushing me away from the table. “You must not be knocking about in other people’s huts. Go your way.⁠ ⁠…”

She even seized me by the sleeve of my jacket and pulled me to the door. Her face showed an animal anxiety.

The singing came to an end abruptly, quite close to the hut. The iron latch rattled loudly, and in the open door a tall laughing girl appeared. With both hands she carefully held up her striped apron, out of which there peeped three tiny birds’ heads with red necks and black shiny eyes.

“Look, granny, the finches hopped after me again,” she cried, laughing. “Look, how funny they are. And, just as if on purpose, I had no bread with me.”

But seeing me she became silent and blushed crimson. Her thick black eyebrows frowned, and her eyes turned questioningly to the old woman.

“The gentleman came in here to ask the way,” the old woman explained. “Now, dear sir,” she turned to me, with a resolute look, “you have rested long enough. You have drunk some water, had a chat, and it’s time to go. We are not the folk for you.⁠ ⁠…”

“Look here, my dear,” I said to the girl. “Please show me the way to the Irenov road; otherwise I’ll stick in this marsh forever.”

It must have been that the kindly pleading tone in which I spoke impressed her. Carefully she put her little finches on the stove, side by side with the starlings, flung the overcoat which she had already taken off on to the bench, and silently left the hut.

I followed her.

“Are all your birds tame?” I asked, overtaking the girl.

“All tame,” she answered abruptly, not even glancing at me. “Now look,” she said, stopping by the wattle hedge. “Do you see the little footpath there, between the fir-trees? Can you see it?”

“Yes, I see.”

“Go straight along it. When you come to the oak stump, turn to your left. You must go straight on through the forest. Then you will come out on the Irenov road.”

All the while she directed me, pointing with her right hand, involuntarily I admired her. There was nothing in her like the local girls, whose faces have such a scared, monotonous look under the ugly headbands which cover their forehead, mouth, and chin. My unknown was a tall brunette from twenty to twenty-five years old, free and graceful. Her white shirt covered her strong young bosom loosely and charmingly. Once seen, the peculiar beauty of her face could not be forgotten; it was even difficult to get accustomed to it, to describe it. The charm lay in her large, shining, dark eyes, to which the thin arched eyebrows gave an indescribable air, shy, queenly, and innocent, and in the dusky pink of her skin, in the self-willed curl of her lips. Her underlip was fuller, and it was pushed forward a little, giving her a determined and capricious look.

“Are you really not afraid to live by yourselves in such a lonely spot?” I asked, stopping by the hedge.

She shrugged her shoulders indifferently.

“Why should we be afraid? The wolves do not come near us.”

“Wolves are not everything. Your hut might be smothered under the snow. The hut might catch on fire. Anything might happen. You two are there alone, no one could come to your assistance.”

“Thank God for that!” she waved her hand scornfully. “If granny and I were left alone entirely, it would be much better, but⁠—”

“What?”

“You will get old, if you want to know so much,” she cut me short. “And who are you?” she asked anxiously.

I realised that probably the old woman and the girl were afraid of persecution from the authorities, and I hastened to reassure her.

“Oh, don’t be alarmed. I’m not the village policeman, or the clerk, or the exciseman.⁠ ⁠… I’m not an official at all.”

“Is that really true?”

“On my word of honour. Believe me, I am the most private person. I’ve simply come to stay here a few months, and then I’m going away. If you like, I won’t tell a soul that I’ve been here and seen you. Do you believe me?”

The girl’s face brightened a little.

“Well, then, if you’re not lying, you’re telling the truth. But tell me: had you heard about us, or did you come across us by accident?”

“I don’t quite know how to explain it myself.⁠ ⁠… Yes, I had heard, and I even wanted to call on you some time. But it was an accident that I came today, I lost my way. Now tell me: why are you afraid of people? What harm do they do you?”

She glanced at me with suspicion. But my conscience was clear, and I endured her scrutiny without a tremor. Then she began to speak, with increasing agitation.

“They do bad things.⁠ ⁠… Ordinary people don’t matter, but the officials.⁠ ⁠… The village policeman comes⁠—he must be bribed. The inspector⁠—pay again. And before he takes the bribe he insults my grandmother; says she’s a witch, a hag, a convict.⁠ ⁠… But what’s the good of talking?⁠ ⁠…”

“But don’t they touch you?” The imprudent question escaped my lips.

She drew up her head with proud self-confidence, and angry triumph flashed in her half-closed eyes.

“They don’t touch me.⁠ ⁠… Once a surveyor came near to me.⁠ ⁠… He wanted a kiss.⁠ ⁠… I don’t think he will have forgotten yet how I kissed him.”

So much harsh independence sounded in these proud, derisive words, that I involuntarily thought:

“You haven’t been bred in the Polyessie forest for nothing. You’re really a dangerous person to joke with.⁠ ⁠…”

“Do we touch anybody?” she continued as her confidence in me grew. “We do not want people. Once a year I go to the little town to buy soap and salt⁠ ⁠… and some tea for granny. She loves tea. Otherwise, I could do without them forever.”

“Well, I see you and your granny are not fond of people.⁠ ⁠… But may I come to see you sometimes for a little while?”

She laughed. How strange and unexpected was the change in her pretty face! There was no trace of her former sternness in it. It had in an instant become bright, shy, and childish.

“Whatever will you do with us? Granny and I are dull.⁠ ⁠… Why, come, if you like, and if you are really a good man. But⁠ ⁠… if you do happen to come, it would be better if you came without a gun.⁠ ⁠…”

“You’re afraid?”

“Why should I be afraid? I’m afraid of nothing.” Again I could catch in her voice her confidence in her strength. “But I don’t like it. Why do you kill birds, or hares even? They do nobody any harm, and they want to live as much as you or I. I love them; they are so tiny, and such little stupids.⁠ ⁠… Well, goodbye.” She began to hurry. “I don’t know your name.⁠ ⁠… I’m afraid granny will be cross with me.”

With easy swiftness she ran to the hut. She bent her head, and with her hands caught up her hair, blown loose in the wind.

“Wait, wait a moment,” I called. “What is your name? Let us be properly introduced.”

“My name’s Alyona.⁠ ⁠… Hereabouts they call me Olyessia.”

I shouldered my gun and went the way I had been shown. I climbed a small mound from whence a narrow, hardly visible, forest path began, and looked back. Olyessia’s red skirt, fluttering in the wind, could still be seen on the steps of the hut, a spot of bright colour on the smooth and blinding background of the snow.

An hour later Yarmola returned. As usual he avoided idle conversation, and asked me not a word of how and where I lost my way. He just said, casually:

“There.⁠ ⁠… I’ve left a hare in the kitchen.⁠ ⁠… Shall we roast it, or do you want to send it to anyone?”

“But you don’t know where I’ve been today, Yarmola?” I said, anticipating his surprise.

“How do you mean, I don’t know?” he muttered gruffly. “You went to the witch’s for sure.⁠ ⁠…”

“How did you find that out?”

“How could I help it? I heard no answer from you, so I went back on your tracks.⁠ ⁠… Sir!” he added in reproachful vexation, “you shouldn’t do such things.⁠ ⁠… It’s a sin!⁠ ⁠…”

IV

That year spring came early. It was violent and, as always in Polyessie, unexpected. Brown, shining, turbulent streams began to run down the village streets, foaming angrily round the stones, whirling splinters and feathers along with it. In the huge pools of water was reflected the azure sky, with the round, spinning white clouds that swam in it. Heavy drops pattered noisily from the eaves. Flights of sparrows covered the roadside willows, and chattered with such noisy excitement that nothing could be heard above the clamour. Everywhere was felt the joyous, quick alarm of life.

The snow disappeared. Dirty yellow patches remained here and there in the hollows and the shady thickets. From beneath it peeped the warm wet soil, full of new sap after its winter sleep, full of thirst for a new maternity. Over the black fields swung a light vapour, filling the air with the scent of the thawed earth, with the fresh, penetrating, mighty smell of the spring, which one can distinguish even in the town from a hundred other smells. Together with this scent I felt that the sweet and tender sadness of spring poured into my soul, exuberant with restless expectations and vague presentiments, that romantic sadness which makes all women beautiful in one’s eyes, and is always tinged with indefinite regrets for the springs of the past. The nights grew warmer. In their thick moist darkness pulsed the unseen and urgent creation of Nature.

In those spring days the image of Olyessia never left me. Alone, I loved to lie down and close my eyes that I might better concentrate upon her. Continually in my imagination I summoned her up, now stern, now cunning, now with a tender smile resplendent in her face, her young body nurtured on the richness of the old forest to be as harmonious and mighty as a young fir-tree, her fresh voice with its sudden low velvety notes.⁠ ⁠… “In all her movements, and her words,” I thought, “there is a nobility, some native grace of modulation.” I was drawn to Olyessia also by the halo of mystery which surrounded her, her superstitious reputation as a witch, her life in the forest thicket amid the marsh, and above all her proud confidence in her own powers, that had shown through the few words she said to me.

Surely there is nothing strange in it that, so soon as the forest paths were dry, I set out for the hut with the chicken legs. In case it should be necessary to placate the querulous old woman I bore with me a half-pound of tea and a few handfuls of sugar.

I found them both at home. The old woman was moving about by the bright burning stove, and Olyessia was sitting on a very tall bench spinning flax. I banged the door as I entered, and she turned round. The thread snapped and the spindle rolled on to the floor.

For some time the old woman stared at me with angry intentness, frowning, and screening her face from the heat of the stove with her hand.

“How do you do, granny?” I said in a loud, hearty voice. “It must be you don’t recognise me. You remember I came in here last month to ask my way? You told me my fortune too.”

“I don’t remember anything, sir,” the old woman began to mumble, shaking her head with annoyance. “I remember nothing. I can’t make out at all what you’ve forgotten here. We are no company for you. We’re simple, plain folk.⁠ ⁠… There’s nothing for you here. The forest is wide, there’s room enough to wander.⁠ ⁠…”

Taken aback by the hostile reception, and utterly nonplussed, I found myself in the foolish situation of not knowing what to do: whether to turn the rudeness to a joke, or to take offence, or finally to turn and go back without a word. Involuntarily I turned to Olyessia with a look of helplessness. She gave me the faintest trace of a smile of derision, that was not wholly malicious, rose from the spinning-wheel and went to the old woman.

“Don’t be afraid, granny,” she said reassuringly. “He’s not a bad man. He won’t do us any harm. Please sit down,” she added, pointing me to a bench in the corner of honour, and paying no more attention to the old woman’s grumbling.

Encouraged by her attention, I suddenly decided to adopt the most decisive measures.

“But you do get angry, granny.⁠ ⁠… No sooner does a guest appear in your doorway than you begin to abuse him. And I had brought you a present,” I said, taking the parcels out of my bag.

The old woman threw a swift glance at the parcels; but instantly turned her back upon me.

Immediately, I handed her the tea and sugar. This soothed the old woman somewhat, for though she continued to grumble, it was no longer in the old implacable tone. Olyessia sat down to her yarn again, and I placed myself near to her, on a small, low, rickety stool. With her left hand Olyessia was swiftly twisting a white thread of flax, silky soft, and in her right the spindle whirled with an easy humming. Now she would let it fall almost to the floor; then she would catch it neatly, and with a quick movement of her fingers send it spinning round again. In her hands this work (which at the first glance appears so simple, but in truth demands the habit and dexterity of centuries), went like lightning. I could not help turning my eyes to those hands. They were coarsened and blackened by the work, but they were small and of shape so beautiful that many a princess would have envied them.

“You never told me that granny had told your fortune,” said Olyessia, and, seeing that I gave a cautious glance behind me, she added: “It’s quite all right, she’s rather deaf. She won’t hear. It’s only my voice she understands well.”

“Yes, she did. Why?”

“I just asked⁠ ⁠… nothing more.⁠ ⁠… And do you believe in it?” She gave a quick, stealthy glance.

“Believe what? The fortune your granny told me, or generally?”

“I mean generally.”

“I don’t quite know. It would be truer to say, I don’t believe in it, but still who knows? They say there are cases.⁠ ⁠… They write about it in clever books even. But I don’t believe what your granny told me at all. Any village woman could tell me as much.”

Olyessia smiled.

“Yes, nowadays she tells fortunes badly, it’s true. She’s old, and besides she’s very much afraid. But what did the cards say?”

“Nothing interesting. I can’t even remember it now. The usual kind of thing: a distant journey, something with clubs.⁠ ⁠… I’ve quite forgotten.”

“Yes, she’s a bad fortune-teller now. She’s grown so old that she has forgotten a great many words.⁠ ⁠… How could she? And she’s scared as well. It’s only the sight of money makes her consent to tell.”

“What’s she scared of?”

“The authorities, of course.⁠ ⁠… The village policeman comes, and threatens her every time. ‘I can have you put away at any minute,’ he says. ‘You know what people like you get for witchcraft? Penal servitude for life on Hawk Island.’ Tell me what you think. Is it true?”

“It’s not altogether a lie. There is some punishment for doing it, but not so bad as all that.⁠ ⁠… And you, Olyessia, can you tell fortunes?”

It was as though she were perplexed, but only for a second.

“I can.⁠ ⁠… But not for money,” she added hastily.

“You might put out the cards for me?”

“No,” she answered with quiet resolution, shaking her head.

“Why won’t you? Very well, some other time.⁠ ⁠… Somehow I believe you will tell me the truth.”

“No. I will not. I won’t do it for anything.”

“Oh, that’s not right, Olyessia. For first acquaintance’ sake you can’t refuse.⁠ ⁠… Why don’t you want to?”

“Because I’ve put out the cards for you already. It’s wrong to do it twice.”

“Wrong? But why? I don’t understand it.”

“No, no, it’s wrong, wrong,” she began to whisper with superstitious dread. “It’s forbidden to ask twice of Fate. It’s not right. Fate will discover, overhear.⁠ ⁠… She does not like to be asked. That’s why all fortune-tellers are unhappy.”

I wanted to make a jesting reply to Olyessia; but I could not. There was too much sincere conviction in her words; and when she turned her head to the door in a strange fear as she uttered the word Fate, in spite of myself I turned with her.

“Well, if you won’t want to tell me my fortune now, tell me what the cards have told you already,” I begged.

Olyessia suddenly gave a turn to the spinning-wheel, and with her hand touched mine.

“No!⁠ ⁠… better not,” she said. A childlike, imploring look came into her eyes. “Please, don’t ask me.⁠ ⁠… There was nothing good in it.⁠ ⁠… Better not ask.”

But I insisted. I could not understand whether her refusal and her dark allusions to Fate were the deliberate trick of a fortune-teller, or whether she herself really believed what she said. But I became rather uneasy; what was almost a dread took hold of me.

“Well, I’ll tell you, perhaps,” Olyessia finally consented. “But listen; a bargain’s better than money; don’t be angry if you don’t like what I say. The cards said that though you are a good man, you are only a weak one.⁠ ⁠… Your goodness is not sound, nor quite sincere. You are not master of your word. You love to have the whip-hand of people, and yet, though you yourself do not want to, you submit to them. You are fond of wine and⁠—Well, if I’ve got to say, I’ll say everything right to the last.⁠ ⁠… You are very fond of women, and because of that you will have much evil in your life.⁠ ⁠… You do not value money and you cannot save. You will never be rich.⁠ ⁠… Shall I go on?”

“Go on, go on, say everything you know!”

“The cards said too that your life will not be a happy one. You will never love with your heart, because your heart is cold and dull, and you will cause great sorrow to those who love you. You will never marry; you will die a bachelor. There will be no great joys in your life, but much weariness and depression.⁠ ⁠… There will come a time when you will want to put an end to your life.⁠ ⁠… That will come to you, but you will not dare, you will go on enduring. You will suffer great poverty, but towards the end your fate will be changed through the death of someone near you, quite unexpected. But all this will be in years to come; but this year⁠ ⁠… I don’t know exactly when⁠ ⁠… the cards say very soon⁠ ⁠… maybe this very month⁠—”

“What will happen this year?” I asked when she stopped again.

“I’m afraid to tell you any more.⁠ ⁠… A great love will come to you through the queen of clubs. Only I can’t see whether she is married or a girl, but I know that she has dark hair.⁠ ⁠…”

Involuntarily I gave a swift glance to Olyessia’s head.

“Why are you looking at me?” she blushed suddenly, feeling my glance, with the sensitiveness peculiar to some women. “Well, yes, something like mine,” she continued, mechanically arranging her hair, and blushing still more.

“So you say, a great love from clubs?” I laughed.

“Don’t laugh. It’s no use laughing,” Olyessia said seriously, almost sternly. “I’m only telling you the truth.”

“Well, I won’t laugh any more, I promise. What is there more?”

“More.⁠ ⁠… Oh! Evil will come upon the queen of clubs, worse than death. She will suffer a great disgrace through you, one that she will never be able to forget; she will have an everlasting sorrow.⁠ ⁠… In her planet no harm comes to you.”

“Tell me, Olyessia. Couldn’t the cards deceive you? Why should I do so many unpleasant things to the queen of clubs? I am a quiet unassuming fellow, yet you’ve said so many awful things about me.”

“I don’t know that.⁠ ⁠… The cards showed that it’s not you will do it⁠—I mean, not on purpose⁠—but all this misfortune will come through you.⁠ ⁠… You’ll remember my words, when they come true.”

“The cards told you all this, Olyessia?”

She did not answer at once, and then as though evasive and reluctant:

“The cards as well.⁠ ⁠… But even without them I learn a great deal, just by the face alone. If, for instance, someone is going to die soon by an ugly death, I can read it immediately in his face. I need not speak to him, even.”

“What do you see in his face?”

“I don’t know myself. I suddenly feel afraid, as though he were a dead man standing before me. Just ask granny, she will tell you that it’s the truth I’m saying. The year before last, Trophim the miller hung himself in his mill. Only two days before I saw him and said to granny: ‘Just look, granny, Trophim will die an ugly death soon.’ And so it was. Again, last Christmas Yashka the horse thief came to us and asked granny to tell his fortune. Granny put out the cards for him and began. He asked, joking: ‘Tell me what sort of death will I have?’ and he laughed. The moment I glanced at him, I could not move. I saw Yashka sitting there, but his face was dead, green.⁠ ⁠… His eyes were shut, his lips black.⁠ ⁠… A week afterwards we heard that the peasants had caught Yashka just as he was trying to take some horses off.⁠ ⁠… They beat him all night long.⁠ ⁠… They are bad people here, merciless.⁠ ⁠… They drove nails into his heels, smashed his ribs with stakes, and he gave up the ghost about dawn.”

“Why didn’t you tell him that misfortune was waiting for him?”

“Why should I tell?” Olyessia replied. “Can a man escape what Fate has doomed? It is useless for a man to be anxious the last days of his life.⁠ ⁠… And I loathe myself for seeing these things. I am disgusted with my own self.⁠ ⁠… But what can I do? It is mine by Fate. When granny was younger she could see Death, too; so could my mother and granny’s mother⁠—we are not responsible. It is in our blood.⁠ ⁠…”

She left off her spinning, bent her head and quietly placed her hands upon her knees. In her arrested, immobile eyes and her wide pupils was reflected some dark terror, an involuntary submission to mysterious powers and supernatural knowledge which cast a shadow upon her soul.

V

Then the old woman spread a clean cloth with embroidered ends on the table, and placed a steaming pot upon it.

“Come to supper, Olyessia,” she called to her granddaughter, and after a moment’s hesitation added, turning to me: “Perhaps you will eat with us too, sir? Our food is very plain; we have no soup, only plain groats.⁠ ⁠…”

I cannot say there was any particular insistence in her invitation, and I was already minded to refuse had not Olyessia in her turn invited me with such simplicity and a smile so kind, that in spite of myself I agreed. She herself poured me out a plateful of groats, a porridge of buckwheat and fat, onion, potato and chicken, an amazingly tasty and nourishing dish. Neither grandmother nor granddaughter crossed themselves as they sat down to table. During supper I continually watched both women, because up till now I have retained a deep conviction that a person is nowhere revealed so clearly as when he eats. The old woman swallowed the porridge with hasty greed, chewing aloud and pushing large pieces of bread into her mouth, so that big lumps rose and moved beneath her flabby cheeks. In Olyessia’s manner of eating even there was a native grace.

An hour later, after supper, I took my leave of my hostesses of the chicken-legged hut.

“I will walk with you a little way, if you like,” Olyessia offered.

“What’s this walking out you’re after?” the old woman mumbled angrily. “You can’t stay in your place, you gadfly.⁠ ⁠…”

But Olyessia had already put a red cashmere shawl on. Suddenly she ran up to her grandmother, embraced her and gave her a loud kiss.

“Dear little precious granny.⁠ ⁠… It’s only a moment. I’ll be back in a second.”

“Very well, then, madcap.” The old woman feebly wrenched herself away. “Don’t misunderstand her, sir; she’s very stupid.”

Passing a narrow path we came out into the forest road, black with mud, all churned with hoof marks and rutted with wheel tracks, full of water, in which the fire of the evening star was reflected. We walked at the side of the road, covered everywhere with the brown leaves of last year, not yet dry after the snow. Here and there through the dead yellow big wakening bluebells⁠—the earliest flowers in Polyessie⁠—lifted their lilac heads.

“Listen, Olyessia,” I began; “I very much want to ask you something, but I am afraid you will be cross.⁠ ⁠… Tell me, is it true what they say about your grandmother?⁠ ⁠… How shall I express it?”

“She’s a witch?” Olyessia quietly helped me out.

“No.⁠ ⁠… Not a witch,” I caught her up. “Well, yes, a witch if you like.⁠ ⁠… Certainly, people say such things. Why shouldn’t one know certain herbs, remedies, and charms?⁠ ⁠… But if you find it unpleasant, you need not answer.”

“But why not?” she answered simply. “Where’s the unpleasantness? Yes, it’s true, she’s a witch. But now she’s grown old and can no longer do what she did before.”

“And what did she do before?” I was curious.

“All kinds of things. She could cure illness, heal toothache, put a spell on a mine, pray over anyone who was bitten by a mad dog or a snake, she could find out treasure trove.⁠ ⁠… It is impossible to tell one everything.”

“You know, Olyessia, you must forgive me, but I don’t believe it all. Be frank with me. I shan’t tell anybody; but surely this is all a pretence in order to mystify people?”

She shrugged her shoulders indifferently.

“Think what you like. Of course, it’s easy to mystify a woman from the village, but I wouldn’t deceive you.”

“You really believe in witchcraft, then?”

“How could I disbelieve? Charms are in our destiny. I can do a great deal myself.”

“Olyessia, darling,⁠ ⁠… if you only knew how interested I was.⁠ ⁠… Won’t you really show me anything?”

“I’ll show you, if you like.” Olyessia readily consented. “Would you like me to do it now?”

“Yes, at once, if possible.”

“You won’t be afraid?”

“What next? I might be afraid at night perhaps, but it is still daylight.”

“Very well. Give me your hand.”

I obeyed. Olyessia quickly turned up the sleeve of my overcoat and unfastened the button of my cuff. Then she took a small Finnish knife about three inches long out of her pocket, and removed it from its leather case.

“What are you going to do?” I asked, for a mean fear had awakened in me.

“You will see immediately.⁠ ⁠… But you said you wouldn’t be afraid.”

Suddenly her hand made a slight movement, hardly perceptible. I felt the prick of the sharp blade in the soft part of my arm a little higher than the pulse. Instantly blood showed along the whole width of the cut, flowed over my hand, and began to drop quickly on to the earth. I could hardly restrain a cry, and I believe I grew pale.

“Don’t be afraid. You won’t die,” Olyessia smiled.

She seized my arm above the cut, bent her face down upon it, and began to whisper something quickly, covering my skin with her steady breathing. When she stood up again unclasping her fingers, on the wounded place only a red graze remained.

“Well, have you had enough?” she asked with a sly smile, putting her little knife away. “Would you like some more?”

“Certainly, I would. Only if possible not quite so terrible and without bloodshed, please.”

“What shall I show you?” she mused. “Well, this will do. Walk along the road in front of me. But don’t look back.”

“This won’t be terrible?” I asked, trying to conceal my timid apprehensions of an unpleasant surprise with a careless smile.

“No, no.⁠ ⁠… Quite trifling.⁠ ⁠… Go on.”

I went ahead, very much intrigued by the experiment, feeling Olyessia’s steady glance behind my back. But after about a dozen steps I suddenly stumbled on a perfectly even piece of ground and fell flat.

“Go on, go on!” cried Olyessia. “Don’t look back! It’s nothing at all. It will be all right before your wedding day.⁠ ⁠… Keep a better grip on the ground next time, when you’re going to fall.”

I went on. Another ten steps, and a second time I fell my full length.

Olyessia began to laugh aloud and to clap her hands.

“Well, are you satisfied now?” she cried, her white teeth gleaming. “Do you believe it now? It’s nothing, nothing.⁠ ⁠… You flew down instead of up.”

“How did you manage that?” I asked in surprise, shaking the little clinging twigs and blades of grass from my clothes. “Is it a secret?”

“Not at all. I’ll tell you with pleasure. Only I’m afraid that perhaps you won’t understand.⁠ ⁠… I shan’t be able to explain.⁠ ⁠…”

Indeed, I did not understand her altogether. But, as far as I can make out, this odd trick consists in her following my footsteps, step by step, in time with me. She looks at me steadily, trying to imitate my every movement down to the least; as it were, she identifies herself with me. After a few steps she begins to imagine a rope drawn across the road a certain distance in front of me⁠—a yard from the ground. The moment my foot is touching this imaginary rope, Olyessia suddenly pretends to fall, and then, as she says, the strongest man must infallibly fall.⁠ ⁠… I remembered Olyessia’s confused explanation long afterwards when I read Charcot’s report on the experiments which he made on two women patients in the Salpêtrière, who were professional witches suffering from hysteria. I was greatly surprised to discover that French witches who came from the common people employed exactly the same science in the same cases as the beautiful witch of Polyessie.

“Oh, I can do a great many things besides,” Olyessia boldly declared. “For instance, I can put a fear into you.⁠ ⁠…”

“What does that mean?”

“I’ll act so that you feel a great dread. Suppose you are sitting in your room in the evening. Suddenly for no reason at all such a fear will take hold of you that you will begin to tremble and won’t dare to turn round. But for this I must know where you live and see your room beforehand.”

“Well, that’s quite a simple affair.” I was sceptical. “You only have to come close to the window, tap on it, call out something or other.⁠ ⁠…”

“Oh no!⁠ ⁠… I shall be in the forest at the time. I won’t go out of the hut.⁠ ⁠… But I will sit down and think all the while: I’ll think that I am walking along the road, entering your house, opening the door, coming into your room.⁠ ⁠… You’re sitting somewhere; at the table, say.⁠ ⁠… I walk up to you from behind quietly and stealthily.⁠ ⁠… You don’t hear me.⁠ ⁠… I seize your shoulder with my hands and begin to squeeze⁠ ⁠… stronger, stronger, stronger.⁠ ⁠… I stare at you, just like this. Look!⁠ ⁠…”

Her thin eyebrows suddenly closed together. Her eyes were fixed upon me in a stare, fascinating, threatening. Her pupils dilated and became blue. Instantly I remembered a Medusa’s head, the work of a painter I have forgotten, in the Trietyakov Gallery in Moscow. Beneath this strange look I was seized by a cold terror of the supernatural.

“Well, that’ll do, Olyessia.⁠ ⁠… That’s enough,” I said with a forced laugh. “I much prefer you when you smile. Your face is so kind and childlike.”

We went on. I suddenly recollected the expressiveness of Olyessia’s conversation⁠—elegance even for a simple girl⁠—and I said:

“Do you know what surprises me in you, Olyessia? You’ve grown up in the forest without seeing a soul.⁠ ⁠… Of course, you can’t read very much.⁠ ⁠…”

“I can’t read at all.”

“Well, that makes it all the more.⁠ ⁠… Yet you speak as well as a real lady. Tell me, where did you learn it? You understand what I mean?”

“Yes, I understand. It’s from granny. You mustn’t judge her by her appearance. She is so clever! Some day she may speak when you are there, when she has become used to you. She knows everything, everything on earth that you can ask her. It’s true she’s old now.”

“Then she has seen a great deal in her lifetime. Where does she come from? Where did she live before?”

It seemed that these questions did not please Olyessia. She hesitated to answer, evasive and reluctant.

“I don’t know.⁠ ⁠… She doesn’t like to talk of that herself. If ever she says anything about it, she asks you to forget it, to put it quite out of mind.⁠ ⁠… But it’s time for me.⁠ ⁠…” Olyessia hastened, “Granny will be cross. Goodbye.⁠ ⁠… Forgive me, but I don’t know your name.”

I gave her my name.

“Ivan Timofeyevich? Well, that’s all right. Goodbye, Ivan Timofeyevich! Don’t disdain our hut. Come sometimes.”

I held out my hand at parting, and her small strong hand responded with a vigorous friendly grip.

VI

From that day I began to be a frequent visitor to the chicken-legged house. Every time I came Olyessia met me with her usual dignified reserve. But I always could tell, by the first involuntary she made on seeing me, that she was glad that I had come. The old woman still went on grumbling as she used, muttering under her nose, but she expressed no open malevolence, owing to her granddaughter’s intercession, of which I was certain though I had not witnessed it. Also, the presents I would bring her from time to time made a considerable impression in my favour⁠—a warm shawl, a pot of jam, a bottle of cherry brandy. As though by tacit consent, Olyessia began to make a habit of accompanying me as far as the Irenov road as I went home. And there always began such a lively interesting conversation, that involuntarily we both made an effort to prolong the journey, walking as slowly as possible in the silent fringes of the forest. When we came to the Irenov road, I went back half a mile with her, and even then before we parted we would stand talking for a long while beneath the fragrant shade of the pine branches.

It was not only Olyessia’s beauty that fascinated me, but her whole free independent nature, her mind at once clear and enwrapped in unshakable ancestral superstitions, childlike and innocent, yet not wholly devoid of the sly coquetry of the handsome woman. She never tired of asking me every detail concerning things which stirred her bright unspoiled imagination⁠—countries and peoples, natural phenomena, the order of the earth and the universe, learned men, large towns.⁠ ⁠… Many things seemed to her wonderful, fairy, incredible. But from the very beginning of our acquaintance I took such a serious, sincere, and simple tone with her that she readily put a complete trust in all my stories. Sometimes when I was at a loss for an explanation of something which I thought was too difficult for her half-savage mind⁠—it was often by no means clear to my own⁠—I answered her eager questions with, “You see.⁠ ⁠… I shan’t be able to explain this to you.⁠ ⁠… You won’t understand me.”

Then she would begin to entreat me.

“Please tell me, please, I’ll try.⁠ ⁠… Tell me somehow, though⁠ ⁠… even if it’s not clear.”

She forced me to have recourse to preposterous comparisons and incredibly bold analogies, and when I was at a loss for a suitable expression she would help me out with a torrent of impatient conclusions, like those which we offer to a stammerer. And, indeed, in the end her pliant mobile mind and her fresh imagination triumphed over my pedagogic impotence. I became convinced that, considering her environment and her education (rather, lack of education) her abilities were amazing.

Once I happened in passing to mention Petersburg. Olyessia was instantly intrigued.

“What is Petersburg? A small town?”

“No, it’s not a small one. It’s the biggest Russian city.”

“The biggest? The very largest of all? There isn’t one bigger?” she insisted naively.

“The largest of all. The chief authorities live there⁠ ⁠… the big folks. The houses there are all made of stone; there aren’t any wooden ones.”

“Of course, it’s much bigger than our Stiepany?” Olyessia asked confidently.

“Oh, yes. A good bit bigger. Say five hundred times as big. There are houses there so big that twice as many people live in a single one of them as in the whole of Stiepany.”

“My God! What kind of houses can they be?” Olyessia asked almost in fright.

“Terrible houses. Five, six, even seven stories. You see that fir tree there?”

“The tall one. I see.”

“Houses as tall as that, and they’re crammed with people from top to bottom. The people live in wretched little holes, like birds in cages, ten people in each, so that there isn’t enough air to breathe. Some of them live downstairs, right under the earth, in the damp and cold. They don’t see the sun from one end of the year to the other, some of them.”

“Nothing would make me change my forest for your city,” Olyessia said, shaking her head. “Even when I go to the market at Stiepany, I’m disgusted. They push, shout, swear⁠ ⁠… and I have such a longing for the forest, that I want to throw everything away and run and never look back. God may have your city: I don’t want to live there.”

“But what if your husband comes from a town?” I asked with the trace of a smile.

Her eyebrows frowned and her nostrils trembled.

“What next!” she said with scorn. “I don’t want a husband.”

“You say that now, Olyessia. Nearly every girl says the same, but still they marry. You wait a bit: you’ll meet somebody and you’ll fall in love⁠—and you’ll follow him, not only to town, but to the end of the earth.”

“No, no.⁠ ⁠… We won’t talk of that, please,” she cut me short in vexation. “Why should we talk like this? I ask you not to.”

“How funny you are, Olyessia. Do you really believe you’ll never love a man in your life? You’re so young, handsome, strong. If your blood once catches fire, no oaths of yours will help you.”

“Well,⁠ ⁠… then, I’ll love,” Olyessia answered with a challenge in her flashing eyes. “I shan’t ask anybody’s leave.”

“So you’ll have to marry too,” I teased her.

“I suppose you’re meaning the church?” she guessed.

“Exactly⁠—the church. The priest will lead you round the altar; the deacon will sing, ‘Isaiah, rejoice!’ they’ll put a crown on your head.⁠ ⁠…”

Olyessia cast down her eyes and shook her head, faintly smiling.

“No, dear.⁠ ⁠… Perhaps you won’t like what I say, but in our family no one was ever married in church. My mother and my grandmother before her managed to live without that.⁠ ⁠… Besides, we must not enter a church.⁠ ⁠…”

“All because of your witchery?”

“Yes, because of our witchery,” Olyessia replied with a calm seriousness. “How could I dare to appear in a church? From my very birth my soul was sold to Him.”

“Olyessia, dear.⁠ ⁠… Believe me, you’re deceiving yourself. It’s wild and ridiculous what you say.”

Once more there appeared on Olyessia’s face the strange expression of convinced and gloomy submissiveness to her mysterious destiny, which I had noticed before.

“No, no.⁠ ⁠… You can’t understand it.⁠ ⁠… But I feel it.⁠ ⁠… Just here.⁠ ⁠…” She pressed her hand strongly to her heart. “I feel it in my soul. All our family is cursed for ever and ever. But think yourself, who is it that helps us if it is not He? Can an ordinary person do the things I can do? All our power comes from Him.”

Every time our conversation touched upon this strange theme it ended in the same way. In vain I exhausted every argument to which Olyessia was sensible; in vain I spoke in simple terms of hypnotism, suggestion, mental doctors, and Indian fakirs; in vain I endeavoured to explain certain of her experiments by physiology, such, for instance, as blood charming, which is easily produced by skilful pressure on a vein. Still Olyessia, who believed me so implicitly in all else, refuted all my arguments and explanations with obstinate insistence.

“Very well, I’ll make you a present of blood charming,” she said, raising her voice in the heat of the discussion. “But where do the other things come from? Is blood charming the only thing I know? Would you like me to take away all the mice and beetles from a hut in a single day? If you like, I’ll cure the most violent fever in two days with plain cold water, even though all your doctors give the patient up. I can make you forget any word you like, completely? And how is it I interpret dreams? How is it I can see the future?”

The discussion always ended by our mutual silence, from which a certain inward irritation against each other was not wholly absent. Indeed, for much of her black art I could find no explanation in my small science. I do not know and cannot say whether Olyessia possessed one half the secrets of which she spoke with such naive belief. But the things which I frequently witnessed planted an unshakable conviction in me that Olyessia had access to that strange knowledge, unconscious, instinctive, dim, acquired only by accidental experience, which has outrun exact science for centuries, and lives intertwined with wild and ridiculous superstitions, in the obscure impenetrable heart of the masses, where it is transmitted from one generation to another as the greatest of all secrets.

For all our disagreement on this single point, we became more and more strongly attached to one another. Not a word had been spoken between us of love as yet, but it had become a necessity for us to be together; and often in moments of silence I saw Olyessia’s eyes moisten, and a thin blue vein on her temple begin to pulse.

But my relations with Yarmola were quite ruined. Evidently my visits to the chicken-legged hut were no secret to him, nor were my evening walks with Olyessia. With amazing exactness, he always knew everything that went on in the forest. For some time I noticed that he had begun to avoid me. His black eyes watched me from a distance, with reproach and discontent every time I went out to walk in the forest, though he did not express his reproof by so much as a single word. Our comically serious studies in reading and writing came to an end; and if I occasionally called Yarmola in to learn during the evening he would only wave his hand.

“What’s the good? It’s a peggling business, sir!” he would say with lazy contempt.

Our hunting also ceased. Every time I began to talk of it, Yarmola found some excuse or other for refusing. Either his gun was out of order, or his dog was ill, or he was too busy. “I have no time, sir.⁠ ⁠… I have to be ploughing today,” was Yarmola’s usual answer to my invitation; but I knew quite well that he would do no ploughing at all, but spend a good hour outside the inn in the doubtful hope of somebody standing him a drink. This silent, concealed animosity began to weary me, and I began to think of dispensing with Yarmola’s services, on the first suitable occasion.⁠ ⁠… I was restrained only by a sense of pity for his enormous poverty-stricken family, whom Yarmola’s four weekly roubles just saved from starvation.

VII

Once when I came to the chicken-legged hut, as my habit was, just before dark, I was immediately struck by the anxiety of its occupants. The old woman sat with her feet on the bed, hunched up, and swayed to and fro with her head in her hands, murmuring something I could not catch. She paid no attention to my greeting. Olyessia welcomed me kindly as always, but our conversation made no headway. She listened to me absently and answered me inconsequently. On her beautiful face lay the shadow of some unceasing secret trouble.

“Something bad has happened to you, Olyessia, I can see,” I said cautiously, touching her hand which lay on the bench.

Olyessia quickly turned her face to the window, as though she were examining something. She tried to look calm, but her eyebrows drew together and trembled, and her teeth violently bit her under lip.

“No,⁠ ⁠… what could have happened to us?” she said with a dull voice. “Everything is just as it was.”

“Olyessia, why don’t you tell me the truth? It’s wrong of you.⁠ ⁠… I thought that we had become real friends.”

“It’s nothing, really.⁠ ⁠… Nothing.⁠ ⁠… Our troubles⁠ ⁠… trifles.”

“No, Olyessia, they don’t seem to be trifles. You’re not like yourself.”

“That’s only your fancy.”

“Be frank with me, Olyessia. I don’t know whether I can help, but I can give you some advice perhaps.⁠ ⁠… And, anyhow, you’ll feel better when you’ve shared your trouble.”

“But it’s really not worth talking about,” Olyessia replied impatiently. “You can’t possibly help us at all, now.”

Suddenly, with unexpected passion, the old woman broke into the conversation.

“Why are you so stubborn, you little fool? Someone talks business to you, and you hold up your nose. As if nobody in the world was cleverer than you! If you please, sir, I’ll tell you the whole story,” she said, turning towards me, “beginning with the beginning.”

The trouble appeared much more considerable than I could have supposed from Olyessia’s proud words. The evening before, the local policeman had come to the chicken-legged hut.

“First he sat down, nice and politely, and asked for vodka,” Manuilikha said, “and then he began and went on and on. ‘Clear out of the hut in twenty-four hours with all your belongings. If I come next time,’ he says, ‘and find you here, then I tell you, you’ll go to jail. I’ll send you away with a couple of soldiers to your native place, curse you.’ But you know, sir, my native place is hundreds of miles away, the town of Amchensk.⁠ ⁠… I haven’t a soul there now who knows me. Our passports have been out of date for years, and besides they aren’t in order. Ah, my God, what misfortune!”

“Then why did he let you live here before, and only just now made up his mind?”

“How can I tell?⁠ ⁠… He shouted out something or other, but I confess I couldn’t understand it. You see how it is: this hole we live in isn’t ours. It belongs to the landlord. Olyessia and I used to live in the village before, but the⁠—”

“Yes, yes, I know, granny. I’ve heard about that. The peasants got angry with you⁠—”

“That’s it, exactly. So I begged this hut from the old landlord, Mr. Abrossimov. Now, they say a new landlord has bought the forest, and it seems he wants to drain some marshes. But what can I do?”

“Perhaps it’s all a lie, granny,” I said. “And the sergeant only wants to get a pound out of you.”

“But I offered it to him, I offered it, sir. He wouldn’t take it. It’s a strange business.⁠ ⁠… I offered him three pounds, but he wouldn’t take it.⁠ ⁠… It was awful. He swore at me so badly that I didn’t know where I was. All the while he went on saying: ‘Be off with you, be off!’ What can we do now? We’re alone in the world. Good sir, you might manage to help us in some way. You could speak to him; his belly’s never satisfied. I’m sure I’d be grateful to you eternally.”

“Granny!” said Olyessia, in a slow reproachful voice.

“What do you mean, ‘Granny!’ ” The old woman was annoyed. “Twenty-five years I’ve been a granny to you. And what’s your opinion; it’s better to carry a beggar’s pack? No, don’t listen to her, sir! Of your charity, do something for us if you can.”

I gave her vague promises to take some steps, though, to tell the truth I could see but little hope. If our sergeant wouldn’t take money, then the affair must be very serious. That evening Olyessia parted from me coldly, and, quite against her usual habit, did not walk with me. I could see that the proud girl was angry with me for interfering, and rather ashamed of her grandmother’s whimpering.

VIII

It was a warm, greyish morning. Several times already there had been brief showers of heavy fruitful rain, which makes the young grass grow before your eyes and the new shoots stretch out. After the rain the sun peeped out for a moment, pouring its joyous glitter over the tender green of the lilac bushes, sodden with the rain, which made all my hedge. The sparrows’ impetuous chirrup grew louder among the lush gardenbeds, and the scent of the sticky brown poplar buds came sweeter. I was sitting at the table, drawing a plan of timber to be felled, when Yarmola entered the room.

“The sergeant’s here,” he said gloomily.

At the moment I had completely forgotten that I had ordered him a couple of days ago to let me know in case the sergeant were to pass. It was impossible for me to understand immediately what was the connection between me and the delegate of authority.

“What?” I said in confusion.

“I say the sergeant’s here,” Yarmola repeated in the same hostile tone that he normally assumed towards me during the last days. “I saw him on the dam just now. He’s coming here.”

There was a rumble of wheels on the road outside. A long thin chocolate-coloured gelding with a hanging under lip, and an insulted look on its face, gravely trotted up with a tall, jolting, basket gig. There was only a single trace. The place of the other was supplied by a piece of stout rope. (Malicious tongues asserted that the sergeant had put this miserable contraption together on purpose to avoid any undesirable comments.) The sergeant himself held the reins, filling both seats with his enormous body, which was wrapped in a grey uniform made of smart military cloth.

“Good day to you, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich!” I called, leaning out of the window.

“Ah, good day! How do you do?” he answered in a loud, courteous, official baritone.

He drew up his horse, saluted with straightened palm, and bent his body forward with elephantine grace.

“Come in for a moment. I’ve got a little business with you.”

The sergeant spread his hands wide and shook his head.

“Can’t possibly. I’m on duty. I’ve got to go to Volocha for an inquest⁠—man drowned.”

But I knew Evpsychyi’s weak points; so I said with assumed indifference:

“It’s a pity⁠ ⁠… a great pity⁠ ⁠… and I’ve got a couple of bottles of the best from Count Vortzel’s cellar.⁠ ⁠…”

“Can’t manage it.⁠ ⁠… Duty.”

“The butler sold them to me, because he’s an acquaintance of mine. He’d brought them up in the cellar, like his own children.⁠ ⁠… You ought to come in.⁠ ⁠… I’ll tell them to give the horse a feed.”

“You’re a nice one, you are,” the sergeant said in reproof. “Don’t you know that duty comes first of all?⁠ ⁠… What’s in the bottles, though? Plum wine?”

“Plum wine!” I waved my hand. “It’s the real old stuff, that’s what it is, my dear sir!”

“I must confess I’ve just had a bite and a drop.” The sergeant scratched his cheek regretfully, wrinkling his face incredibly.

I continued with the same calm.

“I don’t know whether it’s true; but the butler swore it was two hundred years old. It smells just like an old cognac, and it’s as yellow as amber.”

“Ah, what are you doing with me?” said the sergeant. “Who’ll hold my horse?”

I really had some bottles of the old liqueur, though it was not quite so old as I made out; but I thought that suggestion might easily add a hundred years to its age.⁠ ⁠… At any rate it was the real home-distilled, omnipotent stuff, the pride of a ruined magnate’s cellar. (Evpsychyi Afrikanovich, who was the son of a parson, immediately begged a bottle from me, in case, as he put it, he were to catch a bad cold.) Besides, I had some very conducive hors d’oeuvre: young radishes, with fresh churned butter.

“Now, what’s the little business?” the sergeant asked after his fifth glass, throwing himself back in the old chair which groaned under him.

I began to explain the position of the poor old woman; I dwelt on her hopeless despair; spoke lightly of useless formalities. The sergeant listened to me with his head bent down, methodically clearing the small roots from the succulent red radishes, and chewing and crunching them with relish. Now and then he gave me a quick glance with his cloudy, indifferent, preposterously little blue eyes; but I could read nothing on his great red face, neither sympathy nor opposition. When I finally became silent, he only asked.

“Well, what is it you want from me?”

“What do you mean?” I became agitated. “Look at their position, please⁠—two poor defenceless women living there⁠—”

“And one of them’s a perfect little bud!” the sergeant put in maliciously.

“Bud or no bud⁠—that doesn’t come into it. But why shouldn’t you take some interest in them? As though you really need to turn them out in such a hurry? Just wait a day or two until I’ve been to the landlord. What do you stand to lose, even if you waited for a month?”

“What do I stand to lose?” The sergeant rose in his chair. “Good God! I stand to lose everything⁠—my job, first of all. Who knows what sort of a man this new landlord, Ilyashevich is? Perhaps he’s an underhand devil, one of the sort who get hold of a bit of paper and a pen on the slightest provocation, and send a little report to Petersburg? There are men of the kind!”

I tried to reassure the agitated sergeant.

“That’s enough, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich! You’re exaggerating the whole affair. After all, a risk’s a risk, and gratitude’s gratitude.”

Ph-e-w!” The sergeant gave a long-drawn whistle and thrust his hands into his trouser-pockets. “It’s gratitude, is it? Do you think I’m going to stake my official position for three pounds? No, you’ve got a wrong idea of me.”

“But what are you getting warm about, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich? The amount isn’t the point, just simply⁠—well, let’s say, for humanity’s sake⁠—”

“For hu-man-i-ty’s sake?” He hammered out each syllable. “I’m full up to here with your humanity!” He tapped vigorously on the bronzed nape of his mighty neck which hung down over his collar in a fat, hairless fold.

“That’s a bit too strong, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich.”

“Not a bit too strong! ‘They’re the plague of the place,’ as Mr. Krylov, the famous fable-writer, said. That’s what these two ladies are. You don’t happen to have read that splendid work, by His Excellency Count Urussov, called The Police Sergeant?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Well, you ought to have. A brilliant work, highly moral. I would advise you to make its acquaintance when you have the time⁠—”

“Right, I’ll do so with pleasure. But still I don’t see what this book’s got to do with these two poor women.”

“What’s it got to do with them? A great deal. Firstly” (Evpsychyi Afrikanovich ticked off the fat hairy forefinger of his left hand): “ ‘It is the duty of a police sergeant to take the greatest care that all the people go to the Church of God, without, however, compelling them by force to remain there.⁠ ⁠…’ I ask you, does she go⁠—what’s her name; Manuilikha, isn’t it?⁠ ⁠… Does she ever go to church?”

I was silent, surprised by the unexpected turn of his speech. He gave me a look of triumph, and ticked off his second finger. “Secondly: ‘False prophecies and prognostications are everywhere forbidden.⁠ ⁠…’ Do you notice that? Then, thirdly: ‘It is illegal to profess to be a sorcerer or a magician, or to employ similar deceptions.’ What do you say to that? And suppose all this becomes known, or gets round to the authorities by some back way, who has to pay for it? I do. Who gets sacked from the service? I do. Now you see what a business it is.”

He sat down in his chair again. His raised eyes wandered absently over the walls of the room and his fingers drummed loudly on the table.

“Well, what if I ask you, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich,” I began once more in a gentle voice. “Of course I know your duties are complicated and troublesome, but you’ve got a heart, I know, a heart of gold. What will it cost you to promise me not to touch these women?”

The sergeant’s eyes suddenly stopped, over my head.

“That’s a nice little gun you’ve got,” he said carelessly, still drumming his fingers. “A splendid little gun. Last time I came to see you and you were out, I admired it all the while. A splendid gun!”

“Yes, it’s not a bad gun,” I agreed. “It’s an old pattern, made by Gastin-Rennet; but last year I had it converted into a hammerless. You just look at the barrels.”

“Yes, yes⁠ ⁠… it was the barrels I admired most.⁠ ⁠… A magnificent piece of work. I’d call it a perfect treasure.”

Our eyes met, and I saw the trace of a meaning smile flickering in the corner of the sergeant’s lips. I rose from my seat, took the gun off the wall and approached Evpsychyi Afrikanovich with it.

“The Circassians have an admirable custom,” I said courteously, “of presenting a guest with anything that he praises. Though we are not Circassians, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich, I entreat you to accept this from me as a memento.”

For appearance’ sake the sergeant blushed.

“My goodness, what a beauty! No, no.⁠ ⁠… That custom is far too generous.”

However, I did not have to entreat him long. The sergeant accepted the gun, carefully put it between his knees and with a clean handkerchief lovingly wiped away the dust that had settled on the lock; and I was rather mollified when I saw that the gun had at least passed into the hands of an expert and an amateur. Almost immediately Evpsychyi Afrikanovich got up and began to hurry away.

“Business won’t wait, and here I’ve been gossiping with you,” he said, noisily banging on the floor with his reluctant goloshes. “When you happen to come our way, you’ll be most welcome.”

“Well, what about Manuilikha, my dear Authority?” I reminded him delicately.

“We’ll see, we’ll see,⁠ ⁠…” Evpsychyi Afrikanovich vaguely muttered. “There was something else I wanted to ask you.⁠ ⁠… Your radishes are magnificent.⁠ ⁠…”

“I grew them myself.”

“Mag‑nificent radishes! You know, my wife is terribly partial to garden-stuff. So, you know, one little bundle.⁠ ⁠…”

“With the greatest pleasure, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich. I consider it an obligation.⁠ ⁠… This very day I’ll send a basket by messenger. Let me send some butter as well.⁠ ⁠… My butter’s quite a special thing.”

“Well, butter too,⁠ ⁠…” the sergeant graciously permitted. “And you can tip those women the wink that I shan’t touch them for the time being. But you’d better let them know”⁠—he raised his voice suddenly⁠—“that they can’t settle me with a ‘Thank you.’⁠ ⁠… Now, I wish you goodbye. Once more, merci for the present and the entertainment.”

He clicked his heels together like a soldier, and walked to his carriage with the ponderous gait of a full-fed, important person. By his carriage were already gathered the village policeman, the mayor and Yarmola, in respectful attitudes, with their heads bare.

IX

Evpsychyi Afrikanovich kept his word and left the people of the forest hut in peace indefinitely. But my relations with Olyessia suffered an acute and curious change. Not a trace of her old naive and confident kindness remained in her attitude to me, nor any of the old animation wherein the coquetry of a beautiful girl so beautifully blended with the playful wantonness of a child. An awkward constraint beyond which we could not pass began to appear in our conversation.⁠ ⁠… With an instant timidity Olyessia avoided the lively themes which used to give such boundless scope to our curiosity.

In my presence she gave herself up to her work in a strained, stern, businesslike way; but I often noticed that in the middle of her work her hands would suddenly drop weakly on her knees, and her eyes be fixed, vague and immovable, downwards upon the floor. And when at such a moment I called her by name, “Olyessia,” or put some question to her, she shivered and turned her face slowly towards me: in it was reflected fright and the effort to understand the meaning of my words. Sometimes it seemed to me that she was burdened and embarrassed by my company, but I could not reconcile that with the deep interest that every remark and phrase of mine used to arouse in her only a few days ago. I could only think that Olyessia was unwilling to forgive my patronage in the affair with the sergeant, which so revolted her independent nature. But this solution did not satisfy me either, and I still asked myself from whence did this simple girl, who had grown up in the midst of the forest, derive her inordinately sensitive pride?

All this demanded explanations; but Olyessia avoided every favourable occasion for frank conversation. Our evening walks came to an end. In vain I cast eloquent imploring glances at Olyessia each day, when I was on the point of leaving; she made as though she did not understand their meaning, and in spite of the old woman’s deafness, her presence disturbed me.

At times I revolted against my own weakness and the habit which now drew me every day to Olyessia. I myself did not suspect with what subtle, strong, invisible threads my heart was bound to this fascinating, incomprehensible girl. As yet I had no thought of love; but I was already living through a disturbing period of unconscious anticipation, full of vague and oppressive sadnesses. Wherever I was, with whatever I tried to amuse myself, my every thought was occupied with the image of Olyessia, my whole being craved for her, and each separate memory of her most insignificant words, her gestures and her smiles, contracted my heart with a sweet and gentle pain. But evening came and I sat long beside her on a low rickety little bench, to my grief finding myself every time more timid, more awkward and foolish.

Once I passed a whole day thus at Olyessia’s side. I had begun to feel unwell from the morning onward, though I could not clearly define wherein my sickness consisted. It grew worse towards evening. My head grew heavy; I felt a dull incessant pain in the crown of my head, exactly as though someone were pressing down upon it with a soft, strong hand. My mouth was parched, and an idle, languid weakness poured over my whole body. My eyes pained me just as though I had been staring fixedly, close to a glimmering point.

As I was returning late in the evening, midway I was suddenly seized and shaken by a tempestuous chill. I could hardly see the way as I went on; I was almost unconscious of where I was going; I reeled like a drunken man, and my jaws beat out a quick loud tattoo, each against the other.

Till this day I do not know who brought me into the house. For exactly six days I was stricken by a terrible racking Polyessian fever. During the day the sickness seemed to abate, and consciousness returned to me. Then, utterly exhausted by the disease, I could hardly walk across the room, such was the pain and weakness of my knees; at each stronger movement the blood rushed in a hot wave to my head, and covered everything before my eyes with darkness.

In the evening, and usually at about seven o’clock, the approach of the disease overwhelmed me like a storm, and on my bed I passed a terrible, century-long night, now shaking with cold beneath the blankets, now blazing with intolerable heat. Hardly had I been touched by a drowsy slumber, when strange, grotesque, painfully motley dreams began to play with my inflamed brain. Every dream was filled with tiny microscopic details, which piled up and clutched each at the other in ugly chaos. Now I seemed to be unpacking some boxes, coloured with stripes and of fantastic form, taking small ones out of the big, and from the small still smaller. I could not by any means interrupt the unending labour, although it had long been disgusting to me. Then there flashed before my eyes with stupefying speed long bright stripes from the wallpaper, and with amazing distinctness I saw on them, instead of patterns, whole garlands of human faces⁠—beautiful, kind, and smiling, then horribly grimacing, thrusting out their tongues, showing their teeth, and rolling their eyes. Then I entered into a confused and extraordinarily complicated abstract dispute with Yarmola. Every minute the arguments which we brought up against each other became subtler and more profound: separate words and even individual letters of words suddenly took on a mysterious and unfathomable meaning, and at the same time I was seized by a revolting terror of the unknown, unnatural force that wound out one monstrous sophism after another out of my brain, and would not let me break off the dispute which had long been loathsome to me.⁠ ⁠…

It was like a seething whirlwind of human and animal figures, landscapes, things of the most wonderful forms and colours, words and phrases whose meaning was apprehended by every sense.⁠ ⁠… But the strange thing was that I never lost sight of a bright regular circle reflected on to the ceiling by the lamp with the scorched green shade. And somehow I knew that within the indistinct line of that quiet circle was concealed a silent, monotonous, mysterious, terrible life, yet more awful and oppressive than the mad chaos of my dreams.

Then I awoke, or more truly did not awake, but suddenly forced myself to sit up. Consciousness almost returned to me. I understood that I was lying in bed, that I was ill, that I had just been in delirium, but the bright circle on the ceiling still terrified me by its hidden, ominous menace. With weak hands I slowly reached for the watch, looked at it, and saw with melancholy perplexity that all the endless sequence of my ghastly dreams had taken no longer than two or three minutes. “My God, will the dawn ever come?” I thought in despair, tossing my head over the hot pillows and feeling my short heavy breathing burn my lips.⁠ ⁠… But again a slight drowsiness possessed me, and again my brain became the sport of a motley nightmare, and again within two minutes I woke, racked by a mortal anguish.

In six days my vigorous constitution, aided by quinine and an infusion of buckthorn, overcame my disease. I rose from my bed completely crushed, with difficulty standing upright on my legs. But my convalescence passed with eager quickness. In my head, weary with six days’ feverish delirium, I felt now an idle, pleasant absence of any thought at all. My appetite returned with double force, and hourly my body gathered strength, in each moment imbibing its particle of health and of the joy of life. And with that a new and stronger craving came upon me for the forest and the lonely, tumble-down hut. But my nerves had not yet recovered, and every time that I called up Olyessia’s face and voice in my memory, I wanted to cry.

X

Only five more days had passed, when I was so much recovered that I reached the chicken-legged hut on foot without the least fatigue. As I stepped on the threshold my heart palpitated with breathless fear. I had not seen Olyessia for almost two weeks, and I now perceived how near and dear she was to me. Holding the latch of the door, I waited some seconds, breathing with difficulty. In my irresolution I even shut my eyes for some time before I could push the door open.⁠ ⁠…

It is always impossible to analyse impressions like those which followed my entrance.⁠ ⁠… Can one remember the words uttered in the first moment of meeting between a mother and son, husband and wife, or lover and lover? The simplest, most ordinary, even ridiculous words are said, if they were put down exactly upon paper. But each word is opportune and infinitely dear because it is uttered by the dearest voice in all the world.

I remember⁠—very clearly I remember⁠—only one thing: Olyessia’s beautiful pale face turned quickly towards me, and on that beautiful face, so new to me, were in one second reflected, in changing succession, perplexity, fear, anxiety, and a tender radiant smile of love.⁠ ⁠… The old woman was mumbling something, clattering round me, but I did not hear her greetings. Olyessia’s voice reached me like a sweet music:

“What has been the matter with you? You’ve been ill? Ah, how thin you’ve grown, my poor darling!”

For a long while I could make no answer, and we stood silent face to face, clasping hands and looking straight into the depths of each other’s eyes, happily. Those few silent seconds I have always considered the happiest in my life: never, never before or since, have I tasted such pure, complete, all-absorbing ecstasy. And how much I read in Olyessia’s big dark eyes!⁠—the excitement of the meeting, reproach for my long absence, and a passionate declaration of love. In that look I felt that Olyessia gave me her whole being joyfully without doubt or reservation.

She was the first to break the spell, pointing to Manuilikha with a slow movement of her eyelids. We sat down side by side, and Olyessia began to ask me anxiously for the details of my illness, the medicines I had taken, what the doctor had said and thought⁠—he came twice to see me from the little town; she made me tell about the doctor time after time, and I could catch a fleeting, sarcastic smile on her lips.

“Oh, why didn’t I know that you were ill!” she exclaimed with impatient regret. “I would have set you on your feet again in a single day.⁠ ⁠… How can they be trusted, when they don’t understand anything at all, nothing at all? Why didn’t you send for me?”

I was at a loss for an answer.

“You see, Olyessia⁠ ⁠… it happened so suddenly⁠ ⁠… besides, I was afraid to trouble you. Towards the end you had become strange towards me, as though you were angry with me, or bored.⁠ ⁠… Olyessia,” I added, lowering my voice, “we’ve got ever so much to say to each other, ever so much⁠ ⁠… just we two⁠ ⁠… you understand?”

She quietly cast down her eyes in token of consent, and then whispered quickly, looking round timidly at her grandmother:

“Yes.⁠ ⁠… I want to, as well⁠ ⁠… later⁠ ⁠… wait⁠—”

As soon as the sun began to set, Olyessia began to urge me to go home.

“Make haste, be quick and get ready,” she said, pulling my hand from the bench. “If the damp catches you now, the fever will be on you again, immediately.”

“Where are you going, Olyessia?” Manuilikha asked suddenly, seeing that her granddaughter had thrown a large grey shawl hurriedly over her head.

“I’m going part of the way with him,” answered Olyessia.

She said the words with indifference, looking not at her grandmother but at the window; but in her voice I could detect on almost imperceptible note of irritation.

“You’re really going?” the old woman once more asked, meaningly.

Olyessia’s eyes flashed, and she stared steadily into Manuilikha’s face.

“Yes, I am going,” she replied proudly. “We talked it out and talked it out long ago.⁠ ⁠… It’s my affair, and my own responsibility.”

“Ah, you⁠—” the old woman exclaimed in reproach and annoyance. She wanted to add more, but only waved her hand and dragged her trembling legs away into the corner, and began to busy herself with a basket, groaning.

I understood that the brief unpleasant conversation which I had just witnessed was a continuation of a long series of mutual quarrels and bursts of anger. As I walked to the forest at Olyessia’s side, I asked her:

“Granny doesn’t want you to go for a walk with me, does she?”

Olyessia shrugged her shoulders in vexation.

“Please, don’t take any notice of it.⁠ ⁠… No, she doesn’t like it.⁠ ⁠… Surely I’m free to do as I like?”

Suddenly I conceived an irresistible desire to reproach Olyessia with her former sternness.

“But you could have done it before my illness as well.⁠ ⁠… Only then you didn’t want to be alone with me.⁠ ⁠… I thought, every evening I thought, perhaps you would come with me again. But you used to pay no attention; you were so unresponsive, and cross.⁠ ⁠… How you tormented me, Olyessia!⁠ ⁠…”

“Don’t, darling.⁠ ⁠… Forget it,⁠ ⁠…” Olyessia entreated with a tender apology in her voice.

“No, I’m not saying it to blame you. It just slipped out. Now, I understand why it was.⁠ ⁠… But before⁠—it’s funny to talk about it even now⁠—I thought you were offended because of the sergeant. The thought made me terribly sad. I couldn’t help thinking that you considered me so remote and foreign to you, that you found it hard to accept a simple kindness from me.⁠ ⁠… It was very bitter to me.⁠ ⁠… I never even suspected that granny was the cause of it all, Olyessia.”

Olyessia’s face suddenly flamed bright red.

“But it wasn’t granny at all.⁠ ⁠… It was me. I didn’t want it, myself,” she exclaimed with a passionate challenge.

“But why didn’t you want it, Olyessia, why?” I asked. My voice broke for agitation, and I caught her by the hand and made her stop. We were just in the middle of a long narrow path, straight as an arrow through the forest. On either side we were surrounded by tall slender pines, that formed a gigantic corridor, receding into the distance, vaulted with fragrant interwoven branches. The bare peeled trunks were tinged with the purple glow of the burnt-out red of the evening sky.

“Tell me why, Olyessia, why?” I whispered again, pressing her hand closer and closer.

“I could not⁠ ⁠… I was afraid,” Olyessia said so low that I could hardly hear. “I thought it was possible to escape one’s destiny.⁠ ⁠… But, now⁠ ⁠… now.”

Her breath failed her, as though there were no air; and suddenly her hands twined quick and vehement about my neck, and my lips were sweetly burnt by Olyessia’s quick trembling whisper:

“But it’s all the same, now⁠ ⁠… all the same!⁠ ⁠… Because I love you, my dear, my joy, my beloved!”

She pressed closer and closer to me, and I could feel how her strong, vigorous, fervent body pulsed beneath my hands, how quickly her heart beat against my chest. Her passionate kisses poured like intoxicating wine into my head, still weak with disease, and I began to lose my hold upon myself.

“Olyessia, for God’s sake, don’t⁠ ⁠… leave me,” I said, trying to unclasp her hands. “Now I am afraid.⁠ ⁠… I’m afraid of myself.⁠ ⁠… Let me go, Olyessia.”

She raised her head. Her face was all lighted with a slow, languid smile.

“Don’t be afraid, my darling,” she said with an indescribable expression of tender passion and touching fearlessness. “I shall never reproach you, never be jealous of anyone.⁠ ⁠… Tell me only, do you love me?”

“I love you, Olyessia. I loved you long ago, and I love you passionately. But⁠ ⁠… don’t kiss me any more.⁠ ⁠… I grow weak, my head swims, I can’t answer for myself.⁠ ⁠…”

Her lips were once more pressed to mine in a long, painful sweetness. I did not hear, rather I divined her words.

“Then don’t be afraid. Don’t think of anything besides.⁠ ⁠… Today is ours; no one can take it from us.”


And the whole night melted into a magical fairy tale. The moon rose, and its radiance poured fantastically in motley and mysterious colours over the forest. It lay amid the darkness in pale blue stains upon the gnarled tree-trunks, on the bent branches and the soft carpet of moss. The high birch-trunks showed clear and keenly white, and it seemed that a silvery transparent veil of gauze had been thrown over the thin leaves. In places the light could by no means penetrate the thick canopy of pine branches. There was complete, impenetrable darkness, save only that in the middle a ray slipped in unknown from somewhere and suddenly shone brightly on a long row of trees, casting a straight narrow path on the earth, as bright and trim and beautiful as a path fashioned by fairies for the triumphant procession of Oberon and Titania. And we walked with our arms enlocked through this vivid, smiling fairy tale, without a single word, under the weight of our happiness and the dreadful silence of the night.

“Darling, I’ve forgotten quite that you must hurry home,” Olyessia suddenly remembered. “What a wicked girl I am! You’re only just recovering from your illness and I’ve kept you all this while in the forest.”

I kissed her, and threw back the shawl from her thick dark hair, and asked her in the softest whisper, bending to her ear:

“You don’t regret it, Olyessia? You don’t repent?”

She shook her head slowly.

“No, no.⁠ ⁠… Come what may, I shan’t regret.⁠ ⁠… I am so happy!”

“Is something bound to happen, then?”

There appeared in her eyes a flash of the mystical terror I had grown to recognise.

“Yes, it is certain. You remember I told you about the queen of clubs. That queen of clubs is me, myself; the misfortune that the cards told of will happen to me.⁠ ⁠… You know I thought of asking you not to come and see us any more. But then you fell ill, and I never saw you for nearly a fortnight.⁠ ⁠… I was so anxious and sad for you that I felt I could have given the whole world to be with you, just one little minute. Then I thought that I would not give up my happiness, whatever should come of it.⁠ ⁠…”

“It’s true, Olyessia. That’s how it was with me, too,” I said, touching her forehead with my lips. “I never knew that I loved you until I parted from you. It seems that man was right who said that parting to love is like wind to a fire: it blows out a small one, and makes a large one blaze.”

“What did you say? Say it again, again, please.” Olyessia was interested.

I repeated the words again. I do not know whose they are. Olyessia mused over them, and I could see by the movement of her lips that she was saying the words over to herself.

I looked closely into her pale face, thrown back, her large black eyes with glimmering bright lights within them from the moon; and with a sudden chill a vague foreboding of imminent calamity crept into my soul.

XI

The naive enchanting tale of our love lasted for nearly a month. To this day there live with undiminished potency in my soul Olyessia’s beautiful face and those blazing twilights, those dewy mornings fragrant with lilies and honey, full of vigorous freshness and the sonorous noise of birds, those hot, languid, idle days of June. In that time neither weariness, nor fatigue, nor my eternal passion for a wandering life ever touched my soul. I was a pagan god or a strong, young animal, delighting in the light and warmth and conscious joy of life, and in calm, pure, sensuous love.

After my recovery old Manuilikha became so intolerably snappish, met me with such undisguised malice, and, while I was sitting in the hut, moved the pots on the stove with such noisy exasperation, that Olyessia and I preferred to meet in the forest every evening.⁠ ⁠… And the stately green beauty of the pine-forest was the precious setting which adorned our tranquil love.

Every day with deeper and deeper wonder I discovered that Olyessia, the child of the forest who could not even read, showed in many things of life a delicate sensitiveness and a peculiar native refinement. There are always horrible sides to love, in its direct and coarser meaning, which are a torment and a shame to nervous artistic natures. But Olyessia could avoid them with such naive chastity that our love was never once spoiled by a single ugly thought, or one moment of cynicism.

Meanwhile the time of my departure was approaching. To tell the truth, all my official business at Perebrod was already at an end; but I had deliberately delayed my return to town. I had not yet breathed a word of this to Olyessia, for I was afraid even to imagine to myself how she would receive the news that I must go away. Habit had taken roots too deep in me. To see Olyessia every day, to hear her dear voice and musical laughter, to feel the tender beauty of her caresses, had come to be more than a necessity for me. On the rare days when stress of weather prevented us from meeting I felt exactly as though I had been lost, and deprived of what was chief and all-important in my life. Every occupation was tedious and useless to me, and my whole being craved for the forest, the warmth and the light, and Olyessia’s dear familiar face.

The idea of marrying Olyessia entered my head more and more insistently. At first it had only presented itself to me but rarely as a possible, and in extremities an honest, issue to our relationship. Only one thing alarmed and checked me. I dared not even imagine to myself what Olyessia would be like, fashionably dressed, chatting to the wives of my colleagues in the drawing-room, snatched away from the fascinating setting of the old forest, full of legends and mysterious powers.

But the nearer came the time for me to depart, the greater was the anguish and horror of loneliness which possessed me. My resolution to marry grew daily stronger in my soul, and finally I could no longer see it as a bold defiance of society. “Decent, well-educated men marry dressmakers and servant-maids,” I consoled myself, “and they live happily together, and to the day of their death they thank the fate which urged them to this resolution. Shall I be unhappier than the others?”

Once in mid-June, towards evening, I was waiting for Olyessia, according to my habit, at the turn of a narrow forest path among the flowering whitethorn bushes. When she was far in the distance I made out the easy, quick sound of her steps.

“How are you, my darling?” Olyessia said, embracing me and breathing heavily. “Have I kept you waiting too long?⁠ ⁠… It was so hard to get away at the last.⁠ ⁠… Fighting with granny all the while.”

“Isn’t she reconciled yet?”

“Never! She says to me: ‘He’ll ruin you.⁠ ⁠… He’ll play with you at his pleasure and then desert you.⁠ ⁠… He doesn’t love you at all⁠—’ ”

“So that’s what she says about me?”

“Yes, darling, about you.⁠ ⁠… But I don’t believe a single word of it all the same.⁠ ⁠…”

“Does she know everything?”

“I couldn’t say for sure.⁠ ⁠… But I believe she knows.⁠ ⁠… I’ve never spoken to her about it⁠—she guesses. But what’s the good of thinking about that.⁠ ⁠… Come.”

She plucked a twig of whitethorn with a superb spray of blossom and thrust it into her hair. We walked slowly along the path which showed faintly rosy beneath the evening sun.

The night before I had decided that I would speak out at all costs this evening. But a strange timidity lay like a weight upon my tongue. “If I tell Olyessia that I am going away and going to marry her,” I thought, “will she not think that my proposal is only made to soothe the pain of the first wound?⁠ ⁠… But I’ll begin the moment we reach that maple with the peeled trunk,” I fixed in my mind. We were already on a level with the maple. Pale with agitation I had begun to draw a deep breath to begin to speak, when my courage suddenly failed, and ended in a nervous painful beating of my heart and a chill on my lips. “Twenty-seven is my number,” I thought a few moments later. “I’ll count up to twenty-seven, and then!⁠ ⁠…” I began to count to myself, but when I reached twenty-seven I felt that the resolution had not yet matured in me. “No,” I said to myself, “I’d better go on counting to sixty⁠ ⁠… that will make just a minute, and then without fail, without fail⁠—”

“What’s the matter with you today?” Olyessia suddenly asked. “You’re thinking of something unpleasant. What has happened to you?”

Then I began to speak, but with a tone repugnant to myself, with an assumed unnatural carelessness, just as though it were a trifling affair.

“Yes, it really is rather unpleasant.⁠ ⁠… You have guessed it, Olyessia.⁠ ⁠… You see, my service here is finished, and the authorities have summoned me back to town.”

I took a quick side-glance at Olyessia. The colour died away from her face and her lips quivered. She said not a word in reply. Some minutes I walked in silence by her side. The grasshoppers chattered noisily in the grass, and the strained monotonous note of a corncrake sounded somewhere afar.

“Of course you understand, yourself, Olyessia,” I again began, “that it’s no good my staying here, besides there’s nowhere to stay.⁠ ⁠… And I can’t neglect my duty⁠—”

“No⁠ ⁠… why⁠ ⁠… what’s the good of talking?” Olyessia said, in a voice outwardly calm, but so deep and lifeless that terror seized me. “If it’s your duty, of course⁠ ⁠… you must go⁠—”

She stopped by the tree and leaned against the trunk, her face utterly pale, her hands hanging limply by her body, a poignant pitiful smile on her lips. Her pallor frightened me. I rushed to her and pressed her hands vehemently.

“What’s the matter, Olyessia⁠ ⁠… darling!”

“Nothing⁠ ⁠… forgive me.⁠ ⁠… It will pass⁠—now.⁠ ⁠… My head is dizzy.” She controlled herself with an effort and went on, leaving her hand in mine.

“You’re thinking ill of me, Olyessia,” I said reproachfully. “You should be ashamed. Do you think, as well, that I could cast you off and leave you? No, my darling. That’s why I began this conversation⁠—so that you should go this very day to your grandmother and tell her you will be my wife.”

Quite contrary to my expectation, Olyessia showed hardly a trace of surprise at my words.

“Your wife?” She shook her head slowly and sadly. “No, it’s impossible, Vanichka dear.”

“Why, Olyessia? Why?”

“No, no.⁠ ⁠… You can see yourself, it’s funny to think of it even. What kind of wife could I be for you? You are a gentleman, clever, educate⁠—and I? I can’t even read. I don’t know how to behave. You will be ashamed to be my husband.⁠ ⁠…”

“What nonsense, Olyessia,” I replied fervently. “In six months you won’t know yourself. You don’t even suspect the natural wit and genius for observation you have in you. We’ll read all sorts of good books together; we’ll make friends with decent, clever people; we’ll see the whole wide world together, Olyessia. We’ll go together arm in arm just like we are now until old age, to the grave itself; and I shan’t be ashamed of you, but proud and grateful.⁠ ⁠…”

Olyessia answered my passionate speech with a grateful clasp of the hand, but she persisted:

“That’s not everything.⁠ ⁠… Perhaps you don’t know, yet.⁠ ⁠… I never told you.⁠ ⁠… I haven’t a father.⁠ ⁠… I’m illegitimate.⁠ ⁠…”

“Don’t, Olyessia.⁠ ⁠… That’s the last thing I care about. What have I got to do with your family, when you yourself are more precious to me than my father and mother, than the whole world even? No, this is all trifling⁠—just excuses!⁠ ⁠…”

Olyessia pressed her shoulder against mine with a gentle submissive caress.

“Darling!⁠ ⁠… You’d better not have begun to talk at all.⁠ ⁠… You are young, free.⁠ ⁠… Would I ever dare to tie you hand and foot for all your life?⁠ ⁠… What if you fall in love with another woman afterwards? Then you will despise me, and curse the day and hour when I agreed to marry you. Don’t be angry, darling!” she cried out in entreaty, seeing by my face that the words had offended me, “I don’t want to hurt you.⁠ ⁠… I’m only thinking of your happiness. And you’ve forgotten granny. Well, ask yourself, could I leave her alone?”

“Why⁠ ⁠… she’ll come with us, too.” (I confess the idea of granny made me uneasy.) “And even if she didn’t want to live with us⁠ ⁠… there are houses in every town⁠ ⁠… called alms-houses, where such old women are given rest, and carefully looked after.”

“No, what are you saying? She will never go away from the forest. She is afraid of people.”

“Well, think of something better yourself, Olyessia. You must choose between me and granny. But I tell you this one thing⁠—that life will be hideous to me without you.”

“You darling!” Olyessia said with profound tenderness. “Just for those words I am grateful.⁠ ⁠… You have warmed my heart.⁠ ⁠… But still I shan’t marry you.⁠ ⁠… I rather go with you without being married, if you don’t send me away.⁠ ⁠… But don’t be in a hurry, please don’t hurry me. Give me a day or two. I’ll think it over well.⁠ ⁠… Besides, I must speak to granny, as well.”

“Tell me, Olyessia,” I asked, for the shadow of a new thought was upon my mind. “Perhaps you are still⁠ ⁠… afraid of the church?”

Perhaps I should have begun with this question. Almost every day I used to quarrel with Olyessia over it, trying to shake her belief in the imaginary curse that hung over her family for the possession of magic powers. There is something of the preacher essential in every Russian intellectual. It is in our blood; it has been instilled by the whole of Russian literature in the last generations. Who could say but, if Olyessia had had a profound belief, and strictly observed the fasts, and never missed a single service, it is quite possible I would have begun to speak ironically (but only a little, for I was always a believer myself) of her piety and to develop a critical curiosity of mind in her. But with a firm, naive conviction she professed her communion with the powers of darkness, and her estrangement from God, of whom she was afraid to speak.

In vain I tried to shake Olyessia’s superstition. All my logical arguments, all my mockery, sometimes rude and wicked, were broken against her submissive confidence in her mysterious, fatal vocation.

“You’re afraid of the church, Olyessia?” I repeated.

She bent her head in silence.

“You think God will not accept you?” I continued with growing passion. “That He will not have mercy on you; He who, though He commands millions of angels, yet came down to earth and suffered a horrible infamous death for the salvation of all men? He who did not disdain the repentance of the worst woman, and promised a highway murderer that on that very day he would sit together with Him in Paradise?”

This interpretation of mine was already familiar to Olyessia; but this time she did not even listen to me. With a quick movement she took off her shawl, rolled it up and flung it in my face. A struggle began. I tried to snatch her nosegay of whitethorn away. She resisted, fell on the ground and dragged me down with her, laughing joyfully and holding out to me her darling lips, moist and opened by her quick breathing.⁠ ⁠…

Late at night, when we had said goodbye and were already a good distance away from each other, I suddenly heard Olyessia’s voice behind me: “Vanichka! Wait a moment.⁠ ⁠… I want to tell you something.”

I turned and went to meet her. Olyessia quickly ran up to me. Already the thin notched silver sickle of the young moon stood in the sky, and by its light I saw that Olyessia’s eyes were full of big brimming tears.

“What is it, Olyessia?” I asked anxiously.

She seized my hands and began to kiss them in turn.

“Darling⁠ ⁠… how sweet you are! How good you are!” she said with a trembling voice. “I was just walking and thinking how much you love me.⁠ ⁠… You see I want awfully to do something that you would like very, very much.”

“Olyessia⁠ ⁠… my precious girl, be calm⁠—”

“Tell me,” she continued, “would you be very glad if I went to church some time? Tell me the truth, the real truth.”

I was thinking. A superstitious thought suddenly crossed my mind that some misfortune would come of it.

“Why don’t you answer? Tell me quickly; would you be glad, or is it all the same to you?”

“How can I say, Olyessia?” I began doubtfully. “Well, yes.⁠ ⁠… I would be glad. I’ve said many times that a man may disbelieve, doubt, even laugh finally. But a woman⁠ ⁠… a woman must be religious without any sophistication. I always feel something touching, feminine, beautiful in the simple tender confidence with which a woman surrenders herself to the protection of God.”

I was silent; neither did Olyessia make any answer, but nestled her head in my bosom.

“Why did you ask me this?” I was curious.

She started suddenly.

“Nothing.⁠ ⁠… I just asked.⁠ ⁠… Don’t take any notice. Now, goodbye, darling. Come tomorrow.”

She disappeared. I stood still for a long while, looking into the darkness, listening eagerly to the quick steps going away from me. A sudden dread foreboding seized me. I had an irresistible desire to run after Olyessia, to take hold of her and ask, implore, demand, if need be, that she should not go to church. But I checked the sudden impulse, and I remember that as I went my way I even said aloud:

“It seems to me, my dear Vanichka, that the superstition’s touched you as well.”

My God, why did I not listen then to the dim voice of the heart, which⁠—I now believe it implicitly⁠—never errs in its momentary mysterious presentiments?

XII

The day after this meeting was Whitsuntide, which that year fell on the day of the great martyr Timothy, when, according to the folk legends, the omens of a bad harvest befall. Ecclesiastically the village of Perebrod was considered auxiliary; that is to say, that though there was a church there it had no priest of its own. On rare occasions, in fast time and on the great festivals, it was served by the priest of the village of Volchye.

That day my official duties took me to the neighbouring town, and I set off thither on horseback about eight o’clock, in the chill of the morning. A good time before I had bought a small cob for doing my rounds, a beast six or seven years old, which came from the rough local breed, but had been carefully looked after and made a pet of by the former owner, the district surveyor. The horse’s name was Taranchik. I became greatly attached to the dear beast, with its strong, thin, chiselled legs, with its shaggy mane, from beneath which peeped fiery eyes, with firm, close-pressed lips. Its colour was rare and curious, a grey mouse-colour all over the body save for a piebald rump.

I had to pass right through the village. The big green that ran from the church to the inn was completely covered by long rows of carts in which the peasants of the neighbouring villages had come with their wives and children for the holiday⁠—from Volocha, Zoulnya, and Pechalovka. People were roaming about among the carts. Notwithstanding the early hour and the strict regulations one could already see drunken people among them. (On holidays and at night Shroul, the former innkeeper, sold vodka on the quiet.) The morning was windless and close. The air was sultry and the day promised to be insufferably hot. There was not a single cloud to be seen in the glowing sky, which looked exactly as though it were covered with a silver dust.

When I had done all my business in the little town I had a light hasty meal of pike, stuffed and cooked in the Jewish fashion, washed down with some very inferior muddy beer, and set out for home. As I passed by the smithy I recollected that Taranchik’s off fore-shoe had been loose for some time, and I stopped to have him shod. That took me another hour and a half, so that by the time I was nearing Perebrod it was already between four and five o’clock in the afternoon.

The whole square was packed with drunken, shouting people. The yard and porch of the inn were literally choked by jostling, pushing customers; the Perebrod men were mixed up with strangers, sitting on the grass and in the shade of the carts. Everywhere were heads thrown back and lifted bottles. There was not a single man sober; and the general intoxication had reached the point at which the peasant begins noisily boasting and exaggerating his own drunkenness, and all his movements acquire a feeble, ponderous freedom, when, for instance, in order to nod “yes” he bows his whole body down, bends his knees, and, suddenly losing his balance completely, draws back helplessly. The children were pushing and screaming in the same place beneath the horses’ legs, while the horses munched their hay unconcerned. Elsewhere, a woman who could hardly stand on her feet herself dragged her reluctant husband, foully drunk, home by the sleeve.⁠ ⁠… In the shade of a fence about twenty men and women peasants were pressed close round a blind harpist, whose tremulous, snuffling tenor, accompanied by the monotonous, jingling drone of his instrument, rose sharp above the dull murmur of the crowd. At a distance I could hear the familiar words of the Little Russian song:

“Oh, there rose the star, the evening star,
And stood over Pochah monastery.
Oh, there came out the Turkish troops
Like unto a black cloud.”

This song goes on to tell how the Turks, failing in their attack upon the Pochayev monastery, resolved to take it by cunning. With this end they sent, as it were a gift to the monastery, a huge candle filled with gunpowder. The candle was dragged by twelve yoke of oxen, and the delighted monks were eager to light it before the icon of the Virgin; but God did not allow the wicked design to be accomplished.

“And the elder dreamt a dream
That he should not take the candle,
But bear it away to the open field,
And hew it down with an axe.”

And the monks:

“Took it into the open field,
And began to chop it,
Oh, then bullets and balls began
To scatter on every side.”

It seemed that the insufferably hot air was wholly saturated with a disgusting smell, compounded of vodka dregs, onions, sheepskins, strong shag, and the vapours of dirty human bodies. As I made my way through the people, hardly holding in Taranchik who tossed his head continually, I could not help noticing that unceremonious, curious, and hostile looks were bent on me from every side. Not a single man doffed his cap, which was quite unusual, but the noise grew still at my approach. Suddenly from the very middle of the crowd came a hoarse, drunken shout which I could not clearly distinguish; but it was answered by a restrained giggle. A frightened woman’s voice began to rebuke the brawler.

“Hush, you fool.⁠ ⁠… What are you shouting for? He’ll hear you⁠—”

“What if he does hear?” the peasant replied tauntingly. “What the hell’s he got to do with me? Is he an official? He’s only in the forest with his⁠—”

A long, filthy, horrible phrase hung in the air, with a burst of frantic, roaring laughter. I quickly turned my horse round, and seized the handle of my whip convulsively, overwhelmed by the mad fury which sees nothing, thinks of nothing, and is afraid of nothing. In a flash, a strange, anxious, painful thought went through my mind: “All this has happened once before in my life, many years ago.⁠ ⁠… The sun blazed just as it does now.⁠ ⁠… The whole of the big square was overflowing with a noisy, excited crowd just as it is now.⁠ ⁠… I turned back in a paroxysm of wild anger just in the same way.⁠ ⁠… But where was it? When? When?” I lowered my whip and madly galloped home.

Yarmola came out of the kitchen at his leisure, and said rudely, as he took my horse: “The bailiff of the Marenov farm is sitting in your room.”

I had the fancy that he wanted to add something more that was important to me and painful too; I even imagined that a fleeting expression of evil derision sped over his face. Intentionally I stopped dead in the doorway and gave Yarmola a look of challenge, but without looking at me he was already dragging the horse away by the rein. The horse’s head was stretched forward, and it stepped delicately.

In my room I found the agent of the neighbouring estate, Nikita Nazarich Mishtchenko. He was dressed in a grey jacket with large ginger checks, in narrow cornflower blue trousers, and a fiery red necktie. There was a deep parting down the middle of his hair, which shone with pomade, and from the whole of him exuded the scent of Persian lilac. When he saw me he jumped up from his chair and began to curtsy, not bowing, but somehow breaking at the waist, and at the same time unsheathing the pale gums of both his jaws.

“Extremely delighted to have the honour,” Nikita Nazarich jabbered courteously. “Very glad indeed to see you. I’ve been waiting for you here ever since the service. I hadn’t seen you for so long that I was bored, and missed you very much. Why is it you never look us up? The girls in Stiepany laugh at you nowadays.”

Suddenly he was seized by an instantaneous recollection, and broke out into an irresistible giggle.

“What fun it was today!” he cried out, choking and chuckling. “Ha, ha, ha, ha.⁠ ⁠… I fairly split my sides with laughing.”

“What do you mean? What fun?” I asked without troubling to conceal my annoyance.

“There was a row after service,” Nikita Nazarich continued, punctuating his words with volleys of laughter. “The Perebrod girls.⁠ ⁠… No, by God, I really can’t.⁠ ⁠… The Perebrod girls caught a witch in the marketplace here. Of course, it’s only their peasant ignorance that makes them think she’s a witch.⁠ ⁠… But they did give her a thrashing! They were going to tar her all over, but somehow she slipped from them and got away⁠—”

A ghastly surmise entered my head. I rushed towards the bailiff, and forgetting myself completely in my agitation, gripped him violently by the shoulders.

“What’s that you say?” I cried in a furious voice. “Stop your giggling, damn you? Who’s this witch you’re talking about?”

Instantly his laughing ceased, and he stared with his round, frightened eyes.⁠ ⁠…

“I⁠ ⁠… I⁠ ⁠… really don’t know,” he began to stammer in confusion. “I believe it was someone called Samoilikha⁠ ⁠… Manuilikha, was it?⁠ ⁠… Yes, that’s it, the daughter of someone called Manuilikha.⁠ ⁠… The peasants were shouting something or other, but honestly I don’t remember what it was.”

I made him tell me everything he had seen and heard in order. He told his tale absurdly, incoherently, confusing details, and every moment I interrupted him with impatient questions and exclamations, almost with abuse. I could understand very little from his story, and it was only two months later that I could piece together the real order of the vile happening from the words of an eyewitness, the wife of the forester of the Crown Lands, who was also present at Mass that day.

I had not been deceived by my foreboding. Olyessia had broken down her fears and come to church. Though she did not reach the church until the service was half done, and stopped in the entry, her arrival was instantly noticed by every peasant in church. All through the service the women were whispering to each other and glancing behind them.

However Olyessia had strength enough in herself to stand out the Mass right to the end. Perhaps she did not understand the real meaning of those hostile looks; perhaps she despised them out of pride. But when she came out of the church she could get no farther than the church fence before she was surrounded by a crowd of women, which grew larger and larger every minute, and pressed closer and closer upon Olyessia. At first they only examined the helpless girl in silence and without ceremony, while she looked everywhere about her in fright. Then there came a shower of rude insults, hard words, abuse, accompanied by roars of laughter; then all separate words disappeared into one general piercing women’s shriek, wherein everything was confused and the nerves of the agitated crowd became more and more tightly strung. Several times Olyessia attempted to pass through this horrible living ring, but every time she was pushed back into the middle again. Suddenly the squeaking voice of some old hag shrieked from somewhere at the back of the crowd: “Smear the slut with tar⁠—tar the slut!” (Everybody knows that in Little Russia to smear with tar even the gates of the house where a girl lives is considered as a mark of the greatest, the most indelible, disgrace to her.) Almost the same second a pot of tar and a brush appeared over the heads of the raging furies, passed from hand to hand.

Then Olyessia, seized by a paroxysm of anger, horror and despair, rushed on the nearest of her tormentors with such impetuous force that she was thrown to the ground. Immediately a fight burst forth, and innumerable bodies were confused in one general shouting mass. But by some miracle Olyessia succeeded in slipping out from among the tangle, and rushed headlong down the road, without her shawl, her clothes torn to ribbons, through which in many places her naked body could be seen. Stones, vile abuse, laughter and shouts sped after her.⁠ ⁠… When she had run fifty paces Olyessia stopped, turned her pale, scratched, bleeding face to the crowd, and said so loud that each word could be heard all through the square: “Very well.⁠ ⁠… You will remember this. You will weep your fill for this, all of you!”

The eyewitness of the happening told me afterwards that this threat was pronounced with such passionate hatred, in such a determined tone of prophecy, that for a moment the whole crowd was as it were benumbed; but only for a moment, because a fresh explosion of curses was heard immediately.

I say again that it was not till long after that I came to know many details of this story. I had neither strength nor patience to hear Mishtchenko’s tale to the end. I suddenly remember that Yarmola had probably not had time yet to unsaddle my horse, and without a word to the astounded bailiff, I rushed out into the yard. Yarmola was still leading Taranchik along by the fence. I quickly slipped the bridle on, tightened the girths, and raced away into the forest by circuitous paths in order to avoid having to pass through the drunken crowd again.

XIII

I cannot possibly describe my state during that wild gallop. There were moments when I utterly forgot where and why I was riding; only a dim consciousness remained that something irreparable had happened, something grotesque and horrible; a consciousness like the heavy, causeless anxiety which will possess a person in a feverish nightmare. And all the while strangely rang in my head, in time with the horse’s hoof-beat, the snuffling, broken voice of the harpist:

“Oh, there came out the Turkish troops
Like unto a black cloud.”

When I reached the narrow footpath that led straight to Manuilikha’s hut, I jumped off Taranchik and led him by the rein. By the edge of the saddle pads, and wherever the girths and bridle touched him, stood out white lumps of thick froth. From the violent heat of the day and the speed of my gallop, the blood roared in my head as though forced by some immense, unceasing pump.

I tied my horse to the wattle hedge and entered the hut. At first I thought that Olyessia was not there, and my heart and lips were chilled with fear; but a minute later I saw her lying on the bed with her face to the wall and her head hidden in the pillows. She did not even turn at the noise of the opening door.

Manuilikha was squatting on the floor by her side. When she saw me she rose with effort to her feet and shook her hand at me.

“Sh! Don’t make a noise, curse you!” she said in a menacing whisper, coming close to me. She glanced with her cold, faded eyes straight into mine and hissed malignantly: “Yes! You’ve done that beautifully, my darling!”

“Look here, granny!” I answered sternly. “This isn’t the time to settle our account and abuse each other. What’s the matter with Olyessia?”

“Sh.⁠ ⁠… Sh! Olyessia’s lying there unconscious; that’s what’s the matter with Olyessia! If you hadn’t poked your nose in where you had no business, and talked a pack of nonsense to the girl, nothing wrong would have happened. And I just looked on and indulged it, blind fool that I am.⁠ ⁠… But my heart scented misfortune.⁠ ⁠… It scented misfortune from the very first day when you broke into our house, almost by force. Do you mean to say that it wasn’t you who persuaded her to go trailing off to church?” Suddenly the old woman looked at me with her face distorted with hatred. “Wasn’t it you, you cursed gentleman! Don’t lie⁠—don’t put me off with your cunning tricks, you shameless hound! What did you go enticing her to church for?”

“I didn’t entice her, granny.⁠ ⁠… I give you my word. She wanted to, herself.”

“Ah, my grief, my misfortune!” Manuilikha clasped her hands. “She came running back from there⁠—with no face left at all, and all her skirt in rags⁠ ⁠… without a shawl to her head.⁠ ⁠… She tells me how it happened⁠ ⁠… then she laughs, or cries.⁠ ⁠… Just possessed simply.⁠ ⁠… She lay on the bed⁠ ⁠… weeping all the while, and then I saw that she’d fallen into a sleep, I thought.⁠ ⁠… And I was happy like an old fool. ‘She’ll sleep it all away now, for good,’ I thought. I saw her hand hanging down, and I thought I’d better put it right, or it would swell.⁠ ⁠… I felt for the darling’s hand and it was burning, blazing.⁠ ⁠… That meant the fever had begun.⁠ ⁠… For an hour she never stopped speaking, fast, and so pitifully.⁠ ⁠… She only stopped this very minute, a moment ago.⁠ ⁠… What have you done? What have you done to her?”

Suddenly her brown face writhed into a monstrous, disgusting grimace of weeping. Her lips tightened and drooped at the corners: all the muscles of her face stiffened and trembled, her eyelids lifted and wrinkled her forehead into deep folds, and from her eyes came a quick rain of big tears, big as peas. She held her head in her hands, and with her elbows on the table began to rock her whole body to and fro and to whine in a low, drawn-out voice.

“My little daught‑er! My darling grand-daught‑er! Oh, it is so hard for me, so bit‑te‑r!”

“Don’t roar, you old fool!” I coarsely broke in on Manuilikha. “You’ll wake her!”

The old woman kept silence, but with the same terrible contortion of her face she went on swinging to and fro, while the big tears splashed on to the table.⁠ ⁠… About ten minutes passed in this way. I sat by Manuilikha’s side and anxiously listened to a fly knocking against the windowpane with a broken yet monotonous buzzing.⁠ ⁠…

“Granny!” suddenly a faint, barely audible voice came from Olyessia: “Granny, who’s here?”

Manuilikha hastily hobbled to the bed, and straightway began to whine once more.

“Oh, my granddaughter, my own! Oh, it is so hard for me, so bit‑t‑e‑r!”

“Ah, stop, granny, stop!” Olyessia said with complaining entreaty and suffering in her voice. “Who’s sitting here?”

Cautiously, I approached the bed on tiptoe, with the awkward, guilty conscience of my own gross health which one always feels by a sick bed.

“It’s me, Olyessia,” I said, lowering my voice. “I’ve just come from the village on horseback.⁠ ⁠… I was in the town all the morning.⁠ ⁠… You’re ill, Olyessia?”

Without moving her face from the pillow, she stretched out her bare hand, as though she were feeling for something in the air. I understood the movement and took her hot hand into mine. Two huge blue marks, one on the wrist, the other above the elbow, stood out sharp on her tender white skin.

“My darling,” Olyessia began to speak slowly, with difficulty separating one word from another. “I want⁠ ⁠… to look at you⁠ ⁠… but I cannot.⁠ ⁠… They’ve maimed me.⁠ ⁠… All over, my whole body.⁠ ⁠… You remember.⁠ ⁠… You loved my face, so much.⁠ ⁠… You loved it, darling, didn’t you?⁠ ⁠… It made me so glad, always.⁠ ⁠… And now it will disgust you⁠ ⁠… even to look at me.⁠ ⁠… That is why⁠ ⁠… I do not want⁠—”

“Forgive me, Olyessia!” I whispered, bending down to her ear.

Her burning hand pressed mine hard and held it long.

“But what are you saying? Why should I forgive you, my darling? Aren’t you ashamed to think of it even? How could it be your fault? It’s all my own⁠—stupid me.⁠ ⁠… Why did I go?⁠ ⁠… No, my precious, don’t blame yourself.⁠ ⁠…”

“Olyessia, will you let me.⁠ ⁠… Promise me first, that you will⁠—”

“I’ll promise, darling⁠ ⁠… anything you want⁠—”

“Let me send for a doctor.⁠ ⁠… I implore you.⁠ ⁠… Well, you needn’t do anything he tells you, if you like.⁠ ⁠… But say ‘yes’⁠—only for my sake, Olyessia.”

“Oh⁠ ⁠… you’ve caught me in a terrible trap! No, you’d better let me free of my promise. Even if I were really ill, dying⁠—I wouldn’t let the doctor come near me. And am I ill now? It’s only fright that brought it on; it will go off when the evening comes. If it doesn’t, granny will give an infusion of lilies or make some raspberry-tea. What’s the good of the doctor? You⁠—you’re my best doctor. You’ve only just come⁠—and I feel better already.⁠ ⁠… Ah, there’s only one thing wrong, I want to look at you, even if it were only with one eye, but I’m afraid.⁠ ⁠…”

With a gentle effort I lifted Olyessia’s head from the pillow. Her face blazed with feverish redness; her dark eyes shone unnaturally bright; her dry lips trembled nervously. Long, red scratches ploughed her forehead, cheeks, and neck. There were dark bruises on her forehead and under her eyes.

“Don’t look at me.⁠ ⁠… I implore you.⁠ ⁠… I’m ugly now,” Olyessia besought me in a whisper, trying to cover my eyes with her hand.

My heart overflowed with pity. I nestled my lips on Olyessia’s hand, which lay motionless on the blanket, and began to cover it with long, quiet kisses. In the time before I used to kiss her hands too, but she always would draw them away from me in hasty, bashful fright. But now she made no resistance to my caress and with her other hand she gently smoothed my hair.

“You know it all?” she asked in a whisper.

I bent my head in silence. It is true I had not understood everything from Nikita Nazarich’s story. Only I did not want Olyessia to be agitated by having to recall the events of the morning. Suddenly a wave of irrepressible fury overwhelmed me at the idea of the outrage to which she had been subjected.

“Oh, why wasn’t I there!” I cried, holding myself straight and clenching my fists. “I would⁠ ⁠… I would have⁠—”

“Well, don’t worry⁠ ⁠… don’t worry.⁠ ⁠… Don’t be angry, darling.⁠ ⁠…” Olyessia interrupted me meekly.

I could not keep back the tears any more which had been choking my throat and burning my eyes. I pressed my face close to Olyessia’s shoulder, and I began to cry bitterly, silently, trembling all over my body.

“You are crying? You are crying?” There was surprise, tenderness, and compassion in her voice. “My darling⁠ ⁠… don’t⁠ ⁠… please don’t.⁠ ⁠… Don’t torment yourself, my darling.⁠ ⁠… I feel so happy near you.⁠ ⁠… Don’t let us cry while we are together. Let us be happy for the last days, then it won’t be so hard for us to part.”

I raised my head in amazement. A vague presentiment began slowly to press upon my heart.

“The last days, Olyessia? What do you mean⁠—the last? Why should we part?”

Olyessia shut her eyes and kept silence for some seconds. “We must part, Vanichka,” she said resolutely. “When I’m a little bit better, we’ll go away from here, granny and I. We must not stay here any longer.”

“Are you afraid of anything?”

“No, my darling, I’m not afraid of anything, if it comes to that. But why should I tempt people into mischief? Perhaps you don’t know.⁠ ⁠… Over there⁠—in Perebrod.⁠ ⁠… I was so angry and ashamed that I threatened them.⁠ ⁠… And now if anything happens, they will inform on us. If the cattle begin to die or a hut is set on fire⁠—we shall be the guilty ones. Granny”⁠—she turned to Manuilikha, raising her voice⁠—“isn’t it true what I say?”

“What did you say, little granddaughter? I confess I didn’t hear,” the old woman mumbled, coming closer and putting her hand to her ear.

“I said that whatever misfortune happens in Perebrod now they’ll put all the blame on us.”

“That’s true, that’s true, Olyessia⁠—they’ll throw everything on us, the miserable wretches.⁠ ⁠… We are no dwellers in this world. They will destroy us both, destroy us utterly, the cursed.⁠ ⁠… Besides, how did they drive me out of the village?⁠ ⁠… Why?⁠ ⁠… Wasn’t it just the same? I threatened them⁠ ⁠… just out of vexation, too.⁠ ⁠… One stupid fool of a woman⁠—and lo and behold her child died. It was no fault of mine at all⁠—not a dream of my dreaming or a spirit of my calling; but they nearly killed me all the same, the devils.⁠ ⁠… They began to stone me.⁠ ⁠… I ran away and only just managed to protect you⁠—you were a little tiny child then.⁠ ⁠… Well, I thought, it doesn’t matter if they give it to me, but why should an innocent child be injured.⁠ ⁠… No, it all comes to the same thing⁠—they’re savages, a dirty lot of gallows’-birds.”

“But where will you go? You haven’t any relations or friends anywhere.⁠ ⁠… Finally, you’ll have to have money to settle in a new place.”

“We’ll make shift somehow,” Olyessia said negligently. “There’ll be money as well. Granny has saved something.”

“Money as well!” the old woman echoed angrily, going away from the bed. “Widows’ mites, washed in tears⁠—”

“Olyessia.⁠ ⁠… What’s to become of me? You don’t want even to think of me!” I exclaimed, feeling a bitter, sick, ugly reproach against Olyessia rising within me.

She raised herself a little, and, careless of her grandmother’s presence, took my head into her hands, and kissed me on the cheeks and forehead several times in succession.

“I think of you most of all, my own! Only⁠ ⁠… you see⁠ ⁠… it’s not our fate to be together⁠ ⁠… that is it.⁠ ⁠… You remember, I spread out the cards for you? Everything happened as they foretold. It means that Fate does not will our happiness.⁠ ⁠… If it were not for this, do you think I would be frightened of anything?”

“Olyessia, you’re talking of fate again!” I cried impatiently. “I don’t want to believe in it⁠ ⁠… and I never will believe.”

“Oh no, no, no!⁠ ⁠… Don’t say that.” Olyessia began in a frightened whisper. “It’s not for me I’m afraid, but you. No you’d better not start us talking about it.”

In vain I tried to dissuade Olyessia; in vain I painted glowing pictures of unbroken happiness for her, which neither curious fate nor ugly, wicked people could disturb. Olyessia only kissed my hands and shook her head.

“No⁠ ⁠… no⁠ ⁠… no.⁠ ⁠… I know. I see,” she repeated persistently. “There’s nothing but sorrow awaits us⁠ ⁠… nothing⁠ ⁠… nothing.”

Disconcerted and baffled by this superstitious obstinacy, I asked at length, “At least you will let me know the day you are going away?”

Olyessia pondered. Suddenly the shadow of a smile flickered over her lips. “I’ll tell you a little story for that. Once upon a time a wolf was running through the forest when he saw a little hare and said to him: ‘Hi, you hare! I’ll eat you!’ The hare began to implore him: ‘Have mercy on me. I want to live. I have little children at home.’ The wolf did not agree, so the hare said: ‘Well, let me live another three days in the world; then you can eat me, but still I shall feel it easier to die.’ The wolf gave him his three days. He didn’t eat him, but only kept a watch on him. One day passed, then the second, and at last the third was coming to an end. ‘Well, get ready now,’ said the wolf, ‘I’m going to eat you at once.’ Then my hare began to weep with bitter tears. ‘Oh, why did you give me those three days, wolf? It would have been far better if you had eaten the first moment that you saw me. The whole of these three days it hasn’t been life for me, but torment.’

“Darling, that little hare spoke the truth. Don’t you think so?”

I was silent, distraught by an anxious foreboding of the loneliness that threatened me. Olyessia suddenly raised herself and sat up in bed. Her face grew serious at once. “Listen, Vanya.⁠ ⁠…” she said slowly. “Tell me, were you happy while you were with me? Did you feel that it was good?”

“Olyessia! Can you still ask?”

“Wait.⁠ ⁠… Did you regret having met me? Were you thinking of another woman while you were with me?”

“Never for one single second! Not only when I was with you, but when I was alone, I never had a thought for anyone but you.”

“Were you jealous of me? Were you ever angry with me? Were you ever wretched when you were with me?”

“Never, Olyessia, never!”

She put both her hands upon my shoulders, and looked into my eyes with love indescribable.

“Then I tell you, my darling, that you will never think evilly or sadly of me when you remember me,” she said with conviction, as though she were reading the future in my eyes. “When we part you will be miserable, terribly miserable.⁠ ⁠… You will cry, you will not find a place to rest anywhere. And then everything will pass and fade away, and you will think of me without sorrow, easily and happily.”

She let her head fall back on the pillows again and whispered in a feeble voice:

“Now go, my darling.⁠ ⁠… Go home, my precious.⁠ ⁠… I am a little bit tired. No, wait⁠ ⁠… kiss me.⁠ ⁠… Don’t be frightened of granny⁠ ⁠… she won’t mind. You don’t mind, do you, granny?”

“Say goodbye. Part, as you should,” the old woman muttered in discontent.⁠ ⁠… “Why should you want to hide from me? I’ve known it a long while.”

“Kiss me here and here⁠ ⁠… and here,” Olyessia said, touching her eyes, cheeks and mouth with her fingers.

“Olyessia, you’re saying goodbye to me as though we shall never see each other again!” I cried in terror.

“I don’t know, I don’t know, my darling. I don’t know anything. Now, go and God be with you. No, wait⁠ ⁠… just one little moment more.⁠ ⁠… Bend down to me.⁠ ⁠… You know what I regret?” she began to whisper, touching my cheeks with her lips. “That you haven’t given me a child.⁠ ⁠… Oh, how happy I should be!”

I went out into the passage, escorted by Manuilikha. Half the heaven was covered by a black cloud with sharp, curly edges, but the sun was still shining, bending to the east. There was something ominous in this mixing of light and oncoming darkness. The old woman looked up, shading her eyes with her hand as it were an umbrella, and shook her head meaningly.

“There’ll be a thunderstorm over Perebrod, today,” she said with conviction. “And hail as well, most likely.”

XIV

I had almost reached Perebrod when a sudden whirlwind rose, driving columns of dust before it on the road. The first heavy, scattered drops of rain began to fall.

Manuilikha was not mistaken. The storm which had been gathering all through the insufferable heat of the day burst with extraordinary force over Perebrod. The lightning flashed almost without intermission, and the window panes of my room trembled and rang with the roll of the thunder. At about eight o’clock in the evening the storm abated for some minutes, but only to begin again with new exasperation. Suddenly something poured down on to the roof with a deafening crash, and on to the walls of the old house. I rushed to the window. Huge hailstones, as big as a walnut, were falling furiously on to the earth and bouncing high in the air again. I glanced at the mulberry bush which grew against the house. It stood quite bare; every leaf had been beaten off by the blows of the awful hail. Beneath the window appeared Yarmola’s figure, hardly visible in the darkness. He had covered his head in his sheepskin and run out of the kitchen to close the shutters. But he was too late. A huge piece of ice suddenly struck one of the windows with such force that it was smashed, and the tinkling splinters of glass were scattered over the floor of the room.

A fatigue came over me, and I lay down on the bed in my clothes. I thought I would never be able to sleep at all that night, but would toss from side to side in impotent anguish until the morning. So I decided it would be better not to undress; later I might be able to tire myself if only a little by walking up and down the room, over and over again. But a strange thing happened to me. It seemed to me that I had shut my eyes only a second; but when I opened them, long, bright sunbeams were already stretching through the chinks of the shutters, and innumerable motes of golden dust were turning round and round within them.

Yarmola was standing over my bed. On his face was written stern anxiety and impatient expectation. Probably he had been waiting long for me to wake.

“Sir,” he said in a dull voice, in which one could distinguish his uneasiness. “You’d better go away from here, sir.”

I put my feet out of bed and looked at Yarmola with amazement. “Better go away? Where to? Why? You’re mad, surely.”

“No, I’m not mad,” Yarmola snarled. “You didn’t hear what happened through yesterday’s hail? Half the corn of the village is like as though it had been trodden underfoot⁠—cripple Maxim’s, the Goat’s, old Addlepate’s, the brothers Prokopchuk’s, Gordi Olefir’s.⁠ ⁠… She put the mischief on us, the devilish witch.⁠ ⁠… May she rot in hell!”

In an instant I remember what had happened yesterday, the threat Olyessia had made by the church, and her apprehensions.

“And all the village is in a riot now,” Yarmola continued. “They got drunk first thing in the morning, and now they’re fighting.⁠ ⁠… They’ve got something bad to say of you, too, sir.⁠ ⁠… You know what our people are like?⁠ ⁠… If they do something to the witches, that won’t matter, it’ll serve ’em to rights; but you, sir⁠—I’ll just say this one word of warning, you get out of here as quick as you can.”

So Olyessia’s fears had come true. I must let her know at once of the danger that threatened her and Manuilikha. I got up hurriedly, rinsed my face without ever standing still, and in half an hour I was riding full gallop towards the Devil’s Corner.

The nearer I came to the chicken-legged hut the stronger grew the vague melancholy anxiety within me. I said to myself that in a moment a new, unexpected misfortune would certainly befall me.

I almost galloped over the narrow footpath that wound up the sandy hill. The windows of the hut were open, the door wide.

“My God, what has happened?” I whispered, and my heart sank as I entered the passage.

The hut was empty. Over it all reigned the sad, dirty disorder that always remains after a hurried departure. Heaps of dust and rags lay about the floor, and the wooden frame of a bed stood in the corner.

My heart was utterly sad, overflowing with tears; I wanted to get out of the hut already, when my eye was caught by something bright, hung, as if on purpose, in a corner of the window-frame. It was a string of the cheap red beads which they call “corals” in Polyessie⁠—the only thing that remained to me in memory of Olyessia and her tender, greathearted love.