Littell's Living Age/Volume 145/Issue 1869/Visions
I could not sleep, and in vain turned from one side of my bed to the other. "The devil take turning tables," thought I, "unstringing one's nerves." However, I had just begun to drop off, when I thought I heard a chord sound near me with a sad and tender note.
I raised my head. The moon appeared at the moment, and its rays touched my face. The inlaid floor of my chamber, in the part lighted by the moon, was white as chalk. The note sounded again, and this time more distinctly. I raised myself on my elbow. My heart throbbed. One minute passed and another. . . . Somewhere in the distance a cock crowed, and another answered from farther away. My head fell back on the pillow. "Am I well?" said Ito myself. "When will this tingling in my ears end?"
At last I slept, or thought I slept. I had strange dreams. I was astonished to find myself lying down in my chamber, in my bed, . . . without being able to close my eyes. Again the same sound! I turned again. The moonlight on the floor began gently to collect—to take a form. It raised itself. Right before me, transparent as mist, rose the white figure of a woman.
"Who is there?" asked I, with an effort.
"It is I. I come to see you," said a voice, slight as the rustle of leafage.
"To see me! Who are you?"
"Come at night to the corner of the wood, under the old oak; I will be there."
I wished to see the features of this mysterious figure, and involuntarily trembled. I felt numbed with cold. I was no longer lying down, but was seated on my bed, and where I thought I had seen a phantom, was nothing but a white ray of the moon stretching along the floor.
The day passed slowly. I tried to read, to work. Nothing would do. Night came at last, and my heart beat with the expectation of some occurrence. I lay down and turned my face to the wall.
"Why didn’t you come?" murmured a small voice, weak but distinct, and quite close to me in my chamber. It was she! the same phantom, with her calm eyes, calm face, and look full of sadness.
"Come," murmured she again.
"I will come," said I, not without terror. The phantom appeared to make a movement towards my bed. It wavered . . . its form became confused and disturbed like mist. After a second nothing remained but the white moonlight on the polished floor.
I passed all the following day in a state of great agitation. At supper I drank nearly the whole of a bottle of wine. Once I went out on the doorstep, but came in almost immediately and threw myself on the bed; my pulse beat forcibly. Once more the trembling chord sounded.
I shuddered and dared not look. . . . All at once, it seemed to me that some one, placing hands on my shoulders behind, murmured in my ear, "Come! come! come!" I trembled, raised myself in bed, and answered with a deep sigh, "I am here." The white form was there, bending over my pillow; it smiled gently, and at once disappeared. I had been able, however, to glance at the face, which seemed to me one that I had seen before; but where and when? I got up late, and did nothing but walk about in the fields all day. I went near the old oak at the border of the wood and examined carefully all about.
Towards evening I sat down near the window of my study, and my old housekeeper brought me a cup of tea, but I did not touch it. I could come to no resolution, and asked myself if I was not going mad. The sun was sinking without a cloud in the heavens, when all at once the landscape took a hue of almost supernatural purple, under which shining tint foliage and grass were motionless, and seemed turned to stone. This lustre and immobility, the luminous distinctness of all the outlines, and the sullen silence, presented a contrast, strange and inexplicable. Suddenly, without the slightest sound of warning, a large brown bird flew at the side of my window. I looked at it. It looked at me too, sideways, with round and deep eyes. "You are sent," thought I, "that I may not forget the appointment." Immediately the bird fluttered its down-lined wings and flew away as noiselessly as it came. I remained at my window a long time yet, but all irresolution had now left me. I felt drawn into a magic circle. As a boat is inevitably borne by rapids to the cataract over which it is lost, so I, in the hands of a secret power, felt resistance to be useless. I roused myself at last. The purple color of the landscape had disappeared, its brilliant hues had become sombre, soon to pass into darkness. The magic stillness was gone too. A light wind rose, and the moon shone brilliantly in the blue heavens. Under its cold rays, the leaves of the trees quivered, now black, now silver. My housekeeper came in with a lighted wax candle, but a gust from the window put it out. I rose hastily, drew my hat over my eyes, and took long strides towards the part of the wood where stood the old oak.
Many years ago this oak had been struck by lightning, and the top of it was broken and dead, but there was life to last ages in the rest of the tree. As I approached a small cloud passed before the moon, and under the thick foliage of the oak it was very gloomy. At first I saw nothing extraordinary; but looking round—my heart suddenly ceased to beat—I perceived a white figure, motionless, near a bush between the oak and the wood. My hair stood on end and I could hardly breathe, but I advanced towards the wood. It was indeed she, the lady of the nightly visits. As soon as I got near her the moon came from behind the obscuring cloud. The phantom seemed to me to be formed of a milky, half-transparent mist. Through her face and behind her head I could see a briar swayed by the wind. Eyes and hair, however, were of a darker tone. As she held her hands crossed one over the other, I could see, too, that on one of her fingers she had a ring of pale and brilliant gold. I stopped at two paces from her, and tried to speak, but my voice sank in my throat. It was not, however, precisely a sensation of terror that I felt. She turned her eyes upon me. Her look expressed neither sadness nor gaiety, nothing but solemn attention. I waited for her to speak, but she remained mute and motionless, fixing on me a dead, steady look.
"Here I am," cried I with supreme effort, at last. My voice sounded dull and hoarse.
"I love you," answered her small voice
"You love me!" cried I, stupefied.
"Give yourself to me," murmured she.
"Give myself to you! But you are a phantom, you have no body." All my ideas were upset. "Who are you—a vapor, a mist, a form of air? Give myself to you? First tell me who you are. Have you lived on the earth? Where do you come from?"
"Give yourself to me. I will do you no harm. Say only these two words, Take me."
Amazed, I looked at her. "What does she say to me? What does it all mean?" thought I. "Shall I venture?"
"Very well," said I, all at once, and with an unexpected impulse, as if some one had pushed me behind, "Take me."
Hardly were the words uttered when the mysterious figure, with an inward laugh that made her tremble all over, advanced towards me; her hands separated and lengthened. I tried to leap back, but already I was in her power. She held me in her arms. My body was lifted about a foot above the earth, and we flew with gentle speed over the motionless grass.
My head was giddy, and at first I involuntarily closed my eyes. When I opened them a moment after we were still flying, and already my wood was out of sight. A vast plain, with dark patches, extended beneath us. I was astounded to perceive that we were at a prodigious height. "I am in the power of the devil!" This thought struck me like a thunderbolt. Until then the idea of diabolic power, of my possible perdition, had not presented itself to my mind. In the mean time we flew on, and it seemed to me that we got higher and higher. "Where are you taking me?" said I at last. "Where you will," said my companion, straining me more closely in her arms. Her face touched mine, and yet I could hardly feel the contact. "Put me on the earth again, I feel uneasy at this height."
"Very well; but shut your eyes and do not breathe." I obeyed, and all at once it seemed to me that I fell like a stone. The wind drew up my hair. When I could recover breath I saw that we flew slowly above the earth, grazing the stocks ‘of the highest herbage.
"Set me down here," said I to her. "What a notion, flying! I’m not a bird."
"I thought you would like it. We never do anything else."
"You? But who are you?"
No answer. "You dare not say."
A plaintive sound like the one that awakened me the first night trembled in my ears, and still we flew near the earth in the humid atmosphere.
"Set me on the earth, then," said to her. She bowed her head in sign of obedience, and I found myself on my feet. She remained standing before me, and again her hands joined in an attitude of expectation. I began to gain confidence, and set myself to regard her attentively. As at first, her expression seemed to me to be that of a sad resignation.
"Where are we?" I asked her, for I did not recognize the district wherein we had stopped.
"Far from your home; but we can be there in a moment."
"How? Trust myself to you again?"
"I have done you no harm and will not do you any. We will fly together till daybreak—that’s all. Wherever your thought goes, in all the lands of the earth, I can carry you. Give yourself to me. Say again, Take me."
"Well! take me!"
Her arms again entwined me. I was lifted above the earth, and we began again to fly.
"Where will you go?" she asked me.
"Right on before us."
"But here is a forest."
"Let us go over it, but not so fast."
Immediately we rose circling, like a woodcock gaining the top of a birch, and then resumed direct flight. It was no longer herbage that seemed to glide under our feet, but the summits of great trees. How strange was the sight, from above, of this forest, with its pointed summits lighted by the moon! One could have supposed it to be an enormous prone beast, asleep and snoring with a dull and indefinite rumble. Every now and then we passed over a glade, and I saw the jagged outline of the shadow projected by the trees. From time to time a hare put forth its plaintive cry in the thicket. Plaintive too was the cry of the screech-owl that passed near us. Perfumes of lovage, of mushrooms, of buds swelling under the dew were borne to us by the air. Cold and sharp the moonlight was shed about us, and the Great Bear twinkled mildly above our heads. Soon the forest disappeared behind us, and we saw a plain with a long line of grey vapor that marked the course of a river. We followed one of its banks above bushes drooping with the heavy humidity of the night. The water in some places glittered with bluish lustre, in others whirled sombre and threatening. Fleeces of vapor floated in places above the current, and I saw, here and there, water-lilies spread their white petals, showing the treasures of their beauty like maidens that believe themselves sheltered from all sight. I wished to gather a flower, and already nearly touched the watery mirror; but an unpleasant coolness reached my face as soon as I pulled the lily’s rough stalk.
We began to fly from one bank to the other in the manner of curlews, and in fact we roused some of those birds every minute. More than once we passed above fine broods of wild duck, collected in little groups amid the reeds. They did not fly away. One of them hurriedly drew out his head from under his wing and looked, and looked; then, with an occupied air, replaced his beak under the silky down, while his companions uttered a feeble "kwang, kwang." We awoke a heron in a bush of laburnum, and, seeing it leap to its feet and awkwardly shake its wings, I was reminded of a German. As to fish, we did not see a single one; all slept at the bottom. I began to get used to the sensation of flying, and even to find pleasure in it. Any one that has dreamed he was flying, will understand me. Entirely reassured, I set myself to observe closely the strange being to whom I owed my part in this incredible adventure.
She was a young woman, whose features were not at all of the Russian type. Her form, of a greyish white, half transparent, with shadows hardly indicated, recalled sculptured figures on an alabaster vase, lighted from within by a lamp. Again it seemed that her features were not unknown to me.
"May I speak to you?" I asked her.
"I see a ring on your finger. Have you lived on the earth? Have you been married?" I stopped; she did not answer.
"What is your name? What are you called?"
"Call me Ellis."
"Ellis? That is an English name. Are you English? Have you known me before?"
"Why have you appeared to me?"
"I love you."
"Are you happy?"
"Yes, to hover and fly with you in the pure air."
"Ellis," said I suddenly, "are not you a penitent? Aren’t you a soul in pain?"
"I do not understand you," murmured she, turning her head.
"In God’s name I pray"—I began. She interrupted me.
"What is that you say?" replied she, as if indeed she did not understand. I thought I felt a slight movement in the arm that surrounded me like a cold girdle.
"Have no fear," replied she. "Fear nothing, love." Her face bowed over mine. I felt a strange sensation on my lips, something like the touch of a blunt goad, or of a leech before it bites.
WE hovered at a considerable height. I looked down. We were passing above a town unknown to me, built on the slope of a large hill. Churches raised themselves above a mass of plank roofs and dark orchards. A large bridge was defined in black over the river in one of its turnings. Gilded domes and metal crosses shone with glimmering lustre. Silent against the sky were marked long well-cranks, amid bushy willows, and as silently a white road entered straight as an arrow at one end of the town, and silently emerged at the other end, to be lost in the monotonous obscurity of endless plains.
"What town is this?" I asked Ellis.
"In the government of —?"
"We are a long way from home"
"There is no distance for us."
"Indeed?" A sudden freak seized me.
"Carry me to South America."
"Impossible. Day is dawning."
"Ah I we are birds of the night. . . Well, no matter where, so long as it is far away."
"Shut your eyes and do not breathe," replied Ellis; and we started with the speed of a hurricane. The air burst in my ears with tearing sound. Soon we stopped, but the sound did not; on the contrary, it increased. It was like a terrible howling, an immense uproar.
"Now open your eyes," said Ellis.
I obeyed. "Good God! where am I?"
Above our heads, low, heavy, thick clouds were crowding and pushing like a pack of infuriated monsters; below us another monster, a raging sea—raging mad. Hurled by the tumult, a white foam rose in boiling mountains, and waves broke with a brutal uproar upon rocks blacker than pitch. The roaring of the tempest, the chill blast from the depths of the abysses, the sounding of the waves striking the cliff, whence one seemed to catch now and then piteous cries or a discharge of artillery in the distance, or yet again the tolling of bells, the grinding of pebbles rolling on the shore, at times the cry of an invisible, sea-gull ,on a break in the sky the dim silhouette of a vessel, everything told of death—death and fear. Struck with horror, again I closed my eyes.
"What is it? where are we?"
"On the south coast of the Isle of Wight before the rocks of Blackgang, where many vessels are lost," replied Ellis, with a mischievous expression of joy, as it appeared to me.
"Take me far from here! far from here! home!"
I drew myself together and covered my eyes. It seemed to me that we flew with greater rapidity even than formerly. The wind no longer whistled: it howled and roared in my dress and in my hair. I could not breathe.
"Bear up," said Ellis.
I made an effort to regain my senses. I felt the ground under my feet and heard no noise. All around seemed dead; but the blood pulsed violently in my temples, I felt giddy, and had a ringing in my head. Little by little the giddiness passed away. I drew myself up and opened my. eyes
We were on the shore of my pool. Right before us, through the pointed leaves of a row of willows, was a large sheet of water, above which some slender threads of mist rested as if fastened to the surface; to the right appeared the dull verdure of a field of rye; to the left, through the mist, my orchard with its great trees, silent and humid, and already touched with the breath of morning. Across the pale sky, stretched in oblique lines two or three small clouds, yellow with the first rays of a dawn that started from God knows what part of the horizon. In the uniform pallor of the sky nothing pointed out where the sun was about to rise. The stars had disappeared. Everything was still, but already awake in the magic calm of early twilight.
"Day is here," said Ellis in my ear. "Adieu till to-morrow." I turned towards her; she had already left the earth, and was raised in the air before me. All at once I saw her place her hands behind her head. Head, hands, and shoulders suddenly took the hue of flesh; in her dark eyes two living sparks trembled; her lips bore a smile of mysterious softness; a charming young woman appeared to me. It lasted only a moment. As if dazzled, she drew backwards and vanished at once like vapor. For some time I remained stupefied and motionless. When I was able to observe, it seemed to me that this hue of flesh, this hue of pale rose that had suddenly animated my vision, was not yet gone, and that the air surrounding me was still impregnated with it—it was the shining of dawn. I felt all at once an immense lassitude, and went towards the house. Passing before the hen-roost, I heard the geese cackling. They are the first birds to awake. Along the roof, at the ends of the thatch-poles, stood rooks like sentinels, all eager to finish their morning toilet, and projected sharply against the milky sky. Suddenly they rose all together, flew to some distance, and arranged themselves in a line without a cry. In the near wood sounded thrice the hoarse cluck of a moor-cock already in search of wild berries in the damp herbage. Feeling a slight shivering, I went in and threw myself on my bed, where a deep sleep soon secured me.
The following night, when I got near the old oak, Ellis came to meet me like an old acquaintance. All fear on my part had disappeared, and I met her again with almost pleasure. I had given up trying to comprehend the adventure, and I thought of nothing but flying again and satisfying my curiosity. Soon the arm of Ellis clasped me, and we began our flight.
"Let us go to Italy," said I, at her ear. "Where you like, love," answered she with slow gravity—and slowly and gravely she bowed her head towards me. It struck me that her face was less transparent than before, her features more feminine, less vaporous, and she reminded me of the fair creature that had appeared to me a moment before vanishing in the morning. "This night," continued Ellis, "is the great night. It rarely comes: when seven times thirteen—" Here I lost several words. "Then," pursued she, "one can see what is concealed at other times."
"Ellis," said I to her in a beseeching tone; "who are you? Tell me now at last."
She extended her long white hand without replying, and indicated with her finger a point in the dark sky where shone among small stars a comet of ruddy aspect.
"What must I understand? Do you live like that comet, wandering between planets and sun? Do you wander from man to man too?"
But Ellis placed her hands over my eyes. A mist white and thick as that which comes from the depths of valleys suddenly surrounded me. "To Italy! To Italy!" murmured she. "This night is the great night."
The mist vanished, and I saw beneath us an endless plain; but already the sensation of a soft, mild air on my cheeks had warned me that I was no longer in Russia; and besides, this plain did not at all resemble our plains. It was an immense dull surface, without herbage and deserted. Here and there, in all directions, pools of stagnant water shone like pieces of broken mirror. Further off was visible a motionless, soundless sea. Large fair stars twinkled in the spaces between large and fair clouds; and from every part rose the hum of a thousand voices, incessant but restrained. These sounds, penetrating, and at the same time low, were the voice of the desert.
"The Pontine Marshes," said Ellis. "Do you hear the frogs? Do you smell the sulphur?"
The Pontine Marshes! An impression of solemn sadness came upon me. Why lead me to this dark and abandoned land? We had better have gone to Rome.
"Rome is near," said she; "prepare yourself." We took flight above the old Latin Way. A buffalo plunged in a slimy slough lazily raised his misshapen head, the short and rough bristles of which rose in tufts between his back-turned horns. He showed the white of his stupid, bad eyes, and blew forcibly through his damp nostrils. He had no doubt smelt us.
"Rome! here is Rome!" said Ellis. "Look before you."
What is that black mass above the horizon? Are these the arches of some giant’s bridge? What river does it traverse? Why is it demolished in places? No, it is not a bridge, it is an ancient aqueduct. This, indeed, is the holy Roman Campagna, and below are the mountains of Albano, their summits and the grey masonry of the aqueduct faintly lighted by the rising moon. We rushed forward suddenly, and found ourselves before an isolated ruin. It was impossible to say what it had been; a tomb, or a palace, or baths. Black ivy enveloped it in its melancholy bonds, and below, like a gaping jaw, opened the half-shattered archway of a vault. I was struck with the sepulchral odor that came from all these little trimmed stones whose marble facing had long ago disappeared.
"Come here!" said Ellis, extending her hand. "Here! Say aloud, three times, the name of a great Roman."
"What will happen?"
"You will see."
I reflected a moment. "Divus Caius Julius Cæsar!" cried I, and "Divus Caius Julius Cæsar!" repeated, prolonging the sound, "Cæsar!"
The last tones of my voice still resounded when I heard—but I despair of describing what I experienced. First, a confused sound of trumpets and clapping of hands, hardly perceptible to the ear and repeated incessantly. It seemed to me that somewhere, either at a prodigious distance or in a bottomless abyss, an innumerable crowd was stirring. It rose and mounted in confused waves always screaming, but with stilled screams like those that escape from the throat in frightful dreams that seem to endure for centuries. Then the air was disturbed and darkened above the ruin, and I thought I saw myriads of shadows landing and defiling, millions of forms, some with helmets, others with pikes. The rays of the moon divided into innumerable blue stars on these helmets and pikes, and all this army, all the multitude pressed, pushed, advanced, enlarged. It seemed animated with unspeakable energy, capable of overthrowing the world. No form, however, was distinct. Suddenly a strange movement agitated the crowd, like immense waves falling and retiring. "Cæsar! Cæsar venit!" repeated a thousand voices like the roaring of leaves in a forest struck by hurricane. A dull stroke resounded, and a head pale and severe, with closed eyelids, and bearing a laurel crown, came slowly from the ruin—the head of the Imperator.
No! there are no human words to describe the fear that seized me. I said, "If this head opens its eyes, if the lips part, I shall die at once."
"Ellis," cried I, "I will not, I cannot. Take me from this brutal and terrible Rome. Come!"
"Faint heart," murmured she, and we resumed our flight. Behind I heard resounding still the iron cry of the Roman legions; then all became dark.
"Look," said Ellis, "and calm yourself."
My first sensation was so pleasant, I remember, I could only sigh. Not light, not mist enveloped me, but something of a vaporous azure, soft and silvery. At first I could distinguish nothing, this blue shimmer blinded me. But little by little the noble proportions of a fair wooded mountain revealed themselves to my eyes. A lake stretched under me, with stars trembling in the depths of its waters. I heard the large murmur of the waves plashing on the beach. The perfume of orange-groves reached me pure and strong as a wave, and with it, as pure and strong, came the sound of a woman’s voice. Attracted, fascinated by the perfume and by this voice, I wished to descend. We directed our flight towards a magnificent marble palace that was set against a cypress wood. The sounds came from the open windows. The lake, powdered with the pollen of flowers, beat the walls of the palace in soft undulations, and right in front, enveloped in a luminous vapor, rose an island, adorned with the dark foliage of orange-trees and laurels, with porticoes and colonnades, temples and statues, high and harmonious from the midst of the waters.
"Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore," said Ellis.
I said only "Ah I" and we still descended.
The voice, growing ever louder, attracted me irresistibly. I wished to see the form that produced such sounds on such a night. We were close to the window. Within a chamber furnished in Pompeian style, and resembling a museum of antiquities more than a modern apartment, surrounded by Greek sculptures, Etruscan vases, rare plants, and precious fabrics, lighted from above by two lamps enclosed within globes of crystal, a young woman was seated before a piano. With head slightly thrown back, and with half-closed eyes, she sang an Italian air,—sang and smiled. She smiled, and it seemed to me that a faun of Praxiteles, young and careless as herself, as soft and as voluptuous, smiled too from its marble niche surrounded with rose-laurel, across the light vapor that escaped from an antique perfume-pan set on a bronze tripod. She was alone. Enchanted by the sounds and by the beauty, drunk with the brilliance and the perfumes of the night, moved to the depths of the heart by the sight of such youth, freshness, and happiness, I com pletely forgot my companion; I forgot by what mysterious means I had penetrated the secrets of an existence so secluded and so strange. I wished to step on the window and speak. My whole body trembled with violent commotion, as if I had touched a Leyden jar.
The face of Ellis, in spite of its transparence, had become dark and threatening. In her immensely wide-open eyes burned an expression of profound malignity. "Let us go away," said she brusquely—and again wind, noise, stupefaction. Instead of the cry of the legions, the last sharp note of the songstress lingered long in my ears. We stopped; but the same sharp note sounded always, although I felt another atmosphere and other emanations. A bracing freshness as from a large river reached me, with odors of hay, hemp, and smoke. To this long-sustained note succeeded another note, and then a third, but of so marked a character, and with such familiar modulations, that I at once said to myself, "That is a Russian singer, and a Russian air." And at the same time all objects about appeared distinctly to me.
We were on the banks of a large river. To the left, out of sight, stretched mown fields with enormous haystacks; to the right, also out of sight, was seen the surface of the water. Near the shore long boats moved gently at anchor, stirring their pointed masts, like fingers making signs. In the one from which the song came was a small fire whose light was reflected in red rays that trembled on the ripples of the river. All around on river and land other fires twinkled, but whether they were far or near sight could not determine. At times they were suddenly extinguished, at others darted forth and cast a lively brightness. Innumerable crickets chirped incessantly in the grass, not less persistent than the frogs of the Pontine Marshes. The sky was cloudless but low and dark, and birds, flying invisibly, emitted from time to time plaintive cries.
"Aren’t we in Russia?" I asked my guide.
"This is the Volga," replied she. We flew down the river.
"Why did you hurry me just now from that delightful land?" demanded I. "It displeased you, no doubt. Did not you feel a little jealous?"
The lips of Ellis trembled, and her look became threatening, but all at once her features resumed their usual immobility.
"I wish to go home," said I to her.
"Wait! wait!" replied she. "To-night is the great night. It won’t come again for so long. You shall see. Wait a bit."
On this we crossed the Volga, grazing the water obliquely, and by a succession of springs, in the manner of swallows flying before a storm. The deep waves murmured beneath us, and a keen wind struck us with its cold and powerful wing. Soon in the gloom appeared the right bank of the river with a steep and deeply creviced escarpment. We drew near.
"Cry Saryn na Kitclikou," said Ellis to me in a whisper. I was as yet hardly recovered from the fright the apparition of the Roman phantoms had caused me, and was weary besides, and a prey to I know not what vague feeling of sadness. In fact, I dared not. I would not pronounce the fatal words, persuaded that, as in the Wolf’s Valley of the Freischütz they would conjure up some frightful monster. But in spite of myself my lips opened, and with a weak, unnatural voice, I cried: "Saryn na Kitchkou!"
As before the Roman ruin, at first all remained still. Suddenly, at my very ears, rang a coarse, brutal laugh, followed by a groan, and by the sound of a body falling in the water and struggling. I looked around me—nobody; but after a moment the shores re-echoed the sounds, and a frightful tumult soon rose in all directions. It was a veritable chaos of sounds: human cries, whistles, furious vociferations, together with laughter,—laughter more frightful than the rest—splashing of oars in the water, axe-strokes, the crash of broken doors and chests, the screech of moving tackle, the grinding of wheels on the strand, the stamping of a multitude of horses, the tolling of alarum-bells, the clanking of chains, the mournful crackling of immense fires, drunken songs, gnashing of teeth, and frightful oaths, lamentations and desperate prayers, military commands and death-rattles, confused with joyful sounds of the fife, and the cadence of furious rounds. One could distinguish cries of "Kill him! hang him! drown! burn! at it! go ahead! No quarter!" I heard all, even to the panting of exhausted lungs, and yet, far as my sight could reach, nothing appeared—no change in the aspect of the country. Before us the river flowed silent and dark, and the shores appeared even more rude and deserted than formerly. I turned to Ellis; she placed a finger on her lips.
"Stepan Timoféitch! here is Stepan Timoféitch!" A cry rose from all parts of the plain, "Long live our little father, our hetman, our foster-father." Suddenly, although I continued to see nothing, I seemed conscious of a gigantic body advancing towards me, and a terrible voice cried out, "Frolka! where are you, you dog? Fire, everybody! onwards! Cut me down these aristocrats, make me some mincemeat!" I felt the heat of a flame close to me, the acrid odor of smoke penetrated my nostrils, and at the same time something warm and liquid like jets of blood spurted on my face and on my hands. Savage laughs burst around us. I lost consciousness, and when I came to myself found I was with Ellis, floating gently at the border of my wood, not far from the old oak.
"Do you see that pretty little path?" said she, "down there, where the moon shines, and overhung by those two birches? Shall we go there?"
I was so overcome, so exhausted, that I could say to her only: "To the house."
"You are at the house," said Ellis.
In fact, I was at my door alone: Ellis had disappeared. The watch-dog drew near, eyed me defiantly, and ran off howling. By an effort I gained my bed, and, without undressing, fell asleep.
The next day, during the whole morning, I was unwell, and could hardly move about at all; but this bodily uneasiness was not what troubled me most. I was ashamed of my conduct and vexed with myself. "Faint heart!" I kept repeating. "Yes, Ellis is right. Why was I afraid? Why not have taken advantage of the opportunity? I might have seen Cæsar himself, and fear had made me lose my head. I must whimper and run away like a child at the sight of a birch rod. As to Razine, that was indeed different—in my quality as a gentleman and land-owner—but even then, why be afraid? Faint heart! faint heart! And besides, it was only in a dream that you would have seen all this," said I to myself. I called my housekeeper.
"Marfa, at what time did I go to bed yesterday? Do you remember?"
"Lord! who can say, my foster-father? Rather late, I do believe. You went out of the house when it began to be dark; and in your bedroom you stamped with the heels of your boots, after midnight. Towards morning—yes, towards morning—yes; and it is two days that you’ve done that. Is there anything the matter? "
"Good! these flights," thought I, "these journeys in the air, how doubt them any longer? Marfa! how do I look to-day?" I asked her, suddenly.
"How look? Pardon, let me see. Your cheeks are rather hollow; yes, and you are pale, my foster-father. Stop! and you are as yellow as wax."
Slightly confused, I dismissed Marfa.
"I shall die of it, or lose my senses by it," said I to myself, meditating near the window. "It is necessary that it should end; it is terrible; my heart beats strangely. When I flew it seemed as if one drank my heart’s blood, or as if it exuded like the sap of an incised birch-tree in summer. All that is not natural. And Ellis?—she plays with me like a cat with a mouse, and yet she does not seem to wish me ill. We’ll, I’ll never trust myself with her again. I will consider as long as I can—and—— But if she drank my blood?—horrible! Besides, such rapid flights must do me harm. They say that in England it is forbidden to go more than seventy-five miles an hour on the railways." I pondered for a ‘long time; but at ten o’clock that evening I was near the old oak.
The night was dark, dull, and cold; there was a sensation of rain in the air. To my great surprise I found no one under the oak. I walked about for some time. I went as far as the wood and came back, trying continually to penetrate the depth of darkness. No one! I waited long enough and then I called Ellis several times, raising my voice more and more each time; but without effect. I was sad, almost mortified. Already I thought no longer of the danger that had just now occupied me. I could not bring myself to think that Ellis would come no more. "Ellis! Ellis! come then! Won’t you come?" cried 1, for the last time. A raven, roused by my voice, sprang suddenly from the top of a neighboring tree, striking noisily amid the branches. Ellis did not appear. With hanging head I returned towards the house. I was already on the border of my pool, and the light from my chamber window at times shone full, and at others disappeared behind the foliage of my apple-trees. It seemed to me like the eye of a guardian charged to watch me. Suddenly I perceived a slight motion in the air behind me, and at the same moment I felt myself raised, just as a quail is carried away by a hawk. It was Ellis: her cheek touched mine, and I felt her arm embrace me like a close band. She spoke and her voice, always restrained to a slight murmur, affected me like an icy breath entering my ears. "It is I," said she. I felt, at the same time, both pleasure and terror. We flew at a short distance above the ground.
"You did not want to come then, to- day?" demanded I.
"You were vexed at it? Then you love me? Oh! you are mine!"
These last words troubled me. I did not know what to say to her.
"I was kept away," pursued she. "They watch me."
"Who, then, has power to restrain you?"
"Where will you go?" demanded Ellis, as usual, without answering my question.
"Carry me to Italy—to the border of the lake—you know."
She shook her head to say no. At this moment I remarked for the first time that her face was no longer transparent. A faint redness, one might say, was visible over her milky whiteness. I regarded her eyes, and their look struck me disagreeably. There was in the depths of them a sinister movement, almost imperceptible but incessant, which reminded one of a benumbed serpent that the sun begins to revive.
"Ellis," cried I, "who are you? Tell me, I pray you."
She shrugged her shoulders. I was vexed and wished to give her a lesson. The notion came to me of asking her to take me to Paris. There, thought I, she shall have some real cause for being jealous.
"Ellis," said I, "you have no fear of great cities, have you?—of Paris, for instance?"
"No?—not of the strongly lighted parts, like the Boulevards?"
"It is not the light of day."
"Very well, then, take me to the Boulevard des Italiens."
She threw over my head one end of her long sleeve, and I found myself in a white darkness impregnated with odor of poppy. All disappeared at once,—light, sound, and almost consciousness. I hardly felt that I still lived; and this species of annihilation was not without sweetness. All at once the cloud dissolved. Ellis withdrew her sleeve from over my head, and I saw beneath me a number of vast buildings and plenty of light and movement—I was at Paris.
I had already been at Paris, and soon recognized the part to which Ellis had brought me: it was the garden of the Tuileries, with its old horse-chestnuts, its iron gates, its fortress ditches, and its Zouaves on duty like stags. We passed before the palace, before Saint-Roche, and stopped at the Boulevard des Italiens.
A crowd of people, young and old, workmen in blouses, fine-dressed women. hastened over the causeways. Restaurants and cafés gilded to excess sparkled with a thousand flames. Omnibuses, cabs, carriages of all kinds and aspects passed each other on the pavement. All shone and swarmed so that one knew not where to turn one’s eyes. Yet, strange to say, I was not at all tempted to quit my aerial observatory, so high and so pure, to mix in this human swarm. I felt a vapor rise to me, red, warm, dull, and of dubious odor. Too many human lives were amassed in the rout. I was hesitating, when, shrill and hard as the grinding of old iron, the voice of a lorette rose to me. This shameless voice affected me like the bite of vermin, and I figured, to myself a face stony, mean, bloated, a true Parisian expression, usurer’s eyes, white and red paint, frizzled hair, a crude bunch of artificial flowers in a little hat, agnails and a monstrous crinoline. I figured to myself also at the same time one of our good countrymen of the steppe, newly landed in Paris, and trotting miserably after this vile, venal doll. I saw him trying to hide his awkwardness under an affectation of coarseness, lisping with falsetto voice, imitating the manners of the waiters at Vefour’s, making curvets and platitudes. Filled with disgust, I said to myself, "It is not here that Ellis need be jealous."
In the mean time I noticed we had begun to descend, and Paris sent out all its sounds and all its odors to meet us.
"Stop!" said I to Ellis; "don’t you find this stifling?"
"It was you that wanted to come to Paris."
"I was wrong; I have changed my mind. Carry me far away from here, Ellis, I beg you. Stop! there is actually Prince Koulmametof walking on the Boulevards, and his friend Serge Varaxine, who beckons with his hand and says to him, 'Ivan Stépanitch, come and sup with me; I have engaged Rigolboche herself.' Take me away, Ellis, far from Mabille, from the Maison-Dorée, from the Jockey-Club; far from close-cropped soldiers and their fine barracks; from policemen with 'imperials' ‘on their chins; far from glasses of muddy absinthe; from players at dominoes and players at the Bourse; from red ribbons at the coat button-hole and at the button-hole of the overcoat; far from M. Foy, inventor of the marriage agency; from the gratuitous consultations of Dr. Charles Albert; from courses of lectures and from blue-books; from Parisian comedies, Parisian operettas, Parisian politeness, and Parisian ignorance. Come on! come on! come on!"
"Look down," said Ellis; "you are already no longer above Paris."
I opened my eyes. In fact, a dark plain, marked here and there with the white lines of the roads, flew rapidly beneath us, and far in the horizon, like the glimmer of an immense fire, rose towards the sky the reflection of the innumerable flames that light the capital of the world.
The sleeve of Ellis fell again over my eyes. Again I lost consciousness; and again the cloud dissolved. What is this? What park is this, with its wall-like avenues of trimmed lime-trees, with isolated firs resembling parasols, with porticoes and temples in the Pompadour style, with rococo statues of tritons and nymphs within strangely carved basins in the style of Bernini, surrounded by balustrades of smoky marble? Can it be Versailles? No, it is not Versailles; a little palace, in a style of architecture just as rococo, stands out against a wood of bushy oaks. The moon is rather dull, veiled by a slight mist, and over the ground is what appears to be a thin cloud of steam: the eye cannot determine whether it is the reflection of the moon, or really vapor. Further off, in one of the basins, floats a sleeping swan, whose lengthened back reminds one of the snow of our steppes hardened by frost. Here and there glowworms shine like diamonds in the grass, and upon the bases of the statues.
"We are near Mannheim," said Ellis, "and this is the park of Schwetzingen."
"Ah! we are in Germany," thought I, and listened. All was silent except a solitary and invisible fount that fell in a basin. It seemed to me that the water said continually, "There, there, there, always there."
In the middle of the path, between two walls of foliage, I perceived a gentleman in a laced coat, red heels, and rounded ruffles, with sword striking his calves, give his hand with exquisite grace to a fair lady in hooped petticoats, becurled and befrosted with powder. Pale and strange figures! I wished to see them closer, but they disappeared at once, and I heard only the incessant babbling of the fount.
"These are walking dreams," said Ellis to me. "Yesterday one could see other things—many things; to-night dreams themselves fly from human gaze. Come on!"
We rose, and began to fly in so direct a manner that I did not perceive the slightest movement, and all objects beneath appeared to run to meet us. Sombre mountains, rugged and clothed with woods, grew and flew under our eyes, followed by other mountains, with their undulations, their ravines, their glades, their points of light from cottages sleeping on the borders of brooks. Mountains ever succeeded mountains. We were in the middle of the Black Forest.
Ever mountains, and ever forests—magnificent forests, old but vigorous. The night is clear. I can distinguish the species of the trees, especially tall pines, with straight, white trunks. Roebucks show themselves occasionally at the borders of the woods; resting elegantly on their slender legs, gracefully turning the head, they stand sentinel, vigilantly pricking their fine ears. The ruins of a donjon, at the summit of a bare rock, raise sadly their rugged, indented outline. Above the forgotten old stones a star twinkles peacefully. From a little black lake comes, like a mysterious wail, the crystalline note of frogs answering each other. Other sounds, prolonged and melancholy as the tremors of an Eolian harp, reach me. We are in the land of legends. The same thin vapor touching the earth that I had noticed at Schwetzingen extends here in all directions. In the valleys, especially, it is most marked. I can count five—six—ten distinct shadows upon the slopes of the mountains, and over the whole vast and monotonous extent the moon reigns peacefully. The air is light and lively: I feel light myself, and singularly calm.
"Ellis," said I, "don’t you love this country?"
"I? I love nothing!"
"What! not even me?"
"Ah! yes, you," replied she nonchalantlv.
I thought her arm tightened round me with new force.
"Onwards! onwards!" cried she, with a sort of cold passion.
A cry, loud and prolonged in rolls, sounded unexpectedly over our heads, and was at the same time repeated in front of us.
"It is a rear-guard of cranes flying north," said Ellis. "Let us join them, shall we? "
"Yes, let us fly with the cranes."
Thirteen fine, powerful birds, arranged in a triangle, advanced rapidly, by rare strokes of their vigorous, curved wings. Stretching out neck and feet, and presenting their strong breasts, they rushed forwards with such impetuosity that the air whistled around them. It was strange at this height, and so far from all living creatures, to see this energetic and bold life, this irresistible volition. While continuing victoriously to cleave the air, without stop or stay, the cranes from time to time exchanged cries with their comrade at the apex of the triangle; and there was something of gravity and pride, of a sentiment of absolute confidence in these ringing cries, in this aerial conversation. "We will fly to the end in spite of fatigue," they seemed to say, encouraging each other. And it came to my mind that in Russia—in the entire world—there are few men that resemble these birds.
"Now we are flying in Russia," said Ellis to me.
This was not the first time I had noticed that Ellis was aware of my thoughts.
"Do you wish to change the route?" asked she.
"Change? No; I come from Paris. Carry me to Petersburg."
"At once. Only cover me with your sleeve for fear of dizziness."
Ellis extended her hand; but before the cloud enveloped me I felt upon my lips the contact of that blunt goad whose soft sting I had already experienced.
"Attenti-on!" This prolonged cry reached my ears. "Attenti-on!" was returned with desperation from the distance. "Attenti-on!" the cry died out somewhere at the end of the world. I shook myself. A large gilded arrow was before my eyes, and I recognized the fortress of Petersburg.
Pale night of the north! But is it night? Is it not rather a wan and sickly day? I have never loved the night of Petersburg, but this time I was almost scared by it. The profile of Ellis had completely disappeared, dissolved like a morning cloud before a July sun; and yet I continued to see distinctly my own body awkwardly suspended in the air at the height of Alexander’s column.
Now behold us at Petersburg. This is indeed the city: these broad, deserted streets, the color of ashes; these houses of whitish grey, greyish yellow, and lilac grey, covered with worn stucco, with their windows sunk in the walls, their crudely colored sign-boards, their iron railings on the steps; the dirty fruit shops, the Greek pediments in plaster, the signs, the horse-troughs, the bodies of police. Here is the gilded cupola of St. Isaac’s; the Bourse where nothing is done, and its medley of colors; the granite walls of the fortress, and the pavements of broken wood. I recognized the boats with cargoes of hay and faggots. I again found the odors of dust, cabbages, mats, bark, stables, the doorkeepers petrified in their cloaks, the hackney coachmen sleeping curled up on their old droskies. Yes, here is indeed our Palmyra of the north.
All is lighted up and revealed with a distinctness that makes the heart sick, and all sleeps sadly together in this dull, but transparent atmosphere.
The hectic rose of yestereven’s twilight is not yet effaced; it will last till morning in this pale and starless sky. It is reflected in long rays on the cloudy surface of the Neva, which murmurs as it pushes its cold blue waves to the sea.
"Let us fly," said Ellis.
And without waiting for an answer she bore me to the other side of the river, above the square of the palace, near the foundry. Beneath us I heard footsteps and voices. A band of young men, with a fatigued air, passed down the street, speaking among themselves of a grisettes’ ball. "Sub-lieutenant StolpakoffVII.," cried suddenly a sentinel, waking with a start, near a heap of rusty cannonballs. A little farther off, at an open window, I perceived a young woman in a rumpled silk dress, with bare arms, hair in a reticle of pearls, and a cigarette in her mouth. She was reading a book devotedly. It was a volume from the pen of a very modern Juvenal.
"Fly quickly!" said I to Ellis.
In an instant the little wood of stunted firs and the mossy gardens that surround Petersburg had flown beneath us. We directed ourselves right south. Sky and earth became little by little darker and darker. Sickly night, sickly day, sickly city—we left all far behind.
We flew more slowly than usual, and my eyes could follow the changes that showed themselves by degrees in my native land. It was an endless panorama: woods, heaths, fields, ravines, rivers, widely separated churches and villages, and then again fields, ravines, rivers. I was in an ill-humor, indifferent, bored; but if I was bored and vexed, it was not because I was flying over Russia. No! but this land, the flat extent beneath me, all the surface of the world, with its fleeting population, mean, choking with want, sorrow, sickness, stuck to this miserable heap of dust—this fragile, creviced crust; the excrescences on this grain of sand, our planet, whereon has filtered a mould by us dignified with the name "vegetable kingdom;" these flies of men, ten times more despicable than flies, their mud dwellings, the little vestiges of their miserable and monotonous quarrels, their ridiculous fights against the immutable and the inevitable—ah! how odious it all was to me. My heart rebelled, and I could no longer contemplate a picture so insignificant, a caricature so trivial. I was bored—worse than bored. I no longer felt even pity for my fellows; all my feelings merged into one that I dare hardly avow—disgust, and what is worse, disgust for myself.
"Stop!" murmured Ellis, "or I can carry you no longer: you get heavy."
"Home!" said I to her in a tone I should have used to my coachman towards four in the morning, coming from a dinner with one of my Moscow friends, after having talked of the future of Russia and of what should really be understood by "communistic principles."
"Home!" said I to her, and closed my eyes.
I soon reopened them. Ellis embraced me in a strange manner; she almost pushed me. I looked at her and all my blood froze. Any one that has seen a human face express, unexpectedly and without apparent cause, the most living fear, will understand my feeling. Fear, the most poignant terror, contracted and distorted the features of Ellis. I never saw anything like it on a living face. An inanimate phantom, a superhuman creature, a shadow, and this unheard-of fright. "Ellis! what is the matter?" demanded I.
"She! it is she!" responded Ellis with effort. "It is she!"
"Don’t name her, don’t," stammered she hurriedly. "We must fly. All is over, and forever. Look, there she is!"
I turned my eyes in the direction of her trembling hand and perceived something—a something truly frightful. This something was still more frightful that it had no definite form. It was a heavy, dark mass, of a yellowish black, spotted like the belly of a lizard. It stretched itself slowly over the earth like a reptile, with enormous movements, now up, now down—large and regular balancings like the beating of the wings of a bird of prey preparing to seize its quarry. At times it caine to earth by hideous leaps as a spider springs on a fly caught in its toils. "What are you, frightful mass?" At its approach—I saw it and felt it—everything was seized with torpor, everything in dissolution. A venomous, pestiferous chill spread around, and at the sensation of this chill the heart revolted, the eyes ceased to see, the hair stood on end. It was a moving force, insurmountable, not to be arrested, which formless, sightless, thoughtless, sees all and knows all; as eager as a bird of prey to seize its victim, cunning as a serpent, and like a serpent licking and killing its prey with its icy sting.
"Ellis! Ellis!" cried I, shuddering, "it is death! it is death!"
The plaintive sound that I had already heard came from the lips of Ellis, but this time with more of the accent of human despair. We hurried our flight, which became disordered. Round and round Ellis rose and plunged in the air, turning incessantly, and changing direction like a wounded partridge that seeks to lure the dogs from its nest. And in the mean time from this horrible mass long feelers detached themselves, lank and hideous like those of a polyp, lengthening in pursuit, and stretching towards us a species of claws. A gigantic spectre mounted on a pale horse suddenly appeared in the heaven. Ellis redoubled her desperate efforts. "She has seen! It is done, I am lost!" cried she, in a voice broken with sobs. "Alas! unhappy! I might have—life would have been for me—and now—annihilated! annihilated!" Hearing these last words hardly articulated, I lost consciousness.
When I came to myself I was stretched on my back on the grass, and in all my limbs I felt a dull pain, such as follows a violent fall. Day was breaking, and objects were already distinct. At some distance from me a road bordered with small willows passed by a birch wood. This place was known to me. I began to recollect all the events of the night, and shivered in thinking of the horrible vision that had presented itself to my eyes. "But why?" said I to myself, "why was Ellis so terrified? must she, she also, submit to his rule? Perhaps she is not immortal, perhaps she is predestined to destruction—to annihilation. How is it possible?"
I heard a faint sigh near me, and turned my head. At two paces from me, lay, stretched motionless on the grass, a young woman dressed in a long, white robe. Her long hair was loose, and one of her shoulders bare. Her left hand was behind her head, the other reposed on her breast; her eyes were closed, and on her lips I perceived a slight red foam. Was this Ellis? But Ellis was a phantom, and before me was a woman of flesh and blood. I drew myself towards her and, bending over her face, said, "Ellis, is it you?" Immediately, with a slow tremor, her eyelids opened, and her great black eyes fixed upon me. I was as if pierced through, absorbed with her regard, and at almost the same moment to my lips clung warm, soft, other lips, but with the odor of blood. I felt her burning bosom on mine, while her arms were clasped together around me. "Good-bye! Good-bye! forever!" said she with a dying voice. And all disappeared. I rose tottering like a drunken man, and searched a long time around, every now and then passing my hands over my face. At last I found myself on the road to N—, about a mile from my home. The sun was risen when I reached my chamber. The following night I awaited, and I confess not without terror, the appearance of my phantom, but it never came again. One night I went under the old oak, but saw nothing extraordinary. I hardly regret these strange interviews. I have meditated much on my adventure. I feel sure that science cannot explain it, and that legends and traditions report nothing similar. Who was Ellis? A vision, a Soul in pain, an evil spirit, a vampire? It often seemed to me that Ellis was a woman I had known formerly. I made immense efforts to recall where I had seen her—once—to-day, at this moment I remember—where? No! all confounds itself in my memory as in a dream. Yes, I have for long reflected upon it, and what will surprise no one, I. am no further advanced in it. I can’t decide to consult my friends, for fear of passing for a madman. At last I have decided to think no more about it, and indeed I have many other things to think of. On one hand has come the emancipation of the serfs, with the disposal of estates; on the other, my health is seriously altered. I suffer in the chest; I have wakefulness and a dry cough. I have got much thinner, my face is pale as death. The doctor says that my blood is impoverished, calls my sickness anæmia, and orders Gastein. My steward swears that without me he will not know how to settle with the peasants. Faith! let them settle with themselves.
But what mean certain sounds, perfectly distinct and clear, as from a harmonica, that I hear whenever one speaks before me of the death of anybody? They become stronger and stronger, louder and louder. And why this doleful shiver at the sole thought of annihilation?
- The Russian people give to the Germans the nickname "Heron."
- War-cry of pirates of the Volga.
- Stepan Razine, Don Cossack, pirate on the Volga and. Caspian, and chief of an insurrection in the seventeenth century, was broken on the wheel alive.
- In the Russian army, officers of the same name are distinguished by a number.