The Sentry and Other Stories/The Toupee Artist

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THE TOUPEE ARTIST
A  STORY  TOLD  ON  A  GRAVE
IN  SACRED  MEMORY  OF  THE  BLESSED  DAY,
THE  19TH  FEBRUARY,  1861[1]






I


THERE are many people in our country, who think that only painters and sculptors are "artists," and indeed only those who have been found worthy of that title by the Academies—no others will they admit to be artists at all. For many Sazikov and Ovchinnikov are nothing more than silver-smiths. Other peoples think differently: Heine mentions a tailor who "was an artist" and "had ideas," and ladies' dresses made by Worth are even now spoken of as "artistic creations." It was recently written about one of these dresses, that it "concentrated a world of imagination in the point of the bodice."

In America the domain of art is considered still wider. The celebrated American author, Bret Harte, tells of an artist, who was greatly renowned among them for "working on the dead." He imparted to the faces of the deceased various consoling expressions testifying to the more or less happy state of their departed souls.

There were several grades of this art. I remember three: (1), calmness; (2), exalted contemplation; and (3), the beatitude of the direct intercourse with God. The fame of the artist corresponded to the great perfection of his work, that is to say it was immense, but unfortunately the artist himself perished, falling a victim to the coarse mob, who set no value on the freedom of artistic creation. He was stoned to death because he had communicated the expression of the "beatific intercourse with God" to the face of a deceased defaulting banker who had swindled the whole town. The happy heirs of this scoundrel had hoped to show their gratitude to their late relative by giving this order, but the artistic executor thereof paid for it with his life. . .

In Russia we too had a master of a similarly unusual artistic nature.





II


MY younger brother had as nurse a tall, thin, but very fine old woman, who was called Lyubov Onisimovna. She had once been an actress of the former Orel Theatre belonging to Count Kamensky, and all I am about to relate happened in Orel during the days of my childhood.

My brother is seven years younger than I am, so that when he was two years old, and in Lyubov Onisimovna's arms, I had just completed my ninth year and was quite able to understand the stories that were told me.

Lyubov Onisimovna was at that time not very old, but she was as white as the moon. Her features were fine and delicate, her tall figure was erect and as wonderfully well-proportioned as a young girl's.

My mother and aunt looking at her often said she must have been a beauty in her day.

She was honesty and kindness itself, and very sentimental; she loved the tragic side of life but . . . sometimes drank.

She used to take us for walks in the Trinity Cemetery, where, sitting down on a common grave with an old wooden cross, she would relate to me some story.

It was here that I heard the history of the Toupee Artist.





III


HE was our nurse's colleague in the theatre; the difference was only that she "acted on the stage and danced dances," while he was the "Toupee Artist," that is, the hairdresser and maker-up, who painted and dressed the hair of all the Count's serf actresses. But he was no ordinary commonplace barber, with a hairdresser's comb behind his ear, and a tin pot of rouge and tallow; he was a man with ideas—in a word, an artist.

According to Lyubov Onisimovna's words no one could "make imagination in a face" better than he.

I am unable to say exactly at the time of which Count Kamensky these two artistic natures flourished. Three Counts Kamensky are known, and they were all called by the old inhabitants of Orel: "Unparalleled tyrants." Field-marshal Michail Fedotovich was killed by his serfs for his cruelty in the year 1809, and he had two sons, Nickolai, who died in 1811, and Sergei, who died in 1835.

I was a child in the forties, but can still remember a huge wooden building with imitation windows painted with soot and ochre, surrounded by an extremely long half-ruined fence. This was the sinister residence of Count Kamensky; and here, too, was his theatre. The property was situated in such a position that it was very well seen from the Trinity Cemetery, and, therefore, whenever Lyubov Onisimovna wanted to relate something, she almost always began with these words:

"Look yonder, dear; do you see how terrible it is?"

"Yes, it is terrible, nurse."

"Well, and what I am going to tell you is even more terrible!"

This is one of her stories about the hairdresser Arkadie, a tender and brave young man, who was very dear to her heart.





IV


"ARKADIE dressed the hair and painted the faces of the actresses only. For the men there was another hairdresser, and if Arkadie went to the men's side it was only on occasions, when the Count himself ordered him to paint someone in a very noble manner. The chief speciality of the touch of this artist consisted in 'ideas,' thanks to which he was able to give to faces the finest and most varied expressions."

"He was sometimes sent for and told," said Lyubov Onisimovna, "this face must have such or such an expression." Arkadie would then step back, order the actor or actress to stand or sit before him, while he stood, with arms folded over his breast, looking at them and thinking. And all the time he himself was more beautiful than the handsomest among them, because though of middle height he was indescribably well-proportioned—his little nose was thin and proud; his eyes were kind like an angel's—and a thick curl of his hair hung beautifully over his eyes, so that he appeared to be looking out of a misty cloud."

In a word, the toupee artist was handsome and "pleased everybody." "Even the Count was fond of him and distinguished him above all others. He clothed him very well, but kept him with the greatest strictness." He would not allow Arkadie to shave or cut and dress the hair of anyone but himself, and, for that reason, always kept him near his dressing-room, and Arkadie was not allowed to go anywhere, except to the theatre.

He was not even allowed to go to church, to confession or to the Holy Communion, because the Count himself did not believe in God, and could not bear the clergy. Once at Easter-time he had set the wolf hounds at the Borisoglebsk priests, who had come to him with the cross.[2]

The Count, according to Lyubov Onisimovna, was so horribly ugly in consequence of his constant wickedness, that he was like all sorts of animals at the same time. But Arkadie was able to give, even to this bestial visage, though only for a time, such an expression that, when the Count sat of an evening in his box at the theatre, he appeared more imposing than many.

But in reality what the Count, to his great vexation, chiefly lacked, was an imposing and military expression.

In order that nobody else should have the advantage of the services of such an inimitable artist as Arkadie, "all his life he had to sit at home and never had any money given to him since he was born." Arkadie was at that time twenty-five years of age and Lyubov Onisimovna was nineteen. Of course they were acquainted, and it happened with them, as it often does at their age, that they fell in love with each other. But they were only able to speak of their love in vague hints, spoken too before all, while he was making her up.

Tête-à-tête meetings were quite impossible and could not even be thought of.

"We actresses," said Lyubov Onisimovna, "were taken care of in the same way as wet-nurses are looked after in the houses of illustrious personages: we were in charge of elderly women, who had children of their own, and if, God forbid! anything happened to one of us, those women's children were subjected to the most dreadful tyranny.

"The covenant of virginity could only be broken by 'the master' who had ordained it."





V


LYUBOV ONISIMOVNA was at that time not only in the full bloom of her maiden beauty, but also at the most interesting point of the development of her many-sided talents: she sang in "The Pot-Pourri Chorus," danced the chief dances in "The Chinese Kitchen Gardener," and feeling a vocation for tragedy, "knew all the parts at first sight."

I do not know for certain in which year it was that the Tzar (I cannot say if it was the Emperor Alexander I or Nikolai I) happened to pass through Orel and remained the night there, and in the evening was expected to come to Count Kamensky's theatre.

The Count invited all the notabilities of the place to come to his theatre (no tickets were sold), and the performance was to be of the best. Lyubov Onisimovna was to sing in "The Pot-Pourri Chorus" and dance in "The Chinese Kitchen-Gardener," when suddenly during the last rehearsal some scenery fell down and crushed the foot of the actress who was to act the part of "The Duchess de-Bourblanc."

I have never heard of nor even come across such a part, but that is just how Lyubov Onisimovna pronounced the name.

The carpenter who had let the scenery fall was sent to the stables to be punished, and the injured actress was carried to her closet, but there was nobody to take the part of the Duchess de Bourblanc."

"Then," said Lyubov Onisimovna, "I offered myself, because the part pleased me very much, especially where the Duchess de Bourblanc begs for forgiveness at her father's feet, and dies with dishevelled hair. I had wonderfully long fair hair, which Arkadie dressed enchantingly."

The Count was delighted with the girl's unexpected offer to take the part, and having received the assurance of the director that "Lyubov would not spoil the part," he said:

"If she spoils it you will have to answer for it with your back. But now take her the 'aquamarne ear-rings' from me."

The "aquamarine ear-rings" was both a flattering and loathsome present to receive. It was the first mark of having been chosen for the special honour of being elevated, for a short moment, to be the odalisque of the master. Soon after that, or even sometimes at once, an order was given to Arkadie to make up the doomed girl, after the play, in the innocent guise of St. Cecilia; and dressed all in white, with a wreath on her head and a lily in her hand, to symbolize innocence, she was conducted to the Count's apartments.

"That," said Nurse, "you cannot understand at your age—but it was the most terrible thing, especially for me, because I was thinking of Arkadie. I began to cry. I threw the ear-rings on the table and wept. I could not even imagine how I would be able to act in the evening."





VI


IN those same fatal hours Arkadie, too, was being beguiled into an equally fatal action.

The Count's brother arrived from his estate to present himself to the Emperor. He was even uglier than the Count. He had lived long in the country and had never put on a uniform or shaved, because "his whole face had grown covered with furrows and protuberances." Now on such a special occasion it was obligatory to appear in uniform, to put one's whole person in order, and produce the military expression that was required for full dress.

And much was required.

"People now do not understand how strict one was in those days," said Nurse. "Formality was observed in every thing then, and there was a form for the faces of important personages as well as for the way their hair was dressed, which was for some terribly unbecoming. If their hair was dressed in the formal way, with a high top-knot and roundlets of curls, the whole face would look like a peasant's balalaika without strings. Important personages were horribly afraid of this appearance. To avoid it much depended on the masterly way in which the hair was cut, and in which they were shaved—how the space was left between the whiskers and the moustaches and how the curls were formed, and where they were combed out—and from this—from the slightest trifle the whole expression of the face could be changed."

For civilians, according to Nurse, it was not so difficult, because they were not subjected to such close scrutiny. From them only meekness was required, but from the military more was demanded—before their superiors they had to appear meek—but before everybody else they had to look fierce and stern.

"This is just what Arkadie, with his wonderful art, knew how to impart to the Count's ugly and insignificant face."





VII


THE brother from the country was much uglier than the town Count, and besides, in the country, he had become quite "shaggy" and had "let such coarseness find its way into his face," that he himself was conscious of it, but there was nobody who could trim him because being stingy in every way he had sent his own hairdresser to Moscow into service, and even if he had not done so the face of the younger Count was covered with pimples, so that it was impossible to shave him without cutting him all over.

When he arrived in Orel he sent for the town barbers and said to them:

"To the one who can make me look like my brother, the Count Kamensky, I will give two gold pieces, but for him who cuts me, I have placed two pistols here on the table. If it is well done he may take the gold and depart—but if even one little pimple is cut, or if the whiskers are trimmed a hair's-breadth wrong—I will kill him on the spot."

But this was only to frighten them, as the pistols were only charged with blank cartridges.

At that time there were but few barbers in Orel, and even they only went about the public baths with basins applying cups and leeches, and possessed neither taste nor imagination. They knew it and refused to "transform" Kamensky. "The devil take you," they thought, "both you and your gold."

"We can't do what you require," they said, "because we are unworthy to touch such a personage, nor have we the proper razors. We have only common Russian razors, and for your Excellency's face English razors are wanted. It is only the Count's Arkadie who could do it."

The Count ordered the barbers to be kicked out, and they were pleased to have got away so easily. Then he drove to his elder brother's and said:

"Now listen to me, brother! I have come to ask you a great favour. Lend me your Arkadie before evening, to trim me properly and get me into a presentable condition. It is a long time since I shaved, and your town barbers don't know how to do it."

The Count answered his brother:

"The town barbers are naturally not worth anything. I did not know there were any, because even my dogs are shorn by my own hairdressers. As for your request, you are asking me for an impossibility, for I have sworn, that as long as I live, Arkadie shall not dress anybody but me. Do you think I can break my word before my own slaves?"

The other answered:

"Why not? You have laid down the law, you may change it."

The Count, our master, replied that for him such reasoning was strange.

"If I began to act in that way, I should never be able to demand anything more from my people. Arkadie has been told, that such is my decree, and all know it, and for that reason he is better kept than the others, but if he ever dare to apply his art to anybody but me—I will have him thrashed to death and send him as a soldier."

"One or the other," his brother said. "Either thrash him to death or send him as a soldier; you can't do both."

"Very well," answered the Count, let it be as you wish. He shall not be thrashed to death, but almost to death, and then he shall be sent as a soldier."

"Is that your last word, brother?"

"Yes, that is my last word."

"Is this the only reason?"

"Yes, the only one."

"Well, in that case it is all right. I was beginning to think that your brother was worth less to you than a village serf. You need not break your word, simply send Arkadie to me to shave my poodle. Once there it will be my affair to see what he does."

It was awkward for the Count to refuse this.

"Very well," he said, "I will send him to shave the poodle."

"Well, that's all I want."

He pressed the Count's hand and drove away.





VIII


IT was at the hour of twilight before the winter evening had set in, when they were lighting up, that the Count summoned Arkadie and said:

"Go to my brother's house and shave his poodle."

"Is that all I shall have to do?" asked Arkadie.

"Nothing more," said the Count, "but return quickly to dress the hair of the actresses. Lyubov must be made up for three different parts, and after the performance, present her to me as St. Cecilia."

Arkadie staggered.

"What is the matter with you?" the Count asked.

"Pardon me," Arkadie answered, "I slipped on the carpet."

"Take care," remarked the Count, "that bodes no good!"

But to Arkadie's sinking heart it was all the same if the omen were good or bad.

After the order to adorn me as St. Cecilia was given, he could hear and see nothing; he took up his leather case of implements and went out.





IX


HE came to the Count's brother, who had already had candles lighted at the mirror, and again two pistols were placed side by side, but this time there were not two, but ten gold pieces laid beside them, and the pistols were not charged with blank cartridges but with Circassian bullets.

The Count's brother said:

"I have no poodle, but this is what I require: make my toilet and give me the most audacious mien and you shall receive ten gold pieces, but if you cut me I will kill you."

Arkadie stared before him, and stared at the gold, and then God only knows, what happened to him—he began to shave the Count's brother and trim his hair. In a few moments he had transformed him in his best style, then he slipped the gold into his pocket and said:

"Good-bye!"

"Go," answered the Count's brother, "but first I would like to know why you are so desperate. Why did you decide to do it?"

Arkadie answered:

"Why I decided is the profoundest secret of my soul."

"Or perhaps you are charmed against bullets, and therefore are not afraid of pistols."

"Pistols are trifles," answered Arkadie, "I did not even think of them."

"How so? Is it possible that you dared to think your Count's word is more sacred than mine, and that I would not have shot you if you had cut me? If you are not charmed, you would have lost your life."

At the mention of the Count, Arkadie staggered again, and said as if half in a dream:

"I am not charmed against bullets, but God has given me sense. Before you had had time to take the pistol in your hand to shoot me, I would have cut your throat with the razor."

With that he rushed out of the house and returned to the theatre, just in time to dress my hair. He was trembling all over. As he arranged each curl he bent over me to blow it into its place, and always whispered the same words in my ear:

"Don't be afraid, I will carry you off."





X


THE performance went off well, because we were all as if made of stone; inured to fear and to suffering: whatever was in our hearts we had to act so that nothing should be noticed.

From the stage we could see the Count and his brother—they looked just alike. When they came behind the scenes it was difficult to distinguish the one from the other. Only our Count was quite quiet, as if he had become kind. He was always so before the greatest ferocity.

We all were stupified and crossed ourselves:

"Lord have mercy, and save us! Upon whom will his brutality fall this time?"

We did not know as yet of Arkadie's mad act of desperation, nor what he had done, but Arkadie himself knew that he would not be pardoned, and he was pale when the Count's brother glanced at him, and mumbled something in a low voice in our Count's ear. But I had very sharp ears, and heard what he said.

"As a brother, I give you this advice: fear him when he is shaving you with a razor!"

Our Count only smiled slightly.

I think that Arkadie heard too, because when he was making me up for the part of the Duchess in the last play he put, as he had never done before, so much powder on me, that the costumier, who was a Frenchman, began to shake it off and said:

"Trop beaucoup, trop beaucoup," and taking a brush he flicked it away.





XI


WHEN the whole performance was over the robe of the Duchess de Bourblanc was taken off and the dress of St. Cecilia was put on me. This was a simple white gown without sleeves, fastened only with little bows on the shoulders; we could not bear this costume. Well, and then Arkadie came to dress my hair in an innocent fashion, with a thin chaplet surrounding the head, as St. Cecilia is portrayed in pictures, and he saw six men standing outside the door of my closet. This meant, that as soon as he had made me up and returned to the door, he would be seized and taken to be tortured. And the tortures in store for us were such, that it was a hundred times better to be condemned to death. There was the strappado and the cord; the head-vices and the thumbscrews; all these and many more. The state punishments were as nothing compared to them. Under the whole of the house there were secret cellars in which living men were kept chained up like bears. When you had to pass near them it sometimes happened that you heard the sounds of chains and the groans of men in fetters. They probably desired that news of their condition should reach the world, or that the authorities should take their part—but the authorities did not even dare to think of intervening. People were made to suffer long in those cellars; some all their lives. One lay there very long and composed some lines:

"Serpents will crawl on you and suck out your eyes,
Scorpions will shed poison over your face."

This verse he would repeat to himself until he had made himself quite terrified.

Others were chained up together with bears in such a way that the man was only one inch out of reach of the bear's claws.

But nothing of this happened to Arkadie Il'ich, because when he rushed back into my closet he seized a table and in a moment had shattered the window—more than this I cannot remember. . . .

When I began to regain my senses, my feet were icy cold. I moved my legs and found that I was wrapped up in a large bear or wolf skin, and around me was complete darkness. The fast horses of the troika[3] whisked along I knew not whither. Two men were alongside of me, we were all three huddled together in the broad sledge in which we were sitting—one was holding me—that was Arkadie Il'ich, the other was the driver, who hurried the horses on with all his might. The snow flew in clouds from under the horses' hoofs, while the sledge bent over first on one side, and then on the other. If we had not been sitting in the bottom of the sledge holding on with our hands, it would have been impossible to survive.

I heard their anxious talk, as if they expected something. I could only understand:

"They're coming! they're coming! Hurry up! hurry up!" and nothing more.

As soon as Arkadie Il'ich noticed I was conscious he bent over me and said:

"Lyuboshka, my little dove, they are chasing us; are you willing to die, if we cannot get away?"

I answered that I would consent with joy.

He had hoped to reach the Turkish village, Khrushchuk, where many of our people had taken refuge from the Count.

Suddenly we sped across the ice of a river, and then something like a dwelling appeared dimly before us, and dogs began to bark. The driver whipped up his horses, and turned the sledge sharply to one side, so that it tilted over and Arkadie and I were thrown out into the snow, while the driver, the sledge and the horses disappeared from our sight.

"Don't be afraid," Arkadie said, "this might have been expected, because the Yamshchik[4] who drove us does not know me, and I do not know him. He agreed to help me carry you off for three gold pieces, but on condition of saving his own skin. Now we are in the hands of God. This is the village of Sukhaya Orlitsa—a bold priest lives here, who marries desperate couples and has buried many of our people. We will make him a present and he will hide us until evening, and marry us too, and in the evening the yamshchik will come for us and we shall steal away."





XII


WE knocked at the door and went into the passage. The priest himself opened the door. He was old, of small stature, and had one front tooth missing. His wife, a little old woman, began to blow up the fire. We both fell at his feet.

"Save us, let us warm ourselves, and hide us until evening."

The Reverend Father asked:

"Who are you, my dear children? Have you booty, or are you only fugitives?"

"We have taken nothing from anybody," answered Arkadie, we are fleeing from the brutality of Count Kamensky, and want to go to the Turkish village, Khrushchuk, where many of our people are already living. They will not find us there. We have got our own money, and we will give you a piece of gold for one night's lodging, and if you marry us three pieces of gold. Marry us if you can; if not we can be wedded in Khrushchuk."

"No, no, why can't I marry you?" said the priest? I can do so? What is the good of being married in Khrushchuk? Give me five pieces of gold altogether—I will marry you here."

Arkadie handed him five gold pieces, and I took the "aquamarine ear-rings" out of my ears and gave them to the priest's wife.

The priest took the gold and said:

"Oh, my dear children, it would be easy. I have bound together all sorts of people, but it is not well that you are the Count's. Though I am a priest, still I fear his brutality. Well, never mind him, what God ordains, will be! Add another piece, or half a one, and hide yourselves."

Arkadie gave him a sixth gold piece, and then he said to his wife:

"Why are you standing there, old woman? Give the fugitive a petticoat and some sort of jacket; one is ashamed to look at her, she is almost naked." Then he wanted to take us to the church and hide us in the trunk among the vestments. The priest's wife took me behind the partition, and was just about to clothe me, when we heard a jingling outside the door and somebody knocked.





XIII


OUR hearts sank within us, and the Reverend Father whispered to Arkadie:

"It is evident, my dear child, you are not to be hidden in the trunk with the vestments. Get quickly under the feather-bed."

And he said to me:

"You, my dear child, get in here," saying which he locked me up in the clock-case, put the key in his pocket and then went to open the door to the new arrivals. One could hear that there were many people outside. Some stood at the door, and two men were already looking in at the windows.

Seven men entered the room, all beaters from the Count's hunt, with their iron balls and straps, long whips in their hands and rope leashes in their girdles. The eighth who followed them was the Count's steward, in a long wolfskin coat and high fur cap.

The clock-case I was hidden in had a grating in front with a thin old muslin curtain behind it, through which I was able to see all that was going on in the room.

The old priest lost courage, perhaps, because he thought it a bad case. He trembled at sight of the steward, crossed himself and cried hastily:

"Ah, my dear children. Oh, my dear children, I know; I know what you are looking for, but I am in no way in fault towards the most serene Count, indeed I'm not in fault, in truth I'm not in fault!"

And each time he crossed himself, he pointed with his finger over his left shoulder at the clock-case in which I was hidden.

"All is lost," I thought, when I saw this extraordinary behaviour.

The stewart noticed this too, and said:

"We know everything. Give me the key of this clock-case."

But the priest only crossed himself all the more.

"Indeed, my children, truly, my dear children. Pardon me, do not punish me! I have forgotten where I put the key. Verily, I have forgotten; in truth I have forgotten!"

And all the time with the other hand he stroked his pocket.

The steward too saw his incredible action, and took the key from the pocket and opened the clock-case.

"Crawl out, my pretty falcon—now I have caught you, your mate will soon appear."

Indeed, Arkadie had already shown himself; he had thrown off the priest's feather-bed and stood before us.

"Yes, there is nothing more to be done," said he. "You have won; you can take me to the torture, but she is in no way to blame. I carried her off by force."

Then he turned to the priest, and all he did was to spit in his face.

"My dear children," said the priest, "do you see how my sacred office and faithfulness are outraged? Report this to the most serene Count."

The steward answered him:

"Never mind, you need not fear, he will have to answer for all this." And then he ordered Arkadie and me to be led away.

We were all placed in three sledges: in the first Arkadie, with arms and legs bound fast, was seated with the huntsmen, and I with a similar guard was driven off in the last sledge while the rest of the party were in the middle one.

All the people we met made way for us; perhaps they thought it was a wedding.





XIV


WE soon arrived, and when we entered the Count's yard I lost sight of the sledge in which Arkadie had been brought. I was taken to my former room, and questioned by one after another:

"How long had I been alone with Arkadie?"

I told every one:

"Oh, not at all!"

Then I did not escape the fate for which I had probably been destined from my birth; not with love, but with aversion, and when I came to afterwards, in my little room, and buried my head in the pillow, to weep over my misfortune, I suddenly heard terrible groans under the floor.

We girls lived in the second story of a wooden building, and below there was a large lofty room, where we learned to sing and dance. From thence every sound could be heard in our rooms. The hellish King Satan had suggested the cruel idea that they should torture Arkadie under my room.

When I realized they were torturing him, I rushed to the door to go to him, but the door was locked. . . . I don't know what I wanted to do. . . . I fell down . . . on the floor the sounds were still more distinct . . . there was neither a knife nor a nail at hand . . . there was nothing with which to end it. . . I took my own plait, wound it round my neck—wound it round . . . tighter and tighter, till I only heard ringing in my ears and saw circles before my eyes, then everything ceased. . . . When I came to myself again I felt I was in a strange place in a large light hut. There were many calves round me—more than ten—such caressing little calves; they came up and licked me with their cool tongues—they thought they were sucking their mother—I awoke because they tickled. I looked round and thought, "Where am I?" Then I saw a woman come into the room, a tall, elderly woman dressed in striped blue linen with a striped linen kerchief on her head. She had a kind face.

The woman noticed I had come to my senses and began caressing me and told me I was still on the Count's estate, but in the calves' house.

"It was there," explained Lyubov Onisimovna, pointing with her hand to the very furthest corner of the grey half-ruined fence.





XV


HER appearance in the farmyard was due to the suspicion that, perhaps, she was out of her mind. Such people, who were regarded as cattle, were sent to the farmyard to be observed, because the cow-herds and dairy-maids, being elderly and sedate people, it was thought, could best watch over mental diseases.

The old woman in the striped linen dress whom Lyubov Onisimovna first saw on her awakening, was very kind, and was called Drosida.

"In the evening, when she had finished her work," Nurse continued, "she made up a bed for me of fresh oaten straw. She spread it out so well, that it was as soft as a feather-bed, and then she said: 'My girl, I will explain everything to you. Whatever may have happened you can tell me. I, too, am like you, and have not worn this striped dress all my days, but have also known another life, though, God forbid I should think of it now. All I say is, don't break your heart because you have been banished to the cattle-yard; it is better in banishment—only avoid this terrible flagon . . .'"

And she took out of the kerchief she wore round her neck, and over her bosom, a small white glass phial and showed it me.

"What is it?" I asked.

"This is a terrible flagon," she answered, "and the poison of forgetfulness is in it."

"Give me the poison of forgetfulness," I said, "I want to forget everything."

"Don't drink—it is vodka," she said. "Once I lost command of myself and drank—good people gave it to me. . . . Now I can't help it—I must have it. Don't drink as long as you can help it; and don't judge me that I take a sip—I am in great pain. You have still a comfort in the world. The Lord has released him from tyranny!"

"He is dead!" I shrieked, clutching hold of my hair, and I saw it was not my hair—it was white.

"What does this mean?"

"Don't be afraid, don't be afraid," she said, your head had become white already there; when they released your neck from the plait. He is alive and saved from all further tyranny. The Count showed him such mercy as nobody had known before. When night comes I shall tell you all; but now I must take a sip—I must take a sip to stop this burning—this heart-ache."

And she sipped and sipped and at last went to sleep.

At night, when all were sleeping, Aunt Drosida again got up, went to the window in the dark, and I saw her standing there, sipping at her flagon, and then she hid it once more and asked in a whisper:

"Does grief sleep or not?"

"Grief does not sleep," I answered.

Then she came to my bed and told me that the Count had sent for Arkadie after his punishment and said:

"You ought to have suffered all that I had threatened, but as you were my favourite, I will now show you mercy. To-morrow I shall send you to be a soldier, as supernumerary, but as you were not afraid of the noble count, my brother, with his pistols, I shall open the path of honour for you. I do not wish you to be lower than your noble spirit deserves. I will write a letter asking that you should be sent at once to the war. You will not have to serve as a private soldier, but as a regimental sergeant—so show your courage. From this time you are no longer subject to my will, but to the Tzar's."

"He is better off now," said the old woman, "he need not fear anything; he has only one authority over him; he need only fear falling in battle, and not the master's tyranny."

I believed her, and for three years dreamed every night of Arkadie fighting.

In this way three years passed. God was merciful to me. I was not recalled to the theatre, but I remained all the time living in the calves' but as Aunt Drosida's assistant. I was very happy there, because I was sorry for this woman, and when, at night, she had not had too much to drink, I liked to listen to her. She could remember how the old Count had been slaughtered by our people—and his own valet was the chief instigator—as nobody could endure his hellish cruelty any more. All this time I didn't drink and did much work for Aunt Drosida, and with pleasure too; the young cattle were like my children. I became so attached to the calves that when they had been fattened up and were taken away to be slaughtered for the table, I would make the sign of the cross over them, and for three days after could not cease crying. I was no longer of any use for the theatre because my legs refused to work properly; I began to be shaky on them. Formerly my gait was of the lightest, but now, ever since Arkadie Il'ich had carried me off senseless in the cold, where I must have frozen them, I had no longer any strength in the toes for dancing. I became the same sort of woman in striped linen that Drosida was. God only knows how long I would have lived on in this melancholy way if something had not happened. One evening, when I was sitting in my hut, just before sunset, looking out of the window at the calves, suddenly a small stone fell into the room through the window. The stone was wrapped up in paper.





XVI


I LOOKED around, to one side and to the other, and out of the window—nobody was to be seen. "Some one has thrown it over the fence," I thought, "and it did not go where he wanted, but has fallen into our room." Then I thought: "Shall I undo this paper or not? Perhaps it is better to unwrap it, because something is sure to be written on it. And it is sure to be something that somebody requires. I may be able to find it out and keep the secret, but I will throw the note with the stone in the same way to the person it concerns."

I unwrapped it and began to read—I could not believe my own eyes.





XVII


THE letter ran thus:

"My Faithful Lyubu!

"I have fought for the Tzar. I have shed my blood more than once, and have therefore been made an officer and gained honourable rank. Now I have come on leave to recover from my wounds, and am staying in the inn of the Pushkarsky suburb, with the innkeeper. To-morrow I shall put on my decorations and crosses and appear before the Count, with all the money I was given to continue my cure: five hundred roubles, and I shall ask to be allowed to ransom you for myself, in the hope of being married at the altar of the Most High Creator."

"And then," continued Lyubov Onisimovna, with suppressed emotion, "he wrote: 'Whatever misery you have gone through, and whatever you may have had to submit to, I will look upon as your affliction, and not as sin, nor do I consider it as weakness, but leave it to God, and I have only feelings of respect for you.' It was signed Arkadie Il'ich."

Lyubov Onisimovna burnt the letter to ashes at once, and told nobody about it, not even the old woman, but prayed to God the whole night, not saying many words about herself, but always about him, because she said, "although he had written, that he was now an officer with decorations and wounds, I was still unable to imagine that the Count would behave to him any differently from before. I might even say, I feared he would beat him again."





XVIII


EARLY next morning Lyubov Onisimovna took the calves out into the sun and began feeding them out of a trough with crusts and milk, when suddenly sounds reached her from outside, that people "in freedom" were hurrying somewhere; they were running and talking quickly to each other.

"I could not distinguish a word of what they were saying," she continued, "but their words seemed to pierce my heart like a knife. When our labourer, Filip, who was carting dung, came into the yard, I said to him:

"Filipushka batushka (little father), have you heard where all the people are going and what they are about, talking so curiously to each other?"

"They are going," he said, "to see the officer whose throat was cut while he slept by the innkeeper of the Pushkarsky Inn. They say that his throat was cut quite through," he said, "and five hundred roubles were stolen from him. The innkeeper was caught all bloody," they say, "and the money was on him."

And as he told me this I felt my legs give way.

It was quite true: that innkeeper had cut Arkadie Il'ich's throat . . . and he was buried here . . . in this very grave on which we are sitting. . . . And there he is now beneath us . . . he is lying under this mound. . . You may have wondered why I always come here in our walks. . . I don't want to look there (she pointed to the dark grey ruins), but to sit here near him and . . . and drink a drop for the good of his soul. . . .





XIX


HERE Lyubov Onisimovna paused and considering her story finished, took the little flagon out of her pocket and either "drank to his memory" or "took a sip," but I asked her:

"Who buried the famous artist here?"

"The Governor, my little dove, the Governor himself came to the funeral. Yes, indeed. He was an officer! At the funeral the deacon and the reverend father called him the 'boyard Arkadie,' and when the coffin was lowered into the grave the soldiers fired blank shots into the air. A year later in the market-place of Il'inka the innkeeper was punished with the knout by the executioner. He received forty-three strokes of the knout for Arkadie Il'ich and bore it—he remained alive, was branded, and sent to penal servitude. All our people who were able went to see it, but the old men, who could remember how the man was punished for the cruel Count, said that these forty-three lashes were so little because Arkadie was of the common people, and that for the Count the other man received a hundred and one lashes. By law, you know, an even number of blows cannot be given, but it must always be an uneven number. The executioner from Tula was fetched on purpose then, and before the work he was given three tumblers of rum. Then he beat him so that the hundred strokes were only for torture, and the man remained alive, but the hundredth and first lash shattered his back-bone. When he was lifted up from the boards he was already dying. . . . They covered him with a mat, and took him to the prison, but he died on the way. And the Tula executioner, they say, still continued to shout: 'Give me another. . . . Let me kill all you Orel fellows!'"

"Well, and you yourself?" I asked; "did you go to the funeral?"

"Yes, I went. I went with all the others. The Count ordered that all from the theatre should be taken there, to see how one of our people could be worthy of so much honour."

"Did you take leave of him?"

"Yes, certainly. All approached and took leave of him, and I . . . he was changed . . . so much changed . . . I would not have known him . . . thin and very pale . . . they said that all the blood had run out, because his throat had been cut at about midnight. . . . Ah, the blood that he shed!"

She sat silent and pensive.

"And you yourself," I asked, "what happened to you?"

She seemed to recover her senses and passed her hand over her brow.

"I can't remember what happened at first," she answered, "or how I went home. With all the others, of course . . . somebody must have led me . . . and in the evening Drosida Petrovna said:

"'Now this mustn't be—you don't sleep, and at the same time you lie there as if made of stone. That's not right—cry—there must be relief—your heart must have relief.'

"'I can't, Auntie,' I said, 'my heart burns like a live coal, and there is no relief.'

"'Well,' she said, 'then the flagon can't be avoided.'

"She filled a glass out of her bottle for me."

"'Till now I did not allow you to have it, and dissuaded you, but now it can't be avoided. Pour it on the coal—take a sip.'"

"'I don't want to,' I said.

"'Little fool! Who wants it at first. It is bitter—bitter. But the poison of sorrow is more bitter. The coal must be drenched with this poison—it will be slaked for a moment—sip, sip quickly.'"

"I emptied the whole flagon. It was disgusting, but I could not sleep without it, and the next night again . . . I drank . . . and now I can't go to sleep without it . . . I got my own flagon and buy vodka. . . . You are a good boy, you will never tell mother about it, you must never betray poor people, because one must take care of poor people; poor people are all sufferers. On the way home I shall go round the corner to the dram-shop, and knock at the window. We shall not go into it, but I shall give my empty flagon, and they will shove me out a new one."

I was touched and promised that I would tell no one, on any account, of her flagon.

"Thank you, little dove, never tell anyone; it is necessary for me."

I can see her, and hear her, as if she were before me even now. Every night, when all were asleep, she would rise from her bed, so quietly that not even a bone cracked; she would listen, then creep on her long frozen legs to the window. There she would stand for a minute looking round, listening to see if mother were not coming from her bedroom, then she tapped the neck of the flagon gently on her teeth, put it to her mouth and sipped . . . one drop, another and another. Was it coal that was being drenched? or Arkadie's memory commemorated? Then she returned to her bed, slipped under the bed-clothes, and soon she began to wheeze—gently, very gently—fu-fu, fu-fu, fu-fu—and fell asleep.

A more terrible and soul-harrowing commemoration of the dead, I have never seen in all my life.

 
  1. The date of the emancipation of the serfs.
  2. The occurence narrated above was known to many in Orel. I heard of it from my grandmother Alferiev, and from the merchant Ivan Ivanovich Androsov, who was known for his infallible truthfulness, and had seen the wolf-hounds baiting the priests and had only been able to save himself by "taking sin upon his soul." When the Count had ordered him to be fetched and had asked him: "Are you sorry for them?" Androsov had answered: "Not at all, your Excellency, they deserve it, it will teach them not to loaf about." For this the Count had spared him.
  3. Any vehicle drawn by three horses harnessed abreast.
  4. The driver of a troika or any post vehicle.
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