The Strand Magazine/Volume 1/Issue 1/A Fair Smuggler
A Fair Smuggler.
FROM THE RUSSIAN OF MICHAEL LERMONTOFF.
[Michael Lermontoff was born at Moscow in the year 1814. His father was an officer on active service; and, his mother having died while he was still in petticoats, he was brought up by his grandmother, a rich old lady, who had a pretty house at the village of Tarkhanui. Michael, who was in temperament a kind of Russian Hotspur, and who was petted and spoilt at home, was sent in due course to the University, where he picked a quarrel with a bullying tutor, and was speedily expelled. Then he entered the Military College at St. Petersburg, and obtained a commission in the Horse Guards. His bitter wit and biting tongue involved him in perpetual duels. His genius was still sleeping; but the sound of the pistol which killed Pushkin awoke it suddenly to life. Pushkin's works had long been his delight; and, indeed, their characters had much in common—though in appearance, with his tall and powerful figure, his fair and waving hair, his large blue eyes and chiselled mouth, Lermontoff was exactly the reverse of the dusky little gipsy-looking Pushkin. His fate also was to be the same. In a piece of fiery verse he called upon the Czar to avenge the death of the great poet. The poem was regarded by the Czar as an impertinence, and Lermontoff was banished to the Caucasus. The wild and savage mountains suited well his fiery temper, and he became "the poet of the Caucasus," the singer of the lives, the legends, and the adventures of the stern and rocky mountaineers. He wrote also one prose work, "A Hero of our Times," from which we take the present story. Something in the book involved him in a duel—the last he was to fight, though he was only twenty-seven. As the challenged party, he possessed the choice of weapons and the mode of fighting; and he chose to fight with pistols on the margin of a precipice, so that, if either of the rivals staggered from a wound, he must infallibly fall over and be dashed to pieces. This strange encounter actually took place; and Lermontoff, struck by his opponent's bullet, reeled, and fell back into the terrible abyss.]
I arrived very late at night in a wretched telega. The coachman stopped his tired horses close to a stone building, which stands by itself at the entrance to the town. A Black Sea Cossack, who was on guard, heard the bells of my carriage, and cried out, with the sharp accent of a person suddenly waked up, "Who goes there?"
Out came the sergeant and corporal. I told them I was an officer, travelling by order of the Crown, and that I wanted a billet somewhere.
The corporal took us into the town. All the houses we tried were already occupied. The weather was cold; I had been three nights without sleep. I was very tired, and our useless inquiries ended by irritating me.
"My friend," I said to the corporal, "take me to some place where I can at least lie down, no matter where it is."
"I know a hut in the neighbourhood," replied the corporal, "where you might sleep; but I am afraid it would scarcely suit your honour."
"Go on," I said, paying no attention to his observation.
After much walking through dirty little streets, we at last reached a sort of cabin on the edge of the sea.
The full moon cast its light on the thatched roof and the white walls of my proposed habitation. In the court, surrounded by a sort of palisade, I saw a hut, older and more broken down than the principal one. From this hut the ground sloped rapidly through the court down towards the sea, and I saw at my feet the foam of the troubled waters. The moon seemed to be contemplating the restless element, which was undergoing her influence. By the rays of the ruler of the night, I could make out, at a considerable distance from the shore, two ships, whose black sails stood out like spiders' webs against the dull tints of the sky. "This will do," I said to myself, "to-morrow morning I shall start for Ghelendchik."
A Cossack of the line was acting as my servant. I told him to take out my trunk and send away the postilion; after which I called the master of the house. I could get no answer. I knocked, but there was still no reply. What could it mean? I knocked again, and at last a boy of about fourteen showed himself.
"Where's the master of the house?"
"There is none," returned the child, in the dialect of Little Russia.
"No master! then where is the mistress?"
"Gone into the village."
"Who will open the door then?" I cried, at the same time kicking at it.
The door opened of itself, and out came a wave of damp steam.
I struck a match, and saw by its light a blind boy, standing motionless before me.
I must here say that I am strongly prejudiced against the blind, the deaf, the lame, the hunchbacked; in short, against the deformed in general. I have remarked that there is always a singular correspondence between the physical formation of a man and his moral nature; as though by the loss of a member the individual lost certain faculties of the soul.
I examined the child's face; but what can one make of a physiognomy without eyes? I looked at him for some time, with a feeling of compassion, when suddenly I saw on his lips a cunning smile, which produced upon me a very disagreeable impression. "Could this blind boy be not so blind as he appeared?" I said to myself. Answering my own question I said that the boy was evidently suffering from cataract, and that the appearance of cataract cannot be simulated. Why, moreover, should he affect blindness? Yet in spite of my argument I still remained vaguely suspicious.
"Is the mistress of the cabin your mother?" I said to the boy.
"Who are you, then?"
"A poor orphan," he replied.
"Has the mistress any children?"
"She has one daughter, who has gone to sea with a Tartar."
"How do I know? A Tartar of the Crimea, a boatman from Kertch."
I went into the hut. Two benches, a table, and a large wardrobe, placed near the stove, composed the whole of the furniture. No holy image against the wall—bad sign!
The sea-breeze came in through the broken panes of the window. I took a wax candle from my portmanteau, and after lighting it prepared to install myself. I placed on one side my sabre and my carbine, laid my pistols on the table, stretched myself out on a bench, and, wrapping myself up in my fur-lined coat, lay down.
My Cossack took possession of the other bench. Ten minutes afterwards he was fast asleep; I, however, was still awake, and could not drive from my mind the impression made upon me by the boy, with his two white eyes.
An hour passed. Through the window fell upon the floor the fantastic light of the moon.
Suddenly a shadow was cast, where before there had been bright light. I sprang up, and went to the window. A human figure passed once more, and then disappeared—heaven knows where. I could scarcely believe that it had escaped by the slope into the sea; yet there was no other issue.
Throwing on my overcoat, and taking my sabre, I went out of the cabin, and saw the blind boy before me. I concealed myself behind the wall, and he passed on confidently, but with a certain cautiousness. He was carrying something under his arm, and advanced slowly down the slope towards the sea. "This is the hour," I said to myself, "in which speech is restored to the dumb and sight to the blind."
I followed him at some distance, anxious not to lose sight of him.
During this time the moon became covered with clouds, and a black fog rose over the sea. It was just possible to distinguish in the darkness a lantern on the mast of a ship at anchor, close to the shore. The waves were rolling in, and threatened, if he continued to advance, to swallow up my blind adventurer. He was now so near the sea, that with another step he would be lost. But this was not the first of his nocturnal expeditions; so at least I concluded from the agility with which he now sprang from rock to rock, while the sea poured in beneath his feet. Suddenly he stopped as though he had heard some noise, sat down upon a rock, and placed his burden by his side. He was now joined by a white figure walking along the shore. I had concealed myself behind one. of the rocks, and overheard the following conversation.
"The wind," said a woman's voice, "is very violent; Janko will not come."
"Janko," replied the blind boy, "Janko is not afraid of the wind."
"But the clouds get thicker and thicker."
"In the darkness it is easier to escape the coast-guard."
"And what if he gets drowned?"
"You will have no more bright ribbons to wear on Sunday."
As I listened to this colloquy, I remarked that the blind boy, who had spoken to me in the Little Russian dialect, talked quite correctly the true Russian language.
"You see," he continued, clapping his hands, "I was right. Janko fears neither the sea, nor the wind, nor the fog, nor the coast-guard. Listen! It is not the breaking of the waves I hear. No, it is the noise of his oars."
The woman got up, and, with an anxious look, tried to pierce the darkness. "You are wrong," she said, "I hear nothing."
I also tried to see whether there was not some sort of craft in the distance, but could distinguish nothing. A moment later, however, a black speck showed itself among the waves, now rising, now falling. At last I could make, out the form of a boat dancing on the waters, and rapidly approaching the shore.
The man who was guiding it must have been a bold sailor to cross on such a night an arm of the sea some fourteen miles across, and must have had good reasons for braving so much danger. I watched the frail little craft which was now diving and plunging like a duck through the breakers. It seemed as though she must the next moment be dashed to pieces on the shore, when suddenly the skilful rower turned into a little bay, and there, in comparatively calm water, effected a landing.
The man was of middle height, and wore on his head a cap of black sheepskin. He made a sign with his hand, when the two mysterious persons who had been talking together, joined him. Then the three united their forces to drag from the boat a burden which seemed to be so heavy, that I cannot even now understand how so slight a craft could have supported such a weight. They at last hoisted the cargo on their shoulders, then walked away and soon disappeared.
The best thing for me to do now was to return to my resting-place. But the strange scene I had witnessed had so struck me that I waited impatiently for daybreak.
My Cossack was much surprised when, on waking up, he found me fully dressed. I said nothing to him about my nocturnal excursion. I remained for some little time looking through the window with admiration at the blue sky, studded with little clouds, and the distant shore, the Crimea, stretched along the horizon like a streak of violet, ending in a rock, above which could be seen the tower of a lighthouse. Then I went out, and walked to the fort of Chanagora to ask the commandant when I could go to Ghelendchik.
Unfortunately the commandant could give me no positive answer; the only vessels in port were stationary ones, and trading ships which had not yet taken in their cargo. "Perhaps," he said, "in three or four days a mail packet will come in, and then something can be arranged."
I went back in a very bad humour to my lodging. At the door stood the Cossack, who, coming towards me with rather a scared look, said inquiringly:—
"Yes," I answered. "Heaven knows when we shall get away from here."
At these words the anxiety of the soldier seemed to increase. He came close to me, and murmured, in a low voice:—
"This is not a place to stop at. I met just now a Black Sea Cossack of my acquaintance—we were serving in the same detachment last year. When I told him where we had put up: 'Bad place,' he said; 'bad people.' And what do you think of that blind boy? Did anyone ever before see a blind person running about from one place to another; going to the bazaar, bringing in bread and water? Here they seem to think nothing of it."
"Has the mistress of the place come in?"
"This morning, while you were out, an old woman came with her daughter."
"What daughter? Her daughter is away."
"I don't know who it is, then. But look, there is the old woman sitting down in the cabin."
I went in. A good fire was shining in the stove, and a breakfast was being prepared, which, for such poor people, seemed to me rather a luxurious one. When I spoke to the old woman, she told me that she was stone deaf.
It was as impossible, then, to talk with her. I turned to the blind boy, and, taking him by the ear, said:—
"I say, you little wizard, where were you going last night with that parcel under your arm?"
He at once began to moan and cry, and then sobbed out:
"Where was I going last night? I went nowhere. And with a parcel! What parcel?"
The old woman now proved that her ears, when she so desired it, were by no means closed.
"It is not true," she cried. "Why do you tease an unfortunate boy? What do you take him for? What harm has he done you?"
I could stand the noise no longer. So I went out, determined somehow or other to find the solution of this riddle.
Wrapped up in my overcoat, I sat down on a bench before the door. Before me broke the waves of the sea, still agitated by the tempest of the night. Their monotonous noise seemed to resemble the confused murmurs of a town. As I listened I thought of bygone years—of the years I had passed in the north, of our bright, fresh capital; and little by little I became absorbed in my recollections.
About an hour passed, perhaps more. Suddenly the cadences of a singing voice struck my ear. I listened, and heard a strange melody, now slow and sad, now rapid and lively. The sounds seemed to fall from the sky. I looked up, and on the roof of the cabin I saw a young girl, in a straight dress, with dishevelled hair, like a naiad. With one hand placed before her eyes to keep off the rays of the sun, she looked towards the distant horizon and still continued her song.
It seemed to me that this was the woman whose voice I had heard the night before on the sea-shore. I looked again towards the singer, but she had disappeared. A moment after she passed rapidly before me, singing another song and snapping her fingers. She went to the old woman and said something to her. The old woman seemed annoyed. The young girl burst into a laugh. Then, with a bound, she came close to me, suddenly stopped and looked at me fixedly, as though surprised to see me. Then turning away with an air of indifference, she walked quietly towards the shore.
But her manœuvres were not yet at an end. All the rest of the day I saw her at short intervals, always singing and dancing. Strange creature! There was nothing in her physiognomy to denote insanity. On the contrary, her eyes were intelligent and penetrating. They exercised on me a certain magnetic influence, and seemed to expect a question. But whenever I was on the point of speaking she took to flight with a sly smile on her lips.
I had never seen such a woman before. She could scarcely be called beautiful; but I have my own ideas on the subject of beauty. There was a thoroughbred look about her, and with women as with horses, there is nothing like breed. It can be recognised chiefly in the walk and in the shape of the hands and feet. The nose is also an important feature. In Russia regular noses are more rare than little feet. My siren must have been about eighteen years of age.
What charmed me in her was the extraordinary suppleness of her figure, the singular movements of her head, and her long, fair hair, hanging down in waves of gold on her neck, and her nose, which was perfectly formed.
In her sidelong glance there was something dark and wild; as there was something fascinating in the pure lines of her nose. The light-hearted singer recalled to me the Mignon of Goethe, that fantastic creation of the German mind. Between these two personages there was indeed a striking resemblance. The same sudden transitions from restless agitation to perfect calm; the same enigmatic words and the same songs.
Towards the evening I stopped my Undine at the door of the hut, and said to her:
"Tell me, my pretty one, what you were doing to-day on the roof?"
"I was seeing in what direction the wind blew."
"How did that concern you?"
"Whence blows the wind, thence comes happiness."
"And your singing was to bring you good fortune?"
"Where singing is heard, there is joy."
"But what should you say if your singing caused unhappiness?"
"If unhappiness arrives it must be borne. And from grief to joy the distance is not great."
"Who taught you these songs?"
"No one; I dream and I sing; those who understand me listen to me, and these who do not listen to me cannot understand me."
"What is your name?"
"Ask those who baptized me."
"And who baptized you?"
"I do not know."
"Ah! you are very mysterious, but I know something about you."
There was no sign of emotion on her face; her lips did not move.
"Last night," I continued, "you were on the sea-shore." Then I told her the scene I had witnessed. I thought this would have caused her to evince some symptom of anxiety, but it had no such effect.
"You assisted at a curious interview," she said to me with a laugh, "but you do not know much, and what you do know you had better keep under lock and key, as you would keep some precious treasure."
"But if," I continued, with a grave and almost menacing air, "I were to relate what I saw to the commandant?"
At these words she darted away, singing, and disappeared like a frightened bird. I was wrong in addressing this threat to her. At the moment I did not understand all its gravity.
The night came. I told my Cossack to prepare the tea urn, lighted a wax candle, and sat down at the table, smoking my long pipe. I was drinking my tea when the door opened, and I heard the rustling of a dress. I rose hastily and recognised my siren.
She sat down silently before me, and fixed me with a look which made me tremble; one of those magical looks which had troubled my life in earlier days. She seemed to expect me to speak to her, but some undefinable emotion deprived me of the faculty of speech. Her countenance was as pale as death. In this paleness I thought I could see the agitation of her heart. Her fingers struck mechanically on the table; her body seemed to shudder; her bosom rose violently and the moment afterwards seemed compressed.
This species of comedy tired me at last, and I was about to bring it to an end, in the most prosaic manner, by offering my fair visitor a cup of tea; when suddenly she rose, and taking my head in her hands, gazed at me with all the appearance of passionate tenderness.
A cloud covered my eyes, and I wished in my turn to kiss her, but she escaped like a snake, murmuring as she did so, "To-night, when everything is quiet, meet me on the shore." Then she disappeared, upsetting as she did so my tea-urn and my solitary light.
"She is the very mischief!" cried my Cossack, who had been looking out for his share of the tea.
He then lay down on his bench; and gradually my agitation subsided.
"Listen," I said to him. "If you hear a pistol-shot, hurry down as fast as you can to the shore."
He rubbed his eyes, and replied mechanically, "Yes, sir."
I placed my pistol in my belt, and went out. The siren was waiting for me at the top of the path leading down to the sea, lightly clad in a stuff which clung to her waist like a scarf.
"Follow me," she said, taking me by the hand.
We walked down the rocky path in such a manner that I cannot understand how I failed to break my neck. Then we turned sharply to the right, as the blind boy had done the night before. The moon was not yet up. Two little stars, like the fires of lighthouses, relieved the darkness. The agitated waves lifted and let fall in regular cadence a solitary boat close to the shore.
"Get in," she said. I hesitated, for I confess that I have not the least taste for sentimental excursions on the sea. But it was impossible to refuse. She leapt into the bark, I followed her, and off we went.
"What does all this mean?" I said getting angry.
"It means," she replied, making me sit down on a bench, and putting her arms round my waist, "it means that I love you." Her burning cheek was close to mine, and I felt her hot breath on my face. Suddenly I heard something fall into the water. Instinctively my hand went to my belt. The pistol was no longer there!
A horrible suspicion seized me. The blood rushed to my brain. I looked at her. We were far from the shore and I could not swim. I tried to escape from her embrace, but she clung to me like a cat, and almost succeeded by a sudden jerk in throwing me out of the boat, which was already on one side. I contrived, however, to restore the equilibrium ; and then began, between my perfidious companion and myself, a desperate struggle, in which I employed all my strength, while feeling that the abominable creature was overcoming me by her agility.
"What do you mean?" I said to her, squeezing her little hands so tightly that I heard her fingers crack; but whatever pain I may have caused her she did not utter a word. Her reptile nature could not thus be overcome.
"You saw us," she cried at last. "You want to denounce us." Then by a rapid and violent effort she threw me down. Her body and mine were now bending over the side of the frail craft, and her hair was in the water. The moment was a critical one. I got up only knees, took her with one hand by the hair, with the other by the throat, and when I had at last compelled her to unclutch my clothes, I threw her into the sea.
Twice her head reappeared above the foaming waves. Then I saw her no more.
In the bottom of the boat I found an old oar, with which, after much labour, I succeeded in getting to the shore. As I walked back to the hut by the path leading to the sea, I looked towards the place where the night before the blind boy had been awaiting the arrival of the sailor. The moon at this moment was shining in the sky, and I fancied I could discern on the seashore a white figure. Filled with curiosity, I concealed myself behind a sort of promontory, from which I could remark what was going on around me. What was my surprise, and I almost say my joy, when I saw that the white figure was my naiad? She was wringing the water out of her long, fair locks, and her wet dress clung to her body. A boat, which I could just see in the distance, was coming towards us. Out of it sprang the same boatman whom I had seen the night before, with the same Tartar cap. I now saw that his hair was cut in the Cossack fashion, and that from his girdle hung a large knife.
"Janko," cried the young girl, "all is lost."
Then they began to talk, but in so low a voice that I could not hear them.
"Where is the blind boy?" said Janko at last, raising his voice.
"He will be here soon," was the answer.
At that very moment the blind boy appeared, carrying on his back a packet, which he placed in the bark.
"Listen," said Janko, "keep a good watch here; the things you know are valuable. Tell"—(here a name was uttered which I could not catch) "that I am no longer in his service. Things have taken a bad turn. He will see me no more. The situation is so dangerous that I must get something to do elsewhere. He will not find such another very easily. You may add that, if he had regarded more liberally the dangerous services rendered to him, Janko would not have left him in the lurch. If he wants to know where to find me—where the wind howls, where the sea foams, that is where I am at home."
After a moment's silence, Janko went on: "Say she accompanies me. She cannot remain here. Tell the old woman that she has done her time, and that she ought to be satisfied. We shall not see her again."
"And I?" murmured the blind boy.
"I cannot be troubled about you."
The young girl leapt into the boat, and with her hand made a sign to her companion.
"Here," he said to the blind boy, "that will do to buy a gingerbread."
"Nothing more?" replied the child.
"Yes, take this," and a piece of money fell upon the sands.
The blind boy did not pick it up.
Janko took his place in the boat. The blind boy remained sitting down on the seashore, and he seemed to be crying. Poor fellow! his grief afflicted me. Why had fate thrown me in the midst of this peaceful circle of smugglers? As a stone troubles the water, I had brought disorder into these lives, and like the stone, moreover, I had very nearly sunk.
When I got back to the cabin, my Cossack was so fast asleep that it would have been cruel to disturb him. I lighted the candle, and saw that my little box containing my valuables, my sabre with silver mountings, my Circassian dagger (given to me by a friend), had all been carried off. I now understood what the packet placed in the boat by the blind boy must have contained.
I woke up my Cossack with a blow, reproached him for his negligence, and fairly lost my temper. But my anger could not make me find what I had lost.
And how could I complain to the authorities? Should not I have been laughed at if I had told them that I had been robbed by a blind boy, and almost drowned by a young girl?