The timber-built town of Buev, a town which has several times been burnt to the ground, lies huddled upon a hillock above the river Obericha. Its houses, with their many-coloured shutters, stand so crowded together as to form around the churches and gloomy law courts a perfect maze — the streets which intersect the dark masses of houses meandering aimlessly hither and thither, and throwing off alleyways as narrow as sleeves, and feeling their way along plot-fences and warehouse walls, until, viewed from the hillock above, the town looks as though someone has stirred it up with a stick and dispersed and confused everything that it contains. Only from the point where Great Zhitnaia Street takes its rise from the river do the stone mansions of the local merchants (for the most part German colonists) cut a grim, direct line through the packed clusters of buildings constructed of wood, and skirt the green islands of gardens, and thrust aside the churches; whereafter, continuing its way through Council Square (still running inexorably straight), the thoroughfare stretches to, and traverses, a barren plain of scrub, and so reaches the pine plantation belonging to the Monastery of St. Michael the Archangel where the latter is lurking behind a screen of old red spruces of which the denseness seems to prop the very heavens, and which on clear, sunny days can be seen rising to mark the spot whence the monastery’s crosses, like the gilded birds of the forest of eternal silence, scintillate a constant welcome.
At a distance of some ten houses before Zhitnaia Street debouches upon the plain which I have mentioned there begin to diverge from the street and to trend towards a ravine, and eventually to lose themselves in the latter’s recesses, the small, squat shanties with one or two windows apiece which constitute the suburb of Tolmachikha. This suburb, it may be said, had as its original founders the menials of a landowner named Tolmachev — a landowner who, after emancipating his serfs some thirteen years before all serfs were legally emancipated, [In the year 1861] was, for his action, visited with such bitter revilement that, in dire offence at the same, he ended by becoming an inmate of the monastery, and there spending ten years under the vow of silence, until death overtook him amid a peaceful obscurity born of the fact that the authorities had forbidden his exhibition to pilgrims or strangers.
It is in the very cots originally apportioned to Tolmachev’s menials, at the time, fifty years ago, when those menials were converted into citizens, that the present inhabitants of the suburb dwell. And never have they been burnt out of those homes, although the same period has seen all Buev save Zhitnaia Street consumed, and everywhere that one may delve within the township one will be sure to come across undestroyed hearthstones.
The suburb, as I have said, stands at the hither end and on the sloping side of one of the arms of a deep, wooded ravine, with its windows facing towards the ravine’s yawning mouth, and affording a view direct to the Mokrie (certain marshes beyond the Obericha) and the swampy forest of firs into which the dim red sun declines. Further on, the ravine trends across the plain,then bends round towards the western side of the town, cats away the clayey soil with an appetite which each spring increases, and which, carrying the soil down to the river, is gradually clogging the river’s flow, diverting the muddy water towards the marshes, and converting those marshes into a lagoon outright. The fissure in question is named “ The Great Ravine,” and has its steep flanks so overgrown with chestnuts and laburnums that even in summertime its recesses are cool and moist, and so serve as a convenient trysting place for the poorer lovers of the suburb and the town, and witness their tea drinkings and frequently fatal quarrels, as well as being used by the more well-to-do for a dumping ground for rubbish of the nature of deceased dogs, cats, and horses.
Pleasantly singing, there scours the bottom of the ravine the brook known as the Zhandarmski Spring, a brook celebrated throughout Buev for its crystal-cold water, which is so icy of temperature that even on a burning day it will make the teeth ache. This water the denizens of Tolmachikha account to be their peculiar property; wherefore they are proud of it, and drink it to the exclusion of any other, and so live to a green old age which in some cases cannot even reckon its years. And by way of a livelihood, the men of the suburb indulge in hunting, fishing, fowling, and thieving (not a single artisan proper does the suburb contain, save the cobbler Gorkov — a thin, consumptive skeleton of surname Tchulan); while, as regards the women, they, in winter, sew and make sacks for Zimmel’s mill, and pull tow, and in summer they scour the plantation of the monastery for truffles and other produce, and the forest on the other side of the river for huckleberries. Also, two of the suburb’s women practise as fortune tellers, while two others conduct an easy and highly lucrative trade in prostitution.
The result is that the town, as distinguished from the suburb, believes the men of the latter to be one and all thieves, and the women and girls of the suburb to be one and all disreputable characters. Hence the town strives always to restrict and extirpate the suburb, while the suburbans retaliate upon the townsfolk with robbery and arson and murder, while despising those townsfolk for their parsimony, decorum, and avarice, and detesting the settled, comfortable mode of life which they lead.
So poor, for that matter, is the suburb that never do even beggars resort thither, save when drunk. No, the only creatures which resort thither are dogs which subsist no one knows how as predatorily they roam from court to court with tails tucked between their flanks, and bloodless tongues hanging down, and legs ever prepared, on sighting a human being, to bolt into the ravine, or to let down their owners upon subservient bellies in expectation of a probable kick or curse.
In short, every cranny of every cot in the place, with the grimy panes of their windows, and their lathed roofs overgrown with velvety moss, breathes forth the universal, deadly hopelessness induced by Russia’s crushing poverty.
In the Tolmachikhans’ backyards grow only alders, elders, and weeds. Everywhere docks thrust up heads through cracks in the fences to catch at the legs or the skirts of passers-by, while masses of nettles squeeze their way under fences to sting little children. Apropos, the latter are all thin and hungry, in the highest degree quarrelsome, and addicted to prolonged lamentation. Also, each spring sees a certain proportion of their number carried off by diphtheria, while scarlatina and measles are as epidemic among them as is typhoid among their elders.
Thus the sounds of life most to be heard throughout the suburb are the sounds either of weeping or of mad cursing. In general, however, life in Tolmachikha is lived quietly and lethargically. So much is this the case that in spring even the cats forbear to squall save in crushed and subdued accents. The only local person to sing is Felitzata; and even she does so only when she is drunk. It may be said that Felitzata is a saucy, cunning procuress, and does her singing in a peculiarly thick and rasping voice which, with many croaks and hiatuses, necessitates much closing of the eyes, and a great protruding of the apple of the throat. Indeed, it is only the women of the place who, turbulently quarrelsome and hysterically noisy, spend most of the day in scouring the streets with skirts tucked up, and never cease begging for pinches of salt or flour or spoonfuls of oil as they rail and screech at and beat their children, and thrust withered breasts into their babies’ mouths, and rush and fling themselves about, and bawl in a constant endeavour to right their woebegone condition. Yes, all are dishevelled and dirty, and have wizened, bony faces, and the restless eyes of thieves. Never, indeed, is a woman plump of figure, save at the period when she is ill, and her eyes are dim, and her gait is laboured. Yet until they are forty, the majority of the women become pregnant with every winter, and on the arrival of spring may be seen walking abroad with large stomachs and blue hollows under the eyes. And even this does not prevent them from working with the same desperate energy as when they are not with child. In short, the inhabitants of the place resemble needles and threads with which some rough, clumsy, and impatient hand is for ever trying to darn a ragged cloth which as constantly parts and rends.
The chief person of repute in the suburb is my landlord, one Antipa Vologonov — a little old man who keeps a shop of “odd wares,” and also lends money on pledge.
Unfortunately, Antipa is a sufferer from a long-standing tendency to rheumatism, which has left him bow-legged, and has twisted and swollen his fingers to the extent that they will not bend. Hence, he always keeps his hands tucked into his sleeves, though seemingly he has the less use for them in that, even when he withdraws them from their shelter, he does so as cautiously as though he were afraid of their becoming dislocated.
On the other hand, he never loses his temper, and he never grows excited.
“Neither of those things suits me,” he will say, “for my heart is dilated, and might at any moment fail.”
As for his face, it has high cheekbones which in places blossom into dark red blotches; an expression as calm as that of the face of a Khirghiz; a chin whence dangle wisps of mingled grey, red, and flaxen hair of a perpetually moist appearance; oblique and ever-changing eyes which are permanently contracted; a pair of thick, parti-coloured eyebrows which cast deep shadows over the eyes; and temples whereon a number of blue veins struggle with an irregular, sparse coating of bristles. Finally, about his whole personality there is something ever variable and intangible.
Also, his gait is irritatingly slow; and the more so owing to his coat, which, of a cut devised by himself, consists, as it were, of cassock, sarafan [jacket], and waistcoat in one. As often as not he finds the skirts of the garment cumbering his legs; whereupon he has to stop and give them a kick. And thus it comes about that permanently the skirts are ragged and torn.
“No need for hurry,” is his customary remark. “Always, in time, does one win to one’s pitch in the marketplace.”
His speech is cast in rounded periods, and displays a great love for ecclesiastical terms. On the occurrence of one such term, he pauses thereafter as though mentally he were adding to the term a very thick, a very black, full stop. Yet always he will converse with anyone, and at great length — his probable motive being a desire to leave behind him the reputation of a wise old man.
In his shanty are three windows facing on to the street, and a partition-wall which divides it into two rooms of unequal size. In the larger room, which contains a Russian stove, he himself lives; in the smaller room I have my abode. By a passage the two are separated from a storeroom where, closeted behind a door to which there are a heavy, old-fashioned bolt and many iron and brass screws, Antipa preserves pledges left by his neighbours, such as samovars, ikons, winter clothing and the like. Of this storeroom he always carries the great indentated key at the back of the strap which upholds his cloth breeches; and, whenever the police call to ascertain whether he is harbouring any stolen goods, a long time ensues whilst he is shifting the key round to his stomach, and again a long time whilst he is unfastening it from the belt. Meanwhile, he says pompously to the Superintendent or the Deputy Superintendent:
“Never do I take in goods of that kind. Of the truth of what I say, your honour, you have more than once assured yourself in person.”
Also, whenever Antipa sits down the key rattles against the back or the seat of his chair; whereupon he bends his arm with difficulty, and feels to see whether or not the key has come unslung. This I know for the reason that the partition-wall is not so thick but that I can hear his every breath drawn, and divine his every movement.
Of an evening, when the misty sun is slanting across the river towards the auburn belt of pines, and distilling pink vapours from the sombre vista to be seen through the shaggy mouth of the ravine, Antipa Vologonov sets out a squat samovar that is dinted of side, and plated with green oxide on handle, turncock, and spout. Then he seats himself at his table by the window.
At intervals I hear the evening stillness broken by questions put in a tone which implies always an expectation of a precise answer.
“Where is Darika?”
“He has gone to the spring for water.” The answer is given whiningly, and in a thin voice.
“And how is your sister?
“Still in pain.”
“Yes? Well, you can go now.”
Giving a slight cough to clear his throat, the old man begins to sing in a quavering falsetto:
Once a bullet smote my breast, And scarce the pang I felt. But ne’er the pang could be express’d Which love’s flame since hath dealt!
As the samovar hisses and bubbles, heavy footsteps resound in the street, and an indistinct voice says:
“He thinks that because he is a Town Councillor he is also clever.”
“Yes; such folk are apt to grow very proud.”
“Why, all his brains put together wouldn’t grease one of my boots!”
And as the voices die away the old man’s falsetto trickles forth anew, humming:
“The poor man’s anger . . . Minika! Hi, you! Come in here, and I will give you a bit of sugar. How is your father getting on? Is he drunk at present?”
“No, sober, for he is taking nothing but kvas and cabbage soup.”
“And what is he doing for a living?”
“Sitting at the table, and thinking.”
“And has your mother been beating him again?”
“No — not again.”
“And she — how is she?”
“Obliged to keep indoors.”
“Well, run along with you.”
Softly there next presents herself before the window Felitzata, a woman of about forty with a hawk-like gleam in her coldly civil eyes, and a pair of handsome lips compressed into a covert smile. She is well known throughout the suburb, and once had a son, Nilushka, who was the local “ God’s fool.” Also she has the reputation of knowing what is correct procedure on all and sundry occasions, as well as of being skilled in lamentations, funeral rites, and festivities in connection with the musterings of recruits. Lastly she has had a hip broken, so that she walks with an inclination towards the left.
Her fellow women say of her that her veins contain “a drop of gentle blood”; but probably the statement is inspired by no more than the fact that she treats everyone with the same cold civility. Nevertheless, there is something peculiar about her, for her hands are slender and have long fingers, and her head is haughtily poised, and her voice has a metallic ring, even though the metal has, as it were, grown dull and rusty. Also, she speaks of everyone, herself included, in the most rough and downright terms, yet terms which are so simple that, though her talk may be disconcerting to listen to, it could never be called obscene.
For instance, once I overheard Vologonov reproach her for not leading a more becoming life:
“You ought to have more self-restraint,” said he, “seeing that you are a lady, and also your own mistress.”
“That is played out, my friend,” she replied. “You see, I have had very much to bear, for there was a time when such hunger used to gnaw at my belly as you would never believe. It was then that my eyes became dazzled with the tokens of shame. So I took my fill of love, as does every woman. And once a woman has become a light-o’-love she may as well doff her shift altogether, and use the body which God has given her. And, after all, an independent life is the best life; so I hawk myself about like a pot of beer, and say, ‘Drink of this, anyone who likes, while it still contains liquor.’”
“It makes one feel ashamed to hear such talk,” said Vologonov with a sigh. In response she burst out laughing.
“What a virtuous man!” was her comment upon his remark.
Until now Antipa had spoken cautiously, and in an undertone, whereas the woman had replied in loud accents of challenge.
“Will you come in and have some tea? “ he said next as he leant out of the window.
“No, I thank you. In passing, what a thing I have heard about you!”
“Do not shout so loud. Of what are you speaking?”
“Oh, of SUCH a thing!”
“Of NOTHING, I imagine.”
“Yes, of EVERYTHING.”
“God, who created all things, alone knows everything.”
Whereafter the pair whispered together awhile. Then Felitzata disappeared as suddenly as she had come, leaving the old man sitting motionless. At length he heaved a profound sigh, and muttered to himself.
“Into that Eve’s ears be there poured the poison of the asp! . . . Yet pardon me, Oh God! Yea, pardon me!”
The words contained not a particle of genuine contrition. Rather, I believe, he uttered them because he had a weakness not for words which signified anything, but for words which, being out of the way, were not used by the common folk of the suburb.
Sometimes Vologonov knocks at the partition-wall with a superannuated arshin measure which has only fifteen vershoki of its length remaining. He knocks, and shouts:
“Lodger, would you care to join me in a pot of tea? ”
During the early days of our acquaintanceship he regarded me with marked and constant suspicion. Clearly he deemed me to be a police detective. But subsequently he took to scanning my face with critical curiosity, until at length he said with an air of imparting instruction:
“Have you ever read Paradise Lost and Destroyed?”
“No,” I replied. “Only Paradise Regained.”
This led him to wag his parti-coloured beard in token that ‘be disagreed with my choice’, and to observe:
“The reason why Adam lost Paradise is that he allowed Eve to corrupt him. And never did the Lord permit him to regain it. For who is worthy to return to the gates of Paradise? Not a single human being.”
And, indeed, I found it a waste of time to dispute the matter, for he merely listened to what I had to say, and then, without an attempt at refutation, repeated in the same tone as before, and exactly in the same words, his statement that “ Adam lost Paradise for the reason that he allowed Eve to corrupt him.”
Similarly did women constitute our most usual subject of conversation.
“You are young,” once he said, “ and therefore a human being bound to find forbidden fruit blocking your way at every step. This because the human race is a slave to its love of sin, or, in other words, to love of the Serpent. Yes, woman constitutes the prime impediment to everything in life, as history has many times affirmed. And first and foremost is she the source of restlessness. ‘Charged with poison, the Serpent shall plunge in thee her fangs.’ Which Serpent is, of course, our desire of the flesh, the Serpent at whose instigation the Greeks razed towns to the ground, and ravaged Troy and Carthagena and Egypt, and the Serpent which caused an amorous passion for the sister of Alexander Pavlovitch [The Emperor Alexander I] to bring about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. On the other hand, both the Mohammedan nations and the Jews have from earliest times grasped the matter aright, and kept their women shut up in their back premises; whereas WE permit the foulest of profligacy to exist, and walk hand in hand with our women, and allow them to graduate as female doctors and to pull teeth, and all the rest of it. The truth is that they ought not to be allowed to advance beyond midwife, since it is woman’s business either to serve as a breeding animal or opprobriously to be called neiskusobrachnaia neviesta [Maid who hast never tasted of marriage.] Yes, woman’s business should end there.”
Near the stove there ticks and clicks on the grimy wall that is papered with “rules and regulations “ and sheets of yellow manuscript the pendulum of a small clock, with, hanging to one of its weights, a hammer and a horseshoe, and, to the other, a copper pestle. Also, in a corner of the room a number of ikons make a glittering show with their silver applique and the gilded halos which surmount their figures’ black visages, while a stove with a ponderous grate glowers out of the window at the greenery in Zhitnaia Street and beyond the ravine (beyond the ravine everything looks bright and beautiful), and the dusty, dimly lighted storeroom across the passage emits a perennial odour of dried mushroom, tobacco leaves, and hemp oil.
Vologonov stirs his strong, stewed tea with a battered old teaspoon, and says with a sigh as he sips a little:
“All my life I have been engaged in gaining experience so that now I know most things, and ought to be listened to with attention. Usually folk do so listen to me, but though here and there one may find a living soul, of the rest it may be said: ‘In the House of David shall terrible things come to pass, and fire shall consume the spirit of lechery.’”
The words resemble bricks in that they seem, if possible, to increase the height of the walls of strange and extraneous events, and even stranger dramas, which loom for ever around, me.
“For example,” continues the old man, “why is Mitri Ermolaev Polukonov, our ex-mayor, lying dead before his time? Because he conceived a number of arrogant projects. For example, he sent his eldest son to study at Kazan — with the result that during the son’s second year at the University he, the son, brought home with him a curly-headed Jewess, and said to his father: ‘Without this woman I cannot live — in her are bound up my whole soul and strength.’ Yes, a pass indeed! And from that day forth nothing but misfortune befell in that Yashka took to drink, the Jewess gave way to repining, and Mitri had to go perambulating the town with piteous invitations to ‘come and see, my brethren, to what depths I have sunk!’ And though, eventually, the Jewess died of a bloody flux, of a miscarriage, the past was beyond mending, and, while the son went to the bad, and took to drink for good and all, the father ‘fell a victim by night to untimely death.’ Yes, the lives of two folk were thus undone by ‘the thorn-bearing company of Judaea.’ Like ourselves, the Hebrew has a destiny of his own. And destiny cannot be driven out with a stick. Of each of us the destiny is unhasting. It moves slowly and quietly, and can never be avoided. ‘Wait,’ it says. ‘ Seek not to press onward.’”
As he discourses, Vologonov’s eyes ceaselessly change colour — now turning to a dull grey, and wearing a tired expression, and now becoming blue, and assuming a mournful air, and now (and most frequently of all) beginning to emit green flashes of an impartial malevolence.
“Similarly, the Kapustins, once a powerful family, came at length to dust-became as nothing. It was a family the members of which were ever in favour of change, and devoted to anything that was new. In fact, they went and set up a piano! Well, of them only Valentine is still on his legs, and he (he is a doctor of less than forty years of age) is a hopeless drunkard, and saturated with dropsy, and fallen a prey to asthma, so that his cancerous eyes protrude horribly. Yes, the Kapustins, like the Polukonovs, may be ‘written down as dead.’”
Throughout, Vologonov speaks in a tone of unassailable conviction, in a tone implying that never could things happen, never could things have happened, otherwise than as he has stated. In fact, in his hands even the most inexplicable, the most grievous, phenomena of life become such as a law has inevitably decreed.
“And the same thing will befall the Osmukhins,” he next remarks. “Let them be a warning to you never to make friends with Germans, and never to engage in business with them. In Russia any housewife may brew beer; yet our people will not drink it — they are more used to spirits. Also, Russian folk like to attain their object in drinking AT ONCE; and a shkalik of vodka will do more to sap wit than five kruzhki of beer. Once our people liked uniform simplicity; but now they are become like a man who was born blind, and has suddenly acquired sight. A change indeed! For thirty-three years did Ilya of Murom [Ilya Murometz, the legendary figure most frequently met with In Russian bilini (folk songs), and probably identical with Elijah the Prophet, though credited with many of the attributes proper, rather, to the pagan god Perun the Thunderer.] sit waiting for his end before it came; and all who cannot bide patiently in a state of humility . . . ”
Meanwhile clouds shaped like snow-white swans are traversing the roseate heavens and disappearing into space, while below them, on earth, the ravine can be seen spread out like the pelt of a bear which the broad shoulders of some fabulous giant have sloughed before taking refuge in the marshes and forest. In fact the landscape reminds me of sundry ancient tales of marvels, as also does Antipa Vologonov, the man who is so strangely conversant with the shortcomings of human life, and so passionately addicted to discussing them.
For a moment or two he remains silent as sibilantly he purses his lips and drinks some saffron-coloured tea from the saucer which the splayed fingers of his right hand are balancing on their tips. Whereafter, when his wet moustache has been dried, his level voice resumes its speech in tones as measured as those of one reading aloud from the Psalter.
“Have you noticed a shop in Zhitnaia Street kept by an old man named Asiev? Once that man had ten sons. Six of them, however, died in infancy. Of the remainder the eldest, a fine singer, was at once extravagant and a bookworm; wherefore, whilst an officer’s servant at Tashkend, he cut the throats of his master and mistress, and for doing so was executed by shooting. As a matter of fact, the tale has it that he had been making love to his mistress, and then been thrown over in favour of his master once more. And another son, Grigori, after being given a high school education at St. Petersburg, became a lunatic. And another, Alexei, entered the army as a cavalryman, but is now acting as a circus rider, and probably has also become a drunkard. And the youngest son of all, Nikolai, ran away as a boy, and, eventually arriving in Norway with a precious scheme for catching fish in the Arctic Ocean, met with failure through the fact that he had overlooked the circumstance that we Russians have fish of our own and to spare, and had to have his interest assigned by his father to a local monastery. So much for fish of the Arctic Seas! Yet if Nikolai had only waited, if he had only been more patient, he —”
Here Vologonov lowers his voice, and continues with something of the growl of an angry dog:
“I too have had sons, one of whom was killed at Kushka (a document has certified to that effect), another was drowned whilst drunk, three more died in infancy, and only two are still alive. Of these last, I know that one is acting as a waiter in a hotel at Smolensk, while the other, Melenti, was educated for the Church, sent to study in a seminary, induced to abscond and get into trouble, and eventually dispatched to Siberia. There now! Yes, the Russian is what might be called a ‘lightweighted’ individual, an individual who, unless he holds himself down by the head, is soon carried off by the wind like a chicken’s feather — for we are too self-confident and restless. Before now, I myself have been a gull, a man lacking balance: for never does youth realise its own insignificance, or know how to wait.”
Dissertations of the kind drop from the old man like water from a leaky pipe on a cold, blustery day in autumn. Wagging his grey beard, he talks and talks, until I begin to think that he must be an evil wizard, and master of this remote, barren, swampy, ravine-pitted region — that he it is who originally planted the town in this uncomfortable, clayey hollow, and has thrown the houses into heaps, and entangled the streets, and wantonly created the town’s unaccountably rude and rough and deadly existence, and addled men’s brains with disconnected nonsense, and consumed their hearts with a fear of life. Yes, it comes to me that it must be he who, during the long six months of winter, causes cruel snowstorms from the plain to invade the town, and with frost compresses the buildings of the town until their rafters crack, and stinging cold brings birds to the ground. Lastly, I become seized with the idea that it must be he who, almost every summer, envelops the town in those terrible visitations of heat by night which seem almost to cause the houses to melt.
However, as a rule he maintains complete silence, and merely makes chewing motions with his strong-toothed jaws as he sits wagging his beard from side to side. At such times there is in his eyes a bluish fire like the gleam of charcoal, while his crooked fingers writhe like worms, and his outward appearance becomes sheerly that of a magician of iniquity.
Once I asked him:
“What in particular ought men to wait for? ”
For a while he sat clasping his beard, and, with contracted eyes, gazing as at something behind me. Then he said quietly and didactically:
“Someday there will arise a Strange Man who will proclaim to the world the Word to which there never was a beginning. But to which of us is the hour when that Man will arise known? To none of us.. And to which of us are known the miracles which that Word will perform? To none of us.”
Once upon a time there used to glide past the window of my room the fair, curly, wavering, golden head of Nilushka the idiot, a lad looking like a thing which the earth has begotten of love. Yes, Nilushka was like an angel in some sacred picture adorning the southern or the northern gates of an ancient church, as, with his flushed face smeared with wax-smoke and oil, and his light blue eyes gleaming in a cold, unearthly smile, and a frame clad in a red smock reaching to below his knees, and the soles of his feet showing black (always he walked on tiptoe), and his thin calves, as straight and white as the calves of a woman, covered with golden down, he walked the streets.
Sometimes hopping along on one leg, and smiling, and waving his arms, and causing the ample folds and sleeves of his smock to flutter until he seemed to be moving in the midst of a nimbus, Nilushka would sing in a halting whisper the childish ditty:
Oh Lo-ord, pardon me! Wo-olves run, And do-ogs run, And the hunters wait To kill the wolves. Oh Lo-ord, pardon me!
Meanwhile, he would diffuse a cheering atmosphere of happiness with which no one in the locality had anything in common. For he was ever a lighthearted, winning, essentially pure innocent of the type which never fails to evoke good-natured smiles and kindly emotions. Indeed, as he roamed the streets, the suburb seemed to live its life with less clamour, to appear more decent of outward guise, since the local folk looked upon the imbecile with far more indulgence than they did upon their own children; and he was intimate with, and beloved by, even the worst. Probably the reason for this was that the semblance of flight amid an atmosphere of golden dust which was his combined with his straight, slender little figure to put all who beheld him in mind of churches, angels, God, and Paradise. At all events, all viewed him in a manner contemplative, interested, and more than a little deferential.
A curious fact was the circumstance that whenever Nilushka sighted a stray gleam from a piece of glass, or the glitter of a morsel of copper in sunlight, he would halt dead where he was, turn grey with the ashiness of death, lose his smile, and remain dilating to an unnatural extent his clouded and troubled eyes. And so, with his whole form distorted with horror, and his thin hand crossing himself, and his knees trembling, and his smock fluttering around his frail wisp of a body, and his features growing stonelike, he would, for an hour or more, continue to stand, until at length someone laid a hand in his, and led him home.
The tale had it that, in the first instance, born “soft-headed,” he finally lost his reason, five years before the period of which I am writing, when a great fire occurred, and that thenceforth anything, save sunlight, that in any way resembled fire plunged him into this torpor of dumb dread. Naturally the people of the suburb devoted to him a great deal of attention.
“There goes God’s fool,” would be their remark. “It will not be long before he dies and becomes a Saint, and we fall down and worship him.”
Yet there were persons who would go so far as to crack rude jests at his expense. For instance, as he would be skipping along, with his childish voice raised in his little ditty, some idler or another would shout from a window, or through the cranny of a fence:
“Hi, Nilushka! Fire! Fire!”
Whereupon the angel-faced imbecile would sink to earth as though his legs had been cut away at the knee from under him, and he would huddle, frantically clutching his golden head in his permanently soiled hands, and exposing his youthful form to the dust, under the nearest house or fence.
Only then would the person who had given him the fright repent, and say with a laugh:
“God in heaven, what a stupid lad this is!”
And, should that person have been asked why he had thus terrified the boy, he would probably have replied:
“Because it is such sport to do so. As a lad who cannot feel things as other human beings do, he inclines folk to make fun of him.”
As for the omniscient Antipa Vologonov, the following was his frequent comment on Nilushka:
“Christ also had to walk in terror. Christ also was persecuted. Why so? Because ever He endured in rectitude and strength. Men need to learn what is real and what is unreal. Many are the sins of earth come of the fact that the seeming is mistaken for the actual, and that men keep pressing forward when they ought to be waiting, to be proving themselves.”
Hence Vologonov, like the rest, bestowed much attention upon Nilushka, and frequently held conversations with him.
“Do you now pray to God,” he said once as he pointed to heaven with one of his crooked fingers, and with the disengaged hand clasped his dishevelled, variously coloured beard.
Whereupon Nilushka glanced fearfully at the mysteriously pointing finger, and, plucking sharply at his forehead, shoulders, and stomach with two fingers and a thumb, intoned in thin, plaintive accents:
“Our Father in Heaven —”
“WHICH ART in Heaven.”
“Yes, in the Heaven of Heavens.”
“Ah, well! God will understand. He is the friend of all blessed ones.” [Idiots; since persons mentally deficient are popularly deemed to stand in a peculiarly close relation to the Almighty.]
Again, great was Nilushka’s interest in anything spherical. Also, he had a love for handling the heads of children; when, softly approaching a group from behind, he would, with his bright, quiet smile, lay slender, bony fingers upon a close-cropped little poll; with the result that the children, not relishing such fingering, would take alarm at the same, and, bolting to a discreet distance, thence abuse the idiot, put out their tongues at him, and drawl in a nasal chorus:
“Nilka, the bottle-neck, the neck without a nape to it” [Probably the attractiveness of this formula lay rather in the rhyming of the Russian words: “Nilka, butilka, bashka bez zatilka!” than in their actual meaning].
Yet their fear of him was in no way reciprocated, nor, for that matter, did they ever assault him, despite the fact that occasionally they would throw an old boot or a chip of wood in his direction-throw it aimlessly, and without really desiring to hit the mark aimed at.
Also, anything circular — for example, a plate or the wheel of a toy, engaged Nilushka’s attention and led him to caress it as eagerly as he did globes and balls. Evidently the rotundity of the object was the point that excited his interest. And as he turned the object over and over, and felt the flat part of it, he would mutter:
“But what about the other one?”
What “the other one “ meant I could never divine. Nor could Antipa. Once, drawing the idiot to him, he said:
“Why do you always say ‘What about the other one’?”
Troubled and nervous, Nilushka merely muttered some unintelligible reply as his fingers turned and turned about the circular object which he was holding.
“Nothing,” at length he replied.
“Nothing of what?
“Ah, he is too foolish to understand,” said Vologonov with a sigh as his eyes darkened in meditative fashion.
“Yes, though it may seem foolish to say so,” he added, “some people would envy him.”
“Why should they?”
“For more than one reason. To begin with, he lives a life free from care — he is kept comfortably, and even held in respect. Since no one can properly understand him, and everyone fears him, through a belief that folk without wit, the ‘blessed ones of God,’ are more especially the Almighty’s favourites than persons possessed of understanding. Only a very wise man could deal with such a matter, and the less so in that it must be remembered that more than one ‘blessed one’ has become a Saint, while some of those possessed of understanding have gone — well, have gone whither? Yes, indeed!”
And, thoughtfully contracting the bushy eyebrows which looked as though they had been taken from the face of another man, Vologonov thrust his hands up his sleeves, and stood eyeing Nilushka shrewdly with his intangible gaze.
Never did Felitzata say for certain who the boy’s father had been, but at least it was known to me that in vague terms she had designated two men as such — the one a young “ survey student,” and the other a merchant by name Viporotkov, a man notorious to the whole town as a most turbulent rake and bully. But once when she and Antipa and I were seated gossiping at the entrance-gates, and I inquired of her whether Nilushka’s father were still surviving, she replied in a careless way:
“He is so, damn him!”
“Then who is he? ”
Felitzata, as usual, licked her faded, but still comely, lips with the tip of her tongue before she replied:
“Ah!” Vologonov exclaimed with unexpected animation. “That, then, explains things. At all events, we have in it an intelligible THEORY of things.”
Whereafter, he expounded to us at length, and with no sparing of details, the reason why a monk should have been Nilushka’s father rather than either the merchant or the young “survey student.” And as Vologonov proceeded he grew unwontedly enthusiastic, and went so far as to clench his fists until presently he heaved a sigh, as though mentally hurt, and said frowningly and reproachfully to the woman:
“Why did you never tell us this before? It was exceedingly negligent of you.”
Felitzata looked at the old man with sarcasm and sauciness gleaming in her brown eyes. Suddenly, however, she contracted her brows, counterfeited a sigh, and whined:
“Ah, I was good-looking then, and desired of all. In those days I had both a good heart and a happy nature.”
“But the monk may prove to have been an important factor in the question,” was Antipa’s thoughtful remark.
“Yes, and many another man than he has run after me for his pleasure,” continued Felitzata in a tone of reminiscence. This led Vologonov to cough, rise to his feet, lay his hand upon the woman’s claret-coloured sleeve of satin, and say sternly:
“Do you come into my room, for I have business to transact with you.”
As she complied she smiled and winked at me. And so the pair departed — he shuffling carefully with his bandy legs, and she watching her steps as though at any moment she might collapse on to her left side.
Thenceforth, Felitzata visited Vologonov almost daily; and once during the time of two hours or so that the pair were occupied in drinking tea I heard, through the partition-wall, the old man say in vigorous, level, didactical tones:
“These tales and rumours ought not to be dismissed save with caution. At least ought they to be given the benefit of the doubt. For, though all that he says may SEEM to us unintelligible, there may yet be enshrined therein a meaning, such as —”
“You say a meaning?”
“Yes, a meaning which, eventually, will be vouchsafed to you in a vision. For example, you may one day see issue from a dense forest a man of God, and hear him cry aloud: Felitzata, Oh servant of God, Oh sinner most dark of soul —”
“What a croaking, to be sure!”
“Be silent! No nonsense! Do you blame yourself rather than sing your own praises. And in that vision you may hear the man of God cry: ‘Felitzata, go you forth and do that which one who shall meet you may request you to perform!’ And, having gone forth, you may find the man of God to be the monk whom we have spoken of.”
“A-a-ah!” the woman drawled with an air of being about to say something more.
“You see —”
“Have I, this time, abused you?”
“No, but —”
“I have an idea that the man of God will be holding a crook.”
“Of course,” assented Felitzata.
Similarly, on another occasion, did I hear Antipa mutter confidentially to his companion:
“The fact that all his sayings are so simple is not a favourable sign. For, you see, they do not harmonise with the affair in its entirety — in such a connection words should be mysterious, and so, able to be interpreted in more than one way, seeing that the more meanings words possess, the more are those words respected and heeded by mankind.”
“Why so?” queried Felitzata.
“Why so?” re-echoed Vologonov irritably. “Are we not, then, to respect ANYONE or ANYTHING? Only he is worthy of respect who does not harm his fellows; and of those who do not harm their fellows there are but few. To this point you must pay attention — you must teach him words of variable import, words more abstract, as well as more sonorous.”
“But I know no such words.”
“I will repeat to you a few, and every night, when he goes to bed, you shall repeat them to HIM. For example: ‘Adom ispolneni, pokaites’[Do ye people who are filled with venom repent]. And mark that the exact words of the Church be adhered to. For instance, ‘Dushenbitzi, pozhaleite Boga, okayannie,’ [Murderers of the soul, accursed ones, repent ye before God.] must be said rather than ‘Dushenbitzi, pozhaleite Boga, okayanni,’ since the latter, though the shorter form, is also not the correct one. But perhaps I had better instruct the lad myself.”
“Certainly that would be the better plan.”
So from that time onwards Vologonov fell to stopping Nilushka in the street, and repeating to him something or another in his kindly fashion. Once he even took him by the hand, and, leading him to his room, and giving him something to cat, said persuasively:
“Say this after me. ‘Do not hasten, Oh ye people.’ Try if you can say that.”
“‘A lantern,’” began Nilushka civilly.
“‘A lantern?’ Yes. Well, go on, and say, ‘I am a lantern unto thee —”
“I want to sing, it.”
“There is no need for that, though presently you shall sing it. For the moment your task is to learn the correct speaking of things. So say after me —”
“O Lo-ord, have mercy!” came in a quiet, thoughtful chant from the idiot. Whereafter he added in the coaxing tone of a child:
“We shall all of us have to die.”
“Yes, but come, come! “ expostulated Vologonov. “ What are you blurting out NOW? That much I know without your telling me — always have I known, little friend, that each of us is hastening towards his death. Yet your want of understanding exceeds what should be.”
“Dogs? Now, enough, little fellow.”
“Dogs run like chickens. They run here, in the ravine,” continued Nilushka in the murmuring accents of a child of three.
“Nevertheless,” mused Vologonov, “even that seeming nothing of his may mean something. Yes, there may lie in it a great deal. Now, say: ‘Perdition will arise before him who shall hasten.’”
“No, I want to SING something.”
With a splutter Vologonov said:
“Truly you are a difficult subject to deal with!”
And with that he fell to pacing the floor with long, thoughtful strides as the idiot’s voice cried in quavering accents:
“O Lo-ord, have me-ercy upon us!”
Thus the winsome Nilushka proved indispensable to the foul, mean, unhealthy life of the suburb. Of that life he coloured and rounded off the senselessness, the ugliness, the superfluity. He resembled an apple hanging forgotten on a gnarled old worm-eaten tree, whence all the fruit and the leaves have fallen until only the branches wave in the autumn wind. Rather, he resembled a sole-surviving picture in the pages of a ragged, soiled old book which has neither a beginning nor an ending, and therefore can no longer be read, is no longer worth the reading, since now its pages contain nothing intelligible.
And as smiling his gracious smile, the lad’s pathetic, legendary figure flitted past the mouldy buts and cracked fences and riotous beds of nettles, there would readily recur to the memory, and succeed one another, visions of some of the finer and more reputable personages of Russian lore — there would file before one’s mental vision, in endless sequence, men whose biographies inform us how, in fear for their souls, they left the life of the world, and, hieing them to the forests and the caves, abandoned mankind for the wild things of nature. And at the same time would there recur to one’s memory poems concerning the blind and the poor-in particular, the poem concerning Alexei the Man of God, and all the multitude of other fair, but unsubstantial, forms wherein Russia has embodied her sad and terrified soul, her humble and protesting grief. Yet it was a process to depress one almost to the point of distraction.
Once, forgetting that Nilushka was imbecile, I conceived an irrepressible desire to talk with him, and to read him good poetry, and to tell him both of the world’s youthful hopes and of my own personal thoughts.
The occasion happened on a day when, as I was sitting on the edge of the ravine, and dangling my legs over the ravine’s depths, the lad came floating towards me as though on air. In his hands, with their fingers as slender as a girl’s, he was holding a large leaf; and as he gazed at it the smile of his clear blue eyes was, as it were, pervading him from head to foot.
“Whither, Nilushka?” said I.
With a start he raised his head and eyes heavenward. Then timidly he glanced at the blue shadow of the ravine, and extended to me his leaf, over the veins of which there was crawling a ladybird.
“A bukan,” he observed.
“It is so. And whither are you going to take it?”
“We shall all of us die. I was going to take and bury it.”
“But it is alive; and one does not bury things before they are dead.”
Nilushka closed and opened his eyes once or twice.
“I should like to sing something,” he remarked.
“Rather, do you SAY something.”
He glanced at the ravine again — his pink nostrils quivering and dilating — then sighed as though he was weary, and in all unconsciousness muttered a foul expression. As he did so I noticed that on the portion of his neck below his right ear there was a large birthmark, and that, covered with golden down like velvet, and resembling in shape a bee, it seemed to be endowed with a similitude of life, through the faint beating of a vein in its vicinity.
Presently the ladybird raised her upper wings as though she were preparing for flight; whereupon Nilushka sought with a finger to detain her, and, in so doing, let fall the leaf, and enabled the insect to detach itself and fly away at a low level. Upon that, bending forward with arms outstretched, the idiot went softly in pursuit, much as though he himself were launching his body into leisurely flight, but, when ten paces away, stopped, raised his face to heaven, and, with arms pendent before him, and the palms of his hands turned outwards as though resting on something which I could not see, remained fixed and motionless.
From the ravine there were tending upwards towards the sunlight some green sprigs of willow, with dull yellow flowers and a clump of grey wormwood, while the damp cracks which seamed the clay of the ravine were lined with round leaves of the “mother-stepmother plant,” and round about us little birds were hovering, and from both the bushes and the bed of the ravine there was ascending the moist smell of decay. Yet over our heads the sky was clear, as the sun, now sole occupant of the heavens, declined slowly in the direction of the dark marshes across the river; only above the roofs of Zhitnaia Street could there be seen fluttering about in alarm a flock of snow-white pigeons, while waving below them was the black besom which had, as it were, swept them into the air, and from afar one could hear the sound of an angry murmur, the mournful, mysterious murmur of the town.
Whiningly, like an old man, a child of the suburb was raising its voice in lamentation; and as I listened to the sound, it put me in mind of a clerk reading Vespers amid the desolation of an empty church. Presently a brown dog passed us with shaggy head despondently pendent, and eyes as beautiful as those of a drunken woman.
And, to complete the picture, there was standing — outlined against the nearest shanty of the suburb, a shanty which lay at the extreme edge of the ravine-there was standing, face to the sun, and back to the town, as though preparing for flight, the straight, slender form of the boy who, while alien to all, caressed all with the eternally incomprehensible smile of his angel-like eyes. Yes, that golden birthmark so like a bee I can see to this day!
Two weeks later, on a Sunday at mid-day, Nilushka passed into the other world. That day, after returning home from late Mass, and handing to his mother a couple of wafers which had been given him as a mark of charity, the lad said:
“Mother, please lay out my bed on the chest, for I think that I am going to lie down for the last time.”
Yet the words in no way surprised Felitzata, for he had often before remarked, before retiring to rest:
“Some day we shall all of us have to die.”
At the same time, whereas, on previous occasions, Nilushka had never gone to sleep without first of all singing to himself his little song, and then chanting the eternal, universal “Lord, have mercy upon us! “ he, on this occasion, merely folded his hands upon his breast, closed his eyes, and relapsed into slumber.
That day Felitzata had dinner, and then departed on business of her own; and when she returned in the evening, she was astonished to find that her son was still asleep. Next, on looking closer at him, she perceived that he was dead.
“I looked,” she related plaintively to some of the suburban residents who came running to her cot, “and perceived his little feet to be blue; and since it was only just before Mass that I had washed his hands with soap, I remarked the more readily that his feet were become less white than his hands. And when I felt one of those hands, I found that it had stiffened.”
On Felitzata’s face, as she recounted this, there was manifest a nervous expression. Likewise, her features were a trifle flushed. Yet gleaming also through the tears in her languorous eyes there was a sense of relief — one might almost have said a sense of joy.
“Next,” continued she, “I looked closer still, and then fell on my knees before the body, sobbing: ‘Oh my darling, whither art thou fled? Oh God, wherefore hast Thou taken him from me?’ ”
Here Felitzata inclined her head upon her left shoulder contracted her brows over her mischievous eyes, clasped her hands to her breast, and fell into the lament:
Oh, gone is my dove, my radiant moon! O star of mine eyes, thou hast set too soon! In darksome depths thy light lies drown’d, And time must yet complete its round, And the trump of the Second Advent sound, Ere ever my —
“Here, you! Hold your tongue!” grunted Vologonov irritably.
For myself, I had, that day, been walking in the forest, until, as I returned, I was brought up short before the windows of Felitzata’s cot by the fact that some of the erstwhile turbulent denizens of the suburb were whispering softly together as, with an absence of all noise, they took turns to raise themselves on tiptoe, and, craning their necks, to peer into one of the black window-spaces. Yes, like bees on the step of a hive did they look, and on the great majority of faces, and in the great majority of eyes, there was quivering an air of tense, nervous expectancy.
Only Vologonov was nudging Felitzata, and saying to her in a loud, authoritative tone:
“Very ready are you to weep, but I should like first to hear the exact circumstances of the lad’s death.”
Thus invited, the woman wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her bodice, licked her lips, heaved a prolonged sigh, and fell to regarding Antipa’s red, hardbitten face with the cheerful, unabashed glance of a person who is under the influence of liquor. From under her white head-band there had fallen over her temples and her right cheek a few wisps of golden hair; and indeed, as she drew herself up, and tossed her head and bosom, and smoothed out and stretched the creases in her bodice, she looked less than her years. Everyone now fell to eyeing her in an attentive silence, though not, it would seem, without a touch of envy.
Abruptly, sternly, the old man inquired:
“Did the lad ever complain of ill-health?”
“No, never,” Felitzata replied. “Never once did he speak of it — never once.”
“And he had not been beaten?”
“Oh, how can you ask me such a thing, and especially seeing that, that —?”
“I did not say beaten by YOU.”
“Well, I cannot answer for anyone else, but at least had he no mark on his body, seeing that when I lifted the smock I could find nothing save for scratches on legs and back.”
Her tone now had in it a new ring, a ring of increased assurance, and when she had finished she closed her bright eyes languidly before heaving a soft, as it were, voluptuous, and, withal, very audible sigh.
Someone here murmured:
“She DID use to beat him.”
“At all events she used to lose her temper with him.”
This led to the putting of a further dozen or so of leading questions; whereafter Antipa, for a while, preserved a suggestive silence, and the crowd too remained silent, as though it had suddenly been lulled to slumber. Only at long last, and with a clearing of his throat, did Antipa say:
“Friends, we must suppose that God, of His infinite Mercy, has vouchsafed to us here a special visitation, in that, as all of us have perceived, a lad bereft of wit, the same radiant lad whom all of us have known, has here abided in the closest of communion with the Blessed Dispenser of life on earth.”
Then I moved away, for upon my heart there was pressing a burden of unendurable sorrow, and I was yearning, oh, so terribly, to see Nilushka once more.
The back portion of Felitzata’s cot stood a little sunken into the ground, so that the front portion had its cold window panes and raised sash tilted a trifle towards the remote heavens. I bent my head, and entered by the open door. Near the threshold Nilushka was lying on a narrow chest against the wall. The folds of a dark-red pillow of fustian under the head set off to perfection the pale blue tint of his round, innocent face under its corona of golden curls; and though the eyes were closed, and the lips pressed tightly together, he still seemed to be smiling in his old quiet, but joyous, way. In general, the tall, thin figure on the mattress of dark felt, with its bare legs, and its slender hands and wrists folded across the breast, reminded me less of an angel than of a certain image of the Holy Child with which a blackened old ikon had rendered me familiar from my boyhood upwards.
Everything amid the purple gloom was still. Even the flies were forbearing to buzz. Only from the street was there grating through the shaded window the strong, roguish voice of Felitzata as it traced the strange, lugubrious word-pattern:
With my bosom pressed to the warm, grey earth, To thee, grey earth, to thee, Oh my mother of old, I beseech thee, I who am a mother like thee, And a mother in pain, to enfold in thy arms This my son, this my dead son, this my ruby, This my drop of my heart’s blood, this my —
Suddenly I caught sight of Antipa standing in the doorway. He was wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. Presently in a gruff and unsteady voice he said:
“It is all very fine for you to weep, good woman, but the present is not the right moment to sing such verses as those — they were meant, rather, to be sung in a graveyard at the side of a tomb. Well, tell me everything without reserve. Important is it that I should know EVERYTHING.”
Whereafter, having crossed himself with a faltering hand, he carefully scrutinised the corpse, and at last let his eyes halt upon the lad’s sweet features. Then he muttered sadly:
“How extraordinarily he has grown! Yes, death has indeed enlarged him! Ah, well, so be it! Soon I too shall have to be stretching myself out. Oh that it were now!”
Then with cautious movements of his deformed fingers he straightened the folds of the lad’s smock, and drew it over the legs. Whereafter he pressed his flushed lips to the hem of the garment.
Said I to him at that moment:
“What is it that you have been wanting of him? Why is it that you have been trying to teach him strange words?”
Straightening himself, and glancing at me with dim eyes, Antipa repeated:
“What is it that I have been wanting of him?” To the repetition he added with manifest sincerity, though also with a self-depreciatory movement of the head:
“To tell the truth, I scarcely know WHAT it is that I have been wanting of him. By God I do not. Yet, as one speaking the truth in the presence of death, I say that never during my long lifetime had I so desired aught else. . . . Yes, I have waited and waited for fortune to reveal it to me; and ever has fortune remained mute and tongueless. Foolish was it of me to have expected otherwise, to have expected, for instance, that some day there might occur something marvellous, something unlooked-for.”
With a short laugh, he indicated the corpse with his eyes, and continued more firmly:
“Yes, bootless was it to have expected anything from such a source as that. Never, despite one’s wishes, was anything possible of acquisition thence . . . This is usually the case. Felitzata, as a clever woman indeed (albeit one cold of heart), was for having her son accounted a God’s fool, and thereby gaining some provision against her old age.”
“But you yourself were the person who suggested that? You yourself wished it? ”
Presently. thrusting his hands up his sleeves, he added dully and brokenly:
“Yes, I DID wish it. Why not, indeed, seeing that at least it would have brought comfort to the poor people of this place? Sometimes I feel very sorry for them with their bitter, troublous lives — lives which may be the lives of rogues and villains, yet are lives which have produced amongst us a pravednik,” [A “just person,” a human being without sin].
All the evening sky was now aflame. Upon the ear there fell the mournful lament:
When snow has veiled the earth in white, The snowy plain the wild wolves tread. They wail for the cheering warmth of spring As I bewail the bairn that’s dead.
Vologonov listened for a moment. Then he said firmly:
“These are mere accesses of impulse which come upon her. And that is only what might be expected. Even as in song or in vice there is no holding her, so remorse, when it has fastened upon such a woman’s heart, will know no bounds. I may tell you that on one occasion two young merchants took her, stripped her stark naked, and drove her in their carriage down Zhitnaia Street, with themselves sitting on the seats of the vehicle, and Felitzata standing upright between them — yes, in a state of nudity! Thereafter they beat her almost to death.”
As I stepped out into the dark, narrow vestibule, Antipa, who was following me, muttered:
“Such a lament as hers could come only of genuine grief.”
We found Felitzata in front of the hut, with her back covering the window. There, with hands pressed to her bosom, and her skirt all awry, she was straining her dishevelled head towards the heavens, while the evening breeze, stirring her fine auburn hair, scattered it promiscuously over her flushed, sharply-defined features and wildly protruding eyes. A bizarre, pitiable, and extraordinary figure did she cut as she wailed in a throaty voice which constantly gathered strength:
Oh winds of ice, winds cruel and rude, Press on my heart till its throbbings fail! Arrest the current of my blood! Turn these hot melting tears to hail!
Before her there was posted a knot of women, compassionate contemplators of the singer’s distracted, grief-wrought features. Through the ravine’s dark opening I could see the sun sinking below the suburb before plunging into the marshy forest and having his disk pierced by sharp, black tips of pine trees. Already everything around him was red. Already, seemingly, he had been wounded, and was bleeding to death.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50