Taman is the nastiest little hole of all the seaports of Russia. I was all but starved there, to say nothing of having a narrow escape of being drowned.
I arrived late at night by the post-car. The driver stopped the tired troika† at the gate of the only stone-built house that stood at the entrance to the town. The sentry, a Cossack from the Black Sea, hearing the jingle of the bell, cried out, sleepily, in his barbarous voice, “Who goes there?” An under-officer of Cossacks and a headborough‡ came out. I explained that I was an officer bound for the active-service detachment on Government business, and I proceeded to demand official quarters. The headborough conducted us round the town. Whatever hut we drove up to we found to be occupied. The weather was cold; I had not slept for three nights; I was tired out, and I began to lose my temper.
† Team of three horses abreast.
‡ Desyatnik, a superintendent of ten (men or huts), i.e. an officer like the old English tithing-man or headborough.
“Take me somewhere or other, you scoundrel!” I cried; “to the devil himself, so long as there’s a place to put up at!”
“There is one other lodging,” answered the headborough, scratching his head. “Only you won’t like it, sir. It is uncanny!”
Failing to grasp the exact signification of the last phrase, I ordered him to go on, and, after a lengthy peregrination through muddy byways, at the sides of which I could see nothing but old fences, we drove up to a small cabin, right on the shore of the sea.
The full moon was shining on the little reed-thatched roof and the white walls of my new dwelling. In the courtyard, which was surrounded by a wall of rubble-stone, there stood another miserable hovel, smaller and older than the first and all askew. The shore descended precipitously to the sea, almost from its very walls, and down below, with incessant murmur, plashed the dark-blue waves. The moon gazed softly upon the watery element, restless but obedient to it, and I was able by its light to distinguish two ships lying at some distance from the shore, their black rigging motionless and standing out, like cobwebs, against the pale line of the horizon.
“There are vessels in the harbour,” I said to myself. “To-morrow I will set out for Gelenjik.”
I had with me, in the capacity of soldier-servant, a Cossack of the frontier army. Ordering him to take down the portmanteau and dismiss the driver, I began to call the master of the house. No answer! I knocked — all was silent within! . . . What could it mean? At length a boy of about fourteen crept out from the hall.
“Where is the master?”
“There isn’t one.”
“What! No master?”
“And the mistress?”
“She has gone off to the village.”
“Who will open the door for me, then?” I said, giving it a kick.
The door opened of its own accord, and a breath of moisture-laden air was wafted from the hut. I struck a lucifer match and held it to the boy’s face. It lit up two white eyes. He was totally blind, obviously so from birth. He stood stock-still before me, and I began to examine his features.
I confess that I have a violent prejudice against all blind, one-eyed, deaf, dumb, legless, armless, hunchbacked, and such-like people. I have observed that there is always a certain strange connection between a man’s exterior and his soul; as, if when the body loses a limb, the soul also loses some power of feeling.
And so I began to examine the blind boy’s face. But what could be read upon a face from which the eyes are missing? . . . For a long time I gazed at him with involuntary compassion, when suddenly a scarcely perceptible smile flitted over his thin lips, producing, I know not why, a most unpleasant impression upon me. I began to feel a suspicion that the blind boy was not so blind as he appeared to be. In vain I endeavoured to convince myself that it was impossible to counterfeit cataracts; and besides, what reason could there be for doing such a thing? But I could not help my suspicions. I am easily swayed by prejudice. . .
“You are the master’s son?” I asked at length.
“Who are you, then?”
“An orphan — a poor boy.”
“Has the mistress any children?”
“No, her daughter ran away and crossed the sea with a Tartar.”
“What sort of a Tartar?”
“The devil only knows! A Crimean Tartar, a boatman from Kerch.”
I entered the hut. Its whole furniture consisted of two benches and a table, together with an enormous chest beside the stove. There was not a single ikon to be seen on the wall — a bad sign! The sea-wind burst in through the broken window-pane. I drew a wax candle-end from my portmanteau, lit it, and began to put my things out. My sabre and gun I placed in a corner, my pistols I laid on the table. I spread my felt cloak out on one bench, and the Cossack his on the other. In ten minutes the latter was snoring, but I could not go to sleep — the image of the boy with the white eyes kept hovering before me in the dark.
About an hour passed thus. The moon shone in at the window and its rays played along the earthen floor of the hut. Suddenly a shadow flitted across the bright strip of moonshine which intersected the floor. I raised myself up a little and glanced out of the window. Again somebody ran by it and disappeared — goodness knows where! It seemed impossible for anyone to descend the steep cliff overhanging the shore, but that was the only thing that could have happened. I rose, threw on my tunic, girded on a dagger, and with the utmost quietness went out of the hut. The blind boy was coming towards me. I hid by the fence, and he passed by me with a sure but cautious step. He was carrying a parcel under his arm. He turned towards the harbour and began to descend a steep and narrow path.
“On that day the dumb will cry out and the blind will see,” I said to myself, following him just close enough to keep him in sight.
Meanwhile the moon was becoming overcast by clouds and a mist had risen upon the sea. The lantern alight in the stern of a ship close at hand was scarcely visible through the mist, and by the shore there glimmered the foam of the waves, which every moment threatened to submerge it. Descending with difficulty, I stole along the steep declivity, and all at once I saw the blind boy come to a standstill and then turn down to the right. He walked so close to the water’s edge that it seemed as if the waves would straightway seize him and carry him off. But, judging by the confidence with which he stepped from rock to rock and avoided the water-channels, this was evidently not the first time that he had made that journey. Finally he stopped, as though listening for something, squatted down upon the ground, and laid the parcel beside him. Concealing myself behind a projecting rock on the shore, I kept watch on his movements. After a few minutes a white figure made its appearance from the opposite direction. It came up to the blind boy and sat down beside him. At times the wind wafted their conversation to me.
“Well?” said a woman’s voice. “The storm is violent; Yanko will not be here.”
“Yanko is not afraid of the storm!” the other replied.
“The mist is thickening,” rejoined the woman’s voice, sadness in its tone.
“In the mist it is all the easier to slip past the guardships,” was the answer.
“And if he is drowned?”
“Well, what then? On Sunday you won’t have a new ribbon to go to church in.”
An interval of silence followed. One thing, however, struck me — in talking to me the blind boy spoke in the Little Russian dialect, but now he was expressing himself in pure Russian.
“You see, I am right!” the blind boy went on, clapping his hands. “Yanko is not afraid of sea, nor winds, nor mist, nor coastguards! Just listen! That is not the water plashing, you can’t deceive me — it is his long oars.”
The woman sprang up and began anxiously to gaze into the distance.
“You are raving!” she said. “I cannot see anything.”
I confess that, much as I tried to make out in the distance something resembling a boat, my efforts were unsuccessful. About ten minutes passed thus, when a black speck appeared between the mountains of the waves! At one time it grew larger, at another smaller. Slowly rising upon the crests of the waves and swiftly descending from them, the boat drew near to the shore.
“He must be a brave sailor,” I thought, “to have determined to cross the twenty versts of strait on a night like this, and he must have had a weighty reason for doing so.”
Reflecting thus, I gazed with an involuntary beating of the heart at the poor boat. It dived like a duck, and then, with rapidly swinging oars — like wings — it sprang forth from the abyss amid the splashes of the foam. “Ah!” I thought, “it will be dashed against the shore with all its force and broken to pieces!” But it turned aside adroitly and leaped unharmed into a little creek. Out of it stepped a man of medium height, wearing a Tartar sheepskin cap. He waved his hand, and all three set to work to drag something out of the boat. The cargo was so large that, to this day, I cannot understand how it was that the boat did not sink.
Each of them shouldered a bundle, and they set off along the shore, and I soon lost sight of them. I had to return home; but I confess I was rendered uneasy by all these strange happenings, and I found it hard to await the morning.
My Cossack was very much astonished when, on waking up, he saw me fully dressed. I did not, however, tell him the reason. For some time I stood at the window, gazing admiringly at the blue sky all studded with wisps of cloud, and at the distant shore of the Crimea, stretching out in a lilac-coloured streak and ending in a cliff, on the summit of which the white tower of the lighthouse was gleaming. Then I betook myself to the fortress, Phanagoriya, in order to ascertain from the Commandant at what hour I should depart for Gelenjik.
But the Commandant, alas! could not give me any definite information. The vessels lying in the harbour were all either guard-ships or merchant-vessels which had not yet even begun to take in lading.
“Maybe in about three or four days’ time a mail-boat will come in,” said the Commandant, “and then we shall see.”
I returned home sulky and wrathful. My Cossack met me at the door with a frightened countenance.
“Things are looking bad, sir!” he said.
“Yes, my friend; goodness only knows when we shall get away!”
Hereupon he became still more uneasy, and, bending towards me, he said in a whisper:
“It is uncanny here! I met an under-officer from the Black Sea to-day — he’s an acquaintance of mine — he was in my detachment last year. When I told him where we were staying, he said, ‘That place is uncanny, old fellow; they’re wicked people there!’ . . . And, indeed, what sort of a blind boy is that? He goes everywhere alone, to fetch water and to buy bread at the bazaar. It is evident they have become accustomed to that sort of thing here.”
“Well, what then? Tell me, though, has the mistress of the place put in an appearance?”
“During your absence to-day, an old woman and her daughter arrived.”
“What daughter? She has no daughter!”
“Goodness knows who it can be if it isn’t her daughter; but the old woman is sitting over there in the hut now.”
I entered the hovel. A blazing fire was burning in the stove, and they were cooking a dinner which struck me as being a rather luxurious one for poor people. To all my questions the old woman replied that she was deaf and could not hear me. There was nothing to be got out of her. I turned to the blind boy who was sitting in front of the stove, putting twigs into the fire.
“Now, then, you little blind devil,” I said, taking him by the ear. “Tell me, where were you roaming with the bundle last night, eh?”
The blind boy suddenly burst out weeping, shrieking and wailing.
“Where did I go? I did not go anywhere . . . With the bundle? . . . What bundle?”
This time the old woman heard, and she began to mutter:
“Hark at them plotting, and against a poor boy too! What are you touching him for? What has he done to you?”
I had enough of it, and went out, firmly resolved to find the key to the riddle.
I wrapped myself up in my felt cloak and, sitting down on a rock by the fence, gazed into the distance. Before me stretched the sea, agitated by the storm of the previous night, and its monotonous roar, like the murmur of a town over which slumber is beginning to creep, recalled bygone years to my mind, and transported my thoughts northward to our cold Capital. Agitated by my recollections, I became oblivious of my surroundings.
About an hour passed thus, perhaps even longer. Suddenly something resembling a song struck upon my ear. It was a song, and the voice was a woman’s, young and fresh — but, where was it coming from? . . . I listened; it was a harmonious melody — now long-drawn-out and plaintive, now swift and lively. I looked around me — there was nobody to be seen. I listened again — the sounds seemed to be falling from the sky. I raised my eyes. On the roof of my cabin was standing a young girl in a striped dress and with her hair hanging loose — a regular water-nymph. Shading her eyes from the sun’s rays with the palm of her hand, she was gazing intently into the distance. At one time, she would laugh and talk to herself, at another, she would strike up her song anew.
I have retained that song in my memory, word for word:
At their own free will
They seem to wander
O’er the green sea yonder,
Those ships, as still
They are onward going,
With white sails flowing.
And among those ships
My eye can mark
My own dear barque:
By two oars guided
With sails) it slips.
The storm-wind raves:
And the old ships — see!
With wings spread free,
Over the waves
They scatter and flee!
The sea I will hail
With obeisance deep:
“Thou base one, hark!
Thou must not fail
My little barque
From harm to keep!”
For lo! ’tis bearing
Most precious gear,
And brave and daring
The arms that steer
Within the dark
My little barque.
Involuntarily the thought occurred to me that I had heard the same voice the night before. I reflected for a moment, and when I looked up at the roof again there was no girl to be seen. Suddenly she darted past me, with another song on her lips, and, snapping her fingers, she ran up to the old woman. Thereupon a quarrel arose between them. The old woman grew angry, and the girl laughed loudly. And then I saw my Undine running and gambolling again. She came up to where I was, stopped, and gazed fixedly into my face as if surprised at my presence. Then she turned carelessly away and went quietly towards the harbour. But this was not all. The whole day she kept hovering around my lodging, singing and gambolling without a moment’s interruption. Strange creature! There was not the slightest sign of insanity in her face; on the contrary, her eyes, which were continually resting upon me, were bright and piercing. Moreover, they seemed to be endowed with a certain magnetic power, and each time they looked at me they appeared to be expecting a question. But I had only to open my lips to speak, and away she would run, with a sly smile.
Certainly never before had I seen a woman like her. She was by no means beautiful; but, as in other matters, I have my own prepossessions on the subject of beauty. There was a good deal of breeding in her . . . Breeding in women, as in horses, is a great thing: a discovery, the credit of which belongs to young France. It — that is to say, breeding, not young France — is chiefly to be detected in the gait, in the hands and feet; the nose, in particular, is of the greatest significance. In Russia a straight nose is rarer than a small foot.
My songstress appeared to be not more than eighteen years of age. The unusual suppleness of her figure, the characteristic and original way she had of inclining her head, her long, light-brown hair, the golden sheen of her slightly sunburnt neck and shoulders, and especially her straight nose — all these held me fascinated. Although in her sidelong glances I could read a certain wildness and disdain, although in her smile there was a certain vagueness, yet — such is the force of predilections — that straight nose of hers drove me crazy. I fancied that I had found Goethe’s Mignon — that queer creature of his German imagination. And, indeed, there was a good deal of similarity between them; the same rapid transitions from the utmost restlessness to complete immobility, the same enigmatical speeches, the same gambols, the same strange songs.
Towards evening I stopped her at the door and entered into the following conversation with her.
“Tell me, my beauty,” I asked, “what were you doing on the roof to-day?”
“I was looking to see from what direction the wind was blowing.”
“What did you want to know for?”
“Whence the wind blows comes happiness.”
“Well? Were you invoking happiness with your song?”
“Where there is singing there is also happiness.”
“But what if your song were to bring you sorrow?”
“Well, what then? Where things won’t be better, they will be worse; and from bad to good again is not far.”
“And who taught you that song?”
“Nobody taught me; it comes into my head and I sing; whoever is to hear it, he will hear it, and whoever ought not to hear it, he will not understand it.”
“What is your name, my songstress?”
“He who baptized me knows.”
“And who baptized you?”
“How should I know?”
“What a secretive girl you are! But look here, I have learned something about you” — she neither changed countenance nor moved her lips, as though my discovery was of no concern to her — “I have learned that you went to the shore last night.”
And, thereupon, I very gravely retailed to her all that I had seen, thinking that I should embarrass her. Not a bit of it! She burst out laughing heartily.
“You have seen much, but know little; and what you do know, see that you keep it under lock and key.”
“But supposing, now, I was to take it into my head to inform the Commandant?” and here I assumed a very serious, not to say stern, demeanour.
She gave a sudden spring, began to sing, and hid herself like a bird frightened out of a thicket. My last words were altogether out of place. I had no suspicion then how momentous they were, but afterwards I had occasion to rue them.
As soon as the dusk of evening fell, I ordered the Cossack to heat the teapot, campaign fashion. I lighted a candle and sat down by the table, smoking my travelling-pipe. I was just about to finish my second tumbler of tea when suddenly the door creaked and I heard behind me the sound of footsteps and the light rustle of a dress. I started and turned round.
It was she — my Undine. Softly and without saying a word she sat down opposite to me and fixed her eyes upon me. Her glance seemed wondrously tender, I know not why; it reminded me of one of those glances which, in years gone by, so despotically played with my life. She seemed to be waiting for a question, but I kept silence, filled with an inexplicable sense of embarrassment. Mental agitation was evinced by the dull pallor which overspread her countenance; her hand, which I noticed was trembling slightly, moved aimlessly about the table. At one time her breast heaved, and at another she seemed to be holding her breath. This little comedy was beginning to pall upon me, and I was about to break the silence in a most prosaic manner, that is, by offering her a glass of tea; when suddenly, springing up, she threw her arms around my neck, and I felt her moist, fiery lips pressed upon mine. Darkness came before my eyes, my head began to swim. I embraced her with the whole strength of youthful passion. But, like a snake, she glided from between my arms, whispering in my ear as she did so:
“To-night, when everyone is asleep, go out to the shore.”
Like an arrow she sprang from the room.
In the hall she upset the teapot and a candle which was standing on the floor.
“Little devil!” cried the Cossack, who had taken up his position on the straw and had contemplated warming himself with the remains of the tea.
It was only then that I recovered my senses.
In about two hours’ time, when all had grown silent in the harbour, I awakened my Cossack.
“If I fire a pistol,” I said, “run to the shore.”
He stared open-eyed and answered mechanically:
“Very well, sir.”
I stuffed a pistol in my belt and went out. She was waiting for me at the edge of the cliff. Her attire was more than light, and a small kerchief girded her supple waist.
“Follow me!” she said, taking me by the hand, and we began to descend.
I cannot understand how it was that I did not break my neck. Down below we turned to the right and proceeded to take the path along which I had followed the blind boy the evening before. The moon had not yet risen, and only two little stars, like two guardian lighthouses, were twinkling in the dark-blue vault of heaven. The heavy waves, with measured and even motion, rolled one after the other, scarcely lifting the solitary boat which was moored to the shore.
“Let us get into the boat,” said my companion.
I hesitated. I am no lover of sentimental trips on the sea; but this was not the time to draw back. She leaped into the boat, and I after her; and I had not time to recover my wits before I observed that we were adrift.
“What is the meaning of this?” I said angrily.
“It means,” she answered, seating me on the bench and throwing her arms around my waist, “it means that I love you!” . . .
Her cheek was pressed close to mine. and I felt her burning breath upon my face. Suddenly something fell noisily into the water. I clutched at my belt — my pistol was gone! Ah, now a terrible suspicion crept into my soul, and the blood rushed to my head! I looked round. We were about fifty fathoms from the shore, and I could not swim a stroke! I tried to thrust her away from me, but she clung like a cat to my clothes, and suddenly a violent wrench all but threw me into the sea. The boat rocked, but I righted myself, and a desperate struggle began.
Fury lent me strength, but I soon found that I was no match for my opponent in point of agility. . .
“What do you want?” I cried, firmly squeezing her little hands.
Her fingers crunched, but her serpent-like nature bore up against the torture, and she did not utter a cry.
“You saw us,” she answered. “You will tell on us.”
And, with a supernatural effort, she flung me on to the side of the boat; we both hung half overboard; her hair touched the water. The decisive moment had come. I planted my knee against the bottom of the boat, caught her by the tresses with one hand and by the throat with the other; she let go my clothes, and, in an instant, I had thrown her into the waves.
It was now rather dark; once or twice her head appeared for an instant amidst the sea foam, and I saw no more of her.
I found the half of an old oar at the bottom of the boat, and somehow or other, after lengthy efforts, I made fast to the harbour. Making my way along the shore towards my hut, I involuntarily gazed in the direction of the spot where, on the previous night, the blind boy had awaited the nocturnal mariner. The moon was already rolling through the sky, and it seemed to me that somebody in white was sitting on the shore. Spurred by curiosity, I crept up and crouched down in the grass on the top of the cliff. By thrusting my head out a little way I was able to get a good view of everything that was happening down below, and I was not very much astonished, but almost rejoiced, when I recognised my water-nymph. She was wringing the sea-foam from her long hair. Her wet garment outlined her supple figure and her high bosom.
Soon a boat appeared in the distance; it drew near rapidly; and, as on the night before, a man in a Tartar cap stepped out of it, but he now had his hair cropped round in the Cossack fashion, and a large knife was sticking out behind his leather belt.
“Yanko,” the girl said, “all is lost!”
Then their conversation continued, but so softly that I could not catch a word of it.
“But where is the blind boy?” said Yanko at last, raising his voice.
“I have told him to come,” was the reply.
After a few minutes the blind boy appeared, dragging on his back a sack, which they placed in the boat.
“Listen!” said Yanko to the blind boy. “Guard that place! You know where I mean? There are valuable goods there. Tell” — I could not catch the name — “that I am no longer his servant. Things have gone badly. He will see me no more. It is dangerous now. I will go seek work in another place, and he will never be able to find another dare-devil like me. Tell him also that if he had paid me a little better for my labours, I would not have forsaken him. For me there is a way anywhere, if only the wind blows and the sea roars.”
After a short silence Yanko continued.
“She is coming with me. It is impossible for her to remain here. Tell the old woman that it is time for her to die; she has been here a long time, and the line must be drawn somewhere. As for us, she will never see us any more.”
“And I?” said the blind boy in a plaintive voice.
“What use have I for you?” was the answer.
In the meantime my Undine had sprung into the boat. She beckoned to her companion with her hand. He placed something in the blind boy’s hand and added:
“There, buy yourself some gingerbreads.”
“Is this all?” said the blind boy.
“Well, here is some more.”
The money fell and jingled as it struck the rock.
The blind boy did not pick it up. Yanko took his seat in the boat; the wind was blowing from the shore; they hoisted the little sail and sped rapidly away. For a long time the white sail gleamed in the moonlight amid the dark waves. Still the blind boy remained seated upon the shore, and then I heard something which sounded like sobbing. The blind boy was, in fact, weeping, and for a long, long time his tears flowed . . . I grew heavy-hearted. For what reason should fate have thrown me into the peaceful circle of honourable smugglers? Like a stone cast into a smooth well, I had disturbed their quietude, and I barely escaped going to the bottom like a stone.
I returned home. In the hall the burnt-out candle was spluttering on a wooden platter, and my Cossack, contrary to orders, was fast asleep, with his gun held in both hands. I left him at rest, took the candle, and entered the hut. Alas! my cashbox, my sabre with the silver chasing, my Daghestan dagger — the gift of a friend — all had vanished! It was then that I guessed what articles the cursed blind boy had been dragging along. Roughly shaking the Cossack, I woke him up, rated him, and lost my temper. But what was the good of that? And would it not have been ridiculous to complain to the authorities that I had been robbed by a blind boy and all but drowned by an eighteen-year-old girl?
Thank heaven an opportunity of getting away presented itself in the morning, and I left Taman.
What became of the old woman and the poor blind boy I know not. And, besides, what are the joys and sorrows of mankind to me — me, a travelling officer, and one, moreover, with an order for post-horses on Government business?
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10