I was sitting in a birchwood in autumn, about the middle of September. From early morning a fine rain had been falling, with intervals from time to time of warm sunshine; the weather was unsettled. The sky was at one time overcast with soft white clouds, at another it suddenly cleared in parts for an instant, and then behind the parting clouds could be seen a blue, bright and tender as a beautiful eye. I sat looking about and listening. The leaves faintly rustled over my head; from the sound of them alone one could tell what time of year it was. It was not the gay laughing tremor of the spring, nor the subdued whispering, the prolonged gossip of the summer, nor the chill and timid faltering of late autumn, but a scarcely audible, drowsy chatter. A slight breeze was faintly humming in the tree-tops. Wet with the rain, the copse in its inmost recesses was for ever changing as the sun shone or hid behind a cloud; at one moment it was all a radiance, as though suddenly everything were smiling in it; the slender stems of the thinly-growing birch-trees took all at once the soft lustre of white silk, the tiny leaves lying on the earth were on a sudden flecked and flaring with purplish gold, and the graceful stalks of the high, curly bracken, decked already in their autumn colour, the hue of an over-ripe grape, seemed interlacing in endless tangling crisscross before one’s eyes; then suddenly again everything around was faintly bluish; the glaring tints died away instantaneously, the birch-trees stood all white and lustreless, white as fresh-fallen snow, before the cold rays of the winter sun have caressed it; and slily, stealthily there began drizzling and whispering through the wood the finest rain. The leaves on the birches were still almost all green, though perceptibly paler; only here and there stood one young leaf, all red or golden, and it was a sight to see how it flamed in the sunshine when the sunbeams suddenly pierced with tangled flecks of light through the thick network of delicate twigs, freshly washed by the sparkling rain. Not one bird could be heard; all were in hiding and silent, except that at times there rang out the metallic, bell-like sound of the jeering tomtit. Before halting in this birch copse I had been through a wood of tall aspen-trees with my dog. I confess I have no great liking for that tree, the aspen, with its pale-lilac trunk and the greyish-green metallic leaves which it flings high as it can, and unfolds in a quivering fan in the air; I do not care for the eternal shaking of its round, slovenly leaves, awkwardly hooked on to long stalks. It is only fine on some summer evenings when, rising singly above low undergrowth, it faces the reddening beams of the setting sun, and shines and quivers, bathed from root to top in one unbroken yellow glow, or when, on a clear windy day, it is all rippling, rustling, and whispering to the blue sky, and every leaf is, as it were, taken by a longing to break away, to fly off and soar into the distance. But, as a rule, I don’t care for the tree, and so, not stopping to rest in the aspen wood, I made my way to the birch-copse, nestled down under one tree whose branches started low down near the ground, and were consequently capable of shielding me from the rain, and after admiring the surrounding view a little, I fell into that sweet untroubled sleep only known to sportsmen.
I cannot say how long I was asleep, but when I opened my eyes, all the depths of the wood were filled with sunlight, and in all directions across the joyously rustling leaves there were glimpses and, as it were, flashes of intense blue sky; the clouds had vanished, driven away by the blustering wind; the weather had changed to fair, and there was that feeling of peculiar dry freshness in the air which fills the heart with a sense of boldness, and is almost always a sure sign of a still bright evening after a rainy day. I was just about to get up and try my luck again when suddenly my eyes fell on a motionless human figure. I looked attentively; it was a young peasant girl. She was sitting twenty paces off, her head bent in thought, and her hands lying in her lap; one of them, half-open, held a big nosegay of wild flowers, which softly stirred on her checked petticoat with every breath. Her clean white smock, buttoned up at the throat and wrists, lay in short soft folds about her figure; two rows of big yellow beads fell from her neck to her bosom. She was very pretty. Her thick fair hair of a lovely, almost ashen hue, was parted into two carefully combed semicircles, under the narrow crimson fillet, which was brought down almost on to her forehead, white as ivory; the rest of her face was faintly tanned that golden hue which is only taken by a delicate skin. I could not see her eyes — she did not raise them; but I saw her delicate high eye-brows, her long lashes; they were wet, and on one of her cheeks there shone in the sun the traces of quickly drying tears, reaching right down to her rather pale lips. Her little head was very charming altogether; even her rather thick and snub nose did not spoil her. I was especially taken with the expression of her face; it was so simple and gentle, so sad and so full of childish wonder at its own sadness. She was obviously waiting for some one; something made a faint crackling in the wood; she raised her head at once, and looked round; in the transparent shade I caught a rapid glimpse of her eyes, large, clear, and timorous, like a fawn’s. For a few instants she listened, not moving her wide open eyes from the spot whence the faint sound had come; she sighed, turned her head slowly, bent still lower, and began sorting her flowers. Her eyelids turned red, her lips twitched faintly, and a fresh tear rolled from under her thick eyelashes, and stood brightly shining on her cheek. Rather a long while passed thus; the poor girl did not stir, except for a despairing movement of her hands now and then — and she kept listening, listening. . . . Again there was a crackling sound in the wood: she started. The sound did not cease, grew more distinct, and came closer; at last one could hear quick resolute footsteps. She drew herself up and seemed frightened; her intent gaze was all aquiver, all aglow with expectation. Through the thicket quickly appeared the figure of a man. She gazed at it, suddenly flushed, gave a radiant, blissful smile, tried to rise, and sank back again at once, turned white and confused, and only raised her quivering, almost supplicating eyes to the man approaching, when the latter stood still beside her.
I looked at him with curiosity from my ambush. I confess he did not make an agreeable impression on me. He was, to judge by external signs, the pampered valet of some rich young gentleman. His attire betrayed pretensions to style and fashionable carelessness; he wore a shortish coat of a bronze colour, doubtless from his master’s wardrobe, buttoned up to the top, a pink cravat with lilac ends, and a black velvet cap with a gold ribbon, pulled forward right on to his eyebrows. The round collar of his white shirt mercilessly propped up his ears and cut his cheeks, and his starched cuffs hid his whole hand to the red crooked fingers, adorned by gold and silver rings, with turquoise forget-me-nots. His red, fresh, impudent-looking face belonged to the order of faces which, as far as I have observed, are almost always repulsive to men, and unfortunately are very often attractive to women. He was obviously trying to give a scornful and bored expression to his coarse features; he was incessantly screwing up his milky grey eyes — small enough at all times; he scowled, dropped the corners of his mouth, affected to yawn, and with careless, though not perfectly natural nonchalance, pushed back his modishly curled red locks, or pinched the yellow hairs sprouting on his thick upper lip — in fact, he gave himself insufferable airs. He began his antics directly he caught sight of the young peasant girl waiting for him; slowly, with a swaggering step, he went up to her, stood a moment shrugging his shoulders, stuffed both hands in his coat pockets, and barely vouchsafing the poor girl a cursory and indifferent glance, he dropped on to the ground.
‘Well,’ he began, still gazing away, swinging his leg and yawning, ‘have you been here long?’
The girl could not at once answer.
‘Yes, a long while, Viktor Alexandritch,’ she said at last, in a voice hardly audible.
‘Ah!’ (He took off his cap, majestically passed his hand over his thick, stiffly curled hair, which grew almost down to his eyebrows, and looking round him with dignity, he carelessly covered his precious head again.) ‘And I quite forgot all about it. Besides, it rained!’ (He yawned again.) ‘Lots to do; there’s no looking after everything; and he’s always scolding. We set off to-morrow. . . . ’
‘To-morrow?’ uttered the young girl. And she fastened her startled eyes upon him.
‘Yes, to-morrow. . . . Come, come, come, please!’ he added, in a tone of vexation, seeing she was shaking all over and softly bending her head; ‘please, Akulina, don’t cry. You know, I can’t stand that.’ (And he wrinkled up his snub nose.) ‘Else I’ll go away at once. . . . What silliness — snivelling!’
‘There, I won’t, I won’t!’ cried Akulina, hurriedly gulping down her tears with an effort. ‘You are starting to-morrow?’ she added, after a brief silence: ‘when will God grant that we see each other again, Viktor Alexandritch?’
‘We shall see each other, we shall see each other. If not next year — then later. The master wants to enter the service in Petersburg, I fancy,’ he went on, pronouncing his words with careless condescension through his nose; ‘and perhaps we shall go abroad too.’
‘You will forget me, Viktor Alexandritch,’ said Akulina mournfully.
‘No, why so? I won’t forget you; only you be sensible, don’t be a fool; obey your father. . . . And I won’t forget you — no-o.’ (And he placidly stretched and yawned again.)
‘Don’t forget me, Viktor Alexandritch,’ she went on in a supplicating voice. ‘I think none could, love you as I do. I have given you everything. . . . You tell me to obey my father, Viktor Alexandritch. . . . But how can I obey my father? . . . ’
‘Why not?’ (He uttered these words, as it were, from his stomach, lying on his back with his hands behind his head.)
‘But how can I, Viktor Alexandritch? — you know yourself . . . ’
She broke off. Viktor played with his steel watch-chain.
‘You’re not a fool, Akulina,’ he said at last, ‘so don’t talk nonsense. I desire your good — do you understand me? To be sure, you’re not a fool — not altogether a mere rustic, so to say; and your mother, too, wasn’t always a peasant. Still you’ve no education — so you ought to do what you’re told.’
‘But it’s fearful, Viktor Alexandritch.’
‘O-oh! that’s nonsense, my dear; a queer thing to be afraid of! What have you got there?’ he added, moving closer to her; ‘flowers?’
‘Yes,’ Akulina responded dejectedly. ‘That’s some wild tansy I picked,’ she went on, brightening up a little; ‘it’s good for calves. And this is bud-marigold — against the king’s evil. Look, what an exquisite flower! I’ve never seen such a lovely flower before. These are forget-me-nots, and that’s mother-darling. . . . And these I picked for you,’ she added, taking from under a yellow tansy a small bunch of blue corn-flowers, tied up with a thin blade of grass.’ Do you like them?’
Viktor languidly held out his hand, took the flowers, carelessly sniffed at them, and began twirling them in his fingers, looking upwards. Akulina watched him. . . . In her mournful eyes there was such tender devotion, adoring submission and love. She was afraid of him, and did not dare to cry, and was saying good-bye to him and admiring him for the last time; while he lay, lolling like a sultan, and with magnanimous patience and condescension put up with her adoration. I must own, I glared indignantly at his red face, on which, under the affectation of scornful indifference, one could discern vanity soothed and satisfied. Akulina was so sweet at that instant; her whole soul was confidingly and passionately laid bare before him, full of longing and caressing tenderness, while he . . . he dropped the corn-flowers on the grass, pulled out of the side pocket of his coat a round eye-glass set in a brass rim, and began sticking it in his eye; but however much he tried to hold it with his frowning eyebrow, his pursed-up cheek and nose, the eye-glass kept tumbling out and falling into his hand.
‘What is it?’ Akulina asked at last in wonder.
‘An eye-glass,’ he answered with dignity.
‘Why, to see better.’
Viktor scowled, but gave her the glass.
‘Don’t break it; look out.’
‘No fear, I won’t break it.’ (She put it to her eye.) ‘I see nothing,’ she said innocently.
‘But you must shut your eye,’ he retorted in the tones of a displeased teacher. (She shut the eye before which she held the glass.)
‘Not that one, not that one, you fool! the other!’ cried Viktor, and he took away his eye-glass, without allowing her to correct her mistake.
Akulina flushed a little, gave a faint laugh, and turned away.
‘It’s clear it’s not for the likes of us,’ she said.
‘I should think not, indeed!’
The poor girl was silent and gave a deep sigh.
‘Ah, Viktor Alexandritch, what it will be like for me to be without you!’ she said suddenly.
Victor rubbed the glass on the lappet of his coat and put it back in his pocket.
‘Yes, yes,‘he said at last, ‘at first it will be hard for you, certainly.’ (He patted her condescendingly on the shoulder; she softly took his hand from her shoulder and timidly kissed it.) ‘There, there, you’re a good girl, certainly,’ he went on, with a complacent smile; ‘but what’s to be done? You can see for yourself! me and the master could never stay on here; it will soon be winter now, and winter in the country — you know yourself — is simply disgusting. It’s quite another thing in Petersburg! There there are simply such wonders as a silly girl like you could never fancy in your dreams! Such horses and streets, and society, and civilisation — simply marvellous! . . . ’ (Akulina listened with devouring attention, her lips slightly parted, like a child.) ‘But what’s the use,’ he added, turning over on the ground, ‘of my telling you all this? Of course, you can’t understand it!’
‘Why so, Viktor Alexandritch! I understand; I understood everything.’
‘My eye, what a girl it is!’
Akulina looked down.
‘You used not to talk to me like that once, Viktor Alexandritch,’ she said, not lifting her eyes.
‘Once? . . . once! . . . My goodness!’ he remarked, as though in indignation.
They both were silent.
‘It’s time I was going,’ said Viktor, and he was already rising on to his elbow.
‘Wait a little longer,’ Akulina besought him in a supplicating voice.
‘What for? . . . Why, I’ve said good-bye to you.’
‘Wait a little,’ repeated Akulina.
Viktor lay down again and began whistling. Akulina never took her eyes off him. I could see that she was gradually being overcome by emotion; her lips twitched, her pale cheeks faintly glowed.
‘Viktor Alexandritch,’ she began at last in a broken voice, ‘it’s too bad of you . . . it is too bad of you, Viktor Alexandritch, indeed it is!’
‘What’s too bad?’ he asked frowning, and he slightly raised his head and turned it towards her.
‘It’s too bad, Viktor Alexandritch. You might at least say one kind word to me at parting; you might have said one little word to me, a poor luckless forlorn.’ . . .
‘But what am I to say to you?’
‘I don’t know; you know that best, Viktor Alexandritch. Here you are going away, and one little word. . . . What have I done to deserve it?’
‘You’re such a queer creature! What can I do?’
‘One word at least.’
‘There, she keeps on at the same thing,’ he commented with annoyance, and he got up.
‘Don’t be angry, Viktor Alexandritch,’ she added hurriedly, with difficulty suppressing her tears.
I’m not angry, only you’re silly. . . . What do you want? You know I can’t marry you, can I? I can’t, can I? What is it you want then, eh?’ (He thrust his face forward as though expecting an answer, and spread his fingers out.)
‘I want nothing . . . nothing,’ she answered falteringly, and she ventured to hold out her trembling hands to him; ‘but only a word at parting.’
And her tears fell in a torrent.
‘There, that means she’s gone off into crying,’ said Viktor coolly, pushing down his cap on to his eyes.
‘I want nothing,’ she went on, sobbing and covering her face with her hands; ‘but what is there before me in my family? what is there before me? what will happen to me? what will become of me, poor wretch? They will marry me to a hateful . . . poor forsaken . . . Poor me!’
‘Sing away, sing away,’ muttered Viktor in an undertone, fidgeting with impatience as he stood.
‘And he might say one word, one word. . . . He might say, “Akulina . . . I . . . ”’
Sudden heart-breaking sobs prevented her from finishing; she lay with her face in the grass and bitterly, bitterly she wept. . . . Her whole body shook convulsively, her neck fairly heaved. . . . Her long-suppressed grief broke out in a torrent at last. Viktor stood over her, stood a moment, shrugged his shoulders, turned away and strode off.
A few instants passed . . . she grew calmer, raised her head, jumped up, looked round and wrung her hands; she tried to run after him, but her legs gave way under her — she fell on her knees. . . . I could not refrain from rushing up to her; but, almost before she had time to look at me, making a superhuman effort she got up with a faint shriek and vanished behind the trees, leaving her flowers scattered on the ground.
I stood a minute, picked up the bunch of cornflowers, and went out of the wood into the open country. The sun had sunk low in the pale clear sky; its rays too seemed to have grown pale and chill; they did not shine; they were diffused in an unbroken, watery light. It was within half-an-hour of sunset, but there was scarcely any of the glow of evening. A gusty wind scurried to meet me across the yellow parched stubble; little curled-up leaves, scudding hurriedly before it, flew by across the road, along the edge of the copse; the side of the copse facing the fields like a wall, was all shaking and lighted up by tiny gleams, distinct, but not glowing; on the reddish plants, the blades of grass, the straws on all sides, were sparkling and stirring innumerable threads of autumn spider-webs. I stopped . . . I felt sad at heart: under the bright but chill smile of fading nature, the dismal dread of coming winter seemed to steal upon me. High overhead flew a cautious crow, heavily and sharply cleaving the air with his wings; he turned his head, looked sideways at me, flapped his wings and, cawing abruptly, vanished behind the wood; a great flock of pigeons flew up playfully from a threshing floor, and suddenly eddying round in a column, scattered busily about the country. Sure sign of autumn! Some one came driving over the bare hillside, his empty cart rattling loudly. . . .
I turned homewards; but it was long before the figure of poor Akulina faded out of my mind, and her cornflowers, long since withered, are still in my keeping.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01