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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
That evening Kuzma Vassilyevitch Yergunov told us his story again. He used to repeat it punctually once a month and we heard it every time with fresh satisfaction though we knew it almost by heart, in all its details. Those details overgrew, if one may so express it, the original trunk of the story itself as fungi grow over the stump of a tree. Knowing only too well the character of our companion, we did not trouble to fill in his gaps and incomplete statements. But now Kuzma Vassilyevitch is dead and there will be no one to tell his story and so we venture to bring it before the notice of the public.
It happened forty years ago when Kuzma Vassilyevitch was young. He said of himself that he was at that time a handsome fellow and a dandy with a complexion of milk and roses, red lips, curly hair, and eyes like a falcon’s. We took his word for it, though we saw nothing of that sort in him; in our eyes Kuzma Vassilyevitch was a man of very ordinary exterior, with a simple and sleepy-looking face and a heavy, clumsy figure. But what of that? There is no beauty the years will not mar! The traces of dandyism were more clearly preserved in Kuzma Vassilyevitch. He still in his old age wore narrow trousers with straps, laced in his corpulent figure, cropped the back of his head, curled his hair over his forehead and dyed his moustache with Persian dye, which had, however, a tint rather of purple, and even of green, than of black. With all that Kuzma Vassilyevitch was a very worthy gentleman, though at preference he did like to “steal a peep,” that is, look over his neighbour’s cards; but this he did not so much from greed as carefulness, for he did not like wasting his money. Enough of these parentheses, however; let us come to the story itself.
It happened in the spring at Nikolaev, at that time a new town, to which Kuzma Vassilyevitch had been sent on a government commission. (He was a lieutenant in the navy.) He had, as a trustworthy and prudent officer, been charged by the authorities with the task of looking after the construction of ship-yards and from time to time received considerable sums of money, which for security he invariably carried in a leather belt on his person. Kuzma Vassilyevitch certainly was distinguished by his prudence and, in spite of his youth, his behaviour was exemplary; he studiously avoided every impropriety of conduct, did not touch cards, did not drink and, even fought shy of society so that of his comrades, the quiet ones called him “a regular girl” and the rowdy ones called him a muff and a noodle. Kuzma Vassilyevitch had only one failing, he had a tender heart for the fair sex; but even in that direction he succeeded in restraining his impulses and did not allow himself to indulge in any “foolishness.” He got up and went to bed early, was conscientious in performing his duties and his only recreation consisted in rather long evening walks about the outskirts of Nikolaev. He did not read as he thought it would send the blood to his head; every spring he used to drink a special decoction because he was afraid of being too full-blooded. Putting on his uniform and carefully brushing himself Kuzma Vassilyevitch strolled with a sedate step alongside the fences of orchards, often stopped, admired the beauties of nature, gathered flowers as souvenirs and found a certain pleasure in doing so; but he felt acute pleasure only when he happened to meet “a charmer,” that is, some pretty little workgirl with a shawl flung over her shoulders, with a parcel in her ungloved hand and a gay kerchief on her head. Being as he himself expressed it of a susceptible but modest temperament Kuzma Vassilyevitch did not address the “charmer,” but smiled ingratiatingly at her and looked long and attentively after her. . . . Then he would heave a deep sigh, go home with the same sedate step, sit down at the window and dream for half an hour, carefully smoking strong tobacco out of a meerschaum pipe with an amber mouthpiece given him by his godfather, a police superintendent of German origin. So the days passed neither gaily nor drearily.
Well, one day, as he was returning home along an empty side-street at dusk Kuzma Vassilyevitch heard behind him hurried footsteps and incoherent words mingled with sobs. He looked round and saw a girl about twenty with an extremely pleasing but distressed and tear-stained face. She seemed to have been overtaken by some great and unexpected grief. She was running and stumbling as she ran, talking to herself, exclaiming, gesticulating; her fair hair was in disorder and her shawl (the burnous and the mantle were unknown in those days) had slipped off her shoulders and was kept on by one pin. The girl was dressed like a young lady, not like a workgirl.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch stepped aside; his feeling of compassion overpowered his fear of doing something foolish and, when she caught him up, he politely touched the peak of his shako, and asked her the cause of her tears.
“For,” he added, and he laid his hand on his cutlass, “I, as an officer, may be able to help you.”
The girl stopped and apparently for the first moment did not clearly understand what he wanted of her; but at once, as though glad of the opportunity of expressing herself, began speaking in slightly imperfect Russian.
“Oh, dear, Mr. Officer,” she began and tears rained down her charming cheeks, “it is beyond everything! It’s awful, it is beyond words! We have been robbed, the cook has carried off everything, everything, everything, the dinner service, the lock-up box and our clothes. . . . Yes, even our clothes, and stockings and linen, yes . . . and aunt’s reticule. There was a twenty-five-rouble note and two appliqué spoons in it . . . and her pelisse, too, and everything. . . . And I told all that to the police officer and the police officer said, ‘Go away, I don’t believe you, I don’t believe you. I won’t listen to you. You are the same sort yourselves.’ I said, ‘Why, but the pelisse . . . ’ and he, ‘I won’t listen to you, I won’t listen to you.’ It was so insulting, Mr. Officer! ‘Go away,’ he said, ‘get along,’ but where am I to go?”
The girl sobbed convulsively, almost wailing, and utterly distracted leaned against Kuzma Vassilyevitch’s sleeve. . . . He was overcome with confusion in his turn and stood rooted to the spot, only repeating from time to time, “There, there!” while he gazed at the delicate nape of the dishevelled damsel’s neck, as it shook from her sobs.
“Will you let me see you home?” he said at last, lightly touching her shoulder with his forefinger, “here in the street, you understand, it is quite impossible. You can explain your trouble to me and of course I will make every effort . . . as an officer.”
The girl raised her head and seemed for the first time to see the young man who might be said to be holding her in his arms. She was disconcerted, turned away, and still sobbing moved a little aside. Kuzma Vassilyevitch repeated his suggestion. The girl looked at him askance through her hair which had fallen over her face and was wet with tears. (At this point Kuzma Vassilyevitch always assured us that this glance pierced through him “like an awl,” and even attempted once to reproduce this marvellous glance for our benefit) and laying her hand within the crooked arm of the obliging lieutenant, set off with him for her lodging.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch had had very little to do with ladies and so was at a loss how to begin the conversation, but his companion chattered away very fluently, continually drying her eyes and shedding fresh tears. Within a few minutes Kuzma Vassilyevitch had learnt that her name was Emilie Karlovna, that she came from Riga and that she had come to Nikolaev to stay with her aunt who was from Riga, too, that her papa too had been in the army but had died from “his chest,” that her aunt had a Russian cook, a very good and inexpensive cook but she had not a passport and that this cook had that very day robbed them and run away. She had had to go to the police — in die Polizei. . . . But here the memories of the police superintendent, of the insult she had received from him, surged up again . . . and sobs broke out afresh. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was once more at a loss what to say to comfort her. But the girl, whose impressions seemed to come and go very rapidly, stopped suddenly and holding out her hand, said calmly:
“And this is where we live!”
It was a wretched little house that looked as though it had sunk into the ground, with four little windows looking into the street. The dark green of geraniums blocked them up within; a candle was burning in one of them; night was already coming on. A wooden fence with a hardly visible gate stretched from the house and was almost of the same height. The girl went up to the gate and finding it locked knocked on it impatiently with the iron ring of the padlock. Heavy footsteps were audible behind the fence as though someone in slippers trodden down at heel were carelessly shuffling towards the gate, and a husky female voice asked some question in German which Kuzma Vassilyevitch did not understand: like a regular sailor he knew no language but Russian. The girl answered in German, too; the gate opened a very little, admitted the girl and then was slammed almost in the face of Kuzma Vassilyevitch who had time, however, to make out in the summer twilight the outline of a stout, elderly woman in a red dress with a dimly burning lantern in her hand. Struck with amazement Kuzma Vassilyevitch remained for some time motionless in the street; but at the thought that he, a naval officer (Kuzma Vassilyevitch had a very high opinion of his rank) had been so discourteously treated, he was moved to indignation and turning on his heel he went homewards. He had not gone ten paces when the gate opened again and the girl, who had had time to whisper to the old woman, appeared in the gateway and called out aloud:
“Where are you going, Mr. Officer! Please come in.”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch hesitated a little; he turned back, however.
This new acquaintance, whom we will call Emilie, led him through a dark, damp little lobby into a fairly large but low-pitched and untidy room with a huge cupboard against the further wall and a sofa covered with American leather; above the doors and between the windows hung three portraits in oils with the paint peeling off, two representing bishops in clerical caps and one a Turk in a turban; cardboard boxes were lying about in the corners; there were chairs of different sorts and a crooked legged card table on which a man’s cap was lying beside an unfinished glass of kvass. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was followed into the room by the old woman in the red dress, whom he had noticed at the gate, and who turned out to be a very unprepossessing Jewess with sullen pig-like eyes and a grey moustache over her puffy upper lip. Emilie indicated her to Kuzma Vassilyevitch and said:
“This is my aunt, Madame Fritsche.”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch was a little surprised but thought it his duty to introduce himself. Madame Fritsche looked at him from under her brows, made no response, but asked her niece in Russian whether she would like some tea.
“Ah, yes, tea!” answered Emilie. “You will have some tea, won’t you, Mr. Officer? Yes, auntie, give us some tea! But why are you standing, Mr. Officer? Sit down! Oh, how ceremonious you are! Let me take off my fichu.”
When Emilie talked she continually turned her head from one side to another and jerked her shoulders; birds make similar movements when they sit on a bare branch with sunshine all round them.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch sank into a chair and assuming a becoming air of dignity, that is, leaning on his cutlass and fixing his eyes on the floor, he began to speak about the theft. But Emilie at once interrupted him.
“Don’t trouble yourself, it’s all right. Auntie has just told me that the principal things have been found.” (Madame Fritsche mumbled something to herself and went out of the room.) “And there was no need to go to the police at all; but I can’t control myself because I am so . . . You don’t understand German? . . . So quick, immer so rasch! But I think no more about it . . . aber auch gar nicht!”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch looked at Emilie. Her face indeed showed no trace of care now. Everything was smiling in that pretty little face: the eyes, fringed with almost white lashes, and the lips and the cheeks and the chin and the dimples in the chin, and even the tip of her turned-up nose. She went up to the little looking glass beside the cupboard and, screwing up her eyes and humming through her teeth, began tidying her hair. Kuzma Vassilyevitch followed her movements intently. . . . He found her very charming.
“You must excuse me,” she began again, turning from side to side before the looking glass, “for having so . . . brought you home with me. Perhaps you dislike it?”
“Oh, not at all!”
“As I have told you already, I am so quick. I act first and think afterwards, though sometimes I don’t think at all. . . . What is your name, Mr. Officer? May I ask you?” she added going up to him and folding her arms.
“My name is Kuzma Vassilyevitch Yergunov.”
“Yergu. . . . Oh, it’s not a nice name! I mean it’s difficult for me. I shall call you Mr. Florestan. At Riga we had a Mr. Florestan. He sold capital gros-de-Naples in his shop and was a handsome man, as good-looking as you. But how broad-shouldered you are! A regular sturdy Russian! I like the Russians. . . . I am a Russian myself . . . my papa was an officer. But my hands are whiter than yours!” She raised them above her head, waved them several times in the air, so as to drive the blood from them, and at once dropped them. “Do you see? I wash them with Greek scented soap. . . . Sniff! Oh, but don’t kiss them. . . . I did not do it for that. . . . Where are you serving?”
“In the fleet, in the nineteenth Black Sea company.”
“Oh, you are a sailor! Well, do you get a good salary?”
“No . . . not very.”
“You must be very brave. One can see it at once from your eyes. What thick eyebrows you’ve got! They say you ought to grease them with lard overnight to make them grow. But why have you no moustache?”
“It’s against the regulations.”
“Oh, that’s not right! What’s that you’ve got, a dagger?”
“It’s a cutlass; a cutlass, so to say, is the sailor’s weapon.”
“Ah, a cutlass! Is it sharp? May I look?” With an effort, biting her lip and screwing up her eyes, she drew the blade out of the scabbard and put it to her nose.
“Oh, how blunt! I can kill you with it in a minute!”
She waved it at Kuzma Vassilyevitch. He pretended to be frightened and laughed. She laughed too.
“Ihr habt pardon, you are pardoned,” she pronounced, throwing herself into a majestic attitude. “There, take your weapon! And how old are you?” she asked suddenly.
“And I am nineteen! How funny that is! Ach!” And Emilie went off into such a ringing laugh that she threw herself back in her chair. Kuzma Vassilyevitch did not get up from his chair and looked still more intently at her rosy face which was quivering with laughter and he felt more and more attracted by her.
All at once Emilie was silent and humming through her teeth, as her habit was, went back to the looking glass.
“Can you sing, Mr. Florestan?”
“No, I have never been taught.”
“Do you play on the guitar? Not that either? I can. I have a guitar set with perlenmutter but the strings are broken. I must buy some new ones. You will give me the money, won’t you, Mr. Officer? I’ll sing you a lovely German song.” She heaved a sigh and shut her eyes. “Ah, such a lovely one! But you can dance? Not that, either? Unmöglich! I’ll teach you. The schottische and the valse-cosaque. Tra-la-la, tra-la-la,” Emilie pirouetted once or twice. “Look at my shoes! From Warsaw. Oh, we will have some dancing, Mr. Florestan! But what are you going to call me?”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch grinned and blushed to his ears.
“I shall call you: lovely Emilie!”
“No, no! You must call me: Mein Schätzchen, mein Zuckerpüppchen! Repeat it after me.”
“With the greatest pleasure, but I am afraid I shall find it difficult. . . . ”
“Never mind, never mind. Say: Mein.”
“Püppchen! Püppchen! Püppchen!”
“Poop . . . poop. . . . That I can’t manage. It doesn’t sound nice.”
“No! You must . . . you must! Do you know what it means? That’s the very nicest word for a young lady in German. I’ll explain it to you afterwards. But here is auntie bringing us the samovar. Bravo! Bravo! auntie, I will have cream with my tea. . . . Is there any cream?”
“So schweige doch,” answered the aunt.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch stayed at Madame Fritsche’s till midnight. He had not spent such a pleasant evening since his arrival at Nikolaev. It is true that it occurred to him that it was not seemly for an officer and a gentleman to be associating with such persons as this native of Riga and her auntie, but Emilie was so pretty, babbled so amusingly and bestowed such friendly looks upon him, that he dismissed his rank and family and made up his mind for once to enjoy himself. Only one circumstance disturbed him and left an impression that was not quite agreeable. When his conversation with Emilie and Madame Fritsche was in full swing, the door from the lobby opened a crack and a man’s hand in a dark cuff with three tiny silver buttons on it was stealthily thrust in and stealthily laid a big bundle on the chair near the door. Both ladies instantly darted to the chair and began examining the bundle. “But these are the wrong spoons!” cried Emilie, but her aunt nudged her with her elbow and carried away the bundle without tying up the ends. It seemed to Kuzma Vassilyevitch that one end was spattered with something red, like blood.
“What is it?” he asked Emilie. “Is it some more stolen things returned to you?”
“Yes,” answered Emilie, as it were, reluctantly. “Some more.”
“Was it your servant found them?”
“What servant? We haven’t any servant.”
“Some other man, then?”
“No men come to see us.”
“But excuse me, excuse me. . . . I saw the cuff of a man’s coat or jacket. And, besides, this cap. . . . ”
“Men never, never come to see us,” Emilie repeated emphatically. “What did you see? You saw nothing! And that cap is mine.”
“How is that?”
“Why, just that. I wear it for dressing up. . . . Yes, it is mine, und Punctum.”
“Who brought you the bundle, then?”
Emilie made no answer and, pouting, followed Madame Fritsche out of the room. Ten minutes later she came back alone, without her aunt and when Kuzma Vassilyevitch tried to question her again, she gazed at his forehead, said that it was disgraceful for a gentleman to be so inquisitive (as she said this, her face changed a little, as it were, darkened), and taking a pack of old cards from the card table drawer, asked him to tell fortunes for her and the king of hearts.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch laughed, took the cards, and all evil thoughts immediately slipped out of his mind.
But they came back to him that very day. When he had got out of the gate into the street, had said good-bye to Emilie, shouted to her for the last time, “Adieu, Zuckerpüppchen!“ a short man darted by him and turning for a minute in his direction (it was past midnight but the moon was shining rather brightly), displayed a lean gipsy face with thick black eyebrows and moustache, black eyes and a hooked nose. The man at once rushed round the corner and it struck Kuzma Vassilyevitch that he recognised — not his face, for he had never seen it before — but the cuff of his sleeve. Three silver buttons gleamed distinctly in the moonlight. There was a stir of uneasy perplexity in the soul of the prudent lieutenant; when he got home he did not light as usual his meerschaum pipe. Though, indeed, his sudden acquaintance with charming Emilie and the agreeable hours spent in her company would alone have induced his agitation.
Whatever Kuzma Vassilyevitch’s apprehensions may have been, they were quickly dissipated and left no trace. He took to visiting the two ladies from Riga frequently. The susceptible lieutenant was soon on friendly terms with Emilie. At first he was ashamed of the acquaintance and concealed his visits; later on he got over being ashamed and no longer concealed his visits; it ended by his being more eager to spend his time with his new friends than with anyone and greatly preferring their society to the cheerless solitude of his own four walls. Madame Fritsche herself no longer made the same unpleasant impression upon him, though she still treated him morosely and ungraciously. Persons in straitened circumstances like Madame Fritsche particularly appreciate a liberal expenditure in their visitors, and Kuzma Vassilyevitch was a little stingy and his presents for the most part took the shape of raisins, walnuts, cakes. . . . Only once he let himself go and presented Emilie with a light pink fichu of real French material, and that very day she had burnt a hole in his gift with a candle. He began to upbraid her; she fixed the fichu to the cat’s tail; he was angry; she laughed in his face. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was forced at last to admit to himself that he had not only failed to win the respect of the ladies from Riga, but had even failed to gain their confidence: he was never admitted at once, without preliminary scrutinising; he was often kept waiting; sometimes he was sent away without the slightest ceremony and when they wanted to conceal something from him they would converse in German in his presence. Emilie gave him no account of her doings and replied to his questions in an offhand way as though she had not heard them; and, worst of all, some of the rooms in Madame Fritsche’s house, which was a fairly large one, though it looked like a hovel from the street, were never opened to him. For all that, Kuzma Vassilyevitch did not give up his visits; on the contrary, he paid them more and more frequently: he was seeing living people, anyway. His vanity was gratified by Emilie’s continuing to call him Florestan, considering him exceptionally handsome and declaring that he had eyes like a bird of paradise, “wie die Augen eines Paradiesvogels!”
One day in the very height of summer, Kuzma Vassilyevitch, who had spent the whole morning in the sun with contractors and workmen, dragged himself tired and exhausted to the little gate that had become so familiar to him. He knocked and was admitted. He shambled into the so-called drawing-room and immediately lay down on the sofa. Emilie went up to him and mopped his wet brow with a handkerchief.
“How tired he is, poor pet! How hot he is!” she said commiseratingly. “Good gracious! You might at least unbutton your collar. My goodness, how your throat is pulsing!”
“I am done up, my dear,” groaned Kuzma Vassilyevitch. “I’ve been on my feet all the morning, in the baking sun. It’s awful! I meant to go home. But there those vipers, the contractors, would find me! While here with you it is cool. . . . I believe I could have a nap.”
“Well, why not? Go to sleep, my little chick; no one will disturb you here.” . . .
“But I am really ashamed.”
“What next! Why ashamed? Go to sleep. And I’ll sing you . . . what do you call it? . . . I’ll sing you to bye-bye, ’Schlaf, mein Kindchen, Schlafe!‘” She began singing.
“I should like a drink of water first.”
“Here is a glass of water for you. Fresh as crystal! Wait, I’ll put a pillow under your head. . . . And here is this to keep the flies off.”
She covered his face with a handkerchief.
“Thank you, my little cupid. . . . I’ll just have a tiny doze . . . that’s all.”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch closed his eyes and fell asleep immediately.
“Schlaf, mein Kindchen, schlafe,” sang Emilie, swaying from side to side and softly laughing at her song and her movements.
“What a big baby I have got!” she thought. “A boy!”
An hour and a half later the lieutenant awoke. He fancied in his sleep that someone touched him, bent over him, breathed over him. He fumbled, and pulled off the kerchief. Emilie was on her knees close beside him; the expression of her face struck him as queer. She jumped up at once, walked away to the window and put something away in her pocket.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch stretched.
“I’ve had a good long snooze, it seems!” he observed, yawning. “Come here, meine züsse Fräulein!”
Emilie went up to him. He sat up quickly, thrust his hand into her pocket and took out a small pair of scissors.
“Ach, Herr Je!” Emilie could not help exclaiming.
“It’s . . . it’s a pair of scissors?” muttered Kuzma Vassilyevitch.
“Why, of course. What did you think it was . . . a pistol? Oh, how funny you look! You’re as rumpled as a pillow and your hair is all standing up at the back. . . . And he doesn’t laugh. . . . Oh, oh! And his eyes are puffy. . . . Oh!”
Emilie went off into a giggle.
“Come, that’s enough,” muttered Kuzma Vassilyevitch, and he got up from the sofa. “That’s enough giggling about nothing. If you can’t think of anything more sensible, I’ll go home. . . . I’ll go home,” he repeated, seeing that she was still laughing.
“Come, stay; I won’t. . . . Only you must brush your hair.”
“No, never mind. . . . Don’t trouble. I’d better go,” said Kuzma Vassilyevitch, and he took up his cap.
“Fie, how cross he is! A regular Russian! All Russians are cross. Now he is going. Fie! Yesterday he promised me five roubles and today he gives me nothing and goes away.”
“I haven’t any money on me,” Kuzma Vassilyevitch muttered grumpily in the doorway. “Good-bye.”
Emilie looked after him and shook her finger.
“No money! Do you hear, do you hear what he says? Oh, what deceivers these Russians are! But wait a bit, you pug. . . . Auntie, come here, I have something to tell you.”
That evening as Kuzma Vassilyevitch was undressing to go to bed, he noticed that the upper edge of his leather belt had come unsewn for about three inches. Like a careful man he at once procured a needle and thread, waxed the thread and stitched up the hole himself. He paid, however, no attention to this apparently trivial circumstance.
The whole of the next day Kuzma Vassilyevitch devoted to his official duties; he did not leave the house even after dinner and right into the night was scribbling and copying out his report to his superior officer, mercilessly disregarding the rules of spelling, always putting an exclamation mark after the word but and a semi-colon after however. Next morning a barefoot Jewish boy in a tattered gown brought him a letter from Emilie — the first letter that Kuzma Vassilyevitch had received from her.
“Mein allerliebstep Florestan,” she wrote to him, “can you really so cross with your Zuckerpüppchen be that you came not yesterday? Please be not cross if you wish not your merry Emilie to weep very bitterly and come, be sure, at 5 o’clock today.” (The figure 5 was surrounded with two wreaths.) “I will be very, very glad. Your amiable Emilie.” Kuzma Vassilyevitch was inwardly surprised at the accomplishments of his charmer, gave the Jew boy a copper coin and told him to say, “Very well, I will come.”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch kept his word: five o’clock had not struck when he was standing before Madame Fritsche’s gate. But to his surprise he did not find Emilie at home; he was met by the lady of the house herself who — wonder of wonders! — dropping a preliminary curtsey, informed him that Emilie had been obliged by unforeseen circumstances to go out but she would soon be back and begged him to wait. Madame Fritsche had on a neat white cap; she smiled, spoke in an ingratiating voice and evidently tried to give an affable expression to her morose countenance, which was, however, none the more prepossessing for that, but on the contrary acquired a positively sinister aspect.
“Sit down, sit down, sir,” she said, putting an easy chair for him, “and we will offer you some refreshment if you will permit it.”
Madame Fritsche made another curtsey, went out of the room and returned shortly afterwards with a cup of chocolate on a small iron tray. The chocolate turned out to be of dubious quality; Kuzma Vassilyevitch drank the whole cup with relish, however, though he was at a loss to explain why Madame Fritsche was suddenly so affable and what it all meant. For all that Emilie did not come back and he was beginning to lose patience and feel bored when all at once he heard through the wall the sounds of a guitar. First there was the sound of one chord, then a second and a third and a fourth — the sound continually growing louder and fuller. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was surprised: Emilie certainly had a guitar but it only had three strings: he had not yet bought her any new ones; besides, Emilie was not at home. Who could it be? Again a chord was struck and so loudly that it seemed as though it were in the room. . . . Kuzma Vassilyevitch turned round and almost cried out in a fright. Before him, in a low doorway which he had not till then noticed — a big cupboard screened it — stood a strange figure . . . neither a child nor a grown-up girl. She was wearing a white dress with a bright-coloured pattern on it and red shoes with high heels; her thick black hair, held together by a gold fillet, fell like a cloak from her little head over her slender body. Her big eyes shone with sombre brilliance under the soft mass of hair; her bare, dark-skinned arms were loaded with bracelets and her hands covered with rings, held a guitar. Her face was scarcely visible, it looked so small and dark; all that was seen was the crimson of her lips and the outline of a straight and narrow nose. Kuzma Vassilyevitch stood for some time petrified and stared at the strange creature without blinking; and she, too, gazed at him without stirring an eyelid. At last he recovered himself and moved with small steps towards her.
The dark face began gradually smiling. There was a sudden gleam of white teeth, the little head was raised, and lightly flinging back the curls, displayed itself in all its startling and delicate beauty.
“What little imp is this?” thought Kuzma Vassilyevitch, and, advancing still closer, he brought out in a low voice:
“Hey, little image! Who are you?”
“Come here, come here,” the “little image” responded in a rather husky voice, with a halting unRussian intonation and incorrect accent, and she stepped back two paces.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch followed her through the doorway and found himself in a tiny room without windows, the walls and floor of which were covered with thick camel’s-hair rugs. He was overwhelmed by a strong smell of musk. Two yellow wax candles were burning on a round table in front of a low sofa. In the corner stood a bedstead under a muslin canopy with silk stripes and a long amber rosary with a red tassle at the end hung by the pillow.
“But excuse me, who are you?” repeated Kuzma Vassilyevitch.
“Sister . . . sister of Emilie.”
“You are her sister? And you live here?”
“Yes . . . yes.”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch wanted to touch “the image.” She drew back.
“How is it she has never spoken of you?”
“Could not . . . could not.”
“You are in concealment then . . . in hiding?”
“Are there reasons?”
“Reasons . . . reasons.”
“Hm!” Again Kuzma Vassilyevitch would have touched the figure, again she stepped back. “So that’s why I never saw you. I must own I never suspected your existence. And the old lady, Madame Fritsche, is your aunt, too?”
“Yes . . . aunt.”
“Hm! You don’t seem to understand Russian very well. What’s your name, allow me to ask?”
“Colibri! That’s an out-of-the-way name! There are insects like that in Africa, if I remember right?”
Colibri gave a short, queer laugh . . . like a clink of glass in her throat. She shook her head, looked round, laid her guitar on the table and going quickly to the door, abruptly shut it. She moved briskly and nimbly with a rapid, hardly audible sound like a lizard; at the back her hair fell below her knees.
“Why have you shut the door?” asked Kuzma Vassilyevitch.
Colibri put her fingers to her lips.
“Emilie . . . not want . . . not want her.”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch grinned.
“I say, you are not jealous, are you?”
Colibri raised her eyebrows.
“Jealous . . . angry,” Kuzma Vassilyevitch explained.
“Really! Much obliged. . . . I say, how old are you?”
“Seventeen, you mean?”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch scrutinised his fantastic companion closely.
“What a beautiful creature you are!” he said, emphatically. “Marvellous! Really marvellous! What hair! What eyes! And your eyebrows . . . ough!”
Colibri laughed again and again looked round with her magnificent eyes.
“Yes, I am a beauty! Sit down, and I’ll sit down . . . beside.”
“By all means! But say what you like, you are a strange sister for Emilie! You are not in the least like her.”
“Yes, I am sister . . . cousin. Here . . . take . . . a flower. A nice flower. It smells.” She took out of her girdle a sprig of white lilac, sniffed it, bit off a petal and gave him the whole sprig. “Will you have jam? Nice jam . . . from Constantinople . . . sorbet?” Colibri took from the small chest of drawers a gilt jar wrapped in a piece of crimson silk with steel spangles on it, a silver spoon, a cut glass decanter and a tumbler like it. “Eat some sorbet, sir; it is fine. I will sing to you. . . . Will you?” She took up the guitar.
“You sing, then?” asked Kuzma Vassilyevitch, putting a spoonful of really excellent sorbet into his mouth.
“Oh, yes!” She flung back her mane of hair, put her head on one side and struck several chords, looking carefully at the tips of her fingers and at the top of the guitar . . . then suddenly began singing in a voice unexpectedly strong and agreeable, but guttural and to the ears of Kuzma Vassilyevitch rather savage. “Oh, you pretty kitten,” he thought. She sang a mournful song, utterly unRussian and in a language quite unknown to Kuzma Vassilyevitch. He used to declare that the sounds “Kha, gha” kept recurring in it and at the end she repeated a long drawn-out “sintamar” or “sintsimar,” or something of the sort, leaned her head on her hand, heaved a sigh and let the guitar drop on her knee. “Good?” she asked, “want more?”
“I should be delighted,” answered Kuzma Vassilyevitch. “But why do you look like that, as though you were grieving? You’d better have some sorbet.”
“No . . . you. And I will again. . . . It will be more merry.” She sang another song, that sounded like a dance, in the same unknown language. Again Kuzma Vassilyevitch distinguished the same guttural sounds. Her swarthy fingers fairly raced over the strings, “like little spiders,” and she ended up this time with a jaunty shout of “Ganda” or “Gassa,” and with flashing eyes banged on the table with her little fist.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch sat as though he were in a dream. His head was going round. It was all so unexpected. . . . And the scent, the singing . . . the candles in the daytime . . . the sorbet flavoured with vanilla. And Colibri kept coming closer to him, too; her hair shone and rustled, and there was a glow of warmth from her — and that melancholy face. . . . “A russalka!” thought Kuzma Vassilyevitch. He felt somewhat awkward.
“Tell me, my pretty, what put it into your head to invite me today?”
“You are young, pretty . . . such I like.”
“So that’s it! But what will Emilie say? She wrote me a letter: she is sure to be back directly.”
“You not tell her . . . nothing! Trouble! She will kill!”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch laughed.
“As though she were so fierce!”
Colibri gravely shook her head several times.
“And to Madame Fritsche, too, nothing. No, no, no!” She tapped herself lightly on the forehead. “Do you understand, officer?”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch frowned.
“It’s a secret, then?”
“Yes . . . yes.”
“Very well. . . . I won’t say a word. Only you ought to give me a kiss for that.”
“No, afterwards . . . when you are gone.”
“That’s a fine idea!” Kuzma Vassilyevitch was bending down to her but she slowly drew herself back and stood stiffly erect like a snake startled in the grass. Kuzma Vassilyevitch stared at her. “Well!” he said at last, “you are a spiteful thing! All right, then.”
Colibri pondered and turned to the lieutenant. . . . All at once there was the muffled sound of tapping repeated three times at even intervals somewhere in the house. Colibri laughed, almost snorted.
“To-day — no, tomorrow — yes. Come tomorrow.”
“At what time?”
“Seven . . . in the evening.”
“And what about Emilie?”
“Emilie . . . no; will not be here.”
“You think so? Very well. Only, tomorrow you will tell me?”
“What?” (Colibri’s face assumed a childish expression every time she asked a question.)
“Why you have been hiding away from me all this time?”
“Yes . . . yes; everything shall be tomorrow; the end shall be.”
“Mind now! And I’ll bring you a present.”
“No . . . no need.”
“Why not? I see you like fine clothes.”
“No need. This . . . this . . . this . . . ” she pointed to her dress, her rings, her bracelets, and everything about her, “it is all my own. Not a present. I do not take.”
“As you like. And now must I go?”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch got up. Colibri got up, too.
“Good-bye, pretty little doll! And when will you give me a kiss?”
Colibri suddenly gave a little jump and swiftly flinging both arms round his neck, gave him not precisely a kiss but a peck at his lips. He tried in his turn to kiss her but she instantly darted back and stood behind the sofa.
“To-morrow at seven o’clock, then?” he said with some confusion.
She nodded and taking a tress of her long hair with her two fingers, bit it with her sharp teeth.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch kissed his hand to her, went out and shut the door after him. He heard Colibri run up to it at once. . . . The key clicked in the lock.
There was no one in Madame Fritsche’s drawing-room. Kuzma Vassilyevitch made his way to the passage at once. He did not want to meet Emilie. Madame Fritsche met him on the steps.
“Ah, you are going, Mr. Lieutenant?” she said, with the same affected and sinister smile. “You won’t wait for Emilie?”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch put on his cap.
“I haven’t time to wait any longer, madam. I may not come tomorrow, either. Please tell her so.”
“Very good, I’ll tell her. But I hope you haven’t been dull, Mr. Lieutenant?”
“No, I have not been dull.”
“I thought not. Good-bye.”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch returned home and stretching himself on his bed sank into meditation. He was unutterably perplexed. “What marvel is this?” he cried more than once. And why did Emilie write to him? She had made an appointment and not come! He took out her letter, turned it over in his hands, sniffed it: it smelt of tobacco and in one place he noticed a correction. But what could he deduce from that? And was it possible that Madame Fritsche knew nothing about it? And she. . . . Who was she? Yes, who was she? The fascinating Colibri, that “pretty doll,” that “little image,” was always before him and he looked forward with impatience to the following evening, though secretly he was almost afraid of this “pretty doll” and “little image.”
Next day Kuzma Vassilyevitch went shopping before dinner, and, after persistent haggling, bought a tiny gold cross on a little velvet ribbon. “Though she declares,” he thought, “that she never takes presents, we all know what such sayings mean; and if she really is so disinterested, Emilie won’t be so squeamish.” So argued this Don Juan of Nikolaev, who had probably never heard of the original Don Juan and knew nothing about him. At six o’clock in the evening Kuzma Vassilyevitch shaved carefully and sending for a hairdresser he knew, told him to pomade and curl his topknot, which the latter did with peculiar zeal, not sparing the government note paper for curlpapers; then Kuzma Vassilyevitch put on a smart new uniform, took into his right hand a pair of new wash-leather gloves, and, sprinkling himself with lavender water, set off. Kuzma Vassilyevitch took a great deal more trouble over his personal appearance on this occasion than when he went to see his “Zuckerpüppchen”, not because he liked Colibri better than Emilie but in the “pretty little doll” there was something enigmatic, something which stirred even the sluggish imagination of the young lieutenant.
Madame Fritsche greeted him as she had done the day before and as though she had conspired with him in a plan of deception, informed him again that Emilie had gone out for a short time and asked him to wait. Kuzma Vassilyevitch nodded in token of assent and sat down on a chair. Madame Fritsche smiled again, that is, showed her yellow tusks and withdrew without offering him any chocolate.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch instantly fixed his eyes on the mysterious door. It remained closed. He coughed loudly once or twice so as to make known his presence. . . . The door did not stir. He held his breath, strained his ears. . . . He heard not the faintest sound or rustle; everything was still as death. Kuzma Vassilyevitch got up, approached the door on tiptoe and, fumbling in vain with his fingers, pressed his knee against it. It was no use. Then he bent down and once or twice articulated in a loud whisper, “Colibri! Colibri! Little doll!” No one responded. Kuzma Vassilyevitch drew himself up, straightened his uniform — and, after standing still a little while, walked with more resolute steps to the window and began drumming on the pane. He began to feel vexed, indignant; his dignity as an officer began to assert itself. “What nonsense is this?” he thought at last; “whom do they take me for? If they go on like this, I’ll knock with my fists. She will be forced to answer! The old woman will hear. . . . What of it? That’s not my fault.” He turned swiftly on his heel . . . the door stood half open.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch immediately hastened into the secret room again on tiptoe. Colibri was lying on the sofa in a white dress with a broad red sash. Covering the lower part of her face with a handkerchief, she was laughing, a noiseless but genuine laugh. She had done up her hair, this time plaiting it into two long, thick plaits intertwined with red ribbon; the same slippers adorned her tiny, crossed feet but the feet themselves were bare and looking at them one might fancy that she had on dark, silky stockings. The sofa stood in a different position, nearer the wall; and on the table he saw on a Chinese tray a bright-coloured, round-bellied coffee pot beside a cut glass sugar bowl and two blue China cups. The guitar was lying there, too, and blue-grey smoke rose in a thin coil from a big, aromatic candle.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch went up to the sofa and bent over Colibri, but before he had time to utter a word she held out her hand and, still laughing in her handkerchief, put her little, rough fingers into his hair and instantly ruffled the well-arranged curls on the top of his head.
“What next?” exclaimed Kuzma Vassilyevitch, not altogether pleased by such unceremoniousness. “Oh, you naughty girl!”
Colibri took the handkerchief from her face.
“Not nice so; better now.” She moved away to the further end of the sofa and drew her feet up under her. “Sit down . . . there.”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch sat down on the spot indicated.
“Why do you move away?” he said, after a brief silence. “Surely you are not afraid of me?”
Colibri curled herself up and looked at him sideways.
“I am not afraid . . . no.”
“You must not be shy with me,” Kuzma Vassilyevitch said in an admonishing tone. “Do you remember your promise yesterday to give me a kiss?”
Colibri put her arms round her knees, laid her head on them and looked at him again.
“I should hope so. And you must keep your word.”
“Yes . . . I must.”
“In that case,” Kuzma Vassilyevitch was beginning, and he moved nearer.
Colibri freed her plaits which she was holding tight with her knees and with one of them gave him a flick on his hand.
“Not so fast, sir!”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch was embarrassed.
“What eyes she has, the rogue!” he muttered, as though to himself. “But,” he went on, raising his voice, “why did you call me . . . if that is how it is?”
Colibri craned her neck like a bird . . . she listened. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was alarmed.
“Emilie?” he asked.
Colibri shrugged her shoulder.
“Do you hear something?”
“Nothing.” With a birdlike movement, again Colibri drew back her little oval-shaped head with its pretty parting and the short growth of tiny curls on the nape of her neck where her plaits began, and again curled herself up into a ball. “Nothing.”
“Nothing! Then now I’ll . . . ” Kuzma Vassilyevitch craned forward towards Colibri but at once pulled back his hand. There was a drop of blood on his finger. “What foolishness is this!” he cried, shaking his finger. “Your everlasting pins! And the devil of a pin it is!” he added, looking at the long, golden pin which Colibri slowly thrust into her sash. “It’s a regular dagger, it’s a sting. . . . Yes, yes, it’s your sting, and you are a wasp, that’s what you are, a wasp, do you hear?”
Apparently Colibri was much pleased at Kuzma Vasselyevitch’s comparison; she went off into a thin laugh and repeated several times over:
“Yes, I will sting . . . I will sting.”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch looked at her and thought: “She is laughing but her face is melancholy.
“Look what I am going to show you,” he said aloud.
“Why do you say tso? Are you a Pole?”
“Now you say nee! But there, it’s no matter.” Kuzma Vassilyevitch got out his present and waved it in the air. “Look at it. . . . Isn’t it nice?”
Colibri raised her eyes indifferently.
“Ah! A cross! We don’t wear.”
“What? You don’t wear a cross? Are you a Jewess then, or what?”
“We don’t wear,” repeated Colibri, and, suddenly starting, looked back over her shoulder. “Would you like me to sing?” she asked hurriedly.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch put the cross in the pocket of his uniform and he, too, looked round.
“What is it?” he muttered.
“A mouse . . . a mouse,” Colibri said hurriedly, and suddenly to Kuzma Vassilyevitch’s complete surprise, flung her smooth, supple arms round his neck and a rapid kiss burned his cheek . . . as though a red-hot ember had been pressed against it.
He pressed Colibri in his arms but she slipped away like a snake — her waist was hardly thicker than the body of a snake — and leapt to her feet.
“Wait,” she whispered, “you must have some coffee first.”
“Nonsense! Coffee, indeed! Afterwards.”
“No, now. Now hot, after cold.” She took hold of the coffee pot by the handle and, lifting it high, began pouring out two cups. The coffee fell in a thin, as it were, twirling stream; Colibri leaned her head on her shoulder and watched it fall. “There, put in the sugar . . . drink . . . and I’ll drink.”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch put a lump of sugar in the cup and drank it off at one draught. The coffee struck him as very strong and bitter. Colibri looked at him, smiling, and faintly dilated her nostrils over the edge of her cup. She slowly put it down on the table.
“Why don’t you drink it?” asked Kuzma Vassilyevitch.
“Not all, now.”
Kuzma Vassilyevitch got excited.
“Do sit down beside me, at least.”
“In a minute.” She bent her head and, still keeping her eyes fixed on Kuzma Vassilyevitch, picked up the guitar. “Only I will sing first.”
“Yes, yes, only sit down.”
“And I will dance. Shall I?”
“You dance? Well, I should like to see that. But can’t that be afterwards?”
“No, now. . . . But I love you very much.”
“You love? Mind now . . . dance away, then, you queer creature.”
Colibri stood on the further side of the table and running her fingers several times over the strings of the guitar and to the surprise of Kuzma Vassilyevitch, who was expecting a lively, merry song, began singing a slow, monotonous air, accompanying each separate sound, which seemed as though it were wrung out of her by force, with a rhythmical swaying of her body to right and left. She did not smile, and indeed knitted her brows, her delicate, high, rounded eyebrows, between which a dark blue mark, probably burnt in with gunpowder, stood out sharply, looking like some letter of an oriental alphabet. She almost closed her eyes but their pupils glimmered dimly under the drooping lids, fastened as before on Kuzma Vassilyevitch. And he, too, could not look away from those marvellous, menacing eyes, from that dark-skinned face that gradually began to glow, from the half-closed and motionless lips, from the two black snakes rhythmically moving on both sides of her graceful head. Colibri went on swaying without moving from the spot and only her feet were working; she kept lightly shifting them, lifting first the toe and then the heel. Once she rotated rapidly and uttered a piercing shriek, waving the guitar high in the air. . . . Then the same monotonous movement accompanied by the same monotonous singing, began again. Kuzma Vassilyevitch sat meanwhile very quietly on the sofa and went on looking at Colibri; he felt something strange and unusual in himself: he was conscious of great lightness and freedom, too great lightness, in fact; he seemed, as it were, unconscious of his body, as though he were floating and at the same time shudders ran down him, a sort of agreeable weakness crept over his legs, and his lips and eyelids tingled with drowsiness. He had no desire now, no thought of anything . . . only he was wonderfully at ease, as though someone were lulling him, “singing him to bye-bye,” as Emilie had expressed it, and he whispered to himself, “little doll!” At times the face of the “little doll” grew misty. “Why is that?” Kuzma Vassilyevitch wondered. “From the smoke,” he reassured himself. “There is such a blue smoke here.” And again someone was lulling him and even whispering in his ear something so sweet . . . only for some reason it was always unfinished. But then all of a sudden in the little doll’s face the eyes opened till they were immense, incredibly big, like the arches of a bridge. . . . The guitar dropped, and striking against the floor, clanged somewhere at the other end of the earth. . . . Some very near and dear friend of Kuzma Vassilyevitch’s embraced him firmly and tenderly from behind and set his cravat straight. Kuzma Vassilyevitch saw just before his own face the hooked nose, the thick moustache and the piercing eyes of the stranger with the three buttons on his cuff . . . and although the eyes were in the place of the moustache and the nose itself seemed upside down, Kuzma Vassilyevitch was not in the least surprised, but, on the contrary, thought that this was how it ought to be; he was even on the point of saying to the nose, “Hullo, brother Grigory,” but he changed his mind and preferred . . . preferred to set off with Colibri to Constantinople at once for their forthcoming wedding, as she was a Turk and the Tsar promoted him to be an actual Turk.
And opportunely a little boat appeared: he lifted his foot to get into it and though through clumsiness he stumbled and hurt himself rather badly, so that for some time he did not know where anything was, yet he managed it and getting into the boat, floated on the big river, which, as the River of Time, flows to Constantinople in the map on the walls of the Nikolaevsky High School. With great satisfaction he floated down the river and watched a number of red ducks which continually met him; they would not let him come near them, however, and, diving, changed into round, pink spots. And Colibri was going with him, too, but to escape the sultry heat she hid, under the boat and from time to time knocked on the bottom of it. . . . And here at last was Constantinople. The houses, as houses should, looked like Tyrolese hats; and the Turks had all big, sedate faces; only it did not do to look at them too long: they began wriggling, making faces and at last melted away altogether like thawing snow. And here was the palace in which he would live with Colibri. . . . And how well everything was arranged in it! Walls with generals’ gold lace on it, everywhere epaulettes, people blowing trumpets in the corners and one could float into the drawing-room in the boat. Of course, there was a portrait of Mahomet. . . . Only Colibri kept running ahead through the rooms and her plaits trailed after her on the floor and she would not turn round, and she kept growing smaller and smaller. . . . And now it was not Colibri but a boy in a jacket and he was the boy’s tutor and he had to climb after the boy into a telescope, and the telescope got narrower and narrower, till at last he could not move . . . neither backwards nor forwards, and something fell on his back . . . there was earth in his mouth.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch opened his eyes. It was daylight and everything was still . . . there was a smell of vinegar and mint. Above him and at his sides there was something white; he looked more intently: it was the canopy of a bed. He wanted to raise his head . . . he could not; his hand . . . he could not do that, either. What was the meaning of it? He dropped his eyes. . . . A long body lay stretched before him and over it a yellow blanket with a brown edge. The body proved to be his, Kuzma Vassilyevitch’s. He tried to cry out . . . no sound came. He tried again, did his very utmost . . . there was the sound of a feeble moan quavering under his nose. He heard heavy footsteps and a sinewy hand parted the bed curtains. A grey-headed pensioner in a patched military overcoat stood gazing at him. . . . And he gazed at the pensioner. A big tin mug was put to Kuzma Vassilyevitch’s lips. He greedily drank some cold water. His tongue was loosened. “Where am I?” The pensioner glanced at him once more, went away and came back with another man in a dark uniform. “Where am I?” repeated Kuzma Vassilyevitch. “Well, he will live now,” said the man in the dark uniform. “You are in the hospital,” he added aloud, “but you must go to sleep. It is bad for you to talk.” Kuzma Vassilyevitch began to feel surprised, but sank into forgetfulness again. . . .
Next morning the doctor appeared. Kuzma Vassilyevitch came to himself. The doctor congratulated him on his recovery and ordered the bandages round his head to be changed.
“What? My head? Why, am I . . . ”
“You mustn’t talk, you mustn’t excite yourself,” the doctor interrupted. “Lie still and thank the Almighty. Where are the compresses, Poplyovkin?”
“But where is the money . . . the government money . . . ”
“There! He is lightheaded again. Some more ice, Poplyovkin.”
Another week passed. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was so much better that the doctors found it possible to tell him what had happened to him. This is what he learned.
At seven o’clock in the evening on the 16th of June he had visited the house of Madame Fritsche for the last time and on the 17th of June at dinner time, that is, nearly twenty-four hours later, a shepherd had found him in a ravine near the Herson high road, a mile and a half from Nikolaev, with a broken head and crimson bruises on his neck. His uniform and waistcoat had been unbuttoned, all his pockets turned inside out, his cap and cutlass were not to be found, nor his leather money belt. From the trampled grass, from the broad track upon the grass and the clay, it could be inferred that the luckless lieutenant had been dragged to the bottom of the ravine and only there had been gashed on his head, not with an axe but with a sabre — probably his own cutlass: there were no traces of blood on his track from the high road while there was a perfect pool of blood round his head. There could be no doubt that his assailants had first drugged him, then tried to strangle him and, taking him out of the town by night, had dragged him to the ravine and there given him the final blow. It was only thanks to his truly iron constitution that Kuzma Vassilyevitch had not died. He had returned to consciousness on July 22nd, that is, five weeks later.
Kuzma Vassilyevitch immediately informed the authorities of the misfortune that had happened to him; he stated all the circumstances of the case verbally and in writing and gave the address of Madame Fritsche. The police raided the house but they found no one there; the birds had flown. They got hold of the owner of the house. But they could not get much sense out of the latter, a very old and deaf workman. He lived in a different part of the town and all he knew was that four months before he had let his house to a Jewess with a passport, whose name was Schmul or Schmulke, which he had immediately registered at the police station. She had been joined by another woman, so he stated, who also had a passport, but what was their calling did not know; and whether they had other people living with them had not heard and did not know; the lad whom he used to keep as porter or watchman in the house had gone away to Odessa or Petersburg, and the new porter had only lately come, on the 1st of July.
Inquiries were made at the police station and in the neighbourhood; it appeared that Madame Schmulke, together with her companion, whose real name was Frederika Bengel, had left Nikolaev about the 20th of June, but where they had gone was unknown. The mysterious man with a gipsy face and three buttons on his cuff and the dark-skinned foreign girl with an immense mass of hair, no one had seen. As soon as Kuzma Vassilyevitch was discharged from the hospital, he visited the house that had been so fateful for him. In the little room where he had talked to Colibri and where there was still a smell of musk, there was a second secret door; the sofa had been moved in front of it on his second visit and through it no doubt the murderer had come and seized him from behind. Kuzma Vassilyevitch lodged a formal complaint; proceedings were taken. Several numbered reports and instructions were dispatched in various directions; the appropriate acknowledgments and replies followed in due course. . . . There the incident closed. The suspicious characters had disappeared completely and with them the stolen government money had vanished, too, one thousand, nine hundred and seventeen roubles and some kopecks, in paper and gold. Not an inconsiderable sum in those days! Kuzma Vassilyevitch was paying back instalments for ten years, when, fortunately for him, an act of clemency from the Throne cancelled the debt.
He was himself at first firmly convinced that Emilie, his treacherous Zuckerpüppchen, was to blame for all his trouble and had originated the plot. He remembered how on the last day he had seen her he had incautiously dropped asleep on the sofa and how when he woke he had found her on her knees beside him and how confused she had been, and how he had found a hole in his belt that evening — a hole evidently made by her scissors. “She saw the money,” thought Kuzma Vassilyevitch, “she told the old hag and those other two devils, she entrapped me by writing me that letter . . . and so they cleaned me out. But who could have expected it of her!” He pictured the pretty, good-natured face of Emilie, her clear eyes. . . . “Women! women!” he repeated, gnashing his teeth, “brood of crocodiles!” But when he had finally left the hospital and gone home, he learned one circumstance which perplexed and nonplussed him. On the very day when he was brought half dead to the town, a girl whose description corresponded exactly to that of Emilie had rushed to his lodging with tear-stained face and dishevelled hair and inquiring about him from his orderly, had dashed off like mad to the hospital. At the hospital she had been told that Kuzma Vassilyevitch would certainly die and she had at once disappeared, wringing her hands with a look of despair on her face. It was evident that she had not foreseen, had not expected the murder. Or perhaps she had herself been deceived and had not received her promised share? Had she been overwhelmed by sudden remorse? And yet she had left Nikolaev afterwards with that loathsome old woman who had certainly known all about it. Kuzma Vassilyevitch was lost in conjecture and bored his orderly a good deal by making him continually describe over and over again the appearance of the girl and repeat her words.
A year and a half later Kuzma Vassilyevitch received a letter in German from Emilie, alias Frederika Bengel, which he promptly had translated for him and showed us more than once in later days. It was full of mistakes in spelling and exclamation marks; the postmark on the envelope was Breslau. Here is the translation, as correct as may be, of the letter:
“My precious, unforgettable and incomparable Florestan! Mr. Lieutenant Yergenhof!
“How often I felt impelled to write to you! And I have always unfortunately put it off, though the thought that you may regard me as having had a hand in that awful crime has always been the most appalling thought to me! Oh, dear Mr. Lieutenant! Believe me, the day when I learnt that you were alive and well, was the happiest day of my life! But I do not mean to justify myself altogether! I will not tell a lie! I was the first to discover your habit of carrying your money round your waist! (Though indeed in our part of the world all the butchers and meat salesmen do the same!) And I was so incautious as to let drop a word about it! I even said in joke that it wouldn’t be bad to take a little of your money! But the old wretch (Mr. Florestan! she was not my aunt) plotted with that godless monster Luigi and his accomplice! I swear by my mother’s tomb, I don’t know to this day who those people were! I only know that his name was Luigi and that they both came from Bucharest and were certainly great criminals and were hiding from the police and had money and precious things! Luigi was a dreadful individual (ein schröckliches Subject), to kill a fellow-man (einen Mitmenschen) meant nothing at all to him! He spoke every language — and it was he who that time got our things back from the cook! Don’t ask how! He was capable of anything, he was an awful man! He assured the old woman that he would only drug you a little and then take you out of town and put you down somewhere and would say that he knew nothing about it but that it was your fault — that you had taken too much wine somewhere! But even then the wretch had it in his mind that it would be better to kill you so that there would be no one to tell the tale! He wrote you that letter, signed with my name and the old woman got me away by craft! I suspected nothing and I was awfully afraid of Luigi! He used to say to me, ‘I’ll cut your throat, I’ll cut your throat like a chicken’s!’ And he used to twitch his moustache so horribly as he said it! And they dragged me into a bad company, too. . . . I am very much ashamed, Mr. Lieutenant! And even now I shed bitter tears at these memories! . . . It seems to me . . . ah! I was not born for such doings. . . . But there is no help for it; and this is how it all happened! Afterwards I was horribly frightened and could not help going away, for if the police had found us, what would have happened to us then? That accursed Luigi fled at once as soon as he heard that you were alive. But I soon parted from them all and though now I am often without a crust of bread, my heart is at peace! You will ask me perhaps why I came to Nikolaev? But I can give you no answer! I have sworn! I will finish by asking of you a favour, a very, very important one: whenever you remember your little friend Emilie, do not think of her as a black-hearted criminal! The eternal God sees my heart. I have a bad morality (Ich habe eine schlechte moralität) and I am feather-headed, but I am not a criminal. And I shall always love and remember you, my incomparable Florestan, and shall always wish you everything good on this earthly globe (auf diesem Erdenrund!). I don’t know whether my letter will reach you, but if it does, write me a few lines that I may see you have received it. Thereby you will make very happy your ever-devoted Emilie.
“P. S. Write to F. E. poste restante, Breslau, Silesia.
“P. S. S. I have written to you in German; I could not express my feelings otherwise; but you write to me in Russian.”
“Well, did you answer her?” we asked Kuzma Vassilyevitch.
“I meant to, I meant to many times. But how was I to write? I don’t know German . . . and in Russian, who would have translated it? And so I did not write.”
And always as he finished his story, Kuzma Vassilyevitch sighed, shook his head and said, “that’s what it is to be young!” And if among his audience was some new person who was hearing the famous story for the first time, he would take his hand, lay it on his skull and make him feel the scar of the wound. . . . It really was a fearful wound and the scar reached from one ear to the other.
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