The White Poodle by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The White Poodle – Contents

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They reached Aloopka in silence. Grandfather muttered to himself and sighed the whole way. Sergey preserved in his face an angry and resolute expression. They stopped for the night at a dirty Turkish coffee-house, bearing the splendid name of Eeldeez, which means in Turkish, a star. In the same room with them slept Greek stone-breakers, Turkish ditch-diggers, a gang of Russian workmen, and several dark-faced, mysterious tramps, the sort of which there are so many wandering about Southern Russia. Directly the coffee-house closed they stretched themselves out on the benches along the length of the walls, or simply upon the floor, and the more experienced placed their possessions and their clothes in a bundle under their heads.

It was long after midnight when Sergey, who had been lying side by side with grandfather on the floor, got up stealthily and began to dress himself without noise. Through the wide window-panes poured the full light of the moon, falling on the floor to make a trembling carpet of silver, and giving to the faces of the sleepers an expression of suffering and death.

“Where’s you going to, zis time o’ night?” cried the owner of the coffee-house, Ibrahim, a young Turk lying at the door of the shop.

“Let me pass; it’s necessary. I’ve got to go out,” answered Sergey in a harsh, business-like tone. “Get up, Turco!”

Yawning and stretching himself, Ibrahim got up and opened the door, clicking his tongue reproachfully. The narrow streets of the Tartar bazar were enveloped in a dense dark-blue mist, which covered with a tooth-shaped design the whole cobbled roadway; one side of the street lay in shade, the other, with all its white-called houses, was illumined by the moonlight. Dogs were barking at distant points of the village. Somewhere on the upper high road horses were trotting, and the metallic clink of their hoofs sounded in the night stillness.

Passing the white mosque with its green cupola, surrounded by its grove of silent cypresses, Sergey tripped along a narrow, crooked lane to the great highway. In order that he might run quickly the boy was practically in his undergarments only. The moon shone on him from behind, and his shadow ran ahead in a strange foreshortened silhouette. There were mysterious shaggy shrubs on each side of the road, a bird was crying monotonously from the bushes in a gentle, tender tone “Splew! Splew!”[1] and it seemed as if it thought itself to be a sentry in the night silence, guarding some melancholy secret, and powerlessly struggling with sleep and tiredness, complaining hopelessly, quietly, to someone, “Splew, splew, I sleep, I sleep.”

[1]The word “splew” is Russian for “I sleep.”

And over the dark bushes, over the blue head-dress of the distant forests, rose with its two peaks to the sky, Ai-Petri—so light, so clear-cut, so ethereal, as if it were something cut from a gigantic piece of silver cardboard in the sky. Sergey felt a little depressed by the majestic silence in which his footsteps sounded so distinctly and daringly, but at the same time there rose in his heart a sort of ticklish, head-whirling, spirit of adventure. At a turn of the road the sea suddenly opened before him, immense and calm, quietly and solemnly breaking on the shore. From the horizon to the beach stretched a narrow, a quivering, silver roadway; in the midst of the sea this roadway was lost, and only here and there the traces of it glittered, but suddenly nearer the shore it became a wide flood of living, glimmering metal, ornamenting the coast like a belt of deep lace.

Sergey slipped noiselessly through the wooden gateway leading to the park. There, under the dense foliage of the trees, it was quite dark. From afar sounded the ceaseless murmur of mountain streams, and one could feel their damp cold breath. The wooden planks of the bridge clacked soundingly as he ran across; the water beneath looked dark and dreadful. In a moment he saw in front of him the high gates with their lace pattern of iron, and the creeping gloxinia hanging over them. The moonlight, pouring from a gap in the trees, outlined the lacework of the iron gates with, as it were, a gentle phosphorescence. On the other side of the gates it was dark, and there was a terrifying stillness.

Sergey hesitated for some moments, feeling in his soul some doubt, even a little fear. But he conquered his feelings and whispered obstinately to himself:

“All the same; I’m going to climb in, all the same!”

The elegant cast-iron design furnished solid stepping places and holding places for the muscular arms and feet of the climber. But over the gateway, at a considerable height, and fitting to the gates, was a broad archway of stone. Sergey felt all over this with his hands, and climbed up on to it, lay on his stomach, and tried to let himself down on the other side. He hung by his hands, but could find no catching place for his feet. The stone archway stood out too far from the gate for his legs to reach, so he dangled there, and as he couldn’t get back, his body grew limp and heavy, and terror possessed his soul.

At last he could hold on no longer; his fingers gave, and he slipped and fell violently to the ground.

He heard the gravel crunch under him, and felt a sharp pain in his knees. He lay crouching on all fours for some moments, stunned by the fall. He felt that in a minute out would come the gloomy-looking porter, raise a cry and make a fearful to do…. But the same brooding and self-important silence reigned in the garden as before. Only a sort of strange monotonous buzzing sounded everywhere about the villa and the estate.

“Zhu … zhzhu … zhzhu….”

“Ah, that’s the noise in my ears,” guessed Sergey. When he got on his feet again and looked round, all the garden had become dreadful and mysterious, and beautiful as in a fairy tale, a scented dream. On the flower-beds the flowers, barely visible in the darkness, leaned toward one another as if communicating a vague alarm. The magnificent dark-scented cypresses nodded pensively, and seemed to reflect reproachfully over all. And beyond a little stream the tired little bird struggled with its desire to slumber, and cried submissively and plaintively, “Splew, splew, I sleep, I sleep.”

Sergey could not recognise the place in the darkness for the confusion of the paths and the shadows. He wandered for some time on the crunching gravel before he found the house.

He had never in his whole life felt such complete helplessness and torturesome loneliness and desolation as he did now. The immense house felt as if it must be full of concealed enemies watching him with wicked glee, peering at him from the dark windows. Every moment he expected to hear some sort of signal or wrathful fierce command.

“… Only not in the house … he couldn’t possibly be in the house,” whispered the boy to himself as in a dream; “if they put him in the house he would begin to howl, and they’d soon get tired of it….”

He walked right round the house. At the back, in the wide yard, were several outhouses more or less simple and capacious, evidently designed for the accommodation of servants. There was not a light in any of them, and none in the great house itself; only the moon saw itself darkly in the dull dead windows. “I shan’t ever get away from here; no, never!” thought Sergey to himself despairingly, and just for a moment his thoughts went back to the sleeping tavern and grandfather and the old organ, and to the place where they had slept in the afternoon, to their life of the road, and he whispered softly to himself, “Never, never any more of that again,” and so thinking, his fear changed to a sort of calm and despairing conviction.

But then suddenly he became aware of a faint, far-off whimpering. The boy stood still as if spellbound, not daring to move. The whimpering sound was repeated. It seemed to come from the stone cellar near which Sergey was standing, and which was ventilated by a window with no glass, just four rough square openings. Stepping across a flower-bed, the boy went up to the wall, pressed his face to one of the openings, and whistled. He heard a slight cautious movement somewhere in the depths, and then all was silent.

“Arto, Artoshka!” cried Sergey, in a trembling whisper.

At this there burst out at once a frantic burst of barking, filling the whole garden and echoing from all sides. In this barking there was expressed, not only joyful welcome, but piteous complaint and rage, and physical pain. One could hear how the dog was tugging and pulling at something in the dark cellar, trying to get free.

“Arto! Doggikin!… Artoshenka!…” repeated the boy in a sobbing voice.

“Peace, cursed one! Ah, you convict!” cried a brutal bass voice from below.

There was a sound of beating from the cellar. The dog gave vent to a long howl.

“Don’t dare to kill him! Kill the dog if you dare, you villain!” cried Sergey, quite beside himself, scratching the stone wall with his nails.

What happened after that Sergey only remembered confusedly, like something he had experienced in a dreadful nightmare. The door of the cellar opened wide with a noise, and out rushed the porter. He was only in his pantaloons, bare-footed, bearded, pale from the bright light of the moon, which was shining straight in his face. To Sergey he seemed like a giant or an enraged monster, escaped from a fairy tale.

“Who goes there? I shall shoot. Thieves! Robbers!” thundered the voice of the porter.

At that moment, however, there rushed from the door of the cellar out into the darkness Arto, with a broken cord hanging from his neck.

There was no question of the boy following the dog. The sight of the porter filled him with supernatural terror, tied his feet, and seemed to paralyse his whole body. Fortunately, this state of nerves didn’t last long. Almost involuntarily Sergey gave vent to a piercing and despairing shriek, and he took to his heels at random, not looking where he was going, and absolutely forgetting himself from fear.

He went off like a bird, his feet striking the ground as if they had suddenly become two steel springs, and by his side ran Arto, joyfully and effusively barking. After them came the porter, heavily, shouting and swearing at them as he went.

Sergey was making for the gate, but suddenly he had an intuition that there was no road for him that way. Along the white stone wall of the garden was a narrow track in the shelter of the cypress trees, and Sergey flung himself along this path, obedient to the one feeling of fright. The sharp needles of the cypress trees, pregnant with the smell of pitch, struck him in the face. He fell over some roots and hurt his arm so that the blood came, but jumped up at once, not even noticing the pain, and went on as fast as ever, bent double, and still followed by Arto.

So he ran along this narrow corridor, with the wall on one side and the closely ranged file of cypresses on the other, ran as might a crazy little forest animal feeling itself in an endless trap. His mouth grew dry, his breathing was like needles in his breast, yet all the time the noise of the following porter was audible, and the boy, losing his head, ran back to the gate again and then once more up the narrow pathway, and back again.

At last Sergey ran himself tired. Instead of the wild terror, he began to feel a cold, deadly melancholy, a tired indifference to danger. He sat down under a tree, and pressed his tired-out body to the trunk and closed his eyes. Nearer and nearer came the heavy steps of the enemy. Arto whimpered softly, putting his nose between the boy’s knees.

Two steps from where Sergey sat a big branch of a tree bent downward. The boy, raising his eyes accidentally, was suddenly seized with joy and jumped to his feet at a bound, for he noticed that at the place where he was sitting the wall was very low, not more than a yard and a half in height. The top was plastered with lime and broken bottle-glass, but Sergey did not give that a thought. In the twinkling of an eye he grabbed Arto by the body, and lifting him up put him with his fore-legs on the top of the wall. The clever poodle understood perfectly, clambered on to the top, wagged his tail and barked triumphantly.

Sergey followed him, making use of the branches of the cypress, and he had hardly got on to the top of the wall before he caught sight of a large, shadowy face. Two supple, agile bodies—the dog’s and the boy’s—went quickly and softly to the bottom, on to the road, and following them, like a dirty stream, came the vile, malicious abuse of the porter.

But whether it was that the porter was less sure on his feet than our two friends, or was tired with running round the garden, or had simply given up hope of overtaking them, he followed them no further. Nevertheless, they ran on as fast as they could without resting, strong, light-footed, as if the joy of deliverance had given them wings. The poodle soon began to exhibit his accustomed frivolity. Sergey often looked back fearfully over his shoulders, but Arto leapt on him, wagging his ears ecstatically, and waving the bit of cord that was hanging from his neck, actually licking Sergey’s face with his long tongue. The boy became calm only by the time they got to the spring where the afternoon before grandfather and he had made their lunch. There both the boy and the dog put their lips to the cold stream, and drank long and eagerly of the fresh and pleasant water. They got in one another’s way with their heads, and thinking they had quenched their thirst, yet returned to the basin to drink more, and would not stop. When at last they got away from the spot the water rolled about in their overfull insides as they ran. The danger past, all the terrors of the night explored, they felt gay now, and light-hearted, going along the white road brightly lit up by the moon, going through the dark shrubs, now wet with morning dew, and exhaling the sweet scent of freshened leaves.

At the door of the coffee-house Eeldeez, Ibrahim met the boy and whispered reproachfully:

“Where’s you been a-roving, boy? Where’s you been? No, no, no, zat’s not good….”

Sergey did not wish to wake grandfather, but Arto did it for him. He at once found the old man in the midst of the other people sleeping on the floor, and quite forgetting himself, licked him all over his cheeks and eyes and nose and mouth, yelping joyfully. Grandfather awoke, saw the broken cord hanging from the poodle’s neck, saw the boy lying beside him covered with dust, and understood all. He asked Sergey to explain, but got no answer. The little boy was asleep, his arms spread out on the floor, his mouth wide open.

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Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The White Poodle – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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