Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Witch (Olyessia) – Contents
The naïve enchanting tale of our love lasted for nearly a month. To this day there live with undiminished potency in my soul Olyessia’s beautiful face and those blazing twilights, those dewy mornings fragrant with lilies and honey, full of vigorous freshness and the sonorous noise of birds, those hot, languid, idle days of June. In that time neither weariness, nor fatigue, nor my eternal passion for a wandering life ever touched my soul. I was a pagan god or a strong, young animal, delighting in the light and warmth and conscious joy of life, and in calm, pure, sensuous love.
After my recovery old Manuilikha became so intolerably snappish, met me with such undisguised malice, and, while I was sitting in the hut, moved the pots on the stove with such noisy exasperation, that Olyessia and I preferred to meet in the forest every evening…. And the stately green beauty of the pine-forest was the precious setting which adorned our tranquil love.
Every day with deeper and deeper wonder I discovered that Olyessia, the child of the forest who could not even read, showed in many things of life a delicate sensitiveness and a peculiar native refinement. There are always horrible sides to love, in its direct and coarser meaning, which are a torment and a shame to nervous artistic natures. But Olyessia could avoid them with such naïve chastity that our love was never once spoiled by a single ugly thought, or one moment of cynicism.
Meanwhile the time of my departure was approaching. To tell the truth, all my official business at Perebrod was already at an end; but I had deliberately delayed my return to town. I had not yet breathed a word of this to Olyessia, for I was afraid even to imagine to myself how she would receive the news that I must go away. Habit had taken roots too deep in me. To see Olyessia every day, to hear her dear voice and musical laughter, to feel the tender beauty of her caresses, had come to be more than a necessity for me. On the rare days when stress of weather prevented us from meeting I felt exactly as though I had been lost, and deprived of what was chief and all-important in my life. Every occupation was tedious and useless to me, and my whole being craved for the forest, the warmth and the light, and Olyessia’s dear familiar face.
The idea of marrying Olyessia entered my head more and more insistently. At first it had only presented itself to me but rarely as a possible, and in extremities an honest, issue to our relationship. Only one thing alarmed and checked me. I dared not even imagine to myself what Olyessia would be like, fashionably dressed, chatting to the wives of my colleagues in the drawing-room, snatched away from the fascinating setting of the old forest, full of legends and mysterious powers.
But the nearer came the time for me to depart, the greater was the anguish and horror of loneliness which possessed me. My resolution to marry grew daily stronger in my soul, and finally I could no longer see it as a bold defiance of society. ‘Decent, well-educated men marry dressmakers and servant-maids,’ I consoled myself, ‘and they live happily together, and to the day of their death they thank the fate which urged them to this resolution. Shall I be unhappier than the others?’
Once in mid-June, towards evening, I was waiting for Olyessia, according to my habit, at the turn of a narrow forest path among the flowering whitethorn bushes. When she was far in the distance I made out the easy, quick sound of her steps.
‘How are you, my darling?’ Olyessia said, embracing me and breathing heavily. ‘Have I kept you waiting too long?… It was so hard to get away at the last…. Fighting with granny all the while.’
‘Isn’t she reconciled yet?’
‘Never! She says to me: “He’ll ruin you…. He’ll play with you at his pleasure and then desert you…. He doesn’t love you at all——”’
‘So that’s what she says about me?’
‘Yes, darling, about you…. But I don’t believe a single word of it all the same….’
‘Does she know everything?’
‘I couldn’t say for sure…. But I believe she knows…. I’ve never spoken to her about it—she guesses. But what’s the good of thinking about that…. Come.’
She plucked a twig of whitethorn with a superb spray of blossom and thrust it into her hair. We walked slowly along the path which showed faintly rosy beneath the evening sun.
The night before I had decided that I would speak out at all costs this evening. But a strange timidity lay like a weight upon my tongue. ‘If I tell Olyessia that I am going away and going to marry her,’ I thought, ‘will she not think that my proposal is only made to soothe the pain of the first wound?… But I’ll begin the moment we reach that maple with the peeled trunk,’ I fixed in my mind. We were already on a level with the maple. Pale with agitation I had begun to draw a deep breath to begin to speak, when my courage suddenly failed, and ended in a nervous painful beating of my heart and a chill on my lips. ‘Twenty-seven is my number,’ I thought a few moments later. ‘I’ll count up to twenty-seven, and then!…’ I began to count to myself, but when I reached twenty-seven I felt that the resolution had not yet matured in me. ‘No,’ I said to myself, ‘I’d better go on counting to sixty … that will make just a minute, and then without fail, without fail——’
‘What’s the matter with you to-day?’ Olyessia suddenly asked. ‘You’re thinking of something unpleasant. What has happened to you?’
Then I began to speak, but with a tone repugnant to myself, with an assumed unnatural carelessness, just as though it were a trifling affair.
‘Yes, it really is rather unpleasant…. You have guessed it, Olyessia…. You see, my service here is finished, and the authorities have summoned me back to town.’
I took a quick side-glance at Olyessia. The colour died away from her face and her lips quivered. She said not a word in reply. Some minutes I walked in silence by her side. The grasshoppers chattered noisily in the grass, and the strained monotonous note of a corncrake sounded somewhere afar.
‘Of course you understand, yourself, Olyessia,’ I again began, ‘that it’s no good my staying here, besides there’s nowhere to stay…. And I can’t neglect my duty——’
‘No … why … what’s the good of talking?’ Olyessia said, in a voice outwardly calm, but so deep and lifeless that terror seized me. ‘If it’s your duty, of course … you must go——’
She stopped by the tree and leaned against the trunk, her face utterly pale, her hands hanging limply by her body, a poignant pitiful smile on her lips. Her pallor frightened me. I rushed to her and pressed her hands vehemently.
‘What’s the matter, Olyessia … darling!’
‘Nothing … forgive me…. It will pass—now…. My head is dizzy.’ She controlled herself with an effort and went on, leaving her hand in mine.
‘You’re thinking ill of me, Olyessia,’ I said reproachfully. ‘You should be ashamed. Do you think, as well, that I could cast you off and leave you? No, my darling. That’s why I began this conversation—so that you should go this very day to your grandmother and tell her you will be my wife.’
Quite contrary to my expectation, Olyessia showed hardly a trace of surprise at my words.
‘Your wife?’ She shook her head slowly and sadly. ‘No, it’s impossible, Vanichka dear.’
‘Why, Olyessia? Why?’
‘No, no…. You can see yourself, it’s funny to think of it even. What kind of wife could I be for you? You are a gentleman, clever, educate—and I? I can’t even read. I don’t know how to behave. You will be ashamed to be my husband….’
‘What nonsense, Olyessia,’ I replied fervently. ‘In six months you won’t know yourself. You don’t even suspect the natural wit and genius for observation you have in you. We’ll read all sorts of good books together; we’ll make friends with decent, clever people; we’ll see the whole wide world together, Olyessia. We’ll go together arm in arm just like we are now until old age, to the grave itself; and I shan’t be ashamed of you, but proud and grateful….’
Olyessia answered my passionate speech with a grateful clasp of the hand, but she persisted:
‘That’s not everything…. Perhaps you don’t know, yet…. I never told you…. I haven’t a father…. I’m illegitimate….’
‘Don’t, Olyessia…. That’s the last thing I care about. What have I got to do with your family, when you yourself are more precious to me than my father and mother, than the whole world even? No, this is all trifling—just excuses!…’
Olyessia pressed her shoulder against mine with a gentle submissive caress.
‘Darling!… You’d better not have begun to talk at all…. You are young, free…. Would I ever dare to tie you hand and foot for all your life?… What if you fall in love with another woman afterwards? Then you will despise me, and curse the day and hour when I agreed to marry you. Don’t be angry, darling!’ she cried out in entreaty, seeing by my face that the words had offended me, ‘I don’t want to hurt you…. I’m only thinking of your happiness. And you’ve forgotten granny. Well, ask yourself, could I leave her alone?’
‘Why … she’ll come with us, too.’ (I confess the idea of granny made me uneasy.) ‘And even if she didn’t want to live with us … there are houses in every town … called alms-houses, where such old women are given rest, and carefully looked after.’
‘No, what are you saying? She will never go away from the forest. She is afraid of people.’
‘Well, think of something better yourself, Olyessia. You must choose between me and granny. But I tell you this one thing—that life will be hideous to me without you.’
‘You darling!’ Olyessia said with profound tenderness. ‘Just for those words I am grateful…. You have warmed my heart…. But still I shan’t marry you…. I rather go with you without being married, if you don’t send me away…. But don’t be in a hurry, please don’t hurry me. Give me a day or two. I’ll think it over well…. Besides, I must speak to granny, as well.’
‘Tell me, Olyessia,’ I asked, for the shadow of a new thought was upon my mind. ‘Perhaps you are still … afraid of the church?’
Perhaps I should have begun with this question. Almost every day I used to quarrel with Olyessia over it, trying to shake her belief in the imaginary curse that hung over her family for the possession of magic powers. There is something of the preacher essential in every Russian intellectual. It is in our blood; it has been instilled by the whole of Russian literature in the last generations. Who could say but, if Olyessia had had a profound belief, and strictly observed the fasts, and never missed a single service, it is quite possible I would have begun to speak ironically (but only a little, for I was always a believer myself) of her piety and to develop a critical curiosity of mind in her. But with a firm, naïve conviction she professed her communion with the powers of darkness, and her estrangement from God, of whom she was afraid to speak.
In vain I tried to shake Olyessia’s superstition. All my logical arguments, all my mockery, sometimes rude and wicked, were broken against her submissive confidence in her mysterious, fatal vocation.
‘You’re afraid of the church, Olyessia?’ I repeated.
She bent her head in silence.
‘You think God will not accept you?’ I continued with growing passion. ‘That He will not have mercy on you; He who, though He commands millions of angels, yet came down to earth and suffered a horrible infamous death for the salvation of all men? He who did not disdain the repentance of the worst woman, and promised a highway murderer that on that very day he would sit together with Him in Paradise?’
This interpretation of mine was already familiar to Olyessia; but this time she did not even listen to me. With a quick movement she took off her shawl, rolled it up and flung it in my face. A struggle began. I tried to snatch her nosegay of whitethorn away. She resisted, fell on the ground and dragged me down with her, laughing joyfully and holding out to me her darling lips, moist and opened by her quick breathing….
Late at night, when we had said good-bye and were already a good distance away from each other, I suddenly heard Olyessia’s voice behind me: ‘Vanichka! Wait a moment…. I want to tell you something.’
I turned and went to meet her. Olyessia quickly ran up to me. Already the thin notched silver sickle of the young moon stood in the sky, and by its light I saw that Olyessia’s eyes were full of big brimming tears.
‘What is it, Olyessia?’ I asked anxiously.
She seized my hands and began to kiss them in turn.
‘Darling … how sweet you are! How good you are!’ she said with a trembling voice. ‘I was just walking and thinking how much you love me…. You see I want awfully to do something that you would like very, very much.’
‘Olyessia … my precious girl, be calm——’
‘Tell me,’ she continued, ‘would you be very glad if I went to church some time? Tell me the truth, the real truth.’
I was thinking. A superstitious thought suddenly crossed my mind that some misfortune would come of it.
‘Why don’t you answer? Tell me quickly; would you be glad, or is it all the same to you?’
‘How can I say, Olyessia?’ I began doubtfully. ‘Well, yes…. I would be glad. I’ve said many times that a man may disbelieve, doubt, even laugh finally. But a woman … a woman must be religious without any sophistication. I always feel something touching, feminine, beautiful in the simple tender confidence with which a woman surrenders herself to the protection of God.’
I was silent; neither did Olyessia make any answer, but nestled her head in my bosom.
‘Why did you ask me this?’ I was curious.
She started suddenly.
‘Nothing…. I just asked…. Don’t take any notice. Now, good-bye, darling. Come to-morrow.’
She disappeared. I stood still for a long while, looking into the darkness, listening eagerly to the quick steps going away from me. A sudden dread foreboding seized me. I had an irresistible desire to run after Olyessia, to take hold of her and ask, implore, demand, if need be, that she should not go to church. But I checked the sudden impulse, and I remember that as I went my way I even said aloud:
‘It seems to me, my dear Vanichka, that the superstition’s touched you as well.’
My God, why did I not listen then to the dim voice of the heart, which—I now believe it implicitly—never errs in its momentary mysterious presentiments?
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Witch (Olyessia) – Contents
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