The Witch (Olyessia) by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Witch (Olyessia) – Contents

< < < . XII .
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I cannot possibly describe my state during that wild gallop. There were moments when I utterly forgot where and why I was riding; only a dim consciousness remained that something irreparable had happened, something grotesque and horrible; a consciousness like the heavy, causeless anxiety which will possess a person in a feverish nightmare. And all the while strangely rang in my head, in time with the horse’s hoof-beat, the snuffling, broken voice of the harpist:

‘Oh, there came out the Turkish troopsLike unto a black cloud.’

When I reached the narrow footpath that led straight to Manuilikha’s hut, I jumped off Taranchik and led him by the rein. By the edge of the saddle pads, and wherever the girths and bridle touched him, stood out white lumps of thick froth. From the violent heat of the day and the speed of my gallop, the blood roared in my head as though forced by some immense, unceasing pump.

I tied my horse to the wattle hedge and entered the hut. At first I thought that Olyessia was not there, and my heart and lips were chilled with fear; but a minute later I saw her lying on the bed with her face to the wall and her head hidden in the pillows. She did not even turn at the noise of the opening door.

Manuilikha was squatting on the floor by her side. When she saw me she rose with effort to her feet and shook her hand at me.

‘Sh! Don’t make a noise, curse you!’ she said in a menacing whisper, coming close to me. She glanced with her cold, faded eyes straight into mine and hissed malignantly: ‘Yes! You’ve done that beautifully, my darling!’

‘Look here, granny!’ I answered sternly. ‘This isn’t the time to settle our account and abuse each other. What’s the matter with Olyessia?’

‘Sh…. Sh! Olyessia’s lying there unconscious; that’s what’s the matter with Olyessia! If you hadn’t poked your nose in where you had no business, and talked a pack of nonsense to the girl, nothing wrong would have happened. And I just looked on and indulged it, blind fool that I am…. But my heart scented misfortune…. It scented misfortune from the very first day when you broke into our house, almost by force. Do you mean to say that it wasn’t you who persuaded her to go trailing off to church?’ Suddenly the old woman looked at me with her face distorted with hatred. ‘Wasn’t it you, you cursed gentleman! Don’t lie—don’t put me off with your cunning tricks, you shameless hound! What did you go enticing her to church for?’

‘I didn’t entice her, granny…. I give you my word. She wanted to, herself.’

‘Ah, my grief, my misfortune!’ Manuilikha clasped her hands. ‘She came running back from there—with no face left at all, and all her skirt in rags … without a shawl to her head…. She tells me how it happened … then she laughs, or cries…. Just possessed simply…. She lay on the bed … weeping all the while, and then I saw that she’d fallen into a sleep, I thought…. And I was happy like an old fool. “She’ll sleep it all away now, for good,” I thought. I saw her hand hanging down, and I thought I’d better put it right, or it would swell…. I felt for the darling’s hand and it was burning, blazing…. That meant the fever had begun…. For an hour she never stopped speaking, fast, and so pitifully…. She only stopped this very minute, a moment ago…. What have you done? What have you done to her?’

Suddenly her brown face writhed into a monstrous, disgusting grimace of weeping. Her lips tightened and drooped at the corners: all the muscles of her face stiffened and trembled, her eyelids lifted and wrinkled her forehead into deep folds, and from her eyes came a quick rain of big tears, big as peas. She held her head in her hands, and with her elbows on the table began to rock her whole body to and fro and to whine in a low, drawn-out voice.

‘My little daught-er! My darling grand-daught-er! Oh, it is so hard for me, so bit-te-r!’

‘Don’t roar, you old fool!’ I coarsely broke in on Manuilikha. ‘You’ll wake her!’

The old woman kept silence, but with the same terrible contortion of her face she went on swinging to and fro, while the big tears splashed on to the table…. About ten minutes passed in this way. I sat by Manuilikha’s side and anxiously listened to a fly knocking against the window-pane with a broken yet monotonous buzzing….

‘Granny!’ suddenly a faint, barely audible voice came from Olyessia: ‘Granny, who’s here?’

Manuilikha hastily hobbled to the bed, and straightway began to whine once more.

‘Oh, my granddaughter, my own! Oh, it is so hard for me, so bit-t-e-r!’

‘Ah, stop, granny, stop!’ Olyessia said with complaining entreaty and suffering in her voice. ‘Who’s sitting here?’

Cautiously, I approached the bed on tip-toe, with the awkward, guilty conscience of my own gross health which one always feels by a sick bed.

‘It’s me, Olyessia,’ I said, lowering my voice. ‘I’ve just come from the village on horseback…. I was in the town all the morning…. You’re ill, Olyessia?’

Without moving her face from the pillow, she stretched out her bare hand, as though she were feeling for something in the air. I understood the movement and took her hot hand into mine. Two huge blue marks, one on the wrist, the other above the elbow, stood out sharp on her tender white skin.

‘My darling,’ Olyessia began to speak slowly, with difficulty separating one word from another. ‘I want … to look at you … but I cannot…. They’ve maimed me…. All over, my whole body…. You remember…. You loved my face, so much…. You loved it, darling, didn’t you?… It made me so glad, always…. And now it will disgust you … even to look at me…. That is why … I do not want——’

‘Forgive me, Olyessia!’ I whispered, bending down to her ear.

Her burning hand pressed mine hard and held it long.

‘But what are you saying? Why should I forgive you, my darling? Aren’t you ashamed to think of it even? How could it be your fault? It’s all my own—stupid me…. Why did I go?… No, my precious, don’t blame yourself….’

‘Olyessia, will you let me…. Promise me first, that you will——’

‘I’ll promise, darling … anything you want——’

‘Let me send for a doctor…. I implore you…. Well, you needn’t do anything he tells you, if you like…. But say “yes”—only for my sake, Olyessia.’

‘Oh … you’ve caught me in a terrible trap! No, you’d better let me free of my promise. Even if I were really ill, dying—I wouldn’t let the doctor come near me. And am I ill now? It’s only fright that brought it on; it will go off when the evening comes. If it doesn’t, granny will give an infusion of lilies or make some raspberry-tea. What’s the good of the doctor? You—you’re my best doctor. You’ve only just come—and I feel better already…. Ah, there’s only one thing wrong, I want to look at you, even if it were only with one eye, but I’m afraid….’

With a gentle effort I lifted Olyessia’s head from the pillow. Her face blazed with feverish redness; her dark eyes shone unnaturally bright; her dry lips trembled nervously. Long, red scratches ploughed her forehead, cheeks, and neck. There were dark bruises on her forehead and under her eyes.

‘Don’t look at me…. I implore you…. I’m ugly now,’ Olyessia besought me in a whisper, trying to cover my eyes with her hand.

My heart overflowed with pity. I nestled my lips on Olyessia’s hand, which lay motionless on the blanket, and began to cover it with long, quiet kisses. In the time before I used to kiss her hands too, but she always would draw them away from me in hasty, bashful fright. But now she made no resistance to my caress and with her other hand she gently smoothed my hair.

‘You know it all?’ she asked in a whisper.

I bent my head in silence. It is true I had not understood everything from Nikita Nazarich’s story. Only I did not want Olyessia to be agitated by having to recall the events of the morning. Suddenly a wave of irrepressible fury overwhelmed me at the idea of the outrage to which she had been subjected.

‘Oh, why wasn’t I there!’ I cried, holding myself straight and clenching my fists. ‘I would … I would have——’

‘Well, don’t worry … don’t worry…. Don’t be angry, darling….’ Olyessia interrupted me meekly.

I could not keep back the tears any more which had been choking my throat and burning my eyes. I pressed my face close to Olyessia’s shoulder, and I began to cry bitterly, silently, trembling all over my body.

‘You are crying? You are crying?’ There was surprise, tenderness, and compassion in her voice. ‘My darling … don’t … please don’t…. Don’t torment yourself, my darling…. I feel so happy near you…. Don’t let us cry while we are together. Let us be happy for the last days, then it won’t be so hard for us to part.’

I raised my head in amazement. A vague presentiment began slowly to press upon my heart.

‘The last days, Olyessia? What do you mean—the last? Why should we part?’

Olyessia shut her eyes and kept silence for some seconds. ‘We must part, Vanichka,’ she said resolutely. ‘When I’m a little bit better, we’ll go away from here, granny and I. We must not stay here any longer.’

‘Are you afraid of anything?’

‘No, my darling, I’m not afraid of anything, if it comes to that. But why should I tempt people into mischief? Perhaps you don’t know…. Over there—in Perebrod…. I was so angry and ashamed that I threatened them…. And now if anything happens, they will inform on us. If the cattle begin to die or a hut is set on fire—we shall be the guilty ones. Granny’—she turned to Manuilikha, raising her voice—‘isn’t it true what I say?’

‘What did you say, little granddaughter? I confess I didn’t hear,’ the old woman mumbled, coming closer and putting her hand to her ear.

‘I said that whatever misfortune happens in Perebrod now they’ll put all the blame on us.’

‘That’s true, that’s true, Olyessia—they’ll throw everything on us, the miserable wretches…. We are no dwellers in this world. They will destroy us both, destroy us utterly, the cursed…. Besides, how did they drive me out of the village?… Why?… Wasn’t it just the same? I threatened them … just out of vexation, too…. One stupid fool of a woman—and lo and behold her child died. It was no fault of mine at all—not a dream of my dreaming or a spirit of my calling; but they nearly killed me all the same, the devils…. They began to stone me…. I ran away and only just managed to protect you—you were a little tiny child then…. Well, I thought, it doesn’t matter if they give it to me, but why should an innocent child be injured…. No, it all comes to the same thing—they’re savages, a dirty lot of gallows’-birds.’

‘But where will you go? You haven’t any relations or friends anywhere…. Finally, you’ll have to have money to settle in a new place.’

‘We’ll make shift somehow,’ Olyessia said negligently. ‘There’ll be money as well. Granny has saved something.’

‘Money as well!’ the old woman echoed angrily, going away from the bed. ‘Widows’ mites, washed in tears——’

‘Olyessia…. What’s to become of me? You don’t want even to think of me!’ I exclaimed, feeling a bitter, sick, ugly reproach against Olyessia rising within me.

She raised herself a little, and, careless of her grandmother’s presence, took my head into her hands, and kissed me on the cheeks and forehead several times in succession.

‘I think of you most of all, my own! Only … you see … it’s not our fate to be together … that is it…. You remember, I spread out the cards for you? Everything happened as they foretold. It means that Fate does not will our happiness…. If it were not for this, do you think I would be frightened of anything?’

‘Olyessia, you’re talking of fate again!’ I cried impatiently. ‘I don’t want to believe in it … and I never will believe.’

‘Oh no, no, no!… Don’t say that.’ Olyessia began in a frightened whisper. ‘It’s not for me I’m afraid, but you. No you’d better not start us talking about it.’

In vain I tried to dissuade Olyessia; in vain I painted glowing pictures of unbroken happiness for her, which neither curious fate nor ugly, wicked people could disturb. Olyessia only kissed my hands and shook her head.

‘No … no … no…. I know. I see,’ she repeated persistently. ‘There’s nothing but sorrow awaits us … nothing … nothing.’

Disconcerted and baffled by this superstitious obstinacy, I asked at length, ‘At least you will let me know the day you are going away?’

Olyessia pondered. Suddenly the shadow of a smile flickered over her lips. ‘I’ll tell you a little story for that. Once upon a time a wolf was running through the forest when he saw a little hare and said to him: “Hi, you hare! I’ll eat you!” The hare began to implore him: “Have mercy on me. I want to live. I have little children at home.” The wolf did not agree, so the hare said: “Well, let me live another three days in the world; then you can eat me, but still I shall feel it easier to die.” The wolf gave him his three days. He didn’t eat him, but only kept a watch on him. One day passed, then the second, and at last the third was coming to an end. “Well, get ready now,” said the wolf, “I’m going to eat you at once.” Then my hare began to weep with bitter tears. “Oh, why did you give me those three days, wolf? It would have been far better if you had eaten the first moment that you saw me. The whole of these three days it hasn’t been life for me, but torment.”

‘Darling, that little hare spoke the truth. Don’t you think so?’

I was silent, distraught by an anxious foreboding of the loneliness that threatened me. Olyessia suddenly raised herself and sat up in bed. Her face grew serious at once. ‘Listen, Vanya….’ she said slowly. ‘Tell me, were you happy while you were with me? Did you feel that it was good?’

‘Olyessia! Can you still ask?’

‘Wait…. Did you regret having met me? Were you thinking of another woman while you were with me?’

‘Never for one single second! Not only when I was with you, but when I was alone, I never had a thought for any one but you.’

‘Were you jealous of me? Were you ever angry with me? Were you ever wretched when you were with me?’

‘Never, Olyessia, never!’

She put both her hands upon my shoulders, and looked into my eyes with love indescribable.

‘Then I tell you, my darling, that you will never think evilly or sadly of me when you remember me,’ she said with conviction, as though she were reading the future in my eyes. ‘When we part you will be miserable, terribly miserable…. You will cry, you will not find a place to rest anywhere. And then everything will pass and fade away, and you will think of me without sorrow, easily and happily.’

She let her head fall back on the pillows again and whispered in a feeble voice:

‘Now go, my darling…. Go home, my precious…. I am a little bit tired. No, wait … kiss me…. Don’t be frightened of granny … she won’t mind. You don’t mind, do you, granny?’

‘Say good-bye. Part, as you should,’ the old woman muttered in discontent…. ‘Why should you want to hide from me? I’ve known it a long while.’

‘Kiss me here and here … and here,’ Olyessia said, touching her eyes, cheeks and mouth with her fingers.

‘Olyessia, you’re saying good-bye to me as though we shall never see each other again!’ I cried in terror.

‘I don’t know, I don’t know, my darling. I don’t know anything. Now, go and God be with you. No, wait … just one little moment more…. Bend down to me…. You know what I regret?’ she began to whisper, touching my cheeks with her lips. ‘That you haven’t given me a child…. Oh, how happy I should be!’

I went out into the passage, escorted by Manuilikha. Half the heaven was covered by a black cloud with sharp, curly edges, but the sun was still shining, bending to the east. There was something ominous in this mixing of light and oncoming darkness. The old woman looked up, shading her eyes with her hand as it were an umbrella, and shook her head meaningly.

‘There’ll be a thunderstorm over Perebrod, to-day,’ she said with conviction. ‘And hail as well, most likely.’

< < < . XII .
. XIV . > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Witch (Olyessia) – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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