The Witch (Olyessia) by Alexander Kuprin

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

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Yarmola was squatting on his heels in front of the stove door, poking the coals in the stove, while I walked from corner to corner of the room. Of all the twelve rooms of the huge country house I occupied only one—the lounge that used to be. The other rooms were locked up, and there, grave and motionless, mouldered the old brocaded furniture, the rare bronzes, and the eighteenth-century portraits.

The wind was raging round the walls of the house like an old naked, frozen devil. Towards evening the snowstorm became more violent. Some one outside was furiously throwing handfuls of fine dry snow at the window-panes. The forest near by moaned and roared with a dull, hidden, incessant menace….

The wind stole into the empty rooms and the howling chimneys. The old house, weak throughout, full of holes and half decayed, suddenly became alive with strange sounds to which I listened with involuntary anxiety. Into the white drawing-room there broke a deep-drawn sigh, in a sad worn-out voice. In the distance somewhere the dry and rotten floorboards began to creak under some one’s heavy, silent tread. I think that some one in the corridor beside my room is pressing with cautious persistence on the door-handle, and then, suddenly grown furious, rushes all over the house madly shaking all the shutters and doors. Or he gets into the chimney and whines so mournfully, wearily, incessantly—now raising his voice higher and higher, thinner and thinner, all the while, till it becomes a wailing shriek, then lowering it again to a wild beast’s growling. Sometimes this terrible guest would rush into my room too, run with a sudden coldness over my back and flicker the lamp flame, which gave a dim light from under a green paper shade, scorched at the top.

There came upon me a strange, vague uneasiness. I thought: Here am I sitting, this bad, stormy night, in a rickety house, in a village lost in woods and snowdrifts, hundreds of miles from town life, from society, from woman’s laughter and human conversation…. And I began to feel that this stormy evening would drag on for years and tens of years. The wind will whine outside the windows, as it is whining now; the lamp will burn dimly under the paltry green shade, as it burns now; I will walk just as breathlessly up and down my room, and the silent, intent Yarmola will sit so by the stove, a strange creature, alien to me, indifferent to everything in the world, indifferent that his family has nothing to eat, to the raging wind, and my own vague consuming anxiety.

Suddenly I felt an intolerable desire to break this anxious silence with some semblance of a human voice, and I asked:

‘Why is there such a wind to-day? What do you think, Yarmola?’

‘The wind?’ Yarmola muttered, lazily lifting his head. ‘Don’t you really know?’

‘Of course I don’t. How could I?’

‘Truly, you don’t know?’ Yarmola livened suddenly. ‘I’ll tell you,’ he continued with a mysterious note in his voice. ‘I’ll tell you this. Either a witch is being born, or a wizard is having a wedding-party.’

‘A witch?… Does that mean a sorceress in your place?’

‘Exactly … a sorceress.’

I caught up Yarmola eagerly. ‘Who knows,’ I thought, ‘perhaps I’ll manage to get an interesting story out of him presently, all about magic, and buried treasure, and devils.’

‘Have you got witches here, in Polyessie?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know … may be,’ Yarmola answered with his usual indifference, bending down to the stove again. ‘Old folks say there were once…. May be it’s not true….’

I was disappointed. Yarmola’s characteristic trait was a stubborn silence, and I had already given up hope of getting anything more out of him on this interesting subject. But to my surprise he suddenly began to talk with a lazy indifference as though he was addressing the roaring stove instead of me.

‘There was a witch here, five years back…. But the boys drove her out of the village.’

‘Where did they drive her to?’

‘Where to? Into the forest, of course … where else? And they pulled her cottage down as well, so that there shouldn’t be a splinter of the cursed den left…. And they took her to the cross roads….’

‘Why did they treat her like that?’

‘She did a great deal of harm. She quarrelled with everybody, poured poison beneath the cottages, tied knots in the corn…. Once she asked a village woman for fifteen kopeks. “I haven’t got a sixpence,” says she. “Right,” she says, “I’ll teach you not to give me a sixpence.” And what do you think, sir? That very day the woman’s child began to be ill. It grew worse and worse and then died. Then it was that the boys drove her out—curse her for a witch.’

‘Well … where’s the witch now?’ I was still curious.

‘The witch?’ Yarmola slowly repeated the question, as his habit was. ‘How should I know?’

‘Didn’t she leave any relatives in the village?’

‘No, not one. She didn’t come from our village; she came from the Big Russians, or the gipsies. I was still a tiny boy when she came to our village. She had a little girl with her, a daughter or grandchild…. They were both driven out.’

‘Doesn’t any one go to her now—to get their fortunes told or to get medicine?’

‘The womenfolk do,’ Yarmola said scornfully.

‘Ah, so it’s known where she lives?’

‘I don’t know…. Folks say she lives somewhere near the Devil’s Corner…. You know the place—the marsh behind the Trine road. She lives in that same marsh. May her mother burn in hell!’

‘A witch living ten versts from my house … a real live Polyessie witch!’ The idea instantly intrigued and excited me.

‘Look here, Yarmola,’ I said to the forester. ‘How could I get to know the witch?’

‘Foo!’ Yarmola spat in indignation. ‘That’s a nice thing!’

‘Nice or nasty, I’m going to her all the same. As soon as it gets a little warmer, I’ll go off at once. You’ll come with me, of course?’

Yarmola was so struck by my last words that he jumped right off the floor.

‘Me?’ he cried indignantly. ‘Not for a million! Come what may, I’m not going with you.’

‘Nonsense; of course, you’ll come.’

‘No, sir, I will not … not for anything…. Me?’ he cried again, seized with a new exasperation, ‘go to a witch’s den? God forbid! And I advise you not to either, sir.’

‘As you please…. I’ll go all the same…. I’m very curious to see her.’

‘There’s nothing curious there,’ grunted Yarmola, angrily slamming the door of the stove.

An hour later, when he had taken the samovar off the table and drunk his tea in the dark passage and was preparing to go home, I asked him:

‘What’s the witch’s name?’

‘Manuilikha,’ replied Yarmola with sullen rudeness.

Though he had never expressed his feelings, he seemed to have grown greatly attached to me. His affection came from our mutual passion for hunting, from my simple behaviour, the help I occasionally gave his perpetually hungry family, and above all, because I was the only person in the world who did not scold him for his drunkenness—a thing intolerable to Yarmola. That was why my determination to make the acquaintance of the witch put him into such an ugly temper, which he relieved only by sniffing more vigorously, and finally by going off to the back-staircase and kicking his dog Riabchik with all his might. Riabchik jumped aside and began to howl desperately, but immediately ran after Yarmola, still whining.

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. III . > > >

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

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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