The Witch (Olyessia) by Alexander Kuprin

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

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From that day I began to be a frequent visitor to the chicken-legged house. Every time I came Olyessia met me with her usual dignified reserve. But I always could tell, by the first involuntary she made on seeing me, that she was glad that I had come. The old woman still went on grumbling as she used, muttering under her nose, but she expressed no open malevolence, owing to her granddaughter’s intercession, of which I was certain though I had not witnessed it. Also, the presents I would bring her from time to time made a considerable impression in my favour—a warm shawl, a pot of jam, a bottle of cherry brandy. As though by tacit consent, Olyessia began to make a habit of accompanying me as far as the Irenov road as I went home. And there always began such a lively interesting conversation, that involuntarily we both made an effort to prolong the journey, walking as slowly as possible in the silent fringes of the forest. When we came to the Irenov road, I went back half a mile with her, and even then before we parted we would stand talking for a long while beneath the fragrant shade of the pine branches.

It was not only Olyessia’s beauty that fascinated me, but her whole free independent nature, her mind at once clear and enwrapped in unshakable ancestral superstitions, childlike and innocent, yet not wholly devoid of the sly coquetry of the handsome woman. She never tired of asking me every detail concerning things which stirred her bright unspoiled imagination—countries and peoples, natural phenomena, the order of the earth and the universe, learned men, large towns…. Many things seemed to her wonderful, fairy, incredible. But from the very beginning of our acquaintance I took such a serious, sincere, and simple tone with her that she readily put a complete trust in all my stories. Sometimes when I was at a loss for an explanation of something which I thought was too difficult for her half-savage mind—it was often by no means clear to my own,—I answered her eager questions with, ‘You see…. I shan’t be able to explain this to you…. You won’t understand me.’

Then she would begin to entreat me.

‘Please tell me, please, I’ll try…. Tell me somehow, though … even if it’s not clear.’

She forced me to have recourse to preposterous comparisons and incredibly bold analogies, and when I was at a loss for a suitable expression she would help me out with a torrent of impatient conclusions, like those which we offer to a stammerer. And, indeed, in the end her pliant mobile mind and her fresh imagination triumphed over my pedagogic impotence. I became convinced that, considering her environment and her education (rather, lack of education) her abilities were amazing.

Once I happened in passing to mention Petersburg. Olyessia was instantly intrigued.

‘What is Petersburg? A small town?’

‘No, it’s not a small one. It’s the biggest Russian city.’

‘The biggest? The very largest of all? There isn’t one bigger?’ she insisted naïvely.

‘The largest of all. The chief authorities live there … the big folks. The houses there are all made of stone; there aren’t any wooden ones.’

‘Of course, it’s much bigger than our Stiepany?’ Olyessia asked confidently.

‘Oh, yes. A good bit bigger. Say five hundred times as big. There are houses there so big that twice as many people live in a single one of them as in the whole of Stiepany.’

‘My God! What kind of houses can they be?’ Olyessia asked almost in fright.

‘Terrible houses. Five, six, even seven stories. You see that fir tree there?’

‘The tall one. I see.’

‘Houses as tall as that, and they’re crammed with people from top to bottom. The people live in wretched little holes, like birds in cages, ten people in each, so that there isn’t enough air to breathe. Some of them live downstairs, right under the earth, in the damp and cold. They don’t see the sun from one end of the year to the other, some of them.’

‘Nothing would make me change my forest for your city,’ Olyessia said, shaking her head. ‘Even when I go to the market at Stiepany, I’m disgusted. They push, shout, swear … and I have such a longing for the forest, that I want to throw everything away and run and never look back. God may have your city: I don’t want to live there.’

‘But what if your husband comes from a town?’ I asked with the trace of a smile.

Her eyebrows frowned and her nostrils trembled.

‘What next!’ she said with scorn. ‘I don’t want a husband.’

‘You say that now, Olyessia. Nearly every girl says the same, but still they marry. You wait a bit: you’ll meet somebody and you’ll fall in love—and you’ll follow him, not only to town, but to the end of the earth.’

‘No, no…. We won’t talk of that, please,’ she cut me short in vexation. ‘Why should we talk like this? I ask you not to.’

‘How funny you are, Olyessia. Do you really believe you’ll never love a man in your life? You’re so young, handsome, strong. If your blood once catches fire, no oaths of yours will help you.’

‘Well, … then, I’ll love,’ Olyessia answered with a challenge in her flashing eyes. ‘I shan’t ask anybody’s leave.’

‘So you’ll have to marry too,’ I teased her.

‘I suppose you’re meaning the church?’ she guessed.

‘Exactly—the church. The priest will lead you round the altar; the deacon will sing, “Isaiah, rejoice!” they’ll put a crown on your head….’

Olyessia cast down her eyes and shook her head, faintly smiling.

‘No, dear…. Perhaps you won’t like what I say, but in our family no one was ever married in church. My mother and my grandmother before her managed to live without that…. Besides, we must not enter a church….’

‘All because of your witchery?’

‘Yes, because of our witchery,’ Olyessia replied with a calm seriousness. ‘How could I dare to appear in a church? From my very birth my soul was sold to Him.’

‘Olyessia, dear…. Believe me, you’re deceiving yourself. It’s wild and ridiculous what you say.’

Once more there appeared on Olyessia’s face the strange expression of convinced and gloomy submissiveness to her mysterious destiny, which I had noticed before.

‘No, no…. You can’t understand it…. But I feel it…. Just here….’ She pressed her hand strongly to her heart. ‘I feel it in my soul. All our family is cursed for ever and ever. But think yourself, who is it that helps us if it is not He? Can an ordinary person do the things I can do? All our power comes from Him.’

Every time our conversation touched upon this strange theme it ended in the same way. In vain I exhausted every argument to which Olyessia was sensible; in vain I spoke in simple terms of hypnotism, suggestion, mental doctors, and Indian fakirs; in vain I endeavoured to explain certain of her experiments by physiology, such, for instance, as blood charming, which is easily produced by skilful pressure on a vein. Still Olyessia, who believed me so implicitly in all else, refuted all my arguments and explanations with obstinate insistence.

‘Very well, I’ll make you a present of blood charming,’ she said, raising her voice in the heat of the discussion. ‘But where do the other things come from? Is blood charming the only thing I know? Would you like me to take away all the mice and beetles from a hut in a single day? If you like, I’ll cure the most violent fever in two days with plain cold water, even though all your doctors give the patient up. I can make you forget any word you like, completely? And how is it I interpret dreams? How is it I can see the future?’

The discussion always ended by our mutual silence, from which a certain inward irritation against each other was not wholly absent. Indeed, for much of her black art I could find no explanation in my small science. I do not know and cannot say whether Olyessia possessed one half the secrets of which she spoke with such naïve belief. But the things which I frequently witnessed planted an unshakable conviction in me that Olyessia had access to that strange knowledge, unconscious, instinctive, dim, acquired only by accidental experience, which has outrun exact science for centuries, and lives intertwined with wild and ridiculous superstitions, in the obscure impenetrable heart of the masses, where it is transmitted from one generation to another as the greatest of all secrets.

For all our disagreement on this single point, we became more and more strongly attached to one another. Not a word had been spoken between us of love as yet, but it had become a necessity for us to be together; and often in moments of silence I saw Olyessia’s eyes moisten, and a thin blue vein on her temple begin to pulse.

But my relations with Yarmola were quite ruined. Evidently my visits to the chicken-legged hut were no secret to him, nor were my evening walks with Olyessia. With amazing exactness, he always knew everything that went on in the forest. For some time I noticed that he had begun to avoid me. His black eyes watched me from a distance, with reproach and discontent every time I went out to walk in the forest, though he did not express his reproof by so much as a single word. Our comically serious studies in reading and writing came to an end; and if I occasionally called Yarmola in to learn during the evening he would only wave his hand.

‘What’s the good? It’s a peggling business, sir!’ he would say with lazy contempt.

Our hunting also ceased. Every time I began to talk of it, Yarmola found some excuse or other for refusing. Either his gun was out of order, or his dog was ill, or he was too busy. ‘I have no time, sir…. I have to be ploughing to-day,’ was Yarmola’s usual answer to my invitation; but I knew quite well that he would do no ploughing at all, but spend a good hour outside the inn in the doubtful hope of somebody standing him a drink. This silent, concealed animosity began to weary me, and I began to think of dispensing with Yarmola’s services, on the first suitable occasion…. I was restrained only by a sense of pity for his enormous poverty-stricken family, whom Yarmola’s four weekly roubles just saved from starvation.

< < < . V .
. VII . > > >

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

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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