The Witch (Olyessia) by Alexander Kuprin

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

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It was a warm, greyish morning. Several times already there had been brief showers of heavy fruitful rain, which makes the young grass grow before your eyes and the new shoots stretch out. After the rain the sun peeped out for a moment, pouring its joyous glitter over the tender green of the lilac bushes, sodden with the rain, which made all my hedge. The sparrows’ impetuous chirrup grew louder among the lush gardenbeds, and the scent of the sticky brown poplar buds came sweeter. I was sitting at the table, drawing a plan of timber to be felled, when Yarmola entered the room.

‘The sergeant’s here,’ he said gloomily.

At the moment I had completely forgotten that I had ordered him a couple of days ago to let me know in case the sergeant were to pass. It was impossible for me to understand immediately what was the connection between me and the delegate of authority.

‘What?’ I said in confusion.

‘I say the sergeant’s here,’ Yarmola repeated in the same hostile tone that he normally assumed towards me during the last days. ‘I saw him on the dam just now. He’s coming here.’

There was a rumble of wheels on the road outside. A long thin chocolate-coloured gelding with a hanging under lip, and an insulted look on its face, gravely trotted up with a tall, jolting, basket gig. There was only a single trace. The place of the other was supplied by a piece of stout rope. (Malicious tongues asserted that the sergeant had put this miserable contraption together on purpose to avoid any undesirable comments.) The sergeant himself held the reins, filling both seats with his enormous body, which was wrapped in a grey uniform made of smart military cloth.

‘Good-day to you, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich!’ I called, leaning out of the window.

‘Ah, good-day! How do you do?’ he answered in a loud, courteous, official baritone.

He drew up his horse, saluted with straightened palm, and bent his body forward with elephantine grace.

‘Come in for a moment. I’ve got a little business with you.’

The sergeant spread his hands wide and shook his head.

‘Can’t possibly. I’m on duty. I’ve got to go to Volocha for an inquest—man drowned.’

But I knew Evpsychyi’s weak points; so I said with assumed indifference:

‘It’s a pity … a great pity … and I’ve got a couple of bottles of the best from Count Vortzel’s cellar….’

‘Can’t manage it…. Duty.’

‘The butler sold them to me, because he’s an acquaintance of mine. He’d brought them up in the cellar, like his own children…. You ought to come in…. I’ll tell them to give the horse a feed.’

‘You’re a nice one, you are,’ the sergeant said in reproof. ‘Don’t you know that duty comes first of all?… What’s in the bottles, though? Plum wine?’

‘Plum wine!’ I waved my hand. ‘It’s the real old stuff, that’s what it is, my dear sir!’

‘I must confess I’ve just had a bite and a drop.’ The sergeant scratched his cheek regretfully, wrinkling his face incredibly.

I continued with the same calm.

‘I don’t know whether it’s true; but the butler swore it was two hundred years old. It smells just like an old cognac, and it’s as yellow as amber.’

‘Ah, what are you doing with me?’ said the sergeant. ‘Who’ll hold my horse?’

I really had some bottles of the old liqueur, though it was not quite so old as I made out; but I thought that suggestion might easily add a hundred years to its age…. At any rate it was the real home-distilled, omnipotent stuff, the pride of a ruined magnate’s cellar. (Evpsychyi Afrikanovich, who was the son of a parson, immediately begged a bottle from me, in case, as he put it, he were to catch a bad cold.) Besides, I had some very conducive hors d’œuvre: young radishes, with fresh churned butter.

‘Now, what’s the little business?’ the sergeant asked after his fifth glass, throwing himself back in the old chair which groaned under him.

I began to explain the position of the poor old woman; I dwelt on her hopeless despair; spoke lightly of useless formalities. The sergeant listened to me with his head bent down, methodically clearing the small roots from the succulent red radishes, and chewing and crunching them with relish. Now and then he gave me a quick glance with his cloudy, indifferent, preposterously little blue eyes; but I could read nothing on his great red face, neither sympathy nor opposition. When I finally became silent, he only asked.

‘Well, what is it you want from me?’

‘What do you mean?’ I became agitated. ‘Look at their position, please—two poor defenceless women living there——’

‘And one of them’s a perfect little bud!’ the sergeant put in maliciously.

‘Bud or no bud—that doesn’t come into it. But why shouldn’t you take some interest in them? As though you really need to turn them out in such a hurry? Just wait a day or two until I’ve been to the landlord. What do you stand to lose, even if you waited for a month?’

‘What do I stand to lose?’ The sergeant rose in his chair. ‘Good God! I stand to lose everything—my job, first of all. Who knows what sort of a man this new landlord, Ilyashevich is? Perhaps he’s an underhand devil, one of the sort who get hold of a bit of paper and a pen on the slightest provocation, and send a little report to Petersburg? There are men of the kind!’

I tried to reassure the agitated sergeant.

‘That’s enough, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich! You’re exaggerating the whole affair. After all, a risk’s a risk, and gratitude’s gratitude.’

‘Ph-e-w!’ The sergeant gave a long-drawn whistle and thrust his hands into his trouser-pockets. ‘It’s gratitude, is it? Do you think I’m going to stake my official position for three pounds? No, you’ve got a wrong idea of me.’

‘But what are you getting warm about, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich? The amount isn’t the point, just simply—well, let’s say, for humanity’s sake——’

‘For hu-man-i-ty’s sake?’ He hammered out each syllable. ‘I’m full up to here with your humanity!’ He tapped vigorously on the bronzed nape of his mighty neck which hung down over his collar in a fat, hairless fold.

‘That’s a bit too strong, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich.’

‘Not a bit too strong! “They’re the plague of the place,” as Mr. Krylov, the famous fable-writer, said. That’s what these two ladies are. You don’t happen to have read that splendid work, by His Excellency Count Urussov, called The Police Sergeant?’

‘No, I haven’t.’

‘Well, you ought to have. A brilliant work, highly moral. I would advise you to make its acquaintance when you have the time——’

‘Right, I’ll do so with pleasure. But still I don’t see what this book’s got to do with these two poor women.’

‘What’s it got to do with them? A great deal. Firstly’ (Evpsychyi Afrikanovich ticked off the fat hairy forefinger of his left hand): ‘“It is the duty of a police sergeant to take the greatest care that all the people go to the Church of God, without, however, compelling them by force to remain there….” I ask you, does she go—what’s her name; Manuilikha, isn’t it?… Does she ever go to church?’

I was silent, surprised by the unexpected turn of his speech. He gave me a look of triumph, and ticked off his second finger. ‘Secondly: “False prophecies and prognostications are everywhere forbidden….” Do you notice that? Then, thirdly: “It is illegal to profess to be a sorcerer or a magician, or to employ similar deceptions.” What do you say to that? And suppose all this becomes known, or gets round to the authorities by some back way, who has to pay for it? I do. Who gets sacked from the service? I do. Now you see what a business it is.’

He sat down in his chair again. His raised eyes wandered absently over the walls of the room and his fingers drummed loudly on the table.

‘Well, what if I ask you, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich,’ I began once more in a gentle voice. ‘Of course I know your duties are complicated and troublesome, but you’ve got a heart, I know, a heart of gold. What will it cost you to promise me not to touch these women?’

The sergeant’s eyes suddenly stopped, over my head.

‘That’s a nice little gun you’ve got,’ he said carelessly, still drumming his fingers. ‘A splendid little gun. Last time I came to see you and you were out, I admired it all the while. A splendid gun!’

‘Yes, it’s not a bad gun,’ I agreed. ‘It’s an old pattern, made by Gastin-Rennet; but last year I had it converted into a hammerless. You just look at the barrels.’

‘Yes, yes … it was the barrels I admired most…. A magnificent piece of work. I’d call it a perfect treasure.’

Our eyes met, and I saw the trace of a meaning smile flickering in the corner of the sergeant’s lips. I rose from my seat, took the gun off the wall and approached Evpsychyi Afrikanovich with it.

‘The Circassians have an admirable custom,’ I said courteously, ‘of presenting a guest with anything that he praises. Though we are not Circassians, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich, I entreat you to accept this from me as a memento.’

For appearance’ sake the sergeant blushed.

‘My goodness, what a beauty! No, no…. That custom is far too generous.’

However, I did not have to entreat him long. The sergeant accepted the gun, carefully put it between his knees and with a clean handkerchief lovingly wiped away the dust that had settled on the lock; and I was rather mollified when I saw that the gun had at least passed into the hands of an expert and an amateur. Almost immediately Evpsychyi Afrikanovich got up and began to hurry away.

‘Business won’t wait, and here I’ve been gossiping with you,’ he said, noisily banging on the floor with his reluctant goloshes. ‘When you happen to come our way, you’ll be most welcome.’

‘Well, what about Manuilikha, my dear Authority?’ I reminded him delicately.

‘We’ll see, we’ll see, …’ Evpsychyi Afrikanovich vaguely muttered. ‘There was something else I wanted to ask you…. Your radishes are magnificent….’

‘I grew them myself.’

‘Mag-nificent radishes! You know, my wife is terribly partial to garden-stuff. So, you know, one little bundle….’

‘With the greatest pleasure, Evpsychyi Afrikanovich. I consider it an obligation…. This very day I’ll send a basket by messenger. Let me send some butter as well…. My butter’s quite a special thing.’

‘Well, butter too, …’ the sergeant graciously permitted. ‘And you can tip those women the wink that I shan’t touch them for the time being. But you’d better let them know’—he raised his voice suddenly—‘that they can’t settle me with a “Thank you.” … Now, I wish you good-bye. Once more, merci for the present and the entertainment.’

He clicked his heels together like a soldier, and walked to his carriage with the ponderous gait of a full-fed, important person. By his carriage were already gathered the village policeman, the mayor and Yarmola, in respectful attitudes, with their heads bare.

< < < . VII .
. IX . > > >

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

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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