The Witch (Olyessia) by Alexander Kuprin

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

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Evpsychyi Afrikanovich kept his word and left the people of the forest hut in peace indefinitely. But my relations with Olyessia suffered an acute and curious change. Not a trace of her old naïve and confident kindness remained in her attitude to me, nor any of the old animation wherein the coquetry of a beautiful girl so beautifully blended with the playful wantonness of a child. An awkward constraint beyond which we could not pass began to appear in our conversation…. With an instant timidity Olyessia avoided the lively themes which used to give such boundless scope to our curiosity.

In my presence she gave herself up to her work in a strained, stern, business-like way; but I often noticed that in the middle of her work her hands would suddenly drop weakly on her knees, and her eyes be fixed, vague and immovable, downwards upon the floor. And when at such a moment I called her by name, ‘Olyessia,’ or put some question to her, she shivered and turned her face slowly towards me: in it was reflected fright and the effort to understand the meaning of my words. Sometimes it seemed to me that she was burdened and embarrassed by my company, but I could not reconcile that with the deep interest that every remark and phrase of mine used to arouse in her only a few days ago. I could only think that Olyessia was unwilling to forgive my patronage in the affair with the sergeant, which so revolted her independent nature. But this solution did not satisfy me either, and I still asked myself from whence did this simple girl, who had grown up in the midst of the forest, derive her inordinately sensitive pride?

All this demanded explanations; but Olyessia avoided every favourable occasion for frank conversation. Our evening walks came to an end. In vain I cast eloquent imploring glances at Olyessia each day, when I was on the point of leaving; she made as though she did not understand their meaning, and in spite of the old woman’s deafness, her presence disturbed me.

At times I revolted against my own weakness and the habit which now drew me every day to Olyessia. I myself did not suspect with what subtle, strong, invisible threads my heart was bound to this fascinating, incomprehensible girl. As yet I had no thought of love; but I was already living through a disturbing period of unconscious anticipation, full of vague and oppressive sadnesses. Wherever I was, with whatever I tried to amuse myself, my every thought was occupied with the image of Olyessia, my whole being craved for her, and each separate memory of her most insignificant words, her gestures and her smiles, contracted my heart with a sweet and gentle pain. But evening came and I sat long beside her on a low rickety little bench, to my grief finding myself every time more timid, more awkward and foolish.

Once I passed a whole day thus at Olyessia’s side. I had begun to feel unwell from the morning onward, though I could not clearly define wherein my sickness consisted. It grew worse towards evening. My head grew heavy; I felt a dull incessant pain in the crown of my head, exactly as though some one were pressing down upon it with a soft, strong hand. My mouth was parched, and an idle, languid weakness poured over my whole body. My eyes pained me just as though I had been staring fixedly, close to a glimmering point.

As I was returning late in the evening, midway I was suddenly seized and shaken by a tempestuous chill. I could hardly see the way as I went on; I was almost unconscious of where I was going; I reeled like a drunken man, and my jaws beat out a quick loud tattoo, each against the other.

Till this day I do not know who brought me into the house. For exactly six days I was stricken by a terrible racking Polyessian fever. During the day the sickness seemed to abate, and consciousness returned to me. Then, utterly exhausted by the disease, I could hardly walk across the room, such was the pain and weakness of my knees; at each stronger movement the blood rushed in a hot wave to my head, and covered everything before my eyes with darkness.

In the evening, and usually at about seven o’clock, the approach of the disease overwhelmed me like a storm, and on my bed I passed a terrible, century-long night, now shaking with cold beneath the blankets, now blazing with intolerable heat. Hardly had I been touched by a drowsy slumber, when strange, grotesque, painfully motley dreams began to play with my inflamed brain. Every dream was filled with tiny microscopic details, which piled up and clutched each at the other in ugly chaos. Now I seemed to be unpacking some boxes, coloured with stripes and of fantastic form, taking small ones out of the big, and from the small still smaller. I could not by any means interrupt the unending labour, although it had long been disgusting to me. Then there flashed before my eyes with stupefying speed long bright stripes from the wallpaper, and with amazing distinctness I saw on them, instead of patterns, whole garlands of human faces—beautiful, kind, and smiling, then horribly grimacing, thrusting out their tongues, showing their teeth, and rolling their eyes. Then I entered into a confused and extraordinarily complicated abstract dispute with Yarmola. Every minute the arguments which we brought up against each other became subtler and more profound: separate words and even individual letters of words suddenly took on a mysterious and unfathomable meaning, and at the same time I was seized by a revolting terror of the unknown, unnatural force that wound out one monstrous sophism after another out of my brain, and would not let me break off the dispute which had long been loathsome to me….

It was like a seething whirlwind of human and animal figures, landscapes, things of the most wonderful forms and colours, words and phrases whose meaning was apprehended by every sense…. But the strange thing was that I never lost sight of a bright regular circle reflected on to the ceiling by the lamp with the scorched green shade. And somehow I knew that within the indistinct line of that quiet circle was concealed a silent, monotonous, mysterious, terrible life, yet more awful and oppressive than the mad chaos of my dreams.

Then I awoke, or more truly did not awake, but suddenly forced myself to sit up. Consciousness almost returned to me. I understood that I was lying in bed, that I was ill, that I had just been in delirium, but the bright circle on the ceiling still terrified me by its hidden, ominous menace. With weak hands I slowly reached for the watch, looked at it, and saw with melancholy perplexity that all the endless sequence of my ghastly dreams had taken no longer than two or three minutes. ‘My God, will the dawn ever come?’ I thought in despair, tossing my head over the hot pillows and feeling my short heavy breathing burn my lips…. But again a slight drowsiness possessed me, and again my brain became the sport of a motley nightmare, and again within two minutes I woke, racked by a mortal anguish.

In six days my vigorous constitution, aided by quinine and an infusion of buckthorn, overcame my disease. I rose from my bed completely crushed, with difficulty standing upright on my legs. But my convalescence passed with eager quickness. In my head, weary with six days’ feverish delirium, I felt now an idle, pleasant absence of any thought at all. My appetite returned with double force, and hourly my body gathered strength, in each moment imbibing its particle of health and of the joy of life. And with that a new and stronger craving came upon me for the forest and the lonely, tumble-down hut. But my nerves had not yet recovered, and every time that I called up Olyessia’s face and voice in my memory, I wanted to cry.

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. X . > > >

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

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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