Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Pushkin – An Amateur Peasant Girl
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In one of our most distant governments was situated the domain of Ivan Petrovitch Berestoff. In his youth he had served in the Guards, but having quitted the service at the beginning of the year 1797, he repaired to his estate, and since that time he had not stirred away from it. He had married a poor but noble lady, who died in child-bed at a time when he was absent from home on a visit to one of the outlying fields of his domain. He soon found consolation in domestic occupations. He built a house on a plan of his own, established a cloth manufactory, made good use of his revenues, and began to consider himself the most sensible man in the whole country roundabout, and in this he was not contradicted by those of his neighbours who came to visit him with their families and their dogs. On week-days he wore a plush jacket, but on Sundays and holidays he appeared in a surtout of cloth that had been manufactured on his own premises. He himself kept an account of all his expenses, and he never read anything except the “Senate Gazette.”
In general he was liked, although he was considered proud. There was only one person who was not on good terms with him, and that was Gregory Ivanovitch Mouromsky, his nearest neighbour. This latter was a genuine Russian noble of the old stamp. After having squandered in Moscow the greater part of his fortune, and having become a widower about the same time, he retired to his last remaining estate, where he continued to indulge in habits of extravagance, but of a new kind. He laid out an English garden, on which he expended nearly the whole of his remaining revenue. His grooms were dressed like English jockeys, his daughter had an English governess, and his fields were cultivated after the English method.
“But after the foreign manner Russian corn does not bear fruit,” and in spite of a considerable reduction in his expenses, the revenues of Gregory Ivanovitch did not increase. He found means, even in the country, of contracting new debts. Nevertheless he was not considered a fool, for he was the first landowner in his government who conceived the idea of placing his estate under the safeguard of a council of tutelage—a proceeding which at that time was considered exceedingly complicated and venturesome. Of all those who censured him, Berestoff showed himself the most severe. Hatred of all innovation was a distinguishing trait in his character. He could not bring himself to speak calmly of the Anglomania of his neighbour, and he constantly found occasion to criticise him. If he showed his possessions to a guest, in reply to the praises bestowed upon him for his economical arrangements, he would say with a sly smile:—
“Ah yes, it is not the same with me as with my neighbour Gregory Ivanovitch. What need have we to ruin ourselves in the English style, when we have enough to do to keep the wolf from the door in the Russian style?”
These, and similar sarcastic remarks, thanks to the zeal of obliging neighbours, did not fail to reach the ears of Gregory Ivanovitch greatly embellished. The Anglomaniac bore criticism as impatiently as our journalists. He became furious, and called his traducer a bear and a countryman.
Such were the relations between the two proprietors, when the son of Berestoff returned home to his father’s estate. He had been educated at the University of ——, and was anxious to enter the military service, but to this his father would not give his consent. For the civil service the young man had not the slightest inclination, and as neither felt inclined to yield to the other, the young Alexei lived in; the meantime like a nobleman, and allowed his moustache to grow at all events.
Alexei was indeed a fine young fellow, and it would really have been a pity were his slender figure never to be set off to advantage by a military uniform, and were he to be compelled to spend his youth in bending over the papers of the chancery office, instead of bestriding a gallant steed. The neighbours, observing how he was always first in the chase, and always out of the beaten tracks, unanimously agreed I, that he would never make a useful official. The young ladies gazed after him, and sometimes cast stolen glances at him, but Alexei troubled himself very little about them, and they attributed this insensibility to some secret love affair. Indeed, there passed from hand to hand a copy of the address of one of his letters: “To Akoulina Petrovna Kourotchkin, in Moscow, opposite the Alexeivsky Monastery, in the house of the coppersmith Saveleff, with the request that she will forward this letter to A. N. R.”
Those of my readers who have never lived in the country, cannot imagine how charming these provincial young ladies are! Brought up in the pure air, under the shadow of the apple trees of their gardens, they derive their knowledge of the world and of life chiefly from books. Solitude, freedom, and reading develop very early within them sentiments and passions unknown to our town-bred beauties. For the young ladies of the country the sound of the post-bell is an event; a journey to the nearest town marks an epoch in their lives, and the visit of a guest leaves behind a long, and sometimes an eternal recollection. Of course everybody is at liberty to laugh at some of their peculiarities, but the jokes of a superficial observer cannot nullify their essential merits, the chief of which is that personality of character, that individualité without which, in Jean Paul’s opinion, there can be no human greatness. In the capitals, women receive perhaps a better instruction, but intercourse with the world soon levels the character and makes their souls as uniform as their head-dresses. This is said neither by way of praise nor yet by way of censure, but “nota nostra manet,” as one of the old commentators writes.
It can easily be imagined what impression Alexei would produce among the circle of our young ladies. He was the first who appeared before them gloomy and disenchanted, the first who spoke to them of lost happiness and of his blighted youth; in addition to which he wore a mourning ring engraved with a death’s head. All this was something quite new in that distant government. The young ladies simply went, out of their minds about him.
But not one of them felt so much interest in him as the daughter of our Anglomaniac Liza, or Betsy, as Gregory Ivanovitch usually called her. As their parents did not visit each other, she had not yet seen Alexei, even when he had become the sole topic of conversation among all the young ladies of the neighbourhood. She was seventeen years of age. Dark eyes illuminated her swarthy and exceedingly pleasant countenance. She was an only child, and consequently she was perfectly spoiled. Her wantonness and continual pranks delighted her father and filled with despair the heart of Miss Jackson, her governess, an affected old maid of forty, who powdered her face and darkened her eyebrows, read through “Pamela” twice a year, for which she received two thousand roubles, and felt almost bored to death in this barbarous Russia of ours.
Liza was waited upon by Nastia, who, although somewhat older, was quite as giddy as her mistress. Liza was very fond of her, revealed to her all her secrets, and planned pranks together with her; in a word, Nastia was a far more important person in the village of Priloutchina, than the trusted confidante in a French tragedy.
“Will you allow me to go out to-day on a visit?” said Nastia one morning, as she was dressing her mistress.
“Very well; but where are you going to?”
“To Tougilovo, to the Berestoffs. The wife of their cook is going to celebrate her name-day to-day, and she came over yesterday to invite us to dinner.”
“That’s curious,” said Liza: “the masters are at daggers drawn, but the servants fête each other.”
“What have the masters to do with us?” replied Nastia. “Besides, I belong to you, and not to your papa. You have not had any quarrel with young Berestoff; let the old ones quarrel and fight, if it gives them any pleasure.”
“Try and see Alexei Berestoff, Nastia, and then tell me what he looks like and what sort of a person he is.”
Nastia promised to do so, and all day long Liza waited with impatience for her return. In the evening Nastia made her appearance.
“Well, Lizaveta Gregorievna,” said she, on entering the room, “I have seen young Berestoff, and I had ample opportunity for taking a good look at him, for we have been together all day.”
“How did that happen? Tell me about it, tell me everything about it.”
“Very well. We set out, I, Anissia Egorovna, Nenila, Dounka….”
“Yes, yes, I know. And then?”
“With your leave, I will tell you everything in detail. We arrived just in time for dinner. The room was full of people. The Kolbinskys were there, as well as the Zakharevskys, the Khloupinskys, the bailiff’s wife and her daughters….”
“Well, and Berestoff?”
“Wait a moment. We sat down to table; the bailiff’s wife had the place of honour. I sat next to her … the daughters pouted and didn’t like it, but I didn’t care about them….”
“Good heavens, Nastia, how tiresome you are with your never-ending details!”
“How impatient you are! Well, we rose from the table we had been sitting down for three hours, and the dinner was excellent: pastry, blanc-manges, blue, red and striped…. Well, we left the table and went into the garden to have a game at catching one another, and it was then that the young lord made his appearance.”
“Well, and is it true that he is so very handsome?”
“Exceedingly handsome: tall, well-built, and with red cheeks….”
“Really? And I was under the impression that he was fair. Well, and how did he seem to you? Sad, thoughtful?”
“Nothing of the kind! I have never in my life seen such a frolicsome person. He wanted to join in the game with us.”
“Join in the game with you? Impossible!”
“Not all impossible. And what else do you think he wanted to do? To kiss us all round!”
“With your permission, Nastia, you are talking nonsense.”
“With your permission, I am not talking nonsense. I had the greatest trouble in the world to get away from him, He spent the whole day along with us.”
“But they say that he is in love, and hasn’t eyes for anybody.”
“I don’t know anything about that, but I know that he looked at me a good deal, and so he did at Tania, the bailiff’s daughter, and at Pasha Kolbinsky also. But it cannot be said that he offended anybody—he is so very agreeable.”
“That is extraordinary! And what do they say about him in the house?”
“They say that he is an excellent master—so kind, so cheerful. They have only one fault to find with him: he is too fond of running after the young girls. But for my part, I don’t think that is a very great fault: he will grow steady with age.”
“How I should like to see him!” said Liza, with a sigh.
“What is there to hinder you from doing so? Tougilovo is not far from us—only about three versts. Go and take a walk in that direction, or a ride on horseback, and you will assuredly meet him. He goes out early every morning with his gun.”
“No, no, that would not do. He might think that I was running after him. Besides, our fathers are not on good terms, so that I cannot make his acquaintance…. Ah! Nastia, do you know what I’ll do? I will dress myself up as a peasant girl!”
“Exactly! Put on a coarse chemise and a sarafan, and then go boldly to Tougilovo; I will answer for it that Berestoff will not pass by without taking notice of you.”
“And I know how to imitate the style of speech of the peasants about here. Ah, Nastia! my dear Nastia! what an excellent idea!”
And Liza went to bed, firmly resolved on putting her plan into execution.
The next morning she began to prepare for the accomplishment of her scheme. She sent to the bazaar and bought some coarse linen, some blue nankeen and some copper buttons, and with the help of Nastia she cut out for herself a chemise and sarafan. She then set all the female servants to work to do the necessary sewing, so that by the evening everything was ready. Liza tried on the new costume, and as she stood before the mirror, she confessed to herself that she had never looked so charming. Then she practised her part. As she walked she made a low bow, and then tossed her head several times, after the manner of a china cat, spoke in the peasants’ dialect, smiled behind her sleeve, and did everything to Nastia’s complete satisfaction. One thing only proved irksome to her: she tried to walk barefooted across the courtyard, but the turf pricked her tender feet, and she found the stones and gravel unbearable. Nastia immediately came to her assistance. She took the measurement of Liza’s foot, ran to the fields to find Trophim the shepherd, and ordered him to make a pair of bast shoes of the same measurement.
The next morning, almost before it was dawn, Liza was already awake. Everybody in the house was still asleep. Nastia went to the gate to wait for the shepherd. The sound of a horn was heard, and the village flock defiled past the manor-house. Trophim, on passing by Nastia, gave her a small pair of coloured bast shoes, and received from her a half-rouble in exchange. Liza quietly dressed herself in the peasant’s costume, whispered her instructions to Nastia with reference to Miss Jackson, descended the back staircase and made her way through the garden into the field beyond.
The eastern sky was all aglow, and the golden lines of clouds seemed to be awaiting the sun, like courtiers await their monarch. The bright sky, the freshness of the morning, the dew, the light breeze, and the singing of the birds filled the heart of Liza with childish joy. The fear of meeting some acquaintance seemed to give her wings, for she flew rather than walked. But as she approached the wood which formed the boundary of her father’s estate, she slackened her pace. Here she resolved to wait for Alexei.
Her heart beat violently, she knew not why; but is not the fear which accompanies our youthful escapades that which constitutes their greatest charm? Liza advanced into the depth of the wood. The deep murmur of the waving branches seemed to welcome the young girl. Her gaiety vanished. Little by little she abandoned herself to sweet reveries. She thought—but who cap say exactly what a young lady of seventeen thinks of, alone in a wood, at six o’clock of a spring morning? And so she walked musingly along the pathway, which was shaded on both sides by tall trees, when suddenly a magnificent hunting dog came barking and bounding towards her. Liza became alarmed and cried out. But at the same moment a voice called out: “Tout beau, Sbogar, ici!”… and a young hunter emerged from behind a clump of bushes.
“Don’t be afraid, my dear,” said he to Liza: “my dog does not bite.”
Liza had already recovered from her alarm, and she immediately took advantage of her opportunity.
“But, sir,” said she, assuming a half-frightened, half-bashful expression, “I am so afraid; he looks so fierce—he might fly at me again.”
Alexei—for the reader has already recognized him—gazed fixedly at the young peasant-girl.
“I will accompany you if you are afraid,” said he to her: “will you allow me to walk along with you?”
“Who is to hinder you?” replied Liza. “Wills are free, and the road is open to everybody.”
“Where do you come from?”
“From Priloutchina; I am the daughter of Vassili the blacksmith, and I am going to gather mushrooms.” (Liza carried a basket on her arm.) “And you, sir? From Tougilovo, I have no doubt.”
“Exactly so,” replied Alexei: “I am the young master’s valet-de-chambre.”
Alexei wanted to put himself on an equality with her, but Liza looked at him and began to smile.
“That is a fib,” said she: “I am not such a fool as you may think. I see very well that you are the young master himself.”
“Why do you think so?”
“I think so for a great many reasons.”
“As if it were not possible to distinguish the master from the servant! You are not dressed like a servant, you do not speak like one, and you address your dog in a different way to us.”
Liza began to please Alexei more and more. As he was not accustomed to standing upon ceremony with peasant girls, he wanted to embrace her; but Liza drew back from him, and suddenly assumed such a cold and severe look, that Alexei, although much amused, did not venture to renew the attempt.
“If you wish that we should remain good friends,” said she with dignity, “be good enough not to forget yourself.”
“Who taught you such wisdom?” asked Alexei, bursting into a laugh. “Can it be my friend Nastenka, the chambermaid to your young mistress? See by what paths enlightenment becomes diffused!”
Liza felt that she had stepped out of her rôle, and she immediately recovered herself.
“Do you think,” said she, “that I have never been to the manor-house? Don’t alarm yourself; I have seen and heard a great many things…. But,” continued she, “if I talk to you, I shall not gather my mushrooms. Go your way, sir, and I will go mine. Pray excuse me.”
And she was about to move off, but Alexei seized hold of her hand.
“What is your name, my dear?”
“Akoulina,” replied Liza, endeavouring to disengage her fingers from his grasp: “but let me go, sir; it is time for me to return home.”
“Well, my friend Akoulina, I will certainly pay a visit to your father, Vassili the blacksmith.”
“What do you say?” replied Liza quickly: “for Heaven’s sake, don’t think of doing such a thing! If it were known at home that I had been talking to a gentleman alone in the wood, I should fare very badly,—my father, Vassili the blacksmith, would beat me to death.”
“But I really must see you again.”
“Well, then, I will come here again some time to gather mushrooms.”
“Well, to-morrow, if you wish it.”
“My dear Akoulina, I would kiss you, but I dare not…. To-morrow, then, at the same time, isn’t that so?”
“And you will not deceive me?”
“I will not deceive you.”
“Well, then, I swear by Holy Friday that I will come.”
The young people separated. Liza emerged from the wood, crossed the field, stole into the garden and hastened to the place where Nastia awaited her. There she changed her costume, replying absently to the questions of her impatient confidante, and then she repaired to the parlour. The cloth was laid, the breakfast was ready, and Miss Jackson, already powdered and laced up, so that she looked like a wine-glass, was cutting thin slices of bread and butter.
Her father praised her for her early walk.
“There is nothing so healthy,” said he, “as getting up at daybreak.”
Then he cited several instances of human longevity, which he had derived from the English journals, and observed that all persons who had lived to be upwards of a hundred, abstained from brandy and rose at daybreak, winter and summer.
Liza did not listen to him. In her thoughts she was going over all the circumstances of the meeting of that morning, all the conversation of Akoulina with the young hunter, and her conscience began to torment her. In vain did she try to persuade herself that their conversation had not gone beyond the bounds of propriety, and that the frolic would be followed by no serious consequences—her conscience spoke louder than her reason. The promise given for the following day troubled her more than anything else, and she almost felt resolved not to keep her solemn oath. But then, might not Alexei, after waiting for her in vain, make his way to the village and search out the daughter of Vassili the blacksmith, the veritable Akoulina—a fat, pockmarked peasant girl—and so discover the prank she had played upon him? This thought frightened Liza, and she resolved to repair again to the little wood the next morning in the same disguise as at first.
On his side, Alexei was in an ecstasy of delight. All day long he thought of his new acquaintance; and in his dreams at night the form of the dark-skinned beauty appeared before him. The morning had scarcely begun to dawn, when he was already dressed. Without giving himself time to load his gun, he set out for the fields with his faithful Sbogar, and hastened to the place of the promised rendezvous. A half hour of intolerable waiting passed by; at last he caught a glimpse of a blue sarafan between the bushes, and he rushed forward to meet his charming Akoulina. She smiled at the ecstatic nature of his thanks, but Alexei immediately observed upon her face traces of sadness and uneasiness. He wished to know the cause. Liza confessed to him that her act seemed to her very frivolous, that she repented of it, that this time she did not wish to break her promised word, but that this meeting would be the last, and she therefore entreated him to break off an acquaintanceship which could not lead to any good.
All this, of course, was expressed in the language of a peasant; but such thoughts and sentiments, so unusual in a simple girl of the lower class, struck Alexei with astonishment. He employed all his eloquence to divert Akoulina from her purpose; he assured her that his intentions were honourable, promised her that he would never give her cause to repent, that he would obey her in everything, and earnestly entreated her not to deprive him of the joy of seeing her alone, if only once a day, or even only twice a week. He spoke the language of true passion, and at that moment he was really in love. Liza listened to him in silence.
“Give me your word,” said she at last, “that you will never come to the village in search of me, and that you will never seek a meeting with me except those that I shall appoint myself.”
Alexei swore by Holy Friday, but she stopped him with a smile.
“I do not want you to swear,” said she; “your mere word is sufficient.”
After that they began to converse together in a friendly manner, strolling about the wood, until Liza said to him:
“It is time for me to return home.”
They separated, and when Alexei was left alone, he could not understand how, in two interviews, a simple peasant girl had succeeded in acquiring such influence over him. His relations with Akoulina had for him all the charm of novelty, and although the injunctions of the strange young girl appeared to him to be very severe, the thought of breaking his word never once entered his mind. The fact was that Alexei, in spite of his fatal ring, his mysterious correspondence and his gloomy disenchantment, was a good and impulsive young fellow, with a pure heart capable of enjoying the pleasures of innocence.
Were I to listen to my own wishes only, I would here enter into a minute description of the interviews of the young people, of their growing passion for each other, their confidences, occupations and conversations; but I know that the greater part of my readers would not share my satisfaction. Such details are usually considered tedious and uninteresting, and therefore I will omit them, merely observing, that before two months had elapsed, Alexei was already hopelessly in love, and Liza equally so, though less demonstrative in revealing the fact. Both were happy in the present and troubled themselves little about the future.
The thought of indissoluble ties frequently passed through their minds, but never had they spoken to each other about the matter. The reason was plain: Alexei, however much attached he might be to his lovely Akoulina, could not forget the distance that separated him from the poor peasant girl; while Liza, knowing the hatred that existed between their parents, did not dare to hope for a mutual reconciliation. Moreover, her self-love was stimulated in secret by the obscure and romantic hope of seeing at last the proprietor of Tougilovo at the feet of the blacksmith’s daughter of Priloutchina. All at once an important event occurred which threatened to interrupt their mutual relations.
One bright cold morning—such a morning as is very common during our Russian autumn—Ivan Petrovitch Berestoff went out for a ride on horseback, taking with him three pairs of hunting dogs, a gamekeeper and several stable-boys with clappers. At the same time, Gregory Ivanovitch Mouromsky, seduced by the beautiful weather, ordered his bob-tailed mare to be saddled, and started out to visit his domains cultivated in the English style. On approaching the wood, he perceived his neighbour, sitting proudly on his horse, in his cloak lined with fox-skin, waiting for a hare which his followers, with loud cries and the rattling of their clappers, had started out of a thicket. If Gregory Ivanovitch had foreseen this meeting, he would certainly have proceeded in another direction, but he came upon Berestoff so unexpectedly, that he suddenly found himself no farther than the distance of a pistol-shot away from him. There was no help for it: Mouromsky, like a civilized European, rode forward towards his adversary and politely saluted him. Berestoff returned the salute with the characteristic grace of a chained bear, who salutes the public in obedience to the order of his master.
At that moment the hare darted out of the wood and started off across the field. Berestoff and the gamekeeper raised a loud shout, let the dogs loose, and then galloped off in pursuit. Mouromsky’s horse, not being accustomed to hunting, took fright and bolted. Mouromsky, who prided himself on being a good horseman, gave it full rein, and inwardly rejoiced at the incident which delivered him from a disagreeable companion. But the horse, reaching a ravine which it had not previously noticed, suddenly sprang to one side, and Mouromsky was thrown from the saddle. Striking the frozen ground with considerable force, he lay there cursing his bob-tailed mare, which, as if recovering from its fright, had suddenly come to a standstill as soon as it felt that it was without a rider.
Ivan Petrovitch hastened towards him and inquired if he had injured himself. In the meantime the gamekeeper had secured the guilty horse, which he now led forward by the bridle. He helped Mouromsky into the saddle, and Berestoff invited him to his house. Mouromsky could not refuse the invitation, for he felt indebted to him; and so Berestoff returned home, covered with glory for having hunted down a hare and for bringing with him his adversary wounded and almost a prisoner of war.
The two neighbours took breakfast together and conversed with each other in a very friendly manner. Mouromsky requested Berestoff to lend him a droshky, for he was obliged to confess that, owing to his bruises, he was not in a condition to return home on horseback. Berestoff conducted him to the steps, and Mouromsky did not take leave of him until he had obtained a promise from him that he would come the next day in company with Alexei Ivanovitch, and dine in a friendly way at Priloutchina. In this way was a deeply-rooted enmity of long standing apparently brought to an end by the skittishness of a bob-tailed mare.
Liza ran forward to meet Gregory Ivanovitch.
“What does this mean, papa?” said she with astonishment. “Why are you walking lame? Where is your horse? Whose is this droshky?”
“You will never guess, my dear,” replied Gregory Ivanovitch; and then he related to her everything that had happened.
Liza could not believe her ears. Without giving her time to collect herself, Gregory Ivstpovitch then went on to inform her that the two Berestoffs—father and son—would dine with them on the following day.
“What do you say?” she exclaimed, turning pale. “The Berestoffs, father and son, will dine with us to-morrow! No, papa, you can do as you please, but I shall not show myself.”
“Have you taken leave of your senses?” replied her father. “Since when have you been so bashful? Or do you cherish an hereditary hatred towards him like a heroine of romance? Enough, do not act the fool.”
“No, papa, not for anything in the world, not for any treasure would I appear before the Berestoffs.”
Gregory Ivanovitch shrugged his shoulders, and did not dispute with her any further, for he knew that by contradiction he would obtain nothing from her. He therefore went to rest himself after his remarkable ride.
Lizaveta Gregorievna repaired to her room and summoned Nastia. They both conversed together for a long time about the impending visit. What would Alexei think if, in the well-bred young lady, he recognized his Akoulina? What opinion would he have of her conduct, of her manners, of her good sense? On the other hand, Liza wished very much to see what impression would be produced upon him by a meeting so unexpected…. Suddenly an idea flashed through her mind. She communicated it to Nastia; both felt delighted with it, and they resolved to carry it into effect.
The next day at breakfast, Gregory Ivanovitch asked his daughter if she still intended to avoid the Berestoffs.
“Papa,” replied Liza, “I will receive them if you wish it, but on one condition, and that is, that however I may appear before them, or whatever I may do, you will not be angry with me, or show the least sign of astonishment or displeasure.”
“Some new freak!” said Gregory Ivanovitch, laughing. “Very well, very well, I agree; do what you like, my dark-eyed romp.”
With these words he kissed her on the forehead, and Liza ran off to put her plan into execution.
At two o’clock precisely, a Russian calèche drawn by six horses, entered the courtyard and rounded the lawn. The elder Berestoff mounted the steps with the assistance of two lackeys in the Mouromsky livery. His son came after him on horseback, and both entered together into the dining-room, where the table was already laid. Mouromsky received his neighbours in the most gracious manner, proposed to them to inspect his garden and park before dinner, and conducted them along paths carefully kept and gravelled. The elder Berestoff inwardly deplored the time and labour wasted in such useless fancies, but he held his tongue out of politeness. His son shared neither the disapprobation of the economical landowner, nor the enthusiasm of the vain-glorious Anglomaniac, but waited with impatience for the appearance of his host’s daughter, of whom he had heard a great deal; and although his heart, as we know, was already engaged, youthful beauty always had a claim upon his imagination.
Returning to the parlour, they all three sat down; and while the old men recalled their young days, and related anecdotes of their respective careers, Alexei considered in his mind what rôle he should play in the presence of Liza. He came to the conclusion that an air of cold indifference would be the most becoming under the circumstances, and he prepared to act accordingly. The door opened; he turned his head with such indifference, with such haughty carelessness, that the heart of the most inveterate coquette would inevitably have shuddered. Unfortunately, instead of Liza, it was old Miss Jackson, who, painted and bedecked, entered the room with downcast eyes and with a low bow, so that Alexei’s dignified military salute was lost upon her. He had not succeeded in recovering from his confusion, when the door opened again, and this time it was Liza herself who entered.
All rose; her father was just beginning to introduce his guests, when suddenly he stopped short and bit his lips…. Liza, his dark-complexioned Liza, was painted white up to the ears, and was more bedizened than even Miss Jackson herself; false curls, much lighter than her own hair, covered her head like the perruque of Louis the Fourteenth; her sleeves à l’imbécile stood out like the hooped skirts of Madame de Pompadour; her figure was pinched in like the letter X, and all her mother’s jewels, which had not yet found their way to the pawnbroker’s, shone upon her fingers, her neck and in her ears.
Alexei could not possibly recognize his Akoulina in the grotesque and brilliant young lady. His father kissed her hand, and he followed his example, though much against his will; when he touched her little white fingers, it seemed to him that they trembled. In the meantime he succeeded in catching a glimpse of her little foot, intentionally advanced and set off to advantage by the most coquettish shoe imaginable. This reconciled him somewhat to the rest of her toilette. As for the paint and powder, it must be confessed that, in the simplicity of his heart, he had not noticed them at the first glance, and afterwards had no suspicion of them. Gregory Ivanovitch remembered his promise, and endeavoured not to show any astonishment; but his daughter’s freak seemed to him so amusing, that he could scarcely contain himself. But the person who felt no inclination to laugh was the affected English governess. She had a shrewd suspicion that the paint and powder had been extracted from her chest of drawers, and the deep flush of anger was distinctly visible beneath the artificial whiteness of her face. She darted angry glances at the young madcap, who, reserving her explanations for another time, pretended that she did not notice them.
They sat down to table. Alexei continued to play his rôle of assumed indifference and absence of mind. Liza put on an air of affectation, spoke through her teeth, and only in French. Her father kept constantly looking at her, not understanding her aim, but finding it all exceedingly amusing. The English governess fumed with rage and said not a word. Ivan Petrovitch alone seemed at home: he ate, like two, drank heavily, laughed at his own jokes, and grew more talkative, and hilarious at every moment.
At last they all rose up from the table; the guests took their departure, and Gregory Ivanovitch gave free vent to his laughter and to his interrogations.
“What put the idea into your head of acting the fool like that with them?” he said to Liza. “But do you know what? The paint suits you admirably. I do not wish to fathom the mysteries of a lady’s toilette, but if I were in your place, I would very soon begin to paint; not too much, of course, but just a little.”
Liza was enchanted with the success of her stratagem. She embraced her father, promised him that she would consider his advice, and then hastened to conciliate the indignant Miss Jackson, who, with great reluctance consented to open the door and listen to her explanations. Liza was ashamed to appear before strangers with her dark complexion; she had not dared to ask she felt sure that dear, good Miss Jackson would pardon her, etc., etc. Miss Jackson, feeling convinced that Liza had not wished to make her a laughing-stock by imitating her, calmed down, kissed her, and as a token of reconciliation, made her a present of a small pot of English paint, which Liza accepted with every appearance of sincere gratitude.
The reader will readily imagine that Liza lost no time in repairing to the rendezvous in the little wood the next morning.
“You were at our master’s yesterday,” she said at once to Alexei: “what do you think of our young mistress?”
Alexei replied that he had not observed her.
“That’s a pity!” replied Liza.
“Why so?” asked Alexei.
“Because I wanted to ask you if it is true what they say——”
“What do they say?”
“Is it true, as they say, that I am very much like her?”
“What nonsense! She is a perfect monstrosity compared with you.”
“Oh, sir, it is very wrong of you to speak like that. Our young mistress is so fair and so stylish! How could I be compared wither!”
Alexei vowed to her that she was more beautiful than all the fair young ladies in creation, and in order to pacify her completely, he began to describe her mistress in such comical terms, that Liza laughed heartily.
“But,” said she with a sigh, “even though our young mistress may be ridiculous, I am but a poor ignorant thing in comparison with her.”
“Oh!” said Alexei; “is that anything to break your heart about? If you wish it, I will soon teach you to read and write.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Liza, “why should I not try?”
“Very well, my dear; we will commence at once.”
They sat down. Alexei drew from his pocket a pencil and note-book, and Akoulina learnt the alphabet with astonishing rapidity. Alexei could not sufficiently admire her intelligence. The following morning she wished to try to write. At first the pencil refused to obey her, but after a few minutes she was able to trace the letters with tolerable accuracy.
“It is really wonderful!” said Alexei. “Our method certainly produces quicker results than the Lancaster system.”
And indeed, at the third lesson Akoulina began to spell through “Nathalie the Boyard’s Daughter,” interrupting her reading by observations which really filled Alexei with astonishment, and she filled a whole sheet of paper with aphorisms drawn from the same story.
A week went by, and a correspondence was established between them. Their letter-box was the hollow of an old oak-tree, and Nastia acted as their messenger. Thither Alexei carried his letters written in a bold round hand, and there he found on plain blue paper the delicately-traced strokes of his beloved. Akoulina perceptibly began to acquire an elegant style of expression, and her mental faculties commenced to develop themselves with astonishing rapidity.
Meanwhile, the recently-formed acquaintance between Ivan Petrovitch Berestoff and Gregory Ivanovitch Mouromsky soon became transformed into a sincere friendship, under the following circumstances. Mouromsky frequently reflected that, on the death of Ivan Petrovitch, all his possessions would pass into the hands of Alexei Ivanovitch, in which case the latter would be one of the wealthiest landed proprietors in the government, and there would be nothing to hinder him from marrying Liza. The elder Berestoff, on his side, although recognizing in his neighbour a certain extravagance (or, as he termed it, English folly), was perfectly ready to admit that he possessed many excellent qualities, as for example, his rare tact. Gregory Ivanovitch was closely related to Count Pronsky, a man of distinction and of great influence. The Count could be of great service to Alexei, and Mouromsky (so thought Ivan Petrovitch) would doubtless rejoice to see his daughter marry so advantageously. By dint of constantly dwelling upon this idea, the two old men came at last to communicate their thoughts to one another. They embraced each other, both promised to do their best to arrange the matter, and they immediately set to work, each on his own side. Mouromsky foresaw that he would have some difficulty in persuading his Betsy to become more intimately acquainted with Alexei, whom she had not seen since the memorable dinner. It seemed to him that they had not been particularly well pleased with each other; at least Alexei had not paid any further visits to Priloutchina, and Liza had retired to her room every time that Ivan Petrovitch had honoured them with a visit.
“But,” thought Gregory Ivanovitch, “if Alexei came to see us every day, Betsy could not help falling in love with him. That is the natural order of things. Time will settle everything.”
Ivan Petrovitch was no less uneasy about the success of his designs. That same evening he summoned his son into his cabinet, lit his pipe, and, after a long pause, said:
“Well, Alesha, what do you think about doing? You have not said anything for a long time about the military service. Or has the Hussar uniform lost its charm for you?”
“No, father,” replied Alexei respectfully; “but I see that you do not like the idea of my entering the Hussars, and it is my duty to obey you.”
“Good,” replied Ivan Petrovitch; “I see that you are an obedient son; that is very consoling to me…. On my side, I do not wish to compel you; I do not want to force you to enter … at once … into the civil service, but, in the meanwhile, I intend you to get married.”
“To whom, father?” asked Alexei in astonishment.
“To Lizaveta Gregorievna Mouromsky,” replied Ivan Petrovitch. “She is a charming bride, is she not?”
“Father, I have not thought of marriage yet.”
“You have not thought of it, and therefore I have thought of it for you.”
“As you please, but I do not care for Liza Mouromsky in the least.”
“You will get to like her afterwards. Love comes with time.”
“I do not feel capable of making her happy.”
“Do not distress yourself about making her happy. What? Is this how you respect your father’s wish? Very well!”
“As you please. I do not wish to marry, and I will not marry.”
“You will marry, or I will curse you; and as for my possessions, as true as God is holy, I will sell them and squander the money, and not leave you a farthing. I will give you three days to think about the matter; and in the meantime, don’t show yourself in my sight.”
Alexei knew that when his father once took an idea into his head, a nail even would not drive it out, as Taras Skotinin says in the comedy. But Alexei took after his father, and was just as head-strong as he was. He went to his room and began to reflect upon the limits of paternal authority; Then his thoughts reverted to Lizaveta Gregorievna, to his father’s solemn vow to make him a beggar, and last of all to Akoulina. For the first time he saw clearly that he was passionately in love with her; the romantic idea of marrying a peasant girl and of living by the labour of their hands came into his head, and the more he thought of such a decisive step, the more reasonable did it seem to him. For some time the interviews in the wood had ceased on account of the rainy weather. He wrote to Akoulina a letter in his most legible handwriting, informing her of the misfortune that threatened them, and offering her his hand. He took the letter at once to the post-office in the wood, and then went to bed, well satisfied with himself.
The next day Alexei, still firm in his resolution, rode over early in the morning to visit Mouromsky, in order to explain matters frankly to him. He hoped to excite his generosity and win him over to his side.
“Is Gregory Ivanovitch at home?” asked he, stopping his horse in front of the steps of the Priloutchina mansion.
“No,” replied the servant; “Gregory Ivanovitch rode out early this morning, and has not yet returned.”
“How annoying!” thought Alexei…. “Is Lizaveta Gregorievna at home, then?” he asked.
Alexei sprang from his horse, gave the reins to the lackey, and entered without being announced.
“Everything is now going to be decided,” thought he, directing his steps towards the parlour: “I will explain everything to Lizaveta herself.”
He entered … and then stood still as if petrified! Liza … no … Akoulina, dear, dark-haired Akoulina, no longer in a sarafan, but in a white morning robe, was sitting in front of the window, reading his letter; she was so occupied that she had not heard him enter.
Alexei could not restrain an exclamation of joy. Liza started, raised her head, uttered a cry, and wished to fly from the room. But he threw himself before her and held her back.
Liza endeavoured to liberate herself from his grasp.
“Mais laissez-moi donc, Monsieur! … Mais êtes-vous fou?” she said, twisting herself round.
“Akoulina! my dear Akoulina!” he repeated, kissing her hand.
Miss Jackson, a witness of this scene, knew not what to think of it. At that moment the door opened, and Gregory Ivanovitch entered the room.
“Ah! ah!” said Mouromsky; “but it seems that you have already arranged matters between you.”
The reader will spare me the unnecessary obligation of describing the dénouement.
It was formerly the custom in Russia for military men only to wear the moustache.
A novel written by Samuel Richardson, and first published in 1740.
Diminutive of Praskovia.
Diminutive of Nastia.
An allusion to the system of education introduced into England by Joseph Lancaster at the commencement of the present century.
Diminutive of Alexei (Alexis).
A character in “Nedorosl,” a comedy by Denis Von Vizin.
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Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Pushkin – An Amateur Peasant Girl
Copyright holders – Public Domain Book
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