Russalka by Maurice Baring
Peter, or Petrushka, which was the name he was known by, was the
carpenter's mate; his hair was like light straw, and his eyes were mild
and blue. He was good at his trade; a quiet and sober youth; thoughtful,
too, for he knew how to read and had read several books when he was still
a boy. A translation of "Monte Cristo" once fell into his hands, and this
story had kindled his imagination and stirred in him the desire to travel,
to see new countries and strange people. He had made up his mind to leave
the village and to try his luck in one of the big towns, when, before he
was eighteen, something happened to him which entirely changed the colour
of his thoughts and the range of his desires. It was an ordinary
experience enough: he fell in love. He fell in love with Tatiana, who
worked in the starch factory. Tatiana's eyes were grey, her complexion was
white, her features small and delicate, and her hair a beautiful dark
brown with gold lights and black shadows in it; her movements were quick
and her glance keen; she was like a swallow.
It happened when the snows melted and the meadows were flooded; the first
fine day in April. The larks were singing over the plains, which were
beginning to show themselves once more under the melting snow; the sun
shone on the large patches of water, and turned the flooded meadows in the
valley into a fantastic vision. It was on a Sunday after church that this
new thing happened. He had often seen Tatiana before: that day she was
different and new to him. It was as if a bandage had been taken from his
eyes, and at the same moment he realised that Tatiana was a new Tatiana.
He also knew that the old world in which he had lived hitherto had
crumbled to pieces; and that a new world, far brighter and more wonderful,
had been created for him. As for Tatiana, she loved him at once. There was
no delay, no hesitation, no misunderstandings, no doubt: and at the first
not much speech; but first love came to them straight and swift, with the
first sunshine of the spring, as it does to the birds.
All the spring and summer they kept company and walked out together in the
evenings. When the snows entirely melted and the true spring came, it came
with a rush; in a fortnight's time all the trees except the ash were
green, and the bees boomed round the thick clusters of pear-blossom and
apple-blossom, which shone like snow against the bright azure. During that
time Petrushka and Tatiana walked in the apple orchard in the evening and
they talked to each other in the divinest of all languages, the language
of first love, which is no language at all but a confused medley and
murmur of broken phrases, whisperings, twitterings, pauses, and silences—a
language so wonderful that it cannot be put down into speech or words,
although Shakespeare and the very great poets translate the spirit of it
into music, and the great musicians catch the echo of it in their song.
Then a fortnight later, when the woods were carpeted and thick with lilies
of the valley, Petrushka and Tatiana walked in the woods and picked the
last white violets, and later again they sought the alleys of the
landlord's property, where the lilac bushes were a mass of blossom and
fragrance, and there they listened to the nightingale, the bird of spring.
Then came the summer, the fragrance of the beanfields, and the ripening of
corn and the wonderful long twilights, and July, when the corn, ripe and
tall and stiff, changed the plains into a vast rippling ocean of gold.
After the harvest, at the very beginning of autumn, they were to be
married. There had been a slight difficulty about money. Tatiana's father
had insisted that Petrushka should produce a certain not very large sum;
but the difficulty had been overcome and the money had been found. There
were no more obstacles, everything was smooth and settled. Petrushka no
longer thought of travels in foreign lands; he had forgotten the old
dreams which "Monte Cristo" had once kindled in him.
It was in the middle of August that the carpenter received instructions
from the landowner to make some wooden steps and a small raft and to fix
them up on the banks of the river for the convenience of bathers. It did
not take the carpenter and Petrushka long to make these things, and one
afternoon Petrushka drove down to the river to fix them in their place.
The river was broad, the banks were wooded with willow trees, and the
undergrowth was thick, for the woods reached to the river bank, which was
flat, but which ended sheer above the water over a slope of mud and roots,
so that a bather needed steps or a raft or a springboard, so as to dive or
to enter and leave the water with comfort.
Petrushka put the steps in their place—which was where the wood
ended—and made fast the floating raft to them. Not far from the bank
the ground was marshy and the spot was suspected by some people of being
haunted by malaria. It was a still, sultry day. The river was like oil,
the sky clouded but not entirely overclouded, and among the high banks of
grey cloud there were patches of blue.
When Petrushka had finished the job, he sat on the wooden steps, and
rolling some tobacco into a primitive cigarette, contemplated the grey,
oily water and the willow trees. It was too late in the year, he thought,
to make a bathing place. He dipped his hand in the water: it was cold, but
not too cold. Yet in a fortnight's time it would not be pleasant to bathe.
However, people had their whims, and he mused on the scheme of the
universe which ordained that certain people should have whims, and that
others should humour those whims whether they liked it or not. Many people—many
of his fellow-workers—talked of the day when the universal levelling
would take place and when all men could be equal. Petrushka did not much
believe in the advent of that day; he was not quite sure whether he
ardently desired it; in any case, he was very happy as he was.
At that moment he heard two sharp short sounds, less musical than a pipe
and not so loud or harsh as a scream. He looked up. A kingfisher had flown
across the oily water. Petrushka shouted; and the kingfisher skimmed over
the water once more and disappeared in the trees on the other side of the
river. Petrushka rolled and lit another cigarette. Presently he heard the
two sharp sounds once more, and the kingfisher darted again across the
water: a bit of fish was in its beak. It disappeared into the bank of the
river on the same side on which Petrushka was sitting, only lower down.
"Its nest must be there," thought Petrushka, and he remembered that he had
heard it said that no one had ever been able to carry off a kingfisher's
nest intact. Why should he not be the first person to do so? He was
skilful with his fingers, his touch was sure and light. It was evidently a
carpenter's job, and few carpenters had the leisure or opportunity to look
for kingfishers' nests. What a rare present it would be for Tatiana—a
whole kingfisher's nest with every bone in it intact.
He walked stealthily through the bushes down the bank of the river, making
as little noise as possible. He thought he had marked the spot where the
kingfisher had dived into the bank. As he walked, the undergrowth grew
thicker and the path darker, for he had reached the wood, on the outskirts
and end of which was the spot where he had made the steps. He walked on
and on without thinking, oblivious of his surroundings, until he suddenly
realised that he had gone too far. Moreover, he must have been walking for
some time, for it was getting dark, or was it a thunder-shower? The air,
too, was unbearably sultry; he stopped and wiped his forehead with a big
print handkerchief. It was impossible to reach the bank from the place
where he now stood, as he was separated from it by a wide ditch of
stagnant water. He therefore retraced his footsteps through the wood. It
grew darker and darker; it must be, he thought, the evening deepening and
All at once he started; he had heard a sound, a high pipe. Was it the
kingfisher? He paused and listened. Distinctly, and not far off in the
undergrowth, he heard a laugh, a woman's laugh. It flashed across his mind
that it might be Tatiana, but it was not her laugh. Something rustled in
the bushes to the left of him; he followed the rustling and it led him
through the bushes—he had now passed the ditch—to the river
bank. The sun had set behind the woods from which he had just emerged; the
sky was as grey as the water, and there was no reflection of the sunset in
the east. Except the water and the trees he saw nothing; there was not a
sound to be heard, not a ripple on the river, not a whisper from the
Then all at once the stillness was broken again by quick rippling laughs
immediately behind him. He turned sharply round, and saw a woman in the
bushes: her eyes were large and green and sad; her hair straggling and
dishevelled; she was dressed in reeds and leaves; she was very pale. She
stared at him fixedly, and smiled, showing gleaming teeth, and when she
smiled there was no light nor laughter in her eyes, which remained sad and
green and glazed like those of a drowned person. She laughed again and ran
into the bushes. Petrushka ran after her, but although he was quite close
to her he lost all trace of her immediately. It was as if she had vanished
under the earth or into the air.
"It's a Russalka," thought Petrushka, and he shivered. Then he added to
himself, with the pride of the new scepticism he had learnt from the
factory hands: "There is no such thing; only women believe in such things.
It was some drunken woman."
Petrushka walked quickly back to the edge of the wood, where he had left
his cart, and drove home. The next day was Sunday, and Tatiana noticed
that he was different—moody, melancholy, and absent-minded. She
asked him what was the matter; he said his head ached. Towards five
o'clock he told her—they were standing outside her cottage—that
he was obliged to go to the river to work.
"To-day is holiday," she said quietly.
"I left something there yesterday: one of my tools. I must fetch it," he
Tatiana looked at him, and her intuition told her, firstly, that this was
not true, and, secondly, that it was not well for Petrushka to go to the
river. She begged him not to go. Petrushka laughed and said he would be
back quickly. Tatiana cried, and implored him on her knees not to go. Then
Petrushka grew irritable and almost rough, and told her not to vex him
with foolishness. Reluctantly and sadly she gave in at last.
Petrushka went to the river, and Tatiana watched him go with a heavy
heart. She felt quite certain some disaster was about to happen.
At seven o'clock Petrushka had not yet returned, and he did not return
that night. The next morning the carpenter and two others went to the
river to look for him. They found his body in the shallow water, entangled
in the ropes of the raft he had made. He had been drowned, no doubt, in
setting the raft straight.
During all that Sunday night, Tatiana had said no word, nor had she moved
from her doorstep: it was only when they brought back the dripping body to
the village that she stirred, and when she saw it she laughed a dreadful
laugh, and the spirit went from her eyes, leaving a fixed stare.