A Strange Story by Ivan Turgenev
Fifteen years ago—began H.—official duties compelled me to
spend a few days in the principal town of the province of T——.
I stopped at a very fair hotel, which had been established six months
before my arrival by a Jewish tailor, who had grown rich. I am told that
it did not flourish long, which is often the case with us; but I found it
still in its full splendour: the new furniture emitted cracks like
pistol-shots at night; the bed-linen, table-cloths, and napkins smelt of
soap, and the painted floors reeked of olive oil, which, however, in the
opinion of the waiter, an exceedingly elegant but not very clean
individual, tended to prevent the spread of insects. This waiter, a former
valet of Prince G.'s, was conspicuous for his free-and-easy manners and
his self-assurance. He invariably wore a second-hand frockcoat and
slippers trodden down at heel, carried a table-napkin under his arm, and
had a multitude of pimples on his cheeks. With a free sweeping movement of
his moist hands he gave utterance to brief but pregnant observations. He
showed a patronising interest in me, as a person capable of appreciating
his culture and knowledge of the world; but he regarded his own lot in
life with a rather disillusioned eye. 'No doubt about it,' he said to me
one day; 'ours is a poor sort of position nowadays. May be sent flying any
day!' His name was Ardalion.
I had to make a few visits to official persons in the town. Ardalion
procured me a coach and groom, both alike shabby and loose in the joints;
but the groom wore livery, the carriage was adorned with an heraldic
crest. After making all my official calls, I drove to see a country
gentleman, an old friend of my father's, who had been a long time settled
in the town.... I had not met him for twenty years; he had had time to get
married, to bring up a good-sized family, to be left a widower and to make
his fortune. His business was with government monopolies, that is to say,
he lent contractors for monopolies loans at heavy interest.... 'There is
always honour in risk,' they say, though indeed the risk was small.
In the course of our conversation there came into the room with hesitating
steps, but as lightly as though on tiptoe, a young girl of about
seventeen, delicate-looking and thin. 'Here,' said my acquaintance, 'is my
eldest daughter Sophia; let me introduce you. She takes my poor wife's
place, looks after the house, and takes care of her brothers and sisters.'
I bowed a second time to the girl who had come in (she meanwhile dropped
into a chair without speaking), and thought to myself that she did not
look much like housekeeping or looking after children. Her face was quite
childish, round, with small, pleasing, but immobile features; the blue
eyes, under high, also immobile and irregular eyebrows, had an intent,
almost astonished look, as though they had just observed something
unexpected; the full little mouth with the lifted upper lip, not only did
not smile, but seemed as though altogether innocent of such a practice;
the rosy flush under the tender skin stood in soft, diffused patches on
the cheeks, and neither paled nor deepened. The fluffy, fair hair hung in
light clusters each side of the little head. Her bosom breathed softly,
and her arms were pressed somehow awkwardly and severely against her
narrow waist. Her blue gown fell without folds—like a child's—to
her little feet. The general impression this girl made upon me was not one
of morbidity, but of something enigmatical. I saw before me not simply a
shy, provincial miss, but a creature of a special type—that I could
not make out. This type neither attracted nor repelled me; I did not fully
understand it, and only felt that I had never come across a nature more
sincere. Pity ... yes! pity was the feeling that rose up within me at the
sight of this young, serious, keenly alert life—God knows why! 'Not
of this earth,' was my thought, though there was nothing exactly 'ideal'
in the expression of the face, and though Mademoiselle Sophie had
obviously come into the drawing-room in fulfilment of those duties of lady
of the house to which her father had referred.
He began to talk of life in the town of T——, of the social
amusements and advantages it offered. 'We're very quiet here,' he
observed; 'the governor's a melancholy fellow; the marshal of the province
is a bachelor. But there'll be a big ball in the Hall of the Nobility the
day after to-morrow. I advise you to go; there are some pretty girls here.
And you'll see all our intelligentsi too.'
My acquaintance, as a man of university education, was fond of using
learned expressions. He pronounced them with irony, but also with respect.
Besides, we all know that moneylending, together with respectability,
developes a certain thoughtfulness in men.
'Allow me to ask, will you be at the ball?' I said, turning to my friend's
daughter. I wanted to hear the sound of her voice.
'Papa intends to go,' she answered, 'and I with him.'
Her voice turned out to be soft and deliberate, and she articulated every
syllable fully, as though she were puzzled.
'In that case, allow me to ask you for the first quadrille.'
She bent her head in token of assent, and even then did not smile.
I soon withdrew, and I remember the expression in her eyes, fixed steadily
upon me, struck me as so strange that I involuntarily looked over my
shoulder to see whether there were not some one or some thing she was
looking at behind my back.
I returned to the hotel, and after dining on the never-varied
'soupe-julienne,' cutlets, and green peas, and grouse cooked to a dry,
black chip, I sat down on the sofa and gave myself up to reflection. The
subject of my meditations was Sophia, this enigmatical daughter of my old
acquaintance; but Ardalion, who was clearing the table, explained my
thoughtfulness in his own way; he set it down to boredom.
'There is very little in the way of entertainment for visitors in our
town,' he began with his usual easy condescension, while he went on at the
same time flapping the backs of the chairs with a dirty dinner-napkin—a
practice peculiar, as you're doubtless aware, to servants of superior
education. 'Very little!'
He paused, and the huge clock on the wall, with a lilac rose on its white
face, seemed in its monotonous, sleepy tick, to repeat his words: 'Ve-ry!
ve-ry!' it ticked. 'No concerts, nor theatres,' pursued Ardalion (he had
travelled abroad with his master, and had all but stayed in Paris; he knew
much better than to mispronounce this last word, as the peasants do)—'nor
dances, for example; nor evening receptions among the nobility and gentry—there
is nothing of the kind whatever.' (He paused a moment, probably to allow
me to observe the choiceness of his diction.) 'They positively visit each
other but seldom. Every one sits like a pigeon on its perch. And so it
comes to pass that visitors have simply nowhere to go.'
Ardalion stole a sidelong glance at me.
'But there is one thing,' he went on, speaking with a drawl, 'in case you
should feel that way inclined....'
He glanced at me a second time and positively leered, but I suppose did
not observe signs of the requisite inclination in me.
The polished waiter moved towards the door, pondered a moment, came back,
and after fidgeting about uneasily a little, bent down to my ear, and with
a playful smile said:
'Would you not like to behold the dead?'
I stared at him in perplexity.
'Yes,' he went on, speaking in a whisper; 'there is a man like that here.
He's a simple artisan, and can't even read and write, but he does
marvellous things. If you, for example, go to him and desire to see any
one of your departed friends, he will be sure to show him you.'
'How does he do it?'
'That's his secret. For though he's an uneducated man—to speak
bluntly, illiterate—he's very great in godliness! Greatly respected
he is among the merchant gentry!'
'And does every one in the town know about this?'
'Those who need to know; but, there, of course—there's danger from
the police to be guarded against. Because, say what you will, such doings
are forbidden anyway, and for the common people are a temptation; the
common people—the mob, we all know, quickly come to blows.'
'Has he shown you the dead?' I asked Ardalion.
Ardalion nodded. 'He has; my father he brought before me as if living.'
I stared at Ardalion. He laughed and played with his dinner-napkin, and
condescendingly, but unflinchingly, looked at me.
'But this is very curious!' I cried at last. 'Couldn't I make the
acquaintance of this artisan?'
'You can't go straight to him; but one can act through his mother. She's a
respectable old woman; she sells pickled apples on the bridge. If you wish
it, I will ask her.'
Ardalion coughed behind his hand. 'And a gratuity, whatever you think fit,
nothing much, of course, should also be handed to her—the old lady.
And I on my side will make her understand that she has nothing to fear
from you, as you are a visitor here, a gentleman—and of course you
can understand that this is a secret, and will not in any case get her
into any unpleasantness.'
Ardalion took the tray in one hand, and with a graceful swing of the tray
and his own person, turned towards the door.
'So I may reckon upon you!' I shouted after him.
'You may trust me!' I heard his self-satisfied voice say: 'We'll talk to
the old woman and transmit you her answer exactly.'
I will not enlarge on the train of thought aroused in me by the
extraordinary fact Ardalion had related; but I am prepared to admit that I
awaited the promised reply with impatience. Late in the evening Ardalion
came to me and announced that to his annoyance he could not find the old
woman. I handed him, however, by way of encouragement, a three-rouble
note. The next morning he appeared again in my room with a beaming
countenance; the old woman had consented to see me.
'Hi! boy!' shouted Ardalion in the corridor; 'Hi! apprentice! Come here!'
A boy of six came up, grimed all over with soot like a kitten, with a
shaved head, perfectly bald in places, in a torn, striped smock, and huge
goloshes on his bare feet. 'You take the gentleman, you know where,' said
Ardalion, addressing the 'apprentice,' and pointing to me. 'And you, sir,
when you arrive, ask for Mastridia Karpovna.'
The boy uttered a hoarse grunt, and we set off.
We walked rather a long while about the unpaved streets of the town of T——;
at last in one of them, almost the most deserted and desolate of all, my
guide stopped before an old two-story wooden house, and wiping his nose
all over his smock-sleeve, said: 'Here; go to the right.' I passed through
the porch into the outer passage, stumbled towards my right, a low door
creaked on rusty hinges, and I saw before me a stout old woman in a brown
jacket lined with hare-skin, with a parti-coloured kerchief on her head.
'Mastridia Karpovna?' I inquired.
'The same, at your service,' the old woman replied in a piping voice.
'Please walk in. Won't you take a chair?'
The room into which the old woman conducted me was so littered up with
every sort of rubbish, rags, pillows, feather-beds, sacks, that one could
hardly turn round in it. The sunlight barely struggled in through two
dusty little windows; in one corner, from behind a heap of boxes piled on
one another, there came a feeble whimpering and wailing.... I could not
tell from what; perhaps a sick baby, or perhaps a puppy. I sat down on a
chair, and the old woman stood up directly facing me. Her face was yellow,
half-transparent like wax; her lips were so fallen in that they formed a
single straight line in the midst of a multitude of wrinkles; a tuft of
white hair stuck out from below the kerchief on her head, but the sunken
grey eyes peered out alertly and cleverly from under the bony overhanging
brow; and the sharp nose fairly stuck out like a spindle, fairly sniffed
the air as if it would say: I'm a smart one! 'Well, you're no fool!' was
my thought. At the same time she smelt of spirits.
I explained to her the object of my visit, of which, however, as I
observed, she must be aware. She listened to me, blinked her eyes rapidly,
and only lifted her nose till it stuck out still more sharply, as though
she were making ready to peck.
'To be sure, to be sure,' she said at last; 'Ardalion Matveitch did say
something, certainly; my son Vassinka's art you were wanting.... But we
can't be sure, my dear sir....'
'Oh, why so?' I interposed. 'As far as I'm concerned, you may feel
perfectly easy.... I'm not an informer.'
'Oh, mercy on us,' the old woman caught me up hurriedly, 'what do you
mean? Could we dare to suppose such a thing of your honour! And on what
ground could one inform against us? Do you suppose it's some sinful
contrivance of ours? No, sir, my son's not the one to lend himself to
anything wicked ... or give way to any sort of witchcraft.... God forbid
indeed, holy Mother of Heaven! (The old woman crossed herself three
times.) He's the foremost in prayer and fasting in the whole province; the
foremost, your honour, he is! And that's just it: great grace has been
vouchsafed to him. Yes, indeed. It's not the work of his hands. It's from
on high, my dear; so it is.'
'So you agree?' I asked: 'when can I see your son?'
The old woman blinked again and shifted her rolled up handkerchief from
one sleeve to the other.
'Oh, well, sir—well, sir, I can't say.'
'Allow me, Mastridia Karpovna, to hand you this,' I interrupted, and I
gave her a ten-rouble note.
The old woman clutched it at once in her fat, crooked fingers, which
recalled the fleshy claws of an owl, quickly slipped it into her sleeve,
pondered a little, and as though she had suddenly reached a decision,
slapped her thighs with her open hand.
'Come here this evening a little after seven,' she said, not in her
previous voice, but in quite a different one, more solemn and subdued;
'only not to this room, but kindly go straight up to the floor above, and
you'll find a door to your left, and you open that door; and you'll go,
your honour, into an empty room, and in that room you'll see a chair. Sit
you down on that chair and wait; and whatever you see, don't utter a word
and don't do anything; and please don't speak to my son either; for he's
but young yet, and he suffers from fits. He's very easily scared; he'll
tremble and shake like any chicken ... a sad thing it is!'
I looked at Mastridia. 'You say he's young, but since he's your son ...'
'In the spirit, sir, in the spirit. Many's the orphan I have under my
care!' she added, wagging her head in the direction of the corner, from
which came the plaintive whimper. 'O—O God Almighty, holy Mother of
God! And do you, your honour, before you come here, think well which of
your deceased relations or friends—the kingdom of Heaven to them!—you're
desirous of seeing. Go over your deceased friends, and whichever you
select, keep him in your mind, keep him all the while till my son comes!'
'Why, mustn't I tell your son whom ...'
'Nay, nay, sir, not one word. He will find out what he needs in your
thoughts himself. You've only to keep your friend thoroughly in mind; and
at your dinner drink a drop of wine—just two or three glasses; wine
never comes amiss.' The old woman laughed, licked her lips, passed her
hand over her mouth, and sighed.
'So at half-past seven?' I queried, getting up from my chair.
'At half-past seven, your honour, at half-past seven,' Mastridia Karpovna
I took leave of the old woman and went back to the hotel. I did not doubt
that they were going to make a fool of me, but in what way?—that was
what excited my curiosity. With Ardalion I did not exchange more than two
or three words. 'Did she see you?' he asked me, knitting his brow, and on
my affirmative reply, he exclaimed: 'The old woman's as good as any
statesman!' I set to work, in accordance with the 'statesman's' counsel,
to run over my deceased friends.
After rather prolonged hesitation I fixed, at last, on an old man who had
long been dead, a Frenchman, once my tutor. I selected him not because he
had any special attraction for me; but his whole figure was so original,
so unlike any figure of to-day, that it would be utterly impossible to
imitate it. He had an enormous head, fluffy white hair combed straight
back, thick black eyebrows, a hawk nose, and two large warts of a pinkish
hue in the middle of the forehead; he used to wear a green frockcoat with
smooth brass buttons, a striped waistcoat with a stand-up collar, a jabot
and lace cuffs. 'If he shows me my old Dessaire,' I thought, 'well, I
shall have to admit that he's a sorcerer!'
At dinner I followed the old dame's behest and drank a bottle of Lafitte,
of the first quality, so Ardalion averred, though it had a very strong
flavour of burnt cork, and a thick sediment at the bottom of each glass.
Exactly at half-past seven I stood in front of the house where I had
conversed with the worthy Mastridia Karpovna. All the shutters of the
windows were closed, but the door was open. I went into the house, mounted
the shaky staircase to the first story, and opening a door on the left,
found myself, as the old woman had said, in a perfectly empty, rather
large room; a tallow candle set in the window-sill threw a dim light over
the room; against the wall opposite the door stood a wicker-bottomed
chair. I snuffed the candle, which had already burnt down enough to form a
long smouldering wick, sat down on the chair and began to wait.
The first ten minutes passed rather quickly; in the room itself there was
absolutely nothing which could distract my attention, but I listened
intently to every rustle, looked intently at the closed door.... My heart
was throbbing. After the first ten minutes followed another ten minutes,
then half an hour, three-quarters of an hour, and not a stir of any kind
around! I coughed several times to make my presence known; I began to feel
bored and out of temper; to be made a fool of in just that way had not
entered into my calculations. I was on the point of getting up from my
seat, taking the candle from the window, and going downstairs.... I looked
at it; the wick again wanted snuffing; but as I turned my eyes from the
window to the door, I could not help starting; with his back leaning
against the door stood a man. He had entered so quickly and noiselessly
that I had heard nothing. He wore a simple blue smock; he was of middle
height and rather thick-set. With his hands behind his back and his head
bent, he was staring at me. In the dim light of the candle I could not
distinctly make out his features. I saw nothing but a shaggy mane of
matted hair falling on his forehead, and thick, rather drawn lips and
whitish eyes. I was nearly speaking to him, but I recollected Mastridia's
injunction, and bit my lips. The man, who had come in, continued to gaze
at me, and, strange to say, at the same time I felt something like fear,
and, as though at the word of command, promptly started thinking of my old
tutor. He still stood at the door and breathed heavily, as though
he had been climbing a mountain or lifting a weight, while his eyes seemed
to expand, seemed to come closer to me—and I felt uncomfortable
under their obstinate, heavy, menacing stare; at times those eyes glowed
with a malignant inward fire, a fire such as I have seen in the eyes of a
pointer dog when it 'points' at a hare; and, like a pointer dog, he
kept his eyes intently following mine when I 'tried to double,'
that is, tried to turn my eyes away.
So passed I do not know how long—perhaps a minute, perhaps a quarter
of an hour. He still gazed at me; I still experienced a certain discomfort
and alarm and still thought of the Frenchman. Twice I tried to say to
myself, 'What nonsense! what a farce!' I tried to smile, to shrug my
shoulders.... It was no use! All initiative had all at once 'frozen up'
within me—I can find no other word for it. I was overcome by a sort
of numbness. Suddenly I noticed that he had left the door, and was
standing a step or two nearer to me; then he gave a slight bound, both
feet together, and stood closer still.... Then again ... and again; while
the menacing eyes were simply fastened on my whole face, and the hands
remained behind, and the broad chest heaved painfully. These leaps struck
me as ridiculous, but I felt dread too, and what I could not understand at
all, a drowsiness began suddenly to come upon me. My eyelids clung
together ... the shaggy figure with the whitish eyes in the blue smock
seemed double before me, and suddenly vanished altogether! ... I shook
myself; he was again standing between the door and me, but now much
nearer.... Then he vanished again—a sort of mist seemed to fall upon
him; again he appeared ... vanished again ... appeared again, and always
closer, closer ... his hard, almost gasping breathing floated across to me
now.... Again the mist fell, and all of a sudden out of this mist the head
of old Dessaire began to take distinct shape, beginning with the white,
brushed-back hair! Yes: there were his warts, his black eyebrows, his hook
nose! There too his green coat with the brass buttons, the striped
waistcoat and jabot.... I shrieked, I got up.... The old man vanished, and
in his place I saw again the man in the blue smock. He moved staggering to
the wall, leaned his head and both arms against it, and heaving like an
over-loaded horse, in a husky voice said, 'Tea!' Mastridia Karpovna—how
she came there I can't say—flew to him and saying: 'Vassinka!
Vassinka!' began anxiously wiping away the sweat, which simply trickled
from his face and hair. I was on the point of approaching her, but she, so
insistently, in such a heart-rending voice cried: 'Your honour! merciful
sir! have pity on us, go away, for Christ's sake!' that I obeyed, while
she turned again to her son. 'Bread-winner, darling,' she murmured
soothingly: 'you shall have tea directly, directly. And you too, sir, had
better take a cup of tea at home!' she shouted after me.
When I got home I obeyed Mastridia and ordered some tea; I felt tired—even
weak. 'Well?' Ardalion questioned me, 'have you been? did you see
'He did, certainly, show me something ... which, I'll own, I had not
anticipated,' I replied.
'He's a man of marvellous power,' observed Ardalion, carrying off the
samovar; 'he is held in high esteem among the merchant gentry.' As I went
to bed, and reflected on the incident that had occurred to me, I fancied
at last that I had reached some explanation of it. The man doubtless
possessed a considerable magnetic power; acting by some means, which I did
not understand of course, upon my nerves, he had evoked within me so
vividly, so definitely, the image of the old man of whom I was thinking,
that at last I fancied that I saw him before my eyes.... Such
'metastases,' such transferences of sensation, are recognised by science.
It was all very well; but the force capable of producing such effects
still remained, something marvellous and mysterious. 'Say what you will,'
I thought, 'I've seen, seen with my own eyes, my dead tutor!'
The next day the ball in the Hall of Nobility took place. Sophia's father
called on me and reminded me of the engagement I had made with his
daughter. At ten o'clock I was standing by her side in the middle of a
ballroom lighted up by a number of copper lamps, and was preparing to
execute the not very complicated steps of the French quadrille to the
resounding blare of the military band. Crowds of people were there; the
ladies were especially numerous and very pretty; but the first place among
them would certainly have been given to my partner, if it had not been for
the rather strange, even rather wild look in her eyes. I noticed that she
hardly ever blinked; the unmistakable expression of sincerity in her eyes
did not make up for what was extraordinary in them. But she had a charming
figure, and moved gracefully, though with constraint. When she waltzed,
and, throwing herself a little back, bent her slender neck towards her
right shoulder, as though she wanted to get away from her partner, nothing
more touchingly youthful and pure could be imagined. She was all in white,
with a turquoise cross on a black ribbon.
I asked her for a mazurka, and tried to talk to her. But her answers were
few and reluctant, though she listened attentively, with the same
expression of dreamy absorption which had struck me when I first met her.
Not the slightest trace of desire to please, at her age, with her
appearance, and the absence of a smile, and those eyes, continually fixed
directly upon the eyes of the person speaking to her, though they seemed
at the same time to see something else, to be absorbed with something
different.... What a strange creature! Not knowing, at last, how to thaw
her, I bethought me of telling her of my adventure of the previous day.
She heard me to the end with evident interest, but was not, as I had
expected, surprised at what I told her, and merely asked whether he was
not called Vassily. I recollected that the old woman had called him
'Vassinka.' 'Yes, his name is Vassily,' I answered; 'do you know him?'
'There is a saintly man living here called Vassily,' she observed; 'I
wondered whether it was he.'
'Saintliness has nothing to do with this,' I remarked; 'it's simply the
action of magnetism—a fact of interest for doctors and students of
I proceeded to expound my views on the peculiar force called magnetism, on
the possibility of one man's will being brought under the influence of
another's will, and so on; but my explanations—which were, it is
true, somewhat confused—seemed to make no impression on her. Sophie
listened, dropping her clasped hands on her knees with a fan lying
motionless in them; she did not play with it, she did not move her fingers
at all, and I felt that all my words rebounded from her as from a statue
of stone. She heard them, but clearly she had her own convictions, which
nothing could shake or uproot.
'You can hardly admit miracles!' I cried.
'Of course I admit them,' she answered calmly. 'And how can one help
admitting them? Are not we told in the gospel that who has but a grain of
faith as big as a mustard seed, he can remove mountains? One need only
have faith—there will be miracles!'
'It seems there is very little faith nowadays,' I observed; 'anyway, one
doesn't hear of miracles.'
'But yet there are miracles; you have seen one yourself. No; faith is not
dead nowadays; and the beginning of faith ...'
'The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,' I interrupted.
'The beginning of faith,' pursued Sophie, nothing daunted, 'is
self-abasement ... humiliation.'
'Humiliation even?' I queried.
'Yes. The pride of man, haughtiness, presumption—that is what must
be utterly rooted up. You spoke of the will—that's what must be
I scanned the whole figure of the young girl who was uttering such
sentences.... 'My word, the child's in earnest, too,' was my thought. I
glanced at our neighbours in the mazurka; they, too, glanced at me, and I
fancied that my astonishment amused them; one of them even smiled at me
sympathetically, as though he would say: 'Well, what do you think of our
queer young lady? every one here knows what she's like.'
'Have you tried to break your will?' I said, turning to Sophie again.
'Every one is bound to do what he thinks right,' she answered in a
dogmatic tone. 'Let me ask you,' I began, after a brief silence, 'do you
believe in the possibility of calling up the dead?'
Sophie softly shook her head.
'There are no dead.'
'There are no dead souls; they are undying and can always appear, when
they like.... They are always about us.'
'What? Do you suppose, for instance, that an immortal soul may be at this
moment hovering about that garrison major with the red nose?'
'Why not? The sunlight falls on him and his nose, and is not the sunlight,
all light, from God? And what does external appearance matter? To the pure
all things are pure! Only to find a teacher, to find a leader!'
'But excuse me, excuse me,' I put in, not, I must own, without malicious
intent. 'You want a leader ... but what is your priest for?'
Sophie looked coldly at me.
'You mean to laugh at me, I suppose. My priestly father tells me what I
ought to do; but what I want is a leader who would show me himself in
action how to sacrifice one's self!'
She raised her eyes towards the ceiling. With her childlike face, and that
expression of immobile absorption, of secret, continual perplexity, she
reminded me of the pre-raphaelite Madonnas....
'I have read somewhere,' she went on, not turning to me, and hardly moving
her lips, 'of a grand person who directed that he should be buried under a
church porch so that all the people who came in should tread him under
foot and trample on him.... That is what one ought to do in life.'
Boom! boom! tra-ra-ra! thundered the drums from the band.... I must own
such a conversation at a ball struck me as eccentric in the extreme; the
ideas involuntarily kindled within me were of a nature anything but
religious. I took advantage of my partner's being invited to one of the
figures of the mazurka to avoid renewing our quasi-theological discussion.
A quarter of an hour later I conducted Mademoiselle Sophie to her father,
and two days after I left the town of T——, and the image of
the girl with the childlike face and the soul impenetrable as stone
slipped quickly out of my memory.
Two years passed, and it chanced that that image was recalled again to me.
It was like this: I was talking to a colleague who had just returned from
a tour in South Russia. He had spent some time in the town of T——,
and told me various items of news about the neighbourhood. 'By the way!'
he exclaimed, 'you knew V. G. B. very well, I fancy, didn't you?'
'Of course I know him.'
'And his daughter Sophia, do you know her?'
'I've seen her twice.'
'Only fancy, she's run away!'
'Well, I don't know. Three months ago she disappeared, and nothing's been
heard of her. And the astonishing thing is no one can make out whom she's
run off with. Fancy, they've not the slightest idea, not the smallest
suspicion! She'd refused all the offers made her, and she was most proper
in her behaviour. Ah, these quiet, religious girls are the ones! It's made
an awful scandal all over the province! B.'s in despair.... And whatever
need had she to run away? Her father carried out her wishes in everything.
And what's so unaccountable, all the Lovelaces of the province are there
all right, not one's missing.'
'And they've not found her up till now?'
'I tell you she might as well be at the bottom of the sea! It's one rich
heiress less in the world, that's the worst of it.'
This piece of news greatly astonished me. It did not seem at all in
keeping with the recollection I had of Sophia B. But there! anything may
In the autumn of the same year fate brought me—again on official
business—into the S—— province, which is, as every one
knows, next to the province of T——. It was cold and rainy
weather; the worn-out posting-horses could scarcely drag my light trap
through the black slush of the highroad. One day, I remember, was
particularly unlucky: three times we got 'stuck' in the mud up to the
axles of the wheels; my driver was continually giving up one rut and with
moans and grunts trudging across to the other, and finding things no
better with that. In fact, towards evening I was so exhausted that on
reaching the posting-station I decided to spend the night at the inn. I
was given a room with a broken-down wooden sofa, a sloping floor, and torn
paper on the walls; there was a smell in it of kvas, bast-mats, onions,
and even turpentine, and swarms of flies were on everything; but at any
rate I could find shelter there from the weather, and the rain had set in,
as they say, for the whole day. I ordered a samovar to be brought, and,
sitting on the sofa, settled down to those cheerless wayside reflections
so familiar to travellers in Russia.
They were broken in upon by a heavy knocking that came from the common
room, from which my room was separated by a deal partition. This sound was
accompanied by an intermittent metallic jingle, like the clank of chains,
and a coarse male voice boomed out suddenly: 'The blessing of God on all
within this house. The blessing of God! the blessing of God! Amen, amen!
Scatter His enemies!' repeated the voice, with a sort of incongruous and
savage drawl on the last syllable of each word.... A noisy sigh was heard,
and a ponderous body sank on to the bench with the same jingling sound.
'Akulina! servant of God, come here!' the voice began again: 'Behold!
Clothed in rags and blessed! ... Ha-ha-ha! Tfoo! Merciful God, merciful
God, merciful God!' the voice droned like a deacon in the choir. 'Merciful
God, Creator of my body, behold my iniquity.... O-ho-ho! Ha-ha! ... Tfoo!
And all abundance be to this house in the seventh hour!'
'Who's that?' I asked the hospitable landlady, who came in with the
'That, your honour,' she answered me in a hurried whisper, 'is a blessed,
holy man. He's not long come into our parts; and here he's graciously
pleased to visit us. In such weather! The wet's simply trickling from him,
poor dear man, in streams! And you should see the chains on him—such
'The blessing of God! the blessing of God!' the voice was heard again.
'Akulina! Hey, Akulina! Akulinushka—friend! where is our paradise?
Our fair paradise of bliss? In the wilderness is our paradise, ...
para-dise.... And to this house, from beginning of time, great happiness,
... o ... o ... o ...' The voice muttered something inarticulate, and
again, after a protracted yawn, there came the hoarse laugh. This laugh
broke out every time, as it were, involuntarily, and every time it was
followed by vigorous spitting.
'Ah, me! Stepanitch isn't here! That's the worst of it!' the landlady
said, as it were to herself, as she stood with every sign of the
profoundest attention at the door. 'He will say some word of salvation,
and I, foolish woman, may not catch it!'
She went out quickly.
In the partition there was a chink; I applied my eye to it. The crazy
pilgrim was sitting on a bench with his back to me; I saw nothing but his
shaggy head, as huge as a beer-can, and a broad bent back in a patched and
soaking shirt. Before him, on the earth floor, knelt a frail-looking woman
in a jacket, such as are worn by women of the artisan class—old and
wet through—and with a dark kerchief pulled down almost over her
eyes. She was trying to pull the holy man's boots off; her fingers slid
off the greasy, slippery leather. The landlady was standing near her, with
her arms folded across her bosom, gazing reverently at the 'man of God.'
He was, as before, mumbling some inarticulate words.
At last the woman succeeded in tugging off the boots. She almost fell
backwards, but recovered herself, and began unwinding the strips of rag
which were wrapped round the vagrant's legs. On the sole of his foot there
was a wound.... I turned away.
'A cup of tea wouldn't you bid me get you, my dear?' I heard the hostess
saying in an obsequious voice.
'What a notion!' responded the holy man. 'To indulge the sinful body....
O-ho-ho! Break all the bones in it ... but she talks of tea! Oh, oh,
worthy old woman, Satan is strong within us.... Fight him with hunger,
fight him with cold, with the sluice-gates of heaven, the pouring,
penetrating rain, and he takes no harm—he is alive still! Remember
the day of the Intercession of the Mother of God! You will receive, you
will receive in abundance!'
The landlady could not resist uttering a faint groan of admiration.
'Only listen to me! Give all thou hast, give thy head, give thy shirt! If
they ask not of thee, yet give! For God is all-seeing! Is it hard for Him
to destroy your roof? He has given thee bread in His mercy, and do thou
bake it in the oven! He seeth all! Se ... e ... eth! Whose eye is in the
triangle? Say, whose?'
The landlady stealthily crossed herself under her neckerchief.
'The old enemy is adamant! A ... da ... mant! A ... da ... mant!' the
religious maniac repeated several times, gnashing his teeth. 'The old
serpent! But God will arise! Yes, God will arise and scatter His enemies!
I will call up all the dead! I will go against His enemy.... Ha-ha-ha!
'Have you any oil?' said another voice, hardly audible; 'let me put some
on the wound.... I have got a clean rag.'
I peeped through the chink again; the woman in the jacket was still busied
with the vagrant's sore foot.... 'A Magdalen!' I thought.
'I'll get it directly, my dear,' said the woman, and, coming into my room,
she took a spoonful of oil from the lamp burning before the holy picture.
'Who's that waiting on him?' I asked.
'We don't know, sir, who it is; she too, I suppose, is seeking salvation,
atoning for her sins. But what a saintly man he is!'
'Akulinushka, my sweet child, my dear daughter,' the crazy pilgrim was
repeating meanwhile, and he suddenly burst into tears.
The woman kneeling before him lifted her eyes to him.... Heavens! where
had I seen those eyes?
The landlady went up to her with the spoonful of oil. She finished her
operation, and, getting up from the floor, asked if there were a clean
loft and a little hay.... 'Vassily Nikititch likes to sleep on hay,' she
'To be sure there is, come this way,' answered the woman; 'come this way,
my dear,' she turned to the holy man, 'and dry yourself and rest.' The man
coughed, slowly got up from the bench—his chains clanked again—and
turning round with his face to me, looked for the holy pictures, and began
crossing himself with a wide movement.
I recognised him instantly: it was the very artisan Vassily, who had once
shown me my dead tutor!
His features were little changed; only their expression had become still
more unusual, still more terrible.... The lower part of his swollen face
was overgrown with unkempt beard. Tattered, filthy, wild-looking, he
inspired in me more repugnance than horror. He left off crossing himself,
but still his eyes wandered senselessly about the corners of the room,
about the floor, as though he were waiting for something....
'Vassily Nikititch, please come,' said the woman in the jacket with a bow.
He suddenly threw up his head and turned round, but stumbled and
tottered.... His companion flew to him at once, and supported him under
the arm. Judging by her voice and figure, she seemed still young; her face
it was almost impossible to see.
'Akulinushka, friend!' the vagrant repeated once more in a shaking voice,
and opening his mouth wide, and smiting himself on the breast with his
fist, he uttered a deep groan, that seemed to come from the bottom of his
heart. Both followed the landlady out of the room.
I lay down on my hard sofa and mused a long while on what I had seen. My
mesmeriser had become a regular religious maniac. This was what he had
been brought to by the power which one could not but recognise in him!
The next morning I was preparing to go on my way. The rain was falling as
fast as the day before, but I could not delay any longer. My servant, as
he gave me water to wash, wore a special smile on his face, a smile of
restrained irony. I knew that smile well; it indicated that my servant had
heard something discreditable or even shocking about gentlefolks. He was
obviously burning with impatience to communicate it to me.
'Well, what is it?' I asked at last.
'Did your honour see the crazy pilgrim yesterday?' my man began at once.
'Yes; what then?'
'And did you see his companion too?'
'Yes, I saw her.'
'She's a young lady, of noble family.'
'It's the truth I'm telling you; some merchants arrived here this morning
from T——; they recognised her. They did tell me her name, but
I've forgotten it.'
It was like a flash of enlightenment. 'Is the pilgrim still here?' I
'I fancy he's not gone yet. He's been ever so long at the gate, and making
such a wonderful wise to-do, that there's no getting by. He's amusing
himself with this tomfoolery; he finds it pay, no doubt.'
My man belonged to the same class of educated servants as Ardalion.
'And is the lady with him?'
'Yes. She's in attendance on him.'
I went out on to the steps, and got a view of the crazy pilgrim. He was
sitting on a bench at the gate, and, bent down with both his open hands
pressed on it, he was shaking his drooping head from right to left, for
all the world like a wild beast in a cage. The thick mane of curly hair
covered his eyes, and shook from side to side, and so did his pendulous
lips.... A strange, almost unhuman muttering came from them. His companion
had only just finished washing from a pitcher that was hanging on a pole,
and without having yet replaced her kerchief on her head, was making her
way back to the gate along a narrow plank laid across the dark puddles of
the filthy yard. I glanced at her head, which was now entirely uncovered,
and positively threw up my hands with astonishment: before me stood Sophie
She turned quickly round and fixed upon me her blue eyes, immovable as
ever. She was much thinner, her skin looked coarser and had the
yellowish-ruddy tinge of sunburn, her nose was sharper, and her lips were
harder in their lines. But she was not less good-looking; only besides her
old expression of dreamy amazement there was now a different look—resolute,
almost bold, intense and exalted. There was not a trace of childishness
left in the face now.
I went up to her. 'Sophia Vladimirovna,' I cried, 'can it be you? In such
a dress ... in such company....'
She started, looked still more intently at me, as though anxious to find
out who was speaking to her, and, without saying a word to me, fairly
rushed to her companion.
'Akulinushka,' he faltered, with a heavy sigh, 'our sins, sins ...'
'Vassily Nikititch, let us go at once! Do you hear, at once, at once,' she
said, pulling her kerchief on to her forehead with one hand, while with
the other she supported the pilgrim under the elbow; 'let us go, Vassily
Nikititch: there is danger here.'
'I'm coming, my good girl, I'm coming,' the crazy pilgrim responded
obediently, and, bending his whole body forward, he got up from the seat.
'Here's only this chain to fasten....'
I once more approached Sophia, and told her my name. I began beseeching
her to listen to me, to say one word to me. I pointed to the rain, which
was coming down in bucketsful. I begged her to have some care for her
health, the health of her companion. I mentioned her father.... But she
seemed possessed by a sort of wrathful, a sort of vindictive excitement:
without paying the slightest attention to me, setting her teeth and
breathing hard, she urged on the distracted vagrant in an undertone, in
soft insistent words, girt him up, fastened on his chains, pulled on to
his hair a child's cloth cap with a broken peak, stuck his staff in his
hand, slung a wallet on her own shoulder, and went with him out at the
gate into the street.... To stop her actually I had not the right, and it
would have been of no use; and at my last despairing call she did not even
turn round. Supporting the 'man of God' under his arm, she stepped rapidly
over the black mud of the street; and in a few moments, across the dim
dusk of the foggy morning, through the thick network of falling raindrops,
I saw the last glimpse of the two figures, the crazy pilgrim and
Sophie.... They turned the corner of a projecting hut, and vanished for
I went back to my room. I fell to pondering. I could not understand it; I
could not understand how such a girl, well brought up, young, and wealthy,
could throw up everything and every one, her own home, her family, her
friends, break with all her habits, with all the comforts of life, and for
what? To follow a half-insane vagrant, to become his servant! I could not
for an instant entertain the idea that the explanation of such a step was
to be found in any prompting, however depraved, of the heart, in love or
passion.... One had but to glance at the repulsive figure of the 'man of
God' to dismiss such a notion entirely! No, Sophie had remained pure; and
to her all things were pure; I could not understand what Sophie had done;
but I did not blame her, as, later on, I have not blamed other girls who
too have sacrificed everything for what they thought the truth, for what
they held to be their vocation. I could not help regretting that Sophie
had chosen just that path; but also I could not refuse her
admiration, respect even. In good earnest she had talked of
self-sacrifice, of abasement ... in her, words were not opposed to
acts. She had sought a leader, a guide, and had found him, ... and, my
God, what a guide!
Yes, she had lain down to be trampled, trodden under foot.... In the
process of time, a rumour reached me that her family had succeeded at last
in finding out the lost sheep, and bringing her home. But at home she did
not live long, and died, like a 'Sister of Silence,' without having spoken
a word to any one.
Peace to your heart, poor, enigmatic creature! Vassily Nikititch is
probably on his crazy wanderings still; the iron health of such people is
truly marvellous. Perhaps, though, his epilepsy may have done for him.