The Snow by Boris Pilniak
TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY
The tinkling of postillion-bells broke the stillness of the crisp
winter night—a coachman driving from the station perhaps. They rang
out near the farm, were heard descending into a hollow; then, as the
horses commenced to trot, they jingled briskly into the country,
their echoes at last dying away beyond the common.
Polunin and his guest, Arkhipov, were playing chess in his study.
Vera Lvovna was minding the infant; she talked with Alena for a
while; then went into the drawing-room, and rummaged among the books
Polunin's study was large, candles burnt on the desk, books were
scattered about here and there; an antique firearm dimly shone above
a wide, leather-covered sofa. The silent, moonlit night peered in
through the blindless windows, through one of which was passed a
wire. The telegraph-post stood close beside it, and its wires hummed
ceaselessly in the room somewhere in a corner of the ceiling—a
monotonous, barely audible sound, like a snow-storm.
The two men sat in silence, Polunin broad-shouldered and bearded,
Arkhipov lean, wiry, and bald.
Alena entered bringing in curdled milk and cheese-cakes. She was a
modest young woman with quiet eyes, and wore a white kerchief.
"Won't you please partake of our simple fare?" she asked shyly,
inclining her head and folding her hands across her bosom.
Silent and absent-minded, the chess-players sat down to table and
supped. Alena was about to join them, but just then her child began
to cry, and she hurriedly left the room. The tea-urn softly simmered
and seethed, emitting a low, hissing sound in unison with that of the
wires. The men took up their tea and returned to their chess. Vera
Lvovna returned from the drawing-room; and, taking a seat on the sofa
beside her husband, sat there without stirring, with the fixed,
motionless eyes of a nocturnal bird.
"Have you examined the Goya, Vera Lvovna?" Polunin asked suddenly.
"I just glanced through the History of Art; then I sat down with
"He has the most wonderful devilry!" Polunin declared, "and, do you
know, there is another painter—Bosch. He has something more than
devilry in him. You should see his Temptation of St. Anthony!"
They began to discuss Goya, Bosch, and St. Anthony, and as Polunin
spoke he imperceptibly led the conversation to the subject of St.
Francis d'Assisi. He had just been reading the Saint's works, and was
much attracted by his ascetical attitude towards the world. Then the
It was late when the Arkhipovs left, and Polunin accompanied them
home. The last breath of an expiring wind softly stirred the pine-
branches, which swayed to and fro in a mystic shadow-dance against
the constellations. Orion, slanting and impressive, listed across a
boundless sky, his starry belt gleaming as he approached his midnight
post. In the widespread stillness the murmur of the pines sounded
like rolling surf as it beats on the rocks, and the frozen snow
crunched like broken glass underfoot: the frost was cruelly sharp.
On reaching home, Polunin looked up into the overarching sky,
searching the glittering expanse for his beloved Cassiopeian
Constellation, and gazed intently at the sturdy splendour of the
Polar Star; then he watered the horses, gave them their forage for
the night, and treated them to a special whistling performance.
It struck warm in the stables, and there was a smell of horses'
sweat. A lantern burned dimly on the wall; from the horses' nostrils
issued grey, steamy cloudlets; Podubny, the stallion, rolled a great
wondering eye round on his master, as though inquiring what he was
doing. Polunin locked the stable; then stood outside in the snow for
a while, examining the bolts.
In the study Alena had made herself up a bed on the sofa, sat down
next it in an armchair and began tending her baby, bending over it
humming a wordless lullaby. Polunin sat down by her when he came in
and discussed domestic affairs; then took the child from Alena and
rocked her. Pale green beams of moonlight flooded through the
Polunin thought of St. Francis d'Assisi, of the Arkhipovs who had
lost faith and yet were seeking the law, of Alena and their
household. The house was wrapped in utter silence, and he soon fell
into that sound, healthy sleep to which he was now accustomed, in
contrast to his former nights of insomnia.
The faint moon drifted over the silent fields, and the pines shone
tipped with silver. A new-born wind sighed, stirred, then rose gently
from the enchanted caverns of the night and soared up into the sky
with the swift flutter of many-plumed wings. Assuredly Kseniya
Ippolytovna Enisherlova was not asleep on such a night.
The day dawned cold, white, pellucid—breathing forth thin, misty
vapour, while a hoar-frost clothed the houses, trees, and hedges. The
smoke from the village chimneypots rose straight and blue. Outside
the windows was an overgrown garden, a snow-covered tree lay prone on
the earth; further off were snow-clad fields, the valley and the
forest. Sky and air were pale and transparent,
and the sun was hidden behind a drift of fleecy white clouds.
Alena came in, made some remark about the house, then went out to
singe the pig for Christmas.
The library-clock struck eleven; a clock in the hall answered. Then
there came a sudden ring on the telephone; it sounded strange and
piercing in the empty stillness.
"Is that you, Dmitri Vladimirovich? Dmitri Vladimirovich, is that
you?" cried a woman's muffled voice: it sounded a great way off
through the instrument.
"Yes, but who is speaking?"
"Kseniya Ippolytovna Enisherlova is speaking", the voice answered
quietly; then added in a higher key: "Is it you, my ascetic and
seeker? This is me, me, Kseniya."
"You, Kseniya Ippolytovna?" Polunin exclaimed joyfully.
"Yes, yes … Oh yes!… I am tired of roaming about and being always
on the brink of a precipice, so I have come to you … across the
fields, where there is snow, snow, snow and sky … to you, the
seeker…. Will you take me? Have you forgiven me that July?"
Polunin's face was grave and attentive as he bent over the telephone:
"Yes, I have forgiven," he replied.
* * * * * * *
One long past summer, Polunin and Kseniya Ippolytovna used to greet
the glowing dawn together. At sundown, when the birch-trees exhaled a
pungent odour and the crystal sickle of the moon was sinking in the
west, they bade adieu until the morrow on the cool, dew-sprinkled
terrace, and Polunin passionately kissed—as he believed—the pure,
innocent lips of Kseniya Ippolytovna.
But she laughed at his ardour, and her avid lips callously drank in
his consuming, protesting passion, only to desert him afterwards,
abandoning him for Paris, and leaving behind her the shreds of his
pure and passionate love.
That June and July had brought joy and sorrow, good and ill. Polunin
was already disillusioned when he met Alena, and was living alone
with his books. He met her in the spring, and quickly and simply
became intimate with her, begetting a child, for he found that the
instinct of fatherhood had replaced that of passion within him.
Alena entered his house at evening, without any wedding-ceremony,
placed her trunk on a bench in the kitchen, and passing quickly
through into the study, said quietly:
"Here I am, I have come." She looked very beautiful and modest as she
stood there, wiping the corner of her mouth with her handkerchief.
Kseniya Ippolytovna arrived late when dusk was already falling and
blue shadows crept over the snow. The sky had darkened, becoming
shrouded in a murky blue; bullfinches chirruped in the snow under the
windows. Kseniya Ippolytovna mounted the steps and rang, although
Polunin had already opened the door for her.
The hall was large, bright, and cold. As she entered, the sunrays
fell a moment on the windows and the light grew warm and waxy,
lending to her face—as Polunin thought—a greenish-yellow tint, like
the skin of a peach, and infinitely beautiful. But the rays died away
immediately, leaving a blue crepuscular gloom, in which Kseniya
Ippolytovna's figure grew dim, forlorn, and decrepit.
Alena curtseyed: Kseniya Ippolytovna hesitated a moment, wondering if
she should give her hand; then she went up to Alena and kissed her.
"Good evening", she cried gaily, "you know I am an old friend of your
But she did not offer her hand to Polunin.
Kseniya Ippolytovna had greatly changed since that far-off summer.
Her eyes, her wilful lips, her Grecian nose, and smooth brows were as
beautiful as ever, but now there was something reminiscent of late
August in her. Formerly she had worn bright costumes—now she wore
dark; and her soft auburn hair was fastened in a simple plait.
They entered the study and sat down on the sofa. Outside the windows
lay the snow, blue like the glow within. The walls and the furniture
grew dim in the twilight. Polunin—grave and attentive—hovered
solicitously round his guest. Alena withdrew, casting a long,
steadfast look at her husband.
"I have come here straight from Paris", Kseniya explained. "It is
rather queer—I was preparing to leave for Nice in the spring, and
was getting my things together, when I found a nest of mice in my
wardrobe. The mother-mouse ran off, leaving three little babes behind
her; they were raw-skinned and could only just crawl. I spent my
whole time with them, but on the third day the first died, and then
the same night the other two…. I packed up for Russia the next
morning, to come here, to you, where there is snow, snow…. Of
course there is no snow in Paris—and it will soon be Christmas, the
She became silent, folded her hands and laid them against her cheek;
for a moment she had a sorrowful, forlorn expression.
"Continue, Kseniya Ippolytovna", Polunin urged.
"I was driving by our fields and thinking how life here is as simple
and monotonous as the fields themselves, and that it is possible to
live here a serious life without trivialities. You know what it is to
live for trivialities. I am called—and I go. I am loved—and I let
myself be loved! Something in a showcase catches my eye and I buy it.
I should always remain stationary were it not for those that have the
will to move me….
"I was driving by our fields and thinking of the impossibility of
such a life: I was thinking too that I would come to you and tell you
of the mice…. Paris, Nice, Monaco, costumes, English perfumes,
wine, Leonardo da Vinci, neo-classicism, lovers, what are they? With
you everything is just as of old."
She rose and crossed to the window.
"The snow is blue-white here, as it is in Norway—I jilted Valpyanov
there. The Norwegian people are like trolls. There is no better place
than Russia! With you nothing changes. Have you forgiven me that
Polunin approached and stood beside her.
"Yes, I have forgiven", he said earnestly.
"But I have not forgiven you that June!" she flashed at him; then she
resumed: "The library, too, is the same as ever. Do you remember how
we used to read Maupassant together in there?"
Kseniya Ippolytovna approached the library-door, opened it, and went
in. Inside were book-cases behind whose glass frames stood even rows
of gilded volumes; there was also a sofa, and close to it a large,
round, polished table. The last yellow rays of the sun came in
through the windows. Unlike that in the study, the light in here was
not cold, but warm and waxy, so that again Kseniya Ippolytovna's face
seemed strangely green to Polunin, her hair a yellow-red; her large,
dark, deep-sunken eyes bore a stubborn look.
"God has endowed you with wonderful beauty, Kseniya, Ippolytovna,"
Polunin said gravely.
She gave him a keen glance; then smiled. "God has made me wonderfully
tempting! By the way, you used to dream of faith; have you found it?"
"Yes, I have found it."
"Faith in what?"
"But if there is nothing to believe in?"
"I don't know. I don't know." Kseniya Ippolytovna raised her hands to
her head. "The Japanese, Naburu Kotokami, is still looking for me in
Paris and Nice… I wonder if he knows about Russia…. I have not
had a smoke for a whole week, not since the last little mouse died; I
smoked Egyptians before …. Yes, you are right, it is impossible not
to have faith."
Polunin went to her quickly, took her hands, then dropped them; his
eyes were very observant, his voice quiet and serious.
"Kseniya, you must not grieve, you must not."
"Do you love me?"
"As a woman—no, as a fellow-creature—I do," he answered firmly.
She smiled, dropped her eyes, then moved to the sofa, sat down and
arranged her dress, then smiled again.
"I want to be pure."
"And so you are!" Polunin sat down beside her, leaning forward, his
elbows on his knees.
They were silent.
Kseniya Ippolytovna said at last: "You have grown old, Polunin!"
"Yes, I have grown old. People do, but there is nothing terrible in
that when they have found what they sought for."
"Yes, when they have found it…. But what about now? Why do you say
that? Is it Alena?"
"Why ask? Although I am disillusioned, Kseniya, I go on chopping
firewood, heating the stove, living just to live. I read St. Francis
d'Assisi, think about him, and grieve that such a life as his may not
be lived again. I know he was absurd, but he had faith, And now
Alena—I love her, I shall love her for ever. I wish to feel God!"
Kseniya Ippolytovna looked at him curiously:
"Do you know what the baby-mice smelt like?"
"No, why do you ask?"
"They smelt like new-born babies—like human children! You have a
daughter, Natasha. That is everything."
The sun sank in an ocean of wine-coloured light, and a great red
wound remained amidst the drift of cold clouds over the western
horizon. The snow grew violet, and the room was filled with shadowy,
purplish twilight. Alena entered and the loud humming of the
telegraph wires came through the study's open door.
By nightfall battalions of fleeting clouds flecked the sky; the moon
danced and quivered in their midst—a silver-horned goddess, luminous
with the long-stored knowledge of the ages. The bitter snow-wind
crept, wound, and whirled along in spirals, loops, and ribbons,
lashing the fields, whining and wailing its age-old, dismal song over
the lone desolate spaces. The land was wretched, restless, and
forlorn; the sky was overcast with sombre, gaping caverns shot
through with lurid lines of fire.
* * * * * * *
At seven o'clock the Arkhipovs arrived.
Kseniya Ippolytovna had known them a long time: they had been
acquaintances even before Arkhipov's marriage. As he greeted her now,
he kissed her hand and began speaking about foreign countries—
principally Germany, which he knew and admired. They passed into the
study, where they argued and conversed: they had nothing much to talk
about really. Vera Lvovna was silent, as usual; and soon went to see
Natasha. Polunin also was quiet, walking about the room with his
hands behind his back.
Kseniya Ippolytovna jested in a wilful, merry, and coquettish fashion
with Arkhipov, who answered her in a polite, serious, and punctilious
manner. He was unable to carry on a light, witty conversation, and
was acutely conscious of his own awkwardness. From a mere trifle,
something Kseniya Ippolytovna said about fortune-telling at
Christmas, there arose an old-standing dispute between the two men on
Belief and Unbelief.
Arkhipov spoke with calmness and conviction, but Polunin grew angry,
confused, and agitated. Arkhipov declared that Faith was unnecessary
and injurious, like instinct and every other sentiment; that there
was only one thing immutable—Intellect. Only that was moral which
Polunin retorted that the intellectual and the non-intellectual were
no standard of life, for was life intelligent? he asked. He contended
that without Faith there was only death; that the one thing immutable
in life was the tragedy of Faith and the Spirit.
"But do you know what Thought is, Polunin?"
"Yes, indeed I do!"
"Don't smile! Do you not know that Thought kills everything? Reflect,
think thrice over what you regard as sacred, and it will be as simple
as a glass of lemonade."
"Death is an exit into nothing. I have always that in reserve—when I
am heart-broken. For the present I am content to live and thrive."
When the dispute was over, Vera Lvovna said in a low voice, as calm
"The only tragic thing in life is that there is nothing tragical,
while death is just death, when anyone dies physically. A little less
Kseniya Ippolytovna had been listening, alert and restless.
"But all the same," she answered Vera Lvovna animatedly, "Isn't the
absence of tragedy the true tragedy?"
"Yes, that alone."
"No, not love."
"But aren't you married?"
"I want my baby."
Kseniya Ippolytovna, who was lying on the sofa, rose up on her knees,
and stretching out her arms cried:
"Ah, a baby! Is that not instinct?"
"That is a law!"
The women began to argue. Then the dispute died down. Arkhipov
proposed a game of chance. They uncovered a green table, set lighted
candles at its corners and commenced to play leisurely and silently
as in winter. Arkhipov sat erect, resting his elbows at right angles
on the table.
The wind whistled outside, the blizzard increased in violence, and
from some far distance came the dismal, melancholy creaking and
grinding of iron. Alena came in, and sat quietly beside her husband,
her hands folded in her lap. They were killing time.
"The last time, I sat down to play a game of chance amidst the fjords
in a little valley hotel; a dreadful storm raged the whole while,"
Kseniya Ippolytovna remarked pensively. "Yes, there are big and
little tragedies in life!"
The wind shrieked mournfully; snow lashed at the windows. Kseniya
stayed on until a late hour, and Alena invited her to remain
overnight; but she refused and left.
Polunin accompanied her. The snow-wind blew violently, whistling and
cutting at them viciously. The moon seemed to be leaping among the
clouds; around them the green, snowy twilight hung like a thick
curtain. The horses jogged along slowly. Darkness lay over the land.
Polunin returned alone over a tractless road-way; the gale blew in
his face; the snow blinded him. He stabled his horses; then found
Alena waiting up for him in the kitchen, her expression was composed
but sad. Polunin took her in his arms and kissed her.
"Do not be anxious or afraid; I love only you, no one else. I know
why you are unhappy."
Alena looked up at him in loving gratitude, and shyly smiled.
"You do not understand that it is possible to love one only. Other
men are not able to do that," Polunin told her tenderly.
The hurricane raged over the house, but within reigned peace. Polunin
went into his study and sat down at his desk; Natasha began to cry;
he rose, took a candle, and brought her to Alena, who nursed her. The
infant looked so small, fragile, and red that Polunin's heart
overflowed with tenderness towards her. One solitary, flickering
candle illumined the room.
There was a call on the telephone at daybreak. Polunin was already
up. The day slowly broke in shades of blue; there was a murky, bluish
light inside the rooms and outside the windows, the panes of which
were coated with snow. The storm had subsided.
"Have I aroused you? Were you still in bed?" called Kseniya.
"No, I was already up."
"On the watch?"
"I have only just arrived home. The storm whirled madly round us in
the fields, and the roads were invisible, frozen under snow … I
drove on thinking, and thinking—of the snow, you, myself, Arkhipov,
Paris … oh, Paris…! You are not angry with me for ringing you up,
are you, my ascetic?… I was thinking of our conversation."
"What were you thinking?"
"This…. We were speaking together, you see…. Forgive me, but you
could not speak like that to Alena. She would not understand … how
"One need not speak a word, yet understand everything. There is
something that unites—without the aid of speech—not only Alena and
me, but the world and me. That is a law of God."
"So it is," murmured Kseniya. "Forgive me … poor old Alena."
"I love her, and she has given me a daughter…."
"Yes, that is true. And we … we love, but are childless… We rise
in the morning feeling dull and depressed from our revels of
overnight, while you were wisely sleeping." Kseniya Ippolytovna's
voice rose higher. "'We are the heisha-girls of lantern-light,' you
remember Annensky? At night we sit in restaurants, drinking wine and
listening to garish music. We love—but are childless…. And you?
You live a sober, righteous and sensible life, seeking the truth….
Isn't that so?' Truth!" Her cry was malignant and full of derision.
"That is unjust, Kseniya," answered Polunin in a low voice, hanging
"No, wait," continued the mocking voice at the other end of the line;
"here is something more from Annensky: 'We are the heisha-girls of
lantern-light!'… 'And what seemed to them music brought them
torment'; and again: 'But Cypris has nothing more sacred than the
words I love, unuttered by us' …"
"That is unjust, Kseniya."
"Unjust!" She laughed stridently; then suddenly was silent. She began
to speak in a sad, scarcely audible whisper: "But Cypris has nothing
more sacred than the words I love, unuttered by us…. I love …
love…. Oh, darling, at that time, in that June, I looked upon you
as a mere lad. But now I seem small and little myself, and you a big
man, who defends me. How miserable I was alone in the fields last
night! But that is expiation…. You are the only one who has loved
me devotedly. Thank you, but I have no faith now."
The dawn was grey, lingering, cold; the East grew red.
Kseniya Ippolytovna's ancestral home had reared its columns for fully
a century. It was of classic architecture, with pediment, balconied
hall, echoing corridors, and furniture that seemed never to have been
moved from the place it had occupied in her forefathers' time.
The old mansion greeted her—the last descendant of the ancient name—
with gloomy indifference; with cold, sombre apartments that were
terrible by night, and thickly covered with the accumulated dust of
many years. An ancient butler remained who recalled the former times
and masters, the former baronial pomp and splendour. The housemaid,
who spoke no Russian, was brought by Kseniya.
Kseniya Ippolytovna established herself in her mother's rooms. She
told the one ancient retainer that the household should be conducted
as in her parents' day, with all the old rules and regulations. He
thereupon informed her that it was customary in the times of the old
masters for relatives and friends to gather together on Christmas
Eve, while for the New Year all the gentry of the district considered
it their duty to come, even those who were uninvited. Therefore it
was necessary for her to order in the provisions at once.
The old butler called Kseniya Ippolytovna at eight; then served her
with coffee. After she had taken it, he said austerely:
"You will have to go round the house and arrange things, Barina; then
go into the study to read books and work out the expenses and write
out recipes for your house-party. The old gentry always did that."
She carried out all her instructions, adhering rigorously to former
rules. She was wonderfully quiet, submissive, and sad. She read
thick, simply-written books—those in which the old script for sh
is confused with that for t. Now and then, however, she rang up
Polunin behind the old man's back, talking to him long and fretfully,
with mingled love, grief, and hatred.
In the holidays they drove about together in droskies, and told
fortunes: Kseniya Ippolytovna was presented with a waxen cradle. They
drove to town with some mummers, and attended an amateur performance
in a club. Polunin dressed up as a wood-spirit, Kseniya as a wood-
spirit's daughter—out of a birch-grove. Then they visited the
The Christmas holidays were bright and frosty, with a red morning
glow from the east, the daylight waxy in the sun, and with long blue,
The old butler made a great ado in the house at the approach of the
New Year. In preparation for a great ball, he cleared the inlaid
floors, spread carpets, filled the lamps; placed new candles here and
there; took the silver and the dinner-services out of their chests,
and procured all the requisites for fortune-telling. By New Year's
Eve the house was in order, the stately rooms glittering with lights,
and uniformed village-lads stood by the doors.
Kseniya Ippolytovna awoke late on that day and did not get up, lying
without stirring in bed until dinner time, her hands behind her head.
It was a clear, bright day and the sun's golden rays streamed in
through the windows, and were reflected on the polished floor,
casting wavy shadows over the dark heavy tapestry on the walls.
Outside was the cold blue glare of the snow, which was marked with
the imprints of birds' feet, and a vast stretch of clear turquoise
The bedroom was large and gloomy; the polished floor was covered with
rugs; a canopied double bedstead stood against the further wall; a
large wardrobe was placed in a corner.
Kseniya Ippolytovna looked haggard and unhappy. She took a bath
before dinner; then had her meal—alone, in solitary state, drowsing
lingeringly over it with a book.
Crows, the birds of destruction, were cawing and gossiping outside in
the park. At dusk the fragile new moon rose for a brief while. The
frosty night was crisp and sparkling. The stars shone diamond-bright
in the vast, all-embracing vault of blue; the snow was a soft,
Polunin arrived early. Kseniya Ippolytovna greeted him in the
drawing-room. A bright fire burnt on the hearth; beside it were two
deep armchairs. No lamps were alight, but the fire-flames cast warm,
orange reflections; the round-topped windows seemed silvery in the
Kseniya Ippolytovna wore a dark evening dress and had plaited her
hair; she shook hands with Polunin.
"I am feeling sad to-day, Polunin," she said in a melancholy voice.
They sat down in the armchairs.
"I expected you at five. It is now six. But you are always churlish
and inconsiderate towards women. You haven't once wanted to be alone
with me—or guessed that I desired it!" She spoke calmly, rather
coldly, gazing obstinately into the fire, her cheeks cupped between
her narrow palms. "You are so very silent, a perfect diplomat….
What is it like in the fields to-day? Cold? Warm? Tea will be served
in a moment."
There was a pause.
At last Polunin broke the silence.
"Yes, it was bitterly cold, but fine." After a further pause he
added: "When we last talked together you did not say all that was in
your mind. Say it now."
Kseniya Ippolytovna laughed:
"I have already said everything! Isn't it cold? I have not been out
to-day. I have been thinking about Paris and of that … that
June…. Tea should be ready by this time!"
She rose and rung the bell, and the old butler came in.
"Will tea be long?"
"I will bring it now, Barina."
He went out and returned with a tray on which were two glasses of
tea, a decanter of rum, some pastries, figs, and honey, and laid them
on the little table beside the armchairs.
"Will you have the lamps lighted, Barina?" he inquired, respectfully.
"No. You may go. Close the door."
The old butler looked at them knowingly; then withdrew.
Kseniya turned at once to Polunin.
"I have told you everything. How is it you have not understood? Drink
up your tea."
"Tell me again," he pleaded.
"Take your tea first; pour out the rum. I repeat I have already told
you all. You remember about the mice? Did you not understand that?"
Kseniya Ippolytovna sat erect in her chair; she spoke coldly, in the
same distant tone in which she had addressed the butler.
Polunin shook his head: "No, I haven't understood."
"Dear me, dear me!" she mocked, "and you used to be so quick-witted,
my ascetic. Still, health and happiness do not always sharpen the
wits. You are healthy and happy, aren't you?"
"You are being unjust again," Polunin protested. "You know very well
that I love you."
Kseniya Ippolytovna gave a short laugh: "Oh, come, come! None of
that!" She drank her glass of tea feverishly, threw herself back in
the chair, and was silent.
Polunin also took his, warming himself after his cold drive.
She spoke again after a while in a quiet dreamy tone: "In this stove,
flames will suddenly flare up, then die away, and it will become
cold. You and I have always had broken conversations. Perhaps the
Arkhipovs are right—when it seems expedient, kill! When it seems
expedient, breed! That is wise, prudent, honest…." Suddenly she sat
erect, pouring out quick, passionate, uneven words:
"Do you love me? Do you desire me … as a woman?… to kiss, to
caress?… You understand? No, be silent! I am purged…. I come to
you as you came to me that June…. You didn't understand about the
mice?… Or perhaps you did.
"Have you noticed, have you ever reflected on that which does not
change in man's life, but for ever remains the same? No, no, wait!…
There have been hundreds of religions, ethics, aesthetics, sciences,
philosophical systems: they have all changed and are still changing—
only one law remains unaltered, that all living things—whether men,
mice, or rye—are born, breed, and die.
"I was packing up for Nice, where a lover expected me, when suddenly
I felt an overwhelming desire for a babe, a dear, sweet, little babe
of my own, and I remembered you …. Then I travelled here, to Russia
so as to bear it in reverence…. I am able to do so now!…"
Polunin rose and stood close to Kseniya Ippolytovna: his expression
was serious and alarmed.
"Don't beat me," she murmured.
"You are innocent, Kseniya," he replied.
"Oh, there you go again!" she cried impatiently. "Always sin and
innocence! I am a stupid woman, full of beliefs and superstitions—
nothing more—like all women. I want to conceive here, to breed and
bear a child here. Do you wish to be the father?"
She stood up, looking intently into Polunin's eyes.
"What are you saying, Kseniya?" he asked in a low, grave, pained
"I have told you what I want. Give me a child and then go—anywhere—
back to your Alena! I have not forgotten that June and July."
"I cannot," Polunin replied firmly; "I love Alena."
"I do not want love," she persisted; "I have no need of it. Indeed I
have not, for I do not even love you!" She spoke in a low, faint
voice, and passed her hand over her face.
"I must go," the man said at last.
She looked at him sharply. "Where to?"
"How do you mean 'where to'? I must go away altogether!"
"Ah, those tragedies, duties, and sins again!" she cried, her eyes
burning into his with hatred and contempt. "Isn't it all perfectly
simple? Didn't you make a contract with me?"
"I have never made one without love. And I love only Alena. I must
"Oh, what cruel, ascetical egoism!" she cried violently. Then
suddenly all her rage died down, and she sat quietly in the chair,
covering her face with her hands.
Polunin stood by, his shoulders bowed, his arms hanging limply. His
face betrayed grief and anxiety.
Kseniya looked up at him with a wan smile: "It is all right—there is
no need to go… It was only my nonsense…. I was merely venting my
anger…. Don't mind me …. I am tired and harassed. Of course I
have not been purged. I know that is impossible… We are the
'heisha-girls of lantern-light'…. You remember Annensky? … Give
me your hand."
Polunin stretched out his large hand, took her yielding one in his
and pressed its delicate fingers.
"You have forgiven me?" she murmured.
He looked at her helplessly, then muttered: "I cannot either forgive
or not forgive. But … I cannot!"
"Never mind; we shall forget. We shall be cheerful and happy. You
remember: 'Where beauty shines amidst mire and baseness there is only
torment'…. You need not mind, it is all over!"
She uttered the last few words with a cry, raised herself erect, and
laughed aloud with forced gaiety.
"We shall tell fortunes, jest, drink, be merry—like our grandfathers …
you remember! …Had not our grandmothers their coachmen
She rang the bell and the butler came in.
"Bring in more tea. Light the fire and the lamps."
The fire burnt brightly and illuminated the leather-covered chairs.
The portrait frames on the walls shone golden through the darkness.
Polunin paced up and down the room, his hands behind his back; his
footsteps were muffled in the thick carpet.
Sleigh bells began to ring outside.
It was just ten o'clock as the guests assembled from the town and the
neighbouring estates. They were received in the drawing-room.
Taper, the priest's son, commenced playing a polka, and the ladies
went into the ballroom; the old butler and two footmen brought wax
candles and basins of water, and the old ladies began to tell
fortunes. A troupe of mummers tumbled in, a bear performed tricks, a
Little Russian dulcimer-player sang songs.
The mummers brought in with them the smell of frost, furs, and
napthaline. One of them emitted a cock's crow, and they danced a
Russian dance. It was all merry and bright, a tumultuous, boisterous
revel, as in the old Russian aristocracy days. There was a smell of
burning wax, candle-grease, and burning paper.
Kseniya Ippolytovna was the soul of gaiety; she laughed and jested
cheerfully as she waltzed with a Lyceum student, a General's son. She
had re-dressed her hair gorgeously, and wore a pearl necklace round
her throat. The old men sat round card-tables in the lounge, talking
on local topics.
At half past eleven a footman opened the door leading into the
dining-room and solemnly announced that supper was served. They
supped and toasted, ate and drank amid the clatter of knives, forks,
dishes, and spoons. Kseniya made Arkhipov, Polunin, a General and a
Magistrate sit beside her.
At midnight, just as they were expecting the clock to chime, Kseniya
Ippolytovna rose to propose a toast; in her right hand was a glass;
her left was flung back behind her plaited hair; she held her head
high. All the guests at once rose to their feet.
"I am a woman," she cried aloud. "I drink to ourselves, to women, to
the gentle, to the homely, to happiness and purity! To motherhood! I
drink to the sacred—" she broke off abruptly, sat down and hung her
Somebody cried: "Hurrah!" To someone else it seemed that Kseniya was
weeping. The clock began to chime, the guests shouted "Hurrah!"
clinked glasses, and drank.
Then they sang, while some rose and carried round glasses to those of
the guests who were still sober and those who were only partially
intoxicated. They bowed. They sang The Goblets, and the basses
"Drink to the dregs! Drink to the dregs!" Kseniya Ippolytovna
offered her first glass to Polunin. She stood in front of him with a
tray, curtseyed without lifting her eyes and sang. Polunin rose,
colouring with embarrassment:
"I never drink wine," he protested.
But the basses thundered: "Drink to the dregs! Drink to the dregs!"
His face darkened, he raised a silencing arm, and firmly repeated:
"I never drink wine, and I do not intend to."
Kseniya gazed into the depths of his eyes and said softly:
"I want you to, I beg you…. Do you hear?"
"I will not," Polunin whispered back.
Then she cried out:
"He doesn't want to! We mustn't make him against his will!" She
turned away, offered her glass to the Magistrate, and after him to
the Lyceum student; then excused herself and withdrew, quietly
returning later looking sad and as if she had suddenly aged.
They lingered a long while over supper; then went into the ball-room
to dance, and sing, and play old fashioned games. The men went to the
buffets to drink, the older ones then sat in the drawing-room playing
whist, and talked.
It was nearly five o'clock when the guests departed. Only the
Arkhipovs and Polunin remained. Kseniya Ippolytovna ordered coffee,
and all four sat down at a small table feeling worn out. The house
was now wrapt in silence. The dawn had just broken.
Kseniya was tired to death, but endeavoured to appear fresh and
cheerful. She passed the coffee round, and then fetched a bottle of
liqueur. They sat almost in silence; what talk they exchanged was
"One more year dropped into Eternity," Arkhipov said, sombrely.
"Yes, a year nearer to death, a year further from birth," rejoined
Kseniya Ippolytovna was seated opposite him. Her eyes were veiled.
She rose now to her feet, leaned over the table and spoke to him in
slow, measured accents vibrating with malice:
"Well, pious one! Everything here is mine. I asked you to-day to give
me a baby, because I am merely a woman and so desire motherhood…. I
asked you to take wine… You refused. The nearer to death the
further from birth, you say? Well then, begone!"
She broke into tears, sobbing loudly and plaintively, covering her
face with her hands; then leant against the wall, still sobbing. The
Arkhipovs ran to her; Polunin stood at the table dumbfounded, then
left the room.
"I didn't ask him for passion or caresses. … I have no husband!"
Kseniya cried, sobbing and shrieking like a hysterical girl. They
calmed her after a time, and she spoke to them in snatches between
her sobs, which were less violent for a while. Then she broke out
weeping afresh, and sank into an armchair.
The dawn had now brightened; the room was filled with a faint,
flickering light. Misty, vaporous, tormenting shadows danced and
twisted oddly in the shifting glimmer: in the tenebrous half-light
the occupants looked grey, weary, and haggard, their faces strangely
distorted by the alternate rise and fall of the shadows. Arkhipov's
bald head with its tightly stretched skin resembled a greatly
"Listen to me, you Arkhipovs," Kseniya cried brokenly. "Supposing a
distracted woman who desired to be pure were to come and ask you for
a baby—would you give her the same answer as Polunin? He said it was
impossible, that it was sin, that he loved someone else. Would you
answer like that, Arkhipov, knowing it was the woman's last—her
only—chance of salvation—her only love?" She looked eagerly from
one to the other.
"No, certainly not—I should answer in a different way," Arkhipov
"And you, Vera Lvovna, a wife … do you hear? I speak in front of
Vera Lvovna nodded, laid her hand gently on Kseniya's forehead, and
answered softly and tenderly:
"I understand you perfectly."
Again Kseniya wept.
* * * * * * *
The dawn trod gently down the lanes of darkness. The light grew
clearer and the candles became dim and useless. The outlines of the
furniture crept out of the net of shadows. Through the blue mist
outside the snow, valley, forest, and fields were faintly visible.
From the right of the horizon dawn's red light flushed the heavens
with a cold purple.
Polunin drove along by the fields, trotting smoothly behind his
stallion. The earth was blue and cold and ghostly, a land carved out
of dreams, seemingly unsubstantial and unreal. A harsh, bitter wind
blew from the north, stirring the telegraph-wires by the roadside to
a loud, humming refrain. A silence as of death reigned over the land,
yet life thrilled through it; and now and then piping goldfinches
appeared from their winter nests in the moist green ditches, and flew
ahead of Polunin; then suddenly turned aside and perched lightly on
the wayside brambles.
Night still lingered amid the calm splendour of the vast, primeval
forest. As he drove through the shadowed glades the huge trees gently
swayed their giant boughs, softly brushing aside the shroud of
A golden eagle darted from its mist-wreathed eyrie and flew over the
fields; then soared upwards in ever-widening circles towards the
east—where, like a pale rose ribbon stretched across the sky, the
light from the rising sun shed a delicate opalescent glow on the
snow, which it transformed to an exquisite lilac, and the shadows, to
which it lent a wonderful, mysterious, quivering blue tint.
Polunin sat in his seat, huddled together, brooding morosely,
deriving a grim satisfaction from the fact that—all the same—he had
not broken the law. Henceforth, he never could break it; the thought
of Kseniya Ippolytovna brought pain, but he would not condemn her.
At home, Alena was already up and about; he embraced her fondly,
clasped her in his arms, kissed her forehead; then he took up the
infant and gazed lingeringly, with infinite tenderness, upon her
innocent little face.
The day was glorious; the golden sunlight streamed in through the
windows in a shining cataract, betokening the advent of spring, and
made pools of molten gold upon the floor. But the snow still lay in
all its virgin whiteness over the earth.