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
'Has he shown you the dead?' I asked Ardalion.
Ardalion nodded. 'He has; my father he brought before me as if
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
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 replied reassuringly.
* * * * *
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
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 something?'
'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
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
* * * * *
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
'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
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
* * * * *
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 a lot!'
'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
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....
'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
'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 added.
'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
'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
'Well, what is it?' I asked at last.
'Did your honour see the crazy pilgrim yesterday?' my man began at
'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 B.!
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 ever.
* * * * *
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