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The Story of Wassili and Daria, A Russian Story by Robert Guillemard

 

Whilst staying in Siberia, on one occasion, when returning from an evening walk in the woods I was surprised at seeing a young Russian girl crying beside a clump of trees; she seemed pretty, and I approached; she saw me not, but continued to give vent to her tears.

I stopped to examine her appearance; her black hair, arranged in the fashion of the country, flowed from under the diadem usually worn by the Siberian girls, and formed a striking contrast, by its jet black colour, with the fairness of her skin. Whilst I was looking at her, she turned her head, and, perceiving me, rose in great haste, wiped off her tears, and said to me:

“Pardon me, father—but I am very unfortunate.”

“I wish,” said I, “that it were in my power to give you any consolation.”

“I expect no consolation,” she replied; “it is out of your power to give me any.”

“But why are you crying?”

She was silent, and her sobs alone intimated that she was deeply afflicted.

“Can you have committed any fault,” said I, “that has roused your father's anger against you?”

“He is angry with me, it is true; but is it my fault if I cannot love his Aphanassi?”

The subject now began to be interesting; for as Chateaubriand says, there were love and tears at the bottom of this story. I felt peculiarly interested in the narrative.

I asked the young Siberian girl who this Aphanassi was whom she could not love. She became more composed, and with enchanting grace, and almost French volubility, she informed me that the summer before a Baskir family had travelled further to the north than these tribes are accustomed to do, and had brought their flocks into the neighbourhood of the zavode of Tchornaïa; they came from time to time to the village to buy things, and to sell the gowns called doubas, which their wives dye of a yellow colour with the bark of the birch tree. Now her father, the respectable Michael, was a shopkeeper, and constant communications began to be established between the Baskir and the Russian family. This connection became more close, when it was discovered that both families were of that sect which pretends to have preserved its religion free from all pollution or mixture, and gives its members the name of Stareobratzi. The head of the Baskir family, Aphanassi, soon fell in love with young Daria, and asked her in marriage from her father; but though wealthy, Aphanassi had a rough and repulsive look, and Daria could not bear him; she had, therefore, given him an absolute refusal. Her father doated on her, and had not pressed the matter farther, though he was desirous of forming an alliance so advantageous to his trade; and the Baskir had returned to his own country in the month of August to gather the crops of hemp and rye. But winter passed away, and the heats of June had scarcely been felt before Aphanassi had again appeared, with an immense quantity of bales of rich doubas, Chinese belts, and kaftans, and a herd of more than five hundred horses; he came, in fact, surrounded with all his splendour, and renewed again his offers and his entreaties. Old Michael was nearly gained by his offers, and Daria was in despair, for she was about to be sacrificed to gain, and she detested Aphanassi more than she had done the year before.

I listened to her with strong emotion, pitied her sorrows, which had so easily procured me her confidence, and when she left me, she was less afflicted than before.

The next day I returned to the spot where I had seen her, and found her again; she received me with a smile. Aphanassi had not come that morning, and Daria, probably thinking that I would come back to the spot, had come to ask me what she ought to reply to him, as well as to her father. I gave her my advice with a strong feeling of interest, and convinced that pity would henceforward open to me the road to her heart, I tried to become acquainted with her family. The same evening I bought some things from old Michael, and flattering him on his judgment and experience, endeavoured to lay the foundation of intimacy.

During several days I went regularly to the same spot, and almost always found Daria, as if we had appointed a meeting. Her melancholy increased; every time she saw me she asked for further advice, and although she showed me nothing but confidence, yet the habit of seeing her, of deploring her situation, of having near me a young and beautiful woman, after hearing for many, many months no other voices than the rough ones of officers, soldiers, and smiths—all these circumstances affected my heart with unusual emotion.

The sight of Daria reminded me of the circumstances of my first love; and these recollections, in their turn, embellished Daria with all their charms.

One day she said to me:

“You have seen Aphanassi this morning at my father's; don't you think he is very rough, and has an ugly, ill-natured countenance?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well, I will show you whom I prefer to him.” She smiled in saying this, and I was powerfully affected, as if she had been about to say, “You are the man!” She then threw back the gauze veil that flowed from her head-dress, and instantly, at a certain signal, a young man sprung from behind the trees and cried out to me:

“Thank you, Frenchman, for your good advice! I am Wassili, the friend of Daria!”

This sight perfectly confounded me. So close to love, and to be nothing but a confidant after all! I blushed for shame, but Daria soon dispelled this impulse of ill-humour. She said to me:

“Wassili, whom I have never mentioned to you, is my friend; I was desirous of making you acquainted with him. But he was jealous because you gave me consolation and I wished him to remain concealed from you, that he might be convinced by your language of the worthiness of your sentiments. Wassili will love you as I do; stranger, still give us your advice!”

The words of Daria calmed my trouble; and I felt happy that, at a thousand leagues from my native land, in the bosom of an enemy's country, I was bound by no tie to a foreign soil, but could still afford consolation to two beings in misfortune.

Wassili was handsome and amiable; he was also wealthy; but Aphanassi was much more so, and old Michael, though formerly flattered with the attentions of Wassili to his daughter, now rejected them with disdain. We agreed upon a plan of attack against the Baskir. I talked to Michael several times on the subject, and tried to arrange their differences; but it was of no avail.

Meanwhile took place the feast of St. John, the patron saint of Tchornaïa, which assembled all the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages.

Early in the morning of the holiday, the whole of the inhabitants, dressed in their finest clothes, get into a number of little narrow boats, made of a single tree, like the canoes of the South Sea savages. A man is placed in the middle with one oar in his hands, and strikes the water first on one side and then on the other, and makes the boat move forward with great velocity. These frail skiffs are all in a line, race against each other, and perform a variety of evolutions on the lake. The women are placed at the bow and stern, and sing national songs, while the men are engaged in a variety of exercises and amusements on the shore. A large barge, carrying the heads of the village and the most distinguished inhabitants, contains a band of music, whose harmony contrasts with the songs that are heard from the other boats.

Beautiful weather usually prevails at this season, and the day closes with dances and suppers in the open air; and the lake of Tchornaïa, naturally of a solitary aspect, becomes all at once full of life and animation, and presents an enchanting prospect.

Wassili had got several boats ready, which were filled with musicians, who attracted general attention, and were soon followed by almost all the skiffs in the same way as the gondolas in the Venetian lagoons follow the musical amateurs who sing during the night. Wassili knew that Michael would be flattered to hear an account of the success he had obtained: but Aphanassi had also come to the festival. As soon as he learned that the musicians of Wassili were followed by the crowd, and that his rival's name was in every one's mouth, he collected twenty of his finest horses, covered them with rich stuffs, and, as soon as the sports on the lake were over, began, by the sound of Tartar music, a series of races on the shore, which was a novel sight in the summer season, and was generally admired. His triumph was complete, and at Tchornaïa nothing was talked of for several days but the races on the shore of the lake, and the Baskir's influence with Michael increased considerably.

The grief of Daria made her father suspect that she met Wassili out of the house, and he confined her at home. I saw none but the young man, whose communications were far from being so pleasing to me as those of Daria. Towards the end of July he informed me that Aphanassi had made another attempt to get her from her father; but that the old man was so overcome with her despair that he had only agreed that the marriage should take place the ensuing summer, delaying the matter under the pretext of getting her portion ready, but, in truth, to give her time to make up her mind to follow the Baskir.

About this period Wassili was sent by M. Demidoff's agent, at the head of a body of workmen, to the centre of the Ural Mountains to cut down trees and burn them into charcoal. He was not to return till the middle of September. During his absence I saw Daria almost daily; she had lost the brilliancy of her look, but it seemed to me that her beauty was increased, her countenance had assumed such an expression of melancholy. I had gradually obtained the goodwill of Michael, and dispelled, as far as lay in my power, the sorrows of his daughter. I was a foreigner, a prisoner, little to be feared, and pretty well off in regard to money, so that Michael felt no alarm at seeing me, and neglected no opportunity of showing me his goodwill.

I received a strong proof of this about the middle of August. He brought me to a family festival that takes place at the gathering of the cabbage, and to which women only are usually admitted; it is, in fact, their vintage season.

On the day that a family is to gather in their cabbage, which they salt and lay up for the winter season, the women invite their female friends and neighbours to come and assist them. On the evening before, they cut the cabbages from the stem, and pull off the outside leaves and earth that may be adhering to them. On the grand day, at the house where the cabbages are collected, the women assemble, dressed in their most brilliant manner, and armed with a sort of cleaver, with a handle in the centre, more or less ornamented, according to the person's rank. They place themselves round a kind of trough containing the cabbages. The old women give the signal for action; two of the youngest girls take their places in the middle of the room, and begin to dance a kind of allemande, while the rest of the women sing national songs, and keep time in driving their knives into the trough. When the girls are tired with dancing, two more take their place, always eager to surpass the former by the grace with which they make their movements. The songs continue without intermission, and the cabbages are thus cut up in the midst of a ball, which lasts from morning till night. Meanwhile, the married women carry on the work, salt the cabbages, and carefully pack them in barrels. In the evening the whole party sit down to supper, after which only the men are admitted, but even then they remain apart from the women. Glasses of wine and punch go round, dancing begins in a more general manner, and they withdraw at a late hour, to begin the same amusement at another neighbour's till all the harvest is finished.

Amidst all these young girls Daria always seemed to me the most amiable! she danced when called upon by her mother; her motions expressed satisfaction, and her eyes, scarcely refraining from tears, turned towards the stranger, who alone knew her real situation, though amidst so many indifferent people who called themselves her friends.

Towards the end of September, Wassili returned from the woods. Daria had a prospect of several months before her before the return of Aphanassi, if ever he should return at all; and she gave herself up to her love with pleasing improvidence.

At this period there came to Tchornaïa two Russian officers, with several sergeants, who were much more like Cossacks than regular soldiers. Their appearance was the signal of universal mourning—they came to recruit. They proclaimed, in the Emperor's name, that on a certain day all the men in the district, whatever their age might be, were to assemble in the public square, there to be inspected.

At the appointed day every one was on the spot; but it was easy to see by their looks that it was with the utmost repugnance that they had obeyed. All the women were placed on the other side, and anxiously waited for the result of the inspection, and some of them were crying bitterly. I was present at this scene. The officers placed the men in two rows, and passed along the ranks very slowly. Now and then they touched a man, and he was immediately taken to a little group that was formed in the centre of the square. When they had run over the two rows, they again inspected the men that had been set apart, made them walk and strip, verified them, in a word, such as our recruiting councils did in our departments for many years. When a man was examined he was allowed to go, when the crowd raised a shout of joy; or he was immediately put in irons, in presence of his family, who raised cries of despair—this man was fit for service.

These unfortunate beings, thus chained up, were kept out of view till the very moment of their departure. No claims were valid against the recruiting officer; age, marriage, the duties required to be paid to an infirm parent, were all of no avail; sometimes, indeed, it happened, and that but rarely, that a secret arrangement with the officer, for a sum of money, saved a young man, a husband, or a father from his caprice, for he was bound by no rule; it often happened, also, that he marked out for the army a young man whose wife or mistress was coveted by the neighbouring lord, or whom injustice had irritated and rendered suspected.

To finish this description, which has made me leave my friends out of view, at a very melancholy period, I shall add a few more particulars.

Wassili, as I said before, was at the review; the recruiting officer thought he would make a handsome dragoon, or a soldier of the guard, and, having looked at him from top to toe, he declared him fit for the army.

Whilst his family were deploring his fate, and preparing to make every sacrifice to obtain his discharge, some one cried out that the officer would allow him to get off because he was wealthy, but that the poor must march.

The Russian heard this, and perhaps on the point of making a bargain, felt irritated, and would listen to no sort of arrangement, as a scoundrel always does when you have been on the point of buying. Wassili was put in irons, and destined to unlimited service—that is, to an eternal exile, for the Russian soldier is never allowed to return to his home.[1] Daria nearly fell a victim to her grief, and only recovered some portion of vigour when the recruits were to set out.

[Footnote 1: He is enrolled for twenty years—that is, for a whole life.]

On that day the recruiting party gorge them with meat and brandy till they are nearly dead drunk. They are then thrown into the sledges and carried off, still loaded with irons. A most heart-rending scene now takes place; every family follows them with their cries, and chants the prayers for the dead and the dying, while the unfortunate conscripts themselves, besotted with liquor, remain stupid and indifferent, burst into roars of laughter, or answer their friends with oaths and imprecations.

Notwithstanding the force that had been shown to him, Wassili had drunk nothing, and preserved his judgment unclouded; he stretched out his arms towards Daria, towards his friends, and towards me, and bade us adieu with many tears. Amidst the mournful sounds that struck upon her ears, the young girl followed him rapidly, and had time to throw herself into his arms before the sledge set out; but the moment he was beyond her reach, she fell backward with violence on the ice. No one paid the least attention to her; they all rushed forward and followed the sledges of the recruiting party, which soon galloped out of sight. I lifted Daria up; I did not attempt to restrain her grief, but took her back to her father's, where she was paid every attention her situation required. In about a month's time she was able to resume her usual occupations, but she recovered only a portion of her former self.

Winter again set in. I often saw Daria, either at her father's house, or when she walked out on purpose to meet me, which her father allowed, in the hope of dissipating her sorrows. How the poor girl was altered since the departure of Wassili! How many sad things the young Siberian told me when our sledges glided together along the surface of the lake! What melancholy there was in her language, and superstition in her belief!

I attempted to dissipate her sombre thoughts; but I soon perceived that everything brought them back to her mind, and that the sight of this savage nature, whose solitude affected my own thoughts with sorrow, contributed to increase her melancholy. Within her own dwelling she was less agitated, but more depressed; her fever was then languid, and her beautiful face despoiled of that expression, full of agreeable recollections, that animated her in our private conversation. These walks could only make her worse, and I endeavoured to avoid them. She understood my meaning. “Go,” said she, “kind Frenchman, you are taking fruitless care; Wassili has taken my life away with him; it cannot return any more than he can.”

I still continued to see her frequently. Old Michael was unhappy because she wept on hearing even the name of Aphanassi; he foresaw that it would be out of his power to have this wealthy man for his son-in-law, for his promises had gained his heart long ago. However this may be, he made his preparations in secret, bought fine silks, and ordered a magnificent diadem to be made for his daughter. She guessed his object, and once said to me, “My father is preparing a handsome ornament for me; it is intended for the last time I shall be at church; let him make haste, for Daria won't keep him waiting.”

About the middle of June Aphanassi returned, more in love and more eager than ever, and, as soon as he appeared, the daughter of Michael was attacked by a burning fever that never left her. In a few days she was at the gates of death. All the care bestowed upon her was of no avail, and she died pronouncing the name of Wassili.

Full of profound grief, I followed her body to the church of the Stareobratzi, at Nishnei-Taguil. It had been dressed in her finest clothing, and she was placed in the coffin with her face uncovered. The relations, friends, and members of the same church were present. The men were ranged on one side, and the women on the other. After a funeral hymn, in the language of the country, the priest, who was bare-headed, pronounced the eulogium of the defunct. His grey hair, long beard, Asiatic gown, and loud sobs, gave his discourse a peculiar solemnity. When it was finished, every one came forward silently to bid farewell to Daria, and kiss her hand. I went like the rest; like them I went alone towards the coffin, took hold of the hand I had so often pressed, and gave it the last farewell kiss.

 
 
 

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