Translated by John Cournos
I take a piece of life, coarse and poor, and create from it a delightful legend—because I am a poet. Whether it linger in the darkness; whether it be dim, commonplace, or raging with a furious fire—life is before you; I, a poet, will erect the legend I have created about the enchanting and the beautiful.
Chance caught in the entangling net of circumstance brings about every beginning. Yet it is better to begin with what is splendid in earthly experience, or at any rate with what is beautiful and pleasing. Splendid are the body, the youth, and the gaiety in man; splendid are the water, the light, and the summer in nature.
It was a bright, hot midday in summer, and the heavy glances of the flaming Dragon fell on the River Skorodyen. The water, the light, and the summer beamed and were glad; they beamed because of the sunlight that filled the immense space, they were glad because of the wind that blew from some far land, because of the many birds, because of the two nude maidens.
Two sisters, Elisaveta and Elena, were bathing in the River Skorodyen. And the sun and the water were gay, because the two maidens were beautiful and were naked. And the two girls felt also gay and cool, and they wanted to scamper and to laugh, to chatter and to jest. They were talking about a man who had aroused their curiosity.
They were the daughters of a rich proprietor. The place where they bathed adjoined the spacious old garden of their estate. Perhaps they enjoyed their bathing because they felt themselves the mistresses of these fast-flowing waters and of the sand-shoals under their agile feet. And they swam about and laughed in this river with the assurance and freedom of princesses born to rule. Few know the boundaries of their kingdom—but fortunate are they who know what they possess and exercise their sway.
They swam up and down and across the river, and tried to outswim and outdive one another. Their bodies, immersed in the water, would have presented an entrancing sight to anyone who might have looked down upon them from the bench in the garden on the high bank and watched the exquisite play of their muscles under their thin elastic skin. Pink tones lost themselves in the skin-yellow pearl of their bodies. But pink triumphed in their faces, and in those parts of the body most often exposed.
The riverbank opposite rose in a slope. There were bushes here; behind them for a great distance stretched fields of rye, while just over the edge, where the earth and the sky met, were visible the far huts of the suburban village. Peasant boys passed by on the bank. They did not look at the bathing women. But a schoolboy, who had come a long way from the other end of the town, sat on his heels behind the bushes. He called himself an ass because he had not brought his camera. But he consoled himself with the thought:
"Tomorrow I'll surely bring it."
The schoolboy quickly looked at his watch in order to make a note of the time the girls went out bathing. He knew them, and often came to their house to see his friend, their relative. Elena, the younger, now appealed most to him; she was plump, cheerful, white, rosy, her hands and feet were small. He did not like the hands and feet of the elder sister, Elisaveta—they seemed to him to be too large and too red. Her face also was red, very sunburnt, and she was altogether quite large.
"Oh well," he reflected, "she is certainly well formed, you can't deny her that."
About a year had now passed since the retired privat-docent Giorgiy Sergeyevitch Trirodov, a doctor of chemistry, had settled in the town of Skorodozh.1 From the very first he had caused much talk in the town, mostly unsympathetic. It was quite natural that the two rose-yellow, black-haired girls in the water should also talk of him. They splashed about gaily, and as they raised jewel-like spray with their feet they kept up a conversation.
"How puzzling it all is!" said Elena, the younger sister. "No one knows where his income comes from, what he does in his house, and why he has this colony of children. There are all sorts of strange rumours about him. It's certainly a mystery."
Elena's words reminded Elisaveta of an article she had read lately in a philosophic periodical published at Moscow. Elisaveta had a good memory. She recalled a phrase:
"In our world reason will never dominate, and the mysterious will always maintain its place."
She tried to recall more, but suddenly realizing that it would not interest Elena, she gave a sigh and grew silent. Elena gave her a tender, appealing look and said:
"When it is so bright you want everything to be as clear as it is around us now."
"Is everything really clear now?" exclaimed Elisaveta. "The sun blinds your eyes, the water flashes and dazzles, and in this ragingly bright world we do not even know whether there isn't someone a couple of paces away peeping at us."
At this moment the sisters were standing breast-high in the water, near the overgrown bank. The schoolboy who sat on his heels behind the bush heard Elisaveta's words. He grew cold in his confusion, and began to crawl on all-fours between the bushes, away from the river. He got in among the rye, then perched himself on the rail-fence and pretended to rest, as though he were not even aware of the closeness of the river. But no one had noticed him, as if he were nonexistent.
The schoolboy sat there a little while, then went home with a vague feeling of disenchantment, injury, and irritation. There was something especially humiliating to him in the thought that to the two girl bathers he was merely a possibility speculated upon but actually nonexistent.
Everything in this world has an end. There was an end also to the sisters' bathing. They made their way silently together out of the pleasant, cool, deep water towards the dry ground, heaven's terrestrial footstool, and out into the air, where they met the hot kisses of the slowly, cumbrously rising Dragon. They stood a while on the bank, yielding themselves to the Dragon's kisses, then entered the protected bathhouse where they had left their clothes.
Elisaveta's clothes were very simple. They consisted of a greenish yellow, not over-long tunic-dress without sleeves, and a plain straw hat. Elisaveta nearly always wore yellow dresses. She loved yellow, she loved buttercups and gold, and though she sometimes said that she wore yellow in order to soften her ruddy complexion, she really loved it simply, sincerely, and for its own sake. Yellow delighted Elisaveta. There was something remote and unpremeditated in this, as if it were a thing remembered from another, previous life.
Elisaveta's heavy black braid of hair was coiled tightly and attractively around her head, and as it was lifted quite high at the back, her neck showed—sunburnt and gracefully erect. Elisaveta's face had a keen, almost exaggerated, expression of the mastery of will and intellect over the emotions. The long and peculiarly straight parting of her lips was very exquisite. Her blue eyes were cheerful—even when her lips did not smile. Their glance was thoughtful and gentle. The bright ruddiness and strong tan of the face seemed strangely alien to it.
While waiting for Elena to finish dressing Elisaveta walked slowly on the sandy bank and looked into the monotonous distances. The fine warm grains of sand gently warmed her bare feet, which had grown cold in the water.
Elena dressed slowly. She enjoyed dressing; everything that she put on seemed an adornment to her. She delighted in the rosy reflections of her skin, in her pretty light dress of a pinkish white material, in her broad sash of pink silk fastened behind with a buckle of mother-of-pearl, in her straw hat trimmed with bright pink ribbons on top and yellow-pink velvet on its underbrim.
At last Elena was dressed. The sisters climbed the sloping bank and went where their curiosity drew them. They loved to take long walks. They had already passed several times the house and grounds of Giorgiy Trirodov, whom they had not yet seen once. Today they wished to go that way again and to try and see what was to be seen.
The sisters walked two versts through the wood. They spoke quietly of various things, and felt a little agitated. Curiosity often agitates people.
The sinuous road with two wagon-ruts revealed picturesque views at every turn. The path finally chosen by the sisters led to a hollow. Its sides, overgrown with bushes and weeds, looked wildly beautiful. From its depth came the sweet, warm odour of clover, and down below its white bosom grass was visible. A small narrow bridge, propped up from below with thin slender stakes, hung over the hollow. On the other side of the bridge a low hedge stretched right and left, and in this hedge, quite facing the bridge, a small gate was visible.
The sisters crossed the bridge, holding on to its slender handrail of birch. They tried the gate—it was closed. They looked at one another. Elisaveta, growing red with vexation, said:
"We'll have to go back again."
"Everyone says that you can't get into the place," said Elena, "that you've got to get over the hedge, and that even that is impossible for some reason or other. It's very strange. I wonder what they can be up to?"
Suddenly there was a slight rustle in the bushes by the hedge. The branches parted. A pale boy ran up to them. He looked quickly at the sisters with his clear, intensely calm, almost dead eyes. There was something strange in the shape of his pale lips, thought Elisaveta. A motionless, sorrowful expression lurked in the corners of his mouth. He opened the gate; he seemed to say something, but so quietly that the sisters could not catch his words. Or was it the sound of the light breeze in the wavering foliage?
The boy hid himself behind the bushes so quickly that it was hard to believe that he had been there at all; the sisters had no time to be astonished or to thank him. It was as if the gate had opened by itself, or had been pushed open by one of the sisters by chance.
They stood there undecided. An incomprehensible unrest took possession of them for an instant and as quickly went from them. Curiosity again dominated them. The sisters entered.
"How did he open it?" asked Elena.
Elisaveta, without a word, went quickly forward. She was so elated at getting in that she had almost forgotten the pale boy. Only somewhere, within the domain of vague consciousness, there gleamed dimly a strange white face.
The wood was quite like the one by which they had come to the gate, quite as pensive and as tall and as isolated from the sky, and as absorbed in its own mysteries. But here it seemed to have been conquered by human activity. Not far away voices, cries, laughter resounded. Here and there were evidences of left-off games. The narrow footpaths often led to wider paths of sand. The sisters quickly followed the winding path in the direction from which the children's voices sounded loudest. Afterwards all this jumble of sound seemed to collapse, and it renewed itself in loud, sweet singing.
At last there appeared before them a small glade—oval in shape. Tall firs edged this open space as evenly as graceful columns in a magnificent salle. The blue of the sky above it seemed especially bright, pure and dominant. The glade was full of children of various ages. They were sitting and reclining all around in ones, twos, and threes. In the middle some thirty boys and girls were singing and dancing; their dance followed strictly the rhythm of the tune and interpreted the words of the song with beautiful fidelity. They were directed by a tall, graceful girl who had a strong, sonorous voice, braids of magnificent golden hair, and grey, cheerful eyes.
All of them, the children as well as their instructresses—of whom three or four were to be seen—were dressed quite simply and alike. Their simple, light attire seemed beautiful. It was pleasant to look at them, perhaps because their dress revealed the active parts of their body, the arms and the legs. Dress here was made to protect, and not to conceal; to clothe, and not to muffle.
The blue and red of the hats and of the dresses gave emphasis to the vivid tones of the faces and of the arms and legs. There was a spirit of gaiety here, a sense of holiday splendour in these naturally adorned bodies, boldly revealed under clear azure skies.
Some of the children from among those who did not sing approached the sisters and looked at them in a friendly manner, smiling trustfully.
"You may sit down if you like," said a boy with very blue eyes; "here is a bench."
"Thank you, my dear," said Elisaveta.
The sisters sat down. The children wished to talk to them. One little girl said:
"I've just seen a little squirrel. It was sitting on a pine. Then I gave a shout—you should have seen it run!"
The others also began to talk and to ask questions. The singers ended their song and scattered in all directions to play. The golden-haired instructress went up to the sisters and asked:
"Have you come from town? Are you pleased with what you have seen here?"
"Yes, it's splendid here," said Elisaveta. "Our place adjoins this. We are the Rameyevs. I am Elisaveta. And this is my sister Elena."
The golden-haired girl suddenly blushed as if she felt ashamed that the wealthy young women were looking at her naked shoulders and at her legs naked to the knee. But seeing that they too were barefoot and wore short skirts, she quickly recovered and smiled at them.
"My name is Nadezhda Vestchezerova," she said.
She looked attentively at the sisters. Elisaveta thought that she had heard the name somewhere in town—perhaps a tale in connection with it, she could not remember exactly what. For some reason she did not mention this to Nadezhda. Perhaps it was a tragic history.
This fear of talking about the past occasionally came upon Elisaveta. Who knows what sorrow is hid behind a bright smile, and from what darkness has sprung the blossoming which gives sudden joy to a glance, elusively beautiful and born of unhappy worldly experience?
"Did you find your way in easily?" asked the golden-haired Nadezhda with a friendly but subtle smile. "It's usually not a simple matter," she explained.
"A white boy opened the gate for us. He ran off so quickly that we had not even the time to thank him."
Nadezhda suddenly ceased smiling.
"Oh yes—he isn't one of us," she said falteringly. "They live over there with Trirodov. There are several of them. Wouldn't you like to have lunch with us?" she asked, cutting short her previous remarks.
Elisaveta suspected that Nadezhda wanted to change the subject.
"We live here all day long, we eat here, we learn here, and we play here—do everything here," said Nadezhda. "People have built cities to escape the wild beast, but they themselves have become like wild beasts, like savages."
A bitter note crept into her voice—was it the echo of her past life or was it a thing foreign to her and grafted upon her sensitive nature? She continued:
"We have come from the town into the woods. From the wild beast, from the savages of the town. The beast must be killed. The wolf and the fox and the hawk—all those who prey upon others—they must be killed."
"How is one to kill a beast who has grown iron and steel nails, and who has built his lair in the town? It is he who does the killing, and there's no end in sight to his ferocity."
Nadezhda knitted her eyebrows, pressed her hands, and stubbornly repeated:
"We shall kill him, we shall kill him."