A little tale in the Russian manner, without psychology
Source: John Cournos, The London Mercury 8: (44), June 1923.
(The generalizations in the opening paragraph may not be acceptable today, but it is a good imitation of a nineteenth century Russian story. There may be some typing slips I need to remove.)
Ivan Petroff’s custom, since becoming a widower, was to leave the lumber-yard, of which he was the owner, precisely at four o’clock each day and to wend his way home, where a hot samovar awaited him with a punctuality not less exact. A samovar, as every good Russian knows, is, if a comfort, not the same thing as a wife, even though it takes turns at being hot and cold, at humming a song and keeping silent, at shining brightly on gala days—reflecting gladness—and being dully responsive on others. Nevertheless, since his death, Petroff—or Ivan Stepanitch, as he was familiarly called—resisted the importunities of matchmakers: one might as well have asked him to have another samovar in place of the one he had. Petroff had chosen that samovar with great care, just as he had chosen his late wife with great care. The one he saw in a shop window—the samovar, of course—the other in a shop counter: nothing strange, to be sure, in either fact. How often he had passed that window and paused to look at the samovar. There was something about it that struck his fancy, just as later there was something about the woman he married that struck his fancy. It was not shaped quite like other samovars; or rather, this particular samovar had a shape, others hadn’t. Other samovars had a straight up and down effect, without any curves or deviations in the body to make the thing interesting and piquant to the eye; this samovar curved in the middle like a Greek urn or a finely-shaped woman’s waist. Though Petroff was far from being a barin (a noble), he somehow had an eye for these things: a fact which imparted a measure of confirmation to the report of his grandmother having been the illegitimate daughter of a barin in the neighbourhood. One day, after a long wooing of that samovar, unable any longer to resist the ever urging possessive instinct, he walked into the shop and at his request the young woman behind the counter went to the window and, lifting the desired object high with both her hands—a manoeuvre which set off the young woman’s shapeliness—put it tenderly on the counter. The whole effect was of a woman lifting a baby under the arms; at least so it seemed to Ivan Petroff. She smilingly looked down on the samovar and waited for Petroff to speak.
“How much?” muttered Petroff.
The young woman named the price.
“Rather high, isn’t it?” said Petroff.
“I’ve got some at half the price,” replied the young woman, still smiling. “But, of course, they are not the same thing. Look at the shape—the sparkle too! One in a thousand—”
“Y-yes—I see—” murmured Petroff, not looking at all at the samovar. He was actually, in a half-dazed way, realizing the background. He somehow, as yet vaguely, grasped that she, in her tight-fitting black frock, set off the samovar; the thought that they were like two-pieces of a set stunned him. Yes, one in a thousand!
“I’ll take it,” he said at last hesitatingly, and slowly pulled out his wallet.
“Name and address, please!”
“Ivan—” repeated the young woman after him, writing at the same time.
“Deuce take it! How prettily she says it!” thought Petroff, while she, pencil in hand, patiently waited.
“Ivan—” she repeated, noting his absent look and wishing to give him his cue.
“That’s right,” he said, “Ivan—Ivan Ste-pa-nitch—I mean Stepanovitch—”
“Ivan Stepanovitch—” she repeated after him, and waited again.
“Ivan Stepanovitch Petroff—” she pronounced, gathering up all the fragments of his name, and added: “And what is your address?”
“Never mind!” he exclaimed suddenly. “I’ll come back for it myself. But please give me a receipt.”
Once in the street, Petroff drew out the receipt and read under the firm’s name: “per Anna Svetloff.” That was what he wanted the receipt for; he was afraid that she would sign only her initials.
That was the worst about taking a fancy to a thing: in the end you wanted it. He now had his samovar. But how could he tell when he unwarily entered the shop that day that his small innocent fancy would breed a greater, an infinitely more difficult one of satisfaction, since merely to admire there was need of something more than the stopping before the shop-window; one had to go into the shop itself; moreover, one must go in to buy something. So Petroff began to frequent that shop on one pretext or another. The second time he went to the shop he bought a mouse-trap, though he already had three lying idle on the rummage-heap in the attic. On his third visit he bought a fishing-rod: goodness alone knew what he was going to fish for: all the fishing he’d ever done had been in dreams. His next venture was a tin-opener. He went on buying these things, and as a result of his otherwise useless purchases had achieved the privilege of calling her familiarly, “Anna Pavlovna.”
One day a strong impulse urged Petroff towards Anna Pavlovna. It was the same impulse, only ten thousand times stronger, that finally drove him to possess the samovar. Had it been one of those devilishly clever Frenchmen we hear of who had been thus in love, he would have asked the object of his affections out for a walk and deftly manoeuvred her towards a fashionable dress-making establishment, where pausing and allowing her eyes to fall on the nice feminine things in the shop-window, until her mouth had begun to water, he would have remarked with discreet casualness: “What do you say, dear, to going in and ordering a trousseau?” Then there is the case of the Spaniard, who put the question with equal effectiveness: “Shall you and I put our clothes in the same trunk and go on a long journey together?” Unfortunately our Ivan Petroff was not up to these clever French and Spanish tricks. He was a simple Russian, with honest, if sometimes uncouth ways; nevertheless, with an eye, as it has already been observed, for the little niceties of life. He had not forgotten how nice she had looked behind the samovar, how one had set the other off, how much they seemed like two companion pieces of a set. Such was the picture she evoked, a picture which with the passing of days had grown tense and luminous, almost too large for the frame of mind, which it threatened to split. So, having decided to speak to her, he approached her thus:
“Anna Pavlovna, you remember the samovar I bought of you?”
“Why shouldn’t I remember it? It was such a nice one. I was quite sorry to part with it.”
“That’s just what I came to talk to you about. You needn’t be parted from it. I came to ask you if you wouldn’t come and pour tea for me?—I mean for always—”
There was silence. Petroff was afraid that she would say that she had already promised to pour tea for someone else. She looked serious for a while, then burst out laughing.
“What an original way you have of putting it, Ivan Stepanitch! Who could resist it? Of course, I’ll come and pour tea for you. But tell me, Ivan Stepanitch, what did you buy a mouse-trap for—and a fishing-rod—and a bird-cage—and a monkey-wrench—and a tin-opener—and a—You didn’t really want any of those things, did you?”
Petroff smiled assent shyly.
“Remember the day you bought the bird-cage?” asked Anna Pavlovna, and he nodding in the affirmative she went on: “You were going to say something to me that day, weren’t you?” He again nodding in the affirmative she continued: “Yes, I watched you, as you looked through the wires of the cage. You were looking at me. You said nothing. But your eyes gave you away—You’ve got fine eyes, Ivan Stepanitch—Come nearer, Ivan Stepanitch—” And Ivan Stepanovitch drawing nearer, she impulsively seized his head between her hands, and kissed his eyes. “Don’t you try,” she said, laughing, “to fool a woman so long as you have those eyes. Of course, I’ll come and pour tea for you!”
And so Ivan Stepanovitch took her home to pour tea for him. For a full year Anna Pavlovna poured tea for her Ivan. Then, one day she fell ill, and for days lay in a delirium, with intervals of calm. During one of these, the nurse, all in white, poured out a cup of tea for her patient: for the samovar, on the insistent demands of the patient, was now in the sick-room. Anna Pavlovna watched the nurse pouring out tea, and imagined that the white figure was Death.
“No, no!” she cried as the white figure approached her with a cup of tea. “Take it away! Don’t make me drink it! I don’t want to die! No, no—not just yet!”
Ivan Petroff’s custom since becoming a widower—so our story began, you will remember—was to leave the lumber-yard, of which he was the owner, precisely at four-o’clock each day, when he would wend his way home where a hot samovar awaited him. Neighbours, on seeing him pass by, regulated their clocks by him (as the saying goes), so punctual were his goings and comings. Punctuality is not natural to a Russian, but Petroff was punctual. Not that Petroff was business-like. Far from it. His punctuality was rather the result of apathy, become mechanical. He had been like that since his wife died. That had happened a year ago.
A samovar has much to answer for in Russian life. If it were not for samovars there might not be any Russian novels. This particular samovar had much to answer for in Petroff’s life. The first day that he was unfaithful to it was the day that began Petroff’s second adventure.
On leaving the lumber-yard that day, Ivan Petroff walked as usual as far as the church, where the road forked into two. As usual, he took off his hat and crossed himself. Then he did something unusual. Instead of taking the road to the right, as was his habit of over a year, he turned into the road to the left. An instant before he had no idea of turning to the left. He had no idea why he had turned into the road to the left. It was as if a magnet which had formerly drawn him to the right had now changed its position in the road to the left. Petroff himself had hardly realized what he had done until he felt a slap on his back and heard a familiar voice say:
“And what brings you this way, Ivan Stepanitch?”
Ivan Petroff looked at his questioner in a confused way and stammered:
“—I?—I? I’m just taking a walk—”
Petroff blushed. He could not lie gracefully. All the same, if he had wished to tell the truth, he could not have said just what took him that way and not the other way. But he felt a strong consciousness of unfaithfulness, a desire to get away from his own beloved samovar, which never ceased to remind him of the dear one, who, daily, for a whole year, had poured him tea out of it.
At the next turn of the road was the inn, and thither he guiltily directed his footsteps, as in the old days, before he had married Anna Pavlovna.
He paid but slight attention to the sleigh at the door, nor to the woman getting out of it, all wrapped in furs.
“Well, well, you haven’t honoured us with your company for a long while,” said the proprietor, greeting his former patron heartily.
“A samovarchik (a little samovar), please!” said Petroff with an embarrassed air, “and how are you, Pavel Timofeyevitch?”
A little samovar was brought, containing a mere fifteen tumblers, a small matter for a Russian, and our Ivan Petroff, removing his fur overcoat and his high fur cap, and undoing his caftan, sat down before the tea urn. Before pouring out the tea he gulped down a small vodka as a kind of appetizer.
In the Russian manner he put a small lump of sugar in his mouth and sipped the tea through it. He was drinking his third tumbler, when a woman, the same he had casually noted getting out of the sleigh, entered the inn. She surveyed the room, for an instant fixed Petroff with her eyes, and sat down at a table across the room, facing him. Apparently, she was staying there for she did not have her furs with her. She also ordered a small samovar.
All of a sudden Petroff felt strongly conscious of the woman’s presence, and on raising his eyes found hers fixed on his. And helplessly he felt his soul wrenched from his body with a kind of violence, drawn by the unfathomable power of those eyes. Then, she relinquished his soul and allowed it to drift back, now hers.
There was something about that woman which reminded him, indefinably at first, of his lamented wife. There was, indeed, some similarity in their features, but the stranger’s eyes were larger, more widely parted, and had a sense of knowledge and worldliness which the other’s did not possess, and this was an added attraction. At all events, the superficial resemblance was in itself sufficiently startling to cause a flutter, and mora than a flutter, in Ivan’s heart, as his eyes, involuntarily, continued to drift in her direction, always to find her eyes responding with an intimate wonderment, as if to say: “I surely have seen you somewhere before? But whether I have seen you or not does not matter. I know you!”
In short, they were all-knowing eyes, and he felt them sounding him to the innermost depths of his being. Intent as that look was, it was not a stare, for there was no hardness in it; indeed, it had all the tremulous modulation of pliant violin music stealing into one’s heart, without one knowing how. An inner fluid warmth, such as he had not remembered since his first courting of Anna, and surely not to be ascribed to tea, was stealing through Petroff and flooding him. It began to radiate from his moistened eyes and to wander in vapoury, lit-up clouds, which seemed to interpose themselves between him and the woman, so that he saw her as through a filmy mist. Such havoc can a woman play with a man’s soul!
Stranger still, Petroff felt that the woman was undergoing a not unsimilar emotion. More than once, prodded by an inexplicable impulse, he was on the point of rising and asking her to join him at his samovar, to commit a possible effrontery to the unknown woman for whom, at first sight, he had contracted so tender a regard.
After two hours, poor Petroff paid the waiter and reluctantly took his departure. He felt the woman’s eyes follow him until he had passed through the door, and immediately formed a mental resolution:
“I shall be here to-morrow at the same time. Deuce take it, I wish I had spoken to her!”
It would be as hard to say why Petroff made this sudden resolution as it would be to say what drew him here in the first place. Such was Petroff, such things happened to Petroff. Why inquire further?
At all events, on arriving home, he astonished the already wondering maid, Marusya, by instructing her not to prepare the samovar the next day, so that poor Marusya crossed herself and muttered:
“What’s come over master? I hope nothing ill. The Saints preserve him!”
Petroff lay wide awake that night, and a woman’s eyes, grey as a sunless sea, long eye-lashes flickering, looked at him and beckoned out of the darkness, it was hard to tell whether to paradise or perdition.
Willingly, it is true, yet helplessly, Petroff at the same hour the next day wended his way towards the inn. He felt sure she would be there, yet feared that she might not. There was no one in the room. He took the seat he had occupied the previous day, ordered a samovar, and waited, waited—At last he heard the sound of a woman’s voice, and knew at once it was hers. Palpitating instants became transformed in his heart into hammer-beats. That voice, indeed, though he had not heard it before, matched those eyes as well. She was ordering a samovar. She glided into the room with a feline motion, and the brown fur of her long overcoat undulated to the rhythm of her body, and might have been integrally a part of her. She sat down in her former seat, and Petroff sat still and rigid in his, a serpent charmed. It was the same as yesterday, and Petroff could not screw up his courage to rise and speak. This time, having consulted her watch, she was the first to rise from the table and, departing, left Petroff a prey to the most agitated emotions.
For three days this little comedy was enacted, and on the fourth Petroff made up his mind to speak, come what will. After the sixth tumbler of tea, Petroff began to curse himself. The charming unknown didn’t come.
“I’ve missed my chance, the deuce take it!” he muttered to himself. “That’s what comes of being a ninny and putting things off!”
At six o’clock he rose, and with a crest-fallen air walked out of the room, feeling like a whipped hungry dog, his tail between his legs.
“Perhaps to-morrow!” he murmured half-hopefully.
Listlessly he arrived at his own door. Having deposited his hat and coat in the ante-room, he entered the dining room. He found it lit up and the table set for dinner. He flung himself down on the sofa and gazed towards the table. A singular fact, which had at first escaped his notice, now, quite suddenly, impressed itself upon his consciousness, as he scratched his head in astonishment. The table was set for two! He had not remembered asking anyone to dinner. Indeed, he had not asked anyone to dinner since his wife died.
What was the meaning of this? Petroff sat up and rubbed his eyes. A mood of enchantment held him and prevented him from calling Marusya. There was a temptation to discover the meaning of the illusion, if illusion it was, for himself. A thought slowly struggled in his simple brain, sluggish, yet a wild thought—But that was impossible—simply impossible—He was a fool and a simpleton to entertain such a thought. His blood began to tingle through his veins hotly; afterwards, from head to foot, he trembled with the ague. He wondered: was he ill, was fever setting in, or had the woman cast an evil spell upon him? And he remembered that he hadn’t slept three nights. He had better have Marusya call a doctor. What was the good of a doctor? There was no remedy against a woman’s eyes. There they were, even at that instant, between the half-parted draperies in the doorway, looking at him, penetrating him to the bottom of his soul.
She was real as life, and it was the first time that he had seen her hatless, showing a wealth of brown hair, rich with gold-tinged highlights. It was wound round her head in large, tight, snaky coils, and under her broad, high-arched brows her grave, long-lashed eyes were lapsing into a smile. She appeared to hold the draperies together with an invisible hand, and only her head showed through the opening.
Petroff sat transfixed, unable to move or say a word. Then the invisible hand flung aside the draperies, and the figure ran forward and dropped on its knees before Petroff.
“Here am I, Ivan Stepanitch. You have wanted me, and I have come!”
Petroff said nothing. He was dazed and under a spell.
“You did want me, did you not?” she went on, as her hand sought his knee and rested quietly there.
“Yes—“ replied Petroff, galvanized by that touch into life. “But how do you know my name? Who are you, and where do you come from?”
“Don’t asks questions, Ivan Stepanitch. But if you’d like to know, a little bird told me. As for my name, call me Maria Feodorovna. Aren’t you glad I have come?”
Petroff shyly put his hands on her shoulders.
“I’m real enough,” laughed Maria Feodorovna.
“I am not dreaming?—”
“You may kiss me when you wake up—Then we’ll have some dinner. I am frightfully hungry. I’ve asked Marusya to cook something especially nice.”
“I have not slept three nights because of you,” said Petroff, stroking her hair.
“And you are not going to sleep a fourth,” laughed Maria Feodorovna. “Poor Ivan!”
“You don’t mean that you are going to leave me,” exclaimed Petroff, alarm in his voice.
“No, of course not, you stupid! What I meant was that I have come to stay. You do want me?”
In answer, he seized one of her hands and covered it with kisses.
Who was she? Where had she come from? What had been her past? Ivan never knew. Every time he questioned her, during their lovings, she simply laughed and replied:
“What does it matter, darling? You are happy, aren’t you? People who are happy shouldn’t ask questions. Just imagine I’ve dropped down from heaven, and take your happiness. Did I ask questions when I first saw you? I didn’t even ask you whether I might come or not. I liked you at first sight, and I knew that you liked me. That was enough. And so I just came—”
But the male in him, jealous of her past history, was not satisfied, and he importuned her:
“But did you—I mean are you a widow? Are you—”
“Don’t ask questions. Questions bring unhappiness—They are always the beginning of all trouble.”
Three months they lived as man and wife, and were happy together. She turned a deaf ear to his repeated proposals of marriage. She placed all such proposals in the category of unnecessary questions.
“There you go again with your questions! Aren’t we happy as we are? What do you want to marry me for. Besides—”
She always paused there, just as he felt he was on the eve of a revelation, which might furnish the key to the mystery of her. But having said, “Besides—,” she would scrutinize the eager, questioning face of her love, and, after a pause, break into a tantalizing laugh.
“Never mind, Ivan. It doesn’t matter so long as we are happy—It doesn’t matter.”
Under her caresses, Petroff would forget everything, to return afterwards to an intense preoccupation with that portentous “Besides—” He felt sure that there was much behind that enigmatic word, and his mind was troubled. Had she run away from a husband? Was she not free to marry him? He was fiercely in love with Maria Feodorovna, and he thought that if she would only consent to marry him, he would secure her for ever. But there was always that “Besides”!
One evening a strange thing happened. It was winter. There was snow on the ground, but no frost, and the windows were clear. Maria Feodorovna had not drawn the curtains. She and Ivan sat down before the samovar, and Maria was pouring tea. The red-shaded lamp-light cast rich glints on the old curved copper of the samovar and found responsive echoes in the now coppery surfaces of Maria’s face.
Maria sat with a preoccupied air, and her eyes were full of mysterious apprehension, which communicated itself to Ivan. He noticed that her hand trembled when she handed him his glass of tea. He knew her to be subject to occult perceptions, which usually proved to be uncannily accurate. But never before had he seen her in such an intense state of repressed agitation.
It was then that the fearful thing happened. It happened so quickly, so suddenly and so unaccountably. First there was the report of a revolver, instantaneously followed by a crash of window panes; something hard and sharp struck the samovar; a tiny jet of steam came pouring out of the wounded urn. Mara gave a scream. With quiet presence of mind, Ivan blew out the lamp and forced Maria down to the floor. He felt his way to the cupboard and extracted a revolver, which he kept loaded for any emergency. He then flung himself out of doors and caught sight of a moving faint shadow against the snow, which crunched under the prowler’s furtive footfalls.
Petroff fired. The figure began to run. Once or twice it paused to aim a revolver. Once the unknown uttered an oath, as of pain, then ran out of the gate. Ivan gave up the pursuit.
He put up the shutters before re-entering the house. On lighting the lamp he found Maria Feodorovna sitting on the floor where he had left her. Her face was ashen pale, and fear had not left her eyes.
He told her what had happened. She quickly recovered her spirits, and restored Ivan’s as well. That night she loved Ivan with a redoubled ardour.
In the morning there was no sign of her. Only a strange note on the pillow to say that it was better that they should part on a high note of passion than that their love should degenerate into habitual caresses and grey domesticity. How could she say that when he loved her so!
In his garden, he discovered a trail of blood, leading to the gateway and beyond. It was left by the prowler of the previous night’s encounter.
Later in the day, in the village, men talked of a stranger who came to the district hospital, dripping with blood, wounded, and died there, and before death raved about a woman who had loved him for a space and left him.
Petroff listened, but said nothing. He went home, and locking the doors, went forth with a knapsack. In the inside pocket of his caftan was a revolver.