The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
If “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is the best known of Nikolai Leskov’s works outside Russia, that is owing mainly to the opera Dmitri Shostakovich made of it in 1934. Like Soviet critics of the time, Shostakovich saw the heroine as the embodiment of protest against a corrupt and stultifying bourgeois society and therefore justifiable in her actions, if not exactly innocent. To make that reading more persuasive, he eliminated the third and most terrible of her crimes. Andrzej Wajda did not go so far in his film version, A Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962), but he did make the third victim a selfish and manipulative little creature and therefore “deserving” of his fate. Leskov’s story allows for no such simplifying social explanations. It is a dramatic portrayal of the amoral, ambiguous, elemental force of sexual passion, as intense in its heat as in its coldness. In stylistic directness and narrative concentration, it is unique among his works. He wrote it while visiting relatives in Kiev, where he was given space in the university’s punishment room. He later described how his hair stood on end as he worked on it alone in that unlikely place and swore he would never describe such horrors again. The story, one of Leskov’s earliest, was first published in Dostoevsky’s magazine Epoch in 1865. Richard Pevear
The first song brings a blush to the cheek.
In our parts such characters sometimes turn up that, however many years ago you met them, you can never recall them without an inner trembling. To the number of such characters belongs the merchant’s wife Katerina Lvovna Izmailova, who once played out a terrible drama, after which our gentlefolk, in someone’s lucky phrase, started calling her the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
Katerina Lvovna was not born a beauty, but she was a woman of very pleasing appearance. She was only twenty-three years old; not tall, but shapely, with a neck as if carved from marble, rounded shoulders, a firm bosom, a fine, straight little nose, lively black eyes, a high and white brow, and very black, almost blue-black hair. She was from Tuskar in Kursk province and was given in marriage to our merchant Izmailov, not out of love or any sort of attraction, but just so, because Izmailov sent a matchmaker to propose, and she was a poor girl and could not choose her suitors. The house of Izmailov was not the least in our town: they traded in white flour, kept a big rented mill in the district, had orchards outside town, and in town had a fine house. Generally, they were well-to-do merchants. Besides, the family was very small: the father-in-law, Boris Timofeich Izmailov, was already nearly eighty, a long-time widower; his son, Zinovy Borisych, Katerina Lvovna’s husband, was a little over fifty; then there was Katerina Lvovna, and that was all. In the five years of Katerina Lvovna’s marriage to Zinovy Borisych, she had had no children. Nor did Zinovy Borisych have children from his first wife, with whom he had lived for some twenty years before becoming a widower and marrying Katerina Lvovna. He thought and hoped that God might grant an heir to his merchant name and capital from his second marriage; but in that he was again unlucky with Katerina Lvovna.
This childlessness greatly distressed Zinovy Borisych, and not only Zinovy Borisych, but also old Boris Timofeich, and even Katerina Lvovna herself was much grieved by it. For one thing, exceeding boredom in the merchant’s locked-up tower, with its high walls and watchdogs running loose, had more than once filled the merchant’s young wife with pining, to the point of stupefaction, and she would have been glad, God knows how glad, to nurse a little child; and for another thing, she was also sick of reproaches: “Why marry, what’s the point of marrying; why bind a man’s fate, barren woman?”—as if she really had committed some crime against her husband, and against her father- in-law, and against their whole honorable merchant family.
For all its ease and plenty, Katerina Lvovna’s life in her father-in-law’s house was most boring. She went visiting very little, and if she did go with her husband to call on his merchant friends, that was also no joy. They were all strict people: they watched how she sat, and how she walked, and how she stood. But Katerina Lvovna had an ardent nature, and when she had lived in poverty as a young girl, she had been accustomed to simplicity and freedom, running to the river with buckets, swimming under the pier in nothing but a shift, or throwing sunflower husks over the garden gate at some young fellow passing by. Here it was all different. Her father-in-law and husband got up as early as could be, had their tea at six o’clock, and went about their business, while she dilly-dallied from room to room alone. It was clean everywhere, it was quiet and empty everywhere, icon lamps shone before the icons, and nowhere in the house was there a living sound, a human voice.
Katerina Lvovna would wander and wander about the empty rooms, start yawning with boredom, and climb the stairs to her marital bedroom in the small, high mezzanine. There, too, she sat, looked at how they hung up hemp or poured out flour by the storehouse—again she would start to yawn, and she was glad of it: she would doze off for an hour or two, then wake up—again the same Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant’s house, from which they say you could even happily hang yourself. Katerina Lvovna was not a lover of reading, and besides there were no books in their house except for the lives of the Kievan saints.
Katerina Lvovna lived a boring life in the rich house of her father-in-law during the five years of her marriage to her unaffectionate husband; but, as often happens, no one paid the slightest attention to this boredom of hers.
In the sixth spring of Katerina Lvovna’s marriage, the Izmailovs’ mill dam burst. At that time, as if on purpose, a lot of work had been brought to the mill, and the breach proved enormous: water went under the lower sill, and to stop it up slapdash was impossible. Zinovy Borisych drove people to the mill from all around and sat there constantly himself; the business in town was managed by the old man alone, and Katerina Lvovna languished at home for whole days as alone as could be. At first she was still more bored without her husband, but then it came to seem even better to her: she felt freer by herself. Her heart had never really gone out to him, and without him there was at least one less commander over her.
Once Katerina Lvovna was sitting at the window on her upper floor, yawning, yawning, thinking of nothing in particular, and she finally felt ashamed to be yawning. And the weather outside was so wonderful: warm, bright, cheerful, and through the green wooden lattice of the garden various birds could be seen flitting from branch to branch in the trees.
“What in fact am I yawning for?” thought Katerina Lvovna. “I might at least get up and go for a walk in the yard or a stroll in the garden.”
Katerina Lvovna threw on an old damask jacket and went out.
Outside it was so bright and the air was so invigorating, and in the gallery by the storehouses there was such merry laughter.
“What are you so glad about?” Katerina Lvovna asked her father-in-law’s clerks.
“You see, dearest Katerina Lvovna, we’ve been weighing a live sow,” an old clerk replied.
“This sow Aksinya here, who gave birth to a son Vassily and didn’t invite us to the christening,” a fine fellow with a handsome, impudent face framed in jet-black curls and a barely sprouting beard told her boldly and merrily.
At that moment the fat mug of the ruddy cook Aksinya peeked out of a flour tub hung on a balance beam.
“Fiends, sleek-sided devils,” the cook swore, trying to catch hold of the iron beam and climb out of the swinging tub.
“Weighs two hundred and fifty pounds before dinner, and once she’s eaten a load of hay, there won’t be weights enough,” the handsome young fellow again explained, and, overturning the tub, he dumped the cook out onto the sacking piled in the corner.
The woman, cursing playfully, began putting herself to rights.
“Well, and how much might I weigh?” Katerina Lvovna joked, and, taking hold of the ropes, she stepped onto the plank.
“A hundred and fifteen pounds,” the same handsome young Sergei said, throwing weights onto the balance. “Amazing!”
“That you weigh over a hundred pounds, Katerina Lvovna. I reckoned a man could carry you around in his arms the whole day and not get tired out, but only feel the pleasure it gave him.”
“What, you mean I’m not a human being or something? You’d get tired for sure,” Katerina Lvovna replied, blushing slightly, not used to such talk and feeling a sudden surge of desire to loosen up and speak her fill of merry and playful words.
“God, no! I’d carry you all the way to happy Araby,” Sergei replied to her remark.
“Your reckoning’s off, young fellow,” said the little peasant doing the pouring. “What is it makes us heavy? Is it our body gives us weight? Our body, my dear man, means nothing in the scales: our strength, it’s our strength gives us weight—not the body!”
“In my girlhood I was awfully strong,” Katerina Lvovna said, again not restraining herself. “It wasn’t every man who could beat me.”
“Well, then, your hand please, ma’am, if that’s really true,” the handsome fellow asked.
Katerina Lvovna became embarrassed but held out her hand.
“Aie, the ring, it hurts, let go!” Katerina Lvovna cried, when Sergei pressed her hand in his, and she shoved him in the chest with her free hand.
The young man let go of his mistress’s hand, and her shove sent him flying two steps back.
“Mm-yes, and you reckoned she’s just a woman,” the little peasant said in surprise.
“Then suppose we try wrestling,” Sergei retorted, tossing back his curls.
“Well, go on,” replied Katerina Lvovna, brightening up, and she cocked her elbows.
Sergei embraced the young mistress and pressed her firm breasts to his red shirt. Katerina Lvovna was just trying to move her shoulders, but Sergei lifted her off the floor, held her in his arms, squeezed her, and gently sat her down on the overturned measuring tub.
Katerina Lvovna did not even have time to show her vaunted strength. Getting up from the tub, red as could be, she straightened the jacket that had fallen from her shoulders and quietly started out of the storehouse, but Sergei coughed dashingly and shouted:
“Come on, you blessed blockheads! Pour, look sharp, get a move on; if there’s a plus, the better for us.”
It was as if he had paid no attention to what had just happened.
“He’s a skirt-chaser, that cursed Seryozhka,” the cook Aksinya was saying as she trudged after Katerina Lvovna. “The thief’s got everything—the height, the face, the looks. Whatever woman you like, the scoundrel knows straight off how to cajole her, and he cajoles her and leads her into sin. And he’s fickle, the scoundrel, as fickle as can be!”
“And you, Aksinya . . .” said the young mistress, walking ahead of her, “that is, your boy, is he alive?”
“He is, dearest, he is—what could happen to him? Whenever they’re not wanted, they live.”
“Where did you get him?”
“Ehh, just from fooling around—you live among people after all—just from fooling around.”
“Has he been with us long, this young fellow?”
“Who? You mean Sergei?”
“About a month. He used to work for the Kopchonovs, but the master threw him out.” Aksinya lowered her voice and finished: “They say he made love to the mistress herself . . . See what a daredevil he is!”
A warm milky twilight hung over the town. Zinovy Borisych had not yet returned from the dam. The father-in-law, Boris Timofeich, was also not at home: he had gone to a friend’s name day party and had even told them not to expect him for supper. Katerina Lvovna, having nothing to do, had an early meal, opened the window in her room upstairs, and, leaning against the window frame, was husking sunflower seeds. The people in the kitchen had supper and went their ways across the yard to sleep: some to the sheds, some to the storehouses, some up into the fragrant haylofts. The last to leave the kitchen was Sergei. He walked about the yard, unchained the watchdogs, whistled, and, passing under Katerina Lvovna’s window, glanced at her and made a low bow.
“Good evening,” Katerina Lvovna said softly to him from her lookout, and the yard fell silent as a desert.
“Mistress!” someone said two minutes later at Katerina Lvovna’s locked door.
“Who is it?” Katerina Lvovna asked, frightened.
“Please don’t be frightened: it’s me, Sergei,” the clerk replied.
“What do you want, Sergei?”
“I have a little business with you, Katerina Lvovna: I want to ask a small thing of your honor; allow me to come in for a minute.”
Katerina Lvovna turned the key and let Sergei in.
“What is it?” she asked, going back to the window.
“I’ve come to you, Katerina Lvovna, to ask if you might have some book to read. I’m overcome with boredom.”
“I have no books, Sergei: I don’t read them,” Katerina Lvovna replied.
“Such boredom!” Sergei complained.
“Why should you be bored?”
“For pity’s sake, how can I not be bored? I’m a young man, we live like in some monastery, and all I can see ahead is that I may just waste away in this solitude till my dying day. It sometimes even leads me to despair.”
“Why don’t you get married?”
“That’s easy to say, mistress—get married! Who can I marry around here? I’m an insignificant man: no master’s daughter will marry me, and from poverty, as you’re pleased to know yourself, Katerina Lvovna, our kind are all uneducated. As if they could have any proper notion of love! Just look, if you please, at what notion there is even among the rich. Now you, I might say, for any such man as had feeling in him, you would be a comfort all his own, but here they keep you like a canary in a cage.”
“Yes, it’s boring for me,” escaped Katerina Lvovna.
“How not be bored, mistress, with such a life! Even if you had somebody on the side, as others do, it would be impossible for you to see him.”
“Well, there you’re . . . it’s not that at all. For me, if I’d had a baby, I think it would be cheerful with the two of us.”
“As for that, if you’ll allow me to explain to you, mistress, a baby also happens for some reason, and not just so. I’ve lived among masters for so many years now, and seen what kind of life women live among merchants, don’t I also understand? As the song goes: ‘Without my dearie, life’s all sad and dreary,’ and that dreariness, let me explain to you, Katerina Lvovna, wrings my own heart so painfully, I can tell you, that I could just cut it out of my breast with a steel knife and throw it at your little feet. And it would be easier, a hundred times easier for me then . . .”
Sergei’s voice trembled.
“What are you doing talking to me about your heart? That’s got nothing to do with me. Go away . . .”
“No, please, mistress,” said Sergei, trembling all over and taking a step towards Katerina Lvovna. “I know, I see very well and even feel and understand, that it’s no easier for you than for me in this world; except that now,” he said in the same breath, “now, for the moment, all this is in your hands and in your power.”
“What? What’s that? What have you come to me for? I’ll throw myself out the window,” said Katerina Lvovna, feeling herself in the unbearable power of an indescribable fear, and she seized hold of the windowsill.
“Oh, my life incomparable, why throw yourself out?” Sergei whispered flippantly, and, tearing the young mistress from the window, he took her in a firm embrace.
“Oh! Oh! Let go of me,” Katerina Lvovna moaned softly, weakening under Sergei’s hot kisses, and involuntarily pressing herself to his powerful body.
Sergei picked his mistress up in his arms like a child and carried her to a dark corner.
A hush fell over the room, broken only by the measured ticking of her husband’s pocket watch, hanging over the head of Katerina Lvovna’s bed; but it did not interfere with anything.
“Go,” said Katerina Lvovna half an hour later, not looking at Sergei and straightening her disheveled hair before a little mirror.
“Why should I leave here now?” Sergei answered her in a happy voice.
“My father-in-law will lock the door.”
“Ah, my soul, my soul! What sort of people have you known, if a door is their only way to a woman? For me there are doors everywhere—to you or from you,” the young fellow replied, pointing to the posts that supported the gallery.
Zinovy Borisych did not come home for another week, and all that week, every night till broad daylight, his wife made merry with Sergei.
During those nights in Zinovy Borisych’s bedroom, much wine from the father-in-law’s cellar was drunk, and many sweetmeats were eaten, and many were the kisses on the mistress’s sugary lips, and the toyings with black curls on the soft pillow. But no road runs smooth forever; there are also bumps.
Boris Timofeich was not sleepy: the old man wandered about the quiet house in a calico nightshirt, went up to one window, then another, looked out, and the red shirt of the young fellow Sergei was quietly sliding down the post under his daughter-in-law’s window. There’s news for you! Boris Timofeich leaped out and seized the fellow’s legs. Sergei swung his arm to give the master a hearty one on the ear, but stopped, considering that it would make a big to-do.
“Out with it,” said Boris Timofeich. “Where have you been, you thief you?”
“Wherever I was, I’m there no longer, Boris Timofeich, sir,” replied Sergei.
“Spent the night with my daughter-in-law?”
“As for where I spent the night, master, that I do know, but you listen to what I say, Boris Timofeich: what’s done, my dear man, can’t be undone; at least don’t bring disgrace on your merchant house. Tell me, what do you want from me now? What satisfaction would you like?”
“I’d like to give you five hundred lashes, you serpent,” replied Boris Timofeich.
“The guilt is mine—the will is yours,” the young man agreed. “Tell me where to go, and enjoy yourself, drink my blood.”
Boris Timofeich led Sergei to his stone larder and lashed him with a whip until he himself had no strength left. Sergei did not utter a single moan, but he chewed up half his shirtsleeve with his teeth.
Boris Timofeich abandoned Sergei to the larder until the mincemeat of his back healed, shoved a clay jug of water at him, put a heavy padlock on the door, and sent for his son.
But to go a hundred miles on a Russian country road is not a quick journey even now, and for Katerina Lvovna to live an extra hour without Sergei had already become intolerable. She suddenly unfolded the whole breadth of her awakened nature and became so resolute that there was no stopping her. She found out where Sergei was, talked to him through the iron door, and rushed to look for the keys. “Let Sergei go, papa”—she came to her father-in-law.
The old man simply turned green. He had never expected such insolent boldness from his sinful but until then always obedient daughter-in-law.
“What do you mean, you such-and-such,” he began shaming Katerina Lvovna.
“Let him go,” she said. “I swear on my conscience, there’s been nothing bad between us yet.”
“Nothing bad!” he said, gnashing his teeth. “And what were you doing during the nights? Plumping up your husband’s pillows?”
But she kept at it: “Let him go, let him go.”
“In that case,” said Boris Timofeich, “here’s what you’ll get: once your husband comes, you honest wife, we’ll whip you in the stable with our own hands, and I’ll send that scoundrel to jail tomorrow.”
So Boris Timofeich decided; but his decision was not to be realized.
In the evening, Boris Timofeich ate a bit of buckwheat kasha with mushrooms and got heartburn; then suddenly there was pain in the pit of his stomach; he was seized with terrible vomiting, and towards morning he died, just as the rats died in his storehouses, Katerina Lvovna having always prepared a special food for them with her own hands, using a dangerous white powder entrusted to her keeping.
Katerina Lvovna delivered her Sergei from the old man’s stone larder and, with no shame before people’s eyes, placed him in her husband’s bed to rest from her father-in-law’s beating; and the father-in-law, Boris Timofeich, they buried without second thoughts, according to the Christian rule. Amazingly enough, no one thought anything of it: Boris Timofeich had died, died from eating mushrooms, as many had died from eating them. They buried Boris Timofeich hastily, without even waiting for his son, because the weather was warm, and the man sent to the mill for Zinovy Borisych had not found him there. He had had the chance to buy a woodlot cheaply another hundred miles away: he had gone to look at it and had not properly told anyone where he was going.
Having settled this matter, Katerina Lvovna let herself go entirely. She had not been a timid one before, but now there was no telling what she would think up for herself; she strutted about, gave orders to everyone in the house, and would not let Sergei leave her side. The servants wondered about it, but Katerina Lvovna’s generous hand managed to find them all, and the wondering suddenly went away. “The mistress is having an intriguery with Sergei, that’s all,” they figured. “It’s her business, she’ll answer for it.”
Meanwhile, Sergei recovered, unbent his back, and, again the finest of fellows, a bright falcon, walked about beside Katerina Lvovna, and once more they led a most pleasant life. But time raced on not only for them: the offended husband, Zinovy Borisych, was hurrying home after his long absence.
In the yard after lunch it was scorching hot, and the darting flies were unbearably annoying. Katerina Lvovna closed the bedroom shutters, covered the window from inside with a woolen shawl, and lay down to rest with Sergei on the merchant’s high bed. Katerina Lvovna sleeps and does not sleep, she is in some sort of daze, her face is bathed in sweat, and her breathing is hot and heavy. Katerina Lvovna feels it is time for her to wake up, time to go to the garden and have tea, but she simply cannot get up. At last the cook came and knocked on the door: “The samovar’s getting cold under the apple tree,” she said. Katerina Lvovna turned over with effort and began to caress the cat. And the cat goes rubbing himself between her and Sergei, and he’s so fine, gray, big, and fat as can be . . . and he has whiskers like a village headman. Katerina Lvovna feels his fluffy fur, and he nuzzles her with his nose: he thrusts his blunt snout into her resilient breast and sings a soft song, as if telling her of love. “How did this tomcat get here?” Katerina Lvovna thinks. “I’ve set cream on the windowsill: the vile thing’s sure to lap it up. He should be chased out,” she decided and was going to grab him and throw him out, but her fingers went through him like mist. “Where did this cat come from anyway?” Katerina Lvovna reasons in her nightmare. “We’ve never had any cat in our bedroom, and look what a one has got in!” She again went to take hold of him, and again he was not there. “Oh, what on earth is this? Can it really be a cat?” thought Katerina Lvovna. She was suddenly dumbstruck, and her drowsiness and dreaming were completely driven away. Katerina Lvovna looked around the room—there is no cat, there is only handsome Sergei lying there, pressing her breast to his hot face with his powerful hand.
Katerina Lvovna got up, sat on the bed, kissed Sergei, kissed and caressed him, straightened the rumpled featherbed, and went to the garden to have tea; and the sun had already dropped down quite low, and a wonderful, magical evening was descending upon the thoroughly heated earth.
“I slept too long,” Katerina Lvovna said to Aksinya as she seated herself on the rug under the blossoming apple tree to have tea. “What could it mean, Aksinyushka?” she asked the cook, wiping the saucer with a napkin herself.
“What’s that, my dear?”
“It wasn’t like in a dream, but a cat kept somehow nudging into me wide awake.”
“Oh, what are you saying?”
“Really, a cat nudging.”
Katerina Lvovna told how the cat was nudging into her.
“And why were you caressing him?”
“Well, that’s just it! I myself don’t know why I caressed him.”
“A wonder, really!” the cook exclaimed.
“I can’t stop marveling myself.”
“It’s most certainly about somebody sidling up to you, or something else like that.”
“But what exactly?”
“Well, what exactly—that’s something nobody can explain to you, my dear, what exactly, only there will be something.”
“I kept seeing a crescent moon in my dream and then there was this cat,” Katerina Lvovna went on.
“A crescent moon means a baby.”
Katerina Lvovna blushed.
“Shouldn’t I send Sergei here to your honor?” Aksinya hazarded, offering herself as a confidante.
“Well, after all,” replied Katerina Lvovna, “you’re right, go and send him: I’ll have tea with him here.”
“Just what I say, send him here,” Aksinya concluded, and she waddled duck-like to the garden gate.
Katerina Lvovna also told Sergei about the cat.
“Sheer fantasy,” replied Sergei.
“Then why is it, Seryozha, that I’ve never had this fantasy before?”
“There’s a lot that never was before! Before I used just to look at you and pine away, but now—ho-ho!—I have your whole white body.”
Sergei embraced Katerina Lvovna, spun her in the air, and playfully landed her on the fluffy rug.
“Oh, my head is spinning!” said Katerina Lvovna. “Seryozha, come here; sit beside me,” she called, lying back and stretching herself out in a luxurious pose.
The young fellow, bending down, went under the low apple tree, all bathed in white flowers, and sat on the rug at Katerina Lvovna’s feet.
“So you pined for me, Seryozha?”
“How I pined!”
“How did you pine? Tell me about it.”
“How can I tell about it? Is it possible to describe how you pine? I was heartsick.”
“Why is it, Seryozha, that I didn’t feel you were suffering over me? They say you can feel it.”
Sergei was silent.
“And why did you sing songs, if you were longing for me? Eh? Didn’t I hear you singing in the gallery?” Katerina Lvovna went on asking tenderly.
“So what if I sang songs? A mosquito also sings all his life, but it’s not for joy,” Sergei answered drily.
There was a pause. Katerina Lvovna was filled with the highest rapture from these confessions of Sergei.
She wanted to talk, but Sergei sulked and kept silent.
“Look, Seryozha, what paradise, what paradise!” Katerina Lvovna exclaimed, looking through the dense branches of the blossoming apple tree that covered her at the clear blue sky in which there hung a fine full moon.
The moonlight coming through the leaves and flowers of the apple tree scattered the most whimsical bright spots over Katerina Lvovna’s face and whole recumbent body; the air was still; only a light, warm breeze faintly stirred the sleepy leaves and spread the subtle fragrance of blossoming herbs and trees. There was a breath of something languorous, conducive to laziness, sweetness, and obscure desires.
Receiving no answer, Katerina Lvovna fell silent again and went on looking at the sky through the pale pink apple blossoms. Sergei, too, was silent; only he was not interested in the sky. His arms around his knees, he stared fixedly at his boots.
A golden night! Silence, light, fragrance, and beneficent, vivifying warmth. Far across the ravine, beyond the garden, someone struck up a resounding song; by the fence, in the bird-cherry thicket, a nightingale trilled and loudly throbbed; in a cage on a tall pole a sleepy quail began to rave, and a fat horse sighed languidly behind the stable wall, and outside the garden fence a merry pack of dogs raced noiselessly across the green and disappeared into the dense black shadow of the half-ruined old salt depots.
Katerina Lvovna propped herself on her elbow and looked at the tall garden grass; and the grass played with the moonbeams, broken up by the flowers and leaves of the trees. It was all gilded by these intricate bright spots, which flashed and trembled on it like live, fiery butterflies, or as if all the grass under the trees had been caught in a lunar net and were swaying from side to side.
“Ah, Seryozhechka, how lovely!” Katerina Lvovna exclaimed, looking around.
Sergei looked around indifferently.
“Why are you so joyless, Seryozha? Or are you already tired of my love?”
“Why this empty talk!” Sergei answered drily, and, bending down, he lazily kissed Katerina Lvovna.
“You’re a deceiver, Seryozha,” Katerina Lvovna said jealously, “you’re insubstantial.”
“Such words don’t even apply to me,” Sergei replied in a calm tone.
“Then why did you kiss me that way?”
Sergei said nothing at all.
“It’s only husbands and wives,” Katerina Lvovna went on, playing with his curls, “who shake the dust off each other’s lips like that. Kiss me so that these young apple blossoms over us fall to the ground. Like this, like this,” Katerina Lvovna whispered, twining around her lover and kissing him with passionate abandon.
“Listen to what I tell you, Seryozha,” Katerina Lvovna began a little later. “Why is it that the one and only word they say about you is that you’re a deceiver?”
“Who’s been yapping about me like that?”
“Well, people talk.”
“Maybe I deceived the unworthy ones.”
“And why were you fool enough to deal with unworthy ones? With unworthy ones there shouldn’t be any love.”
“Go on, talk! Is that sort of thing done by reasoning? It’s all temptation. You break the commandment with her quite simply, without any of these intentions, and then she’s there hanging on your neck. That’s love for you!”
“Now listen, Seryozha! How it was with those others I don’t know and don’t want to know; only since you cajoled me into this present love of ours, and you know yourself that I agreed to it as much by my own will as by your cunning, if you deceive me, Seryozha, if you exchange me for anybody else, no matter who, then—forgive me, friend of my heart—I won’t part with you alive.”
Sergei gave a start.
“But Katerina Lvovna, my bright light!” he began. “Look at how things are with us. You noticed just now that I’m pensive today, but you don’t consider how I could help being pensive. It’s like my whole heart’s drowned in clotted blood!”
“Tell me, Sergei, tell me your grief.”
“What’s there to tell? Right now, first off, with God’s blessing, your husband comes back, and you, Sergei Filippych, off with you, take yourself to the garden yard with the musicians, and watch from under the shed how the candle burns in Katerina Lvovna’s bedroom, while she plumps up the featherbed and goes to sleep with her lawful Zinovy Borisych.”
“That will never be!” Katerina Lvovna drawled gaily and waved her hand.
“How will it never be? It’s my understanding that anything else is even quite impossible for you. But I, too, have a heart in me, Katerina Lvovna, and I can see my suffering.”
“Ah, well, enough about all that.”
Katerina Lvovna was pleased with this expression of Sergei’s jealousy, and she laughed and again started kissing him.
“And to repeat,” Sergei went on, gently freeing his head from Katerina Lvovna’s arms, bare to the shoulders, “and to repeat, I must say that my most insignificant position has made me consider this way and that way more than once and maybe more than a dozen times. If I were, so to speak, your equal, a gentleman or a merchant, never in my life would I part with you, Katerina Lvovna. But as it is, consider for yourself, what sort of man am I next to you? Seeing now how you’re taken by your lily-white hands and led to the bedroom, I’ll have to endure it all in my heart, and maybe I’ll turn into a man who despises himself forever. Katerina Lvovna! I’m not like those others who find it all the same, so long as they get enjoyment from a woman. I feel what a thing love is and how it sucks at my heart like a black serpent.”
“Why do you keep talking to me about all this?” Katerina Lvovna interrupted him.
She felt sorry for Sergei.
“Katerina Lvovna! How can I not talk about it? How? When maybe it’s all been explained to him and written to him already, and maybe in no great space of time, but even by tomorrow there’ll be no trace of Sergei left on the premises?”
“No, no, don’t speak of it, Seryozha! Never in the world will it happen that I’m left without you,” Katerina Lvovna comforted him with the same caresses. “If things start going that way . . . either he or I won’t live, but you’ll stay with me.”
“There’s no way that can follow, Katerina Lvovna,” Sergei replied, shaking his head mournfully and sadly. “I’m not glad of my own life on account of this love. I should have loved what’s worth no more than me and been content with it. Can there be any permanent love between us? Is it any great honor for you having me as a lover? I’d like to be your husband before the pre-eternal holy altar: then, even considering myself as always lesser than you, I could still show everybody publicly how I deserve my wife by my honoring her . . .”
Katerina Lvovna was bemused by these words of Sergei, by this jealousy of his, by this wish of his to marry her—a wish that always pleases a woman, however brief her connection with the man before marriage. Katerina Lvovna was now ready, for the sake of Sergei, to go through fire, through water, to prison, to the cross. He made her fall so in love with him that her devotion to him knew no measure. She was out of her mind with happiness; her blood boiled, and she could no longer listen to anything. She quickly stopped Sergei’s lips with her palm and, pressing his head to her breast, said:
“Well, now I know that I’m going to make a merchant of you and live with you in the most proper fashion. Only don’t upset me for nothing, while things still haven’t gotten there.”
And again there were kisses and caresses.
The old clerk, asleep in the shed, began to hear through his sound sleep, in the stillness of the night, now whispering and quiet laughter, as if mischievous children were discussing some wicked way to mock a feeble old man; now ringing and merry guffaws, as if lake mermaids were tickling somebody. It was all Katerina Lvovna frolicking and playing with her husband’s young clerk, basking in the moonlight and rolling on the soft rug. White young blossoms from the leafy apple tree poured down on them, poured down, and then stopped pouring down. Meanwhile, the short summer night was passing; the moon hid behind the steep roofs of the tall storehouses and looked askance at the earth, growing dimmer and dimmer; a piercing cat duet came from the kitchen roof, then spitting, angry snarling, after which two or three cats, losing hold, tumbled noisily down a bunch of boards leaning against the roof.
“Let’s go to sleep,” Katerina Lvovna said slowly, as if worn out, getting up from the rug and, just as she had lain there, in nothing but her shift and white petticoat, she went off across the quiet, the deathly quiet merchant’s yard, and Sergei came behind her carrying the rug and her blouse, which she had thrown off during their mischief-making.
As soon as Katerina Lvovna blew out the candle and lay down, completely undressed, on the soft featherbed, sleep drew its cloak over her head. Having had her fill of play and pleasure, Katerina Lvovna fell asleep so soundly that her leg sleeps and her arm sleeps; but again she hears through her sleep how the door seems to open again and last night’s cat drops like a heavy lump onto the bed.
“What, really, is this punishment with the cat?” the tired Katerina Lvovna reasoned. “I just now locked the door on purpose, with my own hands, the window is shut, and he’s here again. I’ll throw him out right now.” Katerina Lvovna went to get up, but her sleepy arms and legs refuse to serve her; and the cat walks all over her, and purrs in such a peculiar way, as if he were speaking human words. Katerina Lvovna even got gooseflesh all over.
“No,” she thinks, “the only thing to do is make sure to bring some holy water to bed tomorrow, because this peculiar cat has taken to me.”
But the cat purrs in her ear, buries his snout, and then speaks clearly: “What sort of cat am I! As if I’m a cat! It’s very clever of you, Katerina Lvovna, to reason that I’m not a cat at all, but the distinguished merchant Boris Timofeich. Only I’m feeling bad now, because my guts are all burst inside me from my daughter-in-law’s little treat. That’s why I’ve been reduced down like this,” he purrs, “and now seem like a cat to those with little understanding of who I really am. Well, how’s life going for you, Katerina Lvovna? Are you keeping faithfully to your law? I’ve come from the cemetery on purpose to see how you and Sergei Filippych warm your husband’s bed. Purr-purr, but I can’t see anything. Don’t be afraid of me: you see, my eyes rotted out from your little treat. Look into my eyes, my friend, don’t be afraid!”
Katerina Lvovna looked and screamed to high heaven. Again the cat is lying between her and Sergei Filippych, and the head of this cat Boris Timofeich is as big as the dead man’s, and in place of eyes there are two fiery circles spinning, spinning in opposite directions!
Sergei woke up, calmed Katerina Lvovna, and fell asleep again; but sleep had totally deserted her—luckily.
She lies with open eyes and suddenly hears a noise as if someone has climbed the gate in the yard. Now the dogs come rushing, then quiet down—must have started fawning. Now another minute passes, and the iron latch clicks, and the door opens. “Either I’m imagining it all, or it’s my Zinovy Borisych come home, because the door’s been opened with the spare key,” thought Katerina Lvovna, and she hurriedly gave Sergei a shove.
“Listen, Seryozha,” she said, and she propped herself on her elbow and pricked up her ears.
Someone was indeed coming up the stairs, stepping carefully on one foot after the other, approaching the locked door of the bedroom.
Katerina Lvovna quickly leaped out of bed in nothing but her shift and opened the window. At the same moment, barefoot Sergei jumped out onto the gallery and twined his legs around the post, which he had more than once used to climb down from his mistress’s bedroom.
“No, don’t, don’t! Lie down here . . . don’t go far,” Katerina Lvovna whispered and threw his shoes and clothes out to him, and herself darted back under the blanket and lay waiting.
Sergei obeyed Katerina Lvovna: he did not slide down the post, but huddled on the gallery under a bast mat.
Meanwhile, Katerina Lvovna hears her husband come to the door and listen, holding his breath. She even hears the quickened beating of his jealous heart; but it is not pity but wicked laughter that is bursting from Katerina Lvovna.
“Go searching for yesteryear,” she thinks to herself, smiling and breathing like an innocent babe.
This lasted for some ten minutes; but Zinovy Borisych finally got tired of standing outside the door and listening to his wife sleeping: he knocked.
“Who’s there?” Katerina Lvovna called out, not at once and as if in a sleepy voice.
“Is that you, Zinovy Borisych?”
“It’s me,” replied Zinovy Borisych. “As if you don’t hear!”
Katerina Lvovna jumped up just as she was, in her shift, let her husband into the room, and dove back into the warm bed.
“It’s getting cold before dawn,” she said, wrapping the blanket around her.
Zinovy Borisych came in looking around, said a prayer, lit a candle, and glanced around again.
“How’s your life going?” he asked his spouse.
“Not bad,” answered Katerina Lvovna and, getting up, she began to put on a calico bed jacket.
“Shall I set up the samovar?” she asked.
“Never mind, call Aksinya, let her do it.”
Katerina Lvovna quickly slipped her bare feet into her shoes and ran out. She was gone for about half an hour. During that time she started the samovar herself and quietly fluttered out to Sergei on the gallery.
“Stay here,” she whispered.
“How long?” Sergei asked, also in a whisper.
“Oh, what a dimwit you are! Stay till I tell you.”
And Katerina Lvovna herself put him back in his former place.
From out there on the gallery, Sergei could hear everything that went on in the bedroom. He hears the door open again and Katerina Lvovna return to her husband. He hears every word.
“What were you doing there so long?” Zinovy Borisych asked his wife.
“Setting up the samovar,” she replied calmly.
There was a pause. Sergei hears Zinovy Borisych hang up his coat on the coat rack. Now he is washing, snorting and splashing water all over; now he asks for a towel; the talk begins again.
“Well, so how is it you buried papa?” the husband inquires.
“Just so,” says the wife, “he died, we buried him.”
“And what an astonishing thing it was!”
“God knows,” Katerina Lvovna replied and rattled the cups.
Zinovy Borisych walked mournfully about the room.
“Well, and how have you passed your time here?” Zinovy Borisych again began asking his wife.
“Our joys here, I expect, are known to everybody: we don’t go to balls, nor to theaters likewise.”
“And it seems you take little joy in your husband,” Zinovy Borisych hazarded, glancing out of the corner of his eye.
“We’re not so young as to lose our minds when we meet. How do you want me to rejoice? Look how I’m bustling, running around for your pleasure.”
Katerina Lvovna ran out again to fetch the samovar and again sprang over to Sergei, pulled at him, and said: “Look sharp, Seryozha!”
Sergei did not quite know what it was all about, but he got ready anyhow.
Katerina Lvovna came back, and Zinovy Borisych was kneeling on the bed, hanging his silver watch with a beaded chain on the wall above the headboard.
“Why is it, Katerina Lvovna, that you, in your solitary situation, made the bed up for two?” he suddenly asked his wife somehow peculiarly.
“I kept expecting you,” replied Katerina Lvovna, looking at him calmly.
“I humbly thank you for that . . . And this little object now, how does it come to be lying on your bed?”
Zinovy Borisych picked up Sergei’s narrow woolen sash from the sheet and held it by one end before his wife’s eyes.
Katerina Lvovna did not stop to think for a moment.
“Found it in the garden,” she said, “tied up my skirt with it.”
“Ah, yes!” Zinovy Borisych pronounced with particular emphasis. “We’ve also heard a thing or two about your skirts.”
“What is it you’ve heard?”
“All about your nice doings.”
“There are no such doings of mine.”
“Well, we’ll look into that, we’ll look into everything,” Zinovy Borisych replied, moving his empty cup towards his wife.
Katerina Lvovna was silent.
“We’ll bring all these doings of yours to light, Katerina Lvovna,” Zinovy Borisych went on after a long pause, scowling at his wife.
“Your Katerina Lvovna is not so terribly frightened. She’s not much afraid of that,” she replied.
“What? What?” cried Zinovy Borisych, raising his voice.
“Never mind—drop it,” replied his wife.
“Well, you’d better look out! You’re getting a bit too talkative!”
“Why shouldn’t I be talkative?” Katerina Lvovna retorted.
“You’d better watch yourself.”
“There’s no reason for me to watch myself. Wagging tongues wag something to you, and I have to take all kinds of insults on myself! That’s a new one!”
“Not wagging tongues, but certain knowledge about your amours.”
“About what amours?” cried Katerina Lvovna, blushing unfeignedly.
“I know what.”
“If you know, then speak more clearly!”
Zinovy Borisych was silent and again moved the empty cup towards his wife.
“Clearly there’s nothing to talk about,” Katerina Lvovna answered with disdain, defiantly throwing a teaspoon onto her husband’s saucer. “Well, tell me, who have they denounced to you? Who is my lover according to you?”
“You’ll find out, don’t be in such a hurry.”
“Is it Sergei they’ve been yapping about?”
“We’ll find out, we’ll find out, Katerina Lvovna. My power over you no one has taken away and no one can take away . . . You’ll talk yourself . . .”
“Ohh, I can’t bear that!” Katerina Lvovna gnashed her teeth and, turning white as a sheet, unexpectedly rushed out the door.
“Well, here he is,” she said a few seconds later, leading Sergei into the room by the sleeve. “Question him and me about what you know. Maybe you’ll find out a lot more than you’d like!”
Zinovy Borisych was at a loss. He glanced now at Sergei, who was standing in the doorway, now at his wife, who calmly sat on the edge of the bed with her arms crossed, and understood nothing of what was approaching.
“What are you doing, you serpent?” he barely brought himself to utter, not getting up from his armchair.
“Question us about what you know so well,” Katerina Lvovna replied insolently. “You thought you’d scare me with a beating,” she went on, winking significantly. “That will never be; but what I knew I would do to you, even before these threats of yours, that I am going to do.”
“What’s that? Get out!” Zinovy Borisych shouted at Sergei.
“Oh, yes!” Katerina Lvovna mocked.
She nimbly locked the door, put the key in her pocket, and again sprawled on the bed in her little jacket.
“Now, Seryozhechka, come here, come, darling,” she beckoned the clerk to her.
Sergei shook his curls and boldly sat down by his mistress.
“Oh, Lord! My God! What is this? What are you doing, you barbarians!?” cried Zinovy Borisych, turning all purple and getting up from his chair.
“What? You don’t like it? Look, look, my bright falcon, how beautiful!”
Katerina Lvovna laughed and passionately kissed Sergei in front of her husband.
At the same moment, a deafening slap burned on her cheek, and Zinovy Borisych rushed for the open window.
“Ah . . . ah, so that’s it! . . . Well, my dear friend, thank you very much. That’s just what I was waiting for!” Katerina Lvovna cried. “Now it’s clear . . . it’s going to be my way, not yours . . .”
In a single movement she pushed Sergei away from her, quickly threw herself at her husband, and before Zinovy Borisych had time to reach the window, she seized him by the throat from behind with her slender fingers and threw him down on the floor like a damp sheaf of hemp.
Having fallen heavily and struck the back of his head with full force against the floor, Zinovy Borisych lost his mind completely. He had never expected such a quick denouement. The first violence his wife used on him showed him that she was ready for anything, if only to be rid of him, and that his present position was extremely dangerous. Zinovy Borisych realized it all instantly in the moment of his fall and did not cry out, knowing that his voice would not reach anyone’s ear but would only speed things up still more. He silently shifted his eyes and rested them with an expression of anger, reproach, and suffering on his wife, whose slender fingers were tightly squeezing his throat.
Zinovy Borisych did not defend himself; his arms, with tightly clenched fists, lay stretched out and twitched convulsively. One of them was quite free; the other Katerina Lvovna pinned to the floor with her knee.
“Hold him,” she whispered indifferently to Sergei, turning to her husband herself.
Sergei sat on his master, pinning down both his arms with his knees, and was about to put his hands around his throat under Katerina Lvovna’s, but just then he cried out desperately himself. Seeing his offender, blood vengeance aroused all the last strength in Zinovy Borisych: with a terrible effort, he tore his pinned-down arms from under Sergei’s knees and, seizing Sergei by his black curls, sank his teeth into his throat like a beast. But that did not last long: Zinovy Borisych at once uttered a heavy moan and dropped his head.
Katerina Lvovna, pale, almost breathless, stood over her husband and her lover; in her right hand was a heavy metal candlestick, which she held by the upper end, the heavy part down. A thin trickle of crimson blood ran down Zinovy Borisych’s temple and cheek.
“A priest,” Zinovy Borisych moaned dully, throwing his head back with loathing as far as he could from Sergei, who was sitting on him. “To confess,” he uttered still more indistinctly, trembling and looking from the corner of his eye at the warm blood thickening under his hair.
“You’ll be all right like this,” Katerina Lvovna whispered.
“Well, no more dawdling with him,” she said to Sergei. “Squeeze his throat well and good.”
Zinovy Borisych wheezed.
Katerina Lvovna bent down, pressed her own hands to Sergei’s hands, which lay on her husband’s throat, and put her ear to his chest. After five quiet minutes, she stood up and said: “Enough, he’s had it.”
Sergei also stood up and let out a long breath. Zinovy Borisych lay dead, with a crushed throat and a bruised temple. Under his head on the left side was a small spot of blood which, however, was no longer pouring from the clotted wound stopped up with hair.
Sergei carried Zinovy Borisych to the cellar under the floor of the same stone larder where he himself had been locked up so recently by the late Boris Timofeich and returned to the room upstairs. Meanwhile, Katerina Lvovna, having rolled up the sleeves of her bed jacket and tucked her skirt up high, was carefully washing off with a soapy sponge the bloodstain left by Zinovy Borisych on the floor of his bedroom. The water was not yet cold in the samovar from which Zinovy Borisych had steamed his little merchant’s soul in poisoned tea, and the stain was washed away without a trace.
Katerina Lvovna took the copper basin and soapy sponge.
“Light, here,” she said to Sergei, going to the door. “Lower, hold it lower,” she said, carefully studying all the floorboards over which Sergei had dragged Zinovy Borisych to the cellar.
In only two places on the painted floor were there two tiny spots the size of a cherry. Katerina Lvovna rubbed them with the sponge and they disappeared.
“That’ll teach you not to sneak up to your wife like a thief and spy on her,” said Katerina Lvovna, straightening up and glancing in the direction of the larder.
“Finished off,” said Sergei, and he jumped at the sound of his own voice.
When they returned to the bedroom, a thin red strip of dawn was cutting across the east and, lightly gilding the blossom-covered apple trees, peeked through the green slats of the garden fence into Katerina Lvovna’s room.
The old clerk, a short coat thrown over his shoulders, crossing himself and yawning, came trudging through the yard from the shed to the kitchen.
Katerina Lvovna carefully drew the shutter closed and looked Sergei over attentively, as if she wished to see into his soul.
“So now you’re a merchant,” she said, laying her white hands on Sergei’s shoulders.
Sergei made no reply.
His lips were trembling, he was shaking feverishly. Katerina Lvovna’s lips were merely cold.
After two days, Sergei had big callouses on his hands from the pick and heavy spade; but Zinovy Borisych was laid away so nicely in his cellar that, without the help of his widow or her lover, no one would have been able to find him before the general resurrection.
Sergei went around with his neck wrapped in a crimson kerchief and complained of a swelling in his throat. Meanwhile, before the traces left on Sergei by Zinovy Borisych’s teeth had healed, Katerina Lvovna’s husband was missed. Sergei himself began speaking of him even more often than others. He would sit by the gate in the evening with other young fellows and say: “Really, lads, how is it the master hasn’t turned up yet?”
The young fellows were also surprised.
And then news came from the mill that the master had hired horses and gone home long ago. The driver who had taken him said that Zinovy Borisych had seemed to be in distress and had dismissed him somehow strangely: about two miles from town, near the monastery, he got off the cart, took his bag, and walked away. Hearing this story, everybody was still more surprised.
Zinovy Borisych had vanished, and that was that.
A search was made, but nothing was discovered: the merchant had vanished into thin air. From the testimony of the arrested driver, it was learned only that the merchant had gotten out by the monastery on the river and walked away. The matter was never clarified, but meanwhile Katerina Lvovna, in her position as a widow, lived freely with Sergei. There were random surmises that Zinovy Borisych was here or there, but Zinovy Borisych still did not return, and Katerina Lvovna knew better than anyone that it was quite impossible for him to return.
A month went by like that, and another, and a third, and Katerina Lvovna felt herself heavy.
“The capital will be ours, Seryozhechka; I have an heir,” she said to Sergei, and she went to complain to the town council that, thus and so, she felt she was pregnant, and the business was stagnating: let her take charge of it all.
A commercial venture should not go to waste. Katerina Lvovna was her husband’s lawful wife: there were no apparent debts, which meant they ought to let her. And so they did.
Katerina Lvovna lived like a queen; and at her side Sergei was now called Sergei Filippych; and then smack, out of nowhere, came a new calamity. Somebody wrote to the town headman from Livny saying that Boris Timofeich had not traded all on his own capital, that more money than his own had been invested in the business, the money of his young nephew Fyodor Zakharovich Lyamin, and that the matter had to be looked into and not left in the hands of Katerina Lvovna alone. The news came, the headman talked about it with Katerina Lvovna, and then a week later, bang, an old lady arrives from Livny with a little boy.
“I am the late Boris Timofeich’s cousin,” she says, “and this is my nephew, Fyodor Lyamin.”
Katerina Lvovna received them.
Sergei, watching this arrival from the courtyard, and the reception Katerina Lvovna gave the new arrivals, turned white as a sheet.
“What’s wrong?” asked his mistress, noticing his deathly pallor, when he came in after the arrivals and stopped in the front room, studying them.
“Nothing,” he replied, turning from the front room to the hallway. “I’m just thinking, how lovely is Livny,” he finished with a sigh, closing the door to the hallway behind him.
“Well, what are we to do now?” Sergei Filippych asked Katerina Lvovna, sitting with her at night over the samovar. “Now our whole business together is turned to dust.”
“Why to dust, Seryozha?”
“Because now it will all be divided. Why sit here managing a futile business?”
“Will it be too little for you, Seryozha?”
“It’s not about me; I only doubt we’ll be as happy as before.”
“Why is that? Why won’t we be happy, Seryozha?”
“Because, loving you as I do, Katerina Lvovna, I’d like to see you as a real lady, and not as you’ve lived so far,” replied Sergei Filippych. “But now, on the contrary, it turns out that with reduced capital we’ll have to descend to an even lower level than before.”
“What do I care about that, Seryozha?”
“It may be, Katerina Lvovna, that you’re not at all interested, but for me, since I respect you, and again looking at it with other people’s eyes, base and envious as they are, it will be terribly painful. You may think as you like, of course, but I, having my own considerations, will never manage to be happy in these circumstances.”
And Sergei played over and over on that same note for Katerina Lvovna, that because of Fedya Lyamin he had become the unhappiest of men, deprived of the opportunity to exalt and distinguish her before the entire merchant estate. Sergei wound up each time by saying that, if it were not for this Fedya, the child would be born to Katerina Lvovna less than nine months after her husband disappeared, she would get all the capital, and then there would be no end or measure to their happiness.
And then Sergei suddenly stopped talking about the heir altogether. As soon as the talk of him ceased on Sergei’s lips, Fedya Lyamin came to lodge in Katerina Lvovna’s mind and heart. She became pensive and even less affectionate towards Sergei. Whether she slept, or tended the business, or prayed to God, in her mind there was one and the same thing: “How can it be? Why should I be deprived of capital because of him? I’ve suffered so much, I’ve taken so much sin upon my soul,” thought Katerina Lvovna, “and he comes and takes it from me without any trouble . . . Well and good if he was a man, but he’s a child, a little boy . . .”
There was an early frost outside. Of Zinovy Borisych, naturally, no word came from anywhere. Katerina Lvovna was getting bigger and went about deep in thought; in town there was much beating of drums to do with her, figuring out how and why the young Izmailov woman, who had always been barren, thin as a pin, had suddenly started swelling out in front. And the young co-heir, Fedya Lyamin, walked about the yard in a light squirrel-skin coat, breaking the ice on the potholes.
“Hey, Fyodor Ignatych! Hey, you merchant’s son!” the cook Aksinya would shout at him, running across the yard. “Is it fitting for you, a merchant’s son, to go poking in puddles?”
But the co-heir, who troubled Katerina Lvovna and her beloved object, kicked up his feet serenely like a little goat and slept still more serenely opposite his doting old aunt, never thinking or imagining that he had crossed anyone’s path or diminished anyone’s happiness.
Fedya finally ran himself into the chicken pox, with a cold and chest pains attached, and the boy took to his bed. First they treated him with herbs and balms, and then they sent for the doctor.
The doctor came calling, prescribed medications, the old aunt herself gave them to the boy by the clock, and then sometimes asked Katerina Lvovna.
“Take the trouble, Katerinushka,” she would say, “you’re big with child yourself, you’re awaiting God’s judgment—take the trouble.”
Katerina Lvovna never refused her. When the old woman went to the evening vigil to pray for “the child Fyodor who is lying in sickbed” or to the early liturgy so as to include him in the communion, Katerina Lvovna sat with the sick boy and gave him water and his medications at the proper time.
So the old woman went to the all-night vigil on the eve of the feast of the Entrance and asked Katerinushka to look after Fedyushka. By then the boy was already getting better.
Katerina Lvovna went into Fedya’s room, and he was sitting on his bed in his squirrel-skin coat, reading the lives of the saints.
“What are you reading, Fedya?” Katerina Lvovna asked, sitting down in the armchair.
“I’m reading the Lives, auntie.”
“Very interesting, auntie.”
Katerina Lvovna propped her head on her hand and began watching Fedya’s moving lips, and suddenly it was as if demons came unleashed, and all her former thoughts descended on her of how much evil this boy had caused her and how good it would be if he were not there.
“But then again,” thought Katerina Lvovna, “he’s sick; he’s being given medications . . . anything can happen in illness . . . All you have to say is that the doctor prescribed the wrong medicine.”
“Is it time for your medicine, Fedya?”
“If you please, auntie,” the boy replied and, having swallowed the spoonful, added: “It’s very interesting, auntie, what’s written about the saints.”
“Read, then,” Katerina Lvovna let fall and, passing her cold gaze around the room, rested it on the frost-patterned windows.
“I must tell them to close the shutters,” she said and went out to the drawing room, and from there to the reception room, and from there to her room upstairs, and sat down.
Some five minutes later Sergei silently came to her upstairs, wearing a fleece jacket trimmed with fluffy sealskin.
“Have they closed the shutters?” Katerina Lvovna asked him.
“Yes,” Sergei replied curtly, removed the snuff from the candle with a pair of snuffers, and stood by the stove.
“Tonight’s vigil won’t be ending soon?” asked Katerina Lvovna.
“It’s the eve of a great feast; they’ll make a long service of it,” replied Sergei.
Again there was a pause.
“I must go to Fedya: he’s there alone,” Katerina Lvovna said, getting up.
“Alone?” asked Sergei, glancing sidelong at her.
“Alone,” she replied in a whisper, “what of it?”
And between their eyes flashed something like a web of lightning, but they did not say a word more to each other.
Katerina Lvovna went downstairs, walked through the empty rooms: there was total silence everywhere; the icon lamps burned quietly; her own shadow flitted over the walls; the windows behind their closed shutters began to thaw out and weep. Fedya sits and reads. Seeing Katerina Lvovna, he only says:
“Auntie, please take this book, and give me, please, that one from the icon shelf.”
Katerina Lvovna did as her nephew asked and handed him the book.
“Won’t you go to sleep, Fedya?”
“No, auntie, I’ll wait for my old aunt.”
“Why wait for her?”
“She promised to bring me some blessed bread from the vigil.”
Katerina Lvovna suddenly went pale, her own child turned for the first time under her heart, and she felt a chill in her breast. She stood for a while in the middle of the room and then went out, rubbing her cold hands.
“Well!” she whispered, quietly going into her bedroom and finding Sergei again in the same position by the stove.
“What?” Sergei asked barely audibly and choked.
Sergei scowled and started breathing heavily.
“Let’s go,” said Katerina Lvovna, abruptly turning to the door.
Sergei quickly took off his boots and asked:
“What shall I take?”
“Nothing,” Katerina Lvovna replied under her breath and quietly led him after her by the hand.
The sick boy gave a start and lowered the book to his knees when Katerina Lvovna came into his room for the third time.
“What’s wrong, Fedya?”
“Oh, auntie, I got frightened of something,” he said, smiling anxiously and pressing himself to the corner of the bed.
“What are you frightened of?”
“Who is it that came with you, auntie?”
“Where? Nobody came, dearest.”
The boy leaned towards the foot of the bed and, narrowing his eyes, looked in the direction of the door through which his aunt had come, and was reassured.
“I probably imagined it,” he said.
Katerina Lvovna stood leaning her elbow on the headboard of her nephew’s bed.
Fedya looked at his aunt and remarked that for some reason she was very pale.
In reply to this remark, Katerina Lvovna coughed deliberately and glanced expectantly at the door to the drawing room. A floorboard creaked softly there.
“I’m reading the life of my guardian angel, St. Feodor Stratilatos, auntie. There was a man pleasing to God.”
Katerina Lvovna stood silently.
“Sit down if you like, auntie, and I’ll read it over to you,” her nephew tried to make up to her.
“Wait, I’ll just go and tend to that icon lamp in the reception room,” Katerina Lvovna replied and went out with hurried steps.
There was the softest whispering in the drawing room; but amidst the general silence it reached the child’s keen ear.
“Auntie, what is it? Who are you whispering to there?” the boy cried with tears in his voice. “Come here, auntie, I’m afraid,” he called a second later, still more tearfully, and he thought he heard Katerina Lvovna say “Well?” in the drawing room, which the boy took as referring to him.
“What are you afraid of?” Katerina Lvovna asked him in a slightly hoarse voice, coming in with bold, resolute strides and standing by his bed in such a way that the door to the drawing room was screened from the sick boy by her body. “Lie down,” she said to him after that.
“I don’t want to, auntie.”
“No, Fedya, you listen to me: lie down, it’s time, lie down,” Katerina Lvovna repeated.
“What’s the matter, auntie? I don’t want to at all.”
“No, you lie down, lie down,” Katerina Lvovna said in a changed, unsteady voice and, picking the boy up under the arms, she laid him at the head of the bed.
Just then Fedya screamed hysterically: he had seen the pale, barefoot Sergei come in.
Katerina Lvovna put her hand over the frightened child’s mouth, gaping in terror, and shouted:
“Quick now, hold him straight so he doesn’t thrash!”
Sergei held Fedya by the arms and legs, and Katerina Lvovna, in one movement, covered the sufferer’s childish face with a big down pillow and pressed it to him with her firm, resilient breasts.
For about four minutes there was a sepulchral silence in the room.
“It’s all over,” Katerina Lvovna whispered and was just getting up to put everything in order when the walls of the quiet house that concealed so many crimes shook with deafening blows: the windows rattled, the floors swayed, the chains of the hanging icon lamps quivered and sent fantastic shadows wandering over the walls.
Sergei trembled and broke out running for all he was worth; Katerina Lvovna rushed after him, and the noise and din followed them. It seemed as though some unearthly powers were shaking the sinful house to its foundations.
Katerina Lvovna was afraid that, driven by terror, Sergei would run outside and give himself away by his fright; but he dashed straight upstairs.
Having run up the stairs, Sergei struck his head against the half-open door in the darkness and fell back down with a moan, totally crazed by superstitious fear.
“Zinovy Borisych, Zinovy Borisych!” he muttered, flying headlong down and dragging Katerina Lvovna with him, having knocked her off her feet.
“Where?” she asked.
“He just went flying over us with a sheet of iron. There, there he is again! Aie, aie!” Sergei cried. “It’s thundering, it’s thundering again!”
By now it was quite clear that many hands were banging on the windows from outside and someone was breaking down the door.
“Fool! Stand up!” cried Katerina Lvovna, and with these words she herself went flitting back to Fedya, arranged his dead head on the pillow in a most natural sleeping position, and with a firm hand unlocked the door through which a crowd of people was about to crash.
The spectacle was frightening. Katerina Lvovna looked over the heads of the crowd besieging the porch, and there were whole ranks of unknown people climbing the high fence into the yard, and outside there was a hum of human voices.
Before Katerina Lvovna managed to figure anything out, the people surrounding the porch overran her and flung her inside.
This whole alarm came about in the following way: for the vigil before a major feast in all the churches of the town where Katerina Lvovna lived, which, though provincial, was rather large and a trading center, a numberless multitude of people always gathered, and in the church named for that feast, even the yard outside had no room for an apple to fall. Here a choir consisting of young merchants usually sang, led by a special director who also belonged to the lovers of vocal art.
Our people are pious, zealous for God’s church, and, as a result of that, are to a certain extent artistic people: churchly splendor and harmonious “organ-drone” singing constitute one of their loftiest and purest delights. Wherever the choir sings, almost half of our town gathers, especially the young tradesmen: shopkeepers, errand boys, factory workers, and the owners themselves, with their better halves—everybody packs into one church; everybody wants to stand if only outside on the porch or by the window, in scorching heat or freezing cold, to hear how the octave drones and the ecstatic tenor pulls off the most intricate grace notes.
The parish church of the Izmailovs had a chapel of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, and therefore, on the eve of this feast, just at the time of the episode with Fedya described above, all the young folk of the town were in that church and, on leaving in a noisy crowd, were discussing the virtues of a well-known tenor and the accidental blunders of an equally well-known bass.
But not everyone was interested in these vocal questions: there were people in the crowd who were concerned with other things.
“You know, lads, strange things are told about the young Izmailov woman,” said a young mechanic, brought from Petersburg by a merchant for his steam mill, as they approached the Izmailovs’ house. “They say,” he went on, “that she and their clerk Seryozhka make love every other minute . . .”
“Everybody knows that,” replied a fleece-lined blue nankeen coat. “And, by the way, she wasn’t in church tonight.”
“Church, ha! The nasty wench has turned so vile, she has no fear of God, or conscience, or other people’s eyes.”
“Look, there’s light in their place,” the mechanic noticed, pointing to a bright strip between the shutters.
“Peek through the crack, see what they’re up to,” several voices called out.
The mechanic propped himself on the shoulders of two of his comrades and had just put his eye to the narrow gap when he screamed at the top of his voice:
“Brothers, friends, they’re smothering somebody, they’re smothering somebody in there!”
And the mechanic desperately banged on the shutters with his hands. Some dozen men followed his example and, running to the windows, began applying their fists to them.
The crowd grew every moment, and the result was the siege of the Izmailov house already known to us.
“I saw it, with my own eyes I saw it,” the mechanic testified over the dead Fedya. “The child was lying on the bed, and the two of them were smothering him.”
Sergei was taken to the police that same evening, and Katerina Lvovna was led to her upstairs room and two guards were placed over her.
It was freezing cold in the Izmailovs’ house: the stoves were not lit; the door was never shut; one dense crowd of curious people replaced another. They all came to look at Fedya lying in his coffin and at the other big coffin, its lid tightly covered with a wide shroud. There was a white satin crown on Fedya’s forehead, covering the red scar left by the opening of the skull. The forensic autopsy had discovered that Fedya died of suffocation, and Sergei, when brought to his corpse, at the priest’s first words about the Last Judgment and the punishment of the unrepentant, burst into tears and not only confessed openly to the murder of Fedya, but also asked them to dig up Zinovy Borisych, whom he had buried without a funeral. The corpse of Katerina Lvovna’s husband, buried in dry sand, was not yet completely decomposed: it was taken out and laid in a big coffin. As his accomplice in both these crimes, to the general horror, Sergei named his young mistress. Katerina Lvovna, to all questions, answered only: “I know nothing about it.” Sergei was forced to expose her at a confrontation. Having heard his confession, Katerina Lvovna looked at him in mute amazement, but without anger, and then said indifferently:
“If he’s willing to tell about it, there’s no point in my denying it: I killed them.”
“What for?” she was asked.
“For him,” she answered, pointing to Sergei, who hung his head.
The criminals were put in jail, and the terrible case, which attracted general attention and indignation, was decided very quickly. At the end of February, the court announced to Sergei and the widow of the merchant of the third guild, Katerina Lvovna, that it had been decided to punish them by flogging in the marketplace of their town and then to send them to hard labor. At the beginning of March, on a cold, frosty morning, the executioner counted off the appointed number of blue-purple weals on Katerina Lvovna’s white back, and then beat out his portion on Sergei’s shoulders and branded his handsome face with three convict’s marks.
During all this time, Sergei for some reason aroused much more general sympathy than Katerina Lvovna. Smeared and bloody, he stumbled as he came down from the black scaffold, but Katerina Lvovna came down slowly, only trying to keep the thick shirt and coarse prisoner’s coat from touching her torn back.
Even in the prison hospital, when they gave her her baby, all she said was: “Oh, away with him!,” and turning to the wall, without a moan, without complaint, she laid her breast on the hard cot.
The party in which Sergei and Katerina Lvovna found themselves set out when spring had begun only by the calendar, while, as the popular proverb says, “There was lots of sun, but heat there was none.”
Katerina Lvovna’s child was given to Boris Timofeich’s old sister to be brought up, because, being counted as the legitimate son of the criminal woman’s husband, the infant was now left the sole heir to the entire Izmailov fortune. Katerina Lvovna was very pleased with that and surrendered the baby quite indifferently. Her love for the father, like the love of many all too passionate women, did not extend in the least to the child.
Anyhow, nothing in the world existed for her: neither light, nor darkness, nor good, nor bad, nor boredom, nor joy; she did not understand anything, did not love anyone, did not love herself. She waited impatiently for the party to set out on its way, when she hoped to be able to see her darling Sergei again, and she even forgot to think about the baby.
Katerina Lvovna’s hopes were not deceived: heavily bound in chains, branded, Sergei came out of the prison gates in the same group with her.
Man accustoms himself as far as possible to any abominable situation, and in every situation preserves as far as possible his capacity to pursue his meager joys; but for Katerina Lvovna there is nothing to adjust to: she sees her Sergei again, and with him even the convict’s path blossoms with happiness.
Katerina Lvovna took very few valuable things with her in her canvas sack and even less money. But long before they reached Nizhny she had given it all away to the convoy soldiers in exchange for the possibility of walking beside Sergei or standing for a little hour embracing him on a dark night in a cold corner of the narrow transit prison corridor.
Only Katerina Lvovna’s branded young friend somehow became very reserved towards her: he did not so much talk as snap at her; his secret meetings with her, for which, not thinking of food or drink, she gave the necessary twenty-five kopecks from her lean purse, he did not value very highly; and more than once he even said:
“You’d do better to give me the money you gave the soldier, instead of us rubbing against corners in the corridor.”
“All I gave him was twenty-five kopecks, Seryozhechka,” Katerina Lvovna tried to excuse herself.
“As if twenty-five kopecks isn’t money? Did you pick up a lot of these twenty-five kopecks on the way, that you hand them out so freely?”
“That’s how we could see each other, Seryozha.”
“Well, where’s the joy of seeing each other after such suffering! I could curse my whole life, not just these meetings.”
“And for me it makes no difference, as long as I get to see you.”
“That’s all foolishness,” replied Sergei.
Katerina Lvovna sometimes bit her lips until they bled hearing such replies, and sometimes her eyes, not given to weeping, filled with tears of anger and vexation in the darkness of their nighttime meetings; but she endured it all, kept silent, and wished to deceive herself.
Thus, in these new relations with each other, they reached Nizhny Novgorod. Here their party merged with another party that was going to Siberia from the Moscow highway.
In this big party, among a multitude of people of all sorts in the women’s section, there were two very interesting persons. One was Fiona, a soldier’s wife from Yaroslavl, a splendid, magnificent woman, tall, with a thick black braid and languorous brown eyes, curtained as with a mysterious veil by thick eyelashes; and the other was a sharp-faced seventeen-year-old blonde with tender pink skin, a tiny little mouth, dimples on her fresh cheeks, and golden blonde locks, which stubbornly strayed across her forehead from under her convict’s kerchief. In the party they called this girl Sonetka.
The beautiful Fiona was of a soft and lazy disposition. Everyone in her party knew her, and no one among the men rejoiced especially at achieving success with her, and no one was upset at seeing her grant the same success to another suitor.
“Our Aunt Fiona is a kindly woman, she doesn’t offend anybody,” the convicts all joked unanimously.
But Sonetka was of a completely different sort.
Of her they said:
“An eel: slips through your fingers, and never lingers.”
Sonetka had taste, chose her dishes, and maybe even chose very strictly; she wanted passion to be offered to her, not blandly, but with a piquant, spicy seasoning, with sufferings and sacrifices; while Fiona was Russian simplicity, who is even too lazy to say “Go away,” and who knows only one thing, that she is a woman. Such women are very highly valued in robber bands, convict parties, and the social-democratic communes of Petersburg.
The appearance of these two women in one combined party with Sergei and Katerina Lvovna had tragic consequences for the latter.
From the first days of the combined party’s movement from Nizhny Novgorod to Kazan, Sergei openly began to seek the favors of the soldier’s wife Fiona and suffered no lack of success. The languid beauty Fiona did not make Sergei languish, as, in her kindness, she did not make anyone languish. At the third or fourth halting place, in the early dusk, Katerina Lvovna set up a meeting with Seryozhechka by means of bribery, and lay there without sleeping: she kept waiting for the guard on duty to come at any moment, nudge her slightly, and whisper “Run quickly.” The door opened once, and a woman darted out to the corridor; the door opened again, and another woman prisoner quickly jumped up from another cot and also disappeared after the guard; finally there came a tug at the coat with which Katerina Lvovna covered herself. The young woman hurriedly got up from the cot, well-polished by the sides of convicts, threw the coat over her shoulders, and gave a push to the guard standing before her.
As Katerina Lvovna went down the corridor, in one place faintly lit by a dim lamp, she came across two or three couples who could not be made out from a distance. As Katerina Lvovna passed the male convicts’ room, she seemed to hear restrained laughter through the little window cut out in the door.
“Having fun,” Katerina Lvovna’s guard growled, and, taking her by the shoulders, he pushed her into the corner and withdrew.
Katerina Lvovna felt a coat and a beard with her hand; her other hand touched the hot face of a woman.
“Who’s that?” Sergei asked in a half whisper.
“And what are you doing here? Who is that with you?”
In the darkness, Katerina Lvovna pulled the head cloth from her rival. The woman slipped aside, rushed off, stumbled against someone in the corridor, and fell.
From the men’s quarters came a burst of guffawing.
“Villain!” Katerina Lvovna whispered and hit Sergei across the face with the ends of the kerchief she had torn from the head of his new girlfriend.
Sergei raised his hand; but Katerina Lvovna flitted lightly down the corridor and took hold of her door. The guffawing from the men’s quarters that followed her was repeated so loudly that the guard, who had been standing apathetically next to the lantern and spitting at the toe of his boot, raised his head and barked:
Katerina Lvovna lay down silently and went on lying like that until morning. She wanted to say to herself: “I don’t love him” and felt that she loved him still more ardently. And now before her eyes she keeps picturing again and again how his palm trembled under that woman’s head, how his other arm embraced her hot shoulders.
The poor woman wept and unwillingly called upon the same palm to be under her head that minute and his other arm to embrace her hysterically trembling shoulders.
“Well, give me back my kerchief anyhow,” the soldier’s wife Fiona woke her up in the morning.
“Ah, so that was you? . . .”
“Kindly give it back!”
“But why did you come between us?”
“How have I come between you? Is it some sort of love or real interest, that you should be angry?”
Katerina Lvovna thought for a second, then took the kerchief she had torn off at night from under her pillow and, throwing it at Fiona, turned to the wall.
She felt relieved.
“Pah,” she said to herself, “am I going to be jealous of that painted tub? She can drop dead! It’s nasty even comparing myself to her.”
“The thing is this, Katerina Lvovna,” said Sergei, as they walked down the road the next day. “Please understand that, first of all, I’m no Zinovy Borisych to you, and, second, that you’re no great merchant’s wife now: so kindly don’t get so puffed up. There’s no market for butting goats with us.”
Katerina Lvovna said nothing to that, and for a week she walked without exchanging a word or a glance with Sergei. As the offended party, she stood firm and did not want to make the first step towards reconciliation in this first quarrel with him.
In the meantime, while Katerina Lvovna was angry, Sergei began making eyes at and flirting with the blonde Sonetka. Now he greets her “with our particular honor,” now he smiles, now, meeting her, he tries to embrace and squeeze her. Katerina Lvovna sees it all and her heart seethes all the more.
“Shouldn’t I maybe make peace with him?” Katerina Lvovna thinks, stumbling and not seeing the ground under her feet.
But her pride now forbids her more than ever to go to him first and make peace. And meanwhile Sergei attaches himself to Sonetka ever more persistently, and it seems to everyone that the inaccessible Sonetka, who slipped away like an eel, is now growing more tame.
“Here you wept over me,” Fiona once said to Katerina Lvovna, “but what did I do to you? With me it came and went, but you’d better watch out for Sonetka.”
“Perish my pride: I absolutely must make peace today,” Katerina Lvovna decided, now only pondering how to set about the reconciliation most adroitly.
Sergei himself helped her out of this difficulty.
“Lvovna!” he called to her as they made a halt. “Come and see me tonight for a moment: it’s business.”
Katerina Lvovna said nothing.
“What, maybe you’re still angry and won’t come?”
Katerina Lvovna again said nothing.
But Sergei and all who observed Katerina Lvovna saw that, as they approached the transit prison, she started moving closer to the chief guard and gave him seventeen kopecks she had saved up from alms.
“I’ll give you another ten once I save more,” Katerina Lvovna begged him.
The soldier put the money behind his cuff and said:
Once these negotiations were concluded, Sergei grunted and winked at Sonetka.
“Ah, Katerina Lvovna!” he said, embracing her as they went up the steps of the transit prison. “Compared to this woman, lads, there’s not another such in the whole world.”
Katerina Lvovna blushed and choked with happiness.
That night, as soon as the door quietly opened a crack, she ran out at once: she was trembling and felt for Sergei with her hands in the dark corridor.
“My Katya!” said Sergei, embracing her.
“Ah, my dear villain!” Katerina Lvovna answered through her tears and clung to him with her lips.
The guard paced the corridor and, stopping, spat on his boots, and paced again, behind the door the tired inmates snored, a mouse gnawed at a feather, under the stove crickets chirped away one louder than the other, and Katerina Lvovna was still in bliss.
But the raptures wore off, and the inevitable prose began.
“I’m in mortal pain: my bones ache from the ankles right up to the knees,” Sergei complained, sitting with Katerina Lvovna on the floor in a corner of the corridor.
“What can we do, Seryozhechka?” she asked, huddling under the skirt of his coat.
“Maybe I can ask to be put in the infirmary in Kazan?”
“Oh, is it as bad as that, Seryozha?”
“Like I said, it’s the death of me, the way it hurts.”
“So you’ll stay, and I’ll be driven on?”
“What can I do? It chafes, I’m telling you, it chafes, the chain’s cut almost to the bone. If only I had woolen stockings or something to put under,” Sergei said a moment later.
“Stockings? I still have a pair of new stockings, Seryozha.”
“Well, never mind!” Sergei replied.
Without another word, Katerina Lvovna darted to the cell, shook her sack out on the cot, and hastily ran to Sergei again with a pair of thick, dark blue woolen stockings with bright clocks on the sides.
“Now it should be all right,” said Sergei, parting from Katerina Lvovna and accepting her last stockings.
The happy Katerina Lvovna returned to her cot and fell fast asleep.
She did not hear how, after she came back, Sonetka went out to the corridor and quietly returned just before morning.
This happened only a two days’ march from Kazan.
A cold, gray day with gusty wind and rain mixed with snow drearily met the party as they stepped through the gates of the stuffy transit prison. Katerina Lvovna started out quite briskly, but she had only just taken her place in line when she turned green and began to shake. Everything became dark in her eyes; all her joints ached and went limp. Before Katerina Lvovna stood Sonetka in those all too familiar dark blue stockings with bright clocks.
Katerina Lvovna moved on more dead than alive; only her eyes looked terribly at Sergei and did not blink.
At the first halt, she calmly went up to Sergei, whispered “Scoundrel,” and unexpectedly spat right in his eyes.
Sergei was about to fall upon her; but he restrained himself.
“Just you wait!” he said and wiped his face.
“Nice, though, how bravely she treats you,” the prisoners mocked Sergei, and Sonetka dissolved in especially merry laughter.
This little intrigue Sonetka had yielded to was perfectly suited to her taste.
“Well, you won’t get away with that,” Sergei threatened Katerina Lvovna.
Worn out by the bad weather and the march, her heart broken, Katerina Lvovna slept uneasily that night on her cot in the next transit prison and did not hear how two men entered the women’s barrack.
When they came in, Sonetka got up from her cot, silently pointed to Katerina Lvovna, lay down again, and wrapped herself in her coat.
At the same moment, Katerina Lvovna’s coat flew up over her head, and the thick end of a double-twisted rope let loose with all a man’s strength on her back, covered only by a coarse shirt.
Katerina Lvovna screamed, but her voice could not be heard under the coat that covered her head. She thrashed, but also without success: a stalwart convict sat on her shoulders and held her arms fast.
“Fifty,” a voice, which it was not hard for anyone to recognize as Sergei’s, finally counted off, and the night visitors disappeared through the door.
Katerina Lvovna uncovered her head and jumped up: there was no one there; only not far away someone giggled gleefully under a coat. Katerina Lvovna recognized Sonetka’s laughter.
This offense was beyond all measure; also beyond all measure was the feeling of spite that boiled up at that moment in Katerina Lvovna’s soul. Oblivious, she rushed forward and fell oblivious onto the breast of Fiona, who took her in her arms.
On that full breast, where so recently Katerina Lvovna’s unfaithful lover had enjoyed the sweetness of debauchery, she was now weeping out her unbearable grief, and she clung to her soft and stupid rival like a child to its mother. They were equal now: both were equal in value and both were abandoned.
They were equal—Fiona, subject to the first opportunity, and Katerina Lvovna, acting out the drama of love!
Katerina Lvovna, however, was by now offended by nothing. Having wept out her tears, she turned to stone, and with a wooden calm prepared to go to the roll call.
The drum beats: ratta-tat-tat; chained and unchained prisoners pour out into the yard—Sergei, Fiona, Sonetka, Katerina Lvovna, an Old Believer fettered with a Jew, a Pole on the same chain with a Tartar.
They all bunched together, then pulled themselves into some sort of order and set off.
A most cheerless picture: a handful of people, torn away from the world and deprived of any shadow of hope for a better future, sinking into the cold black mud of the dirt road. Everything around them is terribly ugly: the endless mud, the gray sky, the leafless, wet broom, and in its splayed branches a ruffled crow. The wind now moans, now rages, now howls and roars.
In these hellish, soul-rending sounds, which complete the whole horror of the picture, one hears the advice of the biblical Job’s wife: “Curse the day you were born and die.”
Whoever does not want to listen to these words, whoever is not attracted but frightened by the thought of death even in this dismal situation, must try to stifle these howling voices with something still more hideous. The simple man understands this perfectly well: he then unleashes all his animal simplicity, begins to be stupid, to jeer at himself, at people, at feeling. Not very tender to begin with, he becomes doubly malicious.
“What, then, merchant’s wife? Is your honor in good health?” Sergei impudently asked Katerina Lvovna, as soon as the party went over a wet hillock and lost sight of the village where they had spent the night.
With these words, he turned at once to Sonetka, covered her with the skirts of his coat, and sang in a high falsetto:
A blond head flashes in the dark outside the window.
So you’re not asleep, my tormentress, you’re not asleep, sweet
I’ll cover you with my coat skirts, so that none can see.
With these words, Sergei embraced Sonetka and kissed her loudly in front of the whole party . . .
Katerina Lvovna saw and did not see it all: she walked on like an utterly lifeless person. They started nudging her and pointing to Sergei’s outrageous behavior with Sonetka. She became an object of mockery.
“Let her be,” Fiona defended her, when somebody in the party tried to laugh at the stumbling Katerina Lvovna. “Don’t you devils see that the woman’s quite ill?”
“Must have got her feet wet,” a young prisoner cracked.
“She’s of merchant stock, you know: a pampered upbringing,” Sergei responded.
“Of course, if she at least had warm stockings, it would be better,” he went on.
It was as if Katerina Lvovna woke up.
“Vile serpent!” she said, unable to restrain herself. “Keep jeering, scoundrel, keep jeering!”
“No, merchant’s wife, I’m not jeering at you at all, but Sonetka here has some very nice stockings for sale, so I thought our merchant’s wife might buy them.”
Many laughed. Katerina Lvovna strode on like a wound-up automaton.
The weather was turning stormy. From the gray clouds that covered the sky, snow began to fall in wet flakes, which melted after barely touching the ground and made the mud still deeper. Finally a dark, leaden strip appears; its other side cannot be seen. This strip is the Volga. Over the Volga a rather stiff wind is blowing, driving the slowly rising, dark, gape-jawed waves back and forth.
The party of drenched and chilled prisoners slowly came to the crossing and stopped, waiting for the ferry.
The wet, dark ferry came; the crew began loading the prisoners.
“They say somebody has vodka on this ferry,” one prisoner observed, when the ferry, under the downpour of wet snowflakes, cast off and rocked on the big waves of the storm-tossed river.
“Yes, right now a little nip wouldn’t do any harm,” Sergei responded and, persecuting Katerina Lvovna for Sonetka’s amusement, he said: “Merchant’s wife, for old friendship’s sake, treat me to a little vodka. Don’t be stingy. Remember, my sweet, our former love, and what a good time you and I had, my joy, sitting together of a long autumn evening, sending your relations off to their eternal rest without priests or deacons.”
Katerina Lvovna was trembling all over with cold. But, besides the cold that pierced her to the bone under her soaked dress, something else was going on in Katerina Lvovna’s whole being. Her head burned as if on fire; the pupils of her eyes were dilated, alive with a sharp, roving glitter, and peered fixedly into the rolling waves.
“And I’d like a little vodka, too: the cold’s unbearable,” Sonetka’s voice rang out.
“Come on, merchant’s wife, treat us!” Sergei kept rubbing it in.
“Ah, you’ve got no conscience!” said Fiona, shaking her head reproachfully.
“That does you no credit at all,” the prisoner Gordyushka seconded the soldier’s wife.
“If you’re not ashamed before her, you should be before others.”
“You common snuffbox!” Sergei yelled at Fiona. “Ashamed, is it! What should I be ashamed of! Maybe I never loved her, and now . . . Sonetka’s worn-out shoe is dearer to me than her mangy cat’s mug; what do you say to that? Let her love skew-mouthed Gordyushka; or . . .” he glanced at a runty fellow on horseback in a felt cape and military cap with a cockade and added, “or, better still, let her cuddle up to this transport officer: at least his cape will keep her from the rain.”
“And she’ll be called an officer’s wife,” Sonetka chimed in.
“Right you are! . . . and she’ll easily get enough to buy stockings,” Sergei seconded.
Katerina Lvovna did not defend herself: she looked more and more intently into the waves and moved her lips. Through Sergei’s vile talk she heard the rumble and moan from the opening and slamming waves. And suddenly the blue head of Boris Timofeich appears to her out of one breaking wave; her husband, rocking, peers out of another, holding Fedya with a drooping head. Katerina Lvovna wants to remember a prayer, and she moves her lips, but her lips whisper: “What a good time you and I had, sitting together of a long autumn evening, sending people out of this world by a cruel death.”
Katerina Lvovna was trembling. Her roving gaze became fixed and wild. Her arms reached out somewhere into space once or twice and dropped again. Another moment—and she suddenly began to sway all over, not taking her eyes from the dark waves, bent down, seized Sonetka by the legs, and in one sweep threw the girl and herself overboard.
Everyone was petrified with amazement.
Katerina Lvovna appeared at the top of a wave and sank again; another wave tossed up Sonetka.
“A hook! Throw them a hook!” they shouted on the ferry.
A heavy hook on a long rope soared up and fell into the water. Sonetka could no longer be seen. Two seconds later, borne away from the ferry by the swift current, she again flailed her arms; but at the same moment, out of another wave, Katerina Lvovna rose up almost to the waist, threw herself on Sonetka like a strong pike on a soft-finned little roach, and neither of them appeared again.
[Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky]