We are proud to present the following, “He: An Unknown’s Story,” written in 1913 by famed Russian writer and artist Leonid Andreyev and previously unpublished in English until now. It is a truly chilling, uneasy story, glimmering around the edges with both melancholy and weirdness. Many thanks are due to translator Vlad Zhenevsky for bringing this story to WFR.com so we can share it with our readers. – The Editors
I was drunk with joy, I was blessing my stars, for it was I, a hungry student, kicked out of university after failing to pay the tuition, spending the last forty kopecks to advertise his tutoring services in a paper — who came across the wealthiest of employers. It happened in late October, on a murky Petersburg morning, when I received a letter requesting me to come to the France Hotel on Morskaya Street for an interview; and ninety minutes later — the rain that had drenched me on way was still drizzling — I had private lessons, accommodation and a fee of twenty rubles ahead. A dream, a fairytale! And everything had been charming: the luxuriant hotel, the magnificent suite to which I was ushered, and the exceptionally affable, exceptionally attentive gentleman who hired me. What little I could discern in my excitement, fear and joy was that the gentleman was advanced in years and superbly dressed, in the manner that only rich people, accustomed to fine clothing from infancy, dress. Needless to say, I was eager to accept all his conditions, that is, living in the country, enjoying a room of my own, teaching a boy of eight and getting fifty roubles per month for nothing.
“Are you fond of the sea, then?” Norden asked me (I will omit “Mister” in my narrative).
I could only babble, “Sea? Good Lord…”
He was so amused that he gave a laugh. “Why, of course. Show me a youth who isn’t fond of the sea! Our place is going to please you: you will find a beautiful sea there…a bit grey, a bit sad, but able both to rage and smile. You will be contented.”
“I should think so!”
I laughed; laughing in reply, Norden suddenly added, “My daughter Yelena, a grown-up girl, drowned in that sea. Five years ago.”
I never answered that, at a loss as to what to say. And his smile, it bewildered me — as he talked about his daughter’s death, he never stopped smiling; I did not even believe him, reckoning it was just his way of joking. At his own wish, he offered me money, twenty rubles — displaying gullibility so profound that he neither asked for my passport nor a receipt, or so much as inquired my name; I would hardly have been surprised by such gullibility at another point of time but was so hungry and disheveled now, my stockings so wet that I did not trust myself. I had been expelled from university for failing to pay, after all.
Yet getting used to good things takes little time. Only a week after I moved in to the Nordens, and the luxury of my life felt customary: a room of my own, a sense of cozy, steady fullness, warmth, dry feet, you name it. But even as I was further and further retreating from Petersburg with its hunger-strikes and scanty coins, with all the cheapness of a student’s struggle for survival, the new life was rising in utterly strange forms before me, hardly cheerful and anything but comic forms.
In letters to my friends I was still raving about how splendidly I was accommodated now but I was already feeling joyless, simply joyless; and the reason for such a state was hard to determine since everything was so merry, nice and beautiful by the looks of it, and no one had ever laughed as often as the Nordens did. And only by delving step by step into the inmost recesses of that strange house and that strange family, or rather touching their cold walls with sliding strokes, did I come to guesses as to the sources of their oppressive sadness, of the lingering melancholy which reigned over this place and its residents.
I shall begin with the place. The mansion and the garden sat at the very shore of the sea, and the building with its two floors was large and spacious, even sumptuous: even I, stray student that I was, poorest of the poor, I was given a room fit for a visiting nobleman or a family friend who had chosen to stay overnight. The garden was no less magnificent; it must have taken a good deal of effort and money to set it up, to have such luxury of vegetation amidst that bleak and barren nature which knew nothing but sand, spruces and rocks, and cold mists before dawn, and wind that came from weepy grey waters. There were linden trees here, and some blue spruces, and even chestnuts; lots of flowers, roses and jasmine in ample bushes, and the space in between these plants — eternally unable to get any warmth, it seemed — was filled with amazingly even, amazingly green grass. So anyone who spied this garden from behind the wall found it truly splendid, and envied its owner; indeed, Norden was proud of the garden too, and I was likewise thrilled with honest admiration the moment I saw it. But there was something in the arrangement of the trees — so forlorn, growing so openly in the middle of the flat lawn, forever alien and forever lonesome — that soon enough began to pester you with a feeling of cold discontent, a vague idea of some sad and profound untruth, of a bitter mistake, of lost happiness.
Why were there not any footprints on those paths? Many people lived in the house, three children among them, and they often took walks in the garden, but in my memories it has always looked empty, and there are no footprints on the garden paths.
As for Norden, he took great pride in this peculiarity, pointing to how ingeniously those paths had been laid down, enhanced with a special mixture of clay and sand, and well graveled; that was why even the heaviest feet would not leave impressions there even after a pouring rain. Yet I did not like that aspect of the garden, and said so to Norden. He broke into a long laugh — why he did, I could not comprehend — then touched my elbow, with care and uttermost grace, and said, “Try and have a look in the morning. If there were any footprints they ought to disappear just the same. Do have a look, early in the morning.”
And as if it had been an order, I woke up early in the morning, still in the half-dark, wiped the fogged window, and saw three obscure figures moving slowly along the path, stooping and trailing something behind them. I realized they were Norden’s servants, rubbing off the traces of the previous day and receding night with iron rakes, but I did not like that explanation, either.
Are footprints the only possible traces, after all? A child could drop a toy — children are always scattering their toys, a worker could leave his spade or rake, but no one ever dropped or left anything there. The trees were shedding their last leaves, and there was no joy in those darkled, writhed leaves, clinging hopelessly to the cold gravel — but those were also removed by the obedient hand which was rubbing off the footprints. At times it seemed that someone — Norden himself, perhaps — struggled desperately with some memories, striving to keep everything around bare; but as the void was opening its mouth wider, all the more tangible became the presence of those banished memories, ruined images, erased footprints. And stranger that I was, uninitiated and unobservant by nature, I was starting to feel they had something to do with me, those dark recollections of some bitter mistake, of lost happiness, of sorrowful untruth.
So after a while I became a detective of my own accord, a seeker of traces, and remained like that until, resigned to a string of events, the observer turned into the observed, the searcher into the one searched for, the pursuer into the one pursued. But I kept on searching until then, while my dreary imagination, apt to gloomy fantasies — my childhood had been painful, my youth sad and lonesome — populated the strange garden with all kinds of crimes, murders and deaths. Yet I was young, so when a sunny day occurred, particularly welcome among the sullen murk of November, I laughed at my fantasies; but then mists crawled back from the sea, the soggy sky sank heavily lower, stifling the surviving light, and once again I heard the obscure ones scraping footprints away with iron; and once again I was disturbed.
I cannot say if I would have ever managed to find anything, had it not been for Norden himself; one day, as we were strolling along the seashore, beyond the garden wall, he pointed at a pile of stones, stacked in the form of a pyramid and fixed with cement. The autumn waves had eroded the mortar, causing some of the rocks to fall out, which somewhat distorted the original form; that probably explained why I had not taken notice of it before.
“Do you see the pyramid?” Norden asked. “It is smaller than Khufu’s but still a pyramid.” With a laugh — why was he always laughing? — he continued, “I considered building a church here, in the Norman style. Do you like the Norman style? But they did not permit me to…just imagine these narrow minds!”
I kept silent, at a loss: I am not quick-witted, as a matter of fact. He gave me enough time to reply or ask a question, then explained eagerly, “This is the spot where we found the body of my daughter, Yelena. Head this way, feet that way. She drowned, I believe I told you that.”
“How did it happen?”
“And how do you think a young person can drown?” Norden smiled. “She went out in the boat alone, a squall blew up, her boat overturned…how does it usually happen?”
I looked at the greyish sea, all in little ripples; here and there bare boulders stood out black against the gleaming water, in some places the gleam was stronger — the seabed showed through.
“It is quite shallow here,” I said.
“She rowed far out to sea.”
“Why did she go so far?”
“And why do you think a young person would want to go far?” Norden laughed, touching my elbow again with uttermost grace. “I have two excellent boats; we store them away for winter but set them afloat again in the spring. Do you like boating?”
“Was that boat washed ashore?”
Norden failed to understand me at first. “Which boat? Oh, that boat! Sure, sure, it was washed ashore too. But now it is newly painted, you would not recognize it: a wonderful solid boat. You will test it yourself in the spring”.
After that conversation, which I thought revealed much but in fact revealed nothing, I took to examining the crumbling pyramid every day. Head this way, feet that way. But why did Norden, who was so relentless in erasing footprints, who painted white the very boat in which his daughter had drowned — why did he memorialize her with these stones? A sudden impulse, or plain illogicality, common even to most rational people?
I could not tell. Somehow, I did not take the time to think it over. The entirety of my attention was captured by the sea — that day I came to feel it was the foremost source of the great sadness which reigned over the people and the place. It was—
But before I proceed I need to dwell on the mansion and my life among those odd people, so disagreeable and oppressive despite their liveliness.
In the morning hours I used to teach Volodya. He was a well-behaved boy of eight, a seeming homunculus with exquisite manners of a grown gentleman, dutiful, polite and remarkably obedient. Unlike my other pupils, he never cocked his feet up on the desk, never picked his nose, never blotted paper or played tricks on me; each of my remarks was met with outlandish care, as if I were King Solomon, and Volodya the humblest of his servants and apprentices. He could believe me or just pretend to — but I felt awkward as the object of this extraordinary attention, which placed enormous value on even the pettiest of my words, blowing them out of proportion. Every day, except for holidays, his close-cropped fair-haired lump of a head appeared over the desk on the stroke of ten, filled some part of my sight for two hours and vanished at twelve o’clock sharp. His face was flat, white, reverent, boasting no brows, complete with a wide-set pair of clear saucer eyes — bulging, as if lying on a plate. I wished I could hope that Volodya’s looks would improve somewhat as he grew up. Indeed, despite all his respectfulness, despite the fact that he bothered me far less than any of my other pupils, so little in fact that he might not exist at all — I did not like him. And what I disliked was perhaps that very obedience, that courtesy of his: he never laughed and never smiled of his own will, but if an adult wished to evoke fear or astonishment, delight or joy in him, his face assumed the required expression at once. As though he were not a child but someone who was scrupulously performing the duties of a child to please the elders; now and then he started romping about but only if was invited to, and bizarrely so, as if imitating someone else’s antics seen in a dream. Apparently he could not pick that up from the other two children, a boy of seven and a girl of five, for they were exactly like Volodya. I met those two rarely, though, as they mostly kept company with their old English governess; knowing nothing of that language, I could not so much as have a word with her.
I tried to take him out for walks but he was no less detestable when sauntering, like a precious little doll mimicking a well-mannered boy. It was only once and for a brief while that I observed a hint of true life in Volodya. I left the house to stroll around the garden and saw him, all of a sudden, by one of those spotless white benches, on a smooth path which bore no footprints; he was sitting right on the wet sand, clutching his leg with both hands. It appeared he had hurt himself painfully, for his face expressed suffering, and he was weeping — sitting there alone and weeping. Yet as soon as Volodya caught sight of me, he stood up and hobbled towards me, his face flat, his tears dried, a walking picture of reverence and readiness.
“Are you hurt, Volodya?”
“Yes, a bit.”
“Why aren’t you crying, then?”
He gazed at me, trying to grasp what I needed from him, then considered my earnest attitude and replied obediently, “I have already cried.”
It might have happened that he added, like in an old joke, “Thank you so much!”, so polite he was, that odd and pitiable homunculus.
I was free most of the day, going for walks as far as the nasty November weather permitted, or reading in my room: Norden had been so kind as to put all his books, which were aplenty, at my disposal, and this became for a time one of the greatest joys of my drab and gloomy life. Now and then I was able to study in Norden’s personal library — yet another of his favors; that was the place where I felt like a regular king, surrounded by soft couches, large desks piled with magazines, lots of richly bound books, and a silence similar to the Imperial Public Library — the room was located on the second floor, inaccessible to any noise. There was no noise, in fact, unless Norden himself started making a racket, getting dogs to bark, children to sing and dance, and anybody who had a mouth to roar with laughter.
We used to have dinner all together: the children, the Englishwoman, Norden and I. I never saw any guests in the house but for a fat reticent German who came to dinner occasionally; he opened his mouth only to eat, or laugh when encouraged by the host; I believe he was managing Norden’s estate or perhaps some of his property in Petersburg. They always laughed at the table — I cannot say why but they did. The master of the house was persistent in telling jokes and inviting everyone to laugh. He interpreted them into English for the governess, but even if neglected she would burst into laughter all the same, as it was seemingly required by the customs of this house. I kept grave at first, which worried Norden to the point of upsetting him; looking closely and uneasily into my eyes, he would ask in his surprise, “Why aren’t you laughing? You don’t find this amusing? Why, but it’s quite witty, isn’t it?”
And he explained to me why it was witty, and why I had to laugh. But if I kept the serious look or just smiled instead of roaring, Norden would get agitated and press me with more and more tedious jokes, squeezing laughter out of me like water out of butter; if I did not yield now, it seemed, he would start to cry and kiss my hands, entreating me for his life’s sake to give a single laugh. Thus I ended up roaring like the rest of them — I still remember that convulsive, ridiculous, idiotic laughter which was tearing my lips apart like a bit rips a horse’s mouth. I remember the excruciating sensation of fear and some savage obedience which seized me when I was finally alone, all alone in my room, or on the sea shore, and some strange pressure fell on my facial muscles, an impudent, insane urge to laugh, although I did not even feel cheerful, to say nothing of amused.
After seeing all those people at the table for a few days I concluded there was nobody else in the house. But once, just as we were having dinner, someone began playing the piano upstairs, in the room which had always been locked. That surprised me, so — against the proprieties, perhaps; I am always confused by those proprieties — I asked, “Who is playing there?”
Norden replied gaily, “Ah, there? You did not know? That’s my wife. I am sorry if I’ve forgotten to tell you. She is not quite well and keeps to her room. But what a marvelous talent! Just listen to how she plays.”
But the music was very sad, and Norden grew anxious.
“Such a marvelous player,” he repeated, tapping an impalpable rhythm on the edge of his plate with a knife. Then he lost his nerve and ran upstairs — to come back some time later, shouting merrily from the staircase, “Children! Miss Molle! Get ready, Mother wants you to have fun!”
Indeed, the player above started a jaunty tune, some popular dance which implied convulsive rapid movements, a kind of cheery jerking. There was a touch of awkwardness in her manner, so Norden noted amiably, “That’s new music. I’ve just brought it from Petersburg. Such a charming dance, it’s all the rage in Europe.”
And he shouted merrily, “Tanzieren, meine Kinder, tanzieren! Miss Molle!”
And those obedient little dolls began to spin; the youngest one, the girl, was watching the others overtly in her naivety, mimicking their motions, raising her hands and shifting clumsily on her short pudgy legs. It appeared she was the only person in the room who really enjoyed this, and laughed with all her little heart. Miss Molle, while keeping an eye on the children, was spinning dully and stiffly, like a circus horse brought onto its hind legs by trainer’s snapping lashes. Norden was clapping his hands, encouraging the dancers with shouts, and, finally, pretending he could not help himself anymore, started whirling as well. And he asked me again and again, as he whirled, “And you, what about you?”
Then he stopped and began to plead me, “Pray join us! Come on, just a bit, that’ll be a great pleasure for all of us! You cannot dance? Why, Miss Molle can teach you in no time!”
But this I refused flatly. When the flushed children were led away, Norden started a cigar and, panting gleefully, said, “Phew, it’s tired me out. We have a lovely time here, don’t we?”
From then onward I heard music from upstairs almost every day, occasionally sad but mostly jaunty and awkward: from each of his journeys to Petersburg Norden brought sheet music for some new charming dance, all the rage in Europe. He went to Petersburg quite frequently, doing some serious business there, but not for long — a day or two at most. I was keen to know what was happening to Norden’s wife — it seemed to me now that she was the key to that great melancholy which enshrouded the house and the people, but all my endeavors were in vain. I did not want to make friends with the servants, who did not seem to know anything for that matter, while Volodya kept respectfully secretive — to the point of lying, no doubt.
“Well, how is your mother today?” I asked him. “Have you seen her today?”
“Yes. We see her every morning. Mama is very sorry that she can’t get to know you.”
“Is she very ill?”
“No, not really. She plays the piano very well. She has a great talent.”
“And does she weep often?” I asked suddenly.
“Mama?” Volodya looked surprised. ‘No, she never weeps.’
“Does she laugh, then?” I chuckled angrily.
“Is laughing wrong?” the humblest of pupils asked guiltily, expecting me, it seemed, to deliver a lecture on laughter, and getting ready to become sad or laugh, depending on the conclusion of that lecture. But the lecture was not delivered, and we never mentioned his mama again.
One night or, rather, dawn — those three were already scraping with iron, ripping the footprints off — a great commotion happened in the house, caused, to all appearances, by the sickness of the unseen piano player. Something fell on the floor, someone screamed as if with pain or extreme fear, lights began to run to and fro, and through the half-opened door I heard Norden soothing somebody, “Nothing to worry about. The wind tore off a shutter, she got a little frightened. It’s all over.”
Indeed, there was that strong sea wind, nearly a gale: it shrilled in chimneys all night, slid wetly around the corners of the house, stopping now and then on the lawn, like a singer on a stage, to entwine itself in whistling and wild chanting — but all the shutters were undamaged, I saw that in the morning. So Norden had been lying. But on the very same morning I saw his wife for the first time; I looked up to her windows, and behind the false gleam of the mirror glass, in the semidarkness of the room, there was a figure, no less false and uncertain: she stood there and gazed at the raging, rumbling sea. And much to my surprise, as far as I was able to see, she was not old but still a beautiful young woman with large, dark sunken eyes. With some impudence — I was getting increasingly impudent with Norden — I asked him how old was his wife. It turned out she was only twenty-nine, and the late Yelena was the child of Norden’s first marriage.
The diary I had been keeping at the Nordens was stolen by someone later: evidently it fell the victim of the same trace-destroying system, naïve and stubborn fight against every surface. Whoever the thief, he got nowhere with this petty, despicable act, and his hand had toiled in vain to pick the lock: I have a clear enough memory of all the events up to the final moment, when terror blew my consciousness away for long months. And those traces imprinted in my memory would not have yielded even to those three who used to trail their iron rakes along the paths at daybreak.
How can I forget that sea — shallow, hopelessly dull, lying perfectly flat, as if the globe itself had stopped being a sphere there? The idea of a sea had always brought that of a ship to my mind — but there were no ships, their routes ran somewhere farther, beyond the line of the horizon, ever misty and ever vague — and there lay that bleak grey wilderness of the low water, and the waves rolled in little ripples, jostling one another, powerless to reach the shore and eternal rest. Once or twice I saw a lonely fisherman’s cog in the distance, dark and so motionless you could take it for a rock protruding out of water — and that was all my eyes had been able to reveal during those many hours of unremitting attention. The storm which so much frightened the strange and unseen Mrs. Norden was followed by a week of languid calm, of soupy mild weather, of limpid stifling fogs which did not show themselves in close up but enveloped the distant view in impassive gloom and turned midday into grey twilight; and with the arrival of the fogs the shallow water retreated far from the shore, laying open islets and whole continents of sandbanks. Their even surface, undisturbed by any landmark, unmarked by any object, denied all true and familiar notions of size and distance, so when I set out into the depths of this strange land, my own strides appeared enormous to me, every leap over these narrow channels felt huge, and I imagined myself a giant, a mysterious being who was for the first time exploring the newly created wastes of lifeless land.
Bounding thus from a continent to a continent, I reached the edge of that grey water, and its flat feeble waves turned into colossal primeval surges for me that day, the gentle lapping gave way to the crash and roar of a tide; I inscribed Yelena’s pure name on the clean surface of the sand, and the small letters became gigantic hieroglyphs, calling aloud to the wilderness of the sky, sea and earth.
Why did not I follow my own route on the way back? The night was setting in, and I got lost in the dark, met by the expanse of deep-looking water wherever I stepped; seized by fear, I trudged my way right through the puddles until, to my great joy, the dark shape of the stone pyramid loomed ahead — by sheer chance I had emerged at the point of the shore where Yelena’s body had been found years ago.
“Why did you make your home here?” I asked Norden defiantly later that evening. “The sea is awfully boring in these parts.”
Norden, seemingly upset by my remark, turned his head toward the dark window and stared uneasily. “Is it actually boring? No, that is not true. When you get to know it better it’ll enchant you.”
It was enchanting me indeed, but this was the enchantment of melancholy and fear, the deadly poison I had to flee from…but could Norden understand this? — he was already telling one of his jokes, looking pleadingly into my eyes, dragging that ludicrous cracked laughter out of me. And thus we sat face to face and laughed — my God, what nonsense, what humiliation!
The days which followed this conversation left no traces whatsoever in my memory, as if they never were, and all that time I had dwelt in a bleak dreamless sleep, but on the fifth of December the sea froze over, and the first thick snow of the winter fell. And with that early snowfall, on that very day, the fifth of December, began the extraordinary occurrences which served to deepen the sad mystery of those dismal people, their place and life in my mind, and which I have not grasped well enough up to now and sometimes tend to view as a sinister concoction, an unfortunate tale. Here in fact I must regret the loss of my diary with its day-to-day chain of accurate records, since it is only in strict sequence, however little it explains what happened, that one can understand that feeling of insufferable and, later, morbid fear which was step by step overwhelming me.
I shall try to be as accurate as possible without omitting a single detail which has some significance or bears the slightest relation to those happenings. And what I believe needs special emphasis is the first manifestation of that strange, extraordinary entity which as it were personified all the somber powers, all the melancholy and dark sadness that weighed upon the ill-fated and accursed house of the Nordens and engulfed me, a hitherto stranger, into its dreadful maelstrom.
So I repeat, on that day, the fifth of December, the first thick snow of the season fell. It had been falling all the preceding night and all the morning, so when I went outside after lessons with Volodya, I was met by calm, beauty and deathly whiteness. Leaving a deep tread in the snow, I hurried my way to the shore and gasped: there was no sea anymore. Just a day before its icy, dimly gleaming surface, distorted by squalls, began at this very point, but now everything was level, there were not any boundaries or the slightest obstructions to the beholder’s gaze. If the world were a drawing one might have thought that the image ended right behind me, giving way to white paper untouched by a pencil; led by a human need to draw, to leave marks and pictures on any undisturbed surface, I took off the right glove and drew with a finger large letters on the cold snow: Yelena.
I cast a glance at the pyramid but there was none. Instead there was a small mound of snow, plump with the gentle roundedness of stones, a peaceful and resigned thing, as if it had died for the second and final time. Head this way, feet that way…no, it was difficult to imagine now, with no sea, nor shore, nor waves to overturn a boat; there was only that level, white, dispassionate thing. Then a sort of liberation dawned upon me: all of a sudden, everything felt unusually plain and easy, and somehow there came a sensible thought of paying a visit to the university and showing myself to the beadle. As for Norden, he looked like a mere eccentric now — displeasing, admittedly, unhappy for some reason but ultimately harmless and, at any rate, unimportant to me: I would make some money and then depart, let them live as they liked, telling jokes and dancing.
“Now then, how’d you deal with these footprints?” I thought cheerfully, trudging my way back and caring to avoid my old tread but make a new one, broad and messy. It was such a pleasure, leaving a trace to recall the next day that I stepped there; maybe even, to see myself walking into the past for a few days, till virgin snow has fallen anew. And all at once the garden became something trivial and simple: the cold caress of the tranquil snow dissolved the estrangement and loneliness which had tormented the trees, lulling them into slumber and serene dreams. There was only one thing to disturb that gentle calm, the large wooden coverings which Norden had brought to protect the valuable southern trees from the frost. I had never seen this practice in any garden and took a dislike to these tall, outright odd, seemingly empty wooden boxes; some of them vaguely resembled large coffins standing up for some wild parade. “Just like the resurrection of the dead, interrupted,” I thought, unkindly remembering Norden who believed those boxes were a greatly ingenious, practical and witty idea.
Meanwhile, Norden had left for some business in Petersburg and been out for two days, so everything looked quiet and empty in the well-heated pile of the house where there still were some rooms I had not explored yet; the children kept to their rooms and their governess and out of mischief, the servants were quiet in the kitchen, and somewhere in the upper rooms, behind the mirror windows, a beautiful young woman sat silent in solitude and sickness, somber victim to unknown forces. I spent an hour or so in the library but did not really feel like reading — some cheerful excitement filled my soul, and the empty house, quiet and unknown, called me to adventure; so, listening for anyone who might pass, and hearing nothing, I crossed the threshold of the wing where the hapless Mrs. Norden was known to reside in one of the rooms. The doors were open; warily and with some hurry I passed across one room, then another, then a short corridor, and found myself at a landing with stairs leading down — I had not known about these; and suddenly it was evident that the sick woman was right behind that tall taciturn door. With a desperate resolution I tried the door but it would not open, so I ended up at the deserted landing, unsure what to do next. Knock? As if I had any right to!
I lingered like this for a long time, first enchanted, then confounded and depressed, by the unbroken silence which was deepening every instant, permeating all objects, binding the steps of the deserted stairway, staring white-eyedly through a large window. Finally, as footsteps came from below, I hurried back to the library; and I felt the same restless joy, same unaccountable agitation as earlier. But, still unable to read, I fell asleep on the broad soft couch with a book in my hands, taking along as my last trailing memory an image of the dead snowy world barely touched by a pencil, a feeling of being comfortably lost in the vastness of its snows, and the lonesome warmth of my small nook, roofed and sheltered.
In the evening, I studied as usual in my room, wrote diary entries and some letters, and went to bed at the customary hour but failed to fall asleep thanks to that long and heavy day slumber, so I lay for an hour or two with my eyes open, gazing curiously at and listening to the unfamiliar house and somewhat familiar room, the latter utterly strange in the semidarkness. There was that same silence as during the day; the night was white outside the window feebly shielded by a thin curtain — apparently the moon, hidden behind the clouds, was scattering its spectral light. I think I was surrendering at last to sleep as I felt, all of a sudden, that someone stood outside the window, with something like a shadow outlined on the white curtain.
Here I must clarify that my room was on the first floor, at the point where two walls of the building met at an angle, and the windows were close enough to the ground, so it was fairly easy to peep in if you stood on tiptoe or were tall enough. “That must be some visitor who doesn’t know where to enter,” I thought and somewhat disturbedly walked to the window to draw the curtain…and yes, there was someone standing right in front of me, his chest well above the sill, his dark motionless face staring at me. Slightly at a loss, I made a sort of welcoming gesture with my hand, but he did not respond and remained perfectly motionless; I tapped on the glass with my fingers, and still was met by nothing but the immobility of that dark shape and dark shadowed face.
“What do you need?” I said softly, forgetting that it was not possible to hear my voice through the double storm window.
And indeed, there was no answer, and the dark face stared as direct and unmoving as before. “Just you wait, then,” I thought angrily. “I’m going to catch you!” But I had hardly turned away from the window when he started to retreat — slowly, deliberately, looming for a moment as a dark profile. I barely had time to notice that his shoulders were square and remarkably broad, and that he wore a low bowler hat, but otherwise there was nothing extraordinary or strange about him, except perhaps the mystery of his appearing in the dead of night under another person’s window. I made up my mind to go outside and check just in case, but as I was getting dressed my determination waned, so I stayed in my room, thinking with sham indifference, “I’ll see what the story is tomorrow.”
In the morning I talked with the servants and the family: it turned out no one had come there that night, and they had not seen anybody who looked like my stranger. The yard-keeper was quite calm and relaxed as he was answering my questions but the lackey Ivan, young and clean-shaven, displayed, it seemed to me, embarrassment and some visible uneasiness; after making me repeat my account of the stranger and regaining his temper toward the end he declared emphatically that it must have been my imagination. Later I came to know that many people in the house were afraid of a ghost but for some reason everyone was convinced that it was the long-drowned Yelena. This fear, though, superficial and childish as it was, was to all appearances akin to those superstitions that spring up in unhappy houses which arouse suspicion and curiosity.
Ending up no wiser than before, I went on to take a look at my window hoping it could give me a key to what had happened — but what I actually saw and observed filled me with great dismay and somewhat unpleasant disquiet. There were no footprints under the window, which was the first thing to catch my eye; second, it appeared I had been wrong to think the window level matched a normal man’s height: in fact, I could hardly reach the sill with my fingertips, even though I am taller than most. This fact seemed especially important to me since the night visitor had loomed over the windowsill from the waist up; that is, he either was disproportionally, if not unnaturally, tall, or was floating in the air like a…hallucination. Yes, hallucination — that was the thought that I concluded my inspection with and that agitated me so disagreeably.
This explanation was plausible enough: the intense and troubled attention I had been paying to the unfamiliar house, expecting some mysterious and somber miracles to come, had unhinged my nervous system after all and granted me a miracle, the only one destined to our skeptical and educated century. Surely it was a hallucination — unless it was a casual bypasser, or some madman, or— But what about footprints, then? And if it was a delusion why did I feel so well, so strong, and not in the least bit nervous; why did I perceive everything so clearly, why was my thinking so accurate and lucid? And why did my anxiety and nervousness manifest in this particular form, gloomy enough but still so ordinary and plain, having nothing to do with any of my conjectures? Just like many others in this house I would expect to see Yelena rather than this silent gentleman in a bowler — why in the world should I care about his bowler!
Thus I did not settle the question but I composed myself again easily and quickly for all that: the sense of well-being inspired me with confidence that nothing serious was happening, whichever way I looked at the situation. The day trudged along its usual rut until Norden came back from the city toward evening, bringing new sheet music for some cheery modish dance. So after dinner their unseen mama was playing again, delving in a somewhat stumbling manner into the new music, while the children were dancing, and Miss Molle was whirling like a horse in a circus ring, and Norden himself waltzed around the room once or twice, mocking a ballet dancer’s movements, overplaying comically. Everybody was laughing a lot, but when I glanced at the window with tears in my eyes I had the impression that someone was standing outside. Coming to my senses at once, I peered closely: it was dark and empty outside, and there could not be anyone there, and it was all nonsense. Yet Norden was growing anxious now.
“Why aren’t you laughing? This is so amusing. Perhaps you don’t like our new dance? No, no, you cannot possibly dislike it — I’m going to tell on you to Miss Molle, and she’s going to punish you like a naughty boy. Ha! You’re already afraid.” Pointing at me, he said something in English to Miss Molle, something which made her laugh and shake her head; then, pushing his jest further, he urged her to approach me and slap me on the hand as a jocular punishment. But this was still not enough for him: frolicking like a boy, Norden called for the governess and children to drop to their knees and plead humorously with me to join their dance. I simply had no idea what to do or say; it was both embarrassing and obnoxious, while its being a mere joke transfixed me and left me mute. For a moment I saw Ivan the lackey’s amazed face in the doorway, and a minute later he, still in his tails and white gloves, was kneeling before me with the same plea. And the music rumbled on, rolling down the same stairs that had been so silent the day before, and you began to feel savagely, so morbidly amused, like someone tickled to death. So it was that I ended up dancing, and while I was waltzing and whirling in front of the dark and seemingly innumerable windows that engirdled me in a strange circle, I asked myself in bewilderment, where am I? what is happening to me?
It took a long time for Norden to get over his excitement, and even after the children had gone to sleep he still held me in the dining room, going meticulously through the memories of the evening: the way Miss Molle had been reeling, and the way Volodya had been spinning, and how funny it had been when everyone dropped on their knees to plead with me. And, touching my knee trustingly with his well-groomed aristocrat’s hand, watching me closely with a face I had not yet managed to examine well enough nor memorize, he was saying affectionately, “Why, just think how great it is, how agreeable, how civilized, after all! Yes, civilized. We live in the middle of nowhere, down in the country, with not a single light for ten kilometers around, and that way,” he stretched his hand in the direction of the sea, “it might well be hundreds of kilometers, and what do we do despite all this? We laugh! And what else do we do? We dance! My friends in Petersburg ask me how I manage to live in such isolation without getting bored. Well, certainly, but I wish they had seen us today!”
He broke into laughter, patting me on the knee, and was laughing for a long while — too long, it seemed, intolerably long. And he went on with his delight, “Yes! If only they had, they would all have come here to dance with us. But wait, why don’t we actually arrange this? Yes, yes, that’s the idea! Here’s the brilliant idea!”
All in a flutter, he started to pace the room, giving an exaggerated imitation of a person struck by a great idea, that is, pressed his fingers to the brow, threw out his hands, raised his eyes.
“But this night — ”
He interrupted me, however, “Yes, yes, of course: we’ll invite fifty guests, a hundred, and we all are going to dance, and it will be so hilarious, so civilized…!”
“But this night — ”
Norden turned round swiftly and gave me a long unsmiling stare. And while he stayed silent I felt I was not able to utter a word, as if an iron padlock hang on my lips.
“You wanted to say…” He bent courteously towards me.
But I no longer wanted to say anything, so I said nothing.
That night my falling to sleep was quick, soft and heavy, as though I was falling into a pit filled to the brim with black bird down, and I slept till two or three in the night, till someone woke me up with loud words, time to get up! The voice was so loud it made me half-rise in my bed — but my room looked quiet and deserted, and the door was locked, and I realized immediately it had been one of those auditory illusions common with sleepers. I had already turned over on my side to have some more sleep when I remembered that vague shape outside the window. Yes, someone was standing outside just as the night before.
It was him. I wagged my finger at him but once again he did not react and stood as still as before. This time I saw clearly that indeed he was a man of an extraordinary and even unnatural height and stood on the ground level; for some reason, instead of arousing fear, it made me weirdly calm. And once more I thought I should go outside and catch him, and once more, as if hearing that thought of mine, he turned away from the window and walked unhurriedly along the house. Get dressed? There was no point, I would miss him anyway.
“If it’s just this…if it’s just this then perhaps there’s not much to be afraid of, after all,” I thought, pulling the blanket over me, almost cheerful with the realization that everything was over for today.
Yet my hands and feet were so cold that touching one foot with another nearly hurt; it felt as if those feet underneath the blanket were somebody else’s and not mine. So little by little I started to quiver as though in febrile chills.
Then next night, which was the seventh of December, I went to bed dressed, fully determined to catch the stranger, grab him by the collar and ensure that the disagreeable and odd mystery be solved. I was not afraid at all, but natural irritation, even anger perhaps, prevented me from falling asleep; however, I waited in vain, with not a single shadow, not a single sound disturbing the silence and emptiness of the night outside the window. The two following nights passed no less peacefully: no one ever came, and, with a remarkable ease, surprising even under those circumstances, I nearly forgot about my strange visitor; my infrequent attempts to remember anything evoked an almost painful feeling, that was how stubbornly my memory refused to produce the images it found so stressful and unpleasing. And my sleep was again sound and untroubled, the way it had always been.
On Saturday (Norden was off to the city again) I spent the whole evening in his wonderful library examining art books, imported from abroad and quite valuable, and mused somewhat sadly that my aesthetic development was not up to the mark. While pondering on the possible ways of filling that gap, I lost track of time; when I finally cast a look at the library clock, that of a non-chiming variety, it was after eleven. I began to bustle and, while collecting my notes, took a lazy stray glance at the dark window; and there he was, rising above the windowsill, looking into the room. Startled, I dropped my papers and bent to pick them up, hoping vaguely there would be nobody outside when I looked at the window again. Yet my hopes were in vain.
With a lamp shedding light upon the window I could peruse his face thoroughly enough: tranquil or even listless, it did not instill fear by itself. He looked thirty-five, his features massive and regular, with no beard or moustache — his face even had a gloss about it, as if it he had gotten a close shave recently; the only thing I could not discern were his eyes. They were illumined just like everything else, and I saw them, but his stare, fixed right at me, hindered me in my attempt to discern and understand. There was something in that stare I cannot explain: it was a direct, stony look, feeling almost like a physical touch, and it left a terrible impression. How long had he been standing there staring at me? Somehow this thought affected my pride and served to restore my strength: now he seemed nothing but a brazen rascal to me, so I made a step towards the window and shouted something threatening. And, just like before at the window of my room, he turned around slowly and walked away, vanishing at once into the dark of the night.
I gave a laugh and, pacing the room excitedly, repeated a few times in a loud voice, “What a rascal! Why, just think of it, what a rascal!”
My indignation swelling, I had actually made up my mind to wake Ivan the lackey and other servants, even though it was late, and have them thoroughly search the garden, when one simple thought extinguished both my fury and those ludicrous plans: I remembered that the library was situated on the second floor, and so were its windows!
That Saturday night in the library marked the beginning of a bizarre, purposeless, meaningless, yet steady and systematic haunting. I cannot retrace with any precision either the days or the dates but know for sure there was a certain consistency, even wariness, about the way he was approaching me, slowly and gradually, taking possession of more and more windows, more and more hours, as if surrounding me with his weird and persistent omnipresence. For ten days or so he came only at night, then in the evening, then at dusk — or, rather, starting at dusk, since one visitation per day was not enough for him anymore.
And indeed, could you call them visitations, those sudden silent appearances outside one window, then another as I approached them in my effort to get rid of the importunate visitor. Once, I recall, I crossed quickly from one side of the room to the other, and was amazed to see he was already there, having covered a considerable distance around the house and was waiting for me again.
It seemed that no one in the household suspected anything, and life went on as usual, bleak and sad, in dead silence and quiet, disturbed on rare occasions by spasms of Norden’s preposterous mirth. Why did the children in that house never cry loudly or misbehave? Only once, as I was coming back to my room after a lesson with Volodya, did I hear the youngest child’s weeping voice somewhere nearby; that was so uncommon, in such a conflict with the ways of the house, that I stopped and, after a while, gently opened the door which concealed the girl from view. To my surprise, I saw neither Miss Molle nor her older pupil, the room being empty but for the little girl in the corner, standing with her face to the wall and whispering something rapidly in a tiny teary voice. From one of her hands, stretching low and doubling flatly its rag legs up, a doll was hanging, its hair loose, one of the eyes missing. As for the other hand, the girl brought it repeatedly to her face and wiped the tears in a vaguely businesslike manner, whispering on and on. As the little thing heard my voice, she stopped whispering yet did not turn around, only pulled the doll closer with a wary movement and hid it behind her body.
“Has Miss Molle punished you?” I asked, leaning over her, yet not daring to turn her face toward mine: for some reason the youngest one’s grief felt so untouchable, so formidable to me. I had to repeat my question three or four times until finally a quiet answer came, “No. I’ve done that myself.”
“Would you like me to take you in my arms? I’ll carry you around the room.”
There was no answer but the doll, once again, sank slowly to the floor, and there was a hint of hesitation in the girl’s whole body, in her narrow and rounded little shoulders, in the curls of fair hair on top of her head; I was already holding out my hands when Norden’s loud laughter came from a room away. I left quickly, making up my mind to explain myself to Norden and depart as soon as possible.
Of course I should have departed, and all reason in the world favored a hasty, even urgent departure, perhaps on the same day, at the very minute that heaven-sent thought dawned on me. But something much stronger than reason with its dull and languid voice rooted me to the ground, steered my will and drew me even deeper into the obscure cloud of sombre emotion: there is a peculiar charm in sadness and fear, and dark forces have great power over lonesome souls unfamiliar with joy. I am not sure whether I actually thought this way or invented some false excuses but finally I discarded, with only a hint of hesitation, the idea of leaving and stayed to suffer on.
It might be that what held me there was, in part, those fine days that followed, full of sun and silence. In the night, freezing fogs covered the trees and the nearby telegraph wire with hoarfrost, transforming each delicate branch and twig into a furry sprout of some wondrous and beautiful plant. The autumn-thinned garden became impenetrable again, as if coming newly into leaf, its foliage white; the shadows in the branches were so weak that the distant and close trees merged inseparably, all branches tangling, and it seemed that human eyes could never make anything out of that silvery, immovable frozen mess.
But then you looked some more — and suddenly everything was separate again, each twig floating in the sea of sky-blue air, and there was as much air amid the thick white fluffy branches of a single tree as in the whole world. This was marvelous and stunning, still more when yellowish-pink sunrays interfered in that motionless game, faded quietly and flared up again, and were lost somewhere in the furthest grades of frost, making your eyes and soul ache with that beauty.
He did not show himself all these days, while Norden with his laughter and his jokes was in the city, with no one to make noise in his absence, so the sensation of silence was incredibly strong, as if all agitation, all screaming, and all voices had ceased, all at once, across the entire world. And during those quiet happy hours I forgot completely about the dread of the night ones, when the earth was likewise new to my knowledge, and the silence reigned supreme as well. So every morning I put on my skis and went to the shore of the frozen sea, to the grave mound, to look at the large letters carved deep in the snow to stand for that pure name, Yelena.
And as I was coming back to the house, I stared — persistently, though respectfully — at the windows behind which the unseen Mrs. Norden lived and languished, hoping to catch a glimpse of that young pale face that had presented itself to me once. But no one approached the window, and you could believe that there were no living people inside, and no Mrs. Norden, that strange pale-faced woman about whom nobody talked, as there was no Yelena. They never talked about her but brought the children to her every day, and rarely — extremely rarely, though — I heard, sitting in my room, an indecisive and weak bell ringing in the servants’ quarters, repeating three times and sounding unlike any other bells — that was her call. And it is still strange now to think of the door to her room opening just like any other door, and someone who is she rising at the view of a housemaid, saying something in a soft voice, asking for something, her pale face revealed to the girl. But, always, the housemaid was indifferent, calling her madam and unable to tell anything about her — or unwilling?
On the fifteenth of December Norden returned from the city, and there was a nasty turn in the weather shortly afterwards — the days got darker, and grey-looking snow was falling heavily, covering the inscribed name of Yelena with a cold thick shroud. Then he came back as the bad weather did, and my relations with the unbearable visitant entered a new stage.
On Sunday, the nineteenth of December, after everyone finished breakfast and left the dining room, I was standing with Volodya at the window, watching the snow falling in the garden — and that was the moment he appeared. That was the first time he came into the light of day and with others to witness him. He stood only a few steps away from the windowpane, and there was white snow on his black bowler hat and his shoulders; I saw clearly two or three starry snowflakes land softly on his dark garments and rest there. Yet most of my attention was focused on Volodya: his eyes narrowed, his gaze acquiring that definiteness that contemplating a nearby object brings about; without doubt, Volodya saw exactly what I saw. In fact, as in a few seconds the stranger turned round to go away, Volodya even made a step forward to see him a bit longer. Flustered as can be, I made the boy face me and asked sternly, “Have you seen him?”
And he lied coolly, like an adult, “I don’t understand who you mean, and I don’t see anything but the falling snow. Why, do you see anything else?”
“What’s that what you see, then?”
I knew he would stick to his lies and stopped trying to learn anything from him. And the next day the whole thing repeated word for word, although this time the person standing by my side at the window was not Volodya but his equally lying parent, and just like before he lingered for a few seconds in full view, then walked away and disappeared round the corner. And likewise Mr. Norden followed the man with his eyes.
“Huh, what do you think of that?” I said and, with some restraint, laughed.
“I am only too glad to see you so merry at last, but what’s it all about?” asked Norden with a look of earnest puzzlement and touched my shoulder cautiously.
But he had seen the apparition — he did. I know he did!
“Did you see it, then?”
“I did not.”
“That’s not true, the very form of your answer shows you did. What does it mean?”
He was staring at me, unsmilingly. Overtaken with terrible helplessness bordering on despair, I shouted foolishly, “I shall complain!”
Naturally, he was quick to take advantage of my childish remark. All at once, his expression changed, turning considerate and amiable to the point of mawkishness; as companionable as hugging me — a minute more, it seemed, and he would start raining kisses — Norden also assailed me with questions as to the source of my complaint.
“Has anyone insulted you — a servant, perhaps? But I cannot have it in my house! Tell me the culprit’s name, and I immediately — oh, strict is civilized in cases like this! No? Then you must be bored — yes, yes, do not deny it, I can guess that. I used to be as young as you… Ah, youth, youth!”
He chattered like this for a long while, and it was hard to know if he was openly mocking me or trying to banish some anxiety of his own — those never ending appeals to be merry and start laughing, instantly, at this very moment, sometimes approximated a threat. It all concluded with a plan for a hugely exciting, hugely merry New Year festival, and we would begin making preparations tomorrow morning; that very instant he would make an order for a tree — a singular tree, a huge tree, that very instant he would compile a shopping list, and someone was going to go to the city at once—
So in this ridiculous way our conversation ended. That was why, parallel with the darkness thickening over my soul, the days that followed were flecked with flashes of some affected mirth and bustle, of performing noisily and clamorously needless tasks, of jokes which amused nobody, of loud laughter sounding like clothes torn in desperation. The tree was brought in, and indeed it was a very large spruce which filled the room with a spicy, resinous, somewhat funereal smell of needles; there were reeking wax candles, lit for a test of their light, then quenched, and again; and I, alongside Miss Molle and the children, was hanging some decorations, crawling up the ladder that Norden held and scattering silver threads over the prickly unyielding branches. Then there was some dancing, performing some sophisticated rites and choral pieces, and the unseen musician played again.
And what happened in the night was as follows. The conversation with Norden, or rather my own foolishness outraged me so much that I made up my mind, as a new surge of energy came, to go and act, to make some firm and decisive move. So again, just like the other night, I went to bed without taking my clothes off and waited impatiently to feel his presence beyond the window curtain; this time, burning with intolerable excitement, I was on the verge of calling out my weird and relentless shadower. But he was in no haste, so it was as late as two or so in the night when the familiar feeling which had never betrayed me told me he was here. I rushed to the window, drew the curtain, and yes, he was. Boiling with hatred and anger, I swept my eyes over that dark silhouette with broad shoulders and a head which somehow appeared small in the gloom; I wagged my finger at him and turned to go — but he turned away as well. Stepping swiftly yet softly and warily, I strode blindly through a couple of darkened rooms until by the strong smell of fur I knew I was at the entrance hall; then I lit a match, which went out at once, and opened the door into the chill glass anteroom that isolated the entrance hall from the outer door. The iron bolt was cold, scalding my hands; in the darkness, unable to strike a match, I fumbled with the thing quite a while, then at last flung the door open, stepped determinately into the murk — and nearly bumped into him. He was standing on a small stone landing buried under the snow, motionless and silent. That dark face of his was turned towards me. He was only a bit higher than me. I do not know how long we stood like this, opposite one another; he was not trying to enter, not even moving, yet I felt increasingly afraid with every passing moment — and, stepping back quietly, I began closing the door, slowly, with a sort of pointless civility that somehow felt necessary to me. As I was hurriedly pushing the bolt back into place, I thought I could feel him tugging the doorknob feebly from outside but that was certainly my imagination and nothing else.
It was warm and cosy in the darkened entrance hall, and again there was a strong animal smell from the fur of winter clothes. All trembling, I went back to my room.
I had not yet lost my reason at the time, so the next morning, after a long pointless night, I gave myself over to thoughts of the events that had occurred. I remember clearly that I was very serious and very calm that morning, and my head was as clear as that of any other person who is thoroughly sound and not afraid of anything. Alleging some trifling ailment, I excused myself from further decoration, still unfinished, of the Christmas tree, so that nothing interrupted my meditations, and went out to stroll along the wide well-trodden road leading to the railway station. The day was cloudy and frosty.
Like anyone else, I had read in books and heard from older people that the lonely and miserable, stricken by a sudden grief, or those committing a crime, might experience fantastic visions. But I had not committed any crime and did not face such a grief, and, what was most important, most inexplicable, nonsensical and preposterous, there was not and could not be any connection whatsoever between my life and that extraordinary outdoor-dwelling air-floating gentleman in a bowler, keeping watch at my windows, fixing his mysterious and strong affections upon me. What did he want from me? I as just a tutor in that house, and I knew nothing about that sad mistake, that bitter untruth, a crime perhaps that cast its shadow upon these people and this place, all of which meant nothing to me. I was sound as a bell, putting on weight every day, and all this was so inane that I could not even consult a mental specialist. What did he want from me?
I am just a tutor in this house.
I repeated this phrase aloud — there was no one else on the road — for a few times like a magic spell: I am just a tutor in this house, and it seemed so clear and convincing that for a moment I felt an urge to talk to the phantom and explain that he was mistaken, that I was just a tutor in the house. But do you talk to phantoms, can you prove anything to them? Nonsense, nonsense.
So once again I was walking down the road, thinking hard, until I realized that my thoughts were recurring, flowing in one and the same order, that I was reflecting in a circular fashion, the way a circus horse runs, and the circle closed at the same point, with the same word: nonsense. I needed to break the circle, to think in some other manner, but how? I did not know. And the circle repeated itself again, I was not walking now but running along a closed line, returning, dashing forward, losing hope and energy, and that was when I felt terrified beyond all belief. Not by the phantom, no, somehow he was not significant anymore, but by the things that happened and could happen within a poor human head. I remember I nearly gave a shriek, then turned and strode home: even that seemed like a home compared to a ghost of void that had revealed itself to my mind.
So I ended up feeling quite gay, warm and pleasant at home, and there was a thing that truly delighted me and made me laugh with joy — while I had been outside, two students, Norden’s nephews, had arrived to stay for Christmas celebrations, both amiable and polite young men, very similar in appearance. Side by side with Norden they fiddled about the tree, finishing its decoration, and the children were there as well, and the music was coming from upstairs, seeming truly joyous to me this time — the unseen Mrs. Norden was playing the new dances brought by the students. I recollect that I went out for a walk with the guests, then we drank wine at dinner and laughed at something incessantly, while in the evening there was some real dancing, since some fat lady arrived along with her two daughters, pretty young girls, quite cheerful and affable. Leaping slightly ahead I must say that more guests invited for Christmas arrived over the next few days, all of them really sweet and friendly people, so it even seemed odd to me that our house, however large, could receive such a number, disappearing by night into their respective rooms. As a matter of fact I do not know who they were, and I also must confess to a peculiar quirk of memory: I cannot remember a single face now, either old nor young. I have a distinct remembrance of clothes, men’s and women’s, black and colored, I can even see clearly some general’s tunic but feel as powerless to evoke any face on top of it in my memory as if it were not a living person but merely a signboard of some military tailor.
But now I must return to the day when the students and the fat lady with her daughters arrived. My head swam heavily what with wine and dancing, the two activities I had taken the liveliest part in, so upon withdrawing to my room after the party broke up, I hurled myself on the bed and fell asleep instantly. I woke up two or three hours later, in the dead of night, tormented by thirst and something else too, something restless and imperative that called upon me to awaken and get up; dead silence hung over the sleeping house, and outside the window across which I had neglected to draw the curtain, there he stood. I remember that I shrugged my shoulders and poured myself two glasses of water, one after another, unhurriedly, yet fixing my gaze on the window. Yet he did not leave. And, freezing now with cold, as though a window had been opened out into the winter night with its frost and darkness, forgetting utterly about yesterday’s evening dancing and music, surrendering to the feeling of wild resignation and sorrow, I gestured slowly at the door and went down to the entrance, in the dark just like the night before. And, just like the night before, it smelt of fur in the hall, and the iron bolt was cold and unwilling to yield to my slightly shaking hands; and again, just like the night before, he was already standing on the landing in silent expectation. I was silent too as I waited, for some reason listening intently to a dog barking, distant and lonely, the only sound of life to disturb the still of the night; I cannot say how much time had passed before he stepped suddenly into the doorway, pushing me forcefully with his shoulder. I followed him just in time to see the dark silhouette looming momentarily against a distant window as he opened the door into the living area; I was not surprised to find him entering my room — mine and nobody else’s. I entered too, closing the door by force of habit, but lingered on the threshold: it was pitch-dark, I did not know where he was and could easily run into him. Only after a long while, as my eyes adapted to the semi-gloom inside, did I see a tall, dark immovable patch by the wall; had I not known that the wall was bare in that spot, I could have mistaken the patch for furniture or a mass of hanging clothes. There was no breathing to be heard.
Such a great length of time had elapsed, and his immobility was so perfect that I began to have doubts and, stepping forth, reached out far enough to touch the patch warily; for an instant there was a sense of my fingers contacting fabric and something solid underneath it, a shoulder or an arm. I jerked my hand back and stood still again, unsure what to do next; finally I overcame the dryness in my throat and asked, albeit in a hoarse voice, “What do you want, sir? I’m just a tutor in this house.”
But he kept silent, and I felt ludicrous for addressing him with sir. Even so I inferred from his silence that I had to go to bed, and so I did, taking off my clothes slowly and methodically under his unseen yet palpable stare — I was sitting on my bed, which creaked badly as I moved, and for some reason that greatly embarrassed me. As I was crawling under the cold blanket, I happened to realize I had not set my shoes out but decided it made no difference now. I lay down supine, with my face upwards, since it seemed impolite to do otherwise; and the next moment he sat down, pushing me carefully to the wall, on the edge of the bed, and put his hand upon my head. It was moderately cold and very heavy, and what it exuded was sleep and sorrow. I had gone through a lot of hardships in my life, I saw my father, whom I loved deeply, die before my very eyes, I had thought more than once, despite my youth, that my heart could break and burst with sadness and grief, but I could have not even imagined such a grief until that night, until that cold and heavy hand touched my forehead for the first time. I felt on the instant that I was falling asleep, yet, oddly enough, sleep and sorrow did not conflict but entered me as a whole and spread lingeringly down from the head all through my body, penetrating its innermost depths, becoming my blood, my fingers, my chest. I was still able to know the moment when sorrow and sleep reached my heart and flooded it but everything after that — be it consciousness, fear or fragmentary thoughts — everything left me in the monolithic emotion of all-exhausting, all-encompassing sorrow. They all left me, every single image, thought or memory, and my youth slid away; all my wishes gone, the life itself extinguished, and my soul hurt so painfully, overwhelmed by such a sorrow that our language has neither images to compare it with nor words to express it. It did not matter now that he was sitting beside me, keeping his dreadful hand upon my head; and slowly, grieving mortally, grieving motionlessly, grieving beyond all limits that the imbounded reality sets — slowly I settled down into a dreamless sleep.
In the morning I woke up at the customary hour. There was no one in the room, and everything was in its place as always. The reddish sun shone frostily through the window; I felt neither well nor unwell but rather flat and empty, while in the mirror, as I was getting dressed, there was my usual face, hardly changed at all — the grey and unhandsome face of a man who had hungered a lot and whom no one had ever caressed. And everything was as usual, as it always had been, yet the one thing I knew for certain was that something had changed in the world, and that my former, yesterday’s world was no more, and would never be again. And immediately, even before I left my room, I made a curious observation that gladdened me in some lackluster way: the fear of the mysterious phantom that had tormented me all this time had disappeared without a trace. And as I entered the dining room where the guests had already gathered and Norden was telling his jokes to everyone’s laughter, I felt insurmountable aversion to all those people. That aversion was so great that, as I was wishing them good morning, each new handshake caused a physical sensation of torturous nausea in me, reaching up to my throat. As a matter of fact, during that tumultuous, variegated day the sense of aversion wore off and nearly vanished, but from then onward every morning began for me with that torturous nausea following each firm shaking of a stranger’s hand.
Later that same morning, as I returned from an outing which had all of us, led by Mr. Norden, engaged in a snowball fight, I retired for a few minutes to my room and wrote a letter to a fellow student of mine who lived in the city. I had no friends outside university, and that student was not my friend either, but he had treated me better than the others, being a good, kind, helpful soul. The subject of the letter and my feeling in writing it were that I was in terrible danger and he had to come and save me; but all this was expressed in a very dull manner, partaking of boredom that verged on indifference, and would have hardly fulfilled its purpose had I actually sent the letter. Yet for some reason I did not even send it, and it was much later, after my recovery, that I found it in the pocket of my peacoat, sealed and unaddressed. Maybe I could not remember the address then? I do not know. There is no any date in the letter, and the text reads as follows: “Dear M.I., please come here if you are not very busy. There is something going on, and I need to be taken away.” After that, my signature.
As a matter of fact it must be from that day on that I began experiencing that strange weakness of memory, bordering at times on full amnesia, which imbues my last days at Norden’s with a bloom of discontinuity and confusion. As I have mentioned before, I cannot remember a single face belonging to any of Norden’s numerous guests, and what I see are clothes with no heads on top, as if they were not people after all but a wardrobe that opened its doors, came to life and broke into a dance; I should add, however, that I cannot recollect any conversations either, not a single word, even though I know for certain that everyone, myself included, did a lot of talking, joking and laughing. I cannot remember any dates, so it is still a mystery to me how many days and nights passed before I left the house. Sometimes it feels like a few weeks or more, and at other times everything seems to have taken two or three days at most. At the same time I have an extremely clear memory of certain little things, as well as many of my thoughts and feelings, and my persisting impression of that period is not that of oblivion but, quite the contrary, of sound memory and a lucid enough mind, as if it is only now, after my illness, that I have forgotten those events but was aware of everything at the time and kept it in my thoughts.
Thus, as the first thing impossible to forget, I recollect those night hours when he came and put his cold and heavy hand on my head. Those visitations became, as it were, part of my daily routine and followed one and the same pattern every time — in the evening, as the guests retired to their rooms, I threw myself onto the bed with my clothes on and slept for a few hours; then I made my way to the entrance hall, all in the dark, opened the outer door and let him, already waiting on the platform, in. Then we went to my room where I undressed and lay down supine under the cold blanket while he sat down beside me and put his hand on my brow. And what exuded from his hand was sleep and sorrow — sleep and sorrow. Now I had no fear whatsoever of the stranger, even though I never tried to touch him in return or talk to him. What motivated me was not fear but an obscure feeling that there was no need for any words; so outwardly everything happened in such a calm and simple way, as if he was not the greatest evil and the death of me but merely a conscientious silent doctor who attended daily to an equally conscientious and silent patient. But that sorrow was tremendous.
And then the short lightless morning began, and the long, boisterous, rackety and, it would seem, merry evening — one event after another in rapid succession. I cannot say what they had done about the Christmas tree in my absence, but it shone ever brighter evening after evening, flooding the walls and ceiling with light, throwing splashes of dazzling fire onto the windows.
And all day long, morning until night, there was Norden’s incessant laughter, there was his inviting cry, “Tanzieren! Tanzieren!”
I can recall no other voices but this shout still rings in my ears, haunts me in my dreams, storms into the midst of my thoughts and drives them away. Drowning music, laughter, patter of feet, all that noise made by people who come together to revel, sharp as a parrot’s shriek, it was heard in every corner, ever more intolerable. Sometimes Norden sounded jovial and humorous, yet often — as far as I recollect — his voice grew hoarse, all but menacing; it appeared at times that he was worn out too but could not stop now, so he shouted again threateningly, almost tearfully, “Tanzieren! Tanzieren!”
I remember one of those occasions well. With no apparent reason the music coming from upstairs ceased, and there came silence, quite remarkable at that time of the day; what the guests were doing, those who gathered against the wall illumined by the blazing Christmas tree, I am not sure — probably I took no notice of that. The only one I remember is Norden himself. He was most likely drunk since both his beard and hair were disheveled, his countenance wild and strange. He stood in the middle of the room and screamed furiously, shaking his fists, “Tanzieren!” Still threatening someone. Then again there was music and dancing; and I think this was that night, exactly that night, when the largest, grandest ball of all took place, imprinting my memory with the image of a great number of moving people and extraordinarily bright light similar to the glow of a fire or a thousand tar barrels. It was utterly impossible that only Norden’s usual houseguests were present at the ball: there were so many people that there must have been some other guests, invited just for that night and leaving later. And there also was that there was also a very strange feeling I’ve associated with that night ever since — the feeling of Yelena being close, as though she was present at the ball too. It is conceivable that some tar barrels were really burning in the garden and the yard, and that I wended my way, by accident or design, to that point of the shore where the snow-bound pyramid sat, and thought about Yelena for a long while but in my odd state imagined a different picture — there is no other explanation that I can offer. Yet this is only an explanation, while the feeling of Yelena’s closeness was and still is so convincing and undeniable that I cannot help but deem it truthful; I can even recollect the two chairs we occupied as we were talking side by side, I remember the notion of having a conversation and seeing her face — but it all ends at that point. And now it seems to me from time to time that I only need to strain my memory somehow, and then I shall see her face and hear her words, I shall finally comprehend those things of importance that occurred all around me then, but no — I cannot and, for some reason, will not make that effort. Let it be as it is. Later Yelena left and never came back.
One of the feelings I had at the time stands out particularly in my memory: it felt as if I were an involuntary and blind witness to some tremendous and overwhelmingly important events happening just beside me, some enormous, painful and terrible struggle between entities out of my view. I came to be a witness by chance, proving useless and utterly blind in the role, but the very air around me boiled so violently as those struggling entities moved, so imperious and wide were their swings that I was sucked into the maelstrom too. I doubt, though, that Norden knew more than me; even if he were among the dramatis personae, as a witness he probably was no less blind than I. But all those feelings and conjectures, however unable to explain anything, lived only by day, and in the night he came again, and everything — anxieties and conjectures, wishes and will — was absorbed by the deadly, unparalleled sorrow. And the sorrow was all the more irresistible and terrible, as it came along with sleep, merging into a single whole.
When a person feels sad in waking, there are still voices and images of the living world that may come and disturb the entirety of the painful emotion; but in this case I fell asleep, separated by the solid wall of sleep from the whole world, even from the sensation of my own body — and all that was left was sorrow, indivisible, indissoluble, going far beyond all limits set by the surrounding reality.
I cannot say how many days had passed since that extraordinary ball when Norden’s incessant “Tanzieren! Tanzieren! Tanzieren!” broke abruptly, swallowed by a chaos of numerous other voices, loud and anxious. All dancing stopped in the same sudden way, swallowed by the torrent of some new motion, disorderly, chaotic and as sad as the voices were. It happened in the night, about the time he used to come, and reminded me of that November night when the storm had burst, and the unseen Mrs. Norden had had a fit. I woke up and, for a reason I cannot remember, thought it unnecessary to leave my room; with the same indifference, convinced obscurely but strongly that he was not coming that night, I let myself undress and go to bed. Yet the voices and movement in the house continued for a rather long time, and there was a particularly persistent sound of someone running ceaselessly up and down the wooden staircase. That someone ran up and immediately, with the same swiftness, feet clattering on the hollow wooden flooring, down; then up again and down again. At another point of time that restless foreboding sound would have seemed excruciating to me and surely prevented me from sleeping, yet now I paid no heed to its implications and actually was glad since it seemed to assure me that he would not dare enter the house with people making such a noise, and I could sleep peacefully. So it was with complete indifference, with neither sorrow nor thoughts, like a lifeless thing, that I dropped asleep, taking into my sleep the clatter of hollow stairs under a heavy, restless, hasty foot as the last sound. I did not know at the time that he would never come again, and I would never see those broad shoulders with a little dark head on top of them.
In the morning, as I woke up at my customary hour, it was eerily silent in the house. Everyday life would normally have started by that time, yet now, after a night of disquiet, everyone, including even the servants, was still asleep, and there was that exceptional silence over the house. I put on my clothes and went out to the dining room, and then I saw it: there was a dead woman lying on the table we had dined at the night before; she was dressed in the way the dead are usually dressed.
Even though I have never seen Mrs. Norden, I knew in an instant that it was she.
There were neither candles nor a lector beside, and the silence hung undisturbed all around her, so at first it appeared to me that no one else in the house knew about her death — so lonely she looked on her deathbed. But a moment later I realized they were really asleep and stopped thinking about them. This was not due to lack of consciousness; on the contrary, that was the moment when consciousness came back to me, clearer than ever. No, I stopped thinking about those people because there was no need for them anymore.
She was young and beautiful. No, she was not beautiful but she was the one whom I had known and loved all my life. And I had loved without knowing that I had, and sought her without knowing it. I did not need to approach her on the other side to see the little dark spot next to her eye, that lovable beauty mark — I knew for sure it was there. I did not need to touch her delicate icy fingers, folded on her breast, to see them full of life, just like I had always known them; I did not need to lift her eyelids to see that familiar gaze, the vivid radiance of those dear, eternally beloved eyes. Still I was sorriest for her precious, lovely fingers, which had had to play those unfamiliar merry dances while the miserable Norden was dancing and laughing, laughing and dancing downstairs. Forgive him, he had not known. Forgive me for drawing Yelena’s hollow name on the sand — I had not known your name then, as I do not know it now.
No, she was not beautiful, and nobody could say what she was. But she was the one I had loved all my life without knowing that I had. All my life had I thought about other people and things, never once thinking about her — and that was why all my thoughts were nothing but lies; all my life I had seen other faces, heard other voices but had never seen her or heard her voice — and that was why other people had seemed unreal to me. I had known only you, and you are the only one I never once had seen.
I can hardly recall the exact phrasing but this was more or less what I was thinking as I stood in front of the deceased. I am not sure now how much truth there was in my feelings, and moreover, I have no distinct memory of the pale face I contemplated so long and knew — at that moment — so well. Yet I am sure that the feeling of love which had opened its eyes suddenly was deep and fathomless then, and as deep was my sadness, quiet at the start but ever growing. I think I did not realize at first that she was dead, and it was only gradually, as I was comprehending the immobility of that body, sensing the emptiness and stillness of the dead house, that I began to feel bitter and insatiable sadness. I started crying and cried like this for a long time, and still crying, barely discerning my first steps, I left Norden’s house.
I walked out barely dressed, with only a frock coat on and no cap but I did not feel cold, and the day was not too frosty, otherwise I would have surely frozen to death. I did not head for the road but trudged through the thick snow of the garden, made my way out to the shore and further into the sea. For some reason the snow was less deep on the ice, so walking became easier, and soon enough I was far from the shore, in the middle of even, white desolation. I had stopped crying, my head was clear of thoughts, so I just walked, dissolving as it were in the smooth emptiness of the infinite white surface. There was neither a road nor a footprint nor a dark spot ahead of me or around me, so as I, growing tired and succumbing to the cold, started to stop now and then to take a look around, there was the same barren whiteness everywhere, all but emptiness itself as it can be seen only in a dream. And indeed, soon afterwards my progress took on all the features of a long monotonous dream, of a resigned and hopeless struggle with an insuperable space; that is probably the manner of dreaming destined to horses, deaf and exhausted by the end of a long journey, or to those exceptional people who wander from one end of the world to the other and douse their awareness of life with the viscous rhythm of their footsteps. Now and then the blanket of snow thickened, my feet sank in the deep drifts, so I stopped, looked about for a minute or so and said, “What a grief! What a tragedy!”
I pronounced these words in a tone as if I was trying to convince someone; and my very eyes that gazed at the endless flat plain felt now as white, dead and incapable of reflection as the snow. But it was like this early in my journey, when I cared to say things — later I went completely mute and if I stopped again, I did so in silence.
For a long time I took no notice of the cold at all; it was even a pleasure for my head and chest to feel that sharp sensation of the air that appeared to separate the clothes from my body, so it was simply that my hands began to grow numb at the elbows, without any pain or discomfort, as did my legs at the knees — it was increasingly hard to bend them. Still, I had no thoughts in my head and did not realize I was freezing, so I walked on, looking closely at the snow under my feet — and the snow was one and the same. No matter how long I raised and lowered my feet, the snow was one and the same. And, whether the night was really closing in, or it was the darkness coming from within me, everything around me started to darken, the level white turning, slow and quiet, into the level grey so that there was absolutely nothing to look at. And having nothing to look at means blindness — that was exactly how I interpreted it then and so I moved onwards blindly, for how long I cannot say. The moment when I fell and sank into unconsciousness is beyond my memory.
I have nothing else to say.
As I was told later, I was found on the ice by some fishermen: by chance I fell right across their path. In hospital I had several frostbitten toes amputated and was down with some illness for the next two or three months, lying unconscious for a long time. Norden’s wife had died, and he sent some money to pay for my treatment. I have never heard from him since. He has not reappeared either and, I know, never will. However, should he come now, I might be somewhat happy to meet him.
The fact is that, for some reason, I am dying. They are deluging me with questions — what is wrong with me, and why am I silent, and why am I dying — and these questions are the hardest and gravest things for me now; I know they ask out of love and want to help me, yet I am terribly afraid of these questions. Do people always know why they are dying? I have no answers for them but they still ask, tormenting me awfully. At present I live at M.I.’s, the fellow I had written to; he is very obliging and intends to take me somewhere down to the country in a week, at the end of May. This is all fine, I do not mind it at all, but there is no need to question me all the time, to talk so much. How can I explain to him that silence is a person’s natural state if he believes obstinately in all these words, loving them frightfully.
Yesterday evening we went to the islands. It is really nice there, there were a lot of strollers. Even though the night was setting in, some yacht with incredibly white sails put out to sea and loomed long against the horizon.
Oh yes, I think it must be added that I love neither Yelena nor Mrs. Norden and never think about them. That is all now.