Subject:FICTION Scarica il testo







We are about to relate a story of mingled fact and fancy. The
facts are borrowed from the Russian author, Petjerski; the fancy is
our own. Our task will chiefly be to soften the outlines of
incidents almost too sharp and rugged for literary use, to supply
them with the necessary coloring and sentiment, and to give a
coherent and proportioned shape to the irregular fragments of an
old chronicle. We know something, from other sources, of the
customs described, something of the character of the people from
personal observation, and may therefore the more freely take such
liberties as we choose with the rude, vigorous sketches of the
Russian original. One who happens to have read the work of
Villebois can easily comprehend the existence of a state of
society, on the banks of the Volga, a hundred years ago, which
is now impossible, and will soon become incredible. What is
strangest in our narrative has been declared to be true.


We are in Kinesma, a small town on the Volga, between Kostroma and
Nijni-Novgorod. The time is about the middle of the last century,
and the month October.

There was trouble one day, in the palace of Prince Alexis, of
Kinesma. This edifice, with its massive white walls, and its
pyramidal roofs of green copper, stood upon a gentle mound to the
eastward of the town, overlooking it, a broad stretch of the Volga,
and the opposite shore. On a similar hill, to the westward, stood
the church, glittering with its dozen bulging, golden domes. These
two establishments divided the sovereignty of Kinesma between them.

Prince Alexis owned the bodies of the inhabitants, (with the
exception of a few merchants and tradesmen,) and the Archimandrite
Sergius owned their souls. But the shadow of the former stretched
also over other villages, far beyond the ring of the wooded
horizon. The number of his serfs was ten thousand, and his rule
over them was even less disputed than theirs over their domestic

The inhabitants of the place had noticed with dismay that the
slumber-flag had not been hoisted on the castle, although it was
half an hour after the usual time. So rare a circumstance
betokened sudden wrath or disaster, on the part of Prince
Alexis. Long experience had prepared the people for anything that
might happen, and they were consequently not astonished at the
singular event which presently transpired.

The fact is, that in the first place, the dinner had been prolonged
full ten minutes beyond its accustomed limit, owing to a discussion
between the Prince, his wife, the Princess Martha, and their son
Prince Boris. The last was to leave for St. Petersburg in a
fortnight, and wished to have his departure preceded by a festival
at the castle. The Princess Martha was always ready to second the
desires of her only child. Between the two they had pressed some
twenty or thirty thousand rubles out of the old Prince, for the
winter diversions of the young one. The festival, to be sure,
would have been a slight expenditure for a noble of such immense
wealth as Prince Alexis; but he never liked his wife, and he took
a stubborn pleasure in thwarting her wishes. It was no
satisfaction that Boris resembled her in character. That weak
successor to the sovereignty of Kinesma preferred a game of cards
to a bear hunt, and could never drink more than a quart of vodki
without becoming dizzy and sick.

"Ugh!" Prince Alexis would cry, with a shudder of disgust, "the
whelp barks after the dam!"

A state dinner he might give; but a festival, with dances, dramatic
representations, burning tar-barrels, and cannon,--no! He knitted
his heavy brows and drank deeply, and his fiery gray eyes shot such
incessant glances from side to side that Boris and the Princess
Martha could not exchange a single wink of silent advice. The
pet bear, Mishka, plied with strong wines, which Prince Alexis
poured out for him into a golden basin, became at last comically
drunk, and in endeavoring to execute a dance, lost his balance, and
fell at full length on his back.

The Prince burst into a yelling, shrieking fit of laughter.
Instantly the yellow-haired serfs in waiting, the Calmucks at the
hall-door, and the half-witted dwarf who crawled around the table
in his tow shirt, began laughing in chorus, as violently as they
could. The Princess Martha and Prince Boris laughed also; and
while the old man's eyes were dimmed with streaming tears of mirth,
quickly exchanged nods. The sound extended all over the castle,
and was heard outside of the walls.

"Father!" said Boris, "let us have the festival, and Mishka shall
perform again. Prince Paul of Kostroma would strangle, if he could
see him."

"Good, by St. Vladimir!" exclaimed Prince Alexis. "Thou shalt have
it, my Borka![1] Where's Simon Petrovitch? May the Devil scorch
that vagabond, if he doesn't do better than the last time! Sasha!"

[1] Little Boris.

A broad-shouldered serf stepped forward and stood with bowed head.

"Lock up Simon Petrovitch in the southwestern tower. Send the
tailor and the girls to him, to learn their parts. Search every
one of them before they go in, and if any one dares to carry vodki
to the beast, twenty-five lashes on the back!"

Sasha bowed again and departed. Simon Petrovitch was the courtpoet of Kinesma. He had a mechanical knack of preparing
allegorical diversions which suited the conventional taste of
society at that time; but he had also a failing,--he was rarely
sober enough to write. Prince Alexis, therefore, was in the habit
of locking him up and placing a guard over him, until the
inspiration had done its work. The most comely young serfs of both
sexes were selected to perform the parts, and the court-tailor
arranged for them the appropriate dresses. It depended very much
upon accident--that is to say, the mood of Prince Alexis--whether
Simon Petrovitch was rewarded with stripes or rubles.

The matter thus settled, the Prince rose from the table and walked
out upon an overhanging balcony, where an immense reclining armchair of stuffed leather was ready for his siesta. He preferred
this indulgence in the open air; and although the weather was
rapidly growing cold, a pelisse of sables enabled him to slumber
sweetly in the face of the north wind. An attendant stood with the
pelisse outspread; another held the halyards to which was attached
the great red slumber-flag, ready to run it up and announce to all
Kinesma that the noises of the town must cease; a few seconds more,
and all things would have been fixed in their regular daily
courses. The Prince, in fact, was just straightening his shoulders
to receive the sables; his eyelids were dropping, and his eyes,
sinking mechanically with them, fell upon the river-road, at the
foot of the hill. Along this road walked a man, wearing the
long cloth caftan of a merchant.

Prince Alexis started, and all slumber vanished out of his eyes.
He leaned forward for a moment, with a quick, eager expression;
then a loud roar, like that of an enraged wild beast, burst from
his mouth. He gave a stamp that shook the balcony.

"Dog!" he cried to the trembling attendent, "my cap! my whip!"

The sables fell upon the floor, the cap and whip appeared in a
twinkling, and the red slumber-flag was folded up again for the
first time in several years, as the Prince stormed out of the
castle. The traveller below had heard the cry,--for it might have
been heard half a mile. He seemed to have a presentiment of evil,
for he had already set off towards the town at full speed.

To explain the occurence, we must mention one of the Prince's many
peculiar habits. This was, to invite strangers or merchants of the
neighborhood to dine with him, and, after regaling them
bountifully, to take his pay in subjecting them to all sorts of
outrageous tricks, with the help of his band of willing domestics.
Now this particular merchant had been invited, and had attended;
but, being a very wide-awake, shrewd person, he saw what was
coming, and dexterously slipped away from the banquet without being
perceived. The Prince vowed vengeance, on discovering the escape,
and he was not a man to forget his word.

Impelled by such opposite passions, both parties ran with
astonishing speed. The merchant was the taller, but his long
caftan, hastily ungirdled, swung behind him and dragged in the air.

The short, ...