Russalka by Maurice Baring

Story type: Literature

Peter, or Petrushka, which was the name he was known by, was the carpenter’s mate; his hair was like light straw, and his eyes were mild and blue. He was good at his trade; a quiet and sober youth; thoughtful, too, for he knew how to read and had read several books when he was still a boy. A translation of “Monte Cristo” once fell into his hands, and this story had kindled his imagination and stirred in him the desire to travel, to see new countries and strange people. He had made up his mind to leave the village and to try his luck in one of the big towns, when, before he was eighteen, something happened to him which entirely changed the colour of his thoughts and the range of his desires. It was an ordinary experience enough: he fell in love. He fell in love with Tatiana, who worked in the starch factory. Tatiana’s eyes were grey, her complexion was white, her features small and delicate, and her hair a beautiful dark brown with gold lights and black shadows in it; her movements were quick and her glance keen; she was like a swallow.

It happened when the snows melted and the meadows were flooded; the first fine day in April. The larks were singing over the plains, which were beginning to show themselves once more under the melting snow; the sun shone on the large patches of water, and turned the flooded meadows in the valley into a fantastic vision. It was on a Sunday after church that this new thing happened. He had often seen Tatiana before: that day she was different and new to him. It was as if a bandage had been taken from his eyes, and at the same moment he realised that Tatiana was a new Tatiana. He also knew that the old world in which he had lived hitherto had crumbled to pieces; and that a new world, far brighter and more wonderful, had been created for him. As for Tatiana, she loved him at once. There was no delay, no hesitation, no misunderstandings, no doubt: and at the first not much speech; but first love came to them straight and swift, with the first sunshine of the spring, as it does to the birds.

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All the spring and summer they kept company and walked out together in the evenings. When the snows entirely melted and the true spring came, it came with a rush; in a fortnight’s time all the trees except the ash were green, and the bees boomed round the thick clusters of pear-blossom and apple-blossom, which shone like snow against the bright azure. During that time Petrushka and Tatiana walked in the apple orchard in the evening and they talked to each other in the divinest of all languages, the language of first love, which is no language at all but a confused medley and murmur of broken phrases, whisperings, twitterings, pauses, and silences–a language so wonderful that it cannot be put down into speech or words, although Shakespeare and the very great poets translate the spirit of it into music, and the great musicians catch the echo of it in their song. Then a fortnight later, when the woods were carpeted and thick with lilies of the valley, Petrushka and Tatiana walked in the woods and picked the last white violets, and later again they sought the alleys of the landlord’s property, where the lilac bushes were a mass of blossom and fragrance, and there they listened to the nightingale, the bird of spring. Then came the summer, the fragrance of the beanfields, and the ripening of corn and the wonderful long twilights, and July, when the corn, ripe and tall and stiff, changed the plains into a vast rippling ocean of gold.

After the harvest, at the very beginning of autumn, they were to be married. There had been a slight difficulty about money. Tatiana’s father had insisted that Petrushka should produce a certain not very large sum; but the difficulty had been overcome and the money had been found. There were no more obstacles, everything was smooth and settled. Petrushka no longer thought of travels in foreign lands; he had forgotten the old dreams which “Monte Cristo” had once kindled in him.

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It was in the middle of August that the carpenter received instructions from the landowner to make some wooden steps and a small raft and to fix them up on the banks of the river for the convenience of bathers. It did not take the carpenter and Petrushka long to make these things, and one afternoon Petrushka drove down to the river to fix them in their place. The river was broad, the banks were wooded with willow trees, and the undergrowth was thick, for the woods reached to the river bank, which was flat, but which ended sheer above the water over a slope of mud and roots, so that a bather needed steps or a raft or a springboard, so as to dive or to enter and leave the water with comfort.

Petrushka put the steps in their place–which was where the wood ended–and made fast the floating raft to them. Not far from the bank the ground was marshy and the spot was suspected by some people of being haunted by malaria. It was a still, sultry day. The river was like oil, the sky clouded but not entirely overclouded, and among the high banks of grey cloud there were patches of blue.

When Petrushka had finished the job, he sat on the wooden steps, and rolling some tobacco into a primitive cigarette, contemplated the grey, oily water and the willow trees. It was too late in the year, he thought, to make a bathing place. He dipped his hand in the water: it was cold, but not too cold. Yet in a fortnight’s time it would not be pleasant to bathe. However, people had their whims, and he mused on the scheme of the universe which ordained that certain people should have whims, and that others should humour those whims whether they liked it or not. Many people–many of his fellow-workers–talked of the day when the universal levelling would take place and when all men could be equal. Petrushka did not much believe in the advent of that day; he was not quite sure whether he ardently desired it; in any case, he was very happy as he was.

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At that moment he heard two sharp short sounds, less musical than a pipe and not so loud or harsh as a scream. He looked up. A kingfisher had flown across the oily water. Petrushka shouted; and the kingfisher skimmed over the water once more and disappeared in the trees on the other side of the river. Petrushka rolled and lit another cigarette. Presently he heard the two sharp sounds once more, and the kingfisher darted again across the water: a bit of fish was in its beak. It disappeared into the bank of the river on the same side on which Petrushka was sitting, only lower down.

“Its nest must be there,” thought Petrushka, and he remembered that he had heard it said that no one had ever been able to carry off a kingfisher’s nest intact. Why should he not be the first person to do so? He was skilful with his fingers, his touch was sure and light. It was evidently a carpenter’s job, and few carpenters had the leisure or opportunity to look for kingfishers’ nests. What a rare present it would be for Tatiana–a whole kingfisher’s nest with every bone in it intact.

He walked stealthily through the bushes down the bank of the river, making as little noise as possible. He thought he had marked the spot where the kingfisher had dived into the bank. As he walked, the undergrowth grew thicker and the path darker, for he had reached the wood, on the outskirts and end of which was the spot where he had made the steps. He walked on and on without thinking, oblivious of his surroundings, until he suddenly realised that he had gone too far. Moreover, he must have been walking for some time, for it was getting dark, or was it a thunder-shower? The air, too, was unbearably sultry; he stopped and wiped his forehead with a big print handkerchief. It was impossible to reach the bank from the place where he now stood, as he was separated from it by a wide ditch of stagnant water. He therefore retraced his footsteps through the wood. It grew darker and darker; it must be, he thought, the evening deepening and no storm.

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All at once he started; he had heard a sound, a high pipe. Was it the kingfisher? He paused and listened. Distinctly, and not far off in the undergrowth, he heard a laugh, a woman’s laugh. It flashed across his mind that it might be Tatiana, but it was not her laugh. Something rustled in the bushes to the left of him; he followed the rustling and it led him through the bushes–he had now passed the ditch–to the river bank. The sun had set behind the woods from which he had just emerged; the sky was as grey as the water, and there was no reflection of the sunset in the east. Except the water and the trees he saw nothing; there was not a sound to be heard, not a ripple on the river, not a whisper from the woods.

Then all at once the stillness was broken again by quick rippling laughs immediately behind him. He turned sharply round, and saw a woman in the bushes: her eyes were large and green and sad; her hair straggling and dishevelled; she was dressed in reeds and leaves; she was very pale. She stared at him fixedly, and smiled, showing gleaming teeth, and when she smiled there was no light nor laughter in her eyes, which remained sad and green and glazed like those of a drowned person. She laughed again and ran into the bushes. Petrushka ran after her, but although he was quite close to her he lost all trace of her immediately. It was as if she had vanished under the earth or into the air.

“It’s a Russalka,” thought Petrushka, and he shivered. Then he added to himself, with the pride of the new scepticism he had learnt from the factory hands: “There is no such thing; only women believe in such things. It was some drunken woman.”

Petrushka walked quickly back to the edge of the wood, where he had left his cart, and drove home. The next day was Sunday, and Tatiana noticed that he was different–moody, melancholy, and absent-minded. She asked him what was the matter; he said his head ached. Towards five o’clock he told her–they were standing outside her cottage–that he was obliged to go to the river to work.

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“To-day is holiday,” she said quietly.

“I left something there yesterday: one of my tools. I must fetch it,” he explained.

Tatiana looked at him, and her intuition told her, firstly, that this was not true, and, secondly, that it was not well for Petrushka to go to the river. She begged him not to go. Petrushka laughed and said he would be back quickly. Tatiana cried, and implored him on her knees not to go. Then Petrushka grew irritable and almost rough, and told her not to vex him with foolishness. Reluctantly and sadly she gave in at last.

Petrushka went to the river, and Tatiana watched him go with a heavy heart. She felt quite certain some disaster was about to happen.

At seven o’clock Petrushka had not yet returned, and he did not return that night. The next morning the carpenter and two others went to the river to look for him. They found his body in the shallow water, entangled in the ropes of the raft he had made. He had been drowned, no doubt, in setting the raft straight.

During all that Sunday night, Tatiana had said no word, nor had she moved from her doorstep: it was only when they brought back the dripping body to the village that she stirred, and when she saw it she laughed a dreadful laugh, and the spirit went from her eyes, leaving a fixed stare.

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