Boris Pilnyak: Tales of the Wilderness



THE SNOW
I

The tinkling of postillion-bells broke the stillness of the crisp winter night—a coachman driving from the station perhaps. They rang out near the farm, were heard descending into a hollow; then, as the horses commenced to trot, they jingled briskly into the country, their echoes at last dying away beyond the common.

Polunin and his guest, Arkhipov, were playing chess in his study. Vera Lvovna was minding the infant; she talked with Alena for a while; then went into the drawing-room, and rummaged among the books there.

Polunin's study was large, candles burnt on the desk, books were scattered about here and there; an antique firearm dimly shone above a wide, leather-covered sofa. The silent, moonlit night peered in through the blindless windows, through one of which was passed a wire. The telegraph-post stood close beside it, and its wires hummed ceaselessly in the room somewhere in a corner of the ceiling—a monotonous, barely audible sound, like a snow-storm.

The two men sat in silence, Polunin broad-shouldered and bearded,
Arkhipov lean, wiry, and bald.

Alena entered bringing in curdled milk and cheese-cakes. She was a modest young woman with quiet eyes, and wore a white kerchief.

"Won't you please partake of our simple fare?" she asked shyly, inclining her head and folding her hands across her bosom.

Silent and absent-minded, the chess-players sat down to table and supped. Alena was about to join them, but just then her child began to cry, and she hurriedly left the room. The tea-urn softly simmered and seethed, emitting a low, hissing sound in unison with that of the wires. The men took up their tea and returned to their chess. Vera Lvovna returned from the drawing-room; and, taking a seat on the sofa beside her husband, sat there without stirring, with the fixed, motionless eyes of a nocturnal bird.

"Have you examined the Goya, Vera Lvovna?" Polunin asked suddenly.

"I just glanced through the History of Art; then I sat down with
Natasha."

"He has the most wonderful devilry!" Polunin declared, "and, do you know, there is another painter—Bosch. He has something more than devilry in him. You should see his Temptation of St. Anthony!"

They began to discuss Goya, Bosch, and St. Anthony, and as Polunin spoke he imperceptibly led the conversation to the subject of St. Francis d'Assisi. He had just been reading the Saint's works, and was much attracted by his ascetical attitude towards the world. Then the conversation flagged.

It was late when the Arkhipovs left, and Polunin accompanied them home. The last breath of an expiring wind softly stirred the pine- branches, which swayed to and fro in a mystic shadow-dance against the constellations. Orion, slanting and impressive, listed across a boundless sky, his starry belt gleaming as he approached his midnight post. In the widespread stillness the murmur of the pines sounded like rolling surf as it beats on the rocks, and the frozen snow crunched like broken glass underfoot: the frost was cruelly sharp.

On reaching home, Polunin looked up into the overarching sky, searching the glittering expanse for his beloved Cassiopeian Constellation, and gazed intently at the sturdy splendour of the Polar Star; then he watered the horses, gave them their forage for the night, and treated them to a special whistling performance.

It struck warm in the stables, and there was a smell of horses' sweat. A lantern burned dimly on the wall; from the horses' nostrils issued grey, steamy cloudlets; Podubny, the stallion, rolled a great wondering eye round on his master, as though inquiring what he was doing. Polunin locked the stable; then stood outside in the snow for a while, examining the bolts.

In the study Alena had made herself up a bed on the sofa, sat down next it in an armchair and began tending her baby, bending over it humming a wordless lullaby. Polunin sat down by her when he came in and discussed domestic affairs; then took the child from Alena and rocked her. Pale green beams of moonlight flooded through the windows.

Polunin thought of St. Francis d'Assisi, of the Arkhipovs who had lost faith and yet were seeking the law, of Alena and their household. The house was wrapped in utter silence, and he soon fell into that sound, healthy sleep to which he was now accustomed, in contrast to his former nights of insomnia.

The faint moon drifted over the silent fields, and the pines shone tipped with silver. A new-born wind sighed, stirred, then rose gently from the enchanted caverns of the night and soared up into the sky with the swift flutter of many-plumed wings. Assuredly Kseniya Ippolytovna Enisherlova was not asleep on such a night.
II

The day dawned cold, white, pellucid—breathing forth thin, misty vapour, while a hoar-frost clothed the houses, trees, and hedges. The smoke from the village chimneypots rose straight and blue. Outside the windows was an overgrown garden, a snow-covered tree lay prone on the earth; further off were snow-clad fields, the valley and the forest. Sky and air were pale and transparent, and the sun was hidden behind a drift of fleecy white clouds.

Alena came in, made some remark about the house, then went out to singe the pig for Christmas.

The library-clock struck eleven; a clock in the hall answered. Then there came a sudden ring on the telephone; it sounded strange and piercing in the empty stillness.

"Is that you, Dmitri Vladimirovich? Dmitri Vladimirovich, is that you?" cried a woman's muffled voice: it sounded a great way off through the instrument.

"Yes, but who is speaking?"

"Kseniya Ippolytovna Enisherlova is speaking", the voice answered quietly; then added in a higher key: "Is it you, my ascetic and seeker? This is me, me, Kseniya."

"You, Kseniya Ippolytovna?" Polunin exclaimed joyfully.

"Yes, yes … Oh yes!… I am tired of roaming about and being always on the brink of a precipice, so I have come to you … across the fields, where there is snow, snow, snow and sky … to you, the seeker…. Will you take me? Have you forgiven me that July?"

Polunin's face was grave and attentive as he bent over the telephone:

"Yes, I have forgiven," he replied. ...

TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY
F. O'DEMPSEY

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