Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé (1848 - 1910) was a French diplomat, novelist and essayist, particularly appreciated for his book Le Roman Russe which introduced Russian authors, including Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, to French readers. He was married to a Russian aristocrat and worked in Russia for seven years.
Translator Patricia Worth translates French literature and tutors English and French. She has a Master of Translation Studies Degree from the Australian National University and has been translating since 2009. Some of her translations have been published in literary journals in Australia, New Caledonia and the US, including The Brooklyn Rail and Eleven Eleven. Her translation of George Sand's novel, Spiridion, was published by SUNY Press in May 2015. She lives in Canberra.
Joseph Olenin's Coat
FOREWORD Monsieur Joseph Olenin enjoyed a well-deserved reputation in Russia’s scholarly circles. His death was truly a loss for Oriental archaeology. I was allowed to search through his manuscripts for notes that could be useful to me, and was very surprised to come across the few pages you are about to read. Is the adventure recounted in these pages based on fact? I would hesitate to believe it, if the well‑known character of Monsieur Olenin did not avert any suspicion of a fanciful narrative. He loved the truth in all things. In any case, he has been described to me as rather odd; but then many things happen in his country that would not be natural in another. Well, here is his story. * I Despite German criticism, I consider Salvolini’s commentary on the Turin papyrus and the campaigns of Rameses the Great to be highly commendable. I had planned to use it for my great work on the Hebrews’ sojourn in Egypt, when urgent affairs called me, early last autumn, to my property of Bukova, in Little Russia. I left, taking my treasured Salvolini; I fancied that in the solitude of my woods I would find long hours for study that would allow me to finish my work. All the landowners of the district of Pereyaslav know there are three post‑houses between Kiev and Bukova. They also know that this road has been listed on the zemstvo plan – for ten years, now, it is true – as one of the worst in our dear Ukraine, and last autumn in particular the most common prudence urged travelers to avoid the fictitious bridges embellishing the road. Though the combined movements of swaying and tossing made the hieroglyphs dance before my eyes, I obstinately pursued my reading of the commentary without looking once at the sad landscape of stubble-fields and ploughed lands fleeing away behind me. At the post-house in Tashan – one of those poor hamlets lost in the gorse bushes of a pond, and called Khoutres in Little Russia – I was torn away from my reading by the voice of my friend Stepan Ivanovitch, the post master, who made me come into his house for a glass of tea. Two hours later, my britchka arrived at the linden avenue of Bukova, and the evening shadows falling from my old trees stopped me at the beginning of Rameses’ expedition into Nubia. A few minutes later, I was continuing the expedition in a dream, tormented by the fantastic lurching of a war chariot rolling over the Libyan sands. The next day, at dawn, I was recalled to the reality of this land by the steward who came to pick me up in his droshky to visit a distant farm. Our Ukrainian autumns, early in the season, have mornings colder than a winter’s midday: a gray mist was creeping heavily over the numbed fields, the emanation from marshes that form, as is well known, the greater and most picturesque part of our beautiful homeland. I ordered my servant to bring my pelisse, a loose but warm traveling coat lined with fox-fur that would have cut a pitiful figure in the cloakroom of an elegant ball in St Petersburg. It was the rugged companion of my hunts and forest excursions, one of those solid, modest country friends one hugs close to the heart when returning to one’s provincial abode, but whom one does not greet at all when meeting them by chance on the English Quay. Ivan appeared, empty-handed. He scratched his head, looking embarrassed. “Sorry, master; it’s just that … the coat cannot be found. It must surely have slipped off the britchka, God knows … onto the road, not far away … ” “What? Slipped off onto the road! My coat is lost? And you let this happen?” “You wanted it to throw over your feet last night, and then you wished to read from the large book; you wouldn’t have noticed, we were so shaken about! Perhaps the misfortune occurred at the river in Tashan, when we were passing under the bridge. Good Lord, I thought we were driving into an abyss! Ah! The roads are quite neglected, master; fortunately the coachman of the Marshall of Nobility told me yesterday that this year the zemstvo … ” My faithful servant was setting off on a digression: I cut him short, ordering that he have a young postilion ride out and not show his face at the house again until he had found the coat. The boy returned after dark. He brought back from Tashan a large parcel wrapped with greasy issues of the Kiev Journal. I was coming in from the fields, freezing and grumbling against the jolts, the zemstvo and Ivan’s idiocy, when the postilion triumphantly handed me the coat he had found, kissing my hand as it slipped him a ruble. I tore away the paper. My fingers, swollen with cold, sank slowly into the caress of something soft, as delicate and warm as a baby’s breath. I opened out the object: imagine my surprise and my ill temper as I saw unfold, instead of my old coat, one of those short pelisses that ladies call, I think, polonaises, in deep blue velvet lined with sable fur, which to me looked costly. The garment was of an old style, as they wore them long ago in Poland. “Ah! What’s this? What the devil is this joke?” I cried, keeping the postilion from leaving. “I don’t know anything about it, Osip Evgenitch. The post master handed the parcel to me himself in Tashan, telling me it was the pelisse lost by our old father, and asking me to pass on his wishes for good health to our old father.” “But, you idiot, it’s not mine!” “I don’t know anything about it, Osip Evgenitch.” I sent the rustic away, knowing after these sacramental words I could get nothing more from a Russian peasant. And spitefully throwing the foreign garment onto the sofa in the corner of my study, I went to bed imagining the bizarre transmutations endured by coats in Ukraine: I was supposed to believe that all the fur coats of the district had decided to meet the night before, under the Tashan bridge. The next day I woke late in the morning. My old room with its faded chintz furniture was filled with the golden smile of a radiant September sun. The first thing to catch my eye was the polonaise, spread over the sofa. Gusts of a light breeze blowing through the open window sent quivers running across the darling fur. In the dazzling light, the sable trembled with glints of golden chestnut like those that play on a Titian head. Over the blue velvet, capricious rays ran rippling in moiré patterns, now brightening to azure, now dying in shadow; the two tones married in a harmony that would defy the palette of the richest colorist. I automatically ran my hand over the silky down, burning in the midday heat. Tiny sparks danced along my fingers, as when one caresses the back of a young cat asleep in the ashes on the hearth. From the rumpled fabric rose a discreet, heady perfume. I have the keenest memory of perfumes, yet I couldn’t recall any sensation like it, except perhaps the faint, enfeebling odor that wafts from our Ukrainian linden trees in June when they blossom all around the house. Whatever it was, this pretty little thing exhaled a secret grace, a provocative mischief. I was tarrying, playing with her and draping her in the sunlight to see her in full relief, when I glimpsed the Salvolini wide open on my desk, waiting for me. I was ashamed of my childishness and immersed myself in my precious reading. I have to say it absorbed me less than usual. The spreading garden beneath my window, decked in the last coquetries of autumn, often attracted my gaze; but my eyes would invariably return to the sable smiling close by. Ivan came in to bring me my breakfast, then moved toward the stranger to put her away. My valet’s hands bore signs of a conscientious struggle against the dust accumulated over the summer months on the Bukova furniture. When I saw his huge blackened hand brutally take up the delicate blue velvet by the collar, I felt oddly annoyed. “Finish up your work, Ivan, and don’t go soiling this thing that doesn’t belong to us. It’s all right, you will put it away later.” That evening, Ivan came again to rescue me. I had drafted the plan of the first chapter of my dissertation, and was pacing my study in the irregular, distracted steps so favorable to labor of the brain. Each time I approached the desk, my eyes would meet the polonaise; she was lying on the sofa in the half-light of the lamp, with the sort of fantastic, life-like demeanor that long-worn garments have of an evening. Sometimes she seemed to be stirring, sitting up. Her poses were sensual, and a passing stream of light lit up the golden chestnut glints with more movement and life than in the morning, as though the wild curls of a Venetian head had appeared deep within the darkness of my large looking-glass. Again, I sent Ivan to the devil. The poor man looked at me astonished and went away in respectful submission, the last legacy of serfdom in our good servants. The following day, I came up with a few ingenious arguments, the fallacious kind that we invent so quickly on a whim, in order to convince Ivan that we needed to leave the stranger where she was, for it wouldn’t be long before someone would come asking for her. The truth was I didn’t like to imagine that moment. To me it seemed the polonaise had always been there; she had stepped into my intimate space, into that milieu of familiar and indispensable things where an old bachelor, even if he wasn’t very old, would tolerate no change. Among the pieces of old-fashioned furniture in my austere workroom she was the only young and cheerful note, the only luminous touch. In the evenings when she appeared half alive, she was to me a little less than a dog and a little more than a flower. My obsession with this silly bit of a thing increased hour by hour. Only those who have known the utter monotony and formidable tedium of a solitary sojourn in our Russian countryside will understand me. When the imagination is neglected in this crushing silence of men and things, it latches onto the most trivial objects, ascribing to them immoderate proportions. After the interesting residents of our houses of correction, Silvio Pellico’s spider should have been dedicated to the Russian sailors and landowners. The polonaise – may she forgive the comparison – became my spider. Soon, her influence was seriously eclipsing that of Rameses. I watched her living her silent, hidden life. She was a body without a soul, it is true, but a body like those which the soul has just quitted, and which retain after the abandonment such an intense expression. Naturally, I searched for the soul, and my imagination, idle and unleashed, spent its best hours lost in hypotheses about the adventure which had brought the stray to me, about the eternal female who not long ago was incarnate in this envelope. I reconstructed all the types of women my rich memory could furnish me with, and adapted them to my pelisse. In the end, tired of wandering blindly, I decided to proceed with the scientific rigor appropriate for a laureate of our Academies. I said to myself, if Cuvier was able to revive antediluvian monsters from a small bone, an insignificant fragment of their huge organism, why wouldn’t I be able to reconstitute a woman from a garment, which is half a woman if not all of her? I suspended the fabric in the air, abandoning it to its natural folds. They immediately revealed their light, ethereal grace; but that was not enough for me. One day I found the workers from the farm retting hemp from the latest harvest. I secretly took away a few armfuls. Not entirely unashamed of my childish amusement, I began to stuff my polonaise, buttoning the garment over this improvised mannequin, being careful where the velvet was worn in places. The result was absolutely conclusive: I saw the form of a long, flexible neck, a rich, proud figure, a slender waist, supple as the trunk of a young birch. By the narrow sleeves I could guess the daintiness of the wrists and fingers. A few relative proportions familiar to all those who have studied drawing allowed me to establish, now that I had successfully determined half of her, the absent other half: the height of the statue, the shape of the head. For me there had never been any doubt that her hair was golden chestnut, the color of sables. It was also my long‑held axiom that her eyes had the somber glints of blue velvet. Only one point bothered me; the nose was missing, and I had no clues at all to reconstitute it. For the time being, my statue had no nose. But had I not, in times gone by, madly loved the antique head of Ephesus robbed of this same ornament by Turkish barbarism? And then, hadn’t I loved many of my own country’s beautiful heads in a similar state? Thus I grasped the soul of my polonaise, her form from then on invariably fixed in my imagination. This gave me great peace of mind. From that day, my fanciful companion was created; she lived. I became all the more attached to this piece of fabric, the visible sign of her. I no longer even allowed myself the thought that someone could come and steal her away from me. I was not in the least curious to see the legitimate owner of the pelisse; it could only be a disappointment; the one I had invented was enough for me. Once, I had the quite simple idea, which should have occurred to me sooner, that there could be some hint of her origin remaining in the coat pockets. The idea was very unwelcome: several times I thought of following up this nagging thought, but put it off. Finally, I plunged my trembling hands into the small pockets; it was with indescribable relief I found them empty. My steward wanted me to go to Tashan to finish some important business; I found excuses to send him in my place, fearing above all things a discussion with the post master who could insist I return the coat. Every time someone rang at the gate, my heart beat faster; it was as if they had come to take her away from me. When a neighbor’s equipage or a messenger’s horse came into the courtyard, I’d catch myself quickly throwing a drapery over the pelisse. Later, I couldn’t deny this was an appalling action which would have sent a poor devil before the magistrate. But what collector doesn’t have such weaknesses on his conscience, not to mention those who are in love? Was I already in that sad category of lovers? I wouldn’t have liked to confess this wickedness, and yet I told myself it might be ridiculous to be in love with a showy scrap of cloth but it’s true that half of all men are; and men have sometimes muddled worldly affairs for showy things that concealed less soul. Without examining the nature of my feelings, I was enjoying this delicious shared life: henceforth my solitude was filled. We would have long chats in the evening, when the polonaise existed so strangely: I already knew much about her character, her secrets and her past. Like all of her kind, she had her days and her whims: one moment tender and gay, surrendered in delightful poses, the next lying lifeless on the sofa, limp, listless, dead, the soul vanished. According to her mood I went to bed sad or happy. And often at night, in my dreams, I would see the strange creature again, wandering by my bedside, brushing me with her burnished gold down, reciting verses and follies until dawn. On October 15th we had the first winter frost at Bukova. Upon waking I saw the melancholy horizon of our fields, all pale beneath its first sheet of white. That morning I had to go and deal with some wood-felling quite some distance away. Ivan triumphantly brought me a coarse peasant coat, swearing it was freezing outside, as indeed I noticed on opening my window to the icy wind. My hand came to rest on the soft sable; she still retained some kind of body heat, intrinsic and mysterious. Brrr … , I thought, how good it would be to snuggle up in this warm fur before stepping out into such weather! I was ashamed and drove the stupid idea away. But we know that stupid ideas have particular ways of getting into one’s head and particular arguments at their service. “What good is it to risk an inflammation of the chest,” said the temptress, “when you could avoid it? Do you think this get-up would at all surprise your good peasants? These simple people don’t notice anything, and even if the girls of the village smiled a little, what shame in that!” I was struggling: those in love know how it ends, this struggle with stupid ideas. After hesitating a few moments, I threw the fine polonaise over my shoulders and went out. The sensation was unlike any I’d felt before, it was like a perfumed bath, a warm bed, the breath of an April breeze, the buzz of an electric battery. An entirely new happiness filled me to the depths of my being. The steward was shivering but I felt no cold. I lingered long in the wood; it seemed that, in going home, I would be leaving the best part of myself. She had become a habit: on the following days, even when the weather was fine and warm again, I never went without the divine pelisse. My errands, formerly hasty and dismal, were now delicious. The moment I put on the enchanted coat, my sad personality would leave me; I felt a stranger’s personality was imperceptibly replacing mine. It was the ambiance of another being, composed of a perpetual caress in which I was gently becoming accustomed to living. I remembered, then, having long ago been keenly struck by an article in the Archaeological Review about the tunic of Deianeira. Ah! How I understood poor Hercules, burning in the clutches of his fiery fleece! For a short while I had an idea of writing a dissertation about this interesting point of Greek mythology, in order to again take up my abandoned studies. For, as you can see, the unfortunate Rameses was forgotten: the unfinished draft of the first chapter lay on my table with that dreary look of deserted writings and books. I now spent all my days outdoors, tracking through the forest in my magic vesture: the first infatuation had not worn off, on the contrary it seemed that each day I was a little less myself, that the metamorphosis was almost complete. A world of delicate things, of subtle and sensual pleasures was revealed to me. I had changed my soul as I had changed my coat, and stripped away the old man. It seemed I was becoming her … Ah! But no! To be honest, it seemed I was going mad. At this critical moment in my moral existence, one evening, at nightfall – October 24th – I was handed a telegram from my friend X. He let me know he would be in Kiev the following morning and he begged me to go there to see him briefly, to confer about some business with which I could be of great help. At that time I liked nothing so much as my solitude filled with my passion, and I cursed this bothersome friendship. But it couldn’t be helped; I ordered the horses be hitched to the britchka. Ivan came to me with a mocking smile which he had adopted for some time in regard to me. “It will be a rainy night; what will sir be taking to cover himself on the way?” I had to defeat one of those shameful moments that occurred every now and then, but I had already defeated so many! “The pelisse,” I replied, turning my head away, and a few minutes later the troika carried me off, all a-quiver with pleasure in my darling sable. Wherever I went, indifferent to all things, she continued to envelop me in her atmosphere of love. II It was well into the night when my britchka entered the court of the Tashan post‑house. An unhitched calash was waiting there for fresh horses. “I’ll go and wake Stepan Ivanovitch,” said Ivan. “Have the calash hitched up quickly and let those who are sleeping sleep,” I snapped. You’d be right in thinking I had only one idea: to avoid the post master. For fear of running into him, I didn’t even go into the tea room. I rolled a cigarette and set off pacing the covered wooden gallery which ran around the perimeter of the courtyard. The night was dark and rainy, as Ivan had predicted. A miserable oil lamp hanging on a door frame dimly lit one of the turns in the gallery. I had been walking for a few moments when this door opened and out came a traveler who began strolling in the opposite direction to me. At first sight I was struck by the profile; there was something particular about it, which made it impossible to decide the sex of the stranger. You will tell me that this is not a rare case in Russia, where our gracious winter, with its obligatory garb, transforms the street into a costume ball of pedestrians who have no form, nor age, nor sex. What intrigued me more was that I quickly found something very familiar in the shape, the gait, and the manner of my strolling companion; but this memory was rather difficult to pinpoint, since in my mind it brought together two people obviously very different. Without being able to put names to these vague analogies, I was sure that in one of my intimate acquaintances I had known this profile, and in another, this carriage of the body and this gait. Quite perplexed, I stopped beneath the lamp and waited for the stroller to come past. Into the lighted space came a woman’s two small feet emerging from a long men’s coat. My eyes lingered on the coat: it was mine, my old fox-fur pelisse! You can imagine the mass of chaotic thoughts exploding in my brain. I began walking again like a drunk man. We happened to pace back toward each other and met precisely beneath the lamp. My first impressions were confirmed, though I was just as troubled. When I looked at the coat, I thought I was seeing myself in a mirror; and under this borrowed personality I perceived another one that I knew, as though I had left it the moment before. The face of this woman – it was truly a woman – was wrapped in a black scarf, but by the way she stared, I felt myself the object of an attention equal to my own. The stroll continued; I was overcome by an acute sense of discomfort. Have you ever, in a drawing room, come across a face you were well acquainted with? You understand that you will have to talk to her, socialize with her, and unable to place a name to this face, you find not a single word on your lips; you guess that she, too, recognizes your face. And every minute that passes increases your malaise. It was a discomfort of this sort that I was feeling, but a hundred times more painful, and complicated by extravagant ideas. One moment it seemed I was taking myself for a walk, by my side, I mean the old me, the one from the past; the next, it seemed my polonaise was running in front of me, carrying away my new me. Thus split in two, with each of my halves avoiding the other, I felt more ridiculous with each new meeting; the veiled eyes would fix on me, always more disturbing. Drops of sweat pearled on my temples. Suddenly, after one last turn around the gallery, the woman stopped right beneath the lamp, quickly lifted her veil, and a long-contained laugh burst out of her. The fresh, young voice behind this laugh spoke up, and said in French: “Monsieur, what if you give me back my coat?” I stood motionless, stunned, searching for a few words and spluttering out: “My God … , Madame … , I was going to ask you the same … , but would you please explain how … ?” “Ah now, of that I’m quite incapable. I only know that you have there my pelisse, and it even seems you have adopted it without much fuss.” “It’s true, Madame; but aren’t you yourself setting me an example?” “This coat is yours? And it is I who owe you an explanation? All right then, I will explain, it’s very simple in any case. A month ago, passing by here on my way to a neighboring property, I mislaid my fur. When I sent for it to be found, this one was brought back to me instead of my own. I was away longer than I thought I would be; I was cold without my coat and had no recourse to any other, so far was I from any place where I could get one, and, well, I used what Providence had deigned to leave me in exchange for my sable. This necessity will seem justifiable enough to you, I hope. What is less so is the need for a man to dress in a woman’s coat, wearing it ridiculously like a capelet; not to mention that its shape seems to have been quite altered on your shoulders, my poor coat.” “Oh! I swear to you, Madame, it has not. On the contrary, it is I who have … ” I stopped before blurting out a bit of foolishness intelligible to me alone. “Well, then, Monsieur, since it pleases you that our wrongs are reciprocal, let’s forget all about it. Fate has sorted out its own mistakes. We will both return home in what is ours, in the property appropriate to our sex. But it seems to me that since two people who have worn their respective coats for a month have been adequately introduced to each other, I’ll ask you to take a cup of tea with me while we effect the exchange.” And the stranger opened the door to the waiting room, showing the way. Against my desire, I followed her. As I thought about it, I could see only one thing, the imminent and inevitable separation from my beloved companion. I felt no gratitude to her mistress for revealing herself. I cared nothing for this woman; it was to her pelisse I was attached. However, while my heroine was divesting herself of my coat, I allowed myself the summary examination which is the first courtesy a man owes a woman with whom he is becoming acquainted. There was no doubt about it; it was indeed my statue appearing before me, a statue such as I had guessed by her envelope, except she had a nose. Was it this nose that disturbed me? I don’t know, but I do know the vision gave me no pleasure and remained, for me, very distinct from the real woman, she who inhabited the pelisse. Yet, the golden chestnut hair was there, and the deep blue eyes. She asked the servant for some tea; by the accent of the first Russian words she spoke, I recognized she was Polish, a Polonaise. Everything about her betrayed this particularly formidable family in the female species: the electric gaze, the poisonous perfume, the serpentine suppleness, the unconscious provocativeness of every bit of frippery from her heels to the very last curl of her hair. While she was pouring the tea, Stepan Ivanovitch entered, greeted us and smiled. “I suppose,” he said, “the error has now been explained to Madame the Countess. The very day when she stopped by my post‑house and left her pelisse here, Monsieur Joseph Olenin lost his coat not far away. The following day, when his messenger from Bukova came searching for the coat, my stable boy handed him the garment he had picked up. A few hours later, a passer‑by brought Monsieur Olenin’s coat to us, and found the courier at the door asking for Countess ***ska’s pelisse. The courier did not verify the object, and I didn’t hear any more about it.” The post master had shone a light on my fantasy. The name of the Countess ***ska was well known. She had just left Warsaw at the time that my regiment had garrison duty there. They talked of nothing but her beauty, her fierce virtue, her second marriage to the old Count ***sky, one of the richest lords in Poland, who in earlier days was strongly in favor at Court and who had even been for a short while a general and governor under the previous regime. For some time, the Count and his wife had been living in retreat at their beautiful property, Rogonostzova, at the farthest edge of Podolia, a hundred versts from my house. I knew they occasionally passed through our district when going to visit another property situated closer to Kiev. The countess sent Stepan Ivanovitch away, asking him to hurry up and bring her carriage round, and conversation began between us with the ease that comes in new relationships when there is the certainty of belonging to the same world, even though we did not exchange our coats. “Well! Monsieur Olenin, there’s the introduction completed, and, of course, it was quite romantic. My friends in Warsaw have told me much about your many kinds of exploits when you were with the hussars, but I didn’t know that in disdaining common morality you would go so far as appropriating a sable mislaid on the highway.” “You can even add, Countess, so far as not returning it!” “What do you mean?” “I’m declaring that this pelisse will only be wrested from me with my life.” “Well, I never! And why?” “Because … because I love her.” “That’s what all the heroes in the magistrate’s court would say.” “No, you don’t understand me, you cannot understand me. It’s too subtle to explain what exists between this garment and me. Yet, you too are Slav, and therefore more or less a spiritist, a believer in metempsychosis and a host of similar things. Look, for the past month since this piece of cloth has come into my life, it has gradually driven me out of my own self and introduced another soul, a dreamlike being emanating from the stuff; or perhaps it is I who have passed into it, who have taken the form and the being that it potentially contained, as the philosophers say. I don’t know. In any case it remains that the cloth and everything my imagination has put into it, I love it, do you understand, I’m in love with it.” The countess put on a stern face, de rigueur in such a case. It has been observed, in fact, that this sternness can never be taken for a look of surprise, which makes me think that women always expect that this word, love, should come as a natural consequence of conversation with them. “Oh! Don’t misunderstand me,” I continued. “I certainly have no wish to offend you. Your person has nothing to do with all of this, it is absent; beneath this pelisse there exists, there can only exist, the ideal form that emerges from her folds at my thought of her.” “This is not flattering for the physical form which has contributed something to those folds. Now, I’m trying to see the droll side of your originality but I’m no less obliged to ask you categorically once again for my palatine.” “Never. I’d rather give my life! Why did I have to run into you? Go, please leave,” I cried in despair, “but do not ask me for my soul!” “I ask you only for my fur. Ah! Honestly! You are the Tartuffe of pelisses, my dear sir: It is for you to leave it, you who call yourself its master. While I have every desire to oblige you, I’m telling you that, in a few hours, I’m going to be standing before my legitimate master who will be rightly astonished if he sees me appear in a man’s coat. I intend to return home dressed as myself and wearing my own species of fur, all the more because this fur is a family heirloom which we must hold onto for many reasons.” “But it is myself you are asking for! How could you expect me to give myself to you?” “Well, let’s see. I’ll play along with your mad ideas. Am I not leaving you with a consolation? This coat, your coat, that I’ve worn for a month, and which my chambermaid had to modify to make it wearable, this coat will be transformed a little, in your opinion. In it you’re going to find – according to your theories on the adaptation of coats – that you’re a little bit you, a little bit … another … woman!” “Hum! The coat from the Museum in Naples! Some consolation,” I said pitifully. “Those archaeologists always believe they have the right to be lighthearted in their way. But time is pressing, I hear my horses at the door, let’s cease these gallantries. Monsieur Olenin, please give me my palatine!” I rose desperately, a move which made the disputed object slip from my shoulders. In a mischievous gesture the countess reached out her hand toward the falling fur. Instinctively, I pulled it close to me. “Well, then!” said she, starting up again with her hearty laughter. “You do know that if someone comes in, they will think we are playing out the scene with Potiphar’s wife and your namesake!” “Madame, Pharaoh’s general had a wife whose feelings were far less cruel.” “There’s no analogy, sir, my husband is no longer serving in government,” replied the countess, laughing all the more. And with an air of superb authority, which, I must say, suited her wonderfully, she took my dear pelisse from my hands, threw it over her arm and went to the door. She turned round, no doubt to see my fallen face and laugh a little. But I must have looked very sorry, for she cried out with a hint of pity in her voice: “There now, I can sympathize with your folly. You love this polonaise! What say you come and see her again at Rogonostzova? I promise you she will always be hanging on the first peg in my entrance hall. So come, and consider yourself always welcome under our roof, Monsieur Olenin. You’ll be able to say, modifying the proverb: ‘One polonaise lost, two found.’ ” She disappeared, carrying my comforter away. It was like night had descended into the room. I angrily put on my poor old coat and rushed out onto the Kiev road, choking back my sorrow, shivering in my body and in my heart. III When I came back to Bukova, the Russian land had put on her winter face, her livid face. The first snow had fallen on the interminable plateaus of the Black Earth region. Melted over the ridges of the ploughed land, preserved in the furrows, white puddles of snow mottled the great soot-colored fields that are the source of our wealth. It was as if the undertakers of these black and white worlds had taken all the pieces of serge from their equipment and sewn them end to end, and thus cast across hundreds of versts a mourning cloth with silver tears. Low clouds were creeping over the bald beeches, and smoke from chimneys of the poor lingered over thatched roofs from which glacial water oozed. My house, lost in the woods, is never cheery in this season; this time I found it gloomier and more desolate than usual. It seemed empty, like the room of a miser whose treasure had been stolen; my study was in such shadow that no lamp could brighten it. Although Ivan had filled the fireplace with pine roots, I couldn’t manage to warm my frozen limbs. Have you ever dreamt you were an amputee? I had the sensation of this nightmare while completely awake; if my body was entire, at the very least my soul had quitted its home. Although I tended a little toward materialist doctrines, I ended up believing in the existence of the soul, having observed the emptiness it leaves in those moments when it slips away from us. I reasoned with myself ceaselessly to drive the madness from my brain; experience had proven to me that this method is detestable; to reason with oneself over a passion is to try to pull out a nail while tapping it with a hammer: the hammer drives the nail into the wood and reasoning drives passion into the heart. I’ll abbreviate the ups and downs of my internal struggle, for you can already guess the outcome. The first sound to bring joy to the house was the bells on my trotters, the day they brought the sleigh to my porch to drive me to Rogonostzova. The road seemed long and the approaches to the place daunting: large frozen ponds, pine forests, an old castle from the time of Elizabeth with the profile of a prison, one of those jails of boredom where the captives must surely welcome the most mediocre companion like a Prince Charming into Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Today, now in a sounder state of mind, I hardly dare remember the ridiculous emotion with which I set foot in the entrance hall of the ***skys’ manor. My polonaise – the fur, of course – was shining on the first peg, radiant like the Golden Fleece, more lovely and more alive than ever. I ran to the dear object and covered it with furtive kisses. The countess, who was spying on me, appeared in a doorway, laughing earnestly. “Come, come,” she said, “I see this is an inveterate case which must be treated vigorously, if needed, with cold shower-baths.” She graciously did the honors of the house and introduced me to her husband, a glorious invalid of the Caucasian War, confined by sciatica to a wing-chair before a table where his young wife and his steward would take turns shuffling cards for his eternal game of Preferans. In fact, he made a handsome ancestor portrait, with his grayed temples and wrinkles criss-crossed with scars from Turkish yataghans; a red nose and good humor testified to the consolations that a cellar well‑stocked with Hungarian wine can bring to a soldier in his old age. My hosts made me feel very welcome, but for the whole stay I gave them only what, out of strict politeness, I wasn’t allowed to refuse them. As soon as I had the chance, I would slip away to join my loved one, to gaze longingly on her. I was soon aware that Madame ***ska was following this little game with some impatience, though initially it had amused her. Her good will toward me cooled visibly. The last few times that she caught me in intimate conversation with her palatine, she passed by, shrugging, and I heard her mumble under her breath: “He’s mad!” I was recalled to Bukova for a week, but did not delay my second visit. I was greatly disappointed to find the pelisse was not in her usual place. I hastened to the drawing room and bitterly reproached the countess for breaking her word. Her lip curled testily and she replied that my diversions no longer had the interest of a novelty; then, with a nervous gesture she rang and ordered her lady‑in‑waiting to bring out ‘her old rag’. During this second stay, Madame ***ska’s manner was testament to a veritable hostility toward me. She almost never spoke to me, and I had to pretend not to see her in order not to suffer from her attitude, which I could only attribute to the disdain provoked by my deranged mind. Only the old count, a stranger to my follies, welcomed me with the traditional cordiality of our provinces and pressed me to come back, to shorten the long leisurely days of winter in his company. Indeed, I went back, though I felt my presence odious; I went back for the Christmas festivities, tormented by my passion. This time, again, the polonaise was absent. But I was more than a little surprised to find the countess shivering and curled up in our pelisse. Her good mood seemed to have returned, and she received me with a smile on her lips. “Oh, my dear neighbor, I’m very sorry to upset your habits, but my doctor finds me unwell, and with this cold weather we’re having he has ordered me to wear furs in the icy rooms of our old ruins. You wouldn’t want me to die, no doubt. But just to let you know, I am not bequeathing my coat to you. So resign yourself to gazing at it on me. I regret my coarse figure upsets the drape of my perfect double. Try to become accustomed to it.” “Alas, Madame! You deprive me of such soft, innocent caresses.” “Oh! I know that on me the magic mantle loses all its virtue! All the better; you will get over it. If not … if not, it’s up to you to find a compromise.” Magic mantle, indeed. Since my hostess had put it on again, it seemed she was becoming, with each day, a little less of a stranger; it seemed she was a little less herself, a little more the mantle. With the strange power of absorption that I had so often noticed, the pelisse was metamorphosing her mistress and bringing her back to the proportions of my illusion. The Countess ***ska had disappeared; only my polonaise remained, with the unique temptations she had been offering me for three months. Unconsciously and naturally, I had come to the point where I was no longer able to separate one from the other. It was all the easier for me because the shivering young woman never removed what she had once so scornfully called ‘her old rag’: and I, who could not tear myself away from this darling object, was riveted to the footsteps of she who wore it; I followed her everywhere like a living shadow. The countess could not have invented a better stratagem if she had wanted to chain me to herself. I am not suggesting this was a calculated scheme; her very correct soul was incapable of it. Henceforth I was with the lady of the manor on her every walk; I accompanied her in her park, my hand hurrying to gather the frost pearls as they caught in the sable, in moments when it brushed the low birch branches. I followed her onto the ponds where she would take her pleasure at skating. When she stumbled as she raced along, I was behind her, trembling with fear that in some fall or other my treasure would be torn; I was ready to catch it in my arms and save it. If she rode a sleigh for a longer excursion, I would sit by her side, grateful for the jolts of the track when the narrow vehicle would shake, and the soft blue velvet with its warmth and perfume would brush against my shoulder and over my hand. During these days of a shared life, we would chat. I took a keen interest in this singular nature unveiling itself before me; a double nature, as though made from the poorly joined halves of two souls. I could explain this duality without much trouble; I knew through experience that the wondrous pelisse possessed an influence so penetrating, so irresistible, that she modified even the moral being of those she enveloped. In a peaceful soul, a little weary and numbed by solitude, a fairy was igniting sparks of mischief and flashes of poetry. There were moments when it seemed my new friend’s words were breathed into her by a passing spirit, one of those vagabonds from the occult world that sometimes come and stay awhile in the most honest dwellings and upset the whole household. I would see she was uneasy, capricious, coolly fickle, now fallen deep into a secret thought, now given to abrupt flashes of wit. The menacing laugh passing over her small teeth was not coming from her; it gave me the impression of a drinking song played by a pagan on a church organ. On the long, empty December evenings, the three of us would come together in the downstairs room, before the flaming hearth. The countess would maintain a stubborn silence: snuggling in the fur despite the heat of the fire, leaning on her elbows, her gaze lost between the large firedogs, she seemed to be closely watching the follies of the little yellow and red demons that lodge beneath the large logs and gossip in the flames, telling stories to bored Ladies in old castles. I didn’t speak much; absorbed in contemplation of the sable, I took an ever‑new pleasure in following the play of light on her folds. With the slightest movement of she who wore it, the sable would slip into the thick shadow falling from the rafters, or would light up, lengthened and continued by hair curls in the same golden tints. Only the count animated our late nights with his inexhaustible good humor, delighted to find a listener agreeable to his war memories and his Ukrainian legends. One evening, the wind from the steppe, blowing its way to the Carpathian Mountains, howled as it passed through the courtyards; the groans of the village windmills drifted to the dark window panes and expired. To our countryside, usually so quiet, these sounds of the elements bring a sense of dread. We were sitting in silence; the old major‑domo came in bringing the tea; a shutter banged, the barking of a dog on the road, or a wolf, faded away. As the major‑domo withdrew, he said sententiously: “Madame the countess would do well to lock up her jewels this evening; it’s on nights like this that the Lady returns.” “Which Lady?” I asked my host. “What? You don’t know you are threatened with a visit? Don’t go smiling, Monsieur Skeptic. Listen to a story that all my servants believe as surely as they believe the miracles of Our Lady of Częstochowa. A very long time ago, in the reign of King Stanislaus, this house was the scene of a domestic tragedy. One of my ancestors, betrayed by his young wife, took justice into his own hands in the harsh manner of our forebears, and hurled the guilty woman into the large pond. Since that time the cursed soul has roamed with the rusalki, the fairies of the waters, beneath the water lilies and the bulrushes. Now and again she comes back into her abode and visits the very corner tower where you are staying. We’ve heard her soft sighs in the corridors, we’ve followed her trace of water drips and sprigs of moss and iris. Some have seen her walking: a tall reed clad in green gauze, crowned with seaweed. She appeared twice in my grandfather’s lifetime, once in my father’s lifetime: after each of these visits, a costly object was missing from the castle. She always carries off what is most precious to the master of this house. It was she, the minx, who took my old battle steed on the evening when he escaped, coming back from the pasture. But now I’m not sure what else she could take from me … ” The count’s warning was unnecessary; as I was raised by my Little Russian nurse in the faith of popular traditions, I had no desire at all to joke about this matter. I was even shocked by the burst of laughter that came from the countess’s armchair at her husband’s last words; it was an indefinable, disturbing laugh, the laugh of a stranger which seemed to enter into her rather than come out of her. I took leave of them and went up to my room in the tower, a little nervous, my thoughts held captive by the story I’d just heard. I went to bed, my eyes fixed, as always, on the pelisse hanging on the window latch. For I must confess one last bit of childishness after so many others. I had felt so upset each evening at the moment of leaving my polonaise, that I was once bold enough to say to the countess: “Madame, you’ve allowed me to seek a compromise; since you monopolize my beloved all day long, let me at least take her at night, to have her closer to me and to gaze on her as I wake.” Without waiting for Madame ***ska’s consent, I had grabbed her coat as she was throwing it over a chair to withdraw from the room. From then on, I carried it lovingly away to my retreat. On moonlit nights the wan velvet and sable would be silhouetted against my windowpane in a halo of moon rays. I have no words sweet enough to tell of their grace, the divine symphony which would keep me from sleeping. That evening, the full December moon was veiled at intervals by dark clouds maddened by the wind. The tempest raged and penetrated my bedroom through old, badly fitted casements. A thought came to me, leaving me cold: what if the Lady, the rusalka, was coming to visit me and rob me of my treasure, the most precious object in the castle, without a doubt? And besides, wouldn’t it be her property? This fur which I’d been told was a family heirloom, this coat of a style of days past, didn’t it belong to the ill-fated ancestor? And this mysterious soul which clearly resides in the haunted pelisse, isn’t it her soul? If you have ever trembled for one you loved, you can imagine what terror filled my mind, intensifying, pricking my heart and beating at my temples. With my eyes wide open on the polonaise, I saw her stirring with movements very human, in the play of the wind probably, hiding and reappearing, with the caprices of the moon and the clouds, no doubt. There was a longer eclipse; the light again filled the window space; the polonaise was no longer there. I heard soft sighs and a silken stroking of the draperies, like a barque cleaving through reeds. Beside myself, I rushed to the door, fell to my knees and stretched out my arms, crying: “Leave her, leave me my soul, don’t go … ” When my arms closed again they were embracing the sable. She moved, an uncertain form was palpitating beneath her folds, a moist breath brushed my forehead. A fit of madness took away my sense of reality; I cried out, I lost consciousness … and my memory, too, for I am unable to say what happened afterward. All that was left to me was the confused and troubling sensation of a morning after a heavy night of drinking. When I saw my hosts the next morning, I wanted at first to announce that the ancestor had appeared to me. A sense of shame made me hesitate, and some kind of fear of displeasing the mysterious being whom I wanted to see again. Would the Lady return? She returned. It is she who brings me back and ties me to Rogonostzova. Here, my life and my friends’ lives continue, always steady, always peaceful. Count ***sky, most inconvenienced by his sciatica that whole winter long, could no longer suffer his only partner in cards and chess to leave. Everyone knows that the Russian government, in its paternal solicitude, anticipates her subjects’ smallest desires, and that the most secret wish expressed by the administered is just as soon realized by the administration. I recently had new proof of this. The Podolia line, which serves our two residences, was opened in January; now I am no more than two hours from my neighbors. It is in vain that my acquaintances in St Petersburg and my peers from the Academy write me letters upon letters filled with question marks. Impatiently, I have responded to them once and for all that I am in the business of furs. I have not been able to find the time to go and see them again, and I even missed the last convention of Orientalists. But then, how could I show my face there? My great work has not advanced one line. The excellent count sometimes makes fun of me on this subject, asking why my studies on the Hebrews stopped at the chapter on Joseph. Out of self‑respect I had to say I was deciphering a papyrus of texts that were very difficult but destined to revolutionize history, and which to me suggest that the Israelite would have found his coat. “Bah!” the Count responded with the broad laugh which is the secret of people from a past age, “I hope, dear Egyptologist, that nothing untoward has happened to my ancient and illustrious colleague, Pharaoh’s governor-general?” “My dear,” the countess interrupted, with her particular laugh, the laugh of the other woman, “my dear, one must never mock one’s colleagues. Nor one’s peers.” *