A Hero of Our Time Chapter 1 TAMAN

Taman is the foulest little town of all the seaside towns of Russia. I almost died of hunger there, and even worse, the people there tried to drown me. I arrived late at night by stage-coach. The coach driver halted our tired troika at the gate of the only stone house at the town’s entrance. The sentry, a Black Sea Cossack, having heard the sound of the horses’ bells, issued his usual inquiry with a wild cry of “who goes there?” A sergeant and a corporal came out. I explained to them that I was an officer, and that I was traveling on official business to an active detachment and requested government quarters. The corporal took us through the town. Whenever we approached an izba1 it was occupied. It was cold, I hadn’t slept for three nights, I was exhausted and I started to get angry. “Take me somewhere you rascal! Even if it’s to hell, just take me somewhere!” I cried. “There is one last fatera,”2 responded the corporal, scratching the back of his head, “but your honor won’t like it—it’s unclean!” Having not understood the exact meaning of this last word, I ordered him to march on, and after long wandering through muddy alleys, where I could see only decrepit fences on either side, we drove up to a small peasant house, right on the sea.

A full moon shone on the reed roof and white walls of my new living quarters. Another peasant house, smaller and more ancient, stood next to it in a courtyard, which was enclosed by a stone wall. The land fell away in a precipice to the sea at the very walls of this peasant house, and dark-blue waves lapped below with relentless murmurings. The moon quietly watched the element, which was restless but submissive to her, and under her light, I could make out two ships, far offshore, whose black rigging, resembling a cobweb, was in motionless silhouette against the pale line of the horizon. “There are ships at the pier,” I thought. “Tomorrow I’ll set off for Gelendzhik.”

A Cossack from the front line was fulfilling the duties of an orderly under my command. Having instructed him to unload my valise and release the coach driver, I called the proprietor. Silence. I knocked. Silence. What was this? At last, a boy of about fourteen years crawled out of the vestibule.

“Where is the proprietor?”

“No.” The boy spoke in a Ukrainian dialect.

“What? He’s not here at all?”

“Not at all.”

“And the proprietress?”

“Run off to the slobodka.”3

“Who then will open the door for me?” I said, kicking it with my foot. The door opened. A dampness blew softly from the peasant house. I struck a sulfur match and put it up to the boy’s nose. It illuminated two white eyes. He was blind, completely blind from birth. He stood in front of me without moving, and I began to scrutinize the features of his face.

I confess that I have a strong prejudice against the blind, the cross-eyed, the deaf, the mute, the legless, the armless, the hunch-backed and the like. I have noticed that there is always a sort of strange relationship between the exterior of a person and his soul. It is as if, with the loss of a feature, the soul loses some kind of sensibility.

I started to scrutinize the face of this blind boy. But what would you suggest I read in a face that has no eyes? . . . I looked at him with involuntary pity for a while, when suddenly a barely visible smile scampered across his thin lips, and, I don’t know why, but it produced in me a most unpleasant impression. The suspicion that this blind boy wasn’t as blind as he seemed was born in my mind. In vain I tried to persuade myself that you couldn’t mimic a walleye, and why would you? But what was I to do? I am often prone to prejudice . . .

“Are you the son of the proprietress?” I asked him eventually.


“Who are you then?”

“An orphan, a cripple.”

“And does the proprietress have children?”

“No. There was a daughter, ran away cross the sea with a Tatar.”

“Which Tatar?”

“The devil knows! A Crimean Tatar, a boatman from Kerchi.”

I went into the shack. The sum total of furniture inside consisted of two benches and a table and an enormous trunk by the stove. There wasn’t a single image on the wall—a bad sign! The sea wind burst into the room through a broken windowpane. I pulled the end of a wax candle out of my valise and, having lit it, started to unpack my things, putting my saber and rifle down in the corner. I put my pistols on the table, spread out my felt cloak on the bench, while my Cossack put his on the other. After ten minutes he started snoring, but I couldn’t get to sleep. In the darkness the boy with the wall-eyes continued to circle before me.

Thus an hour passed. The moon shone through the window, and its light played on the earthen floor of the peasant house. Suddenly, a shadow flew through a bright ray that cut across the floor. I half-rose and looked through the window. Someone ran past it a second time and hid God knows where. I couldn’t imagine that this being had run down the steep slope to the water; however, there was nowhere else to go. I stood up, threw on my beshmet, girded myself with my dagger-belt, and quietly exited the peasant house. The blind boy was standing in front of me. I hid by the fence, and with a sure but careful gait he walked past me. He was carrying some kind of bundle under his arm, and turning toward the jetty, he descended a narrow and steep path. “On that day the dumb shall cry out and the blind shall see,”4 I thought, following him at a distance from which I wouldn’t lose sight of him.

In the meantime, the moon was becoming shrouded in clouds, and a fog rose on the sea. The lamp on the stern of the nearest ship just barely shined through it—and closer to shore, foam glittered on the boulders, which threatened to sink it at any moment. I descended with difficulty, stole down the steep slope, and this is what I saw: the blind boy paused, then turned right at the bottom. He walked so close to the water that it seemed as if a wave might grab him and take him away at any moment. But it was evident that this wasn’t his first walk along these parts, judging from the conviction with which he stepped from stone to stone, avoiding the grooves between them. At last he stopped, as though he was listening for something, sat on the ground and put the bundle down beside him. Hiding behind a protruding part of the rock-face, I observed his movements. Several minutes later a white figure appeared on the other side of him. She walked up to the blind boy and sat next to him. The wind brought me their conversation from time to time:

“So, blind boy,” said the female voice, “the storm is fierce. Yanko won’t come.”

“Yanko isn’t afraid of storms,” he replied.

“The fog is thickening,” the female voice rejoined in a sad tone.

“Fog is better for getting past patrol ships,” was the reply.

“And if he drowns?”

“Well then, on Sunday you’ll have to go to church without a new ribbon.”

A silence followed. But I was shocked by one thing: before, the blind boy had spoken to me in a Ukrainian dialect, and now he was expressing himself cleanly in Russian.

“You see, I’m right,” said the blind boy again, clapping his palms, “Yanko isn’t afraid of the sea or the wind or the fog or the shore patrol. Listen now. You won’t fool me—that isn’t water lapping, those are his long oars.”

The woman jumped up and began peering into the distance with an anxious look.

“You’re delirious, blind boy,” she said, “I don’t see anything.”

I admit, as hard as I tried to make out in the distance anything that resembled a boat, I was unsuccessful. Thus passed about ten minutes. And then, a black dot appeared between the mountains of waves. It grew larger and smaller in turns. Slowly climbing up to the peak of a wave, and quickly falling from it, a boat was approaching the shore. Brave was the seaman who decided to set out across the strait at a distance of twenty versts on such a night, and important must his reason have been, to have induced him to it! Thinking this, with an involuntary beating of my heart, I looked at the poor boat, but like a duck, it dived under and then, rapidly waving its oars, like wings, sprang out of the depths in a spray of foam. And I thought to myself, it is going to strike against the shore with all its might and fly into pieces. But it turned deftly to one side, and hurdled unharmed into a small bay. A man of medium height, in a Tatar sheepswool hat, emerged from it. He waved an arm and the three of them took to dragging something out of the boat. The load was so great that even now I don’t understand how it hadn’t sunk. Each took a bundle onto his shoulder and they set off along the shoreline; and soon I lost sight of them. I had to go back, but I confess that all these odd things had perturbed me, and I barely managed to wait until morning.

My Cossack was very surprised to see me fully dressed when he awoke. I, however, did not give him any reason for it. I admired the blue sky beyond the window, studded with little clouds, above the far coast of the Crimea, which extended in a violet stripe and ended in a cliff, at the top of which a lighthouse tower shone white. Then I set off for the Fanagorya fort in order to learn from the commandant the time of my departure to Gelendzhik.

But alas! The commandant could not tell me anything definitively. The ships standing at the jetty were all patrol or merchant ships, which hadn’t yet started loading. “Maybe in about three, four days, the postal boat will arrive,” said the commandant, “and then we’ll see.” I returned home, morose and angry. I was met in the doorway by the frightened face of my Cossack.

“It’s bad, Your Honor!” he said to me.

“Yes, brother, God knows when we’ll get out of this place!”

He seemed even more alarmed at this and, leaning into me, said in a whisper:

“It is unclean here! Today I met a Black Sea uryadnik.5 I know him—he was in my detachment last year. And when I told him where we were staying, he said: ‘Brother, it’s unclean there, the people are not good!’ Yes, and it’s true, who is this blind boy? He goes everywhere alone, to the bazaar, to get bread, to fetch water . . . it’s clear that they’re used to him around here.”

“What of it? Has the proprietress appeared at least?”

“Today, when you were gone, an old woman came and with her a daughter.”

“What daughter? She doesn’t have a daughter.”

“God knows who she was, if she wasn’t the daughter. Over there, the old woman is sitting in her house.”

I went into the peasant house. The stove had been lit and it was hot; a meal, a rather luxurious one for the likes of poor folk, was cooking inside it. The old woman answered all my questions with the reply that she was deaf and couldn’t hear. What was I to do with her? I addressed myself to the blind boy who was sitting in front of the stove and putting brushwood in the fire.

“So, tell me, you blind imp,” I said, taking him by the ear,

“where did you trundle along to with your bundle last night?” Suddenly, my blind boy started to cry, scream, and moan.

“Where’d I go? Went nowhere . . . with a bundle? Which bundle?”

This time the old woman heard, and started to growl: “Listen how they make things up—and about a cripple too! What do you want of him? What has he done to you?”

I was fed up with this and left, solidly resolved to find the key to this mystery.

I wrapped myself up in my felt cloak and sat by the fence on a rock, looking into the distance. The sea extended before me, still agitated from last night’s storm. And its monotonous sound, similar to the murmur of a city falling asleep, reminded me of years past, and carried my thoughts northward to our cold capital city. Disturbed by these reminiscences, I sank into reverie . . . About an hour passed thus, or perhaps more . . . Suddenly, something that sounded like a song struck my ear. Yes, indeed, it was a song, in a fresh, little female voice—but where was it coming from? . . . I listen—the song is strange, sometimes drawn-out and sad, at other times quick and lively. I look around—there is no one anywhere. I listen again. It was as though the sounds were falling from the sky. I looked up: a girl with unruly braids wearing a striped dress was standing on the roof of the peasant house—a veritable rusalka.6 Protecting her eyes from the sun’s rays with her palm, she was peering intently into the distance, either laughing or saying something to herself or singing her song again.

I remember the song, every word of it:

The ships pass,

Their white sails,

Over the green sea

As though by charter free.

My little boat

With two oars,

And no sails, slips

Among those ships.

If a storm strikes up

The old ships

Will raise their wing

Over the sea spreading.

I bow to the sea now

Low very low,

“Menace not this night,

oh sea of spite:

my little boat

with its riches floats

through the dark, blind

with a wild little mind.”

I was unwillingly subject to the thought that I had heard that same voice during the night. I was distracted for a minute, and when I looked up again at the roof, the girl wasn’t there. Suddenly she ran past me, singing something different; and, snapping her fingers, she ran inside to the old woman and they began an argument. The old woman was getting angry and the girl guffawed. And then I saw my water sprite come running back again, skipping along. When she had come up beside me, she stopped and looked me intently in the eye, as if she was astonished by my presence. Then she went off to the jetty, casually and quietly. But that wasn’t the end of the story. She circled my lodgings the whole day. And the singing and skipping didn’t cease. Strange being! There were no signs of lunacy in her face. On the contrary, her eyes settled on me with a spry perspicacity, and those eyes, it seemed, were endowed with some sort of magnetic power; it was as if they were awaiting a question each time they looked at you. But as soon as I started to speak she ran off, smiling craftily.

I have definitely never seen a girl like her. She was far from being a beauty, but then I have prejudices with regard to beauty too. There was a look of breeding to her . . . breeding in women, as in horses, is of great matter. This discovery belongs to La Jeune-France.7 It, beauty that is, not La Jeune-France, is in large part manifested in the gait, in the arms and the legs. The nose is especially telling. A straight nose is rarer in Russia than small feet. My songstress seemed no more than eighteen years old. Her figure had an unusual suppleness to it, she had a particular inclination of the head; she had long light-brown hair, a sort of golden tint to the slightly sun-tanned skin on her neck and her shoulders, and an especially straight nose. All this enchanted me. I read something wild and suspicious in her oblique gaze, and there was something indeterminate in her smile but such is the strength of prejudice: her straight nose had carried me from my senses. I imagined that I had found Goethe’s Mignon,8 the marvelous creation of his German imagination. Certainly there were many similarities: the same quick transitions between extreme agitation and complete motionlessness, the same mysterious utterances, the same leaping about, and strange songs . . .

Toward evening, I stopped her at the door and conducted the following conversation with her:

“Tell me, pretty girl,” I asked, “what were you doing today on the roof?”

“Uh, I was looking to see whence comes the wind.”

“What for?”

“Whence the wind, hence happiness also.”

“What? Were you summoning happiness with your song?”

“Where there is song, there is happiness.”

“And suppose you sing sorrow to yourself?”

“What of it? Where things aren’t better, they are worse, and from worst to best is not far.”

“Who was it that taught you this song?”

“No one taught it to me. As it occurs to me, so I sing. Whoever hears it, hears it. And he who should not hear it, won’t understand it.”

“And what is your name, my songbird?”

“Whoever christened me knows.”

“Who christened you?”

“How should I know?”

“What secrecy! But I have found out something about you.”

Her face didn’t change, her lips didn’t stir; it was as if the matter didn’t concern her.

“I found out that you went to the shore last night.”

And then, with great emphasis, I related to her everything that I had seen, thinking it would disturb her—not in the least! She burst into loud laughter.

“You have seen much, but know little. So keep it under lock and key.”

“And what if I, for example, thought to take this to the commandant?” Then I adopted a very serious, even severe, stance. She suddenly leapt up, broke into song, and escaped like a little bird that has been flushed out of a bush. My last words were entirely inappropriate. At the time, I didn’t suspect their importance, but afterward I had the opportunity to regret them.

As soon as it became dark, I ordered the Cossack to heat the kettle, as he would in the field, and I lit the candle and sat at the table, smoking from my traveling pipe. I had finished a second cup of tea, when suddenly the door creaked, and I heard steps and the light rustle of a dress behind me. I shuddered and turned—it was her, my water sprite! She sat down opposite me, quietly and wordlessly, and aimed her eyes at me, and I don’t know why but this gaze seemed miraculously gentle to me. It reminded me of those gazes that, in the old days, had so tyrannically toyed with my life. She, it seemed, was waiting for a question, but, full of inexplicable confusion, I didn’t say anything. A dull pallor had spread over her face, indicating a disturbance of the soul. Her hand wandered around the table without aim, and I noticed a light trembling. Her breast would rise up high at times; at other times she seemed to be holding her breath. This comedy had started to bore me, and I was ready to break the silence in the most prosaic way, that is, by offering her a glass of tea, when suddenly she jumped up, threw her arms around my neck, and a moist, fiery kiss sounded on my lips. My vision darkened, my head was spinning, I squeezed her in an embrace with all the strength of youthful passion, but she, like a snake, slipped from my arms, whispering in my ear: “Tonight, when everyone goes to sleep, go down to the shore.” And like an arrow she ran out of the room, knocking over the candle and the kettle that stood on the floor by the entrance.

“What a she-devil!” cried out the Cossack, who was dreaming about heating up the remains of the tea, having made himself comfortable in the straw. Only then did I come to my senses.

After about two hours, when everything had fallen silent at the jetty, I roused my Cossack.

“If I fire my pistol,” I said to him, “then run down to the shore.”

He opened his eyes widely and replied mechanically, “Yes, sir.” I thrust my pistol in my belt and left. She was waiting for me at the edge of the slope; her attire was very light, a small shawl wrapped around her lithe figure.

“Come with me!” she said, taking me by the hand, and we started to descend. I don’t understand how I didn’t break my neck. At the bottom we turned right and went down the very path along which I had followed the blind boy yesterday. The moon hadn’t yet risen, and only two little stars, like two rescue beacons, glittered in the dark-blue vault of the sky. Heavy waves rolled in one after the next, rhythmically and evenly, barely lifting the little boat moored to the shore.

“Let’s get into the boat,” said my companion. I hesitated—I am not an enthusiast of sentimental outings on the sea—but it wasn’t the moment to back down. She hopped into the boat, with me after her, and I hadn’t quite come to my senses before I noticed we were drifting off.

“What does this mean?” I said angrily to her.

“It means,” she replied, sitting me down on the bench and winding her arms around my shoulders, “it means that I love you . . .”

Her cheek pressed to mine, I felt her burning breath on my face. Suddenly something fell loudly into the water. I grabbed at my belt, but the pistol was gone. Oh, what a terrible suspicion crept into my soul, while blood surged to my head. I look around—we are about fifty sazhens from the shore, and I can’t swim! I want to push her away from me, but like a cat, she had seized hold of my clothing and suddenly, with a strong shove, nearly threw me into the sea. The boat began to rock, but I got the better of it, and a desperate struggle began between us. Rage imparted me with strength, but I quickly noticed that I was inferior to my opponent in dexterity . . .

“What do you want?” I cried, firmly grabbing her little hands. Her fingers crunched, but she didn’t cry out: her snakelike nature could endure such torture.

“You saw,” she responded, “and you will inform!” And with supernatural exertion she toppled me to the side of the boat. We were both hanging over the edge of the boat from the waist. Her hair was touching the water. It was a decisive moment. I braced myself against the bottom of the boat with my knee and grabbed her braid with one hand and her throat with the other. She let go of my clothing, and I threw her into the waves in an instant.

It was already rather dark; her head flashed a couple of times in the sea foam; then, nothing more . . .

At the bottom of the boat I found half of an old oar, and somehow, after prolonged effort, got it moored to the jetty. Stealing along the shore toward my peasant house, I couldn’t help glancing over to the place where yesterday the blind boy had waited for the night mariner. The moon had already rolled across the sky, and it looked to me as if someone in white was sitting at the shoreline. I crept up, with excited curiosity, and lay flat on the grass on top of the precipice, sticking my head a little over the edge. I could well see everything that was happening below from the cliff, and I wasn’t much surprised, but was rather gladdened to recognize my rusalka there. She was squeezing sea foam from her long hair. Her wet slip outlined her lithe figure and raised breasts. Soon a boat appeared in the distance; it was approaching fast. A man wearing a Tatar hat stepped out of the boat as he had the day before, but his hair was cut like a Cossack’s, and a large knife stuck out from the leather of his belt.

“Yanko,” she said, “all is lost!”

Then their conversation continued but so quietly that I couldn’t hear a thing.

“And where is the blind boy?” said Yanko finally, raising his voice.

“I sent him for something,” was the answer.

The blind boy appeared after a few minutes, lugging a sack, which he put down in the boat.

“Listen, blind boy!” said Yanko. “You stay put here . . . you hear? Those are precious goods . . . Tell (I didn’t catch the name) that I’m not his servant anymore. The matter went badly; he won’t see any more of me. It’s too dangerous now. I am off to find work in another place, and he’ll never find a daredevil like me again. Yes, tell him that if he had paid better, then Yanko wouldn’t have left. There are paths open everywhere to me, wherever the wind blows and the sea stirs!”

After a certain silence, Yanko continued. “She’s coming with me. She can’t stay here. And tell the old woman that it’s time to die, she’s lived longer than she should have, and it’s time she went. And she won’t see the likes of us again.”

“And what about me?” said the blind boy in a plaintive voice.

“What are you to me?” was the reply.

In the meantime my water sprite had jumped into the boat and waved her hand at her companion, who put something in the blind boy’s hand, saying: “Here, buy yourself some gingerbread.”

“That’s it?” said the blind boy.

“Here, have more.”

The dropped coin rang out, striking against a rock. The blind boy didn’t pick it up. Yanko sat down in the boat; a wind blew from the shore. They raised a small sail and tore off swiftly. For a long time the white sail flashed in the light of the moon amidst the dark waves. The blind boy continued to sit at the shore, and then something that resembled sobbing was audible to me: the blind boy was crying, and it went on for a long time . . . I became sad. Why had fate thrown me into this peaceful circle of honest smugglers? Like a stone thrown into a smooth spring, I had disturbed their tranquility, and, like a stone, I had barely avoided sinking to the bottom!

I returned to the peasant house. In the vestibule there was a burned-out candle on a wooden dish, and my Cossack, contrary to orders, was in a deep sleep, holding his rifle with both hands. I left him in peace, took the candle, and went into the peasant house. Alas! My case, my silver-worked saber, my Dagestani dagger (a present from a friend)—all had disappeared. Then I guessed just what things the damned blind boy had been lugging. Having awakened the Cossack with a sufficiently impolite shove, I scolded him, got angry, but there was nothing to be done! And wouldn’t it be amusing to complain to the authorities that I had been robbed by a blind boy and nearly drowned by an eighteen-year-old girl? Thank God, there arose an opportunity in the morning to depart, and I abandoned Taman. What became of the old woman and the poor blind boy, I don’t know. Yes, and what are the joys and calamities of man to me—to me, a traveling officer, equipped, even, with a road-pass indicating his official business!

(The end of Pechorin’s diaries)