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Sunday, December 3, 2017

"The Witch and Other Stories " (Russian: Ведьма) by Anton Chekhov, Full Text in English; "The Witch and Other Stories " (1886) by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

Ivan Aivazovsky, 1863, The Caucasus.


It was approaching nightfall. The sexton, Savely Gykin, was lying in his
huge bed in the hut adjoining the church. He was not asleep, though it
was his habit to go to sleep at the same time as the hens. His coarse
red hair peeped from under one end of the greasy patchwork quilt, made
up of coloured rags, while his big unwashed feet stuck out from the
other. He was listening. His hut adjoined the wall that encircled the
church and the solitary window in it looked out upon the open country.
And out there a regular battle was going on. It was hard to say who
was being wiped off the face of the earth, and for the sake of whose
destruction nature was being churned up into such a ferment; but,
judging from the unceasing malignant roar, someone was getting it very
hot. A victorious force was in full chase over the fields, storming in
the forest and on the church roof, battering spitefully with its fists
upon the windows, raging and tearing, while something vanquished was
howling and wailing.... A plaintive lament sobbed at the window, on the
roof, or in the stove. It sounded not like a call for help, but like a
cry of misery, a consciousness that it was too late, that there was no
salvation. The snowdrifts were covered with a thin coating of ice; tears
quivered on them and on the trees; a dark slush of mud and melting snow
flowed along the roads and paths. In short, it was thawing, but through
the dark night the heavens failed to see it, and flung flakes of fresh
snow upon the melting earth at a terrific rate. And the wind staggered
like a drunkard. It would not let the snow settle on the ground, and
whirled it round in the darkness at random.

Savely listened to all this din and frowned. The fact was that he knew,
or at any rate suspected, what all this racket outside the window was
tending to and whose handiwork it was.

“I know!” he muttered, shaking his finger menacingly under the
bedclothes; “I know all about it.”

On a stool by the window sat the sexton’s wife, Raissa Nilovna. A tin
lamp standing on another stool, as though timid and distrustful of its
powers, shed a dim and flickering light on her broad shoulders, on the
handsome, tempting-looking contours of her person, and on her thick
plait, which reached to the floor. She was making sacks out of coarse
hempen stuff. Her hands moved nimbly, while her whole body, her eyes,
her eyebrows, her full lips, her white neck were as still as though they
were asleep, absorbed in the monotonous, mechanical toil. Only from time
to time she raised her head to rest her weary neck, glanced for a moment
towards the window, beyond which the snowstorm was raging, and bent
again over her sacking. No desire, no joy, no grief, nothing was
expressed by her handsome face with its turned-up nose and its dimples.
So a beautiful fountain expresses nothing when it is not playing.

But at last she had finished a sack. She flung it aside, and, stretching
luxuriously, rested her motionless, lack-lustre eyes on the window. The
panes were swimming with drops like tears, and white with short-lived
snowflakes which fell on the window, glanced at Raissa, and melted....

“Come to bed!” growled the sexton. Raissa remained mute. But suddenly
her eyelashes flickered and there was a gleam of attention in her eye.
Savely, all the time watching her expression from under the quilt, put
out his head and asked:

“What is it?”

“Nothing.... I fancy someone’s coming,” she answered quietly.

The sexton flung the quilt off with his arms and legs, knelt up in bed,
and looked blankly at his wife. The timid light of the lamp illuminated
his hirsute, pock-marked countenance and glided over his rough matted

“Do you hear?” asked his wife.

Through the monotonous roar of the storm he caught a scarcely audible
thin and jingling monotone like the shrill note of a gnat when it wants
to settle on one’s cheek and is angry at being prevented.

“It’s the post,” muttered Savely, squatting on his heels.

Two miles from the church ran the posting road. In windy weather, when
the wind was blowing from the road to the church, the inmates of the hut
caught the sound of bells.

“Lord! fancy people wanting to drive about in such weather,” sighed

“It’s government work. You’ve to go whether you like or not.”

The murmur hung in the air and died away.

“It has driven by,” said Savely, getting into bed.

But before he had time to cover himself up with the bedclothes he heard
a distinct sound of the bell. The sexton looked anxiously at his wife,
leapt out of bed and walked, waddling, to and fro by the stove. The
bell went on ringing for a little, then died away again as though it had

“I don’t hear it,” said the sexton, stopping and looking at his wife
with his eyes screwed up.

But at that moment the wind rapped on the window and with it floated
a shrill jingling note. Savely turned pale, cleared his throat, and
flopped about the floor with his bare feet again.

“The postman is lost in the storm,” he wheezed out glancing malignantly
at his wife. “Do you hear? The postman has lost his way!... I... I know!
Do you suppose I... don’t understand?” he muttered. “I know all about
it, curse you!”

“What do you know?” Raissa asked quietly, keeping her eyes fixed on the

“I know that it’s all your doing, you she-devil! Your doing, damn you!
This snowstorm and the post going wrong, you’ve done it all--you!”

“You’re mad, you silly,” his wife answered calmly.

“I’ve been watching you for a long time past and I’ve seen it. From the
first day I married you I noticed that you’d bitch’s blood in you!”

“Tfoo!” said Raissa, surprised, shrugging her shoulders and crossing
herself. “Cross yourself, you fool!”

“A witch is a witch,” Savely pronounced in a hollow, tearful voice,
hurriedly blowing his nose on the hem of his shirt; “though you are my
wife, though you are of a clerical family, I’d say what you are even at
confession.... Why, God have mercy upon us! Last year on the Eve of the
Prophet Daniel and the Three Young Men there was a snowstorm, and
what happened then? The mechanic came in to warm himself. Then on St.
Alexey’s Day the ice broke on the river and the district policeman
turned up, and he was chatting with you all night... the damned brute!
And when he came out in the morning and I looked at him, he had rings
under his eyes and his cheeks were hollow! Eh? During the August fast
there were two storms and each time the huntsman turned up. I saw it
all, damn him! Oh, she is redder than a crab now, aha!”

“You didn’t see anything.”

“Didn’t I! And this winter before Christmas on the Day of the Ten
Martyrs of Crete, when the storm lasted for a whole day and night--do
you remember?--the marshal’s clerk was lost, and turned up here, the
hound.... Tfoo! To be tempted by the clerk! It was worth upsetting God’s
weather for him! A drivelling scribbler, not a foot from the ground,
pimples all over his mug and his neck awry! If he were good-looking,
anyway--but he, tfoo! he is as ugly as Satan!”

The sexton took breath, wiped his lips and listened. The bell was not to
be heard, but the wind banged on the roof, and again there came a tinkle
in the darkness.

“And it’s the same thing now!” Savely went on. “It’s not for nothing the
postman is lost! Blast my eyes if the postman isn’t looking for you! Oh,
the devil is a good hand at his work; he is a fine one to help! He will
turn him round and round and bring him here. I know, I see! You can’t
conceal it, you devil’s bauble, you heathen wanton! As soon as the storm
began I knew what you were up to.”

“Here’s a fool!” smiled his wife. “Why, do you suppose, you thick-head,
that I make the storm?”

“H’m!... Grin away! Whether it’s your doing or not, I only know that
when your blood’s on fire there’s sure to be bad weather, and when
there’s bad weather there’s bound to be some crazy fellow turning up
here. It happens so every time! So it must be you!”

To be more impressive the sexton put his finger to his forehead, closed
his left eye, and said in a singsong voice:

“Oh, the madness! oh, the unclean Judas! If you really are a human being
and not a witch, you ought to think what if he is not the mechanic,
or the clerk, or the huntsman, but the devil in their form! Ah! You’d
better think of that!”

“Why, you are stupid, Savely,” said his wife, looking at him
compassionately. “When father was alive and living here, all sorts of
people used to come to him to be cured of the ague: from the village,
and the hamlets, and the Armenian settlement. They came almost every
day, and no one called them devils. But if anyone once a year comes in
bad weather to warm himself, you wonder at it, you silly, and take all
sorts of notions into your head at once.”

His wife’s logic touched Savely. He stood with his bare feet wide apart,
bent his head, and pondered. He was not firmly convinced yet of the
truth of his suspicions, and his wife’s genuine and unconcerned tone
quite disconcerted him. Yet after a moment’s thought he wagged his head
and said:

“It’s not as though they were old men or bandy-legged cripples; it’s
always young men who want to come for the night.... Why is that? And if
they only wanted to warm themselves----But they are up to mischief. No,
woman; there’s no creature in this world as cunning as your female
sort! Of real brains you’ve not an ounce, less than a starling, but for
devilish slyness--oo-oo-oo! The Queen of Heaven protect us! There is the
postman’s bell! When the storm was only beginning I knew all that was in
your mind. That’s your witchery, you spider!”

“Why do you keep on at me, you heathen?” His wife lost her patience at
last. “Why do you keep sticking to it like pitch?”

“I stick to it because if anything--God forbid--happens to-night...
do you hear?... if anything happens to-night, I’ll go straight off
to-morrow morning to Father Nikodim and tell him all about it. ‘Father
Nikodim,’ I shall say, ‘graciously excuse me, but she is a witch.’ ‘Why
so?’ ‘H’m! do you want to know why?’ ‘Certainly....’ And I shall tell
him. And woe to you, woman! Not only at the dread Seat of Judgment, but
in your earthly life you’ll be punished, too! It’s not for nothing there
are prayers in the breviary against your kind!”

Suddenly there was a knock at the window, so loud and unusual that
Savely turned pale and almost dropped backwards with fright. His wife
jumped up, and she, too, turned pale.

“For God’s sake, let us come in and get warm!” they heard in a trembling
deep bass. “Who lives here? For mercy’s sake! We’ve lost our way.”

“Who are you?” asked Raissa, afraid to look at the window.

“The post,” answered a second voice.

“You’ve succeeded with your devil’s tricks,” said Savely with a wave of
his hand. “No mistake; I am right! Well, you’d better look out!”

The sexton jumped on to the bed in two skips, stretched himself on the
feather mattress, and sniffing angrily, turned with his face to the
wall. Soon he felt a draught of cold air on his back. The door creaked
and the tall figure of a man, plastered over with snow from head to
foot, appeared in the doorway. Behind him could be seen a second figure
as white.

“Am I to bring in the bags?” asked the second in a hoarse bass voice.

“You can’t leave them there.” Saying this, the first figure began
untying his hood, but gave it up, and pulling it off impatiently with
his cap, angrily flung it near the stove. Then taking off his greatcoat,
he threw that down beside it, and, without saying good-evening, began
pacing up and down the hut.

He was a fair-haired, young postman wearing a shabby uniform and black
rusty-looking high boots. After warming himself by walking to and fro,
he sat down at the table, stretched out his muddy feet towards the sacks
and leaned his chin on his fist. His pale face, reddened in places by
the cold, still bore vivid traces of the pain and terror he had just
been through. Though distorted by anger and bearing traces of recent
suffering, physical and moral, it was handsome in spite of the melting
snow on the eyebrows, moustaches, and short beard.

“It’s a dog’s life!” muttered the postman, looking round the walls
and seeming hardly able to believe that he was in the warmth. “We were
nearly lost! If it had not been for your light, I don’t know what would
have happened. Goodness only knows when it will all be over! There’s
no end to this dog’s life! Where have we come?” he asked, dropping his
voice and raising his eyes to the sexton’s wife.

“To the Gulyaevsky Hill on General Kalinovsky’s estate,” she answered,
startled and blushing.

“Do you hear, Stepan?” The postman turned to the driver, who was wedged
in the doorway with a huge mail-bag on his shoulders. “We’ve got to
Gulyaevsky Hill.”

“Yes... we’re a long way out.” Jerking out these words like a hoarse
sigh, the driver went out and soon after returned with another bag, then
went out once more and this time brought the postman’s sword on a
big belt, of the pattern of that long flat blade with which Judith is
portrayed by the bedside of Holofernes in cheap woodcuts. Laying the
bags along the wall, he went out into the outer room, sat down there and
lighted his pipe.

“Perhaps you’d like some tea after your journey?” Raissa inquired.

“How can we sit drinking tea?” said the postman, frowning. “We must make
haste and get warm, and then set off, or we shall be late for the mail
train. We’ll stay ten minutes and then get on our way. Only be so good
as to show us the way.”

“What an infliction it is, this weather!” sighed Raissa.

“H’m, yes.... Who may you be?”

“We? We live here, by the church.... We belong to the clergy.... There
lies my husband. Savely, get up and say good-evening! This used to be
a separate parish till eighteen months ago. Of course, when the gentry
lived here there were more people, and it was worth while to have the
services. But now the gentry have gone, and I need not tell you there’s
nothing for the clergy to live on. The nearest village is Markovka, and
that’s over three miles away. Savely is on the retired list now, and has
got the watchman’s job; he has to look after the church....”

And the postman was immediately informed that if Savely were to go to
the General’s lady and ask her for a letter to the bishop, he would be
given a good berth. “But he doesn’t go to the General’s lady because he
is lazy and afraid of people. We belong to the clergy all the same...”
 added Raissa.

“What do you live on?” asked the postman.

“There’s a kitchen garden and a meadow belonging to the church. Only
we don’t get much from that,” sighed Raissa. “The old skinflint, Father
Nikodim, from the next village celebrates here on St. Nicolas’ Day in
the winter and on St. Nicolas’ Day in the summer, and for that he takes
almost all the crops for himself. There’s no one to stick up for us!”

“You are lying,” Savely growled hoarsely. “Father Nikodim is a saintly
soul, a luminary of the Church; and if he does take it, it’s the

“You’ve a cross one!” said the postman, with a grin. “Have you been
married long?”

“It was three years ago the last Sunday before Lent. My father was
sexton here in the old days, and when the time came for him to die,
he went to the Consistory and asked them to send some unmarried man to
marry me that I might keep the place. So I married him.”

“Aha, so you killed two birds with one stone!” said the postman, looking
at Savely’s back. “Got wife and job together.”

Savely wriggled his leg impatiently and moved closer to the wall.
The postman moved away from the table, stretched, and sat down on the
mail-bag. After a moment’s thought he squeezed the bags with his hands,
shifted his sword to the other side, and lay down with one foot touching
the floor.

“It’s a dog’s life,” he muttered, putting his hands behind his head and
closing his eyes. “I wouldn’t wish a wild Tatar such a life.”

Soon everything was still. Nothing was audible except the sniffing
of Savely and the slow, even breathing of the sleeping postman, who
uttered a deep prolonged “h-h-h” at every breath. From time to time
there was a sound like a creaking wheel in his throat, and his twitching
foot rustled against the bag.

Savely fidgeted under the quilt and looked round slowly. His wife was
sitting on the stool, and with her hands pressed against her cheeks was
gazing at the postman’s face. Her face was immovable, like the face of
some one frightened and astonished.

“Well, what are you gaping at?” Savely whispered angrily.

“What is it to you? Lie down!” answered his wife without taking her eyes
off the flaxen head.

Savely angrily puffed all the air out of his chest and turned abruptly
to the wall. Three minutes later he turned over restlessly again, knelt
up on the bed, and with his hands on the pillow looked askance at his
wife. She was still sitting motionless, staring at the visitor. Her
cheeks were pale and her eyes were glowing with a strange fire. The
sexton cleared his throat, crawled on his stomach off the bed, and going
up to the postman, put a handkerchief over his face.

“What’s that for?” asked his wife.

“To keep the light out of his eyes.”

“Then put out the light!”

Savely looked distrustfully at his wife, put out his lips towards the
lamp, but at once thought better of it and clasped his hands.

“Isn’t that devilish cunning?” he exclaimed. “Ah! Is there any creature
slyer than womenkind?”

“Ah, you long-skirted devil!” hissed his wife, frowning with vexation.
“You wait a bit!”

And settling herself more comfortably, she stared at the postman again.

It did not matter to her that his face was covered. She was not so much
interested in his face as in his whole appearance, in the novelty of
this man. His chest was broad and powerful, his hands were slender and
well formed, and his graceful, muscular legs were much comelier than
Savely’s stumps. There could be no comparison, in fact.

“Though I am a long-skirted devil,” Savely said after a brief interval,
“they’ve no business to sleep here.... It’s government work; we shall
have to answer for keeping them. If you carry the letters, carry them,
you can’t go to sleep.... Hey! you!” Savely shouted into the outer
room. “You, driver. What’s your name? Shall I show you the way? Get up;
postmen mustn’t sleep!”

And Savely, thoroughly roused, ran up to the postman and tugged him by
the sleeve.

“Hey, your honour, if you must go, go; and if you don’t, it’s not the
thing.... Sleeping won’t do.”

The postman jumped up, sat down, looked with blank eyes round the hut,
and lay down again.

“But when are you going?” Savely pattered away. “That’s what the post is
for--to get there in good time, do you hear? I’ll take you.”

The postman opened his eyes. Warmed and relaxed by his first sweet
sleep, and not yet quite awake, he saw as through a mist the white neck
and the immovable, alluring eyes of the sexton’s wife. He closed his
eyes and smiled as though he had been dreaming it all.

“Come, how can you go in such weather!” he heard a soft feminine voice;
“you ought to have a sound sleep and it would do you good!”

“And what about the post?” said Savely anxiously. “Who’s going to take
the post? Are you going to take it, pray, you?”

The postman opened his eyes again, looked at the play of the dimples
on Raissa’s face, remembered where he was, and understood Savely.
The thought that he had to go out into the cold darkness sent a chill
shudder all down him, and he winced.

“I might sleep another five minutes,” he said, yawning. “I shall be
late, anyway....”

“We might be just in time,” came a voice from the outer room. “All days
are not alike; the train may be late for a bit of luck.”

The postman got up, and stretching lazily began putting on his coat.

Savely positively neighed with delight when he saw his visitors were
getting ready to go.

“Give us a hand,” the driver shouted to him as he lifted up a mail-bag.

The sexton ran out and helped him drag the post-bags into the yard. The
postman began undoing the knot in his hood. The sexton’s wife gazed into
his eyes, and seemed trying to look right into his soul.

“You ought to have a cup of tea...” she said.

“I wouldn’t say no... but, you see, they’re getting ready,” he assented.
“We are late, anyway.”

“Do stay,” she whispered, dropping her eyes and touching him by the

The postman got the knot undone at last and flung the hood over his
elbow, hesitating. He felt it comfortable standing by Raissa.

“What a... neck you’ve got!...” And he touched her neck with two
fingers. Seeing that she did not resist, he stroked her neck and

“I say, you are...”

“You’d better stay... have some tea.”

“Where are you putting it?” The driver’s voice could be heard outside.
“Lay it crossways.”

“You’d better stay.... Hark how the wind howls.”

And the postman, not yet quite awake, not yet quite able to shake off
the intoxicating sleep of youth and fatigue, was suddenly overwhelmed
by a desire for the sake of which mail-bags, postal trains... and
all things in the world, are forgotten. He glanced at the door in a
frightened way, as though he wanted to escape or hide himself, seized
Raissa round the waist, and was just bending over the lamp to put out
the light, when he heard the tramp of boots in the outer room, and the
driver appeared in the doorway. Savely peeped in over his shoulder. The
postman dropped his hands quickly and stood still as though irresolute.

“It’s all ready,” said the driver. The postman stood still for a
moment, resolutely threw up his head as though waking up completely, and
followed the driver out. Raissa was left alone.

“Come, get in and show us the way!” she heard.

One bell sounded languidly, then another, and the jingling notes in a
long delicate chain floated away from the hut.

When little by little they had died away, Raissa got up and nervously
paced to and fro. At first she was pale, then she flushed all over.
Her face was contorted with hate, her breathing was tremulous, her eyes
gleamed with wild, savage anger, and, pacing up and down as in a cage,
she looked like a tigress menaced with red-hot iron. For a moment she
stood still and looked at her abode. Almost half of the room was
filled up by the bed, which stretched the length of the whole wall and
consisted of a dirty feather-bed, coarse grey pillows, a quilt, and
nameless rags of various sorts. The bed was a shapeless ugly mass
which suggested the shock of hair that always stood up on Savely’s head
whenever it occurred to him to oil it. From the bed to the door that led
into the cold outer room stretched the dark stove surrounded by pots
and hanging clouts. Everything, including the absent Savely himself, was
dirty, greasy, and smutty to the last degree, so that it was strange to
see a woman’s white neck and delicate skin in such surroundings.

Raissa ran up to the bed, stretched out her hands as though she wanted
to fling it all about, stamp it underfoot, and tear it to shreds. But
then, as though frightened by contact with the dirt, she leapt back and
began pacing up and down again.

When Savely returned two hours later, worn out and covered with snow,
she was undressed and in bed. Her eyes were closed, but from the slight
tremor that ran over her face he guessed that she was not asleep. On his
way home he had vowed inwardly to wait till next day and not to touch
her, but he could not resist a biting taunt at her.

“Your witchery was all in vain: he’s gone off,” he said, grinning with
malignant joy.

His wife remained mute, but her chin quivered. Savely undressed slowly,
clambered over his wife, and lay down next to the wall.

“To-morrow I’ll let Father Nikodim know what sort of wife you are!” he
muttered, curling himself up.

Raissa turned her face to him and her eyes gleamed.

“The job’s enough for you, and you can look for a wife in the
forest, blast you!” she said. “I am no wife for you, a clumsy lout, a
slug-a-bed, God forgive me!”

“Come, come... go to sleep!”

“How miserable I am!” sobbed his wife. “If it weren’t for you, I might
have married a merchant or some gentleman! If it weren’t for you, I
should love my husband now! And you haven’t been buried in the snow, you
haven’t been frozen on the highroad, you Herod!”

Raissa cried for a long time. At last she drew a deep sigh and was
still. The storm still raged without. Something wailed in the stove, in
the chimney, outside the walls, and it seemed to Savely that the wailing
was within him, in his ears. This evening had completely confirmed him
in his suspicions about his wife. He no longer doubted that his wife,
with the aid of the Evil One, controlled the winds and the post sledges.
But to add to his grief, this mysteriousness, this supernatural, weird
power gave the woman beside him a peculiar, incomprehensible charm of
which he had not been conscious before. The fact that in his stupidity
he unconsciously threw a poetic glamour over her made her seem, as it
were, whiter, sleeker, more unapproachable.

“Witch!” he muttered indignantly. “Tfoo, horrid creature!”

Yet, waiting till she was quiet and began breathing evenly, he touched
her head with his finger... held her thick plait in his hand for a
minute. She did not feel it. Then he grew bolder and stroked her neck.

“Leave off!” she shouted, and prodded him on the nose with her elbow
with such violence that he saw stars before his eyes.

The pain in his nose was soon over, but the torture in his heart

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