© КАРО, 2019
In our parts such characters sometimes turn up that, however many years ago you met them, you can never recall them without an inner trembling. To the number of such characters belongs the merchant’s wife Katerina Lvovna Izmailova, who once played out a terrible drama, after which our gentlefolk, in someone’s lucky phrase, started calling her the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
Katerina Lvovna was not born a beauty, but she was a woman of very pleasing appearance. She was only twenty-three years old; not tall, but shapely, with a neck as if carved from marble, rounded shoulders, a firm bosom, a fine, straight little nose, lively black eyes, a high and white brow, and very black, almost blue-black hair. She was from Tuskar in Kursk province and was given in marriage to our merchant Izmailov, not out of love or any sort of attraction, but just so, because Izmailov sent a matchmaker to propose, and she was a poor girl and could not choose her suitors. The house of Izmailov was not the least in our town: they traded in white flour, kept a big rented mill in the district, had orchards outside town, and in town had a fine house. Generally, they were well-to-do merchants. Besides, the family was very small: the father-in-law, Boris Timofeich Izmailov, was already nearly eighty, a long-time widower; his son, Zinovy Borisych, Katerina Lvovna’s husband, was a little over fifty; then there was Katerina Lvovna, and that was all. In the five years of Katerina Lvovna’s marriage to Zinovy Borisych, she had had no children. Nor did Zinovy Borisych have children from his first wife, with whom he had lived for some twenty years before becoming a widower and marrying Katerina Lvovna. He thought and hoped that God might grant an heir to his merchant name and capital from his second marriage; but in that he was again unlucky with Katerina Lvovna.
This childlessness greatly distressed Zinovy Borisych, and not only Zinovy Borisych, but also old Boris Timofeich, and even Katerina Lvovna herself was much grieved by it. For one thing, exceeding boredom in the merchant’s locked-up tower, with its high walls and watchdogs running loose, had more than once filled the merchant’s young wife with pining, to the point of stupefaction, and she would have been glad, God knows how glad, to nurse a little child; and for another thing, she was also sick of reproaches: “Why marry, what’s the point of marrying; why bind a man’s fate, barren woman?” – as if she really had committed some crime against her husband, and against her father-in-law, and against their whole honorable merchant family.
For all its ease and plenty, Katerina Lvovna’s life in her father-in-law’s house was most boring. She went visiting very little, and if she did go with her husband to call on his merchant friends, that was also no joy. They were all strict people: they watched how she sat, and how she walked, and how she stood. But Katerina Lvovna had an ardent nature, and when she had lived in poverty as a young girl, she had been accustomed to simplicity and freedom, running to the river with buckets, swimming under the pier in nothing but a shift, or throwing sunflower husks over the garden gate at some young fellow passing by. Here it was all different. Her father-in-law and husband got up as early as could be, had their tea at six o’clock, and went about their business, while she dilly-dallied from room to room alone. It was clean everywhere, it was quiet and empty everywhere, icon lamps shone before the icons, and nowhere in the house was there a living sound, a human voice.
Katerina Lvovna would wander and wander about the empty rooms, start yawning with boredom, and climb the stairs to her marital bedroom in the small, high mezzanine. There, too, she sat, looked at how they hung up hemp or poured out flour by the storehouse – again she would start to yawn, and she was glad of it: she would doze off for an hour or two, then wake up – again the same Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant’s house, from which they say you could even happily hang yourself. Katerina Lvovna was not a lover of reading, and besides there were no books in their house except for the lives of the Kievan saints.
Katerina Lvovna lived a boring life in the rich house of her father-in-law during the five years of her marriage to her unaffectionate husband; but, as often happens, no one paid the slightest attention to this boredom of hers.
In the sixth spring of Katerina Lvovna’s marriage, the Izmailovs’ mill dam burst. At that time, as if on purpose, a lot of work had been brought to the mill, and the breach proved enormous: water went under the lower sill, and to stop it up slapdash was impossible. Zinovy Borisych drove people to the mill from all around and sat there constantly himself; the business in town was managed by the old man alone, and Katerina Lvovna languished at home for whole days as alone as could be. At first she was still more bored without her husband, but then it came to seem even better to her: she felt freer by herself. Her heart had never really gone out to him, and without him there was at least one less commander over her.
Once Katerina Lvovna was sitting at the window on her upper floor, yawning, yawning, thinking of nothing in particular, and she finally felt ashamed to be yawning. And the weather outside was so wonderful: warm, bright, cheerful, and through the green wooden lattice of the garden various birds could be seen flitting from branch to branch in the trees.
“What in fact am I yawning for?” thought Katerina Lvovna. “I might at least get up and go for a walk in the yard or a stroll in the garden.”
Katerina Lvovna threw on an old damask jacket and went out.
Outside it was so bright and the air was so invigorating, and in the gallery by the storehouses there was such merry laughter.
“What are you so glad about?” Katerina Lvovna asked her father-in-law’s clerks.
“You see, dearest Katerina Lvovna, we’ve been weighing a live sow,” an old clerk replied.
“This sow Aksinya here, who gave birth to a son Vassily and didn’t invite us to the christening,” a fine fellow with a handsome, impudent face framed in jet-black curls and a barely sprouting beard told her boldly and merrily.
At that moment the fat mug of the ruddy cook Aksinya peeked out of a flour tub hung on a balance beam.
“Fiends, sleek-sided devils,” the cook swore, trying to catch hold of the iron beam and climb out of the swinging tub.
“Weighs two hundred and fifty pounds before dinner, and once she’s eaten a load of hay, there won’t be weights enough,” the handsome young fellow again explained, and, overturning the tub, he dumped the cook out onto the sacking piled in the corner.
The woman, cursing playfully, began putting herself to rights.
“Well, and how much might I weigh?” Katerina Lvovna joked, and, taking hold of the ropes, she stepped onto the plank.
“A hundred and fifteen pounds,” the same handsome young Sergei said, throwing weights onto the balance. “Amazing!”
“That you weigh over a hundred pounds, Katerina Lvovna. I reckoned a man could carry you around in his arms the whole day and not get tired out, but only feel the pleasure it gave him.”
“What, you mean I’m not a human being or something? You’d get tired for sure,” Katerina Lvovna replied, blushing slightly, not used to such talk and feeling a sudden surge of desire to loosen up and speak her fill of merry and playful words.
“God, no! I’d carry you all the way to happy Araby,” Sergei replied to her remark.
“Your reckoning’s off, young fellow,” said the little peasant doing the pouring. “What is it makes us heavy? Is it our body gives us weight? Our body, my dear man, means nothing in the scales: our strength, it’s our strength gives us weight – not the body!”
“In my girlhood I was awfully strong,” Katerina Lvovna said, again not restraining herself. “It wasn’t every man who could beat me.”
“Well, then, your hand please, ma’am, if that’s really true,” the handsome fellow asked.
Katerina Lvovna became embarrassed but held out her hand.
“Aie, the ring, it hurts, let go!” Katerina Lvovna cried, when Sergei pressed her hand in his, and she shoved him in the chest with her free hand.
The young man let go of his mistress’s hand, and her shove sent him flying two steps back.
“Mm-yes, and you reckoned she’s just a woman,” the little peasant said in surprise.
“Then suppose we try wrestling,” Sergei retorted, tossing back his curls.
“Well, go on,” replied Katerina Lvovna, brightening up, and she cocked her elbows.
Sergei embraced the young mistress and pressed her firm breasts to his red shirt. Katerina Lvovna was just trying to move her shoulders, but Sergei lifted her off the floor, held her in his arms, squeezed her, and gently sat her down on the overturned measuring tub.
Katerina Lvovna did not even have time to show her vaunted strength. Getting up from the tub, red as could be, she straightened the jacket that had fallen from her shoulders and quietly started out of the storehouse, but Sergei coughed dashingly and shouted:
“Come on, you blessed blockheads! Pour, look sharp, get a move on; if there’s a plus, the better for us.”
It was as if he had paid no attention to what had just happened.
“He’s a skirt-chaser, that cursed Seryozhka,” the cook Aksinya was saying as she trudged after Katerina Lvovna. “The thief’s got everything – the height, the face, the looks. Whatever woman you like, the scoundrel knows straight off how to cajole her, and he cajoles her and leads her into sin. And he’s fickle, the scoundrel, as fickle as can be!”
“And you, Aksinya…” said the young mistress, walking ahead of her, “that is, your boy, is he alive?”
“He is, dearest, he is – what could happen to him? Whenever they’re not wanted, they live.”
“Where did you get him?”
“Ehh, just from fooling around – you live among people after all – just from fooling around.”
“Has he been with us long, this young fellow?”
“Who? You mean Sergei?”
“About a month. He used to work for the Kopchonovs, but the master threw him out.” Aksinya lowered her voice and finished: “They say he made love to the mistress herself… See what a daredevil he is!”
A warm milky twilight hung over the town. Zinovy Borisych had not yet returned from the dam. The father-in-law, Boris Timofeich, was also not at home: he had gone to a friend’s name day party and had even told them not to expect him for supper. Katerina Lvovna, having nothing to do, had an early meal, opened the window in her room upstairs, and, leaning against the window frame, was husking sunflower seeds. The people in the kitchen had supper and went their ways across the yard to sleep: some to the sheds, some to the storehouses, some up into the fragrant haylofts. The last to leave the kitchen was Sergei. He walked about the yard, unchained the watchdogs, whistled, and, passing under Katerina Lvovna’s window, glanced at her and made a low bow.
“Good evening,” Katerina Lvovna said softly to him from her lookout, and the yard fell silent as a desert.
“Mistress!” someone said two minutes later at Katerina Lvovna’s locked door.
“Who is it?” Katerina Lvovna asked, frightened.
“Please don’t be frightened: it’s me, Sergei,” the clerk replied.
“What do you want, Sergei?”
“I have a little business with you, Katerina Lvovna: I want to ask a small thing of your honor; allow me to come in for a minute.”
Katerina Lvovna turned the key and let Sergei in.
“What is it?” she asked, going back to the window.
“I’ve come to you, Katerina Lvovna, to ask if you might have some book to read. I’m overcome with boredom.”
“I have no books, Sergei: I don’t read them,” Katerina Lvovna replied.
“Such boredom!” Sergei complained.
“Why should you be bored?”
“For pity’s sake, how can I not be bored? I’m a young man, we live like in some monastery, and all I can see ahead is that I may just waste away in this solitude till my dying day. It sometimes even leads me to despair.”
“Why don’t you get married?”
“That’s easy to say, mistress – get married! Who can I marry around here? I’m an insignificant man: no master’s daughter will marry me, and from poverty, as you’re pleased to know yourself, Katerina Lvovna, our kind are all uneducated. As if they could have any proper notion of love! Just look, if you please, at what notion there is even among the rich. Now you, I might say, for any such man as had feeling in him, you would be a comfort all his own, but here they keep you like a canary in a cage.”
“Yes, it’s boring for me,” escaped Katerina Lvovna.
“How not be bored, mistress, with such a life! Even if you had somebody on the side, as others do, it would be impossible for you to see him.”
“Well, there you’re… it’s not that at all. For me, if I’d had a baby, I think it would be cheerful with the two of us.”
“As for that, if you’ll allow me to explain to you, mistress, a baby also happens for some reason, and not just so. I’ve lived among masters for so many years now, and seen what kind of life women live among merchants, don’t I also understand? As the song goes: ‘Without my dearie, life’s all sad and dreary,’ and that dreariness, let me explain to you, Katerina Lvovna, wrings my own heart so painfully, I can tell you, that I could just cut it out of my breast with a steel knife and throw it at your little feet. And it would be easier, a hundred times easier for me then…”
Sergei’s voice trembled.
“What are you doing talking to me about your heart? That’s got nothing to do with me. Go away…”
“No, please, mistress,” said Sergei, trembling all over and taking a step towards Katerina Lvovna. “I know, I see very well and even feel and understand, that it’s no easier for you than for me in this world; except that now,” he said in the same breath, “now, for the moment, all this is in your hands and in your power.”
“What? What’s that? What have you come to me for? I’ll throw myself out the window,” said Katerina Lvovna, feeling herself in the unbearable power of an indescribable fear, and she seized hold of the windowsill.
“Oh, my life incomparable, why throw yourself out?” Sergei whispered flippantly, and, tearing the young mistress from the window, he took her in a firm embrace.
“Oh! Oh! Let go of me,” Katerina Lvovna moaned softly, weakening under Sergei’s hot kisses, and involuntarily pressing herself to his powerful body.
Sergei picked his mistress up in his arms like a child and carried her to a dark corner.
A hush fell over the room, broken only by the measured ticking of her husband’s pocket watch, hanging over the head of Katerina Lvovna’s bed; but it did not interfere with anything.
“Go,” said Katerina Lvovna half an hour later, not looking at Sergei and straightening her disheveled hair before a little mirror.
“Why should I leave here now?” Sergei answered her in a happy voice.
“My father-in-law will lock the door.”
“Ah, my soul, my soul! What sort of people have you known, if a door is their only way to a woman? For me there are doors everywhere – to you or from you,” the young fellow replied, pointing to the posts that supported the gallery.
Zinovy Borisych did not come home for another week, and all that week, every night till broad daylight, his wife made merry with Sergei.
During those nights in Zinovy Borisych’s bedroom, much wine from the father-in-law’s cellar was drunk, and many sweetmeats were eaten, and many were the kisses on the mistress’s sugary lips, and the toyings with black curls on the soft pillow. But no road runs smooth forever; there are also bumps.
Boris Timofeich was not sleepy: the old man wandered about the quiet house in a calico nightshirt, went up to one window, then another, looked out, and the red shirt of the young fellow Sergei was quietly sliding down the post under his daughter-in-law’s window. There’s news for you! Boris Timofeich leaped out and seized the fellow’s legs. Sergei swung his arm to give the master a hearty one on the ear, but stopped, considering that it would make a big to-do.
“Out with it,” said Boris Timofeich. “Where have you been, you thief you?”
“Wherever I was, I’m there no longer, Boris Timofeich, sir,” replied Sergei.
“Spent the night with my daughter-in-law?”
“As for where I spent the night, master, that I do know, but you listen to what I say, Boris Timofeich: what’s done, my dear man, can’t be undone; at least don’t bring disgrace on your merchant house. Tell me, what do you want from me now? What satisfaction would you like?”
“I’d like to give you five hundred lashes, you serpent,” replied Boris Timofeich.
“The guilt is mine – the will is yours,” the young man agreed. “Tell me where to go, and enjoy yourself, drink my blood.”
Boris Timofeich led Sergei to his stone larder and lashed him with a whip until he himself had no strength left. Sergei did not utter a single moan, but he chewed up half his shirtsleeve with his teeth.
Boris Timofeich abandoned Sergei to the larder until the mincemeat of his back healed, shoved a clay jug of water at him, put a heavy padlock on the door, and sent for his son.
But to go a hundred miles on a Russian country road is not a quick journey even now, and for Katerina Lvovna to live an extra hour without Sergei had already become intolerable. She suddenly unfolded the whole breadth of her awakened nature and became so resolute that there was no stopping her. She found out where Sergei was, talked to him through the iron door, and rushed to look for the keys. “Let Sergei go, papa” – she came to her father-in-law.
The old man simply turned green. He had never expected such insolent boldness from his sinful but until then always obedient daughter-in-law.
“What do you mean, you such-and-such,” he began shaming Katerina Lvovna.
“Let him go,” she said. “I swear on my conscience, there’s been nothing bad between us yet.”
“Nothing bad!” he said, gnashing his teeth. “And what were you doing during the nights? Plumping up your husband’s pillows?”
But she kept at it: “Let him go, let him go.”
“In that case,” said Boris Timofeich, “here’s what you’ll get: once your husband comes, you honest wife, we’ll whip you in the stable with our own hands, and I’ll send that scoundrel to jail tomorrow.”
So Boris Timofeich decided; but his decision was not to be realized.
In the evening, Boris Timofeich ate a bit of buckwheat kasha with mushrooms and got heartburn; then suddenly there was pain in the pit of his stomach; he was seized with terrible vomiting, and towards morning he died, just as the rats died in his storehouses, Katerina Lvovna having always prepared a special food for them with her own hands, using a dangerous white powder entrusted to her keeping.
Katerina Lvovna delivered her Sergei from the old man’s stone larder and, with no shame before people’s eyes, placed him in her husband’s bed to rest from her father-in-law’s beating; and the father-in-law, Boris Timofeich, they buried without second thoughts, according to the Christian rule. Amazingly enough, no one thought anything of it: Boris Timofeich had died, died from eating mushrooms, as many had died from eating them. They buried Boris Timofeich hastily, without even waiting for his son, because the weather was warm, and the man sent to the mill for Zinovy Borisych had not found him there. He had had the chance to buy a woodlot cheaply another hundred miles away: he had gone to look at it and had not properly told anyone where he was going.
Having settled this matter, Katerina Lvovna let herself go entirely. She had not been a timid one before, but now there was no telling what she would think up for herself; she strutted about, gave orders to everyone in the house, and would not let Sergei leave her side. The servants wondered about it, but Katerina Lvovna’s generous hand managed to find them all, and the wondering suddenly went away. “The mistress is having an intriguery with Sergei, that’s all,” they figured. “It’s her business, she’ll answer for it.”
Meanwhile, Sergei recovered, unbent his back, and, again the finest of fellows, a bright falcon, walked about beside Katerina Lvovna, and once more they led a most pleasant life. But time raced on not only for them: the offended husband, Zinovy Borisych, was hurrying home after his long absence.