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Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

Here I leave out the letter that followed, because it has nothing substantial, apart from absurd gossip and the most abominable slander about Karl the Great, which must not be included in a story about the noblest of men. His unfortunate marriage ended in an amicable settlement, that is, a divorce, for which he payed her 13,000 rubles in cash. That is the only substance of interest in the letter.

“The leaden-hued summer in St. Petersburg did not seem to have existed at all. Outdoors there is a damp, rank autumn, but at the Academy a dazzling exhibition is being held. Why don’t you come and have a look at it? I would be delighted to see you. As to the paintings the students did, there is nothing remarkable, except for Petrovsky’s program work Appearance of the Angel to the Shepherds. The sculptors, however, have distinguished themselves – Ramazanov, and, especially, Stawasser who made a large sculpture of a young angler in the round. You should have seen how he did it! It’s simply a beauty, particularly the expression of the face – the living face of a man watching the movement of the float with bated breath. I remember when the statue was still in clay Karl Pavlovich walked into Stawasser’s studio by chance, and admiring the statue, advised him to indent the angler’s lower lip. He did so, and the expression changed. Stawasser was then ready to pray to the great Brüllow.

As for painting in general, I must tell you that it is worth coming from China, let alone Little Russia for the sake of one canvas by Karl Pavlovich. This wizard of a painter dashed off his marvellous creation at one go and is now treating the greedy public to it. Great is his fame! And universal is his genius! What am I to tell you about myself? I received the first silver medal for a study from nature. Also, I made a small painting in oils – it An Orphan Boy Sharing the Food he Begged with a Dog, by a Fence. That is all. Throughout the summer I studied in the classes all the time, and early in the morning Joachim and I went to the Smolenskoye Cemetery to draw burdocks and trees. I begin to like Joachim more and more. We see each other almost every day, and he always attends evening classes; he became quite close friends with Karl Pavlovich, and they frequently visit each other’s home. Sometimes we make an outing to Petrovsky and Krestovsky islands in order to draw black pine or white birch. Twice we went by foot to Pargolovo, and there I introduced him to the Schmidts. They live at Pargolovo during the summer. Joachim is extraordinarily pleased with this acquaintance. And who would not be pleased with the Schmidts!

Here is yet another funny adventure I had recently. A clerk and his family moved into an apartment on my floor not so long ago. His family consists of a wife, two children, and a niece, a wonderful girl about fifteen years old. I will tell you how I learned of it all. You must remember your former quarters with the door of the tiny entrance hall opening into the corridor. One day I opened the door, and imagine my amazement when I saw before me a beautiful girl, confused and blushing up to her ears. I did not know what to say to her, and after a minute of silence I bowed, while she covered her face, ran away, and hid behind an adjoining door. I could not understand what it could mean, and after lengthy guesswork went to classes. My work came out badly, because the mysterious girl was haunting my mind all the time. The next day she met me on the stairway and blushed as before; I was as dumbfounded as the first time. A minute later she burst into such a childish, hearty laughter that I could not check myself and joined her. We heard somebody’s footsteps on the stairs, and they stifled our laughter.

She pressed a finger to her lips and ran away. I walked up the stairs quietly and went into my room, puzzled even more than the first time. She was preying on my mind for several days. Every minute I went out into the corridor in the hope of meeting my chance acquaintance, but she must have either stayed away from the corridor or hidden herself so quickly that I had no chance of giving her a nod, let alone bowing to her properly in greeting. An entire week passed in such a manner. I was already beginning to forget her. Just listen what happened next. On Sunday, at about ten o’clock in the morning, I was visited by Joachim, and who do you think he brought along? It was the mysterious blushing beauty.

“I caught a thief at your door,” he said laughing.

At the sight of the mysterious prankster I was thrown into confusion no less than the apprehended thief. Joachim noticed it and let go of the beauty’s hand, smiling cunningly at me. The beauty did not disappear as might have been expected, but remained standing; then she adjusted her kerchief and braid, looked around, and said:

“I thought you were sitting opposite the door and drawing, but actually you were in the other room.”

“And if he were drawing opposite the door, what would you have done then?” Joachim asked.

“I’d be looking through the keyhole, watching him draw.”

“Why through the keyhole? I am sure my friend would have been so polite as to permit you to stay in the room during his work.” To sustain his words, I nodded in agreement and offered the guest a chair. Without paying attention to this politeness, she turned to the easel on which stood a portrait of Madame Solova I had recently started working on. No sooner had she gone into raptures about the painted beauty than a sharp voice came from the corridor:

“Where have you disappeared to, Pasha?”

My guest gave a start, and turned pale. “That’s my auntie,” she whispered and rushed to the door, where she stopped, and pressing a finger to her lips, stood for a moment and then disappeared.

We laughed over this peculiar adventure, and then went to Karl Pavlovich’s.

The adventure is banal, but it troubles me and never leaves my mind. Joachim occasionally makes fun of me for my pensive mood, and I don’t like it. I even regret he was a witness to the adventure.

Today I received a letter from Sternberg. He is preparing to set out on some campaign to Khiva and writes that I should not expect him in St. Petersburg for the holidays as he had informed me before. I feel lonely without him. For me his loss is irreplaceable. Mikhailov went on a visit to his midshipman in Kronstadt, and I have not seen him for over two weeks now.

Не is a wonderful artist, the noblest of men, but alas! the most careless I know. For the duration of his absence I, on the recommendation of Fitztum, invited a student, Demski, to share my quarters. He is a poor Pole, modest and wonderfully educated. He spends the entire day in classes, and in the evenings he studies French with me and reads Gibbon. Twice a week I go to the hall of the Free Economic Society to listen to the lectures of a physics professor in the evening. Also, Demski and I attend the lectures of Kutorga, a professor in zoology, once a week. So as you see, I do not spend my time in vain. There is no chance of being bored, yet still I am bored. I lack something, but what it is I do not know. Karl Pavlovich does not work on anything now and hardly lives at his home. Rarely do I see him and only on the street. Goodbye, my unforgettable friend, my benefactor. I am not promising to write to you soon: I am having a tedious and monotonous time – there is nothing to write about, and I would not like you to be dozing over my repetitious letters in the way I am doing now over this message. Goodbye once again!”

“I have deceived you. I did not promise to write you soon, and here a month has not passed yet after my last message, when I take to writing another. There was an event that hurried me on to write. So it is the event that is to blame, not me. Sternberg fell ill during the Khiva campaign, and the clever, kindly Dahl advised that he leave the military camp and go back where he came from, which he did, appearing before me quite unexpectedly in the evening on December sixteenth. Had I been alone in the room I would have taken him for an apparition and been scared, of course; but I was with Demski – we were translating the jolliest chapter from Paul de Kock’s Frère Jacques just then. Hence, Sternberg’s appearance seemed to me almost natural, although it did not diminish my surprise and joy in the least. After the first embraces and kisses I introduced him to Demski, and since it was only ten o’clock we went to the Berlin for tea. The night passed in questions and stories, of course.

At dawn Sternberg got tired and fell asleep, while I, once it was morning, looked into his portfolio, which was just as full as it had been after his journey to Little Russia the year before. But this time the scenery was different and so were the people he drew. Although everything was just as wonderful and expressive, it was absolutely different, except for that melancholy which must have been the reflection of the artist’s pensive soul. In all the portraits of Van Dyck there is one dominant feature – intellect and nobleness, which may be explained by Van Dyck being himself the noblest of intellectuals. That is how I, too, explain the general expressiveness of Sternberg’s wonderful drawings. Oh, if only you knew how merrily, how inexplicably quickly and jolly the days and nights fly by for me now. So merrily and so quickly that I barely have time to learn the miniature homework assignments Demski gives me, for which he threatens to give me up. But, God forbid, I will not go that far.

Our acquaintances have not increased or decreased – they are the same, but they all have become merrier, so that I simply cannot stay at home. To tell the truth, though, back home there is delight and charm as well! I have in mind the neighbours’ girl, the very same little thief Joachim apprehended at my door. What a darling, innocent creature! She is a real child! And a truly beautiful, unspoiled child. Every day she comes running into my room, jumps around, chatters away, and then darts off like a little bird. Sometimes she asks me to draw her portrait, but she cannot sit still for more than five minutes. She is simply like quicksilver. Not so long ago I had to draw a female hand for a woman’s portrait. I asked her to hold up a hand, and she, like a good dear, agreed. And what do you think came of it? She could not hold it quietly for a second. A real child. I tried and tried to make her sit still, and in the end had to invite a model. What do you think happened then?

No sooner had I sat the model on a chair and picked up the palette than the neighbours’ girl, sportive and laughing as always, came darting into the room, and no sooner had she seen the model than she froze abruptly, burst out sobbing, and pounced on her like a little tiger. I did not even know what to do. Fortunately, there was a crimson velvet mantilla belonging to the lady whose portrait I was painting. I took the mantilla and threw it on the girl’s shoulders. She stopped carrying-on, walked up to the mirror, admired herself for a minute or so, then she threw the mantilla on the floor, spat on it, and ran out of the room. I dismissed the model, and the hand remained unfinished. For three days after that incident the girl did not show up in my room. Whenever she met me in the corridor, she covered her face with her hands and ran to the other side. On the fourth day, no sooner had I come home from classes and started preparing my palette, than she came in, so humble and quiet I could not recognize her. Without saying a word, she pulled her sleeve up to her elbow, sat down on a chair, and took on the posture of the lady I was to paint. I picked up the palette and brushes, and started to work as if nothing had happened. The hand was ready within an hour. I showered words of gratitude on her for such a favour. But she, without so much as giving me a smile, got to her feet, rolled down her sleeve, and left the room wordlessly. It stung me to the quick, to tell you the truth; now I am breaking my head over how to restore the harmony of our former relations. Several more days passed in such a manner, and the restoration of the harmony seemed to be in sight. She did not run away from me in the corridor anymore, and at times even smiled. I began hoping that the door would open any moment and she would dart in like a red-feathered bird. The door, however, stayed shut, and the bird did not appear. I began getting worried and devising a snare for the crafty birdie. Just when my absent-mindedness was becoming unbearable not only to me but to the kindest of men, Demski, Sternberg arrived from the Kirghiz steppe, like an angel from heaven.

Now I am living with only Sternberg on my mind and only for his sake, and if I were not to come across the neighbours’ girl in the corridor, I would have probably forgotten her altogether. She very much wants to dart into my room, but there is one obstacle: Sternberg is always at home, and whenever he goes outdoors I join him. On the holiday, however, she could not check herself; since we left home in the evenings, she disguised herself under a mask and came to us in the daytime. I pretended not to recognize her. However much she fidgeted and tried to make me recognize her, I stood my ground. In the end, she threw off her restraint, came up to me, and said almost out loud: “You intolerable one! It is me, after all!”

“If it’s you, take off the mask – only then will I see that it is you,” I replied in a whisper.

She hesitated for a moment, took off the mask, and I introduced Sternberg to her.

From that day on everything took on its usual course. She behaved without any ceremony to Sternberg as equally as toward me. We pamper her with all sorts of sweets, and treat her like kindly brothers would treat a dear sister.

“Who is she?” Sternberg asked me one day.

I did not know how to answer his sudden question. It had never entered my mind to ask her about it.

“She must be either an orphan or the daughter of an absolutely careless mother,” he continued. “In any case, she looks pitiful to me. Can she read or write at least?”

“I don’t know that either,” I replied hesitantly.

“She must be given something to read. It would occupy her mind. By the way, ask her if she knows how to read, and I will give her a rather moralistic and well published book. It’s The Vicar of Wakefield by Goldsmith – a wonderful translation and a wonderful edition.” A minute later he continued, addressing me with a smile. “You see that I am in a fit of moralizing today.

“For instance, there is one question on my mind: what might the visits of this naive sportive character end up in?” A slight tremor rippled through me. But I regained self-control in an instant, and replied:

“In nothing, I expect.”

“I wish to God it would be so,” he said, and fell to thinking. I have always admired his noble, childishly careless face, but this time its naive features did not seem childish to me; it was the face of a mature man of great experience and feeling. I do not know why, but Tarnovskaya involuntarily came to my mind, and he seemed to have been on the watch for this thought, as he looked at me and heaved a sigh.

“Take care of her, my friend!” he said. “Or beware of her yourself. Do as you feel. But remember and never forget that a woman is a holy, inviolable thing and at the same time so seductive that no power of will, except for the loftiest evangelical love, is capable of withstanding this seduction. It alone can defend her from dishonour, and us from eternal reproach. So arm yourself with this wonderful feeling like a knight with a coat of mail and boldly confront the enemy.” He lapsed into silence for a minute. “I have aged terribly since last year,” he said, smiling. “Let us go outdoors – it’s stuffy in the room.”

We walked down the street silently for a long time, returning to our quarters without saying a word as well, and went to bed.

In the morning I went to classes, while Sternberg remained at home. At eleven o’clock I returned to my quarters, and what do you think I saw? Yesterday’s professor of morals had dressed our neighbours’ girl in a Tatar beaver cap, topped with velvet and a golden tassel, and a red silk shugai cloak, also of Tatar origin, and himself dressed in a peaked Bashkir cap, he strummed the cachucha on the guitar, while the girl was dancing the solo like your Taglioni. Of course, I could do nothing more than throw up my hands from bewilderment, but the twosome, without so much as batting an eyelid, carried on quite unconcerned. After dancing her fill, she threw off the cap and shugai, and ran out into the corridor, while the moralist put the guitar aside and went off roaring with laughter like a madman. I held myself in check for a long time, but then I was fetched by such a gushing laughter that I practically outroared him. When laughter made us giddy, we sat down on chairs opposite each other, and after a minute of silence he was the first to speak:

“A most fascinating creature, she is. At first I intended to draw her as a Tatar girl, but no sooner had she donned the attire than she burst forth in the cachucha, and I, as you have seen, could not restrain myself, and instead of pencil and paper, I grabbed the guitar, and you know the rest. But there is one thing you do not know. Before the cachucha she told me her life story, briefly, of course. She hardly knows its details herself, but still, if it had not been for that dratted Tatar cap, she would not have stopped halfway in her story. Once she saw the cap, she snatched it, put it on her head – and everything was forgotten. Maybe she will be more talkative with you, so question her exhaustively. Hers must be a highly dramatic life story. As she told it, her father died last year at the Obukhovsky Hospital.”

At that instant, the door opened, and in came the missing Mikhailov, followed by the daredevil of a midshipman. Without much ado, Mikhailov proposed we have breakfast at Alexander’s. Sternberg and I exchanged glances and, understandably, agreed. I mentioned about classes, but Mikhailov burst into such wild laughter that I put on my hat without saying a word and took hold of the door handle.

“And you want to become an artist after that? Do you really think that truly great artists evolve in classes?” the irrepressible Mikhailov carried on.

We agreed that the best school for artists was a tavern, and left for Alexander’s in perfect concord. At the Police Bridge we came across Elkan promenading with some Moldavian boyar, with whom he conversed in Moldavian. We took him along with us as well. Elkan is a strange character. There is no a tongue he cannot speak. There is no society, with which he would not be mingling, beginning with our company and ending with counts and princes. He is everywhere and nowhere, like a magician from a fairy tale: on the English Quay, in the office of the steamship line, seeing off his friend abroad, in the stage-coach office or even at Srednyaia Rogatka – seeing off some close Moscow friend, or else attending a wedding party, christening party, funeral, and all of this within one single day, which he tops by appearing at all the three theatres. A real Pinetti the magician for you. Some keep away from him as if from a spy, but I don’t see anything like it in him. He is actually an incessant talker, a kindly old chap, and a bad composer of satirical articles into the bargain. He is also called the Wandering Jew in jest, which he himself finds respectable enough for a sobriquet. He addresses me only in French, for which I am rather grateful to him: it’s good practice for me.

Instead of breakfast at Alexander’s, we had a hearty dinner and soon went our way. Mikhailov and the midshipman stayed at our quarters for the night and left for Kronstadt in the morning. Yule tide was a quick and, hence, merry affair with us. Karl Pavlovich willed that I prepare myself for a competition to vie for the second gold medal. I do not know what will come out of it. I have studied so little yet. But with God’s help I shall try. Goodbye, my unforgettable benefactor. I have nothing else to tell you.”