From the journal of N.A.Mamonov, the professor of the Saint-Petersburg university
It was afternoon and I didn't know what to busy myself with. There weren't any trains to Saint-Petersburg until the next evening, so I had to waste more than 24 hours doing nothing, and that was a situation to which I wasn't accustomed.
I decided to buy presents for Natalia and Zina and went to the fair.
While I was moving between the rows of colorful shawls and matryoshkas I heard one man saying to one of the market-women:
"I'd better hurry, I want to see the Living Corpse doing tricks."
The woman - evidently, the man's wife - quickly nodded her approval, and the man took several coins from her profit and went to Kunavinka direction.
I was intrigued. I went up to the market-woman who, on seeing a well-dressed gentleman, began fast-talking on praising her ornate wooden-porcelain-cloth goodies:
"Would you please tell me, I've heard about someone called Living Corpse who does tricks. Who is that and where is he?"
"Oh, sir, of course, he's at Kunavinka! That's just the den of all sharlatans and vagabonds. My hubby likes watching tricks, that's all right with me, let him better pay for tricks than for vodka. And since that Living Corpse appeared, my hubby took habit to go there every day. I don't go with him, I don't have time, I must do my selling job, and he does his harness-making when he wants. It's at Kunavinka, sir, over there," - she waved her hand to the direction of Volga's shore.
At Kunavinskaya suburb it wasn't too difficult for me to find the tent where Living Corpse performed - there were crowds around. I asked one street boy about directions, just in case, and he answered:
"Yes, sir, it's just there. Give me a coin, sir, perhaps I could stand at the door..."
I gave him three roubles and went to the tent. I don't know why I was so interested - perhaps, it was my professional intuition, and perhaps I didn't have anything better to do...
When he appeared before the audience - mostly workers, sometimes peasants - I understood at once why he was given such a name. His tall, slender form was emaciated, and his hands - the only uncovered area of his body - were no more than just skin and bones. Noting the state of his body and his movements I momentarily diagnosed the physical and nervous emaciation, but this man also possessed a great degree of control over the crowd.
He was dressed in an elegant black suit, his face was covered by a mask. I wasn't surprised by this - at the fair one sometimes really wants to cover the face.
Of course the tricks were superb. The simple-minded people watched with their mouths open, and even I was fascinated by the dexterity and fantastic elegance of his bony fingers.
And then he started singing, and here I gasped. These workers had no idea how lucky they were. They had nothing to compare with. But I, a patron of the Alexandrinsky theatre, I have heard all the best voices of Russian and many foreign singers - but no one could compete with this one...
My God, I thought, why does this man waste his talent on the dirty fair? Any opera house in the world would be happy to engage him! Of course it would be necessary for him to cure his nerves and eat a little more, but it's all possible.
The man finished singing. He slightly bowed to the public, and I decided that the show was over, but the masked man didn't leave for several more seconds as if he was waiting for something to come.
And it came.
"The face! The face! Take off the mask, Living Corpse!" - shouted people from the crowd.
He balled his hands into fists for a second, and I wondered why he was waiting, why he wasn't leaving, why he was to uncover his face if he wants to hide it... but suddenly his hands flowed up to his face and he tore off the mask.
I gasped again. This time - as a professional physician.
I had seen many inborn deformities, Russia is notorious for them, though perhaps there are just lots of people here. But this...
The nature depraved this man of practially all the soft facial tissues and thus gave him an almost bare skull covered by skin. As if it wasn't enough he had very deeply-set, sunken eyes that were almost impossible to see, and a very flat, turned-up nose, practically only the two nostrils could be seen from the front, and from the side - nothing at all. Yes, I seemed to have been mistaken when I decided that he was being named Living Coprse for his unusual thinness.
The audience stared and blinked. Some of them pointed fingers at him. Some laughed drunkedly. And he slowly turned his head to the right, to the left, for all the gathering to see his deformity from all the sides.
But I saw more than just deformed facial features. I saw desperate spiritual pain and great intelligence. So, that's why he's so emaciated. That's why he wastes his talent among the sharlatans of Kunavinka...
That night I found sleep only before morning. I couldn't find peace thinking of the unusual trickster.
In the morning I went to Kunavinka, but his tent was empty. I asked one of the fair boys if he knew where Living Corpse was. This nickname dried my mouth.
"Well... I think he went to Volga's shore, - the boy answered when I gave him a rouble. - Only don't you go there, sir, he doesn't like people."
I shrugged. I understood very well why he didn't like people.
"Hey sir! - the boy shouted. - He is good with a knife, he'll certainly hurt you!"
But I was already on my way to the shore.
Volga was wide here. Close to the sea she's wider of course but in Nizhni she's already grand, sure, wide Russian river, she always reminded me of a Russian housemistress - also wide, sure, self-respecting.
He was sitting on the shore, on the grass, and watched the flowing water. Of course he heard my steps but he didn't show that he knew about my presence.
"Forgive me sir..."
It was said in that same beautiful voice, and I again felt pain in my heart. How much our theatres were losing... The face could be covered, right?
I sat down on the grass in several feet from him. He was sitting with one knee bended, half-reclining on the shore and with his arms on the grass. Evidently his arms were relaxed before but now they were tense. His masked face still was turned away from me.
"Sir, I would like to talk to you..."
"I don't give private performances."
"I don't mean any private performances."
This made him turn to me.
"Really? What is it, then? I tell you now that I don't think you can say anything interesting for me, but all the same, I wonder what you want to offer me."
It was clear that he understood the evident inner contradiction of the phrase, and his voice took a strangely childish tone.
And I noticed one more thing. He was talking absolutely correctly, without any accent, in perfect Russian, but there was something in his intonations that made me think that he was a foreigner. But I wasn't a linguist and I couldn't define his mother tongue.
"Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Nikolai Sergeevich Mamonov, professor of the Saint-Petersburg University."
He slightly cocked his head:
"Really? A professor? What sciences do you study, allow me to ask you?"
He again turned away from me and threw a pebble into the river.
"I must say... - I swallowed understanding that it wouldn't be easy to speak to him, - that I have never seen or heard something like that."
"I guess," - he snickered.
"I would like to offer you to take you to Saint-Petersburg."
"Well... I have some aquaintances among the people of arts. I could settle an audition for you in the Alexandrinsky theatre."
He snickered again.
"Don't, professor. You know the result, as well as I do. They'll be in extasy after listening to my singing, then they'll tell me to take off my mask, then they'll gasp, then they'll pretend that they don't have any possibility to engage me."
I looked at him with suspicion.
"Have you tried?"
"To the Alexandrinka - no, I haven't. But I know humans. And I know them well enough, you may believe me! And you also know that everything would be just like that. So you want something quite different. - He suddenly turned to me. - You're a professor of medicine, right? Want to research me, as if I were a frog on the lab table? I'm an interesting specimen, right? Well, no, professor, I prefer to do tricks at the fair!"
I couldn't offer this man any immediate proofs that in Saint-Petersburg he would be something more than a circus freak or an object of medical research. And who am I, after all, to come and say something to him? He's absolutely right.
"I'm sorry," - I said and went away.
I didn't look back but I had this feeling that his gase was following me.
* * *
Je suis désolé...
Il est le seul homme qui a demandé mon pardon. Personne ne l'avait fait avant lui... Un homme bizarre, lui. Pourquoi doit-il demander mon pardon? Il est professeur de la médicine, lui. Professeur de la médicine... Le savant... Un homme heureux, lui. Et... bizarre. Il me comblait... Il voulait m'emmener chez lui à Saint-Petersburg à l'effet de m'analyser. Je le sais. Mais tout de même... Sa voix... Elle était agréable. Et son visage, aussi.
* * *
I jumped from the bed, put on my robe while searching for the doorknob in the darkness.
"What's the matter, Olga?"
"There was a brawl, someone was seriously wounded! A boy came here running and said that he had been well paid for searching for you."
Puzzled by the fact that someone would search for me in Nizhni for my professional services I quickly got dressed and went down to the hall.
Olga, the chambermaid, beckoned a very frightened messenger boy.
"Are you Nikolai Sergeevich Mamonov, sir?"
"Yeah that's me. What's the matter?"
"You see... - The lad was evidently embarrassed. - Well, sir, this... Living Corpse from the fair, he got some serious wounds..."
I caught him by the hand and rushed to the street. There was a carriage already waiting for us.
"Oh, sir, thank God you agreed, - the lad said. - I know him, if I didn't bring you with me, he would kill me."
"How would he kill you, I wonder? - I asked, listening to the rumble of wheels on the paved road. - If he's so seriously wounded?"
"Well... who knows, sir, - the lad shuddered. - He's a sorcerer, who knows what he would do. But he would, certainly."
In answer to this naive fear I only shrugged.
In half an hour we arrived to the trickster's tent. I rushed out of the carriage and ran inside.
He was lying on a pallet, his chest was crudely bandaged by cloth. When I ran in he turned his face to me (he didn't have his mask on and his face was all bruised) and whispered:
"Thank you professor..."
Even now, his voice was beautiful.
I opened my case and ordered the boy to find some boiled water. The wounded man stopped him:
"Over there, in the samovar..."
I unbandaged the cloths carefully. He was terribly wounded, but I was quite able to regard this as a professional.
"Drink this," - I said bringing a flask of laudanum to his lips.
He shook his head.
"It's a painkiller."
"I know. I needn't it. I'll endure."
"As you wish."
He had fantastic patience. He moaned only once, and very quietly. He just lay, his teeth clenched, and kept silence, while I was cleaning and dressing his wounds.
On completing the task I gave him some water. He drank it without a sound and closed his eyes. I put my things into my case and sat down next to him. He opened his eyes and looked at me.
"Thank you, professor. Sorry that I bothered you in the night. How much do I owe you?"
"You owe me nothing, - I said. - But I should take you to a hospital."
It was evident that any arguments were useless.
"At least, is there anyone who would take care of you?"
"What are you doing with yourself? - I asked. - You should stay in bed for a fortnight at least!"
An expression of childish threat appeared on his face.
"Professor, don't tell me what I should do. I know some medicine, as well. I asked you to come only because I wasn't able to clean these wounds myself."
"I understand, - I said and covered him with a blanket. - All right, I don't have any choice..."
* * *
Pourquoi a-t-il resté avec moi? Pourquoi a-t-il decidé de m'aider? Je ne sais pas. Il ne peut pas espérer de m'emmener a Saint-Petersburg et m'analyser là-bas. Il est trop intelligent pour ça. Alors, pourquoi? Je ne comprends pas...
I told the driver that he could go, ordered him to bring the messenger boy home, lowered the tent door and sat down next to my patient.
"What's your name?" - I asked.
"Living Corpse, you know it."
I shook my head. Patience, I said to myself.
"I'll stay with you for several days at least. How can I offend you by this nasty nick?"
His narrow lips twisted in a horrible smirk.
"I've got used to it!"
"And I haven't! - I suddenly felt anger. - I don't consider it necessary to offend myself like this - to lower myself down to the level of the base crowds and use dirty nicks! What's your name?"
He suddenly relaxed, the smirk disappeared.
"Erik," - he said quietly.
I was so astonished that I lost all my anger and quietly asked:
"And your surname?"
"Doesn't matter, - he closed his eyes. - Call me Erik."
"All right. Then call me Nikolai."
"Are you thirsty?"
He opened his eyes again:
"I must say, yes," - I said.
"You'll have to manage that samovar yourself..."
I was curious.
Erik was, evidently, young, he was about twenty. I would like to know everything about him - where he was from, where he had learned his unusual skills, whether he had any relatives. He was so different from the common sharlatans that only one thought of his base profession was enough for me to feel pain in my heart.
Perhaps, I thought, I would learn it all during his recovery. But just now he needed rest.
After I helped him with his tea and had my own tea, Erik said:
"Bring me my mask please. It's over there in the corner. You shouldn't look at me."
I shook my head.
"I'm a physician, - I said. - I am not afraid of such things. And for you it would be difficult to breathe with the mask on."
He suddenly choked.
"Really? - there was distinct anger in his quiet voice. - Difficult to breathe? And do you think that it's so pleasant for me when you look at me? Do you think it's easy for me to breathe?"
I blinked and called myself an idiot.
I brought him the mask. He reached for it but I restrained his hand:
"Don't mess the bandages."
He froze in a sort of shock when I was putting his mask on him. Then he caught his breath and evidently relaxed.
"You're in pain, - I said. - And you need sleep. Perhaps you would yet have the painkiller?"
He imbibed the laudanum without any words, and in several minutes he was already sleeping.
Il est un bon homme, ce professeur. Un homme très bon. Tellement bon que même lui-même ne comprend pas çe qu'il fait...
I have never encountered any more interesting causes in my medical practice. Erik was recovering with astonishing speed. The next day he felt much better and even tried to get up, but I didn't allow him. I wasn't sure that he would obey me. In any case I saw that in a week he would be able to get to his feet. Well... I would give much for a possibility to observe him in the University. And so far I was observing him in Nizhni Novgorod.
In the evening I asked him where he was born.
"That doesn't matter."
"Erik you're right, that doesn't matter. You speak Russian perfectly, but I think that you aren't Russian. And your name is not Russian. I'm curious but don't tell me if you don't want to."
"I was born in France."
"And how long have you been in Russia?"
"And six months was enough time for you to learn Russian so brilliantly?"
He shrugged his shoulders. This motion made him squirm of pain.
"Oui, - he said. - Pourquoi pas?"
Three days later I dared to ask him:
"And yet, who has wounded you like this?"
Erik waved his hand (I still didn't allow him to get up, but it was just impossible to persuade him to lie still):
"Ah, does it matter?"
"Of course it does! We could apply to the police..."
He laughed heartily, but immedialy started to cough and clutched his chest, and I again had to use my professional skills.
When Erik relaxed a little, I told to him with mild reciprocation:
"First, you shouldn't make any abrupt movements yet, and second, what's so funny?"
"Just the fact that I'm alive... - he whispered harshly. - And three of these..."
I couldn't understand for a second what he meant. Then I realised but couldn't believe it:
"You... killed... three men?"
He shrugged (and again squirmed. It was useless to relate to his common sense. A man as emotional as he just couldn't help but express his feelings in movements):
"What was I to do? They wanted to kill me."
He gingerly (thank God!) raised his hand and indicated his mask:
"For this, - Erik snickered. - I offended their fine feelings."
"Who were they?"
"Vagabonds, drunken sharlatans... Five of them. Two went away alive, I made some holes in their skins, though. Three... were too insistent."
What could I say? Yes, it was better not to apply to the police. But how a thin, emaciated man bested five adversaries?
I knew what drunken vagabonds were like. Sometimes, especially when in a company, they lose all senses except anger and hate, and their muscles can be just iron. I imagined that picture - five bulky brutes against Erik - and suddenly I understood that I was regretting not being there. With a pistol.
Je ne l'ai pas dit qu'ils voulaient le collier de turquoise que j'avais acheté à un vendeur d'Astrakhan. J'aimais bien ce collier et je l'ai acheté juste pour l'avoir et l'admirer. C'est sûr que je ne pourrai jamais le porter ou donner à quelque femme de moi! Mais ces bêtes ne pouvaient pas le comprendre. L'idèe que moi, un homme si laid, peux avoir ce beau collier, les a offensées. Ils se considèraient plus dignes de l'avoir. Mon ètat, c'etait le resultat... mais j'ai gardé le collier.
The next day he tried to sit up, and two days later he insisted that I should help him to raise from the bed. He went forth and back and fell on his pallet, exhausted.
"Where are you hurrying to?" - I asked.
His answer was absolutely uncoherent (at least it seemed to me like that):
"Do you have children, professor?"
I was slightly taken aback:
"Children? Yes, I have a daughter. Natasha."
"Na-ta-sha," - it was as if he tasted the name. I don't know if he liked the taste, but I never heard the daughter's name sounding more beautiful than on his lips. - "And do you have a wife, too?"
"Yes, of course."
"Where are they?"
"Are they waiting for you?"
"Yes they are. But I've sent a telegram to them, so they know I'll stay here for some time."
"You see? And you say 'where to hurry'. You, professor, are evidently as stubborn as I am, so I should raise as soon as possible, to allow you to go."
I watched him for several seconds and said:
"Erik, go to Saint-Petersburg with me."
He shook his head:
"Erik, I'm not going to research you! It's just you'll perish here, at the fair, among all these base vagabonds and sharlatans."
He closed his eyes.
"I didn't perish among the gypsies when I was still a child. I had to become a killer though, in order not to perish... but anyway I'm free and I'm not worthless. And if I perish... no one would cry."
I put a hand on his arm:
He seemed never to feel my touch.
"Nope. You like my voice but not myself. And there's more than just the voice in me. There's also the face, and my stubborn temper, and more... No, professor. Where shall I live? You won't take me in, will you?"
He opened his eyes and snickered:
"And what would your wife and daughter say?"
"They would be very glad to meet you."
"No. They won't. I... know. I paid great price for this knowledge. I saw women vomiting when seeing me unmasked. Never a woman looked calmly at me. And I won't be able to conceal my face forever - your Natasha will take the mask from my face in my sleep, just of curiosity, to see what I look like. And then you'll throw me away. No, no, you'll just say very politely: "I'm sorry Erik, but Natasha... I just can't keep you here..." And, may be, you'll even give me enough money to buy a ticket to Nizhni. And you'll think that you've fulfilled your, so to say, moral duty as a humanist. And I, by the way, I have a soul... No, professor, I prefer to stay at the fair."
I tried to persuade him once again, but he was silent. I went up to him. He was sleeping. Or pretending very well. In any case, he didn't answer my questions.
The next day, when I awoke, I found that he had disappeared. The tent was empty, all his things were present except some small objects. I searched for him but couldn't find him, and no one could tell me where he was and where he went. No one had seen him.
I had no other choice than go to the railway station and buy a ticket for the next Saint-Petersburg train...
Je me mordrais les lèvres sous le masque en voyant son depart. Le train etait parti, et moi, je restais à la station longtémps après, en regardant rien, en voyant rien.
Certainly I had been fascinated by his courage and voice. When there were several hours and several hundreds of miles between me and Erik, the fascination disappeared and I understood that he was right in everything.
Well. I can't change lives of all the unhappy and dispossessed people of the world...
I opened my case, dreaming about seeing Zina and Natashka, and began to sort the presents that I had bought for them in Nizhni. Among the shawls, honey-cakes and dolls I suddenly saw a thing that I hadn't bought: a turquoise necklace with a gilded teardrop pendant.
I didn't know where it came from but Natashka loved it dearly.