"Quel est cet homme?"
"Ha, c'est un bien grand
talent, il fait de sa voix tout
ce qu'il veut."
"Il devrait bien, madame,
s'en faire une culotte."
Charskii was a kind of person indigenous to St. Petersburg. He was not quite thirty; not married; and held a position in the civil service that placed no great burden on him. His late uncle, who had been a vice-governor at a prosperous time, had left him a handsome estate. He was in a position to lead a very pleasant life; but he had the unfortunate habit of writing and publishing poetry. In the journals they called him a poet, in the servants' quarters, a scribbler.
Despite all the great advantages enjoyed by versifiers (it must be admitted that apart from the privileges of using the accusative instead of the genitive case and one or two other acts of so-called poetic license, we do not know of any particular advantages Russian versifiers could be said to enjoy) - however that may be, despite all their advantages these people are subject to a great deal of trouble and unpleasantness. The most bitter and intolerable bane of the poet is his title, his sobriquet, with which he is branded and of which he can never rid himself. The reading public look on him as though he were their property: in their opinion, he was born for their benefit and pleasure. If he has just returned from the country, the first person he runs into will ask him, "Have you brought with you a new little something for us?" If he is sunk in thought about his tangled finances or about the illness of someone close to his heart, this will immediately provoke the inane exclamation, accompanied by an inane smile, "No doubt you are composing something!" And should he fall in love, the lady of his heart will promptly buy an album at the English store and be ready to receive an elegy. If he goes to see a man whom he hardly knows, about an important business matter, the man will inevitably call in his young son, ordering him to recite some poetry; and the lad will treat the poet to the latter's own verses, with distortions. And these are only the laurels of his profession! What must its pains be like? The salutations, inquiries, albums, and little boys irritated him so much, Charskii confessed, that he constantly had to be on his guard lest he make some rude response.
Charskii did everything in his power to rid himself of the insufferable sobriquet. He avoided the company of his fellow men of letters, preferring to them people of high society, even the shallowest. His conversation was of the most commonplace character, and he never touched on questions of literature. In his dress he always followed the latest fashion with great diffidence and veneration, as if he were a young Muscovite visiting Petersburg for the first time in his life. In his study, furnished like a lady's bedroom, nothing betrayed the habits of a writer: there were no books scattered about, on or under the tables; the sofa was not stained with ink; there was no sign of the sort of disorder that reveals the presence of the muse and the absence of broom and brush. He was thrown into despair if any of his society friends caught him with pen in hand. It was hard to believe to what pettiness he could stoop, even though, as a matter of fact, he was a gifted man, endowed with ready wit. and feeling. He always pretended to be something else: now a passionate lover of horses, now a desperate gambler, now the most discriminating gastronome, though he could in no way tell a mountain pony from an Arabian steed, could never remember the trump cards, and secretly preferred baked potatoes to all the inventions of French cuisine. He led the most distracted existence: he hung about all the balls, overindulged himself at all the diplomatic dinners, and was just as unavoidable at every reception as Rezanov's ice cream.
He was a poet nevertheless, and his passion for poetry was indomitable: when he felt this nonsense approach (that was what he called inspiration), he locked himself in his study and wrote from morning till late night. He confessed to his genuine friends that he knew true happiness only at such times. The rest of the time he led his dissipated life, put on airs, dissembled, and perpetually heard the famous question, "Have you written a new little something?"
One morning Charskii felt he was in that exuberant state of mind when fantasies arise before you in clear outline, when you find vivid, unexpected words in which to incarnate your visions, when verses readily flow from your pen, and when resonant rhymes run up to meet well-ordered thoughts. His spirit was immersed in sweet oblivion... Society, the opinions of society, and his own conceits were all banished from his mind. He was writing a poem.
Suddenly the door of his study creaked and an unfamiliar face appeared in it. Charskii started and frowned.
"Who is it?" he asked with irritation, mentally cursing his servants who never stayed put in his anteroom.
The stranger entered.
He was tall and thin, and looked about thirty. The features of his swarthy face were distinctive: his pale high forehead, framed in black locks, his sparkling black eyes, his aquiline nose, and his thick beard, which encircled his sunken, tawny cheeks, all revealed the foreigner in him. He wore a black frock coat, already graying along the seams, and a pair of summer trousers (though the season was well into the autumn); a fake diamond glittered on the yellowing shirtfront under his worn black tie; his fraying hat appeared to have seen both rain and sunshine in its day. If you had met this man in the woods, you would have taken him for a robber; in society, for a political conspirator; and in an anteroom, for a charlatan peddling elixirs and arsenic.
"What do you want?" Charskii asked him in French.
"Signer," answered the foreigner with low bows, "lei voglia perdonarmi se..."
Charskii did not offer him a chair but stood up himself; the exchange continued in Italian.
"I am a Neapolitan artist," said the stranger. "Circumstances forced me to leave my country. I have come to Russia hoping to make use of my talent here."
Charskii thought that the Neapolitan intended to give some cello concerts and was selling tickets door to door. He was about to hand the man his twenty-five rubles, hoping to get rid of him fast, but the stranger added:
"I hope, signor, that you will do a brotherly favour for a fellow artist and will introduce me to the houses to which you yourself have access."
It would have been impossible to deliver a sharper blow to Charskii's vanity. He cast a haughty glance at the man who called himself his fellow artist.
"Allow me to ask who you are and what you take me for," he said, making a great effort to keep his indignation under control.
The Neapolitan noticed his irritation. "Signor," he answered faltering, "ho creduto... ho sentito ... la Vostra Eccelenza mi perdonera..."
"What do you want?" Charskii repeated dryly. "I have heard a great deal about your marvellous talent, and I am convinced that men of quality in this country consider it an honour to offer their patronage in every way to such an excellent poet," answered the Italian, "and therefore I have taken the liberty of presenting myself to you..."
"You are mistaken, signor" Charskii interrupted him. "The calling of poet does not exist in our country. Our poets do not receive the patronage of men of quality: our poets are men of quality themselves, and if any Maecenas here (devil take them all!) should fail to realize this, so much the worse for him. With us there are no tattered abbes whom a composer might pick up on a street corner to write a libretto. With us, poets do not walk door to door soliciting donations. As for my being a great poet, somebody must have been pulling your leg. It is true that I wrote a few bad epigrams at one time, but, thank heavens, I have nothing to do, nor wish to have anything to do, with Messieurs les poetes."
The poor Italian became confused. He gazed around him. The pictures, marble statuettes, bronze busts, and expensive gewgaws, arranged inside a Gothic display cabinet, amazed him. He understood that the arrogant dandy who stood before him wearing a tufted brocade skullcap and a gold-embroidered Chinese dressing gown, girded by a Turkish sash, could have nothing in common with him, a poor itinerant artist, in a frayed cravat and worn frock coat. He uttered some incoherent apologies, bowed, and made as if to leave. His pathetic figure moved Charskii who, despite the petty vanities of his character, had a warm and noble heart. He felt ashamed of his irritable sense of self-pride.
"Where are you going?" he said to the Italian. "Wait a minute... I had to decline the title undeservedly conferred on me and had to declare to you that I was no poet. But let us now speak about your affairs. I am willing to be at your service in whatever way I can. Are you a musician?"
"No, Eccelenza!" answered the Italian. "I am a penniless improvisatore."
"Improvisatore?" exclaimed Charskii, fully realizing the cruelty of his conduct. "Why didn't you tell me sooner that you were an improvisatore?" And Charskii pressed his hand with a feeling of sincere regret.
His friendly air reassured the Italian. He launched trustingly into details of what he contemplated doing. His outward appearance was not misleading: he did need money, and he was hoping in some way to improve his affairs in Russia. Charskii listened to him attentively.
"I hope," he said to the poor artist, "that you will have success: our society here has never heard an improvisatore. People's curiosity will be aroused; it is true that Italian is not in use among us, and therefore you will not be understood, but that doesn't matter: the main thing is that you should be in vogue."
"But if nobody among you understands Italian," said the improvisatore, pondering the matter, "who will come to listen to me?"
"They will come, don't worry: some out of curiosity, others just to kill the evening somehow, still others in order to show that they understand Italian; the only important thing, I repeat, is that you should be in vogue, and you will be, I give you my word."
Charskii parted with the improvisatore amiably, taking down his address, and he set about making arrangements for him that same evening.
"I'm king and slave, I'm worm and god"
The next day Charskii sought out room No. 3 5 along the dark and dirty corridor of a tavern. He stopped at the door and knocked. The Italian opened it.
"Victory!" said Charskii to him. "It's all arranged. The Princess N. will let you have her reception room; I already had occasion at last night's reception to recruit half of Petersburg; you must have your tickets and announcements printed. I can guarantee you, if not triumph, at least some profit..."
"And that is the main thing!" cried the Italian, demonstrating his joy by lively gestures, characteristic of his southern race. "I knew you would help me. Corpo di Bacco! You are a poet, just as I am; and say what you like, poets are splendid fellows! How can I express my gratitude? Wait a second... Would you like to hear an improvisation?"
"An improvisation? ... Surely, you can't do without an audience, music, and the thunder of applause, can you?"
"All that's nonsense. Where could I find a better audience? You are a poet, you will understand me better than any of them, and your quiet encouragement will be dearer to me than a whole storm of applause... Sit down somewhere and give me a theme."
Charskii sat down on a trunk. (Of the two chairs in the cramped cubicle one was broken, the other one laden with a heap of papers and linen.) The improvisatore picked up a guitar from the table and stationed himself before Charskii, strumming on the strings with his bony fingers and waiting for his request.
"Here is a theme for you," said Charskii: "a poet chooses the subjects of his songs himself: the crowd has no right to command his inspiration"
The Italian's eyes flashed; he played a few chords, proudly raised his head, and impassioned stanzas, the expression of his momentary feeling, rose from his lips harmoniously... Here they follow - a free transcription by a friend of what Charskii could recall:
The poet walks: his lids are open,
But to all men his eyes are blind;
Then by a ruffle of his robbing
Someone detains him from behind...
"Why do you roam so void of purpose?
Your eye no sooner scales a height
Than you recall it to the surface
And netherward direct your sight.
Your view of the fair world is blurred.
You are consumed by idle flames;
Each minute you are lured and stirred
By petty subjects' fancied claims.
A genius soars above the earthy,
The genuine poet ought to deem
Of his exalted anthems worthy
None but an elevated theme."
"Why does the wind revolve inanely
In hollows, raining leaves and dust,
While vessels in the doldrums vainly
Await its animating gust?
Why, spurning mountain crag and tower,
Does the great eagle's fearsome power
Light on a withered stump? Ask him!
Ask Desdemona why her whim
Did on her dusky moor alight,
As Luna fell in love with night?
Like wind and erne, it is because
A maiden's heart obeys no laws.
Such is the poet: like the North,
Whate'er he lists he carries forth,
Wherever, eagle-like, he flies,
Acknowledging no rule or owner,
He finds a god, like Desdemona,
For wayward heart to idolize."
The Italian grew silent... Charskii sat without a word, astonished and moved.
"Well?" asked the improvisatore.
Charskii grasped his hand and pressed it firmly.
"Well?" asked the improvisatore. "How was it?"
"Astonishing," answered the poet. "How can it be that someone else's idea, which had only just reached your ear, immediately became your own property, as if you had carried, fostered, and nurtured it for a long time? Does this mean that you never encounter either difficulty, or a dampening of spirit, or the restlessness that precedes inspiration? ... Astonishing, astonishing!..."
The improvisatore's reply was:
"Every talent is inexplicable. How can a sculptor see a Jupiter hidden in a slab of Carrara marble and bring it to light, chipping off its shell with chisel and hammer? Why is it that a thought emerging from a poet's head is already equipped with four rhymes and measured in concordant, uniform feet? Similarly, no one except the improvisatore himself can comprehend this alacrity of impressions, this close tie between one's own inspiration and another's external will: it would be in vain even if I tried to explain it to you. However... it's time to think about my first evening. What do you think? What should be the price of a ticket that would neither burden the public too much nor leave me out of pocket? La signora Catalani, they say, charged twenty-five rubles. That's not a bad price..."
It was unpleasant for Charskii to fall so suddenly from the height of poetry into the bookkeeper's office, but he understood the demands of everyday life very well, and plunged into mercantile calculations with the Italian. The occasion revealed so much unbridled greed in the Italian, such simple-hearted love of profit, that Charskii became disgusted with him and hastened to leave him, in order not to lose altogether the feeling of elation that the brilliant improvisation had aroused in him. The preoccupied Italian did not notice this change, and accompanied his guest along the corridor and down the staircase with deep bows and assurances of his everlasting gratitude.
The tickets are 10 rubles
each; the performance begins at 7 P.M.
FROM A POSTER
Princess N.'s reception room had been put at the improvisatore's disposal. A platform had been erected, and the chairs had been arranged in twelve rows. On the appointed day, at seven in the evening, the room was illuminated, and an old lady with a long nose, wearing a grey hat with drooping feathers and a ring on every finger, sat by the door behind a little table, charged with the sale and collection of tickets. Gendarmes stood by the main entrance. The audience was beginning to gather. Charskii was one of the first to arrive. Very much concerned with the success of the performance, he wanted to see the improvisatore in order to find out if he was satisfied with everything. He found the Italian in a little side room, impatiently glancing at his watch. He was dressed in a theatrical fashion: he wore black from head to foot; the collar of his shirt was thrown open; the unusual whiteness of his neck contrasted sharply with his thick black beard; and loosely hanging locks framed his forehead and brows. Charskii found it very disagreeable to see a poet dressed as an itinerant mountebank. After a brief exchange of words, he returned to the reception room, which was filling up with more and more people.
Soon all the rows of armchairs were occupied by brilliant ladies; the men, as though forming a tight frame around them, stood by the platform, along the walls, and behind the last row of chairs. The musicians with their stands took up the space on either side of the platform. A porcelain vase stood on a table in the center of the room. The audience was sizable. Everybody waited impatiently for the beginning of the performance; at last the musicians began to stir at half past seven, getting their bows ready, and then started playing the overture to Tancredi. Everybody settled down and grew quiet; the overture's last thunderous notes resounded... And then the improvisatore, greeted with deafening applause on all sides, advanced to the very edge of the platform with deep bows.
Charskii had anxiously waited to see what impression the first minute would create, but he noticed that the costume, which had appeared so inappropriate to him, was not having the same effect on the audience. He himself found nothing ludicrous in the man when he saw him on the platform, his pale face brightly illuminated by a multitude of lamps and candles. The applause died away; all conversation ceased... The Italian, speaking in broken French, asked the ladies and gentlemen present to set a few themes for him, writing them down on pieces of paper. At this unexpected invitation, the guests all looked at one another in silence, not one person making any response. The Italian, after waiting a little, repeated his request in a timid and humble voice. Charskii stood right below the platform; he grew anxious; he could see that the affair could not be carried through without him, and that he would be compelled to write down a theme. Indeed several ladies turned their heads toward him and began calling out to him, at first in a low tone, then more and more loudly. Hearing Charskii's name, the improvisatore looked for him and, seeing him at his feet, gave him a pencil and a piece of paper with a friendly smile. Charskii found it very unpleasant to have to play a role in this comedy, but there was no getting around it: he took the pencil and paper from the Italian's hand and wrote a few words on it; the Italian picked up the vase from the table, came down from the platform, and held the vase out to Charskii, who dropped his theme into it. His example had its effect: two journalists, in their capacity as men of letters, felt duty-bound to write a theme; the secretary of the Neapolitan Embassy and a young man who had just returned from a journey and was still raving about Florence both placed their rolled-up slips of paper in the urn. Finally, at her mother's insistence, a plain-looking girl with tears in her eyes wrote a few lines in Italian and, blushing to her ears, handed them to the improvisatore, while other ladies watched her in silence, with a barely perceptible smile of contempt. Returning to his platform, the Italian placed the urn on the table and started drawing the pieces of paper out, one after the other, reading each aloud:
The Cenci family (La famiglia dei Cenci)
L'ultimo giorno di Pompeїa
Cleopatra е і suoi amanti
La primavera veduta da una prigione
Il trionfo di Tasso
"What is the pleasure of the honourable company?" asked the humble Italian. "Do you wish to select one of the suggested themes, or let the matter be decided by lot?"
"By lot!" said a voice from the crowd.
"By lot, by lot!" was repeated throughout the audience.
The improvisatore came down from the platform once more, holding the urn in his hands, and asked, "Who will be so good as to draw a theme?"
He searched the front rows with an imploring glance. Not one of the brilliant ladies seated there would move a finger. The improvisatore, unaccustomed to northern reserve, seemed distressed... but suddenly he noticed that on one side of the room a small hand in a tight-fitting white glove was raised: he swiftly turned and walked up to a majestic young beauty seated at the end of the second row. She rose without the slightest embarrassment, put her small aristocratic hand into the urn with the most natural gesture, and drew out a rolled-up piece of paper.
"Would you be kind enough to unroll it and read it?" the improvisatore asked her.
The beautiful girl unrolled the paper and read the words out: "Cleopatra е і suoi amanti."
She read these words in a soft tone, but the silence reigning over the room was so complete that everybody could hear her. The improvisatore bowed deeply, with a look of profound gratitude, to the beautiful lady, and returned to his platform.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said turning to the audience, "the lot bids me to improvise on the theme of Cleopatra and her lovers. I humbly ask the person who suggested this theme to elucidate the idea: which of her lovers are in question, perche la grande regina n'aveva molto?..."
Several men burst into loud laughter at these words. The improvisatore appeared somewhat confused.
"I would like to know," he continued, "what historical episode the person suggesting the theme was alluding to ... I should be most grateful if that person would kindly explain."
Nobody hastened to answer. Some ladies directed their glance toward the plain girl who had written down a theme at her mother's command. The poor girl noticed this malevolent attention and became so embarrassed that tears welled up in her eyes ...
Charskii could not bear this any longer. Turning to the improvisatore, he said in Italian: "I was the one who suggested the theme. I had in mind the testimony of Victor
Aurelius, who claims that Cleopatra named death as the price of her love, and that some admirers were found to whom such a condition was neither frightening nor repellent... But maybe the subject is somewhat embarrassing.. .Would you rather choose another one?"
But the improvisatore already sensed the divine presence ... He signaled to the musicians to play... His face grew alarmingly pale; he trembled as if in fever; his eyes sparkled with wondrous fire; he smoothed his black hair back with his hand, wiped the beads of sweat off his high forehead with a handkerchief.. .and suddenly stepped forward, folding his arms across his chest... The music stopped... The improvisation began:
The palace gleamed. From jubilant choirs
Of bards re-echoed hymns of praise;
The joyous strains of lutes and lyres
The Queen enhanced by voice and gaze.
All hearts in transports thronged to seek her,
When of a sudden she stopped short
And mused above the golden beaker,
Her wondrous forehead dropped in thought.
The festive turmoil ceases shifting,
The choir stands mute as in a daze;
At last the Queen pronounces, lifting
Her brow again, with cloudless gaze:
"Is not my love your dreamed-of treasure?
Well — you may buy such bliss divine.
Hear me! This night it is my pleasure
To grant you equal rank to mine.
Behold the marketplace of passion!
For sale is now my love divine;
Who dares to barter in this fashion
His life against one night of mine?"
Thus she. All hearts are set aflutter
By passion blent with dreadful qualm.
To their abashed and doubtful mutter
She listens with a brazen calm.
Her scornful glances sweep the verges
Of her admirers' silent throng...
There — of a sudden one emerges,
Two others follow soon along.
Their step is bold, their eyes unclouded;
The Queen arises to their stride;
Three nights are bought: the couch is shrouded
For deadly raptures at her side.
"Thee, Holy Goddess of the Senses,
I vow to serve like none before,
A venal passion's recompenses
To gather like a common whore.
Oh hearken Thou, Our Cyprian Lady's
High Grace, and hear, in realms forlorn,
Ye dreaded deities of Hades,
My oath: unto the morning's dawn
My sovereign rulers' burning wishes
With rich fulfilment I will quench,
Slake them with ecstasies delicious,
With magical caresses drench.
But mark! as soon as to Aurora's
Renascent blush this night shall fade,
The happy heads of my adorers
Shall leap beneath the deadly blade."
By holy augurs blessed and chosen,
There issue from the fateful urn,
While the assembled guests stand frozen,
The lots assigned to each in turn.
First, Flavius, greyed amidst the laurels
And scars of Rome's historic quarrels;
His pride resolved to bear no more
A female's challenge to his mettle,
He bridled, as in days of war
He used to rise to calls of battle.
Crito was next, young sage who, raised
In shady groves Epicurean,
Had chosen Love his god and praised
The Graces and the Cytherean.
Appealing both to eye and heart,
The last to have his doom awarded,
Like vernal petals shy to part,
Has never had his name recorded
By scribes. His tender cheek a start
Of downy beard but faintly bordered...
Untested passion flared and tested
His heart with unaccustomed blaze...
And softly touched, the Queen's eyes rested
Upon him with a gender gaze.
Already daylight, swift to fade,
To Luna's golden horn surrenders,
And Alexandria's high splendours
Lie sunken in a balmy shade.
The lights are glowing, fountains playing,
Sweet incense wafting from a hearth,
A breeze, voluptuous cool conveying,
Is promised to the gods of earth.
And in that velvet dusk, all heady
With lures of luxury untold,
The gleaming ottoman of gold,
In purple canopied, stands ready.
|Бібліотека ім. О. С. Пушкіна (м. Київ). |