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Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

The thought of the midshipman’s behaviour tormented me. I hated him. I did not know whether it was jealousy or simply disgust with this violator of the sacred sense of woman’s modesty. Whatever a woman may be, we ought to treat her, if not with respect, at least with decency. The midshipman had done neither. He either was drunk or deep down a villain. For whatever reason, I am more inclined to believe in the latter. The lights were on in Karl Pavlovich’s, and I went to him for the night.

Karl Pavlovich could not help noticing my distracted mood, but was kind enough not to ask any questions. He ordered a bed for me to be made in his room and began reading aloud from a book. It was Washington Irving’s Christopher Columbus. As he read, he improvised the scene of the ungrateful Spaniards leading the great admiral, fettered in chains, from the long boat to the shore. What a sad, instructive scene. I proffered him a scrap of paper and a pencil, but he declined both and continued to read.

Once during supper, while recounting his travels through Greece, he sketched a wonderful picture, Evening in Athens, in this manner. The picture showed a street in Athens lit by the evening sun. On the horizon was the roughly finished Parthenon, scaffolding still in place. In the foreground, a pair of bullocks drew Phidias’ marble statue of The River Ilissos down the street. To one side Phidias himself was greeted by Pericles, Aspasia and all those, who made Periclean Athens glorious – it from the famous hetaera to Xanthippe. All this was illuminated by the rays of the setting sun. A splendid picture. What is the School of Athens compared with this marvellous painting? He did not execute it only because the School of Athens existed already. And how many similar paintings he finished either with an inspired word or with a rough sketch in his drab-looking album.

Last winter, for instance, he made several minute sketches on one and the same theme. I could not make out anything and could only guess that my great teacher was contemplating something outstanding. I was not deceived. This summer I noticed that every day before sunrise he began to retire in his grey smock frock to his studio, where he stayed till evening. Lukyan, who brought him water and dinner, alone knew what he was doing there. I was working on my program then and could not offer him my services as a reader, although I was convinced he would have eagerly accepted such a service, since he loved to hear books read. Three weeks passed in such a manner. I quivered with impatience. He had never before visited his studio with such unfailing regularity. Something unusual must be in the making. After all, what commonplace things does an extraordinary genius create!

Once toward evening I dismissed my model, wanting to go outdoors. In the corridor I came across Karl Pavlovich whose beard was untrimmed. He wished to see my program work. All a-tremble, I led him to my study; he made some insignificant remarks, and then said: “Let’s go and have a look at my own program work.” We went to his studio.

I do not know whether I should tell you what I saw there. I must tell you now – although I scarcely know how to tell something which defies description. On opening the door of the studio, I saw a huge dark canvas stretched on a frame. On the back of it was an inscription in black paint: “Begun on the 17th July.” Behind the canvas a music box was playing the chorus of the noblemen from Les Huguenots. With a sinking heart I went behind the canvas, and what I saw took my breath away: in front of me was not a painting, but a live siege of Pskov in all its horror and grandeur. This explained the meaning of the tiny sketches and his trip to Pskov last summer. I knew about this, but I could have never imagined that the painting would be executed so quickly. So quickly, and so beautifully! Until I make a small sketch of this novel wonder for you, I will describe it, obviously, rather limitedly. To the observer’s right, in the background , an explosion shatters a tower; a little closer is a breach in the wall, in which a hand-to-hand fighting is in progress. And what a fighting it is just horrible to look at, and you seem to hear shouts and swords ringing against Livonian, Polish, Lithuanian and God knows what other iron helmets.

On the left side of the painting, in the middle ground, there is a religious procession with gonfalons and an icon of Our Lady, ceremonially preceded by a bishop holding the sword of St. Michael, the Prince of Pskov. What a remarkable contrast! In the foreground, in the middle of the painting, a pale monk astride a bay horse holds up a cross. To his right is the dying white horse of Shuisky, and Shuisky is seen running with raised arms toward the breach. On the left of the monk is a pious old woman giving her blessing to a young man, or rather a boy, setting out against the foe. Still further left a girl gives the exhausted warriors water from a pail. And in the corner of the painting is a half-naked dying warrior supported by a young woman, perhaps a future widow. What wonderful, diverse episodes! I have described but half of them. My letter would be without end and still not complete, if I took it into my head to describe all the details of this perfection of art. So be content, for the first occasion at least, with this prosaic account of a supremely poetic creation. Eventually I will send you a sketched outline of the painting, and then you will see clearer what a divine work it is. What else can I write you about, my unforgettable benefactor? I write you so rarely and so little it makes me ashamed. Your reproaches for me being lazy to write are not exactly fair. I am not lazy; I simply do not have the gift of telling about my everyday life as absorbingly as others can do it. Not so long ago I read Clarissa (primarily to learn writing letters) in Jules Janin’s translation, of which I liked only the translator’s preface. The letters, though, are so sweetish and long they are a horror to read. I wonder how the man had the patience to write such endless letters. I liked the letters from abroad even less: they are too pretentious and have little sense in them, being pedantic and nothing else. To tell the truth, I have a strong desire to learn how to write, but I do not know how to go about it. Teach me. Your letters are so good that I learn them by heart. Before I master your secret, I will write you as my heart prompts me. Let my heartfelt candour be a temporary substitute for art.

After that night at Karl Pavlovich’s, I went reluctantly to my quarters at around ten o’clock. Mikhailov was already at home and was pouring some wine into the glass of the barely awake midshipman, while our neighbours’ frivolous girl, looking out of my room as if nothing had happened, laughed at the top of her voice. There was no pride in her, not a shade of modesty. Was this a simple, natural naïveté, or the result of the upbringing of the gutter? For me it is an insoluble question, because I am as utterly fond of her as of the sweetest child. And like a real child I made her sit down to learn her ABC. In the evenings she repeats syllables over and over again, while I sketch something or draw her portrait. Her head is simply a marvel. And do you know what is remarkable about all my efforts? From the day she began learning, she stopped laughing. I feel amused at the sight of her serious, childlike face.

Since I have nothing to do for the length of the winter, I decided to make a study of her by the candlelight: precisely in the posture she sits, engrossed in her ABC, pointer in hand. It will be a nice painting a la Greuze. I do not know whether I will cope with the oils. She comes out quite good in pencil. The other day I made the acquaintance of her aunt, and in a rather distinct way. Returning from classes at eleven o’clock as usual, I was met by Pasha in the corridor, and on behalf of her auntie she invited me for a cup of coffee. The invitation amazed me. I refused to accept it. Indeed, how could I enter a home I did not know and be entertained straight off? She, however, did not give me a chance to argue and pulled me by the sleeve to her door like an obstinate calf. I resisted like a calf as well and had almost freed myself from her grip when the door opened and her auntie came to her help. Without saying a word, she grabbed me by the other hand, pushed me into the room, locked the door – and asked me to feel myself at home.

“I beg you kindly to do it without ceremony,” the hostess said, out of breath. “Please forgive us our simple ways. Pasha, why are you standing there with gaping mouth ? Bring the coffee quick!”

“In a minute, auntie!” Pasha responded and a minute later she appeared with a coffee pot and cups on a tray. There was a real Hebe for you. The aunt, too, slightly resembled the Thunderer.

“I wanted to make your acquaintance a long time ago,” the hostess began. “Somehow I did not have a chance, but today, thank God, I got my way. Please do forgive us our simple ways. Would you like a cup of coffee? I haven’t seen our milk-woman for an age. The cream in our local shop is such rubbish – what can you do? Pasha has been long after me to make your acquaintance, but you’re so unsociable, a real recluse, and you do not appear often in the corridor. Have another cup. You’ve made a wonder out of our Pasha. We simply don’t recognize her. From morning till evening she’s sitting over books, without causing any trouble – it’s a delight to see. Imagine our surprise yesterday, when she produced a book with pictures, the one your friend gave her as a present, opened it and took to reading – not lively yet, but you can understand everything she reads. What’s the name of the book?”

The Vicar of Wakefield,” Pasha said, as she appeared from around a partition.

“On yes, yes, the vicar. How the poor man pined in prison, and how he found his dissolute daughter. She read the book to the end just like that; sleep was the last thing on our minds then. ‘Who taught you to read?’ I asked. She says it was you. Truly, you’ve done us a great favour. My Kiril Afanasyevich, if he’s not at his office, sits over his papers at home. In the evening, we play the game of silence, which makes an evening seem like a year for you. But now! I simply don’t notice how it flies by. Would you care for another cup?”

I declined the treat and made to leave. But it proved impossible. My hostess seized my hand unceremoniously and sat me in my place, saying:

“I don’t know how it is with you, but with us they don’t just come in and then go out. No, we humbly ask you to have a chat with us and take a bit of what God has sent us.”

The treat and the chat I declined nonetheless, pleading stomach ache and colic in my side, of which, thank God, I have never suffered. The reason was that I had to go to classes – the first hour after midday was already running out. I was released upon my word of honour until seven o’clock in the evening. True to my word, I arrived at my hospitable neighbours’ at seven in the evening. The samovar was already on the table, and she met me with a glass of tea in her hand. After the first glass of tea she introduced me to her master, as she put it. He was a bald little man in spectacles, sitting over a pile of papers in the next room. He got up from the chair, adjusted his spectacles, and extended me his hand, saying:

“Please do be seated.” I sat down. He removed the spectacles from his nose, wiped them with a handkerchief, put them back, sat down on his chair without saying a word, and pored over his papers as before. Thus several minutes passed. I did not know what to do. My situation was becoming ridiculous. The hostess, thanks be to her, cleared the air.

“Do not bother him,” she said, looking in out of the other room. “Come to us; it’s merrier here.”

I wordlessly left the industrious master and went to the bustling hostess. The meek Pasha sat over The Vicar of Wakefield and was looking through the pictures.

“Did you see our master?” the hostess asked. “He’s always like that. He’s got so used to those papers he won’t live a minute without them.”

I delivered some compliment on industry and asked Pasha to read aloud. She read one page from The Vicar of Wakefield rather slowly but correctly and distinctly, and her aunt rewarded her with a glass of tea along with a torrent of panegyric which it would be impossible to fit on three pages. And I, as her tutor, apart from endless gratitude, was offered rum to go with the tea. But since the rum was still at Vogt’s and Pasha had to run over there and get it, I declined the rum and tea, much to the chagrin of the hospitable hostess. After ten o’clock we had supper, and I took my leave, promising to visit them every day.

I cannot define clearly for you what impression this new acquaintance has produced on me. First impressions, they say, are very important in the matter of acquaintance.

I am pleased by it only because my acquaintance with Pasha had seemed to be blameworthy so far, but now it seems this has been removed, and our friendship has been somehow consolidated by this unexpectedly new acquaintance.

I began to frequent them every day, and after a week was already like an old acquaintance or, rather, one of the family. They offered me their board for the same price I paid Madame Jurgens’. I betrayed the kindly Madame Jurgens without any regrets: I was bored by the careless company of bachelors, and eagerly accepted my neighbours’ offer. At their home I feel so well, serene and comfortable; it has an air of domesticity which is so much in my nature and so consonant with my peaceable disposition. I call Pasha my sister, the aunt I call auntie, but I do not call the uncle anything, since I only see him at the dinner table. He seems to be going to his office on holidays as well. I feel so happy there I hardly go out, except to Karl Pavlovich’s. I don’t remember when I last went to Joachim’s, which is also true for the Schmidts and Fitztum. I realize that it is wrong on my part, but there is nothing I can do about it: I cannot lie to kind people. It must be my lack of wordly upbringing and nothing more. Next Sunday I will pay calls on them all and spend the evening with the Schmidts, because our acquaintance might really be strangled if I continue like this. It’s all a trifle, and will work itself out somehow. My real trouble is of a different nature: I cannot get along with Mikhailov, or, rather, with his bosom friend, the midshipman. He stays practically every night at our quarters. This, too, would have been nothing, if he were not to bring God knows what people along, with card playing and drinking going on the whole night through. I’d hate to have to change quarters, but it seems I will have to if there is to be no end to these orgies. I wish spring would come sooner and the unbearable midshipman return to sea.

I have begun working on a study of Pasha by the candlelight. Her head is coming out nicely; the only thing I regret is the midshipman getting in my way. I’d like to have the painting finished by the holidays and begin on something else, but I will hardly succeed. I even tried to work at my neighbours’, but I find such an arrangement somewhat clumsy.

I like the effect of the candlelight so much that on finishing the head, I intend to begin a second, from Pasha, of course, for the painting of Vestal Virgin. I pity I cannot get white roses for a wreath, which I need. But this is something to be dealt with later.

Pasha is beginning to read well already and likes it, which is extraordinarily pleasant to me. But I find it difficult to choose what she should read. Novels are said to be bad for girls’ reading. I don’t know why, really. A good novel kindles the imagination and ennobles the heart. But a dull book, apart from teaching nothing, is likely to produce an aversion to reading.

First I gave her Robinson Crusoe to read, after which I will propose the travels of Arago or Dumont d’Urville, then another novel, to be followed by Plutarch. It is a pity we do not have a translated Vasari – I would have introduced her to the celebrities of our fine arts. Is my plan good? How do you find it? If you have anything against it, inform me in your next letter and I will be heartily grateful to you. I am now concerned with her as with someone dear and near. Now that she is literate I regard her like an artist does his unfinished painting. I consider it a great sin to have her determine her own choice of reading, or rather, her chance of reading, because she has nowhere to choose from. It would have been better not to have taught her to read at all. I must be growing tedious with this talk of my neighbours. But what can I do about it? As the proverb goes, “What the heart thinks the tongue speaks.” To tell you the truth, I have nothing more to write you about as it is. I am not going out anywhere or doing anything. I don’t know what fate has in store for me in the coming summer. I am expecting it not without alarm, and I cannot expect it otherwise.

The coming summer is to lay the real foundation of the pursuit I, or rather you, have chosen for me. Karl Pavlovich tells me that shortly after the holidays a program for the first gold medal will be announced. I nearly faint at the thought of this fateful program. What if I succeed? I’ll go off my head then. What about you? Won’t you really come to have a look at the triennial exhibition, at my approved program work, as well as at its humble creator as your own creation? I am sure you will come. Write of your coming in the next letter, and I will have a specious excuse for refusing Mikhailov to share my quarters. The midshipman also seems to have annoyed him. It’s a good thing I have some refuge at my neighbours’, for otherwise I would have to run from my own quarters. Be so kind as to write that you will come. Then I will bring to the end everything altogether. Farewell, my unforgettable benefactor. In the next letter I will inform you about the further progress of my pupil and on the results of the forthcoming competition. Farewell.

P. S. Poor Demski cannot leave the room anymore. He will not live through spring.”