Joseph Olenin’s Coat
by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé
Translated by Patricia Worth
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Once, I had the quite simple idea, which should have occurred to me sooner, that there could be some hint of her origin remaining in the coat pockets. The idea was very unwelcome: several times I thought of following up this nagging thought, but put it off. Finally, I plunged my trembling hands into the small pockets; it was with indescribable relief I found them empty.
My steward wanted me to go to Tashan to finish some important business; I found excuses to send him in my place, fearing above all things a discussion with the post master who could insist I return the coat. Every time someone rang at the gate, my heart beat faster; it was as if they had come to take her away from me. When a neighbor’s equipage or a messenger’s horse came into the courtyard, I’d catch myself quickly throwing a drapery over the pelisse. Later, I couldn’t deny this was an appalling action that would have sent a poor devil before the magistrate. But what collector doesn’t have such weaknesses on his conscience, not to mention those who are in love?
Was I already in that sad category of lovers? I wouldn’t have liked to confess this wickedness, and yet I told myself it might be ridiculous to be in love with a showy scrap of cloth, but it’s true that half of all men are; and men have sometimes muddled worldly affairs for showy things that concealed less soul. Without examining the nature of my feelings, I was enjoying this delicious shared life: henceforth my solitude was filled.
We would have long chats in the evening, when the polonaise existed so strangely: I already knew much about her character, her secrets and her past. Like all of her kind, she had her days and her whims: one moment tender and gay, surrendered in delightful poses, the next lying lifeless on the sofa, limp, listless, dead, the soul vanished. According to her mood I went to bed sad or happy. And often at night, in my dreams, I would see the strange creature again, wandering by my bedside, brushing me with her burnished gold down, reciting verses and follies until dawn.
On October 15th we had the first winter frost at Bukova. Upon waking I saw the melancholy horizon of our fields, all pale beneath its first sheet of white. That morning I had to go and deal with some wood-felling quite some distance away. Ivan triumphantly brought me a coarse peasant coat, swearing it was freezing outside, as indeed I noticed on opening my window to the icy wind.
My hand came to rest on the soft sable; she still retained some kind of body heat, intrinsic and mysterious. Brrr... I thought, how good it would be to snuggle up in this warm fur before stepping out into such weather! I was ashamed and drove the stupid idea away. But we know that stupid ideas have particular ways of getting into one’s head and particular arguments at their service. “What good is it to risk an inflammation of the chest,” said the temptress, “when you could avoid it? Do you think this get-up would at all surprise your good peasants? These simple people don’t notice anything, and even if the girls of the village smiled a little, what shame in that?!”
I was struggling: those in love know how it ends, this struggle with stupid ideas. After hesitating a few moments, I threw the fine polonaise over my shoulders and went out. The sensation was unlike any I’d felt before, it was like a perfumed bath, a warm bed, the breath of an April breeze, the buzz of an electric battery. An entirely new happiness filled me to the depths of my being.
The steward was shivering, but I felt no cold. I lingered long in the wood; it seemed that, in going home, I would be leaving the best part of myself. She had become a habit: on the following days, even when the weather was fine and warm again, I never went without the divine pelisse. My errands, formerly hasty and dismal, were now delicious. The moment I put on the enchanted coat, my sad personality would leave me; I felt a stranger’s personality was imperceptibly replacing mine. It was the ambiance of another being, composed of a perpetual caress in which I was gently becoming accustomed to living.
I remembered, then, having long ago been keenly struck by an article in the Archaeological Review about the tunic of Deianeira. Ah! How I understood poor Hercules, wrapped in his poisoned lion-skin as it burnt him alive! For a short while I had an idea of writing a dissertation about this interesting point of Greek mythology, in order to again take up my abandoned studies.
For, as you can see, the unfortunate Rameses was forgotten: the unfinished draft of the first chapter lay on my table with that dreary look of deserted writings and books. I now spent all my days outdoors, tracking through the forest in my magic vesture: the first infatuation had not worn off, on the contrary it seemed that each day I was a little less myself, that the metamorphosis was almost complete. A world of delicate things, of subtle and sensual pleasures was revealed to me. I had changed my soul as I had changed my coat, and stripped away the old man. It seemed I was becoming her... Ah! But no! To be honest, it seemed I was going mad.
At this critical moment in my moral existence, one evening, at nightfall — October 24th — I was handed a telegram from my friend X. He let me know he would be in Kiev the following morning, and he begged me to go there to see him briefly, to confer about some business with which I could be of great help. At that time I liked nothing so much as my solitude filled with my passion, and I cursed this bothersome friendship. But it couldn’t be helped; I ordered the horses be hitched to the britchka. Ivan came to me with a mocking smile which he had adopted for some time in regard to me.
“It will be a rainy night; what will Sir be taking to cover himself on the way?”
I had to defeat one of those shameful moments that occurred every now and then, but I had already defeated so many!
“The pelisse,” I replied, turning my head away, and a few minutes later the troika carried me off, all a-quiver with pleasure in my darling sable. Wherever I went, indifferent to all things, she continued to envelop me in her atmosphere of love.
* * *
It was well into the night when my britchka entered the court of the Tashan post-house. An unhitched calash was waiting there for fresh horses.
“I’ll go and wake Stepan Ivanovitch,” said Ivan.
“Have the calash hitched up quickly and let those who are sleeping sleep,” I snapped.
You’d be right in thinking I had only one idea: to avoid the post master. For fear of running into him, I didn’t even go into the tea room. I rolled a cigarette and set off pacing the covered wooden gallery which ran around the perimeter of the courtyard. The night was dark and rainy, as Ivan had predicted. A miserable oil lamp hanging on a door frame dimly lit one of the turns in the gallery.
I had been walking for a few moments when this door opened and out came a traveler who began strolling in the opposite direction to me. At first sight I was struck by the profile; there was something particular about it, which made it impossible to decide the sex of the stranger. You will tell me that this is not a rare case in Russia, where our gracious winter, with its obligatory garb, transforms the street into a costume ball of pedestrians who have no form, nor age, nor sex.
What intrigued me more was that I quickly found something very familiar in the shape, the gait, and the manner of my strolling companion; but this memory was rather difficult to pinpoint, since in my mind it brought together two people obviously very different. Without being able to put names to these vague analogies, I was sure that in one of my intimate acquaintances I had known this profile, and in another, this carriage of the body and this gait. Quite perplexed, I stopped beneath the lamp and waited for the stroller to come past. Into the lighted space came a woman’s two small feet emerging from a long men’s coat. My eyes lingered on the coat: it was mine, my old fox-fur pelisse!
You can imagine the mass of chaotic thoughts exploding in my brain. I began walking again like a drunk man. We happened to pace back toward each other and met precisely beneath the lamp. My first impressions were confirmed, though I was just as troubled. When I looked at the coat, I thought I was seeing myself in a mirror; and under this borrowed personality I perceived another one that I knew, as though I had left it the moment before.
The face of this woman — it was truly a woman — was wrapped in a black scarf, but by the way she stared, I felt myself the object of an attention equal to my own. The stroll continued; I was overcome by an acute sense of discomfort. Have you ever, in a drawing room, come across a face you were well acquainted with? You understand that you will have to talk to her, socialize with her, and unable to place a name to this face, you find not a single word on your lips; you guess that she, too, recognizes your face. And every minute that passes increases your malaise.
It was a discomfort of this sort that I was feeling, but a hundred times more painful, and complicated by extravagant ideas. One moment it seemed I was taking myself for a walk, by my side, I mean the old me, the one from the past; the next, it seemed my polonaise was running in front of me, carrying away my new me. Thus split in two, with each of my halves avoiding the other, I felt more ridiculous with each new meeting; the veiled eyes would fix on me, always more disturbing. Drops of sweat pearled on my temples.
Suddenly, after one last turn around the gallery, the woman stopped right beneath the lamp, quickly lifted her veil, and a long-contained laugh burst out of her. The fresh, young voice behind this laugh spoke up, and said in French: “Monsieur, what if you give me back my coat?”
I stood motionless, stunned, searching for a few words and spluttering out: “My God... Madame... I was going to ask you the same... But would you please explain how—?”
“Ah now, of that I’m quite incapable. I only know that you have there my pelisse, and it even seems you have adopted it without much fuss.”
“It’s true, Madame; but aren’t you yourself setting me an example?”
“This coat is yours? And it is I who owe you an explanation? All right then, I will explain, it’s very simple in any case. A month ago, passing by here on my way to a neighboring property, I mislaid my fur. When I sent for it to be found, this one was brought back to me instead of my own.
“I was away longer than I thought I would be; I was cold without my coat and had no recourse to any other, so far was I from any place where I could get one, and, well, I used what Providence had deigned to leave me in exchange for my sable. This necessity will seem justifiable enough to you, I hope.
“What is less so is the need for a man to dress in a woman’s coat, wearing it ridiculously like a capelet; not to mention that its shape seems to have been quite altered on your shoulders, my poor coat.”
“Oh! I swear to you, Madame, it has not. On the contrary, it is I who have...” I stopped before blurting out a bit of foolishness intelligible to me alone.
“Well, then, Monsieur, since it pleases you that our wrongs are reciprocal, let’s forget all about it. Fate has sorted out its own mistakes. We will both return home in what is ours, in the property appropriate to our sex. But it seems to me that since two people who have worn their respective coats for a month have been adequately introduced to each other, I’ll ask you to take a cup of tea with me while we effect the exchange.”
And the stranger opened the door to the waiting room, showing the way.
Against my desire, I followed her. As I thought about it, I could see only one thing, the imminent and inevitable separation from my beloved companion. I felt no gratitude to her mistress for revealing herself. I cared nothing for this woman; it was to her pelisse I was attached.
However, while my heroine was divesting herself of my coat, I allowed myself the summary examination which is the first courtesy a man owes a woman with whom he is becoming acquainted. There was no doubt about it; it was indeed my statue appearing before me, a statue such as I had guessed by her envelope, except she had a nose. Was it this nose that disturbed me? I don’t know, but I do know the vision gave me no pleasure and remained, for me, very distinct from the real woman, she who inhabited the pelisse.
Yet, the golden chestnut hair was there, and the deep blue eyes. She asked the servant for some tea; by the accent of the first Russian words she spoke, I recognized she was Polish, a Polonaise. Everything about her betrayed this particularly formidable family in the female species: the electric gaze, the poisonous perfume, the serpentine suppleness, the unconscious provocativeness of every bit of frippery from her heels to the very last curl of her hair.