Joseph Olenin’s Coat
by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé
Translated by Patricia Worth
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
While she was pouring the tea, Stepan Ivanovitch entered, greeted us and smiled.
“I suppose,” he said, “the error has now been explained to Madame the Countess. The very day when she stopped by my post-house and left her pelisse here, Monsieur Joseph Olenin lost his coat not far away. The following day, when his messenger from Bukova came searching for the coat, my stable boy handed him the garment he had picked up. A few hours later, a passer-by brought Monsieur Olenin’s coat to us, and found the courier at the door asking for Countess ***ska’s pelisse. The courier did not verify the object, and I didn’t hear any more about it.”
The post master had shone a light on my fantasy. The name of the Countess ***ska was well known. She had just left Warsaw at the time that my regiment had garrison duty there. They talked of nothing but her beauty, her fierce virtue, her second marriage to the old Count ***sky, one of the richest lords in Poland, who in earlier days was strongly in favor at Court and who had even been for a short while a general and governor under the previous regime.
For some time, the Count and his wife had been living in retreat at their beautiful property, Rogonostzova, at the farthest edge of Podolia, a hundred versts from my house. I knew they occasionally passed through our district when going to visit another property situated closer to Kiev.
The countess sent Stepan Ivanovitch away, asking him to hurry up and bring her carriage round, and conversation began between us with the ease that comes in new relationships when there is the certainty of belonging to the same world, even though we did not exchange our coats.
“Well! Monsieur Olenin, there’s the introduction completed, and, of course, it was quite romantic. My friends in Warsaw have told me much about your many kinds of exploits when you were with the hussars, but I didn’t know that in disdaining common morality you would go so far as appropriating a sable mislaid on the highway.”
“You can even add, Countess, so far as not returning it!”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m declaring that this pelisse will only be wrested from me with my life.”
“Well, I never! And why?”
“Because... because I love her.”
“That’s what all the heroes in the magistrate’s court would say.”
“No, you don’t understand me, you cannot understand me. It’s too subtle to explain what exists between this garment and me. Yet you, too, are Slav, and therefore more or less a spiritist, a believer in metempsychosis and a host of similar things. Look, for the past month since this piece of cloth has come into my life, it has gradually driven me out of my own self and introduced another soul, a dreamlike being emanating from the stuff; or perhaps it is I who have passed into it, who have taken the form and the being that it potentially contained, as the philosophers say. I don’t know. In any case it remains that the cloth and everything my imagination has put into it, I love it, do you understand, I’m in love with it.”
The countess put on a stern face, de rigueur in such a case. It has been observed, in fact, that this sternness can never be taken for a look of surprise, which makes me think that women always expect that this word, love, should come as a natural consequence of conversation with them.
“Oh! Don’t misunderstand me,” I continued. “I certainly have no wish to offend you. Your person has nothing to do with all of this, it is absent; beneath this pelisse there exists, there can only exist, the ideal form that emerges from her folds at my thought of her.”
“This is not flattering for the physical form which has contributed something to those folds. Now, I’m trying to see the droll side of your originality but I’m no less obliged to ask you categorically once again for my palatine.”
“Never. I’d rather give my life! Why did I have to run into you? Go, please leave,” I cried in despair, “but do not ask me for my soul!”
“I ask you only for my fur. Ah! Honestly! You are the Tartuffe of pelisses, my dear sir:
‘It is for you to leave it, you who call yourself its master’.
“While I have every desire to oblige you, I’m telling you that, in a few hours, I’m going to be standing before my legitimate master who will be rightly astonished if he sees me appear in a man’s coat. I intend to return home dressed as myself and wearing my own species of fur, all the more because this fur is a family heirloom which we must hold onto for many reasons.”
“But it is myself you are asking for! How could you expect me to give myself to you?”
“Well, let’s see. I’ll play along with your mad ideas. Am I not leaving you with a consolation? This coat, your coat, that I’ve worn for a month, and which my chambermaid had to modify to make it wearable, this coat will be transformed a little, in your opinion. In it you’re going to find — according to your theories on the adaptation of coats — that you’re a little bit you, a little bit... another... woman!”
“Hum! The coat from the Museum in Naples! Some consolation,” I said pitifully.
“Those archaeologists always believe they have the right to be lighthearted in their way. But time is pressing, I hear my horses at the door, let’s cease these gallantries. Monsieur Olenin, please give me my palatine!”
I rose desperately, a move which made the disputed object slip from my shoulders. In a mischievous gesture the countess reached out her hand toward the falling fur. Instinctively, I pulled it close to me.
“Well, then!” said she, starting up again with her hearty laughter. “You do know that if someone comes in, they will think we are playing out the scene with Potiphar’s wife and your namesake!”
“Madame, Pharaoh’s general had a wife whose feelings were far less cruel.”
“There’s no analogy, sir, my husband is no longer serving in government,” replied the countess, laughing all the more.
And with an air of superb authority, which, I must say, suited her wonderfully, she took my dear pelisse from my hands, threw it over her arm and went to the door. She turned round, no doubt to see my fallen face and laugh a little. But I must have looked very sorry, for she cried out with a hint of pity in her voice:
“There now, I can sympathize with your folly. You love this polonaise! What say you come and see her again at Rogonostzova? I promise you she will always be hanging on the first peg in my entrance hall. So come, and consider yourself always welcome under our roof, Monsieur Olenin. You’ll be able to say, modifying the proverb: ‘One polonaise lost, two found’.”
She disappeared, carrying my comforter away. It was like night had descended into the room. I angrily put on my poor old coat and rushed out onto the Kiev road, choking back my sorrow, shivering in body and heart.
* * *
When I came back to Bukova, the Russian land had put on her winter face, her livid face. The first snow had fallen on the interminable plateaus of the Black Earth region. Melted over the ridges of the ploughed land, preserved in the furrows, white puddles of snow mottled the great soot-colored fields that are the source of our wealth. It was as if the undertakers of these black and white worlds had taken all the pieces of serge from their equipment and sewn them end to end, and thus cast across hundreds of versts a mourning cloth with silver tears.
Low clouds were creeping over the bald beeches, and smoke from chimneys of the poor lingered over thatched roofs from which glacial water oozed. My house, lost in the woods, is never cheery in this season; this time I found it gloomier and more desolate than usual. It seemed empty, like the room of a miser whose treasure had been stolen; my study was in such shadow that no lamp could brighten it. Although Ivan had filled the fireplace with pine roots, I couldn’t manage to warm my frozen limbs.
Have you ever dreamt you were an amputee? I had the sensation of this nightmare while completely awake; if my body was entire, at the very least my soul had quitted its home. Although I tended a little toward materialist doctrines, I ended up believing in the existence of the soul, having observed the emptiness it leaves in those moments when it slips away from us. I reasoned with myself ceaselessly to drive the madness from my brain; experience had proven to me that this method is detestable; to reason with oneself over a passion is to try to pull out a nail while tapping it with a hammer: the hammer drives the nail into the wood and reasoning drives passion into the heart.
I’ll abbreviate the ups and downs of my internal struggle, for you can already guess the outcome. The first sound to bring joy to the house was the bells on my trotters, the day they brought the sleigh to my porch to drive me to Rogonostzova. The road seemed long and the approaches to the place daunting: large frozen ponds, pine forests, an old castle from the time of Elizabeth with the profile of a prison, one of those jails of boredom where the captives must surely welcome the most mediocre companion like a Prince Charming into Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Today, now in a sounder state of mind, I hardly dare remember the ridiculous emotion with which I set foot in the entrance hall of the ***skys’ manor. My polonaise — the fur, of course — was shining on the first peg, radiant like the Golden Fleece, more lovely and more alive than ever. I ran to the dear object and covered it with furtive kisses. The countess, who was spying on me, appeared in a doorway, laughing earnestly.
“Come, come,” she said, “I see this is an inveterate case which must be treated vigorously, if needed, with cold shower-baths.”
She graciously did the honors of the house and introduced me to her husband, a glorious invalid of the Caucasian War, confined by sciatica to a wing-chair before a table where his young wife and his steward would take turns shuffling cards for his eternal game of Preferans. In fact, he made a handsome ancestor portrait, with his grayed temples and wrinkles criss-crossed with scars from Turkish yataghans; a red nose and good humor testified to the consolations that a cellar well stocked with Hungarian wine can bring to a soldier in his old age.
My hosts made me feel very welcome, but for the whole stay I gave them only what, out of strict politeness, I wasn’t allowed to refuse them. As soon as I had the chance, I would slip away to join my loved one, to gaze longingly on her. I was soon aware that Madame ***ska was following this little game with some impatience, though initially it had amused her. Her good will toward me cooled visibly. The last few times that she caught me in intimate conversation with her palatine, she passed by, shrugging, and I heard her mumble under her breath: “He’s mad!”
I was recalled to Bukova for a week, but did not delay my second visit. I was greatly disappointed to find the pelisse was not in her usual place. I hastened to the drawing room and bitterly reproached the countess for breaking her word. Her lip curled testily and she replied that my diversions no longer had the interest of a novelty; then, with a nervous gesture she rang and ordered her lady in waiting to bring out her “old rag.”