In which a progressive woman finds herself in a quite desperate situation
la revue parisienne (Paris)
14 (2) July 1877
Our correspondent, now already in his second week with the Russian Army of the Danube, informs us that in his order of the day for yesterday, 1st July (13th July in the European style), the Emperor Alexander thanks his victorious troops, who have succeeded in forcing a crossing of the Danube and breaching the borders of the Ottoman state. His Imperial Majesty’s order affirms that the enemy has been utterly crushed and in no more than two weeks’ time at the very most the Orthodox cross will be raised over Saint Sophia in Constantinople. The advancing army is encountering almost no resistance, unless one takes into account the mosquito bites inflicted on the Russian lines of communication by flying detachments of the so-called Bashi-Bazouks (“mad-heads”), a species of half-bandit and half-partisan, famed for their savage disposition and bloodthirsty ferocity.
According to St. Augustine, woman is a frail and fickle creature, and the great obscurantist and misogynist was right a thousand times over—at least with regard to a certain individual by the name of Varvara Suvorova.
It had all started out as such a jolly adventure, but now it had come to this. She only had her own stupid self to blame—Mama had told Varya time and again that sooner or later she would land herself in a fix, and now she had. In the course of one of their many tempestuous altercations, her father, a man of great wisdom and endowed with the patience of a saint, had divided his daughter’s life into three periods: the imp in a skirt; the perfect nuisance; the loony nihilist. To this day Varya prided herself on this characterization, declaring that she had no intention of resting on her laurels as yet, but this time her self-confidence had landed her in a world of trouble.
Why on earth had she agreed to make a halt at the tavern—this korchma, or whatever it was they called the abominable dive? Her driver, that dastardly thief Mitko, had started whining, using those peculiar Bulgarian endings: “Let’s water the hossesta, let’s water the hossesta.” So they had stopped to water the horses. Oh, God, what was she going to do now?
Varya was sitting in the corner of a dingy and utterly filthy shed at a table of rough-hewn planks, frightened to death. Only once before had she ever experienced such grim, hopeless terror: when at the age of six she broke her grandmother’s favorite teacup and hid under the divan to await the inevitable retribution.
If she could only pray—but progressive women didn’t pray. And, meanwhile, the situation looked absolutely desperate.
So . . . the St. Petersburg–Bucharest leg of her route had been traversed rapidly enough, even comfortably: The express train (two passenger coaches and ten flatcars carrying artillery pieces) had rushed Varya to the capital of the principality of Romania in three days. The brown eyes of the lady with the cropped hair, who smoked papyrosas and refused on principle to allow her hand to be kissed, had very nearly set the army officers and staff functionaries bound for the theater of military operations at one another’s throats. At every halt Varya was presented with bouquets of flowers and baskets of strawberries. She threw the bouquets out the window, because they were vulgar, and soon she was obliged to forswear the strawberries as well, because they brought her out in a rash. It had turned out to be a rather amusing and pleasant journey, although, from an intellectual and ideological perspective, of course, all her suitors were complete worms. There was, to be sure, one cornet who was reading Lamartine and had even heard of Schopenhauer, and he had been more subtle in paying court to her than the others, but Varya had explained to him—as one comrade to another—that she was traveling to join her fiancé, after which the cornet’s behavior had been quite irreproachable. He had not been at all bad-looking, either, rather like Lermontov. Oh, to hell with the cornet.
The second stage of her journey had also gone off without a hitch. There was a stagecoach that ran from Bucharest to Turnu-Magurele. She had been obliged to swallow a little dust as she bounced and jolted along, but it had brought her within arm’s reach of her goal—for rumor had it that the general headquarters of the Army of the Danube was located on the far side of the river, in Tsarevitsy.
This was the point at which she had to put into effect the final and most crucial part of The Plan that she had worked out back in St. Petersburg (that was what Varya called it to herself—“The Plan,” with capital letters). Yesterday evening, under cover of darkness, she had crossed the Danube in a boat a little above Zimnitsa, where two weeks previously the heroic Fourteenth Division under General Dragomirov had completed a forced crossing of that formidable water barrier. This was the beginning of Turkish territory, the zone of military operations, and it would certainly be only too easy to slip up here. There were Cossack patrols roaming the roads, and if she ever let her guard down she was as good as done for—she would be packed off back to Bucharest in the blink of an eye. But Varya was a resourceful girl, so she had anticipated this and taken appropriate measures.
The discovery of a coaching inn in the Bulgarian village on the south bank of the Danube had been a really great stroke of luck, and after that things had gone from good to better; the landlord understood Russian and had promised to give her a reliable vodach—a guide—for only five rubles. Varya had bought wide trousers much like Turkish chalvars, a shirt, boots, a sleeveless jacket, and an idiotic cloth cap, and the change of clothes had instantly transformed her from a European lady into a skinny Bulgarian youth who would not arouse the slightest suspicion from any patrol. She had deliberately commissioned a roundabout route, avoiding the marching columns, in order to enter Tsarevitsy not from the north, but from the south. And there, in the general army headquarters, was Pyotr Yablokov, Varya’s . . . Well, actually, it is not quite clear who he is. Her fiancé? Her comrade? Her husband? Let us call him her former husband and future fiancé. And also—naturally—her comrade.
They had set out while it was still dark on a creaky, ramshackle carutza, a Romanian-style cart. Her vodach, Mitko, tight-lipped with a gray mustache, chewed tobacco all the while, constantly ejecting long streams of brown spittle onto the road. (Varya winced every time he did it.) At first he had crooned some exotic Balkan melody; then he had fallen silent and sunk into a reverie—it was clear enough now what ideas he had been entertaining.
He could have killed me, Varya thought with a shudder. Or even worse. And without the slightest problem—who would bother investigating in these parts? They would just blame those, what’s-their-names, Bashi-Bazouks.
But though things may have stopped short of murder, they had turned out quite badly enough. That traitor Mitko had led his female traveling companion to a tavern that more than anything else resembled a bandit’s den. He had seated her at a table and ordered some cheese and a jug of wine to be brought, while he himself turned back toward the door, gesturing as much as to say: I’ll be back in a moment. Varya had dashed after him, not wishing to be left alone in this dim, dirty, and distinctly malodorous sink of iniquity, but Mitko had said he needed to step outside—not to put too fine an edge on it—in order to satisfy a call of nature. When Varya did not understand, he had explained his meaning with a gesture and she had returned to her seat, covered in confusion.
The duration of the call of nature had exceeded all conceivable limits. Varya ate a little of the salty, unappetizing cheese, took a sip of the sour wine, and then, unable any longer to endure the curiosity that the fearsome denizens of the public house had begun to evince toward her person, she went out into the yard.
Outside the door, she froze in horror.
There was not a trace of the carutza or of the trunk with all her things that it contained. Her traveling medicine chest was in the trunk, and in the medicine chest, between the lint and the bandages, lay her passport and absolutely all her money.
Varya was just about to run out onto the road when the landlord, with a bright crimson nose and warts on his cheek, had come darting out of the korchma in his red shirt. He shouted angrily and gestured: Pay up first, and then you can leave. Varya went back inside because the landlord had frightened her and she had nothing with which to pay him. She sat down quietly in the corner and tried to think of what had happened as an adventure. But she failed miserably.
There was not a single woman in the tavern. The dirty, loud-mouthed yokels behaved quite unlike Russian peasants, who are quiet and inoffensive and talk among themselves in low voices until they get drunk, while these louts were bawling raucously as they downed red wine by the tankard, constantly erupting into loud and predatory (or so it seemed to Varya) laughter. At a long table on the far side of the room they were playing dice, breaking into uproarious disputes at every throw. On one occasion when they fell to quarrelling more loudly than usual, a small man who was extremely drunk was struck over the head with a clay tankard. He lay there sprawled under the table and nobody paid the slightest attention to him.
The landlord nodded in Varya’s direction and made some crude remark, at which the men sitting at nearby tables turned in her direction and roared with malevolent laughter. Varya squirmed and tugged her cap down over her eyes. Nobody else in the tavern was wearing a cap, but she couldn’t take it off or her hair would come tumbling down. Not that it was really long—Varya wore her hair short, as befitted a modern woman—but even so it would betray her as a member of the weaker sex. That disgusting designation invented by men—“the weaker sex.” But, alas, it was only too true.
Now their eyes were boring into Varya from every side, and their glances were oily and repulsive. The only ones who seemed to have no time for her were the dice players and a dejected-looking type seated two tables away with his back to her, his nose buried in a tankard of wine. All she could see of him was a head of short-trimmed black hair, graying at the temples.
Varya began to feel really terrified. Stop sniveling, she said to herself. You’re a strong, grown-up woman, not some prim young lady. You have to tell them you’re Russian and you’re traveling to join your fiancé in the army. We are the liberators of Bulgaria; everyone here is glad to see us. And then, speaking Bulgarian is so easy, you just have to add “ta” to everything. Russian armyta. Fiancéta. Fiancéta of Russian soldierta. Or something of the sort.
She turned toward the window—maybe Mitko would suddenly turn up. Maybe he had taken the horses to the watering place and now he was on his way back. But, alas, there was no sign of Mitko or any carutza out on the dusty street. Varya did, however, notice something that had failed to catch her attention earlier: Protruding above the houses was a low minaret covered in chipped and peeling paint. Oh! Could the village possibly be Muslim? But the Bulgarians were Christians, Orthodox, everybody knew that. What’s more, they were drinking wine, and that was forbidden to Muslims by the Koran. But if the village was Christian, then what on earth did the minaret mean? And if it was Muslim, then whose side were they on, ours or the Turks’? Hardly ours. It looked as though the “armyta” might not be much help after all.
Oh, Lord, what was she to do?
At the age of fourteen, in a Holy Scripture class, little Varya Suvorova had been struck by an idea so unimpeachable in its very obviousness that it was hard to believe nobody had ever thought of it before. If God created Adam first and Eve afterward, far from demonstrating that men were more important, it showed that women were more perfect. Man was the experimental prototype of the human being, the rough draft, while woman was the final, approved version, as revised and amended. Why, it was as clear as day! But for some reason the real and interesting side of life belonged exclusively to the men, and all the women did was have children and do embroidery, then have more children and do more embroidery. Why was there such injustice in the world? Because men were stronger. And that meant she had to be strong.
And so little Varya had decided she was going to live her life differently. The United States already had the first woman doctor in Mary Jacobi and the first woman minister in Antoinette Blackwell, while life in Russia was still riddled with dodoism and patriarchical discipline. But never mind—just give her time.
On graduating from girls’ high school, Varya had emulated the United States in waging a victorious war of independence (her papa, the solicitor Suvorov, proved to be a spineless weakling) and started training to be a midwife—thereby making the transition from “perfect nuisance” to “loony nihilist.”
The training did not work out well. Varya mastered the theoretical part with no difficulty, although she found many aspects of the process of creating a human being astonishing, even incredible, but when her turn came to assist at an actual birth, it had proved very embarrassing. Unable to bear the heart-rending howls of the woman giving birth and the terrible sight of the flattened head of the infant as it emerged from the tormented and bloody flesh, Varya had disgraced herself by slumping to the floor in a dead faint, after which the only course left open to her had been to study to be a telegraphist. It had been flattering at first to become one of the first female telegraphists in Russia—they had even written about Varya in the St. Petersburg Gazette (an article entitled “Long Overdue” in the issue of 28 November 1875), but the job had proved to be boring beyond all endurance and without any prospects of advancement whatsoever.
And so Varvara, to her parents’ relief, had taken herself off to their Tambov estate—not to idle her time away, but to nurture and educate the local peasant children. It was there, in a brand-new school building still exuding the scent of fresh pinewood sawdust, that she had met the St. Petersburg student Pyotr Yablokov, her Petya. Pyotr taught arithmetic, geography, and basic natural science, while Varvara taught all the other subjects. Quite soon, however, the peasants had realized that there were neither wages nor any other form of recompense to be earned by attending school, and they had taken their children back home—enough of that loafing about, there’s work to be done! But by that time Varya and Petya had already mapped out the course of their future life: free, modern, founded on mutual respect and a rational division of responsibilities.
She had put an end to humiliating dependence on her parents’ handouts and they had returned to St. Petersburg and rented an apartment on the Vyborg side of the river—with mice, but also with three whole rooms—in order to be able to live like Vera Pavlovna and Lopukhov in Chernyshevski’s What Is to Be Done? They each had their own territory and the third room was reserved for one-to-one discussions and receiving guests. To the landlords they had called themselves husband and wife, but their cohabitation was exclusively comradely in nature: In the evening they would read, drink tea, and converse in the communal living room, then they wished each other good night and went to their separate rooms. They had lived in this way for almost a year, and lived very well, in perfect harmony, without any vulgarity or filth. Pyotr studied at the university and gave lessons and Varvara qualified as a stenographer and earned as much as a hundred rubles a month. She kept the records of court proceedings and took down the memoirs of a crazy old general, the conqueror of Warsaw, and then on the recommendation of friends she had found herself taking the dictation of a novel for a Great Writer (we shall dispense with names, since the arrangement ended unpleasantly). Varya regarded the Great Writer with veneration and had absolutely refused to accept any payment, feeling that she was quite fortunate enough to be doing such work at all, but the intellectual luminary had misinterpreted her refusal. He was terribly old, over fifty, burdened with a large family, and not at all good-looking, but there was no denying that he spoke eloquently and convincingly: Virginity really was a ridiculous prejudice, bourgeois morality was repulsive, and there was nothing shameful about human nature. Varya had listened and then consulted for hours on end with her Petya about what she ought to do. Petya agreed that chastity and hypocritical piety were shackles imposed on women, but he resolutely counseled her against entering into physiological relations with the Great Writer. He grew heated and attempted to demonstrate that the Writer was not so very Great after all, even though he did have past services to his credit—that many progressive people actually regarded him as a reactionary. It all ended, as previously mentioned, unpleasantly. One day the Great Writer, breaking off the dictation of a scene of exceptional power (Varya was writing with tears in her eyes), began breathing noisily, then he gave a loud snort, embraced his brown-haired stenographer clumsily around the shoulders, and dragged her over to the divan. For a while she endured his unintelligible whisperings and the touch of his trembling fingers, which had become hopelessly entangled in her hooks and buttons, until suddenly she realized quite clearly—she did not, in fact, understand it so much as sense it—that this was all wrong and simply could not happen. She shoved the Great Writer away, ran out of the room, and never went back.
This story produced a negative effect on Pyotr. It was March, spring had come early, the breeze blowing from the Neva was redolent of open spaces and drifting ice, and he had given her an ultimatum. Things could not go on as they were—they were made for each other, their relations had stood the test of time. They were both flesh and blood and they had no business attempting to defy the laws of nature. Of course, he would settle for carnal love without a wedding ceremony, but it would be better to get married properly, since that would spare them numerous complications. And somehow he had managed to put things so cleverly that afterward only one thing was discussed—what kind of wedding they should have, civil or church. The arguments continued until April, but in April the long-expected war for the liberation of the Russian people’s Slavic brethren had broken out, and as a man of honor Pyotr Yablokov had signed up as a volunteer. Before his departure, Varya had promised him two things: that she would soon give him her definitive answer and that they would assuredly fight together side by side—somehow she would think of a way.
And so she had. Not immediately, but she had thought of a way. She had failed to get a job as a nurse in a temporary military infirmary or a field hospital—they refused to take her incomplete midwifery studies into consideration. Nor were female telegraphists being taken on for active army service. Varya had been on the point of succumbing to despair when a letter arrived from Romania: Petya complained that he had not been allowed to join the infantry because of his flat feet and had been retained at headquarters on the staff of the commander-in-chief, the grand duke Nikolai Nikolaievich—because volunteer Yablokov was a mathematician and the army was desperately short of cryptographers.
It would not be too difficult to find some kind of work at general headquarters, Varya had decided, or, if worst came to worst, simply to lose herself in the hurly-burly at the rear, and she had immediately formulated The Plan, of which the first two stages had worked so wonderfully, but the third had culminated in disaster.
Meanwhile, events were moving to a conclusion. The crimson-nosed landlord mumbled something menacing and began waddling toward Varya, wiping his hands on a gray towel and looking, in his red shirt, much like an executioner approaching the block. Her mouth went dry and she felt sick. Perhaps she should pretend to be deaf and dumb?
The dejected type sitting with his back to her rose unhurriedly to his feet, walked over to Varya’s table, and sat down across from her without a word. She saw a pale face, almost boyish despite the graying temples, with cold blue eyes, a thin mustache, and an unsmiling mouth. It was a strange face, quite unlike the faces of the other peasants, although the stranger was dressed in the same way they were—except that his jacket was a little newer and his shirt cleaner.
The blue-eyed stranger did not even glance round at the landlord; he merely waved his hand dismissively and the menacing executioner immediately withdrew behind his counter. Varya, however, felt none the calmer for it. On the contrary, indeed, the most terrifying part was only just about to begin.
She wrinkled her forehead, readying herself for the sound of foreign speech. Better if she didn’t talk but merely nodded or shook her head. Only she mustn’t forget that the Bulgarians did everything in reverse: When you nodded it meant “no,” when you shook your head it meant “yes.”
The blue-eyed man, however, did not ask her any questions. He sighed dejectedly and spoke to her with a slight stammer in perfect Russian: “Ah, m-mademoiselle, you would have done better to wait for your fiancé at home. This is not a novel by Mayne Reid. Things could have t-turned out very badly.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin. Copyright © 2005 by Boris Akunin. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.