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Joseph Olenin’s Coat

by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé

Translated by Patricia Worth

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4

part 1


Monsieur Joseph Olenin enjoyed a well-deserved reputation in Russia’s scholarly circles. His death was truly a loss for Oriental archaeology. I was allowed to search through his manuscripts for notes that could be useful to me, and was very surprised to come across the few pages you are about to read. Is the adventure recounted in these pages based on fact? I would hesitate to believe it if the well known character of Monsieur Olenin did not avert any suspicion of a fanciful narrative. He loved the truth in all things. In any case, he has been described to me as rather odd; but then many things happen in his country that would not be natural in another. Well, here is his story.

* * *

Despite German criticism, I consider Salvolini’s commentary on the Turin papyrus and the campaigns of Rameses the Great to be highly commendable. I had planned to use it for my great work on the Hebrews’ sojourn in Egypt, when urgent affairs called me, early last autumn, to my property of Bukova, in Little Russia. I left, taking my treasured Salvolini; I fancied that in the solitude of my woods I would find long hours for study that would allow me to finish my work.

All the landowners of the district of Pereyaslav know there are three post-houses between Kiev and Bukova. They also know that this road has been listed on the zemstvo plan — for ten years, now, it is true — as one of the worst in our dear Ukraine, and last autumn in particular the most common prudence urged travelers to avoid the fictitious bridges embellishing the road. Though the combined movements of swaying and tossing made the hieroglyphs dance before my eyes, I obstinately pursued my reading of the commentary without looking once at the sad landscape of stubble-fields and ploughed lands fleeing away behind me.

At the post-house in Tashan — one of those poor hamlets lost in the gorse bushes of a pond, and called Khoutres in Little Russia — I was torn away from my reading by the voice of my friend Stepan Ivanovitch, the post master, who made me come into his house for a glass of tea. Two hours later, my britchka arrived at the linden avenue of Bukova, and the evening shadows falling from my old trees stopped me at the beginning of Rameses’ expedition into Nubia. A few minutes later, I was continuing the expedition in a dream, tormented by the fantastic lurching of a war chariot rolling over the Libyan sands.

The next day, at dawn, I was recalled to the reality of this land by the steward who came to pick me up in his droshky to visit a distant farm. Our Ukrainian autumns, early in the season, have mornings colder than a winter’s midday: a gray mist was creeping heavily over the numbed fields, the emanation from marshes that form, as is well known, the greater and most picturesque part of our beautiful homeland.

I ordered my servant to bring my pelisse, a loose but warm traveling coat lined with fox-fur that would have cut a pitiful figure in the cloakroom of an elegant ball in St. Petersburg. It was the rugged companion of my hunts and forest excursions, one of those solid, modest country friends one hugs close to the heart when returning to one’s provincial abode, but whom one does not greet at all when meeting them by chance on the English Quay.

Ivan appeared, empty-handed. He scratched his head, looking embarrassed. “Sorry, master; it’s just that... the coat cannot be found. It must surely have slipped off the britchka, God knows... onto the road, not far away.”

“What? Slipped off onto the road! My coat is lost? And you let this happen?”

“You wanted it to throw over your feet last night, and then you wished to read from the large book; you wouldn’t have noticed, we were so shaken about! Perhaps the misfortune occurred at the river in Tashan when we were passing under the bridge. Good Lord, I thought we were driving into an abyss! Ah! The roads are quite neglected, master; fortunately the coachman of the Marshall of Nobility told me yesterday that this year the zemstvo—”

My faithful servant was setting off on a digression. I cut him short, ordering that he have a young postilion ride out and not show his face at the house again until he had found the coat. The boy returned after dark. He brought back from Tashan a large parcel wrapped with greasy issues of the Kiev Journal.

I was coming in from the fields, freezing and grumbling against the jolts, the zemstvo and Ivan’s idiocy, when the postilion triumphantly handed me the coat he had found, kissing my hand as it slipped him a ruble. I tore away the paper. My fingers, swollen with cold, sank slowly into the caress of something soft, as delicate and warm as a baby’s breath.

I opened out the object: imagine my surprise and my ill temper as I saw unfold, instead of my old coat, one of those short pelisses that ladies call, I think, polonaises, in deep blue velvet lined with sable fur, which to me looked costly. The garment was of an old style, as they wore them long ago in Poland.

“Ah! What’s this? What the devil is this joke?” I cried, keeping the postilion from leaving.

“I don’t know anything about it, Osip Evgenitch. The post master handed the parcel to me himself in Tashan, telling me it was the pelisse lost by our old father, and asking me to pass on his wishes for good health to our old father.”

“But, you idiot, it’s not mine!”

“I don’t know anything about it, Osip Evgenitch.”

I sent the rustic away, knowing after these sacramental words I could get nothing more from a Russian peasant. And spitefully throwing the foreign garment onto the sofa in the corner of my study, I went to bed, imagining the bizarre transmutations endured by coats in Ukraine: I was supposed to believe that all the fur coats of the district had decided to meet the night before, under the Tashan bridge.

The next day I woke late in the morning. My old room with its faded chintz furniture was filled with the golden smile of a radiant September sun. The first thing to catch my eye was the polonaise, spread over the sofa. Gusts of a light breeze blowing through the open window sent quivers running across the darling fur. In the dazzling light, the sable trembled with glints of golden chestnut like those that play on a Titian head. Over the blue velvet, capricious rays ran rippling in moiré patterns, now brightening to azure, now dying in shadow; the two tones married in a harmony that would defy the palette of the richest colorist.

I automatically ran my hand over the silky down, burning in the midday heat. Tiny sparks danced along my fingers, as when one caresses the back of a young cat asleep in the ashes on the hearth. From the rumpled fabric rose a discreet, heady perfume. I have the keenest memory of perfumes, yet I couldn’t recall any sensation like it, except perhaps the faint, enfeebling odor that wafts from our Ukrainian linden trees in June when they blossom all around the house.

Whatever it was, this pretty little thing exhaled a secret grace, a provocative mischief. I was tarrying, playing with her and draping her in the sunlight to see her in full relief, when I glimpsed the Salvolini wide open on my desk, waiting for me. I was ashamed of my childishness and immersed myself in my precious reading. I have to say it absorbed me less than usual. The spreading garden beneath my window, decked in the last coquetries of autumn, often attracted my gaze; but my eyes would invariably return to the sable smiling close by.

Ivan came in to bring me my breakfast, then moved toward the stranger to put her away. My valet’s hands bore signs of a conscientious struggle against the dust accumulated over the summer months on the Bukova furniture. When I saw his huge blackened hand brutally take up the delicate blue velvet by the collar, I felt oddly annoyed.

“Finish up your work, Ivan, and don’t go soiling this thing that doesn’t belong to us. It’s all right, you will put it away later.”

That evening, Ivan came again to rescue me. I had drafted the plan of the first chapter of my dissertation, and was pacing my study in the irregular, distracted steps so favorable to labor of the brain. Each time I approached the desk, my eyes would meet the polonaise; she was lying on the sofa in the half-light of the lamp, with the sort of fantastic, life-like demeanor that long-worn garments have of an evening. Sometimes she seemed to be stirring, sitting up. Her poses were sensual, and a passing stream of light lit up the golden chestnut glints with more movement and life than in the morning, as though the wild curls of a Venetian head had appeared deep within the darkness of my large looking-glass.

Again, I sent Ivan to the devil. The poor man looked at me astonished and went away in respectful submission, the last legacy of serfdom in our good servants.

The following day, I came up with a few ingenious arguments, the fallacious kind that we invent so quickly on a whim, in order to convince Ivan that we needed to leave the stranger where she was, for it wouldn’t be long before someone would come asking for her.

The truth was I didn’t like to imagine that moment. To me it seemed the polonaise had always been there; she had stepped into my intimate space, into that milieu of familiar and indispensable things where an old bachelor, even if he wasn’t very old, would tolerate no change. Among the pieces of old-fashioned furniture in my austere workroom she was the only young and cheerful note, the only luminous touch. In the evenings when she appeared half alive, she was to me a little less than a dog and a little more than a flower. My obsession with this silly bit of a thing increased hour by hour.

Only those who have known the utter monotony and formidable tedium of a solitary sojourn in our Russian countryside will understand me. When the imagination is neglected in this crushing silence of men and things, it latches onto the most trivial objects, ascribing to them immoderate proportions. After the interesting residents of our houses of correction, Silvio Pellico’s spider should have been dedicated to the Russian sailors and landowners. The polonaise — may she forgive the comparison — became my spider.

Soon, her influence was seriously eclipsing that of Rameses. I watched her living her silent, hidden life. She was a body without a soul, it is true, but a body like those which the soul has just quitted, and which retain after the abandonment such an intense expression. Naturally, I searched for the soul, and my imagination, idle and unleashed, spent its best hours lost in hypotheses about the adventure which had brought the stray to me, about the eternal female who not long ago was incarnate in this envelope. I reconstructed all the types of women my rich memory could furnish me with, and adapted them to my pelisse.

In the end, tired of wandering blindly, I decided to proceed with the scientific rigor appropriate for a laureate of our Academies. I said to myself, if Cuvier was able to revive antediluvian monsters from a small bone, an insignificant fragment of their huge organism, why wouldn’t I be able to reconstitute a woman from a garment, which is half a woman if not all of her?

I suspended the fabric in the air, abandoning it to its natural folds. They immediately revealed their light, ethereal grace; but that was not enough for me.

One day I found the workers from the farm retting hemp from the latest harvest. I secretly took away a few armfuls. Not entirely unashamed of my childish amusement, I began to stuff my polonaise, buttoning the garment over this improvised mannequin, being careful where the velvet was worn in places.

The result was absolutely conclusive: I saw the form of a long, flexible neck, a rich, proud figure, a slender waist, supple as the trunk of a young birch. By the narrow sleeves I could guess the daintiness of the wrists and fingers. A few relative proportions familiar to all those who have studied drawing allowed me to establish, now that I had successfully determined half of her, the absent other half: the height of the statue, the shape of the head. For me there had never been any doubt that her hair was golden chestnut, the color of sables. It was also my long held axiom that her eyes had the somber glints of blue velvet.

Only one point bothered me; the nose was missing, and I had no clues at all to reconstitute it. For the time being, my statue had no nose. But had I not, in times gone by, madly loved the antique head of Ephesus robbed of this same ornament by Turkish barbarism? And then, hadn’t I loved many of my own country’s beautiful heads in a similar state?

Thus I grasped the soul of my polonaise, her form from then on invariably fixed in my imagination. This gave me great peace of mind. From that day, my fanciful companion was created; she lived. I became all the more attached to this piece of fabric, the visible sign of her. I no longer even allowed myself the thought that someone could come and steal her away from me. I was not in the least curious to see the legitimate owner of the pelisse; it could only be a disappointment; the one I had invented was enough for me.

Proceed to part 2...

by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, 1890
Translation © 2019 by Patricia Worth

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