THE DROWNED GIRL
Without troubling himself in the least about those who had been sent to pursue him, the originator of all this confusion slowly walked towards the old house and the pool. We hardly need to say it was Levko. His black fur coat was buttoned up; he carried his cap in his hand, and the perspiration was pouring down his face. The moon poured her light on the gloomy majesty of the dark maple-wood.
The coolness of the air round the motionless pool enticed the weary wanderer to rest by it a while. Universal silence prevailed, only that in the forest thickets the nightingales' songs were heard. An overpowering drowsiness closed his eyes; his tired limbs relaxed, and his head nodded.
“Ah! am I going to sleep?” he said, rising and rubbing his eyes.
He looked round; the night seemed to him still more beautiful. The moonlight seemed to have an intoxicating quality about it, a glamour which he had never perceived before. The landscape was veiled in a silver mist. The air was redolent with the perfume of the apple-blossoms and the night-flowers. Entranced, he gazed on the motionless pool. The old, half-ruined house was clearly reflected without a quiver in the water. But instead of dark shutters, he saw light streaming from brilliantly lit windows. Presently one of them opened. Holding his breath, and without moving a muscle, he fastened his eyes on the pool and seemed to penetrate its depths. What did he see? First he saw at the window a graceful, curly head with shining eyes, propped on a white arm; the head moved and smiled. His heart suddenly began to beat. The water began to break into ripples, and the window closed.
Quietly he withdrew from the pool, and looked towards the house. The dark shutters were flung back; the window-panes gleamed in the moonlight. “How little one can believe what people say!” he thought to himself. “The house is brand-new, and looks as though it had only just been painted. It is certainly inhabited.”
He stepped nearer cautiously, but the house was quite silent. The clear song of the nightingales rose powerfully and distinctly on the air, and as they died away one heard the chirping and rustling of the grasshoppers, and the marshbird clapping his slippery beak in the water.
Levko felt enraptured with the sweetness and stillness of the night. He struck the strings of his guitar and sang:
“Oh lovely moon
Thou steepst in light
The house where my darling
Sleeps all night.”
A window opened gently, and the same girl whose image he had seen in the pool looked out and listened attentively to the song. Her long-lashed eyelids were partly drooping over her eyes; she was as pale as the moonlight, but wonderfully beautiful. She smiled, and a shiver ran through Levko.
“Sing me a song, young Cossack!” she said gently, bending her head sideways and quite closing her eyes.
“What song shall I sing you, dear girl?”
Tears rolled down her pale cheeks. “Cossack,” she said, and there was something inexpressibly touching in her tone, “Cossack, find my stepmother for me. I will do everything for you; I will reward you; I will give you abundant riches. I have armlets embroidered with silk and coral necklaces; I will give you a girdle set with pearls. I have gold. Cossack, seek my stepmother for me. She is a terrible witch; she allowed me no peace in the beautiful world. She tortured me; she made me work like a common maid-servant. Look at my face; she has banished the redness from my cheeks with her unholy magic. Look at my white neck; they cannot be washed away, they cannot be washed away—the blue marks of her iron claws. Look at my white feet; they did not walk on carpets, but on hot sand, on damp ground, on piercing thorns. And my eyes—look at them; they are almost blind with weeping. Seek my stepmother!”
Her voice, which had gradually become louder, stopped, and she wept.
The Cossack felt overpowered by sympathy and grief. “I am ready to do everything to please you, dear lady,” he cried with deep emotion; “but where and how can I find her?”
“Look, look!” she said quickly, “she is here! She dances on the lake-shore with my maidens, and warms herself in the moonlight. Yet she is cunning and sly. She has assumed the shape of one who is drowned, yet I know and hear that she is present. I am so afraid of her. Because of her I cannot swim free and light as a fish. I sink and fall to the bottom like a piece of iron. Look for her, Cossack!”
Levko cast a glance at the lake-shore. In a silvery mist there moved, like shadows, girls in white dresses decked with May flowers; gold necklaces and coins gleamed on their necks; but they were very pale, as though formed of transparent clouds. They danced nearer him, and he could hear their voices, somewhat like the sound of reeds stirred in the quiet evening by the breeze.
“Let us play the raven-game! Let us play the raven-game!”
“Who will be the raven?”
Lots were cast, and a girl stepped out of the line of the dancers.
Levko observed her attentively. Her face and clothing resembled those of the others; but she was evidently unwilling to play the part assigned her. The dancers revolved rapidly round her, without her being able to catch one of them.
“No, I won't be the raven any more,” she said, quite exhausted. “I do not like to rob the poor mother-hen of her chickens.”
“You are not a witch,” thought Levko.
The girls again gathered together in order to cast lots who should be the raven.
“I will be the raven!” called one from the midst.
Levko watched her closely. Boldly and rapidly she ran after the dancers, and made every effort to catch her prey. Levko began to notice that her body was not transparent like the others; there was something black in the midst of it. Suddenly there was a cry; the “raven” had rushed on a girl, embraced her, and it seemed to Levko as though she had stretched out claws, and as though her face shone with malicious joy.
“Witch!” he cried out, pointing at her suddenly with his finger, and turning towards the house.
The girl at the window laughed, and the other girls dragged the “raven” screaming along with them.
“How shall I reward you, Cossack?” said the maiden. “I know you do not need gold; you love Hanna, but her harsh father will not allow you to marry. But give him this note, and he will cease to hinder it.”
She stretched out her white hand, and her face shone wonderfully. With strange shudders and a beating heart, he grasped the paper and—awoke.