The Postmaster


The Postmaster was excerpted from the 1916 edition of his work entitled, The Prose Tales of Alexander Poushkin, translated from the Russian by T. Keane.

Who has not cursed postmasters, who has not quarrelled with them? Who, in a moment of anger, has not demanded from them the fatal book in order to record in it unavailing complaints of their extortions, rudeness and unpunctuality? Who does not look upon them as monsters of the human race, equal to the defunct attorneys, or, at least, the brigands of Mourom? Let us, however, be just; let us place ourselves in their position, and perhaps we shall begin to judge them with more indulgence. What is a postmaster? A veritable martyr of the fourteenth class,[1] only protected by his rank from blows, and that not always (I appeal to the conscience of my readers). What is the function of this dictator, as Prince Viazemsky jokingly calls him? Is he not an actual galley-slave? He has no rest either day or night. All the vexation accumulated during the course of a wearisome journey the traveller vents upon the postmaster. Should the weather prove intolerable, the road abominable, the driver obstinate, the horses ungovernable—the postmaster is to blame. Entering into his poor abode, the traveller looks upon him as an enemy, and the postmaster is fortunate if he succeeds in soon getting rid of his uninvited guest; but if there should happen to be no horses!... Heavens! what volleys of abuse, what threats are showered upon his head! In rain and sleet he is compelled to go out into the courtyard; during times of storm and nipping frost, he is glad to seek shelter in the vestibule, if only to enjoy a minute's repose from the shouting and jostling of incensed travellers.

A general arrives: the trembling postmaster gives him the two last troikas, including that intended for the courier. The general drives off without uttering a word of thanks. Five minutes afterwards—a bell!... and a courier throws down upon the table before him his order for fresh post-horses!... Let us bear all this well in mind, and, instead of anger, our hearts will be filled with sincere compassion. A few words more. During a period of twenty years I have traversed Russia in every direction; I know nearly all the post roads, and I have made the acquaintance of several generations of drivers. There are very few postmasters that I do not know personally, and few with whom I have not had business relations. In the course of time I hope to publish some curious observations that I have noted down during my travels. For the present I will only say that the body of postmasters is presented to the public in a very false light. These much-calumniated officials are generally very peaceful persons, obliging by nature, disposed to be sociable, modest in their pretensions and not too much addicted to the love of money. From their conversation (which travelling gentlemen very unreasonably despise) much may be learnt that is both interesting and instructive. For my own part, I confess that I prefer their talk to that of some official of the sixth class travelling on government business.

It may easily be supposed that I have friends among the honourable body of postmasters. Indeed, the memory of one of them is dear to me. Circumstances once brought us together, and it is of him that I now intend to tell my amiable readers.

In the month of May of the year 1816, I happened to be travelling through the Government of N——, upon a road now destroyed. I then held an inferior rank, and I travelled by post stages, paying the fare for two horses. As a consequence, the postmasters treated me with very little ceremony, and I often had to take by force what, in my opinion, belonged to me by right. Being young and passionate, I was indignant at the baseness and cowardice of the postmaster, when the latter harnessed to the caliche of some, official noble, the horses prepared for me. It was a long time, too, before I could get accustomed to being served out of my turn by a discriminating servant at the governor's dinner. To-day the one and the other seem to me to be in the natural order of things. Indeed, what would become of us, if, instead of the generally observed rule: "Let rank honour rank," another were to be brought into use, as for example: "Let mind honour mind?" What disputes would arise! And with whom would the servants begin in serving the dishes? But to return to my story.

The day was hot. About three versts from A——, a drizzling rain came on, and in a few minutes it began to pour down in torrents and I was drenched to the skin. On arriving at the station, my first care was to change my clothes as quickly as possible, my second to ask for some tea.

"Hi! Dounia!"[2] cried the Postmaster: "prepare the tea-urn and go and get some cream."

At these words, a young girl of about fourteen years of age appeared from behind the partition, and ran out into the vestibule. Her beauty struck me.

"Is that your daughter?" I inquired of the Postmaster.

"That is my daughter," he replied, with a look of gratified pride; "and she is so sharp and sensible, just like her late mother."

Then he began to register my travelling passport, and I occupied myself with examining the pictures that adorned his humble abode. They illustrated the story of the Prodigal Son. In the first, a venerable old man, in a night-cap and dressing-gown, is taking leave of the restless youth, who is eagerly accepting his blessing and a bag of money. In the next picture, the dissipated life of the young man is depicted in vivid colours: he is represented sitting at a table surrounded by false friends and shameless women. Further on, the ruined youth, in rags and a three-cornered hat, is tending swine and sharing with them their food: on his face is expressed deep grief and repentance. The last picture represented his return to his father: the good old man, in the same night-cap and dressing-gown, runs forward to meet him; the prodigal son falls on his knees; in the distance the cook is killing the fatted calf, and the elder brother is asking the servants the cause of all the rejoicing. Under each picture I read some suitable German verses. All this I have preserved in my memory to the present day, as well as the little pots of balsams, the bed with speckled curtains, and the other objects with which I was then surrounded. I can see at the present moment the host himself, a man of about fifty years of age, fresh and strong, in his long green surtout with three medals on faded ribbons.

I had scarcely settled my account with my old driver, when Dounia returned with the tea-urn. The little coquette saw at the second glance the impression she had produced upon me; she lowered her large blue eyes; I began to talk to her; she answered me without the least timidity, like a girl who has seen the world. I offered her father a glass of punch, to Dounia herself I gave a cup of tea, and then the three of us began to converse together, as if we were old acquaintances.

The horses had long been ready, but I felt reluctant to take leave of the Postmaster and his daughter. At last I bade them good-bye, the father wished me a pleasant journey, the daughter accompanied me to the telega. In the vestibule I stopped and asked her permission to kiss her; Dounia consented.... I can reckon up a great many kisses since that time, but not one which has left behind such a long, such a pleasant recollection.

Several years passed, and circumstances led me to the same road, and to the same places.

"But," thought I, "perhaps the old Postmaster has been changed, and Dounia may already be married."

The thought that one or the other of them might be dead also flashed through my mind, and I approached the station of A—— with a sad presentiment. The horses drew up before the little post-house. On entering the room, I immediately recognized the pictures illustrating the story of the prodigal son. The table and the bed stood in the same places as before, but the flowers were no longer on the window-sills, and everything around indicated decay and neglect.

The Postmaster was asleep under his sheep-skin pelisse; my arrival awoke him, and he rose up.... It was certainly Simeon Virin, but how aged! While he was preparing to register my travelling passport, I gazed at his grey hairs, the deep wrinkles upon his face, that had not been shaved for a long time, his bent back, and I was astonished to see how three or four years had been able to transform a strong and active individual into a feeble old man.

"Do you recognize me?" I asked him: "we are old acquaintances."

"May be," replied he mournfully; "this is a high road, and many travellers have stopped here."

"Is your Dounia well?" I continued.

The old man frowned.

"God knows," he replied.

"Probably she is married?" said I.

The old man pretended not to have heard my question, and went on reading my passport in a low tone. I ceased questioning him and ordered some tea. Curiosity began to torment me, and I hoped that the punch would loosen the tongue of my old acquaintance.

I was not mistaken; the old man did not refuse the proffered glass. I observed that the rum dispelled his mournfulness. At the second glass he began to talk; he remembered me, or appeared as if he remembered me, and I heard from him a story, which at the time, deeply interested and affected me.

"So you knew my Dounia?" he began. "But who did not know her? Ah, Dounia, Dounia! What a girl she was! Everybody who passed this way praised her; nobody had a word to say against her. The ladies used to give her presents—now a handkerchief, now a pair of earrings. The gentlemen used to stop intentionally, as if to dine or to take supper, but in reality only to take a longer look at her. However angry a gentleman might be, in her presence he grew calm and spoke graciously to me. Would you believe it, sir: couriers and Court messengers used to talk to her for half-hours at a stretch. It was she who kept the house; she put everything in order, got everything ready, and looked after everything. And I, like an old fool, could not look at her enough, could not idolize her enough. Did I not love my Dounia? Did I not indulge my child? Was not her life a happy one? But no, there is no escaping misfortune: there is no evading what has been decreed." Then he began to tell me his sorrow in detail. Three years before, one winter evening, when the Postmaster was ruling a new book, and his daughter behind the partition was sewing a dress, a troika drove up, and a traveller in a Circassian cap and military cloak, and enveloped in a shawl, entered the room and demanded horses. The horses were all out. On being told this, the traveller raised his voice and whip; but Dounia, accustomed to such scenes, ran out from behind the partition and graciously inquired of the traveller whether he would not like something to eat and drink.

The appearance of Dounia produced the usual effect. The traveller's anger subsided; he consented to wait for horses, and ordered supper. Having taken off his wet shaggy cap, and divested himself of his shawl and cloak, the traveller was seen to be a tall, young Hussar with a black moustache He made himself comfortable with the Postmaster, and began to converse in a pleasant manner with him and his daughter. Supper was served. Meanwhile the horses returned, and the Postmaster ordered them, without being fed, to be harnessed immediately to the traveller kibitka. But on returning to the room, he found the young man lying almost unconscious on the bench; he had come over faint, his head ached, it was impossible for him to continue his journey. What was to be done? The Postmaster gave up his own bed to him, and it was decided that if the sick man did not get better, they would send next day to C—— for the doctor.

The next day the Hussar was worse. His servant rode to the town for the doctor. Dounia bound round his head a handkerchief steeped in vinegar, and sat with her needlework beside his bed. In the presence of the Postmaster, the sick man sighed and scarcely uttered a word; but he drank two cups of coffee, and, with a sigh, ordered dinner. Dounia did not quit his side. He constantly asked for something to drink, and Dounia gave him a jug of lemonade prepared by herself. The sick man moistened his lips, and each time, on returning the jug, he feebly pressed Dounia's hand in token of gratitude.

About dinner time the doctor arrived. He felt the sick man's pulse, spoke to him in German, and declared in Russian that he only needed rest, and that in about a couple of days he would be able to set out on his journey. The Hussar gave him twenty-five roubles for his visit, and invited him to dinner; the doctor accepted the invitation. They both ate with a good appetite, drank a bottle of wine, and separated very well satisfied with each other.

Another day passed, and the Hussar felt quite himself again. He was extraordinarily lively, joked unceasingly, now with Dounia, now with the Postmaster, whistled tunes, chatted with the travellers, copied their passports into the post-book, and so won upon the worthy Postmaster, that when the third day arrived, it was with regret that he parted with his amiable guest.

The day was Sunday; Dounia was preparing to go to mass. The Hussar's kibitka stood ready. He took leave of the Postmaster, after having generously recompensed him for his board and lodging, bade farewell to Dounia, and offered to drive her as far as the church, which was situated at the end of the village. Dounia hesitated.

"What are you afraid of?" asked her father. "His Excellency is not a wolf: he won't eat you. Drive with him as far as the church."

Dounia seated herself in the kibitka by the side of the Hussar, the servant sprang upon the box, the driver whistled, and the horses started off at a gallop.

The poor Postmaster could not understand how he could have allowed his Dounia to drive off with the Hussar, how he could have been so blind, and what had become of his senses at that moment. A half-hour had not elapsed, before his heart began to grieve, and anxiety and uneasiness took possession of him to such a degree, that he could contain himself no longer, and started off for mass himself. On reaching the church, he saw that the people were already beginning to disperse, but Dounia was neither in the churchyard nor in the porch. He hastened into the church: the priest was leaving the altar, the clerk was extinguishing the candles, two old women were still praying in a corner, but Dounia was not in the church. The poor father was scarcely able to summon up sufficient resolution to ask the clerk if she had been to mass. The clerk replied that she had not. The Postmaster returned home neither alive nor dead. One hope alone remained to him: Dounia, in the thoughtlessness of youth, might have taken it into her head to go on as far as the next station, where her godmother lived. In agonizing agitation he awaited the return of the troika in which he had let her set out. The driver did not return. At last, in the evening, he arrived alone and intoxicated, with the terrible news that Dounia had gone on with the Hussar at the other station.

The old man could not bear his misfortune: he immediately took to that very same bed where, the evening before, the young deceiver had lain. Taking all the circumstances into account, the Postmaster now came to the conclusion that the illness had been a mere pretence. The poor man fell ill with a violent fever; he was removed to C——, and in his place another person was appointed for the time being. The same doctor, who had attended the Hussar, attended him also. He assured the Postmaster that the young man had been perfectly well, and that at the time of his visit he had suspected him of some evil intention, but that he had kept silent through fear of his whip. Whether the German spoke the truth or only wished to boast of his perspicacity, his communication afforded no consolation to the poor invalid. Scarcely had the latter recovered from his illness, when he asked the Postmaster of C—— for two months' leave of absence, and without saying a word to anybody of his intention, he set out on foot in search of his daughter.

From the travelling passport he found out that Captain Minsky was journeying from Smolensk to St. Petersburg. The yemshik[3] who drove him, said that Dounia had wept the whole of the way, although she seemed to go of her own free will.

"Perhaps," thought the Postmaster, "I shall bring back home my erring ewe-lamb."

With this thought he reached St. Petersburg, stopped at the barracks of the Ismailovsky Regiment, in the quarters of a retired non-commissioned officer, an old comrade of his, and then began his search. He soon discovered that Captain Minsky was in St. Petersburg, and was living at the Demoutoff Hotel. The Postmaster resolved to call upon him.

Early in the morning he went to Minsky's ante-chamber, and requested that His Excellency might be informed that an old soldier wished to see him. The military servant, who was cleaning a boot on a boot-tree, informed him that his master was still asleep, and that he never received anybody before eleven o'clock. The Postmaster retired and returned at the appointed time. Minsky himself came out to him in his dressing-gown and red skull-cap.

"Well, my friend, what do you want?" he asked.

The old man's heart began to boil, tears started to his eyes, and he was only able to say in a trembling voice:

"Your Excellency!... do me the divine favour!..."

Minsky glanced quickly at him, grew confused, took him by the hand, led him into his cabinet and locked the door.

"Your Excellency!" continued the old man: "what has fallen from the load is lost; give me back at least my poor Dounia. You have made her your plaything; do not ruin her entirely."

"What is done cannot be undone," said the young man, in the utmost confusion; "I am guilty before you, and am ready to ask your pardon, but do not think that I could forsake Dounia: she shall be happy, I give you my word of honour. Why do you want her? She loves me; she has become disused to her former existence. Neither you nor she will forget what has happened."

Then, pushing something up the old man's sleeve, he opened the door, and the Postmaster, without remembering how, found himself in the street again.

For a long time he stood immovable; at last he observed in the cuff of his sleeve a roll of papers; he drew them out and unrolled several fifty rouble notes. Tears again filled his eyes, tears of indignation! He crushed the notes into a ball, flung them upon the ground, stamped upon them with the heel of his boot, and then walked away.... After having gone a few steps, he stopped, reflected, and returned ... but the notes were no longer there. A well-dressed young man, observing him, ran towards a droshky, jumped in hurriedly, and cried to the driver: "Go on!"

The Postmaster did not pursue him. He resolved to return home to his station, but before doing so he wished to see his poor Dounia once more. For that purpose, he returned to Minsky's lodgings a couple of days afterwards, but the military servant told him roughly that his master received nobody, pushed him out of the ante-chamber and slammed the door in his face. The Postmaster stood waiting for a long time, then he walked away.

That same day, in the evening, he was walking along the Liteinaia, having been to a service at the Church of the Afflicted. Suddenly a stylish droshky flew past him, and the Postmaster recognized Minsky. The droshky stopped in front of a three-storeyed house, close to the entrance, and the Hussar ran up the steps. A happy thought flashed through the mind of the Postmaster. He returned, and, approaching the coachman:

"Whose horse is this, my friend?" asked he: "Doesn't it belong to Minsky?"

"Exactly so," replied the coachman: "what do you want?"

"Well, your master ordered me to carry a letter to his Dounia, and I have forgotten where his Dounia lives."

"She lives here, on the second floor. But you are late with your letter, my friend; he is with her himself just now."

"That doesn't matter," replied the Postmaster, with an inexplicable beating of the heart. "Thanks for your information, but I shall know how to manage my business." And with these words he ascended the staircase.

The door was locked; he rang. There was a painful delay of several seconds. The key rattled, and the door was' opened.

"Does Avdotia Simeonovna live here?" he asked.

"Yes," replied a young female servant: "what do you want with her?"

The Postmaster, without replying, walked into the room.

"You mustn't go in, you mustn't go in!" the servant cried put after him: "Avdotia Simeonovna has visitor."

But the Postmaster, without heeding her, walked straight on. The first two rooms were dark; in the third there was a light. He approached the open door and paused. In the room, which was beautifully furnished, sat Minsky in deep thought. Dounia, attired in the most elegant fashion, was sitting upon the arm of his chair, like a lady rider upon her English saddle. She was gazing I tenderly at Minsky, and winding his black curls round her sparkling fingers. Poor Postmaster! Never had his daughter seemed to him so beautiful; he admired her against his will.

"Who is there?" she asked, without raising her head.

He remained silent. Receiving no reply, Dounia raised her head.... and with a cry she fell upon the carpet. The alarmed Minsky hastened to pick her up, but suddenly catching sight of the old Postmaster in the doorway, he left Dounia and approached him, trembling with rage.

"What do you want?" he said to him, clenching his teeth. "Why do you steal after me everywhere, like a thief? Or do you want to murder me? Be off!" and with a powerful hand he seized the old man by the collar and pushed him down the stairs.

The old man returned to his lodging. His friend advised him to lodge a complaint, but the Postmaster reflected, waved his hand, and resolved to abstain from taking any further steps in the matter. Two days afterwards he left St. Petersburg and returned to his station to resume his duties.

"This is the third year," he concluded, "that I have been living without Dounia, and I have not heard a word about her. Whether she is alive or not—God only knows. So many things happen. She is not the first, nor yet the last, that a travelling scoundrel has seduced, kept for a little while, and then forsaken. There are many such young fools in St. Petersburg, to-day in satin and velvet, and to-morrow sweeping the streets along with the wretched hangers-on of the dram-shops. Sometimes, when I think that Dounia also may come to such an end, then, in spite of myself, I sin and wish her in her grave...."

Such was the story of my friend, the old Postmaster, a story more than once interrupted by tears, which he picturesquely wiped away with the skirt of his coat, like the zealous Terentitch in Dmitrieff's beautiful ballad. These tears were partly induced by the punch, of which he had drunk five glasses during the course of his narrative, but for all that, they produced a deep impression upon my heart After taking leave of him, it was a long time before I could forget the old Postmaster, and for a long time I thought of poor Dounia....

Passing through the little town of a short time ago, I remembered my friend. I heard that the station, over which he ruled, had been abolished. To my question: "Is the old Postmaster still alive?" nobody could give me a satisfactory reply. I resolved to pay a visit to the well-known place, and having hired horses, I set out for the village of N——.

It was in the autumn. Grey clouds covered the sky; a cold wind blew across the reaped fields, carrying along with it the red and yellow leaves from the trees that it encountered. I arrived in the village at sunset, and stopped at the little post-house. In the vestibule (where Dounia had once kissed me) a stout woman came out to meet me, and in answer to my questions replied, that the old Postmaster had been dead for about a year, that his house was occupied by a brewer, and that she was the brewer's wife. I began to regret my useless journey, and the seven roubles that I had spent in vain.

"Of what did he die?" I asked the brewer's wife.

"Of drink, little father," replied she.

"And where is he buried?"

"On the outskirts of the village, near his late wife."

"Could somebody take me to his grave?"

"To be sure! Hi, Vanka,[4] you have played with that cat long enough. Take this gentleman to the cemetery, and show him the Postmaster's grave."

At these words a ragged lad, with red hair, and a cast in his eye, ran up to me and immediately began to lead the way towards the burial-ground.

"Did you know the dead man?" I asked him on the road.

"Did I not know him! He taught me how to cut blowpipes. When he came out of the dram-shop (God rest his soul!) we used to run after him and call out: 'Grandfather! grandfather! some nuts!' and he used to throw nuts to us. He always used to play with us."

"And do the travellers remember him?"

"There are very few travellers now; the assessor passes this way sometimes, but he doesn't trouble himself about dead people. Last summer a lady passed through here, and she asked after the old Postmaster, and went to his grave."

"What sort of a lady?" I asked with curiosity.

"A very beautiful lady," replied the lad. "She was in a carriage with six horses, and had along with her three little children, a nurse, and a little black dog; and when they told her that the old Postmaster was dead, she began to cry, and said to the children: 'Sit still, I will go to the cemetery.' I offered to show her the way. But the lady said: 'I know the way.' And she gave me a five-copeck piece.... such a kind lady!"

We reached the cemetery, a dreary place, not inclosed in the least; it was sown with wooden crosses, but there was not a single tree to throw a shade over it. Never in my life had I seen such a dismal cemetery.

"This is the old Postmaster's grave," said the lad to me, leaping upon a heap of sand, in which was planted a black cross with a copper image.

"And did the lady come here?" asked I.

"Yes," replied Vanka; "I watched her from a distance. She lay down here, and remained lying down for a long time. Then she went back to the village, sent for the pope, gave him some money and drove off, after giving me a five-copeck piece.... such an excellent lady!"

And I, too, gave the lad a five-copeck piece, and I no longer regretted the journey nor the seven roubles that I had spent on it.


[1] The Chinnovniks, or official nobles of Russia, are divided into fourteen classes, the fourteenth being the lowest. The members of this latter class were formerly little removed from serfs.

[2] Diminutive of Avdotia.

[3] Driver.

[4] One of the many diminutives of Ivan.


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