In Karamzin’s original story, the narrator is at home, in Russia, on a cold autumn evening. He relates a story about a trip he once took to the Island of Bornholm, a possession of Denmark, in the Baltic Sea. In the forbidding Scandinavian landscape, and as a result of bad sailing conditions, he encounters a woman held in a dungeon, and the man who once loved her.
In my revision, the technology is updated to include a cell phone, a modern ferry, and the Internet. Karamzin’s narrator is now a blogger, with an ebook to sell.
Followers!! The fair summer is over, golden autumn has turned pale, the foliage has withered. The trees are without fruits or leaves; the misty sky is agitated, like a gloomy sea; the winter down falls on the cold earth. We take leave of Nature until the joyous meeting of spring; we shut ourselves away from snowstorms and blizzards; we shut ourselves up in a quiet study! Time shall not burden us, for we know a remedy against boredom. Followers! The oak and the birch flame in our fireplace; let the wind rage and strew the windows with white snow! Let us sit by the red fire and tell each other tales and legends and accounts of what lies in the past.
You know from my posts on this blog that I have traveled abroad, far, far from my homeland, but never far from you, who are so dear to my heart. I have seen many wonders, I have heard many amazing tales; much have I told you here but I could not tell you all that has happened to me. Listen; I will recount—I will recount the truth, and no invention.
England was the farthest point of my recent travel. Out there,” I told myself, “homeland and friends await you; it is time to calm yourself in their embraces, time to dedicate your pilgrim’s staff to the son of Maia (in ancient times travelers returning from abroad dedicated their staves to Mercury), time to hang it on the heaviest bough of the tree beneath which you played in your childhood years.” And so I took passage in London on a ferry (the first of three ferries I’d take on a multi-stop trip through the Baltic Sea) to sail home to my beloved land of Russia.
On a white ferry we scudded along the blossoming banks of the majestic Thames. Already the boundless ocean lay green ahead of us, already we could hear the sound of its agitation; but suddenly a mechanical problem developed, and we were forced to put in opposite the town of Gravesend.
Together with the passengers I descended onto the shore, and strolled with a peaceful heart over green fields adorned by nature and industry, places exotic and picturesque; finally, fatigued by the heat of the sun, I lay down on the grass, under a century-old elm, close to the seashore, and gazed at the moist expanse, at the foamy billows that with a dull roar were carried in countless rows toward the isle from the gloomy distance. The dejected sound and sight of the endless waters were beginning to incline me to drowsiness, to that sweet idleness of soul in which all ideas and feelings stand still and become fixed, like a suddenly frozen stream, and which is the most expressive and the most poetic image of death.
But all at once the branches rustled over my head. . . . I looked up and beheld a young man, pale, languid—more an apparition than a human being. In one hand he held a guitar; with the other he was tearing leaves off the tree, while he gazed out at the blue sea with motionless dark eyes in which there shone the last ray of dying life. My glance did not meet his, for his senses were dead to external objects; he stood two paces from me, but saw nothing and heard nothing. Unhappy youth! I thought, you are destroyed by fate. I do not know your name or your family, but I know that you are unfortunate!
He sighed, raised his eyes to heaven, and lowered them again to the ocean waves; he left the tree, sat down on the grass, and strummed a melancholy prelude on his guitar, gazing unceasingly out to sea, while he sang softly the following song (in Danish, which I understand a little. I recorded the song on my phone put it here, with some help from Google Translate):
The laws do all condemn
The object of my love;
But who, my heart, could e’er
Refuse your sacred need?
What law is there more pure
Than that of heart’s desire?
What call is there more strong
Than beauty’s or than love’s?
I love—I’ll love fore’er;
Curse then my heart’s desire,
You souls who know not pain,
You hearts who know not woe!
O Nature’s realm most pure!
Your tender friend and son
Is innocent in all.
Twas you that gave me soul;
Benevolent your gifts
That her did so adorn;
O Nature! You desired That
Lila be my love!
Your lightnings struck close by,
But did not shatter us,
When we embraced and kissed
And our desire did slake.
O Bornholm, Bornholm fair!
To you my heart would e’er
Return and dwell again,
But vainly do I weep;
I languish and I sigh!
Fore’er am I exiled
From shores of you, fair isle,
By the paternal curse!
And you, beloved mine! Yearn
you and live you still?
Or have you ended all
In roaring ocean’s depths?
Oh, come to me, oh, come,
Beloved shade so dear!
And I Will join you now
In roaring ocean’s depths.
At that moment, impelled by an involuntary inner force, I was on the point of rushing toward the stranger and embracing him, but at that very instant a passenger took me by the hand and said that the ferry was fixed and that we must lose no time. . . . We sailed. The youth, flinging down his guitar and folding his arms, gazed out to the blue sea in our wake.
The waves foamed under our ferry’s helm; the shore of Gravesend concealed itself in the distance; the northern provinces of England lay dark on the other end of the horizon; at last all disappeared, and even the birds that for a long time had soared over our heads now turned back toward shore, as if terrified at that endless expanse of the sea. The agitation of the murmuring waters and the foggy sky were the only objects left in view, majestic and terrible. My followers! To experience all the daring of the human spirit, one must be on the open ocean where nothing but a thin plank, as Wieland says, separates us from a watery grave, but where the skilled crew, manning the engines, rushes on and in thought already sees the luster of the gold that, in some other part of the world, will reward his bold enterprise. Nil mortalibus arduum est; nothing is impossible for mortals, I thought with Horace, my gaze lost in the endlessness of Neptune’s realm.
But soon a severe attack of food poisoning made me lose consciousness. For the next six hours my eyes did not open, and my tired heart hardly beat in my breast. In the seventh hour I revived, and with a joyous if pallid aspect mounted to the deck. The sun was already sinking in the clear azure skies toward the West; the ocean, illuminated by its golden rays, murmured; the ferry flew with full speed over the breast of the cleaving billows, which in vain sought to outstrip it. All around us, at varying distances, white, blue, and pink flags were unfurled, and on the right hand lay something dark that resembled land.
“Where are we?” I asked a crew member.
“We’ve made good time,” he said, “we have passed the Sound; the shores of Sweden have disappeared from our sight. To starboard you can see the Danish island of Bornholm, a place dangerous for big ships; there shoals and rocks lie hidden on the sea bottom. But again our engine broke down and we shall put in there.”
The isle of Bornholm, the isle of Bornholm, I repeated in my thoughts, and the image of the young stranger at Gravesend arose in my mind. The mournful tones and words of his song resounded in my ears.
They hold the secret of his heart, I thought, but who is he? What laws condemn the love of an unhappy man? What curse has exiled him from the shores of Bornholm, so dear to him? Will I ever learn his history?
Meanwhile we went straight toward the island. Its fierce cliffs already came into view, with boiling streams that hurled themselves, roaring and foaming, down from their heights into the ocean depths. It seemed inaccessible from all sides, from all sides walled by the hand of majestic Nature; nothing but terror appeared on its gray crags. With horror I saw the image of cold, silent eternity, the image of implacable death and of that indescribable creative power in the face of which all that is mortal must tremble.
The sun had sunk in the waves, and at last we reached a dock. The wind had calmed down, and the sea scarcely rocked. I gazed at the island, which with inexplicable force lured me to its banks; a dark presentment spoke to me: Then you can satisfy your curiosity, and Bornholm will remain forever in your memory! Finally, learning that the engine parts would arrive via another ferry some hours behind us, and having no power onboard, we were released onto the island. We were told of the danger, of the rocks beneath the water’s surface, and told not to go swimming, and to return early in the morning to the ship.
We set out on the dock and were met by fishermen, a folk crude and rough, raised on the cold element under the roar of ocean billows, and unacquainted with a smile of friendly greeting. Hearing that we desired to look over the island and spend the night in one of their huts, they led us through a mountain of flint stone that was falling to pieces, up to their dwellings. In half an hour we came out onto a broad green plain on which, as in the Alpine valleys, low wooden cottages were scattered, along with thickets and boulders. Here I left the passengers, and myself went on farther to enjoy for yet a while the pleasant sensations of evening; a boy of thirteen served as my guide.
The scarlet glow had not yet died in the bright heaven; its rosy light was strewn on the white granite boulders, and in the distance, beyond a high hill, it lit up the sharp towers of an old castle. The boy could not tell me to whom the castle belonged.
“We do not go there,” he said, “and God knows what goes on there!”
I redoubled my steps and soon approached the great Gothic edifice, surrounded by a deep moat and a high wall. Everywhere silence reigned; in the distance the sea sighed, and the last ray of evening light died on the copper-sheathed tips of the towers.
I walked around the castle—the gates were closed arid the drawbridges raised. My guide was fearful, of what he himself did not know, and begged me to go back to the huts, but could a man impelled by curiosity heed such a request?
Night came on, and suddenly a voice resounded; the echo repeated it, and again all was silent. From fright the boy seized me with both hands, and trembled like a criminal at execution. In a minute the voice resounded again and asked, “Who is there?”
“A foreigner,” I said, “brought to this island by curiosity. If the law of hospitality is honored as a virtue in the walls of your castle, then you will shelter a traveler in the dark time of night.”
There was no reply, but in a few minutes the drawbridge thundered and dropped down from the tower; with a noise the gate opened, a tall man clad in a long black garment came to meet me, took me by the hand, and led me into the castle. I turned around; the boy, my guide, had hidden.
The gate banged after us; the drawbridge thundered up again. Crossing a spacious courtyard, grown over with bushes, nettles, and feather grass, we came to a huge house from which light was shining. A tall peristyle in antique fashion led to an iron porch, the steps of which resounded under our feet. On every side it was gloomy and deserted. In the first hall, surrounded inside by a Gothic colonnade, there hung a lamp that scarcely cast its light on the rows of gilded columns, which were beginning to fall down from age; in one spot lay fragments of a cornice, in another, bits of pilasters; in a third, whole columns that had tumbled down. My guide looked around at me several times with piercing eyes, but did not say a word.
All this made a terrifying impression on me, composed partly of dread, partly of a mysterious, inexplicable satisfaction, or, to put it better, the pleasant anticipation of something extraordinary to post on my blog.
We crossed two or three more halls like the first one and illuminated with the same lamps. Then a door opened to the right, and in the corner of a small room there sat a venerable gray-haired old man, his elbow propped on a table on which two white wax candles were burning. He raised his head, looked at me with a kind of mournful tenderness, gave me his weak hand, and said in a pleasant voice:
“Though eternal grief inhabits the walls of this castle, still a traveler who seeks hospitality shall always find a peaceful refuge here. Foreigner! I do not know you, but you are a man, and in my dying heart there still dwells a love for men. My house and my embrace are open to you.”
He embraced me and seated me and, trying to impart to his gloomy face an aspect of liveliness, he looked like a bright but cold autumnal day that resembles mournful winter more than joyous summer. He sought to appear hospitable, to impart with his smile confidence and a pleasant sensation of intimacy, but the signs of grief of heart that were planted so deeply on his countenance could not disappear in a moment.
“You, young man,” he said, “must inform me concerning the happenings of the world, which I have renounced but still not yet quite forgotten. For a long time I have lived in solitude; I don’t have internet access; for a long time I have heard nothing of mankind’s fate. Tell me, does love still reign on earth? Does incense still smoke on the altars of virtue? Are the peoples happy that dwell in the lands you have seen?”
“The domain of science,” I answered, “is spreading more and more, but human blood still flows on the earth; the tears of the unfortunate still flow; men praise the name of virtue and dispute concerning her existence.”
The old man sighed and shrugged his shoulders. Learning that I was a Russian, he said: “We come from the same people as you. The ancient inhabitants of the islands of Riigen and Bornholm were Slavs. But you long before us came to the light of Christianity. Magnificent cathedrals, dedicated to the one God, rose up to the clouds in your lands, while we, in the darkness of idolatry, still brought bloody sacrifices to unfeeling idols. In triumphant hymns you celebrated the great creator of the universe, while we, blinded by paganism, praised the idols of mythology in discordant songs.”
The old man spoke to me of the history of the northern peoples, of the happenings of antiquity and modern times, spoke so that I was forced to marvel at his intelligence, his knowledge, and even his eloquence.
In half an hour he arose and wished me good night. The butler in the black garb took a candle from the table and led me through long narrow corridors. We came to a large room, hung with ancient weapons, swords, lances, suits of armor and helmets. In a corner underneath a canopy stood a high bed, adorned with “carvings and old bas-reliefs.
I wished to ask this butler a multitude of questions, but he, not waiting for them, bowed and left; the iron door banged shut—the noise resounded frightfully in the empty walls—and all was silent. I lay down on the bed, looked at the ancient weapons, lit up through the little window by a weak ray of moonlight, thought of my host and of his first words, “Eternal grief inhabits the walls of this castle,” and mused of times past, of the events of which this castle might have been a witness; mused, like a man who wanders between graves and coffins, gazes at the dust of the dead, and makes it live again in his imagination. Finally, the image of the mournful stranger at Gravesend came to my soul, and I fell asleep.
But my sleep was troubled. I dreamed that the suits of armor hanging on the wall turned into knights and that these knights came toward me with naked swords and with angry looks and said: “Unhappy man! How dare you come to our island? Do not sailors pale at the sight of its granite shores? How dare you enter the terrible sanctuary of this castle? Does not its terror resound over all the surroundings? Does not the traveler turn back on seeing its frightening towers? Impudent man! Die for your pernicious curiosity!” Their swords clanged over me, the blows fell on my breast—but suddenly all vanished, and I awoke and in another minute fell asleep again. Now a new dream disturbed my spirit. I dreamed that terrible thunder resounded in the castle, the iron doors banged, the windows shook, the floor rocked, and a frightful winged monster that I cannot describe flew toward my bed, hissing and roaring. The nightmare vanished, but I could no longer fall asleep; I felt a need for fresh air, went to the window, and found to one side a small door, opened it, and descended a steep staircase into the garden.
The night was clear, and the full moon shed a silvery light on the dark foliage of the old oaks and elms that formed a long dense alley. The murmur of the waves blended with the murmur of the leaves, stirred by the wind. In the distance the rocky mountains lay white, resembling a wall of teeth that encircled the whole island of Bornholm; between them and the walls of the castle a large wood was visible on one side, and on the other, an open plain with small thickets.
My heart beat even more strongly with the impression of the terrible nightmares, and my blood had not yet subsided. I entered the dark alley, under the shelter of the rustling oaks, and with a feeling almost like veneration I submerged myself in its gloom. Thoughts of the Druids stirred in my mind, and I felt as if I were approaching that very sanctuary where all the mysteries and horrors of their religion were preserved.
Finally the long alley brought me to some clumps of rosemary, behind which there rose a sandy hillock. I wanted to climb to its top, from there to behold in the bright moonlight the landscape of the sea and the island, but suddenly I noticed an opening leading inside the hill: with some effort a man could enter it. An irrepressible feeling of curiosity impelled me to enter this cavern, more like the work of human hands than like a creation of wild Nature. I entered, and felt the damp and cold, but resolved to go on and, going forward some ten paces, made out several steps that led up to a wide iron door; this, to my amazement, was not locked. As if involuntarily my hand opened it—there, behind an iron grating that held a large padlock, a lamp was burning, fastened to the vaulting; in the corner on a bed of straw lay a pale young woman in a black dress. She was asleep, and her reddish locks, intertwined with the yellow blades of straw, covered her high breast, which scarcely stirred with her breathing. One of her hands, white but withered, lay on the ground, while her head was cradled on the other. If a painter had sought to depict exhausted, endless, and eternal misery, lulled to sleep by the poppies of Morpheus, then this woman could well have served as a subject for his brush.
My followers: Who is not touched at the sight of an unfortunate? But the sight of a young woman, suffering in a subterranean dungeon, the sight of the weakest and dearest of all creatures, persecuted by fate, could endow a stone itself with feeling. I looked at her with commiseration and thought to myself: What barbarian’s hand has shut you away from the light of day? Can it be for a heavy transgression? But the gentleness of your face, the tranquil motion of your breast, and my own heart reassure me that you are innocent!
At that very moment she awoke, looked at the grating, caught sight of me, gave a startled sigh, and raised her head, arose and came up to me and lowered her eyes to the ground, as if trying to collect her thoughts, again fixed her gaze on me, and was on the point of speaking, but did not speak.
“If the sympathy of a wayfarer,” I said after several minutes of silence, “brought by the hand of fate to this castle and to this cave, can lighten your fate, if his real commiseration can deserve your trust, then demand his services!”
She looked at me with motionless eyes, in which I could see amazement, something of curiosity, irresolution, and doubt. Finally, after a strong inner movement that stirred my breast as if with an electric shock, she answered firmly:
“Whoever you may be, whatever chance has brought you here, foreigner, I cannot ask anything from you but pity. It is not in your power to alter my fate. I kiss the hand that punishes me.”
“But your heart is innocent,” I said, “and it, of course, cannot deserve such a cruel punishment?”
“My heart,” she replied, “may well have been in error. God will forgive my weakness. I trust that soon my life will come to an end. Leave me, stranger!”
She came up to the grating, looked at me tenderly, and repeated in a low voice: “For God’s sake, leave me! . . . if he sent you here, he whose terrible curse still rings eternally in my ears, tell him that I suffer, that I suffer day and night, that my heart is withered with grief, that no tears can ever lighten my sorrow. Tell him that I bear my imprisonment without a murmur, without complaining, that I die his tender, unhappy . . .”
Suddenly she fell silent, thought for a moment, and withdrew from the grating, fell to her knees and covered her face with her hands; a minute later she looked at me again, again lowered her eyes to the ground, and said tenderly and timidly:
“Perhaps you know my story, but if you do not know it, then do not ask me, for God’s sake, do not ask! Foreigner, farewell!”
Before going I was about to say a few words to her that came directly from my heart, but my glance still met hers, and it seemed to me that she was on the point of asking me something very important for her heart’s peace. I stopped, awaiting her question, but after a long sigh it died on her pale lips. We parted.
Coming out of the cavern, I refrained from closing the iron door, so that the fresh pure air would penetrate into the dungeon through the grating and lighten the unfortunate woman’s breathing. The glow of dawn was red in the sky; the birds had awakened; a breeze was blowing the dew from the bushes and flowers that grew around the hillock.
My God! I thought. My God! How miserable to be shut off from the company of living, free, joyful beings with which the endless expanses of Nature are everywhere populated! Even in the far north, among high, lichen-covered rocks, terrifying to the gaze, the work of Your hand is fair, the work of Your hand enraptures the spirit and the heart. And here, where the foamy waves have battled granite crags from the beginning of time, here too Your hand has imprinted the living signs of a creator’s love and well-being; here too at morn roses bloom in an azure heaven, here too tender breezes are scented with their aroma, here too green carpets are laid out like soft velvet under man’s feet, here too birds sing, sing merrily for the merry man, and sadly for the sad man, pleasing all; here too the grieving heart can relieve itself of its burden of misfortunes in the embrace of a sympathetic Nature! But that poor woman, locked up in a dungeon, is shut away from this consolation; the dew of morning no longer moistens her tired heart; the breeze does not refresh her wasted breast; the sun’s rays do not illumine her gloomy eyes; the silent balsamic effusions of the moon do not nourish her spirit with gentle dreams and pleasant reveries. Creator! Why have You given man the destructive power to make one another and himself unfortunate?” My strength gave way, and my eyes closed, under the branches of the tall oak tree, on the soft greensward. My sleep lasted about two hours.
“The door was open, and the foreigner entered the cavern,” I heard as I awakened, and opening my eyes I saw the old man, my host: he was sitting in deep thought on a bench of turf, about five paces away from me; beside him stood the man who had brought me into the castle. I went up to them. The old man looked at me with some severity, arose, pressed my hand, and his look became more gentle. We entered the thick alley together without saying a word. It seemed that he was hesitating in his mind and was uncertain, but suddenly he stopped short and, fixing on me a penetrating, fiery gaze, asked firmly, “You have seen her?”
“Yes,” I answered, “I have seen her, but I do not know who she is and why she suffers there.”
“You will learn,” he said, “you will learn, young man, and your heart will bleed with pity. Then you will ask yourself why Heaven has poured out the full cup of its wrath on this weak, gray-haired old man, a man who loved virtue, who honored its holy laws.”
We sat down under the tree, and the old man told me a frightful tale, a tale that you will not hear now, my friends; it is told in my ebook, which you can get here. For now I will tell you one thing only, that I penetrated the mystery of the stranger at Gravesend, a terrible mystery!
Some passengers were waiting for me at the gate of the castle. We returned to the ferry, they started the engines, and Bornholm vanished from our sight. The sea murmured. In mournful meditation I stood on the deck, my hand on the mast. Deep sighs constrained my breast, and finally, I looked up at the heavens, and the wind blew a tear on my face into the sea.