Friday 28th August
Olga was the fourteenth at Story Shop 2015, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.
Her appearance was on Fri 28th August 2015 at 4 pm in the Spiegeltent. Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
A winner of a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award for 2015, Olga usually writes short stories but has just completed a first draft of a novel. Olga’s stories have been published in Gutter, New Writing Scotland, Luna Station Quarterly and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @OlgaWojtas.
You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
The Short Story she read
The Study of Philosophy (after Tolstoy)
a short story by Olga Wojtas
Pavel Andreyevitch Shukin pushed past the bulky occupants of the compartment and emerged on to the platform where he could at last stretch his aching limbs and breathe freely. He felt sure his luggage would be safe: it was mainly books, and there was no sign that anyone else in the compartment could read.
This was a simple provincial station, far removed in both geography and grandeur from Moscow, but it was crowded with travellers and porters, beggars and bystanders. Pavel was jostled by a couple of officers and thought of shouting a complaint, then thought again. He was not a man of action, merely an impoverished student.
As he stood wiggling his toes inside his cloth boots, he became aware of the sound of small, delicate footsteps approaching in some haste. They were unimpeded: everyone seemed to be granting the newcomer free passage. He could hear whispers: ‘The Countess Sokolova!’
And then he felt a touch on his arm, light as a butterfly’s wing.
He heard a low, cultured, trembling, thrilling voice: ‘Oh, sir, sir, please, I entreat you, I implore you, help me!’
Pavel turned and looked into wide, dark eyes. He could see virtually nothing of the rest of the lady’s face, for she was clutching her hood tight. But there was such beauty, such charm, such grace in her very presence that he was willing to do anything she asked. Clumsily, he tugged off his cap.
‘Of course, your excellency,’ he stammered.
The satin-gloved hand tightened gratefully on his sleeve.
‘If you please, buy me a ticket for the train!’ As he hesitated, she produced a handful of coins. ‘However far this will take me. Please, please hurry!’
‘A first class ticket? Yes, of course a first class ticket,’ he said as he headed for the booking office: she could not be expected to travel amongst the unkempt, teeming masses.
Her eyes brightened when she saw him return.
‘Oh, sir, I am forever in your debt! But I must beg another favour. I have no maid, no servant; I am entirely alone. Would you escort me to the carriage?’
Pavel’s heart thudded as he gave her his arm. ‘I would be honoured, your excellency.’
He ushered her to an empty compartment.
‘I bought you a single to Yasnaya Polyana, your excellency. I’m sure it will be lovely at this time of year. I wish you a pleasant journey.’
He gave an awkward little bobbing bow, and moved towards the door.
‘Oh, sir, please don’t leave me! I would be under the most extreme obligation to you if you were to sit with me.’
‘I’m afraid I really can’t…it’s not allowed…I’ve only got a third class ticket…’
The Countess showed no sign of having heard him, and busied herself removing the cumbersome fur cloak to reveal an enchanting face and an exquisite figure.
‘I’m sure I could stay for a short while,’ said Pavel.
A whistle sounded and the train jerked into motion.
‘God be praised! Perhaps I am safe now,’ said the Countess, crossing herself. ‘But do not listen to me, sir. I should not speak to you of my troubles. You are a good man, and I fear you would judge me harshly.’
‘Never!’ he protested.
She scanned his face as if to read his mind.
‘Perhaps you would not,’ she whispered. ‘Sir, I am married. Unhappy wretch that I am, I have fled my home. Had you not helped me, who knows? I might have flung myself under the wheels of this train.’ Her gloved hand flew up to her lips, as though to stifle the blasphemy. ‘My husband – but no, I cannot, I must not – I think you understand.’
Pavel shuddered at the thought of the unspeakable brutality which this beautiful creature must have suffered. How could anyone blame her for taking her chance to escape?
‘But let us not speak of unpleasant matters,’ she said. ‘My journey is of no importance. You must tell me of yours.’
‘I’m on my way to Paris, your excellency, to study philosophy.’
She gave a small cry of astonished admiration. ‘You are a philosopher? Ah, so you know why it is we must suffer. You must explain it to me and perhaps I shall be able to bear things more bravely.’
Then she raised her hand again, this time placing it gently across his lips.
‘But no,’ she murmured, ‘no talk of suffering and misery. Let us speak of Paris, the city of light. The city of love.’
She said the word ‘love’ with such yearning and perfect diction that Pavel found difficulty in breathing.
‘If only I could go to Paris,’ she said softly. She produced a lace handkerchief and dabbed delicately at her eyes.
Pavel could not bear to see her weep. He flung himself on his knees in front of her.
‘Why should you not go to Paris?’ he asked urgently. ‘Why should you not go to Paris with me?’
She made a startled sound.
‘I can tutor,’ he went on quickly, ‘earn enough to keep us. We could be happy together, in our little apartment, looking out over the rooftops of Montmartre.’
‘You are painting a picture of paradise!’ she cried. ‘And in Paris, no-one will know us and there will be no scandal!’
She cupped his face in her satin-gloved hands, drew him close and kissed him. He had kissed plenty of governesses, chambermaids and chorus girls, but never had he had a kiss such as this. It spoke to his soul, it spoke of an eternity of bliss and rapture. And in that moment he knew without a doubt that he would sacrifice anything for this woman: he would die for her.
The train gave a sudden lurch, the iron-cast wheels clanked and juddered to a halt, and Pavel fell over. Angry bellowing could be heard outside. The Countess gave a shriek.
A tall, well-built man rapidly dismounted from a foam-flecked horse and approached the carriage.
‘Save me!’ screamed the Countess. ‘Bar the door!’
Pavel staggered towards the door and, with trembling fingers, fastened the insubstantial latch. An instant later, there was a tremendous thump, the wood panelling splintered, and Count Sokolov entered the compartment. He clearly was a man of action.
From the pocket of his long-skirted coat, he produced a revolver.
‘So,’ he said, ‘which of you shall I have the pleasure of killing first, you or your lover?’
Pavel knew he should hurl himself in front of his beloved in order to save her, but the reality of dying for love was much less attractive than the theory.
The Countess clung to his arm.
‘You may kill us together with a single shot, Dmitri Ivanovich! We have no wish to live, the one without the other!’
‘A most practical suggestion, my dear,’ said the Count, raising his revolver.
Pavel’s knees gave way, and he slumped in an ungainly heap. The Countess, still clinging, was pulled on top of him and he hastily disentangled himself.
‘Sir – your excellency – I can see you are a man of reason! Violence is not the action of a reasonable man! We must always strive to conquer our baser instincts!’
‘And why should I strive to conquer mine when you and my wife have had so little success in conquering yours?’ the Count enquired.
‘Let me assure you, this lady and I are barely acquainted,’ gabbled Pavel. ‘I merely bought a ticket for her and was seeing she was settled before returning to my own compartment. In third class.’
‘No, my husband shall hear the truth!’ the Countess cried. ‘We are on our way to Paris, Dmitri Ivanovich!’
Pavel attempted to speak, to explain that the terms of his bursary would never allow for such a thing, and that in any event, the Countess’s ticket was not valid beyond Yasnaya Polyana.
‘Yes,’ continued the Countess, ‘we intend to be in paradise together, in this world or the next.’
All that emerged from Pavel was an incomprehensible squeak.
‘You may abandon your hopes of paradise, my dear,’ said the Count. ‘Bid farewell to your lover. You will return home with me, where you will resume your domestic responsibilities.’
‘You would not be so cruel, Dmitri Ivanovich! Kill us now!’
‘Enough,’ said the Count, taking her by the arm. ‘Home.’
I cannot let that brute imprison her again, Pavel groaned to himself. I must save her. But he did not move as the Count led her along the corridor and down the high step.
A few moments later, he heard approaching footsteps.
The conductor entered the compartment, carefully avoiding the splintered wood.
‘Tickets, please, all tickets. May I see your ticket, sir?’ he asked.
Pavel felt in his pocket and found the first class ticket he had bought for the Countess.
‘My only memento of her,’ he said with tears in his eyes.
The conductor nodded in understanding.
‘He usually catches up with her around here,’ he said. ‘Although one time, we’d put a bit of speed on, and it was another three stations down the line before he made it. The horse was on its last legs.’
He shook his head. ‘It plays havoc with the timetable, and it’s a devil of a job to get the compartment doors fixed, but that’s the gentry for you.’
Pavel, still burning with shame at his own cowardice, was outraged by the conductor’s indifference to the Countess’s suffering.
‘And you do nothing?’ he cried.
The conductor shrugged. ‘It’s not for us to interfere. Every happy family is happy in its own way.’
The conductor motioned for him to look out of the window. And as Pavel stared, he saw the Countess cupping her husband’s face in her satin-gloved hands, to draw him close and kiss him.
(c) Olga Wojtas, 2015
Story Shop 2015
Part of Story Shop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
Story Shop 2015
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at Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015
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