THE great-grandfather of the Krasoffs, known by the manor-house servants under the nickname of “The Gipsy,” was hunted with wolf-hounds by Cavalry Captain Durnovo. The Gipsy had lured his lord-and-master’s mistress away from him. Durnovo gave orders that The Gipsy should be taken out into the fields and placed on a hillock. Then he himself went out there with a pack of hounds and shouted “Tallyho! Go for him!” The Gipsy, who was sitting there in a state of stupor, started to run. But there is no use in running away from wolf-hounds.
The grandfather of the Krasoffs, for some reason or other, was given a letter of enfranchisement. He went off with his family to the town—and soon distinguished himself by becoming a famous thief. He hired a tiny hovel in the Black Suburb for his wife and set her to weaving lace for sale, while he, in company with a petty burgher named Byelokopytoff, roamed about the province robbing churches. At the end of a couple of years he was caught. But at his trial he bore himself in such fashion that his replies to the judges were current for a long time thereafter. He stood before them, it appears, in a velveteen kaftan, with a silver watch and goat-hide boots, making insolent play with his cheek-bones and his eyes and, in the most respectful manner, confessing every one of his innumerable crimes, even the most insignificant: “Yes, sir. Just so, sir.”
The father of the Krasoffs was a petty huckster. He roved about the county, lived for a time in Durnovka, set up a pot-house and a little shop, failed, took to drink, returned to the town, and soon died. After serving for a while in shops his sons, Tikhon and Kuzma, who were almost of an age, also took to peddling. They drove about in a peasant cart which had a carved front and a roofed, shop-like arrangement in the middle, and shouted in doleful tones: “Wo-omen, here’s merchandise! Wo-omen, here’s merchandise!”
The merchandise consisted of small mirrors, cheap soap, rings, thread, kerchiefs, needles, cracknels—these in the covered shop. The open-body cart contained everything they gathered in: dead cats, eggs, heavy linen, crash, rags. But one day, after having thus travelled about for the space of several years, the brothers came near cutting each other’s throats—in a dispute over the division of the profits, rumour averred—and separated to avoid a catastrophe. Kuzma hired himself to a drover. Tikhon took over a small posting-house on the metalled highway of Vorgol, five versts from Durnovka, and opened a dram-shop and a tiny “popular” shop.—“I deal in small wears tea shugar tubako sigars and so furth.”
BY the time Tikhon Hitch was about forty years of age his beard resembled silver with patterns of black enamel. But he was handsome and tall, with a fine figure, as before. He was austere and swarthy of face, slightly pock-marked, with broad, lean shoulders; authoritative and abrupt of speech, quick and supple in his movements. Only—his eyebrows had begun to come closer together and his eyes to flash more frequently and more sharply than before. Business demanded it!
Indefatigably he followed up the rural police on those dull autumnal days when taxes are collected and forced sale follows forced sale. Unweariedly he bought standing grain on the stalk from the landed proprietors and took land from them and from the peasants, in small parcels, not scorning even half a meadow. He lived for a long time with his dumb cook—“A dumb woman can’t betray anything with her chatter!”—and had by her one child, whom she overlay and crushed in her sleep, after which he married an elderly waiting-maid of old Princess Schakhovoy. And on marrying and receiving the dowry he “finished off” the last scion of the impoverished Durnovo family, a fat, affable young nobleman, bald at twenty-five, but possessed of a magnificent chestnut beard. And the peasants fairly grunted with pride when Tikhon took possession of the Durnovo estate—for almost the whole of Durnovka consisted of Krasoffs!
They sh-ed and oh-ed, also, over the way in which he had cunningly contrived not to ruin himself. He bargained and bought, went to the estate almost every day, kept watch with the eye of a vulture over every hand’s breadth of the land. They uttered admiring exclamations and said: “Yes, there’s nothing to be done with us devils by kindness, you know! There’s a master for you! You couldn’t have one more just!”
And Tikhon Ilitch dealt with them in the same spirit. When he was in an amiable mood he read them their lesson thus: “It’s all right to live—but not to squander. I shall pluck you if I get the chance! I shall bring you back. But I shall be just. I’m a Russian man, brother.” When in an evil mood, he would say curtly, with eyes blazing: “Pigs! There is not a juster man in the world than I am!” “Pigs, all right—but that’s not me,” the peasant would think, averting his eyes from that gaze. And he would mumble submissively: “Oh, Lord, don’t we know it?” “Yes, you know it, but you have forgotten. I don’t want your property gratis, but bear this in mind: I won’t give you a scrap of what’s mine! There’s that brother of mine: he’s a rascal, a toper, but I would help him if he came and implored me. I call God as my witness that I would help him! But coddle him—! No, take note of that: I do no coddling. I’m no brainless Little Russian, brother!”
And Nastasya Petrovna, who walked like a duck, with her toes turned inward, and waddled, thanks to her incessant pregnancies which always ended up with dead girl-babies—Nastasya Petrovna, a yellow, puffy woman with scanty whitish-blond hair, would groan and back him up: “Okh, you are a simpleton, in my opinion! Why do you bother with him, with that stupid man? Is he a fit associate for you? You just knock some sense into him; ’twill do him no harm. Look at the way he’s straddling with his legs—as if he were a bokhar of emir!” She was “terribly fond” of pigs and fowls, and Tikhon Ilitch began to fatten sucking pigs, turkey chicks, hens, and geese. But his ruling passion was amassing grain. In autumn, alongside his house, which stood with one side turned toward the highway and the other toward the posting-station, the creaking of wheels arose in a groan; the wagon trains turned in from above and below. And in the farmyard horse-traders, peddlers, chicken-vendors, cracknel peddlers, scythe-vendors, and pilgrims passed the night. Every moment a pulley was squeaking—now on the door of the dram-shop, where Nastasya Petrovna bustled about; now on the approach to the shop, a dark, dirty place, reeking of soap, herrings, rank tobacco, gingerbread flavoured with peppermint, horse-collars, and kerosene. And incessantly there rang out in the dram-shop:
“U-ukh! Your vodka is strong, Petrovna! It has knocked me in the head, devil take it!”
“’Twill make your mouth water, my dear man!”
“Is there snuff in your vodka?”
“Well, now, you fool yourself!”
In the shop the crowd was even more dense.
“Ilitch, weigh me out a pound of ham.”
“This year, brother, I’m so well stocked with ham—so well stocked, thank God!”
“What’s the price?”
“Hey, proprietor, have you good tar?”
“Better tar than your grandfather had at his wedding, my good man!”
“What’s the price?”
And it seemed as if, at the Krasoffs’, there were never any other conversation than that about the prices of things: What’s the price of ham, what’s the price of boards, what’s the price of groats, what’s the price of tar?
THE abandonment of his hope of having children and the closing of the dram-shops by the government were great events. Tikhon visibly aged when there no longer remained any doubt that he was not to become a father. At first he jested about it: “No sir, I’ll get my way. Without children a man is not a man. He’s only so-so—a sort of spot missed in the sowing.” But later on he was assailed by terror. What did it mean? one overlay her child, the other bore only dead children.
And the period of Nastasya Petrovna’s last pregnancy had been a difficult time. Tikhon Ilitch suffered and raged: Nastasya Petrovna prayed in secret, wept in secret, and was a pitiful sight when, of a night by the light of the shrine-lamp, she slipped out of bed, assuming that her husband was asleep, and began with difficulty to kneel down, touch her brow to the floor as she whispered her prayers, gaze with anguish at the holy pictures, and rise from her knees painfully, like an old woman. Hitherto, before going to bed, she had donned slippers and dressing-gown, said her prayers indifferently, and, as she prayed, taken pleasure in running over the list of her acquaintances and abusing them. Now there stood before the holy picture a simple peasant woman in a short cotton petticoat, white woolen stockings, and a chemise which did not cover her neck and arms, fat like those of an old person.
Tikhon Ilitch had never, from his childhood, liked shrine-lamps, although he had never been willing to confess it, even to himself; nor did he like their uncertain churchly light. All his life there had remained impressed upon his mind that November night when, in the tiny lop-sided hut in the Black Suburb, a shrine-lamp had also burned, peaceful and sweetly-sad, the shadows of its chains barely moving, while everything around was deathly silent; and on the bench below the holy pictures his father lay motionless with eyes closed, his sharp nose raised, his big purplish-waxen hands crossed on his breast; while by his side, just beyond the tiny window curtained with its red rag, the conscripts marched past with wildly mournful songs and shouts, their accordions squealing discordantly.—Now the shrine-lamp burned uninterruptedly, and Tikhon Ilitch felt as if Nastasya Petrovna were carrying on some sort of secret affair with uncanny powers.
A number of book-hawkers from the Vladimir government halted by the posting-house to bait their horses—with the result that there made its appearance in the house a “New Complete Oracle and Magician, which foretells the future in answer to questions; with Supplement setting forth the easiest methods of telling fortunes by cards, beans, and coffee.” And of an evening Nastasya Petrovna would put on her spectacles, mould a little ball of wax, and set to rolling it over the circles of the “Oracle.” And Tikhon Ilitch would look on, with sidelong glances. But all the answers turned out to be either insulting, menacing, or senseless.
“Does my husband love me?” Nastasya Petrovna would inquire.
And the “Oracle” replied: “He loves you as a dog loves a stick.”
“How many children shall I have?”
“You are fated to die: the field must be cleared of weeds.”
Then Tikhon Ilitch would say: “Give it here. I’11 have a try.” And he would propound the question: “Ought I to start a law-suit with a person whose name I won’t mention?”
But he, likewise, got nonsense for an answer: “Count the teeth in your mouth.”
One day Tikhon Ilitch, when he glanced into the kitchen, saw his wife beside the cradle in which lay the cook’s baby. A speckled chicken which was wandering along the window ledge, pecking and catching flies, tapped the glass with its beak; but she sat there on the sleeping-board and, while she rocked the cradle, sang in a pitiful quaver:
“Where lieth my little child?
Where is his tiny bed?
He is in the lofty chamber,
In the painted cradle gay.
Let no one come there to us,
Or knock at the chamber door!
He hath fallen asleep, he resteth
Beneath the canopy dark,
Covered with flowered silk....”
And Tikhon Ilitch’s face underwent such a change at that moment that Nastasya Petrovna, as she glanced at him, experienced no confusion, felt no fear, but only fell a-weeping and, brushing away her tears, said softly: “Take me away, for Christ’s dear sake, to the Holy Man.”
And Tikhon Ilitch took her to Zadonsk. But as he went he was thinking in his heart that God would certainly chastise him because, in the bustle and cares of life, he went to church only for the service on Easter Day, and otherwise lived as if he were a Tatar. Sacrilegious thoughts also wormed their way into his head. He kept comparing himself to the parents of the Saints, who likewise had long remained childless. This was not clever—but he had long since come to perceive that there dwelt within him some one who was more stupid than himself. Before his departure he had received a letter from Mount Athos: “Most God-loving Benefactor, Tikhon Ilitch! Peace be unto you, and salvation, the blessing of the Lord and the honourable Protection of the All-Sung Mother of God, from her earthly portion, the holy Mount Athos! I have had the happiness of hearing about your good works, and that with love you apportion your mite for the building and adornment of God’s temples and monastic cells. With the years my hovel has reached such a dilapidated condition....” And Tikhon Ilitch sent a ten-ruble banknote to be used for repairing the hovel. The time was long past when he had believed, with ingenuous pride, that rumours concerning him had actually reached as far as Mount Athos, and he knew well enough that far too many hovels on Mount Athos had become dilapidated. Nevertheless, he sent the money.
But even that proved of no avail.
The government monopoly of the liquor trade acted as salt on a raw wound. When the hope of children failed him utterly, the thought occurred ever more frequently to Tikhon Ilitch: “What’s the object of all this convict hard labour, anyway? devil take it!” And his hands began to tremble with rage, his brows to contract and arch themselves, his upper lip to quiver—especially when he uttered the phrase which was incessantly in his mouth: “Bear in mind—!” He continued, as before, to affect youthfulness—wore dandyfied soft boots and an embroidered shirt fastened at one side, Russian style, under a double-breasted short coat. But his beard grew ever whiter, more sparse, more tangled.
And that summer, as if with malicious intent, turned out to be hot and dry. The rye was absolutely ruined. It became a pleasure to whine to the buyers. “I’m closing down my business—shutting up shop!” Tikhon Ilitch said with satisfaction, referring to his liquor trade. He enunciated every word clearly. “The Minister has a fancy for going into trade on his own account, to be sure!”
“Okh, just look at you!” groaned Nastasya Petrovna. “You’re calling down bad luck. You’ll be chased off to a place so far that even the crows don’t drag their bones there!”
“Don’t you worry, ma’am,” Tikhon Ilitch interrupted her brusquely, with a frown. “No, ma’am! You can’t gag every mouth with a kerchief!” And again, enunciating even more sharply, he addressed the customer: “And the rye, sir, is a joy to behold! Bear that in mind—a joy to everybody! By night, sir, if you’ll believe it—by night, sir, even then it can be seen. You step out on the threshold and gaze at the fields by the light of the moon: it’s as sparse as the hair on a bald head. You go out and stare: the fields are shining-naked!”
DURING the Fast of St. Peter Tikhon Ilitch spent four days in the town at the Fair and got still more out of tune, thanks to his worries, the heat, and sleepless nights. Ordinarily he set out for the Fair with great gusto. At twilight the carts were greased and heaped with hay. Behind one, that in which the manager of his farm rode, were hitched the horses or cows destined for sale; in the other, in which the master himself was to ride, were placed cushions and a peasant overcoat. Making a late start, they journeyed squeaking all night long until daybreak. First of all they indulged in friendly discussion and smoking. The men told each other frightful old tales of merchants murdered on the road and at halting places for the night. Then Tikhon Ilitch disposed himself for sleep; and it was extremely pleasant to hear through his dreams the voices of those whom they met, to feel the vigorous swaying of the cart, as if it were constantly descending a hill, and his cheeks slipping deep into a pillow while his cap fell off and the night chill cooled his head. It was agreeable, too, to wake up before sunrise in the rosy, dewy morning, in the midst of the dull-green grain, and to see, far away in the blue lowlands, the town shining as a cheerful white spot, and the gleam of its churches; to yawn mightily, cross himself at the faint sound of the bells, and take the reins from the hands of the half-slumbering old man, who sat relaxed like a child in the morning chill and was as white as chalk in the light of the dawn.
But on this occasion Tikhon Ilitch sent off the carts with his head man and drove himself in a runabout. The night was warm and bright; there was a rosy tone in the moonlight. He drove fast, but became extremely weary. The lights on the Fair buildings, the jail and the hospital, were visible from the steppe at a distance of ten versts as one approached the town, and it seemed as if one would never reach them—those distant, sleepy lights. And at the posting-house on the Ststchepnoy Square it was so hot, and the fleas bit so viciously, and voices rang out so frequently at the entrance-gate, and the carts rattled so as they drove into the stone-paved courtyard, and the cocks began to screech and the pigeons to start their rumbling coo so early, and the sky to grow white beyond the open windows, that he never closed an eye. He slept little the second night, too, which he tried to pass at the Fair in his cart. The horses neighed, lights blazed in the stalls, people walked and talked all around him; and at dawn, when his eyelids were fairly sticking together with sleep, the bells on the jail and the hospital began to ring. And right over his head the horrible bellow of a cow boomed out. “Might as well be a criminal condemned to hard labour in prison!” was a thought which recurred incessantly during those days and nights. “Struggling—getting all snarled up—and going to destruction over trifles, absurdities!”
The Fair, scattered over the town pasture land for a whole verst, was, as usual, noisy and muddled. Brooms, scythes, wooden tubs with handles, shovels, wheels lay about in heaps. A dull, discordant roar hung over it all—the neighing of horses, the shrilling of children’s whistles, the polkas and marches thundered out by the orchestrions of the merry-go-rounds. An idle, chattering throng of peasant men and women surged about in waves from morning till night on the dusty, dung-strewn alleyways among the carts and stalls, the horses and the cows, the amusement sheds and the eating booths, whence were wafted fetid odours of frying grease. As always, there was a huge throng of horse-dealers, who injected a terrible irritability into all discussion and barter. Blind men and paupers, beggars, cripples on crutches and in carts, filed past in endless bands, chanting their snuffling ballads. The troika team of the rural police chief moved slowly through the crowd, its bells jingling, restrained by a coachman in a sleeveless velveteen coat and a hat adorned with peacock feathers.
Tikhon Ilitch had many customers. But nothing beyond empty chaffer resulted. Gipsies came, blue-black of face; Jews from the south-west, grey of countenance, red-haired, covered with dust, in long, wide coats of canvas and boots down at the heel; sun-browned members of the gentry class of small estates, in sleeveless peasant over-jackets and caps; the commissary of rural police and the village policeman; the wealthy merchant Safonoff, an old man wearing a sort of overcoat affected by the lower classes, fat, clean-shaven, and smoking a cigar. The handsome hussar officer, Prince Bakhtin, came also, accompanied by his wife in an English walking suit, and Khvostoff, the decrepit hero of the Sevastopol campaign, tall, bony, with large features and a dark, wrinkled face, wearing a long uniform coat, sagging trousers, broad-toed boots, and a big uniform cap with a yellow band beneath which his dyed locks, of a dead dark-brown shade, were combed forward on his temples.
All these people gave themselves the air of being expert judges, talked fluently about colours, paces, discoursed about the horses they owned. The petty landed gentry lied and boasted. Bakhtin did not condescend to speak to Tikhon Ilitch, although the latter rose respectfully at his approach and said: “’Tis a suitable horse for Your Illustrious Highness, sir.” Bakhtin merely fell back a pace as he inspected the horse, smiled gravely into his moustache, which he wore with side-supplements, and exchanged brief suggestions with his wife as he wriggled his leg in his cherry-coloured cavalry breeches.
But Khvostoff, shuffling up to the horse and casting a sidelong fiery glance at it, came to a halt in such a posture that it seemed as if he were on the point of falling down, elevated his crutch, and for the tenth time demanded in a dull, absolutely expressionless voice: “How much do you ask for him?”
And Tikhon Ilitch was obliged to answer them all. Out of sheer boredom he bought a little book entitled “Oï, Schmul and Rivke: Collection of fashionable farces, puns, and stories, from the wanderings of our worthy Hebrews”—and, as he sat in his cart, he dipped into it frequently. But no sooner did he begin to read: “Iveryboady knows, zhentelmen, zat vee, ze Zhews, iss ferightfully foand of beezness,” than some one hailed him. And Tikhon Ilitch raised his eyes and answered, although with an effort and with clenched jaws.
He grew extremely thin, sunburned, yet pallid, flew into bad tempers, and was conscious of being bored to death and of feeling weak all over. He got his stomach so badly out of order that he had cramps. He was compelled to resort to the hospital; and there he waited two hours for his turn, seated in a resounding corridor, inhaling the repulsive odour of carbolic acid and feeling as if he were not Tikhon Ilitch and a person of consequence, but rather as if he were waiting humbly in the ante-room of his master or of some official. And when the doctor—who resembled a deacon, a red-faced, bright-eyed man in a bob-tailed coat, redolent of soap, with a sniff—applied his cold ear to his chest, he made haste to say that his belly-ache was almost gone, and did not refuse a dose of castor oil simply because he was too timid to do so. When he returned to the Fair ground he gulped down a glass of vodka flavoured with pepper and salt, and began once more to eat sausage, sour black rye bread made of second-rate flour, and to drink tea, raw vodka, and sour cabbage soup—and he was still unable to quench his thirst. His acquaintances advised him to refresh himself with beer, and he went for some. The lame kvas-dealer shouted: “Here’s your fine kvas, the sort that makes your nose sting! A kopek a glass—prime lemonade!” And Tikhon Ilitch bade the kvas-peddler halt. “He-ere’s your ices!” chanted in a tenor voice a bald, perspiring vendor, a paunch-bellied old man in a red shirt. And Tikhon Ilitch ate, with the little bone spoon, ices which were hardly more than snow, and which made his head ache cruelly.
Dusty, ground to powder by feet, wheels, and hoofs, littered and covered with dung, the pasture was already being deserted—the Fair was dispersing. But Tikhon Ilitch, as if with deliberate intent to spite some one or other, persisted in keeping his unsold horses there in the heat, and sat on and on in his cart. It seemed as if he were overwhelmed not so much by illness as by the spectacle of the great poverty, the vast wretchedness which, from time immemorial, had reigned over this town and its whole county. Lord God, what a country! Black-loam soil over three feet deep! But—what of that? Never did five years pass without a famine. The town was famous throughout all Russia as a grain mart—but not more than a hundred persons in the whole town ate their fill of the grain. And the Fair? Beggars, idiots, blind men, cripples—a whole regiment of them—and such monstrosities as it made one frightened and sick at the stomach to behold!
ON a hot, sunny morning Tikhon Ilitch started homeward through the big Old Town. First he drove through the town and the bazaar, past the cathedral, across the shallow little river, which reeked with the sourly fetid odour of the tanyards, and beyond the river, up the hill, through the Black Suburb. In the bazaar he and his brother had once worked in Matorin’s shop. Now every one in the bazaar bowed low before him. In the Black Suburb his childhood had been passed. There, halfway up the hill, among the mud huts embedded in the ground, with their black and decaying roofs, in the midst of dung which lay drying in the sun for use as fuel, amid litter, ashes, and rags, it had been his great delight to race, with shrill shouting and whistling, after the poverty-stricken teacher of the county school—a malicious, depraved old man, long since expelled from his post, who wore felt boots summer and winter, under-drawers, and a short overcoat with a beaver collar which was peeling off. He had been known to the town by the peculiar nickname of “the Dog’s Pistol.”
Not a trace was now left of that mud hut in which Tikhon Ilitch had been born and had grown up. On its site stood a small new house of planking, with a rusty sign over the entrance: “Ecclesiastical Tailor Soboleff.” Everything else in the Suburb was precisely as it had always been—pigs and hens in the narrow alleys; tall poles at the gateways, and on each pole a ram’s horn; the big pallid faces of the lace-makers peering forth from behind the pots of flowers in the tiny windows; bare-legged little urchins with one suspender over a shoulder, launching a paper snake with a tail of bast fibre; quiet flaxen-haired little girls engaged in their favourite play, burying a doll, beside the mound of earth encircling the house.
On the plain at the crest of the hill, he crossed himself before the cemetery, behind the fence of which, among the trees, was the grave which had once been such a source of terror to him—that of the rich miser Zykoff, which had caved in at the very moment when they were filling it. And, after a moment’s reflection, he turned the horse in at the gate of the cemetery.
By the side of that large white gate had been wont to sit uninterruptedly, jingling a little bell to which were attached a handle and a small bag, a squint-eyed monk garbed in a black cassock and boots red with age—an extremely powerful, shaggy, and fierce fellow, to judge by appearances; a drunkard, with a remarkable command of abusive language. No monk was there now. In his place sat an old woman, busy knitting a stocking. She looked like the ancient crone of a fairy tale, with spectacles, a beak, and sunken lips. She was one of the widows who lived in the asylum by the cemetery.
“’Morning, my good woman!” Tikhon Ilitch called out pleasantly, as he hitched his horse to a post near the gate. “Can you look after my horse?”
The old woman rose to her feet, made a deep reverence, and mumbled: “Yes, batiushka.”
Tikhon Ilitch removed his cap, crossed himself once more, rolling his eyes upward as he did so before the holy picture of the Assumption of the Mother of God over the gateway, and added: “Are there many of you nowadays?”
“Twelve old women in all, batiushka.”
“Well, and do you squabble often?”
“Yes, often, batiushka.”
Tikhon Ilitch walked at a leisurely pace among the trees and the crosses along the alley leading to the ancient wooden church, once painted in ochre. During the Fair he had had his hair cut close and his beard trimmed and shortened, and he was looking much younger. His leanness and sunburn also contributed to the youthfulness of his appearance. The delicate skin shone white on the recently clipped triangles on his temples. The memories of his childhood and youth made him younger; so did his new peaked canvas cap. His face was thoughtful. He glanced from side to side. How brief, how devoid of meaning, was life! And what peace, what repose, was round about, in that sunny stillness within the enclosure of the ancient churchyard! A hot breeze drifted across the crests of the bright trees which pierced the cloudless sky, their foliage made scanty before its season by the torrid heat, their light, transparent shadows cast in waves athwart the stones and monuments. And when it died away the sun once more heated up the flowers and the grass; birds warbled sweetly in the languor; sumptuously-hued butterflies sank motionless upon the hot paths. On one cross Tikhon Ilitch read:
“What terrible quit-rents
Doth Death collect from men!”
But there was nothing awful about the spot. He strolled on, even noticing with considerable satisfaction that the cemetery was growing; that many new and excellent mausoleums had made their appearance among those ancient stones in the shapes of coffins on legs, heavy cast-iron plates, and huge rough crosses, already in process of decay, which now filled it. “Died in the year 1819, on November 7, at five o’clock in the morning”—it was painful to read such inscriptions: death was repulsive at dawn of a stormy autumnal day, in that old county town! But alongside it a marble angel gleamed white through the trees, as he stood there with eyes fixed upon the blue sky; and beneath it, on the mirror-smooth black granite, were cut in gold letters the words: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” On the iron monument of some Collegiate Assessor, tinted in rainbow hues by foul weather and the hand of time, one could decipher the verses:
“His Tsar he honourably served,
His neighbour cordially loved,
And was revered of men.”
And these verses struck Tikhon Ilitch as hypocritical. But in this place even a lie was touching. For—where is truth? Yonder in the bushes lies a human jawbone, neglected, looking as if it were made of dirty wax—all that remains of a man. But is it all? Flowers, ribbons, crosses, coffins, and bones in the earth decay—all is death and corruption. But Tikhon Ilitch walked on further and read: “Thus it is in the resurrection of the dead; it is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.”—“Our darling son, thy memory will never die in our hearts to all eternity!”
His brow furrowed even more severely; he removed his cap and made the sign of the cross. He was pale, and still weak from his illness. He recalled his childhood—his youth—Kuzma. He walked to the far corner of the cemetery where all his relatives were buried—father, mother, the sister who had died when a little girl. The inscriptions spoke touchingly and peacefully of rest, repose; of tenderness towards fathers, mothers, husbands and wives; of a love which, apparently, does not exist and never will exist on this earth; of that devotion to one another and submission to God, that fervent faith in a future life, that meeting once more in another and blessed land, in which one believes only here; and of that equality which death alone confers—of those moments when folk bestow the last kiss upon the lips of the dead beggar as on a brother’s, compare him with kings and prelates, say over him the loftiest and most solemn words.
And there in a distant corner of the enclosure, among bushes of elder which dozed in the parching heat—there where formerly had been graves, but now were only mounds and hollows, overgrown with grass and white flowers—Tikhon Ilitch saw a fresh little grave, the grave of a child, and on the cross a couplet:
“Softly, leaves: do not rustle,
Do not wake my Kostya dear.”
And as he recalled his own child, crushed in its sleep by the dumb cook, he began to blink back the welling tears.
NO one ever drove on the highway which ran past the cemetery and lost itself among the rolling fields. Now and then some light-footed tramp straggled along it—some young fellow in a faded pink shirt and drawers of parti-coloured patches. But people drove on the country road alongside. Along that country road drove Tikhon Ilitch also. His first encounter was with a dilapidated public carriage which approached at racing speed—provincial cabmen drive wildly!—and in which sat a huntsman, an official of the bank. At his feet lay a spotted setter dog; on his knees rested a gun in its cover; his legs were encased in tall wading-boots, though there had never been any marshes in the county. Next, diving across the dusty hummocks, came a young postman mounted on a bicycle of an ancient model, with an enormous front wheel and a tiny rear one. He frightened the horse, and Tikhon Ilitch gritted his teeth with rage; the rascal ought to be degraded to the ranks of the workingmen! The mid-day sun scorched; a hot breeze was blowing; the cloudless sky became slate-coloured. And, as he meditated upon the brevity and senselessness of life, Tikhon Ilitch turned away with ever-increasing irritation from the dust which whirled along the road, and with ever-increasing anxiety cast sidelong glances at the spindling, prematurely drying stalks of the grain.
Throngs of pilgrims armed with long staffs, tortured by fatigue and the heat, tramped on at a peaceful gait. They made low, meek reverences to Tikhon Ilitch; but their obeisances struck him as shams. “Those fellows meek! I’ll bet they fight among themselves like cats and dogs at their halting-places!” he muttered. Drunken peasants returning from the Fair—red-headed, black-haired, flaxen-haired, but all alike hideous and tattered, and with about ten crowded into each cart—raised clouds of dust as they whipped up their wretched little horses. As he overtook their rattling carts Tikhon Ilitch shook his head. “Ugh, you roving beggars, may the devil fly away with you.”
One of them, in a print shirt torn to ribbons, lay fast asleep and was bumped about like a corpse, stretched supine with his head thrown back, his beard blood-stained, his nose swollen and clotted with dried blood. Another stumbled as he ran after his cap, which had been blown off by the wind; and Tikhon Ilitch, with malicious delight, lashed him with his whip. Then came a cart filled with sieves, shovels, and peasant women. They sat with their backs to the horses, rattling and bumping about. One had a new child’s cap on her head, worn wrong side before; another was singing with her mouth full of bread; a third flourished her arms and, laughing, shouted after Tikhon Ilitch: “Hey there, uncle, you’ve lost your linch-pin!” And Tikhon Ilitch reined in his horse, let them catch up with him, and lashed this woman, too, with his whip.
Beyond the toll-gate, where the highway turned off to one side, and where the rattling peasant carts fell to the rear, and silence, the wide space and sultriness of the steppe reigned, he felt once more that, in spite of everything, the chief item in the world was Business. He thought with supreme scorn of the landed proprietors, putting on swagger at the Fair—they, with their wretched troika teams! Ekh, and the poverty on every side! The peasants were utterly ruined, with not a scrap left on their impoverished little farms scattered about the country. A master was needed here—a master!
“But you’re not the right master, my good fellow!” he announced to himself with a spiteful grin. “You’re a poor, crazy, landless stick yourself!”
Midway of his journey lay Rovnoe, a large village in which the inhabitants were freeholders. A scorching breeze coursed through the deserted streets and across the heat-singed bushes. Fowls were ruffling up their feathers and burying themselves in the ashes at the thresholds. A church of crude hue reared itself starkly, harshly on the bare common. Beyond the church a tiny clayey pond gleamed in the sunlight below a dam of manure, a sheet of thick yellow water in which stood a herd of cows, incessantly discharging according to the demands of nature; and there a naked peasant was soaping his head. He, too, had waded into the water up to his waist; on his breast glistened his brass baptismal cross; his neck and face were black with sunburn, his body strikingly white, pallid.
“Unbridle my horse for me,” said Tikhon Ilitch, driving into the pond, which reeked of the cattle.
The peasant tossed his fragment of blue-marbled soap on the shore, black with cow-dung, and, his head all grey, with a modest gesture as though to cover himself, he made haste to comply with the command. The mare bent greedily to the water, but it was so warm and repulsive that she raised her muzzle and turned away. Whistling to her, Tikhon Ilitch waved his cap:
“Well, nice water you have! Do you drink it?”
“Well, then, and is yours sugar-water, I wonder?” retorted the peasant, amiably and gaily. “We’ve been drinking it these thousand years! But what’s water?—’tis bread we’re lacking.”
And Tikhon Ilitch was forced to hold his tongue; for in Durnovka the water was no better, and there was no bread there either. What was more, there would be none.
Beyond Rovnoe the road ran again through fields of rye—but what fields! The grain was spindling, weak, almost wholly lacking in ears, and smothered in corn-flowers. And near Vyselki, not far from Durnovka, clouds of rooks perched on the gnarled, hollow willow-trees with their silvery beaks wide open. Nothing was left of Vyselki that day save its name—the rest was only black skeletons of cottages in the midst of rubbish! The rubbish was smoking, with a milky-bluish emanation; there was a rank odour of burning. And the thought of a conflagration from lightning transfixed Tikhon Ilitch. “Calamity!” he said to himself, turning pale. Nothing he owned was insured: everything might be reduced to ashes in an hour.
FROM that Fast of St. Peter, that memorable trip to the Fair, Tikhon Ilitch began to drink frequently—not to the point of downright drunkenness, but to the stage at which his face became passably red. This did not, however, interfere in the slightest degree with his business, and, according to his own account, it did not interfere with his health. “Vodka polishes the blood,” he was wont to remark; and, truth to tell, to all appearances he became more robust than ever. Not infrequently now he called his life that of a galley-slave—the hangman’s noose—a gilded cage. But he strode along his pathway with ever-increasing confidence, paying no attention to the condition of the weather or the road. Commonplace, uneventful days ruled supreme in his house, and several years passed in such monotonous fashion that everything merged together into one long working-day. But certain new, vast events which no one had looked for came to pass—the war with Japan and the revolution.
The rumours concerning the war began, of course, with bragging. “The kazaks will soon flay his yellow skin off him, brother!” But it smouldered so very short a time, this pale image of former boasts! A different sort of talk speedily made itself heard.
“We have more land than we can manage!” said Tikhon Ilitch, in the stern tone of an expert—probably for the first time in the whole course of his life not referring to his own land in Durnovka, but to the whole expanse of Russia. “’Tis not war, sir, but downright madness!”
Another thing made itself felt, the sort of thing which has prevailed from time immemorial—the inclination to take the winning side. And the news about the frightful defeats of the Russian army excited his enthusiasm: “Ukh, that’s fine. Curse them, the brutes!” He waxed enthusiastic also over the conquests of the revolution, over the assassinations: “That Minister got a smashing blow!” said Tikhon Ilitch occasionally, in the fire of his ecstasy. “He got such a good one that not even his ashes were left!”
But his uneasiness increased, too. As soon as any discussion connected with the land came up, his wrath awoke. “’Tis all the work of the Jews! Of the Jews, and of those frowzy long-haired fellows, the students!” What irritated Tikhon Ilitch worst of all was, that the son of the deacon in Ulianovka, a student in the Theological Seminary who was hanging around without work and living on his father, called himself a Social-Democrat. And the whole situation was incomprehensible. Everybody was talking about the revolution, the Revolution, while round about everything was going on the same as ever, in the ordinary everyday fashion: the sun shone, the rye blossomed in the fields, the carts wended their way to the station. The populace were incomprehensible in their taciturnity, in the evasiveness of their talk.
“They’re an underhand lot, the populace! They fairly scare one with their slyness!” said Tikhon Ilitch. And, forgetting the Jews, he added: “Let us assume that not all that music is craft. Changing the government and evening up the shares of land—why, an infant could understand that, sir. And, naturally,’tis perfectly clear to whom they will pay court—that populace, sir. But, of course, they hold their tongues. And, of course, we must watch, and try to meet their humour, so that they may go on holding their tongues. We must put a spoke in their wheel! If you don’t, look out for yourself: they’ll scent success, they’ll get wind of the fact that they’ve got the breeching under their tail—and they’ll smash things to smithereens, sir!”
When he read or heard that land was to be taken from only such as possessed more than five hundred desyatini he himself became an “agitator.” He even entered into disputes with the Durnovka people. This is the sort of thing that would happen:—
A peasant stood alongside Tikhon Ilitch’s shop; the man had bought vodka at the railway station, dried salt fish and cracknels at the shop, and had doffed his cap; but he prolonged his enjoyment, and said:
“No, Tikhon Ilitch, ’tis no use your explaining. It can be taken, at a just price. But not the way you say—that’s no good.”
An odour arose from the pine boards piled up near the granary, opposite the yard. The dried fish and the linden bast on which the cracknels were strung had an irritating smell. The hot locomotive of the freight-train could be heard hissing and getting up steam beyond the trees, behind the buildings of the railway station. Tikhon Ilitch stood bare-headed beside his shop, screwing up his eyes and smiling slily. Smilingly he made reply:
“Bosh! But what if he is not a master, but a tramp?”
“Who? The noble owner, you mean?”
“No—a low-born man.”
“Well, that’s a different matter. ’Tis no sin to take it from such a man, with all his innards to boot!”
“Well now, that’s exactly the point!”
But another rumour reached them: the land would be taken from those who owned less than five hundred desyatini! And immediately his soul was assailed by preoccupation, suspicion, irritability. Everything that was done in the house began to seem abhorrent.
Egorka, the assistant, brought flour-sacks out of the shop and began to shake them. And the man’s head reminded him of the head of the town fool, “Duck-Headed Matty.” The crown of his head ran up to a point, his hair was harsh and thick—“Now, why is it that fools have such thick hair?”—his forehead was sunken, his face resembled an oblique egg, he had protruding eyes, and his eyelids, with their calf-like lashes, seemed drawn tightly over them; it looked as if there were not enough skin—if he were to close his eyes, his mouth would fly open of necessity, and if he closed his mouth, he would be compelled to open his eyes very wide. And Tikhon Ilitch shouted spitefully: “Babbler! Blockhead! What are you shaking your head at me for?”
The cook brought out a smallish box, opened it, placed it upside down on the ground, and began to thump the bottom with her fist. And, understanding what that meant, Tikhon Ilitch slowly shook his head: “Akh, you housewife, curse you! You’re knocking out the cockroaches?”
“There’s a regular cloud of them in there!” replied the cook gaily. “When I peeped in—Lord, what a sight!”
And, gritting his teeth, Tikhon Ilitch walked out to the highway and gazed long at the rolling plain, in the direction of Durnovka.
HIS living-rooms, the kitchen, the shop, and the granary, where formerly his liquor-trade had been carried on, constituted a single mass under one iron roof. On three sides the straw-thatched sheds of the cattle-yard were closely connected with it, and a pleasing quadrangle was thus obtained. The porch and all the windows faced the south. But the view was cut off by the grain-sheds, which stood opposite the windows and across the road. To the right was the railway station, to the left the highway. Beyond the highway was a small grove of birches. And when Tikhon Ilitch felt out of sorts, he went out on the highway. It ran southward in a white winding ribbon from hillock to hillock, ever following the fields in their declivities and rising again toward the horizon from the far-away watch-tower, where the railway, coming from the south-east, intersected it. And if any one of the Durnovka peasants chanced to be driving to Ulianovka—one of the more energetic and clever, that is, such as Yakoff, whom every one called Yakoff Mikititch because he was greedy, and held fast to his little store of grain a second year, and owned three excellent horses—Tikhon Ilitch stopped him.
“You might buy yourself a cheap little cap with a visor, at least!” he shouted to Yakoff, with a grin.
Yakoff, in a peakless cap, hemp-crash shirt, and trousers of heavy striped linen, was sitting barefoot on the side-rail of his springless cart.
“’Morning, Tikhon Ilitch,” he said, staidly.
“’Morning! I tell you, ’tis time you sacrificed your round cap for a jackdaw’s nest!”
Yakoff, grinning shrewdly earthwards, shook his head.
“That—how should it be expressed?—would not be a bad idea. But, you see, my capital, so to speak, will not permit.”
“Oh, stop your babbling. We know all about you Kazan orphans! You’ve married off your girl, and got a wife for your lad, and you have plenty of money. What more is there left for you to want from the Lord God?”
This flattered Yakoff, but he became more uncommunicative than ever. “O, Lord!” he muttered, with a sigh, in a sort of chuckling tone. “Money—I don’t know the sight of it, so to speak. And my lad—well, what of him? The boy’s no comfort to me. No comfort at all, to speak the plain truth! Young folks are no comfort nowadays!”
Yakoff, like many peasants, was extremely nervous, especially if his family or his affairs were in question. He was remarkably secretive, but on such occasions nervousness overpowered him, although only his disconnected, trembling speech betrayed the fact. So, in order to complete his disquiet, Tikhon Ilitch inquired sympathetically: “So he isn’t a comfort? Tell me, pray, is it all because of the woman?”
Yakoff, looking about him, scratched his breast with his finger-nails. “Yes, because of the woman, his wife, his father may go break his back with work.”
“Is she jealous?”
“Yes, she is. People set me down as the lover of my daughter-in-law.”
“H’m!” ejaculated Tikhon Ilitch sympathetically, although he knew full well that there is never smoke without fire.
But Yakoff’s eyes were already wandering: “She complained to her husband; how she complained! And, just think, she wanted to poison me. Sometimes, for example, a fellow catches cold and smokes a bit to relieve his chest. Well, she noticed that—and stuck a cigarette under my pillow. If I hadn’t happened to see it—I’d have been done for!”
“What sort of a cigarette?”
“She had pounded up the bones of dead men, and stuffed it with that in place of tobacco.”
“That boy of yours is a fool! He ought to teach her a lesson, in Russian style—the damned hussy!”
“What are you thinking of! He climbed on my breast, so to speak. And he wriggled like a serpent. I grabbed him by the head, but his head was shaved! I grabbed hold of his stomach. I hated to tear his shirt!”
Tikhon Ilitch shook his head, remained silent for a minute, and at last reached a decision: “Well, and how are things going with you over there? Are you still expecting the rebellion?”
But thereupon Yakoff’s secrecy was restored instantaneously. He grinned and waved his hand. “Well!” he muttered volubly. “What would we do with a rebellion? Our folks are peaceable. Yes, a peaceable lot.” And he tightened the reins, as though his horse were restive and would not stand.
“Then why did you have a village assembly last Sunday?” Tikhon Ilitch maliciously and abruptly interjected.
“A village assembly, did you say? The plague only knows! They started an awful row, so to speak.”
“I know what the row was about! I know!”
“Well, what of it? I’m not making a secret of it. They gabbled, so to speak, said orders had been issued—orders had been issued—that no one was to work any more at the former price.”
It was extremely mortifying to reflect that, because of wretched little Durnovka, affairs were escaping from his grasp. And there were only thirty homesteads altogether in that same Durnovka. And it was situated in a devil of a ravine: a broad gorge, with peasant cottages on one side, and on the other the tiny manor. And that manor exchanged glances with the cottages and from day to day expected some “order.” Ekh, he’d like to apply a few kazaks with their whips to the situation!
BUT the “order” came, at last. One Sunday a rumour began to circulate in Durnovka that the village assembly had worked out a plan for an attack upon the manor. With maliciously merry eyes, a feeling of unusual strength and daring, and a readiness to “break the horns of the devil himself,” Tikhon Ilitch shouted orders to have the colt harnessed to the runabout, and within ten minutes he was driving him at high speed along the highway to Durnovka. The sun was setting, after a rainy day, in greyish-red clouds; the boles of the trees in the birch-grove were crimson; the country dirt-road, which stood out as a line of blackish-purple mud amid the fresh greenery, afforded heavy going. Rose-hued foam dripped from the haunches of the colt and from the breeching which jerked about on them. But he was not considering the colt. Slapping him stoutly with the reins, Tikhon Ilitch turned aside from the railway, drove to the right along the road across the fields, and, on coming within sight of Durnovka, was inclined to doubt, for a moment, the correctness of the rumours about a rebellion. Peaceful stillness lay all about, the larks were warbling their evening song in peace, the air was simply and peacefully impregnated with an odour of damp earth and with the fragrance of wild flowers. But all of a sudden his glance fell upon the fallow-field alongside the manor, thickly sown with sweet-clover. On that fallow-field, a drove of horses belonging to the peasants was grazing!
So it had begun. And, tugging at the reins, Tikhon Ilitch flew past the drove, past the barns overgrown with burdocks and nettles, past a low-growing cherry-orchard filled with sparrows, past the stables and the cottages of the domestics, and leaped with a bound into the farmyard.
Then something incongruous happened. There, in the twilight, in the middle of the field, sat Tikhon Ilitch in his runabout, overwhelmed with wrath, mortification, and terror. His heart beat violently, his hands trembled, his face burned, his hearing was as acute as that of a wild animal. There he sat, listening to the shouts which were wafted from Durnovka, and recalled how the crowd, which had seemed to him immense, on catching sight of him from afar had swarmed across the gorge to the manor and filled the yard with uproar and abusive words, had massed themselves on the porch and pinioned him against the door. All the weapon he had had was the whip in his hand. And he brandished it, now retreating, now hurling himself in desperation against the crowd. But the harness-maker, a vicious emaciated fellow with a sunken belly and a sharp nose, wearing tall boots and a lavender print shirt, advanced brandishing his stick even more furiously. On behalf of the whole throng, he screeched that an order had been issued to “make an end of that outfit”—to make an end on one and the same day and hour throughout the entire government. The hired labourers from outside were to be chased out of all the estates and replaced with local labourers—at a ruble a day!—while the owners were to be expelled neck and crop, in any direction, so that they would never be seen again. And Tikhon Ilitch yelled still more frantically, in the endeavour to drown out the harness-maker: “A—a! So that’s it! Have you been whetting yourself, you tramp, on the deacon’s son? Have you lost your wits?”
But the harness-maker disputatiously caught his words on the fly: “Tramp yourself!” he yelled until he was hoarse, and his face was suffused with blood. “You’re an old fool! Haven’t I managed to get along all my life without the deacon’s son? Don’t I know how much land you own? How much is it, you skinflint? Two hundred desyatini? But I—damn it!—own, in all, about as much ground as is covered by your porch! And why? Who are you? Who are you, anyway, I ask you? What’s your brew—any better sort than the rest of us?”
“Come to your senses, Mitka!” shouted Tikhon Ilitch helplessly at last; and, conscious that his wits were getting muddled, he made a dash through the crowd to his runabout. “I’ll pay you off for this!”
But no one was afraid of his threats, and unanimous laughter, yells, and whistling followed him. Then he had made the round of the manor-estate, his heart sinking within him, and listened. He drove out upon the road to the cross-roads and halted with his face to the darkening west, toward the railway station, holding himself in readiness to whip up his horse at any moment. It was very quiet, warm, damp, and dark. The land, which rose toward the horizon, where a faint reddish gleam still smouldered, was as black as the nethermost abyss.
“Sta-and still, you carrion!” Tikhon Ilitch whispered through set teeth to his restive horse. “Sta-and still!”
And, from afar, first shouts, then songs, were wafted to him. And among all the voices the voice of Vanka Krasny, who had already been twice in the mines of the Donetz Basin, was distinguishable above the rest. And then, suddenly, a dark-fiery column rose above the manor-house: the peasants had shaken off all the immature fruit in the orchard and set fire to the watchman’s hut. A pistol which the gardener, a petty burgher, had left behind him in the hut began to discharge itself, out of the fire.
It became known, later on, that in truth a remarkable thing had taken place. On one and the same day, the peasants had risen through almost the entire county. The inns in the town were crowded for a long time thereafter with land-owners who had sought protection of the authorities. Afterwards, Tikhon Ilitch recalled with shame that he also had sought it—with shame, because the whole uprising had been limited to the Durnovka people’s shouting for a while, doing a lot of damage, and then quieting down. The harness-maker began, before long, to present himself in the shop at Vorgol as though nothing whatever had happened, and doffed his cap on the threshold as if he did not perceive that Tikhon Ilitch’s face darkened at his appearance. Nevertheless, rumours were still in circulation to the effect that the Durnovka folk intended to murder Tikhon Ilitch. And he, afraid to be caught out after dark on the road from Durnovka, fumbled in his pocket for his bulldog revolver, which weighed down the pocket of his full trousers in an annoying manner, and registered a vow that he would burn Durnovka to the ground some fine night, or poison the water in the Durnovka wells. Then even these rumours died away. But Tikhon Ilitch began to think seriously of ridding himself of Durnovka. “Real money is the money in your pocket, not the money you’re going to inherit from your grandmother!” Moreover, the peasants had become impudent in their manner to him, and they seemed peculiarly well-informed. The Durnovka folks knew “all the ins and outs of things,” and for that reason alone, if for no other, it was stupid to entrust the oversight and management of affairs at the manor to any of the Durnovka labourers. More than that, Rodka was the village Elder.
That year—the most alarming of all recent years—Tikhon Ilitch reached the age of fifty. But he had not abandoned his dream of becoming a father. And, lo and behold, precisely that was what brought him into collision with Rodka.
RODKA, a tall, thin, sullen young fellow from Ulianovka, had gone two years previously to live with Fedot, the brother of Yakoff; he had married, and had buried Fedot, who had died from over-drinking at the wedding; and he had then gone away to do his military service. But the bride, a young woman with fine figure, an extremely white, soft skin faintly tinged with crimson, and eyelashes for ever downcast, began to work for daily wages at the farm. And those eyelashes perturbed Tikhon Ilitch terribly. The peasant women of Durnovka wear “horns” on their heads: immediately after the wedding they coil their braided hair on the crown of the head and cover it with a kerchief, which produces a queer effect, similar to the horns of a cow. They wear dark-blue skirts of the antique pattern, trimmed with galloon, a white apron not unlike a sarafan in shape, and bast-slippers. But the Bride—that name stuck to her—was beautiful in that garb. And one evening in the dark barn, where the Bride was alone and finishing the clearing up of the rye-ears, Tikhon Ilitch, after casting a precautionary glance around him, entered, went up to her, and said hastily: “You shall have pretty shoes and silk kerchiefs. I shall not begrudge a twenty-five-ruble banknote!”
But the Bride remained silent as death.
“Do you hear what I say?” cried Tikhon Ilitch, in a whisper.
But the Bride seemed turned to stone, and with bowed head went on wielding her rake.
So he accomplished nothing at all. All of a sudden, Rodka appeared—ahead of his time, and minus an eye. That was soon after the rebellion of the Durnovka peasants, and Tikhon Ilitch immediately hired him and his wife for the Durnovka farm, on the ground that “nowadays it won’t do to be without a soldier on the place.” About St. Ilya’s Day, while Rodka had gone off to the town, the Bride was scrubbing the floors in the house. Picking his way among the puddles, Tikhon Ilitch entered the room, cast a glance at the Bride, who was bending over the floor—at her white calves bespattered with dirty water—at the whole of her plump body as it flattened out before him. And, suddenly turning the key in the door, he strode up to the Bride. She straightened up hastily, raised her flushed, agitated face and, clutching in her hand the dripping floor-rag, screamed at him in a strange tone: “I’ll give you a soaking, young fellow!”
An odour of hot soapsuds, heated body, perspiration, pervaded the air. Seizing the Bride by the hand, he squeezed it in a brutal grip, shaking it and making her drop the rag. Tikhon Ilitch grasped the Bride by the waist with his right arm—pressed her to him with such force that her bones cracked—and bore her off into another room where there was a bed. And the Bride, with head thrown back and eyes staring wide open, no longer struggled, no longer resisted.
After that incident it was painful to the point of torment to see his wife, to see Rodka; to know that Rodka slept with the Bride, that he beat her ferociously every day and every night. But before long the situation became alarming as well. Inscrutable are the ways by which a jealous man arrives at the truth. And Rodka found out. Lean, one-eyed, long-armed, and strong as an ape, with a small closely-cropped black head which he always carried bent forward as he shot sidelong glances from his deep-set eyes, he became downright terrifying. During his service as a soldier he had acquired a stock of Little Russian words and an accent. And if the Bride ventured to make any reply to his curt, harsh speeches, he calmly picked up his leather-strap knout, approached her with a vicious grin, and calmly inquired, accenting the “re”: “What’s that you’re remarking?” Thereupon he gave her such a flogging that everything turned black before her eyes.
On one occasion Tikhon Ilitch himself happened upon a thrashing of this sort and, unable to restrain his indignation, shouted: “What are you doing, you damned rascal?” But Rodka quietly seated himself on the bench and merely looked at him. “What’s that you’re remarking?” he inquired. And Tikhon Ilitch made haste to retreat, slamming the door behind him.
Wild thoughts began to dart through his mind. Should he poison his wife?—with stove-gas, for example?—or should he arrange matters so that Rodka would be crushed by a falling roof or earth? But one month passed, then another—and hope, that hope which had inspired in him these intoxicating thoughts, was cruelly deceived. The Bride was not pregnant. Every one in Durnovka was convinced that it was Rodka’s fault. Tikhon Ilitch himself was convinced of it, and cherished strong hopes. But one day in September, when Rodka was absent at the railway station, Tikhon Ilitch presented himself and fairly groaned aloud at the sight of the face of the Bride, all its feminine beauty distorted with terror.
“Are you done for again?” he cried, as he ran up the steps of the porch.
The Bride’s lips turned white, her nose became waxen in hue, and her eyes opened very wide; yet again, it appeared, she was not with child. She expected to receive a deadly blow on the head, and involuntarily recoiled from it. But Tikhon Ilitch controlled himself, merely uttering a groan of pain and rage.
A moment later he took his departure—and from that day forth Rodka had no reason for jealousy. Conscious of that fact, Rodka began to feel timid in the presence of Tikhon Ilitch. And the latter now harboured, secretly, only one desire: to drive Rodka out of his sight, and that as speedily as possible. But whom could he find to take his place?
ACCIDENT came to the rescue of Tikhon Ilitch. Quite unexpectedly he became reconciled to his brother, and persuaded him to undertake the management of Durnovka.
He had learned from an acquaintance in the town that Kuzma had ceased to drink and for a long time had been serving as clerk with a landed proprietor named Kasatkin. And, what was most amazing of all, he had become “an author.” Yes, it was said that he had printed a whole little volume of his verses, and on the cover was the inscription: “For sale by the Author.”
“Oh, come no-ow!” drawled Tikhon Ilitch when he heard this. “He’s the same old Kuzma, and that’s all right! But let me ask one thing: Did he really print it so—‘The Works of Kuzma Krasoff’?”
“Give you my word he did,” replied the acquaintance, being fully persuaded, nevertheless—as were many others in the town—that Kuzma “skinned” his verses from books and newspapers.
Thereupon Tikhon Ilitch, without quitting his seat at the table of Daeff’s eating-house, wrote a brief, peremptory letter to his brother: ’twas high time for old men to make peace, to repent. And there, in that same eating-house, the reconciliation took place—swiftly, almost without the utterance of a word. And on the following day came the business talk.
It was morning; the eating-house was still almost empty. The sun shone through the dusty windows, lighted up the small tables covered with greyish-red tablecloths, the floor newly washed with bran and emitting an odour of the stable, and the waiters in their white shirts and white trousers. In a cage a canary was singing in all possible modulations, but like a mechanical bird which had been wound up rather than a live one. Next door, the bells of St. Michael Archangel’s church were ringing for the Liturgy, and the dense, sonorous peal shook the walls and boomed quivering overhead. With nervous, serious countenance, Tikhon Ilitch seated himself at a table, ordered at first only tea for two, but became impatient and reached for the bill-of-fare—a novelty which had excited the mirth of all Daeff’s patrons. On the card was printed: “A small carafe of vodka, with snack, 25 kopeks. With tasty snack, 40 kopeks.” Tikhon Ilitch ordered the carafe of vodka at forty kopeks. He tossed off two glasses with avidity and was on the point of drinking a third, when a long-familiar voice resounded in his ear: “Well, good morning once more.”
Kuzma was garbed in the same fashion as his brother. He was shorter of stature, with larger bones, more withered, and a trifle broader of shoulder. He had the large thin face with prominent cheek-bones of a shrewd old peasant shopkeeper, grey overhanging eyebrows, and large greenish eyes. His manner of beginning was not simple:
“First of all, I must expound to you, Tikhon Ilitch,” he began, as soon as Tikhon Ilitch had poured him a cup of tea, “I must expound to you what sort of a man I am, so that you may know”—he chuckled—“with whom you are dealing.” He had a way of enunciating his words very distinctly, elevating his brows, unfastening and fastening the upper button of his short coat while he talked. So, having buttoned it, he continued: “I, you see, am an anarchist....”
Tikhon Ilitch raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t be afraid. I don’t meddle with politics. But you can’t give a man orders how he is to think. It won’t harm you in the least. I shall manage the estate faithfully, but I tell you straight from the shoulder that I will not skin the people.”
“Anyway, that can’t be done at the present time,” sighed Tikhon Ilitch.
“Well, times are the same as they always were. It is still possible to fleece people. I’ll do my managing properly, but my leisure I shall devote to self-development. That is to say, to reading.”
“Okh, bear in mind: Too much poking in books is bad for the poke!” said Tikhon Ilitch, shaking his head, and making a grimace. “However, that’s no affair of ours.”
“Well, that’s not the way I look at it,” retorted Kuzma. “I, brother—how shall I put it to you?—I’m a strange Russian type.”
“I’m a Russian man myself, bear that in mind,” interposed Tikhon Ilitch.
“But another sort. I don’t mean to say that I’m better than you, but—I’m different. Now here are you, I see, priding yourself on being a Russian, while I, brother, okh! am very far from being a Slavophil! It’s not proper to jabber much, but one thing I will say: for God’s sake, don’t brag of being a Russian! We’re an uncivilized people and an extremely unreliable one—neither candle for God nor oven-fork for the devil. But we will discuss this as time goes on.”
Tikhon Ilitch contracted his brows, drummed on the table with his fingers. “That’s right, probably,” he said, and slowly filled his glass. “We’re a savage lot. A crack-brained race.”
“Well, and that’s precisely the point. I have, I may say, roamed about the world a good bit. Well, and what then? Absolutely nowhere have I seen more tiresome and lazy types. And those who are not lazy”—here Kuzma shot a sidelong look at his brother—“have no sense at all. They toil and strive and acquire a nest for themselves; but where’s the sense in it, after all?”
“What do you mean by that? What’s sense?” asked Tikhon Ilitch.
“Just what I say. One must use sense in making one’s nest. I’ll weave me a nest, says the man, and then I’ll live as a man should. In this way and in that.”
Here Kuzma tapped his breast and his brow with his finger.
Tikhon Ilitch poured himself out another glass of liquor. Kuzma, having donned a silver-framed pair of eyeglasses, sipped the boiling-hot amber fluid from his saucer. Tikhon Ilitch gazed at him with beaming eyes; and after turning something over in his mind, he said: “Evidently, brother, that sort of thing is not for the likes of us. If you live in the country, sup your coarse cabbage-soup and wear wretched bast-shoes. Do as your neighbours do!”
“Bast-shoes!” retorted Kuzma tartly. “We’ve been wearing them a couple of thousand years, brother—the thrice-accursed things! For two thousand years we’ve been living with our mouths agape. We’re doing the devil’s work. And who is to blame? What I have to say about it is this: ’tis high time to get ashamed of casting shame for everything on our neighbours—blaming our neighbours instead of ourselves! The Tatars oppressed us, you see! We’re a young nation, you see! Just as if, over there in Europe, all sorts of Mongols didn’t oppress folks a lot, too! As if the Germans were any older than we are! Well, anyhow, that’s a special subject.”
“Correct!” said Tikhon Ilitch. “Come on, we’d better get down to business.”
Kuzma turned his empty glass upside down on the saucer, lighted a cigarette, and resumed his exposition.
“I don’t go to church.”
“That signifies that you are a molokan?” asked Tikhon Ilitch, and said to himself: “I’m lost! Evidently, I must get rid of Durnovka!”
“A sort of molokan,” grinned Kuzma. “And do you go to church? If it weren’t for fear and necessity, one would forget all about it.”
“Well, I’m not the first, neither am I the last,” retorted Tikhon Ilitch, again contracting his brows in a scowl. “We are all sinners. But ’tis stated, you know: One sigh buys forgiveness for everything.”
Kuzma shook his head.
“You’re saying the usual things!” he remarked, severely. “But if you will only pause and reflect, how can that be so? You’ve been living on and on pig-fashion all your life, and you utter a sigh—and everything is wiped out without leaving a trace! Is there any sense in that, or not?”
The conversation was becoming painful. “That’s correct,” Tikhon Ilitch said to himself, as he stared at the table with flashing eyes. But, as always, he wanted to dodge thought, and discussion about God and about life; and he said the first thing that came to the tip of his tongue: “I’d be glad enough to go to Paradise, but my sins won’t let me.”
“There, there, there!” Kuzma caught him up, tapping the table with his finger-nail. “The very thing we love the best, our most pernicious characteristic, is precisely that: words are one thing, deeds are quite another! ’Tis the genuine Russian tune, brother: I live disgustingly, pig-fashion, but nevertheless I am living, and I shall continue to live, pig-fashion! You’re a type, brother! A type!—Well, now talk business.”
The pealing of the bells had ceased, the canary had quieted down. People had assembled in the eating-house, and conversation was increasing at the little tables. A waiter opened a window, and chatter from the bazaar also became audible. Somewhere in a shop a quail was uttering his call, very clearly and melodiously. And while the business talk was in progress Kuzma kept listening to it, and from time to time interposed, “That’s clever!” in an undertone. And when all had been said he slapped the table with the palm of his hand and said energetically: “Well, all right, so be it—don’t let’s discuss it!” and thrusting his hand into the side pocket of his short coat, he drew forth a regular heap of papers and paper scraps, sorted out from among them a small book in a grey-marbled binding, and laid it in front of his brother. “There!” said he. “I yield to your request and to my own weakness. ’Tis a wretched little book, casual verses, written long ago. But ’tis done, and it cannot be helped. Here, take it and put it out of sight.”
And once more Tikhon Ilitch, who had already become extremely red in the face from the vodka, was agitated by the consciousness that his brother was an author; that upon that grey-marbled cover was printed: “Poems by K. I. Krasoff.” He turned the book about in his hands, and said diffidently: “Suppose you read me something. Hey? Pray do, read me three or four verses.”
And, with head bent low and in some confusion, holding the book at a distance and gazing severely at it through his glasses, Kuzma read the sort of thing which the self-taught usually write: imitations of Koltzoff and Nikitin, complaints against Fate and misery, challenges to impending storm-clouds and bad weather. It is true that he himself was conscious that all this was old and false. But behind the alien, incongruous form lay the truth—that which had been violently and painfully experienced at some time or other. And upon his thin cheek-bones patches of pink made their appearance, and his voice trembled from time to time. Tikhon Ilitch’s eyes gleamed, too. It was of no importance whether the verses were good or bad—the important point was that they had been composed by his own brother, a poor man, a simple plain fellow who reeked of cheap tobacco and old boots.
“But with us, Kuzma Ilitch,” he said when Kuzma had finished and, removing his eyeglasses, dropped his eyes, “but with us there is only one song.” And he twisted his lips unpleasantly and bitterly: “The only song we know is: ‘What’s the price of pig’s bristles?’”
NEVERTHELESS, after establishing his brother at Durnovka he set about singing that song with more gusto than ever. Before placing Durnovka in his brother’s hands, he had picked a quarrel with Rodka over some new harness-straps which had been devoured by the dogs, and had discharged him. Rodka smiled insolently by way of reply and calmly strode off to his cottage to collect his belongings. The Bride, also, listened with apparent composure to the dismissal. On breaking with Tikhon Ilitch she had resumed her habit of maintaining silence and never looking him in the eye. But half an hour later, when he had got everything together, Rodka came, accompanied by her, to ask forgiveness. The Bride remained standing on the threshold, pale, her eyes swollen with weeping, and held her peace; Rodka bowed his head, fumbled with his cap, and also made an effort to weep,—it resulted in a repulsive grimace,—but Tikhon Ilitch sat at the table with lowering brows and rattled the balls on his abacus, shaking his head the while. Not one of the three could raise his eyes—especially the Bride, who felt herself the most guilty of them all—and their entreaties were unavailing. Tikhon Ilitch showed mercy on one point only: he did not deduct the price of the straps from their wages.
Now he was on a firm foundation. Having got rid of Rodka and transferred his affairs to his brother’s charge, he felt alert, at his ease. “My brother is unreliable, a trifling fellow, apparently, but he’ll do for the present!” And returning to Vorgol he bustled about unweariedly through the whole month of October. Nastasya Petrovna was ailing all the time—her feet, hands, and face were swollen and yellow—and Tikhon Ilitch now began to meditate at times on the possibility of her dying, and bore himself with increasing lenience to her weakness, to her uselessness in all affairs connected with the house and the shop. And, as though in harmony with his mood, magnificent weather prevailed during the whole of October. But suddenly it broke up and was followed by storms and torrents of rain; and in Durnovka something utterly unexpected came to pass.
During October Rodka had been working on the railway line, and the Bride had been sitting, without work, at home, enduring the reproaches of her mother and only occasionally earning fifteen or twenty kopeks in the garden of the manor. But her behaviour was peculiar: at home she said never a word, but only wept, and in the garden she was shrilly merry, shouted with laughter, sang songs with Donka the Goat, an extremely stupid and pretty little girl who resembled an Egyptian. The Goat was living with a petty burgher who had leased the garden, while the Bride, who for some reason or other had struck up a friendship with her, made bold eyes at her brother, an impudent youth, and as she ogled him hinted in song that she was wasting away with love for some one. Whether anything occurred between them was not known, but the whole affair ended in a great catastrophe. When the petty burghers were departing for the town just before the Feast of Our Lady of Kazan they arranged an “evening party” in their watchman’s hut, invited the Goat and the Bride, played all night on two peasant pipes, fed their guests with crude delicacies, and gave them tea and vodka for beverages. And at dawn, when their cart was already harnessed, they suddenly, with roars of laughter, flung the intoxicated Bride on the ground, bound her arms, lifted her petticoats, tied them in a knot over her head, and began to fasten them securely there with a cord. The Goat started to run away, and made a headlong dive in her fright into the tall, wet steppe-grass. When she peeped out from that shelter, after the cart with the petty burghers had rolled briskly away out of the garden, she espied the Bride, naked to the waist, hanging from a tree. The dawn was dreary and overcast; a fine rain was whispering through the garden. The Goat wept in streams, and her teeth chattered as she untied the Bride from the tree, vowing by the memory of her father and mother that lightning might kill her, the Goat, but never should they discover in the village what had taken place in the garden. Nevertheless, not a week had elapsed before rumours concerning the Bride’s disgrace became current in Durnovka.
It was impossible, of course, to verify these rumours: “As for seeing it—why, nobody saw it. Well, and the Goat’s tongue was hung in the middle when it came to telling absurd tales.” The Bride herself, who had aged five years in that one week, replied to them with such insolent vituperation that even her own mother was terrified by her face at such moments. But the discussions provoked by the rumours did not cease, and every one awaited with immense impatience the arrival of Rodka and his chastisement of his wife. Much agitated—once more jarred out of his rut—Tikhon Ilitch also awaited that impending chastisement, having heard from his own labourers of what had occurred in the garden. Why, that scandal might end in murder! But it ended in such a manner that it is still a matter of doubt which would have startled the Durnovka folks more powerfully—murder, or such a termination. On the night before the Feast of St. Michael, Rodka, who had returned home “to change his shirt,” and who had not laid a finger on the Bride, died suddenly of “stomach trouble”! This became known in Vorgol late in the evening; but Tikhon Ilitch instantly gave orders to harness his horse, and drove at top speed, through the darkness and the rain, to his brother. And after having gulped down, on top of his tea, a whole bottle of fruit brandy, he made confession to him, in his burning excitement, with passionate expressions, and eyes wildly rolling: “’Tis my fault, brother; the sin is mine!”
Having heard him out, Kuzma held his peace for a long time, and for a long time paced up and down the room plucking at his fingers, twisting them, cracking their joints. At last he said: “Just think it over: is there any nation more ferocious than ours? In town, if a petty thief snatches from a hawker’s tray a pancake worth a farthing, the whole population of the eating-house section pursues him, and when they catch him they force him to eat soap. The whole town turns out for a fire, or a fight, and how sorry they are that the fire or the fight is so soon ended! Don’t shake your head, don’t do it: they are sorry! And how they revel in it when some one beats his wife to death, or thrashes a small boy within an inch of his life, or jeers at him! That’s the most amusing thing in the world.”
Tikhon Ilitch inquired: “What’s your object in saying that?”
“Just for the sake of talking!” replied Kuzma, angrily, and went on: “Take that half-witted girl, Fesha, who wanders about Durnovka, for example. The young fellows squander their last coppers on her—put her down on the village common and set to work whacking her over her cropped head, at the rate of ten whacks for a farthing! And is that done out of ill-nature? Yes, out of ill-nature, certainly; and also from a sort of stupidity, curse it! Well, and that’s the case with the Bride.”
“Bear in mind,” interrupted Tikhon Ilitch hotly, “that there are always plenty of blackguards and blockheads everywhere.”
“Exactly so. And didn’t you yourself bring that—well, what’s his name?”
“Duck-headed Motya, you mean?” asked Tikhon Ilitch.
“Yes, that’s it. Didn’t you bring him here for your own amusement?”
And Tikhon Ilitch burst out laughing: he had done that very thing. Once, even, Motya had been sent to him by the railway in a sugar-cask. The town was only about an arm’s length distant, and he knew the officials—so they sent the man to him. And the inscription on the cask ran: “With care. A complete Fool.”
“And these same fools are taught vices, for amusement!” Kuzma went on bitterly.—“The yard-gates of poor brides are smeared with tar! Beggars are hunted with dogs! For amusement, pigeons are knocked off roofs with stones! Yet, as you know, ’tis a great sin to eat those same pigeons. The Holy Spirit Himself assumes the form of a dove, you see!”
THE samovar had long since grown cold, the candle had guttered down, smoke hung over the room in a dull blue cloud, the slop-basin was filled to the very brim with soggy, reeking cigarette butts. The ventilator—a tin pipe in the upper corner of the window—was open, and once in a while a squeaking and a whirling and a terribly tiresome wailing proceeded from it—just like the one in the District offices, Tikhon Ilitch said to himself. But the smoke was so dense that ten ventilators would have been of no avail. The rain rattled on the roof and Kuzma strode from corner to corner and talked:
“Ye-es! a nice state of things, there’s no denying it! Indescribable kindliness! If you read history, your hair rises upright in horror: brother pitted against brother, kinsman against kinsman, son against father—treachery and murder, murder and treachery. The Epic legends, too, are a sheer delight: ‘he slit his white breast,’ ‘he let his bowels out on the ground,’ ‘Ilya did not spare his own daughter; he stepped on her left foot, and pulled her right foot.’ And the songs? The same thing, always the same: the stepmother is ‘wicked and greedy’; the father-in-law, ‘harsh and quarrelsome,’ sits on the sleeping-shelf above the stove, ‘just like a dog on a rope’; the mother-in-law, equally wicked, sits on the stove ‘just like a bitch on a chain’; the sisters-in-law are invariably ‘young dogs and tricksters’; the brothers-in-law are ‘malicious scoffers’; the husband is ‘either a fool or a drunkard’; the ‘old father-in-law bids him beat his wife soundly, until her hide drops off to her heels’; while the wife, having ‘scrubbed the floor’ for this same old man, ‘ladled out the sour cabbage-soup, scraped the threshold clean, and baked turnover-patties,’ addresses this sort of a speech to her husband: ‘Get up, you disgusting fellow, wake up: here’s dish-water, wash yourself; here are your leg-wrappers, wipe yourself; here’s a bit of rope, hang yourself.’ And our adages, Tikhon Ilitch! Could anything more lewd and filthy be invented? And our proverbs! ‘One man who has been soundly thrashed is worth two who have not been.’ ‘Simplicity is worse than thieving.’”
“So, according to you, the best way for a man to live is like an arrant fool?” inquired Tikhon Ilitch with a sneer.
And Kuzma joyfully snapped up his words: “Well, that’s right, that’s the idea! There’s nothing in the whole world so beggar-bare as we are, and on the other hand there’s nobody more insolent on the ground of that same nakedness. What’s the vicious way to insult a person? Accuse ’em of poverty! Say: ‘You devil! You haven’t a morsel to eat.’ Here’s an illustration: Deniska—well, I mean the son of Syery, he’s a cobbler—said to me the other day—”
“Wait a minute,” interrupted Tikhon Ilitch. “How’s Syery himself getting on?”
“Deniska says he’s ‘perishing with hunger.’”
“A good-for-nothing peasant!” said Tikhon Ilitch with conviction. “Don’t sing any of your songs about him to me.”
“I’m not singing!” retorted Kuzma angrily. “But I ought to do it. For his name is Krasoff. However, that’s another story. You’d better listen to what I have to say about Deniska. Well, he told me this: ‘Sometimes, in a famine year, we foremen would go to the neighbourhood of the cemetery in the Black Suburb; and there those public women were—regular troops of them. And they were hungry, the lean hags, extremely hungry! If you gave one of them half a pound of bread for her work she’d devour it to the last crumb, there under you. It was downright ridiculous!’ Take note,” cried Kuzma sternly, pausing: “‘It was downright ridiculous’!”
“Oh, stop it, for Christ’s sake!” Tikhon Ilitch interrupted again. “Give me a chance to say a word about business!”
Kuzma stopped short. “Well, talk away,” said he. “Only, what are you going to say? Tell him ‘You ought to do thus and so’? Not a bit of it! If you give him money—that’s the end of it. Just think it over: they have no fuel, they have nothing to eat, nothing to pay for a funeral. That means,’tis your most sacred duty to give them some money—well, and something more to boot: a few potatoes, a wagon-load or two of straw. And hire the Bride. Send her here as my cook.”
And immediately Tikhon Ilitch felt as though a stone had been rolled off his breast. He hastily drew out his purse, plucked out a ten-ruble banknote, joyfully assented also to all the other suggestions. And suddenly he asked once more, in a rapid distressed voice: “But didn’t she poison him?”
Kuzma merely shrugged his shoulders by way of reply.
Whether she had poisoned him or not, it was a terrible matter to think about. And Tikhon Ilitch went home as soon as it was light, through the chill, misty morning, when the odour of damp threshing-floors and smoke still hung in the air, while the cocks were crowing sleepily in the haze-wrapped village, and the dogs lay sleeping on the porches, and the old faded-yellow turkey still snoozed roosting on the bough of an apple tree half stripped of its discoloured dead autumn leaves, by the side of a house. In the fields nothing could be seen at a distance of two paces, thanks to the dense white fog driven before the wind. Tikhon Ilitch felt no desire to sleep, but he did feel exhausted, and as usual whipped up his horse, a large brown mare with her tail tied up; she was soaked with the moisture and appeared leaner, more dandified, and blacker because of it. He turned his head away from the wind and raised the cold wet collar of his overcoat on the right side, all glistening like silver under tiny pearls of rain which covered it with a thick veil. He observed, through the cold little drops which hung on his eyelashes, how the sticky black loam was churned up in ever-increasing density by his swiftly-revolving wheels, and how clods of mud, spurting high in a regular fountain, hung in the air and did not disperse; how they already began to adhere to his boots and knees. And he darted a glance at the heaving haunches of his horse; at her ears laid flat back against her head and darkened by the rain. And when, at last, his face streaked with mud, he dashed up to his own house, the first thing that met his eyes was Yakoff’s horse at the hitching-bar. Hastily knotting the reins on the fore-carriage, he sprang from the runabout, ran to the open door of the shop—and halted abruptly in terror.
“Blo-ockhead!” Nastasya Petrovna was saying from her place behind the counter, in evident imitation of himself, Tikhon Ilitch, but in an ailing, caressing voice, as she bent lower and lower over the money-drawer and fumbled along the jingling coppers, unable, in the darkness, to find coins for change. “Blockhead! Where could you get it any cheaper, at the present time?” And, not finding the change, she straightened up and looked at Yakoff, who stood before her in cap and overcoat, but barefoot. She stared at his slightly elevated face and scraggy beard of indeterminate hue, and added: “But didn’t she poison him?”
And Yakoff mumbled in haste: “That’s no affair of ours, Petrovna. The devil only knows. It’s none of our business. Our business, for example—”
And Tikhon Ilitch’s hands shook all day long as that mumbling answer recurred to his mind. Everybody, everybody, thought she had poisoned him!
Fortunately, the secret remained a secret. The Sacrament was administered to Rodka before he died. And the Bride wailed so sincerely as she followed the coffin that it was positively indecent—for, of course, that wailing should not be an expression of the feelings, but the fulfilment of a rite. And little by little Tikhon Ilitch’s perturbation subsided. But for a long time still he continued to go about more gloomy than a thunder-cloud.
HE was immersed to the throat in business—as usual—and he had no one to help him. Nastasya Petrovna was of very little assistance. Tikhon Ilitch never hired any labourers except “summer-workers” who were taken on merely until the cattle were driven home from pasturage, and they were already dispersed. Only the servants by the year remained—the cook, the old watchman nicknamed “Chaff,” and Oska, a lad of seventeen who was both lazy and ugly of disposition, “the Tsar of Heaven’s dolt”—a most egregious fool. And how much attention the cattle alone demanded! After the necessary sheep were slaughtered and salted down, twenty remained to be cared for over the winter. There were six black boar-pigs in the sty, eternally sullen and discontented over something or other. In the barns stood three cows, a young bull, and a red calf. In the yard were eleven horses, and in a box-stall stood a grey stallion, a vicious, heavy, full-maned, broad-chested brute—a half-breed, but worth four hundred rubles: his sire had a certificate, and was worth fifteen hundred. And all these required constant and careful oversight. But in his leisure moments Tikhon Ilitch was devoured by melancholy and boredom.
The very sight of Nastasya Petrovna irritated him, and he was constantly urging her to go away for a visit with acquaintances in the town. And at last she made her preparations and went. But after she was gone, somehow, he found things more boresome than ever. After seeing her off, Tikhon Ilitch wandered aimlessly over the fields. Along the highway, gun over shoulder, came the chief of the post-office at Ulianovka, Sakharoff, famed because of his passion for ordering by letter free price-lists—catalogues of guns, seeds, musical instruments—and because of his manner of treating the peasants, which was so savage that they were wont to say: “When you pass in a letter, your hands and feet fairly shake!” Tikhon Ilitch went to the edge of the highway to meet him. Elevating his brows, he gazed at the postmaster and said to himself: “A fool of an old man. He slumps along through the mud like an elephant.” But he called out, in friendly tones:
“Been hunting, Anton Markitch?”
The postmaster halted. Tikhon Ilitch approached and gave him a formal greeting. “Had any luck, or not, I say?” he inquired, mockingly.
“Hunting, indeed! Nothing to hunt!” gloomily replied the postmaster, a huge, round-shouldered man with thick grey hairs protruding from his ears and his nostrils, huge eye-sockets, and deeply sunken eyes—a regular gorilla. “I merely strolled out on account of my hæmorrhoids,” he said, pronouncing the last word with special care.
“But bear in mind,” retorted Tikhon Ilitch with unexpected heat, stretching forth his hand with the fingers outspread, “bear in mind that our countryside has been completely devastated! Not so much as the name of bird or beast is left, sir!”
“The forests have all been cut down,” remarked the postmaster.
“I should think they had been cut down, forsooth! Shaved off close to the earth!” Tikhon Ilitch corroborated him. And all of a sudden he added: “’Tis moulting, sir! Everything is moulting, sir!”
Why that word broke loose from his tongue, Tikhon Ilitch himself did not know, but he felt that, nevertheless, it had not been uttered without reason. “Everything’s moulting,” he said to himself, “exactly like the cattle after a long, hard winter.” And after he had parted from the postmaster he stood long on the highway, involuntarily gazing about him. The rain had again begun to patter down; a disagreeable, damp wind was blowing. Darkness was descending over the rolling fields—the fields sown with winter-grain, the ploughed fields, the stubble-fields, and the light brown groves of young trees.
The gloomy sky descended lower and lower over the earth. The roads, flooded by the rain, gleamed with a leaden sheen. The post-train from Moscow, which was an hour and a half late every day, was due at the station. Only from the signal-bells, the humming sounds, the rumbling, and the odour of coal and samovars in the yards, did Tikhon Ilitch know that it had arrived and departed, for buildings screened the station from view. The odour of samovars now remained, and that aroused a dim longing for comfort, a warm clean room, a family—or the desire to go away somewhere or other.
But this feeling was suddenly replaced by amazement. From the bare Ulianovka forest a man emerged and directed his steps towards the highway—a man in a round-topped hat and only a short roundabout coat. On looking more closely, Tikhon Ilitch recognized Zhikhareff, the son of a wealthy land-owner, who had long since become a thoroughgoing drunkard. His heart contracted with pain. “Well, it makes no difference,” thought Tikhon Ilitch sadly. “’Twill be best to chat a bit with him and, in case of need, give him half a ruble. ’Tis not worth while to anger the vagabond: he’s a spiteful fellow.”
But on this occasion Zhikhareff approached in a decidedly arrogant frame of mind, bristling, but with his head, in its beggar’s hat, thrown back, and chewing between his clenched jaws the mouth end of a cigarette, long since smoked out and extinct. His face was blue with the cold, puffy with drunkenness; his eyes were red, and his mustache disheveled. He had turned up the collar of his short coat, which was buttoned to the chin, and, with the tips of his fingers thrust into the pockets, he was splashing along in a spirited manner through the mud. His rusty, dilapidated high boots projected below his short trousers, which were tightly strained over his knees.
“A—ah!” he drawled through his teeth, as he chewed his cigarette-butt. “Whom do I see? Tikhon Fomitch is looking over his domains!” And he emitted a hoarse laugh.
“Good-day, Lyeff Lvovitch,” replied Tikhon Ilitch. “Are you waiting for the train?”
“Yes, I am—and I never seem to hit it,” returned Zhikhareff, shrugging his shoulders. “I’ve been waiting and waiting, and I got so bored that I’ve been making the forester a little visit. We’ve been chattering and smoking. But I’ve still a whole eternity to wait! Shall we not meet at the station? I believe you are fond of putting something behind your collar yourself?”
“God has been gracious,” replied Tikhon Ilitch, in the same tone he had used before. “As for drinking—why shouldn’t a man drink a bit? Only, he must pick the proper time.”
“Fudge and nonsense!” said Zhikhareff hoarsely, skipping across a puddle with considerable agility, and he directed his course towards the railway station at a leisurely pace.
His aspect was pitiful, and Tikhon Ilitch gazed long and with disgust at his inadequate trousers, which hung down like bags from beneath his short coat.
DURING the night the rain poured down again, and it was so dark you could not see your hand before your face. Tikhon Ilitch slept badly and gritted his teeth in torture. He had a chill—evidently he had taken cold by standing on the highway in the evening—and the overcoat which he had thrown over himself slid off upon the floor, and immediately he dreamed the same thing he had always dreamed ever since childhood, whenever his back was cold: twilight, narrow alleys, a hurrying throng, firemen galloping along in heavy carts drawn by vicious black truck-horses. Once he woke up, struck a match, looked at the ticking clock—it showed the hour of three—and picked up the overcoat; and, as he fell asleep, the thought of Zhikhareff once more recurred distressingly to his mind. And athwart his slumbers a persistent thought obsessed him: that the shop was being looted and the horses driven away.
Sometimes it seemed to him that he was at the Dankova posting-station, that the nocturnal rain was pattering on the pent-house over the gate, and that the little bell above it was being pulled and was ringing incessantly—thieves had come and had led thither, through the impenetrable darkness, his splendid stallion, and if they were to discover his presence there, they would murder him. And again consciousness of the reality would return to him. But even the reality was alarming. The old watchman was walking about under the windows with his mallet, but it seemed as if he were far, far away; as if the sheep-dog, with choking growls, were rending some one—had rushed off into the fields with tempestuous barking, and suddenly had presented himself again under the windows and was trying to rouse him by standing on one spot and barking violently. Then Tikhon Ilitch started to go out and see what was the matter, whether everything were as it should be. But as soon as he reached the point of making up his mind to rise, the heavy slanting rain began to rattle more thickly and densely than ever against the small dark windows, driven by the wind from the dark and boundless fields, and sleep seemed to him the most precious thing in the world. At last a door banged, a stream of damp, cold air entered, and the watchman, Chaff, dragged a bundle of rustling straw into the vestibule. Tikhon Ilitch opened his eyes: it was six o’clock, the daylight was dull and wet, the tiny windows were misted over with moisture.
“Make a little fire, my good man, make a little fire,” said Tikhon Ilitch, his voice still hoarse with sleep. “Then we’ll go and feed the cattle, and you can go to your place and sleep.”
The old man, who had grown thin over night and all blue with cold, the dampness, and fatigue, gazed at him with sunken dead eyes. In his wet cap, his short rain-drenched outer coat, and his ragged bast-slippers soaked with mud and water, he growled out something in a dull tone as he got down with difficulty on his knees in front of the stove, stuffing it with the cold, fragrant bundle of straw and blowing on the lighted mass.
“Well, has the cow bitten your tongue off?” shouted Tikhon Ilitch hoarsely, as he climbed out of bed and picked up his coat from the floor. “What’s that you’re muttering there to yourself?”
“I’ve been walking all night long, and now it’s ‘give the cattle their fodder,’” mumbled the old man without raising his head, as if talking to himself.
Tikhon Ilitch looked askance at him: “I saw the way you walked about!”
He felt worn out; nevertheless he put on his coat and, conquering a petty fit of shivering in his bowels, went out on the porch, which was covered with the footprints of the dogs, into the icy chill of the pale stormy morning. Everywhere the ground was flooded with lead-coloured puddles; all the walls had turned dark with the rain.
“A nice lot; these workmen!” he said to himself angrily.
It was barely drizzling. “But surely it will be pouring again by noon,” he said to himself. And he glanced with surprise at shaggy Buyan, who dashed toward him from under the granary. His paws were muddy, but he himself was boiling with excitement, his eyes were sparkling, his tongue was fresh and red as fire, his healthy hot breath fairly exuding the odour of dog. And that after racing about and barking all night long!
He took Buyan by the collar and, slopping through the mud, made the rounds, inspecting all the locks. Then he chained the dog under the granary, returned to his ante-room, and glanced into the roomy kitchen, the cottage proper. The cottage had a hot, repulsive odour; the cook lay fast asleep on a bare box-bench, beneath the holy pictures, her face covered with her apron, her loins displayed, and her legs clad in huge old felt boots, the soles thickly plastered with the dirt from the earthen floors. Oska lay on the sleeping-board face downward, fully dressed, in his short sheepskin coat and his bast-slippers, his head buried in a heavy, soiled pillow.
“That devil has been at the lad!” thought Tikhon Ilitch with disgust. “Just look at her—at her nasty debauch all night long—and towards morning, off she goes to the bench!”
And after a survey of the black walls, the tiny windows, the tub filled with dirty dish-water, the huge broad-shouldered stove, he shouted loudly and harshly: “Hey, there! My noble lords! You ought to know when you’ve had enough!”
While the cook, scratching herself and yawning, heated the stove, boiled some potatoes for the pigs, and got the samovar alight, Oska, minus his cap and stumbling with sleep, dragged bran for the horses and cows. Tikhon Ilitch himself unlocked the creaking doors of the stable and was the first to enter its warm, dirty comfort, surrounded by sheds, enclosures, and styes. The stable was ankle-deep in manure. Dung, urine, and rain had all run together and formed a thick, light-brown fluid. The horses, already darkening with their velvety winter coats, were roaming about under the pent-houses. The sheep, of a dirty-grey hue, were huddled in an agitated mass in one corner. An old brown gelding dozed in isolation alongside his empty manger, smeared with dough. The drizzling rain fell and fell interminably upon the square farmyard from the unfriendly, stormy sky, but the gelding paid no heed to anything. The pigs moaned and grunted in an ailing, persistent way in their pen.
“’Tis deadly boresome!” thought Tikhon Ilitch, and immediately emitted a fierce yell at the old man, who was dragging along a bundle of grain-straw: “Why are you dragging that through the mud, you vile profligate?”
The old man flung the bundle of straw on the ground, looked him over, and all at once remarked quietly: “I’m listening to a vile profligate.”
Tikhon Ilitch cast a swift glance around, to see whether the lad had gone out, and, on convincing himself that he had, stepped up to the old man and with apparent calmness gave him such a thwack in the teeth that his head shook to and fro, seized him by the collar, and hustled him to the gate with all his might. “Begone!” he bawled, panting for breath and turning as white as chalk. “Don’t let me ever catch so much as the smell of you here in the future, you cursed tatterdemalion!”
The old man flew through the gate, and five minutes later, his bag on his shoulders and a stick in his hand, he was striding along the highway to his home in Ulianovka. Meanwhile Tikhon Ilitch, with shaking hands, had watered the stallion, had himself given the animal his portion of fresh oats—he had merely turned yesterday’s oats over with his muzzle and slobbered on them—and with long strides, through the liquid mess and the manure, had betaken himself to his cottage.
“Are things ready?” he inquired, opening the door a crack.
“There’s no hurry!” snarled the cook.
The cottage was beclouded with a warm, sweetish steam emanating from the pot where the potatoes were boiling. The cook, assisted by the lad, was energetically mashing them with a pestle, sprinkling in flour the while, and Tikhon Ilitch did not hear the reply because of the noise. Slamming the door, he went to drink his tea.
IN the tiny ante-room he pushed aside with his foot a heavy, dirty horsecloth which lay across the threshold and went to one corner, where, over a stool surmounted by a pewter basin, a brass washstand was fastened, while on a small shelf lay a small, clammy piece of cocoanut-oil soap. As he rattled the water-tank, squinted, frowned, and puffed out his nostrils, he was not able to refrain from a malicious fugitive glance, and he remarked with peculiar distinctness: “H’m! No, who ever saw the like of the labourers? There’s no getting on with them at all nowadays! Say one word to such a fellow, and he’ll come back at you with ten words! Say a dozen to him, and he’ll fling you back a hundred! They’re gone dead crazy! Though it isn’t summer time, there’s plenty of you to be had, you devils! You’ll want something to eat for the winter, brother—you’ll come, you son of a dog, you’ll co-ome, and bow lo-o-ow in entreaty!”
The towel, which served for the master as well as for the lodger-travellers, had been hanging beside the water-tank since St. Michael’s Day. It was so filthy that Tikhon Ilitch gritted his teeth when he looked at it. “Okh!” he ejaculated, closing his eyes and shaking his head. “Ugh! Holy Mother, Queen of Heaven!” And hurling the towel on the floor, he wiped himself on the embroidered skirt of his shirt, which flapped outside his waistcoat.
Two doors opened from the ante-room. One, on the left, led to the room assigned to travellers, which was long, half-dark, and with tiny windows that looked out on the barn; in it stood two large divans, hard as stone, covered with black oilcloth, filled more than full with living and with crushed and dried bugs, while on the partition-wall hung the portrait of some general with fierce beaver-like side whiskers. This portrait was bordered with small portraits of heroes of the Russo-Turkish war, and underneath was an inscription: “Long will our children and our dear Slavic brethren remember the glorious deeds; how our father, the courageous Suleiman Pasha, crushed and conquered the treacherous foemen and marched with his lads along such crags as only clouds and the feathered Kings of the air were wont to scale.” The second door led into the master’s room. There, on the right alongside the door, glittered the glass of a cupboard, on the left a stove-bench gleamed white; the stove had cracked at some past day, and over the white it had been smeared with clay, which had imparted to it the outline of something resembling a thin, dislocated man, which seriously displeased Tikhon Ilitch. Beyond the stove rose aloft a double bed: above the bed was nailed up a rug of dull-green and brick-coloured wool, bearing the image of a tiger with whiskers and ears which stood erect like those of a cat. Opposite the door, against the wall, stood a chest of drawers covered with a knitted tablecloth, and on the tablecloth Nastasya Petrovna’s wedding-casket. In the casket lay contracts with the labourers, phials containing medicines long since spoiled with age, matches.
“Wanted in the shop!” screamed the cook, opening the door a crack.
“There’s no hurry—the goats in the bazaar can wait!” replied Tikhon Ilitch wrathfully—but he hurried out.
The distance was veiled by a watery mist; the effect resembled that of twilight. The rain still drizzled on, but the wind had veered round; it was now blowing from the North, and the air had grown colder. The freight train, which was just pulling out of the station, rattled more cheerfully and resoundingly than it had for many days past.
“’Morning, Ilitch,” said the hare-lipped peasant, who was holding a wet piebald horse at the porch, as he nodded his soaking fur cap, which was of the tall Mandzhurian shape.
“’Morning,” nodded Tikhon Ilitch, casting a sidelong glance at the strong white tooth which gleamed through the peasant’s cleft lip. “What do you need?” And, hastily providing the salt and kerosene required, he hurried back to his chamber. “The dogs, they don’t give a man time to make the sign of the cross on his brow!” he grumbled as he went.
The samovar, which stood on a table against the partition-wall, was bubbling and boiling hard; the small mirror which hung above the table was enveloped in a thin layer of white steam. The windows and the chromo-lithograph which was nailed to the wall under the mirror—it depicted a giant in a yellow kaftan and red morocco boots, with a Russian banner in his hand, from beneath which peeped the towers and domes of the Moscow Kremlin—were also veiled in steam. Photographic portraits framed in shell-work surrounded this picture. In the place of honour hung the portrait of a priest in a moiré cassock, with a small, sparse beard, plump cheeks, and extremely small penetrating eyes. And, with a glance at him, Tikhon Ilitch crossed himself violently towards the holy pictures in the corner. Then he removed from the samovar a smoke-begrimed teapot and poured out a cup of tea, which smelled very much like a steamed bathroom.
“They don’t give a man a chance to cross himself,” he said, wrinkling his face with the expression of a person suffering martyrdom. “They fairly cut my throat, curse them!”
It seemed as if there were something which he ought to call to mind, to take under consideration, or as if he ought simply to go to bed and get a good sleep. He longed for warmth, repose, clearness, firmness of thought. He rose, went to the glass cupboard with its rattling panes and cups and saucers, and took from one of the shelves a bottle of liqueur flavoured with mountain-ash berries and a cask-shaped glass on which was inscribed: “Even monks take this.” “But perhaps I oughtn’t,” he said aloud. However, he lacked firmness. Through his mind, against his will, flashed the old saw: “Drink and you’ll die, and don’t drink and you’ll die just the same.” So he poured out a glassful and tossed it off, poured out another and gulped that down, also. And, munching at a thick cracknel, he sat down at the table.
He became conscious of an agreeable burning sensation inside, and eagerly sipped the boiling tea from his saucer, sucking at a lump of sugar which he held in his teeth. He felt better, so far as his body was concerned. But his soul went on living its own life, which was both gloomy and melancholy. Thoughts followed thoughts, but there was no sense in them. As he sipped his tea, he cast an abstracted and suspicious glance sidelong at the partition-wall, at the man in the yellow kaftan, at the photographs in the shell-work frames, and even at the priest in his watered-silk cassock. “Lerigion means nothing to us pigs!” he said to himself; and, as though by way of justifying himself to some one, he added roughly: “Just you try living in the village, and drinking sparkling kvas, like us!”
As he gazed askance at the priest he felt that everything was dubious; even his habitual reverence for that priest seemed doubtful, not founded on reason. When one really came to think about it....
But at this point he made haste to transfer his glance to the Moscow Kremlin. “Shame on me!” he muttered. “I’ve never been in Moscow since I was born!” No, he had not. And why? His pigs wouldn’t let him! Now it was his petty trading which hindered, now the posting-station, then the pot-house, then Durnovka. And now he could not get away because of the stallion and the boar-pigs. But why speak of Moscow? For the last ten years he had been intending, without success, to get as far as the little birch grove that lay the other side of the highway. He had kept on hoping that somehow or other he would manage to tear himself free for an evening, carry a rug and samovar with him, sit on the grass in the cool air, in the greenery—and he simply had not been able to get away. The days flowed past like water between the fingers, and before one had time to gather one’s wits together, one’s fiftieth year had knocked at the door, and that meant the end of everything, and it didn’t seem so very long ago that one was running about without any breeches, did it? Just as if it had been yesterday!
THE faces gazed out in complete immobility from their shell-work frames. Here was a scene which had never taken place and could not take place: In the field, amid the thick-growing rye, lay two persons—Tikhon Ilitch himself and a young merchant named Rostovtzeff, holding in their hands glasses exactly half filled with dark beer. What a close friendship had sprung up between Rostovtzeff and Tikhon Ilitch! How well he remembered that grey day in Carnival Week when the picture was taken! But in what year had that happened? What had become of Rostovtzeff? Perhaps he had died in Voronezh—and now no one knew for a certainty whether he were still alive in this world or not. And yonder stood three petty burghers, drawn up in military style and perfectly wooden, with their hair parted in the middle and very smooth, dressed in embroidered Russian shirts opening at the side and long coats, with their boots well polished—Butchneff, Vystavkin, and Bogomoloff. Vystavkin, the one in the middle, was holding in front of his breast the bread and salt of hospitality on a wooden platter, covered with a towel embroidered with cocks, while Butchneff and Bogomoloff each held a holy picture. They had been photographed on a dusty, windy day, when the grain-elevator had been blessed—when the Bishop and the Governor had come for the ceremony, when Tikhon Ilitch had felt so proud that he had been one of the crowd appointed to greet the officials. But what had his memory retained about that day? Merely this—that they had waited beside the elevator for five hours, on the new brown rails of the track, that the white dust had been blown in clouds by the wind, that the railway carriages and the trees were all covered with dust, that the Governor, a long, lean man, exactly like a corpse in white trousers with gold stripes, a uniform embroidered in gold, and a three-cornered hat, walked towards the deputation in a remarkably deliberate manner—that it was very alarming when he began to speak as he accepted the bread and salt, that every one had been surprised at the thinness and whiteness of his hands, and the skin on them, as delicate and gleaming as the hide stripped from a snake, the brilliant, polished gold rings and rings with gems on his dry, slender fingers with their long transparent nails. Now that Governor was no longer among the living, and Vystavkin was dead, also. And in another five or ten years people would be saying, in speaking of Tikhon Ilitch, too: “The late Tikhon Ilitch.”
The room had grown warmer and more cosy, now that the stove had got to going well; the little mirror had cleared off; but nothing was to be seen through the windows, which were white with a dull steam, indicating that the weather had grown colder outside. The insistent grunting of the hungry pigs made itself more and more audible. And suddenly the grunt was transmuted into a mighty unanimous roar: obviously the pigs had heard the voices of the cook and Oska, who were lugging to them the heavy tub with their mess. And, without finishing his reflections on death, Tikhon Ilitch flung his cigarette into the slop-basin, drew on his overcoat, and hurried out to the barn. With long strides, sinking deep in the sloppy manure, he opened the door of the sty with his own hands, and for a long time kept his greedy, melancholy eyes riveted on the pigs, which hurled themselves on the trough into which the steaming mess had been poured.
The thought of death had been interrupted by another: “the late,” as applied to himself, was all right, but possibly this particular dead man might serve as an example. Who had he been? An orphan, a beggar, who had often had no bread to eat for a couple of days at a stretch. But now? “Your biography ought to be written,” Kuzma had said one day, in jest. But there was no occasion for jesting, if you please. He must have had a noddle on his shoulders, if the wretched little urchin who barely knew how to read had turned out not Tishka, but Tikhon Ilitch: that was what it meant.
But all of a sudden the cook, who had also been staring intently at the pigs as they jostled one another and got their forefeet into the trough, hiccoughed and remarked: “Okh, O Lord! I only hope some calamity won’t happen to us today! Last night I had a dream—I thought cattle were being driven into our farmyard: sheep, cows, all sorts of pigs were being driven to us. And they were all black, every last one of them was black!”
And once more his heart sank within him. Yes, there were those cattle! The cattle alone were enough to drive a man to hang himself. Not three hours had elapsed—and again you had to seize your keys, again drag fodder for the whole farmyard. In the common stall were three milch cows; in special stalls were the red calf and the bull Bismarck: now they must be supplied with hay. The horse and sheep got bran for their dinner, but the stallion—the devil himself couldn’t tell what that beast wanted! He was completely spoiled. He thrust his muzzle against the grated top of his door, sniffed at something, and made grimaces: he curled back his upper lip, bared his rose-coloured gums and white teeth, distorted his nostrils. And Tikhon Ilitch, in a rage which surprised even himself, suddenly yelled at him: “You spoiled pet, curse you, may the lightning strike you!”
Again he had got his feet wet; he had a chill; it began to sleet—and again he had recourse to the mountain-ash-berry brandy. He ate some potatoes with sunflower-seed oil, and salted cucumbers, sour cabbage soup with mushrooms added to it, and wheat groats. His face got red, his head grew heavy.
HE began to feel drowsy, thanks to the vodka, what he had eaten, and his incoherent thoughts. Without undressing, merely pulling his muddy boots off by the simple expedient of rubbing one foot against the other, he threw himself on his bed. But he was disturbed by the necessity of rising again almost immediately: before night oat-straw must be given to the horses, the cows, and the sheep, and also to the stallion—or, no, it would be better to mix it with hay and moisten and salt it well. Only, if he let himself go he would certainly fall asleep. Tikhon Ilitch reached out to the chest of drawers, grasped the alarm-clock, and began to wind it up. And the alarm-clock came to life and began to tick—and the atmosphere in the chamber seemed to become more tranquil, more cheerful, under the influence of its rapid, even ticking. His thoughts began to get confused.
But no sooner had they become drowsily obscure than a rough, loud sound of ecclesiastical chanting suddenly made itself audible. Opening his eyes with a start, Tikhon Ilitch at first could make out only one thing: two peasants were roaring through their noses, and a gust of cold air mingled with the odour of wet great-coats penetrated from the ante-room. Then he sprang up, sat on the side of his bed, and scrutinized the peasants to see what sort of men they were, and suddenly became conscious that his heart had started beating. One was blind—a big pock-marked fellow with a small nose, a long upper lip, and a large round skull—and the second was none other than Makar Ivanovitch!
Makar Ivanovitch had been known, once on a time, as Makarka—everybody called him “Makar-the-Pilgrim”—and one day he entered Tikhon Ilitch’s dram-shop. He was roaming somewhither along the highway, arrayed in bast-slippers, a pointed skull-cap of ecclesiastical cut, and a dirty under-cassock—and he had entered. In his hand was a long staff, painted the hue of verdigris, with a cross on its upper extremity and a spear-like point at its lower, a wallet and a soldier’s canteen on his back; his face was broad and the colour of cement, his nostrils were like two gun-barrels, his nose was broken across the middle like a saddle-tree, and his eyes were of the sort which often goes with such noses, light-hued and sharply brilliant. Shameless, shrewd, greedily smoking one cigarette after another and emitting the smoke through his nostrils, speaking in a rough, abrupt tone which completely excluded any reply, he had made an extremely pleasant impression on Tikhon Ilitch, in particular by that tone, because it was immediately evident that he was “a thoroughgoing rascal.”
So Tikon Ilitch kept him with him as his assistant. He removed his tramp’s garb and kept him. But Makarka turned out to be such a thief that it became necessary to give him a severe thrashing and turn him out. A year later Makarka rendered himself famous throughout the entire county by his prophecies—prophecies so ill-omened that people began to dread his visits as they dreaded fire. He would walk up under some one’s window and snufflingly strike up, “Give rest with the Saints,” or would make a present of a fragment of incense or a pinch of dust—and, infallibly, that house soon had a corpse.
Now Makarka, in his original garb, staff in hand, was standing on the threshold and chanting. The blind man was chiming in, rolling his milky eyes up under his lids the while, and Tikhon Ilitch, judging merely from his ill-proportioned features, immediately set him down as a runaway convict, a terrible and ruthless wild beast. But what these vagabonds were singing was even more terrible. The blind man, gloomily twitching his uplifted brows, sang out boldly, in a nasty, snuffling tenor voice. Makarka, his immovable eyes flashing, boomed along in a savage basso. The effect was immeasurably loud, roughly melodious, antiquely ecclesiastical, powerful, and menacing:
“Damp Mother-Earth is weeping heavily, is sobbing!”
sang the blind man.
“Is Wee-p-i-i-ng hea-vi-ly, is sob-bing!”
Makarka repeated sharply, with conviction.
“Before the Saviour, before His image—”
roared the blind man.
“Perchance the sinners will repent!”
threatened Makarka, inflating his insolent nostrils And merging his basso with the blind man’s tenor, he articulated distinctly:
“They shall not escape God’s judgment!
They shall not escape the fires eternal!”
And suddenly he broke off—in accord with the blind man—cleared his throat, and simply, in his habitual insolent tone, demanded: “Give us a contribution, merchant, to warm us up.” Thereupon, without waiting for a reply, he strode across the threshold, marched up to the bed, and thrust a small picture into Tikhon Ilitch’s hand.
It was a simple clipping from an illustrated journal, but, as he glanced at it, Tikhon Ilitch felt a sudden pain in his lower breast. Beneath the picture, which depicted trees bending before the tempest, a white zig-zag athwart the storm-cloud, and a falling man, was the inscription: “Jean-Paul Richter, killed by lightning.”
And Tikhon Ilitch was dumbfounded.
But he immediately recovered himself. “Akh, the scoundrel!” he said to himself, and he slowly tore the picture into tiny bits. Then he got out of bed and, drawing on his boots, said: “Go scare some one who is a bigger fool than I am. I know you well, you see, my good man! Here—take what’s right, and—God be with you!” Then he went into the shop, carried out to Makarka, who was standing with the blind man near the porch, a couple of pounds of cracknels and a couple of herrings, and repeated once more, sternly: “The Lord be with you!”
“And how about some tobacco?” audaciously demanded Makarka.
“I have only a scant supply of it on hand for myself.”
“Correct!” said he. “That means—furnish your own tobacco, I’ll give the paper—and let’s have a smoke!”
“Behind the dram-shop in the town tobacco grows on the bushes,” retorted Tikhon Ilitch curtly. “You can’t outdo me in foul language, my good man!” And, after a pause, he added: “Hanging’s too good for you, Makarka, after the tricks you’ve played!”
Makarka surveyed the blind man, who was standing erect, firmly planted with brows elevated, and asked him: “Man of God, what ought we to do, think you? Strangle him or shoot him?”
“Shooting’s surer,” replied the blind man gravely. “At any rate, that’s the most direct road.”
IT was growing dark, the thick layers of clouds were turning blue and cold, and there was a touch of winter in the air. The mud was congealing. Having got rid of Makarka, Tikhon Ilitch stamped his frost-bitten feet on the porch and entered the house. There, without removing his coat and cap, he seated himself on a chair near the little window, began to smoke, and again became immersed in thought. He recalled to mind the summer, the rebellion, the Bride, his brother, his wife—and that, so far, he had not paid off his farmhands for their season’s work. It was his custom to delay payment. The young girls and children who came to him on daily wages stood for days on end at his threshold, complained of their extreme need, waxed angry, sometimes made insolent remarks. But he was inexorable. He shouted and called upon God to witness that he had only two coppers in his house. “Search and see if you can find any more!”—and he turned his pockets and his purse inside out and spat in feigned wrath, as though amazed by the distrust, the “dishonesty” of the suppliants. But now that custom seemed to him the opposite of good. He had been ruthlessly harsh with his wife, and cold, and so complete a stranger to her that, at times, he utterly forgot her existence. And now, all of a sudden, this astonished him: good God, why, he had not even the least idea what sort of person she was! If she were to die that day, he would not be able to say two words as to why she had lived, what she had thought, what she had felt throughout all the long years she had lived with him—those years which had merged themselves into a single year, and had flashed past in ceaseless cares and anxieties. And what had he to show for all those worries? He threw away his cigarette, and lighted a fresh one. Ugh, but that Makarka was a clever beast! and, once granted that he was clever, why wasn’t it possible that he might be able to foresee things—when something was coming, and what it was, and to whom? Something abominable was, indubitably, awaiting him, Tikhon Ilitch. For one thing, he was no longer a young man. How many of his contemporaries were in the other world! And from death and old age there is no escape! Not even children would have saved him. And he would not have known the children, and the children would have found him as much of a stranger as he had been to all those, alive or dead, who had been nearly connected with him. There were as many people on the earth as there are stars in the sky; but life is short, people come into being, grow up, and die so rapidly, are so slightly acquainted with one another, and so quickly forget all that has happened to them, that it is enough to drive a man crazy if he once sets about considering the matter attentively! Only quite recently he had said to himself: “My life ought to be written up....” But what was there to write about? Nothing. Nothing at all, or nothing of any consequence. Why, he himself could recall scarcely anything of that life. For example, he had completely forgotten his childhood: once in a while, it is true, a fleeting memory would flash across his mind of some summer day, some incident, some playfellow. Once he had singed somebody’s cat—and had been whipped for it. Some one had given him a little whip with a bird-call whistle in the handle, and it had made him indescribably happy. His drunken father had a special way of calling to him—caressingly, his voice laden with sadness: “Come to me, Tisha, come, dear lad!” Then, suddenly, he would grab him by the hair....
If Ilya Mironoff, the huckster, had still been alive, Tikhon Ilitch would have supported him out of kindness, and would have known nothing about him, and would barely have noticed his existence. It had been the same way with his mother. Ask him now: “Do you remember your mother?” and he would answer: “I remember some crooked old woman who dried the manure and kept the stove hot, tippled in secret, and grumbled.” Nothing more. He had served nearly ten years with Matorin, but that decade had melted together into about a day or two: the fine April rain pattering down and speckling the sheets of iron which, rattling and clanging, were being loaded into a cart alongside the neighbouring shop; a grey, frosty noonday, the pigeons alighting in a noisy flock upon the snow beside the shop of another neighbour who dealt in flour, groats, and bran, crowding together, cooing and flapping their wings, while he and his brother whipped with an ox-tail a peg-top spinning on the threshold. Matorin was young, then, and robust, and purplish-red of complexion, with his chin cleanly shaven and sandy side-whiskers cut down to half-length. Now he was poor; he ambled about with the walk of an old man, his great-coat faded by the sun, and his capacious cap; ambled from shop to shop, from one acquaintance to another, played checkers, lounged in Daeff’s eating-house, drank a little, got tipsy and loquacious: “We are pretty folks: we’ve drunk, and eaten, and paid our score—and off we go, home!” And, on encountering Tikhon Ilitch, he did not immediately recognize him, but would smile woefully and say: “Is that really you, Tisha?”
And Tikhon Ilitch himself had not recognized his own brother when first they met that autumn: “Can that be Kuzma, with whom I roamed for so many years about the fields, the villages, and the bye-lanes?”
(“How old you have grown, brother!”
“I have, a bit.”
“And how early!”
“That’s because I’m a Russian. That happens quickly with us.”)
And, great heavens, how everything had changed since the days when they had been roving peddlers! How dreadfully unlike was the present Tikhon Ilitch to the half-gipsy huckster Tisha, swarthy as a black-beetle, reckless, and merry!
As he lighted his third cigarette, Tikhon Ilitch stared fixedly and questioningly out of the tiny window:
“Can it be like this in other lands?”
No, it could not be the same. Men of his acquaintance had been abroad—there was merchant Rukavishnikoff, for instance—and they had told him things. And even aside from Rukavishnikoff, one could put things together. Take the Germans of the towns, or the Jews: all conduct themselves reasonably, are punctual, all know one another, all are friends—and that not alone in a state of intoxication—and all are mutually helpful: if they are separated, they write letters to one another all their lives long and exchange portraits of fathers, mothers, acquaintances from family to family; they teach their children, love them, walk with them, talk with them as with equals so that the child has something to remember. But with us, all are enemies of one another, every one envies and slanders every one else, goes to see acquaintances once a year, sits apart, each in his kennel; all bustle about like madmen when any one drops in for a visit, and dash around to put the rooms in order. But what’s the truth of the matter? They begrudge the guest a spoonful of preserves! The guest will not drink a second cup of tea without being specially invited. Ugh, you slant-eyed Kirghizi! You yellow-haired Mordvinians! You savages!
Some one’s troika-team drove past the windows. Tikhon Ilitch scrutinized it attentively. The horses were emaciated but obviously mettlesome. The tarantas was in good condition. Whose could it be? No one in the immediate neighbourhood owned such a troika. The neighbouring landed proprietors were so indignant that they sat for three days at a stretch without bread, had sold the last scrap of vestments from their holy pictures, had not a farthing wherewith to replace broken glass or mend the roof; instead they stuffed cushions into the window-frames and set bread-troughs and buckets all over the floor when rain came on—and it poured through the ceilings as through a sieve. Then Deniska the cobbler passed. Where was he going? And what was that he had with him? That couldn’t be a valise he was carrying? Okh, there’s a fool for you, forgive my sin, O Lord!
MECHANICALLY Tikhon Ilitch threw his great-coat on over his jacket, thrust his feet into overshoes, and went out on the porch. On emerging he inhaled a deep breath of fresh air in the bluish early winter twilight, then halted once more and sat down on the bench. Yes, there was another nice family—the Grey Man, Syery, and his son! Tikhon Ilitch traversed in thought the road which Deniska had traversed in the mud, with that valise in his hand. He descried Durnovka, his manor, the ravine, the peasant cottages, the descending twilight, the light in his brother’s room, the lights among the peasant dwellings. Kuzma was probably sitting and reading. The Bride was standing in the dark, cold ante-room near the faintly-heated stove, warming her hands, her back, waiting until she should be told “Bring the supper!” and, with her dry lips, already grown old and pursed up, was thinking—of what? Perchance of Rodka? ’Twas a lie, all that about her having poisoned Rodka—a lie! But if she did poison him—
Oh, Lord God! If she did poison him, what must she be feeling? What a heavy tombstone lay upon her strange, reticent soul! And how had that come about upon which she had decided, crazed by hatred of Rodka and of his brutal beatings—possibly, also, by her outraged feelings toward him, Tikhon Ilitch, and her disgrace, and the fear that Rodka would eventually hear of that disgrace? Okh, and he had been in the habit of beating her! And Tikhon Ilitch had played a fine part, too. And God would surely punish him, too.
With his mind’s eye he cast a glance from the porch of his Durnovka manor house, at Durnovka—a rebel, also!—at the black cottages scattered over the declivity beyond the ravine, at the threshing floors and bushes in their back yards. Beyond the houses to the left, on the horizon, stood a railway watch-tower. Past it, in the twilight, a train was running, and with it ran a chain of fiery eyes. Then eyes began to shine out from the cottages. It grew darker; one began to feel more comfortable—yet a disagreeable sensation stirred every time one cast a glance at the cottages of the Bride and the Grey Man, which stood almost in the centre of Durnovka, separated only by three houses. There was no light in either of them. And it was that way nearly all winter long! The Grey Man’s small children frolicked with joy and wonder when he managed, on some lucky evening, to burn a light in the cottage.
“Yes, ’tis sinful!” said Tikhon Ilitch firmly, and rose from his seat. “Yes, ’tis wicked! I must give them at least a little help,” he said, as he wended his way towards the station.
The air was frosty, and the odour of the samovar which was wafted from the station was more fragrant than it had been on the preceding day. The lights at the gate were burning more brightly beyond the trees, which had been smartly frost-bitten and were almost bare, tinted by a little scanty foliage.
The sleighbells on the troika pealed more sonorously. A capital team of horses, those three! On the contrary, it was painful to look at the wretched nags of the peasant cabmen, their tiny vehicles mounted on half-crumbling, misshapen wheels, plastered with mud. The door to the railway station was squeaking and dully banging beyond the palisade. Making his way around it, Tikhon Ilitch ascended the lofty stone platform, on which a copper samovar of a couple of buckets’ capacity was hissing, its grating glowing red like fiery teeth; and immediately came upon the person of whom he was in search—that is, Deniska.
Deniska, his head bowed in thought, was standing on the platform and holding in his right hand a cheap grey valise, lavishly studded with tin nailheads and bound about with a rope. Deniska was wearing an under-jacket, an old and, evidently, a very heavy garment with pendant shoulders and a very low waist-line, a new peaked cap, and dilapidated boots. His figure was badly built; his legs were extremely short in comparison with his body: “I have nothing but a body,” he sometimes said of himself, with a laugh. Now, with that low waist-line and those broken boots, his legs looked shorter than ever.
“Denis?” shouted Tikhon Ilitch. “What are you doing here?”
Deniska, who was never surprised at anything, raised his dark and languid eyes with their long lashes, looked at him with a melancholy grin, and pulled the cap from his hair. His hair was mouse-coloured and immeasurably thick; his face was earthy in hue and bore the appearance of having been greased, but his eyes were handsome.
“Good Morning, Tikhon Ilitch,” he replied, in a sing-song citified tenor voice, and, as usual, rather shyly. “I’m going to—what d’ye call it?—to Tula.”
“But why, if you permit me to ask?”
“Maybe some sort of a job will turn up there.”
Tikhon Ilitch surveyed him. In his hand was the valise; from the pocket of his long-skirted waistcoat protruded sundry little books in green and red covers, twisted into a roll. The waistcoat must belong to some one else. “You’re no dandy to make an impression in Tula!”
Deniska also cast an appraising eye over himself.
“The waistcoat, you mean?” he inquired modestly. “Well, when I earn some money in Tula, I’ll buy myself a hussar jacket. I did pretty well during the summer. I sold newspapers.”
Tikhon Ilitch nodded in the direction of the valise: “What’s that contraption you have there?”
Deniska lowered his eyelashes. “I bought myself a volish, sir.”
“Well, you can’t possibly go about in a hussar jacket without a valise!” said Tikhon Ilitch scoffingly. “And what’s that you’ve got in your pocket?”
“Nothing much—just a lot of small stuff.”
“Let me look at it.”
Deniska set down his valise on the platform and pulled the little books out of his pocket. Tikhon Ilitch took them and examined them attentively. There was the song-book “Marusya,” “The Woman Debauchee,” “An Innocent Young Girl in the Clutches of Violence,” “Congratulatory Verses to Parents, Teachers, and Benefactors,” “The Rôle—”
At this point Tikhon Ilitch faltered, but Deniska, who was watching closely, briskly and modestly prompted him: “The Rôle of the Proletariat in Russia.”
Tikhon Ilitch shook his head. “Here’s something new! Not a mouthful of food, but you buy yourself a valise and nasty little books. Truly,’tis not for nothing that folks call you an agitator. They say you are constantly reviling the Tsar! Look out, brother!”
“Well, ’tis not so costly as buying an estate,” replied Deniska, with a melancholy grin. “They are good little books. And I haven’t touched the Tsar. They tell lies about me as if I were dead and couldn’t defend myself. But I never had any such thing in my thoughts. Am I a lunatic?”
The door-pulley creaked, and the station watchman made his appearance—a discharged soldier, grey-haired, afflicted with a hoarse, whistling asthma—also the restaurant keeper, a fat man with puffy eyes and greasy hair.
“Step aside, Messrs. Merchants, let me get the samovar.” Deniska stepped aside and again grasped the handle of his valise.
“You stole that somewhere, I suppose?” asked Tikhon Ilitch, nodding towards the valise, and thinking of the business upon which he had come to the station.
Deniska bent his head but made no reply.
“And it’s empty, of course?”
Deniska broke into a laugh.
“Yes, it’s empty.”
“Were you turned out of your place?”
“I left of my own accord.”
Tikhon Ilitch heaved a sigh. “The living image of his father!” said he. “That one was always exactly like that: Pitch him out of a place by the scruff of his neck, and he’d tell you—‘I left of my own accord.’”
“May I drop dead right before your eyes if I’m lying.”
“Well, all right, all right. Have you been at home?”
“Yes, two weeks.”
“Is your father out of work again?”
“Yes, he is out of work naow.”
“Naow!” Tikhon Ilitch mimicked him. “A wooden-headed village! And a revolutionary to boot! You’re trying to play the wolf, but your dog’s tail betrays you.”
“I rather think you come from the same litter,” Deniska said to himself, with a faint grin, keeping his head down.
“That means, the Grey Man is sitting at home smoking?”
“He’s a worthless fellow!” said Deniska with conviction.
Tikhon Ilitch rapped him on the head with his knuckles. “You might, at least, not exhibit your stupidity! Who speaks of his father like that?”
“He ought to be called an old dog, not a daddy,” replied Deniska calmly. “If he’s a father—then let him provide food. But he has fed me heartily, hasn’t he?”
But Tikhon Ilitch was not listening to him. He chose a suitable moment for beginning a business-like talk. And, paying no heed to him, he interrupted: “Well, you’ve turned out an empty-headed babbler. Has Yakoff sold the mare?”
Deniska suddenly broke out into a coarse, vociferous guffaw. But he replied in the same sing-song tenor voice as usual: “Yakoff Mikititch, you mean? What are you talking about? He’s getting richer and richer, and stingier and stingier. There was a great joke on him yesterday!”
“Why, there was! His colt died, and what sort of a trick did he concoct? He made use of its legs and hoofs. He hadn’t enough stakes for his wattled fence, so—he took and wove in those same legs.”
“He’s fit for a cabinet-minister, not a peasant!” said Tikhon Ilitch. “You tatterdemalions are not in the same class with him. I suppose you are travelling to Tula on a wolf’s ticket?”
“And what should I want of a ticket?” retorted Deniska. “I get into the carriage and dive straight under the seat—and may the Lord bless and protect! All I want is to get to Uzlovskaya.”
“What’s that? Uzlovskaya? Do you mean Uzslova?”
“Well, then, Uzslova; it’s the same thing. I’ll ride there, and from there on ’tis not far—I can go afoot.”
“And what were you thinking about doing with all your little books? You can’t read them under the seat.”
Deniska thought that over. “Right you are!” said he. “Well, I won’t stay under the bench all the time. I’ll creep into the toilet—I can read there until daylight.”
Tikhon Ilitch frowned. “Well, see here now,” he began. “See here: ’tis time for you to stop that sort of talk. You’re not a small boy, you fool. Trot back as fast as you can to Durnovka. ’Tis time to buckle down to business. Why, as you are, it makes one sick at the stomach just to look at you. My courtyard-councillors there live better than you do. I’ll help you—that’s got to be done—at the start. Well, I’ll help you to get some simple merchandise and implements. Then you’ll be able to feed yourself and give a little to your father.”
“What’s he driving at with all this?” Deniska said to himself.
But Tikhon Ilitch had come to a decision, and wound up: “Yes, and ’tis time you married.”
“So—oo, that’s it!” said Deniska to himself, and began in a leisurely way to roll himself a cigarette.
“Very good,” he responded, with a barely perceptible trace of sadness, and without raising his eyelashes. “I’ll not resist. I might marry. ’Tis worse to go with the public women.”
“Well, and that’s precisely the point,” put in Tikhon Ilitch, perturbed. “Only, brother, bear in mind that you must make a sensible marriage. ’Tis a good thing to have money on which to rear your children.”
Deniska burst out laughing.
“What are you guffawing about?”
“Why, what you say, of course! Rear! As though they were chickens or pigs.”
“They require food, just as much as chickens and pigs do.”
“And whom shall I marry?” inquired Deniska, with a melancholy smile.
“Whom? Why, any one you like.”
“You mean the Bride?”
Tikhon Ilitch flushed deeply. “Fool! What’s wrong with the Bride? She’s a peaceable, hard-working woman—”
Deniska remained silent, and picked with his finger-nail at one of the tin nailheads on the valise. Then he pretended to be stupid. “There’s a lot of them—of young women,” he drawled. “I don’t know which one you’re jabbering about. Do you happen to mean the one with whom you lived?”
But Tikhon Ilitch had already recovered his composure. “Whether I have lived with her or not is none of your business, you pig,” he retorted, and that so swiftly and peremptorily that Deniska submissively muttered:
“Well, ’tis all the same to me. I only said—’Twas a chance remark—slipped off my tongue.”
“Well, then, mind what you’re about, and don’t indulge in idle chatter. I’ll make decent people of you. Do you understand? I’ll give you a dowry. Understand that?”
Deniska reflected. “I think I’ll go to Tula—” he began.
“The cock has found a pearl! A priceless idea! What are you going to do in Tula?”
“We’re too starved at home.”
Tikhon Ilitch unfastened his coat, thrust his hand into the pocket of his sleeveless under-kaftan—he had almost made up his mind to give Deniska a twenty-kopek coin. But he came to his senses—’twas stupid to squander his money, and, what was more, that dolt would become conceited, would say he had been bribed. So he pretended to be hunting for something. “Ah, I’ve forgotten my cigarettes! Come, give me some tobacco.”
Deniska gave him his tobacco-pouch. The lantern over the station entrance had already been lighted, and by its dim light Tikhon Ilitch read aloud the inscription embroidered in coarse white thread on the bag: “To whoam I luv I giv I luv hartilie I giv a poch foureaver.” “That’s clever!” he said, when he had finished reading.
Deniska modestly cast down his eyes.
“So you have a lady-love already?”
“There’s a lot of them, the hussies, roaming about!” replied Deniska, quite unembarrassed. “But as for marrying—I don’t refuse. I’ll be back by the Meat-days, and then, Lord bless our marriage!”
From behind the palisade thundered a peasant cart, spattered all over with mud. It rolled up to the platform with a peasant perched on the side-rail and the deacon, Govoroff, from Ulianovka, seated on the straw inside. “Has it gone?” shouted the deacon in agitated tones, thrusting out of the straw one foot in a new overshoe. Every individual hair of his frowsy, reddish-sandy beard curled turbulently; his cap had retreated to the nape of his neck: his face was fiery-red from the wind and his excitement.
“The train, you mean?” inquired Tikhon Ilitch. “No, sir, it hasn’t even arrived yet. Good morning, Father Deacon.”
“Aha! Well then, thank God!” said the deacon joyfully and hastily; but nevertheless he leaped from the cart and rushed headlong to the door.
Tikhon Ilitch shook his head. “Oh, that long-maned fellow came at the wrong time! Nothing will come of my affair!” But as he grasped the handle of the door he said, firmly and confidently: “Well, so be it. It’s settled for the meat-season.”
THE railway station was permeated with the odours of wet sheepskin coats, the samovar, cheap tobacco, and kerosene. The smoke was so dense that it gripped one’s throat; the lamps hardly shone through the clouds of it, and of the semi-darkness, dampness, and cold. The doors squeaked and banged; peasants, whips in hand, jostled and yelled—cabmen from Ulianovka, who sometimes waited a whole week before they captured a passenger. In and out among them, with brows elevated, perambulated a Jew grain-dealer, wearing a round-topped hat and a hooded overcoat and carrying an umbrella over his shoulder. Near the ticket-seller’s window peasants were dragging to the scales the trunks of some land-owners and basket-hampers enveloped in oilcloth. The telegraph clerk, who was discharging the duties of assistant station agent, was shouting at the peasants. He was a short-legged young fellow with a big head and a curly yellow crest of hair, brought forth from beneath his cap on the left temple, kazak fashion. A pointer dog as spotted as a frog, with melancholy eyes like those of a human being, was sitting on the dirty floor and shivering violently.
Elbowing his way through the crowd of peasants, Tikhon Ilitch approached the door of the first-class waiting-room, beside which, on the wall, hung a wooden frame containing letters, telegrams, and newspapers, which sometimes lay on the floor. It turned out that there were no letters for him. There was nothing but three numbers of the “Orloff Messenger.” Tikhon Ilitch was on the point of stepping over to the counter to have a chat with the restaurant manager. But on a stool by the counter sat a drunken man with blue, glassy eyes and shiny purplish face, in a round grey-peaked cap topped with a button—the cellarman from the whiskey distillery of Prince Lobanoff. So Tikhon Ilitch hastily turned back. He knew that cellarman only too well: if that man’s eye lighted on him he wouldn’t be able to tear himself free for twenty-four hours.
Deniska was still standing on the platform. “I want to ask you something, Tikhon Ilitch,” he said with even more timidity than was his wont.
“What is it?” inquired Tikhon Ilitch angrily. “Money? I won’t give you any.”
“No, not money at all. I want you to read my letter.”
“A letter? To whom?”
“To you. I wanted to give it to you a long time ago, but I didn’t dare.”
“Well, what’s it about?”
“Why—I have described my way of life.”
Tikhon Ilitch took the scrap of paper from Deniska’s hand, thrust it into his pocket, and strode swiftly homeward through the springy mud, which was beginning to congeal.
He was now in a resolute frame of mind. He craved work, and reflected with pleasure that there was something to be done—the cattle must be fed. After all, ’twas a pity he had lost his temper and discharged Chaff; now he would have to lose his sleep at night. Very little reliance could be placed on Oska. Probably he was already asleep. If not, he was sitting with the cook and reviling his master. And, passing by the lighted windows of his cottage, Tikhon Ilitch crept into the ante-room, stumbled in the darkness over the cold, fragrant straw, and glued his ear to the door. Laughter, and then the voice of Oska, were audible on the other side of the door.
“So now, here’s another story. In a village dwelt a peasant, poor, the poorest of the poor; in all the village there was none poorer than he. And one day, my good people, this same peasant went out to till his land. And a spotted cur dogged him. The peasant ploughed along, and the cur nosed about all over the field and kept digging at something. He dug and dug, and how he ho-owled! What was the meaning of that? The peasant ran to him, looked into the hole, and there was—a kettle.”
“A ket-tle?” asked the cook.
“Just listen to what comes next. The kettle was only a kettle, but in the kettle was—gold! An immense quantity. Well, and so the peasant became very rich.”
“Akh, lies!” said Tikhon Ilitch to himself, and began to listen eagerly to what was going to happen to the peasant next.
“The peasant got rich, and lost his head, just like any merchant—”
“Exactly like our Stiff-Leg,” interposed the cook.
Tikhon Ilitch grinned: he knew that, for a long time, he had been called “Stiff-leg.” Every man has some nickname.
Oska went on: “Even richer than he. Yes. And then the dog takes and dies. What was he to do? He couldn’t bear it—he was sorry for the dog, and he had to bury him decently—”
An explosion of laughter rang out. The story-teller himself guffawed, and so did some one else—some one with an old man’s cough.
“Can it be Chaff?” thought Tikhon Ilitch, in perturbation. “Well, glory to God! I told that fool myself: ‘You’ll be coming back’!”
“The peasant went to the priest,” pursued Oska—“he went to the priest: ‘Thus and so, father, a dog has died—he must be buried.’”
Again the cook could not control herself and shrieked joyously: “Phew, you stick at nothing!”
“Give me a chance to finish!” shouted Oska in his turn, and once more dropped into the narrative tone, depicting now the priest, now the peasant: “‘Thus and so, batiushka—the dog must be buried.’ The priest stamped his feet: ‘How is it to be buried? Where is it to be buried? In the cemetery? I’ll make you rot in prison, I’ll have you put in fetters!’—‘Batiushka, you see, this is no common dog: when he was dying he bequeathed you five hundred rubles!’ The priest fairly leaped from his seat: ‘Fool! Am I scolding you for burying the dog? I’m scolding you about the place where he is to be buried. He must be buried in the churchyard!’”
Tikhon Ilitch coughed loudly and opened the door. At the table beside the smoking lamp, the broken chimney of which was patched on one side with a bit of blackened paper, sat the cook, her head bent and her face completely veiled by her wet hair. She was combing it with a wooden comb and inspecting the comb athwart her hair by the light of the lamp. Oska, with a cigarette in his teeth, was laughing vociferously, his head thrown back, as he dangled his feet to and fro in their bast-slippers. Near the stove, in the semi-darkness, gleamed a red spark of flame—a pipe. When Tikhon Ilitch jerked the door open and made his appearance on the threshold, the laughter came to an abrupt end, and the person who was smoking the pipe rose timidly from his seat, removed the pipe from his mouth, and thrust it into his pocket. Yes, it was Chaff! But Tikhon Ilitch shouted, in an alert and friendly way, as though nothing had happened that morning: “Time to feed the cattle, my lads!”
THEY rambled about the stable with a lantern, illuminating the coagulated manure, the straw scattered all about, the mangers, the posts; casting immense shadows, waking up the fowls on the roosts under the sloping roofs. The chickens flew down, tumbled down, and, with heads ducked forward, fell asleep as they ran, fleeing as chance directed. The large purplish eyes of the horses, which turned their heads toward the light, gleamed and looked strange and splendid. A mist rose from their breath, as if all of them were smoking. And when Tikhon Ilitch lowered the lantern and glanced upward, he beheld with joy, above the square farmyard in the deep, pure sky, the brilliant vari-coloured stars. The north wind could be heard crackling drily over the roofs and whistling through the crevices with a frosty chill. Thank the Lord, winter was come!
Having completed his task and ordered the samovar, Tikhon Ilitch went with his lantern into the cold shop, reeking with smells, and picked out the best pickled herring he could find. That was all right, not a bad idea: to cheer oneself up a bit before tea! And at tea he ate it, drank several small glasses of bitter-sweet, yellowish-red liqueur made of mountain-ash berries, poured himself out a brimming cup of tea, and drew towards him his large old counting-frame. But, after some reflection, he hunted out Deniska’s letter and set himself to the task of deciphering its scrawl.
“Denya reseved 40 rubles in munny, and than kolected his thinges....” (“Forty!” said Tikhon Ilitch to himself. “Akh, the poor beggar!”) “Denya wint to Tula station and hee wos enstantly robbt they tuk Evrything to the last kopak hee had nowere to gow and sadness Sezed heem....”
This absurd scrawl was difficult and tiresome to decipher, but the evening was long, and he had nothing else to do. The samovar purred busily, the lamp shone with a quiet light—and there was sadness in the tranquillity and repose of the evening. The watchman’s mallet was working away as he made his rounds noisily, beating out a dance-tune upon the frosty air.
“Aftr thot I hainkrd to goa hoam thoa fader wo vairy brutl....”
“Well, and there’s a fool for you, Lord forgive me!” thought Tikhon Ilitch. “The Grey Man brutal, forsooth!”
“I wint Into the tik foarest to peck out the talest fur-tre and taik a cord frum a shuger-loof and fixe myselff in iternl laife in my nu briches but witaut boots....”
(“Without his boots, he means, I suppose?” said Tikhon Ilitch, holding the paper at a distance from his tired eyes. “Yes, that’s right; that’s what he means.”)
“Eftrwords come strung wind blu clauds and thunr-strum and a kwik bige litul rayne poared the son kam frum behain foarest the coard bend bend and asuden brooke and Denya fall on the grond the ents krall and bigin to bite and wurk on hem and thair crold alzo a snaek and a green krawfish....”
Tossing the letter into the slop-bowl, Tikhon Ilitch sipped his tea, planted his elbows on the table, and stared at the lamp. What a queer nation! A soul of many hues! Now a man is just a plain dog, then again he is melancholy, pities himself, turns soft, weeps over himself—after the fashion of Deniska, or of himself, Tikhon Ilitch. The window-panes were perspiring vigorously and clearly, as they do in winter; the watchman’s mallet said something melodiously coherent. Ekh, if he only had children! If—well, if he only had a nice mistress instead of that bloated old woman, who made his flesh crawl merely by what she said; by her words about the Princess, and about some pious nun or other named Polikarpia, who was called in the town “Polukarpia.” But it was too late, too late.
Unfastening the embroidered collar of his shirt, Tikhon Ilitch, with a bitter smile, felt of his throat behind the ears. Those hollows were the first sign of old age; his head was assuming the shape of a horse’s head! But otherwise things were not so bad. He bent his head, thrust his fingers into his beard. And his beard was grey, dry, dishevelled. Yes, enough—enough, Tikhon Ilitch!
He drank, grew intoxicated, set his jaws more and more tightly, stared more intently than ever at the wick of the lamp, burning with an even flame. Think of it! You couldn’t go to see your own brother—the pigs prevented, like the swine they were! And if they would let him, there would still be small cause for joy. Kuzma would read him a lecture, the Bride would stand with lips pressed tight and drooping eyelashes. Why, those lowered eyelids alone were enough to make a man take to his heels!
His heart sank within him, ached; a pleasing mist clouded his brain. Where had he heard that song?—
“My tiresome evening’s come;
I know not what to do.
My friend belov’d is come,
He fondles me, loves me true.”
Ah, yes, it was in Lebedyan, at the posting station. The young girls, lace-makers, were sitting on a winter evening and singing. There they sat, weaving their lace and never raising their eyelashes; they sang in deep, ringing voices:
“He kisses me, embraces me,
Then takes his leave of me....”
His brain was clouded. Now it seemed as if everything lay ahead of him—joy, liberty, freedom from care—then his heart began to ache painfully, hopelessly. Now he said: “If I only had a bit of money in my pocket, I could buy anything—even an aunt—at the market!” Again he cast a vicious glance at the lamp, and muttered, alluding to his brother: “Teacher! Preacher! Pitiful Philaret! Ragged devil!”
He drank the rest of the mountain-ash-berry cordial and smoked until the room grew dark. With uncertain steps he went out, across the shaking uneven floor, clad only in his roundabout, into the dark ante-room. He was sensible of the piercing coldness of the air, the smell of straw, the odour of dogs, and he perceived two greenish lights blinking on the threshold. “Buyan!” he shouted. And he kicked Buyan over the head with all his might.
Then he listened to the watchman’s mallet, keeping time to it with his feet. He spat on the steps of the porch, mentally accompanying the action with:
“Come straight to me,
Look straight at me.”
And as he set off in the direction of the highway he shouted: “Blow on a squirrel’s tail—it will be all the more downy for it!”
A death-like silence lay over the earth, which showed softly black in the starlight. The highway shone faintly white as it faded out in the gloom. Far away, as if emanating from beneath the surface of the earth, a rumbling sound became audible and grew louder from moment to moment. And suddenly the orchestra came to the surface with its droning: in the distance, cutting across the highway, its chain of windows lighted by electricity, gleaming whitely, trailing smoke-wreaths as a flying witch trails her tresses, redly illuminated from below, the express train dashed past.
“It’s passing Durnovka!” said Tikhon Ilitch, with a hiccough. “Passing the Grey Man! Akh, the robbers, curse them—”
The drowsy cook entered the living-room, which was dimly lighted by the burned-out lamp and stank of tobacco. She was bringing in a greasy little kettle of sour cabbage soup, which she held in rags black with dirt and soot. Tikhon Ilitch cast a sidelong glance at her and said: “Get out of here, this very minute.”
The cook wheeled round, pushed open the door with her foot, and disappeared. Then he picked up Gatzuk’s calendar, dipped a rusty pen into the rusty ink, and began, with set teeth and leaden eyes staring fixedly, to write endlessly on the calendar, up and down and across:
“Gatzuk, Gatzuk, Gatzuk, Gatzuk ...”