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The Witch and Other Stories

Anton Chekhov

Translated by Constance Garnett

This is the Bookwise complete ebook of The Witch and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov, available to read online as an alternative to epub, mobi, kindle, pdf or text only versions. For information about the status of this work, see Copyright Notice.



THE WITCH

IT was approaching nightfall. The sexton, Savely Gykin, was lying in his huge bed in the hut adjoining the church. He was not asleep, though it was his habit to go to sleep at the same time as the hens. His coarse red hair peeped from under one end of the greasy patchwork quilt, made up of coloured rags, while his big unwashed feet stuck out from the other. He was listening. His hut adjoined the wall that encircled the church and the solitary window in it looked out upon the open country. And out there a regular battle was going on. It was hard to say who was being wiped off the face of the earth, and for the sake of whose destruction nature was being churned up into such a ferment; but, judging from the unceasing malignant roar, someone was getting it very hot. A victorious force was in full chase over the fields, storming in the forest and on the church roof, battering spitefully with its fists upon the windows, raging and tearing, while something vanquished was howling and wailing.... A plaintive lament sobbed at the window, on the roof, or in the stove. It sounded not like a call for help, but like a cry of misery, a consciousness that it was too late, that there was no salvation. The snowdrifts were covered with a thin coating of ice; tears quivered on them and on the trees; a dark slush of mud and melting snow flowed along the roads and paths. In short, it was thawing, but through the dark night the heavens failed to see it, and flung flakes of fresh snow upon the melting earth at a terrific rate. And the wind staggered like a drunkard. It would not let the snow settle on the ground, and whirled it round in the darkness at random.

Savely listened to all this din and frowned. The fact was that he knew, or at any rate suspected, what all this racket outside the window was tending to and whose handiwork it was.

“I know!” he muttered, shaking his finger menacingly under the bedclothes; “I know all about it.”

On a stool by the window sat the sexton’s wife, Raissa Nilovna. A tin lamp standing on another stool, as though timid and distrustful of its powers, shed a dim and flickering light on her broad shoulders, on the handsome, tempting-looking contours of her person, and on her thick plait, which reached to the floor. She was making sacks out of coarse hempen stuff. Her hands moved nimbly, while her whole body, her eyes, her eyebrows, her full lips, her white neck were as still as though they were asleep, absorbed in the monotonous, mechanical toil. Only from time to time she raised her head to rest her weary neck, glanced for a moment towards the window, beyond which the snowstorm was raging, and bent again over her sacking. No desire, no joy, no grief, nothing was expressed by her handsome face with its turned-up nose and its dimples. So a beautiful fountain expresses nothing when it is not playing.

But at last she had finished a sack. She flung it aside, and, stretching luxuriously, rested her motionless, lack-lustre eyes on the window. The panes were swimming with drops like tears, and white with short-lived snowflakes which fell on the window, glanced at Raissa, and melted....

“Come to bed!” growled the sexton. Raissa remained mute. But suddenly her eyelashes flickered and there was a gleam of attention in her eye. Savely, all the time watching her expression from under the quilt, put out his head and asked:

“What is it?”

“Nothing.... I fancy someone’s coming,” she answered quietly.

The sexton flung the quilt off with his arms and legs, knelt up in bed, and looked blankly at his wife. The timid light of the lamp illuminated his hirsute, pock-marked countenance and glided over his rough matted hair.

“Do you hear?” asked his wife.

Through the monotonous roar of the storm he caught a scarcely audible thin and jingling monotone like the shrill note of a gnat when it wants to settle on one’s cheek and is angry at being prevented.

“It’s the post,” muttered Savely, squatting on his heels.

Two miles from the church ran the posting road. In windy weather, when the wind was blowing from the road to the church, the inmates of the hut caught the sound of bells.

“Lord! fancy people wanting to drive about in such weather,” sighed Raissa.

“It’s government work. You’ve to go whether you like or not.”

The murmur hung in the air and died away.

“It has driven by,” said Savely, getting into bed.

But before he had time to cover himself up with the bedclothes he heard a distinct sound of the bell. The sexton looked anxiously at his wife, leapt out of bed and walked, waddling, to and fro by the stove. The bell went on ringing for a little, then died away again as though it had ceased.

“I don’t hear it,” said the sexton, stopping and looking at his wife with his eyes screwed up.

But at that moment the wind rapped on the window and with it floated a shrill jingling note. Savely turned pale, cleared his throat, and flopped about the floor with his bare feet again.

“The postman is lost in the storm,” he wheezed out glancing malignantly at his wife. “Do you hear? The postman has lost his way!... I... I know! Do you suppose I... don’t understand?” he muttered. “I know all about it, curse you!”

“What do you know?” Raissa asked quietly, keeping her eyes fixed on the window.

“I know that it’s all your doing, you she-devil! Your doing, damn you! This snowstorm and the post going wrong, you’ve done it all—you!”

“You’re mad, you silly,” his wife answered calmly.

“I’ve been watching you for a long time past and I’ve seen it. From the first day I married you I noticed that you’d bitch’s blood in you!”

“Tfoo!” said Raissa, surprised, shrugging her shoulders and crossing herself. “Cross yourself, you fool!”

“A witch is a witch,” Savely pronounced in a hollow, tearful voice, hurriedly blowing his nose on the hem of his shirt; “though you are my wife, though you are of a clerical family, I’d say what you are even at confession.... Why, God have mercy upon us! Last year on the Eve of the Prophet Daniel and the Three Young Men there was a snowstorm, and what happened then? The mechanic came in to warm himself. Then on St. Alexey’s Day the ice broke on the river and the district policeman turned up, and he was chatting with you all night... the damned brute! And when he came out in the morning and I looked at him, he had rings under his eyes and his cheeks were hollow! Eh? During the August fast there were two storms and each time the huntsman turned up. I saw it all, damn him! Oh, she is redder than a crab now, aha!”

“You didn’t see anything.”

“Didn’t I! And this winter before Christmas on the Day of the Ten Martyrs of Crete, when the storm lasted for a whole day and night—do you remember?—the marshal’s clerk was lost, and turned up here, the hound.... Tfoo! To be tempted by the clerk! It was worth upsetting God’s weather for him! A drivelling scribbler, not a foot from the ground, pimples all over his mug and his neck awry! If he were good-looking, anyway—but he, tfoo! he is as ugly as Satan!”

The sexton took breath, wiped his lips and listened. The bell was not to be heard, but the wind banged on the roof, and again there came a tinkle in the darkness.

“And it’s the same thing now!” Savely went on. “It’s not for nothing the postman is lost! Blast my eyes if the postman isn’t looking for you! Oh, the devil is a good hand at his work; he is a fine one to help! He will turn him round and round and bring him here. I know, I see! You can’t conceal it, you devil’s bauble, you heathen wanton! As soon as the storm began I knew what you were up to.”

“Here’s a fool!” smiled his wife. “Why, do you suppose, you thick-head, that I make the storm?”

“H’m!... Grin away! Whether it’s your doing or not, I only know that when your blood’s on fire there’s sure to be bad weather, and when there’s bad weather there’s bound to be some crazy fellow turning up here. It happens so every time! So it must be you!”

To be more impressive the sexton put his finger to his forehead, closed his left eye, and said in a singsong voice:

“Oh, the madness! oh, the unclean Judas! If you really are a human being and not a witch, you ought to think what if he is not the mechanic, or the clerk, or the huntsman, but the devil in their form! Ah! You’d better think of that!”

“Why, you are stupid, Savely,” said his wife, looking at him compassionately. “When father was alive and living here, all sorts of people used to come to him to be cured of the ague: from the village, and the hamlets, and the Armenian settlement. They came almost every day, and no one called them devils. But if anyone once a year comes in bad weather to warm himself, you wonder at it, you silly, and take all sorts of notions into your head at once.”

His wife’s logic touched Savely. He stood with his bare feet wide apart, bent his head, and pondered. He was not firmly convinced yet of the truth of his suspicions, and his wife’s genuine and unconcerned tone quite disconcerted him. Yet after a moment’s thought he wagged his head and said:

“It’s not as though they were old men or bandy-legged cripples; it’s always young men who want to come for the night.... Why is that? And if they only wanted to warm themselves——But they are up to mischief. No, woman; there’s no creature in this world as cunning as your female sort! Of real brains you’ve not an ounce, less than a starling, but for devilish slyness—oo-oo-oo! The Queen of Heaven protect us! There is the postman’s bell! When the storm was only beginning I knew all that was in your mind. That’s your witchery, you spider!”

“Why do you keep on at me, you heathen?” His wife lost her patience at last. “Why do you keep sticking to it like pitch?”

“I stick to it because if anything—God forbid—happens to-night... do you hear?... if anything happens to-night, I’ll go straight off to-morrow morning to Father Nikodim and tell him all about it. ‘Father Nikodim,’ I shall say, ‘graciously excuse me, but she is a witch.’ ‘Why so?’ ‘H’m! do you want to know why?’ ‘Certainly....’ And I shall tell him. And woe to you, woman! Not only at the dread Seat of Judgment, but in your earthly life you’ll be punished, too! It’s not for nothing there are prayers in the breviary against your kind!”

Suddenly there was a knock at the window, so loud and unusual that Savely turned pale and almost dropped backwards with fright. His wife jumped up, and she, too, turned pale.

“For God’s sake, let us come in and get warm!” they heard in a trembling deep bass. “Who lives here? For mercy’s sake! We’ve lost our way.”

“Who are you?” asked Raissa, afraid to look at the window.

“The post,” answered a second voice.

“You’ve succeeded with your devil’s tricks,” said Savely with a wave of his hand. “No mistake; I am right! Well, you’d better look out!”

The sexton jumped on to the bed in two skips, stretched himself on the feather mattress, and sniffing angrily, turned with his face to the wall. Soon he felt a draught of cold air on his back. The door creaked and the tall figure of a man, plastered over with snow from head to foot, appeared in the doorway. Behind him could be seen a second figure as white.

“Am I to bring in the bags?” asked the second in a hoarse bass voice.

“You can’t leave them there.” Saying this, the first figure began untying his hood, but gave it up, and pulling it off impatiently with his cap, angrily flung it near the stove. Then taking off his greatcoat, he threw that down beside it, and, without saying good-evening, began pacing up and down the hut.

He was a fair-haired, young postman wearing a shabby uniform and black rusty-looking high boots. After warming himself by walking to and fro, he sat down at the table, stretched out his muddy feet towards the sacks and leaned his chin on his fist. His pale face, reddened in places by the cold, still bore vivid traces of the pain and terror he had just been through. Though distorted by anger and bearing traces of recent suffering, physical and moral, it was handsome in spite of the melting snow on the eyebrows, moustaches, and short beard.

“It’s a dog’s life!” muttered the postman, looking round the walls and seeming hardly able to believe that he was in the warmth. “We were nearly lost! If it had not been for your light, I don’t know what would have happened. Goodness only knows when it will all be over! There’s no end to this dog’s life! Where have we come?” he asked, dropping his voice and raising his eyes to the sexton’s wife.

“To the Gulyaevsky Hill on General Kalinovsky’s estate,” she answered, startled and blushing.

“Do you hear, Stepan?” The postman turned to the driver, who was wedged in the doorway with a huge mail-bag on his shoulders. “We’ve got to Gulyaevsky Hill.”

“Yes... we’re a long way out.” Jerking out these words like a hoarse sigh, the driver went out and soon after returned with another bag, then went out once more and this time brought the postman’s sword on a big belt, of the pattern of that long flat blade with which Judith is portrayed by the bedside of Holofernes in cheap woodcuts. Laying the bags along the wall, he went out into the outer room, sat down there and lighted his pipe.

“Perhaps you’d like some tea after your journey?” Raissa inquired.

“How can we sit drinking tea?” said the postman, frowning. “We must make haste and get warm, and then set off, or we shall be late for the mail train. We’ll stay ten minutes and then get on our way. Only be so good as to show us the way.”

“What an infliction it is, this weather!” sighed Raissa.

“H’m, yes.... Who may you be?”

“We? We live here, by the church.... We belong to the clergy.... There lies my husband. Savely, get up and say good-evening! This used to be a separate parish till eighteen months ago. Of course, when the gentry lived here there were more people, and it was worth while to have the services. But now the gentry have gone, and I need not tell you there’s nothing for the clergy to live on. The nearest village is Markovka, and that’s over three miles away. Savely is on the retired list now, and has got the watchman’s job; he has to look after the church....”

And the postman was immediately informed that if Savely were to go to the General’s lady and ask her for a letter to the bishop, he would be given a good berth. “But he doesn’t go to the General’s lady because he is lazy and afraid of people. We belong to the clergy all the same...” added Raissa.

“What do you live on?” asked the postman.

“There’s a kitchen garden and a meadow belonging to the church. Only we don’t get much from that,” sighed Raissa. “The old skinflint, Father Nikodim, from the next village celebrates here on St. Nicolas’ Day in the winter and on St. Nicolas’ Day in the summer, and for that he takes almost all the crops for himself. There’s no one to stick up for us!”

“You are lying,” Savely growled hoarsely. “Father Nikodim is a saintly soul, a luminary of the Church; and if he does take it, it’s the regulation!”

“You’ve a cross one!” said the postman, with a grin. “Have you been married long?”

“It was three years ago the last Sunday before Lent. My father was sexton here in the old days, and when the time came for him to die, he went to the Consistory and asked them to send some unmarried man to marry me that I might keep the place. So I married him.”

“Aha, so you killed two birds with one stone!” said the postman, looking at Savely’s back. “Got wife and job together.”

Savely wriggled his leg impatiently and moved closer to the wall. The postman moved away from the table, stretched, and sat down on the mail-bag. After a moment’s thought he squeezed the bags with his hands, shifted his sword to the other side, and lay down with one foot touching the floor.

“It’s a dog’s life,” he muttered, putting his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. “I wouldn’t wish a wild Tatar such a life.”

Soon everything was still. Nothing was audible except the sniffing of Savely and the slow, even breathing of the sleeping postman, who uttered a deep prolonged “h-h-h” at every breath. From time to time there was a sound like a creaking wheel in his throat, and his twitching foot rustled against the bag.

Savely fidgeted under the quilt and looked round slowly. His wife was sitting on the stool, and with her hands pressed against her cheeks was gazing at the postman’s face. Her face was immovable, like the face of some one frightened and astonished.

“Well, what are you gaping at?” Savely whispered angrily.

“What is it to you? Lie down!” answered his wife without taking her eyes off the flaxen head.

Savely angrily puffed all the air out of his chest and turned abruptly to the wall. Three minutes later he turned over restlessly again, knelt up on the bed, and with his hands on the pillow looked askance at his wife. She was still sitting motionless, staring at the visitor. Her cheeks were pale and her eyes were glowing with a strange fire. The sexton cleared his throat, crawled on his stomach off the bed, and going up to the postman, put a handkerchief over his face.

“What’s that for?” asked his wife.

“To keep the light out of his eyes.”

“Then put out the light!”

Savely looked distrustfully at his wife, put out his lips towards the lamp, but at once thought better of it and clasped his hands.

“Isn’t that devilish cunning?” he exclaimed. “Ah! Is there any creature slyer than womenkind?”

“Ah, you long-skirted devil!” hissed his wife, frowning with vexation. “You wait a bit!”

And settling herself more comfortably, she stared at the postman again.

It did not matter to her that his face was covered. She was not so much interested in his face as in his whole appearance, in the novelty of this man. His chest was broad and powerful, his hands were slender and well formed, and his graceful, muscular legs were much comelier than Savely’s stumps. There could be no comparison, in fact.

“Though I am a long-skirted devil,” Savely said after a brief interval, “they’ve no business to sleep here.... It’s government work; we shall have to answer for keeping them. If you carry the letters, carry them, you can’t go to sleep.... Hey! you!” Savely shouted into the outer room. “You, driver. What’s your name? Shall I show you the way? Get up; postmen mustn’t sleep!”

And Savely, thoroughly roused, ran up to the postman and tugged him by the sleeve.

“Hey, your honour, if you must go, go; and if you don’t, it’s not the thing.... Sleeping won’t do.”

The postman jumped up, sat down, looked with blank eyes round the hut, and lay down again.

“But when are you going?” Savely pattered away. “That’s what the post is for—to get there in good time, do you hear? I’ll take you.”

The postman opened his eyes. Warmed and relaxed by his first sweet sleep, and not yet quite awake, he saw as through a mist the white neck and the immovable, alluring eyes of the sexton’s wife. He closed his eyes and smiled as though he had been dreaming it all.

“Come, how can you go in such weather!” he heard a soft feminine voice; “you ought to have a sound sleep and it would do you good!”

“And what about the post?” said Savely anxiously. “Who’s going to take the post? Are you going to take it, pray, you?”

The postman opened his eyes again, looked at the play of the dimples on Raissa’s face, remembered where he was, and understood Savely. The thought that he had to go out into the cold darkness sent a chill shudder all down him, and he winced.

“I might sleep another five minutes,” he said, yawning. “I shall be late, anyway....”

“We might be just in time,” came a voice from the outer room. “All days are not alike; the train may be late for a bit of luck.”

The postman got up, and stretching lazily began putting on his coat.

Savely positively neighed with delight when he saw his visitors were getting ready to go.

“Give us a hand,” the driver shouted to him as he lifted up a mail-bag.

The sexton ran out and helped him drag the post-bags into the yard. The postman began undoing the knot in his hood. The sexton’s wife gazed into his eyes, and seemed trying to look right into his soul.

“You ought to have a cup of tea...” she said.

“I wouldn’t say no... but, you see, they’re getting ready,” he assented. “We are late, anyway.”

“Do stay,” she whispered, dropping her eyes and touching him by the sleeve.

The postman got the knot undone at last and flung the hood over his elbow, hesitating. He felt it comfortable standing by Raissa.

“What a... neck you’ve got!...” And he touched her neck with two fingers. Seeing that she did not resist, he stroked her neck and shoulders.

“I say, you are...”

“You’d better stay... have some tea.”

“Where are you putting it?” The driver’s voice could be heard outside. “Lay it crossways.”

“You’d better stay.... Hark how the wind howls.”

And the postman, not yet quite awake, not yet quite able to shake off the intoxicating sleep of youth and fatigue, was suddenly overwhelmed by a desire for the sake of which mail-bags, postal trains... and all things in the world, are forgotten. He glanced at the door in a frightened way, as though he wanted to escape or hide himself, seized Raissa round the waist, and was just bending over the lamp to put out the light, when he heard the tramp of boots in the outer room, and the driver appeared in the doorway. Savely peeped in over his shoulder. The postman dropped his hands quickly and stood still as though irresolute.

“It’s all ready,” said the driver. The postman stood still for a moment, resolutely threw up his head as though waking up completely, and followed the driver out. Raissa was left alone.

“Come, get in and show us the way!” she heard.

One bell sounded languidly, then another, and the jingling notes in a long delicate chain floated away from the hut.

When little by little they had died away, Raissa got up and nervously paced to and fro. At first she was pale, then she flushed all over. Her face was contorted with hate, her breathing was tremulous, her eyes gleamed with wild, savage anger, and, pacing up and down as in a cage, she looked like a tigress menaced with red-hot iron. For a moment she stood still and looked at her abode. Almost half of the room was filled up by the bed, which stretched the length of the whole wall and consisted of a dirty feather-bed, coarse grey pillows, a quilt, and nameless rags of various sorts. The bed was a shapeless ugly mass which suggested the shock of hair that always stood up on Savely’s head whenever it occurred to him to oil it. From the bed to the door that led into the cold outer room stretched the dark stove surrounded by pots and hanging clouts. Everything, including the absent Savely himself, was dirty, greasy, and smutty to the last degree, so that it was strange to see a woman’s white neck and delicate skin in such surroundings.

Raissa ran up to the bed, stretched out her hands as though she wanted to fling it all about, stamp it underfoot, and tear it to shreds. But then, as though frightened by contact with the dirt, she leapt back and began pacing up and down again.

When Savely returned two hours later, worn out and covered with snow, she was undressed and in bed. Her eyes were closed, but from the slight tremor that ran over her face he guessed that she was not asleep. On his way home he had vowed inwardly to wait till next day and not to touch her, but he could not resist a biting taunt at her.

“Your witchery was all in vain: he’s gone off,” he said, grinning with malignant joy.

His wife remained mute, but her chin quivered. Savely undressed slowly, clambered over his wife, and lay down next to the wall.

“To-morrow I’ll let Father Nikodim know what sort of wife you are!” he muttered, curling himself up.

Raissa turned her face to him and her eyes gleamed.

“The job’s enough for you, and you can look for a wife in the forest, blast you!” she said. “I am no wife for you, a clumsy lout, a slug-a-bed, God forgive me!”

“Come, come... go to sleep!”

“How miserable I am!” sobbed his wife. “If it weren’t for you, I might have married a merchant or some gentleman! If it weren’t for you, I should love my husband now! And you haven’t been buried in the snow, you haven’t been frozen on the highroad, you Herod!”

Raissa cried for a long time. At last she drew a deep sigh and was still. The storm still raged without. Something wailed in the stove, in the chimney, outside the walls, and it seemed to Savely that the wailing was within him, in his ears. This evening had completely confirmed him in his suspicions about his wife. He no longer doubted that his wife, with the aid of the Evil One, controlled the winds and the post sledges. But to add to his grief, this mysteriousness, this supernatural, weird power gave the woman beside him a peculiar, incomprehensible charm of which he had not been conscious before. The fact that in his stupidity he unconsciously threw a poetic glamour over her made her seem, as it were, whiter, sleeker, more unapproachable.

“Witch!” he muttered indignantly. “Tfoo, horrid creature!”

Yet, waiting till she was quiet and began breathing evenly, he touched her head with his finger... held her thick plait in his hand for a minute. She did not feel it. Then he grew bolder and stroked her neck.

“Leave off!” she shouted, and prodded him on the nose with her elbow with such violence that he saw stars before his eyes.

The pain in his nose was soon over, but the torture in his heart remained.


PEASANT WIVES

IN the village of Reybuzh, just facing the church, stands a two-storeyed house with a stone foundation and an iron roof. In the lower storey the owner himself, Filip Ivanov Kashin, nicknamed Dyudya, lives with his family, and on the upper floor, where it is apt to be very hot in summer and very cold in winter, they put up government officials, merchants, or landowners, who chance to be travelling that way. Dyudya rents some bits of land, keeps a tavern on the highroad, does a trade in tar, honey, cattle, and jackdaws, and has already something like eight thousand roubles put by in the bank in the town.

His elder son, Fyodor, is head engineer in the factory, and, as the peasants say of him, he has risen so high in the world that he is quite out of reach now. Fyodor’s wife, Sofya, a plain, ailing woman, lives at home at her father-in-law’s. She is for ever crying, and every Sunday she goes over to the hospital for medicine. Dyudya’s second son, the hunchback Alyoshka, is living at home at his father’s. He has only lately been married to Varvara, whom they singled out for him from a poor family. She is a handsome young woman, smart and buxom. When officials or merchants put up at the house, they always insist on having Varvara to bring in the samovar and make their beds.

One June evening when the sun was setting and the air was full of the smell of hay, of steaming dung-heaps and new milk, a plain-looking cart drove into Dyudya’s yard with three people in it: a man of about thirty in a canvas suit, beside him a little boy of seven or eight in a long black coat with big bone buttons, and on the driver’s seat a young fellow in a red shirt.

The young fellow took out the horses and led them out into the street to walk them up and down a bit, while the traveller washed, said a prayer, turning towards the church, then spread a rug near the cart and sat down with the boy to supper. He ate without haste, sedately, and Dyudya, who had seen a good many travellers in his time, knew him from his manners for a businesslike man, serious and aware of his own value.

Dyudya was sitting on the step in his waistcoat without a cap on, waiting for the visitor to speak first. He was used to hearing all kinds of stories from the travellers in the evening, and he liked listening to them before going to bed. His old wife, Afanasyevna, and his daughter-in-law Sofya, were milking in the cowshed. The other daughter-in-law, Varvara, was sitting at the open window of the upper storey, eating sunflower seeds.

“The little chap will be your son, I’m thinking?” Dyudya asked the traveller.

“No; adopted. An orphan. I took him for my soul’s salvation.”

They got into conversation. The stranger seemed to be a man fond of talking and ready of speech, and Dyudya learned from him that he was from the town, was of the tradesman class, and had a house of his own, that his name was Matvey Savitch, that he was on his way now to look at some gardens that he was renting from some German colonists, and that the boy’s name was Kuzka. The evening was hot and close, no one felt inclined for sleep. When it was getting dark and pale stars began to twinkle here and there in the sky, Matvey Savitch began to tell how he had come by Kuzka. Afanasyevna and Sofya stood a little way off, listening. Kuzka had gone to the gate.

“It’s a complicated story, old man,” began Matvey Savitch, “and if I were to tell you all just as it happened, it would take all night and more. Ten years ago in a little house in our street, next door to me, where now there’s a tallow and oil factory, there was living an old widow, Marfa Semyonovna Kapluntsev, and she had two sons: one was a guard on the railway, but the other, Vasya, who was just my own age, lived at home with his mother. Old Kapluntsev had kept five pair of horses and sent carriers all over the town; his widow had not given up the business, but managed the carriers as well as her husband had done, so that some days they would bring in as much as five roubles from their rounds.

“The young fellow, too, made a trifle on his own account. He used to breed fancy pigeons and sell them to fanciers; at times he would stand for hours on the roof, waving a broom in the air and whistling; his pigeons were right up in the clouds, but it wasn’t enough for him, and he’d want them to go higher yet. Siskins and starlings, too, he used to catch, and he made cages for sale. All trifles, but, mind you, he’d pick up some ten roubles a month over such trifles. Well, as time went on, the old lady lost the use of her legs and took to her bed. In consequence of which event the house was left without a woman to look after it, and that’s for all the world like a man without an eye. The old lady bestirred herself and made up her mind to marry Vasya. They called in a matchmaker at once, the women got to talking of one thing and another, and Vasya went off to have a look at the girls. He picked out Mashenka, a widow’s daughter. They made up their minds without loss of time and in a week it was all settled. The girl was a little slip of a thing, seventeen, but fair-skinned and pretty-looking, and like a lady in all her ways; and a decent dowry with her, five hundred roubles, a cow, a bed.... Well, the old lady—it seemed as though she had known it was coming—three days after the wedding, departed to the Heavenly Jerusalem where is neither sickness nor sighing. The young people gave her a good funeral and began their life together. For just six months they got on splendidly, and then all of a sudden another misfortune. It never rains but it pours: Vasya was summoned to the recruiting office to draw lots for the service. He was taken, poor chap, for a soldier, and not even granted exemption. They shaved his head and packed him off to Poland. It was God’s will; there was nothing to be done. When he said good-bye to his wife in the yard, he bore it all right; but as he glanced up at the hay-loft and his pigeons for the last time, he burst out crying. It was pitiful to see him.

“At first Mashenka got her mother to stay with her, that she mightn’t be dull all alone; she stayed till the baby—this very Kuzka here—was born, and then she went off to Oboyan to another married daughter’s and left Mashenka alone with the baby. There were five peasants—the carriers—a drunken saucy lot; horses, too, and dray-carts to see to, and then the fence would be broken or the soot afire in the chimney—jobs beyond a woman, and through our being neighbours, she got into the way of turning to me for every little thing.... Well, I’d go over, set things to rights, and give advice.... Naturally, not without going indoors, drinking a cup of tea and having a little chat with her. I was a young fellow, intellectual, and fond of talking on all sorts of subjects; she, too, was well-bred and educated. She was always neatly dressed, and in summer she walked out with a sunshade. Sometimes I would begin upon religion or politics with her, and she was flattered and would entertain me with tea and jam.... In a word, not to make a long story of it, I must tell you, old man, a year had not passed before the Evil One, the enemy of all mankind, confounded me. I began to notice that any day I didn’t go to see her, I seemed out of sorts and dull. And I’d be continually making up something that I must see her about: ‘It’s high time,’ I’d say to myself, ‘to put the double windows in for the winter,’ and the whole day I’d idle away over at her place putting in the windows and take good care to leave a couple of them over for the next day too.

“‘I ought to count over Vasya’s pigeons, to see none of them have strayed,’ and so on. I used always to be talking to her across the fence, and in the end I made a little gate in the fence so as not to have to go so far round. From womankind comes much evil into the world and every kind of abomination. Not we sinners only; even the saints themselves have been led astray by them. Mashenka did not try to keep me at a distance. Instead of thinking of her husband and being on her guard, she fell in love with me. I began to notice that she was dull without me, and was always walking to and fro by the fence looking into my yard through the cracks.

“My brains were going round in my head in a sort of frenzy. On Thursday in Holy Week I was going early in the morning—it was scarcely light—to market. I passed close by her gate, and the Evil One was by me—at my elbow. I looked—she had a gate with open trellis work at the top—and there she was, up already, standing in the middle of the yard, feeding the ducks. I could not restrain myself, and I called her name. She came up and looked at me through the trellis.... Her little face was white, her eyes soft and sleepy-looking.... I liked her looks immensely, and I began paying her compliments, as though we were not at the gate, but just as one does on namedays, while she blushed, and laughed, and kept looking straight into my eyes without winking.... I lost all sense and began to declare my love to her.... She opened the gate, and from that morning we began to live as man and wife....”

The hunchback Alyoshka came into the yard from the street and ran out of breath into the house, not looking at any one. A minute later he ran out of the house with a concertina. Jingling some coppers in his pocket, and cracking sunflower seeds as he ran, he went out at the gate.

“And who’s that, pray?” asked Matvey Savitch.

“My son Alexey,” answered Dyudya. “He’s off on a spree, the rascal. God has afflicted him with a hump, so we are not very hard on him.”

“And he’s always drinking with the other fellows, always drinking,” sighed Afanasyevna. “Before Carnival we married him, thinking he’d be steadier, but there! he’s worse than ever.”

“It’s been no use. Simply keeping another man’s daughter for nothing,” said Dyudya.

Somewhere behind the church they began to sing a glorious, mournful song. The words they could not catch and only the voices could be heard—two tenors and a bass. All were listening; there was complete stillness in the yard.... Two voices suddenly broke off with a loud roar of laughter, but the third, a tenor, still sang on, and took so high a note that every one instinctively looked upwards, as though the voice had soared to heaven itself.

Varvara came out of the house, and screening her eyes with her hand, as though from the sun, she looked towards the church.

“It’s the priest’s sons with the schoolmaster,” she said.

Again all the three voices began to sing together. Matvey Savitch sighed and went on:

“Well, that’s how it was, old man. Two years later we got a letter from Vasya from Warsaw. He wrote that he was being sent home sick. He was ill. By that time I had put all that foolishness out of my head, and I had a fine match picked out all ready for me, only I didn’t know how to break it off with my sweetheart. Every day I’d make up my mind to have it out with Mashenka, but I didn’t know how to approach her so as not to have a woman’s screeching about my ears. The letter freed my hands. I read it through with Mashenka; she turned white as a sheet, while I said to her: ‘Thank God; now,’ says I, ‘you’ll be a married woman again.’ But says she: ‘I’m not going to live with him.’ ‘Why, isn’t he your husband?’ said I. ‘Is it an easy thing?... I never loved him and I married him not of my own free will. My mother made me.’ ‘Don’t try to get out of it, silly,’ said I, ‘but tell me this: were you married to him in church or not?’ ‘I was married,’ she said, ‘but it’s you that I love, and I will stay with you to the day of my death. Folks may jeer. I don’t care....’ ‘You’re a Christian woman,’ said I, ‘and have read the Scriptures; what is written there?’

“Once married, with her husband she must live,” said Dyudya.

“‘Man and wife are one flesh. We have sinned,’ I said, ‘you and I, and it is enough; we must repent and fear God. We must confess it all to Vasya,’ said I; ‘he’s a quiet fellow and soft—he won’t kill you. And indeed,’ said I, ‘better to suffer torments in this world at the hands of your lawful master than to gnash your teeth at the dread Seat of Judgment.’ The wench wouldn’t listen; she stuck to her silly, ‘It’s you I love!’ and nothing more could I get out of her.

“Vasya came back on the Saturday before Trinity, early in the morning. From my fence I could see everything; he ran into the house, and came back a minute later with Kuzka in his arms, and he was laughing and crying all at once; he was kissing Kuzka and looking up at the hay-loft, and hadn’t the heart to put the child down, and yet he was longing to go to his pigeons. He was always a soft sort of chap—sentimental. That day passed off very well, all quiet and proper. They had begun ringing the church bells for the evening service, when the thought struck me: ‘To-morrow’s Trinity Sunday; how is it they are not decking the gates and the fence with green? Something’s wrong,’ I thought. I went over to them. I peeped in, and there he was, sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, his eyes staring like a drunken man’s, the tears streaming down his cheeks and his hands shaking; he was pulling cracknels, necklaces, gingerbread nuts, and all sorts of little presents out of his bundle and flinging them on the floor. Kuzka—he was three years old—was crawling on the floor, munching the gingerbreads, while Mashenka stood by the stove, white and shivering all over, muttering: ‘I’m not your wife; I can’t live with you,’ and all sorts of foolishness. I bowed down at Vasya’s feet, and said: ‘We have sinned against you, Vassily Maximitch; forgive us, for Christ’s sake!’ Then I got up and spoke to Mashenka: ‘You, Marya Semyonovna, ought now to wash Vassily Maximitch’s feet and drink the water. Do you be an obedient wife to him, and pray to God for me, that He in His mercy may forgive my transgression.’ It came to me like an inspiration from an angel of Heaven; I gave her solemn counsel and spoke with such feeling that my own tears flowed too. And so two days later Vasya comes to me: ‘Matyusha,’ says he, ‘I forgive you and my wife; God have mercy on you! She was a soldier’s wife, a young thing all alone; it was hard for her to be on her guard. She’s not the first, nor will she be the last. Only,’ he says, ‘I beg you to behave as though there had never been anything between you, and to make no sign, while I,’ says he, ‘will do my best to please her in every way, so that she may come to love me again.’ He gave me his hand on it, drank a cup of tea, and went away more cheerful.

“‘Well,’ thought I, ‘thank God!’ and I did feel glad that everything had gone off so well. But no sooner had Vasya gone out of the yard, when in came Mashenka. Ah! What I had to suffer! She hung on my neck, weeping and praying: ‘For God’s sake, don’t cast me off; I can’t live without you!’”

“The vile hussy!” sighed Dyudya.

“I swore at her, stamped my foot, and dragging her into the passage, I fastened the door with the hook. ‘Go to your husband,’ I cried. ‘Don’t shame me before folks. Fear God!’ And every day there was a scene of that sort.

“One morning I was standing in my yard near the stable cleaning a bridle. All at once I saw her running through the little gate into my yard, with bare feet, in her petticoat, and straight towards me; she clutched at the bridle, getting all smeared with the pitch, and shaking and weeping, she cried: ‘I can’t stand him; I loathe him; I can’t bear it! If you don’t love me, better kill me!’ I was angry, and I struck her twice with the bridle, but at that instant Vasya ran in at the gate, and in a despairing voice he shouted: ‘Don’t beat her! Don’t beat her!’ But he ran up himself, and waving his arms, as though he were mad, he let fly with his fists at her with all his might, then flung her on the ground and kicked her. I tried to defend her, but he snatched up the reins and thrashed her with them, and all the while, like a colt’s whinny, he went: ‘He—he—he!’”

“I’d take the reins and let you feel them,” muttered Varvara, moving away; “murdering our sister, the damned brutes!...”

“Hold your tongue, you jade!” Dyudya shouted at her.

“‘He—he—he!’” Matvey Savitch went on. “A carrier ran out of his yard; I called to my workman, and the three of us got Mashenka away from him and carried her home in our arms. The disgrace of it! The same day I went over in the evening to see how things were. She was lying in bed, all wrapped up in bandages, nothing but her eyes and nose to be seen; she was looking at the ceiling. I said: ‘Good-evening, Marya Semyonovna!’ She did not speak. And Vasya was sitting in the next room, his head in his hands, crying and saying: ‘Brute that I am! I’ve ruined my life! O God, let me die!’ I sat for half an hour by Mashenka and gave her a good talking-to. I tried to frighten her a bit. ‘The righteous,’ said I, ‘after this life go to Paradise, but you will go to a Gehenna of fire, like all adulteresses. Don’t strive against your husband, go and lay yourself at his feet.’ But never a word from her; she didn’t so much as blink an eyelid, for all the world as though I were talking to a post. The next day Vasya fell ill with something like cholera, and in the evening I heard that he was dead. Well, so they buried him, and Mashenka did not go to the funeral; she didn’t care to show her shameless face and her bruises. And soon there began to be talk all over the district that Vasya had not died a natural death, that Mashenka had made away with him. It got to the ears of the police; they had Vasya dug up and cut open, and in his stomach they found arsenic. It was clear he had been poisoned; the police came and took Mashenka away, and with her the innocent Kuzka. They were put in prison.... The woman had gone too far—God punished her.... Eight months later they tried her. She sat, I remember, on a low stool, with a little white kerchief on her head, wearing a grey gown, and she was so thin, so pale, so sharp-eyed it made one sad to look at her. Behind her stood a soldier with a gun. She would not confess her guilt. Some in the court said she had poisoned her husband and others declared he had poisoned himself for grief. I was one of the witnesses. When they questioned me, I told the whole truth according to my oath. ‘Hers,’ said I, ‘is the guilt. It’s no good to conceal it; she did not love her husband, and she had a will of her own....’ The trial began in the morning and towards night they passed this sentence: to send her to hard labour in Siberia for thirteen years. After that sentence Mashenka remained three months longer in prison. I went to see her, and from Christian charity I took her a little tea and sugar. But as soon as she set eyes on me she began to shake all over, wringing her hands and muttering: ‘Go away! go away!’ And Kuzka she clasped to her as though she were afraid I would take him away. ‘See,’ said I, ‘what you have come to! Ah, Masha, Masha! you would not listen to me when I gave you good advice, and now you must repent it. You are yourself to blame,’ said I; ‘blame yourself!’ I was giving her good counsel, but she: ‘Go away, go away!’ huddling herself and Kuzka against the wall, and trembling all over.

“When they were taking her away to the chief town of our province, I walked by the escort as far as the station and slipped a rouble into her bundle for my soul’s salvation. But she did not get as far as Siberia.... She fell sick of fever and died in prison.”

“Live like a dog and you must die a dog’s death,” said Dyudya.

“Kuzka was sent back home.... I thought it over and took him to bring up. After all—though a convict’s child—still he was a living soul, a Christian.... I was sorry for him. I shall make him my clerk, and if I have no children of my own, I’ll make a merchant of him. Wherever I go now, I take him with me; let him learn his work.”

All the while Matvey Savitch had been telling his story, Kuzka had sat on a little stone near the gate. His head propped in both hands, he gazed at the sky, and in the distance he looked in the dark like a stump of wood.

“Kuzka, come to bed,” Matvey Savitch bawled to him.

“Yes, it’s time,” said Dyudya, getting up; he yawned loudly and added:

“Folks will go their own way, and that’s what comes of it.”

Over the yard the moon was floating now in the heavens; she was moving one way, while the clouds beneath moved the other way; the clouds were disappearing into the darkness, but still the moon could be seen high above the yard.

Matvey Savitch said a prayer, facing the church, and saying good-night, he lay down on the ground near his cart. Kuzka, too, said a prayer, lay down in the cart, and covered himself with his little overcoat; he made himself a little hole in the hay so as to be more comfortable, and curled up so that his elbows looked like knees. From the yard Dyudya could be seen lighting a candle in his room below, putting on his spectacles and standing in the corner with a book. He was a long while reading and crossing himself.

The travellers fell asleep. Afanasyevna and Sofya came up to the cart and began looking at Kuzka.

“The little orphan’s asleep,” said the old woman. “He’s thin and frail, nothing but bones. No mother and no one to care for him properly.”

“My Grishutka must be two years older,” said Sofya. “Up at the factory he lives like a slave without his mother. The foreman beats him, I dare say. When I looked at this poor mite just now, I thought of my own Grishutka, and my heart went cold within me.”

A minute passed in silence.

“Doesn’t remember his mother, I suppose,” said the old woman.

“How could he remember?”

And big tears began dropping from Sofya’s eyes.

“He’s curled himself up like a cat,” she said, sobbing and laughing with tenderness and sorrow.... “Poor motherless mite!”

Kuzka started and opened his eyes. He saw before him an ugly, wrinkled, tear-stained face, and beside it another, aged and toothless, with a sharp chin and hooked nose, and high above them the infinite sky with the flying clouds and the moon. He cried out in fright, and Sofya, too, uttered a cry; both were answered by the echo, and a faint stir passed over the stifling air; a watchman tapped somewhere near, a dog barked. Matvey Savitch muttered something in his sleep and turned over on the other side.

Late at night when Dyudya and the old woman and the neighbouring watchman were all asleep, Sofya went out to the gate and sat down on the bench. She felt stifled and her head ached from weeping. The street was a wide and long one; it stretched for nearly two miles to the right and as far to the left, and the end of it was out of sight. The moon was now not over the yard, but behind the church. One side of the street was flooded with moonlight, while the other side lay in black shadow. The long shadows of the poplars and the starling-cotes stretched right across the street, while the church cast a broad shadow, black and terrible that enfolded Dyudya’s gates and half his house. The street was still and deserted. From time to time the strains of music floated faintly from the end of the street—Alyoshka, most likely, playing his concertina.

Someone moved in the shadow near the church enclosure, and Sofya could not make out whether it were a man or a cow, or perhaps merely a big bird rustling in the trees. But then a figure stepped out of the shadow, halted, and said something in a man’s voice, then vanished down the turning by the church. A little later, not three yards from the gate, another figure came into sight; it walked straight from the church to the gate and stopped short, seeing Sofya on the bench.

“Varvara, is that you?” said Sofya.

“And if it were?”

It was Varvara. She stood still a minute, then came up to the bench and sat down.

“Where have you been?” asked Sofya.

Varvara made no answer.

“You’d better mind you don’t get into trouble with such goings-on, my girl,” said Sofya. “Did you hear how Mashenka was kicked and lashed with the reins? You’d better look out, or they’ll treat you the same.”

“Well, let them!”

Varvara laughed into her kerchief and whispered:

“I have just been with the priest’s son.”

“Nonsense!”

“I have!”

“It’s a sin!” whispered Sofya.

“Well, let it be.... What do I care? If it’s a sin, then it is a sin, but better be struck dead by thunder than live like this. I’m young and strong, and I’ve a filthy crooked hunchback for a husband, worse than Dyudya himself, curse him! When I was a girl, I hadn’t bread to eat, or a shoe to my foot, and to get away from that wretchedness I was tempted by Alyoshka’s money, and got caught like a fish in a net, and I’d rather have a viper for my bedfellow than that scurvy Alyoshka. And what’s your life? It makes me sick to look at it. Your Fyodor sent you packing from the factory and he’s taken up with another woman. They have robbed you of your boy and made a slave of him. You work like a horse, and never hear a kind word. I’d rather pine all my days an old maid, I’d rather get half a rouble from the priest’s son, I’d rather beg my bread, or throw myself into the well...

“It’s a sin!” whispered Sofya again.

“Well, let it be.”

Somewhere behind the church the same three voices, two tenors and a bass, began singing again a mournful song. And again the words could not be distinguished.

“They are not early to bed,” Varvara said, laughing.

And she began telling in a whisper of her midnight walks with the priest’s son, and of the stories he had told her, and of his comrades, and of the fun she had with the travellers who stayed in the house. The mournful song stirred a longing for life and freedom. Sofya began to laugh; she thought it sinful and terrible and sweet to hear about, and she felt envious and sorry that she, too, had not been a sinner when she was young and pretty.

In the churchyard they heard twelve strokes beaten on the watchman’s board.

“It’s time we were asleep,” said Sofya, getting up, “or, maybe, we shall catch it from Dyudya.”

They both went softly into the yard.

“I went away without hearing what he was telling about Mashenka,” said Varvara, making herself a bed under the window.

“She died in prison, he said. She poisoned her husband.”

Varvara lay down beside Sofya a while, and said softly:

“I’d make away with my Alyoshka and never regret it.”

“You talk nonsense; God forgive you.”

When Sofya was just dropping asleep, Varvara, coming close, whispered in her ear:

“Let us get rid of Dyudya and Alyoshka!”

Sofya started and said nothing. Then she opened her eyes and gazed a long while steadily at the sky.

“People would find out,” she said.

“No, they wouldn’t. Dyudya’s an old man, it’s time he did die; and they’d say Alyoshka died of drink.”

“I’m afraid... God would chastise us.”

“Well, let Him....”

Both lay awake thinking in silence.

“It’s cold,” said Sofya, beginning to shiver all over. “It will soon be morning.... Are you asleep?”

“No.... Don’t you mind what I say, dear,” whispered Varvara; “I get so mad with the damned brutes, I don’t know what I do say. Go to sleep, or it will be daylight directly.... Go to sleep.”

Both were quiet and soon they fell asleep.

Earlier than all woke the old woman. She waked up Sofya and they went together into the cowshed to milk the cows. The hunchback Alyoshka came in hopelessly drunk without his concertina; his breast and knees had been in the dust and straw—he must have fallen down in the road. Staggering, he went into the cowshed, and without undressing he rolled into a sledge and began to snore at once. When first the crosses on the church and then the windows were flashing in the light of the rising sun, and shadows stretched across the yard over the dewy grass from the trees and the top of the well, Matvey Savitch jumped up and began hurrying about:

“Kuzka! get up!” he shouted. “It’s time to put in the horses! Look sharp!”

The bustle of morning was beginning. A young Jewess in a brown gown with flounces led a horse into the yard to drink. The pulley of the well creaked plaintively, the bucket knocked as it went down....

Kuzka, sleepy, tired, covered with dew, sat up in the cart, lazily putting on his little overcoat, and listening to the drip of the water from the bucket into the well as he shivered with the cold.

“Auntie!” shouted Matvey Savitch to Sofya, “tell my lad to hurry up and to harness the horses!”

And Dyudya at the same instant shouted from the window:

“Sofya, take a farthing from the Jewess for the horse’s drink! They’re always in here, the mangy creatures!”

In the street sheep were running up and down, baaing; the peasant women were shouting at the shepherd, while he played his pipes, cracked his whip, or answered them in a thick sleepy bass. Three sheep strayed into the yard, and not finding the gate again, pushed at the fence.

Varvara was waked by the noise, and bundling her bedding up in her arms, she went into the house.

“You might at least drive the sheep out!” the old woman bawled after her, “my lady!”

“I dare say! As if I were going to slave for you Herods!” muttered Varvara, going into the house.

Dyudya came out of the house with his accounts in his hands, sat down on the step, and began reckoning how much the traveller owed him for the night’s lodging, oats, and watering his horses.

“You charge pretty heavily for the oats, my good man,” said Matvey Savitch.

“If it’s too much, don’t take them. There’s no compulsion, merchant.”

When the travellers were ready to start, they were detained for a minute. Kuzka had lost his cap.

“Little swine, where did you put it?” Matvey Savitch roared angrily. “Where is it?”

Kuzka’s face was working with terror; he ran up and down near the cart, and not finding it there, ran to the gate and then to the shed. The old woman and Sofya helped him look.

“I’ll pull your ears off!” yelled Matvey Savitch. “Dirty brat!”

The cap was found at the bottom of the cart.

Kuzka brushed the hay off it with his sleeve, put it on, and timidly he crawled into the cart, still with an expression of terror on his face as though he were afraid of a blow from behind.

Matvey Savitch crossed himself. The driver gave a tug at the reins and the cart rolled out of the yard.


THE POST

IT was three o’clock in the night. The postman, ready to set off, in his cap and his coat, with a rusty sword in his hand, was standing near the door, waiting for the driver to finish putting the mail bags into the cart which had just been brought round with three horses. The sleepy postmaster sat at his table, which was like a counter; he was filling up a form and saying:

“My nephew, the student, wants to go to the station at once. So look here, Ignatyev, let him get into the mail cart and take him with you to the station: though it is against the regulations to take people with the mail, what’s one to do? It’s better for him to drive with you free than for me to hire horses for him.”

“Ready!” they heard a shout from the yard.

“Well, go then, and God be with you,” said the postmaster. “Which driver is going?”

“Semyon Glazov.”

“Come, sign the receipt.”

The postman signed the receipt and went out. At the entrance of the post-office there was the dark outline of a cart and three horses. The horses were standing still except that one of the tracehorses kept uneasily shifting from one leg to the other and tossing its head, making the bell clang from time to time. The cart with the mail bags looked like a patch of darkness. Two silhouettes were moving lazily beside it: the student with a portmanteau in his hand and a driver. The latter was smoking a short pipe; the light of the pipe moved about in the darkness, dying away and flaring up again; for an instant it lighted up a bit of a sleeve, then a shaggy moustache and big copper-red nose, then stern-looking, overhanging eyebrows. The postman pressed down the mail bags with his hands, laid his sword on them and jumped into the cart. The student clambered irresolutely in after him, and accidentally touching him with his elbow, said timidly and politely: “I beg your pardon.”

The pipe went out. The postmaster came out of the post-office just as he was, in his waistcoat and slippers; shrinking from the night dampness and clearing his throat, he walked beside the cart and said:

“Well, God speed! Give my love to your mother, Mihailo. Give my love to them all. And you, Ignatyev, mind you don’t forget to give the parcel to Bystretsov.... Off!”

The driver took the reins in one hand, blew his nose, and, arranging the seat under himself, clicked to the horses.

“Give them my love,” the postmaster repeated.

The big bell clanged something to the little bells, the little bells gave it a friendly answer. The cart squeaked, moved. The big bell lamented, the little bells laughed. Standing up in his seat the driver lashed the restless tracehorse twice, and the cart rumbled with a hollow sound along the dusty road. The little town was asleep. Houses and trees stood black on each side of the broad street, and not a light was to be seen. Narrow clouds stretched here and there over the star-spangled sky, and where the dawn would soon be coming there was a narrow crescent moon; but neither the stars, of which there were many, nor the half-moon, which looked white, lighted up the night air. It was cold and damp, and there was a smell of autumn.

The student, who thought that politeness required him to talk affably to a man who had not refused to let him accompany him, began:

“In summer it would be light at this time, but now there is not even a sign of the dawn. Summer is over!”

The student looked at the sky and went on:

“Even from the sky one can see that it is autumn. Look to the right. Do you see three stars side by side in a straight line? That is the constellation of Orion, which, in our hemisphere, only becomes visible in September.”

The postman, thrusting his hands into his sleeves and retreating up to his ears into his coat collar, did not stir and did not glance at the sky. Apparently the constellation of Orion did not interest him. He was accustomed to see the stars, and probably he had long grown weary of them. The student paused for a while and then said:

“It’s cold! It’s time for the dawn to begin. Do you know what time the sun rises?”

“What?”

“What time does the sun rise now?”

“Between five and six,” said the driver.

The mail cart drove out of the town. Now nothing could be seen on either side of the road but the fences of kitchen gardens and here and there a solitary willow-tree; everything in front of them was shrouded in darkness. Here in the open country the half-moon looked bigger and the stars shone more brightly. Then came a scent of dampness; the postman shrank further into his collar, the student felt an unpleasant chill first creeping about his feet, then over the mail bags, over his hands and his face. The horses moved more slowly; the bell was mute as though it were frozen. There was the sound of the splash of water, and stars reflected in the water danced under the horses’ feet and round the wheels.

But ten minutes later it became so dark that neither the stars nor the moon could be seen. The mail cart had entered the forest. Prickly pine branches were continually hitting the student on his cap and a spider’s web settled on his face. Wheels and hoofs knocked against huge roots, and the mail cart swayed from side to side as though it were drunk.

“Keep to the road,” said the postman angrily. “Why do you run up the edge? My face is scratched all over by the twigs! Keep more to the right!”

But at that point there was nearly an accident. The cart suddenly bounded as though in the throes of a convulsion, began trembling, and, with a creak, lurched heavily first to the right and then to the left, and at a fearful pace dashed along the forest track. The horses had taken fright at something and bolted.

“Wo! wo!” the driver cried in alarm. “Wo... you devils!”

The student, violently shaken, bent forward and tried to find something to catch hold of so as to keep his balance and save himself from being thrown out, but the leather mail bags were slippery, and the driver, whose belt the student tried to catch at, was himself tossed up and down and seemed every moment on the point of flying out. Through the rattle of the wheels and the creaking of the cart they heard the sword fall with a clank on the ground, then a little later something fell with two heavy thuds behind the mail cart.

“Wo!” the driver cried in a piercing voice, bending backwards. “Stop!”

The student fell on his face and bruised his forehead against the driver’s seat, but was at once tossed back again and knocked his spine violently against the back of the cart.

“I am falling!” was the thought that flashed through his mind, but at that instant the horses dashed out of the forest into the open, turned sharply to the right, and rumbling over a bridge of logs, suddenly stopped dead, and the suddenness of this halt flung the student forward again.

The driver and the student were both breathless. The postman was not in the cart. He had been thrown out, together with his sword, the student’s portmanteau, and one of the mail bags.

“Stop, you rascal! Sto-op!” they heard him shout from the forest. “You damned blackguard!” he shouted, running up to the cart, and there was a note of pain and fury in his tearful voice. “You anathema, plague take you!” he roared, dashing up to the driver and shaking his fist at him.

“What a to-do! Lord have mercy on us!” muttered the driver in a conscience-stricken voice, setting right something in the harness at the horses’ heads. “It’s all that devil of a tracehorse. Cursed filly; it is only a week since she has run in harness. She goes all right, but as soon as we go down hill there is trouble! She wants a touch or two on the nose, then she wouldn’t play about like this... Stea-eady! Damn!”

While the driver was setting the horses to rights and looking for the portmanteau, the mail bag, and the sword on the road, the postman in a plaintive voice shrill with anger ejaculated oaths. After replacing the luggage the driver for no reason whatever led the horses for a hundred paces, grumbled at the restless tracehorse, and jumped up on the box.

When his fright was over the student felt amused and good-humoured. It was the first time in his life that he had driven by night in a mail cart, and the shaking he had just been through, the postman’s having been thrown out, and the pain in his own back struck him as interesting adventures. He lighted a cigarette and said with a laugh:

“Why you know, you might break your neck like that! I very nearly flew out, and I didn’t even notice you had been thrown out. I can fancy what it is like driving in autumn!”

The postman did not speak.

“Have you been going with the post for long?” the student asked.

“Eleven years.”

“Oho; every day?”

“Yes, every day. I take this post and drive back again at once. Why?”

Making the journey every day, he must have had a good many interesting adventures in eleven years. On bright summer and gloomy autumn nights, or in winter when a ferocious snowstorm whirled howling round the mail cart, it must have been hard to avoid feeling frightened and uncanny. No doubt more than once the horses had bolted, the mail cart had stuck in the mud, they had been attacked by highwaymen, or had lost their way in the blizzard....

“I can fancy what adventures you must have had in eleven years!” said the student. “I expect it must be terrible driving?”

He said this and expected that the postman would tell him something, but the latter preserved a sullen silence and retreated into his collar. Meanwhile it began to get light. The sky changed colour imperceptibly; it still seemed dark, but by now the horses and the driver and the road could be seen. The crescent moon looked bigger and bigger, and the cloud that stretched below it, shaped like a cannon in a gun-carriage, showed a faint yellow on its lower edge. Soon the postman’s face was visible. It was wet with dew, grey and rigid as the face of a corpse. An expression of dull, sullen anger was set upon it, as though the postman were still in pain and still angry with the driver.

“Thank God it is daylight!” said the student, looking at his chilled and angry face. “I am quite frozen. The nights are cold in September, but as soon as the sun rises it isn’t cold. Shall we soon reach the station?”

The postman frowned and made a wry face.

“How fond you are of talking, upon my word!” he said. “Can’t you keep quiet when you are travelling?”

The student was confused, and did not approach him again all the journey. The morning came on rapidly. The moon turned pale and melted away into the dull grey sky, the cloud turned yellow all over, the stars grew dim, but the east was still cold-looking and the same colour as the rest of the sky, so that one could hardly believe the sun was hidden in it.

The chill of the morning and the surliness of the postman gradually infected the student. He looked apathetically at the country around him, waited for the warmth of the sun, and thought of nothing but how dreadful and horrible it must be for the poor trees and the grass to endure the cold nights. The sun rose dim, drowsy, and cold. The tree-tops were not gilded by the rays of the rising sun, as usually described, the sunbeams did not creep over the earth and there was no sign of joy in the flight of the sleepy birds. The cold remained just the same now that the sun was up as it had been in the night.

The student looked drowsily and ill-humouredly at the curtained windows of a mansion by which the mail cart drove. Behind those windows, he thought, people were most likely enjoying their soundest morning sleep not hearing the bells, nor feeling the cold, nor seeing the postman’s angry face; and if the bell did wake some young lady, she would turn over on the other side, smile in the fulness of her warmth and comfort, and, drawing up her feet and putting her hand under her cheek, would go off to sleep more soundly than ever.

The student looked at the pond which gleamed near the house and thought of the carp and the pike which find it possible to live in cold water....

“It’s against the regulations to take anyone with the post....” the postman said unexpectedly. “It’s not allowed! And since it is not allowed, people have no business... to get in.... Yes. It makes no difference to me, it’s true, only I don’t like it, and I don’t wish it.”

“Why didn’t you say so before, if you don’t like it?”

The postman made no answer but still had an unfriendly, angry expression. When, a little later, the horses stopped at the entrance of the station the student thanked him and got out of the cart. The mail train had not yet come in. A long goods train stood in a siding; in the tender the engine driver and his assistant, with faces wet with dew, were drinking tea from a dirty tin teapot. The carriages, the platforms, the seats were all wet and cold. Until the train came in the student stood at the buffet drinking tea while the postman, with his hands thrust up his sleeves and the same look of anger still on his face, paced up and down the platform in solitude, staring at the ground under his feet.

With whom was he angry? Was it with people, with poverty, with the autumn nights?


THE NEW VILLA


DREAMS

Two peasant constables—one a stubby, black-bearded individual with such exceptionally short legs that if you looked at him from behind it seemed as though his legs began much lower down than in other people; the other, long, thin, and straight as a stick, with a scanty beard of dark reddish colour—were escorting to the district town a tramp who refused to remember his name. The first waddled along, looking from side to side, chewing now a straw, now his own sleeve, slapping himself on the haunches and humming, and altogether had a careless and frivolous air; the other, in spite of his lean face and narrow shoulders, looked solid, grave, and substantial; in the lines and expression of his whole figure he was like the priests among the Old Believers, or the warriors who are painted on old-fashioned ikons. “For his wisdom God had added to his forehead”—that is, he was bald—which increased the resemblance referred to. The first was called Andrey Ptaha, the second Nikandr Sapozhnikov.

The man they were escorting did not in the least correspond with the conception everyone has of a tramp. He was a frail little man, weak and sickly-looking, with small, colourless, and extremely indefinite features. His eyebrows were scanty, his expression mild and submissive; he had scarcely a trace of a moustache, though he was over thirty. He walked along timidly, bent forward, with his hands thrust into his sleeves. The collar of his shabby cloth overcoat, which did not look like a peasant’s, was turned up to the very brim of his cap, so that only his little red nose ventured to peep out into the light of day. He spoke in an ingratiating tenor, continually coughing. It was very, very difficult to believe that he was a tramp concealing his surname. He was more like an unsuccessful priest’s son, stricken by God and reduced to beggary; a clerk discharged for drunkenness; a merchant’s son or nephew who had tried his feeble powers in a theatrical career, and was now going home to play the last act in the parable of the prodigal son; perhaps, judging by the dull patience with which he struggled with the hopeless autumn mud, he might have been a fanatical monk, wandering from one Russian monastery to another, continually seeking “a peaceful life, free from sin,” and not finding it....

The travellers had been a long while on their way, but they seemed to be always on the same small patch of ground. In front of them there stretched thirty feet of muddy black-brown mud, behind them the same, and wherever one looked further, an impenetrable wall of white fog. They went on and on, but the ground remained the same, the wall was no nearer, and the patch on which they walked seemed still the same patch. They got a glimpse of a white, clumsy-looking stone, a small ravine, or a bundle of hay dropped by a passer-by, the brief glimmer of a great muddy puddle, or, suddenly, a shadow with vague outlines would come into view ahead of them; the nearer they got to it the smaller and darker it became; nearer still, and there stood up before the wayfarers a slanting milestone with the number rubbed off, or a wretched birch-tree drenched and bare like a wayside beggar. The birch-tree would whisper something with what remained of its yellow leaves, one leaf would break off and float lazily to the ground.... And then again fog, mud, the brown grass at the edges of the road. On the grass hung dingy, unfriendly tears. They were not the tears of soft joy such as the earth weeps at welcoming the summer sun and parting from it, and such as she gives to drink at dawn to the corncrakes, quails, and graceful, long-beaked crested snipes. The travellers’ feet stuck in the heavy, clinging mud. Every step cost an effort.

Andrey Ptaha was somewhat excited. He kept looking round at the tramp and trying to understand how a live, sober man could fail to remember his name.

“You are an orthodox Christian, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Yes,” the tramp answered mildly.

“H’m... then you’ve been christened?”

“Why, to be sure! I’m not a Turk. I go to church and to the sacrament, and do not eat meat when it is forbidden. And I observe my religious duties punctually....”

“Well, what are you called, then?”

“Call me what you like, good man.”

Ptaha shrugged his shoulders and slapped himself on the haunches in extreme perplexity. The other constable, Nikandr Sapozhnikov, maintained a staid silence. He was not so naive as Ptaha, and apparently knew very well the reasons which might induce an orthodox Christian to conceal his name from other people. His expressive face was cold and stern. He walked apart and did not condescend to idle chatter with his companions, but, as it were, tried to show everyone, even the fog, his sedateness and discretion.

“God knows what to make of you,” Ptaha persisted in addressing the tramp. “Peasant you are not, and gentleman you are not, but some sort of a thing between.... The other day I was washing a sieve in the pond and caught a reptile—see, as long as a finger, with gills and a tail. The first minute I thought it was a fish, then I looked—and, blow it! if it hadn’t paws. It was not a fish, it was a viper, and the deuce only knows what it was.... So that’s like you.... What’s your calling?”

“I am a peasant and of peasant family,” sighed the tramp. “My mamma was a house serf. I don’t look like a peasant, that’s true, for such has been my lot, good man. My mamma was a nurse with the gentry, and had every comfort, and as I was of her flesh and blood, I lived with her in the master’s house. She petted and spoiled me, and did her best to take me out of my humble class and make a gentleman of me. I slept in a bed, every day I ate a real dinner, I wore breeches and shoes like a gentleman’s child. What my mamma ate I was fed on, too; they gave her stuffs as a present, and she dressed me up in them.... We lived well! I ate so many sweets and cakes in my childish years that if they could be sold now it would be enough to buy a good horse. Mamma taught me to read and write, she instilled the fear of God in me from my earliest years, and she so trained me that now I can’t bring myself to utter an unrefined peasant word. And I don’t drink vodka, my lad, and am neat in my dress, and know how to behave with decorum in good society. If she is still living, God give her health; and if she is dead, then, O Lord, give her soul peace in Thy Kingdom, wherein the just are at rest.”

The tramp bared his head with the scanty hair standing up like a brush on it, turned his eyes upward and crossed himself twice.

“Grant her, O Lord, a verdant and peaceful resting-place,” he said in a drawling voice, more like an old woman’s than a man’s. “Teach Thy servant Xenia Thy justifications, O Lord! If it had not been for my beloved mamma I should have been a peasant with no sort of understanding! Now, young man, ask me about anything and I understand it all: the holy Scriptures and profane writings, and every prayer and catechism. I live according to the Scriptures.... I don’t injure anyone, I keep my flesh in purity and continence, I observe the fasts, I eat at fitting times. Another man will take no pleasure in anything but vodka and lewd talk, but when I have time I sit in a corner and read a book. I read and I weep and weep.”

“What do you weep for?”

“They write so pathetically! For some books one gives but a five-kopeck piece, and yet one weeps and sighs exceedingly over it.”

“Is your father dead?” asked Ptaha.

“I don’t know, good man. I don’t know my parent; it is no use concealing it. I judge that I was mamma’s illegitimate son. My mamma lived all her life with the gentry, and did not want to marry a simple peasant....”

“And so she fell into the master’s hands,” laughed Ptaha.

“She did transgress, that’s true. She was pious, God-fearing, but she did not keep her maiden purity. It is a sin, of course, a great sin, there’s no doubt about it, but to make up for it there is, maybe, noble blood in me. Maybe I am only a peasant by class, but in nature a noble gentleman.”

The “noble gentleman” uttered all this in a soft, sugary tenor, wrinkling up his narrow forehead and emitting creaking sounds from his red, frozen little nose. Ptaha listened and looked askance at him in wonder, continually shrugging his shoulders.

After going nearly five miles the constables and the tramp sat down on a mound to rest.

“Even a dog knows his name,” Ptaha muttered. “My name is Andryushka, his is Nikandr; every man has his holy name, and it can’t be forgotten. Nohow.”

“Who has any need to know my name?” sighed the tramp, leaning his cheek on his fist. “And what advantage would it be to me if they did know it? If I were allowed to go where I would—but it would only make things worse. I know the law, Christian brothers. Now I am a tramp who doesn’t remember his name, and it’s the very most if they send me to Eastern Siberia and give me thirty or forty lashes; but if I were to tell them my real name and description they would send me back to hard labour, I know!”

“Why, have you been a convict?”

“I have, dear friend. For four years I went about with my head shaved and fetters on my legs.”

“What for?”

“For murder, my good man! When I was still a boy of eighteen or so, my mamma accidentally poured arsenic instead of soda and acid into my master’s glass. There were boxes of all sorts in the storeroom, numbers of them; it was easy to make a mistake over them.”

The tramp sighed, shook his head, and said:

“She was a pious woman, but, who knows? another man’s soul is a slumbering forest! It may have been an accident, or maybe she could not endure the affront of seeing the master prefer another servant.... Perhaps she put it in on purpose, God knows! I was young then, and did not understand it all... now I remember that our master had taken another mistress and mamma was greatly disturbed. Our trial lasted nearly two years.... Mamma was condemned to penal servitude for twenty years, and I, on account of my youth, only to seven.”

“And why were you sentenced?”

“As an accomplice. I handed the glass to the master. That was always the custom. Mamma prepared the soda and I handed it to him. Only I tell you all this as a Christian, brothers, as I would say it before God. Don’t you tell anybody....”

“Oh, nobody’s going to ask us,” said Ptaha. “So you’ve run away from prison, have you?”

“I have, dear friend. Fourteen of us ran away. Some folks, God bless them! ran away and took me with them. Now you tell me, on your conscience, good man, what reason have I to disclose my name? They will send me back to penal servitude, you know! And I am not fit for penal servitude! I am a refined man in delicate health. I like to sleep and eat in cleanliness. When I pray to God I like to light a little lamp or a candle, and not to have a noise around me. When I bow down to the ground I like the floor not to be dirty or spat upon. And I bow down forty times every morning and evening, praying for mamma.”

The tramp took off his cap and crossed himself.

“And let them send me to Eastern Siberia,” he said; “I am not afraid of that.”

“Surely that’s no better?”

“It is quite a different thing. In penal servitude you are like a crab in a basket: crowding, crushing, jostling, there’s no room to breathe; it’s downright hell—such hell, may the Queen of Heaven keep us from it! You are a robber and treated like a robber—worse than any dog. You can’t sleep, you can’t eat or even say your prayers. But it’s not like that in a settlement. In a settlement I shall be a member of a commune like other people. The authorities are bound by law to give me my share... ye-es! They say the land costs nothing, no more than snow; you can take what you like! They will give me corn land and building land and garden.... I shall plough my fields like other people, sow seed. I shall have cattle and stock of all sorts, bees, sheep, and dogs.... A Siberian cat, that rats and mice may not devour my goods.... I will put up a house, I shall buy ikons.... Please God, I’ll get married, I shall have children....”

The tramp muttered and looked, not at his listeners, but away into the distance. Naive as his dreams were, they were uttered in such a genuine and heartfelt tone that it was difficult not to believe in them. The tramp’s little mouth was screwed up in a smile. His eyes and little nose and his whole face were fixed and blank with blissful anticipation of happiness in the distant future. The constables listened and looked at him gravely, not without sympathy. They, too, believed in his dreams.

“I am not afraid of Siberia,” the tramp went on muttering. “Siberia is just as much Russia and has the same God and Tsar as here. They are just as orthodox Christians as you and I. Only there is more freedom there and people are better off. Everything is better there. Take the rivers there, for instance; they are far better than those here. There’s no end of fish; and all sorts of wild fowl. And my greatest pleasure, brothers, is fishing. Give me no bread to eat, but let me sit with a fishhook. Yes, indeed! I fish with a hook and with a wire line, and set creels, and when the ice comes I catch with a net. I am not strong to draw up the net, so I shall hire a man for five kopecks. And, Lord, what a pleasure it is! You catch an eel-pout or a roach of some sort and are as pleased as though you had met your own brother. And would you believe it, there’s a special art for every fish: you catch one with a live bait, you catch another with a grub, the third with a frog or a grasshopper. One has to understand all that, of course! For example, take the eel-pout. It is not a delicate fish—it will take a perch; and a pike loves a gudgeon, the shilishper likes a butterfly. If you fish for a roach in a rapid stream there is no greater pleasure. You throw the line of seventy feet without lead, with a butterfly or a beetle, so that the bait floats on the surface; you stand in the water without your trousers and let it go with the current, and tug! the roach pulls at it! Only you have got to be artful that he doesn’t carry off the bait, the damned rascal. As soon as he tugs at your line you must whip it up; it’s no good waiting. It’s wonderful what a lot of fish I’ve caught in my time. When we were running away the other convicts would sleep in the forest; I could not sleep, but I was off to the river. The rivers there are wide and rapid, the banks are steep—awfully! It’s all slumbering forests on the bank. The trees are so tall that if you look to the top it makes you dizzy. Every pine would be worth ten roubles by the prices here.”

In the overwhelming rush of his fancies, of artistic images of the past and sweet presentiments of happiness in the future, the poor wretch sank into silence, merely moving his lips as though whispering to himself. The vacant, blissful smile never left his lips. The constables were silent. They were pondering with bent heads. In the autumn stillness, when the cold, sullen mist that rises from the earth lies like a weight on the heart, when it stands like a prison wall before the eyes, and reminds man of the limitation of his freedom, it is sweet to think of the broad, rapid rivers, with steep banks wild and luxuriant, of the impenetrable forests, of the boundless steppes. Slowly and quietly the fancy pictures how early in the morning, before the flush of dawn has left the sky, a man makes his way along the steep deserted bank like a tiny speck: the ancient, mast-like pines rise up in terraces on both sides of the torrent, gaze sternly at the free man and murmur menacingly; rocks, huge stones, and thorny bushes bar his way, but he is strong in body and bold in spirit, and has no fear of the pine-trees, nor stones, nor of his solitude, nor of the reverberating echo which repeats the sound of every footstep that he takes.

The peasants called up a picture of a free life such as they had never lived; whether they vaguely recalled the images of stories heard long ago or whether notions of a free life had been handed down to them with their flesh and blood from far-off free ancestors, God knows!

The first to break the silence was Nikandr Sapozhnikov, who had not till then let fall a single word. Whether he envied the tramp’s transparent happiness, or whether he felt in his heart that dreams of happiness were out of keeping with the grey fog and the dirty brown mud—anyway, he looked sternly at the tramp and said:

“It’s all very well, to be sure, only you won’t reach those plenteous regions, brother. How could you? Before you’d gone two hundred miles you’d give up your soul to God. Just look what a weakling you are! Here you’ve hardly gone five miles and you can’t get your breath.”

The tramp turned slowly toward Nikandr, and the blissful smile vanished from his face. He looked with a scared and guilty air at the peasant’s staid face, apparently remembered something, and bent his head. A silence followed again.... All three were pondering. The peasants were racking their brains in the effort to grasp in their imagination what can be grasped by none but God—that is, the vast expanse dividing them from the land of freedom. Into the tramp’s mind thronged clear and distinct pictures more terrible than that expanse. Before him rose vividly the picture of the long legal delays and procrastinations, the temporary and permanent prisons, the convict boats, the wearisome stoppages on the way, the frozen winters, illnesses, deaths of companions....

The tramp blinked guiltily, wiped the tiny drops of sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, drew a deep breath as though he had just leapt out of a very hot bath, then wiped his forehead with the other sleeve and looked round fearfully.

“That’s true; you won’t get there!” Ptaha agreed. “You are not much of a walker! Look at you—nothing but skin and bone! You’ll die, brother!”

“Of course he’ll die! What could he do?” said Nikandr. “He’s fit for the hospital now.... For sure!”

The man who had forgotten his name looked at the stern, unconcerned faces of his sinister companions, and without taking off his cap, hurriedly crossed himself, staring with wide-open eyes.... He trembled, his head shook, and he began twitching all over, like a caterpillar when it is stepped upon....

“Well, it’s time to go,” said Nikandr, getting up; “we’ve had a rest.”

A minute later they were stepping along the muddy road. The tramp was more bent than ever, and he thrust his hands further up his sleeves. Ptaha was silent.


THE PIPE

MELITON SHISHKIN, a bailiff from the Dementyev farm, exhausted by the sultry heat of the fir-wood and covered with spiders’ webs and pine-needles, made his way with his gun to the edge of the wood. His Damka—a mongrel between a yard dog and a setter—an extremely thin bitch heavy with young, trailed after her master with her wet tail between her legs, doing all she could to avoid pricking her nose. It was a dull, overcast morning. Big drops dripped from the bracken and from the trees that were wrapped in a light mist; there was a pungent smell of decay from the dampness of the wood.

There were birch-trees ahead of him where the wood ended, and between their stems and branches he could see the misty distance. Beyond the birch-trees someone was playing on a shepherd’s rustic pipe. The player produced no more than five or six notes, dragged them out languidly with no attempt at forming a tune, and yet there was something harsh and extremely dreary in the sound of the piping.

As the copse became sparser, and the pines were interspersed with young birch-trees, Meliton saw a herd. Hobbled horses, cows, and sheep were wandering among the bushes and, snapping the dry branches, sniffed at the herbage of the copse. A lean old shepherd, bareheaded, in a torn grey smock, stood leaning against the wet trunk of a birch-tree. He stared at the ground, pondering something, and played his pipe, it seemed, mechanically.

“Good-day, grandfather! God help you!” Meliton greeted him in a thin, husky voice which seemed incongruous with his huge stature and big, fleshy face. “How cleverly you are playing your pipe! Whose herd are you minding?”

“The Artamonovs’,” the shepherd answered reluctantly, and he thrust the pipe into his bosom.

“So I suppose the wood is the Artamonovs’ too?” Meliton inquired, looking about him. “Yes, it is the Artamonovs’; only fancy... I had completely lost myself. I got my face scratched all over in the thicket.”

He sat down on the wet earth and began rolling up a bit of newspaper into a cigarette.

Like his voice, everything about the man was small and out of keeping with his height, his breadth, and his fleshy face: his smiles, his eyes, his buttons, his tiny cap, which would hardly keep on his big, closely-cropped head. When he talked and smiled there was something womanish, timid, and meek about his puffy, shaven face and his whole figure.

“What weather! God help us!” he said, and he turned his head from side to side. “Folk have not carried the oats yet, and the rain seems as though it had been taken on for good, God bless it.”

The shepherd looked at the sky, from which a drizzling rain was falling, at the wood, at the bailif’s wet clothes, pondered, and said nothing.

“The whole summer has been the same,” sighed Meliton. “A bad business for the peasants and no pleasure for the gentry.”

The shepherd looked at the sky again, thought a moment, and said deliberately, as though chewing each word:

“It’s all going the same way.... There is nothing good to be looked for.”

“How are things with you here?” Meliton inquired, lighting his cigarette. “Haven’t you seen any coveys of grouse in the Artamonovs’ clearing?”

The shepherd did not answer at once. He looked again at the sky and to right and left, thought a little, blinked.... Apparently he attached no little significance to his words, and to increase their value tried to pronounce them with deliberation and a certain solemnity. The expression of his face had the sharpness and staidness of old age, and the fact that his nose had a saddle-shaped depression across the middle and his nostrils turned upwards gave him a sly and sarcastic look.

“No, I believe I haven’t,” he said. “Our huntsman Eryomka was saying that on Elijah’s Day he started one covey near Pustoshye, but I dare say he was lying. There are very few birds.”

“Yes, brother, very few.... Very few everywhere! The shooting here, if one is to look at it with common sense, is good for nothing and not worth having. There is no game at all, and what there is is not worth dirtying your hands over—it is not full-grown. It is such poor stuff that one is ashamed to look at it.”

Meliton gave a laugh and waved his hands.

“Things happen so queerly in this world that it is simply laughable and nothing else. Birds nowadays have become so unaccountable: they sit late on their eggs, and there are some, I declare, that have not hatched them by St. Peter’s Day!”

“It’s all going the same,” said the shepherd, turning his face upwards. “There was little game last year, this year there are fewer birds still, and in another five years, mark my words, there will be none at all. As far as I can see there will soon be not only no game, but no birds at all.”

“Yes,” Meliton assented, after a moment’s thought. “That’s true.”

The shepherd gave a bitter smile and shook his head.

“It’s a wonder,” he said, “what has become of them all! I remember twenty years ago there used to be geese here, and cranes and ducks and grouse—clouds and clouds of them! The gentry used to meet together for shooting, and one heard nothing but pouf-pouf-pouf! pouf-pouf-pouf! There was no end to the woodcocks, the snipe, and the little teals, and the water-snipe were as common as starlings, or let us say sparrows—lots and lots of them! And what has become of them all? We don’t even see the birds of prey. The eagles, the hawks, and the owls have all gone.... There are fewer of every sort of wild beast, too. Nowadays, brother, even the wolf and the fox have grown rare, let alone the bear or the otter. And you know in old days there were even elks! For forty years I have been observing the works of God from year to year, and it is my opinion that everything is going the same way.”

“What way?”

“To the bad, young man. To ruin, we must suppose... The time has come for God’s world to perish.”

The old man put on his cap and began gazing at the sky.

“It’s a pity,” he sighed, after a brief silence. “O God, what a pity! Of course it is God’s will; the world was not created by us, but yet it is a pity, brother. If a single tree withers away, or let us say a single cow dies, it makes one sorry, but what will it be, good man, if the whole world crumbles into dust? Such blessings, Lord Jesus! The sun, and the sky, and the forest, and the rivers, and the creatures—all these have been created, adapted, and adjusted to one another. Each has been put to its appointed task and knows its place. And all that must perish.”

A mournful smile gleamed on the shepherd’s face, and his eyelids quivered.

“You say—the world is perishing,” said Meliton, pondering. “It may be that the end of the world is near at hand, but you can’t judge by the birds. I don’t think the birds can be taken as a sign.”

“Not the birds only,” said the shepherd. “It’s the wild beasts, too, and the cattle, and the bees, and the fish.... If you don’t believe me ask the old people; every old man will tell you that the fish are not at all what they used to be. In the seas, in the lakes, and in the rivers, there are fewer fish from year to year. In our Pestchanka, I remember, pike used to be caught a yard long, and there were eel-pouts, and roach, and bream, and every fish had a presentable appearance; while nowadays, if you catch a wretched little pikelet or perch six inches long you have to be thankful. There are not any gudgeon even worth talking about. Every year it is worse and worse, and in a little while there will be no fish at all. And take the rivers now... the rivers are drying up, for sure.”

“It is true; they are drying up.”

“To be sure, that’s what I say. Every year they are shallower and shallower, and there are not the deep holes there used to be. And do you see the bushes yonder?” the old man asked, pointing to one side. “Beyond them is an old river-bed; it’s called a backwater. In my father’s time the Pestchanka flowed there, but now look; where have the evil spirits taken it to? It changes its course, and, mind you, it will go on changing till such time as it has dried up altogether. There used to be marshes and ponds beyond Kurgasovo, and where are they now? And what has become of the streams? Here in this very wood we used to have a stream flowing, and such a stream that the peasants used to set creels in it and caught pike; wild ducks used to spend the winter by it, and nowadays there is no water in it worth speaking of, even at the spring floods. Yes, brother, look where you will, things are bad everywhere. Everywhere!”

A silence followed. Meliton sank into thought, with his eyes fixed on one spot. He wanted to think of some one part of nature as yet untouched by the all-embracing ruin. Spots of light glistened on the mist and the slanting streaks of rain as though on opaque glass, and immediately died away again—it was the rising sun trying to break through the clouds and peep at the earth.

“Yes, the forests, too...” Meliton muttered.

“The forests, too,” the shepherd repeated. “They cut them down, and they catch fire, and they wither away, and no new ones are growing. Whatever does grow up is cut down at once; one day it shoots up and the next it has been cut down—and so on without end till nothing’s left. I have kept the herds of the commune ever since the time of Freedom, good man; before the time of Freedom I was shepherd of the master’s herds. I have watched them in this very spot, and I can’t remember a summer day in all my life that I have not been here. And all the time I have been observing the works of God. I have looked at them in my time till I know them, and it is my opinion that all things growing are on the decline. Whether you take the rye, or the vegetables, or flowers of any sort, they are all going the same way.”

“But people have grown better,” observed the bailiff.

“In what way better?”

“Cleverer.”

“Cleverer, maybe, that’s true, young man; but what’s the use of that? What earthly good is cleverness to people on the brink of ruin? One can perish without cleverness. What’s the good of cleverness to a huntsman if there is no game? What I think is that God has given men brains and taken away their strength. People have grown weak, exceedingly weak. Take me, for instance... I am not worth a halfpenny, I am the humblest peasant in the whole village, and yet, young man, I have strength. Mind you, I am in my seventies, and I tend my herd day in and day out, and keep the night watch, too, for twenty kopecks, and I don’t sleep, and I don’t feel the cold; my son is cleverer than I am, but put him in my place and he would ask for a raise next day, or would be going to the doctors. There it is. I eat nothing but bread, for ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ and my father ate nothing but bread, and my grandfather; but the peasant nowadays must have tea and vodka and white loaves, and must sleep from sunset to dawn, and he goes to the doctor and pampers himself in all sorts of ways. And why is it? He has grown weak; he has not the strength to endure. If he wants to stay awake, his eyes close—there is no doing anything.”

“That’s true,” Meliton agreed; “the peasant is good for nothing nowadays.”

“It’s no good hiding what is wrong; we get worse from year to year. And if you take the gentry into consideration, they’ve grown feebler even more than the peasants have. The gentleman nowadays has mastered everything; he knows what he ought not to know, and what is the sense of it? It makes you feel pitiful to look at him.... He is a thin, puny little fellow, like some Hungarian or Frenchman; there is no dignity nor air about him; it’s only in name he is a gentleman. There is no place for him, poor dear, and nothing for him to do, and there is no making out what he wants. Either he sits with a hook catching fish, or he lolls on his back reading, or trots about among the peasants saying all sorts of things to them, and those that are hungry go in for being clerks. So he spends his life in vain. And he has no notion of doing something real and useful. The gentry in old days were half of them generals, but nowadays they are—a poor lot.”

“They are badly off nowadays,” said Meliton.

“They are poorer because God has taken away their strength. You can’t go against God.”

Meliton stared at a fixed point again. After thinking a little he heaved a sigh as staid, reasonable people do sigh, shook his head, and said:

“And all because of what? We have sinned greatly, we have forgotten God.. and it seems that the time has come for all to end. And, after all, the world can’t last for ever—it’s time to know when to take leave.”

The shepherd sighed and, as though wishing to cut short an unpleasant conversation, he walked away from the birch-tree and began silently reckoning over the cows.

“Hey-hey-hey!” he shouted. “Hey-hey-hey! Bother you, the plague take you! The devil has taken you into the thicket. Tu-lu-lu!”

With an angry face he went into the bushes to collect his herd. Meliton got up and sauntered slowly along the edge of the wood. He looked at the ground at his feet and pondered; he still wanted to think of something which had not yet been touched by death. Patches of light crept upon the slanting streaks of rain again; they danced on the tops of the trees and died away among the wet leaves. Damka found a hedgehog under a bush, and wanting to attract her master’s attention to it, barked and howled.

“Did you have an eclipse or not?” the shepherd called from the bushes.

“Yes, we had,” answered Meliton.

“Ah! Folks are complaining all about that there was one. It shows there is disorder even in the heavens! It’s not for nothing.... Hey-hey-hey! Hey!”

Driving his herd together to the edge of the wood, the shepherd leaned against the birch-tree, looked up at the sky, without haste took his pipe from his bosom and began playing. As before, he played mechanically and took no more than five or six notes; as though the pipe had come into his hands for the first time, the sounds floated from it uncertainly, with no regularity, not blending into a tune, but to Meliton, brooding on the destruction of the world, there was a sound in it of something very depressing and revolting which he would much rather not have heard. The highest, shrillest notes, which quivered and broke, seemed to be weeping disconsolately, as though the pipe were sick and frightened, while the lowest notes for some reason reminded him of the mist, the dejected trees, the grey sky. Such music seemed in keeping with the weather, the old man and his sayings.

Meliton wanted to complain. He went up to the old man and, looking at his mournful, mocking face and at the pipe, muttered:

“And life has grown worse, grandfather. It is utterly impossible to live. Bad crops, want.... Cattle plague continually, diseases of all sorts.... We are crushed by poverty.”

The bailiff’s puffy face turned crimson and took a dejected, womanish expression. He twirled his fingers as though seeking words to convey his vague feeling and went on:

“Eight children, a wife... and my mother still living, and my whole salary ten roubles a month and to board myself. My wife has become a Satan from poverty.... I go off drinking myself. I am a sensible, steady man; I have education. I ought to sit at home in peace, but I stray about all day with my gun like a dog because it is more than I can stand; my home is hateful to me!”

Feeling that his tongue was uttering something quite different from what he wanted to say, the bailiff waved his hand and said bitterly:

“If the world’s going to end I wish it would make haste about it. There’s no need to drag it out and make folks miserable for nothing....”

The old man took the pipe from his lips and, screwing up one eye, looked into its little opening. His face was sad and covered with thick drops like tears. He smiled and said:

“It’s a pity, my friend! My goodness, what a pity! The earth, the forest, the sky, the beasts of all sorts—all this has been created, you know, adapted; they all have their intelligence. It is all going to ruin. And most of all I am sorry for people.”

There was the sound in the wood of heavy rain coming nearer. Meliton looked in the direction of the sound, did up all his buttons, and said:

“I am going to the village. Good-bye, grandfather. What is your name?”

“Luka the Poor.”

“Well, good-bye, Luka! Thank you for your good words. Damka, ici!”

After parting from the shepherd Meliton made his way along the edge of the wood, and then down hill to a meadow which by degrees turned into a marsh. There was a squelch of water under his feet, and the rusty marsh sedge, still green and juicy, drooped down to the earth as though afraid of being trampled underfoot. Beyond the marsh, on the bank of the Pestchanka, of which the old man had spoken, stood a row of willows, and beyond the willows a barn looked dark blue in the mist. One could feel the approach of that miserable, utterly inevitable season, when the fields grow dark and the earth is muddy and cold, when the weeping willow seems still more mournful and tears trickle down its stem, and only the cranes fly away from the general misery, and even they, as though afraid of insulting dispirited nature by the expression of their happiness, fill the air with their mournful, dreary notes.

Meliton plodded along to the river, and heard the sounds of the pipe gradually dying away behind him. He still wanted to complain. He looked dejectedly about him, and he felt insufferably sorry for the sky and the earth and the sun and the woods and his Damka, and when the highest drawn-out note of the pipe floated quivering in the air, like a voice weeping, he felt extremely bitter and resentful of the impropriety in the conduct of nature.

The high note quivered, broke off, and the pipe was silent.


AGAFYA

DURING my stay in the district of S. I often used to go to see the watchman Savva Stukatch, or simply Savka, in the kitchen gardens of Dubovo. These kitchen gardens were my favorite resort for so-called “mixed” fishing, when one goes out without knowing what day or hour one may return, taking with one every sort of fishing tackle as well as a store of provisions. To tell the truth, it was not so much the fishing that attracted me as the peaceful stroll, the meals at no set time, the talk with Savka, and being for so long face to face with the calm summer nights. Savka was a young man of five-and-twenty, well grown and handsome, and as strong as a flint. He had the reputation of being a sensible and reasonable fellow. He could read and write, and very rarely drank, but as a workman this strong and healthy young man was not worth a farthing. A sluggish, overpowering sloth was mingled with the strength in his muscles, which were strong as cords. Like everyone else in his village, he lived in his own hut, and had his share of land, but neither tilled it nor sowed it, and did not work at any sort of trade. His old mother begged alms at people’s windows and he himself lived like a bird of the air; he did not know in the morning what he would eat at midday. It was not that he was lacking in will, or energy, or feeling for his mother; it was simply that he felt no inclination for work and did not recognize the advantage of it. His whole figure suggested unruffled serenity, an innate, almost artistic passion for living carelessly, never with his sleeves tucked up. When Savka’s young, healthy body had a physical craving for muscular work, the young man abandoned himself completely for a brief interval to some free but nonsensical pursuit, such as sharpening skates not wanted for any special purpose, or racing about after the peasant women. His favorite attitude was one of concentrated immobility. He was capable of standing for hours at a stretch in the same place with his eyes fixed on the same spot without stirring. He never moved except on impulse, and then only when an occasion presented itself for some rapid and abrupt action: catching a running dog by the tail, pulling off a woman’s kerchief, or jumping over a big hole. It need hardly be said that with such parsimony of movement Savka was as poor as a mouse and lived worse than any homeless outcast. As time went on, I suppose he accumulated arrears of taxes and, young and sturdy as he was, he was sent by the commune to do an old man’s job—to be watchman and scarecrow in the kitchen gardens. However much they laughed at him for his premature senility he did not object to it. This position, quiet and convenient for motionless contemplation, exactly fitted his temperament.

It happened I was with this Savka one fine May evening. I remember I was lying on a torn and dirty sackcloth cover close to the shanty from which came a heavy, fragrant scent of hay. Clasping my hands under my head I looked before me. At my feet was lying a wooden fork. Behind it Savka’s dog Kutka stood out like a black patch, and not a dozen feet from Kutka the ground ended abruptly in the steep bank of the little river. Lying down I could not see the river; I could only see the tops of the young willows growing thickly on the nearer bank, and the twisting, as it were gnawed away, edges of the opposite bank. At a distance beyond the bank on the dark hillside the huts of the village in which Savka lived lay huddling together like frightened young partridges. Beyond the hill the afterglow of sunset still lingered in the sky. One pale crimson streak was all that was left, and even that began to be covered by little clouds as a fire with ash.

A copse with alder-trees, softly whispering, and from time to time shuddering in the fitful breeze, lay, a dark blur, on the right of the kitchen gardens; on the left stretched the immense plain. In the distance, where the eye could not distinguish between the sky and the plain, there was a bright gleam of light. A little way off from me sat Savka. With his legs tucked under him like a Turk and his head hanging, he looked pensively at Kutka. Our hooks with live bait on them had long been in the river, and we had nothing left to do but to abandon ourselves to repose, which Savka, who was never exhausted and always rested, loved so much. The glow had not yet quite died away, but the summer night was already enfolding nature in its caressing, soothing embrace.

Everything was sinking into its first deep sleep except some night bird unfamiliar to me, which indolently uttered a long, protracted cry in several distinct notes like the phrase, “Have you seen Ni-ki-ta?” and immediately answered itself, “Seen him, seen him, seen him!”

“Why is it the nightingales aren’t singing tonight?” I asked Savka.

He turned slowly towards me. His features were large, but his face was open, soft, and expressive as a woman’s. Then he gazed with his mild, dreamy eyes at the copse, at the willows, slowly pulled a whistle out of his pocket, put it in his mouth and whistled the note of a hen-nightingale. And at once, as though in answer to his call, a landrail called on the opposite bank.

“There’s a nightingale for you...” laughed Savka. “Drag-drag! drag-drag! just like pulling at a hook, and yet I bet he thinks he is singing, too.”

“I like that bird,” I said. “Do you know, when the birds are migrating the landrail does not fly, but runs along the ground? It only flies over the rivers and the sea, but all the rest it does on foot.”

“Upon my word, the dog...” muttered Savka, looking with respect in the direction of the calling landrail.

Knowing how fond Savka was of listening, I told him all I had learned about the landrail from sportsman’s books. From the landrail I passed imperceptibly to the migration of the birds. Savka listened attentively, looking at me without blinking, and smiling all the while with pleasure.

“And which country is most the bird’s home? Ours or those foreign parts?” he asked.

“Ours, of course. The bird itself is hatched here, and it hatches out its little ones here in its native country, and they only fly off there to escape being frozen.”

“It’s interesting,” said Savka. “Whatever one talks about it is always interesting. Take a bird now, or a man... or take this little stone; there’s something to learn about all of them.... Ah, sir, if I had known you were coming I wouldn’t have told a woman to come here this evening.... She asked to come to-day.”

“Oh, please don’t let me be in your way,” I said. “I can lie down in the wood....”

“What next! She wouldn’t have died if she hadn’t come till to-morrow.... If only she would sit quiet and listen, but she always wants to be slobbering.... You can’t have a good talk when she’s here.”

“Are you expecting Darya?” I asked, after a pause.

“No... a new one has asked to come this evening... Agafya, the signalman’s wife.”

Savka said this in his usual passionless, somewhat hollow voice, as though he were talking of tobacco or porridge, while I started with surprise. I knew Agafya.... She was quite a young peasant woman of nineteen or twenty, who had been married not more than a year before to a railway signalman, a fine young fellow. She lived in the village, and her husband came home there from the line every night.

“Your goings on with the women will lead to trouble, my boy,” said I.

“Well, may be....”

And after a moment’s thought Savka added:

“I’ve said so to the women; they won’t heed me....They don’t trouble about it, the silly things!”

Silence followed.... Meanwhile the darkness was growing thicker and thicker, and objects began to lose their contours. The streak behind the hill had completely died away, and the stars were growing brighter and more luminous.... The mournfully monotonous chirping of the grasshoppers, the call of the landrail, and the cry of the quail did not destroy the stillness of the night, but, on the contrary, gave it an added monotony. It seemed as though the soft sounds that enchanted the ear came, not from birds or insects, but from the stars looking down upon us from the sky....

Savka was the first to break the silence. He slowly turned his eyes from black Kutka and said:

“I see you are dull, sir. Let’s have supper.”

And without waiting for my consent he crept on his stomach into the shanty, rummaged about there, making the whole edifice tremble like a leaf; then he crawled back and set before me my vodka and an earthenware bowl; in the bowl there were baked eggs, lard scones made of rye, pieces of black bread, and something else.... We had a drink from a little crooked glass that wouldn’t stand, and then we fell upon the food.... Coarse grey salt, dirty, greasy cakes, eggs tough as india-rubber, but how nice it all was!

“You live all alone, but what lots of good things you have,” I said, pointing to the bowl. “Where do you get them from?”

“The women bring them,” mumbled Savka.

“What do they bring them to you for?”

“Oh... from pity.”

Not only Savka’s menu, but his clothing, too, bore traces of feminine “pity.” Thus I noticed that he had on, that evening, a new woven belt and a crimson ribbon on which a copper cross hung round his dirty neck. I knew of the weakness of the fair sex for Savka, and I knew that he did not like talking about it, and so I did not carry my inquiries any further. Besides there was not time to talk.... Kutka, who had been fidgeting about near us and patiently waiting for scraps, suddenly pricked up his ears and growled. We heard in the distance repeated splashing of water.

“Someone is coming by the ford,” said Savka.

Three minutes later Kutka growled again and made a sound like a cough.

“Shsh!” his master shouted at him.

In the darkness there was a muffled thud of timid footsteps, and the silhouette of a woman appeared out of the copse. I recognized her, although it was dark—it was Agafya. She came up to us diffidently and stopped, breathing hard. She was breathless, probably not so much from walking as from fear and the unpleasant sensation everyone experiences in wading across a river at night. Seeing near the shanty not one but two persons, she uttered a faint cry and fell back a step.

“Ah... that is you!” said Savka, stuffing a scone into his mouth.

“Ye-es... I,” she muttered, dropping on the ground a bundle of some sort and looking sideways at me. “Yakov sent his greetings to you and told me to give you... something here....”

“Come, why tell stories? Yakov!” laughed Savka. “There is no need for lying; the gentleman knows why you have come! Sit down; you shall have supper with us.”

Agafya looked sideways at me and sat down irresolutely.

“I thought you weren’t coming this evening,” Savka said, after a prolonged silence. “Why sit like that? Eat! Or shall I give you a drop of vodka?”

“What an idea!” laughed Agafya; “do you think you have got hold of a drunkard?...”

“Oh, drink it up.... Your heart will feel warmer.... There!”

Savka gave Agafya the crooked glass. She slowly drank the vodka, ate nothing with it, but drew a deep breath when she had finished.

“You’ve brought something,” said Savka, untying the bundle and throwing a condescending, jesting shade into his voice. “Women can never come without bringing something. Ah, pie and potatoes.... They live well,” he sighed, turning to me. “They are the only ones in the whole village who have got potatoes left from the winter!”

In the darkness I did not see Agafya’s face, but from the movement of her shoulders and head it seemed to me that she could not take her eyes off Savka’s face. To avoid being the third person at this tryst, I decided to go for a walk and got up. But at that moment a nightingale in the wood suddenly uttered two low contralto notes. Half a minute later it gave a tiny high trill and then, having thus tried its voice, began singing. Savka jumped up and listened.

“It’s the same one as yesterday,” he said. “Wait a minute.”

And, getting up, he went noiselessly to the wood.

“Why, what do you want with it?” I shouted out after him, “Stop!”

Savka shook his hand as much as to say, “Don’t shout,” and vanished into the darkness. Savka was an excellent sportsman and fisherman when he liked, but his talents in this direction were as completely thrown away as his strength. He was too slothful to do things in the routine way, and vented his passion for sport in useless tricks. For instance, he would catch nightingales only with his hands, would shoot pike with a fowling piece, he would spend whole hours by the river trying to catch little fish with a big hook.

Left alone with me, Agafya coughed and passed her hand several times over her forehead.... She began to feel a little drunk from the vodka.

“How are you getting on, Agasha?” I asked her, after a long silence, when it began to be awkward to remain mute any longer.

“Very well, thank God.... Don’t tell anyone, sir, will you?” she added suddenly in a whisper.

“That’s all right,” I reassured her. “But how reckless you are, Agasha!... What if Yakov finds out?”

“He won’t find out.”

“But what if he does?”

“No... I shall be at home before he is. He is on the line now, and he will come back when the mail train brings him, and from here I can hear when the train’s coming....”

Agafya once more passed her hand over her forehead and looked away in the direction in which Savka had vanished. The nightingale was singing. Some night bird flew low down close to the ground and, noticing us, was startled, fluttered its wings and flew across to the other side of the river.

Soon the nightingale was silent, but Savka did not come back. Agafya got up, took a few steps uneasily, and sat down again.

“What is he doing?” she could not refrain from saying. “The train’s not coming in to-morrow! I shall have to go away directly.”

“Savka,” I shouted. “Savka.”

I was not answered even by an echo. Agafya moved uneasily and sat down again.

“It’s time I was going,” she said in an agitated voice. “The train will be here directly! I know when the trains come in.”

The poor woman was not mistaken. Before a quarter of an hour had passed a sound was heard in the distance.

Agafya kept her eyes fixed on the copse for a long time and moved her hands impatiently.

“Why, where can he be?” she said, laughing nervously. “Where has the devil carried him? I am going! I really must be going.”

Meanwhile the noise was growing more and more distinct. By now one could distinguish the rumble of the wheels from the heavy gasps of the engine. Then we heard the whistle, the train crossed the bridge with a hollow rumble... another minute and all was still.

“I’ll wait one minute more,” said Agafya, sitting down resolutely. “So be it, I’ll wait.”

At last Savka appeared in the darkness. He walked noiselessly on the crumbling earth of the kitchen gardens and hummed something softly to himself.

“Here’s a bit of luck; what do you say to that now?” he said gaily. “As soon as I got up to the bush and began taking aim with my hand it left off singing! Ah, the bald dog! I waited and waited to see when it would begin again, but I had to give it up.”

Savka flopped clumsily down to the ground beside Agafya and, to keep his balance, clutched at her waist with both hands.

“Why do you look cross, as though your aunt were your mother?” he asked.

With all his soft-heartedness and good-nature, Savka despised women. He behaved carelessly, condescendingly with them, and even stooped to scornful laughter of their feelings for himself. God knows, perhaps this careless, contemptuous manner was one of the causes of his irresistible attraction for the village Dulcineas. He was handsome and well-built; in his eyes there was always a soft friendliness, even when he was looking at the women he so despised, but the fascination was not to be explained by merely external qualities. Apart from his happy exterior and original manner, one must suppose that the touching position of Savka as an acknowledged failure and an unhappy exile from his own hut to the kitchen gardens also had an influence upon the women.

“Tell the gentleman what you have come here for!” Savka went on, still holding Agafya by the waist. “Come, tell him, you good married woman! Ho-ho! Shall we have another drop of vodka, friend Agasha?”

I got up and, threading my way between the plots, I walked the length of the kitchen garden. The dark beds looked like flattened-out graves. They smelt of dug earth and the tender dampness of plants beginning to be covered with dew.... A red light was still gleaming on the left. It winked genially and seemed to smile.

I heard a happy laugh. It was Agafya laughing.

“And the train?” I thought. “The train has come in long ago.”

Waiting a little longer, I went back to the shanty. Savka was sitting motionless, his legs crossed like a Turk, and was softly, scarcely audibly humming a song consisting of words of one syllable something like: “Out on you, fie on you... I and you.” Agafya, intoxicated by the vodka, by Savka’s scornful caresses, and by the stifling warmth of the night, was lying on the earth beside him, pressing her face convulsively to his knees. She was so carried away by her feelings that she did not even notice my arrival.

“Agasha, the train has been in a long time,” I said.

“It’s time—it’s time you were gone,” Savka, tossing his head, took up my thought. “What are you sprawling here for? You shameless hussy!”

Agafya started, took her head from his knees, glanced at me, and sank down beside him again.

“You ought to have gone long ago,” I said.

Agafya turned round and got up on one knee.... She was unhappy.... For half a minute her whole figure, as far as I could distinguish it through the darkness, expressed conflict and hesitation. There was an instant when, seeming to come to herself, she drew herself up to get upon her feet, but then some invincible and implacable force seemed to push her whole body, and she sank down beside Savka again.

“Bother him!” she said, with a wild, guttural laugh, and reckless determination, impotence, and pain could be heard in that laugh.

I strolled quietly away to the copse, and from there down to the river, where our fishing lines were set. The river slept. Some soft, fluffy-petalled flower on a tall stalk touched my cheek tenderly like a child who wants to let one know it’s awake. To pass the time I felt for one of the lines and pulled at it. It yielded easily and hung limply—nothing had been caught.... The further bank and the village could not be seen. A light gleamed in one hut, but soon went out. I felt my way along the bank, found a hollow place which I had noticed in the daylight, and sat down in it as in an arm-chair. I sat there a long time.... I saw the stars begin to grow misty and lose their brightness; a cool breath passed over the earth like a faint sigh and touched the leaves of the slumbering osiers....

“A-ga-fya!” a hollow voice called from the village. “Agafya!”

It was the husband, who had returned home, and in alarm was looking for his wife in the village. At that moment there came the sound of unrestrained laughter: the wife, forgetful of everything, sought in her intoxication to make up by a few hours of happiness for the misery awaiting her next day.

I dropped asleep.

When I woke up Savka was sitting beside me and lightly shaking my shoulder. The river, the copse, both banks, green and washed, trees and fields—all were bathed in bright morning light. Through the slim trunks of the trees the rays of the newly risen sun beat upon my back.

“So that’s how you catch fish?” laughed Savka. “Get up!”

I got up, gave a luxurious stretch, and began greedily drinking in the damp and fragrant air.

“Has Agasha gone?” I asked.

“There she is,” said Savka, pointing in the direction of the ford.

I glanced and saw Agafya. Dishevelled, with her kerchief dropping off her head, she was crossing the river, holding up her skirt. Her legs were scarcely moving....

“The cat knows whose meat it has eaten,” muttered Savka, screwing up his eyes as he looked at her. “She goes with her tail hanging down.... They are sly as cats, these women, and timid as hares.... She didn’t go, silly thing, in the evening when we told her to! Now she will catch it, and they’ll flog me again at the peasant court... all on account of the women....”

Agafya stepped upon the bank and went across the fields to the village. At first she walked fairly boldly, but soon terror and excitement got the upper hand; she turned round fearfully, stopped and took breath.

“Yes, you are frightened!” Savka laughed mournfully, looking at the bright green streak left by Agafya in the dewy grass. “She doesn’t want to go! Her husband’s been standing waiting for her for a good hour.... Did you see him?”

Savka said the last words with a smile, but they sent a chill to my heart. In the village, near the furthest hut, Yakov was standing in the road, gazing fixedly at his returning wife. He stood without stirring, and was as motionless as a post. What was he thinking as he looked at her? What words was he preparing to greet her with? Agafya stood still a little while, looked round once more as though expecting help from us, and went on. I have never seen anyone, drunk or sober, move as she did. Agafya seemed to be shrivelled up by her husband’s eyes. At one time she moved in zigzags, then she moved her feet up and down without going forward, bending her knees and stretching out her hands, then she staggered back. When she had gone another hundred paces she looked round once more and sat down.

“You ought at least to hide behind a bush...” I said to Savka. “If the husband sees you...”

“He knows, anyway, who it is Agafya has come from.... The women don’t go to the kitchen garden at night for cabbages—we all know that.”

I glanced at Savka’s face. It was pale and puckered up with a look of fastidious pity such as one sees in the faces of people watching tortured animals.

“What’s fun for the cat is tears for the mouse...” he muttered.

Agafya suddenly jumped up, shook her head, and with a bold step went towards her husband. She had evidently plucked up her courage and made up her mind.


AT CHRISTMAS TIME


GUSEV


THE STUDENT

AT first the weather was fine and still. The thrushes were calling, and in the swamps close by something alive droned pitifully with a sound like blowing into an empty bottle. A snipe flew by, and the shot aimed at it rang out with a gay, resounding note in the spring air. But when it began to get dark in the forest a cold, penetrating wind blew inappropriately from the east, and everything sank into silence. Needles of ice stretched across the pools, and it felt cheerless, remote, and lonely in the forest. There was a whiff of winter.

Ivan Velikopolsky, the son of a sacristan, and a student of the clerical academy, returning home from shooting, walked all the time by the path in the water-side meadow. His fingers were numb and his face was burning with the wind. It seemed to him that the cold that had suddenly come on had destroyed the order and harmony of things, that nature itself felt ill at ease, and that was why the evening darkness was falling more rapidly than usual. All around it was deserted and peculiarly gloomy. The only light was one gleaming in the widows’ gardens near the river; the village, over three miles away, and everything in the distance all round was plunged in the cold evening mist. The student remembered that, as he went out from the house, his mother was sitting barefoot on the floor in the entry, cleaning the samovar, while his father lay on the stove coughing; as it was Good Friday nothing had been cooked, and the student was terribly hungry. And now, shrinking from the cold, he thought that just such a wind had blown in the days of Rurik and in the time of Ivan the Terrible and Peter, and in their time there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression—all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better. And he did not want to go home.

The gardens were called the widows’ because they were kept by two widows, mother and daughter. A camp fire was burning brightly with a crackling sound, throwing out light far around on the ploughed earth. The widow Vasilisa, a tall, fat old woman in a man’s coat, was standing by and looking thoughtfully into the fire; her daughter Lukerya, a little pock-marked woman with a stupid-looking face, was sitting on the ground, washing a caldron and spoons. Apparently they had just had supper. There was a sound of men’s voices; it was the labourers watering their horses at the river.

“Here you have winter back again,” said the student, going up to the camp fire. “Good evening.”

Vasilisa started, but at once recognized him and smiled cordially.

“I did not know you; God bless you,” she said.

“You’ll be rich.”

They talked. Vasilisa, a woman of experience, who had been in service with the gentry, first as a wet-nurse, afterwards as a children’s nurse, expressed herself with refinement, and a soft, sedate smile never left her face; her daughter Lukerya, a village peasant woman, who had been beaten by her husband, simply screwed up her eyes at the student and said nothing, and she had a strange expression like that of a deaf mute.

“At just such a fire the Apostle Peter warmed himself,” said the student, stretching out his hands to the fire, “so it must have been cold then, too. Ah, what a terrible night it must have been, granny! An utterly dismal long night!”

He looked round at the darkness, shook his head abruptly and asked:

“No doubt you have been at the reading of the Twelve Gospels?”

“Yes, I have,” answered Vasilisa.

“If you remember at the Last Supper Peter said to Jesus, ‘I am ready to go with Thee into darkness and unto death.’ And our Lord answered him thus: ‘I say unto thee, Peter, before the cock croweth thou wilt have denied Me thrice.’ After the supper Jesus went through the agony of death in the garden and prayed, and poor Peter was weary in spirit and faint, his eyelids were heavy and he could not struggle against sleep. He fell asleep. Then you heard how Judas the same night kissed Jesus and betrayed Him to His tormentors. They took Him bound to the high priest and beat Him, while Peter, exhausted, worn out with misery and alarm, hardly awake, you know, feeling that something awful was just going to happen on earth, followed behind.... He loved Jesus passionately, intensely, and now he saw from far off how He was beaten...”

Lukerya left the spoons and fixed an immovable stare upon the student.

“They came to the high priest’s,” he went on; “they began to question Jesus, and meantime the labourers made a fire in the yard as it was cold, and warmed themselves. Peter, too, stood with them near the fire and warmed himself as I am doing. A woman, seeing him, said: ‘He was with Jesus, too’—that is as much as to say that he, too, should be taken to be questioned. And all the labourers that were standing near the fire must have looked sourly and suspiciously at him, because he was confused and said: ‘I don’t know Him.’ A little while after again someone recognized him as one of Jesus’ disciples and said: ‘Thou, too, art one of them,’ but again he denied it. And for the third time someone turned to him: ‘Why, did I not see thee with Him in the garden to-day?’ For the third time he denied it. And immediately after that time the cock crowed, and Peter, looking from afar off at Jesus, remembered the words He had said to him in the evening.... He remembered, he came to himself, went out of the yard and wept bitterly—bitterly. In the Gospel it is written: ‘He went out and wept bitterly.’ I imagine it: the still, still, dark, dark garden, and in the stillness, faintly audible, smothered sobbing...”

T he student sighed and sank into thought. Still smiling, Vasilisa suddenly gave a gulp, big tears flowed freely down her cheeks, and she screened her face from the fire with her sleeve as though ashamed of her tears, and Lukerya, staring immovably at the student, flushed crimson, and her expression became strained and heavy like that of someone enduring intense pain.

The labourers came back from the river, and one of them riding a horse was quite near, and the light from the fire quivered upon him. The student said good-night to the widows and went on. And again the darkness was about him and his fingers began to be numb. A cruel wind was blowing, winter really had come back and it did not feel as though Easter would be the day after to-morrow.

Now the student was thinking about Vasilisa: since she had shed tears all that had happened to Peter the night before the Crucifixion must have some relation to her....

He looked round. The solitary light was still gleaming in the darkness and no figures could be seen near it now. The student thought again that if Vasilisa had shed tears, and her daughter had been troubled, it was evident that what he had just been telling them about, which had happened nineteen centuries ago, had a relation to the present—to both women, to the desolate village, to himself, to all people. The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her, because her whole being was interested in what was passing in Peter’s soul.

And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. “The past,” he thought, “is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.” And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.

When he crossed the river by the ferry boat and afterwards, mounting the hill, looked at his village and towards the west where the cold crimson sunset lay a narrow streak of light, he thought that truth and beauty which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest had continued without interruption to this day, and had evidently always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly life, indeed; and the feeling of youth, health, vigour—he was only twenty-two—and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvellous, and full of lofty meaning.


IN THE RAVINE


THE HUNTSMAN

A SULTRY, stifling midday. Not a cloudlet in the sky.... The sun-baked grass had a disconsolate, hopeless look: even if there were rain it could never be green again.... The forest stood silent, motionless, as though it were looking at something with its tree-tops or expecting something.

At the edge of the clearing a tall, narrow-shouldered man of forty in a red shirt, in patched trousers that had been a gentleman’s, and in high boots, was slouching along with a lazy, shambling step. He was sauntering along the road. On the right was the green of the clearing, on the left a golden sea of ripe rye stretched to the very horizon. He was red and perspiring, a white cap with a straight jockey peak, evidently a gift from some open-handed young gentleman, perched jauntily on his handsome flaxen head. Across his shoulder hung a game-bag with a blackcock lying in it. The man held a double-barrelled gun cocked in his hand, and screwed up his eyes in the direction of his lean old dog who was running on ahead sniffing the bushes. There was stillness all round, not a sound... everything living was hiding away from the heat.

“Yegor Vlassitch!” the huntsman suddenly heard a soft voice.

He started and, looking round, scowled. Beside him, as though she had sprung out of the earth, stood a pale-faced woman of thirty with a sickle in her hand. She was trying to look into his face, and was smiling diffidently.

“Oh, it is you, Pelagea!” said the huntsman, stopping and deliberately uncocking the gun. “H’m!... How have you come here?”

“The women from our village are working here, so I have come with them.... As a labourer, Yegor Vlassitch.”

“Oh...” growled Yegor Vlassitch, and slowly walked on.

Pelagea followed him. They walked in silence for twenty paces.

“I have not seen you for a long time, Yegor Vlassitch...” said Pelagea looking tenderly at the huntsman’s moving shoulders. “I have not seen you since you came into our hut at Easter for a drink of water... you came in at Easter for a minute and then God knows how... drunk... you scolded and beat me and went away... I have been waiting and waiting... I’ve tired my eyes out looking for you. Ah, Yegor Vlassitch, Yegor Vlassitch! you might look in just once!”

“What is there for me to do there?”

“Of course there is nothing for you to do... though to be sure... there is the place to look after.... To see how things are going.... You are the master.... I say, you have shot a blackcock, Yegor Vlassitch! You ought to sit down and rest!”

As she said all this Pelagea laughed like a silly girl and looked up at Yegor’s face. Her face was simply radiant with happiness.

“Sit down? If you like...” said Yegor in a tone of indifference, and he chose a spot between two fir-trees. “Why are you standing? You sit down too.”

Pelagea sat a little way off in the sun and, ashamed of her joy, put her hand over her smiling mouth. Two minutes passed in silence.

“You might come for once,” said Pelagea.

“What for?” sighed Yegor, taking off his cap and wiping his red forehead with his hand. “There is no object in my coming. To go for an hour or two is only waste of time, it’s simply upsetting you, and to live continually in the village my soul could not endure.... You know yourself I am a pampered man.... I want a bed to sleep in, good tea to drink, and refined conversation.... I want all the niceties, while you live in poverty and dirt in the village.... I couldn’t stand it for a day. Suppose there were an edict that I must live with you, I should either set fire to the hut or lay hands on myself. From a boy I’ve had this love for ease; there is no help for it.”

“Where are you living now?”

“With the gentleman here, Dmitry Ivanitch, as a huntsman. I furnish his table with game, but he keeps me... more for his pleasure than anything.”

“That’s not proper work you’re doing, Yegor Vlassitch.... For other people it’s a pastime, but with you it’s like a trade... like real work.”

“You don’t understand, you silly,” said Yegor, gazing gloomily at the sky. “You have never understood, and as long as you live you will never understand what sort of man I am.... You think of me as a foolish man, gone to the bad, but to anyone who understands I am the best shot there is in the whole district. The gentry feel that, and they have even printed things about me in a magazine. There isn’t a man to be compared with me as a sportsman.... And it is not because I am pampered and proud that I look down upon your village work. From my childhood, you know, I have never had any calling apart from guns and dogs. If they took away my gun, I used to go out with the fishing-hook, if they took the hook I caught things with my hands. And I went in for horse-dealing too, I used to go to the fairs when I had the money, and you know that if a peasant goes in for being a sportsman, or a horse-dealer, it’s good-bye to the plough. Once the spirit of freedom has taken a man you will never root it out of him. In the same way, if a gentleman goes in for being an actor or for any other art, he will never make an official or a landowner. You are a woman, and you do not understand, but one must understand that.”

“I understand, Yegor Vlassitch.”

“You don’t understand if you are going to cry....”

“I... I’m not crying,” said Pelagea, turning away. “It’s a sin, Yegor Vlassitch! You might stay a day with luckless me, anyway. It’s twelve years since I was married to you, and... and... there has never once been love between us!... I... I am not crying.”

“Love...” muttered Yegor, scratching his hand. “There can’t be any love. It’s only in name we are husband and wife; we aren’t really. In your eyes I am a wild man, and in mine you are a simple peasant woman with no understanding. Are we well matched? I am a free, pampered, profligate man, while you are a working woman, going in bark shoes and never straightening your back. The way I think of myself is that I am the foremost man in every kind of sport, and you look at me with pity.... Is that being well matched?”

“But we are married, you know, Yegor Vlassitch,” sobbed Pelagea.

“Not married of our free will.... Have you forgotten? You have to thank Count Sergey Paylovitch and yourself. Out of envy, because I shot better than he did, the Count kept giving me wine for a whole month, and when a man’s drunk you could make him change his religion, let alone getting married. To pay me out he married me to you when I was drunk.... A huntsman to a herd-girl! You saw I was drunk, why did you marry me? You were not a serf, you know; you could have resisted. Of course it was a bit of luck for a herd-girl to marry a huntsman, but you ought to have thought about it. Well, now be miserable, cry. It’s a joke for the Count, but a crying matter for you.... Beat yourself against the wall.”

A silence followed. Three wild ducks flew over the clearing. Yegor followed them with his eyes till, transformed into three scarcely visible dots, they sank down far beyond the forest.

“How do you live?” he asked, moving his eyes from the ducks to Pelagea.

“Now I am going out to work, and in the winter I take a child from the Foundling Hospital and bring it up on the bottle. They give me a rouble and a half a month.”

“Oh....”

Again a silence. From the strip that had been reaped floated a soft song which broke off at the very beginning. It was too hot to sing.

“They say you have put up a new hut for Akulina,” said Pelagea.

Yegor did not speak.

“So she is dear to you....”

“It’s your luck, it’s fate!” said the huntsman, stretching. “You must put up with it, poor thing. But good-bye, I’ve been chattering long enough.... I must be at Boltovo by the evening.”

Yegor rose, stretched himself, and slung his gun over his shoulder; Pelagea got up.

“And when are you coming to the village?” she asked softly.

“I have no reason to, I shall never come sober, and you have little to gain from me drunk; I am spiteful when I am drunk. Good-bye!”

“Good-bye, Yegor Vlassitch.”

Yegor put his cap on the back of his head and, clicking to his dog, went on his way. Pelagea stood still looking after him.... She saw his moving shoulder-blades, his jaunty cap, his lazy, careless step, and her eyes were full of sadness and tender affection.... Her gaze flitted over her husband’s tall, lean figure and caressed and fondled it.... He, as though he felt that gaze, stopped and looked round.... He did not speak, but from his face, from his shrugged shoulders, Pelagea could see that he wanted to say something to her. She went up to him timidly and looked at him with imploring eyes.

“Take it,” he said, turning round.

He gave her a crumpled rouble note and walked quickly away.

“Good-bye, Yegor Vlassitch,” she said, mechanically taking the rouble.

He walked by a long road, straight as a taut strap. She, pale and motionless as a statue, stood, her eyes seizing every step he took. But the red of his shirt melted into the dark colour of his trousers, his step could not be seen, and the dog could not be distinguished from the boots. Nothing could be seen but the cap, and... suddenly Yegor turned off sharply into the clearing and the cap vanished in the greenness.

“Good-bye, Yegor Vlassitch,” whispered Pelagea, and she stood on tiptoe to see the white cap once more.


HAPPINESS

A FLOCK of sheep was spending the night on the broad steppe road that is called the great highway. Two shepherds were guarding it. One, a toothless old man of eighty, with a tremulous face, was lying on his stomach at the very edge of the road, leaning his elbows on the dusty leaves of a plantain; the other, a young fellow with thick black eyebrows and no moustache, dressed in the coarse canvas of which cheap sacks are made, was lying on his back, with his arms under his head, looking upwards at the sky, where the stars were slumbering and the Milky Way lay stretched exactly above his face.

The shepherds were not alone. A couple of yards from them in the dusk that shrouded the road a horse made a patch of darkness, and, beside it, leaning against the saddle, stood a man in high boots and a short full-skirted jacket who looked like an overseer on some big estate. Judging from his upright and motionless figure, from his manners, and his behaviour to the shepherds and to his horse, he was a serious, reasonable man who knew his own value; even in the darkness signs could be detected in him of military carriage and of the majestically condescending expression gained by frequent intercourse with the gentry and their stewards.

The sheep were asleep. Against the grey background of the dawn, already beginning to cover the eastern part of the sky, the silhouettes of sheep that were not asleep could be seen here and there; they stood with drooping heads, thinking. Their thoughts, tedious and oppressive, called forth by images of nothing but the broad steppe and the sky, the days and the nights, probably weighed upon them themselves, crushing them into apathy; and, standing there as though rooted to the earth, they noticed neither the presence of a stranger nor the uneasiness of the dogs.

The drowsy, stagnant air was full of the monotonous noise inseparable from a summer night on the steppes; the grasshoppers chirruped incessantly; the quails called, and the young nightingales trilled languidly half a mile away in a ravine where a stream flowed and willows grew.

The overseer had halted to ask the shepherds for a light for his pipe. He lighted it in silence and smoked the whole pipe; then, still without uttering a word, stood with his elbow on the saddle, plunged in thought. The young shepherd took no notice of him, he still lay gazing at the sky while the old man slowly looked the overseer up and down and then asked:

“Why, aren’t you Panteley from Makarov’s estate?”

“That’s myself,” answered the overseer.

“To be sure, I see it is. I didn’t know you—that is a sign you will be rich. Where has God brought you from?”

“From the Kovylyevsky fields.”

“That’s a good way. Are you letting the land on the part-crop system?”

“Part of it. Some like that, and some we are letting on lease, and some for raising melons and cucumbers. I have just come from the mill.”

A big shaggy old sheep-dog of a dirty white colour with woolly tufts about its nose and eyes walked three times quietly round the horse, trying to seem unconcerned in the presence of strangers, then all at once dashed suddenly from behind at the overseer with an angry aged growl; the other dogs could not refrain from leaping up too.

“Lie down, you damned brute,” cried the old man, raising himself on his elbow; “blast you, you devil’s creature.”

When the dogs were quiet again, the old man resumed his former attitude and said quietly:

“It was at Kovyli on Ascension Day that Yefim Zhmenya died. Don’t speak of it in the dark, it is a sin to mention such people. He was a wicked old man. I dare say you have heard.”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Yefim Zhmenya, the uncle of Styopka, the blacksmith. The whole district round knew him. Aye, he was a cursed old man, he was! I knew him for sixty years, ever since Tsar Alexander who beat the French was brought from Taganrog to Moscow. We went together to meet the dead Tsar, and in those days the great highway did not run to Bahmut, but from Esaulovka to Gorodishtche, and where Kovyli is now, there were bustards’ nests—there was a bustard’s nest at every step. Even then I had noticed that Yefim had given his soul to damnation, and that the Evil One was in him. I have observed that if any man of the peasant class is apt to be silent, takes up with old women’s jobs, and tries to live in solitude, there is no good in it, and Yefim from his youth up was always one to hold his tongue and look at you sideways, he always seemed to be sulky and bristling like a cock before a hen. To go to church or to the tavern or to lark in the street with the lads was not his fashion, he would rather sit alone or be whispering with old women. When he was still young he took jobs to look after the bees and the market gardens. Good folks would come to his market garden sometimes and his melons were whistling. One day he caught a pike, when folks were looking on, and it laughed aloud, ‘Ho-ho-ho-ho!’”

“It does happen,” said Panteley.

The young shepherd turned on his side and, lifting his black eyebrows, stared intently at the old man.

“Did you hear the melons whistling?” he asked.

“Hear them I didn’t, the Lord spared me,” sighed the old man, “but folks told me so. It is no great wonder... the Evil One will begin whistling in a stone if he wants to. Before the Day of Freedom a rock was humming for three days and three nights in our parts. I heard it myself. The pike laughed because Yefim caught a devil instead of a pike.”

The old man remembered something. He got up quickly on to his knees and, shrinking as though from the cold, nervously thrusting his hands into his sleeves, he muttered in a rapid womanish gabble:

“Lord save us and have mercy upon us! I was walking along the river bank one day to Novopavlovka. A storm was gathering, such a tempest it was, preserve us Holy Mother, Queen of Heaven.... I was hurrying on as best I could, I looked, and beside the path between the thorn bushes—the thorn was in flower at the time—there was a white bullock coming along. I wondered whose bullock it was, and what the devil had sent it there for. It was coming along and swinging its tail and moo-oo-oo! but would you believe it, friends, I overtake it, I come up close—and it’s not a bullock, but Yefim—holy, holy, holy! I make the sign of the cross while he stares at me and mutters, showing the whites of his eyes; wasn’t I frightened! We came alongside, I was afraid to say a word to him—the thunder was crashing, the sky was streaked with lightning, the willows were bent right down to the water—all at once, my friends, God strike me dead that I die impenitent, a hare ran across the path... it ran and stopped, and said like a man: ‘Good-evening, peasants.’ Lie down, you brute!” the old man cried to the shaggy dog, who was moving round the horse again. “Plague take you!”

“It does happen,” said the overseer, still leaning on the saddle and not stirring; he said this in the hollow, toneless voice in which men speak when they are plunged in thought.

“It does happen,” he repeated, in a tone of profundity and conviction.

“Ugh, he was a nasty old fellow,” the old shepherd went on with somewhat less fervour. “Five years after the Freedom he was flogged by the commune at the office, so to show his spite he took and sent the throat illness upon all Kovyli. Folks died out of number, lots and lots of them, just as in cholera....”

“How did he send the illness?” asked the young shepherd after a brief silence.

“We all know how, there is no great cleverness needed where there is a will to it. Yefim murdered people with viper’s fat. That is such a poison that folks will die from the mere smell of it, let alone the fat.”

“That’s true,” Panteley agreed.

“The lads wanted to kill him at the time, but the old people would not let them. It would never have done to kill him; he knew the place where the treasure is hidden, and not another soul did know. The treasures about here are charmed so that you may find them and not see them, but he did see them. At times he would walk along the river bank or in the forest, and under the bushes and under the rocks there would be little flames, little flames... little flames as though from brimstone. I have seen them myself. Everyone expected that Yefim would show people the places or dig the treasure up himself, but he—as the saying is, like a dog in the manger—so he died without digging it up himself or showing other people.”

The overseer lit a pipe, and for an instant lighted up his big moustaches and his sharp, stern-looking, and dignified nose. Little circles of light danced from his hands to his cap, raced over the saddle along the horse’s back, and vanished in its mane near its ears.

“There are lots of hidden treasures in these parts,” he said.

And slowly stretching, he looked round him, resting his eyes on the whitening east and added:

“There must be treasures.”

“To be sure,” sighed the old man, “one can see from every sign there are treasures, only there is no one to dig them, brother. No one knows the real places; besides, nowadays, you must remember, all the treasures are under a charm. To find them and see them you must have a talisman, and without a talisman you can do nothing, lad. Yefim had talismans, but there was no getting anything out of him, the bald devil. He kept them, so that no one could get them.”

The young shepherd crept two paces nearer to the old man and, propping his head on his fists, fastened his fixed stare upon him. A childish expression of terror and curiosity gleamed in his dark eyes, and seemed in the twilight to stretch and flatten out the large features of his coarse young face. He was listening intently.

“It is even written in the Scriptures that there are lots of treasures hidden here,” the old man went on; “it is so for sure... and no mistake about it. An old soldier of Novopavlovka was shown at Ivanovka a writing, and in this writing it was printed about the place of the treasure and even how many pounds of gold was in it and the sort of vessel it was in; they would have found the treasures long ago by that writing, only the treasure is under a spell, you can’t get at it.”

“Why can’t you get at it, grandfather?” asked the young man.

“I suppose there is some reason, the soldier didn’t say. It is under a spell... you need a talisman.”

The old man spoke with warmth, as though he were pouring out his soul before the overseer. He talked through his nose and, being unaccustomed to talk much and rapidly, stuttered; and, conscious of his defects, he tried to adorn his speech with gesticulations of the hands and head and thin shoulders, and at every movement his hempen shirt crumpled into folds, slipped upwards and displayed his back, black with age and sunburn. He kept pulling it down, but it slipped up again at once. At last, as though driven out of all patience by the rebellious shirt, the old man leaped up and said bitterly:

“There is fortune, but what is the good of it if it is buried in the earth? It is just riches wasted with no profit to anyone, like chaff or sheep’s dung, and yet there are riches there, lad, fortune enough for all the country round, but not a soul sees it! It will come to this, that the gentry will dig it up or the government will take it away. The gentry have begun digging the barrows.... They scented something! They are envious of the peasants’ luck! The government, too, is looking after itself. It is written in the law that if any peasant finds the treasure he is to take it to the authorities! I dare say, wait till you get it! There is a brew but not for you!”

The old man laughed contemptuously and sat down on the ground. The overseer listened with attention and agreed, but from his silence and the expression of his figure it was evident that what the old man told him was not new to him, that he had thought it all over long ago, and knew much more than was known to the old shepherd.

“In my day, I must own, I did seek for fortune a dozen times,” said the old man, scratching himself nervously. “I looked in the right places, but I must have come on treasures under a charm. My father looked for it, too, and my brother, too—but not a thing did they find, so they died without luck. A monk revealed to my brother Ilya—the Kingdom of Heaven be his—that in one place in the fortress of Taganrog there was a treasure under three stones, and that that treasure was under a charm, and in those days—it was, I remember, in the year ‘38—an Armenian used to live at Matvyeev Barrow who sold talismans. Ilya bought a talisman, took two other fellows with him, and went to Taganrog. Only when he got to the place in the fortress, brother, there was a soldier with a gun, standing at the very spot....”

A sound suddenly broke on the still air, and floated in all directions over the steppe. Something in the distance gave a menacing bang, crashed against stone, and raced over the steppe, uttering, “Tah! tah! tah! tah!” When the sound had died away the old man looked inquiringly at Panteley, who stood motionless and unconcerned.

“It’s a bucket broken away at the pits,” said the young shepherd after a moment’s thought.

It was by now getting light. The Milky Way had turned pale and gradually melted like snow, losing its outlines; the sky was becoming dull and dingy so that you could not make out whether it was clear or covered thickly with clouds, and only from the bright leaden streak in the east and from the stars that lingered here and there could one tell what was coming.

The first noiseless breeze of morning, cautiously stirring the spurges and the brown stalks of last year’s grass, fluttered along the road.

The overseer roused himself from his thoughts and tossed his head. With both hands he shook the saddle, touched the girth and, as though he could not make up his mind to mount the horse, stood still again, hesitating.

“Yes,” he said, “your elbow is near, but you can’t bite it. There is fortune, but there is not the wit to find it.”

And he turned facing the shepherds. His stern face looked sad and mocking, as though he were a disappointed man.

“Yes, so one dies without knowing what happiness is like...” he said emphatically, lifting his left leg into the stirrup. “A younger man may live to see it, but it is time for us to lay aside all thought of it.”

Stroking his long moustaches covered with dew, he seated himself heavily on the horse and screwed up his eyes, looking into the distance, as though he had forgotten something or left something unsaid. In the bluish distance where the furthest visible hillock melted into the mist nothing was stirring; the ancient barrows, once watch-mounds and tombs, which rose here and there above the horizon and the boundless steppe had a sullen and death-like look; there was a feeling of endless time and utter indifference to man in their immobility and silence; another thousand years would pass, myriads of men would die, while they would still stand as they had stood, with no regret for the dead nor interest in the living, and no soul would ever know why they stood there, and what secret of the steppes was hidden under them.

The rooks awakening, flew one after another in silence over the earth. No meaning was to be seen in the languid flight of those long-lived birds, nor in the morning which is repeated punctually every twenty-four hours, nor in the boundless expanse of the steppe.

The overseer smiled and said:

“What space, Lord have mercy upon us! You would have a hunt to find treasure in it! Here,” he went on, dropping his voice and making a serious face, “here there are two treasures buried for a certainty. The gentry don’t know of them, but the old peasants, particularly the soldiers, know all about them. Here, somewhere on that ridge the overseer pointed with his whip robbers one time attacked a caravan of gold; the gold was being taken from Petersburg to the Emperor Peter who was building a fleet at the time at Voronezh. The robbers killed the men with the caravan and buried the gold, but did not find it again afterwards. Another treasure was buried by our Cossacks of the Don. In the year ‘12 they carried off lots of plunder of all sorts from the French, goods and gold and silver. When they were going homewards they heard on the way that the government wanted to take away all the gold and silver from them. Rather than give up their plunder like that to the government for nothing, the brave fellows took and buried it, so that their children, anyway, might get it; but where they buried it no one knows.”

“I have heard of those treasures,” the old man muttered grimly.

“Yes...” Panteley pondered again. “So it is....”

A silence followed. The overseer looked dreamily into the distance, gave a laugh and pulled the rein, still with the same expression as though he had forgotten something or left something unsaid. The horse reluctantly started at a walking pace. After riding a hundred paces Panteley shook his head resolutely, roused himself from his thoughts and, lashing his horse, set off at a trot.

The shepherds were left alone.

“That was Panteley from Makarov’s estate,” said the old man. “He gets a hundred and fifty a year and provisions found, too. He is a man of education....”

The sheep, waking up—there were about three thousand of them—began without zest to while away the time, nipping at the low, half-trampled grass. The sun had not yet risen, but by now all the barrows could be seen and, like a cloud in the distance, Saur’s Grave with its peaked top. If one clambered up on that tomb one could see the plain from it, level and boundless as the sky, one could see villages, manor-houses, the settlements of the Germans and of the Molokani, and a long-sighted Kalmuck could even see the town and the railway-station. Only from there could one see that there was something else in the world besides the silent steppe and the ancient barrows, that there was another life that had nothing to do with buried treasure and the thoughts of sheep.

The old man felt beside him for his crook—a long stick with a hook at the upper end—and got up. He was silent and thoughtful. The young shepherd’s face had not lost the look of childish terror and curiosity. He was still under the influence of what he had heard in the night, and impatiently awaiting fresh stories.

“Grandfather,” he asked, getting up and taking his crook, “what did your brother Ilya do with the soldier?”

The old man did not hear the question. He looked absent-mindedly at the young man, and answered, mumbling with his lips:

“I keep thinking, Sanka, about that writing that was shown to that soldier at Ivanovka. I didn’t tell Panteley—God be with him—but you know in that writing the place was marked out so that even a woman could find it. Do you know where it is? At Bogata Bylotchka at the spot, you know, where the ravine parts like a goose’s foot into three little ravines; it is the middle one.”

“Well, will you dig?”

“I will try my luck...”

“And, grandfather, what will you do with the treasure when you find it?”

“Do with it?” laughed the old man. “H’m!... If only I could find it then.... I would show them all.... H’m!... I should know what to do....”

And the old man could not answer what he would do with the treasure if he found it. That question had presented itself to him that morning probably for the first time in his life, and judging from the expression of his face, indifferent and uncritical, it did not seem to him important and deserving of consideration. In Sanka’s brain another puzzled question was stirring: why was it only old men searched for hidden treasure, and what was the use of earthly happiness to people who might die any day of old age? But Sanka could not put this perplexity into words, and the old man could scarcely have found an answer to it.

An immense crimson sun came into view surrounded by a faint haze. Broad streaks of light, still cold, bathing in the dewy grass, lengthening out with a joyous air as though to prove they were not weary of their task, began spreading over the earth. The silvery wormwood, the blue flowers of the pig’s onion, the yellow mustard, the corn-flowers—all burst into gay colours, taking the sunlight for their own smile.

The old shepherd and Sanka parted and stood at the further sides of the flock. Both stood like posts, without moving, staring at the ground and thinking. The former was haunted by thoughts of fortune, the latter was pondering on what had been said in the night; what interested him was not the fortune itself, which he did not want and could not imagine, but the fantastic, fairy-tale character of human happiness.

A hundred sheep started and, in some inexplicable panic as at a signal, dashed away from the flock; and as though the thoughts of the sheep—tedious and oppressive—had for a moment infected Sanka also, he, too, dashed aside in the same inexplicable animal panic, but at once he recovered himself and shouted:

“You crazy creatures! You’ve gone mad, plague take you!”

When the sun, promising long hours of overwhelming heat, began to bake the earth, all living things that in the night had moved and uttered sounds were sunk in drowsiness. The old shepherd and Sanka stood with their crooks on opposite sides of the flock, stood without stirring, like fakirs at their prayers, absorbed in thought. They did not heed each other; each of them was living in his own life. The sheep were pondering, too.


A MALEFACTOR

AN exceedingly lean little peasant, in a striped hempen shirt and patched drawers, stands facing the investigating magistrate. His face overgrown with hair and pitted with smallpox, and his eyes scarcely visible under thick, overhanging eyebrows have an expression of sullen moroseness. On his head there is a perfect mop of tangled, unkempt hair, which gives him an even more spider-like air of moroseness. He is barefooted.

“Denis Grigoryev!” the magistrate begins. “Come nearer, and answer my questions. On the seventh of this July the railway watchman, Ivan Semyonovitch Akinfov, going along the line in the morning, found you at the hundred-and-forty-first mile engaged in unscrewing a nut by which the rails are made fast to the sleepers. Here it is, the nut!... With the aforesaid nut he detained you. Was that so?”

“Wha-at?”

“Was this all as Akinfov states?”

“To be sure, it was.”

“Very good; well, what were you unscrewing the nut for?”

“Wha-at?”

“Drop that ‘wha-at’ and answer the question; what were you unscrewing the nut for?”

“If I hadn’t wanted it I shouldn’t have unscrewed it,” croaks Denis, looking at the ceiling.

“What did you want that nut for?”

“The nut? We make weights out of those nuts for our lines.”

“Who is ‘we’?”

“We, people.... The Klimovo peasants, that is.”

“Listen, my man; don’t play the idiot to me, but speak sensibly. It’s no use telling lies here about weights!”

“I’ve never been a liar from a child, and now I’m telling lies...” mutters Denis, blinking. “But can you do without a weight, your honour? If you put live bait or maggots on a hook, would it go to the bottom without a weight?... I am telling lies,” grins Denis.... “What the devil is the use of the worm if it swims on the surface! The perch and the pike and the eel-pout always go to the bottom, and a bait on the surface is only taken by a shillisper, not very often then, and there are no shillispers in our river.... That fish likes plenty of room.”

“Why are you telling me about shillispers?”

“Wha-at? Why, you asked me yourself! The gentry catch fish that way too in our parts. The silliest little boy would not try to catch a fish without a weight. Of course anyone who did not understand might go to fish without a weight. There is no rule for a fool.”

“So you say you unscrewed this nut to make a weight for your fishing line out of it?”

“What else for? It wasn’t to play knuckle-bones with!”

“But you might have taken lead, a bullet... a nail of some sort....”

“You don’t pick up lead in the road, you have to buy it, and a nail’s no good. You can’t find anything better than a nut.... It’s heavy, and there’s a hole in it.”

“He keeps pretending to be a fool! as though he’d been born yesterday or dropped from heaven! Don’t you understand, you blockhead, what unscrewing these nuts leads to? If the watchman had not noticed it the train might have run off the rails, people would have been killed—you would have killed people.”

“God forbid, your honour! What should I kill them for? Are we heathens or wicked people? Thank God, good gentlemen, we have lived all our lives without ever dreaming of such a thing.... Save, and have mercy on us, Queen of Heaven!... What are you saying?”

“And what do you suppose railway accidents do come from? Unscrew two or three nuts and you have an accident.”

Denis grins, and screws up his eye at the magistrate incredulously.

“Why! how many years have we all in the village been unscrewing nuts, and the Lord has been merciful; and you talk of accidents, killing people. If I had carried away a rail or put a log across the line, say, then maybe it might have upset the train, but... pouf! a nut!”

“But you must understand that the nut holds the rail fast to the sleepers!”

“We understand that.... We don’t unscrew them all... we leave some.... We don’t do it thoughtlessly... we understand....”

Denis yawns and makes the sign of the cross over his mouth.

“Last year the train went off the rails here,” says the magistrate. “Now I see why!”

“What do you say, your honour?”

“I am telling you that now I see why the train went off the rails last year.... I understand!”

“That’s what you are educated people for, to understand, you kind gentlemen. The Lord knows to whom to give understanding.... Here you have reasoned how and what, but the watchman, a peasant like ourselves, with no understanding at all, catches one by the collar and hauls one along.... You should reason first and then haul me off. It’s a saying that a peasant has a peasant’s wit.... Write down, too, your honour, that he hit me twice—in the jaw and in the chest.”

“When your hut was searched they found another nut.... At what spot did you unscrew that, and when?”

“You mean the nut which lay under the red box?”

“I don’t know where it was lying, only it was found. When did you unscrew it?”

“I didn’t unscrew it; Ignashka, the son of one-eyed Semyon, gave it me. I mean the one which was under the box, but the one which was in the sledge in the yard Mitrofan and I unscrewed together.”

“What Mitrofan?”

“Mitrofan Petrov.... Haven’t you heard of him? He makes nets in our village and sells them to the gentry. He needs a lot of those nuts. Reckon a matter of ten for each net.”

“Listen. Article 1081 of the Penal Code lays down that every wilful damage of the railway line committed when it can expose the traffic on that line to danger, and the guilty party knows that an accident must be caused by it... (Do you understand? Knows! And you could not help knowing what this unscrewing would lead to...) is liable to penal servitude.”

“Of course, you know best.... We are ignorant people.... What do we understand?”

“You understand all about it! You are lying, shamming!”

“What should I lie for? Ask in the village if you don’t believe me. Only a bleak is caught without a weight, and there is no fish worse than a gudgeon, yet even that won’t bite without a weight.”

“You’d better tell me about the shillisper next,” said the magistrate, smiling.

“There are no shillispers in our parts.... We cast our line without a weight on the top of the water with a butterfly; a mullet may be caught that way, though that is not often.”

“Come, hold your tongue.”

A silence follows. Denis shifts from one foot to the other, looks at the table with the green cloth on it, and blinks his eyes violently as though what was before him was not the cloth but the sun. The magistrate writes rapidly.

“Can I go?” asks Denis after a long silence.

“No. I must take you under guard and send you to prison.”

Denis leaves off blinking and, raising his thick eyebrows, looks inquiringly at the magistrate.

“How do you mean, to prison? Your honour! I have no time to spare, I must go to the fair; I must get three roubles from Yegor for some tallow!...”

“Hold your tongue; don’t interrupt.”

“To prison.... If there was something to go for, I’d go; but just to go for nothing! What for? I haven’t stolen anything, I believe, and I’ve not been fighting.... If you are in doubt about the arrears, your honour, don’t believe the elder.... You ask the agent... he’s a regular heathen, the elder, you know.”

“Hold your tongue.”

“I am holding my tongue, as it is,” mutters Denis; “but that the elder has lied over the account, I’ll take my oath for it.... There are three of us brothers: Kuzma Grigoryev, then Yegor Grigoryev, and me, Denis Grigoryev.”

“You are hindering me.... Hey, Semyon,” cries the magistrate, “take him away!”

“There are three of us brothers,” mutters Denis, as two stalwart soldiers take him and lead him out of the room. “A brother is not responsible for a brother. Kuzma does not pay, so you, Denis, must answer for it.... Judges indeed! Our master the general is dead—the Kingdom of Heaven be his—or he would have shown you judges.... You ought to judge sensibly, not at random.... Flog if you like, but flog someone who deserves it, flog with conscience.”


PEASANTS

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