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The Snowstorm

Leo Tolstoy's signature

Leo Tolstoy

1856

This is the Bookwise complete ebook of The Snowstorm by Leo Tolstoy, 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.


Contents


I

It was past six o’clock in the evening, after drinking tea, that I set out from a posting-station, the name of which I have forgotten, though I remember that it was somewhere in the Don Cossack district, near Novotcherkask. It was quite dark as I wrapped myself in my fur cloak and fur rug and settled myself beside Alyoshka in the sledge. Under the lee of the station-house it seemed warm and still. Though there was no snow falling, there was not a star to be seen overhead, and the sky seemed extraordinarily low and black in contrast with the pure, snowy plain stretched out before us.

As soon as we had driven out of the village, passing the dark figures of some windmills, one of which was clumsily waving its great sails, I noticed that the road was heavier and thicker with snow, and the wind began to blow more keenly on my left, tossed the horses’ tails and manes on one side, and persistently lifted and blew away the snow as it was stirred up by the sledge-runners and the horses’ hoofs. The tinkle of the bell died away, a draught of cold air made its way through some aperture in my sleeve and blew down my back, and I recalled the advice of the overseer of the station that I should do better not to start that night, or I might be out all night and get frozen on the way.

“Don’t you think we might get lost?” I said to the driver. But receiving no reply, I put the question more definitely, “What do you say, shall we reach the next station? Shan’t we lose the way?”

“God knows,” he answered, without turning his head. “How it drives along the ground! Can’t see the road a bit. Lord, ’a’ mercy!”

“Well, but you tell me, do you expect to get to the next station or not?” I persisted in inquiring. “Shall we manage to get there?”

“We’ve got to get there,” said the driver, and he said something more which I could not catch in the wind.

I did not want to turn back; but to spend the night driving in the frost and the snowstorm about the absolutely desolate steppe of that part of the Don Cossack district was a very cheerless prospect. And although in the dark I could not see my driver distinctly, I somehow did not take to him, and felt no confidence in him. He was sitting with his legs hanging down before him exactly in the middle of his seat instead of on one side. His voice sounded listless; he wore a big hat with a wavering brim, not a coachman’s cap, and besides he did not drive in correct style, but held the reins in both hands, like a footman who has taken the coachman’s place on the box. And what prejudiced me most of all was that he had tied a kerchief over his ears. In short, the serious, bent back before my eyes impressed me unfavourably and seemed to promise no good.

“Well, I think it would be better to turn back,” said Alyoshka; “it’s poor fun being lost.”

“Lord, ’a’ mercy! how the snow is flying; no chance of seeing the road; one’s eyes choked up entirely.⁠ ⁠… Lord, ’a’ mercy!” grumbled the driver.

We had not driven on another quarter of an hour, when the driver, pulling up the horses, handed the reins to Alyoshka, clumsily extricated his legs from the box, and walked off to look for the road, his big boots crunching in the snow.

“Where are you going? Are we off the road, eh?” I inquired, but the driver did not answer. Turning his head to avoid the wind, which was cutting straight in his face, he walked away from the sledge.

“Well, found it?” I questioned him again, when he had come back.

“No, nothing,” he said with sudden impatience and annoyance, as though I were to blame for his having got off the road, and deliberately tucking his big feet back again under the box, he picked up the reins with his frozen gloves.

“What are we going to do?” I asked, as we started again.

“What are we to do? Go whither God leads us.”

And we drove on at the same slow trot, unmistakably on no sort of road; at one moment in snow that was soft and deep, and the next over brittle, bare ice.

Although it was so cold, the snow on my fur collar melted very quickly; the drifting snow blew more and more thickly near the ground, and a few flakes of frozen snow began falling overhead.

It was evident that we were going astray, because after driving another quarter of an hour, we had not seen a single verst post.

“Come, what do you think,” I asked the driver again, “can we manage to get to the station?”

“To which station?⁠ ⁠… We shall get back all right if we let the horses go as they please, they’ll take us there; but I doubt our getting to the other station; only lose our lives, maybe.”

“Well, then let us go back,” said I. “And really⁠ ⁠…”

“Turn back then?” repeated the driver.

“Yes, yes, turn back!”

The driver let the reins go. The horses went at a better pace, and though I did not notice that we turned round, the wind changed and soon the mills could be seen through the snow. The driver plucked up his spirits and began talking. “The other day they were driving back from the next station like this in a snowstorm,” said he, “and they spent the night in some stacks and only arrived next morning. And a good job they did get into the stacks, or they’d have all been clean frozen to death⁠—it was a frost. As it was, one had his feet frostbitten; and he died of it three weeks after.”

“But now it’s not so cold and the wind seems dropping,” said I; “couldn’t we manage it?”

“Warmer it may be, but the snow’s drifting just the same. Now it’s behind us, so it seems a bit quieter, but it’s blowing hard. We might have to go if we’d the mail or anything; but it’s a different matter going of our own accord; it’s no joke to let one’s fare freeze. What if I’ve to answer for your honour afterwards?”


II

At that moment we heard the bells of several sledges behind us, overtaking us at a smart pace.

“It’s the mail express bell,” said my driver; “there’s only one like that at the station.”

And certainly the bells of the foremost sledge were particularly fine; their clear, rich, mellow and somewhat jangled notes reached us distinctly on the wind. As I learned afterwards, it was a set of bells such as sportsmen have on their sledges⁠—three bells, a big one in the middle, with a “raspberry note,” as it is called, and two little bells pitched at the interval of a third up and down the scale. The cadence of these thirds and the jangling fifth ringing in the air was uncommonly striking and strangely sweet in the desolate dumb steppe.

“It’s the post,” said my driver, when the foremost of the three sledges was level with us. “How’s the road, can one get along?” he shouted to the hindmost of the drivers; but the latter only shouted to his horses without answering him.

The music of the bells quickly died away in the wind as soon as the post had passed us. I suppose my driver felt ashamed.

“Suppose we go on, sir!” he said to me; “folks have driven along the road, and now their tracks will be fresh.”

I assented and we turned, facing the wind again, and pushing on through the deep snow. I watched the road at the side, that we might not go off the tracks made by the sledges. For two versts their track was distinctly visible; then only a slight unevenness could be detected below the runners, and soon I was utterly unable to say whether there was a track or simply a crease blown by the wind in the snow. My eyes were dazed by watching the snow flying monotonously by under our runners, and I began looking straight before me. The third verst post we saw, but the fourth we could not find; just as before we drove against the wind and with the wind, to the right and to the left, and at last things came to such a pass that the driver said we were too much to the right; I said too much to the left; and Alyoshka maintained that we were going straight back. Again we pulled up several times, and the driver extricated his long legs and clambered out to seek the road, but always in vain. I, too, got out once to see whether something I fancied I descried might not be the road. But scarcely had I struggled six steps against the wind and satisfied myself that there was nothing but regular, uniform white drifts of snow everywhere, and that I had seen the road only in imagination, when I lost sight of the sledge. I shouted “Driver! Alyoshka!” but my voice I felt was caught up by the wind out of my very mouth and in one second carried far away from me. I went in the direction where the sledge had been⁠—there was no sledge there. I went to the right, it was not there. I am ashamed when I remember the loud, shrill, almost despairing, voice in which I shouted once more, “Driver!” when he was only a couple of paces from me. His black figure, with his whip and his huge hat flapping down on one side, suddenly started up before me. He led me to the sledge.

“We must be thankful, too, that it’s warm,” said he; “if the frost gets sharp, it’s a bad lookout.⁠ ⁠… Lord, ’a’ mercy!”

“Let the horses go, let them take us back,” I said, settling myself in the sledge. “They’ll take us back, driver, eh?”

“They ought to.”

He put down the reins, gave the shaft horse three strokes about the pad with his whip, and we started off again. We drove for another half-hour. All at once we heard ahead of us bells, which I recognised as the sportsman’s set of bells and two others. But this time the bells were coming to meet us. The same three sledges, having delivered the post, were returning to their station with their change of horses tied on behind. The three stalwart horses of the express sledge with the sporting bells galloped swiftly in front. There was only one driver in it. He was sitting on the box-seat, shouting briskly and frequently to his horses. Behind, in the inside of the emptied sledge, there were a couple of drivers; we could hear their loud, cheerful talk. One of them was smoking a pipe, and its spark, glowing in the wind, lighted up part of his face. Looking at them I felt ashamed of having been afraid to go on, and my driver must have had the same feeling, for with one voice we said, “Let us follow them.”


III

Without waiting for the hindmost sledge to get by, my driver began turning awkwardly and ran his shafts into the horses tied on at the back of it. One team of three started aside, broke their rein, and galloped away.

“Ah, the cross-eyed devil doesn’t see where he’s turning to⁠—right into people!⁠ ⁠… The devil!” scolded a short driver in a husky, cracked voice⁠—an old man, as I inferred from his voice and figure. He jumped nimbly out of the hindmost sledge and ran after the horses, still keeping up his coarse and cruel abuse of my driver.

But the horses would not let themselves be caught. The old man ran after them, and in one moment horses and man vanished in the white darkness of the snowstorm.

“Vassily⁠—y! give us the bay here; there’s no catching them like this,” we heard his voice again.

One of the drivers, a very tall man, got out of the sledge, unyoked his three horses, pulled himself up by the head onto one of them, and crunching over the snow at a shuffling gallop vanished in the same direction.

In company with the two other sledges we pushed on without a road, following the express sledge which ran ahead at full gallop with its ringing bells.

“What! he catch them!” said my driver, referring to the man who had run to catch the horses. “If it won’t join the other horses of itself⁠—it’s a vicious beast⁠—it’ll lead him a fine dance, and he won’t catch it.”

From the time that he turned back, my driver seemed in better spirits and was more conversational, and as I was not sleepy I did not fail of course to take advantage of it. I began asking him where he came from, how he came here, and what he was; and soon learned that he was from my province, a Tula man, a serf from the village of Kirpitchny, that they had too little land, and that the corn had given up yielding any crop at all ever since the cholera year. There were two brothers at home, a third had gone for a soldier; they hadn’t bread enough to last till Christmas, and lived on what they could earn. His younger brother, he told me, was the head of the house because he was married, while he himself was a widower. Every year gangs of men from his village came here as drivers, though he hadn’t himself ever been a driver before; but now he had gone into the posting service so as to be a help to his brother. That he earned, thank God, one hundred and twenty roubles a year here, and sent a hundred of them home, and that it would be a pleasant life, too, “but the mail men were a brutal lot, very, and, indeed, all the people in these parts were a rough lot.”

“Now, why did that driver abuse me? Lord, ’a’ mercy on us! Did I set the horses loose on purpose? Am I a man to do anyone a mischief? And what did he gallop after them for? They’d have got home by themselves. He’s only wearing out his horses, and he’ll be lost himself too,” repeated the God-fearing peasant.

“And what’s that blackness?” I asked, noticing several black objects ahead of us.

“Why, a train of wagons. That’s a pleasant way of travelling!” he went on, as we overtook the huge wagons on wheels, covered with hemp sacking, following one another. “Look, not a man to be seen⁠—they’re all asleep. The clever mare knows the way of herself, there’s no making her stray off the road.⁠ ⁠… I’ve driven with a train of wagons too,” he added, “so I know.”

Truly it was strange to look at those huge wagons, covered with snow from their sacking top down to the wheels, moving along quite alone. But in the corner of the foremost the snow-covered sacking was lifted a little on two fingers, and a cap emerged from it for an instant when our bells were ringing close to the wagons. The big, piebald horse, stretching its neck and dragging with its back, stepped evenly along the completely buried road, and rhythmically shook its shaggy head under the whitened yoke. It pricked up one snowy ear as we came up to it.

After we had driven on another half-hour, my driver addressed me again.

“Well, what do you think, sir, are we going right?”

“I don’t know,” I answered.

“The wind was this way, sir, before, but now we’re going with our backs to the weather. No, we’re not going the right way, we’re astray again,” he concluded with complete serenity.

It was clear that though he was very timorous, even death, as they say, is pleasant in company; he had become perfectly composed since we were a large party, and he had not to be the guide and responsible person. With great coolness he made observations on the mistakes of the driver of the foremost sledge, as though he had not the slightest interest in the matter. I did notice, indeed, that the foremost sledge was sometimes visible in profile on my left, sometimes on the right; it positively seemed to me as though we were going round in a very small space. This might, however, have been an illusion of the senses, just as sometimes it looked to me as though the first sledge were driving uphill, or along a slope, or downhill, though the steppe was everywhere level.

We had driven on a good while longer, when I discerned⁠—far away, it seemed to me, on the very horizon⁠—a long black moving streak. But a minute later it was evident to me that this was the same train of wagons we had overtaken before. Just as before, the snow lay on the creaking wheels, some of which did not turn at all, indeed. As before, all the men were asleep under the sacking covers, and as before, the piebald horse in front, with inflated nostrils, sniffed out the road and pricked up its ears.

“There, we’ve gone round and round, and we’ve come back to the same wagons again!” said my driver in a tone of dissatisfaction. “The mail horses are good ones, and so he can drive them in this mad way; but ours will come to a dead stop if we go on like this all night.”

He cleared his throat.

“Let us turn back, sir, before we come to harm.”

“What for? Why, we shall get somewhere.”

“Get somewhere! Why, we shall spend the night on the steppe. How the snow does blow!⁠ ⁠… Lord, ’a’ mercy on us!”

Though I was surprised that the foremost driver, who had obviously lost both the road and the direction, did not attempt to look for the road, but calling merrily to his horses drove on still at full trot, I did not feel inclined now to drop behind the other sledges.

“Follow them!” I said.

My driver went on, but he drove the horses now with less eagerness than before, and he did not address another syllable to me.


IV

The storm became more and more violent, and fine frozen snow was falling from the sky. It seemed as though it were beginning to freeze; my nose and cheeks felt the cold more keenly; more often a draught of cold air crept in under my fur cloak, and I had to wrap myself up more closely. From time to time the sledge jolted over a bare, broken crust of ice where the snow had blown away. Though I was much interested in seeing how our wanderings would end, yet, as I had been travelling six hundred versts without stopping for a night, I could not help shutting my eyes and I dropped into a doze. Once when I opened my eyes, I was struck by what seemed to me for the first minute the bright light shed over the white plain. The horizon had grown noticeably wider; the black, lowering sky had suddenly vanished; on all sides one could see the white, slanting lines of falling snow; the outlines of the horses of the front sledge were more distinctly visible, and when I looked upwards it seemed to me for the first minute that the storm-clouds had parted and that only the falling snow hid the sky. While I had been dozing, the moon had risen and cast its cold, bright light through the thin clouds and falling snow. All that I could see distinctly was my own sledge with the horse and driver and the three sledges with their horses ahead of us. In the first, the mail sledge, the one driver still sat on the box driving his horses at a smart trot. In the second there were two men, who, letting go their reins and making themselves a shelter out of a cloak, were all the time smoking a pipe, as we could see from the gleaming sparks. In the third sledge no one was to be seen; the driver was presumably asleep in the middle of it. The driver in front had, when I waked, begun stopping his horses and looking for the road. Then, as soon as we stopped, the howling of the wind became more audible, and the astoundingly immense mass of snow driving in the air was more evident to me. I could see in the moonlight, veiled by the drifting snow, the short figure of the driver holding a big whip with which he was trying the snow in front of him. He moved backwards and forwards in the white darkness, came back to the sledge again, jumped sideways on the front seat, and again through the monotonous whistling of the wind we could hear his jaunty, musical calling to his horses and the ringing of the bells. Every time that the front driver got out to search for signs of the road or of stacks, a brisk self-confident voice from the second sledge shouted to him⁠—

“I say, Ignashka, we’ve gone right off to the left! Keep more to the right, away from the storm.” Or, “Why do you go round and round like a fool? Go the way of the snow, you’ll get there all right.” Or, “To the right, go on to the right, my lad! See, there ’s something black⁠—a verst post maybe.” Or, “What are you pottering about for? Unyoke the piebald and let him go first; he’ll bring you on the road in a trice. That’ll be the best plan.”

The man who gave this advice did not himself unyoke the trace-horse, nor get out into the snow to look for the road; he did not so much as poke his nose out beyond the shelter of the cloak, and when Ignashka in reply to one of his counsels, shouted to him that he’d better ride on in front himself as he knew which way to go, the giver of good advice answered that, if he were driving the mail horses, he would ride on and would soon bring them onto the road. “But our horses won’t lead the way in a storm!” he shouted; “they’re not that sort!”

“Don’t meddle then!” answered Ignashka, whistling merrily to his horses.

The other driver, sitting in the same sledge as the counsellor, said nothing to Ignashka, and refrained altogether from taking part in the proceedings, though he was not yet asleep, as I concluded from his still glowing pipe, and from the fact that when we stopped I heard his regular, continuous talk. He was telling a tale. Only once, when Ignashka stopped for the sixth or seventh time, apparently vexed at the interruption in his enjoyment of the drive, he shouted to him⁠—

“Why, what are you stopping again for?⁠ ⁠… Trying to find the road, indeed! Don’t you see, there’s a snowstorm! The land-surveyor himself couldn’t find the road now; you should drive on as long as the horses will go. We shan’t freeze to death, I don’t suppose.⁠ ⁠… Do go on!”

“I dare say! A postillion was frozen to death last year, sure enough!” my driver retorted.

The man in the third sledge did not wake up all the time. Only once, while we were halting, the counsellor shouted⁠—

“Filip, aye⁠ ⁠… Filip!” And receiving no reply, he remarked, “I say, he’s not frozen, is he?⁠ ⁠… You’d better look, Ignashka.”

Ignashka, who did everything, went up to the sledge and began to poke the sleeper.

“I say, one drink has done for him. If you’re frozen, just say so!” he said, shaking him.

The sleeping man muttered some words of abuse.

“Alive, lads!” said Ignashka, and he ran ahead again, and again we drove on, and so fast indeed that the little sorrel trace-horse of my sledge, who was constantly being lashed about its tail, more than once broke into a clumsy gallop.


V

It was, I think, about midnight when the old man and Vassily, who had gone in pursuit of the strayed horses, rode up to us. They had caught the horses, and found and overlook us. But how they managed to do this in the dark, blinding blizzard, across the bare steppe, has always remained a mystery to me. The old man with his elbows and legs jogging, trotted up on the shaft-horse (the other two horses were fastened to the yoke; horses cannot be left loose in a blizzard). On overtaking us, he began railing at my driver again.

“You see, you cross-eyed devil, what a⁠ ⁠…”

“Hey, Uncle Mitritch,” shouted the storyteller from the second sledge, “alive are you?⁠ ⁠… Come in to us.”

But the old man, making no answer, went on scolding. When he judged he had said enough, he rode up to the second sledge.

“Caught them all?” was asked him from the sledge.

“I should think so!”

And his little figure bent forward with his breast on the horse’s back while it was at full trot; then he slipped off into the snow, and without stopping an instant ran after the sledge, and tumbled into it, pulling his legs up over the side. The tall Vassily seated himself as before, in silence, in the front sledge with Ignashka, and began looking for the road with him.

“You see what an abusive fellow⁠ ⁠… Lord ’a’ mercy on us!” muttered my driver.

For a long while after this we drove on without a halt over the white wilderness, in the cold, luminous, and flickering twilight of the snowstorm.

I open my eyes. The same clumsy cap and back, covered with snow, are standing up in front of me; the same low-arched yoke, under which, between the tight, leather reins, the head of the shaft-horse shakes up and down always at the same distance away, with its black mane blown rhythmically by the wind in one direction. Over its back on the right there is a glimpse of the bay trace-horse with its tail tied up short and the swinging bar behind it knocking now and then against the framework of the sledge. If I look down⁠—the same crunching snow torn up by the sledge runners, and the wind persistently lifting it and carrying it off, always in the same direction. In front the foremost sledge is running on, always at the same distance; on the right and left everything is white and wavering. In vain the eye seeks some new object; not a post, not a stack, not a hedge⁠—nothing to be seen. Everywhere all is white, white and moving. At one moment the horizon seems inconceivably remote, at the next closed in, two paces away on all sides. Suddenly a high, white wall shoots up on the right, and runs alongside the sledge, then all at once it vanishes and springs up ahead, to flee further and further away, and vanish again. One looks upwards; it seems light for the first minute⁠—one seems to see stars shining through a mist; but the stars fly further and further away from the sight, and one can see nothing but the snow, which falls past the eyes into the face and the collar of one’s cloak. Everywhere the sky is equally light, equally white, colourless, alike and ever moving. The wind seems to shift; at one time it blows in our faces and glues our eyes up with snow, then teazingly it flings one’s fur collar on one’s head and flaps it mockingly in one’s face, then it drones behind in some chink of the sledge. One hears the faint, never-ceasing crunch of hoofs and runners over the snow, and the jingle of the bells, dying down as we drive over deep snow. Only at times when we are going against the wind and over some bare, frozen headland, Ignashka’s vigorous whistling and the melodious tinkle of the bells with the jangling fifth float clearly to one’s hearing, and these sounds make a comforting break in the desolateness of the snowy waste, and then again the bells fall back into the same monotonous jingle, with intolerable correctness ringing ever the same phrase, which I cannot help picturing to myself in musical notes.

One of my legs began to get chilled, and when I turned over to wrap myself up closer, the snow on my collar and cap slipped down my neck and made me shiver; but on the whole, in my fur cloak, warmed through by the heat of my body, I still kept warm and was beginning to feel drowsy.


VI

Memories and fancies followed one another with increased rapidity in my imagination.

“The counsellor, that keeps on calling out advice from the second sledge, what sort of peasant is he likely to be? Sure to be a red-haired, thickset fellow with short legs,” I thought, “somewhat like Fyodor Filippitch, our old butler.” And then I see the staircase of our great house and five house-serfs, who are stepping heavily, dragging along on strips of coarse linen a piano from the lodge. I see Fyodor Filippitch, with the sleeves of his nankin coat turned up, carrying nothing but one pedal, running on ahead, pulling open bolts, tugging at a strip of linen here, shoving there, creeping between people’s legs, getting in everyone’s way, and in a voice of anxiety shouting assiduously.

“You now, in front, in front! That’s it, the tail end upwards, upwards, upwards, through the doorway! That’s it.”

“You only let us be, Fyodor Filippitch, we’ll do it by ourselves,” timidly ventured the gardener, squeezed against the banisters, and red with exertion, as, putting out all his strength, he held up one corner of the piano.

But Fyodor Filippitch would not desist.

“And what is it?” I reflected. “Does he suppose he’s necessary to the business in hand, or is he simply pleased God has given him that conceited, convincing flow of words and enjoys the exercise of it? That’s what it must be.”

And for some reason I recall the pond, and the tired house-serfs, knee-deep in the water, dragging the draw-net, and again Fyodor Filippitch running along the bank with the watering-pot, shouting to all of them, and only approaching the water at intervals to take hold of the golden carp, to let out the muddy water, and to pour over them fresh.

And again it is midday in July. I am wandering over the freshly-mown grass of the garden, under the burning sun straight above my head. I am still very young; there is an emptiness, a yearning for something in my heart. I walk to my favourite spot near the pond, between a thicket of wild rose and the birch-tree avenue, and lie down to go to sleep. I remember the sensation with which, as I lay there, I looked through the red, thorny stems of the rose at the black earth, dried into little clods, and at the shining, bright blue mirror of the pond. It was with a feeling of naive self-satisfaction and melancholy. Everything around me was so beautiful; its beauty had such an intense effect on me that it seemed to me I was beautiful myself, and my only vexation was that there was no one to admire me.

It is hot. I try to console myself by going to sleep. But the flies, the intolerable flies, will not even here give me any peace; they begin to gather together about me and persistently, stolidly, as it were like pellets, they shoot from forehead to hand. A bee buzzes not far from me, right in the hottest spot; yellow butterflies flutter languidly, it seems, from stalk to stalk. I look upwards, it makes my eyes ache; the sun is too dazzling through the bright foliage of the leafy birch-tree, that gently swings its branches high above me, and I feel hotter than ever. I cover my face with my handkerchief; it becomes stifling, and the flies simply stick to my moist hands. Sparrows are twittering in the thickest of the clump of roses. One of them hops on the ground a yard from me; twice he makes a feint of pecking vigorously at the earth, and with a snapping of twigs and a merry chirrup flies out of the bush. Another, too, hops on the ground, perks up his tail, looks round, and with a chirrup he too flies out like an arrow after the first. From the pond come the sounds of wet linen being beaten with washing-bats in the water, and the blows seem to echo and be carried over the surface of the pond. There is the sound of laughter, chatter, and the splashing of bathers. A gust of wind rustles in the treetops at a distance; it comes closer, and I hear it ruffling up the grass, and now the leaves of the wild roses tremble and beat upon the stems; and now it lifts the corner of the handkerchief and a fresh breath of air passes over me, tickling my moist face. A fly flies in under the lifted kerchief and buzzes in a frightened way about my damp mouth. A dead twig sticks into me under my spine. No, it’s no good lying down; I’ll go and have a bathe. But suddenly close to my nook, I hear hurried footsteps and the frightened voices of women.

“Oh, mercy on us! What can we do! and not a man here!”

“What is it, what is it?” I ask, running out into the sunshine and addressing a serf-woman, who runs past me, groaning. She simply looks round, wrings her hands and runs on. But here comes Matrona, an old woman of seventy, holding on her kerchief as it falls back off her head, limping and dragging one leg in a worsted stocking, as she runs towards the pond. Two little girls run along, hand in hand, and a boy of ten, wearing his father’s coat, hurries behind, clinging to the hempen skirt of one of them.

“What has happened?” I inquire of them.

“A peasant is drowning.”

“Where?”

“In our pond.”

“Who? one of ours?”

“No; a stranger.”

The coachman Ivan, struggling over the newly-mown grass in his big boots, and the stout bailiff, Yakov, breathing hard, run towards the pond, and I run after them.

I recall the feeling that said to me, “Come, jump in, and pull out the man, save him, and they will all admire you,” which was just what I was desiring.

“Where? where is he?” I ask of the crowd of house-serfs gathered together on the bank.

“Over yonder, near the deepest pool, towards that bank, almost at the bathhouse,” says a washerwoman, getting in her wet linen on a yoke. “I saw him plunge in; and he comes up so and goes down again, and comes up again and screams, ‘I’m drowning, mercy!’ and again he went down to the bottom, and only bubbles came up. Then I saw the man was drowning. And I yelled, ‘Mercy on us, the peasant’s drowning!’ ”

And the washerwoman hoists the yoke onto her shoulder, and bending on one side, walks along the path away from the pond.

“My word, what a shame!” says Yakov Ivanov, the bailiff, in a voice of despair: “what a to-do we shall have now with the district court⁠—we shall never hear the last of it!”

A peasant with a scythe makes his way through the throng of women, children, and old people crowding about the bank, and hanging his scythe in the branches of a willow, begins deliberately pulling off his boots.

“Where, where did he sink?” I keep on asking, longing to throw myself in, and do something extraordinary.

But they point to the smooth surface of the pond, broken into ripples here and there by the rushing wind. It is inconceivable to me that he is drowned while the water stands just as smooth and beautiful and untroubled over him, shining with glints of gold in the midday sun, and it seems to me that I can do nothing, can astonish no one, especially as I am a very poor swimmer. And the peasant is already pulling his shirt over his head, and in an instant will plunge in. Everyone watches him with hope and a sinking heart; but when he has waded in up to his shoulders, the peasant slowly turns back and puts on his shirt again⁠—he cannot swim.

People still run up; the crowd gets bigger and bigger; the women cling to each other; but no one does anything to help. Those who have only just reached the pond give advice, and groan, and their faces express horror and despair. Of those who had arrived on the scene earlier some, tired of standing, sit down on the grass; others go back. Old Matrona asks her daughter whether she has shut the door of the oven; the boy in his father’s coat flings stones with careful aim into the pond.

But now Trezorka, Fyodor Filippitch’s dog, comes running downhill from the house, barking and looking round in perplexity; and the figure of Fyodor himself, running down the hill and shouting something, comes into sight behind the thicket of wild rose.

“Why are you standing still?” he shouts, taking off his coat as he runs. “A man’s drowning, and they do nothing.⁠ ⁠… Give us a cord!”

All gaze in hope and dread at Fyodor Filippitch, while leaning on the shoulder of an obliging house-serf he kicks off his right boot with the tip of his left one.

“Over there, where the crowd is; over there, a little to the right of the willow, Fyodor Filippitch, over there,” says someone.

“I know,” he answers, and knitting his brows, probably in acknowledgment of symptoms of outraged delicacy in the crowd of women, he takes off his shirt and his cross, handing the latter to the gardener’s boy, who stands obsequiously before him. Then stepping vigorously over the mown grass, he goes to the pond.

Trezorka, who had stood still near the crowd, eating some blades of grass from the water’s edge, and smacking his lips, looks inquiringly at his master, wondering at the rapidity of his movements. All at once, with a whine of delight, he plunges with his master into the water. For the first minute there is nothing to be seen but frothing bubbles, which float right up to us. But soon Fyodor Filippitch is seen swimming smartly towards the further bank, his arms making a graceful sweep, and his back rising and sinking regularly at every fathom’s length. Trezorka, after swallowing a mouthful of water, hurriedly turns back, shakes himself in the crowd, and rolls on his back on the bank. While Fyodor Filippitch is swimming towards the further bank, the two coachmen run round to the willow with a net rolled round a pole. Fyodor Filippitch, for some reason or other, raises his hands above his head, and dives, once, twice, thrice; every time a stream of water runs out of his mouth, he tosses his hair with a fine gesture, and makes no reply to the questions which are showered upon him from all sides. At last he comes out on the bank, and, as far as I can see, simply gives orders for the casting of the net. The net is drawn up, but in it there is nothing except weed and a few carp struggling in it. While the net is being cast a second time, I walk round to that side.

Nothing is to be heard but the voice of Fyodor Filippitch giving directions, the splashing of the water through the wet cords, and sighs of horror. The wet cordage fastened to the right beam is more and more thickly covered with weed, as it comes further and further out of the water.

“Now pull together, all at once!” shouts the voice of Fyodor Filippitch. The butt-ends of the beams come into view covered with water.

“There is something; it pulls heavy, lads,” says someone.

And now the beams of the net in which two or three carp struggle, splashing and crushing the weed, are dragged onto the bank. And through the shallow, shifting layer of muddy water something white comes into sight in the tightly-strained net. A sigh of horror passes over the crowd, subdued but distinctly audible in the deathlike stillness.

“Pull all together, pull it onto dry land!” cries Fyodor Filippitch’s resolute voice. And with the iron hook they drag the drowned man over the cropped stalks of dock and agrimony towards the willow.

And here I see my kind old aunt in her silk gown; I see her fringed, lilac parasol, which seems somehow oddly incongruous with this scene of death, so awful in its simplicity. I see her face on the point of shedding tears. I recall her look of disappointment that in this case arnica could be of no use, and I recall the painful sense of mortification I had when she said to me with the naive egoism of love, “Let us go, my dear. Ah, how awful it is! And you will always go bathing and swimming alone!”

I remember how glaring and hot the sun was, baking the dry earth that crumbled under our feet; how it sparkled on the mirror of the pond; how the big carp struggled on the bank; how a shoal of fish dimpled the pond’s surface in the middle; how a hawk floated high up in the sky, hovering over the ducks, who swam quacking and splashing among the reeds in the centre of the water; how the white, curly storm-clouds gathered on the horizon; how the mud brought onto the bank by the net gradually slipped away; and how, as I crossed the dike, I heard the sounds of the washing-bat floating across the pond.

But the blows of the bat ring out as though there were two bats and another chiming in, a third lower in the scale; and that sound frets me, worries me, especially as I know the bat is a bell, and Fyodor Filippitch can’t make it stop. And the bat, like an instrument of torture, is crushing my leg, which is chilled. I wake up.

I was waked up, it seemed to me, by our galloping very swiftly, and two voices talking quite close beside me.

“I say, Ignat, eh⁠ ⁠… Ignat!” said the voice of my driver; “take my fare; you’ve got to go anyway, and why should I go on for nothing⁠—take him!”

The voice of Ignat close beside me answered⁠—

“It’s no treat for me to have to answer for a passenger.⁠ ⁠… Will you stand me a pint bottle of vodka?”

“Go on with your pint bottle!⁠ ⁠… A dram, and I’ll say done.”

“A dram!” shouted another voice: “a likely idea! tire your horses for a dram!”

I opened my eyes. Still the same insufferable wavering snow floating before one’s eyes, the same drivers and horses, but beside me I saw a sledge. My driver had overtaken Ignat, and we had been for some time moving alongside. Although the voice from the other sledge advised him not to accept less than a pint, Ignat all at once pulled up his horses.

“Move the baggage in! Done! it’s your luck. Stand me a dram when we come tomorrow. Have you much baggage, eh?”

My driver jumped out into the snow with an alacrity quite unlike him, bowed to me, and begged me to get into Ignat’s sledge. I was perfectly ready to do so; but evidently the God-fearing peasant was so pleased that he wanted to lavish his gratitude and joy on someone. He bowed and thanked me, Alyoshka, and Ignashka.

“There, thank God too! Why, Lord ’a’ mercy, here we’ve been driving half the night, and don’t know ourselves where we’re going! He’ll take you all right, sir, but my horses are quite done up.”

And he moved my things with increased energy. While they were shifting my things, with the wind at my back almost carrying me off my legs, I went towards the second sledge. The sledge was more than a quarter buried in the snow, especially on the side where a cloak had been hung over the two drivers’ heads to keep off the wind; under the cloak it was sheltered and snug. The old man was lying just as before with his legs out, while the storyteller was still telling his story: “So at the very time when the general arrived in the king’s name, that is, to Mariya in the prison, Mariya says to him, ‘General! I don’t want you, and I cannot love you, and you are not my lover; my lover is that same prince.’⁠ ⁠… So then”⁠—he was going on, but, seeing me, he paused a moment, and began pulling at his pipe.

“Well, sir, are you come to listen to the tale?” said the other man, whom I have called the counsellor.

“Why, you are nice and cheerful in here!” I said.

“To be sure, it passes the time⁠—anyway, it keeps one from thinking.”

“Don’t you know, really, where we are now?” This question, it struck me, was not liked by the drivers.

“Why, who’s to make out where we are? Maybe we’ve got to the Kalmucks altogether,” answered the counsellor.

“What are we going to do?” I asked.

“What are we to do? Why, we’ll go on, and maybe we’ll get somewhere,” he said in a tone of displeasure.

“Well, but if we don’t get there, and the horses can go no further in the snow, what then?”

“What then? Nothing.”

“But we may freeze.”

“To be sure, we may, for there are no stacks to be seen now; we must have driven right out to the Kalmucks. The chief thing is, we must look about in the snow.”

“And aren’t you at all afraid of being frozen, sir?” said the old man, in a trembling voice.

Although he seemed to be jeering at me, I could see that he was shivering in every bone.

“Yes, it’s getting very cold,” I said.

“Ah, sir! You should do as I do; every now and then take a run; that would warm you.”

“It’s first-rate, the way you run after the sledge,” said the counsellor.


VII

“Please get in: it’s all ready!” Alyoshka called to me from the front sledge.

The blizzard was so terrific that it was only by my utmost efforts, bending double and clutching the skirts of my coat in both hands, that I managed to struggle through the whirling snow, which was blown up by the wind under my feet, and to make the few steps that separated me from the sledge. My former driver was kneeling in the middle of the empty sledge, but on seeing me he took off his big cap; whereupon the wind snatched at his hair furiously. He asked me for something for drink, but most likely had not expected me to give him anything extra, for my refusal did not in the least disappoint him. He thanked me for that too, put on his cap, and said to me, “Well, good luck to you, sir!” and tugging at his reins, and clucking to his horses, he drove away from us. After that, Ignashka too, with a swing of his whole body forward, shouted to his horses. Again the sound of the crunching of the hoofs, shouting, and bells replaced the sound of the howling of the wind, which was more audible when we were standing still.

For a quarter of an hour after moving I did not go to sleep, but amused myself by watching the figures of my new driver and horses. Ignashka sat up smartly, incessantly jumping up and down, swinging his arm with the whip over the horses, shouting, knocking one leg against the other, and bending forward to set straight the shaft-horse’s breech, which kept slipping to the right side. He was not tall, but seemed to be well built. Over his full coat he had on a cloak not tied in at the waist; the collar of it was open, and his neck was quite bare; his boots were not of felt, but of leather, and his cap was a small one, which he was continually taking off and shifting. His ears had no covering but his hair.

In all his actions could be detected not merely energy, but even more, it struck me, the desire to keep up his own energies. The further we went, the more and more frequently he jumped up and down on the box, shifted his position, slapped one leg against the other, and addressed remarks to me and Alyoshka. It seemed to me he was afraid of losing heart. And there was good reason; though we had good horses, the road became heavier and heavier at every step, and the horses unmistakably moved more unwillingly; he had to use the whip now, and the shaft-horse, a spirited, big, shaggy horse, stumbled twice, though at once taking fright, he darted forward and flung up his shaggy head almost to the very bells. The right trace-horse, whom I could not help watching, noticeably kept the traces slack, together with the long leather tassel of the breech, that shifted and shook up and down on the offside. He needed the whip, but, like a good, spirited horse, he seemed vexed at his own feebleness, and angrily dropped and flung up his head, as though asking for the rein. It certainly was terrible to see the blizzard getting more and more violent, the horses growing weaker, and the road getting worse, while we hadn’t a notion where we were and whether we should reach the station, or even a shelter of any sort. And ludicrous and strange it was to hear the bells ringing so gaily and unconcernedly, and Ignashka calling so briskly and jauntily, as though we were driving at midday in sunny, frosty Christmas weather, along some village street on a holiday; and strangest of all it was to think that we were going on all the while and going quickly, anywhere to get away from where we were. Ignashka sang a song, in the vilest falsetto, but so loudly and with breaks in it, filled in by such whistling, that it was odd to feel frightened as one listened to him.

“Hey, hey, what are you splitting your throat for, Ignashka?” I heard the voice of the counsellor. “Do stop it for an hour.”

“What?”

“Shut up!”

Ignat ceased. Again all was quiet, and the wind howled and whined, and the whirling snow began to lie thicker on our sledge. The counsellor came up to us.

“Well, what is it?”

“What, indeed; which way are we to go?”

“Who knows?”

“Why, are your feet frozen, that you keep beating them together?”

“They’re quite numb.”

“You should take a run. There’s something over yonder; isn’t it a Kalmuck encampment? It would warm your feet, anyway.”

“All right. Hold the horses⁠ ⁠… there.”

And Ignat ran in the direction indicated.

“One must keep looking and walking round, and one will find something; what’s the sense of driving on like a fool?” the counsellor said to me. “See, what a steam the horses are in!”

All the time Ignat was gone⁠—and that lasted so long that I began to be afraid he was lost⁠—the counsellor told me in a calm, self-confident tone, how one must act during a blizzard, how the best thing of all was to unyoke a horse and let it go its own way; that as God is holy, it would lead one right; how one could sometimes see by the stars, and how if he had been driving the leading sledge, we should have been at the station long ago.

“Well, is it?” he asked Ignat, who was coming back, stepping with difficulty almost knee-deep in the snow.

“Yes, it’s an encampment,” Ignat answered, panting, “but I don’t know what sort of a one. We must have come right out to Prolgovsky homestead, mate. We must bear more to the left.”

“What nonsense!⁠ ⁠… That’s our encampment, behind the village!” retorted the counsellor.

“But I tell you it’s not!”

“Why, I’ve looked, so I know. That’s what it will be; or if not that, then it’s Tamishevsko. We must keep more to the right, and we shall get out on the big bridge, at the eighth verst, directly.”

“I tell you it’s not so! Why, I’ve seen it!” Ignat answered with irritation.

“Hey, mate, and you call yourself a driver!”

“Yes, I do.⁠ ⁠… You go yourself!”

“What should I go for? I know as it is.”

Ignat unmistakably lost his temper; without replying, he jumped on the box and drove on.

“I say, my legs are numb; there’s no warming them,” he said to Alyoshka, clapping his legs together more and more frequently, and knocking off and scraping at the snow, that had got in above his boot-tops.

I felt awfully sleepy.


VIII

“Can I really be beginning to freeze?” I wondered sleepily. “Being frozen always begins by sleepiness, they say. Better be drowned than frozen⁠—let them drag me out in the net; but never mind, I don’t care whether it’s drowning or freezing, if only that stick, or whatever it is, wouldn’t poke me in the back, and I could forget everything.”

I lost consciousness for a second.

“How will it all end, though?” I suddenly wondered, opening my eyes for a minute and staring at the white expanse of snow; “how will it end, if we don’t come across any stacks, and the horses come to a standstill, which I fancy will happen soon? We shall all be frozen.” I must own that, though I was a little frightened, the desire that something extraordinary and rather tragic should happen to us was stronger than a little fear. It struck me that it would not be bad if, towards morning, the horses should reach some remote, unknown village with us half-frozen, some of us indeed completely frozen. And dreams of something like that floated with extraordinary swiftness and clearness before my imagination. The horses stop, the snow drifts higher and higher, and now nothing can be seen of the horses but their ears and the yoke; but suddenly Ignashka appears on the top of the snow with his three horses and drives past us. We entreat him, we scream to him to take us with him; but the wind blows away our voice, there is no voice heard. Ignashka laughs, shouts to his horses, whistles, and vanishes from our sight in a deep ravine filled with snow. The old man is on horseback, his elbows jogging up and down, and he tries to gallop away, but cannot move from the spot. My old driver with his big cap rushes at him, drags him to the ground and tramples him in the snow. “You’re a sorcerer,” he shouts, “you ’re abusive, we will be lost together.” But the old man pops his head out of a snowdrift; he is not so much an old man now as a hare, and he hops away from us. All the dogs are running after him. The counsellor, who is Fyodor Filippitch, says we must all sit round in a ring, that it doesn’t matter if the snow does bury us; we shall be warm. And we really are warm and snug; only we are thirsty. I get out a case of wine; I treat all of them to rum with sugar in it, and I drink it myself with great enjoyment. The storyteller tells us some tale about a rainbow⁠—and over our heads there is a ceiling made of snow and a rainbow. “Now let us make ourselves each a room in the snow and go to sleep!” I say. The snow is soft and warm like fur; I make myself a room and try to get into it, but Fyodor Filippitch, who has seen my money in the wine-case, says, “Stop, give me the money⁠—you have to die anyway!” and he seizes me by the leg. I give him the money, and only beg him to let me go; but they will not believe it is all the money, and try to kill me. I clutch at the old man’s hand, and with inexpressible delight begin kissing it; the old man’s hand is soft and sweet. At first he snatches it away, but then he gives it me, and even strokes me with the other hand. But Fyodor Filippitch approaches and threatens me. I run into my room; now it is not a room, but a long, white corridor, and someone is holding me by the legs. I pull myself away. My boots and stockings, together with part of my skin, are left in the hands of the man who held me. But I only feel cold and ashamed⁠—all the more ashamed as my aunt with her parasol and her homoeopathic medicine-chest is coming to meet me, arm in arm with the drowned man. They are laughing, and do not understand the signs I make to them. I fling myself into a sledge, my legs drag in the snow; but the old man pursues me, his elbows jogging up and down. The old man is close upon me, but I hear two bells ringing in front of me, and I know I am safe if I can reach them. The bells ring more and more distinctly; but the old man has overtaken me and fallen with his body on my face, so that I can hardly hear the bells. I snatch his hand again, and begin kissing it, but he is not the old man but the drowned man, and he shouts, “Ignashka, stop, yonder are the Ahmetkin stacks, I do believe! Run and look!” That is too dreadful. No, I had better wake up.

I open my eyes. The wind has blown the skirt of Alyoshka’s coat over my face; my knee is uncovered; we are driving over a bare surface of ice, and the chime of the bells with its jangling fifth rings out more distinctly in the air.

I look to see where there is a stack; but instead of stacks, I see now with open eyes a house with a balcony and a turreted wall like a fortress. I feel little interest in examining this house and fortress. I want most to see again the white corridor, along which I was running, to hear the church bell ringing and to kiss the old man’s hand. I close my eyes again and fall asleep.


IX

I slept soundly; but the chime of the bells was audible all the while, and came into my dreams; at one time in the form of a dog barking and rushing at me, then an organ, of which I am one of the pipes, then French verses which I am composing. Then it seemed that the chime of the bell is an instrument of torture with which my right heel is being continually squeezed. This was so vivid that I woke up and opened my eyes, rubbing my foot. It was beginning to get frostbitten. The night was as light, as dim, as white as ever. The same movement jolted me and the sledge; Ignashka was sitting sideways as before, clapping his legs together. The trace-horse, as before, craning his neck and not lifting his legs high, ran trotting over the deep snow; the tassel bobbed up and down on the breech, and lashed against the horse’s belly. The shaft-horse’s head, with his mane flying, swayed regularly up and down, tightening and loosening the reins that were fastened to the yoke. But all this was more than ever covered, buried in snow. The snow whirled in front of us, buried the runners on one side, and the horses’ legs up to the knees, and was piled up high on our collars and caps. The wind blew first on the right, then on the left, played with my collar, with the skirt of Ignashka’s coat, and the trace-horses’ mane, and whistled through the yoke and the shafts.

It had become fearfully cold, and I had hardly peeped out of my fur collar when the dry, frozen, whirling snow settled on my eyelashes, my nose and my mouth, and drifted down my neck. I looked round⁠—all was white, and light and snowy; nowhere anything but dim light and snow. I felt seriously alarmed. Alyoshka was asleep at my feet, right at the bottom of the sledge; his whole back was covered by a thick layer of snow. Ignashka was not depressed; he was incessantly tugging at the reins, shouting and clapping his feet together. The bells rang as strangely as ever. The horses were panting, but they still went on, though rather more slowly, and stumbling more and more often. Ignashka jumped up and down again, brandished his gloves, and began singing a song in his shrill, strained voice. Before he had finished the song, he pulled up, flung the reins on the forepart of the sledge, and got down. The wind howled ruthlessly; the snow simply poured as it were in shovelfuls on the skirts of my fur cloak. I looked round; the third sledge was not there (it had been left behind somewhere). Beside the second sledge I could see in the snowy fog the old man hopping from one leg to the other. Ignashka walked three steps away from the sledge, sat down on the snow, undid his belt and began taking off his boots.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I must take my boots off; or my feet will be quite frostbitten!” he answered, going on with what he was about.

It was too cold for me to poke my neck out of my fur collar to see what he was doing. I sat up straight, looking at the trace-horse, who stood with one leg outstretched in an attitude of painful exhaustion, shaking his tied-up, snowy tail. The jolt Ignashka gave the sledge in jumping up on the box waked me up.

“Well, where are we now?” I asked. “Shall we go on till morning?”

“Don’t you worry yourself, we’ll take you all right,” he answered. “Now my feet are grandly warm since I shifted my boots.”

And he started; the bells began ringing; the sledge began swaying from side to side; and the wind whistled through the runners. And again we set off floating over the boundless sea of snow.


X

I slept soundly. When I was waked up by Alyoshka kicking me, and opened my eyes, it was morning. It seemed even colder than in the night. No snow was falling from above; but the keen, dry wind was still driving the fine snow along the ground and especially under the runners and the horse’s hoofs. To the right the sky in the east was a heavy, dingy blue colour; but bright, orange-red, slanting rays were becoming more and more clearly marked in it. Overhead, behind the flying white clouds, faintly tinged with red, the pale blue sky was visible; on the left the clouds were light, bright, and moving. Everywhere around, as far as the eye could see, the country lay under deep, white snow, thrown up into sharp ridges. Here and there could be seen a greyish hillock, where the fine, dry snow had persistently blown by. Not a track of sledge, or man, or beast was visible. The outlines and colours of the driver’s back and the horses could be seen clearly and distinctly against the white background.⁠ ⁠… The rim of Ignashka’s dark blue cap, his collar, his hair, and even his boots were white. The sledge was completely buried. The grey shaft-horse’s head and forelock were covered with snow on the right side; my right trace-horse’s legs were buried up to the knee, and all his back, crisp with frozen sweat, was coated with snow on the offside. The tassel was still dancing in time to any tune one liked to fancy, and the trace-horse stepped to the same rhythm. It was only from his sunken belly, that heaved and fell so often, and his drooping ears that one could see how exhausted he was. Only one new object caught my attention. That was a verst post, from which the snow was falling to the ground, and about which the wind had swept up quite a mountain on the right and kept whirling and shifting the powdery snow from one side to the other. I was utterly amazed to find that we had been driving the whole night with the same horses, twelve hours without stopping or knowing where we were going, and yet had somehow arrived. Our bells chimed more gaily than ever. Ignat kept wrapping himself round and shouting; behind us we heard the snorting of the horses and the ringing of the bells of the sledge in which were the old man and the counsellor; but the man who had been asleep had gone completely astray from us on the steppe. When we had driven on another half-verst, we came upon fresh tracks of a sledge and three horses, not yet covered by the snow, and here and there we saw a red spot of blood, most likely from a horse that had been hurt.

“That’s Filip. Why, he’s got in before us!” said Ignashka.

And now a little house with a signboard came into sight near the roadside, in the middle of the snow, which buried it almost to the roof and windows. Near the little inn stood a sledge with three grey horses, with their coats crisp with sweat, their legs stiffly stretched out, and their heads drooping. The snow had been cleared about the door, and a spade stood there; but the droning wind still whirled and drifted the snow from the roof.

At the sound of our bells there came out from the door a big, red-faced, red-haired driver, holding a glass of vodka in his hand, and shouting something to us. Ignashka turned to me and asked my permission to stop here; then, for the first time, I saw his face.


XI

His face was not swarthy, lean, and straight-nosed, as I had expected, judging from his hair and figure. It was a merry, round face, with quite a pug nose, a large mouth, and round, bright, light blue eyes. His face and neck were red, as though they had been rubbed with a polishing cloth; his eyebrows, long eyelashes, and the down that covered all the lower part of his face were stiffly coated with snow and perfectly white. It was only half a verst from the station, and we stopped.

“Only make haste,” I said.

“One minute,” answered Ignashka, jumping off the box and going towards Filip.

“Give it here, mate,” he said, taking the glove off his right hand and flinging it with the whip on the snow, and throwing back his head, he tossed off the glass of vodka at one gulp.

The innkeeper, probably an old Cossack, came out of the door with a pint bottle in his hand.

“To whom shall I take some?” said he.

Tall Vassily, a thin, flaxen-headed peasant with a goat’s beard, and the counsellor, a stout man with light eyebrows and a thick light beard framing his red face, came up, and drank a glass each. The old man, too, was approaching the group, but they did not offer him any, and he moved away to his horses, that were fastened at the back of the sledge, and began stroking one of them on the back.

The old man was just as I had imagined him to be⁠—a thin little man, with a wrinkled, bluish face, a scanty beard, a sharp nose, and decayed, yellow teeth. His cap was a regular driver’s cap, perfectly new, but his greatcoat was shabby, smeared with tar, and torn about the shoulders and skirts. It did not cover his knees, and his coarse, hempen undergarment, which was stuffed into his huge, felt boots. He was bent and wrinkled, his face quivering, and his knees trembling. He bustled about the sledge, apparently trying to get warm.

“Why, Mitritch, have a drop; it would warm you finely,” the counsellor said to him.

Mitritch gave a shrug. He straightened the breech on his horse, set the yoke right, and came up to me.

“Well, sir,” said he, taking his cap off his grey hair, and bowing low, “we’ve been lost all night along with you, and looking for the road; you might treat me to a glass. Surely, your excellency! Else I’ve nothing to warm me up,” he added with a deprecating smile.

I gave him twenty-five kopecks. The innkeeper brought out a glass, and handed it to the old man. He took off his glove with the whip, and put his black, horny little hand, blue with cold, to the glass; but his thumb was not under his control; he could not hold the glass, and let it drop, spilling the vodka in the snow.

All the drivers laughed.

“I say, Mitritch is so frozen, he can’t hold the vodka.”

But Mitritch was greatly mortified at having spilt the drink.

They poured him out another glass, however, and put it to his lips. He became more cheerful at once, ran into the inn, lighted a pipe, began grinning, showing his decayed, yellow teeth, and at every word he uttered an oath. After drinking a last glass, the drivers got into their sledges, and we drove on.

The snow became whiter and brighter, so that it made one’s eyes ache to look at it. The orange-red streaks spread higher and higher, and grew brighter and brighter in the sky overhead. The red disc of the sun appeared on the horizon through the dark blue clouds. The blue became deeper and more brilliant. Along the road near the station there was a distinct yellowish track, with here and there deep ruts in it. In the tense, frozen air there was a peculiar, refreshing lightness.

My sledge flew along very briskly. The head of the shaft-horse, with his mane floating up on the yoke above, bobbed up and down quickly under the sportsman’s bell, the clapper of which did not move freely now, but somehow grated against the sides. The gallant trace-horses, pulling together at the twisted, frozen traces, trotted vigorously, and the tassel danced right under the belly and the breech. Sometimes a trace-horse slipped off the beaten track into a snowdrift, and his eyes were all powdered with snow as he plunged smartly out of it. Ignashka shouted in a cheerful tenor; the dry frost crunched under the runners; behind us we heard the two bells ringing out with a clear, festive note, and the drunken shouts of the drivers. I looked round. The grey, crisp-haired trace-horses, breathing regularly, galloped over the snow with outstretched necks and bits askew. Filip cracked his whip and set his cap straight. The old man lay in the middle of the sledge with his legs up as before.

Two minutes later the sledge was creaking over the swept boards of the approach to the posting-station, and Ignashka turned his merry face, all covered with frost and snow, towards me.

“We’ve brought you safe after all, sir,” said he.

1856.


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