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Posts Tagged ‘Russian literature’

Between eight and nine o’clock in the morning.

A dark leaden-coloured mass is creeping over the sky towards the sun. Red zigzags of lightning gleam here and there across it. There is a sound of far-away rumbling. A warm wind frolics over the grass, bends the trees, and stirs up the dust. In a minute there will be a spurt of May rain and a real storm will begin.

Fyokla, a little beggar-girl of six, is running through the village, looking for Terenty the cobbler. The white-haired, barefoot child is pale. Her eyes are wide-open, her lips are trembling.

“Uncle, where is Terenty?” she asks every one she meets. No one answers. They are all preoccupied with the approaching storm and take refuge in their huts. At last she meets Silanty Silitch, the sacristan, Terenty’s bosom friend. He is coming along, staggering from the wind.

“Uncle, where is Terenty?”

“At the kitchen-gardens,” answers Silanty.

The beggar-girl runs behind the huts to the kitchen-gardens and there finds Terenty; the tall old man with a thin, pock-marked face, very long legs, and bare feet, dressed in a woman’s tattered jacket, is standing near the vegetable plots, looking with drowsy, drunken eyes at the dark storm-cloud. On his long crane-like legs he sways in the wind like a starling-cote.

“Uncle Terenty!” the white-headed beggar-girl addresses him. “Uncle, darling!”

Terenty bends down to Fyokla, and his grim, drunken face is overspread with a smile, such as come into people’s faces when they look at something little, foolish, and absurd, but warmly loved.

“Ah! servant of God, Fyokla,” he says, lisping tenderly, “where have you come from?”

“Uncle Terenty,” says Fyokla, with a sob, tugging at the lapel of the cobbler’s coat. “Brother Danilka has had an accident! Come along!”

“What sort of accident? Ough, what thunder! Holy, holy, holy…. What sort of accident?”

“In the count’s copse Danilka stuck his hand into a hole in a tree, and he can’t get it out. Come along, uncle, do be kind and pull his hand out!”

“How was it he put his hand in? What for?”

“He wanted to get a cuckoo’s egg out of the hole for me.”

“The day has hardly begun and already you are in trouble….”Terenty shook his head and spat deliberately. “Well, what am I to do with you now? I must come… I must, may the wolf gobble you up, you naughty children! Come, little orphan!”

Terenty comes out of the kitchen-garden and, lifting high his long legs, begins striding down the village street. He walks quickly without stopping or looking from side to side, as though he were shoved from behind or afraid of pursuit. Fyokla can hardly keep up with him.

They come out of the village and turn along the dusty road towards the count’s copse that lies dark blue in the distance. It is about a mile and a half away. The clouds have by now covered the sun, and soon afterwards there is not a speck of blue left in the sky. It grows dark.

“Holy, holy, holy…” whispers Fyokla, hurrying after Terenty. The first rain-drops, big and heavy, lie, dark dots on the dusty road. A big drop falls on Fyokla’s cheek and glides like a tear down her chin.

“The rain has begun,” mutters the cobbler, kicking up the dust with his bare, bony feet. “That’s fine, Fyokla, old girl. The grass and the trees are fed by the rain, as we are by bread. And as for the thunder, don’t you be frightened, little orphan. Why should it kill a little thing like you?”

As soon as the rain begins, the wind drops. The only sound is the patter of rain dropping like fine shot on the young rye and the parched road.

“We shall get soaked, Fyokla,” mutters Terenty. “There won’t be a dry spot left on us….Ho-ho, my girl! It’s run down my neck! But don’t be frightened, silly….The grass will be dry again, the earth will be dry again, and we shall be dry again. There is the same sun for us all.”

A flash of lightning, some fourteen feet long, gleams above their head. There is a loud peal of thunder, and it seems to Fyokla that something big, heavy, and round is rolling over the sky and tearing it open, exactly over her head.

“Holy, holy, holy…” says Terenty, crossing himself. “Don’t be afraid, little orphan! It is not from spite that it thunders.”

Terenty’s and Fyokla’s feet are covered with lumps of heavy, wet clay. It is slippery and difficult to walk, but Terenty strides on more and more rapidly. The weak little beggar-girl is breathless and ready to drop.

But at last they go into the count’s copse. The washed trees, stirred by a gust of wind, drop a perfect waterfall upon them. Terenty stumbles over stumps and begins to slacken his pace.

“Whereabouts is Danilka?” he asks. “Lead me to him.”

Fyokla leads him into a thicket, and, after going a quarter of a mile, points to Danilka. Her brother, a little fellow of eight, with hair as red as ochre and a pale sickly face, stands leaning against a tree, and, with his head on one side, looking sideways at the sky. In one hand he holds his shabby old cap, the other is hidden in an old lime tree. The boy is gazing at the stormy sky, and apparently not thinking of his trouble. Hearing footsteps and seeing the cobbler he gives sickly smile and says:

“A terrible lot of thunder, Terenty….I’ve never heard so much thunder in all my life.”

“And where is your hand?”

“In the hole….Pull it out, please, Terenty!”

The wood had broken at the edge of the hole and jammed Danilka’s hand: he could push it farther in, but could not pull it out. Terenty snaps off the broken piece, and the boy’s hand, red and crushed, is released.

“It’s terrible how it’s thundering,” the boy says again, rubbing his hand. “What makes it thunder, Terenty?”

“One cloud runs against the other,” answers the cobbler. The party come out of the copse, and walk along the edge of it towards the darkened road. The thunder gradually abates, and its rumbling is heard far away beyond the village.

“The ducks flew by here the other day, Terenty,” says Danilka, still rubbing his hand. “They must be nesting in the Gniliya Zaimishtcha marshes….Fyokla, would you like me to show you a nightingale’s nest?”

“Don’t touch it, you might disturb them,” says Terenty, wringing the water out of his cap. “The nightingale is a singing-bird, without sin. He has had a voice given him in his throat, to praise God and gladden the heart of man. It’s a sin to disturb him.”

“What about the sparrow?”

“The sparrow doesn’t matter, he’s a bad, spiteful bird. He is like a pickpocket in his ways. He doesn’t like man to be happy. When Christ was crucified it was the sparrow brought nails to the Jews, and called ‘alive! alive!’ ”

A bright patch of blue appears in the sky.

“Look!” says Terenty. “An ant-heap burst open by the rain! They’ve been flooded, the rogues!”

They bend over the ant-heap. The downpour has damaged it; the insects are scurrying to and fro in the mud, agitated, and busily trying to carry away their drowned companions.

“You needn’t be in such a taking, you won’t die of it!” says Terenty, grinning. “As soon as the sun warms you, you’ll come to your senses again….It’s a lesson to you, you stupids. You won’t settle on low ground another time.”

They go on.

“And here are some bees,” cries Danilka, pointing to the branch of a young oak tree.

The drenched and chilled bees are huddled together on the branch. There are so many of them that neither bark nor leaf can be seen. Many of them are settled on one another.

“That’s a swarm of bees,” Terenty informs them. “They were flying looking for a home, and when the rain came down upon them they settled. If a swarm is flying, you need only sprinkle water on them to make them settle. Now if, say, you wanted to take the swarm, you would bend the branch with them into a sack and shake it, and they all fall in.”

Little Fyokla suddenly frowns and rubs her neck vigorously. Her brother looks at her neck, and sees a big swelling on it.

“Hey-hey!” laughs the cobbler. “Do you know where you got that from, Fyokla, old girl? There are Spanish flies on some tree in the wood. The rain has trickled off them, and a drop has fallen on your neck—that’s what has made the swelling.”

The sun appears from behind the clouds and floods the wood, the fields, and the three friends with its warm light. The dark menacing cloud has gone far away and taken the storm with it. The air is warm and fragrant. There is a scent of bird-cherry, meadowsweet, and lilies-of-the-valley.

“That herb is given when your nose bleeds,” says Terenty, pointing to a woolly-looking flower. “It does good.”

They hear a whistle and a rumble, but not such a rumble as the storm-clouds carried away. A goods train races by before the eyes of Terenty, Danilka, and Fyokla. The engine, panting and puffing out black smoke, drags more than twenty vans after it. Its power is tremendous. The children are interested to know how an engine, not alive and without the help of horses, can move and drag such weights, and Terenty undertakes to explain it to them:

“It’s all the steam’s doing, children…. The steam does the work…. You see, it shoves under that thing near the wheels, and it…you see…it works…”

They cross the railway line, and, going down from the embankment, walk towards the river. They walk not with any object, but just at random, and talk all the way…. Danilka asks questions, Terenty answers them…

Terenty answers all his questions, and there is no secret in Nature which baffles him. He knows everything. Thus, for example, he knows the names of all the wild flowers, animals, and stones. He knows what herbs cure diseases, he has no difficulty in telling the age of a horse or a cow. Looking at the sunset, at the moon, or the birds, he can tell what sort of weather it will be next day. And indeed, it is not only Terenty who is so wise. Silanty Silitch, the innkeeper, the market-gardener, the shepherd, and all the villagers, generally speaking, know as much as he does. These people have learned not from books, but in the fields, in the wood, on the river bank. Their teachers have been the birds themselves, when they sang to them, the sun when it left a glow of crimson behind it at setting, the very trees, and wild herbs.

Danilka looks at Terenty and greedily drinks in every word. In spring, before one is weary of the warmth and the monotonous green of the fields, when everything is fresh and full of fragrance, who would not want to hear about the golden may-beetles, about the cranes, about the gurgling streams, and the corn mounting into ear?

The two of them, the cobbler and the orphan, walk about the fields, talk unceasingly, and are not weary. They could wander about the world endlessly. They walk, and in their talk of the beauty of the earth do not notice the frail little beggar-girl tripping after them. She is breathless and moves with a lagging step. There are tears in her eyes; she would be glad to stop these inexhaustible wanderers, but to whom and where can she go? She has no home or people of her own; whether she likes it or not, she must walk and listen to their talk.

Towards midday, all three sit down on the river bank. Danilka takes out of his bag a piece of bread, soaked and reduced to a mash, and they begin to eat. Terenty says a prayer when he has eaten the bread, then stretches himself on the sandy bank and falls asleep. While he is asleep, the boy gazes at the water, pondering. He has many different things to think of. He has just seen the storm, the bees, the ants, the train. Now, before his eyes, fishes are whisking about. Some are two inches long and more, others are no bigger than one’s nail. A viper, with its head held high, is swimming from one bank to the other.

Only towards the evening our wanderers return to the village. The children go for the night to a deserted barn, where the corn of the commune used to be kept, while Terenty, leaving them, goes to the tavern. The children lie huddled together on the straw, dozing.

The boy does not sleep. He gazes into the darkness, and it seems to him that he is seeing all that he has seen in the day: the storm-clouds, the bright sunshine, the birds, the fish, lanky Terenty. The number of his impressions, together with exhaustion and hunger, are too much for him; he is as hot as though he were on fire, and tosses from side to side. He longs to tell someone all that is haunting him now in the darkness and agitating his soul, but there is no one to tell. Fyokla is too little and could not understand.

“I’ll tell Terenty to-morrow,” thinks the boy.

The children fall asleep thinking of the homeless cobbler, and, in the night, Terenty comes to them, makes the sign of the cross over them, and puts bread under their heads. And no one sees his love. It is seen only by the moon which floats in the sky and peeps caressingly through the holes in the wall of the deserted barn.

The End

(ack: classicshorts.com)

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IT WAS a dark autumn night. The old banker was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen years before, he had given a party one autumn evening. There had been many clever men there, and there had been interesting conversations. Among other things they had talked of capital punishment. The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life.

“I don’t agree with you,” said their host the banker. “I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge _a priori_, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?”

“Both are equally immoral,” observed one of the guests, “for they both have the same object — to take away life. The State is not God. It has not the right to take away what it cannot restore when it wants to.”

Among the guests was a young lawyer, a young man of five-and-twenty. When he was asked his opinion, he said:

“The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral, but if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second. To live anyhow is better than not at all.”

A lively discussion arose. The banker, who was younger and more nervous in those days, was suddenly carried away by excitement; he struck the table with his fist and shouted at the young man:

“It’s not true! I’ll bet you two millions you wouldn’t stay in solitary confinement for five years.”

“If you mean that in earnest,” said the young man, “I’ll take the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years.”

“Fifteen? Done!” cried the banker. “Gentlemen, I stake two millions!”

“Agreed! You stake your millions and I stake my freedom!” said the young man.

And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet. At supper he made fun of the young man, and said:

“Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two millions are a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won’t stay longer. Don’t forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you.”

And now the banker, walking to and fro, remembered all this, and asked himself: “What was the object of that bet? What is the good of that man’s losing fifteen years of his life and my throwing away two millions? Can it prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life? No, no. It was all nonsensical and meaningless. On my part it was the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money. . . .”

Then he remembered what followed that evening. It was decided that the young man should spend the years of his captivity under the strictest supervision in one of the lodges in the banker’s garden. It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted — books, music, wine, and so on — in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but could only receive them through the window. The agreement provided for every detail and every trifle that would make his imprisonment strictly solitary, and bound the young man to stay there _exactly_ fifteen years, beginning from twelve o’clock of November 14, 1870, and ending at twelve o’clock of November 14, 1885. The slightest attempt on his part to break the conditions, if only two minutes before the end, released the banker from the obligation to pay him two millions.

For the first year of his confinement, as far as one could judge from his brief notes, the prisoner suffered severely from loneliness and depression. The sounds of the piano could be heard continually day and night from his lodge. He refused wine and tobacco. Wine, he wrote, excites the desires, and desires are the worst foes of the prisoner; and besides, nothing could be more dreary than drinking good wine and seeing no one. And tobacco spoilt the air of his room. In the first year the books he sent for were principally of a light character; novels with a complicated love plot, sensational and fantastic stories, and so on.

In the second year the piano was silent in the lodge, and the prisoner asked only for the classics. In the fifth year music was audible again, and the prisoner asked for wine. Those who watched him through the window said that all that year he spent doing nothing but eating and drinking and lying on his bed, frequently yawning and angrily talking to himself. He did not read books. Sometimes at night he would sit down to write; he would spend hours writing, and in the morning tear up all that he had written. More than once he could be heard crying.

In the second half of the sixth year the prisoner began zealously studying languages, philosophy, and history. He threw himself eagerly into these studies — so much so that the banker had enough to do to get him the books he ordered. In the course of four years some six hundred volumes were procured at his request. It was during this period that the banker received the following letter from his prisoner:

“My dear Jailer, I write you these lines in six languages. Show them to people who know the languages. Let them read them. If they find not one mistake I implore you to fire a shot in the garden. That shot will show me that my efforts have not been thrown away. The geniuses of all ages and of all lands speak different languages, but the same flame burns in them all. Oh, if you only knew what unearthly happiness my soul feels now from being able to understand them!” The prisoner’s desire was fulfilled. The banker ordered two shots to be fired in the garden.

Then after the tenth year, the prisoner sat immovably at the table and read nothing but the Gospel. It seemed strange to the banker that a man who in four years had mastered six hundred learned volumes should waste nearly a year over one thin book easy of comprehension. Theology and histories of religion followed the Gospels.

In the last two years of his confinement the prisoner read an immense quantity of books quite indiscriminately. At one time he was busy with the natural sciences, then he would ask for Byron or Shakespeare. There were notes in which he demanded at the same time books on chemistry, and a manual of medicine, and a novel, and some treatise on philosophy or theology. His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship, and trying to save his life by greedily clutching first at one spar and then at another.

II

The old banker remembered all this, and thought:

“To-morrow at twelve o’clock he will regain his freedom. By our agreement I ought to pay him two millions. If I do pay him, it is all over with me: I shall be utterly ruined.”

Fifteen years before, his millions had been beyond his reckoning; now he was afraid to ask himself which were greater, his debts or his assets. Desperate gambling on the Stock Exchange, wild speculation and the excitability which he could not get over even in advancing years, had by degrees led to the decline of his fortune and the proud, fearless, self-confident millionaire had become a banker of middling rank, trembling at every rise and fall in his investments. “Cursed bet!” muttered the old man, clutching his head in despair “Why didn’t the man die? He is only forty now. He will take my last penny from me, he will marry, will enjoy life, will gamble on the Exchange; while I shall look at him with envy like a beggar, and hear from him every day the same sentence: ‘I am indebted to you for the happiness of my life, let me help you!’ No, it is too much! The one means of being saved from bankruptcy and disgrace is the death of that man!”

It struck three o’clock, the banker listened; everyone was asleep in the house and nothing could be heard outside but the rustling of the chilled trees. Trying to make no noise, he took from a fireproof safe the key of the door which had not been opened for fifteen years, put on his overcoat, and went out of the house.

It was dark and cold in the garden. Rain was falling. A damp cutting wind was racing about the garden, howling and giving the trees no rest. The banker strained his eyes, but could see neither the earth nor the white statues, nor the lodge, nor the trees. Going to the spot where the lodge stood, he twice called the watchman. No answer followed. Evidently the watchman had sought shelter from the weather, and was now asleep somewhere either in the kitchen or in the greenhouse.

“If I had the pluck to carry out my intention,” thought the old man, “Suspicion would fall first upon the watchman.”

He felt in the darkness for the steps and the door, and went into the entry of the lodge. Then he groped his way into a little passage and lighted a match. There was not a soul there. There was a bedstead with no bedding on it, and in the corner there was a dark cast-iron stove. The seals on the door leading to the prisoner’s rooms were intact.

When the match went out the old man, trembling with emotion, peeped through the little window. A candle was burning dimly in the prisoner’s room. He was sitting at the table. Nothing could be seen but his back, the hair on his head, and his hands. Open books were lying on the table, on the two easy-chairs, and on the carpet near the table.

Five minutes passed and the prisoner did not once stir. Fifteen years’ imprisonment had taught him to sit still. The banker tapped at the window with his finger, and the prisoner made no movement whatever in response. Then the banker cautiously broke the seals off the door and put the key in the keyhole. The rusty lock gave a grating sound and the door creaked. The banker expected to hear at once footsteps and a cry of astonishment, but three minutes passed and it was as quiet as ever in the room. He made up his mind to go in.

At the table a man unlike ordinary people was sitting motionless. He was a skeleton with the skin drawn tight over his bones, with long curls like a woman’s and a shaggy beard. His face was yellow with an earthy tint in it, his cheeks were hollow, his back long and narrow, and the hand on which his shaggy head was propped was so thin and delicate that it was dreadful to look at it. His hair was already streaked with silver, and seeing his emaciated, aged-looking face, no one would have believed that he was only forty. He was asleep. . . . In front of his bowed head there lay on the table a sheet of paper on which there was something written in fine handwriting.

“Poor creature!” thought the banker, “he is asleep and most likely dreaming of the millions. And I have only to take this half-dead man, throw him on the bed, stifle him a little with the pillow, and the most conscientious expert would find no sign of a violent death. But let us first read what he has written here. . . .”

The banker took the page from the table and read as follows:

“To-morrow at twelve o’clock I regain my freedom and the right to associate with other men, but before I leave this room and see the sunshine, I think it necessary to say a few words to you. With a clear conscience I tell you, as before God, who beholds me, that I despise freedom and life and health, and all that in your books is called the good things of the world.

“For fifteen years I have been intently studying earthly life. It is true I have not seen the earth nor men, but in your books I have drunk fragrant wine, I have sung songs, I have hunted stags and wild boars in the forests, have loved women. . . . Beauties as ethereal as clouds, created by the magic of your poets and geniuses, have visited me at night, and have whispered in my ears wonderful tales that have set my brain in a whirl. In your books I have climbed to the peaks of Elburz and Mont Blanc, and from there I have seen the sun rise and have watched it at evening flood the sky, the ocean, and the mountain-tops with gold and crimson. I have watched from there the lightning flashing over my head and cleaving the storm-clouds. I have seen green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, towns. I have heard the singing of the sirens, and the strains of the shepherds’ pipes; I have touched the wings of comely devils who flew down to converse with me of God. . . . In your books I have flung myself into the bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned towns, preached new religions, conquered whole kingdoms. . . .

“Your books have given me wisdom. All that the unresting thought of man has created in the ages is compressed into a small compass in my brain. I know that I am wiser than all of you.

“And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.

“You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty. You would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sorts, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit, or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse; so I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don’t want to understand you.

“To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two millions of which I once dreamed as of paradise and which now I despise. To deprive myself of the right to the money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed, and so break the compact. . . .”

When the banker had read this he laid the page on the table, kissed the strange man on the head, and went out of the lodge, weeping. At no other time, even when he had lost heavily on the Stock Exchange, had he felt so great a contempt for himself. When he got home he lay on his bed, but his tears and emotion kept him for hours from sleeping.

Next morning the watchmen ran in with pale faces, and told him they had seen the man who lived in the lodge climb out of the window into the garden, go to the gate, and disappear. The banker went at once with the servants to the lodge and made sure of the flight of his prisoner. To avoid arousing unnecessary talk, he took from the table the writing in which the millions were renounced, and when he got home locked it up in the fireproof safe.

END

(ack:classicshorts.com)

Anton Pavlovich Chekov (1860-1904)

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Once in the autumn I happened to be in a very unpleasant and inconvenient position. In the town where I had just arrived and where I knew not a soul, I found myself without a farthing in my pocket and without a night’s lodging.

Having sold during the first few days every part of my costume without which it was still possible to go about, I passed from the town into the quarter called “Yste,” where were the steamship wharves–a quarter which during the navigation season fermented with boisterous, laborious life, but now was silent and deserted, for we were in the last days of October.

Dragging my feet along the moist sand, and obstinately scrutinising it with the desire to discover in it any sort of fragment of food, I wandered alone among the deserted buildings and warehouses, and thought how good it would be to get a full meal.

In our present state of culture hunger of the mind is more quickly satisfied than hunger of the body. You wander about the streets, you are surrounded by buildings not bad-looking from the outside and–you may safely say it–not so badly furnished inside, and the sight of them may excite within you stimulating ideas about architecture, hygiene, and many other wise and high-flying subjects. You may meet warmly and neatly dressed folks–all very polite, and turning away from you tactfully, not wishing offensively to notice the lamentable fact of your existence. Well, well, the mind of a hungry man is always better nourished and healthier than the mind of the well-fed man; and there you have a situation from which you may draw a very ingenious conclusion in favour of the ill fed.

The evening was approaching, the rain was falling, and the wind blew violently from the north. It whistled in the empty booths and shops, blew into the plastered window-panes of the taverns, and whipped into foam the wavelets of the river which splashed noisily on the sandy shore, casting high their white crests, racing one after another into the dim distance, and leaping impetuously over one another’s shoulders. It seemed as if the river felt the proximity of winter, and was running at random away from the fetters of ice which the north wind might well have flung upon her that very night. The sky was heavy and dark; down from it swept incessantly scarcely visible drops of rain, and the melancholy elegy in nature all around me was emphasised by a couple of battered and misshapen willow-trees and a boat, bottom upwards, that was fastened to their roots.

The overturned canoe with its battered keel and the miserable old trees rifled by the cold wind–everything around me was bankrupt, barren, and dead, and the sky flowed with undryable tears… Everything around was waste and gloomy … it seemed as if everything were dead, leaving me alone among the living, and for me also a cold death waited.

I was then eighteen years old–a good time!

I walked and walked along the cold wet sand, making my chattering teeth warble in honour of cold and hunger, when suddenly, as I was carefully searching for something to eat behind one of the empty crates, I perceived behind it, crouching on the ground, a figure in woman’s clothes dank with the rain and clinging fast to her stooping shoulders. Standing over her, I watched to see what she was doing. It appeared that she was digging a trench in the sand with her hands–digging away under one of the crates.

“Why are you doing that?” I asked, crouching down on my heels quite close to her.

She gave a little scream and was quickly on her legs again. Now that she stood there staring at me, with her wide-open grey eyes full of terror, I perceived that it was a girl of my own age, with a very pleasant face embellished unfortunately by three large blue marks. This spoilt her, although these blue marks had been distributed with a remarkable sense of proportion, one at a time, and all were of equal size–two under the eyes, and one a little bigger on the forehead just over the bridge of the nose. This symmetry was evidently the work of an artist well inured to the business of spoiling the human physiognomy.

The girl looked at me, and the terror in her eyes gradually died out… She shook the sand from her hands, adjusted her cotton head-gear, cowered down, and said:

“I suppose you too want something to eat? Dig away then! My hands are tired. Over there”–she nodded her head in the direction of a booth–“there is bread for certain … and sausages too… That booth is still carrying on business.”

I began to dig. She, after waiting a little and looking at me, sat down beside me and began to help me.

We worked in silence. I cannot say now whether I thought at that moment of the criminal code, of morality, of proprietorship, and all the other things about which, in the opinion of many experienced persons, one ought to think every moment of one’s life. Wishing to keep as close to the truth as possible, I must confess that apparently I was so deeply engaged in digging under the crate that I completely forgot about everything else except this one thing: What could be inside that crate?

The evening drew on. The grey, mouldy, cold fog grew thicker and thicker around us. The waves roared with a hollower sound than before, and the rain pattered down on the boards of that crate more loudly and more frequently. Somewhere or other the night-watchman began springing his rattle.

“Has it got a bottom or not?” softly inquired my assistant. I did not understand what she was talking about, and I kept silence.

“I say, has the crate got a bottom? If it has we shall try in vain to break into it. Here we are digging a trench, and we may, after all, come upon nothing but solid boards. How shall we take them off? Better smash the lock; it is a wretched lock.”

Good ideas rarely visit the heads of women, but, as you see, they do visit them sometimes. I have always valued good ideas, and have always tried to utilise them as far as possible.

Having found the lock, I tugged at it and wrenched off the whole thing. My accomplice immediately stooped down and wriggled like a serpent into the gaping-open, four cornered cover of the crate whence she called to me approvingly, in a low tone:

“You’re a brick!”

Nowadays a little crumb of praise from a woman is dearer to me than a whole dithyramb from a man, even though he be more eloquent than all the ancient and modern orators put together. Then, however, I was less amiably disposed than I am now, and, paying no attention to the compliment of my comrade, I asked her curtly and anxiously:

“Is there anything?”

In a monotonous tone she set about calculating our discoveries.

“A basketful of bottles–thick furs–a sunshade–an iron pail.”

All this was uneatable. I felt that my hopes had vanished… But suddenly she exclaimed vivaciously:

“Aha! here it is!”

“What?”

“Bread … a loaf … it’s only wet … take it!”

A loaf flew to my feet and after it herself, my valiant comrade. I had already bitten off a morsel, stuffed it in my mouth, and was chewing it…

“Come, give me some too!… And we mustn’t stay here… Where shall we go?” she looked inquiringly about on all sides… It was dark, wet, and boisterous.

“Look! there’s an upset canoe yonder … let us go there.”

“Let us go then!” And off we set, demolishing our booty as we went, and filling our mouths with large portions of it… The rain grew more violent, the river roared; from somewhere or other resounded a prolonged mocking whistle–just as if Someone great who feared nobody was whistling down all earthly institutions and along with them this horrid autumnal wind and us its heroes. This whistling made my heart throb painfully, in spite of which I greedily went on eating, and in this respect the girl, walking on my left hand, kept even pace with me.

“What do they call you?” I asked her–why I know not.

“Natasha,” she answered shortly, munching loudly.

I stared at her. My heart ached within me; and then I stared into the mist before me, and it seemed to me as if the inimical countenance of my Destiny was smiling at me enigmatically and coldly.

* * * * * * *

The rain scourged the timbers of the skiff incessantly, and its soft patter induced melancholy thoughts, and the wind whistled as it flew down into the boat’s battered bottom through a rift, where some loose splinters of wood were rattling together–a disquieting and depressing sound. The waves of the river were splashing on the shore, and sounded so monotonous and hopeless, just as if they were telling something unbearably dull and heavy, which was boring them into utter disgust, something from which they wanted to run away and yet were obliged to talk about all the same. The sound of the rain blended with their splashing, and a long-drawn sigh seemed to be floating above the overturned skiff–the endless, labouring sigh of the earth, injured and exhausted by the eternal changes from the bright and warm summer to the cold misty and damp autumn. The wind blew continually over the desolate shore and the foaming river–blew and sang its melancholy songs…

Our position beneath the shelter of the skiff was utterly devoid of comfort; it was narrow and damp, tiny cold drops of rain dribbled through the damaged bottom; gusts of wind penetrated it. We sat in silence and shivered with cold. I remembered that I wanted to go to sleep. Natasha leaned her back against the hull of the boat and curled herself up into a tiny ball. Embracing her knees with her hands, and resting her chin upon them, she stared doggedly at the river with wide-open eyes; on the pale patch of her face they seemed immense, because of the blue marks below them. She never moved, and this immobility and silence–I felt it–gradually produced within me a terror of my neighbour. I wanted to talk to her, but I knew not how to begin.

It was she herself who spoke.

“What a cursed thing life is!” she exclaimed plainly, abstractedly, and in a tone of deep conviction.

But this was no complaint. In these words there was too much of indifference for a complaint. This simple soul thought according to her understanding–thought and proceeded to form a certain conclusion which she expressed aloud, and which I could not confute for fear of contradicting myself. Therefore I was silent, and she, as if she had not noticed me, continued to sit there immovable.

“Even if we croaked … what then…?” Natasha began again, this time quietly and reflectively, and still there was not one note of complaint in her words. It was plain that this person, in the course of her reflections on life, was regarding her own case, and had arrived at the conviction that in order to preserve herself from the mockeries of life, she was not in a position to do anything else but simply “croak”–to use her own expression.

The clearness of this line of thought was inexpressibly sad and painful to me, and I felt that if I kept silence any longer I was really bound to weep… And it would have been shameful to have done this before a woman, especially as she was not weeping herself. I resolved to speak to her.

“Who was it that knocked you about?” I asked. For the moment I could not think of anything more sensible or more delicate.

“Pashka did it all,” she answered in a dull and level tone.

“And who is he?”

“My lover… He was a baker.”

“Did he beat you often?”

“Whenever he was drunk he beat me… Often!”

And suddenly, turning towards me, she began to talk about herself, Pashka, and their mutual relations. He was a baker with red moustaches and played very well on the banjo. He came to see her and greatly pleased her, for he was a merry chap and wore nice clean clothes. He had a vest which cost fifteen rubles and boots with dress tops. For these reasons she had fallen in love with him, and he became her “creditor.” And when he became her creditor he made it his business to take away from her the money which her other friends gave to her for bonbons, and, getting drunk on this money, he would fall to beating her; but that would have been nothing if he hadn’t also begun to “run after” other girls before her very eyes.

“Now, wasn’t that an insult? I am not worse than the others. Of course that meant that he was laughing at me, the blackguard. The day before yesterday I asked leave of my mistress to go out for a bit, went to him, and there I found Dimka sitting beside him drunk. And he, too, was half seas over. I said, ‘You scoundrel, you!’ And he gave me a thorough hiding. He kicked me and dragged me by the hair. But that was nothing to what came after. He spoiled everything I had on–left me just as I am now! How could I appear before my mistress? He spoiled everything … my dress and my jacket too–it was quite a new one; I gave a fiver for it … and tore my kerchief from my head… Oh, Lord! What will become of me now?” she suddenly whined in a lamentable overstrained voice.

The wind howled, and became ever colder and more boisterous… Again my teeth began to dance up and down, and she, huddled up to avoid the cold, pressed as closely to me as she could, so that I could see the gleam of her eyes through the darkness.

“What wretches all you men are! I’d burn you all in an oven; I’d cut you in pieces. If any one of you was dying I’d spit in his mouth, and not pity him a bit. Mean skunks! You wheedle and wheedle, you wag your tails like cringing dogs, and we fools give ourselves up to you, and it’s all up with us! Immediately you trample us underfoot… Miserable loafers'”

She cursed us up and down, but there was no vigour, no malice, no hatred of these “miserable loafers” in her cursing that I could hear. The tone of her language by no means corresponded with its subject-matter, for it was calm enough, and the gamut of her voice was terribly poor.

Yet all this made a stronger impression on me than the most eloquent and convincing pessimistic bocks and speeches, of which I had read a good many and which I still read to this day. And this, you see, was because the agony of a dying person is much more natural and violent than the most minute and picturesque descriptions of death.

I felt really wretched–more from cold than from the words of my neighbour. I groaned softly and ground my teeth.

Almost at the same moment I felt two little arms about me–one of them touched my neck and the other lay upon my face–and at the same time an anxious, gentle, friendly voice uttered the question:

“What ails you?”

I was ready to believe that some one else was asking me this and not Natasha, who had just declared that all men were scoundrels, and expressed a wish for their destruction. But she it was, and now she began speaking quickly, hurriedly.

“What ails you, eh? Are you cold? Are you frozen? Ah, what a one you are, sitting there so silent like a little owl! Why, you should have told me long ago that you were cold. Come … lie on the ground … stretch yourself out and I will lie … there! How’s that? Now put your arms round me?… tighter! How’s that? You shall be warm very soon now… And then we’ll lie back to back… The night will pass so quickly, see if it won’t. I say … have you too been drinking?… Turned out of your place, eh?… It doesn’t matter.”

And she comforted me… She encouraged me.

May I be thrice accursed! What a world of irony was in this single fact for me! Just imagine! Here was I, seriously occupied at this very time with the destiny of humanity, thinking of the re-organisation of the social system, of political revolutions, reading all sorts of devilishly-wise books whose abysmal profundity was certainly unfathomable by their very authors–at this very time. I say, I was trying with all my might to make of myself “a potent active social force.” It even seemed to me that I had partially accomplished my object; anyhow, at this time, in my ideas about myself, I had got so far as to recognise that I had an exclusive right to exist, that I had the necessary greatness to deserve to live my life, and that I was fully competent to play a great historical part therein. And a woman was now warming me with her body, a wretched, battered, hunted creature, who had no place and no value in life, and whom I had never thought of helping till she helped me herself, and whom I really would not have known how to help in any way even if the thought of it had occurred to me.

Ah! I was ready to think that all this was happening to me in a dream–in a disagreeable, an oppressive dream.

But, ugh! it was impossible for me to think that, for cold drops of rain were dripping down upon me, the woman was pressing close to me, her warm breath was fanning my face, and–despite a slight odor of vodka–it did me good. The wind howled and raged, the rain smote upon the skiff, the waves splashed, and both of us, embracing each other convulsively, nevertheless shivered with cold. All this was only too real, and I am certain that nobody ever dreamed such an oppressive and horrid dream as that reality.

But Natasha was talking all the time of something or other, talking kindly and sympathetically, as only women can talk. Beneath the influence of her voice and kindly words a little fire began to burn up within me, and something inside my heart thawed in consequence.

Then tears poured from my eyes like a hailstorm, washing away from my heart much that was evil, much that war, stupid, much sorrow and dirt which had fastened upon it before that night. Natasha comforted me.

“Come, come, that will do, little one! Don’t take on! That’ll do! God will give you another chance … you will right yourself and stand in your proper place again … and it will be all right…”

And she kept kissing me … many kisses did she give me … burning kisses … and all for nothing…

Those were the first kisses from a woman that had ever been bestowed upon me, and they were the best kisses too, for all the subsequent kisses cost me frightfully dear, and really gave me nothing at all in exchange.

“Come, don’t take on so, funny one! I’ll manage for you to-morrow if you cannot find a place.” Her quiet persuasive whispering sounded in my ears as if it came through a dream…

There we lay till dawn…

And when the dawn came, we crept from behind the skiff and went into the town… Then we took friendly leave of each other and never met again, although for half a year I searched in every hole and corner for that kind Natasha, with whom I spent the autumn night just described.

If she be already dead–and well for her if it were so–may she rest in peace! And if she be alive … still I say “Peace to her soul!” And may the consciousness of her fall never enter her soul … for that would be a superfluous and fruitless suffering if life is to be lived…

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Leo Tolstoi

I

An elder sister came to visit her younger sister in the country.

The elder was married to a tradesman in town, the younger to a

peasant in the village. As the sisters sat over their tea talking,

the elder began to boast of the advantages of town life: saying how

comfortably they lived there, how well they dressed, what fine

clothes her children wore, what good things they ate and drank, and

how she went to the theatre, promenades, and entertainments.

The younger sister was piqued, and in turn disparaged the life of a

tradesman, and stood up for that of a peasant.

“I would not change my way of life for yours,” said she. “We may

live roughly, but at least we are free from anxiety. You live in

better style than we do, but though you often earn more than you

need, you are very likely to lose all you have. You know the proverb,

‘Loss and gain are brothers twain.’ It often happens that people who

are wealthy one day are begging their bread the next. Our way is

safer. Though a peasant’s life is not a fat one, it is a long one.

We shall never grow rich, but we shall always have enough to eat.”

The elder sister said sneeringly:

“Enough? Yes, if you like to share with the pigs and the calves!

What do you know of elegance or manners! However much your good man

may slave, you will die as you are living-on a dung heap-and your

children the same.”

“Well, what of that?” replied the younger. “Of course our work is

rough and coarse. But, on the other hand, it is sure; and we need

not bow to any one. But you, in your towns, are surrounded by

temptations; today all may be right, but tomorrow the Evil One may

tempt your husband with cards, wine, or women, and all will go to

ruin. Don’t such things happen often enough?”

Pahom, the master of the house, was lying on the top of the oven,

and he listened to the women’s chatter.

“It is perfectly true,” thought he. “Busy as we are from childhood

tilling Mother Earth, we peasants have no time to let any nonsense

settle in our heads. Our only trouble is that we haven’t land

enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!”

The women finished their tea, chatted a while about dress, and then

cleared away the tea-things and lay down to sleep.

But the Devil had been sitting behind the oven, and had heard all

that was said. He was pleased that the peasant’s wife had led her

husband into boasting, and that he had said that if he had plenty of

land he would not fear the Devil himself.

“All right,” thought the Devil. “We will have a tussle. I’ll give you

land enough; and by means of that land I will get you into my power.”

II

Close to the village there lived a lady, a small landowner, who had

an estate of about three hundred acres. She had always lived on

good terms with the peasants, until she engaged as her steward an

old soldier, who took to burdening the people with fines. However

careful Pahom tried to be, it happened again and again that now a

horse of his got among the lady’s oats, now a cow strayed into her

garden, now his calves found their way into her meadows-and he

always had to pay a fine.

Pahom paid, but grumbled, and, going home in a temper, was rough

with his family. All through that summer Pahom had much trouble

because of this steward; and he was even glad when winter came and

the cattle had to be stabled. Though he grudged the fodder when

they could no longer graze on the pasture-land, at least he was free

from anxiety about them.

In the winter the news got about that the lady was going to sell her

land, and that the keeper of the inn on the high road was bargaining

for it. When the peasants heard this they were very much alarmed.

“Well,” thought they, “if the innkeeper gets the land he will worry us

with fines worse than the lady’s steward. We all depend on that estate.”

So the peasants went on behalf of their Commune, and asked the lady

not to sell the land to the innkeeper; offering her a better price

for it themselves. The lady agreed to let them have it. Then the

peasants tried to arrange for the Commune to buy the whole estate,

so that it might be held by all in common. They met twice to

discuss it, but could not settle the matter; the Evil One sowed

discord among them, and they could not agree. So they decided to

buy the land individually, each according to his means; and the lady

agreed to this plan as she had to the other.

Presently Pahom heard that a neighbor of his was buying fifty acres,

and that the lady had consented to accept one half in cash and to

wait a year for the other half. Pahom felt envious.

“Look at that,” thought he, “the land is all being sold, and I shall

get none of it.” So he spoke to his wife.

“Other people are buying,” said he, “and we must also buy twenty

acres or so. Life is becoming impossible. That steward is simply

crushing us with his fines.”

So they put their heads together and considered how they could

manage to buy it. They had one hundred roubles laid by. They sold

a colt, and one half of their bees; hired out one of their sons as a

laborer, and took his wages in advance; borrowed the rest from a

brother-in-law, and so scraped together half the purchase money.

Having done this, Pahom chose out a farm of forty acres, some of it

wooded, and went to the lady to bargain for it. They came to an

agreement, and he shook hands with her upon it, and paid her a

deposit in advance. Then they went to town and signed the deeds; he

paying half the price down, and undertaking to pay the remainder

within two years.

So now Pahom had land of his own. He borrowed seed, and sowed it on

the land he had bought. The harvest was a good one, and within a

year he had managed to pay off his debts both to the lady and to his

brother-in-law. So he became a landowner, ploughing and sowing his

own land, making hay on his own land, cutting his own trees, and

feeding his cattle on his own pasture. When he went out to plough

his fields, or to look at his growing corn, or at his grass meadows,

his heart would fill with joy. The grass that grew and the flowers

that bloomed there, seemed to him unlike any that grew elsewhere.

Formerly, when he had passed by that land, it had appeared the same

as any other land, but now it seemed quite different.

III

So Pahom was well contented, and everything would have been right if

the neighboring peasants would only not have trespassed on his corn-

fields and meadows. He appealed to them most civilly, but they

still went on: now the Communal herdsmen would let the village cows

stray into his meadows; then horses from the night pasture would get

among his corn. Pahom turned them out again and again, and forgave

their owners, and for a long time he forbore from prosecuting any

one. But at last he lost patience and complained to the District

Court. He knew it was the peasants’ want of land, and no evil

intent on their part, that caused the trouble; but he thought:

“I cannot go on overlooking it, or they will destroy all I have.

They must be taught a lesson.”

So he had them up, gave them one lesson, and then another, and two

or three of the peasants were fined. After a time Pahom’s

neighbours began to bear him a grudge for this, and would now and

then let their cattle on his land on purpose. One peasant even got

into Pahom’s wood at night and cut down five young lime trees for

their bark. Pahom passing through the wood one day noticed

something white. He came nearer, and saw the stripped trunks lying

on the ground, and close by stood the stumps, where the tree had

been. Pahom was furious.

“If he had only cut one here and there it would have been bad enough,”

thought Pahom, “but the rascal has actually cut down a whole clump.

If I could only find out who did this, I would pay him out.”

He racked his brains as to who it could be. Finally he decided: “It

must be Simon-no one else could have done it.” Se he went to

Simon’s homestead to have a look around, but he found nothing, and

only had an angry scene. However’ he now felt more certain than

ever that Simon had done it, and he lodged a complaint. Simon was

summoned. The case was tried, and re-tried, and at the end of it

all Simon was acquitted, there being no evidence against him. Pahom

felt still more aggrieved, and let his anger loose upon the Elder

and the Judges.

“You let thieves grease your palms,” said he. “If you were honest

folk yourselves, you would not let a thief go free.”

So Pahom quarrelled with the Judges and with his neighbors. Threats

to burn his building began to be uttered. So though Pahom had more

land, his place in the Commune was much worse than before.

About this time a rumor got about that many people were moving to

new parts.

“There’s no need for me to leave my land,” thought Pahom. “But some

of the others might leave our village, and then there would be more

room for us. I would take over their land myself, and make my

estate a bit bigger. I could then live more at ease. As it is, I

am still too cramped to be comfortable.”

One day Pahom was sitting at home, when a peasant passing through

the village, happened to call in. He was allowed to stay the night,

and supper was given him. Pahom had a talk with this peasant and

asked him where he came from. The stranger answered that he came

from beyond the Volga, where he had been working. One word led to

another, and the man went on to say that many people were settling

in those parts. He told how some people from his village had

settled there. They had joined the Commune, and had had twenty-five

acres per man granted them. The land was so good, he said, that the

rye sown on it grew as high as a horse, and so thick that five cuts

of a sickle made a sheaf. One peasant, he said, had brought nothing

with him but his bare hands, and now he had six horses and two cows

of his own.

Pahom’s heart kindled with desire. He thought:

“Why should I suffer in this narrow hole, if one can live so well

elsewhere? I will sell my land and my homestead here, and with the

money I will start afresh over there and get everything new. In

this crowded place one is always having trouble. But I must first

go and find out all about it myself.”

Towards summer he got ready and started. He went down the Volga on

a steamer to Samara, then walked another three hundred miles on

foot, and at last reached the place. It was just as the stranger

had said. The peasants had plenty of land: every man had twenty-

five acres of Communal land given him for his use, and any one who

had money could buy, besides, at fifty-cents an acre as much good

freehold land as he wanted.

Having found out all he wished to know, Pahom returned home as

autumn came on, and began selling off his belongings. He sold his

land at a profit, sold his homestead and all his cattle, and

withdrew from membership of the Commune. He only waited till the

spring, and then started with his family for the new settlement.

IV

As soon as Pahom and his family arrived at their new abode, he

applied for admission into the Commune of a large village. He stood

treat to the Elders, and obtained the necessary documents. Five

shares of Communal land were given him for his own and his sons’

use: that is to say–125 acres (not altogether, but in different

fields) besides the use of the Communal pasture. Pahom put up the

buildings he needed, and bought cattle. Of the Communal land alone

he had three times as much as at his former home, and the land was

good corn-land. He was ten times better off than he had been. He

had plenty of arable land and pasturage, and could keep as many head

of cattle as he liked.

At first, in the bustle of building and settling down, Pahom was

pleased with it all, but when he got used to it he began to think

that even here he had not enough land. The first year, he sowed

wheat on his share of the Communal land, and had a good crop. He

wanted to go on sowing wheat, but had not enough Communal land for

the purpose, and what he had already used was not available; for in

those parts wheat is only sown on virgin soil or on fallow land. It

is sown for one or two years, and then the land lies fallow till it

is again overgrown with prairie grass. There were many who wanted

such land, and there was not enough for all; so that people

quarrelled about it. Those who were better off, wanted it for

growing wheat, and those who were poor, wanted it to let to dealers,

so that they might raise money to pay their taxes. Pahom wanted to

sow more wheat; so he rented land from a dealer for a year. He

sowed much wheat and had a fine crop, but the land was too far from

the village–the wheat had to be carted more than ten miles. After

a time Pahom noticed that some peasant-dealers were living on

separate farms, and were growing wealthy; and he thought:

“If I were to buy some freehold land, and have a homestead on it, it

would be a different thing, altogether. Then it would all be nice

and compact.”

The question of buying freehold land recurred to him again and again.

He went on in the same way for three years; renting land and sowing

wheat. The seasons turned out well and the crops were good, so that

he began to lay money by. He might have gone on living contentedly,

but he grew tired of having to rent other people’s land every year,

and having to scramble for it. Wherever there was good land to be

had, the peasants would rush for it and it was taken up at once, so

that unless you were sharp about it you got none. It happened in

the third year that he and a dealer together rented a piece of

pasture land from some peasants; and they had already ploughed it

up, when there was some dispute, and the peasants went to law about

it, and things fell out so that the labor was all lost.

“If it were my own land,” thought Pahom, “I should be independent,

and there would not be all this unpleasantness.”

So Pahom began looking out for land which he could buy; and he came

across a peasant who had bought thirteen hundred acres, but having

got into difficulties was willing to sell again cheap. Pahom

bargained and haggled with him, and at last they settled the price

at 1,500 roubles, part in cash and part to be paid later. They had

all but clinched the matter, when a passing dealer happened to stop

at Pahom’s one day to get a feed for his horse. He drank tea with

Pahom, and they had a talk. The dealer said that he was just

returning from the land of the Bashkirs, far away, where he had

bought thirteen thousand acres of land all for 1,000 roubles. Pahom

questioned him further, and the tradesman said:

“All one need do is to make friends with the chiefs. I gave away

about one hundred roubles’ worth of dressing-gowns and carpets,

besides a case of tea, and I gave wine to those who would drink it;

and I got the land for less than two cents an acre. And he showed

Pahom the title-deeds, saying:

“The land lies near a river, and the whole prairie is virgin soil.”

Pahom plied him with questions, and the tradesman said:

“There is more land there than you could cover if you walked a year,

and it all belongs to the Bashkirs. They are as simple as sheep,

and land can be got almost for nothing.”

“There now,” thought Pahom, “with my one thousand roubles, why

should I get only thirteen hundred acres, and saddle myself with a

debt besides. If I take it out there, I can get more than ten times

as much for the money.”

V

Pahom inquired how to get to the place, and as soon as the tradesman

had left him, he prepared to go there himself. He left his wife to

look after the homestead, and started on his journey taking his man

with him. They stopped at a town on their way, and bought a case of

tea, some wine, and other presents, as the tradesman had advised.

On and on they went until they had gone more than three hundred

miles, and on the seventh day they came to a place where the

Bashkirs had pitched their tents. It was all just as the tradesman

had said. The people lived on the steppes, by a river, in felt-

covered tents. They neither tilled the ground, nor ate bread.

Their cattle and horses grazed in herds on the steppe. The colts

were tethered behind the tents, and the mares were driven to them

twice a day. The mares were milked, and from the milk kumiss was

made. It was the women who prepared kumiss, and they also made

cheese. As far as the men were concerned, drinking kumiss and tea,

eating mutton, and playing on their pipes, was all they cared about.

They were all stout and merry, and all the summer long they never

thought of doing any work. They were quite ignorant, and knew no

Russian, but were good-natured enough.

As soon as they saw Pahom, they came out of their tents and gathered

round their visitor. An interpreter was found, and Pahom told them

he had come about some land. The Bashkirs seemed very glad; they

took Pahom and led him into one of the best tents, where they made

him sit on some down cushions placed on a carpet, while they sat

round him. They gave him tea and kumiss, and had a sheep killed,

and gave him mutton to eat. Pahom took presents out of his cart and

distributed them among the Bashkirs, and divided amongst them the

tea. The Bashkirs were delighted. They talked a great deal among

themselves, and then told the interpreter to translate.

“They wish to tell you,” said the interpreter, “that they like you,

and that it is our custom to do all we can to please a guest and to

repay him for his gifts. You have given us presents, now tell us

which of the things we possess please you best, that we may present

them to you.”

“What pleases me best here,” answered Pahom, “is your land. Our

land is crowded, and the soil is exhausted; but you have plenty of

land and it is good land. I never saw the like of it.”

The interpreter translated. The Bashkirs talked among themselves

for a while. Pahom could not understand what they were saying, but

saw that they were much amused, and that they shouted and laughed.

Then they were silent and looked at Pahom while the interpreter said:

“They wish me to tell you that in return for your presents they will

gladly give you as much land as you want. You have only to point it

out with your hand and it is yours.”

The Bashkirs talked again for a while and began to dispute. Pahom

asked what they were disputing about, and the interpreter told him

that some of them thought they ought to ask their Chief about the

land and not act in his absence, while others thought there was no

need to wait for his return.

VI

While the Bashkirs were disputing, a man in a large fox-fur cap

appeared on the scene. They all became silent and rose to their

feet. The interpreter said, “This is our Chief himself.”

Pahom immediately fetched the best dressing-gown and five pounds of

tea, and offered these to the Chief. The Chief accepted them, and

seated himself in the place of honour. The Bashkirs at once began

telling him something. The Chief listened for a while, then made a

sign with his head for them to be silent, and addressing himself to

Pahom, said in Russian:

“Well, let it be so. Choose whatever piece of land you like; we

have plenty of it.”

“How can I take as much as I like?” thought Pahom. “I must get a

deed to make it secure, or else they may say, ‘It is yours,’ and

afterwards may take it away again.”

“Thank you for your kind words,” he said aloud. “You have much

land, and I only want a little. But I should like to be sure which

bit is mine. Could it not be measured and made over to me? Life and

death are in God’s hands. You good people give it to me, but your

children might wish to take it away again.”

“You are quite right,” said the Chief. “We will make it over to you.”

“I heard that a dealer had been here,” continued Pahom, “and that

you gave him a little land, too, and signed title-deeds to that

effect. I should like to have it done in the same way.”

The Chief understood.

“Yes,” replied he, “that can be done quite easily. We have a scribe,

and we will go to town with you and have the deed properly sealed.”

“And what will be the price?” asked Pahom.

“Our price is always the same: one thousand roubles a day.”

Pahom did not understand.

“A day? What measure is that? How many acres would that be?”

“We do not know how to reckon it out,” said the Chief. “We sell it

by the day. As much as you can go round on your feet in a day is

yours, and the price is one thousand roubles a day.”

Pahom was surprised.

“But in a day you can get round a large tract of land,” he said.

The Chief laughed.

“It will all be yours!” said he. “But there is one condition: If

you don’t return on the same day to the spot whence you started,

your money is lost.”

“But how am I to mark the way that I have gone?”

“Why, we shall go to any spot you like, and stay there. You must

start from that spot and make your round, taking a spade with you.

Wherever you think necessary, make a mark. At every turning, dig a

hole and pile up the turf; then afterwards we will go round with a

plough from hole to hole. You may make as large a circuit as you

please, but before the sun sets you must return to the place you

started from. All the land you cover will be yours.”

Pahom was delighted. It-was decided to start early next morning.

They talked a while, and after drinking some more kumiss and eating

some more mutton, they had tea again, and then the night came on.

They gave Pahom a feather-bed to sleep on, and the Bashkirs

dispersed for the night, promising to assemble the next morning at

daybreak and ride out before sunrise to the appointed spot.

VII

Pahom lay on the feather-bed, but could not sleep. He kept thinking

about the land.

“What a large tract I will mark off!” thought he. “I can easily go

thirty-five miles in a day. The days are long now, and within a

circuit of thirty-five miles what a lot of land there will be! I

will sell the poorer land, or let it to peasants, but I’ll pick out

the best and farm it. I will buy two ox-teams, and hire two more

laborers. About a hundred and fifty acres shall be plough-land, and

I will pasture cattle on the rest.”

Pahom lay awake all night, and dozed off only just before dawn.

Hardly were his eyes closed when he had a dream. He thought he was

lying in that same tent, and heard somebody chuckling outside. He

wondered who it could be, and rose and went out, and he saw the

Bashkir Chief sitting in front of the tent holding his side and

rolling about with laughter. Going nearer to the Chief, Pahom

asked: “What are you laughing at?” But he saw that it was no longer

the Chief, but the dealer who had recently stopped at his house and

had told him about the land. Just as Pahom was going to ask, “Have

you been here long?” he saw that it was not the dealer, but the

peasant who had come up from the Volga, long ago, to Pahom’s old

home. Then he saw that it was not the peasant either, but the Devil

himself with hoofs and horns, sitting there and chuckling, and

before him lay a man barefoot, prostrate on the ground, with only

trousers and a shirt on. And Pahom dreamt that he looked more

attentively to see what sort of a man it was lying there, and he saw

that the man was dead, and that it was himself! He awoke horror-struck.

“What things one does dream,” thought he.

Looking round he saw through the open door that the dawn was breaking.

“It’s time to wake them up,” thought he. “We ought to be starting.”

He got up, roused his man (who was sleeping in his cart), bade him

harness; and went to call the Bashkirs.

“It’s time to go to the steppe to measure the land,” he said.

The Bashkirs rose and assembled, and the Chief came, too. Then they

began drinking kumiss again, and offered Pahom some tea, but he

would not wait.

“If we are to go, let us go. It is high time,” said he.

VIII

The Bashkirs got ready and they all started: some mounted on horses,

and some in carts. Pahom drove in his own small cart with his

servant, and took a spade with him. When they reached the steppe,

the morning red was beginning to kindle. They ascended a hillock

(called by the Bashkirs a shikhan) and dismounting from their carts

and their horses, gathered in one spot. The Chief came up to Pahom

and stretched out his arm towards the plain:

“See,” said he, “all this, as far as your eye can reach, is ours.

You may have any part of it you like.”

Pahom’s eyes glistened: it was all virgin soil, as flat as the palm

of your hand, as black as the seed of a poppy, and in the hollows

different kinds of grasses grew breast high.

The Chief took off his fox-fur cap, placed it on the ground and said:

“This will be the mark. Start from here, and return here again.

All the land you go round shall be yours.”

Pahom took out his money and put it on the cap. Then he took off

his outer coat, remaining in his sleeveless under coat. He

unfastened his girdle and tied it tight below his stomach, put a

little bag of bread into the breast of his coat, and tying a flask

of water to his girdle, he drew up the tops of his boots, took the

spade from his man, and stood ready to start. He considered for

some moments which way he had better go–it was tempting everywhere.

“No matter,” he concluded, “I will go towards the rising sun.”

He turned his face to the east, stretched himself, and waited for

the sun to appear above the rim.

“I must lose no time,” he thought, “and it is easier walking while

it is still cool.”

The sun’s rays had hardly flashed above the horizon, before Pahom,

carrying the spade over his shoulder, went down into the steppe.

Pahom started walking neither slowly nor quickly. After having gone

a thousand yards he stopped, dug a hole and placed pieces of turf

one on another to make it more visible. Then he went on; and now

that he had walked off his stiffness he quickened his pace. After a

while he dug another hole.

Pahom looked back. The hillock could be distinctly seen in the

sunlight, with the people on it, and the glittering tires of the

cartwheels. At a rough guess Pahom concluded that he had walked

three miles. It was growing warmer; he took off his under-coat,

flung it across his shoulder, and went on again. It had grown quite

warm now; he looked at the sun, it was time to think of breakfast.

“The first shift is done, but there are four in a day, and it is too

soon yet to turn. But I will just take off my boots,” said he to himself.

He sat down, took off his boots, stuck them into his girdle, and went on.

It was easy walking now.

“I will go on for another three miles,” thought he, “and then turn

to the left. The spot is so fine, that it would be a pity to lose

  1. The further one goes, the better the land seems.”

He went straight on a for a while, and when he looked round, the

hillock was scarcely visible and the people on it looked like black

ants, and he could just see something glistening there in the sun.

“Ah,” thought Pahom, “I have gone far enough in this direction, it

is time to turn. Besides I am in a regular sweat, and very thirsty.”

He stopped, dug a large hole, and heaped up pieces of turf. Next he

untied his flask, had a drink, and then turned sharply to the left.

He went on and on; the grass was high, and it was very hot.

Pahom began to grow tired: he looked at the sun and saw that it was noon.

“Well,” he thought, “I must have a rest.”

He sat down, and ate some bread and drank some water; but he did not

lie down, thinking that if he did he might fall asleep. After

sitting a little while, he went on again. At first he walked

easily: the food had strengthened him; but it had become terribly

hot, and he felt sleepy; still he went on, thinking: “An hour to

suffer, a life-time to live.”

He went a long way in this direction also, and was about to turn to

the left again, when he perceived a damp hollow: “It would be a pity

to leave that out,” he thought. “Flax would do well there.” So he

went on past the hollow, and dug a hole on the other side of it

before he turned the corner. Pahom looked towards the hillock. The

heat made the air hazy: it seemed to be quivering, and through the

haze the people on the hillock could scarcely be seen.

“Ah!” thought Pahom, “I have made the sides too long; I must make

this one shorter.” And he went along the third side, stepping

faster. He looked at the sun: it was nearly half way to the

horizon, and he had not yet done two miles of the third side of the

square. He was still ten miles from the goal.

“No,” he thought, “though it will make my land lopsided, I must

hurry back in a straight line now. I might go too far, and as it is

I have a great deal of land.”

So Pahom hurriedly dug a hole, and turned straight towards the hillock.

IX

Pahom went straight towards the hillock, but he now walked with

difficulty. He was done up with the heat, his bare feet were cut

and bruised, and his legs began to fail. He longed to rest, but it

was impossible if he meant to get back before sunset. The sun waits

for no man, and it was sinking lower and lower.

“Oh dear,” he thought, “if only I have not blundered trying for too

much! What if I am too late?”

He looked towards the hillock and at the sun. He was still far from

his goal, and the sun was already near the rim. Pahom walked on and

on; it was very hard walking, but he went quicker and quicker. He

pressed on, but was still far from the place. He began running,

threw away his coat, his boots, his flask, and his cap, and kept

only the spade which he used as a support.

“What shall I do,” he thought again, “I have grasped too much, and

ruined the whole affair. I can’t get there before the sun sets.”

And this fear made him still more breathless. Pahom went on

running, his soaking shirt and trousers stuck to him, and his mouth

was parched. His breast was working like a blacksmith’s bellows,

his heart was beating like a hammer, and his legs were giving way as

if they did not belong to him. Pahom was seized with terror lest he

should die of the strain.

Though afraid of death, he could not stop. “After having run all

that way they will call me a fool if I stop now,” thought he. And

he ran on and on, and drew near and heard the Bashkirs yelling and

shouting to him, and their cries inflamed his heart still more. He

gathered his last strength and ran on.

The sun was close to the rim, and cloaked in mist looked large, and

red as blood. Now, yes now, it was about to set! The sun was quite

low, but he was also quite near his aim. Pahom could already see

the people on the hillock waving their arms to hurry him up. He

could see the fox-fur cap on the ground, and the money on it, and

the Chief sitting on the ground holding his sides. And Pahom

remembered his dream.

“There is plenty of land,” thought he, “but will God let me live on

it? I have lost my life, I have lost my life! I shall never reach

that spot!”

Pahom looked at the sun, which had reached the earth: one side of it

had already disappeared. With all his remaining strength he rushed

on, bending his body forward so that his legs could hardly follow

fast enough to keep him from falling. Just as he reached the

hillock it suddenly grew dark. He looked up–the sun had already

set. He gave a cry: “All my labor has been in vain,” thought he,

and was about to stop, but he heard the Bashkirs still shouting, and

remembered that though to him, from below, the sun seemed to have

set, they on the hillock could still see it. He took a long breath

and ran up the hillock. It was still light there. He reached the

top and saw the cap. Before it sat the Chief laughing and holding

his sides. Again Pahom remembered his dream, and he uttered a cry:

his legs gave way beneath him, he fell forward and reached the cap

with his hands.

“Ah, what a fine fellow!” exclaimed the Chief. “He has gained

much land!”

Pahom’s servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw

that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead!

The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity.

His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for

Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to

his heels was all he needed.

(ack:online-literature.com)

The End

footnotes:

1. One hundred kopeks make a rouble. The kopek is worth about
half a cent.

2. A non-intoxicating drink usually made from rye-malt and rye-flour.

3. The brick oven in a Russian peasant’s hut is usually built so
as to leave a flat top, large enough to lie on, for those who want
to sleep in a warm place.

4. 120 “desyatins.” The “desyatina” is properly 2.7 acres; but in
this story round numbers are used.

5. Three roubles per “desyatina.”

6. Five “kopeks” for a “desyatina.”

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If the works of any man could make his biographer write in exasperation as thus:“All the while I was writing the biography I had to fight off a revulsion that kept rising within me,” we know it has to be that of Fyodor Dosteovsky. Leo Tolstoy was in full agreement with Nicholas Strakhov, who was the biographer. Such classics as The Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Brothers Karamazov have passed into our treasury of literature as supreme examples of the Russian genius.
Tolstoy a great author himself, ridiculed Dosteovsky’s exaggeration, his implausibility, inchoate style, his grammatical errors, his mania for peopling his imaginary universe with epileptics, alcoholics and paronoiacs. Tolstoy never did experience such ups and downs and sordidness as he did. Dosteovsky was sick in himself, who thought of himself noble and happy and yet lacked courage to see any further than himself. To quote his biographer again,” He was vicious, envious, depraved and spent his life in a state of emotional upheaval and exasperation that would have made him appear riidiculous had he not been so malicious and so intelligent.”
Where Mozart rose above the immediate circumstances over his disappointments and misery the Russian writer sank under, into lower depths. How much more sickening one can get than his boasting about his encounters with little girls and not having any repugnance over them? Once Turgeniev, the author of Fathers and Sons bristled at his confession and asked rather angrily why he was telling him that. “ I just wanted to show how I despise you,”was his answer. He rearranged his life however scabrous or demeaning it might have been, into works something that still have universal appeal.
Our life is real, transient realty to be precise, while such works as that of Dosteovsky or Kafka fall within the realm of supra-reality that we can accept as self-evident. Can we explain reasonably why a bright child of three suddenly fall victim to cancer? Or a child, an apple of the eye of its parents see before their eyes fall a victim of hit and run case? Try explain it in a way its parents can understand. (Reprint)
benny

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