Part 2 out of 7
"0h Lord!" groaned Ossip as he rubbed his knee.
As for the townsfolk, they had no love for the police, so
hastened to withdraw to a little distance, where they silently
awaited the officers' approach. Before long the sergeant, a
little, withered sort of a fellow with diminutive features and a
sandy, stubby moustache, called out in gruff, stern, hoarse,
"So here you are, you rascals!"
Ossip prised himself up from the ground with his elbow, and said
"It was I that contrived the idea of the thing, your
Excellency; but, pray let me off in honour of the festival."
"What do you say, you--?" the sergeant began, but his bluster
was lost amid the swift flow of Ossip's further conciliatory
"We are folk of this town," Ossip continued, "who tonight
found ourselves stranded on the further bank, with nothing to
buy bread with, even though the day after tomorrow will be
Christ's day, the day when Christians like ourselves wish to
clean themselves up a little, and to go to church. So I said to
my mates, 'Be off with you, my good fellows, and may God send
that no mishap befall you!' And for this presumptuousness of
mine I have been punished already, for, as you can see, have as
good as broken my leg."
"Yes," ejaculated the sergeant grimly. "But if you had been
drowned, what then?"
Ossip sighed wearily.
"What then, do you say, your Excellency? Why, then, nothing,
with your permission."
This led the officer to start railing at the culprit, while the
crowd listened as silently and attentively as though he had been
saying something worthy to be heard and heeded, rather than
foully and cynically miscalling their mothers.
Lastly, our names having been noted, the police withdrew, while
each of us drank a dram of vodka (and thereby gained a measure
of warmth and comfort), and then began to make for our several
homes. Ossip followed the police with derisive eyes; whereafter,
he leapt to his feet with a nimble, adroit movement, and crossed
himself with punctilious piety.
"That's all about it, thank God!" he exclaimed.
"What?" sniggered Boev, now both disillusioned and astonished.
"Do you really mean to say that that leg of yours is better
already? Or do you mean that it never was injured at all? "
"Ah! So you wish that it HAD been injured, eh?"
"The rascal of a Petrushka!" the other exclaimed.
"Now," commanded Ossip, "do all of you be off, mates." And
with that he pulled his wet cap on to his head.
I accompanied him--walking a little behind the rest. As he limped
along, he said in an undertone-said kindly-- and as though he were
communicating a secret known only to himself:
"Whatsoever one may do, and whithersoever one may turn, one
will find that life cannot be lived without a measure of fraud
and deceit. For that is what life IS, Makarei, the devil fly
away with it! . . . I suppose you're making for the hill? Well,
I'll keep you company."
Darkness had fallen, but at a certain spot some red and yellow
lamps, lamps the beams of which seemed to be saying, "Come up
hither!" were shining through the obscurity.
Meanwhile, as we proceeded in the direction of the bells that
were ringing on the hill, rivulets of water flowed with a murmur
under our feet, and Ossip's kindly voice kept mingling with
"See," he continued, "how easily I befooled that sergeant!
That is how things have to be done, Makarei--one has to keep folk
from knowing one's business, yet to make them think that they
are the chief persons concerned, and the persons whose wit has
put the cap on the whole."
Yet as I listened to his speech, while supporting his steps, I
could make little of it.
Nor did I care to make very much of it, for I was of a simple
and easygoing nature. And though at the moment I could not have
told whether I really liked Ossip, I would still have followed
his lead in any direction--yes, even across the river again,
though the ice had been giving way beneath me.
And as we proceeded, and the bells echoed and re-echoed, I
thought to myself with a spasm of joy:
"Ah, many times may I thus walk to greet the spring!"
While Ossip said with a sigh:
"The human soul is a winged thing. Even in sleep it flies."
A winged thing? Yes, and a thing of wonder.
The place where I first saw him was a tavern wherein, ensconced
in the chimney-corner, and facing a table, he was exclaiming
stutteringly, "Oh, I know the truth about you all! Yes, I know
the truth about you!" while standing in a semicircle in front
of him, and unconsciously rendering him more and more excited
with their sarcastic interpolations, were some tradesmen of the
superior sort--five in number. One of them remarked indifferently:
"How should you NOT know the truth about us, seeing that you do
nothing but slander us?"
Shabby, in fact in rags, Gubin at that moment reminded me of a
homeless dog which, having strayed into a strange street, has
found itself held up by a band of dogs of superior strength,
and, seized with nervousness, is sitting back on its haunches
and sweeping the dust with its tail; and, with growls, and
occasional barings of its fangs, and sundry barkings, attempting
now to intimidate its adversaries, and now to conciliate them.
Meanwhile, having perceived the stranger's helplessness and
insignificance, the native pack is beginning to moderate its
attitude, in the conviction that, though continued maintenance
of dignity is imperative, it is not worthwhile to pick a
quarrel so long as an occasional yelp be vented in the
"To whom are you of any use?" one of the tradesmen at length
"Not a man of us but may be of use."
"To whom, then?" . . .
I had long since grown familiar with tavern disputes concerning
verities, and not infrequently seen those disputes develop into
open brawls; but never had I permitted myself to be drawn into
their toils, or to be set wandering amid their tangles like a
blind man negotiating a number of hillocks. Moreover, just
before this encounter with Gubin, I had arrived at a dim surmise
that when such differences were carried to the point of madness
and bloodshed. Really,they constituted an expression of the
unmeaning, hopeless, melancholy life that is lived in the wilder
and more remote districts of Russia--of the life that is lived on
swampy banks of dingy rivers, and in our smaller and more
God-forgotten towns. For it would seem that in such places men
have nothing to look for, nor any knowledge of how to look for
anything; wherefore, they brawl and shout in vain attempts to
dissipate despondency. . . .
I myself was sitting near Gubin, but on the other side of the
table. Yet, this was not because his outbursts and the
tradesmen's retorts thereto were a pleasure to listen to, since
to me both the one and the other seemed about as futile as
beating the air.
"To whom are YOU of use?"
"To himself every man can be useful."
"But what good can one do oneself?" . . .
The windows of the tavern were open, while in the pendent,
undulating cloud of blue smoke that the flames of the lamps
emitted, those lamps looked like so many yellow pitchers floating
amid the waters of a stagnant pond. Out of doors there was
brooding the quiet of an August night, and not a rustle, not a
whisper was there to be heard. Hence, as numbed with melancholy,
I gazed at the inky heavens and limpid stars I thought to myself:
"Surely, never were the sky and the stars meant to look down
upon a life like this, a life like this?"
Suddenly someone said with the subdued assurance of a person
reading aloud from a written document:
"Unless the peasants of Kubarovo keep a watch upon their timber
lands, the sun will fire them tomorrow, and then the Birkins'
forest also will catch alight."
For a moment the dispute died down. Then, as it were cleaving
the silence, a voice said stutteringly:
"Who cares about the significance of the word 'truth'?"
And the words-- heavy, jumbled, and clumsy-- filled me with
despondent reflections. Then again the voices rose--this time in
louder and more venomous accents, and with their din recalled to
me, by some accident, the foolish lines:
The gods did give men water
To wash in, and to drink;
Yet man has made it but a pool
In which his woes to sink.
Presently I moved outside and, seating myself on the steps of
the veranda, fell to contemplating the dull, blurred windows of
the Archpriest's house on the other side of the square, and to
watching how black shadows kept flitting to and fro behind their
panes as the faint, lugubrious notes of a guitar made themselves
heard. And a high-pitched, irritable voice kept repeating at
intervals: "Allow me. Pray, permit me to speak," and being
answered by a voice which intermittently shot into the silence,
as into a bottomless sack, the words: "No, do you wait a
moment, do you wait a moment."
Surrounded by the darkness, the houses looked stunted like
gravestones, with a line of black trees above their roofs that
loomed shadowy and cloud-like. Only in the furthest corner of
the expanse was the light of a solitary street lamp bearing a
resemblance to the disk of a stationary, resplendent dandelion.
Over everything was melancholy. Far from inviting was the
general outlook. So much was this the case that, had, at that
moment, anyone stolen upon me from behind the bushes and dealt
me a sudden blow on the head, I should merely have sunk to earth
without attempting to see who my assailant had been.
Often, in those days, was I in this mood, for it clave to me as
faithfully as a dog--never did it wholly leave me.
"It was for men like THOSE that this fair earth of ours was
bestowed upon us!" I thought to myself.
Suddenly, with a clatter, someone ran out of the door of the
tavern, slid down the steps, fell headlong at their foot,
quickly regained his equilibrium, and disappeared in the
darkness after exclaiming in a threatening voice:
"Oh, I'LL pay you out! I'LL skin you, you damned... !"
Whereafter two figures that also appeared in the doorway said as
they stood talking to one another:
"You heard him threaten to fire the place, did you not?"
"Yes, I did. But why should he want to fire it? "
"Because he is a dangerous rascal."
Presently, slinging my wallet upon my back, I pursued my onward
way along a street that was fenced on either side with a tall
palisade. As I proceeded, long grasses kept catching at my feet
and rustling drily. And so warm was the night as to render the
payment of a lodging fee superfluous; and the more so since in
the neighbourhood of the cemetery, where an advanced guard of
young pines had pushed forward to the cemetery wall and littered
the sandy ground, with a carpet of red, dry cones, there were
sleeping-places prepared in advance.
Suddenly from the darkness there emerged, to recoil again, a
man's tall figure.
"Who is that? Who is it?" asked the hoarse, nervous voice of
Gubin in dissipation of the deathlike stillness.
Which said, he and I fell into step with one another. As we
proceeded he inquired whence I had come, and why I was still
abroad. Whereafter he extended to me, as to an old acquaintance,
"Will you come and sleep at my place? My house is near here,
and as for work, I will find you a job tomorrow. In fact, as it
happens, I am needing a man to help me clean out a well at the
Birkins' place. Will the job suit you? Very well, then. Always I
like to settle things overnight, as it is at night that I can
best see through people."
The "house" turned out to be nothing more than an old
one-eyed, hunchbacked washhouse or shanty which, bulging of
wall, stood wedged against the clayey slope of a ravine as
though it would fain bury itself amid the boughs of the
neighbouring arbutus trees and elders.
Without striking a light, Gubin flung himself upon some mouldy
hay that littered a threshold as narrow as the threshold of a
dog-kennel, and said to me with an air of authority as he did so:
"I will sleep with my head towards the door, for the atmosphere
here is a trifle confined."
And, true enough, the place reeked of elderberries, soap, burnt
stuff, and decayed leaves. I could not conceive why I had come
to such a spot.
The twisted branches of the neighbouring trees hung motionless
athwart the sky, and concealed from view the golden dust of the
Milky Way, while across the Oka an owl kept screeching, and the
strange, arresting remarks of my companion pelted me like
showers of peas.
"Do not be surprised that I should live in a remote ravine," he
said. "I, whose hand is against every man, can at least feel
lord of what I survey here."
Too dark was it for me to see my host's face, but my memory
recalled his bald cranium, and the yellow light of the lamps
falling upon a nose as long as a woodpecker's beak, a pair of
grey and stubbly cheeks, a pair of thin lips covered by a
bristling moustache, a mouth sharp-cut as with a knife, and full
of black, evil-looking stumps, a pair of pointed, sensitive,
mouse-like ears, and a clean-shaven chin. The last feature in no
way consorted with his visage, or with his whole appearance; but
at least it rendered him worthy of remark, and enabled one to
realise that one had to deal with neither a peasant nor a
soldier nor a tradesman, but with a man peculiar to himself.
Also, his frame was lanky, with long arms and legs, and pointed
knees and elbows. In fact, so like a piece of string was his
body that to twist it round and round, or even to tie it into a
knot, would, seemingly, have been easy enough.
For awhile I found his speech difficult to follow; wherefore,
silently I gazed at the sky, where the stars appeared to be
playing at follow-my-leader.
"Are you asleep?" at length he inquired.
"No, I am not. Why do you shave your beard?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because, if you will pardon me, I think your face would look
With a short laugh he exclaimed:
"Bearded? Ah, sloven! Bearded, indeed!"
To which he added more gravely:
"Both Peter the Great and Nicholas I were wiser than you, for
they ordained that whosoever should be bearded should have his
nose slit, and be fined a hundred roubles. Did you ever hear of
"And from the same source, from the beard, arose also the Great
His manner of speaking was too rapid to be articulate, and, in
leaving his mouth, his words caused his lips to bare stumps and
gums amid which they lost their way, became disintegrated, and
issued, as it were, in an incomplete state.
"Everyone," he continued, "knows that life is lived more
easily with a beard than without one, since with a beard lies
are more easily told--they can be told, and then hidden in the
masses of hair. Hence we ought to go through life with our faces
naked, since such faces render untruthfulness more difficult,
and prevent their owners from prevaricating without the fact
becoming plain to all."
"But what about women?"
"What about women? Well, women can always lie to their husbands
successfully, but not to all the town, to all the world, to folk
in general. Moreover, since a woman's real business in life is
the same as that of the hen, to rear young, what can it matter
if she DOES cackle a few falsehoods, provided that she be
neither a priest nor a mayor nor a tchinovnik, and does not
possess any authority, and cannot establish laws? For the really
important point is that the law itself should not lie, but ever
uphold truth pure and simple. Long has the prevalent illegality
The door of the shanty was standing open, and amid the outer
darkness, as in a church, the trees looked like pillars, and the
white stems of the birches like silver candelabra tipped with a
thousand lights, or dimly-seen choristers with faces showing
pale above sacramental vestments of black. All my soul was full
of a sort of painful restlessness. It was a feeling as though I
should live to rise and go forth into the darkness, and offer
battle to the terrors of the night; yet ever, as my companion's
torrential speech caught and held my attention, it detained me
where I was.
"My father was a man of no little originality and character," he
went on. "Wherefore, none of the townsfolk liked him. By the age
of twenty he had risen to be an alderman, yet never to the end
could get the better of folk's stubbornness and stupidity, even
though he made it his custom to treat all and sundry to food and
drink, and to reason with them. No, not even at the last did he
attain his due. People feared him because he revolutionised
everything, revolutionised it down to the very roots; the truth
being that he had grasped the one essential fact that law and
order must be driven, like nails, into the people's very vitals."
Mice squeaked under the floor, and on the further side of the
Oka an owl screeched, while amid the pitch-black heavens I could
see a number of blotches intermittently lightening to an elusive
red and blurring the faint glitter of the stars.
"It was one o'clock in the morning when my father died," Gubin
continued." And upon myself, who was seventeen and had just
finished my course at the municipal school of Riazan, there
devolved, naturally enough, all the enmity that my father had
incurred during his lifetime. 'He is just like his sire,' folk
said. Also, I was alone, absolutely alone, in the world, since
my mother had lost her reason two years before my father's
death, and passed away in a frenzy. However, I had an uncle, a
retired unter-officier who was both a sluggard, a tippler, and a
hero (a hero because he had had his eyes shot out at Plevna, and
his left arm injured in a manner which had induced paralysis,
and his breast adorned with the military cross and a set of
medals). And sometimes, this uncle of mine would rally me on my
learning. For instance, 'Scholar,' he would say, 'what does
"tiversia " mean?' 'No such word exists,' would be my reply,
and thereupon he would seize me by the hair, for he was rather
an awkward person to deal with. Another factor as concerned
making me ashamed of my scholarship was the ignorance of the
townspeople in general, and in the end I became the common butt,
a sort of 'holy idiot.'"
So greatly did these recollections move Gubin that he rose and
transferred his position to the door of the hut, where, a dark
blur against the square of blue, he lit a gurgling pipe, and
puffed thereat until his long, conical nose glowed. Presently
the surging stream of words began again:
"At twenty I married an orphan, and when she fell ill and died
childless I found myself alone once more, and without an adviser
or a friend. However, still I continued both to live and to look
about me. And in time, I perceived that life is not lived wholly
as it should be."
"What in life is 'not lived wholly as it should be'?"
"Everything in life. For life is mere folly, mere fatuous
nonsense. The truth is that our dogs do not bark always at the
right moment. For instance, when I said to folk, 'How would it
be if we were to open a technical school for girls?' They
merely laughed and replied, 'Trade workers are hopeless
drunkards. Already have we enough of them. Besides, hitherto
women have contrived to get on WITHOUT education.' And when next
I conceived a scheme for instituting a match factory, it befell
that the factory was burnt down during its first year of
existence, and I found myself once more at a loose end. Next a
certain woman got hold of me, and I flitted about her like a
martin around a belfry, and so lost my head as to live life as
though I were not on earth at all--for three years I did not know
even what I was doing, and only when I recovered my senses did I
perceive myself to be a pauper, and my all, every single thing
that I had possessed, to have passed into HER white hands. Yes,
at twenty-eight I found myself a beggar. Yet I have never wholly
regretted the fact, for certainly for a time I lived life as few
men ever live it. 'Take my all--take it!' I used to say to her.
And, truly enough, I should never have done much good with my
father's fortune, whereas she--well, so it befell. Somehow I
think that in those days my opinions must have been different
from now--now that I have lost everything. . . . Yet the woman
used to say, 'You have NOT lost everything,' and she had wit
enough to fit out a whole townful of people."
"This woman--who was she? "
"The wife of a merchant. Whenever she unrobed and said, 'Come!
What is this body of mine worth?' I used to make reply, 'A price
that is beyond compute.' . . . So within three years everything
that I possessed vanished like smoke. Sometimes, of course, folk
laughed at and jibed at me; nor did I ever refute them. But now
that I have come to have a better understanding of life's
affairs, I see that life is not wholly lived as it should be. For
that matter, too, I do not hold my tongue on the subject, for
that is not my way--still left to me I have a tongue and my soul.
The same reason accounts for the fact that no one likes me, and
that by everyone I am looked upon as a fool."
"How, in your opinion, ought life to be lived?"
Without answering me at once, Gubin sucked at his pipe until
his nose made a glowing red blur in the darkness. Then he
"How life ought to be lived no one could say exactly. And this
though I have given much thought to the subject, and still am
I found it no difficult matter to form a mental picture of the
desolate existence which this man must be leading--this man whom
all his fellows both derided and shunned. For at that time I too
was bidding fair to fail in life, and had my heart in the grip
of ceaseless despondency.
The truth is that of futile people Russia is over-full. Many
such I myself have known, and always they have attracted me as
strongly and mysteriously as a magnet. Always they have struck me
more favourably than the provincial-minded majority who live for
food and work alone, and put away from them all that could
conceivably render their bread-winning difficult, or prevent
them from snatching bread out of the hands of their weaker
neighbours. For most such folk are gloomy and self-contained,
with hearts that have turned to wood, and an outlook that ever
reverts to the past; unless, indeed, they be folk of spurious
good nature, an addition to talkativeness, and an apparent
bonhomie which veils a frigid, grey interior, and conveys an
impression of cruelty and greed of all that life contains.
Always, in the end, I have detected in such folk something
wintry, something that makes them seem, as it were, to be
spending spring and summer in expectation solely of the winter
season, with its long nights, and its cold of an austerity which
forces one for ever to be consuming food.
Yet seldom among this distasteful and wearisome crowd of wintry
folk is there to be encountered a man who has altogether proved
a failure. But if he has done so, he will be found to be a man
whose nature is of a more thoughtful, a more truly existent, a
more clear-sighted cast than that of his fellows--a man who at
least can look beyond the boundaries of the trite and
commonplace, and whose mentality has a greater capacity for
attaining spiritual fulfilment, and is more desirous of doing
so, than the mentality of his compeers. That is to say, in such
a man one can always detect a striving for space, as a man who,
loving light, carries light in himself.
Unfortunately, all too often is that light only the fugitive
phosphorescence of putrefaction; wherefore as one contemplates
him one soon begins to realise with bitterness and vexation and
disappointment that he is but a sluggard, but a braggart, but
one who is petty and weak and blinded with conceit and distorted
with envy, but one between whose word and whose deed there gapes
a disparity even wider and deeper than the disparity which
divides the word from the deed of the man of winter, of the man
who, though he be as tardy as a snail, at least is making some
way in the world, in contradistinction from the failure who
revolves ever in a single spot, like some barren old maid before
the reflection in her looking-glass.
Hence, as I listened to Gubin, there recurred to me more than
one instance of his type.
"Yes, I have succeeded in observing life throughout," he
muttered drowsily as his head sank slowly upon his breast.
And sleep overtook myself with similar suddenness. Apparently
that slumber was of a few minutes' duration only, yet what
aroused me was Gubin pulling at my leg.
"Get up now," he said. "It is time that we were off."
And as his bluish-grey eyes peered into my face, somehow I
derived from their mournful expression a sense of
intellectuality. Beneath the hair on his hollow cheeks were
reddish veins, while similar veins, bluish in tint, covered with
a network his temples, and his bare arms had the appearance of
being made of tanned leather.
Dawn had not yet broken when we rose and proceeded through the
slumbering streets beneath a sky that was of a dull yellow, and
amid an atmosphere that was full of the smell of burning.
"Five days now has the forest been on fire," observed Gubin.
"Yet the fools cannot succeed in putting it out."
Presently the establishment of the merchants Birkin lay before
us, an establishment of curious aspect, since it constituted,
rather, a conglomeration of appendages to a main building of
ground floor and attics, with four windows facing on to the
street, and a series of underpropping annexes. That series
extended to the wing, and was solid and permanent, and bade fair
to overflow into the courtyard, and through the entrance-gates,
and across the street, and to the very kitchen-garden and
flower-garden themselves. Also, it seemed to have been stolen
piecemeal from somewhere, and at different periods, and from
different localities, and tacked at haphazard on to the walls of
the parent erection. Moreover, all the windows of the latter
were small, and in their green panes, as they confronted the
world, there was a timid and suspicious air, while, in
particular, the three windows which faced upon the courtyard had
iron bars to them. Lastly, there were posted, sentinel-like on
the entrance-steps, two water-butts as a precaution against fire.
"What think you of the place?" Gubin muttered as he peered into
the well. "Isn't it a barbarous hole? The right thing would be
to pull it down wholesale, and then rebuild it on larger and
less restricted lines. Yet these fools merely go tacking new
additions on to the old."
For awhile his lips moved as in an incantation. Then he frowned,
glanced shrewdly at the structures in question, and continued
"I may say in passing that the place is MINE."
"Yes, mine. At all events, so it used to be."
And he pulled a grimace as though he had got the toothache
before adding with an air of command:
"Come! I will pump out the water, and YOU shall carry it to the
entrance-steps and fill the water-butts. Here is a pail, and
here a ladder."
Whereafter, with a considerable display of strength, he set
about his portion of the task, whilst I myself took pail in hand
and advanced towards the steps to find that the water-butts
were so rotten that, instead of retaining the water, they let it
leak out into the courtyard. Gubin said with an oath:
"Fine masters these--masters who grudge one a groat, and
squander a rouble! What if a fire WERE to break out? Oh, the
Presently, the proprietors in person issued into the courtyard
--the stout, bald Peter Birkin, a man whose face was flushed even
to the whites of his shifty eyes, and, close behind him, eke his
shadow, Jonah Birkin-- a person of sandy, sullen mien, and
overhanging brows, and dull, heavy eyes.
"Good day, dear sir," said Peter Birkin thinly, as with a puffy
hand he raised from his head a cloth cap, while Jonah nodded.
And then, with a sidelong glance at myself, asked in a deep bass
"Who is this young man?"
Large and important like peacocks, the pair then shuffled across
the wet yard, and in so doing, went to much trouble to avoid
soiling their polished shoes. Next Peter said to his brother:
"Have you noticed that the water-butts are rotted? Oh, that
fine Yakinika! He ought long ago to have been dismissed."
"Who is that young man over there?" Jonah repeated with an air
"The son of his father and mother," Gubin replied quietly, and
without so much as a glance at the brothers.
"Well, come along," snuffled Peter with a drawling of his
vowels. "It is high time that we were moving. It doesn't matter
who the young man may be."
And with that they slip-slopped across to the entrance gates,
while Gubin gazed after them with knitted brows, and as the
brothers were disappearing through the wicket said carelessly:
" The old sheep! They live solely by the wits of their
stepmother, and if it were not for her, they would long ago have
come to grief. Yes, she is a woman beyond words clever. Once
upon a time there were three brothers--Peter, Alexis, and Jonah;
but, unfortunately, Alexis got killed in a brawl. A fine, tall
fellow HE was, whereas these two are a pair of gluttons, like
everyone else in this town. Not for nothing do three loaves
figure on the municipal arms! Now, to work again! Or shall we
take a rest?"
Here there stepped on to the veranda a tall, well-grown young
woman in an open pink bodice and a blue skirt who, shading blue
eyes with her hand, scanned the courtyard and the steps, and
said with some diffidence:
"Good day, Yakov Vasilitch."
With a good-humoured glance in response, and his mouth open,
Gubin waved a hand in greeting:
"Good day to YOU, Nadezhda Ivanovna," he replied. "How are you
this morning? "
Somehow this made her blush, and cross her arms upon her
ample bosom, while her kindly, rounded, eminently Russian face
evinced the ghost of a shy smile. At the same time, it was a
face wherein not a single feature was of a kind to remain fixed
in the memory, a face as vacant as though nature had forgotten
to stamp thereon a single wish. Hence, even when the woman smiled
there seemed to remain a doubt whether the smile had really
"How is Natalia Vasilievna?" continued Gubin.
"Much as usual," the woman answered softly.
Whereafter hesitantly, and with downcast eyes, she essayed to
cross the courtyard. As she passed me I caught a whiff of
raspberries and currants.
Disappearing into the grey mist through a small door with iron
staples, she soon reissued thence with a hencoop, and, seating
herself on the steps of the doorway, and setting the coop on her
knees, took between her two large palms some fluttering,
chirping, downy, golden chicks, and raised them to her ruddy
lips and cheeks with a murmur of:
"0h my little darlings! 0h my little darlings!"
And in her voice, somehow, there was a note as of intoxication,
of abandonment. Meanwhile dull, reddish sunbeams were beginning
to peer through the fence, and to warm the long, pointed staples
with which it was fastened together. While in a stream of water
that was dripping from the eaves, and trickling over the floor
of the court, and around the woman's feet, a single beam was
bathing and quivering as though it would fain effect an advance
to the woman's lap and the hencoop, and, with the soft, downy
chicks, enjoy the caresses of the woman's bare white arms.
"Ah, little things!" again she murmured. "Ah, little children
Upon that Gubin suddenly desisted from his task of hauling up
the bucket, and, as he steadied the rope with his arms raised
above his head, said quickly:
"Nadezhda Ivanovna, you ought indeed to have had some
children--six at the least! "
Yet no reply came, nor did the woman even look at him.
The rays of the sun were now spreading, smokelike and
greyish-yellow, over the silver river. Above the river's calm
bed a muslin texture of mist was coiling. Against the nebulous
heavens the blue of the forest was rearing itself amid the
fragrant, pungent fumes from the burning timber.
Yet still asleep amid its sheltering half-circle of forest was
the quiet little town of Miamlin, while behind it, and
encompassing it as with a pair of dark wings, the forest in
question looked as though it were ruffling its feathers in
preparation for further flight beyond the point where, the
peaceful Oka reached, the trees stood darkening, overshadowing
the water's clear depths, and looking at themselves therein.
Yet, though the hour was so early, everything seemed to have
about it an air of sadness, a mien as though the day lacked
promise, as though its face were veiled and mournful, as though,
not yet come to birth, it nevertheless were feeling weary in
Seating myself by Gubin on some trampled straw in the hut
ordinarily used by the watchman of the Birkins' extensive
orchard, I found that, owing to the orchard being set on a
hillside, I could see over the tops of the apple and pear and
fig trees, where their tops hung bespangled with dew as with
quicksilver, and view the whole town and its multicoloured
churches, yellow, newly-painted prison, and yellow-painted bank.
And while in the town's lurid, four-square buildings I could
trace a certain resemblance to the aces of clubs stamped upon
convicts' backs, in the grey strips of the streets I could trace
a certain resemblance to a number of rents in an old, ragged,
faded, dusty coat. Indeed, that morning all comparisons seemed
to take on a tinge of melancholy; the reason being that
throughout the previous evening there had been moaning in my
soul a mournful dirge on the future life.
With nothing, however, were the churches of the town of which I
am speaking exactly comparable, for many of them had attained a
degree of beauty the contemplation of which caused the town to
assume throughout-- a different, a more pleasing and seductive,
aspect. Thought I to myself: "Would that men had fashioned all
other buildings in the town as the churches have been fashioned!"
One of the latter, an old, squat edifice the blank windows of
which were deeply sunken in the stuccoed walls, was known as the
"Prince's Church," for the reason that it enshrined the remains
of a local Prince and his wife, persons of whom it stood
recorded that "they did pass all their lives in kindly,
unchanging love." . . .
The following night Gubin and I chanced to see Peter Birkin's
tall, pale, timid young wife traverse the garden on her way to a
tryst in the washhouse with her lover, the precentor of the
Prince's Church. And as clad in a simple gown, and
barefooted, and having her ample shoulders swathed in an
old, gold jacket or shawl of some sort, she crossed the orchard
by a path running between two lines of apple trees; she walked
with the unhasting gait of a cat which is crossing a yard after
a shower of rain, and from time to time, whenever a puddle is
encountered, lifts and shakes fastidiously one of its soft paws.
Probably, in the woman's case, this came of the fact that things
kept pricking and tickling her soles as she proceeded. Also, her
knees, I could see, were trembling, and her step had in it a
certain hesitancy, a certain lack of assurance.
Meanwhile, bending over the garden from the warm night sky, the
moon's kindly visage, though on the wane, was shining brightly;
and when the woman emerged from the shadow of the trees I could
discern the dark patches of her eyes, her rounded, half-parted
lips, and the thick plait of hair which lay across her bosom.
Also, in the moonlight her bodice had assumed a bluish tinge, so
that she looked almost phantasmal; and when soundlessly, moving
as though on air, she stepped back into the shadow of the trees,
that shadow seemed to lighten.
All this happened at midnight, or thereabouts, but neither of us
was yet asleep, owing to the fact that Gubin had been telling me
some interesting stories concerning the town and its families
and inhabitants. However, as soon as he descried the woman
looming like a ghost, he leapt to his feet in comical terror,then
subsided on to the straw again, contracted his body as though he
were in convulsions, and hurriedly made the sign of the cross.
"Oh Jesus our Lord!" he gasped. "Tell me what that is, tell me
what that is!"
"Keep quiet, you," I urged.
Instead, lurching in my direction, he nudged me with his arm,
"Is it Nadezhda, think you?" he whispered.
"Phew! The scene seems like a dream. Just in the same way, and
in the very same place, did her mother-in-law, Petrushka's
stepmother, use to come and walk. Yes, it was just like this."
Then, rolling over, face downwards, he broke into subdued,
malicious chuckles; whereafter, seizing my hand and sawing it up
and down, he whispered amid his exultant pants:
"I expect Petrushka is asleep, for probably he has taken too
much liquor at the Bassanov's smotrini. [A festival at which a
fiance pays his first visit to the house of the parents of his
betrothed.] Aye, he will be asleep. And as for Jonah, HE will
have gone to Vaska Klochi. So tonight, until morning, Nadezhda
will be able to kick up her heels to her heart's content."
I too had begun to surmise that the woman was come thither for
purposes of her own. Yet the scene was almost dreamlike in its
beauty. It thrilled me to the soul to watch how the woman's blue
eyes gazed about her--gazed as though she were ardently,
caressingly whispering to all living creatures, asleep or awake:
"0h my darlings! 0h my darlings!"
Beside me the uncouth, broken-down Gubin went on in hoarse
"You must know that she is Petrushka's THIRD wife, a woman whom
he took to himself from the family of a merchant of Murom. Yet
the town has it that not only Petrushka, but also Jonah, makes
use of her--that she acts as wife to both brothers, and therefore
lacks children. Also has it been said of her that one Trinity
Sunday she was seen by a party of women to misconduct herself in
this garden with a police sergeant, and then to sit on his lap
and weep. Yet this last I do not wholly believe, for the
sergeant in question is a veteran scarcely able to put one foot
before the other. Also, Jonah, though a brute, lives in abject
fear of his stepmother."
Here a worm-eaten apple fell to the ground, and the woman
paused; whereafter, with head a little raised, she resumed her
way with greater speed.
As for Gubin, he continued, unchecked, though with a trifle less
animosity, rather as though he were reading aloud a manuscript
which he found wearisome:
"See how a man like Peter Birkin may pride himself upon his
wealth, and receive honour during his lifetime, yet all the
while have the devil grinning over his shoulder!"
Then he, Gubin, kept silent awhile, and merely breathed
heavily, and twisted his body about. But suddenly, he resumed in
a strange whisper:
"Fifteen years ago--no, surely it was longer ago than that?
--Madame Nadkin, Nadezhda's mother-in-law, made it her practice
to come to this spot to meet her lover. And a fine gallant HE
Somehow, as I watched the woman creeping along, and looking as
though she were intending to commit a theft, or as though she
fancied that at any moment she might see the plump brothers
Birkin issue from the courtyard into the garden and come
shuffling ponderously over the darkened ground, with ropes and
cudgels grasped in coarse, red hands which knew no pity;
somehow, as I watched her, I felt saddened, and paid little heed
to Gubin's whispered remarks, so intently were my eyes fixed
upon the granary wall as, after gliding along it awhile, the
woman bent her head and disappeared through the dark blue of the
washhouse door. As for Gubin, he went to sleep with a last
drowsy remark of:
"Life is all falsity. Husbands, wives, fathers, children--all of
them practise deceit."
In the east, portions of the sky were turning to light purple,
and other portions to a darker hue, while from time to time I
could see, looming black against those portions, coils of smoke
the density of which kept being stabbed with fiery spikes of
flame, so that the vague, towering forest looked like a hill on
the top of which a fiery dragon was crawling about, and
writhing, and intermittently raising tremulous, scarlet wings,
and as often relapsing into, becoming submerged in, the bank
of vapour. And, in contemplating the spectacle, I seemed
actually to be able to hear the cruel, hissing din of combat
between red and black, and to see pale, frightened rabbits
scudding from underneath the roots of trees amid showers of
sparks, and panting, half-suffocated birds fluttering wildly
amid the branches as further and further afield, and more and
more triumphantly, the scarlet dragon unfurled its wings, and
consumed the darkness, and devoured the rain-soaked timber.
Presently from the dark, blurred doorway in the wall of the
washhouse there emerged a dark figure which went flitting away
among the trees, while after it someone called in a sharp,
"Do not forget. You MUST come."
"Oh, I shall be only too glad!"
"Very well. In the morning the lame woman shall call upon you.
Do you hear?"
And as the woman disappeared from view the other person
sauntered across the garden, and scaled the fence with a clatter.
That night I could not sleep, but, until dawn, lay watching the
burning forest as gradually the weary moon declined, and the
lamp of Venus, cold and green as an emerald, came into view over
the crosses on the Prince's Church. Indeed was the latter a
fitting place for Venus to illumine if really it had been the
case that the Prince and Princess had "passed their lives in
kindly, unchanging love"!
Gradually, the dew cleared the trees of the night darkness, and
caused the damp, grey foliage to smile once more with aniseed
and red raspberry, and to sparkle with the gold of their mildew.
Also, there came hovering about us goldfinches with their little
red-hooded crests, and fussy tomtits in their cravats of yellow,
while a nimble,dark, blue woodpecker scaled the stem of an
apple tree. And everywhere, yellow leaves fluttered to earth,
and, in doing so, so closely resembled birds as to make it not
always easy to distinguish whether a leaf or a tomtit had
glimmered for a moment in the air.
Gubin awoke, sighed, and with his gnarled knuckles gave his
puffy eyes a rub. Then he raised himself upon all-fours, and,
crawling, much dishevelled with sleep, out of the watchman's
hut, snuffed the air (a process in which his movements
approximated comically to those of a keen-nosed watch-dog).
Finally he rose to his feet, and, in the act, shook one of the
trees so violently as to cause a bough to shed its burden of
ripe fruit, and disperse the apples hither and thither over the
dry surface of the ground, or cause them to bury themselves
among the long grass. Three of the juiciest apples he duly
recovered, and, after examination of their exterior, probed with
his teeth, while kicking away from him as many of the remainder
as he could descry.
"Why spoil those apples?" I queried
"Oh, so you are NOT asleep?" he countered with a nod of his
melon-shaped cranium. "As a matter of fact, a few apples won't
be missed, for there are too many of them about. My own father
it was that planted the trees which have grown them."
Then, turning upon me a keen, good-humoured eye, and chuckling,
"What about that Nadezhda? Ah, she is a clever woman indeed!
Yet I have a surprise in store for her and her lover."
"Why should you have?"
"Because I desire to benefit mankind at large" (this was said
didactically, and with a frown). "For, no matter where I detect
evil or underhandedness, it is my duty-- I feel it to be my duty--
to expose that evil, and to lay it bare. There exist people who
need to be taught a lesson, and to whom I long to cry: 'Sinners
that you are, do you lead more righteous lives!'"
From behind some clouds the sun was rising with a disk as murky
and mournful as the face of an ailing child. It was as though he
were feeling conscious that he had done amiss in so long
delaying to shed light upon the world, in so long dallying on
his bed of soft clouds amid the smoke of the forest fire. But
gradually the cheering beams suffused the garden throughout, and
evoked from the ripening fruit an intoxicating wave of scent in
which there could be distinguished also the bracing breath of
Simultaneously there rose into the sky, in the wake of the sun,
a dense stratum of cloud which, blue and snow-white in colour,
lay with its soft hummocks reflected in the calm Oka, and so
wrought therein a secondary firmament as profound and impalpable
as its original.
"Now then, Makar!" was Gubin's command, and once more I posted
myself at the bottom of the well. About three sazheni in depth,
and lined with cold, damp mud to above the level of my middle,
the orifice was charged with a stifling odour both of rotten
wood and of something more intolerable still. Also, whenever I
had filled the pail with mud, and then emptied it into the
bucket and shouted "Right away!" the bucket would start
swinging against my person and bumping it, as unwillingly it
went aloft, and thereafter discharge upon my head and shoulders
clots of filth and drippings of water--meanwhile screening, with
its circular bottom, the glowing sun and now scarce visible
stars. In passing, the spectacle of those stars' waning both
pained and cheered me, for it meant that for a companion in the
firmament they now had the sun. Hence it was until my neck felt
almost fractured, and my spine and the nape of my neck were
aching as though clamped in a cast of plaster of paris, that I
kept my eyes turned aloft. Yes, anything to gain a sight of the
stars! From them I could not remove my vision, for they seemed
to exhibit the heavens in a new guise, and to convey to me the
joyful tidings that in the sky there was present also the sun.
Yet though, meanwhile, I tried to ponder on something great, I
never failed to find myself cherishing the absurd, obstinate
apprehension that soon the Birkins would leave their beds, enter
the courtyard, and have Nadezhda betrayed to them by Gubin.
And throughout there kept descending to me from above the
latter's inarticulate, as it were damp-sodden, observations.
"Another rat!" I heard him exclaim. "To think that those two
fellows, men of money, should neglect for two whole years to
clean out their well! Why, what can the brutes have been
drinking meanwhile? Look out below, you!"
And once more, with a creaking of the pulley, the bucket would
descend--bumping and thudding against the lining of the well as
it did so, and bespattering afresh my head and shoulders with
its filth. Rightly speaking, the Birkins ought to have cleared
out the well themselves!
"Let us exchange places," I cried at length.
"What is wrong?" inquired Gubin in response
"Down here it is cold--I can't stand it any longer."
"Gee up!" exclaimed Gubin to the old horse which supplied the
leverage power for the bucket; whereupon I seated myself upon
the edge of the receptacle and went aloft, where everything was
looking so bright and warm as to bear a new and unwontedly
So now it was Gubin's turn to stand at the bottom of the well.
And soon, in addition to the odour of decay, and a subdued sound
of splashing, and the rumblings and bumpings of the iron bucket
against its chain, there began to come up from the damp, black
cavity a perfect stream of curses.
"The infernal skinflints!" I heard my companion exclaim.
"Hullo, here is something! A dog or a baby, eh? The damned old
And the bucket ascended with, among its contents, a sodden and
most ancient hat. With the passage of time Gubin's temper grew
worse and worse.
"If I SHOULD find a baby here," next he exclaimed, "I shall
report the matter to the police, and get those blessed old
brothers into trouble."
Each movement of the leathern-hided, wall-eyed steed which did
our bidding was accompanied by a swishing of a sandy tail which
had for its object the brushing away of autumn's harbingers, the
bluebottles. Almost with the tranquil gait of a religious did
the animal accomplish its periodical journeys from the wall to
the entrance gates and back again; after which it always heaved
a profound sigh, and stood with its bony crest lowered.
Presently, from a corner of the yard that lay screened behind
some rank, pale, withered, trampled herbage a door screeched.
Into the yard there issued Nadezhda Birkin, carrying a bunch
of keys, and followed by a lady who, elderly and rotund of
figure, had a few dark hairs growing on her full and rather
haughty upper lip. As the two walked towards the cellar
(Nadezhda being clad only in an under-petticoat, with a chemise
half-covering her shoulders, and slippers thrust on to bare
feet), I perceived from the languor of the younger woman's gait
that she was feeling weary indeed.
"Why do you look at us like that?" her senior inquired of me
as she drew level. And as she did so the eyes that peered at me
from above the full and, somehow, displaced-looking cheeks bid
in them a dim, misty, half-blind expression.
"That must be Peter Birkin's mother-in-law," was my unspoken
At the door of the cellar Nadezhda handed the keys to her
companion, and with a slow step which set her ample bosom
swaying, and increased the disarray of the bodice on her round,
but broad, shoulders, approached myself, and said quietly:
"Please open the gutter-sluice and let out the water into the
street, or the yard will soon be flooded. Oh, the smell of it!
What is that thing there? A rat? Oh batinshka, what a horrible
Her face had about it a drawn look, and under her eyes there
were a pair of dark patches, and in their depths the dry glitter
of a person who has spent a night of waking. True, it was a face
still fresh of hue; yet beads of sweat were standing on the
forehead, and her shoulders looked grey and heavy--as grey and
heavy as unleavened bread which the fire has coated with a thin
crust, yet failed to bake throughout.
"Please, also, open the wicket," she continued. "And, in case
a lame old beggar-woman should call, come and tell me. I am the
Nadezhda Ivanovna for whom she will inquire. Do you understand?"
From the well, at this point, there issued the words:
"Who is that speaking?"
"It is the mistress," I replied.
"What? Nadezhda? With her I have a bone to pick."
"What did he say?" the woman asked tensely as she raised her
dark, thinly pencilled brows, and made as though to go and lean
over the well. Independently of my own volition I forestalled
what Gubin might next have been going to say by remarking:
"I must tell you that last night he saw you walking in the
"Indeed? " she ejaculated, and drew herself to her full height.
Yet in doing so she blushed to her shoulders, and, clapping
plump hands to her bosom, and opening dark eyes to their
fullest, said in a hasty and confused whisper as, again paling
and shrinking in stature, she subsided like a piece of pastry
that is turning heavy:
"Good Lord! WHAT did he see? . . . If the lame woman should
call, you must not admit her. No, tell her that she will not be
wanted, that I cannot, that I must not--But see here. Here is a
rouble for you. Oh, good Lord!"
By this time even louder and more angry exclamations had begun
to ascend from Gubin. Yet the only sound to reach my ears was
the woman's muttered whispering, and as I glanced into her face
I perceived that its hitherto high-coloured and rounded contours
had fallen in, and turned grey, and that her flushed lips were
trembling to such an extent as almost to prevent the
articulation of her words. Lastly, her eyes were frozen into an
expression of pitiful, doglike terror.
Suddenly she shrugged her shoulders, straightened her form, put
away from her the expression of terror, and said quietly, but
"You will not need to say anything about this. Allow me."
And with a swaying step she departed--a step so short as almost
to convey the impression that her legs were bound together. Yet
while the gait was the gait of a person full of suppressed fury,
it was also the gait of a person who can scarcely see an inch in
"Haul away, you!" shouted Gubin.
I hauled him up in a state of cold and wet; whereafter he fell
to stamping around the coping of the well, cursing, and waving
"What have you been thinking of all this time?" he
vociferated. "Why, for ever so long I shouted and shouted to
"I have been telling Nadezhda that last night you saw her
walking in the garden."
He sprang towards me with a vicious scowl.
"Who gave you leave to do so?" he exclaimed.
"Wait a moment. I said that it was only in a dream, that you
saw her crossing the garden to the washhouse."
"Indeed? And why did you do that? "
Somehow, as, barelegged and dripping with mud, he stood
blinking his eyes at me with a most disagreeable expression, he
looked extremely comical.
"See here," I remarked, "you have only to go and tell her
husband about her for me to go and tell him the same story about
your having seen the whole thing in a dream."
"Why?" cried Gubin, now almost beside himself. Presently, however, he
recovered sufficient self-possession to grin and ask in an
"HOW MUCH DID SHE GIVE YOU?"
I explained to him that my sole reason for what I had done had
been that I pitied the woman, and feared lest the brothers
Birkin should do an injury to one who at least ought not to be
betrayed. Gubin began by declining to believe me, but
eventually, after the matter had been thought out, said:
"Acceptance of money for doing what is right is certainly
irregular; but at least is it better than acceptance of money
for conniving at sin. Well, you have spoilt my scheme, young
fellow. Hired only to clean out the well, I would nevertheless
have cleaned out the establishment as a whole, and taken
pleasure in doing so."
Then once more he relapsed into fury, and muttered as he
scurried round and round the well:
"How DARED you poke your nose into other people's affairs? Who
are YOU in this establishment?"
The air was hot and arid, yet still the sky was as dull as
though coated throughout with the dust of summer, and, as yet,
one could gaze at the sun's purple, rayless orb without
blinking, and as easily as one could have gazed at the glowing
embers of a wood fire.
Seated on the fence, a number of rooks were directing
intelligent black eyes upon the heaps of mud which lay around
the coping of the well. And from time to time they fluttered
their wings impatiently, and cawed.
"I got you some work," Gubin continued in a grumbling tone,
"and put heart into you with the prospect of employment. And now
you have gone and treated me like --"
At this point I caught the sound of a horse trotting towards the
entrance-gates, and heard someone shout, as the animal drew
level with the house:
"YOUR timber too has caught alight!"
Instantly, frightened by the shout, the rooks took to their
wings and flew away. Also, a window sash squeaked, and the
courtyard resounded with sudden bustle--the culinary regions
vomiting the elderly lady and the tousled, half-clad Jonah; and
an open window the upper half of the red-headed Peter.
"Men, harness up as quickly as possible!" the latter cried,
his voice charged with a plaintive note.
And, indeed, he had hardly spoken before Gubin led out a fat
roan pony, and Jonah pulled from a shelter a light buggy or
britchka. Meanwhile Nadezhda called from the veranda to Jonah:
"Do you first go in and dress yourself! "
The elderly lady then unfastened the gates; whereupon a stunted,
oldish muzhik in a red shirt limped into the yard with a
foam-flecked steed, and exclaimed:
"It is caught in two places--at the Savelkin clearing and near
Immediately the company pressed around him with groans and
ejaculations, and Gubin alone continued to harness the pony with
swift and dexterous hands--saying to me through his teeth as he
did so, and without looking at anyone:
"That is how those wretched folk ALWAYS defer things until too
The next person to present herself at the entrance gates was a
beggar-woman. Screwing up her eyes in a furtive manner, she
"For the sake of Lord Je-e-esus!"
"God will give you alms! God will give you alms!" was
Nadezhda's reply as, turning pale, she flung out her arms in the
old woman's direction. "You see, a terrible thing has happened
--our timber lands have caught fire. You must come again later."
Upon that Peter's bulky form (which had entirely filled the
window from which it had been leaning), disappeared with a jerk,
and in its stead there came into view the figure of a woman.
Said she contemptuously:
"See the visitation with which God has tried us, you men of
faint hearts and indolent hands!"
The woman's hair was grey at the temples, and had resting upon
it a silken cap which so kept changing colour in the sunlight as
to convey to one. the impression that her head was bonneted with
steel, while in her face, picturesque but dark (seemingly
blackened with smoke), there gleamed two pupil-less blue eyes of
a kind which I had never before beheld.
"Fools," she continued, "how often have I not pointed out to
you the necessity of cutting a wider space between the timber
and the cemetery?"
From a furrow above the woman's small but prominent nose, a
pair of heavy brows extended to temples that were silvered over.
As she spoke there fell a strange silence amid which save for
the pony's pawing of the mire no sound mingled with the
sarcastic reproaches of the deep, almost masculine voice.
"That again is the mother-in-law," was my inward reflection.
Gubin finished the harnessing--then said to Jonah in the tone of
a superior addressing a servant:
"Go in and dress yourself, you object!"
Nevertheless, the Birkins drove out of the yard precisely as they
were, while the peasant mounted his belathered steed and
followed them at a trot; and the elderly lady disappeared from
the window, leaving its panes even darker and blacker than they
had previously been. Gubin, slip-slopping through the puddles
with bare feet, said to me with a sharp glance as he moved to
shut the entrance gates:
"I presume that I can now take in hand the little affair of
which you know."
"Yakov!" at this juncture someone shouted from the house.
Gubin straightened himself a la militaire.
"Yes, I am coming," he replied.
Whereafter, padding on bare soles, he ascended the steps.
Nadezhda, standing at their top, turned away with a frown of
repulsion at his approach, and nodded and beckoned to myself,
"What has Yakov said to you? " she inquired
"He has been reproaching me."
"Reproaching you for what?"
"For having spoken to you."
She heaved a sigh.
"Ah, the mischief-maker!" she exclaimed. "And what is it that
As she pouted her displeasure her round and vacant face looked
"Good Lord!" she added. "What DO such men as he want?"
Meanwhile the heavens were becoming overspread with dark grey
clouds, and presaging a flood of autumn rain, while from the
window near the steps the voice of Peter's mother-in-law was
issuing in a steady stream. At first, however, nothing was
distinguishable save a sound like the humming of a spindle.
"It is my mother that is speaking," Nadezhda explained softly.
"She'll give it him! Yes, SHE will protect me!"
Yet I scarcely heard Nadezhda's words, so greatly was I feeling
struck with the quiet forcefulness, the absolute assurance, of
what was being said within the window.
"Enough, enough! " said the voice. "Only through lack of
occupation have you joined the company of the righteous."
Upon this I made a move to approach closer to the window;
whereupon Nadezhda whispered:
"Whither are you going? You must not listen."
While she was yet speaking I heard come from the window:
"Similarly your revolt against mankind has come of idleness, of
lack of an interest in life. To you the world has been
wearisome, so, while devising this revolt as a resource, you
have excused it on the ground of service of God and love of
equity, while in reality constituting yourself the devil's
Here Nadezhda plucked at my sleeve, and tried to pull me away,
but I remarked:
"I MUST learn what Gubin has got to say in answer."
This made Nadezhda smile, and then whisper with a confiding
glance at my face:
"You see, I have made a full confession to her. I went and said
to her: 'Mamenka, I have had a misfortune.' And her only reply
as she stroked my hair was, 'Ah, little fool! ' Thus you see
that she pities me. And what makes her care the less that I
should stray in that direction is that she yearns for me to bear
her a child, a grandchild, as an heir to her property."
Next, Gubin was heard saying within the room:
"Whensoever an offence is done against the law I..."
At once a stream of impressive words from the other drowned his
"An offence is not always an offence of moment, since sometimes
a person outgrows the law, and finds it too restrictive. No one
person ought to be rated against another. For whom alone ought
we to fear? Only the God in whose sight all of us have erred!"
And though in the elderly lady's voice there was weariness and
distaste, the words were spoken slowly and incisively. Upon this
Gubin tried to murmur something or another, but again his
utterance failed to edge its way into his interlocutor's
"No great achievement is it," she said, "to condemn a fellow
creature. For always it is easy to sit in judgment upon our
fellows. And even if a fellow creature be allowed to pursue an
evil course unchecked, his offence may yet prove productive of
good. Remember how in every case the Saints reached God. Yet how
truly sanctified, by the time that they did so reach Him, were
they? Let this ever be borne in mind, for we are over-apt to
condemn and punish!"
"In former days, Natalia Vassilievna, you took away from me my
substance, you took my all. Also, let me recount to you how we
fell into disagreement."
"No; there is no need for that."
"Thereafter, I ceased to be able to bear the contemplation of
myself; I ceased to consider myself as of any value."
"Let the past remain the past. That which must be is not to be
"Through you, I say, I lost my peace of mind."
Nadezhda nudged me, and whispered with gay malice:
"That is probably true, for they say that once he was one of
Then she recollected herself and, clapping her hands to her
face, cried through her fingers:
"Oh good Lord! What have I said? No, no, you must not believe
these tales. They are only slanders, for she is the best of
"When evil has been done," continued the quiet voice within the
window, "it can never be set right by recounting it to others.
He upon whom a burden has been laid should try to bear it. And,
should he fail to bear it, the fact will mean that the burden
has been beyond his strength."
"It was through you that I lost everything. It was you that
stripped me bare."
"But to that which you lost I added movement. Nothing in life
is ever lost; it merely passes from one hand to another--from
the unskilled hand to the experienced-- so that even the bone
picked of a dog may ultimately become of value."
"Yes, a bone--that is what I am."
"Why should you say that? You are still a man."
"Yes, a man, but a man useful for what?"
"Useful, even though the use may not yet be fully apparent."
To this, after a pause, the speaker added:
"Now, depart in peace, and make no further attempt against this
woman. Nay, do not even speak ill of her if you can help it, but
consider everything that you saw to have been seen in a dream."
"Ah!" was Gubin's contrite cry. "It shall be as you say. Yet,
though I should hate, I could not bear, to grieve you, I must
confess that the height whereon you stand is--"
"Is what, 0h friend of mine?"
"Nothing; save that of all souls in this world you are, without
exception, the best."
"Yakov Petrovitch, in this world you and I might have ended our
lives together in honourable partnership. And even now, if God
be willing, we might do so."
"No. Rather must farewell be said."
All became quiet within the window, except that after a
prolonged silence there came from the woman a deep sigh, and
then a whisper of, "0h Lord!"
Treading softly, like a cat, Nadezhda darted away towards the
steps; whereas I, less fortunate, was caught by the departing
Gubin in the very act of leaving the neighbourhood of the
window. Upon that he inflated his cheeks, ruffled up his sandy
hair, turned red in the face like a man who has been through a
fight, and cried in strange, querulous, high-pitched accents:
"Hi! What were you doing just now? Long-legged devil that you
are, I have no further use for you--I do not intend to work with
you any more. So you can go."
At the same moment the dim face, with its great blue eyes,
showed itself at the window, and the stem voice inquired:
"What does the noise mean?"
"What does it mean? It means that I do not intend--"
"You must not, if you wish to create a disturbance, do it
anywhere but in the street. It must not be created here."
"What is all this? " Nadezhda put in with a stamp of her foot.
At this point, the cook rushed out with a toasting-fork and
militantly ranged herself by Nadezhda's side, exclaiming:
"See what comes of not having a single muzhik in the house!"
I now prepared to withdraw, but, in doing so, glanced once more
at the features of the elderly lady, and saw that the blue
pupils were dilated so as almost to fill the eyes in their
entirety, and to leave only a bluish margin. And strange and
painful were those eyes--eyes fixed blindly, eyes which seemed to
have strayed from their orbits through yielding to emotion and a
consequent overstrain-- while the apple of the throat had swelled
like the crop of a bird, and the sheen of the silken head-dress
become as the sheen of metal. Involuntarily, I thought to myself:
"It is a head that must be made of iron."
By this time Gubin had penitently subsided, and was exchanging
harmless remarks with the cook, while carefully avoiding my
"Good day to you, madame," at length I said as I passed the
Not at once did she reply, but when she did so she said kindly:
"And good day to YOU, my friend. Yes, I wish you good day."
To which she added an inclination of the head which resembled
nothing so much as a hammer which much percussion upon an anvil
has wrought to a fine polish.
The timber-built town of Buev, a town which has several times
been burnt to the ground, lies huddled upon a hillock above the
river Obericha. Its houses, with their many-coloured shutters,
stand so crowded together as to form around the churches and
gloomy law courts a perfect maze--the streets which intersect the
dark masses of houses meandering aimlessly hither and thither,
and throwing off alleyways as narrow as sleeves, and feeling
their way along plot-fences and warehouse walls, until, viewed
from the hillock above, the town looks as though someone has
stirred it up with a stick and dispersed and confused everything
that it contains. Only from the point where Great Zhitnaia
Street takes its rise from the river do the stone mansions of
the local merchants (for the most part German colonists) cut a
grim, direct line through the packed clusters of buildings
constructed of wood, and skirt the green islands of gardens, and
thrust aside the churches; whereafter, continuing its way
through Council Square (still running inexorably straight), the
thoroughfare stretches to, and traverses, a barren plain of
scrub, and so reaches the pine plantation belonging to the
Monastery of St. Michael the Archangel where the latter is
lurking behind a screen of old red spruces of which the
denseness seems to prop the very heavens, and which on clear,
sunny days can be seen rising to mark the spot whence the
monastery's crosses, like the gilded birds of the forest of
eternal silence, scintillate a constant welcome.
At a distance of some ten houses before Zhitnaia Street
debouches upon the plain which I have mentioned there begin to
diverge from the street and to trend towards a ravine, and
eventually to lose themselves in the latter's recesses, the
small, squat shanties with one or two windows apiece which
constitute the suburb of Tolmachikha. This suburb, it may be
said, had as its original founders the menials of a landowner
named Tolmachev--a landowner who, after emancipating his serfs
some thirteen years before all serfs were legally emancipated,
[In the year 1861] was, for his action, visited with such
bitter revilement that, in dire offence at the same, he ended by
becoming an inmate of the monastery, and there spending ten
years under the vow of silence, until death overtook him amid a
peaceful obscurity born of the fact that the authorities had
forbidden his exhibition to pilgrims or strangers.
It is in the very cots originally apportioned to Tolmachev's
menials, at the time, fifty years ago, when those menials were
converted into citizens, that the present inhabitants of the
suburb dwell. And never have they been burnt out of those homes,
although the same period has seen all Buev save Zhitnaia Street
consumed, and everywhere that one may delve within the township
one will be sure to come across undestroyed hearthstones.
The suburb, as I have said, stands at the hither end and on the
sloping side of one of the arms of a deep, wooded ravine, with
its windows facing towards the ravine's yawning mouth, and
affording a view direct to the Mokrie (certain marshes beyond
the Obericha) and the swampy forest of firs into which the dim
red sun declines. Further on, the ravine trends across the
plain,then bends round towards the western side of the town,
cats away the clayey soil with an appetite which each spring
increases, and which, carrying the soil down to the river, is
gradually clogging the river's flow, diverting the muddy
water towards the marshes, and converting those marshes into a
lagoon outright. The fissure in question is named " The Great
Ravine," and has its steep flanks so overgrown with chestnuts
and laburnums that even in summertime its recesses are cool and
moist, and so serve as a convenient trysting place for the
poorer lovers of the suburb and the town, and witness their
tea drinkings and frequently fatal quarrels, as well as being
used by the more well-to-do for a dumping ground for rubbish of
the nature of deceased dogs, cats, and horses.
Pleasantly singing, there scours the bottom of the ravine the
brook known as the Zhandarmski Spring, a brook celebrated
throughout Buev for its crystal-cold water, which is so icy of
temperature that even on a burning day it will make the teeth
ache. This water the denizens of Tolmachikha account to be their
peculiar property; wherefore they are proud of it, and drink it
to the exclusion of any other, and so live to a green old age
which in some cases cannot even reckon its years. And by way of
a livelihood, the men of the suburb indulge in hunting, fishing,
fowling, and thieving (not a single artisan proper does the
suburb contain, save the cobbler Gorkov--a thin, consumptive
skeleton of surname Tchulan); while, as regards the women, they,
in winter, sew and make sacks for Zimmel's mill, and pull tow,
and in summer they scour the plantation of the monastery for
truffles and other produce, and the forest on the other side of
the river for huckleberries. Also, two of the suburb's women
practise as fortune tellers, while two others conduct an easy
and highly lucrative trade in prostitution.
The result is that the town, as distinguished from the suburb,
believes the men of the latter to be one and all thieves, and
the women and girls of the suburb to be one and all disreputable
characters. Hence the town strives always to restrict and
extirpate the suburb, while the suburbans retaliate upon the
townsfolk with robbery and arson and murder, while despising
those townsfolk for their parsimony, decorum, and avarice, and
detesting the settled, comfortable mode of life which they lead.
So poor, for that matter, is the suburb that never do even
beggars resort thither, save when drunk. No, the only creatures
which resort thither are dogs which subsist no one knows how as
predatorily they roam from court to court with tails tucked
between their flanks, and bloodless tongues hanging down, and
legs ever prepared, on sighting a human being, to bolt into the
ravine, or to let down their owners upon subservient bellies in
expectation of a probable kick or curse.
In short, every cranny of every cot in the place, with the grimy
panes of their windows, and their lathed roofs overgrown with
velvety moss, breathes forth the universal, deadly hopelessness
induced by Russia's crushing poverty.
In the Tolmachikhans' backyards grow only alders, elders, and
weeds. Everywhere docks thrust up heads through cracks in the
fences to catch at the legs or the skirts of passers-by, while
masses of nettles squeeze their way under fences to sting little
children. Apropos, the latter are all thin and hungry, in the
highest degree quarrelsome, and addicted to prolonged
lamentation. Also, each spring sees a certain proportion of
their number carried off by diphtheria, while scarlatina and
measles are as epidemic among them as is typhoid among their
Thus the sounds of life most to be heard throughout the suburb
are the sounds either of weeping or of mad cursing. In general,
however, life in Tolmachikha is lived quietly and lethargically.
So much is this the case that in spring even the cats forbear to
squall save in crushed and subdued accents. The only local
person to sing is Felitzata; and even she does so only when she
is drunk. It may be said that Felitzata is a saucy, cunning
procuress, and does her singing in a peculiarly thick and
rasping voice which, with many croaks and hiatuses, necessitates
much closing of the eyes, and a great protruding of the apple of
the throat. Indeed, it is only the women of the place who,
turbulently quarrelsome and hysterically noisy, spend most of
the day in scouring the streets with skirts tucked up, and never
cease begging for pinches of salt or flour or spoonfuls of oil
as they rail and screech at and beat their children, and thrust
withered breasts into their babies' mouths, and rush and fling
themselves about, and bawl in a constant endeavour to right
their woebegone condition. Yes, all are dishevelled and dirty,
and have wizened, bony faces, and the restless eyes of thieves.
Never, indeed, is a woman plump of figure, save at the period
when she is ill, and her eyes are dim, and her gait is laboured.
Yet until they are forty, the majority of the women become
pregnant with every winter, and on the arrival of spring may be
seen walking abroad with large stomachs and blue hollows under
the eyes. And even this does not prevent them from working with
the same desperate energy as when they are not with child. In
short, the inhabitants of the place resemble needles and threads
with which some rough, clumsy, and impatient hand is for ever
trying to darn a ragged cloth which as constantly parts and
The chief person of repute in the suburb is my landlord, one
Antipa Vologonov--a little old man who keeps a shop of "odd
wares," and also lends money on pledge.
Unfortunately, Antipa is a sufferer from a long-standing tendency
to rheumatism, which has left him bow-legged, and has twisted and
swollen his fingers to the extent that they will not bend. Hence,
he always keeps his hands tucked into his sleeves, though
seemingly he has the less use for them in that, even when he
withdraws them from their shelter, he does so as cautiously as
though he were afraid of their becoming dislocated.
On the other hand, he never loses his temper, and he never grows
"Neither of those things suits me," he will say, "for my heart
is dilated, and might at any moment fail."
As for his face, it has high cheekbones which in places blossom
into dark red blotches; an expression as calm as that of the
face of a Khirghiz; a chin whence dangle wisps of mingled grey,
red, and flaxen hair of a perpetually moist appearance; oblique
and ever-changing eyes which are permanently contracted; a pair
of thick, parti-coloured eyebrows which cast deep shadows over
the eyes; and temples whereon a number of blue veins struggle
with an irregular, sparse coating of bristles. Finally, about
his whole personality there is something ever variable and
Also, his gait is irritatingly slow; and the more so owing to
his coat, which, of a cut devised by himself, consists, as it
were, of cassock, sarafan [jacket], and waistcoat in one. As
often as not he finds the skirts of the garment cumbering his
legs; whereupon he has to stop and give them a kick. And thus it
comes about that permanently the skirts are ragged and torn.
"No need for hurry," is his customary remark. "Always, in
time, does one win to one's pitch in the marketplace."
His speech is cast in rounded periods, and displays a great love
for ecclesiastical terms. On the occurrence of one such term, he
pauses thereafter as though mentally he were adding to the term
a very thick, a very black, full stop. Yet always he will
converse with anyone, and at great length--his probable motive
being a desire to leave behind him the reputation of a wise old
In his shanty are three windows facing on to the street, and a
partition-wall which divides it into two rooms of unequal size.
In the larger room, which contains a Russian stove, he himself
lives; in the smaller room I have my abode. By a passage the two
are separated from a storeroom where, closeted behind a door to
which there are a heavy, old-fashioned bolt and many iron and
brass screws, Antipa preserves pledges left by his neighbours,
such as samovars, ikons, winter clothing and the like. Of this
storeroom he always carries the great indentated key at the back
of the strap which upholds his cloth breeches; and, whenever the
police call to ascertain whether he is harbouring any stolen
goods, a long time ensues whilst he is shifting the key round to
his stomach, and again a long time whilst he is unfastening it
from the belt. Meanwhile, he says pompously to the Superintendent
or the Deputy Superintendent:
"Never do I take in goods of that kind. Of the truth of what I
say, your honour, you have more than once assured yourself in
Also, whenever Antipa sits down the key rattles against the back
or the seat of his chair; whereupon he bends his arm with
difficulty, and feels to see whether or not the key has come
unslung. This I know for the reason that the partition-wall is
not so thick but that I can hear his every breath drawn, and
divine his every movement.
Of an evening, when the misty sun is slanting across the river
towards the auburn belt of pines, and distilling pink vapours
from the sombre vista to be seen through the shaggy mouth of the
ravine, Antipa Vologonov sets out a squat samovar that is dinted
of side, and plated with green oxide on handle, turncock, and
spout. Then he seats himself at his table by the window.
At intervals I hear the evening stillness broken by questions
put in a tone which implies always an expectation of a precise
"Where is Darika?"
"He has gone to the spring for water." The answer is given
whiningly, and in a thin voice.
"And how is your sister?
"Still in pain."
"Yes? Well, you can go now."
Giving a slight cough to clear his throat, the old man begins to
sing in a quavering falsetto:
Once a bullet smote my breast,
And scarce the pang I felt.
But ne'er the pang could be express'd
Which love's flame since hath dealt!
As the samovar hisses and bubbles, heavy footsteps resound in the
street, and an indistinct voice says:
"He thinks that because he is a Town Councillor he is also
"Yes; such folk are apt to grow very proud."
"Why, all his brains put together wouldn't grease one of my
And as the voices die away the old man's falsetto trickles forth
"The poor man's anger... Minika! Hi, you! Come in here, and I
will give you a bit of sugar. How is your father getting on? Is
he drunk at present?"
"No, sober, for he is taking nothing but kvas and cabbage soup."
"And what is he doing for a living?"
"Sitting at the table, and thinking."
"And has your mother been beating him again?"
"And she--how is she?"
"Obliged to keep indoors."
"Well, run along with you."
Softly there next presents herself before the window Felitzata,
a woman of about forty with a hawk-like gleam in her coldly
civil eyes, and a pair of handsome lips compressed into a covert
smile. She is well known throughout the suburb, and once had a
son, Nilushka, who was the local " God's fool." Also she has the
reputation of knowing what is correct procedure on all and
sundry occasions, as well as of being skilled in lamentations,
funeral rites, and festivities in connection with the musterings
of recruits. Lastly she has had a hip broken, so that she walks
with an inclination towards the left.
Her fellow women say of her that her veins contain "a drop of
gentle blood"; but probably the statement is inspired by no
more than the fact that she treats everyone with the same cold
civility. Nevertheless, there is something peculiar about her,
for her hands are slender and have long fingers, and her head
is haughtily poised, and her voice has a metallic ring, even
though the metal has, as it were, grown dull and rusty. Also,
she speaks of everyone, herself included, in the most rough and
downright terms, yet terms which are so simple that, though her
talk may be disconcerting to listen to, it could never be called
For instance, once I overheard Vologonov reproach her for not
leading a more becoming life:
"You ought to have more self-restraint," said he, "seeing that
you are a lady, and also your own mistress."
"That is played out, my friend," she replied. "You see, I have
had very much to bear, for there was a time when such hunger
used to gnaw at my belly as you would never believe. It was then
that my eyes became dazzled with the tokens of shame. So I took
my fill of love, as does every woman. And once a woman has
become a light-o'-love she may as well doff her shift
altogether, and use the body which God has given her. And, after
all, an independent life is the best life; so I hawk myself
about like a pot of beer, and say, 'Drink of this, anyone who
likes, while it still contains liquor.'"
"It makes one feel ashamed to hear such talk," said Vologonov
with a sigh. In response she burst out laughing.
"What a virtuous man!" was her comment upon his remark.
Until now Antipa had spoken cautiously, and in an undertone,
whereas the woman had replied in loud accents of challenge.
"Will you come in and have some tea? " he said next as he leant
out of the window.
"No, I thank you. In passing, what a thing I have heard about
"Do not shout so loud. Of what are you speaking?"
"Oh, of SUCH a thing!"
"Of NOTHING, I imagine."
"Yes, of EVERYTHING."
"God, who created all things, alone knows everything."
Whereafter the pair whispered together awhile. Then Felitzata
disappeared as suddenly as she had come, leaving the old man
sitting motionless. At length he heaved a profound sigh, and
muttered to himself.
"Into that Eve's ears be there poured the poison of the asp! .
. . Yet pardon me, 0h God! Yea, pardon me!"
The words contained not a particle of genuine contrition.
Rather, I believe, he uttered them because he had a weakness not
for words which signified anything, but for words which, being
out of the way, were not used by the common folk of the suburb.
Sometimes Vologonov knocks at the partition-wall with a
superannuated arshin measure which has only fifteen vershoki of
its length remaining. He knocks, and shouts:
"Lodger, would you care to join me in a pot of tea? "
During the early days of our acquaintanceship he regarded me
with marked and constant suspicion. Clearly he deemed me to be a
police detective. But subsequently he took to scanning my face
with critical curiosity, until at length he said with an air of
"Have you ever read Paradise Lost and Destroyed?"
"No," I replied. "Only Paradise Regained."
This led him to wag his parti-coloured beard in token that 'be
disagreed with my choice', and to observe:
"The reason why Adam lost Paradise is that he allowed Eve to
corrupt him. And never did the Lord permit him to regain it. For
who is worthy to return to the gates of Paradise? Not a single
And, indeed, I found it a waste of time to dispute the matter, for
he merely listened to what I had to say, and then, without
an attempt at refutation, repeated in the same tone as before,
and exactly in the same words, his statement that " Adam lost
Paradise for the reason that he allowed Eve to corrupt him."
Similarly did women constitute our most usual subject of
"You are young," once he said, " and therefore a human being
bound to find forbidden fruit blocking your way at every step.
This because the human race is a slave to its love of sin, or,
in other words, to love of the Serpent. Yes, woman constitutes
the prime impediment to everything in life, as history has many
times affirmed. And first and foremost is she the source of
restlessness. 'Charged with poison, the Serpent shall plunge in
thee her fangs.' Which Serpent is, of course, our desire of the
flesh, the Serpent at whose instigation the Greeks razed towns
to the ground, and ravaged Troy and Carthagena and Egypt, and
the Serpent which caused an amorous passion for the sister of
Alexander Pavlovitch [The Emperor Alexander I] to bring about
Napoleon's invasion of Russia. On the other hand, both the
Mohammedan nations and the Jews have from earliest times grasped
the matter aright, and kept their women shut up in their back
premises; whereas WE permit the foulest of profligacy to exist,
and walk hand in hand with our women, and allow them to graduate
as female doctors and to pull teeth, and all the rest of it.
The truth is that they ought not to be allowed to advance beyond
midwife, since it is woman's business either to serve as a
breeding animal or opprobriously to be called neiskusobrachnaia
neviesta [Maid who hast never tasted of marriage.] Yes, woman's
business should end there."
Near the stove there ticks and clicks on the grimy wall that is
papered with "rules and regulations " and sheets of yellow
manuscript the pendulum of a small clock, with, hanging to one
of its weights, a hammer and a horseshoe, and, to the other, a
copper pestle. Also, in a corner of the room a number of ikons
make a glittering show with their silver applique and the gilded
halos which surmount their figures' black visages, while a stove
with a ponderous grate glowers out of the window at the greenery
in Zhitnaia Street and beyond the ravine (beyond the ravine
everything looks bright and beautiful), and the dusty, dimly
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