Only in one house at the end of the street there still burned a light; it was the headman's. He had long finished his supper, and would certainly have gone to sleep but that he had a guest with him, the brandy-distiller. The latter had been sent to superintend the building of a distillery for the lords of the manor, who possessed small allotments between the lands of the free Cossacks. At the upper end of the table, in the place of honour, sat the guest—a short, stout man with small, merry eyes. He smoked his short pipe with obvious satisfaction, spitting every moment and constantly pushing the tobacco down in the bowl. The clouds of smoke collected over his head, and veiled him in a bluish mist. It seemed as though the broad chimney of a distillery, which was bored at always being perched up on the roof, had hit upon the idea of taking a little recreation, and had now settled itself comfortably at the headman's table. Close under his nose bristled his short, thick moustache, which in the dim, smoky atmosphere resembled a mouse which the distiller had caught and held in his mouth, usurping the functions of a dining-room cat. The headman sat there, as master of the house, wearing only his shirt and linen breeches. His eagle eye began to grow dim like the setting sun, and to half close. At the lower end of the table sat, smoking his pipe, one of the village council, of which the headman was superintendent. Out of respect for the latter he had not removed his caftan.
“How soon do you think,” asked the headman, turning to the distiller and putting his hand before his gaping mouth, “will you have the distillery put up?”
“With God's help we shall be distilling brandy this autumn. On Conception Day I bet the headman will be tracing the figure eight with his feet on his way home.” So saying, the distiller laughed so heartily that his small eyes disappeared altogether, his body was convulsed, and his twitching lips actually let go of the reeking pipe for a moment.
“God grant it!” said the headman, on whose face the shadow of a smile was visible. “Now, thank heaven, the number of distilleries is increasing a little; but in the old days, when I accompanied the Czarina on the Perejlaslov Road, and the late Besborodko——”
“Yes, my friend, those were bad times. Then from Krementchuk to Romen there were hardly two distilleries. And now—but have you heard what the infernal Germans have invented? They say they will no longer use wood for fuel in the distilleries, but devilish steam.” At these words the distiller stared at the table reflectively, and at his arms resting on it. “But how they can use steam—by heavens! I don't know.”
“What fools these Germans are!” said the headman. “I should like to give these sons of dogs a good thrashing. Whoever heard of cooking with steam? At this rate one will not be able to get a spoonful of porridge or a bit of bacon into one's mouth.”
“And you, friend,” broke in the headman's sister-in-law, who was sitting by the stove; “will you be with us the whole time without your wife?”
“Do I want her then? If she were only passably good-looking——”
“She is not pretty, then?” asked the headman with a questioning glance.
“How should she be; as old as Satan, and with a face as full of wrinkles as an empty purse,” said the distiller, shaking again with laughter.
Then a noise was heard at the door, which opened and a Cossack stepped over the threshold without removing his cap, and remained standing in an absent-minded way in the middle of the room, with open mouth and gazing at the ceiling. It was Kalenik, whose acquaintance we have already made.
“Now I am at home,” he said, taking his seat by the door, without taking any notice of those present. “Ah! to what a length Satan made the road stretch. I went on and on, and there was no end. My legs are quite broken. Woman, bring me my fur blanket to lie down on. There it is in the corner; but mind you don't upset the little pot of snuff. But no; better not touch it! Leave it alone! You are really quite drunk—I had better get it myself.”
Kalenik tried to rise, but an invincible power fettered him to his seat.
“That's a nice business!” said the headman. “He comes into a strange house, and behaves as though he were at home! Push him out, in heaven's name!”
“Let him rest a bit, friend!” said the distiller, seizing the headman's arm. “The man is very useful; if we had only plenty of this kind, our distillery would get on grandly….” For the rest, it was not good-nature which inspired these words. The distiller was full of superstition, and to turn out a man who had already sat down, seemed to him to be tantamount to invoking the devil.
“That comes of being old,” grumbled Kalenik, stretching himself out along the seat. “People might say I was drunk, but no, I am not! Why should I lie? I am ready to tell the headman to his face! Who is the headman anyway? May he break his neck, the son of a dog! I spit at him! May he be run over by a cart, the one-eyed devil!”
“Ah! the drunken sot has crawled into the house, and now he lays his paws on the table,” said the headman, rising angrily; but at that moment a heavy stone, breaking a window-pane to pieces, fell at his feet. The headman remained standing. “If I knew,” he said, “what jail-bird has thrown it, I would give him something. What devil's trick is this?” he continued, looking at the stone, which he held in his hand, with burning eyes. “I wish I could choke him with it!”
“Stop! Stop! God preserve you, friend!” broke in the distiller, looking pale. “God keep you in this world and the next, but don't curse anyone so.”
“Ah! now we have his defender! May he be ruined!”
“Listen, friend! You don't know what happened to my late mother-in-law.”
“Yes, my mother-in-law. One evening, perhaps rather earlier than this, they were sitting at supper, my late mother-in-law, my father-in-law, their two servants, and five children. My mother-in-law emptied some dumplings from the cooking-pot into a dish in order to cool them. But the others, being hungry after the day's work, did not wait till they were quite cooled, but stuck their long wooden forks into them and ate them at once. All at once a stranger entered—heaven knows whence!—and asked to be allowed to share their meal. They could not refuse to feed a hungry man, and gave him also a wooden fork. But the guest made as short work with the dumplings as a cow with hay. Before the family had each of them finished his or her dumpling and reached out their forks again for another, the dish had been swept as clean as the floor of a nobleman's drawing-room. My mother-in-law emptied out some more dumplings; she thought to herself, ‘Now the guest is satisfied, and will not be so greedy.’ But on the contrary, he began to swallow them faster than ever, and emptied the second dish also. ‘May one of them choke you!’ said my mother-in-law under her breath. Suddenly the guest seemed to try to clear his throat, and fell back. They rushed to his help, but his breath had stopped and he was dead.”
“Served him right, the cursed glutton!”
“But it turned out quite otherwise; since that time my mother-in-law has no rest. No sooner is it dark than the dead man approaches the house. He then sits astride the chimney, the scoundrel, holding a dumpling between his teeth. During the day it is quite quiet—one hears and sees nothing; but as soon as it begins to grow dark, and one casts a look at the roof, there he is comfortably perched on the chimney!”
“A wonderful story, friend! I heard something similar from my late——”
Then the headman suddenly stopped. Outside there were noises, and the stamping of dancers' feet. The strings of a guitar were being struck gently, to the accompaniment of a voice. Then the guitar was played more loudly, many voices joined in, and the whole chorus struck up a song in ridicule of the headman.
When it was over, the distiller said, with his head bent a little on one side, to the headman who was almost petrified by the audacity of the serenaders, “A fine song, my friend!”
“Very fine! Only it is a pity that they insult the headman.”
He folded his arms with a certain measure of composure on the table, and prepared to listen further, for the singing and noise outside continued. A sharp observer, however, would have seen that it was not mere torpidity which made the headman sit so quietly. In the same way a crafty cat often allows an inexperienced mouse to play about her tail, while she is quickly devising a plan to cut it off from the mouse-hole. The headman's one eye was still fastened on the window, and his hand, after he had given the village councillor a sign, was reaching for the door-handle, when suddenly a loud noise and shouts were heard from the street. The distiller, who beside many other characteristics possessed a keen curiosity, laid down his pipe quickly and ran into the street; but the ne'er-do-wells had all dispersed.
“No, you don't escape me!” cried the headman, dragging someone muffled up in a sheepskin coat with the hair turned outwards, by the arm.
The distiller rapidly seized a favourable moment to look at the face of this disturber of the peace; but he started back when he saw a long beard and a grim, painted face.
“No, you don't escape me!” exclaimed the headman again as he dragged his prisoner into the vestibule.
The latter offered no resistance, and followed him as quietly as though it had been his own house.
“Karpo, open the store-room!” the headman called to the village councillor. “We will throw him in there! Then we will awake the clerk, call the village council together, catch this impudent rabble, and pass our sentence on them at once.”
The village councillor unlocked the store-room; then in the darkness of the vestibule, the prisoner made a desperate effort to break loose from the headman's arms.
“Ah! you would, would you?” exclaimed the headman, holding him more firmly by the collar.
“Let me go! It is I!” a half-stifled voice was heard saying.
“It is no good, brother! You may squeal if you choose, like the devil, instead of imitating a woman, but you won't get round me.” So saying, he thrust the prisoner with such violence into the dark room that he fell on the ground and groaned aloud.
The victorious headman, accompanied by the village councillor, now betook himself to the clerk's; they were followed by the distiller, who was veiled in clouds of tobacco-smoke, and resembled a steamer.
They were all three walking reflectively with bent heads, when suddenly, turning into a dark side-alley, they uttered a cry and started back in consequence of coming into collision with three other men, who on their side shouted with equal loudness. The headman saw with his one eye, to his no small astonishment, the clerk with two village councillors.
“I was just coming to you, Mr Notary.”
“And I was on my way to your honour.”
“These are strange goings-on, Mr Notary.”
“Indeed they are, your honour.”
“Have you seen them then?” asked the headman, surprised.
“The young fellows are roaming about the streets using vile language. They are abusing your honour in a way—in a word, it is a scandal. A drunken Russian would be ashamed to use such words.”
The lean notary, in his gaily striped breeches and yeast-coloured waistcoat, kept on stretching forward and drawing back his neck while he talked.
“Hardly had I gone to sleep,” he continued, “than the cursed loafers woke me up with their shameful songs and their noise. I meant to give them a sound rating, but while I was putting on my breeches and vest, they all ran away. But the ringleader has not escaped; for the present he is shut up in the hut which we use as a prison. I was very curious to know who the scapegrace is, but his face is as sooty as the devil's when he forges nails for sinners.”
“What clothes does he wear, Mr Notary?”
“The son of a dog wears a black sheepskin coat turned inside out, your honour.”
“Aren't you telling me a lie, Mr Notary? The same good-for-nothing is now shut up in my store-room under lock and key.”
“No, your honour! You have drawn the long bow a little yourself, and should not be vexed at what I say.”
“Bring a light! We will take a look at him at once!”
They returned to the headman's house; the store-room door was opened, and the headman groaned for sheer amazement as he saw his sister-in-law standing before him.
“Tell me then,” she said, stepping forward, “have you quite lost your senses? Had you a single particle of brains in your one-eyed fish-head when you locked me up in the dark room? It is a mercy I did not break my head against the iron door hinge. Didn't I shout out that it was I? Then he seized me, the cursed bear, with his iron claws, and pushed me in. May Satan hereafter so push you into hell!” The last words she spoke from the street, having wisely gone out of his reach.
“Yes, now I see that it is you!” said the headman, who had slowly recovered his composure.
“Is he not a scamp and a scoundrel, Mr Clerk?” he continued.
“Yes, certainly, your honour.”
“Isn't it high time to give all these loose fellows a lesson, that they may at last betake themselves to their work?”
“Yes, it is high time, your honour.”
“The fools have combined in a gang. What the deuce is that? It sounded like my sister-in-law's voice. The blockheads think that I am like her, an ordinary Cossack.”
Here he coughed and cleared his throat, and a gleam in his eyes showed that he was about to say something very important. “In the year one thousand—I cannot keep these cursed dates in my memory, if I was to be killed for it. Well, never mind when it was, the Commissary Ledatcho was commanded to choose out a Cossack who was cleverer than the rest. Yes,” he added, raising his forefinger, “cleverer than the rest, to accompany the Czar. Then I was——”
“Yes, yes,” the notary interrupted him, “we all know, headman, that you well deserved the imperial favour. But confess now that I was right: you made a mistake when you declared that you had caught the vagabond in the reversed sheepskin.”
“This disguised devil I will have imprisoned to serve as a warning to the rest. They will have to learn what authority means. Who has appointed the headman, if not the Czar? Then we will tackle the other fellows. I don't forget how the scamps drove a whole herd of swine into my garden, which ate up all the cabbages and cucumbers; I don't forget how those sons of devils refused to thrash my rye for me. I don't forget—to the deuce with them! We must first find out who this scoundrel in the sheepskin really is.”
“He is a sly dog anyway,” said the distiller, whose cheeks during the whole conversation had been as full of smoke as a siege-cannon, and whose lips, when he took his pipe out of his mouth, seemed to emit sparks.
Meanwhile they had approached a small ruined hut. Their curiosity had mounted to the highest pitch, and they pressed round the door. The notary produced a key and tried to turn the lock, but it did not fit; it was the key of his trunk. The impatience of the onlookers increased. He plunged his hand into the wide pocket of his gaily striped breeches, bent his back, scraped with his feet, uttered imprecations, and at last cried triumphantly, “I have it!”
At these words the hearts of our heroes beat so loud, that the turning of the key in the lock was almost inaudible. At last the door opened, and the headman turned as white as a sheet. The distiller felt a shiver run down his spine, and his hair stood on end. Terror and apprehension were stamped on the notary's face; the village councillors almost sank into the ground and could not shut their wide-open mouths. Before them stood the headman's sister-in-law!
She was not less startled than they, but recovered herself somewhat, and made a movement as if to approach them.
“Stop!” cried the headman in an excited voice, and slammed the door again. “Sirs, Satan is behind this!” he continued. “Bring fire quickly! Never mind the hut! Set it alight and burn it up so that not even the witch's bones remain.”
“Wait a minute, brother!” exclaimed the distiller. “Your hair is grey, but you are not very intelligent; no ordinary fire will burn a witch. Only the fire of a pipe can do it. I will manage it all right.” So saying, he shook some glowing ashes from his pipe on to a bundle of straw, and began to fan the flame.
Despair gave the unfortunate woman courage; she began to implore them in a loud voice.
“Stop a moment, brother! Perhaps we are incurring guilt needlessly. Perhaps she is really no witch!” said the notary. “If the person sitting in there declares herself ready to make the sign of the cross, then she is not a child of the devil.”
The proposal was accepted. “Look out, Satan!” continued the notary, speaking at a chink in the door. “If you promise not to move, we will open the door.”
The door was opened.
“Cross yourself!” exclaimed the headman, looking round him for a safe place of retreat in case of necessity.
His sister-in-law crossed herself.
“The deuce! It is really you, sister-in-law!”
“What evil spirit dragged you into this hole, friend?” asked the notary.
The headman's sister related amid sobs how the rioters had seized her on the street, and in spite of her resistance, pushed her through a large window into the hut, on which they had closed the shutters. The notary looked and found that the bolt of the shutter had been wrenched off, and that it was held in its place by a wooden bar placed across it outside.
“You are a nice fellow, you one-eyed Satan!” she now exclaimed, advancing towards the headman, who stepped backwards and continued to contemplate her from head to foot. “I know your thoughts; you were glad of an opportunity to get me shut up in order to run after that petticoat, so that no one could see the grey-haired sinner making a fool of himself. You think I don't know how you talked this evening with Hanna. Oh, I know everything. You must get up earlier if you want to make a fool of me, you great stupid! I have endured for a long time, but at last don't take it ill if——”
She made a threatening gesture with her fist, and ran away swiftly, leaving the headman quite taken aback.
“The devil really has something to do with it!” he thought, rubbing his bald head.
“We have him!” now exclaimed the two village councillors as they approached.
“Whom have you?” asked the headman.
“The devil in the sheepskin.”
“Bring him here!” cried the headman, seizing the prisoner by the arm. “Are you mad? This is the drunken Kalenik!”
“It is witchcraft! He was in our hands, your honour!” replied the village councillors. “The rascals were rushing about in the narrow side-streets, dancing and behaving like idiots—the devil take them! How it was we got hold of this fellow instead of him, heaven only knows!”
“In virtue of my authority, and that of the village assembly,” said the headman, “I issue the order to seize these robbers and other young vagabonds which may be met with in the streets, and to bring them before me to be dealt with.”
“Excuse us, your honour,” answered the village councillors, bowing low. “If you could only see the hideous faces they had; may heaven punish us if ever anyone has seen such miscreations since he was born and baptised. These devils might frighten one into an illness.”
“I'll teach you to be afraid! You won't obey then? You are certainly in the conspiracy with them! You mutineers! What is the meaning of that? What? You abet robbery and murder! You!—I will inform the Commissary. Go at once, do you hear; fly like birds. I shall—you will—”
They all dispersed in different directions.