“Have I then been really asleep?” Levko asked himself as he stood up. “Everything seemed so real, as though I were awake. Wonderful! Wonderful!” he repeated, looking round him. The position of the moon vertical overhead showed that it was midnight; a waft of coolness came from the pool. The ruined house with the closed shutters stood there with a melancholy aspect; the moss and weeds which grew thickly upon it showed that it had not been entered by any human foot for a long time. Then he suddenly opened his hand, which had been convulsively clenched during his sleep, and cried aloud with astonishment when he saw the note in it. “Ah! if I could only read,” he thought, turning it this way and that. At that moment he heard a noise behind him.
“Fear nothing! Lay hold of him! What are you afraid of? There are ten of us. I wager that he is a man, and not the devil.”
It was the headman encouraging his companions.
Levko felt himself seized by several arms, many of which were trembling with fear.
“Throw off your mask, friend! Cease trying to fool us,” said the headman, taking him by the collar. But he started back when he saw him closely. “Levko! My son!” he exclaimed, letting his arms sink. “It is you, miserable boy! I thought some rascal, or disguised devil, was playing these tricks; but now it seems you have cooked this mess for your own father—placed yourself at the head of a band of robbers, and composed songs to ridicule him. Eh, Levko! What is the meaning of that? It seems your back is itching. Tie him fast!”
“Stop, father! I have been ordered to give you this note,” said Levko.
“Let me see it then! But bind him all the same.”
“Wait, headman,” said the notary, unfolding the note; “it is the Commissary's handwriting!”
“The Commissary's?” echoed the village councillors mechanically.
“The Commissary's? Wonderful! Still more incomprehensible!” thought Levko.
“Read! Read!” said the headman. “What does the Commissary write?”
“Let us hear!” exclaimed the distiller, holding his pipe between his teeth, and lighting it.
The notary cleared his throat and began to read.
“‘Order to the headman, Javtuk Makohonenko.
“‘It has been brought to our knowledge that you, old id——’”
“Stop! Stop! That is unnecessary!” exclaimed the headman. “Even if I have not heard it, I know that that is not the chief matter. Read further!”
“‘Consequently I order you at once to marry your son, Levko Makohonenko, to the Cossack's daughter, Hanna Petritchenka, to repair the bridges on the post-road, and to give no horses belonging to the lords of the manor to the county-court magistrates without my knowledge. If on my arrival I do not find these orders carried out, I shall hold you singly responsible.
“‘Lieut. Kosma Derkatch-Drischpanowski,
“There we have it!” exclaimed the headman, with his mouth open. “Have you heard it? The headman is made responsible for everything, and therefore everyone has to obey him without contradiction! Otherwise, I beg to resign my office. And you,” he continued, turning to Levko, “I will have married, as the Commissary directs, though it seems to me strange how he knows of the affair; but you will get a taste of my knout first—the one, you know, which hangs on the wall at my bed-head. But how did you get hold of the note?”
Levko, in spite of the astonishment which the unexpected turn of affairs caused him, had had the foresight to prepare an answer, and to conceal the way in which the note had come into his possession. “I was in the town last night,” he said, “and met the Commissary just as he was alighting from his droshky. When he heard from which village I was he gave me the note and bid me tell you by word of mouth, father, that he would dine with us on his way back.”
“Did he say that?”
“Have you heard it?” said the headman, with a solemn air turning to his companions. “The Commissary himself, in his own person, comes to us, that is to me, to dine.” The headman lifted a finger and bent his head as though he were listening to something. “The Commissary, do you hear, the Commissary is coming to dine with me! What do you think, Mr Notary? And what do you think, friend? That is not a little honour, is it?”
“As far as I can recollect,” the notary broke in, “no Commissary has ever dined with a headman.”
“All headmen are not alike,” he answered with a self-satisfied air. Then he uttered a hoarse laugh and said, “What do you think, Mr Notary? Isn't it right to order that in honour of the distinguished guest, a fowl, linen, and other things should be offered by every cottage?”
“Yes, they should.”
“And when is the wedding to be, father?” asked Levko.
“Wedding! I should like to celebrate your wedding in my way! Well, in honour of the distinguished guest, to-morrow the pope(1) will marry you. Let the Commissary see that you are punctual. Now, children, we will go to bed. Go to your houses. The present occasion reminds me of the time when I——” At these words the headman assumed his customary solemn air.
“Now the headman will relate how he accompanied the Czarina!” said Levko to himself, and hastened quickly, and full of joy, to the cherry-tree-shaded house, which we know. “May God bless you, beloved, and the holy angels smile on you. To no one will I relate the wonders of this night except to you, Hanna; you alone will believe it, and pray with me for the repose of the souls of the poor drowned maidens.”
He approached the house; the window was open; the moonbeams fell on Hanna, who was sleeping by it. Her head was supported on her arm; her cheeks glowed; her lips moved, gently murmuring his name.
“Sleep sweetly, my darling. Dream of everything that is good, and yet the awaking will surpass all.” He made the sign of the cross over her, closed the window, and gently withdrew.
In a few moments the whole village was buried in slumber. Only the moon hung as brilliant and wonderful as before in the immensity of the Ukraine sky. The divine night continued her reign in solemn stillness, while the earth lay bathed in silvery radiance. The universal silence was only broken here and there by the bark of a dog; only the drunken Kalenik still wandered about the empty streets seeking for his house.