In the Ravine - IX
At the present time the steps and the front door of the shop have been repainted and are as bright as though they were new, there are gay geraniums in the windows as of old, and what happened in Tsybukin’s house and yard three years ago is almost forgotten.
Grigory Petrovitch is looked upon as the master as he was in old days, but in reality everything has passed into Aksinya’s hands; she buys and sells, and nothing can be done without her consent. The brickyard is working well; and as bricks are wanted for the railway the price has gone up to twenty-four roubles a thousand; peasant women and girls cart the bricks to the station and load them up in the trucks and earn a quarter-rouble a day for the work.
Aksinya has gone into partnership with the Hrymin Juniors, and their factory is now called Hrymin Juniors and Co. They have opened a tavern near the station, and now the expensive concertina is played not at the factory but at the tavern, and the head of the post office often goes there, and he, too, is engaged in some sort of traffic, and the stationmaster, too. Hrymin Juniors have presented the deaf man Stepan with a gold watch, and he is constantly taking it out of his pocket and putting it to his ear.
People say of Aksinya that she has become a person of power; and it is true that when she drives in the morning to her brickyard, handsome and happy, with the naive smile on her face, and afterwards when she is giving orders there, one is aware of great power in her. Everyone is afraid of her in the house and in the village and in the brickyard. When she goes to the post the head of the postal department jumps up and says to her:
“I humbly beg you to be seated, Aksinya Abramovna!”
A certain landowner, middle-aged but foppish, in a tunic of fine cloth and patent leather high boots, sold her a horse, and was so carried away by talking to her that he knocked down the price to meet her wishes. He held her hand a long time and, looking into her merry, sly, naive eyes, said:
“For a woman like you, Aksinya Abramovna, I should be ready to do anything you please. Only say when we can meet where no one will interfere with us?”
“Why, when you please.”
And since then the elderly fop drives up to the shop almost every day to drink beer. And the beer is horrid, bitter as wormwood. The landowner shakes his head, but he drinks it.
Old Tsybukin does not have anything to do with the business now at all. He does not keep any money because he cannot distinguish between the good and the false, but he is silent, he says nothing of this weakness. He has become forgetful, and if they don’t give him food he does not ask for it. They have grown used to having dinner without him, and Varvara often says:
“He went to bed again yesterday without any supper.”
And she says it unconcernedly because she is used to it. For some reason, summer and winter alike, he wears a fur coat, and only in very hot weather he does not go out but sits at home. As a rule putting on his fur coat, wrapping it round him and turning up his collar, he walks about the village, along the road to the station, or sits from morning till night on the seat near the church gates. He sits there without stirring. Passers-by bow to him, but he does not respond, for as of old he dislikes the peasants. If he is asked a question he answers quite rationally and politely, but briefly.
There is a rumour going about in the village that his daughter-in-law turns him out of the house and gives him nothing to eat, and that he is fed by charity; some are glad, others are sorry for him.
Varvara has grown even fatter and whiter, and as before she is active in good works, and Aksinya does not interfere with her.
There is so much jam now that they have not time to eat it before the fresh fruit comes in; it goes sugary, and Varvara almost sheds tears, not knowing what to do with it.
They have begun to forget about Anisim. A letter has come from him written in verse on a big sheet of paper as though it were a petition, all in the same splendid handwriting. Evidently his friend Samorodov was sharing his punishment. Under the verses in an ugly, scarcely legible handwriting there was a single line: “I am ill here all the time; I am wretched, for Christ’s sake help me!”
Towards evening—it was a fine autumn day—old Tsybukin was sitting near the church gates, with the collar of his fur coat turned up and nothing of him could be seen but his nose and the peak of his cap. At the other end of the long seat was sitting Elizarov the contractor, and beside him Yakov the school watchman, a toothless old man of seventy. Crutch and the watchman were talking.
“Children ought to give food and drink to the old.... Honour thy father and mother...” Yakov was saying with irritation, “while she, this daughter-in-law, has turned her father-in-law out of his own house; the old man has neither food nor drink, where is he to go? He has not had a morsel for these three days.”
“Three days!” said Crutch, amazed.
“Here he sits and does not say a word. He has grown feeble. And why be silent? He ought to prosecute her, they wouldn’t flatter her in the police court.”
“Wouldn’t flatter whom?” asked Crutch, not hearing.
“The woman’s all right, she does her best. In their line of business they can’t get on without that... without sin, I mean....”
“From his own house,” Yakov went on with irritation. “Save up and buy your own house, then turn people out of it! She is a nice one, to be sure! A pla-ague!”
Tsybukin listened and did not stir.
“Whether it is your own house or others’ it makes no difference so long as it is warm and the women don’t scold...” said Crutch, and he laughed. “When I was young I was very fond of my Nastasya. She was a quiet woman. And she used to be always at it: ‘Buy a house, Makaritch! Buy a house, Makaritch! Buy a house, Makaritch!’ She was dying and yet she kept on saying, ‘Buy yourself a racing droshky, Makaritch, that you may not have to walk.’ And I bought her nothing but gingerbread.”
“Her husband’s deaf and stupid,” Yakov went on, not hearing Crutch; “a regular fool, just like a goose. He can’t understand anything. Hit a goose on the head with a stick and even then it does not understand.”
Crutch got up to go home to the factory. Yakov also got up, and both of them went off together, still talking. When they had gone fifty paces old Tsybukin got up, too, and walked after them, stepping uncertainly as though on slippery ice.
The village was already plunged in the dusk of evening and the sun only gleamed on the upper part of the road which ran wriggling like a snake up the slope. Old women were coming back from the woods and children with them; they were bringing baskets of mushrooms. Peasant women and girls came in a crowd from the station where they had been loading the trucks with bricks, and their noses and their cheeks under their eyes were covered with red brick-dust. They were singing. Ahead of them all was Lipa singing in a high voice, with her eyes turned upwards to the sky, breaking into trills as though triumphant and ecstatic that at last the day was over and she could rest. In the crowd was her mother Praskovya, who was walking with a bundle in her arms and breathless as usual.
“Good-evening, Makaritch!” cried Lipa, seeing Crutch. “Good-evening, darling!”
“Good-evening, Lipinka,” cried Crutch delighted. “Dear girls and women, love the rich carpenter! Ho-ho! My little children, my little children. (Crutch gave a gulp.) My dear little axes!”
Crutch and Yakov went on further and could still be heard talking. Then after them the crowd was met by old Tsybukin and there was a sudden hush. Lipa and Praskovya had dropped a little behind, and when the old man was on a level with them Lipa bowed down low and said:
“Good-evening, Grigory Petrovitch.”
Her mother, too, bowed down. The old man stopped and, saying nothing, looked at the two in silence; his lips were quivering and his eyes full of tears. Lipa took out of her mother’s bundle a piece of savoury turnover and gave it him. He took it and began eating.
The sun had by now set: its glow died away on the road above. It grew dark and cool. Lipa and Praskovya walked on and for some time they kept crossing themselves.