Peasants - I
NIKOLAY TCHIKILDYEEV, a waiter in the Moscow hotel, Slavyansky Bazaar, was taken ill. His legs went numb and his gait was affected, so that on one occasion, as he was going along the corridor, he tumbled and fell down with a tray full of ham and peas. He had to leave his job. All his own savings and his wife’s were spent on doctors and medicines; they had nothing left to live upon. He felt dull with no work to do, and he made up his mind he must go home to the village. It is better to be ill at home, and living there is cheaper; and it is a true saying that the walls of home are a help.
He reached Zhukovo towards evening. In his memories of childhood he had pictured his home as bright, snug, comfortable. Now, going into the hut, he was positively frightened; it was so dark, so crowded, so unclean. His wife Olga and his daughter Sasha, who had come with him, kept looking in bewilderment at the big untidy stove, which filled up almost half the hut and was black with soot and flies. What lots of flies! The stove was on one side, the beams lay slanting on the walls, and it looked as though the hut were just going to fall to pieces. In the corner, facing the door, under the holy images, bottle labels and newspaper cuttings were stuck on the walls instead of pictures. The poverty, the poverty! Of the grown-up people there were none at home; all were at work at the harvest. On the stove was sitting a white-headed girl of eight, unwashed and apathetic; she did not even glance at them as they came in. On the floor a white cat was rubbing itself against the oven fork.
“Puss, puss!” Sasha called to her. “Puss!”
“She can’t hear,” said the little girl; “she has gone deaf.”
“How is that?”
“Oh, she was beaten.”
Nikolay and Olga realized from the firs t glance what life was like here, but said nothing to one another; in silence they put down their bundles, and went out into the village street. Their hut was the third from the end, and seemed the very poorest and oldest-looking; the second was not much better; but the last one had an iron roof, and curtains in the windows. That hut stood apart, not enclosed; it was a tavern. The huts were in a single row, and the whole of the little village—quiet and dreamy, with willows, elders, and mountain-ash trees peeping out from the yards—had an attractive look.
Beyond the peasants homesteads there was a slope down to the river, so steep and precipitous that huge stones jutted out bare here and there through the clay. Down the slope, among the stones and holes dug by the potters, ran winding paths; bits of broken pottery, some brown, some red, lay piled up in heaps, and below there stretched a broad, level, bright green meadow, from which the hay had been already carried, and in which the peasants’ cattle were wandering. The river, three-quarters of a mile from the village, ran twisting and turning, with beautiful leafy banks; beyond it was again a broad meadow, a herd of cattle, long strings of white geese; then, just as on the near side, a steep ascent uphill, and on the top of the hill a hamlet, and a church with five domes, and at a little distance the manor-house.
“It’s lovely here in your parts!” said Olga, crossing herself at the sight of the church. “What space, oh Lord!”
Just at that moment the bell began ringing for service (it was Saturday evening). Two little girls, down below, who were dragging up a pail of water, looked round at the church to listen to the bell.
“At this time they are serving the dinners at the Slavyansky Bazaar,” said Nikolay dreamily.
Sitting on the edge of the slope, Nikolay and Olga watched the sun setting, watched the gold and crimson sky reflected in the river, in the church windows, and in the whole air—which was soft and still and unutterably pure as it never was in Moscow. And when the sun had set the flocks and herds passed, bleating and lowing; geese flew across from the further side of the river, and all sank into silence; the soft light died away in the air, and the dusk of evening began quickly moving down upon them.
Meanwhile Nikolay’s father and mother, two gaunt, bent, toothless old people, just of the same height, came back. The women—the sisters-in-law Marya and Fyokla—who had been working on the landowner’s estate beyond the river, arrived home, too. Marya, the wife of Nikolay’s brother Kiryak, had six children, and Fyokla, the wife of Nikolay’s brother Denis—who had gone for a soldier—had two; and when Nikolay, going into the hut, saw all the family, all those bodies big and little moving about on the lockers, in the hanging cradles and in all the corners, and when he saw the greed with which the old father and the women ate the black bread, dipping it in water, he realized he had made a mistake in coming here, sick, penniless, and with a family, too—a great mistake!
“And where is Kiryak?” he asked after they had exchanged greetings.
“He is in service at the merchant’s,” answered his father; “a keeper in the woods. He is not a bad peasant, but too fond of his glass.”
“He is no great help!” said the old woman tearfully. “Our men are a grievous lot; they bring nothing into the house, but take plenty out. Kiryak drinks, and so does the old man; it is no use hiding a sin; he knows his way to the tavern. The Heavenly Mother is wroth.”
In honour of the visitors they brought out the samovar. The tea smelt of fish; the sugar was grey and looked as though it had been nibbled; cockroaches ran to and fro over the bread and among the crockery. It was disgusting to drink, and the conversation was disgusting, too—about nothing but poverty and illnesses. But before they had time to empty their first cups there came a loud, prolonged, drunken shout from the yard:
“It looks as though Kiryak were coming,” said the old man. “Speak of the devil.”
All were hushed. And again, soon afterwards, the same shout, coarse and drawn-out as though it came out of the earth:
Marya, the elder sister-in-law, turned pale and huddled against the stove, and it was strange to see the look of terror on the face of the strong, broad-shouldered, ugly woman. Her daughter, the child who had been sitting on the stove and looked so apathetic, suddenly broke into loud weeping.
“What are you howling for, you plague?” Fyokla, a handsome woman, also strong and broad-shouldered, shouted to her. “He won’t kill you, no fear!”
From his old father Nikolay learned that Marya was afraid to live in the forest with Kiryak, and that when he was drunk he always came for her, made a row, and beat her mercilessly.
“Ma-arya!” the shout sounded close to the door.
“Protect me, for Christ’s sake, good people!” faltered Marya, breathing as though she had been plunged into very cold water. “Protect me, kind people....”
All the children in the hut began crying, and looking at them, Sasha, too, began to cry. They heard a drunken cough, and a tall, black-bearded peasant wearing a winter cap came into the hut, and was the more terrible because his face could not be seen in the dim light of the little lamp. It was Kiryak. Going up to his wife, he swung his arm and punched her in the face with his fist. Stunned by the blow, she did not utter a sound, but sat down, and her nose instantly began bleeding.
“What a disgrace! What a disgrace!” muttered the old man, clambering up on to the stove. “Before visitors, too! It’s a sin!”
The old mother sat silent, bowed, lost in thought; Fyokla rocked the cradle.
Evidently conscious of inspiring fear, and pleased at doing so, Kiryak seized Marya by the arm, dragged her towards the door, and bellowed like an animal in order to seem still more terrible; but at that moment he suddenly caught sight of the visitors and stopped.
“Oh, they have come,...” he said, letting his wife go; “my own brother and his family....”
Staggering and opening wide his red, drunken eyes, he said his prayer before the image and went on:
“My brother and his family have come to the parental home... from Moscow, I suppose. The great capital Moscow, to be sure, the mother of cities.... Excuse me.”
He sank down on the bench near the samovar and began drinking tea, sipping it loudly from the saucer in the midst of general silence.... He drank off a dozen cups, then reclined on the bench and began snoring.
They began going to bed. Nikolay, as an invalid, was put on the stove with his old father; Sasha lay down on the floor, while Olga went with the other women into the barn.
“Aye, aye, dearie,” she said, lying down on the hay beside Marya; “you won’t mend your trouble with tears. Bear it in patience, that is all. It is written in the Scriptures: ‘If anyone smite thee on the right cheek, offer him the left one also.’... Aye, aye, dearie.”
Then in a low singsong murmur she told them about Moscow, about her own life, how she had been a servant in furnished lodgings.
“And in Moscow the houses are big, built of brick,” she said; “and there are ever so many churches, forty times forty, dearie; and they are all gentry in the houses, so handsome and so proper!”
Marya told her that she had not only never been in Moscow, but had not even been in their own district town; she could not read or write, and knew no prayers, not even “Our Father.” Both she and Fyokla, the other sister-in-law, who was sitting a little way off listening, were extremely ignorant and could understand nothing. They both disliked their husbands; Marya was afraid of Kiryak, and whenever he stayed with her she was shaking with fear, and always got a headache from the fumes of vodka and tobacco with which he reeked. And in answer to the question whether she did not miss her husband, Fyokla answered with vexation:
They talked a little and sank into silence.
It was cool, and a cock crowed at the top of his voice near the barn, preventing them from sleeping. When the bluish morning light was already peeping through all the crevices, Fyokla got up stealthily and went out, and then they heard the sound of her bare feet running off somewhere.