Peasants - III

The arrival of the visitors was already known in the village, and directly after mass a number of people gathered together in the hut. The Leonytchevs and Matvyeitchevs and the Ilyitchovs came to inquire about their relations who were in service in Moscow. All the lads of Zhukovo who could read and write were packed off to Moscow and hired out as butlers or waiters (while from the village on the other side of the river the boys all became bakers), and that had been the custom from the days of serfdom long ago when a certain Luka Ivanitch, a peasant from Zhukovo, now a legendary figure, who had been a waiter in one of the Moscow clubs, would take none but his fellow-villagers into his service, and found jobs for them in taverns and restaurants; and from that time the village of Zhukovo was always called among the inhabitants of the surrounding districts Slaveytown. Nikolay had been taken to Moscow when he was eleven, and Ivan Makaritch, one of the Matvyeitchevs, at that time a headwaiter in the “Hermitage” garden, had put him into a situation. And now, addressing the Matvyeitchevs, Nikolay said emphatically:

“Ivan Makaritch was my benefactor, and I am bound to pray for him day and night, as it is owing to him I have become a good man.”

“My good soul!” a tall old woman, the sister of Ivan Makaritch, said tearfully, “and not a word have we heard about him, poor dear.”

“In the winter he was in service at Omon’s, and this season there was a rumour he was somewhere out of town, in gardens.... He has aged! In old days he would bring home as much as ten roubles a day in the summer-time, but now things are very quiet everywhere. The old man frets.”

The women looked at Nikolay’s feet, shod in felt boots, and at his pale face, and said mournfully:

“You are not one to get on, Nikolay Osipitch; you are not one to get on! No, indeed!”

And they all made much of Sasha. She was ten years old, but she was little and very thin, and might have been taken for no more than seven. Among the other little girls, with their sunburnt faces and roughly cropped hair, dressed in long faded smocks, she with her white little face, with her big dark eyes, with a red ribbon in her hair, looked funny, as though she were some little wild creature that had been caught and brought into the hut.

“She can read, too,” Olga said in her praise, looking tenderly at her daughter. “Read a little, child!” she said, taking the gospel from the corner. “You read, and the good Christian people will listen.”

The testament was an old and heavy one in leather binding, with dog’s-eared edges, and it exhaled a smell as though monks had come into the hut. Sasha raised her eyebrows and began in a loud rhythmic chant:

“‘And the angel of the Lord... appeared unto Joseph, saying unto him: Rise up, and take the Babe and His mother.’”

“The Babe and His mother,” Olga repeated, and flushed all over with emotion.

“‘And flee into Egypt,... and tarry there until such time as...’”

At the word “tarry” Olga could not refrain from tears. Looking at her, Marya began to whimper, and after her Ivan Makaritch’s sister. The old father cleared his throat, and bustled about to find something to give his grand-daughter, but, finding nothing, gave it up with a wave of his hand. And when the reading was over the neighbours dispersed to their homes, feeling touched and very much pleased with Olga and Sasha.

As it was a holiday, the family spent the whole day at home. The old woman, whom her husband, her daughters-in-law, her grandchildren all alike called Granny, tried to do everything herself; she heated the stove and set the samovar with her own hands, even waited at the midday meal, and then complained that she was worn out with work. And all the time she was uneasy for fear someone should eat a piece too much, or that her husband and daughters-in-law would sit idle. At one time she would hear the tavern-keeper’s geese going at the back of the huts to her kitchen-garden, and she would run out of the hut with a long stick and spend half an hour screaming shrilly by her cabbages, which were as gaunt and scraggy as herself; at another time she fancied that a crow had designs on her chickens, and she rushed to attack it with loud words of abuse. She was cross and grumbling from morning till night. And often she raised such an outcry that passers-by stopped in the street.

She was not affectionate towards the old man, reviling him as a lazy-bones and a plague. He was not a responsible, reliable peasant, and perhaps if she had not been continually nagging at him he would not have worked at all, but would have simply sat on the stove and talked. He talked to his son at great length about certain enemies of his, complained of the insults he said he had to put up with every day from the neighbours, and it was tedious to listen to him.

“Yes,” he would say, standing with his arms akimbo, “yes.... A week after the Exaltation of the Cross I sold my hay willingly at thirty kopecks a pood.... Well and good.... So you see I was taking the hay in the morning with a good will; I was interfering with no one. In an unlucky hour I see the village elder, Antip Syedelnikov, coming out of the tavern. ‘Where are you taking it, you ruffian?’ says he, and takes me by the ear.”

Kiryak had a fearful headache after his drinking bout, and was ashamed to face his brother.

“What vodka does! Ah, my God!” he muttered, shaking his aching head. “For Christ’s sake, forgive me, brother and sister; I’m not happy myself.”

As it was a holiday, they bought a herring at the tavern and made a soup of the herring’s head. At midday they all sat down to drink tea, and went on drinking it for a long time, till they were all perspiring; they looked positively swollen from the tea-drinking, and after it began sipping the broth from the herring’s head, all helping themselves out of one bowl. But the herring itself Granny had hidden.

In the evening a potter began firing pots on the ravine. In the meadow below the girls got up a choral dance and sang songs. They played the concertina. And on the other side of the river a kiln for baking pots was lighted, too, and the girls sang songs, and in the distance the singing sounded soft and musical. The peasants were noisy in and about the tavern. They were singing with drunken voices, each on his own account, and swearing at one another, so that Olga could only shudder and say:

“Oh, holy Saints!”

She was amazed that the abuse was incessant, and those who were loudest and most persistent in this foul language were the old men who were so near their end. And the girls and children heard the swearing, and were not in the least disturbed by it, and it was evident that they were used to it from their cradles.

It was past midnight, the kilns on both sides of the river were put out, but in the meadow below and in the tavern the merrymaking still went on. The old father and Kiryak, both drunk, walking arm-in-arm and jostling against each other’s shoulders, went to the barn where Olga and Marya were lying.

“Let her alone,” the old man persuaded him; “let her alone.... She is a harmless woman.... It’s a sin....”

“Ma-arya!” shouted Kiryak.

“Let her be.... It’s a sin.... She is not a bad woman.”

Both stopped by the barn and went on.

“I lo-ove the flowers of the fi-ield,” the old man began singing suddenly in a high, piercing tenor. “I lo-ove to gather them in the meadows!”

Then he spat, and with a filthy oath went into the hut.