A Sportsman's Sketches/Chapter 13
TWO COUNTRY GENTLEMEN
I have already had the honour, kind readers, of introducing to you several of my neighbours; let me now seize a favourable opportunity (it is always a favourable opportunity with us writers) to make known to you two more gentlemen, on whose lands I often used to go shooting—very worthy, well-intentioned persons, who enjoy universal esteem in several districts.
First I will describe to you the retired General-major Vyatcheslav Ilarionovitch Hvalinsky. Picture to yourselves a tall and once slender man, now inclined to corpulence, but not in the least decrepit or even elderly, a man of ripe age; in his very prime, as they say. It is true the once regular and even now rather pleasing features of of his face have undergone some change; his cheeks are flabby; there are close wrinkles like rays about his eyes; a few teeth are not, as Saadi, according to Pushkin, used to say; his light brown hair—at least, all that is left of it—has assumed a purplish hue, thanks to a composition bought at the Romyon horse-fair of a Jew who gave himself out as an Armenian; but Vyatcheslav Ilarionovitch has a smart walk and a ringing laugh, jingles his spurs and curls his moustaches, and finally speaks of himself as an old cavalry man, whereas we all know that really old men never talk of being old. He usually wears a frock-coat buttoned up to the top, a high cravat, starched collars, and grey sprigged trousers of a military cut; he wears his hat tilted over his forehead, leaving all the back of his head exposed. He is a good-natured man, but of rather curious notions and principles. For instance, he can never treat noblemen of no wealth or standing as equals. When he talks to them, he usually looks sideways at them, his cheek pressed hard against his stiff white collar, and suddenly he turns and silently fixes them with a clear stony stare, while he moves the whole skin of his head under his hair; he even has a way of his own in pronouncing many words; he never says, for instance: 'Thank you, Pavel Vasilyitch,' or 'This way, if you please, Mihalo Ivanitch,' but always 'Fanks, Pa'l 'Asilitch,' or ''s wy, please, Mil' 'Vanitch.' With persons of the lower grades of society, his behaviour is still more quaint; he never looks at them at all, and before making known his desires to them, or giving an order, he repeats several times in succession, with a puzzled, far-away air: 'What's your name? . . . what, what's your name?' with extraordinary sharp emphasis on the first word, which gives the phrase a rather close resemblance to the call of a quail. He is very fussy and terribly close-fisted, but manages his land badly; he had chosen as overseer on his estate a retired quartermaster, a Little Russian, and a man of really exceptional stupidity. None of us, though, in the management of land, has ever surpassed a certain great Petersburg dignitary, who, having perceived from the reports of his steward that the cornkilns in which the corn was dried on his estate were often liable to catch fire, whereby he lost a great deal of grain, gave the strictest orders that for the future they should not put the sheaves in till the fire had been completely put out! This same great personage conceived the brilliant idea of sowing his fields with poppies, as the result of an apparently simple calculation; poppy being dearer than rye, he argued, it is consequently more profitable to sow poppy. He it was, too, who ordered his women serfs to wear tiaras after a pattern bespoken from Moscow; and to this day the peasant women on his lands do actually wear the tiaras, only they wear them over their skull-caps. . . . But let us return to Vyatcheslav Ilarionovitch. Vyatcheslav Ilarionovitch is a devoted admirer of the fair sex, and directly he catches sight of a pretty woman in the promenade of his district town, he is promptly off in pursuit, but falls at once into a sort of limping gait—that is the remarkable feature of the case. He is fond of playing cards, but only with people of a lower standing; they toady him with 'Your Excellency' in every sentence, while he can scold them and find fault to his heart's content. When he chances to play with the governor or any official personage, a marvellous change comes over him; he is all nods and smiles; he looks them in the face; he seems positively flowing with honey. . . . He even loses without grumbling. Vyatcheslav Ilarionovitch does not read much; when he is reading he incessantly works his moustaches and eyebrows up and down, as if a wave were passing from below upwards over his face. This undulatory motion in Vyatcheslav Ilarionovitch's face is especially marked when (before company, of course) he happens to be reading the columns of the Journal des Débats. In the assemblies of nobility he plays a rather important part, but on grounds of economy he declines the honourable dignity of marshal. 'Gentlemen,' he usually says to the noblemen who press that office upon him, and he speaks in a voice filled with condescension and self-sufficiency: 'much indebted for the honour; but I have made up my mind to consecrate my leisure to solitude.' And, as he utters these words, he turns his head several times to right and to left, and then, with a dignified air, adjusts his chin and his cheek over his cravat. In his young days he served as adjutant to some very important person, whom he never speaks of except by his Christian name and patronymic; they do say he fulfilled other functions than those of an adjutant; that, for instance, in full parade get-up, buttoned up to the chin, he had to lather his chief in his bath—but one can't believe everything one hears. General Hvalinsky is not, however, fond of talking himself about his career in the army, which is certainly rather curious; it seems that he had never seen active service. General Hvalinsky lives in a small house alone; he has never known the joys of married life, and consequently he still regards himself as a possible match, and indeed a very eligible one. But he has a house-keeper, a dark-eyed, dark-browed, plump, fresh-looking woman of five-and-thirty with a moustache; she wears starched dresses even on week-days, and on Sundays puts on muslin sleeves as well. Vyatcheslav Ilarionovitch is at his best at the large invitation dinners given by gentlemen of the neighbourhood in honour of the governor and other dignitaries: then he is, one may say, in his natural element. On these occasions he usually sits, if not on the governor's right hand, at least at no great distance from him; at the beginning of dinner he is more disposed to nurse his sense of personal dignity, and, sitting back in his chair, he loftily scans the necks and stand-up collars of the guests, without turning his head, but towards the end of the meal he unbends, begins smiling in all directions (he had been all smiles for the governor from the first), and sometimes even proposes the toast in honour of the fair sex, the ornament of our planet, as he says. General Hvalinsky shows to advantage too at all solemn public functions, inspections, assemblies, and exhibitions; no one in church goes up for the benediction with such style. Vyatcheslav Ilarionovitch's servants are never noisy and clamorous on the breaking up of assemblies or in crowded thoroughfares; as they make a way for him through the crowd or call his carriage, they say in an agreeable guttural baritone: 'By your leave, by your leave allow General Hvalinsky to pass,' or 'Call for General Hvalinsky's carriage.' . . . Hvalinsky's carriage is, it must be admitted, of a rather queer design, and the footmen's liveries are rather threadbare (that they are grey, with red facings, it is hardly necessary to remark); his horses too have seen a good deal of hard service in their time; but Vyatcheslav Ilarionovitch has no pretensions to splendour, and goes so far as to think it beneath his rank to make an ostentation of wealth. Hvalinsky has no special gift of eloquence, or possibly has no opportunity of displaying his rhetorical powers, as he has a particular aversion, not only for disputing, but for discussion in general, and assiduously avoids long conversation of all sorts, especially with young people. This was certainly judicious on his part; the worst of having to do with the younger generation is that they are so ready to forget the proper respect and submission due to their superiors. In the presence of persons of high rank Hvalinsky is for the most part silent, while with persons of a lower rank, whom to judge by appearances he despises, though he constantly associates with them, his remarks are sharp and abrupt, expressions such as the following occurring incessantly: 'That's a piece of folly, what you're saying now,' or 'I feel myself compelled, sir, to remind you,' or 'You ought to realise with whom you are dealing,' and so on. He is peculiarly dreaded by postmasters, officers of the local boards, and superintendents of posting stations. He never entertains any one in his house, and lives, as the rumour goes, like a screw. For all that, he's an excellent country gentleman, 'An old soldier, a disinterested fellow, a man of principle, vieux grognard,' his neighbours say of him. The provincial prosecutor alone permits himself to smile when General Hvalinsky's excellent and solid qualities are referred to before him—but what will not envy drive men to! . . .
However, we will pass now to another landed proprietor.
Mardary Apollonitch Stegunov has no sort of resemblance to Hvalinsky; I hardly think he has ever served under government in any capacity, and he has never been reckoned handsome. Mardary Apollonitch is a little, fattish, bald old man of a respectable corpulence, with a double chin and little soft hands. He is very hospitable and jovial; lives, as the saying is, for his comfort; summer and winter alike, he wears a striped wadded dressing-gown. There's only one thing in which he is like General Hvalinsky; he too is a bachelor. He owns five hundred souls. Mardary Apollonitch's interest in his estate is of a rather superficial description; not to be behind the age, he ordered a threshing-machine from Butenop's in Moscow, locked it up in a barn, and then felt his mind at rest on the subject. Sometimes on a fine summer day he would have out his racing droshky, and drive off to his fields, to look at the crops and gather corn-flowers. Mardary Apollonitch's existence is carried on in quite the old style. His house is of an old-fashioned construction; in the hall there is, of course, a smell of kvas, tallow candles, and leather; close at hand, on the right, there is a sideboard with pipes and towels; in the dining-room, family portraits, flies, a great pot of geraniums, and a squeaky piano; in the drawing-room, three sofas, three tables, two looking-glasses, and a wheezy clock of tarnished enamel with engraved bronze hands; in the study, a table piled up with papers, and a bluish-coloured screen covered with pictures cut out of various works of last century; a bookcase full of musty books, spiders, and black dust; a puffy armchair; an Italian window; a sealed-up door into the garden. . . . Everything, in short, just as it always is. Mardary Apollonitch has a multitude of servants, all dressed in the old-fashioned style; in long blue full coats, with high collars, shortish pantaloons of a muddy hue, and yellow waistcoats. They address visitors as 'father.' His estate is under the superintendence of an agent, a peasant with a beard that covers the whole of his sheepskin; his household is managed by a stingy, wrinkled old woman, whose face is always tied up in a cinnamon-coloured handkerchief. In Mardary Apollonitch's stable there are thirty horses of various kinds; he drives out in a coach built on the estate, that weighs four tons. He receives visitors very cordially, and entertains them sumptuously; in other words, thanks to the stupefying powers of our national cookery, he deprives them of all capacity for doing anything but playing preference. For his part, he never does anything, and has even given up reading the Dream-book. But there are a good many of our landed gentry in Russia exactly like this. It will be asked: 'What is my object in talking about him? . . .' Well, by way of answering that question, let me describe to you one of my visits at Mardary Apollonitch's.
I arrived one summer evening at seven o'clock. An evening service was only just over; the priest, a young man, apparently very timid, and only lately come from the seminary, was sitting in the drawing-room near the door, on the extreme edge of a chair. Mardary Apollonitch received me as usual, very cordially; he was genuinely delighted to see any visitor, and indeed he was the most good-natured of men altogether. The priest got up and took his hat.
'Wait a bit, wait a bit, father,' said Mardary Apollonitch, not yet leaving go of my hand; 'don't go . . . I have sent for some vodka for you.'
'I never drink it, sir,' the priest muttered in confusion, blushing up to his ears.
'What nonsense!' answered Mardary Apollonitch; 'Mishka! Yushka! vodka for the father!'
Yushka, a tall, thin old man of eighty, came in with a glass of vodka on a dark-coloured tray, with a few patches of flesh-colour on it, all that was left of the original enamel.
The priest began to decline.
'Come, drink it up, father, no ceremony; it's too bad of you,' observed the landowner reproachfully.
The poor young man had to obey.
'There, now, father, you may go.'
The priest took leave.
'There, there, that'll do, get along with you. . . .'
'A capital fellow,' pursued Mardary Apollonitch, looking after him, 'I like him very much; there's only one thing—he's young yet. But how are you, my dear sir? . . . What have you been doing? How are you? Let's come out on to the balcony—such a lovely evening.'
We went out on the balcony, sat down, and began to talk. Mardary Apollonitch glanced below, and suddenly fell into a state of tremendous excitement.
'Whose hens are those? whose hens are those?' he shouted: 'Whose are those hens roaming about in the garden? . . . Whose are those hens? How many times I've forbidden it! How many times I've spoken about it!'
Yushka ran out.
'What disorder!' protested Mardary Apollonitch; 'it's horrible!'
The unlucky hens, two speckled and one white with a topknot, as I still remember, went on stalking tranquilly about under the apple-trees, occasionally giving vent to their feelings in a prolonged clucking, when suddenly Yushka, bareheaded and stick in hand, with three other house-serfs of mature years, flew at them simultaneously. Then the fun began. The hens clucked, flapped their wings, hopped, raised a deafening cackle; the house-serfs ran, tripping up and tumbling over; their master shouted from the balcony like one possessed: 'Catch 'em, catch 'em, catch 'em, catch 'em, catch 'em, catch 'em, catch 'em!'
At last one servant succeeded in catching the hen with the topknot, tumbling upon her, and at the very same moment a little girl of eleven, with dishevelled hair, and a dry branch in her hand, jumped over the garden-fence from the village street.
'Ah, we see now whose hens!' cried the landowner in triumph. 'They're Yermil, the coachman's, hens! he's sent his Natalka to chase them out. . . . He didn't send his Parasha, no fear!' the landowner added in a low voice with a significant snigger. 'Hey, Yushka! let the hens alone; catch Natalka for me.'
But before the panting Yushka had time to reach the terrified little girl the house-keeper suddenly appeared, snatched her by the arm, and slapped her several times on the back. . . .
'That's it! that's it!' cried the master, 'tut-tut-tut! . . . And carry off the hens, Avdotya,' he added in a loud voice, and he turned with a beaming face to me; 'that was a fine chase, my dear sir, hey?—I'm in a regular perspiration: look.'
And Mardary Apollonitch went off into a series of chuckles.
We remained on the balcony. The evening was really exceptionally fine.
Tea was served us.
'Tell me,' I began, 'Mardary Apollonitch: are those your peasants' huts, out there on the high-road, above the ravine?'
'Yes . . . why do you ask?'
'I wonder at you, Mardary Apollonitch? It's really sinful. The huts allotted to the peasants there are wretched cramped little hovels; there isn't a tree to be seen near them; there's not a pond even; there's only one well, and that's no good. Could you really find no other place to settle them? . . . And they say you're taking away the old hemp-grounds, too?'
'And what is one to do with this new division of the lands?' Mardary Apollonitch made answer. 'Do you know I've this re-division quite on my mind, and I foresee no sort of good from it. And as for my having taken away the hemp-ground, and their not having dug any ponds, or what not—as to that, my dear sir, I know my own business. I'm a plain man—I go on the old system. To my ideas, when a man's master—he's master; and when he's peasant—he's peasant. . . . That's what I think about it.'
To an argument so clear and convincing there was of course no answer.
'And besides,' he went on, 'those peasants are a wretched lot; they're in disgrace. Particularly two families there; why, my late father—God rest his soul—couldn't bear them; positively couldn't bear them. And you know my precept is: where the father's a thief, the son's a thief; say what you like. . . . Blood, blood—oh, that's the great thing!'
Meanwhile there was a perfect stillness in the air. Only rarely there came a gust of wind, which, as it sank for the last time near the house, brought to our ears the sound of rhythmically repeated blows, seeming to come from the stable. Mardary Apollonitch was in the act of lifting a saucer full of tea to his lips, and was just inflating his nostrils to sniff its fragrance—no true-born Russian, as we all know, can drink his tea without this preliminary—but he stopped short, listened, nodded his head, sipped his tea, and laying the saucer on the table, with the most good-natured smile imaginable, he murmured as though involuntarily accompanying the blows: 'Tchuki-tchuki-tchuk! Tchuki-tchuk!'
'What is it?' I asked puzzled.
'Oh, by my order, they're punishing a scamp of a fellow. . . . Do you happen to remember Vasya, who waits at the sideboard?'
'Why, that waited on us at dinner just now. He with the long whiskers.'
The fiercest indignation could not have stood against the clear mild gaze of Mardary Apollonitch.
'What are you after, young man? what is it?' he said, shaking his head. 'Am I a criminal or something, that you stare at me like that? "Whom he loveth he chasteneth"; you know that.'
A quarter of an hour later I had taken leave of Mardary Apollonitch. As I was driving through the village I caught sight of Vasya. He was walking down the village street, cracking nuts. 'I told the coachman to stop the horses and called him up.
'Well, my boy, so they've been punishing you to-day?' I said to him.
'How did you know?' answered Vasya.
'Your master told me.'
'The master himself?'
'What did he order you to be punished for?'
'Oh, I deserved it, father; I deserved it. They don't punish for trifles among us; that's not the way with us—no, no. Our master's not like that; our master . . . you won't find another master like him in all the province.'
'Drive on!' I said to the coachman. 'There you have it, old Russia!' I mused on my homeward way.