A Sportsman's Sketches/Chapter 14
One of the principal advantages of hunting, my dear readers, consists in its forcing you to be constantly moving from place to place, which is highly agreeable for a man of no occupation. It is true that sometimes, especially in wet weather, it's not over pleasant to roam over by-roads, to cut 'across country,' to stop every peasant you meet with the question, 'Hey! my good man! how are we to get to Mordovka?' and at Mordovka to try to extract from a half-witted peasant woman (the working population are all in the fields) whether it is far to an inn on the high-road, and how to get to it—and then when you have gone on eight miles farther, instead of an inn, to come upon the deserted village of Hudobubnova, to the great amazement of a whole herd of pigs, who have been wallowing up to their ears in the black mud in the middle of the village street, without the slightest anticipation of ever being disturbed. There is no great joy either in having to cross planks that dance under your feet; to drop down into ravines; to wade across boggy streams: it is not over-pleasant to tramp twenty-four hours on end through the sea of green that covers the highroads or (which God forbid!) stay for hours stuck in the mud before a striped milestone with the figures 22 on one side and 23 on the other; it is not wholly pleasant to live for weeks together on eggs, milk, and the rye-bread patriots affect to be so fond of. . . . But there is ample compensation for all these inconveniences and discomforts in pleasures and advantages of another sort. Let us come, though, to our story.
After all I have said above, there is no need to explain to the reader how I happened five years ago to be at Lebedyan just in the very thick of the horse-fair. We sportsmen may often set off on a fine morning from our more or less ancestral roof, in the full intention of returning there the following evening, and little by little, still in pursuit of snipe, may get at last to the blessed banks of Petchora. Besides, every lover of the gun and the dog is a passionate admirer of the noblest animal in the world, the horse. And so I turned up at Lebedyan, stopped at the hotel, changed my clothes, and went out to the fair. (The waiter, a thin lanky youth of twenty, had already informed me in a sweet nasal tenor that his Excellency Prince N——, who purchases the chargers of the —— regiment, was staying at their house; that many other gentlemen had arrived; that some gypsies were to sing in the evenings, and there was to be a performance of Pan Tvardovsky at the theatre; that the horses were fetching good prices; and that there was a fine show of them.)
In the market square there were endless rows of carts drawn up, and behind the carts, horses of every possible kind: racers, stud-horses, dray horses, cart-horses, posting-hacks, and simple peasants' nags. Some fat and sleek, assorted by colours, covered with striped horse-cloths, and tied up short to high racks, turned furtive glances backward at the too familiar whips of their owners, the horse-dealers; private owners' horses, sent by noblemen of the steppes a hundred or two hundred miles away, in charge of some decrepit old coachman and two or three headstrong stableboys, shook their long necks, stamped with ennui, and gnawed at the fences; roan horses, from Vyatka, huddled close to one another; race-horses, dapple-grey, raven, and sorrel, with large hindquarters, flowing tails, and shaggy legs, stood in majestic immobility like lions. Connoisseurs stopped respectfully before them. The avenues formed by the rows of carts were thronged with people of every class, age, and appearance; horse-dealers in long blue coats and high caps, with sly faces, were on the look-out for purchasers; gypsies, with staring eyes and curly heads, strolled up and down, like uneasy spirits, looking into the horses' mouths, lifting up a hoof or a tail, shouting, swearing, acting as go-betweens, casting lots, or hanging about some army horse-contracter in a foragingcap and military cloak, with beaver collar. A stalwart Cossack rode up and down on a lanky gelding with the neck of a stag, offering it for sale 'in one lot,' that is, saddle, bridle, and all. Peasants, in sheepskins torn at the arm-pits, were forcing their way despairingly through the crowd, or packing themselves by dozens into a cart harnessed to a horse, which was to be 'put to the test,' or somewhere on one side, with the aid of a wily gypsy, they were bargaining till they were exhausted, clasping each other's hands a hundred times over, each still sticking to his price, while the subject of their dispute, a wretched little jade covered with a shrunken mat, was blinking quite unmoved, as though it was no concern of hers. . . . And, after all, what difference did it make to her who was to have the beating of her? Broad-browed landowners, with dyed moustaches and an expression of dignity on their faces, in Polish hats and cotton overcoats pulled half-on, were talking condescendingly with fat merchants in felt hats and green gloves. Officers of different regiments were crowding everywhere; an extraordinarily lanky cuirassier of German extraction was languidly inquiring of a lame horse-dealer 'what he expected to get for that chestnut.' A fair-haired young hussar, a boy of nineteen, was choosing a trace-horse to match a lean carriage-horse; a post-boy in a low-crowned hat, with a peacock's feather twisted round it, in a brown coat and long leather gloves tied round the arm with narrow, greenish bands, was looking for a shaft-horse. Coachmen were plaiting the horses' tails, wetting their manes, and giving respectful advice to their masters. Those who had completed a stroke of business were hurrying to hotel or to tavern, according to their class. . . . And all the crowd were moving, shouting, bustling, quarrelling and making it up again, swearing and laughing, all up to their knees in the mud. I wanted to buy a set of three horses for my covered trap; mine had begun to show signs of breaking down. I had found two, but had not yet succeeded in picking up a third. After a hotel dinner, which I cannot bring myself to describe (even Æneas had discovered how painful it is to dwell on sorrows past), I repaired to a café so-called, which was the evening resort of the purchasers of cavalry mounts, horse-breeders, and other persons. In the billiard-room, which was plunged in grey floods of tobacco smoke, there were about twenty men. Here were free-and-easy young landowners in embroidered jackets and grey trousers, with long curling hair and little waxed moustaches, staring about them with gentlemanly insolence; other noblemen in Cossack dress, with extraordinarily short necks, and eyes lost in layers of fat, were snorting with distressing distinctness; merchants sat a little apart on the qui-vive, as it is called; officers were chatting freely among themselves. At the billiard-table was Prince N—— a young man of two-and-twenty, with a lively and rather contemptuous face, in a coat hanging open, a red silk shirt, and loose velvet pantaloons; he was playing with the ex-lieutenant, Viktor Hlopakov.
The ex-lieutenant, Viktor Hlopakov, a little, thinnish, dark man of thirty, with black hair, brown eyes, and a thick snub nose, is a diligent frequenter of elections and horse-fairs. He walks with a skip and a hop, waves his fat hands with a jovial swagger, cocks his cap on one side, and tucks up the sleeves of his military coat, showing the blue-black cotton lining. Mr. Hlopakov knows how to gain the favour of rich scapegraces from Petersburg; smokes, drinks, and plays cards with them; calls them by their Christian names. What they find to like in him it is rather hard to comprehend. He is not clever; he is not amusing; he is not even a buffoon. It is true they treat him with friendly casualness, as a good-natured fellow, but rather a fool; they chum with him for two or three weeks, and then all of a sudden do not recognise him in the street, and he on his side, too, does not recognise them. The chief peculiarity of Lieutenant Hlopakov consists in his continually for a year, sometimes two at a time, using in season and out of season one expression, which, though not in the least humorous, for some reason or other makes everyone laugh. Eight years ago he used on every occasion to say, ''Umble respecks and duty,' and his patrons of that date used always to fall into fits of laughter and make him repeat ''Umble respecks and duty'; then he began to adopt a more complicated expression: 'No, that's too, too k'essk'say,' and with the same brilliant success; two years later he had invented a fresh saying: 'Ne voo excite vooself pa, man of sin, sewn in a sheepskin,' and so on. And strange to say! these, as you see, not overwhelmingly witty phrases, keep him in food and drink and clothes. (He has run through his property ages ago, and lives solely upon his friends.) There is, observe, absolutely no other attraction about him; he can, it is true, smoke a hundred pipes of Zhukov tobacco in a day, and when he plays billiards, throws his right leg higher than his head, and while taking aim shakes his cue affectedly; but, after all, not everyone has a fancy for these accomplishments. He can drink, too . . . but in Russia it is hard to gain distinction as a drinker. In short, his success is a complete riddle to me. . . . There is one thing, perhaps; he is discreet; he has no taste for washing dirty linen away from home, never speaks a word against anyone.
'Well,' I thought, on seeing Hlopakov, 'I wonder what his catchword is now?'
The prince hit the white.
'Thirty love,' whined a consumptive marker, with a dark face and blue rings under his eyes.
The prince sent the yellow with a crash into the farthest pocket.
'Ah!' a stoutish merchant, sitting in the corner at a tottering little one-legged table, boomed approvingly from the depths of his chest, and immediately was overcome by confusion at his own presumption. But luckily no one noticed him. He drew a long breath, and stroked his beard.
'Thirty-six love!' the marker shouted in a nasal voice.
'Well, what do you say to that, old man?' the prince asked Hlopakov.
'What! rrrrakaliooon, of course, simply rrrrakaliooooon!'
The prince roared with laughter.
'What? what? Say it again.'
'Rrrrrakaliooon!' repeated the ex-lieutenant complacently.
'So that's the catchword!' thought I.
The prince sent the red into the pocket.
'Oh! that's not the way, prince, that's not the way,' lisped a fair-haired young officer with red eyes, a tiny nose, and a babyish, sleepy face. 'You shouldn't play like that . . . you ought . . . not that way!'
'Eh? ' the prince queried over his shoulder.
'You ought to have done it . . . in a triplet.'
'Oh, really? ' muttered the prince.
'What do you say, prince? Shall we go this evening to hear the gypsies?' the young man hurriedly went on in confusion. 'Styoshka will sing. . . . Ilyushka. . . .'
The prince vouchsafed no reply.
'Rrrrrakaliooon, old boy,' said Hlopakov, with a sly wink of his left eye.
And the prince exploded.
'Thirty-nine to love,' sang out the marker.
'Love . . . just look, I'll do the trick with that yellow.' . . . Hlopakov, fidgeting his cue in his hand, took aim, and missed.
'Eh, rrrakalioon,' he cried with vexation.
The prince laughed again.
'What, what, what?'
'Your honour made a miss,' observed the marker.
'Allow me to chalk the cue. . . . Forty love.'
'Yes, gentlemen,' said the prince, addressing the whole company, and not looking at any one in particular; 'you know, Verzhembitskaya must be called before the curtain to-night.'
'To be sure, to be sure, of course,' several voices cried in rivalry, amazingly flattered at the chance of answering the prince's speech; 'Verzhembitskaya, to be sure. . . .'
Verzhembitskaya's an excellent actress, far superior to Sopnyakova,' whined an ugly little man in the corner with moustaches and spectacles. Luckless wretch! he was secretly sighing at Sopnyakova's feet, and the prince did not even vouchsafe him a look.
'Wai-ter, hey, a pipe!' a tall gentleman, with regular features and a most majestic manner—in fact, with all the external symptoms of a card-sharper—muttered into his cravat.
A waiter ran for a pipe, and when he came back, announced to his excellency that the groom Baklaga was asking for him.
'Ah! tell him to wait a minute and take him some vodka.'
Baklaga, as I was told afterwards, was the name of a youthful, handsome, and excessively depraved groom; the prince loved him, made him presents of horses, went out hunting with him, spent whole nights with him. . . . Now you would not know this same prince, who was once a rake and a scapegrace. . . . In what good odour he is now; how straight-laced, how supercilious! How devoted to the government—and, above all, so prudent and judicious!
However, the tobacco smoke had begun to make my eyes smart. After hearing Hlopakov's exclamation and the prince's chuckle one last time more, I went off to my room, where, on a narrow, hair-stuffed sofa pressed into hollows, with a high, curved back, my man had already made me up a bed.
The next day I went out to look at the horses in the stables, and began with the famous horse-dealer Sitnikov's. I went through a gate into a yard strewn with sand. Before a wide open stable-door stood the horsedealer himself—a tall, stout man no longer young, in a hareskin coat, with a raised turnover collar. Catching sight of me, he moved slowly to meet me, held his cap in both hands above his head, and in a sing-song voice brought out:
'Ah, our respects to you. You'd like to have a look at the horses, may be?'
'Yes; I've come to look at the horses.'
'And what sort of horses, precisely, I make bold to ask?'
'Show me what you have.'
We went into the stable. Some white pug-dogs got up from the hay and ran up to us, wagging their tails, and a long-bearded old goat walked away with an air of dissatisfaction; three stableboys, in strong but greasy sheepskins, bowed to us without speaking. To right and to left, in horse-boxes raised above the ground, stood nearly thirty horses, groomed to perfection. Pigeons fluttered cooing about the rafters.
'What, now, do you want a horse for? for driving or for breeding?' Sitnikov inquired of me.
'Oh, I'll see both sorts.'
'To be sure, to be sure,' the horsedealer commented, dwelling on each syllable. 'Petya, show the gentleman Ermine.'
We came out into the yard.
'But won't you let them bring you a bench out of the hut? . . . You don't want to sit down. . . . As you please.'
There was the thud of hoofs on the boards, the crack of a whip, and Petya, a swarthy fellow of forty, marked by small-pox, popped out of the stable with a rather well-shaped grey stallion, made it rear, ran twice round the yard with it, and adroitly pulled it up at the right place. Ermine stretched himself, snorted, raised his tail, shook his head, and looked sideways at me.
'A clever beast,' I thought.
'Give him his head, give him his head,' said Sitniker, and he stared at me.
'What may you think of him?' he inquired at last.
'The horse's not bad—the hind legs aren't quite sound.'
'His legs are first-rate!' Sitnikov rejoined, with an air of conviction; 'and his hind-quarters . . . just look, sir . . . broad as an oven—you could sleep up there.'
'His pasterns are long.'
'Long! mercy on us! Start him, Petya, start him, but at a trot, a trot . . . don't let him gallop.'
Again Petya ran round the yard with Ermine. None of us spoke for a little.
'There, lead him back,' said Sitnikov, 'and show us Falcon.'
Falcon, a gaunt beast of Dutch extraction with sloping hind-quarters, as black as a beetle, turned out to be little better than Ermine. He was one of those beasts of whom fanciers will tell you that 'they go chopping and mincing and dancing about,' meaning thereby that they prance and throw out their fore-legs to right and to left without making much headway. Middle-aged merchants have a great fancy for such horses; their action recalls the swaggering gait of a smart waiter; they do well in single harness for an after-dinner drive; with mincing paces and curved neck they zealously draw a clumsy droshky laden with an overfed coachman, a depressed, dyspeptic merchant, and his lymphatic wife, in a blue silk mantle, with a lilac handkerchief over her head. Falcon too I declined. Sitnikov showed me several horses . . . One at last, a dapple-grey beast of Voyakov breed, took my fancy. I could not restrain my satisfaction, and patted him on the withers. Sitnikov at once feigned absolute indifference.
'Well, does he go well in harness? ' I inquired. (They never speak of a trotting horse as 'being driven.')
'Oh, yes,' answered the horsedealer carelessly.
'Can I see him?'
'If you like, certainly. Hi, Kuzya, put Pursuer into the droshky!'
Kuzya, the jockey, a real master of horsemanship, drove three times past us up and down the street. The horse went well, without changing its pace, nor shambling; it had a free action, held its tail high, and covered the ground well.
'And what are you asking for him?'
Sitnikov asked an impossible price. We began bargaining on the spot in the street, when suddenly a splendidly-matched team of three posting-horses flew noisily round the corner and drew up sharply at the gates before Sitnikov's house. In the smart little sportsman's trap sat Prince N——; beside him Hlopakov. Baklaga was driving . . . and how he drove! He could have driven them through an earring, the rascal! The bay trace-horses, little, keen, black-eyed, black-legged beasts, were all impatience; they kept rearing—a whistle, and off they would have bolted! The dark-bay shaft-horse stood firmly, its neck arched like a swan's, its breast forward, its legs like arrows, shaking its head and proudly blinking. . . . They were splendid! No one could desire a finer turn out for an Easter procession!
'Your excellency, please to come in!' cried Sitnikov.
The prince leaped out of the trap. Hlopakov slowly descended on the other side.
'Good morning, friend . . . any horses.'
'You may be sure we've horses for your excellency! Pray walk in. . . . Petya, bring out Peacock! and let them get Favourite ready too. And with you, sir,' he went on, turning to me, 'we'll settle matters another time. . . . Fomka, a bench for his excellency.'
From a special stable which I had not at first observed they led out Peacock. A powerful dark sorrel horse seemed to fly across the yard with all its legs in the air. Sitnikov even turned away his head and winked.
'Oh, rrakalion!' piped Hlopakov; 'Zhaymsah (j'aime ça.)'
The prince laughed.
Peacock was stopped with difficulty; he dragged the stable-boy about the yard; at last he was pushed against the wall. He snorted, started and reared, while Sitnikov still teased him, brandishing a whip at him.
'What are you looking at? there! oo!' said the horsedealer with caressing menace, unable to refrain from admiring his horse himself.
'How much?' asked the prince.
'For your excellency, five thousand.'
'Impossible, your excellency, upon my word.'
'I tell you three, rrakalion,' put in Hlopakov.
I went away without staying to see the end of the bargaining. At the farthest corner of the street I noticed a large sheet of paper fixed on the gate of a little grey house. At the top there was a pen-and-ink sketch of a horse with a tail of the shape of a pipe and an endless neck, and below his hoofs were the following words, written in an old-fashioned hand:
'Here are for sale horses of various colours, brought to the Lebedyan fair from the celebrated steppes stud of Anastasei Ivanitch Tchornobai, landowner of Tambov. These horses are of excellent sort; broken in to perfection, and free from vice. Purchasers will kindly ask for Anastasei Ivanitch himself: should Anastasei Ivanitch be absent, then ask for Nazar Kubishkin, the coachman. Gentlemen about to purchase, kindly honour an old man.'
I stopped. 'Come,' I thought, 'let's have a look at the horses of the celebrated steppes breeder, Mr. Tchornobai.'
I was about to go in at the gate, but found that, contrary to the common usage, it was locked. I knocked.
'Who's there? . . . A customer?' whined a woman's voice.
'Coming, sir, coming.'
The gate was opened. I beheld a peasant-woman of fifty, bareheaded, in boots, and a sheepskin worn open.
'Please to come in, kind sir, and I'll go at once, and tell Anastasei Ivanitch . . . Nazar, hey, Nazar!'
'What?' mumbled an old man's voice from the stable.
'Get a horse ready; here's a customer.'
The old woman ran into the house.
'A customer, a customer,' Nazar grumbled in response; 'I've not washed all their tails yet'
'Oh, Arcadia!' thought I.
'Good day, sir, pleased to see you,' I heard a rich, pleasant voice saying behind my back. I looked round; before me, in a long-skirted blue coat, stood an old man of medium height, with white hair, a friendly smile, and fine blue eyes.
'You want a little horse? By all means, my dear sir, by all means. . . . But won't you step in and drink just a cup of tea with me first?'
I declined and thanked him.
'Well, well, as you please. You must excuse me, my dear sir; you see I'm old-fashioned.' (Mr. Tchornobai spoke with deliberation, and in a broad Doric.) 'Everything with me is done in a plain way, you know. . . . Nazar, hey, Nazar!' he added, not raising his voice, but prolonging each syllable.
Nazar, a wrinkled old man with a little hawk nose and a wedge-shaped beard, showed himself at the stable door.
'What sort of horses is it you're wanting, my dear sir?' resumed Mr. Tchornobai.
'Not too expensive; for driving in my covered gig.'
'To be sure . . . we have got them to suit you, to be sure. . . . Nazar, Nazar, show the gentleman the grey gelding, you know, that stands at the farthest corner, and the sorrel with the star, or else the other sorrel—foal of Beauty, you know.'
'Nazar went back to the stable.
'And bring them out by their halters just as they are,' Mr. Tchornobai shouted after him. 'You won't find things with me, my good sir,' he went on, with a clear mild gaze into my face, 'as they are with the horse-dealers; confound their tricks! There are drugs of all sorts go in there, salt and malted grains; God forgive them! But with me, you will see, sir, everything's above-board; no underhandedness.'
The horses were led in; I did not care for them.
'Well, well, take them back, in God's name,' said Anastasei Ivanitch. 'Show us the others.'
Others were shown. At last I picked out one, rather a cheap one. We began to haggle over the price. Mr. Tchornobai did not get excited; he spoke so reasonably, with such dignity, that I could not help 'honouring' the old man; I gave him the earnest-money.
'Well, now,' observed Anastasei Ivanitch, 'allow me to give over the horse to you from hand to hand, after the old fashion. . . . You will thank me for him . . . as sound as a nut, see . . . fresh. . . a true child of the steppes! Goes well in any harness.'
He crossed himself, laid the skirt of his coat over his hand, took the halter, and handed me the horse.
'You're his master now, with God's blessing. . . . And you still won't take a cup of tea?'
'No, I thank you heartily; it's time I was going home.'
'That's as you think best. . . . And shall my coachman lead the horse after you?'
'Yes, now, if you please.'
'By all means, my dear sir, by all means. . . . Vassily, hey, Vassily! step along with the gentleman, lead the horse, and take the money for him. Well, good-bye, my good sir; God bless you.'
'Good-bye, Anastasei Ivanitch.'
They led the horse home for me. The next day he turned out to be broken-winded and lame. I tried having him put in harness; the horse backed, and if one gave him a flick with the whip he jibbed, kicked, and positively lay down. I set off at once to Mr. Tchornobai's. I inquired: 'At home?'
'What's the meaning of this?' said I; 'here you've sold me a broken-winded horse.'
'Broken-winded? . . . God forbid!'
'Yes, and he's lame too, and vicious besides.'
'Lame! I know nothing about it: your coachman must have ill-treated him somehow. . . . But before God, I ——'
'Look here, Anastasei Ivanitch, as things stand, you ought to take him back.'
'No, my good sir, don't put yourself in a passion; once gone out of the yard, is done with. You should have looked before, sir.'
I understood what that meant, accepted my fate, laughed, and walked off. Luckily, I had not paid very dear for the lesson.
Two days later I left, and in a week I was again at Lebedyan on my way home again. In the café I found almost the same persons, and again I came upon Prince N—— at billiards. But the usual change in the fortunes of Mr. Hlopakov had taken place in this interval: the fair-haired young officer had supplanted him in the prince's favours. The poor ex-lieutenant once more tried letting off his catchword in my presence, on the chance it might succeed as before; but, far from smiling, the prince positively scowled and shrugged his shoulders. Mr. Hlopakov looked downcast, shrank into a corner, and began furtively filling himself a pipe. . . .