A Sportsman's Sketches/Chapter 6
THE PEASANT PROPRIETOR OVSYANIKOV
Picture to yourselves, gentle readers, a stout, tall man of seventy, with a face reminding one somewhat of the face of Kriloff, clear and intelligent eyes under overhanging brows, dignified in bearing, slow in speech, and deliberate in movement: there you have Ovsyanikov. He wore an ample blue overcoat with long sleeves, buttoned all the way up, a lilac silk-handkerchief round his neck, brightly polished boots with tassels, and altogether resembled in appearance a well-to-do merchant. His hands were handsome, soft, and white; he often fumbled with the buttons of his coat as he talked. With his dignity and his composure, his good sense and his indolence, his uprightness and his obstinacy, Ovsyanikov reminded me of the Russian boyars of the times before Peter the Great. . . . The national holiday dress would have suited him well. He was one of the last men left of the old time. All his neighbours had a great respect for him, and considered it an honour to be acquainted with him. His fellow peasant-proprietors almost worshipped him, and took off their hats to him from a distance: they were proud of him. Generally speaking, in these days, it is difficult to tell a peasant-proprietor from a peasant; his husbandry is almost worse than the peasant's; his calves are wretchedly small; his horses are only half alive; his harness is made of rope. Ovsyanikov was an exception to the general rule, though he did not pass for a wealthy man. He lived alone with his wife in a clean and comfortable little house, kept a few servants, whom he dressed in the Russian style and called his 'workmen.' They were employed also in ploughing his land. He did not attempt to pass for a nobleman, did not affect to be a landowner; never, as they say, forgot himself; he did not take a seat at the first invitation to do so, and he never failed to rise from his seat on the entrance of a new guest, but with such dignity, with such stately courtesy, that the guest involuntarily made him a more deferential bow. Ovsyanikov adhered to the antique usages, not from superstition (he was naturally rather independent in mind), but from habit. He did not, for instance, like carriages with springs, because he did not find them comfortable, and preferred to drive in a racing droshky, or in a pretty little trap with leather cushions, and he always drove his good bay himself (he kept none but bay horses). His coachman, a young, rosy-cheeked fellow, his hair cut round like a basin, in a dark blue coat with a strap round the waist, sat respectfully beside him. Ovsyanikov always had a nap after dinner and visited the bath-house on Saturdays; he read none but religious books and used gravely to fix his round silver spectacles on his nose when he did so; he got up, and went to bed early. He shaved his beard, however, and wore his hair in the German style. He always received visitors cordially and affably, but he did not bow down to the ground, nor fuss over them and press them to partake of every kind of dried and salted delicacy. 'Wife!' he would say deliberately, not getting up from his seat, but only turning his head a little in her direction, 'bring the gentleman a little of something to eat.' He regarded it as a sin to sell wheat: it was the gift of God. In the year '40, at the time of the general famine and terrible scarcity, he shared all his store with the surrounding landowners and peasants; the following year they gratefully repaid their debt to him in kind. The neighbours often had recourse to Ovsyanikov as arbitrator and mediator between them, and they almost always acquiesced in his decision, and listened to his advice. Thanks to his intervention, many had conclusively settled their boundaries. . . . But after two or three tussles with lady-landowners, he announced that he declined all mediation between persons of the feminine gender. He could not bear the flurry and excitement, the chatter of women and the 'fuss.' Once his house had somehow got on fire. A workman ran to him in headlong haste shrieking, 'Fire, fire!' 'Well, what are you screaming about?' said Ovsyanikov tranquilly, 'give me my cap and my stick.' He liked to break in his horses himself. Once a spirited horse he was training bolted with him down a hillside and over a precipice. 'Come, there, there, you young colt, you'll kill yourself!' said Ovsyanikov soothingly to him, and an instant later he flew over the precipice together with the racing droshky, the boy who was sitting behind, and the horse. Fortunately, the bottom of the ravine was covered with heaps of sand. No one was injured; only the horse sprained a leg. 'Well, you see,' continued Ovsyanikov in a calm voice as he got up from the ground, 'I told you so.' He had found a wife to match him. Tatyana Ilyinitchna Ovsyanikov was a tall woman, dignified and taciturn, always dressed in a cinnamon-coloured silk dress. She had a cold air, though none complained of her severity, but, on the contrary, many poor creatures called her their little mother and benefactress. Her regular features, her large dark eyes, and her delicately cut lips, bore witness even now to her once celebrated beauty. Ovsyanikov had no children.
I made his acquaintance, as the reader is already aware, at Radilov's, and two days later I went to see him. I found him at home. He was reading the lives of the Saints. A grey cat was purring on his shoulder. He received me, according to his habit, with stately cordiality. We fell into conversation.
'But tell me the truth, Luka Petrovitch,' I said to him, among other things; 'weren't things better of old, in your time?'
'In some ways, certainly, things were better, I should say,' replied Ovsyanikov; 'we lived more easily; there was a greater abundance of everything. . . . All the same, things are better now, and they will be better still for your children, please God.'
'I had expected you, Luka Petrovitch, to praise the old times.'
'No, I have no special reason to praise old times. Here, for instance, though you are a landowner now, and just as much a landowner as your grandfather was, you have not the same power—and, indeed, you are not yourself the same kind of man. Even now, some noblemen oppress us; but, of course, it is impossible to help that altogether. Where there are mills grinding there will be flour. No; I don't see now what I have experienced myself in my youth.'
'What, for instance?'
'Well, for instance, I will tell you about your grandfather. He was an overbearing man; he oppressed us poorer folks. You know, perhaps—indeed, you surely know your own estates—that bit of land that runs from Tchepligin to Malinina—you have it under oats now. . . . Well, you know, it is ours—it is all ours. Your grandfather took it away from us; he rode by on his horse, pointed to it with his hand, and said, "It's my property," and took possession of it. My father (God rest his soul!) was a just man; he was a hot-tempered man, too; he would not put up with it—indeed, who does like to lose his property?—and he laid a petition before the court. But he was alone: the others did not appear—they were afraid. So they reported to your grandfather that "Piotr Ovsyanikov is making a complaint against you that you were pleased to take away his land." Your grandfather at once sent his huntsman Baush with a detachment of men. . . . Well, they seized my father, and carried him to your estate. I was a little boy at that time; I ran after him barefoot. What happened? They brought him to your house, and flogged him right under your windows. And your grandfather stands on the balcony and looks on; and your grandmother sits at the window and looks on too. My father cries out, "Gracious lady, Marya Vasilyevna, intercede for me! have mercy on me!" But her only answer was to keep getting up to have a look at him. So they exacted a promise from my father to give up the land, and bade him be thankful they let him go alive. So it has remained with you. Go and ask your peasants—what do they call the land, indeed? It's called "The Cudgelled Land," because it was gained by the cudgel. So you see from that, we poor folks can't bewail the old order very much.'
I did not know what answer to make Ovsyanikov, and I had not the courage to look him in the face.
'We had another neighbour who settled amongst us in those days, Komov, Stepan Niktopolionitch. He used to worry my father out of his life; when it wasn't one thing, it was another. He was a drunken fellow, and fond of treating others; and when he was drunk he would say in French, "Say bon," and "Take away the holy images!" He would go to all the neighbours to ask them to come to him. His horses stood always in readiness, and if you wouldn't go he would come after you himself at once! . . . And he was such a strange fellow! In his sober times he was not a liar; but when he was drunk he would begin to relate how he had three houses in Petersburg—one red, with one chimney; another yellow, with two chimneys; and a third blue, with no chimneys; and three sons (though he had never even been married), one in the infantry, another in the cavalry, and the third was his own master. . . . And he would say that in each house lived one of his sons; that admirals visited the eldest, and generals the second, and the third only Englishmen! Then he would get up and say, "To the health of my eldest son; he is the most dutiful!" and he would begin to weep. Woe to anyone who refused to drink the toast! "I will shoot him!" he would say; "and I won't let him be buried!" . . . Then he would jump up and scream, "Dance, God's people, for your pleasure and my diversion!" Well, then, you must dance; if you had to die for it, you must dance. He thoroughly worried his serf-girls to death. Sometimes all night long till morning they would be singing in chorus, and the one who made the most noise would have a prize. If they began to be tired, he would lay his head down in his hands, and begins moaning: "Ah, poor forsaken orphan that I am! They abandon me, poor little dove!" And the stable-boys would wake the girls up at once. He took a liking to my father; what was he to do? He almost drove my father into his grave, and would actually have driven him into it, but (thank Heaven!) he died himself; in one of his drunken fits he fell off the pigeon-house. . . . There, that's what our sweet little neighbours were like!'
'How the times have changed!' I observed.
'Yes, yes,' Ovsyanikov assented. 'And there is this to be said—in the old days the nobility lived more sumptuously. I'm not speaking of the real grandees now. I used to see them in Moscow. They say such people are scarce nowadays.'
'Have you been in Moscow?'
'I used to stay there long, very long ago. I am now in my seventy-third year; and I went to Moscow when I was sixteen.'
'Whom did you see there?'
I saw a great many grandees—and every one saw them; they kept open house for the wonder and admiration of all! Only no one came up to Count Alexey Grigoryevitch Orlov-Tchesmensky. I often saw Alexey Grigoryevitch; my uncle was a steward in his service. The count was pleased to live in Shabolovka, near the Kaluga Gate. He was a grand gentleman! Such stateliness, such gracious condescension you can't imagine! and it's impossible to describe it. His figure alone was worth something, and his strength, and the look in his eyes! Till you knew him, you did not dare come near him—you were afraid, overawed indeed; but directly you came near him he was like sunshine warming you up and making you quite cheerful. He allowed every man access to him in person, and he was devoted to every kind of sport. He drove himself in races and outstripped every one, and he would never get in front at the start, so as not to offend his adversary; he would not cut it short, but would pass him at the finish; and he was so pleasant—he would soothe his adversary, praising his horse. He kept tumbler-pigeons of a first-rate kind. He would come out into the court, sit down in an arm-chair, and order them to let loose the pigeons; and his men would stand all round on the roofs with guns to keep off the hawks. A large silver basin of water used to be placed at the count's feet, and he looked at the pigeons reflected in the water. Beggars and poor people were fed in hundreds at his expense; and what a lot of money he used to give away! . . . When he got angry, it was like a clap of thunder. Everyone was in a great fright, but there was nothing to weep over; look round a minute after, and he was all smiles again! When he gave a banquet he made all Moscow drunk!—and see what a clever man he was! you know he beat the Turk. He was fond of wrestling too; strong men used to come from Tula, from Harkoff, from Tamboff, and from everywhere to him. If he threw any one he would pay him a reward; but if any one threw him, he perfectly loaded him with presents, and kissed him on the lips. . . . And once, during my stay at Moscow, he arranged a hunting party such as had never been in Russia before; he sent invitations to all the sportsmen in the whole empire, and fixed a day for it, and gave them three months' notice. They brought with them dogs and grooms: well, it was an army of people—a regular army!
'First they had a banquet in the usual way, and then they set off into the open country. The people flocked there in thousands! And what do you think? . . . Your father's dog outran them all.'
'Wasn't that Milovidka?' I inquired.
'Milovidka, Milovidka! . . . So the count began to ask him, "Give me your dog," says he; "take what you like for her." "No, count," he said, "I am not a tradesman; I don't sell anything for filthy lucre; for your sake I am ready to part with my wife even, but not with Milovidka. . . . I would give myself into bondage first." And Alexey Grigoryevitch praised him for it. "I like you for it," he said. Your grandfather took her back in the coach with him, and when Milovidka died, he buried her in the garden with music at the burial—yes, a funeral for a dog—and put a stone with an inscription on it over the dog.'
'Then Alexey Grigoryevitch did not oppress anyone,' I observed.
'Yes, it is always like that; those who can only just keep themselves afloat are the ones to drag others under.'
'And what sort of a man was this Baush?' I asked after a short silence.
'Why, how comes it you have heard about Milovidka, and not about Baush? He was your grandfather's chief huntsman and whipper-in. Your grandfather was as fond of him as of Milovidka. He was a desperate fellow, and whatever order your grandfather gave him, he would carry it out in a minute—he'd have run on to a sword at his bidding. . . . And when he hallooed . . . it was something like a tally-ho in the forest. And then he would suddenly turn nasty, get off his horse, and lie down on the ground. . . . and directly the dogs ceased to hear his voice, it was all over! They would give up the hottest scent, and wouldn't go on for anything. Ay, ay, your grandfather did get angry! "Damn me, if I don't hang the scoundrel! I'll turn him inside out, the antichrist! I'll stuff his heels down his gullet, the cut-throat!" And it ended by his going up to find out what he wanted; why he wouldn't halloo to the hounds? Usually, on such occasions, Baush asked for some vodka, drank it up, got on his horse, and began to halloo as lustily as ever again.'
'You seem to be fond of hunting too, Luka Petrovitch?'
'I should have been—certainly, not now; now my time is over—but in my young days. . . . But you know it was not an easy matter in my position. It's not suitable for people like us to go trailing after noblemen. Certainly you may find in our class some drinking, good-for-nothing fellow who associates with the gentry—but it's a queer sort of enjoyment. . . . He only brings shame on himself. They mount him on a wretched stumbling nag, keep knocking his hat off on to the ground and cut at him with a whip, pretending to whip the horse, and he must laugh at everything, and be a laughing-stock for the others. No, I tell you, the lower your station, the more reserved must be your behaviour, or else you disgrace yourself directly.'
'Yes,' continued Ovsyanikov with a sigh, 'there's many a gallon of water has flowed down to the sea since I have been living in the world; times are different now. Especially I see a great change in the nobility. The smaller landowners have all either become officials, or at any rate do not stop here; as for the larger owners, there's no making them out. I have had experience of them—the larger landowners—in cases of settling boundaries. And I must tell you; it does my heart good to see them: they are courteous and affable. Only this is what astonishes me; they have studied all the sciences, they speak so fluently that your heart is melted, but they don't understand the actual business in hand; they don't even perceive what's their own interest; some bailiff, a bondservant, drives them just where he pleases, as though they were in a yoke. There's Korolyov—Alexandr Vladimirovitch—for instance, you know him, perhaps—isn't he every inch a nobleman? He is handsome, rich, has studied at the 'versities, and travelled, I think, abroad; he speaks simply and easily, and shakes hands with us all. You know him? . . . Well, listen then. Last week we assembled at Beryozovka at the summons of the mediator, Nikifor Ilitch. And the mediator, Nikifor Ilitch, says to us: "Gentlemen, we must settle the boundaries; it's disgraceful; our district is behind all the others; we must get to work." Well, so we got to work. There followed discussions, disputes, as usual; our attorney began to make objections. But the first to make an uproar was Porfiry Ovtchinnikov. . . . And what had the fellow to make an uproar about? . . . He hasn't an acre of ground; he is acting as representative of his brother. He bawls: "No, you shall not impose on me! no, you shan't drive me to that! give the plans here! give me the surveyor's plans, the Judas's plans here!" "But what is your claim, then?" "Oh, you think I'm a fool! Indeed! do you suppose I am going to lay bare my claim to you offhand? No, let me have the plans here—that's what I want!" And he himself is banging his fist on the plans all the time. Then he mortally offended Marfa Dmitrievna. She shrieks out, "How dare you asperse my reputation?" "Your reputation," says he; "I shouldn't like my chestnut mare to have your reputation." They poured him out some Madeira at last, and so quieted him; then others begin to make a row. Alexandr Vladimirovitch Korolyov, the dear fellow, sat in a corner sucking the knob of his cane, and only shook his head. I felt ashamed; I could hardly sit it out. "What must he be thinking of us?" I said to myself. When, behold! Alexandr Vladimirovitch has got up, and shows signs of wanting to speak. The mediator exerts himself, says, "Gentlemen, gentlemen, Alexandr Vladimirovitch wishes to speak." And I must do them this credit; they were all silent at once. And so Alexandr Vladimirovitch began and said "that we seemed to have forgotten what we had come together for; that, indeed, the fixing of boundaries was indisputably advantageous for owners of land, but actually what was its object? To make things easier for the peasant, so that he could work and pay his dues more conveniently; that now the peasant hardly knows his own land, and often goes to work five miles away; and one can't expect too much of him." Then Alexandr Vladimirovitch said "that it was disgraceful in a landowner not to interest himself in the well-being of his peasants; that in the end, if you look at it rightly, their interests and our interests are inseparable; if they are well-off we are well-off, and if they do badly we do badly, and that, consequently, it was injudicious and wrong to disagree over trifles" . . . and so on—and so on . . . There, how he did speak! He seemed to go right to your heart. . . . All the gentry hung their heads; I myself, faith, it nearly brought me to tears. To tell the truth, you would not find sayings like that in the old books even. . . . But what was the end of it? He himself would not give four acres of peat marsh, and wasn't willing He said, "I am going to drain that marsh for my people, and set up a cloth-factory on it, with all the latest improvements. I have already," he said, "fixed on that place; I have thought out my plans on the subject." And if only that had been the truth, it would be all very well; but the simple fact is, Alexandr Vladimirovitch's neighbour, Anton Karasikov, had refused to buy over Korolyov's bailiff for a hundred roubles. And so we separated without having done anything. But Alexandr Vladimirovitch considers to this day that he is right, and still talks of the cloth-factory; but he does not start draining the marsh.'
'And how does he manage in his estate?'
'He is always introducing new ways. The peasants don't speak well of him—but it's useless to listen to them. Alexandr Vladimirovitch is doing right.'
'How's that, Luka Petrovitch? I thought you kept to the old ways,'
'I—that's another thing. You see I am not a nobleman or a landowner. What sort of management is mine? . . . Besides, I don't know how to do things differently. I try to act according to justice and the law, and leave the rest in God's hands! Young gentlemen don't like the old method; I think they are right. . . . It's the time to take in ideas. Only this is the pity of it; the young are too theoretical. They treat the peasant like a doll; they turn him this way and that way; twist him about and throw him away. And their bailiff, a serf, or some overseer from the German natives, gets the peasant under his thumb again. Now, if any one of the young gentlemen would set us an example, would show us, "See, this is how you ought to manage!" . . . What will be the end of it? Can it be that I shall die without seeing the new methods? . . . What is the proverb?—the old is dead, but the young is not born!'
I did not know what reply to make to Ovsyanikov. He looked round, drew himself nearer to me, and went on in an undertone:
'Have you heard talk of Vassily Nikolaitch Lubozvonov?'
'No, I haven't.'
'Explain to me, please, what sort of strange creature he is. I can't make anything of it. His peasants have described him, but I can't make any sense of their tales. He is a young man, you know; it's not long since he received his heritage from his mother. Well, he arrived at his estate. The peasants were all collected to stare at their master. Vassily Nikolaitch came out to them. The peasants looked at him—strange to relate! the master wore plush pantaloons like a coachman, and he had on boots with trimming at the top; he wore a red shirt and coachman's long coat too; he had let his beard grow, and had such a strange hat and such a strange face—could he be drunk? No, he wasn't drunk, and yet he didn't seem quite right. "Good health to you, lads!" he says; "God keep you!" The peasants bow to the ground, but without speaking; they began to feel frightened, you know. And he too seemed timid. He began to make a speech to them: "I am a Russian," he says, "and you are Russians; I like everything Russian. . . . Russia," says he, "is my heart, and my blood too is Russian." . . . Then he suddenly gives the order: "Come, lads, sing a Russian national song!" The peasants' legs shook under them with fright; they were utterly stupefied. One bold spirit did begin to sing, but he sat down at once on the ground and hid himself behind the others. . . . And what is so surprising is this: we have had landowners like that, dare-devil gentlemen, regular rakes, of course: they dressed pretty much like coachmen, and danced themselves and played on the guitar, and sang and drank with their house-serfs and feasted with the peasants; but this Vassily Nikolaitch is like a girl; he is always reading books or writing, or else declaiming poetry aloud—he never addresses any one; he is shy, walks by himself in his garden; seems either bored or sad. The old bailiff at first was in a thorough scare; before Vassily Nikolaitch's arrival he was afraid to go near the peasants' houses; he bowed to all of them—one could see the cat knew whose butter he had eaten! And the peasants were full of hope; they thought, 'Fiddlesticks, my friend!—now they'll make you answer for it, my dear; they'll lead you a dance now, you robber!' . . . But instead of this it has turned out—how shall I explain it to you?—God Almighty could not account for how things have turned out! Vassily Nikolaitch summoned him to his presence and says, blushing himself and breathing quick, you know: "Be upright in my service; don't oppress any one—do you hear?" And since that day he has never asked to see him in person again! He lives on his own property like a stranger. Well, the bailiff's been enjoying himself, and the peasants don't dare to go to Vassily Nikolaitch; they are afraid. And do you see what's a matter for wonder again; the master even bows to them and looks graciously at them; but he seems to turn their stomachs with fright! What do you say to such a strange state of things, your honour? Either I have grown stupid in my old age, or something. . . . I can't understand it.'
I said to Ovsyanikov that Mr. Lubozvonov must certainly be ill.
'Ill, indeed! He's as broad as he's long, and a face like this—God bless him!—and bearded, though he is so young. . . . Well, God knows!' And Ovsyanikov gave a deep sigh.
'Come, putting the nobles aside,' I began, 'what have you to tell me about the peasant proprietors, Luka Petrovitch?'
'No, you must let me off that,' he said hurriedly. 'Truly. . . . I could tell you . . . but what's the use!' (with a wave of his hand). "We had better have some tea. . . . We are common peasants and nothing more; but when we come to think of it, what else could we be?'
He ceased talking. Tea was served. Tatyana Ilyinitchna rose from her place and sat down rather nearer to us. In the course of the evening she several times went noiselessly out and as quietly returned. Silence reigned in the room. Ovsyanikov drank cup after cup with gravity and deliberation.
'Mitya has been to see us to-day,' said Tatyana Ilyinitchna in a low voice.
'What does he want?'
'He came to ask forgiveness.'
Ovsyanikov shook his head.
'Come, tell me,' he went on, turning to me, 'what is one to do with relations? And to abandon them altogether is impossible. . . . Here God has bestowed on me a nephew. He's a fellow with brains—a smart fellow—I don't dispute that; he has had a good education, but I don't expect much good to come of him. He went into a government office; threw up his position—didn't get on fast enough, if you please. . . . Does he suppose he's a noble? And even noblemen don't come to be generals all at once. So now he is living without an occupation. . . . And that, even, would not be such a great matter—except that he has taken to litigation! petitions for the peasants, writes memorials; he instructs the village delegates, drags the surveyors over the coals, frequents drinking houses, is seen in taverns with city tradesmen and inn-keepers. He's bound to come to ruin before long. The constables and police-captains have threatened him more than once already. But he luckily knows how to turn it off—he makes them laugh; but they will boil his kettle for him some day. . . . But, there, isn't he sitting in your little room?' he added, turning to his wife; 'I know you, you see; you're so soft-hearted—you will always take his part.'
Tatyana Ilyinitchna dropped her eyes, smiled, and blushed.
'Well, I see it is so,' continued Ovsyanikov. 'Fie! you spoil the boy! Well, tell him to come in. . . . So be it, then; for the sake of our good guest I will forgive the silly fellow. . . . Come, tell him, tell him.'
Tatyana Ilyinitchna went to the door, and cried 'Mitya!'
Mitya, a young man of twenty-eight, tall, well-made, and curly-headed, came into the room, and seeing me, stopped short in the doorway. His costume was in the German style, but the un-natural size of the puffs on his shoulders was enough alone to prove convincingly that the tailor who had cut it was a Russian of the Russians.
'Well, come in, come in,' began the old man; 'why are you bashful? You must thank your aunt—you're forgiven. . . . Here, your honour, I commend him to you,' he continued, pointing to Mitya; 'he's my own nephew, but I don't get on with him at all. The end of the world is coming!' (We bowed to one another.) 'Well, tell me what is this you have got mixed up in? What is the complaint they are making against you? Explain it to us.'
Mitya obviously did not care to explain matters and justify himself before me.
'Later on, uncle,' he muttered.
'No, not later—now,' pursued the old man. . . . 'You are ashamed, I see, before this gentleman; all the better—it's only what you deserve. Speak, speak; we are listening.'
'I have nothing to be ashamed of,' began Mitya spiritedly, with a toss of his head. 'Be so good as to judge for yourself, uncle. Some peasant proprietors of Reshetilovo came to me, and said, "Defend us, brother." "What is the matter?' "This is it: our grain stores were in perfect order—in fact, they could not be better; all at once a government inspector came to us with orders to inspect the granaries. He inspected them, and said, 'Your granaries are in disorder—serious neglect; it's my duty to report it to the authorities.' 'But what does the neglect consist in?' 'That's my business,' he says. . . . We met together, and decided to tip the official in the usual way; but old Prohoritch prevented us. He said, 'No; that's only giving him a taste for more. Come; after all, haven't we the courts of justice?' We obeyed the old man, and the official got in a rage, and made a complaint, and wrote a report. So now we are called up to answer to his charges." "But are your granaries actually in order?" I asked. "God knows they are in order; and the legal quantity of corn is in them." "Well, then," say I, "you have nothing to fear"; and I drew up a document for them. . . . And it is not yet known in whose favour it is decided. . . . And as to the complaints they have made to you about me over that affair—it's very easy to understand that—every man's shirt is nearest to his own skin.'
'Everyone's, indeed—but not yours seemingly,' said the old man in an undertone. 'But what plots have you been hatching with the Shutolomovsky peasants?'
'How do you know anything of it?'
'Never mind; I do know of it.'
'And there, too, I am right—judge for yourself again. A neighbouring landowner, Bezpandin, has ploughed over four acres of the Shutolomovsky peasants' land. "The land's mine," he says. The Shutolomovsky people are on the rent-system; their landowner has gone abroad—who is to stand up for them? Tell me yourself? But the land is theirs beyond dispute; they've been bound to it for ages and ages. So they came to me, and said, "Write us a petition." So I wrote one. And Bezpandin heard of it, and began to threaten me. "I'll break every bone in that Mitya's body, and knock his head off his shoulders." . . . We shall see how he will knock it off; it's still on, so far.'
'Come, don't boast; it's in a bad way, your head,' said the old man. 'Your're a mad fellow altogether!'
'Why, uncle, what did you tell me yourself?'
'I know, I know what you will say,' Ovsyanikov interrupted him; 'of course a man ought to live uprightly, and he is bound to succour his neighbour. Sometimes one must not spare oneself. . . . But do you always behave in that way? Don't they take you to the tavern, eh? Don't they treat you; bow to you, eh? "Dmitri Alexyitch," they say, "help us, and we will prove our gratitude to you." And they slip a silver rouble or note into your hand. Eh? doesn't that happen? Tell me, doesn't that happen?'
'I am certainly to blame in that,' answered Mitya, rather confused; 'but I take nothing from the poor, and I don't act against my conscience.'
'You don't take from them now; but when you are badly off yourself, then you will. You don't act against your conscience—fie on you! Of course, they are all saints whom you defend! . . . Have you forgotten Borka Perehodov? Who was it looked after him? Who took him under his protection—eh?'
'Perohodov suffered through his own fault, certainly.'
'He appropriated the public moneys. . . . That was all!'
'But, consider, uncle: his poverty, his family.'
'Poverty, poverty. . . . He's a drunkard, a quarrelsome fellow; that's what it is!'
'He took to drink through trouble,' said Mitya, dropping his voice.
'Through trouble, indeed! Well, you might have helped him, if your heart was so warm to him, but there was no need for you to sit in taverns with the drunken fellow yourself. Though he did speak so finely . . . a prodigy, to be sure!'
'He was a very good fellow.'
'Every one is good with you. . . . But did you send him?' . . . pursued Ovsyanikov, turning to his wife; 'come; you know?'
Tatyana Ilyinitchna nodded.
'Where have you been lately?' the old man began again.
'I have been in the town.'
'You have been doing nothing but playing billiards, I wager, and drinking tea, and running to and fro about the government offices, drawing up petitions in little back rooms, flaunting about with merchants' sons? That's it, of course? . . . Tell us!'
'Perhaps that is about it,' said Mitya with a smile. . . . 'Ah! I had almost forgotten—Funtikov, Anton Parfenitch asks you to dine with him next Sunday.'
'I shan't go to see that old tub. He gives you costly fish and puts rancid butter on it. God bless him!'
'And I met Fedosya Mihalovna.'
'What Fedosya is that?'
'She belongs to Garpentchenko, the landowner, who bought Mikulino by auction. Fedosya is from Mikulino. She lived in Moscow as a dressmaker, paying her service in money, and she paid her service-money accurately—a hundred and eighty two-roubles and a half year. . . . And she knows her business; she got good orders in Moscow. But now Garpentchenko has written for her back, and he retains her here, but does not provide any duties for her. She would be prepared to buy her freedom, and has spoken to the master, but he will not give any decisive answer. You, uncle, are acquainted with Garpentchenko . . . so couldn't you just say a word to him? . . . And Fedosya would give a good price for her freedom.'
'Not with your money I hope? Hey? Well, well, all right; I will speak to him, I will speak to him. But I don't know,' continued the old man with a troubled face; 'this Garpentchenko, God forgive him! is a shark; he buys up debts, lends money at interest, purchases estates at auctions. . . . And who brought him into our parts? Ugh, I can't bear these new-comers! One won't get an answer out of him very quickly . . . However, we shall see.'
'Try to manage it, uncle.'
'Very well, I will see to it. Only you take care; take care of yourself! There, there, don't defend yourself. . . . God bless you! God bless you! . . . Only take care for the future, or else, Mitya, upon my word, it will go ill with you . . . Upon my word, you will come to grief. . . . I can't always screen you and I myself am not a man of influence. There, go now, and God be with you!'
Mitya went away. Tatyana Ilyinitchna went out after him.
'Give him some tea, you soft-hearted creature,' cried Ovsyanikov after her. 'He's not a stupid fellow,' he continued, 'and he's a good heart, but I feel afraid for him. . . . But pardon me for having so long kept you occupied with such details.'
The door from the hall opened. A short grizzled little man came in, in a velvet coat.
'Ah, Frantz Ivanitch!' cried Ovsyanikov, 'good day to you. Is God merciful to you?'
Allow me, gentle reader, to introduce to you this gentleman.
Frantz Ivanitch Lejeune, my neighbour, and a landowner of Orel, had arrived at the respectable position of a Russian nobleman in a not quite ordinary way. He was born in Orleans of French parents, and had gone with Napoleon, on the invasion of Russia, in the capacity of a drummer. At first all went smoothly, and our Frenchman arrived in Moscow with his head held high. But on the return journey poor Monsieur Lejeune, half-frozen and without his drum, fell into the hands of some peasants of Smolensk. The peasants shut him up for the night in an empty cloth factory, and the next morning brought him to an ice-hole near the dyke, and began to beg the drummer 'de la Grrrrande Armée' to oblige them; in other words, to swim under the ice. Monsieur Lejeune could not agree to their proposition, and in his turn began to try to persuade the Smolensk peasants, in the dialect of France, to let him go to Orleans. 'There, messieurs,' he said, 'my mother is living, une tendre mère.' But the peasants, doubtless through their ignorance of the geographical position of Orleans, continued to offer him a journey under water along the course of the meandering river Gniloterka, and had already begun to encourage him with slight blows on the vertebræ of the neck and back, when suddenly, to the indescribable delight of Lejeune, the sound of bells was heard, and there came along the dyke a huge sledge with a striped rug over its excessively high dickey, harnessed with three roan horses. In the sledge sat a stout and red-faced landowner in a wolfskin pelisse.
'What is it you are doing there?' he asked the peasants.
'We are drowning a Frenchman, your honour.'
'Ah!' replied the landowner indifferently, and he turned away.
'Monsieur! Monsieur!' shrieked the poor fellow.
'Ah, ah!' observed the wolfskin pelisse reproachfully, 'you came with twenty nations into Russia, burnt Moscow, tore down, you damned heathen! the cross from Ivan the Great, and now—mossoo, mossoo, indeed! now you turn tail! You are paying the penalty of your sins! . . . Go on, Filka!'
The horses were starting.
'Stop, though!' added the landowner. 'Eh? you mossoo, do you know anything of music?'
'Sauvez-moi, sauvez-moi, mon bon monsieur!' repeated Lejeune.
'There, see what a wretched people they are! Not one of them knows Russian! Muzeek, muzeek, savey muzeek voo? savey? Well, speak, do! Compreny? savey muzeek voo? on the piano, savey zhooey?'
Lejeune comprehended at last what the landowner meant, and persistently nodded his head.
'Oui, monsieur, oui, oui, je suis musicien; je joue tous les instruments possibles! Oui, monsieur . . . . Sauvez-moi, monsieur!'
'Well, thank your lucky star!' replied the land. 'Lads, let him go: here's a twenty-copeck piece for vodka.'
'Thank you, your honour, thank you. Take him, your honour.'
They sat Lejeune in the sledge. He was gasping with delight, weeping, shivering, bowing, thanking the landowner, the coachman, the peasants. He had nothing on but a green jacket with pink ribbons, and it was freezing very hard. The landowner looked at his blue and benumbed shoulders in silence, wrapped the unlucky fellow in his own pelisse, and took him home. The household ran out. They soon thawed the Frenchman, fed him, and clothed him. The landowner conducted him to his daughters.
'Here, children!' he said to them, 'a teacher is found for you. You were always entreating me to have you taught music and the French jargon; here you have a Frenchman, and he plays on the piano. . . . Come, mossoo,' he went on, pointing to a wretched little instrument he had bought five years before of a Jew, whose special line was eau de Cologne, 'give us an example of your art; zhooey!'
Lejeune, with a sinking heart, sat down on the music-stool; he had never touched a piano in his life.
'Zhooey, zhooey!' repeated the landowner.
In desperation, the unhappy man beat on the keys as though on a drum, and played at hazard. 'I quite expected,' he used to tell afterwards, 'that my deliverer would seize me by the collar, and throw me out of the house.' But, to the utmost amazement of the unwilling improvisor, the landowner, after waiting a little, patted him good-humouredly on the shoulder.
'Good, good,' he said; 'I see your attainments; go now, and rest yourself.'
Within a fortnight Lejeune had gone from this landowner's to stay with another, a rich and cultivated man. He gained his friendship by his bright and gentle disposition, was married to a ward of his, went into a government office, rose to the nobility, married his daughter to Lobizanyev, a landowner of Orel, and a retired dragoon and poet, and settled himself on an estate in Orel.
It was this same Lejeune, or rather, as he is called now, Frantz Ivanitch, who, when I was there, came in to see Ovsyanikov, with whom he was on friendly terms. . . .
But perhaps the reader is already weary of sitting with me at the Ovsyanikovs', and so I will become eloquently silent.