MIHAIL PETROVITCH ZOTOV, a decrepit and solitary old man of seventy, belonging to the artisan class, was awakened by the cold and the aching in his old limbs. It was dark in his room, but the little lamp before the ikon was no longer burning. Zotov raised the curtain and looked out of the window. The clouds that shrouded the sky were beginning to show white here and there, and the air was becoming transparent, so it must have been nearly five, not more.
Zotov cleared his throat, coughed, and shrinking from the cold, got out of bed. In accordance with years of habit, he stood for a long time before the ikon, saying his prayers. He repeated "Our Father," "Hail Mary," the Creed, and mentioned a long string of names. To whom those names belonged he had forgotten years ago, and he only repeated them from habit. From habit, too, he swept his room and entry, and set his fat little four-legged copper samovar. If Zotov had not had these habits he would not have known how to occupy his old age.
The little samovar slowly began to get hot, and all at once, unexpectedly, broke into a tremulous bass hum.
"Oh, you′ve started humming!" grumbled Zotov. "Hum away then, and bad luck to you!"
At that point the old man appropriately recalled that, in the preceding night, he had dreamed of a stove, and to dream of a stove is a sign of sorrow.
Dreams and omens were the only things left that could rouse him to reflection; and on this occasion he plunged with a special zest into the considerations of the questions: What the samovar was humming for? and what sorrow was foretold by the stove? The dream seemed to come true from the first. Zotov rinsed out his teapot and was about to make his tea, when he found there was not one teaspoonful left in the box.
"What an existence!" he grumbled, rolling crumbs of black bread round in his mouth. "It′s a dog′s life. No tea! And it isn′t as though I were a simple peasant: I′m an artisan and a house-owner. The disgrace!"
Grumbling and talking to himself, Zotov put on his overcoat, which was like a crinoline, and, thrusting his feet into huge clumsy golosh-boots (made in the year 1867 by a bootmaker called Prohoritch), went out into the yard. The air was grey, cold, and sullenly still. The big yard, full of tufts of burdock and strewn with yellow leaves, was faintly silvered with autumn frost. Not a breath of wind nor a sound. The old man sat down on the steps of his slanting porch, and at once there happened what happened regularly every morning: his dog Lyska, a big, mangy, decrepit-looking, white yard-dog, with black patches, came up to him with its right eye shut. Lyska came up timidly, wriggling in a frightened way, as though her paws were not touching the earth but a hot stove, and the whole of her wretched figure was expressive of abjectness. Zotov pretended not to notice her, but when she faintly wagged her tail, and, wriggling as before, licked his golosh, he stamped his foot angrily.
"Be off! The plague take you!" he cried. "Con-found-ed bea-east!"
Lyska moved aside, sat down, and fixed her solitary eye upon her master.
"You devils!" he went on. "You are the last straw on my back, you Herods."
And he looked with hatred at his shed with its crooked, overgrown roof; there from the door of the shed a big horse′s head was looking out at him. Probably flattered by its master′s attention, the head moved, pushed forward, and there emerged from the shed the whole horse, as decrepit as Lyska, as timid and as crushed, with spindly legs, grey hair, a pinched stomach, and a bony spine. He came out of the shed and stood still, hesitating as though overcome with embarrassment.
"Plague take you," Zotov went on. "Shall I ever see the last of you, you jail-bird Pharaohs! . . . I wager you want your breakfast!" he jeered, twisting his angry face into a contemptuous smile. "By all means, this minute! A priceless steed like you must have your fill of the best oats! Pray begin! This minute! And I have something to give to the magnificent, valuable dog! If a precious dog like you does not care for bread, you can have meat."
Zotov grumbled for half an hour, growing more and more irritated. In the end, unable to control the anger that boiled up in him, he jumped up, stamped with his goloshes, and growled out to be heard all over the yard:
"I am not obliged to feed you, you loafers! I am not some millionaire for you to eat me out of house and home! I have nothing to eat myself, you cursed carcases, the cholera take you! I get no pleasure or profit out of you; nothing but trouble and ruin, Why don′t you give up the ghost? Are you such personages that even death won′t take you? You can live, damn you! but I don′t want to feed you! I have had enough of you! I don′t want to!"
Zotov grew wrathful and indignant, and the horse and the dog listened. Whether these two dependents understood that they were being reproached for living at his expense, I don′t know, but their stomachs looked more pinched than ever, and their whole figures shrivelled up, grew gloomier and more abject than before. . . . Their submissive air exasperated Zotov more than ever.
"Get away!" he shouted, overcome by a sort of inspiration. "Out of my house! Don′t let me set eyes on you again! I am not obliged to keep all sorts of rubbish in my yard! Get away!"
The old man moved with little hurried steps to the gate, opened it, and picking up a stick from the ground, began driving out his dependents. The horse shook its head, moved its shoulder-blades, and limped to the gate; the dog followed him. Both of them went out into the street, and, after walking some twenty paces, stopped at the fence.
"I′ll give it you!" Zotov threatened them.
When he had driven out his dependents he felt calmer, and began sweeping the yard. From time to time he peeped out into the street: the horse and the dog were standing like posts by the fence, looking dejectedly towards the gate.
"Try how you can do without me," muttered the old man, feeling as though a weight of anger were being lifted from his heart. "Let somebody else look after you now! I am stingy and ill-tempered. . . . It′s nasty living with me, so you try living with other people. . . . Yes. . . ."
After enjoying the crushed expression of his dependents, and grumbling to his heart′s content, Zotov went out of the yard, and, assuming a ferocious air, shouted:
"Well, why are you standing there? Whom are you waiting for? Standing right across the middle of the road and preventing the public from passing! Go into the yard!"
The horse and the dog with drooping heads and a guilty air turned towards the gate. Lyska, probably feeling she did not deserve forgiveness, whined piteously.
"Stay you can, but as for food, you′ll get nothing from me! You may die, for all I care!"
Meanwhile the sun began to break through the morning mist; its slanting rays gilded over the autumn frost. There was a sound of steps and voices. Zotov put back the broom in its place, and went out of the yard to see his crony and neighbour, Mark Ivanitch, who kept a little general shop. On reaching his friend′s shop, he sat down on a folding-stool, sighed sedately, stroked his beard, and began about the weather. From the weather the friends passed to the new deacon, from the deacon to the choristers; and the conversation lengthened out. They did not notice as they talked how time was passing, and when the shop-boy brought in a big teapot of boiling water, and the friends proceeded to drink tea, the time flew as quickly as a bird. Zotov got warm and felt more cheerful.
"I have a favour to ask of you, Mark Ivanitch," he began, after the sixth glass, drumming on the counter with his fingers. "If you would just be so kind as to give me a gallon of oats again to-day. . . ."
From behind the big tea-chest behind which Mark Ivanitch was sitting came the sound of a deep sigh.
"Do be so good," Zotov went on; "never mind tea — don′t give it me to-day, but let me have some oats. . . . I am ashamed to ask you, I have wearied you with my poverty, but the horse is hungry."
"I can give it you," sighed the friend — "why not? But why the devil do you keep those carcases? — tfoo! — Tell me that, please. It would be all right if it were a useful horse, but — tfoo! — one is ashamed to look at it. . . . And the dog′s nothing but a skeleton! Why the devil do you keep them?"
"What am I to do with them?"
"You know. Take them to Ignat the slaughterer — that is all there is to do. They ought to have been there long ago. It′s the proper place for them."
"To be sure, that is so! . . . I dare say! . . ."
"You live like a beggar and keep animals," the friend went on. "I don′t grudge the oats. . . . God bless you. But as to the future, brother . . . I can′t afford to give regularly every day! There is no end to your poverty! One gives and gives, and one doesn′t know when there will be an end to it all."
The friend sighed and stroked his red face.
"If you were dead that would settle it," he said. "You go on living, and you don′t know what for. . . . Yes, indeed! But if it is not the Lord′s will for you to die, you had better go somewhere into an almshouse or a refuge."
"What for? I have relations. I have a great-niece. . . ."
And Zotov began telling at great length of his great-niece Glasha, daughter of his niece Katerina, who lived somewhere on a farm.
"She is bound to keep me!" he said. "My house will be left to her, so let her keep me; I′ll go to her. It′s Glasha, you know . . . Katya′s daughter; and Katya, you know, was my brother Panteley′s stepdaughter. . . . You understand? The house will come to her. . . . Let her keep me!"
"To be sure; rather than live, as you do, a beggar, I should have gone to her long ago."
"I will go! As God′s above, I will go. It′s her duty."
When an hour later the old friends were drinking a glass of vodka, Zotov stood in the middle of the shop and said with enthusiasm:
"I have been meaning to go to her for a long time; I will go this very day."
"To be sure; rather than hanging about and dying of hunger, you ought to have gone to the farm long ago."
"I′ll go at once! When I get there, I shall say: Take my house, but keep me and treat me with respect. It′s your duty! If you don′t care to, then there is neither my house, nor my blessing for you! Good-bye, Ivanitch!"
Zotov drank another glass, and, inspired by the new idea, hurried home. The vodka had upset him and his head was reeling, but instead of lying down, he put all his clothes together in a bundle, said a prayer, took his stick, and went out. Muttering and tapping on the stones with his stick, he walked the whole length of the street without looking back, and found himself in the open country. It was eight or nine miles to the farm. He walked along the dry road, looked at the town herd lazily munching the yellow grass, and pondered on the abrupt change in his life which he had only just brought about so resolutely. He thought, too, about his dependents. When he went out of the house, he had not locked the gate, and so had left them free to go whither they would.
He had not gone a mile into the country when he heard steps behind him. He looked round and angrily clasped his hands. The horse and Lyska, with their heads drooping and their tails between their legs, were quietly walking after him.
"Go back!" he waved to them.
They stopped, looked at one another, looked at him. He went on, they followed him. Then he stopped and began ruminating. It was impossible to go to his great-niece Glasha, whom he hardly knew, with these creatures; he did not want to go back and shut them up, and, indeed, he could not shut them up, because the gate was no use.
"To die of hunger in the shed," thought Zotov. "Hadn′t I really better take them to Ignat?"
Ignat′s hut stood on the town pasture-ground, a hundred paces from the flagstaff. Though he had not quite made up his mind, and did not know what to do, he turned towards it. His head was giddy and there was a darkness before his eyes. . . .
He remembers little of what happened in the slaughterer′s yard. He has a memory of a sickening, heavy smell of hides and the savoury steam of the cabbage-soup Ignat was sipping when he went in to him. As in a dream he saw Ignat, who made him wait two hours, slowly preparing something, changing his clothes, talking to some women about corrosive sublimate; he remembered the horse was put into a stand, after which there was the sound of two dull thuds, one of a blow on the skull, the other of the fall of a heavy body. When Lyska, seeing the death of her friend, flew at Ignat, barking shrilly, there was the sound of a third blow that cut short the bark abruptly. Further, Zotov remembers that in his drunken foolishness, seeing the two corpses, he went up to the stand, and put his own forehead ready for a blow.
And all that day his eyes were dimmed by a haze, and he could not even see his own fingers.