It happened in the ′seventies in winter, on the day after St. Nicholas′s Day. There was a fete in the parish and the innkeeper, Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov, a Second Guild merchant, being a church elder had to go to church, and had also to entertain his relatives and friends at home.
But when the last of them had gone he at once began to prepare to drive over to see a neighbouring proprietor about a grove which he had been bargaining over for a long time. He was now in a hurry to start, lest buyers from the town might forestall him in making a profitable purchase.
The youthful landowner was asking ten thousand rubles for the grove simply because Vasili Andreevich was offering seven thousand. Seven thousand was, however, only a third of its real value. Vasili Andreevich might perhaps have got it down to his own price, for the woods were in his district and he had a long-standing agreement with the other village dealers that no one should run up the price in another′s district, but he had now learnt that some timber-dealers from town meant to bid for the Goryachkin grove, and he resolved to go at once and get the matter settled. So as soon as the feast was over, he took seven hundred rubles from his strong box, added to them two thousand three hundred rubles of church money he had in his keeping, so as to make up the sum to three thousand; carefully counted the notes, and having put them into his pocket-book made haste to start.
Nikita, the only one of Vasili Andreevich′s labourers who was not drunk that day, ran to harness the horse. Nikita, though an habitual drunkard, was not drunk that day because since the last day before the fast, when he had drunk his coat and leather boots, he had sworn off drink and had kept his vow for two months, and was still keeping it despite the temptation of the vodka that had been drunk everywhere during the first two days of the feast.
Nikita was a peasant of about fifty from a neighbouring village, ′not a manager′ as the peasants said of him, meaning that he was not the thrifty head of a household but lived most of his time away from home as a labourer. He was valued everywhere for his industry, dexterity, and strength at work, and still more for his kindly and pleasant temper. But he never settled down anywhere for long because about twice a year, or even oftener, he had a drinking bout, and then besides spending all his clothes on drink he became turbulent and quarrelsome. Vasili Andreevich himself had turned him away several times, but had afterwards taken him back again—valuing his honesty, his kindness to animals, and especially his cheapness. Vasili Andreevich did not pay Nikita the eighty rubles a year such a man was worth, but only about forty, which he gave him haphazard, in small sums, and even that mostly not in cash but in goods from his own shop and at high prices.
Nikita′s wife Martha, who had once been a handsome vigorous woman, managed the homestead with the help of her son and two daughters, and did not urge Nikita to live at home: first because she had been living for some twenty years already with a cooper, a peasant from another village who lodged in their house; and secondly because though she managed her husband as she pleased when he was sober, she feared him like fire when he was drunk. Once when he had got drunk at home, Nikita, probably to make up for his submissiveness when sober, broke open her box, took out her best clothes, snatched up an axe, and chopped all her undergarments and dresses to bits. All the wages Nikita earned went to his wife, and he raised no objection to that. So now, two days before the holiday, Martha had been twice to see Vasili Andreevich and had got from him wheat flour, tea, sugar, and a quart of vodka, the lot costing three rubles, and also five rubles in cash, for which she thanked him as for a special favour, though he owed Nikita at least twenty rubles.
′What agreement did we ever draw up with you?′ said Vasili Andreevich to Nikita. ′If you need anything, take it; you will work it off. I′m not like others to keep you waiting, and making up accounts and reckoning fines. We deal straight-forwardly. You serve me and I don′t neglect you.′
And when saying this Vasili Andreevich was honestly convinced that he was Nikita′s benefactor, and he knew how to put it so plausibly that all those who depended on him for their money, beginning with Nikita, confirmed him in the conviction that he was their benefactor and did not overreach them.
′Yes, I understand, Vasili Andreevich. You know that I serve you and take as much pains as I would for my own father. I understand very well!′ Nikita would reply. He was quite aware that Vasili Andreevich was cheating him, but at the same time he felt that it was useless to try to clear up his accounts with him or explain his side of the matter, and that as long as he had nowhere to go he must accept what he could get.
Now, having heard his master′s order to harness, he went as usual cheerfully and willingly to the shed, stepping briskly and easily on his rather turned-in feet; took down from a nail the heavy tasselled leather bridle, and jingling the rings of the bit went to the closed stable where the horse he was to harness was standing by himself.
′What, feeling lonely, feeling lonely, little silly?′ said Nikita in answer to the low whinny with which he was greeted by the good-tempered, medium-sized bay stallion, with a rather slanting crupper, who stood alone in the shed. ′Now then, now then, there′s time enough. Let me water you first,′ he went on, speaking to the horse just as to someone who understood the words he was using, and having whisked the dusty, grooved back of the well-fed young stallion with the skirt of his coat, he put a bridle on his handsome head, straightened his ears and forelock, and having taken off his halter led him out to water.
Picking his way out of the dung-strewn stable, Mukhorty frisked, and making play with his hind leg pretended that he meant to kick Nikita, who was running at a trot beside him to the pump.
′Now then, now then, you rascal!′ Nikita called out, well knowing how carefully Mukhorty threw out his hind leg just to touch his greasy sheepskin coat but not to strike him—a trick Nikita much appreciated.
After a drink of the cold water the horse sighed, moving his strong wet lips, from the hairs of which transparent drops fell into the trough; then standing still as if in thought, he suddenly gave a loud snort.
′If you don′t want any more, you needn′t. But don′t go asking for any later,′ said Nikita quite seriously and fully explaining his conduct to Mukhorty. Then he ran back to the shed pulling the playful young horse, who wanted to gambol all over the yard, by the rein.
There was no one else in the yard except a stranger, the cook′s husband, who had come for the holiday.
′Go and ask which sledge is to be harnessed—the wide one or the small one—there′s a good fellow!′
The cook′s husband went into the house, which stood on an iron foundation and was iron-roofed, and soon returned saying that the little one was to be harnessed. By that time Nikita had put the collar and brass-studded belly-band on Mukhorty and, carrying a light, painted shaft-bow in one hand, was leading the horse with the other up to two sledges that stood in the shed.
′All right, let it be the little one!′ he said, backing the intelligent horse, which all the time kept pretending to bite him, into the shafts, and with the aid of the cook′s husband he proceeded to harness. When everything was nearly ready and only the reins had to be adjusted, Nikita sent the other man to the shed for some straw and to the barn for a drugget.
′There, that′s all right! Now, now, don′t bristle up!′ said Nikita, pressing down into the sledge the freshly threshed oat straw the cook′s husband had brought. ′And now let′s spread the sacking like this, and the drugget over it. There, like that it will be comfortable sitting,′ he went on, suiting the action to the words and tucking the drugget all round over the straw to make a seat.
′Thank you, dear man. Things always go quicker with two working at it!′ he added. And gathering up the leather reins fastened together by a brass ring, Nikita took the driver′s seat and started the impatient horse over the frozen manure which lay in the yard, towards the gate.
′Uncle Nikita! I say, Uncle, Uncle!′ a high-pitched voice shouted, and a seven-year-old boy in a black sheepskin coat, new white felt boots, and a warm cap, ran hurriedly out of the house into the yard. ′Take me with you!′ he cried, fastening up his coat as he ran.
′All right, come along, darling!′ said Nikita, and stopping the sledge he picked up the master′s pale thin little son, radiant with joy, and drove out into the road.
It was past two o′clock and the day was windy, dull, and cold, with more than twenty degrees Fahrenheit of frost. Half the sky was hidden by a lowering dark cloud. In the yard it was quiet, but in the street the wind was felt more keenly. The snow swept down from a neighbouring shed and whirled about in the corner near the bath-house.
Hardly had Nikita driven out of the yard and turned the horse′s head to the house, before Vasili Andreevich emerged from the high porch in front of the house with a cigarette in his mouth and wearing a cloth-covered sheep-skin coat tightly girdled low at his waist, and stepped onto the hard-trodden snow which squeaked under the leather soles of his felt boots, and stopped. Taking a last whiff of his cigarette he threw it down, stepped on it, and letting the smoke escape through his moustache and looking askance at the horse that was coming up, began to tuck in his sheepskin collar on both sides of his ruddy face, clean-shaven except for the moustache, so that his breath should not moisten the collar.
′See now! The young scamp is there already!′ he exclaimed when he saw his little son in the sledge. Vasili Andreevich was excited by the vodka he had drunk with his visitors, and so he was even more pleased than usual with everything that was his and all that he did. The sight of his son, whom he always thought of as his heir, now gave him great satisfaction. He looked at him, screwing up his eyes and showing his long teeth.
His wife—pregnant, thin and pale, with her head and shoulders wrapped in a shawl so that nothing of her face could be seen but her eyes—stood behind him in the vestibule to see him off.
′Now really, you ought to take Nikita with you,′ she said timidly, stepping out from the doorway.
Vasili Andreevich did not answer. Her words evidently annoyed him and he frowned angrily and spat.
′You have money on you,′ she continued in the same plaintive voice. ′What if the weather gets worse! Do take him, for goodness′ sake!′
′Why? Don′t I know the road that I must needs take a guide?′ exclaimed Vasili Andreevich, uttering every word very distinctly and compressing his lips unnaturally, as he usually did when speaking to buyers and sellers.
′Really you ought to take him. I beg you in God′s name!′ his wife repeated, wrapping her shawl more closely round her head.
′There, she sticks to it like a leech! . . . Where am I to take him?′
′I′m quite ready to go with you, Vasili Andreevich,′ said Nikita cheerfully. ′But they must feed the horses while I am away,′ he added, turning to his master′s wife.
′I′ll look after them, Nikita dear. I′ll tell Simon,′ replied the mistress.
′Well, Vasili Andreevich, am I to come with you?′ said Nikita, awaiting a decision.
′It seems I must humour my old woman. But if you′re coming you′d better put on a warmer cloak,′ said Vasili Andreevich, smiling again as he winked at Nikita′s short sheepskin coat, which was torn under the arms and at the back, was greasy and out of shape, frayed to a fringe round the skirt, and had endured many things in its lifetime.
′Hey, dear man, come and hold the horse!′ shouted Nikita to the cook′s husband, who was still in the yard.
′No, I will myself, I will myself!′ shrieked the little boy, pulling his hands, red with cold, out of his pockets, and seizing the cold leather reins.
′Only don′t be too long dressing yourself up. Look alive!′ shouted Vasili Andreevich, grinning at Nikita.
′Only a moment, Father, Vasili Andreevich!′ replied Nikita, and running quickly with his inturned toes in his felt boots with their soles patched with felt, he hurried across the yard and into the workmen′s hut.
′Arinushka! Get my coat down from the stove. I′m going with the master,′ he said, as he ran into the hut and took down his girdle from the nail on which it hung.
The workmen′s cook, who had had a sleep after dinner and was now getting the samovar ready for her husband, turned cheerfully to Nikita, and infected by his hurry began to move as quickly as he did, got down his miserable worn-out cloth coat from the stove where it was drying, and began hurriedly shaking it out and smoothing it down.
′There now, you′ll have a chance of a holiday with your good man,′ said Nikita, who from kindhearted politeness always said something to anyone he was alone with.
Then, drawing his worn narrow girdle round him, he drew in his breath, pulling in his lean stomach still more, and girdled himself as tightly as he could over his sheepskin.
′There now,′ he said addressing himself no longer to the cook but the girdle, as he tucked the ends in at the waist, ′now you won′t come undone!′ And working his shoulders up and down to free his arms, he put the coat over his sheepskin, arched his back more strongly to ease his arms, poked himself under the armpits, and took down his leather-covered mittens from the shelf. ′Now we′re all right!′
′You ought to wrap your feet up, Nikita. Your boots are very bad.′
Nikita stopped as if he had suddenly realized this.
′Yes, I ought to. . . . But they′ll do like this. It isn′t far!′ and he ran out into the yard.
′Won′t you be cold, Nikita?′ said the mistress as he came up to the sledge.
′Cold? No, I′m quite warm,′ answered Nikita as he pushed some straw up to the forepart of the sledge so that it should cover his feet, and stowed away the whip, which the good horse would not need, at the bottom of the sledge.
Vasili Andreevich, who was wearing two fur-lined coats one over the other, was already in the sledge, his broad back filling nearly its whole rounded width, and taking the reins he immediately touched the horse. Nikita jumped in just as the sledge started, and seated himself in front on the left side, with one leg hanging over the edge.
The good stallion took the sledge along at a brisk pace over the smooth-frozen road through the village, the runners squeaking slightly as they went.
′Look at him hanging on there! Hand me the whip, Nikita!′ shouted Vasili Andreevich, evidently enjoying the sight of his ′heir,′ who standing on the runners was hanging on at the back of the sledge. ′I′ll give it you! Be off to mamma, you dog!′
The boy jumped down. The horse increased his amble and, suddenly changing foot, broke into a fast trot.
The Crosses, the village where Vasili Andreevich lived, consisted of six houses. As soon as they had passed the blacksmith′s hut, the last in the village, they realized that the wind was much stronger than they had thought. The road could hardly be seen. The tracks left by the sledge-runners were immediately covered by snow and the road was only distinguished by the fact that it was higher than the rest of the ground. There was a swirl of snow over the fields and the line where sky and earth met could not be seen. The Telyatin forest, usually clearly visible, now only loomed up occasionally and dimly through the driving snowy dust. The wind came from the left, insistently blowing over to one side the mane on Mukhorty′s sleek neck and carrying aside even his fluffy tail, which was tied in a simple knot. Nikita′s wide coat-collar, as he sat on the windy side, pressed close to his cheek and nose.
′This road doesn′t give him a chance—it′s too snowy,′ said Vasili Andreevich, who prided himself on his good horse. ′I once drove to Pashutino with him in half an hour.′
′What?′ asked Nikita, who could not hear on account of his collar.
′I say I once went to Pashutino in half an hour,′ shouted Vasili Andreevich.
′It goes without saying that he′s a good horse,′ replied Nikita.
They were silent for a while. But Vasili Andreevich wished to talk.
′Well, did you tell your wife not to give the cooper any vodka?′ he began in the same loud tone, quite convinced that Nikita must feel flattered to be talking with so clever and important a person as himself, and he was so pleased with his jest that it did not enter his head that the remark might be unpleasant to Nikita.
The wind again prevented Nikita′s hearing his master′s words.
Vasili Andreevich repeated the jest about the cooper in his loud, clear voice.
′That′s their business, Vasili Andreevich. I don′t pry into their affairs. As long as she doesn′t ill-treat our boy—God be with them.′
′That′s so,′ said Vasili Andreevich. ′Well, and will you be buying a horse in spring?′ he went on, changing the subject.
′Yes, I can′t avoid it,′ answered Nikita, turning down his collar and leaning back towards his master.
The conversation now became interesting to him and he did not wish to lose a word.
′The lad′s growing up. He must begin to plough for himself, but till now we′ve always had to hire someone,′ he said.
′Well, why not have the lean-cruppered one. I won′t charge much for it,′ shouted Vasili Andreevich, feeling animated, and consequently starting on his favourite occupation—that of horse-dealing—which absorbed all his mental powers.
′Or you might let me have fifteen rubles and I′ll buy one at the horse-market,′ said Nikita, who knew that the horse Vasili Andreevich wanted to sell him would be dear at seven rubles, but that if he took it from him it would be charged at twenty-five, and then he would be unable to draw any money for half a year.
′It′s a good horse. I think of your interest as of my own—according to conscience. Brekhunov isn′t a man to wrong anyone. Let the loss be mine. I′m not like others. Honestly!′ he shouted in the voice in which he hypnotized his customers and dealers. ′It′s a real good horse.′
′Quite so!′ said Nikita with a sigh, and convinced that there was nothing more to listen to, he again released his collar, which immediately covered his ear and face.
They drove on in silence for about half an hour. The wind blew sharply onto Nikita′s side and arm where his sheepskin was torn.
He huddled up and breathed into the collar which covered his mouth, and was not wholly cold.
′What do you think—shall we go through Karamyshevo or by the straight road?′ asked Vasili Andreevich.
The road through Karamyshevo was more frequented and was well marked with a double row of high stakes. The straight road was nearer but little used and had no stakes, or only poor ones covered with snow.
Nikita thought awhile.
′Though Karamyshevo is farther, it is better going,′ he said.
′But by the straight road, when once we get through the hollow by the forest, it′s good going—sheltered,′ said Vasili Andreevich, who wished to go the nearest way.
′Just as you please,′ said Nikita, and again let go of his collar.
Vasili Andreevich did as he had said, and having gone about half a verst came to a tall oak stake which had a few dry leaves still dangling on it, and there he turned to the left.
On turning they faced directly against the wind, and snow was beginning to fall. Vasili Andreevich, who was driving, inflated his cheeks, blowing the breath out through his moustache. Nikita dozed.
So they went on in silence for about ten minutes. Suddenly Vasili Andreevich began saying something.
′Eh, what?′ asked Nikita, opening his eyes.
Vasili Andreevich did not answer, but bent over, looking behind them and then ahead of the horse. The sweat had curled Mukhorty′s coat between his legs and on his neck. He went at a walk.
′What is it?′ Nikita asked again.
′What is it? What is it?′ Vasili Andreevich mimicked him angrily. ′There are no stakes to be seen! We must have got off the road!′
′Well, pull up then, and I′ll look for it,′ said Nikita, and jumping down lightly from the sledge and taking the whip from under the straw, he went off to the left from his own side of the sledge.
The snow was not deep that year, so that it was possible to walk anywhere, but still in places it was knee-deep and got into Nikita′s boots. He went about feeling the ground with his feet and the whip, but could not find the road anywhere.
′Well, how is it?′ asked Vasili Andreevich when Nikita came back to the sledge.
′There is no road this side. I must go to the other side and try there,′ said Nikita.
′There′s something there in front. Go and have a look.′
Nikita went to what had appeared dark, but found that it was earth which the wind had blown from the bare fields of winter oats and had strewn over the snow, colouring it. Having searched to the right also, he returned to the sledge, brushed the snow from his coat, shook it out of his boots, and seated himself once more.
′We must go to the right,′ he said decidedly. ′The wind was blowing on our left before, but now it is straight in my face. Drive to the right,′ he repeated with decision.
Vasili Andreevich took his advice and turned to the right, but still there was no road. They went on in that direction for some time. The wind was as fierce as ever and it was snowing lightly.
′It seems, Vasili Andreevich, that we have gone quite astray,′ Nikita suddenly remarked, as if it were a pleasant thing. ′What is that?′ he added, pointing to some potato vines that showed up from under the snow.
Vasili Andreevich stopped the perspiring horse, whose deep sides were heaving heavily.
′What is it?′
′Why, we are on the Zakharov lands. See where we′ve got to!′
′Nonsense!′ retorted Vasili Andreevich.
′It′s not nonsense, Vasili Andreevich. It′s the truth,′ replied Nikita. ′You can feel that the sledge is going over a potato-field, and there are the heaps of vines which have been carted here. It′s the Zakharov factory land.′
′Dear me, how we have gone astray!′ said Vasili Andreevich. ′What are we to do now?′
′We must go straight on, that′s all. We shall come out somewhere—if not at Zakharova, then at the proprietor′s farm,′ said Nikita.
Vasili Andreevich agreed, and drove as Nikita had indicated. So they went on for a considerable time. At times they came onto bare fields and the sledge-runners rattled over frozen lumps of earth. Sometimes they got onto a winter-rye field, or a fallow field on which they could see stalks of wormwood, and straws sticking up through the snow and swaying in the wind; sometimes they came onto deep and even white snow, above which nothing was to be seen.
The snow was falling from above and sometimes rose from below. The horse was evidently exhausted, his hair had all curled up from sweat and was covered with hoar-frost, and he went at a walk. Suddenly he stumbled and sat down in a ditch or water-course. Vasili Andreevich wanted to stop, but Nikita cried to him:
′Why stop? We′ve got in and must get out. Hey, pet! Hey, darling! Gee up, old fellow!′ he shouted in a cheerful tone to the horse, jumping out of the sledge and himself getting stuck in the ditch.
The horse gave a start and quickly climbed out onto the frozen bank. It was evidently a ditch that had been dug there.
′Where are we now?′ asked Vasili Andreevich.
′We′ll soon find out!′ Nikita replied. ′Go on, we′ll get somewhere.′
′Why, this must be the Goryachkin forest!′ said Vasili Andreevich, pointing to something dark that appeared amid the snow in front of them.
′We′ll see what forest it is when we get there,′ said Nikita.
He saw that beside the black thing they had noticed, dry, oblong willow-leaves were fluttering, and so he knew it was not a forest but a settlement, but he did not wish to say so. And in fact they had not gone twenty-five yards beyond the ditch before something in front of them, evidently trees, showed up black, and they heard a new and melancholy sound. Nikita had guessed right: it was not a wood, but a row of tall willows with a few leaves still fluttering on them here and there. They had evidently been planted along the ditch round a threshing-floor. Coming up to the willows, which moaned sadly in the wind, the horse suddenly planted his forelegs above the height of the sledge, drew up his hind legs also, pulling the sledge onto higher ground, and turned to the left, no longer sinking up to his knees in snow. They were back on a road.
′Well, here we are, but heaven only knows where!′ said Nikita.
The horse kept straight along the road through the drifted snow, and before they had gone another hundred yards the straight line of the dark wattle wall of a barn showed up black before them, its roof heavily covered with snow which poured down from it. After passing the barn the road turned to the wind and they drove into a snow-drift. But ahead of them was a lane with houses on either side, so evidently the snow had been blown across the road and they had to drive through the drift. And so in fact it was. Having driven through the snow they came out into a street. At the end house of the village some frozen clothes hanging on a line—shirts, one red and one white, trousers, leg-bands, and a petticoat—fluttered wildly in the wind. The white shirt in particular struggled desperately, waving its sleeves about.
′There now, either a lazy woman or a dead one has not taken her clothes down before the holiday,′ remarked Nikita, looking at the fluttering shirts.
At the entrance to the street the wind still raged and the road was thickly covered with snow, but well within the village it was calm, warm, and cheerful. At one house a dog was barking, at another a woman, covering her head with her coat, came running from somewhere and entered the door of a hut, stopping on the threshold to have a look at the passing sledge. In the middle of the village girls could be heard singing.
Here in the village there seemed to be less wind and snow, and the frost was less keen.
′Why, this is Grishkino,′ said Vasili Andreevich.
′So it is,′ responded Nikita.
It really was Grishkino, which meant that they had gone too far to the left and had travelled some six miles, not quite in the direction they aimed at, but towards their destination for all that.
From Grishkino to Goryachkin was about another four miles.
In the middle of the village they almost ran into a tall man walking down the middle of the street.
′Who are you?′ shouted the man, stopping the horse, and recognizing Vasili Anereevich he immediately took hold of the shaft, went along it hand over hand till he reached the sledge, and placed himself on the driver′s seat.
He was Isay, a peasant of Vasili Andreevich′s acquaintance, and well known as the principal horse-thief in the district.
′Ah, Vasili Andreevich! Where are you off to?′ said Isay, enveloping Nikita in the odour of the vodka he had drunk.
′We were going to Goryachkin.′
′And look where you′ve got to! You should have gone through Molchanovka.′
′Should have, but didn′t manage it,′ said Vasili Andreevich, holding in the horse.
′That′s a good horse,′ said Isay, with a shrewd glance at Mukhorty, and with a practised hand he tightened the loosened knot high in the horse′s bushy tail.
′Are you going to stay the night?′
′No, friend. I must get on.′
′Your business must be pressing. And who is this? Ah, Nikita Stepanych!′
′Who else?′ replied Nikita. ′But I say, good friend, how are we to avoid going astray again?′
′Where can you go astray here? Turn back straight down the street and then when you come out keep straight on. Don′t take to the left. You will come out onto the high road, and then turn to the right.′
′And where do we turn off the high road? As in summer, or the winter way?′ asked Nikita.
′The winter way. As soon as you turn off you′ll see some bushes, and opposite them there is a way-mark—a large oak, one with branches—and that′s the way.′
Vasili Andreevich turned the horse back and drove through the outskirts of the village.
′Why not stay the night?′ Isay shouted after them.
But Vasili Andreevich did not answer and touched up the horse. Four miles of good road, two of which lay through the forest, seemed easy to manage, especially as the wind was apparently quieter and the snow had stopped.
Having driven along the trodden village street, darkened here and there by fresh manure, past the yard where the clothes hung out and where the white shirt had broken loose and was now attached only by one frozen sleeve, they again came within sound of the weird moan of the willows, and again emerged on the open fields. The storm, far from ceasing, seemed to have grown yet stronger. The road was completely covered with drifting snow, and only the stakes showed that they had not lost their way. But even the stakes ahead of them were not easy to see, since the wind blew in their faces.
Vasili Andreevich screwed up his eyes, bent down his head, and looked out for the way-marks, but trusted mainly to the horse′s sagacity, letting it take its own way. And the horse really did not lose the road but followed its windings, turning now to the right and now to the left and sensing it under his feet, so that though the snow fell thicker and the wind strengthened they still continued to see way-marks now to the left and now to the right of them.
So they travelled on for about ten minutes, when suddenly, through the slanting screen of wind-driven snow, something black showed up which moved in front of the horse.
This was another sledge with fellow-travellers. Mukhorty overtook them, and struck his hoofs against the back of the sledge in front of them.
′Pass on . . . hey there . . . get in front!′ cried voices from the sledge.
Vasili Andreevich swerved aside to pass the other sledge.
In it sat three men and a woman, evidently visitors returning from a feast. One peasant was whacking the snow-covered croup of their little horse with a long switch, and the other two sitting in front waved their arms and shouted something. The woman, completely wrapped up and covered with snow, sat drowsing and bumping at the back.
′Who are you?′ shouted Vasili Andreevich.
′From A-a-a . . .′ was all that could be heard.
′I say, where are you from?′
′From A-a-a-a!′ one of the peasants shouted with all his might, but still it was impossible to make out who they were.
′Get along! Keep up!′ shouted another, ceaselessly beating his horse with the switch.
′So you′re from a feast, it seems?′
′Go on, go on! Faster, Simon! Get in front! Faster!′
The wings of the sledges bumped against one another, almost got jammed but managed to separate, and the peasants′ sledge began to fall behind.
Their shaggy, big-bellied horse, all covered with snow, breathed heavily under the low shaft-bow and, evidently using the last of its strength, vainly endeavoured to escape from the switch, hobbling with its short legs through the deep snow which it threw up under itself.
Its muzzle, young-looking, with the nether lip drawn up like that of a fish, nostrils distended and ears pressed back from fear, kept up for a few seconds near Nikita′s shoulder and then began to fall behind.
′Just see what liquor does!′ said Nikita. ′They′ve tired that little horse to death. What pagans!′
For a few minutes they heard the panting of the tired little horse and the drunken shouting of the peasants. Then the panting and the shouts died away, and around them nothing could be heard but the whistling of the wind in their ears and now and then the squeak of their sledge-runners over a windswept part of the road.
This encounter cheered and enlivened Vasili Andreevich, and he drove on more boldly without examining the way-marks, urging on the horse and trusting to him.
Nikita had nothing to do, and as usual in such circumstances he drowsed, making up for much sleepless time. Suddenly the horse stopped and Nikita nearly fell forward onto his nose.
′You know we′re off the track again!′ said Vasili Andreevich.
′Why, there are no way-marks to be seen. We must have got off the road again.′
′Well, if we′ve lost the road we must find it,′ said Nikita curtly, and getting out and stepping lightly on his pigeon-toed feet he started once more going about on the snow.
He walked about for a long time, now disappearing and now reappearing, and finally he came back.
′There is no road here. There may be farther on,′ he said, getting into the sledge.
It was already growing dark. The snow-storm had not increased but had also not subsided.
′If we could only hear those peasants!′ said Vasili Andreevich.
′Well they haven′t caught us up. We must have gone far astray. Or maybe they have lost their way too.′
′Where are we to go then?′ asked Vasili Andreevich.
′Why, we must let the horse take its own way,′ said Nikita. ′He will take us right. Let me have the reins.′
Vasili Andreevich gave him the reins, the more willingly because his hands were beginning to feel frozen in his thick gloves.
Nikita took the reins, but only held them, trying not to shake them and rejoicing at his favourite′s sagacity. And indeed the clever horse, turning first one ear and then the other now to one side and then to the other, began to wheel round.
′The one thing he can′t do is to talk,′ Nikita kept saying. ′See what he is doing! Go on, go on! You know best. That′s it, that′s it!′
The wind was now blowing from behind and it felt warmer.
′Yes, he′s clever,′ Nikita continued, admiring the horse. ′A Kirgiz horse is strong but stupid. But this one—just see what he′s doing with his ears! He doesn′t need any telegraph. He can scent a mile off.′
Before another half-hour had passed they saw something dark ahead of them—a wood or a village—and stakes again appeared to the right. They had evidently come out onto the road.
′Why, that′s Grishkino again!′ Nikita suddenly exclaimed.
And indeed, there on their left was that same barn with the snow flying from it, and farther on the same line with the frozen washing, shirts and trousers, which still fluttered desperately in the wind.
Again they drove into the street and again it grew quiet, warm, and cheerful, and again they could see the manure-stained street and hear voices and songs and the barking of a dog. It was already so dark that there were lights in some of the windows.
Half-way through the village Vasili Andreevich turned the horse towards a large double-fronted brick house and stopped at the porch.
Nikita went to the lighted snow-covered window, in the rays of which flying snow-flakes glittered, and knocked at it with his whip.
′Who is there?′ a voice replied to his knock.
′From Kresty, the Brekhunovs, dear fellow,′ answered Nikita. ′Just come out for a minute.′
Someone moved from the window, and a minute or two later there was the sound of the passage door as it came unstuck, then the latch of the outside door clicked and a tall white-bearded peasant, with a sheepskin coat thrown over his white holiday shirt, pushed his way out holding the door firmly against the wind, followed by a lad in a red shirt and high leather boots.
′Is that you, Andreevich?′ asked the old man.
′Yes, friend, we′ve gone astray,′ said Vasili Andreevich. ′We wanted to get to Goryachkin but found ourselves here. We went a second time but lost our way again.′
′Just see how you have gone astray!′ said the old man. ′Petrushka, go and open the gate!′ he added, turning to the lad in the red shirt.
′All right,′ said the lad in a cheerful voice, and ran back into the passage.
′But we′re not staying the night,′ said Vasili Andreevich.
′Where will you go in the night? You′d better stay!′
′I′d be glad to, but I must go on. It′s business, and it can′t be helped.′
′Well, warm yourself at least. The samovar is just ready.′
′Warm myself? Yes, I′ll do that,′ said Vasili Andreevich. ′It won′t get darker. The moon will rise and it will be lighter. Let′s go in and warm ourselves, Nikita.′
′Well, why not? Let us warm ourselves,′ replied Nikita, who was stiff with cold and anxious to warm his frozen limbs.
Vasili Andreevich went into the room with the old man, and Nikita drove through the gate opened for him by Petrushka, by whose advice he backed the horse under the penthouse. The ground was covered with manure and the tall bow over the horse′s head caught against the beam. The hens and the cock had already settled to roost there, and clucked peevishly, clinging to the beam with their claws. The disturbed sheep shied and rushed aside trampling the frozen manure with their hooves. The dog yelped desperately with fright and anger and then burst out barking like a puppy at the stranger.
Nikita talked to them all, excused himself to the fowls and assured them that he would not disturb them again, rebuked the sheep for being frightened without knowing why, and kept soothing the dog, while he tied up the horse.
′Now that will be all right,′ he said, knocking the snow off his clothes. ′Just hear how he barks!′ he added, turning to the dog. ′Be quiet, stupid! Be quiet. You are only troubling yourself for nothing. We′re not thieves, we′re friends. . . .′
′And these are, it′s said, the three domestic counsellors,′ remarked the lad, and with his strong arms he pushed under the pent-roof the sledge that had remained outside.
′Why counsellors?′ asked Nikita.
′That′s what is printed in Paulson. A thief creeps to a house—the dog barks, that means "Be on your guard!" The cock crows, that means, "Get up!" The cat licks herself—that means, "A welcome guest is coming. Get ready to receive him!"′ said the lad with a smile.
Petrushka could read and write and knew Paulson′s primer, his only book, almost by heart, and he was fond of quoting sayings from it that he thought suited the occasion, especially when he had had something to drink, as to-day.
′That′s so,′ said Nikita.
′You must be chilled through and through,′ said Petrushka.
′Yes, I am rather,′ said Nikita, and they went across the yard and the passage into the house.
The household to which Vasili Andreevich had come was one of the richest in the village. The family had five allotments, besides renting other land. They had six horses, three cows, two calves, and some twenty sheep. There were twenty-two members belonging to the homestead: four married sons, six grandchildren (one of whom, Petrushka, was married), two great-grandchildren, three orphans, and four daughters-in-law with their babies. It was one of the few homesteads that remained still undivided, but even here the dull internal work of disintegration which would inevitably lead to separation had already begun, starting as usual among the women. Two sons were living in Moscow as water-carriers, and one was in the army. At home now were the old man and his wife, their second son who managed the homestead, the eldest who had come from Moscow for the holiday, and all the women and children. Besides these members of the family there was a visitor, a neighbour who was godfather to one of the children.
Over the table in the room hung a lamp with a shade, which brightly lit up the tea-things, a bottle of vodka, and some refreshments, besides illuminating the brick walls, which in the far corner were hung with icons on both sides of which were pictures. At the head of the table sat Vasili Andreevich in a black sheepskin coat, sucking his frozen moustache and observing the room and the people around him with his prominent hawk-like eyes. With him sat the old, bald, white-bearded master of the house in a white homespun shirt, and next him the son home from Moscow for the holiday—a man with a sturdy back and powerful shoulders and clad in a thin print shirt—then the second son, also broad-shouldered, who acted as head of the house, and then a lean red-haired peasant—the neighbour.
Having had a drink of vodka and something to eat, they were about to take tea, and the samovar standing on the floor beside the brick oven was already humming. The children could be seen in the top bunks and on the top of the oven. A woman sat on a lower bunk with a cradle beside her. The old housewife, her face covered with wrinkles which wrinkled even her lips, was waiting on Vasili Andreevich.
As Nikita entered the house she was offering her guest a small tumbler of thick glass which she had just filled with vodka.
′Don′t refuse, Vasili Andreevich, you mustn′t! Wish us a merry feast. Drink it, dear!′ she said.
The sight and smell of vodka, especially now when he was chilled through and tired out, much disturbed Nikita′s mind. He frowned, and having shaken the snow off his cap and coat, stopped in front of the icons as if not seeing anyone, crossed himself three times, and bowed to the icons. Then, turning to the old master of the house and bowing first to him, then to all those at table, then to the women who stood by the oven, and muttering: ′A merry holiday!′ he began taking off his outer things without looking at the table.
′Why, you′re all covered with hoar-frost, old fellow!′ said the eldest brother, looking at Nikita′s snow-covered face, eyes, and beard.
Nikita took off his coat, shook it again, hung it up beside the oven, and came up to the table. He too was offered vodka. He went through a moment of painful hesitation and nearly took up the glass and emptied the clear fragrant liquid down his throat, but he glanced at Vasili Andreevich, remembered his oath and the boots that he had sold for drink, recalled the cooper, remembered his son for whom he had promised to buy a horse by spring, sighed, and declined it.
′I don′t drink, thank you kindly,′ he said frowning, and sat down on a bench near the second window.
′How′s that?′ asked the eldest brother.
′I just don′t drink,′ replied Nikita without lifting his eyes but looking askance at his scanty beard and moustache and getting the icicles out of them.
′It′s not good for him,′ said Vasili Andreevich, munching a cracknel after emptying his glass.
′Well, then, have some tea,′ said the kindly old hostess. ′You must be chilled through, good soul. Why are you women dawdling so with the samovar?′
′It is ready,′ said one of the young women, and after flicking with her apron the top of the samovar which was now boiling over, she carried it with an effort to the table, raised it, and set it down with a thud.
Meanwhile Vasili Andreevich was telling how he had lost his way, how they had come back twice to this same village, and how they had gone astray and had met some drunken peasants. Their hosts were surprised, explained where and why they had missed their way, said who the tipsy people they had met were, and told them how they ought to go.
′A little child could find the way to Molchanovka from here. All you have to do is to take the right turning from the high road. There′s a bush you can see just there. But you didn′t even get that far!′ said the neighbour.
′You′d better stay the night. The women will make up beds for you,′ said the old woman persuasively.
′You could go on in the morning and it would be pleasanter,′ said the old man, confirming what his wife had said.
′I can′t, friend. Business!′ said Vasili Andreevich. ′Lose an hour and you can′t catch it up in a year,′ he added, remembering the grove and the dealers who might snatch that deal from him. ′We shall get there, shan′t we?′ he said, turning to Nikita.
Nikita did not answer for some time, apparently still intent on thawing out his beard and moustache.
′If only we don′t go astray again,′ he replied gloomily. He was gloomy because he passionately longed for some vodka, and the only thing that could assuage that longing was tea and he had not yet been offered any.
′But we have only to reach the turning and then we shan′t go wrong. The road will be through the forest the whole way,′ said Vasili Andreevich.
′It′s just as you please, Vasili Andreevich. If we′re to go, let us go,′ said Nikita, taking the glass of tea he was offered.
′We′ll drink our tea and be off.′
Nikita said nothing but only shook his head, and carefully pouring some tea into his saucer began warming his hands, the fingers of which were always swollen with hard work, over the steam. Then, biting off a tiny bit of sugar, he bowed to his hosts, said, ′Your health!′ and drew in the steaming liquid.
′If somebody would see us as far as the turning,′ said Vasili Andreevich.
′Well, we can do that,′ said the eldest son. ′Petrushka will harness and go that far with you.′
′Well, then, put in the horse, lad, and I shall be thankful to you for it.′
′Oh, what for, dear man?′ said the kindly old woman. ′We are heartily glad to do it.′
′Petrushka, go and put in the mare,′ said the eldest brother.
′All right,′ replied Petrushka with a smile, and promptly snatching his cap down from a nail he ran away to harness.
While the horse was being harnessed the talk returned to the point at which it had stopped when Vasili Andreevich drove up to the window. The old man had been complaining to his neighbour, the village elder, about his third son who had not sent him anything for the holiday though he had sent a French shawl to his wife.
′The young people are getting out of hand,′ said the old man.
′And how they do!′ said the neighbour. ′There′s no managing them! They know too much. There′s Demochkin now, who broke his father′s arm. It′s all from being too clever, it seems.′
Nikita listened, watched their faces, and evidently would have liked to share in the conversation, but he was too busy drinking his tea and only nodded his head approvingly. He emptied one tumbler after another and grew warmer and warmer and more and more comfortable. The talk continued on the same subject for a long time—the harmfulness of a household dividing up—and it was clearly not an abstract discussion but concerned the question of a separation in that house; a separation demanded by the second son who sat there morosely silent.
It was evidently a sore subject and absorbed them all, but out of propriety they did not discuss their private affairs before strangers. At last, however, the old man could not restrain himself, and with tears in his eyes declared that he would not consent to a break-up of the family during his lifetime, that his house was prospering, thank God, but that if they separated they would all have to go begging.
′Just like the Matveevs,′ said the neighbour. ′They used to have a proper house, but now they′ve split up none of them has anything.′
′And that is what you want to happen to us,′ said the old man, turning to his son.
The son made no reply and there was an awkward pause. The silence was broken by Petrushka, who having harnessed the horse had returned to the hut a few minutes before this and had been listening all the time with a smile.
′There′s a fable about that in Paulson,′ he said. ′A father gave his sons a broom to break. At first they could not break it, but when they took it twig by twig they broke it easily. And it′s the same here,′ and he gave a broad smile. ′I′m ready!′ he added.
′If you′re ready, let′s go,′ said Vasili Andreevich. ′And as to separating, don′t you allow it, Grandfather. You got everything together and you′re the master. Go to the Justice of the Peace. He′ll say how things should be done.′
′He carries on so, carries on so,′ the old man continued in a whining tone. ′There′s no doing anything with him. It′s as if the devil possessed him.′
Nikita having meanwhile finished his fifth tumbler of tea laid it on its side instead of turning it upside down, hoping to be offered a sixth glass. But there was no more water in the samovar, so the hostess did not fill it up for him. Besides, Vasili Andreevich was putting his things on, so there was nothing for it but for Nikita to get up too, put back into the sugar-basin the lump of sugar he had nibbled all round, wipe his perspiring face with the skirt of his sheepskin, and go to put on his overcoat.
Having put it on he sighed deeply, thanked his hosts, said good-bye, and went out of the warm bright room into the cold dark passage, through which the wind was howling and where snow was blowing through the cracks of the shaking door, and from there into the yard.
Petrushka stood in his sheepskin in the middle of the yard by his horse, repeating some lines from Paulson′s primer. He said with a smile:
′Storms with mist the sky conceal,
Snowy circles wheeling wild.
Now like savage beast ′twill howl,
And now ′tis wailing like a child.′
Nikita nodded approvingly as he arranged the reins.
The old man, seeing Vasili Andreevich off, brought a lantern into the passage to show him a light, but it was blown out at once. And even in the yard it was evident that the snowstorm had become more violent.
′Well, this is weather!′ thought Vasili Andreevich. ′Perhaps we may not get there after all. But there is nothing to be done. Business! Besides, we have got ready, our host′s horse has been harnessed, and we′ll get there with God′s help!′
Their aged host also thought they ought not to go, but he had already tried to persuade them to stay and had not been listened to.
′It′s no use asking them again. Maybe my age makes me timid. They′ll get there all right, and at least we shall get to bed in good time and without any fuss,′ he thought.
Petrushka did not think of danger. He knew the road and the whole district so well, and the lines about ′snowy circles wheeling wild′ described what was happening outside so aptly that it cheered him up. Nikita did not wish to go at all, but he had been accustomed not to have his own way and to serve others for so long that there was no one to hinder the departing travellers.
Vasili Andreevich went over to his sledge, found it with difficulty in the darkness, climbed in and took the reins.
′Go on in front!′ he cried.
Petrushka kneeling in his low sledge started his horse. Mukhorty, who had been neighing for some time past, now scenting a mare ahead of him started after her, and they drove out into the street. They drove again through the outskirts of the village and along the same road, past the yard where the frozen linen had hung (which, however, was no longer to be seen), past the same barn, which was now snowed up almost to the roof and from which the snow was still endlessly pouring past the same dismally moaning, whistling, and swaying willows, and again entered into the sea of blustering snow raging from above and below. The wind was so strong that when it blew from the side and the travellers steered against it, it tilted the sledges and turned the horses to one side. Petrushka drove his good mare in front at a brisk trot and kept shouting lustily. Mukhorty pressed after her.
After travelling so for about ten minutes, Petrushka turned round and shouted something. Neither Vasili Andreevich nor Nikita could hear anything because of the wind, but they guessed that they had arrived at the turning. In fact Petrushka had turned to the right, and now the wind that had blown from the side blew straight in their faces, and through the snow they saw something dark on their right. It was the bush at the turning.
′Well now, God speed you!′
′Thank you, Petrushka!′
′Storms with mist the sky conceal!′ shouted Petrushka as he disappeared.
′There′s a poet for you!′ muttered Vasili Andreevich, pulling at the reins.
′Yes, a fine lad—a true peasant,′ said Nikita.
They drove on.
Nikita, wrapping his coat closely about him and pressing his head down so close to his shoulders that his short beard covered his throat, sat silently, trying not to lose the warmth he had obtained while drinking tea in the house. Before him he saw the straight lines of the shafts which constantly deceived him into thinking they were on a well-travelled road, and the horse′s swaying crupper with his knotted tail blown to one side, and farther ahead the high shaft-bow and the swaying head and neck of the horse with its waving mane. Now and then he caught sight of a way-sign, so that he knew they were still on a road and that there was nothing for him to be concerned about.
Vasili Andreevich drove on, leaving it to the horse to keep to the road. But Mukhorty, though he had had a breathing-space in the village, ran reluctantly, and seemed now and then to get off the road, so that Vasili Andreevich had repeatedly to correct him.
′Here′s a stake to the right, and another, and here′s a third,′ Vasili Andreevich counted, ′and here in front is the forest,′ thought he, as he looked at something dark in front of him. But what had seemed to him a forest was only a bush. They passed the bush and drove on for another hundred yards but there was no fourth way-mark nor any forest.
′We must reach the forest soon,′ thought Vasili Andreevich, and animated by the vodka and the tea he did not stop but shook the reins, and the good obedient horse responded, now ambling, now slowly trotting in the direction in which he was sent, though he knew that he was not going the right way. Ten minutes went by, but there was still no forest.
′There now, we must be astray again,′ said Vasili Andreevich, pulling up.
Nikita silently got out of the sledge and holding his coat, which the wind now wrapped closely about him and now almost tore off, started to feel about in the snow, going first to one side and then to the other. Three or four times he was completely lost to sight. At last he returned and took the reins from Vasili Andreevich′s hand.
′We must go to the right,′ he said sternly and peremptorily, as he turned the horse.
′Well, if it′s to the right, go to the right,′ said Vasili Andreevich, yielding up the reins to Nikita and thrusting his freezing hands into his sleeves.
Nikita did not reply.
′Now then, friend, stir yourself!′ he shouted to the horse, but in spite of the shake of the reins Mukhorty moved only at a walk.
The snow in places was up to his knees, and the sledge moved by fits and starts with his every movement.
Nikita took the whip that hung over the front of the sledge and struck him once. The good horse, unused to the whip, sprang forward and moved at a trot, but immediately fell back into an amble and then to a walk. So they went on for five minutes. It was dark and the snow whirled from above and rose from below, so that sometimes the shaft-bow could not be seen. At times the sledge seemed to stand still and the field to run backwards. Suddenly the horse stopped abruptly, evidently aware of something close in front of him. Nikita again sprang lightly out, throwing down the reins, and went ahead to see what had brought him to a standstill, but hardly had he made a step in front of the horse before his feet slipped and he went rolling down an incline.
′Whoa, whoa, whoa!′ he said to himself as he fell, and he tried to stop his fall but could not, and only stopped when his feet plunged into a thick layer of snow that had drifted to the bottom of the hollow.
The fringe of a drift of snow that hung on the edge of the hollow, disturbed by Nikita′s fall, showered down on him and got inside his collar.
′What a thing to do!′ said Nikita reproachfully, addressing the drift and the hollow and shaking the snow from under his collar.
′Nikita! Hey, Nikita!′ shouted Vasili Andreevich from above.
But Nikita did not reply. He was too occupied in shaking out the snow and searching for the whip he had dropped when rolling down the incline. Having found the whip he tried to climb straight up the bank where he had rolled down, but it was impossible to do so: he kept rolling down again, and so he had to go along at the foot of the hollow to find a way up. About seven yards farther on he managed with difficulty to crawl up the incline on all fours, then he followed the edge of the hollow back to the place where the horse should have been. He could not see either horse or sledge, but as he walked against the wind he heard Vasili Andreevich′s shouts and Mukhorty′s neighing, calling him.
′I′m coming! I′m coming! What are you cackling for?′ he muttered.
Only when he had come up to the sledge could he make out the horse, and Vasili Andreevich standing beside it and looking gigantic.
′Where the devil did you vanish to? We must go back, if only to Grishkino,′ he began reproaching Nikita.
′I′d be glad to get back, Vasili Andreevich, but which way are we to go? There is such a ravine here that if we once get in it we shan′t get out again. I got stuck so fast there myself that I could hardly get out.′
′What shall we do, then? We can′t stay here! We must go somewhere!′ said Vasili Andreevich.
Nikita said nothing. He seated himself in the sledge with his back to the wind, took off his boots, shook out the snow that had got into them, and taking some straw from the bottom of the sledge, carefully plugged with it a hole in his left boot.
Vasili Andreevich remained silent, as though now leaving everything to Nikita. Having put his boots on again, Nikita drew his feet into the sledge, put on his mittens and took up the reins, and directed the horse along the side of the ravine. But they had not gone a hundred yards before the horse again stopped short. The ravine was in front of him again.
Nikita again climbed out and again trudged about in the snow. He did this for a considerable time and at last appeared from the opposite side to that from which he had started.
′Vasili Andreevich, are you alive?′ he called out.
′Here!′ replied Vasili Andreevich. ′Well, what now?′
′I can′t make anything out. It′s too dark. There′s nothing but ravines. We must drive against the wind again.′
They set off once more. Again Nikita went stumbling through the snow, again he fell in, again climbed out and trudged about, and at last quite out of breath he sat down beside the sledge.
′Well, how now?′ asked Vasili Andreevich.
′Why, I am quite worn out and the horse won′t go.′
′Then what′s to be done?′
′Why, wait a minute.′
Nikita went away again but soon returned.
′Follow me!′ he said, going in front of the horse.
Vasili Andreevich no longer gave orders but implicitly did what Nikita told him.
′Here, follow me!′ Nikita shouted, stepping quickly to the right, and seizing the rein he led Mukhorty down towards a snow-drift.
At first the horse held back, then he jerked forward, hoping to leap the drift, but he had not the strength and sank into it up to his collar.
′Get out!′ Nikita called to Vasili Andreevich who still sat in the sledge, and taking hold of one shaft he moved the sledge closer to the horse. ′It′s hard, brother!′ he said to Mukhorty, ′but it can′t be helped. Make an effort! Now, now, just a little one!′ he shouted.
The horse gave a tug, then another, but failed to clear himself and settled down again as if considering something.
′Now, brother, this won′t do!′ Nikita admonished him. ′Now once more!′
Again Nikita tugged at the shaft on his side, and Vasili Andreevich did the same on the other.
Mukhorty lifted his head and then gave a sudden jerk.
′That′s it! That′s it!′ cried Nikita. ′Don′t be afraid—you won′t sink!′
One plunge, another, and a third, and at last Mukhorty was out of the snow-drift, and stood still, breathing heavily and shaking the snow off himself. Nikita wished to lead him farther, but Vasili Andreevich, in his two fur coats, was so out of breath that he could not walk farther and dropped into the sledge.
′Let me get my breath!′ he said, unfastening the kerchief with which he had tied the collar of his fur coat at the village.
′It′s all right here. You lie there,′ said Nikita. ′I will lead him along.′ And with Vasili Andreevich in the sledge he led the horse by the bridle about ten paces down and then up a slight rise, and stopped.
The place where Nikita had stopped was not completely in the hollow where the snow sweeping down from the hillocks might have buried them altogether, but still it was partly sheltered from the wind by the side of the ravine. There were moments when the wind seemed to abate a little, but that did not last long and as if to make up for that respite the storm swept down with tenfold vigour and tore and whirled the more fiercely. Such a gust struck them at the moment when Vasili Andreevich, having recovered his breath, got out of the sledge and went up to Nikita to consult him as to what they should do. They both bent down involuntarily and waited till the violence of the squall should have passed. Mukhorty too laid back his ears and shook his head discontentedly. As soon as the violence of the blast had abated a little, Nikita took off his mittens, stuck them into his belt, breathed onto his hands, and began to undo the straps of the shaft-bow.
′What′s that you are doing there?′ asked Vasili Andreevich.
′Unharnessing. What else is there to do? I have no strength left,′ said Nikita as though excusing himself.
′Can′t we drive somewhere?′
′No, we can′t. We shall only kill the horse. Why, the poor beast is not himself now,′ said Nikita, pointing to the horse, which was standing submissively waiting for what might come, with his steep wet sides heaving heavily. ′We shall have to stay the night here,′ he said, as if preparing to spend the night at an inn, and he proceeded to unfasten the collar-straps. The buckles came undone.
′But shan′t we be frozen?′ remarked Vasili Andreevich.
′Well, if we are we can′t help it,′ said Nikita.
Although Vasili Andreevich felt quite warm in his two fur coats, especially after struggling in the snow-drift, a cold shiver ran down his back on realizing that he must really spend the night where they were. To calm himself he sat down in the sledge and got out his cigarettes and matches.
Nikita meanwhile unharnessed Mukhorty. He unstrapped the belly-band and the back-band, took away the reins, loosened the collar-strap, and removed the shaft-bow, talking to him all the time to encourage him.
′Now come out! come out!′ he said, leading him clear of the shafts. ′Now we′ll tie you up here and I′ll put down some straw and take off your bridle. When you′ve had a bite you′ll feel more cheerful.′
But Mukhorty was restless and evidently not comforted by Nikita′s remarks. He stepped now on one foot and now on another, and pressed close against the sledge, turning his back to the wind and rubbing his head on Nikita′s sleeve. Then, as if not to pain Nikita by refusing his offer of the straw he put before him, he hurriedly snatched a wisp out of the sledge, but immediately decided that it was now no time to think of straw and threw it down, and the wind instantly scattered it, carried it away, and covered it with snow.
′Now we will set up a signal,′ said Nikita, and turning the front of the sledge to the wind he tied the shafts together with a strap and set them up on end in front of the sledge. ′There now, when the snow covers us up, good folk will see the shafts and dig us out,′ he said, slapping his mittens together and putting them on. ′That′s what the old folk taught us!′
Vasili Andreevich meanwhile had unfastened his coat, and holding its skirts up for shelter, struck one sulphur match after another on the steel box. But his hands trembled, and one match after another either did not kindle or was blown out by the wind just as he was lifting it to the cigarette. At last a match did burn up, and its flame lit up for a moment the fur of his coat, his hand with the gold ring on the bent forefinger, and the snow-sprinkled oat-straw that stuck out from under the drugget. The cigarette lighted, he eagerly took a whiff or two, inhaled the smoke, let it out through his moustache, and would have inhaled again, but the wind tore off the burning tobacco and whirled it away as it had done the straw.
But even these few puffs had cheered him.
′If we must spend the night here, we must!′ he said with decision. ′Wait a bit, I′ll arrange a flag as well,′ he added, picking up the kerchief which he had thrown down in the sledge after taking it from round his collar, and drawing off his gloves and standing up on the front of the sledge and stretching himself to reach the strap, he tied the handkerchief to it with a tight knot.
The kerchief immediately began to flutter wildly, now clinging round the shaft, now suddenly streaming out, stretching and flapping.
′Just see what a fine flag!′ said Vasili Andreevich, admiring his handiwork and letting himself down into the sledge. ′We should be warmer together, but there′s not room enough for two,′ he added.
′I′ll find a place,′ said Nikita. ′But I must cover up the horse first—he sweated so, poor thing. Let go!′ he added, drawing the drugget from under Vasili Andreevich.
Having got the drugget he folded it in two, and after taking off the breechband and pad, covered Mukhorty with it.
′Anyhow it will be warmer, silly!′ he said, putting back the breechband and the pad on the horse over the drugget. Then having finished that business he returned to the sledge, and addressing Vasili Andreevich, said: ′You won′t need the sackcloth, will you? And let me have some straw.′
And having taken these things from under Vasili Andreevich, Nikita went behind the sledge, dug out a hole for himself in the snow, put straw into it, wrapped his coat well round him, covered himself with the sackcloth, and pulling his cap well down seated himself on the straw he had spread, and leant against the wooden back of the sledge to shelter himself from the wind and the snow.
Vasili Andreevich shook his head disapprovingly at what Nikita was doing, as in general he disapproved of the peasant′s stupidity and lack of education, and he began to settle himself down for the night.
He smoothed the remaining straw over the bottom of the sledge, putting more of it under his side. Then he thrust his hands into his sleeves and settled down, sheltering his head in the corner of the sledge from the wind in front.
He did not wish to sleep. He lay and thought: thought ever of the one thing that constituted the sole aim, meaning, pleasure, and pride of his life—of how much money he had made and might still make, of how much other people he knew had made and possessed, and of how those others had made and were making it, and how he, like them, might still make much more. The purchase of the Goryachkin grove was a matter of immense importance to him. By that one deal he hoped to make perhaps ten thousand rubles. He began mentally to reckon the value of the wood he had inspected in autumn, and on five acres of which he had counted all the trees.
′The oaks will go for sledge-runners. The undergrowth will take care of itself, and there′ll still be some thirty sazheens of fire-wood left on each desyatin,′ said he to himself. ′That means there will be at least two hundred and twenty-five rubles′ worth left on each desyatin. Fifty-six desyatiins means fifty-six hundreds, and fifty-six hundreds, and fifty-six tens, and another fifty-six tens, and then fifty-six fives. . . .′ He saw that it came out to more than twelve thousand rubles, but could not reckon it up exactly without a counting-frame. ′But I won′t give ten thousand, anyhow. I′ll give about eight thousand with a deduction on account of the glades. I′ll grease the surveyor′s palm—give him a hundred rubles, or a hundred and fifty, and he′ll reckon that there are some five desyatins of glade to be deducted. And he′ll let it go for eight thousand. Three thousand cash down. That′ll move him, no fear!′ he thought, and he pressed his pocket-book with his forearm.
′God only knows how we missed the turning. The forest ought to be there, and a watchman′s hut, and dogs barking. But the damned things don′t bark when they′re wanted.′ He turned his collar down from his ear and listened, but as before only the whistling of the wind could be heard, the flapping and fluttering of the kerchief tied to the shafts, and the pelting of the snow against the woodwork of the sledge. He again covered up his ear.
′If I had known I would have stayed the night. Well, no matter, we′ll get there to-morrow. It′s only one day lost. And the others won′t travel in such weather.′ Then he remembered that on the 9th he had to receive payment from the butcher for his oxen. ′He meant to come himself, but he won′t find me, and my wife won′t know how to receive the money. She doesn′t know the right way of doing things,′ he thought, recalling how at their party the day before she had not known how to treat the police-officer who was their guest. ′Of course she′s only a woman! Where could she have seen anything? In my father′s time what was our house like? Just a rich peasant′s house: just an oatmill and an inn—that was the whole property. But what have I done in these fifteen years? A shop, two taverns, a flour-mill, a grain-store, two farms leased out, and a house with an iron-roofed barn,′ he thought proudly. ′Not as it was in Father′s time! Who is talked of in the whole district now? Brekhunov! And why? Because I stick to business. I take trouble, not like others who lie abed or waste their time on foolishness while I don′t sleep of nights. Blizzard or no blizzard I start out. So business gets done. They think money-making is a joke. No, take pains and rack your brains! You get overtaken out of doors at night, like this, or keep awake night after night till the thoughts whirling in your head make the pillow turn,′ he meditated with pride. ′They think people get on through luck. After all, the Mironovs are now millionaires. And why? Take pains and God gives. If only He grants me health!′
The thought that he might himself be a millionaire like Mironov, who began with nothing, so excited Vasili Andreevich that he felt the need of talking to somebody. But there was no one to talk to. . . . If only he could have reached Goryachkin he would have talked to the landlord and shown him a thing or two.
′Just see how it blows! It will snow us up so deep that we shan′t be able to get out in the morning!′ he thought, listening to a gust of wind that blew against the front of the sledge, bending it and lashing the snow against it. He raised himself and looked round. All he could see through the whirling darkness was Mukhorty′s dark head, his back covered by the fluttering drugget, and his thick knotted tail; while all round, in front and behind, was the same fluctuating whity darkness, sometimes seeming to get a little lighter and sometimes growing denser still.
′A pity I listened to Nikita,′ he thought. ′We ought to have driven on. We should have come out somewhere, if only back to Grishkino and stayed the night at Taras′s. As it is we must sit here all night. But what was I thinking about? Yes, that God gives to those who take trouble, but not to loafers, lie-abeds, or fools. I must have a smoke!′
He sat down again, got out his cigarette-case, and stretched himself flat on his stomach, screening the matches with the skirt of his coat. But the wind found its way in and put out match after match. At last he got one to burn and lit a cigarette. He was very glad that he had managed to do what he wanted, and though the wind smoked more of the cigarette than he did, he still got two or three puffs and felt more cheerful. He again leant back, wrapped himself up, started reflecting and remembering, and suddenly and quite unexpectedly lost consciousness and fell asleep.
Suddenly something seemed to give him a push and awoke him. Whether it was Mukhorty who had pulled some straw from under him, or whether something within him had startled him, at all events it woke him, and his heart began to beat faster and faster so that the sledge seemed to tremble under him. He opened his eyes. Everything around him was just as before. ′It looks lighter,′ he thought. ′I expect it won′t be long before dawn.′ But he at once remembered that it was lighter because the moon had risen. He sat up and looked first at the horse. Mukhorty still stood with his back to the wind, shivering all over. One side of the drugget, which was completely covered with snow, had been blown back, the breeching had slipped down and the snow-covered head with its waving forelock and mane were now more visible. Vasili Andreevich leant over the back of the sledge and looked behind. Nikita still sat in the same position in which he had settled himself. The sacking with which he was covered, and his legs, were thickly covered with snow.
′If only that peasant doesn′t freeze to death! His clothes are so wretched. I may be held responsible for him. What shiftless people they are—such a want of education,′ thought Vasili Andreevich, and he felt like taking the drugget off the horse and putting it over Nikita, but it would be very cold to get out and move about and, moreover, the horse might freeze to death. ′Why did I bring him with me? It was all her stupidity!′ he thought, recalling his unloved wife, and he rolled over into his old place at the front part of the sledge. ′My uncle once spent a whole night like this,′ he reflected, ′and was all right.′ But another case came at once to his mind. ′But when they dug Sebastian out he was dead—stiff like a frozen carcass. If I′d only stopped the night in Grishkino all this would not have happened!′
And wrapping his coat carefully round him so that none of the warmth of the fur should be wasted but should warm him all over, neck, knees, and feet, he shut his eyes and tried to sleep again. But try as he would he could not get drowsy, on the contrary he felt wide awake and animated. Again he began counting his gains and the debts due to him, again he began bragging to himself and feeling pleased with himself and his position, but all this was continually disturbed by a stealthily approaching fear and by the unpleasant regret that he had not remained in Grishkino.
′How different it would be to be lying warm on a bench!′
He turned over several times in his attempts to get into a more comfortable position more sheltered from the wind, he wrapped up his legs closer, shut his eyes, and lay still. But either his legs in their strong felt boots began to ache from being bent in one position, or the wind blew in somewhere, and after lying still for a short time he again began to recall the disturbing fact that he might now have been lying quietly in the warm hut at Grishkino. He again sat up, turned about, muffled himself up, and settled down once more.
Once he fancied that he heard a distant cock-crow. He felt glad, turned down his coat-collar and listened with strained attention, but in spite of all his efforts nothing could be heard but the wind whistling between the shafts, the flapping of the kerchief, and the snow pelting against the frame of the sledge.
Nikita sat just as he had done all the time, not moving and not even answering Vasili Andreevich who had addressed him a couple of times. ′He doesn′t care a bit—he′s probably asleep!′ thought Vasili Andreevich with vexation, looking behind the sledge at Nikita who was covered with a thick layer of snow.
Vasili Andreevich got up and lay down again some twenty times. It seemed to him that the night would never end. ′It must be getting near morning,′ he thought, getting up and looking around. ′Let′s have a look at my watch. It will be cold to unbutton, but if I only know that it′s getting near morning I shall at any rate feel more cheerful. We could begin harnessing.′
In the depth of his heart Vasili Andreevich knew that it could not yet be near morning, but he was growing more and more afraid, and wished both to get to know and yet to deceive himself. He carefully undid the fastening of his sheepskin, pushed in his hand, and felt about for a long time before he got to his waistcoat. With great difficulty he managed to draw out his silver watch with its enamelled flower design, and tried to make out the time. He could not see anything without a light. Again he went down on his knees and elbows as he had done when he lighted a cigarette, got out his matches, and proceeded to strike one. This time he went to work more carefully, and feeling with his fingers for a match with the largest head and the greatest amount of phosphorus, lit it at the first try. Bringing the face of the watch under the light he could hardly believe his eyes. . . . It was only ten minutes past twelve. Almost the whole night was still before him.
′Oh, how long the night is!′ he thought, feeling a cold shudder run down his back, and having fastened his fur coats again and wrapped himself up, he snuggled into a corner of the sledge intending to wait patiently. Suddenly, above the monotonous roar of the wind, he clearly distinguished another new and living sound. It steadily strengthened, and having become quite clear diminished just as gradually. Beyond all doubt it was a wolf, and he was so near that the movement of his jaws as he changed his cry was brought down the wind. Vasili Andreevich turned back the collar of his coat and listened attentively. Mukhorty too strained to listen, moving his ears, and when the wolf had ceased its howling he shifted from foot to foot and gave a warning snort. After this Vasili Andreevich could not fall asleep again or even calm himself. The more he tried to think of his accounts, his business, his reputation, his worth and his wealth, the more and more was he mastered by fear, and regrets that he had not stayed the night at Grishkino dominated and mingled in all his thoughts.
′Devil take the forest! Things were all right without it, thank God. Ah, if we had only put up for the night!′ he said to himself. ′They say it′s drunkards that freeze,′ he thought, ′and I have had some drink.′ And observing his sensations he noticed that he was beginning to shiver, without knowing whether it was from cold or from fear. He tried to wrap himself up and lie down as before, but could no longer do so. He could not stay in one position. He wanted to get up, to do something to master the gathering fear that was rising in him and against which he felt himself powerless. He again got out his cigarettes and matches, but only three matches were left and they were bad ones. The phosphorus rubbed off them all without lighting.
′The devil take you! Damned thing! Curse you!′ he muttered, not knowing whom or what he was cursing, and he flung away the crushed cigarette. He was about to throw away the matchbox too, but checked the movement of his hand and put the box in his pocket instead. He was seized with such unrest that he could no longer remain in one spot. He climbed out of the sledge and standing with his back to the wind began to shift his belt again, fastening it lower down in the waist and tightening it.
′What′s the use of lying and waiting for death? Better mount the horse and get away!′ The thought suddenly occurred to him. ′The horse will move when he has someone on his back. As for him,′ he thought of Nikita—′it′s all the same to him whether he lives or dies. What is his life worth? He won′t grudge his life, but I have something to live for, thank God.′
He untied the horse, threw the reins over his neck and tried to mount, but his coats and boots were so heavy that he failed. Then he clambered up in the sledge and tried to mount from there, but the sledge tilted under his weight, and he failed again. At last he drew Mukhorty nearer to the sledge, cautiously balanced on one side of it, and managed to lie on his stomach across the horse′s back. After lying like that for a while he shifted forward once and again, threw a leg over, and finally seated himself, supporting his feet on the loose breeching-straps. The shaking of the sledge awoke Nikita. He raised himself, and it seemed to Vasili Andreevich that he said something.
′Listen to such fools as you! Am I to die like this for nothing?′ exclaimed Vasili Andreevich. And tucking the loose skirts of his fur coat in under his knees, he turned the horse and rode away from the sledge in the direction in which he thought the forest and the forester′s hut must be.
From the time he had covered himself with the sackcloth and seated himself behind the sledge, Nikita had not stirred. Like all those who live in touch with nature and have known want, he was patient and could wait for hours, even days, without growing restless or irritable. He heard his master call him, but did not answer because he did not want to move or talk. Though he still felt some warmth from the tea he had drunk and from his energetic struggle when clambering about in the snowdrift, he knew that this warmth would not last long and that he had no strength left to warm himself again by moving about, for he felt as tired as a horse when it stops and refuses to go further in spite of the whip, and its master sees that it must be fed before it can work again. The foot in the boot with a hole in it had already grown numb, and he could no longer feel his big toe. Besides that, his whole body began to feel colder and colder.
The thought that he might, and very probably would, die that night occurred to him, but did not seem particularly unpleasant or dreadful. It did not seem particularly unpleasant, because his whole life had been not a continual holiday, but on the contrary an unceasing round of toil of which he was beginning to feel weary. And it did not seem particularly dreadful, because besides the masters he had served here, like Vasili Andreevich, he always felt himself dependent on the Chief Master, who had sent him into this life, and he knew that when dying he would still be in that Master′s power and would not be ill-used by Him. ′It seems a pity to give up what one is used to and accustomed to. But there′s nothing to be done, I shall get used to the new things.′
′Sins?′ he thought, and remembered his drunkenness, the money that had gone on drink, how he had offended his wife, his cursing, his neglect of church and of the fasts, and all the things the priest blamed him for at confession. ′Of course they are sins. But then, did I take them on of myself? That′s evidently how God made me. Well, and the sins? Where am I to escape to?′
So at first he thought of what might happen to him that night, and then did not return to such thoughts but gave himself up to whatever recollections came into his head of themselves. Now he thought of Martha′s arrival, of the drunkenness among the workers and his own renunciation of drink, then of their present journey and of Taras′s house and the talk about the breaking-up of the family, then of his own lad, and of Mukhorty now sheltered under the drugget, and then of his master who made the sledge creak as he tossed about in it. ′I expect you′re sorry yourself that you started out, dear man,′ he thought. ′It would seem hard to leave a life such as his! It′s not like the likes of us.′
Then all these recollections began to grow confused and got mixed in his head, and he fell asleep.
But when Vasili Andreevich, getting on the horse, jerked the sledge, against the back of which Nikita was leaning, and it shifted away and hit him in the back with one of its runners, he awoke and had to change his position whether he liked it or not. Straightening his legs with difficulty and shaking the snow off them he got up, and an agonizing cold immediately penetrated his whole body. On making out what was happening he called to Vasili Andreevich to leave him the drugget which the horse no longer needed, so that he might wrap himself in it.
But Vasili Andreevich did not stop, but disappeared amid the powdery snow.
Left alone Nikita considered for a moment what he should do. He felt that he had not the strength to go off in search of a house. It was no longer possible to sit down in his old place—it was by now all filled with snow. He felt that he could not get warmer in the sledge either, for there was nothing to cover himself with, and his coat and sheepskin no longer warmed him at all. He felt as cold as though he had nothing on but a shirt. He became frightened. ′Lord, heavenly Father!′ he muttered, and was comforted by the consciousness that he was not alone but that there was One who heard him and would not abandon him. He gave a deep sigh, and keeping the sackcloth over his head he got inside the sledge and lay down in the place where his master had been.
But he could not get warm in the sledge either. At first he shivered all over, then the shivering ceased and little by little he began to lose consciousness. He did not know whether he was dying or falling asleep, but felt equally prepared for the one as for the other.
Meanwhile Vasili Andreevich, with his feet and the ends of the reins, urged the horse on in the direction in which for some reason he expected the forest and forester′s hut to be. The snow covered his eyes and the wind seemed intent on stopping him, but bending forward and constantly lapping his coat over and pushing it between himself and the cold harness pad which prevented him from sitting properly, he kept urging the horse on. Mukhorty ambled on obediently though with difficulty, in the direction in which he was driven.
Vasili Andreevich rode for about five minutes straight ahead, as he thought, seeing nothing but the horse′s head and the white waste, and hearing only the whistle of the wind about the horse′s ears and his coat collar.
Suddenly a dark patch showed up in front of him. His heart beat with joy, and he rode towards the object, already seeing in imagination the walls of village houses. But the dark patch was not stationary, it kept moving; and it was not a village but some tall stalks of wormwood sticking up through the snow on the boundary between two fields, and desperately tossing about under the pressure of the wind which beat it all to one side and whistled through it. The sight of that wormwood tormented by the pitiless wind made Vasili Andreevich shudder, he knew not why, and he hurriedly began urging the horse on, not noticing that when riding up to the wormwood he had quite changed his direction and was now heading the opposite way, though still imagining that he was riding towards where the hut should be. But the horse kept making towards the right, and Vasili Andreevich kept guiding it to the left.
Again something dark appeared in front of him. Again he rejoiced, convinced that now it was certainly a village. But once more it was the same boundary line overgrown with wormwood, once more the same wormwood desperately tossed by the wind and carrying unreasoning terror to his heart. But its being the same wormwood was not all, for beside it there was a horse′s track partly snowed over. Vasili Andreevich stopped, stooped down and looked carefully. It was a horse-track only partially covered with snow, and could be none but his own horse′s hoofprints. He had evidently gone round in a small circle. ′I shall perish like that!′ he thought, and not to give way to his terror he urged on the horse still more, peering into the snowy darkness in which he saw only flitting and fitful points of light. Once he thought he heard the barking of dogs or the howling of wolves, but the sounds were so faint and indistinct that he did not know whether he heard them or merely imagined them, and he stopped and began to listen intently.
Suddenly some terrible, deafening cry resounded near his ears, and everything shivered and shook under him. He seized Mukhorty′s neck, but that too was shaking all over and the terrible cry grew still more frightful. For some seconds Vasili Andreevich could not collect himself or understand what was happening. It was only that Mukhorty, whether to encourage himself or to call for help, had neighed loudly and resonantly. ′Ugh, you wretch! How you frightened me, damn you!′ thought Vasili Andreevich. But even when he understood the cause of his terror he could not shake it off.
′I must calm myself and think things over,′ he said to himself, but yet he could not stop, and continued to urge the horse on, without noticing that he was now going with the wind instead of against it. His body, especially between his legs where it touched the pad of the harness and was not covered by his overcoats, was getting painfully cold, especially when the horse walked slowly. His legs and arms trembled and his breathing came fast. He saw himself perishing amid this dreadful snowy waste, and could see no means of escape.
Suddenly the horse under him tumbled into something and, sinking into a snow-drift, began to plunge and fell on his side. Vasili Andreevich jumped off, and in so doing dragged to one side the breechband on which his foot was resting, and twisted round the pad to which he held as he dismounted. As soon as he had jumped off, the horse struggled to his feet, plunged forward, gave one leap and another, neighed again, and dragging the drugget and the breechband after him, disappeared, leaving Vasili Andreevich alone on the snow-drift.
The latter pressed on after the horse, but the snow lay so deep and his coats were so heavy that, sinking above his knees at each step, he stopped breathless after taking not more than twenty steps. ′The copse, the oxen, the lease-hold, the shop, the tavern, the house with the iron-roofed barn, and my heir,′ thought he. ′How can I leave all that? What does this mean? It cannot be!′ These thoughts flashed through his mind. Then he thought of the wormwood tossed by the wind, which he had twice ridden past, and he was seized with such terror that he did not believe in the reality of what was happening to him. ′Can this be a dream?′ he thought, and tried to wake up but could not. It was real snow that lashed his face and covered him and chilled his right hand from which he had lost the glove, and this was a real desert in which he was now left alone like that wormwood, awaiting an inevitable, speedy, and meaningless death.
′Queen of Heaven! Holy Father Nicholas, teacher of temperance!′ he thought, recalling the service of the day before and the holy icon with its black face and gilt frame, and the tapers which he sold to be set before that icon and which were almost immediately brought back to him scarcely burnt at all, and which he put away in the store-chest. He began to pray to that same Nicholas the Wonder-Worker to save him, promising him a thanksgiving service and some candles. But he clearly and indubitably realized that the icon, its frame, the candles, the priest, and the thanksgiving service, though very important and necessary in church, could do nothing for him here, and that there was and could be no connexion between those candles and services and his present disastrous plight. ′I must not despair,′ he thought. ′I must follow the horse′s track before it is snowed under. He will lead me out, or I may even catch him. Only I must not hurry, or I shall stick fast and be more lost than ever.′
But in spite of his resolution to go quietly, he rushed forward and even ran, continually falling, getting up and falling again. The horse′s track was already hardly visible in places where the snow did not lie deep. ′I am lost!′ thought Vasili Andreevich. ′I shall lose the track and not catch the horse.′ But at that moment he saw something black. It was Mukhorty, and not only Mukhorty, but the sledge with the shafts and the kerchief. Mukhorty, with the sacking and the breechband twisted round to one side, was standing not in his former place but nearer to the shafts, shaking his head which the reins he was stepping on drew downwards. It turned out that Vasili Andreevich had sunk in the same ravine Nikita had previously fallen into, and that Mukhorty had been bringing him back to the sledge and he had got off his back no more than fifty paces from where the sledge was.
Having stumbled back to the sledge Vasili Andreevich caught hold of it and for a long time stood motionless, trying to calm himself and recover his breath. Nikita was not in his former place, but something, already covered with snow, was lying in the sledge and Vasili Andreevich concluded that this was Nikita. His terror had now quite left him, and if he felt any fear it was lest the dreadful terror should return that he had experienced when on the horse and especially when he was left alone in the snow-drift. At any cost he had to avoid that terror, and to keep it away he must do something—occupy himself with something. And the first thing he did was to turn his back to the wind and open his fur coat. Then, as soon as he recovered his breath a little, he shook the snow out of his boots and out of his left-hand glove (the right-hand glove was hopelessly lost and by this time probably lying somewhere under a dozen inches of snow); then as was his custom when going out of his shop to buy grain from the peasants, he pulled his girdle low down and tightened it and prepared for action. The first thing that occurred to him was to free Mukhorty′s leg from the rein. Having done that, and tethered him to the iron cramp at the front of the sledge where he had been before, he was going round the horse′s quarters to put the breechband and pad straight and cover him with the cloth, but at that moment he noticed that something was moving in the sledge and Nikita′s head rose up out of the snow that covered it. Nikita, who was half frozen, rose with great difficulty and sat up, moving his hand before his nose in a strange manner just as if he were driving away flies. He waved his hand and said something, and seemed to Vasili Andreevich to be calling him. Vasili Andreevich left the cloth unadjusted and went up to the sledge.
′What is it?′ he asked. ′What are you saying?′
′I′m dy . . . ing, that′s what,′ said Nikita brokenly and with difficulty. ′Give what is owing to me to my lad, or to my wife, no matter.′
′Why, are you really frozen?′ asked Vasili Andreevich.
′I feel it′s my death. Forgive me for Christ′s sake . . .′ said Nikita in a tearful voice, continuing to wave his hand before his face as if driving away flies.
Vasili Andreevich stood silent and motionless for half a minute. Then suddenly, with the same resolution with which he used to strike hands when making a good purchase, he took a step back and turning up his sleeves began raking the snow off Nikita and out of the sledge. Having done this he hurriedly undid his girdle, opened out his fur coat, and having pushed Nikita down, lay down on top of him, covering him not only with his fur coat but with the whole of his body, which glowed with warmth. After pushing the skirts of his coat between Nikita and the sides of the sledge, and holding down its hem with his knees, Vasili Andreevich lay like that face down, with his head pressed against the front of the sledge. Here he no longer heard the horse′s movements or the whistling of the wind, but only Nikita′s breathing. At first and for a long time Nikita lay motionless, then he sighed deeply and moved.
′There, and you say you are dying! Lie still and get warm, that′s our way . . .′ began Vasili Andreevich.
But to his great surprise he could say no more, for tears came to his eyes and his lower jaw began to quiver rapidly. He stopped speaking and only gulped down the risings in his throat. ′Seems I was badly frightened and have gone quite weak,′ he thought. But this weakness was not only unpleasant, but gave him a peculiar joy such as he had never felt before.
′That′s our way!′ he said to himself, experiencing a strange and solemn tenderness. He lay like that for a long time, wiping his eyes on the fur of his coat and tucking under his knee the right skirt, which the wind kept turning up.
But he longed so passionately to tell somebody of his joyful condition that he said: ′Nikita!′
′It′s comfortable, warm!′ came a voice from beneath.
′There, you see, friend, I was going to perish. And you would have been frozen, and I should have . . .′
But again his jaws began to quiver and his eyes to fill with tears, and he could say no more.
′Well, never mind,′ he thought. ′I know about myself what I know.′
He remained silent and lay like that for a long time.
Nikita kept him warm from below and his fur coats from above. Only his hands, with which he kept his coat-skirts down round Nikita′s sides, and his legs which the wind kept uncovering, began to freeze, especially his right hand which had no glove. But he did not think of his legs or of his hands but only of how to warm the peasant who was lying under him. He looked out several times at Mukhorty and could see that his back was uncovered and the drugget and breeching lying on the snow, and that he ought to get up and cover him, but he could not bring himself to leave Nikita and disturb even for a moment the joyous condition he was in. He no longer felt any kind of terror.
′No fear, we shan′t lose him this time!′ he said to himself, referring to his getting the peasant warm with the same boastfulness with which he spoke of his buying and selling.
Vasili Andreevich lay in that way for one hour, another, and a third, but he was unconscious of the passage of time. At first impressions of the snow-storm, the sledge-shafts, and the horse with the shaft-bow shaking before his eyes, kept passing through his mind, then he remembered Nikita lying under him, then recollections of the festival, his wife, the police-officer, and the box of candles, began to mingle with these; then again Nikita, this time lying under that box, then the peasants, customers and traders, and the white walls of his house with its iron roof with Nikita lying underneath, presented themselves to his imagination. Afterwards all these impressions blended into one nothingness. As the colours of the rainbow unite into one white light, so all these different impressions mingled into one, and he fell asleep.
For a long time he slept without dreaming, but just before dawn the visions recommenced. It seemed to him that he was standing by the box of tapers and that Tikhon′s wife was asking for a five kopek taper for the Church fete. He wished to take one out and give it to her, but his hands would not life, being held tight in his pockets. He wanted to walk round the box but his feet would not move and his new clean goloshes had grown to the stone floor, and he could neither lift them nor get his feet out of the goloshes. Then the taper-box was no longer a box but a bed, and suddenly Vasili Andreevich saw himself lying in his bed at home. He was lying in his bed and could not get up. Yet it was necessary for him to get up because Ivan Matveich, the police-officer, would soon call for him and he had to go with him—either to bargain for the forest or to put Mukhorty′s breeching straight.
He asked his wife: ′Nikolaevna, hasn′t he come yet?′ ′No, he hasn′t,′ she replied. He heard someone drive up to the front steps. ′It must be him.′ ′No, he′s gone past.′ ′Nikolaevna! I say, Nikolaevna, isn′t he here yet?′ ′No.′ He was still lying on his bed and could not get up, but was always waiting. And this waiting was uncanny and yet joyful. Then suddenly his joy was completed. He whom he was expecting came; not Ivan Matveich the police-officer, but someone else—yet it was he whom he had been waiting for. He came and called him; and it was he who had called him and told him to lie down on Nikita. And Vasili Andreevich was glad that that one had come for him.
′I′m coming!′ he cried joyfully, and that cry awoke him, but woke him up not at all the same person he had been when he fell asleep. He tried to get up but could not, tried to move his arm and could not, to move his leg and also could not, to turn his head and could not. He was surprised but not at all disturbed by this. He understood that this was death, and was not at all disturbed by that either.
He remembered that Nikita was lying under him and that he had got warm and was alive, and it seemed to him that he was Nikita and Nikita was he, and that his life was not in himself but in Nikita. He strained his ears and heard Nikita breathing and even slightly snoring. ′Nikita is alive, so I too am alive!′ he said to himself triumphantly.
And he remembered his money, his shop, his house, the buying and selling, and Mironov′s millions, and it was hard for him to understand why that man, called Vasili Brekhunov, had troubled himself with all those things with which he had been troubled.
′Well, it was because he did not know what the real thing was,′ he thought, concerning that Vasili Brekhunov. ′He did not know, but now I know and know for sure. Now I know!′ And again he heard the voice of the one who had called him before. ′I′m coming! Coming!′ he responded gladly, and his whole being was filled with joyful emotion. He felt himself free and that nothing could hold him back any longer.
After that Vasili Andreevich neither saw, heard, nor felt anything more in this world.
All around the snow still eddied. The same whirlwinds of snow circled about, covering the dead Vasili Andreevich′s fur coat, the shivering Mukhorty, the sledge, now scarcely to be seen, and Nikita lying at the bottom of it, kept warm beneath his dead master.
Nikita awoke before daybreak. He was aroused by the cold that had begun to creep down his back. He had dreamt that he was coming from the mill with a load of his master′s flour and when crossing the stream had missed the bridge and let the cart get stuck. And he saw that he had crawled under the cart and was trying to lift it by arching his back. But strange to say the cart did not move, it stuck to his back and he could neither lift it nor get out from under it. It was crushing the whole of his loins. And how cold it felt! Evidently he must crawl out. ′Have done!′ he exclaimed to whoever was pressing the cart down on him. ′Take out the sacks!′ But the cart pressed down colder and colder, and then he heard a strange knocking, awoke completely, and remembered everything. The cold cart was his dead and frozen master lying upon him. And the knock was produced by Mukhorty, who had twice struck the sledge with his hoof.
′Andreevich! Eh, Andreevich!′ Nikita called cautiously, beginning to realize the truth, and straightening his back. But Vasili Andreevich did not answer and his stomach and legs were stiff and cold and heavy like iron weights.
′He must have died! May the Kingdom of Heaven be his!′ thought Nikita.
He turned his head, dug with his hand through the snow about him and opened his eyes. It was daylight; the wind was whistling as before between the shafts, and the snow was falling in the same way, except that it was no longer driving against the frame of the sledge but silently covered both sledge and horse deeper and deeper, and neither the horse′s movements nor his breathing were any longer to be heard.
′He must have frozen too,′ thought Nikita of Mukhorty, and indeed those hoof knocks against the sledge, which had awakened Nikita, were the last efforts the already numbed Mukhorty had made to keep on his feet before dying.
′O Lord God, it seems Thou art calling me too!′ said Nikita. ′Thy Holy Will be done. But it′s uncanny. . . . Still, a man can′t die twice and must die once. If only it would come soon!′
And he again drew in his head, closed his eyes, and became unconscious, fully convinced that now he was certainly and finally dying.
It was not till noon that day that peasants dug Vasili Andreevich and Nikita out of the snow with their shovels, not more than seventy yards from the road and less than half a mile from the village.
The snow had hidden the sledge, but the shafts and the kerchief tied to them were still visible. Mukhorty, buried up to his belly in snow, with the breeching and drugget hanging down, stood all white, his dead head pressed against his frozen throat: icicles hung from his nostrils, his eyes were covered with hoar-frost as though filled with tears, and he had grown so thin in that one night that he was nothing but skin and bone.
Vasili Andreevich was stiff as a frozen carcass, and when they rolled him off Nikita his legs remained apart and his arms stretched out as they had been. His bulging hawk eyes were frozen, and his open mouth under his clipped moustache was full of snow. But Nikita though chilled through was still alive. When he had been brought to, he felt sure that he was already dead and that what was taking place with him was no longer happening in this world but in the next. When he heard the peasants shouting as they dug him out and rolled the frozen body of Vasili Andreevich from off him, he was at first surprised that in the other world peasants should be shouting in the same old way and had the same kind of body, and then when he realized that he was still in this world he was sorry rather than glad, especially when he found that the toes on both his feet were frozen.
Nikita lay in hospital for two months. They cut off three of his toes, but the others recovered so that he was still able to work and went on living for another twenty years, first as a farm-labourer, then in his old age as a watchman. He died at home as he had wished, only this year, under the icons with a lighted taper in his hands. Before he died he asked his wife′s forgiveness and forgave her for the cooper. He also took leave of his son and grandchildren, and died sincerely glad that he was relieving his son and daughter-in-law of the burden of having to feed him, and that he was now really passing from this life of which he was weary into that other life which every year and every hour grew clearer and more desirable to him. Whether he is better or worse off there where he awoke after his death, whether he was disappointed or found there what he expected, we shall all soon learn.