One evening I went with the huntsman Yermolaï ‘stand-shooting.’ … But perhaps all my readers may not know what ‘stand-shooting’ is. I will tell you.
A quarter of an hour before sunset in spring-time you go out into the woods with your gun, but without your dog. You seek out a spot for yourself on the outskirts of the forest, take a look round, examine your caps, and glance at your companion. A quarter of an hour passes; the sun has set, but it is still light in the forest; the sky is clear and transparent; the birds are chattering and twittering; the young grass shines with the brilliance of emerald…. You wait. Gradually the recesses of the forest grow dark; the blood-red glow of the evening sky creeps slowly on to the roots and the trunks of the trees, and keeps rising higher and higher, passes from the lower, still almost leafless branches, to the motionless, slumbering tree-tops…. And now even the topmost branches are darkened; the purple sky fades to dark-blue. The forest fragrance grows stronger; there is a scent of warmth and damp earth; the fluttering breeze dies away at your side. The birds go to sleep—not all at once—but after their kinds; first the finches are hushed, a few minutes later the warblers, and after them the yellow buntings. In the forest it grows darker and darker. The trees melt together into great masses of blackness; in the dark-blue sky the first stars come timidly out. All the birds are asleep. Only the redstarts and the nuthatches are still chirping drowsily…. And now they too are still. The last echoing call of the pee-wit rings over our heads; the oriole’s melancholy cry sounds somewhere in the distance; then the nightingale’s first note. Your heart is weary with suspense, when suddenly—but only sportsmen can understand me—suddenly in the deep hush there is a peculiar croaking and whirring sound, the measured sweep of swift wings is heard, and the snipe, gracefully bending its long beak, sails smoothly down behind a dark bush to meet your shot.
That is the meaning of ‘stand-shooting.’ And so I had gone out stand-shooting with Yermolaï; but excuse me, reader: I must first introduce you to Yermolaï.
Picture to yourself a tall gaunt man of forty-five, with a long thin nose, a narrow forehead, little grey eyes, a bristling head of hair, and thick sarcastic lips. This man wore, winter and summer alike, a yellow nankin coat of German cut, but with a sash round the waist; he wore blue pantaloons and a cap of astrakhan, presented to him in a merry hour by a spendthrift landowner. Two bags were fastened on to his sash, one in front, skilfully tied into two halves, for powder and for shot; the other behind for game: wadding Yermolaï used to produce out of his peculiar, seemingly inexhaustible cap. With the money he gained by the game he sold, he might easily have bought himself a cartridge-box and powder-flask; but he never once even contemplated such a purchase, and continued to load his gun after his old fashion, exciting the admiration of all beholders by the skill with which he avoided the risks of spilling or mixing his powder and shot. His gun was a single-barrelled flint-lock, endowed, moreover, with a villainous habit of ‘kicking.’ It was due to this that Yermolaï’s right cheek was permanently swollen to a larger size than the left. How he ever succeeded in hitting anything with this gun, it would take a shrewd man to discover—but he did. He had too a setter-dog, by name Valetka, a most extraordinary creature. Yermolaï never fed him. ‘Me feed a dog!’ he reasoned; ‘why, a dog’s a clever beast; he finds a living for himself.’ And certainly, though Valetka’s extreme thinness was a shock even to an indifferent observer, he still lived and had a long life; and in spite of his pitiable position he was not even once lost, and never showed an inclination to desert his master. Once indeed, in his youth, he had absented himself for two days, on courting bent, but this folly was soon over with him. Valetka’s most noticeable peculiarity was his impenetrable indifference to everything in the world…. If it were not a dog I was speaking of, I should have called him ‘disillusioned.’ He usually sat with his cropped tail curled up under him, scowling and twitching at times, and he never smiled. (It is well known that dogs can smile, and smile very sweetly.) He was exceedingly ugly; and the idle house-serfs never lost an opportunity of jeering cruelly at his appearance; but all these jeers, and even blows, Valetka bore with astonishing indifference. He was a source of special delight to the cooks, who would all leave their work at once and give him chase with shouts and abuse, whenever, through a weakness not confined to dogs, he thrust his hungry nose through the half-open door of the kitchen, tempting with its warmth and appetising smells. He distinguished himself by untiring energy in the chase, and had a good scent; but if he chanced to overtake a slightly wounded hare, he devoured it with relish to the last bone, somewhere in the cool shade under the green bushes, at a respectful distance from Yermolaï, who was abusing him in every known and unknown dialect. Yermolaï belonged to one of my neighbours, a landowner of the old style. Landowners of the old style don’t care for game, and prefer the domestic fowl. Only on extraordinary occasions, such as birthdays, namedays, and elections, the cooks of the old-fashioned landowners set to work to prepare some long-beaked birds, and, falling into the state of frenzy peculiar to Russians when they don’t quite know what to do, they concoct such marvellous sauces for them that the guests examine the proffered dishes curiously and attentively, but rarely make up their minds to try them. Yermolaï was under orders to provide his master’s kitchen with two brace of grouse and partridges once a month. But he might live where and how he pleased. They had given him up as a man of no use for work of any kind—’bone lazy,’ as the expression is among us in Orel. Powder and shot, of course, they did not provide him, following precisely the same principle in virtue of which he did not feed his dog. Yermolaï was a very strange kind of man; heedless as a bird, rather fond of talking, awkward and vacant-looking; he was excessively fond of drink, and never could sit still long; in walking he shambled along, and rolled from side to side; and yet he got over fifty miles in the day with his rolling, shambling gait. He exposed himself to the most varied adventures: spent the night in the marshes, in trees, on roofs, or under bridges; more than once he had got shut up in lofts, cellars, or barns; he sometimes lost his gun, his dog, his most indispensable garments; got long and severe thrashings; but he always returned home, after a little while, in his clothes, and with his gun and his dog. One could not call him a cheerful man, though one almost always found him in an even frame of mind; he was looked on generally as an eccentric. Yermolaï liked a little chat with a good companion, especially over a glass, but he would not stop long; he would get up and go. ‘But where the devil are you going? It’s dark out of doors.’ ‘To Tchaplino.’ ‘But what’s taking you to Tchaplino, ten miles away?’ ‘I am going to stay the night at Sophron’s there.’ ‘But stay the night here.’ ‘No, I can’t.’ And Yermolaï, with his Valetka, would go off into the dark night, through woods and water-courses, and the peasant Sophron very likely did not let him into his place, and even, I am afraid, gave him a blow to teach him ‘not to disturb honest folks.’ But none could compare with Yermolaï in skill in deep-water fishing in spring-time, in catching crayfish with his hands, in tracking game by scent, in snaring quails, in training hawks, in capturing the nightingales who had the greatest variety of notes. … One thing he could not do, train a dog; he had not patience enough. He had a wife too. He went to see her once a week. She lived in a wretched, tumble-down little hut, and led a hand-to-mouth existence, never knowing overnight whether she would have food to eat on the morrow; and in every way her lot was a pitiful one. Yermolaï, who seemed such a careless and easy-going fellow, treated his wife with cruel harshness; in his own house he assumed a stern, and menacing manner; and his poor wife did everything she could to please him, trembled when he looked at her, and spent her last farthing to buy him vodka; and when he stretched himself majestically on the stove and fell into an heroic sleep, she obsequiously covered him with a sheepskin. I happened myself more than once to catch an involuntary look in him of a kind of savage ferocity; I did not like the expression of his face when he finished off a wounded bird with his teeth. But Yermolaï never remained more than a day at home, and away from home he was once more the same ‘Yermolka’ (i.e. the shooting-cap), as he was called for a hundred miles round, and as he sometimes called himself. The lowest house-serf was conscious of being superior to this vagabond—and perhaps this was precisely why they treated him with friendliness; the peasants at first amused themselves by chasing him and driving him like a hare over the open country, but afterwards they left him in God’s hands, and when once they recognised him as ‘queer,’ they no longer tormented him, and even gave him bread and entered into talk with him…. This was the man I took as my huntsman, and with him I went stand-shooting to a great birch-wood on the banks of the Ista.
Many Russian rivers, like the Volga, have one bank rugged and precipitous, the other bounded by level meadows; and so it is with the Ista. This small river winds extremely capriciously, coils like a snake, and does not keep a straight course for half-a-mile together; in some places, from the top of a sharp declivity, one can see the river for ten miles, with its dykes, its pools and mills, and the gardens on its banks, shut in with willows and thick flower-gardens. There are fish in the Ista in endless numbers, especially roaches (the peasants take them in hot weather from under the bushes with their hands); little sand-pipers flutter whistling along the stony banks, which are streaked with cold clear streams; wild ducks dive in the middle of the pools, and look round warily; in the coves under the overhanging cliffs herons stand out in the shade…. We stood in ambush nearly an hour, killed two brace of wood snipe, and, as we wanted to try our luck again at sunrise (stand-shooting can be done as well in the early morning), we resolved to spend the night at the nearest mill. We came out of the wood, and went down the slope. The dark-blue waters of the river ran below; the air was thick with the mists of night. We knocked at the gate. The dogs began barking in the yard.
‘Who is there?’ asked a hoarse and sleepy voice.
‘We are sportsmen; let us stay the night.’ There was no reply. ‘We will pay.’
‘I will go and tell the master—Sh! Curse the dogs! Go to the devil with you!’
We listened as the workman went into the cottage; he soon came back to the gate. ‘No,’ he said; ‘the master tells me not to let you in.’
‘He is afraid; you are sportsmen; you might set the mill on fire; you’ve firearms with you, to be sure.’
‘But what nonsense!’
‘We had our mill on fire like that last year; some fish-dealers stayed the night, and they managed to set it on fire somehow.’
‘But, my good friend, we can’t sleep in the open air!’
‘That’s your business.’ He went away, his boots clacking as he walked.
Yermolaï promised him various unpleasant things in the future. ‘Let us go to the village,’ he brought out at last, with a sigh. But it was two miles to the village.
‘Let us stay the night here,’ I said, ‘in the open air—the night is warm; the miller will let us have some straw if we pay for it.’
Yermolaï agreed without discussion. We began again to knock.
‘Well, what do you want?’ the workman’s voice was heard again; ‘I’ve told you we can’t.’
We explained to him what we wanted. He went to consult the master of the house, and returned with him. The little side gate creaked. The miller appeared, a tall, fat-faced man with a bull-neck, round-bellied and corpulent. He agreed to my proposal. A hundred paces from the mill there was a little outhouse open to the air on all sides. They carried straw and hay there for us; the workman set a samovar down on the grass near the river, and, squatting on his heels, began to blow vigorously into the pipe of it. The embers glowed, and threw a bright light on his young face. The miller ran to wake his wife, and suggested at last that I myself should sleep in the cottage; but I preferred to remain in the open air. The miller’s wife brought us milk, eggs, potatoes and bread. Soon the samovar boiled, and we began drinking tea. A mist had risen from the river; there was no wind; from all round came the cry of the corn-crake, and faint sounds from the mill-wheels of drops that dripped from the paddles and of water gurgling through the bars of the lock. We built a small fire on the ground. While Yermolaï was baking the potatoes in the embers, I had time to fall into a doze. I was waked by a discreetly-subdued whispering near me. I lifted my head; before the fire, on a tub turned upside down, the miller’s wife sat talking to my huntsman. By her dress, her movements, and her manner of speaking, I had already recognised that she had been in domestic service, and was neither peasant nor city-bred; but now for the first time I got a clear view of her features. She looked about thirty; her thin, pale face still showed the traces of remarkable beauty; what particularly charmed me was her eyes, large and mournful in expression. She was leaning her elbows on her knees, and had her face in her hands. Yermolaï was sitting with his back to me, and thrusting sticks into the fire.
‘They’ve the cattle-plague again at Zheltonhiny,’ the miller’s wife was saying; ‘father Ivan’s two cows are dead—Lord have mercy on them!’
‘And how are your pigs doing?’ asked Yermolaï, after a brief pause.
‘You ought to make me a present of a sucking pig.’
The miller’s wife was silent for a while, then she sighed.
‘Who is it you’re with?’ she asked.
‘A gentleman from Kostomarovo.’
Yermolaï threw a few pine twigs on the fire; they all caught fire at once, and a thick white smoke came puffing into his face.
‘Why didn’t your husband let us into the cottage?’
‘Afraid! the fat old tub! Arina Timofyevna, my darling, bring me a little glass of spirits.’
The miller’s wife rose and vanished into the darkness. Yermolaï began to sing in an undertone—
‘When I went to see my sweetheart,
I wore out all my shoes.’
Arina returned with a small flask and a glass. Yermolaï got up, crossed himself, and drank it off at a draught. ‘Good!’ was his comment.
The miller’s wife sat down again on the tub.
‘Well, Arina Timofyevna, are you still ill?’
‘What is it?’
‘My cough troubles me at night.’
‘The gentleman’s asleep, it seems,’ observed Yermolaï after a short silence. ‘Don’t go to a doctor, Arina; it will be worse if you do.’
‘Well, I am not going.’
‘But come and pay me a visit.’
Arina hung down her head dejectedly.
‘I will drive my wife out for the occasion,’ continued Yermolaï ‘Upon my word, I will.’
‘You had better wake the gentleman, Yermolaï Petrovitch; you see, the potatoes are done.’
‘Oh, let him snore,’ observed my faithful servant indifferently; ‘he’s tired with walking, so he sleeps sound.’
I turned over in the hay. Yermolaï got up and came to me. ‘The potatoes are ready; will you come and eat them?’
I came out of the outhouse; the miller’s wife got up from the tub and was going away. I addressed her.
‘Have you kept this mill long?’
‘It’s two years since I came on Trinity day.’
‘And where does your husband come from?’
Arina had not caught my question.
‘Where’s your husband from?’ repeated Yermolaï, raising his voice.
‘From Byelev. He’s a Byelev townsman.’
‘And are you too from Byelev?’
‘No, I’m a serf; I was a serf.’
‘Zvyerkoff was my master. Now I am free.’
‘Weren’t you his wife’s lady’s maid?’
‘How did you know? Yes.’
I looked at Arina with redoubled curiosity and sympathy.
‘I know your master,’ I continued.
‘Do you?’ she replied in a low voice, and her head drooped.
I must tell the reader why I looked with such sympathy at Arina. During my stay at Petersburg I had become by chance acquainted with Mr. Zvyerkoff. He had a rather influential position, and was reputed a man of sense and education. He had a wife, fat, sentimental, lachrymose and spiteful—a vulgar and disagreeable creature; he had too a son, the very type of the young swell of to-day, pampered and stupid. The exterior of Mr. Zvyerkoff himself did not prepossess one in his favour; his little mouse-like eyes peeped slyly out of a broad, almost square, face; he had a large, prominent nose, with distended nostrils; his close-cropped grey hair stood up like a brush above his scowling brow; his thin lips were for ever twitching and smiling mawkishly. Mr. Zvyerkoff’s favourite position was standing with his legs wide apart and his fat hands in his trouser pockets. Once I happened somehow to be driving alone with Mr. Zvyerkoff in a coach out of town. We fell into conversation. As a man of experience and of judgment, Mr. Zvyerkoff began to try to set me in ‘the path of truth.’
‘Allow me to observe to you,’ he drawled at last; ‘all you young people criticise and form judgments on everything at random; you have little knowledge of your own country; Russia, young gentlemen, is an unknown land to you; that’s where it is!… You are for ever reading German. For instance, now you say this and that and the other about anything; for instance, about the house-serfs…. Very fine; I don’t dispute it’s all very fine; but you don’t know them; you don’t know the kind of people they are.’ (Mr. Zvyerkoff blew his nose loudly and took a pinch of snuff.) ‘Allow me to tell you as an illustration one little anecdote; it may perhaps interest you.’ (Mr. Zvyerkoff cleared his throat.) ‘You know, doubtless, what my wife is; it would be difficult, I should imagine, to find a more kind-hearted woman, you will agree. For her waiting-maids, existence is simply a perfect paradise, and no mistake about it…. But my wife has made it a rule never to keep married lady’s maids. Certainly it would not do; children come—and one thing and the other—and how is a lady’s maid to look after her mistress as she ought, to fit in with her ways; she is no longer able to do it; her mind is in other things. One must look at things through human nature. Well, we were driving once through our village, it must be—let me be correct—yes, fifteen years ago. We saw, at the bailiff’s, a young girl, his daughter, very pretty indeed; something even—you know—something attractive in her manners. And my wife said to me: “Kokó”—you understand, of course, that is her pet name for me—”let us take this girl to Petersburg; I like her, Kokó….” I said, “Let us take her, by all means.” The bailiff, of course, was at our feet; he could not have expected such good fortune, you can imagine…. Well, the girl of course cried violently. Of course, it was hard for her at first; the parental home … in fact … there was nothing surprising in that. However, she soon got used to us: at first we put her in the maidservants’ room; they trained her, of course. And what do you think? The girl made wonderful progress; my wife became simply devoted to her, promoted her at last above the rest to wait on herself … observe…. And one must do her the justice to say, my wife had never such a maid, absolutely never; attentive, modest, and obedient—simply all that could be desired. But my wife, I must confess, spoilt her too much; she dressed her well, fed her from our own table, gave her tea to drink, and so on, as you can imagine! So she waited on my wife like this for ten years. Suddenly, one fine morning, picture to yourself, Arina—her name was Arina—rushes unannounced into my study, and flops down at my feet. That’s a thing, I tell you plainly, I can’t endure. No human being ought ever to lose sight of their personal dignity. Am I not right? What do you say? “Your honour, Alexandr Selitch, I beseech a favour of you.” “What favour?” “Let me be married.” I must confess I was taken aback. “But you know, you stupid, your mistress has no other lady’s maid?” “I will wait on mistress as before.” “Nonsense! nonsense! your mistress can’t endure married lady’s maids,” “Malanya could take my place.” “Pray don’t argue.” “I obey your will.” I must confess it was quite a shock, I assure you, I am like that; nothing wounds me so—nothing, I venture to say, wounds me so deeply as ingratitude. I need not tell you—you know what my wife is; an angel upon earth, goodness inexhaustible. One would fancy even the worst of men would be ashamed to hurt her. Well, I got rid of Arina. I thought, perhaps, she would come to her senses; I was unwilling, do you know, to believe in wicked, black ingratitude in anyone. What do you think? Within six months she thought fit to come to me again with the same request. I felt revolted. But imagine my amazement when, some time later, my wife comes to me in tears, so agitated that I felt positively alarmed. “What has happened?” “Arina…. You understand … I am ashamed to tell it.” … “Impossible! … Who is the man?” “Petrushka, the footman.” My indignation broke out then. I am like that. I don’t like half measures! Petrushka was not to blame. We might flog him, but in my opinion he was not to blame. Arina…. Well, well, well! what more’s to be said? I gave orders, of course, that her hair should be cut off, she should be dressed in sackcloth, and sent into the country. My wife was deprived of an excellent lady’s maid; but there was no help for it: immorality cannot be tolerated in a household in any case. Better to cut off the infected member at once. There, there! now you can judge the thing for yourself—you know that my wife is … yes, yes, yes! indeed!… an angel! She had grown attached to Arina, and Arina knew it, and had the face to … Eh? no, tell me … eh? And what’s the use of talking about it. Any way, there was no help for it. I, indeed—I, in particular, felt hurt, felt wounded for a long time by the ingratitude of this girl. Whatever you say—it’s no good to look for feeling, for heart, in these people! You may feed the wolf as you will; he has always a hankering for the woods. Education, by all means! But I only wanted to give you an example….’
And Mr. Zvyerkoff, without finishing his sentence, turned away his head, and, wrapping himself more closely into his cloak, manfully repressed his involuntary emotion.
The reader now probably understands why I looked with sympathetic interest at Arina.
‘Have you long been married to the miller?’ I asked her at last.
‘How was it? Did your master allow it?’
‘They bought my freedom.’
‘Who is that?’
‘My husband.’ (Yermolaï smiled to himself.) ‘Has my master perhaps spoken to you of me?’ added Arina, after a brief silence.
I did not know what reply to make to her question.
‘Arina!’ cried the miller from a distance. She got up and walked away.
‘Is her husband a good fellow?’ I asked Yermolaï.
‘Have they any children?’
‘There was one, but it died.’
‘How was it? Did the miller take a liking to her? Did he give much to buy her freedom?’
‘I don’t know. She can read and write; in their business it’s of use. I suppose he liked her.’
‘And have you known her long?’
‘Yes. I used to go to her master’s. Their house isn’t far from here.’
‘And do you know the footman Petrushka?’
‘Piotr Vassilyevitch? Of course, I knew him.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘He was sent for a soldier.’
We were silent for a while.
‘She doesn’t seem well?’ I asked Yermolaï at last.
‘I should think not! To-morrow, I say, we shall have good sport. A little sleep now would do us no harm.’
A flock of wild ducks swept whizzing over our heads, and we heard them drop down into the river not far from us. It was now quite dark, and it began to be cold; in the thicket sounded the melodious notes of a nightingale. We buried ourselves in the hay and fell asleep.