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I.

The burning sun of July shone blindingly down on Smolkena, Hooding its old huts with liberal streams of bright sunshine. There was a particularly large quantity of sunlight on the roof of the Starosta's[1] hut, not so long ago re-roofed with smoothly-planed, yellow, fragrant, boards. It was Sunday, and almost the whole population of the village had come out into the street thickly grown over with grass and spotted here and there with lumps of dry mud. In front of the Starosta's house, a large group of men and women were assembled; some were sitting on the mound of earth round the hut, others were sitting on the bare ground, others were standing. The little children were chasing each other in and out of the groups, to an accompaniment of angry rebukes and slaps from the grown-ups.

[1] Chief of a village community.

The centre of this crowd was a tall man, with large drooping moustaches. To judge from his cinnamon-brown face, covered with thick, grey bristles, and a whole network of deep wrinkles—judging from the grey tufts of hair forcing their way from under his dirty straw hat, this man might have been fifty years of age. He was looking on the ground, and the nostrils of his large and gristly nose were trembling, and when he raised his head to cast a glance at the window of the Starosta's house, his large, melancholy, almost sinister eyes became visible: they were deep sunk in their orbits, and his thick brows cast a shadow over their dark pupils. He was dressed in the brown shabby under-coat of a lay-brother, scarcely covering his knees, and was girt about with a cord. There was a satchel across his shoulder, in his right hand he held a long stick with an iron ferrule, his left was thrust into his bosom. Those around him regarded him suspiciously, jeeringly, with contempt, and finally with an obvious joy that they had succeeded in catching the wolf before he had done mischief to the fold. He had come walking through the village, and, going to the window of the Starosta, had asked for something to drink. The Starosta had given him some kvas,[2] and entered into conversation with him. But contrary to the habit of pilgrims, the wayfarer had answered very unwillingly. Then the Starosta had asked him for his documents, and there were no documents forthcoming. And they had detained the wayfarer and had determined to send him to the local magistrate. The Starosta had selected as his escort the village Sotsky[3] and was now giving him directions in the hut, leaving the prisoner in the midst of the mob.

[2] A sour popular Russian drink.

[3] The Starosta's deputy.

As if fixed to the trunk of a willow tree, there the prisoner stood, leaning his bowed back against it. But now on the staircase of the hut appeared a purblind old man with a foxy face and a grey, wedge-shaped beard. Gradually his booted feet descended the staircase, step by step, and his round stomach waggled solidly beneath his long shirt. From behind his shoulder protruded the bearded, four-cornered face of the Sotsky.

"You understand then, my dear Efimushka?" inquired the Starosta of the Sotsky.

"Certainly, why not? I understand thoroughly. That is to say, I, the Sotsky of Smolkena, am bound to conduct this man to the district magistrate—and that's all." The Sotsky pronounced his speech staccato, and with comical dignity for the benefit of the public.

"And the papers?"

"The papers?—they are stored away safely in my breast-pocket."

"Well, that's all right," said the Starosta approvingly, at the same time scratching his sides energetically.

"God be with you, then," he added.

"Well, my father, shall we stroll on, then?" said the Sotsky to the prisoner.

"You might give us a conveyance," replied the prisoner to the proposition of the Sotsky.

The Starosta smiled.

"A con-vey-ance, eh? Go along! Our brother the wayfarer here is used to lounging about the fields and villages—and we've no horses to spare. You must go on your own legs, that's all."

"It doesn't matter, let us go, my father!" said the Sotsky cheerfully. "Surely you don't think it is too far for us? Twenty versts at most, thank God! Come, let us go, 'twill be nothing. We shall do it capitally, you and I. And when we get there you shall have a rest."

"In a cold cellar," explained the Starosta.

"Oh, that's nothing," the Sotsky hastened to say, "a man when he is tired is not sorry to rest even in a dungeon. And then, too, a cold cellar—it is cooling after a hot day—you'll be quite comfortable in it."

The prisoner looked sourly at his escort—the latter smiled merrily and frankly.

"Well, come along, honoured father! Good-bye, Vasil Gavriluich! Let's be off!"

"God be with you, Efimushka. Be on your guard!"

"Be wide-awake!" suggested some young rustic out of the crowd to the Sotsky.

"Do you think I'm a child, or what?" replied the Sotsky.

And off they went, sticking close to the huts in order to keep in the strip of shadow. The man in the cassock went on in front, with the slouching but rapid gait of an animal accustomed to roaming. The Sotsky, with his good stout stick in his hand, walked behind him.

Efimushka was a little, undersized, muzhik, but strongly built, with a broad, good-natured face framed in a rough, red straggling beard beginning a little below his bright grey eyes. He always seemed to be smiling at something, showing, as he did so, his healthy yellow teeth, and wrinkling his nose as if he wanted to sneeze. He was clothed in a long cloak, trussed up in the waist so as not to hamper his feet, and-on his head was stuck a dark-green, brimless cap, drawn down over his brows in front, and very much like the forage cap of his prisoner.

His fellow-traveller walked along without paying him the slightest attention, just as if he were unconscious of his presence behind him. They went along by the narrow country path, zigzagged through a billowy sea of rye, and the shadows of the travellers glided along the golden ears of corn.

The mane of a wood stood out blue against the horizon; to the left of the travellers fields and fields extended to an endless distance, in the midst of which lay villages like dark patches, and behind these again lay fields and fields, dwindling away into a bluish mist.

To the right, from the midst of a group of willows, the spire of a church, covered with lead, but not yet gilded over, pierced the blue sky—it glistened so in the sun that it was painful to look upon. The larks were singing in the sky, the cornflowers were smiling in the rye, and it was hot—almost stifling. The dust flew up from beneath the feet of the travellers.

Efimushka began to feel bored. Naturally a great talker, he could not keep silent for long, and, clearing his throat, he suddenly burst forth with two bars of a song in a falsetto voice.

"My voice can't quite manage the tune, burst it!" he said, "and I could sing once upon a time. The Vishensky teacher used to say: 'Come along, Efimushka,' and then we would sing together—a capital fellow he was too!"

"Who was he?" growled the man in the cassock.

"The Vishensky teacher...."

"Did he belong to the Vishensky family?"

"Vishensky is the name of a village, my brother And the teacher's name was Pavel Mikhaluich. A first-rate sort the man was. He died three years ago.

"Young?"

"Not thirty."

"What did he die of?"

"Grief, I should say."

Efimushka's companion cast a furtive glance at him and smiled.

"It was like this, dear man. He taught and taught for seven years at a stretch, and then he began to cough. He coughed and coughed and he grew anxious. Now anxiety you know is often the beginning of vodka-drinking. Now Father Aleyksyei did not love him, and when he began to drink, Father Aleyksyei sent reports to town, and said this and that, the teacher had taken to drink, it was becoming a scandal. And in reply other papers came from the town, and they sent another teacher-fellow too. He was lanky and bony, with a very big nose. Well, Pavel Mikhaluich saw that things were going wrong. He grew worried and ill.... They sent him straight from the schoolroom to the hospital, and in five days he rendered up his soul to God.... That's all...."

For a time they went on in silence. The forest drew nearer and nearer to the travellers at every step, growing up before their very eyes and turning from blue to green.

"We are going to the forest, eh?" inquired the traveller of Efimushka.

"We shall hit the fringe of it, it is about a verst and a half distant now. But, eh? what? You're a nice one, too, my worthy father, I have my eye upon you!"

And Efimushka smiled and shook his head.

"What ails you?" inquired the prisoner.

"Nothing, nothing! Ah, ha! We are going to the forest, eh?" says he. "You are a simpleton, my dear man. Another in your place would not have asked that question, that is, if he had had more sense. Another would have made straight for the forest, and then...."

"Well!"

"Oh, nothing, nothing. I can see through you, my brother. Your idea is a thin reed in my eyes. No, you had better cast away that idea, I tell you, so far as that forest is concerned. We must come to an understanding, I see, you and I. Why, I would tackle three such as you, and polish you off singly with my left hand.... Do you take me?"

"Take you? I take you for a fool!" said the prisoner curtly and expressively.

"Ah, ha! I've guessed what you were up to, eh?" said Efimushka, triumphantly.

"You scarecrow! What do you think you've guessed?" asked the prisoner with a wry smile.

"Why, about the wood ... I understand ... I mean that when we came to the wood you meant to knock me down—knock me down, I say—and bolt across the fields or through the wood. Isn't that so?"

"You're a fool!"—and the enigmatic man shrugged his shoulders.... "Come now, where could I go?"

"Where? why where you liked, that was your affair."

"But where?" Efimushka's comrade was either angry or really wished to hear from his escort where he might have been expected to go.

"I tell you, wherever you chose," Efimushka explained quietly.

"I have nowhere to run to, my brother, nowhere!" said his companion calmly.

"Well, well!" exclaimed his escort, incredulously, and even waved his hand. "There's always somewhere to run to. The earth is large. There is always room for a man on it."

"But what do you mean? Do you really want me to run away, then?" inquired the prisoner curiously, with a smile.

"Go along! You are really too good! Is that right now? You run away, and instead of you someone else is put into gaol! I also should be locked up. No, thank you. I've a word, to say to that."

"You are a blessed fool, you are ... but you seem a good sort of muzhik too," said Efimushka's comrade with a sigh. Efimushka did not hesitate to agree with him.

"Exactly, they do call me blessed sometimes, and it is also true that I am a good muzhik. I am simple-minded, that's the chief cause of it. Other folks get on by artfulness and cunning, but what is that to me? I am a man all by myself in the world. Deal falsely—and you will die; deal justly—and you will die all the same. So I always keep straight, it is greater."

"You're a good fellow!" observed his companion indifferently.

"How! Why should I make my soul crooked when I stand here all alone. I'm a free man, little brother. I live as I wish to live, I go through life and am a law to myself.... Well, well!—But, say! what do they call you?"

"What? Well—say Ivan Ivanov."

"So! Are you of a priestly stock or what?"

"No."

"Really? I thought you were of a priestly family."

"Because I am dressed like this, eh?"

"It's like this. You've all the appearance of a runaway monk or of an unfrocked priest But then, your face does not correspond. By your face I should take you for a soldier. God only knows what manner of man you are"—and Efimushka cast an inquisitive look upon the pilgrim. The latter sighed, readjusted his hat, wiped his sweating forehead, and asked the Sotsky:

"Do you smoke?"

"Alas! crying your clemency! I do, indeed, smoke."

He drew from his bosom a greasy tobacco-pouch, and bowing his head, but without stopping, began stuffing the tobacco into the clay pipe.

"There you are, then, smoke away!" The prisoner stopped, and bending down to the match lighted by his escort, drew in his cheeks. A little blue cloud rose into the air.

"Well, what may your people have been? City people, eh?"

"Gentry!" said the prisoner curtly, spitting aside at an ear of corn already enveloped by the golden sunshine.

"Eh, eh! Very pretty! Then how do you come to be strolling about like this without a passport?"

"It is my way!"

"Ah, ha! A likely tale! Your gentry do not usually live this wolf's life, eh? You're a poor wretch, you are!"

"Very well—chatter away!" said the poor wretch drily.

Yet Efimushka continued to gaze at the passportless man with ever-increasing curiosity and sympathy, and shaking his head meditatively, continued:

"Ah, yes! How fate plays with a man if you come to think of it? Well, it may be true for all that I know that you are a gentleman, for you have such a majestic bearing. Have you lived long in this guise?"

The man with the majestic bearing looked grimly at Efimushka, and waving him away as if he had been an importunate tuft of hair: "Shut up!" said he, "you keep on like an old woman!"

"Oh, don't be angry!" cried Efimushka soothingly, "I speak from a pure heart—my heart is very good."

"Then you're lucky. But your tongue gallops along without stopping, and that is unlucky for me."

"All right! I will shut up, maybe—indeed, it would be easy to shut up if only a man did not want to hear your conversation. And then, too, you get angry without due cause. Is it my fault that you have taken up the life of a vagabond?"

The prisoner stood still and clenched his teeth so hard that the sharp corners of his cheek-bones projected, and his grey bristles stood up like a hedgehog's. He measured Efimushka from head to foot with screwed-up eyes, which blazed with wrath.

But before Efimushka had had time to observe this play of feature, he had once more begun to measure the ground with broad strides.

A shade of distraught pensiveness lay across the face of the garrulous Sotsky. He looked upwards, whence flowed the trills of the larks, and whistled in concert between his teeth, beating time to his footsteps with his stick as he marched along.

They drew nearer to the confines of the wood. There it stood, a dark, immovable wall—not a sound came from it to greet the travellers. The sun was already sinking, and its oblique rays coloured the tops of the trees purple and gold. A breath of fragrant freshness came from the trees, the gloom and the concentrated silence which filled the forest gave birth to strange sensations.

When a forest stands before our eyes, dark and motionless, when it is all plunged in mysterious silence, and every single tree seems to be listening intently to something—then it seems to us as if the whole forest were filled with some living thing which is only hiding away for a time. And you wait expectantly for something immense and incomprehensible to the human understanding to emerge the next moment, and speak in a mighty voice concerning the great mysteries of nature and creation.



May 19, 2018, 11:05 p.m. 0 Report Embed 0
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