The Witch, by Anton Chekhov

Dreams

Two peasant constables — one a stubby, black-bearded individual with such exceptionally short legs that if you looked at him from behind it seemed as though his legs began much lower down than in other people; the other, long, thin, and straight as a stick, with a scanty beard of dark reddish colour — were escorting to the district town a tramp who refused to remember his name. The first waddled along, looking from side to side, chewing now a straw, now his own sleeve, slapping himself on the haunches and humming, and altogether had a careless and frivolous air; the other, in spite of his lean face and narrow shoulders, looked solid, grave, and substantial; in the lines and expression of his whole figure he was like the priests among the Old Believers, or the warriors who are painted on old-fashioned ikons. “For his wisdom God had added to his forehead” — that is, he was bald — which increased the resemblance referred to. The first was called Andrey Ptaha, the second Nikandr Sapozhnikov.

The man they were escorting did not in the least correspond with the conception everyone has of a tramp. He was a frail little man, weak and sickly-looking, with small, colourless, and extremely indefinite features. His eyebrows were scanty, his expression mild and submissive; he had scarcely a trace of a moustache, though he was over thirty. He walked along timidly, bent forward, with his hands thrust into his sleeves. The collar of his shabby cloth overcoat, which did not look like a peasant’s, was turned up to the very brim of his cap, so that only his little red nose ventured to peep out into the light of day. He spoke in an ingratiating tenor, continually coughing. It was very, very difficult to believe that he was a tramp concealing his surname. He was more like an unsuccessful priest’s son, stricken by God and reduced to beggary; a clerk discharged for drunkenness; a merchant’s son or nephew who had tried his feeble powers in a theatrical career, and was now going home to play the last act in the parable of the prodigal son; perhaps, judging by the dull patience with which he struggled with the hopeless autumn mud, he might have been a fanatical monk, wandering from one Russian monastery to another, continually seeking “a peaceful life, free from sin,” and not finding it . . .

The travellers had been a long while on their way, but they seemed to be always on the same small patch of ground. In front of them there stretched thirty feet of muddy black-brown mud, behind them the same, and wherever one looked further, an impenetrable wall of white fog. They went on and on, but the ground remained the same, the wall was no nearer, and the patch on which they walked seemed still the same patch. They got a glimpse of a white, clumsy-looking stone, a small ravine, or a bundle of hay dropped by a passer-by, the brief glimmer of a great muddy puddle, or, suddenly, a shadow with vague outlines would come into view ahead of them; the nearer they got to it the smaller and darker it became; nearer still, and there stood up before the wayfarers a slanting milestone with the number rubbed off, or a wretched birch-tree drenched and bare like a wayside beggar. The birch-tree would whisper something with what remained of its yellow leaves, one leaf would break off and float lazily to the ground. . . . And then again fog, mud, the brown grass at the edges of the road. On the grass hung dingy, unfriendly tears. They were not the tears of soft joy such as the earth weeps at welcoming the summer sun and parting from it, and such as she gives to drink at dawn to the corncrakes, quails, and graceful, long-beaked crested snipes. The travellers’ feet stuck in the heavy, clinging mud. Every step cost an effort.

Andrey Ptaha was somewhat excited. He kept looking round at the tramp and trying to understand how a live, sober man could fail to remember his name.

“You are an orthodox Christian, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Yes,” the tramp answered mildly.

“H’m . . . then you’ve been christened?”

“Why, to be sure! I’m not a Turk. I go to church and to the sacrament, and do not eat meat when it is forbidden. And I observe my religious duties punctually. . . . ”

“Well, what are you called, then?”

“Call me what you like, good man.”

Ptaha shrugged his shoulders and slapped himself on the haunches in extreme perplexity. The other constable, Nikandr Sapozhnikov, maintained a staid silence. He was not so naive as Ptaha, and apparently knew very well the reasons which might induce an orthodox Christian to conceal his name from other people. His expressive face was cold and stern. He walked apart and did not condescend to idle chatter with his companions, but, as it were, tried to show everyone, even the fog, his sedateness and discretion.

“God knows what to make of you,” Ptaha persisted in addressing the tramp. “Peasant you are not, and gentleman you are not, but some sort of a thing between. . . . The other day I was washing a sieve in the pond and caught a reptile — see, as long as a finger, with gills and a tail. The first minute I thought it was a fish, then I looked — and, blow it! if it hadn’t paws. It was not a fish, it was a viper, and the deuce only knows what it was. . . . So that’s like you. . . . What’s your calling?”

“I am a peasant and of peasant family,” sighed the tramp. “My mamma was a house serf. I don’t look like a peasant, that’s true, for such has been my lot, good man. My mamma was a nurse with the gentry, and had every comfort, and as I was of her flesh and blood, I lived with her in the master’s house. She petted and spoiled me, and did her best to take me out of my humble class and make a gentleman of me. I slept in a bed, every day I ate a real dinner, I wore breeches and shoes like a gentleman’s child. What my mamma ate I was fed on, too; they gave her stuffs as a present, and she dressed me up in them.. .. We lived well! I ate so many sweets and cakes in my childish years that if they could be sold now it would be enough to buy a goo d horse. Mamma taught me to read and write, she instilled the fear of God in me from my earliest years, and she so trained me that now I can’t bring myself to utter an unrefined peasant word. And I don’t drink vodka, my lad, and am neat in my dress, and know how to behave with decorum in good society. If she is still living, God give her health; and if she is dead, then, O Lord, give her soul peace in Thy Kingdom, wherein the just are at rest.”

The tramp bared his head with the scanty hair standing up like a brush on it, turned his eyes upward and crossed himself twice.

“Grant her, O Lord, a verdant and peaceful resting-place,” he said in a drawling voice, more like an old woman’s than a man’s. “Teach Thy servant Xenia Thy justifications, O Lord! If it had not been for my beloved mamma I should have been a peasant with no sort of understanding! Now, young man, ask me about anything and I understand it all: the holy Scriptures and profane writings, and every prayer and catechism. I live according to the Scriptures. . . . I don’t injure anyone, I keep my flesh in purity and continence, I observe the fasts, I eat at fitting times. Another man will take no pleasure in anything but vodka and lewd talk, but when I have time I sit in a corner and read a book. I read and I weep and weep.”

“What do you weep for?”

“They write so patheticallyl For some books one gives but a five-kopeck piece, and yet one weeps and sighs exceedingly over it.”

“Is your father dead?” asked Ptaha.

“I don’t know, good man. I don’t know my parent; it is no use concealing it. I judge that I was mamma’s illegitimate son. My mamma lived all her life with the gentry, and did not want to marry a simple peasant. . . . ”

“And so she fell into the master’s hands,” laughed Ptaha.

“She did transgress, that’s true. She was pious, God-fearing, but she did not keep her maiden purity. It is a sin, of course, a great sin, there’s no doubt about it, but to make up for it there is, maybe, noble blood in me. Maybe I am only a peasant by class, but in nature a noble gentleman.”

The “noble gentleman” uttered all this in a soft, sugary tenor, wrinkling up his narrow forehead and emitting creaking sounds from his red, frozen little nose. Ptaha listened and looked askance at him in wonder, continually shrugging his shoulders.

After going nearly five miles the constables and the tramp sat down on a mound to rest.

“Even a dog knows his name,” Ptaha muttered. “My name is Andryushka, his is Nikandr; every man has his holy name, and it can’t be forgotten. Nohow.”

“Who has any need to know my name?” sighed the tramp, leaning his cheek on his fist. “And what advantage would it be to me if they did know it? If I were allowed to go where I would — but it would only make things worse. I know the law, Christian brothers. Now I am a tramp who doesn’t remember his name, and it’s the very most if they send me to Eastern Siberia and give me thirty or forty lashes; but if I were to tell them my real name and description they would send me back to hard labour, I know!”

“Why, have you been a convict?”

“I have, dear friend. For four years I went about with my head shaved and fetters on my legs.”

“What for?”

“For murder, my good man! When I was still a boy of eighteen or so, my mamma accidentally poured arsenic instead of soda and acid into my master’s glass. There were boxes of all sorts in the storeroom, numbers of them; it was easy to make a mistake over them.”

The tramp sighed, shook his head, and said:

“She was a pious woman, but, who knows? another man’s soul is a slumbering forest! It may have been an accident, or maybe she could not endure the affront of seeing the master prefer another servant. . . . Perhaps she put it in on purpose, God knows! I was young then, and did not understand it all . . . now I remember that our master had taken another mistress and mamma was greatly disturbed. Our trial lasted nearly two years. . . . Mamma was condemned to penal servitude for twenty years, and I, on account of my youth, only to seven.”

“And why were you sentenced?”

“As an accomplice. I handed the glass to the master. That was always the custom. Mamma prepared the soda and I handed it to him. Only I tell you all this as a Christian, brothers, as I would say it before God. Don’t you tell anybody. . . . ”

“Oh, nobody’s going to ask us,” said Ptaha. “So you’ve run away from prison, have you?”

“I have, dear friend. Fourteen of us ran away. Some folks, God bless them! ran away and took me with them. Now you tell me, on your conscience, good man, what reason have I to disclose my name? They will send me back to penal servitude, you know! And I am not fit for penal servitude! I am a refined man in delicate health. I like to sleep and eat in cleanliness. When I pray to God I like to light a little lamp or a candle, and not to have a noise around me. When I bow down to the ground I like the floor not to be dirty or spat upon. And I bow down forty times every morning and evening, praying for mamma.”

The tramp took off his cap and crossed himself.

“And let them send me to Eastern Siberia,” he said; “I am not afraid of that.”

“Surely that’s no better?”

“It is quite a different thing. In penal servitude you are like a crab in a basket: crowding, crushing, jostling, there’s no room to breathe; it’s downright hell — such hell, may the Queen of Heaven keep us from it! You are a robber and treated like a robber — worse than any dog. You can’t sleep, you can’t eat or even say your prayers. But it’s not like that in a settlement. In a settlement I shall be a member of a commune like other people. The authorities are bound by law to give me my share . . . ye-es! They say the land costs nothing, no more than snow; you can take what you like! They will give me corn land and building land and garden. . . . I shall plough my fields like other people, sow seed. I shall have cattle and stock of all sorts, bees, sheep, and dogs. . . . A Siberian cat, that rats and mice may not devour my goods. . . . I will put up a house, I shall buy ikons. . . . Please God, I’ll get married, I shall have children. . . . ”

The tramp muttered and looked, not at his listeners, but away into the distance. Naive as his dreams were, they were uttered in such a genuine and heartfelt tone that it was difficult not to believe in them. The tramp’s little mouth was screwed up in a smile. His eyes and little nose and his whole face were fixed and blank with blissful anticipation of happiness in the distant future. The constables listened and looked at him gravely, not without sympathy. They, too, believed in his dreams.

“I am not afraid of Siberia,” the tramp went on muttering. “Siberia is just as much Russia and has the same God and Tsar as here. They are just as orthodox Christians as you and I. Only there is more freedom there and people are better off. Everything is better there. Take the rivers there, for instance; they are far better than those here. There’s no end of fish; and all sorts of wild fowl. And my greatest pleasure, brothers, is fishing. Give me no bread to eat, but let me sit with a fishhook. Yes, indeed! I fish with a hook and with a wire line, and set creels, and when the ice comes I catch with a net. I am not strong to draw up the net, so I shall hire a man for five kopecks. And, Lord, what a pleasure it is! You catch an eel-pout or a roach of some sort and are as pleased as though you had met your own brother. And would you believe it, there’s a special art for every fish: you catch one with a live bait, you catch another with a grub, the third with a frog or a grasshopper. One has to understand all that, of course! For example, take the eel-pout. It is not a delicate fish — it will take a perch; and a pike loves a gudgeon, the shilishper likes a butterfly. If you fish for a roach in a rapid stream there is no greater pleasure. You throw the line of seventy feet without lead, with a butterfly or a beetle, so that the bait floats on the surface; you stand in the water without your trousers and let it go with the current, and tug! the roach pulls at it! Only you have got to be artful that he doesn’t carry off the b ait, the damned rascal. As soon as he tugs at your line you must whip it up; it’s no good waiting. It’s wonderful what a lot of fish I’ve caught in my time. When we were running away the other convicts would sleep in the forest; I could not sleep, but I was off to the river. The rivers there are wide and rapid, the banks are steep — awfully! It’s all slumbering forests on the bank. The trees are so tall that if you look to the top it makes you dizzy. Every pine would be worth ten roubles by the prices here.”

In the overwhelming rush of his fancies, of artistic images of the past and sweet presentiments of happiness in the future, the poor wretch sank into silence, merely moving his lips as though whispering to himself. The vacant, blissful smile never left his lips. The constables were silent. They were pondering with bent heads. In the autumn stillness, when the cold, sullen mist that rises from the earth lies like a weight on the heart, when it stands like a prison wall before the eyes, and reminds man of the limitation of his freedom, it is sweet to think of the broad, rapid rivers, with steep banks wild and luxuriant, of the impenetrable forests, of the boundless steppes. Slowly and quietly the fancy pictures how early in the morning, before the flush of dawn has left the sky, a man makes his way along the steep deserted bank like a tiny speck: the ancient, mast-like pines rise up in terraces on both sides of the torrent, gaze sternly at the free man and murmur menacingly; rocks, huge stones, and thorny bushes bar his way, but he is strong in body and bold in spirit, and has no fear of the pine-trees, nor stones, nor of his solitude, nor of the reverberating echo which repeats the sound of every footstep that he takes.

The peasants called up a picture of a free life such as they had never lived; whether they vaguely recalled the images of stories heard long ago or whether notions of a free life had been handed down to them with their flesh and blood from far-off free ancestors, God knows!

The first to break the silence was Nikandr Sapozhnikov, who had not till then let fall a single word. Whether he envied the tramp’s transparent happiness, or whether he felt in his heart that dreams of happiness were out of keeping with the grey fog and the dirty brown mud — anyway, he looked sternly at the tramp and said:

“It’s all very well, to be sure, only you won’t reach those plenteous regions, brother. How could you? Before you’d gone two hundred miles you’d give up your soul to God. Just look what a weakling you are! Here you’ve hardly gone five miles and you can’t get your breath.”

The tramp turned slowly toward Nikandr, and the blissful smile vanished from his face. He looked with a scared and guilty air at the peasant’s staid face, apparently remembered something, and bent his head. A silence followed again. . . . All three were pondering. The peasants were racking their brains in the effort to grasp in their imagination what can be grasped by none but God — that is, the vast expanse dividing them from the land of freedom. Into the tramp’s mind thronged clear and distinct pictures more terrible than that expanse. Before him rose vividly the picture of the long legal delays and procrastinations, the temporary and permanent prisons, the convict boats, the wearisome stoppages on the way, the frozen winters, illnesses, deaths of companions. . . .

The tramp blinked guiltily, wiped the tiny drops of sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, drew a deep breath as though he had just leapt out of a very hot bath, then wiped his forehead with the other sleeve and looked round fearfully.

“That’s true; you won’t get there!” Ptaha agreed. “You are not much of a walker! Look at you — nothing but skin and bone! You’ll die, brother!”

“Of course he’ll die! What could he do?” said Nikandr. “He’s fit for the hospital now. . . . For sure!”

The man who had forgotten his name looked at the stern, unconcerned faces of his sinister companions, and without taking off his cap, hurriedly crossed himself, staring with wide-open eyes. . . . He trembled, his head shook, and he began twitching all over, like a caterpillar when it is stepped upon. . . .

“Well, it’s time to go,” said Nikandr, getting up; “we’ve had a rest.”

A minute later they were stepping along the muddy road. The tramp was more bent than ever, and he thrust his hands further up his sleeves. Ptaha was silent.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06