Hadji Murad, by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter VIII

On the day Peter Avdeev died in the hospital at Vozdvizhensk, his old father with the wife of the brother in whose stead he had enlisted, and that brother’s daughter — who was already approaching womanhood and almost of age to get married — were threshing oats on the hard-frozen threshing floor.

There had been a heavy fall of snow the previous night followed towards morning by a severe front. The old man woke when the cocks were crowing for the third time, and seeing the bright moonlight through the frozen windowpanes got down from the stove, put on his boots, his sheepskin coat and cap, and went out to the threshing floor. Having worked there for a couple of hours he returned to the hut and awoke his son and the women. When the woman and girl came to the threshing floor they found it ready swept, with a wooden shovel sticking in the dry white snow, beside which were birch brooms with the twigs upwards and two rows of oat sheaves laid ears to ears in a long line the whole length of the clean threshing floor. They chose their flails and started threshing, keeping time with their triple blows. The old man struck powerfully with his heavy flail, breaking the straw, the girl struck the ears from above with measured blows, and the daughter-in-law turned the oats over with her flail.

The moon had set, dawn was breaking, and they were finishing the line of sheaves when Akim, the eldest son, in his sheepskin and cap, joined the threshers.

“What are you lazing about for?” shouted his father to him, pausing in his work and leaning on his flail.

“The horses had to be seen to.”

“‘Horses seen to!’” the father repeated, mimicking him. “The old woman will look after them. . . . Take your flail! You’re getting too fat, you drunkard!”

“Have you been standing me treat?” muttered the son.

“What?” said the old man, frowning sternly and missing a stroke.

The son silently took a flail and they began threshing with four flails.

“Trak, tapatam . . . trak, tapatam . . . trak . . . ” came down the old man’s heavy flail after the three others.

“Why, you’ve got a nape like a goodly gentleman! . . . Look here, my trousers have hardly anything to hand on!” said the old man, omitting his stroke and only swinging his flail in the air so as not to get out of time.

They had finished the row, and the women began removing the straw with rakes.

“Peter was a fool to go in your stead. They’d have knocked the nonsense out of you in the army, and he was worth five of such as you at home!”

“That’s enough, father,” said the daughter-in-law, as she threw aside the binders that had come off the sheaves.

“Yes, feed the six of you and get no work out of a single one! Peter used to work for two. He was not like . . . ”

Along the trodden path from the house came the old man’s wife, the frozen snow creaking under the new bark shoes she wore over her tightly wound woolen leg-bands. The men were shovelling the unwinnowed grain into heaps, the woman and the girl sweeping up what remained.

The Elder has been and orders everybody to go and work for the master, carting bricks,” said the old woman. “I’ve got breakfast ready. . . . Come along, won’t you?”

“All right. . . . Harness the roan and go,” said the old man to Akim, “and you’d better look out that you don’t get me into trouble as you did the other day! . . . I can’t help regretting Peter!”

“When he was at home you used to scold him,” retorted Akim. “Now he’s away you keep nagging at me.”

“That shows you deserve it,” said his mother in the same angry tones. “You’ll never be Peter’s equal.”

“Oh, all right,” said the son.

“‘All right,’ indeed! You’ve drunk the meal, and now you say ‘all right!’”

“Let bygones be bygones!” said the daughter-in-law.

The disagreements between father and son had begun long ago — almost from the time Peter went as a soldier. Even then the old man felt that he had parted with an eagle for a cuckoo. It is true that it was right — as the old man understood it — for a childless man to go in place of a family man. Akin had four children and Peter had none; but Peter was a worker like his father, skilful, observant, strong, enduring, and above all industrious. He was always at work. If he happened to pass by where people were working he lent a helping hand as his father would have done, and took a turn or two with the scythe, or loaded a cart, or felled a tree, or chopped some wood. The old man regretted his going away, but there was no help for it. Conscription in those days was like death. A soldier was a severed branch, and to think about him at home was to tear one’s heart uselessly. Only occasionally, to prick his elder son, did the father mention him, as he had done that day. But his mother often thought of her younger son, and for a long time — more than a year now — she had been asking her husband to send Peter a little money, but the old man had made no response.

The Kurenkovs were a well-to-do family and the old man had some savings hidden away, but he would on no account have consented to touch what he had laid by. Now however the old woman having heard him mention their younger son, made up her mind to ask him again to send him at least a ruble after selling the oats. This she did. As soon as the young people had gone to work for the proprietor and the old folks were left alone together, she persuaded him to send Peter a ruble out of the oats-money.

So when ninety-six bushels of the winnowed oats had been packed onto three sledges lined with sacking carefully pinned together at the top with wooden skewers, she gave her husband a letter the church clerk had written at her dictation, and the old man promised when he got to town to enclose a ruble and send it off to the right address.

The old man, dressed in a new sheepskin with homespun cloak over it, his legs wrapped round with warm white woollen leg- bands, took the letter, placed it in his wallet, said a prayer, got into the front sledge, and drove to town. His grandson drove in the last sledge. When he reached town the old man asked the innkeeper to read the letter to him, and listened to it attentively and approvingly.

In her letter Peter’s mother first sent him her blessing, then greetings from everybody and the news of his godfather’s death, and at the end she added that Aksinya (Peter’s wife) had not wished to stay with them but had gone into service, where they heard she was living honestly and well. Then came a reference to the present of a ruble, and finally a message which the old woman, yielding to her sorrows, had dictated with tears in her eyes and the church clerk had taken down exactly, word for word:

“One thing more, my darling child, my sweet dove, my own Peterkin! I have wept my eyes out lamenting for thee, thou light of my eyes. To whom has thou left me? . . . ” At this point the old woman had sobbed and wept, and said: “That will do!” So the words stood in the letter; but it was not fated that Peter should receive the news of his wife’s having left home, nor the present of the ruble, nor his mother’s last words. The letter with the money in it came back with the announcement that Peter had been killed in the war, “defending his Tsar, his Fatherland, and the Orthodox Faith.” That is how the army clerk expressed it.

The old woman, when this news reached her, wept for as long as she could spare time, and then set to work again. The very next Sunday she went to church and had a requiem chanted and Peter’s name entered among those for whose souls prayers were to be said, and she distributed bits of holy bread to all the good people in memory of Peter, the servant of God.

Aksinya, his widow, also lamented loudly when she heard of the death of her beloved husband with whom she had lived but one short year. She regretted her husband and her own ruined life, and in her lamentations mentioned Peter’s brown locks and his love, and the sadness of her life with her little orphaned Vanka, and bitterly reproached Peter for having had pity on his brother but none on her — obliged to wander among strangers!

But in the depth of her soul Aksinya was glad of her husband’s death. She was pregnant a second time by the shopman with whom she was living, and no one would now have a right to scold her, and the shopman could marry her as he had said he would when he was persuading her to yield.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04