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.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00