The carriage in which Nekhludoff had taken his place was half filled with people. There were in it servants, working men, factory hands, butchers, Jews, shopmen, workmen’s wives, a soldier, two ladies, a young one and an old one with bracelets on her arm, and a severe-looking gentleman with a cockade on his black cap. All these people were sitting quietly; the bustle of taking their places was long over; some sat cracking and eating sunflower seeds, some smoking, some talking.
Taras sat, looking very happy, opposite the door, keeping a place for Nekhludoff, and carrying on an animated conversation with a man in a cloth coat who sat opposite to him, and who was, as Nekhludoff afterwards found out, a gardener going to a new situation. Before reaching the place where Taras sat Nekhludoff stopped between the seats near a reverend-looking old man with a white beard and nankeen coat, who was talking with a young woman in peasant dress. A little girl of about seven, dressed in a new peasant costume, sat, her little legs dangling above the floor, by the side of the woman, and kept cracking seeds.
The old man turned round, and, seeing Nekhludoff, he moved the lappets of his coat off the varnished seat next to him, and said, in a friendly manner:
“Please, here’s a seat.”
Nekhludoff thanked him, and took the seat. As soon as he was seated the woman continued the interrupted conversation.
She was returning to her village, and related how her husband, whom she had been visiting, had received her in town.
“I was there during the carnival, and now, by the Lord’s help, I’ve been again,” she said. “Then, God willing, at Christmas I’ll go again.”
“That’s right,” said the old man, with a look at Nekhludoff, “it’s the best way to go and see him, else a young man can easily go to the bad, living in a town.”
“Oh, no, sir, mine is not such a man. No nonsense of any kind about him; his life is as good as a young maiden’s. The money he earns he sends home all to a copeck. And, as to our girl here, he was so glad to see her, there are no words for it,” said the woman, and smiled.
The little girl, who sat cracking her seeds and spitting out the shells, listened to her mother’s words, and, as if to confirm them, looked up with calm, intelligent eyes into Nekhludoff’s and the old man’s faces.
“Well, if he’s good, that’s better still,” said the old man. “And none of that sort of thing?” he added, with a look at a couple, evidently factory hands, who sat at the other side of the carriage. The husband, with his head thrown back, was pouring vodka down his throat out of a bottle, and the wife sat holding a bag, out of which they had taken the bottle, and watched him intently.
“No, mine neither drinks nor smokes,” said the woman who was conversing with the old man, glad of the opportunity of praising her husband once more. “No, sir, the earth does not hold many such.” And, turning to Nekhludoff, she added, “That’s the sort of man he is.”
“What could be better,” said the old man, looking at the factory worker, who had had his drink and had passed the bottle to his wife. The wife laughed, shook her head, and also raised the bottle to her lips.
Noticing Nekhludoff’s and the old man’s look directed towards them, the factory worker addressed the former.
“What is it, sir? That we are drinking? Ah, no one sees how we work, but every one sees how we drink. I have earned it, and I am drinking and treating my wife, and no one else.”
“Yes, yes,” said Nekhludoff, not knowing what to say.
“True, sir. My wife is a steady woman. I am satisfied with my wife, because she can feel for me. Is it right what I’m saying, Mavra?”
“There you are, take it, I don’t want any more,” said the wife, returning the bottle to him. “And what are you jawing for like that?” she added.
“There now! She’s good — that good; and suddenly she’ll begin squeaking like a wheel that’s not greased. Mavra, is it right what I’m saying?”
Mavra laughed and moved her hand with a tipsy gesture.
“Oh, my, he’s at it again.”
“There now, she’s that good — that good; but let her get her tail over the reins, and you can’t think what she’ll be up to. . . . Is it right what I’m saying? You must excuse me, sir, I’ve had a drop! What’s to be done?” said the factory worker, and, preparing to go to sleep, put his head in his wife’s lap.
Nekhludoff sat a while with the old man, who told him all about himself. The old man was a stove builder, who had been working for 53 years, and had built so many stoves that he had lost count, and now he wanted to rest, but had no time. He had been to town and found employment for the young ones, and was now going to the country to see the people at home. After hearing the old man’s story, Nekhludoff went to the place that Taras was keeping for him.
“It’s all right, sir; sit down; we’ll put the bag here,” said the gardener, who sat opposite Taras, in a friendly tone, looking up into Nekhludoff’s face.
“Rather a tight fit, but no matter since we are friends,” said Taras, smiling, and lifting the bag, which weighed more than five stone, as if it were a feather, he carried it across to the window.
“Plenty of room; besides, we might stand up a bit; and even under the seat it’s as comfortable as you could wish. What’s the good of humbugging?” he said, beaming with friendliness and kindness.
Taras spoke of himself as being unable to utter a word when quite sober; but drink, he said, helped him to find the right words, and then he could express everything. And in reality, when he was sober Taras kept silent; but when he had been drinking, which happened rarely and only on special occasions, he became very pleasantly talkative. Then he spoke a great deal, spoke well and very simply and truthfully, and especially with great kindliness, which shone in his gentle, blue eyes and in the friendly smile that never left his lips. He was in such a state to-day. Nekhludoff’s approach interrupted the conversation; but when he had put the bag in its place, Taras sat down again, and with his strong hands folded in his lap, and looking straight into the gardener’s face, continued his story. He was telling his new acquaintance about his wife and giving every detail: what she was being sent to Siberia for, and why he was now following her. Nekhludoff had never heard a detailed account of this affair, and so he listened with interest. When he came up, the story had reached the point when the attempt to poison was already an accomplished fact, and the family had discovered that it was Theodosia’s doing.
“It’s about my troubles that I’m talking,” said Taras, addressing Nekhludoff with cordial friendliness. “I have chanced to come across such a hearty man, and we’ve got into conversation, and I’m telling him all.”
“I see,” said Nekhludoff.
“Well, then in this way, my friend, the business became known. Mother, she takes that cake. ‘I’m going,’ says she, ‘to the police officer.’ My father is a just old man. ‘Wait, wife,’ says he, ‘the little woman is a mere child, and did not herself know what she was doing. We must have pity. She may come to her senses.’ But, dear me, mother would not hear of it. ‘While we keep her here,’ she says, ‘she may destroy us all like cockroaches.’ Well, friend, so she goes off for the police officer. He bounces in upon us at once. Calls for witnesses.”
“Well, and you?” asked the gardener.
“Well, I, you see, friend, roll about with the pain in my stomach, and vomit. All my inside is turned inside out; I can’t even speak. Well, so father he goes and harnesses the mare, and puts Theodosia into the cart, and is off to the police-station, and then to the magistrate’s. And she, you know, just as she had done from the first, so also there, confesses all to the magistrate — where she got the arsenic, and how she kneaded the cake. ‘Why did you do it?’ says he. ‘Why,’ says she, ‘because he’s hateful to me. I prefer Siberia to a life with him.’ That’s me,” and Taras smiled.
“Well, so she confessed all. Then, naturally — the prison, and father returns alone. And harvest time just coming, and mother the only woman at home, and she no longer strong. So we think what we are to do. Could we not bail her out? So father went to see an official. No go. Then another. I think he went to five of them, and we thought of giving it up. Then we happened to come across a clerk — such an artful one as you don’t often find. ‘You give me five roubles, and I’ll get her out,’ says he. He agreed to do it for three. Well, and what do you think, friend? I went and pawned the linen she herself had woven, and gave him the money. As soon as he had written that paper,” drawled out Taras, just as if he were speaking of a shot being fired, “we succeeded at once. I went to fetch her myself. Well, friend, so I got to town, put up the mare, took the paper, and went to the prison. ‘What do you want?’ ‘This is what I want,’ say I, ‘you’ve got my wife here in prison.’ ‘And have you got a paper?’ I gave him the paper. He gave it a look. ‘Wait,’ says he. So I sat down on a bench. It was already past noon by the sun. An official comes out. ‘You are Vargoushoff?’ ‘I am.’ ‘Well, you may take her.’ The gates opened, and they led her out in her own clothes quite all right. ‘Well, come along. Have you come on foot?’ ‘No, I have the horse here.’ So I went and paid the ostler, and harnessed, put in all the hay that was left, and covered it with sacking for her to sit on. She got in and wrapped her shawl round her, and off we drove. She says nothing and I say nothing. Just as we were coming up to the house she says, ‘And how’s mother; is she alive?’ ‘Yes, she’s alive.’ ‘And father; is he alive? ‘Yes, he is.’ ‘Forgive me, Taras,’ she says, ‘for my folly. I did not myself know what I was doing.’ So I say, ‘Words won’t mend matters. I have forgiven you long ago,’ and I said no more. We got home, and she just fell at mother’s feet. Mother says, ‘The Lord will forgive you.’ And father said, ‘How d’you do?’ and ‘What’s past is past. Live as best you can. Now,’ says he, ‘is not the time for all that; there’s the harvest to be gathered in down at Skorodino,’ he says. ‘Down on the manured acre, by the Lord’s help, the ground has borne such rye that the sickle can’t tackle it. It’s all interwoven and heavy, and has sunk beneath its weight; that must be reaped. You and Taras had better go and see to it to-morrow.’ Well, friend, from that moment she took to the work and worked so that every one wondered. At that time we rented three desiatins, and by God’s help we had a wonderful crop both of oats and rye. I mow and she binds the sheaves, and sometimes we both of us reap. I am good at work and not afraid of it, but she’s better still at whatever she takes up. She’s a smart woman, young, and full of life; and as to work, friend, she’d grown that eager that I had to stop her. We get home, our fingers swollen, our arms aching, and she, instead of resting, rushes off to the barn to make binders for the sheaves for next day. Such a change!”
“Well, and to you? Was she kinder, now?” asked the gardener.
“That’s beyond question. She clings to me as if we were one soul. Whatever I think she understands. Even mother, angry as she was, could not help saying: ‘It’s as if our Theodosia had been transformed; she’s quite a different woman now!’ We were once going to cart the sheaves with two carts. She and I were in the first, and I say, ‘How could you think of doing that, Theodosia?’ and she says, ‘How could I think of it? just so, I did not wish to live with you. I thought I’d rather die than live with you!’ I say, ‘And now?’ and she says, ‘Now you’re in my heart!’” Taras stopped, and smiled joyfully, shook his head as if surprised. “Hardly had we got the harvest home when I went to soak the hemp, and when I got home there was a summons, she must go to be tried, and we had forgotten all about the matter that she was to be tried for.”
“It can only be the evil one,” said the gardener. “Could any man of himself think of destroying a living soul? We had a fellow once —” and the gardener was about to commence his tale when the train began to stop.
“It seems we are coming to a station,” he said. “I’ll go and have a drink.”
The conversation stopped, and Nekhludoff followed the gardener out of the carriage onto the wet platform of the station.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00