The next day Nekhludoff awoke at nine o’clock. The young office clerk who attended on “the master” brought him his boots, shining as they had never shone before, and some cold, beautifully clear spring water, and informed him that the peasants were already assembling.
Nekhludoff jumped out of bed, and collected his thoughts. Not a trace of yesterday’s regret at giving up and thus destroying his property remained now. He remembered this feeling of regret with surprise; he was now looking forward with joy to the task before him, and could not help being proud of it. He could see from the window the old tennis ground, overgrown with dandelions, on which the peasants were beginning to assemble. The frogs had not croaked in vain the night before; the day was dull. There was no wind; a soft warm rain had begun falling in the morning, and hung in drops on leaves, twigs, and grass. Besides the smell of the fresh vegetation, the smell of damp earth, asking for more rain, entered in at the window. While dressing, Nekhludoff several times looked out at the peasants gathered on the tennis ground. One by one they came, took off their hats or caps to one another, and took their places in a circle, leaning on their sticks. The steward, a stout, muscular, strong young man, dressed in a short pea-jacket, with a green stand-up collar, and enormous buttons, came to say that all had assembled, but that they might wait until Nekhludoff had finished his breakfast — tea and coffee, whichever he pleased; both were ready.
“No, I think I had better go and see them at once,” said Nekhludoff, with an unexpected feeling of shyness and shame at the thought of the conversation he was going to have with the peasants. He was going to fulfil a wish of the peasants, the fulfilment of which they did not even dare to hope for — to let the land to them at a low price, i.e., to confer a great boon; and yet he felt ashamed of something. When Nekhludoff came up to the peasants, and the fair, the curly, the bald, the grey heads were bared before him, he felt so confused that he could say nothing. The rain continued to come down in small drops, that remained on the hair, the beards, and the fluff of the men’s rough coats. The peasants looked at “the master,” waiting for him to speak, and he was so abashed that he could not speak. This confused silence was broken by the sedate, self-assured German steward, who considered himself a good judge of the Russian peasant, and who spoke Russian remarkably well. This strong, over-fed man, and Nekhludoff himself, presented a striking contrast to the peasants, with their thin, wrinkled faces and the shoulder blades protruding beneath their coarse coats.
“Here’s the Prince wanting to do you a favor, and to let the land to you; only you are not worthy of it,” said the steward.
“How are we not worthy of it, Vasili Karlovitch? Don’t we work for you? We were well satisfied with the deceased lady — God have mercy on her soul — and the young Prince will not desert us now. Our thanks to him,” said a redhaired, talkative peasant.
“Yes, that’s why I have called you together. I should like to let you have all the land, if you wish it.”
The peasants said nothing, as if they did not understand or did not believe it.
“Let’s see. Let us have the land? What do you mean?” asked a middle-aged man.
“To let it to you, that you might have the use of it, at a low rent.”
“A very agreeable thing,” said an old man.
“If only the pay is such as we can afford,” said another.
“There’s no reason why we should not rent the land.”
“We are accustomed to live by tilling the ground.”
“And it’s quieter for you, too, that way. You’ll have to do nothing but receive the rent. Only think of all the sin and worry now!” several voices were heard saying.
“The sin is all on your side,” the German remarked. “If only you did your work, and were orderly.”
“That’s impossible for the likes of us,” said a sharp-nosed old man. “You say, ‘Why do you let the horse get into the corn?’ just as if I let it in. Why, I was swinging my scythe, or something of the kind, the livelong day, till the day seemed as long as a year, and so I fell asleep while watching the herd of horses at night, and it got into your oats, and now you’re skinning me.”
“And you should keep order.”
“It’s easy for you to talk about order, but it’s more than our strength will bear,” answered a tall, dark, hairy middleaged man.
“Didn’t I tell you to put up a fence?”
“You give us the wood to make it of,” said a short, plain-looking peasant. “I was going to put up a fence last year, and you put me to feed vermin in prison for three months. That was the end of that fence.”
“What is it he is saying?” asked Nekhludoff, turning to the steward.
“Der ersto Dieb im Dorfe,” [The greatest thief in the village] answered the steward in German. “He is caught stealing wood from the forest every year.” Then turning to the peasant, he added, “You must learn to respect other people’s property.”
“Why, don’t we respect you?” said an old man. “We are obliged to respect you. Why, you could twist us into a rope; we are in your hands.”
“Eh, my friend, it’s impossible to do you. It’s you who are ever ready to do us,” said the steward.
“Do you, indeed. Didn’t you smash my jaw for me, and I got nothing for it? No good going to law with the rich, it seems.”
“You should keep to the law.”
A tournament of words was apparently going on without those who took part in it knowing exactly what it was all about; but it was noticeable that there was bitterness on one side, restricted by fear, and on the other a consciousness of importance and power. It was very trying to Nekhludoff to listen to all this, so he returned to the question of arranging the amount and the terms of the rent.
“Well, then, how about the land? Do you wish to take it, and what price will you pay if I let you have the whole of it?”
“The property is yours: it is for you to fix the price.” Nekhludoff named the price. Though it was far below that paid in the neighbourhood, the peasants declared it too high, and began bargaining, as is customary among them. Nekhludoff thought his offer would be accepted with pleasure, but no signs of pleasure were visible.
One thing only showed Nekhludoff that his offer was a profitable one to the peasants. The question as to who would rent the land, the whole commune or a special society, was put, and a violent dispute arose among those peasants who were in favour of excluding the weak and those not likely to pay the rent regularly, and the peasants who would have to be excluded on that score. At last, thanks to the steward, the amount and the terms of the rent were fixed, and the peasants went down the hill towards their villages, talking noisily, while Nekhludoff and the steward went into the office to make up the agreement. Everything was settled in the way Nekhludoff wished and expected it to be. The peasants had their land 30 per cent. cheaper than they could have got it anywhere in the district, the revenue from the land was diminished by half, but was more than sufficient for Nekhludoff, especially as there would be money coming in for a forest he sold, as well as for the agricultural implements, which would be sold, too. Everything seemed excellently arranged, yet he felt ashamed of something. He could see that the peasants, though they spoke words of thanks, were not satisfied, and had expected something greater. So it turned out that he had deprived himself of a great deal, and yet not done what the peasants had expected.
The next day the agreement was signed, and accompanied by several old peasants, who had been chosen as deputies, Nekhludoff went out, got into the steward’s elegant equipage (as the driver from the station had called it), said “good-bye” to the peasants, who stood shaking their heads in a dissatisfied and disappointed manner, and drove off to the station. Nekhludoff was dissatisfied with himself without knowing why, but all the time he felt sad and ashamed of something.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00