It was autumn. For some hours I had been strolling across country with my gun, and should probably not have returned till evening to the tavern on the Kursk high-road where my three-horse trap was awaiting me, had not an exceedingly fine and persistent rain, which had worried me all day with the obstinacy and ruthlessness of some old maiden lady, driven me at last to seek at least a temporary shelter somewhere in the neighbourhood. While I was still deliberating in which direction to go, my eye suddenly fell on a low shanty near a field sown with peas. I went up to the shanty, glanced under the thatched roof, and saw an old man so infirm that he reminded me at once of the dying goat Robinson Crusoe found in some cave on his island. The old man was squatting on his heels, his little dim eyes half-closed, while hurriedly, but carefully, like a hare (the poor fellow had not a single tooth), he munched a dry, hard pea, incessantly rolling it from side to side. He was so absorbed in this occupation that he did not notice my entrance.
‘Grandfather! hey, grandfather!’ said I. He ceased munching, lifted his eyebrows high, and with an effort opened his eyes.
‘What?’ he mumbled in a broken voice.
‘Where is there a village near?’ I asked.
The old man fell to munching again. He had not heard me. I repeated my question louder than before.
‘A village? . . . But what do you want?’
‘Why, shelter from the rain.’
‘Shelter from the rain.’
‘Ah!’ (He scratched his sunburnt neck.) ‘Well, now, you go,’ he said suddenly, waving his hands indefinitely, ‘so . . . as you go by the copse — see, as you go — there’ll be a road; you pass it by, and keep right on to the right; keep right on, keep right on, keep right on. . . . Well, there will be Ananyevo. Or else you’d go to Sitovka.’
I followed the old man with difficulty. His moustaches muffled his voice, and his tongue too did not obey him readily.
‘Where are you from?’ I asked him.
‘Where are you from?’
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Why, what are you watching?’
I could not help smiling.
‘Really! — how old are you?’
‘Your sight’s failing, I expect.’
‘Your sight’s failing, I daresay?’
‘Yes, it’s failing. At times I can hear nothing.’
‘Then how can you be a watchman, eh?’
‘Oh, my elders know about that.’
‘Elders!’ I thought, and I gazed not without compassion at the poor old man. He fumbled about, pulled out of his bosom a bit of coarse bread, and began sucking it like a child, with difficulty moving his sunken cheeks.
I walked in the direction of the copse, turned to the right, kept on, kept right on as the old man had advised me, and at last got to a large village with a stone church in the new style, i.e. with columns, and a spacious manor-house, also with columns. While still some way off I noticed through the fine network of falling rain a cottage with a deal roof, and two chimneys, higher than the others, in all probability the dwelling of the village elder; and towards it I bent my steps in the hope of finding, in this cottage, a samovar, tea, sugar, and some not absolutely sour cream. Escorted by my half-frozen dog, I went up the steps into the outer room, opened the door, and instead of the usual appurtenances of a cottage, I saw several tables, heaped up with papers, two red cupboards, bespattered inkstands, pewter boxes of blotting sand weighing half a hundred-weight, long penholders, and so on. At one of the tables was sitting a young man of twenty with a swollen, sickly face, diminutive eyes, a greasy-looking forehead, and long straggling locks of hair. He was dressed, as one would expect, in a grey nankin coat, shiny with wear at the waist and the collar.
‘What do you want?’ he asked me, flinging his head up like a horse taken unexpectedly by the nose.
‘Does the bailiff live here . . . or —’
‘This is the principal office of the manor,’ he interrupted. ‘I’m the clerk on duty. . . . Didn’t you see the sign-board? That’s what it was put up for.’
‘Where could I dry my clothes here? Is there a samovar anywhere in the village?’
‘Samovars, of course,’ replied the young man in the grey coat with dignity; ‘go to Father Timofey’s, or to the servants’ cottage, or else to Nazar Tarasitch, or to Agrafena, the poultry-woman.’
‘Who are you talking to, you blockhead? Can’t you let me sleep, dummy!’ shouted a voice from the next room.
‘Here’s a gentleman’s come in to ask where he can dry himself.’
‘What sort of a gentleman?’
‘I don’t know. With a dog and a gun.’
A bedstead creaked in the next room. The door opened, and there came in a stout, short man of fifty, with a bull neck, goggle-eyes, extraordinarily round cheeks, and his whole face positively shining with sleekness.
‘What is it you wish?’ he asked me.
‘To dry my things.’
‘There’s no place here.’
‘I didn’t know this was the counting-house; I am willing, though, to pay . . . ’
‘Well, perhaps it could be managed here,’ rejoined the fat man; ‘won’t you come inside here?’ (He led me into another room, but not the one he had come from.) ‘Would this do for you?’
‘Very well. . . . And could I have tea and milk?’
‘Certainly, at once. If you’ll meantime take off your things and rest, the tea shall be got ready this minute.’
‘Whose property is this?’
‘Madame Losnyakov’s, Elena Nikolaevna.’
He went out I looked round: against the partition separating my room from the office stood a huge leather sofa; two high-backed chairs, also covered in leather, were placed on both sides of the solitary window which looked out on the village street. On the walls, covered with a green paper with pink patterns on it, hung three immense oil paintings. One depicted a setter-dog with a blue collar, bearing the inscription: ‘This is my consolation’; at the dog’s feet flowed a river; on the opposite bank of the river a hare of quite disproportionate size with ears cocked up was sitting under a pine tree. In another picture two old men were eating a melon; behind the melon was visible in the distance a Greek temple with the inscription: ‘The Temple of Satisfaction.’ The third picture represented the half-nude figure of a woman in a recumbent position, much fore-shortened, with red knees and very big heels. My dog had, with superhuman efforts, crouched under the sofa, and apparently found a great deal of dust there, as he kept sneezing violently. I went to the window. Boards had been laid across the street in a slanting direction from the manor-house to the counting-house — a very useful precaution, as, thanks to our rich black soil and the persistent rain, the mud was terrible. In the grounds of the manor-house, which stood with its back to the street, there was the constant going and coming there always is about manor-houses: maids in faded chintz gowns flitted to and fro; house-serfs sauntered through the mud, stood still and scratched their spines meditatively; the constable’s horse, tied up to a post, lashed his tail lazily, and with his nose high up, gnawed at the hedge; hens were clucking; sickly turkeys kept up an incessant gobble-gobble. On the steps of a dark crumbling out-house, probably the bath-house, sat a stalwart lad with a guitar, singing with some spirit the well-known ballad:
‘I’m leaving this enchanting spot
To go into the desert.’
The fat man came into the room.
‘They’re bringing you in your tea,’ he told me, with an affable smile.
The young man in the grey coat, the clerk on duty, laid on the old card-table a samovar, a teapot, a tumbler on a broken saucer, a jug of cream, and a bunch of Bolhovo biscuit rings. The fat man went out.
‘What is he?’ I asked the clerk; ‘the steward?’
‘No, sir; he was the chief cashier, but now he has been promoted to be head-clerk.’
‘Haven’t you got a steward, then?’
‘No, sir. There’s an agent, Mihal Vikulov, but no steward.’
‘Is there a manager, then?’
‘Yes; a German, Lindamandol, Karlo Karlitch; only he does not manage the estate.’
‘Who does manage it, then?’
‘Our mistress herself.’
‘You don’t say so. And are there many of you in the office?’
The young man reflected.
‘There are six of us.’
‘Who are they?’ I inquired.
‘Well, first there’s Vassily Nikolaevitch, the head cashier; then Piotr, one clerk; Piotr’s brother, Ivan, another clerk; the other Ivan, a clerk; Konstantin Narkizer, another clerk; and me here — there’s a lot of us, you can’t count all of them.’
‘I suppose your mistress has a great many serfs in her house?’
‘No, not to say a great many.’
‘How many, then?’
‘I dare say it runs up to about a hundred and fifty.’
We were both silent for a little.
‘I suppose you write a good hand, eh?’ I began again.
The young man grinned from ear to ear, went into the office and brought in a sheet covered with writing.
‘This is my writing,’ he announced, still with the same smile on his face.
I looked at it; on the square sheet of greyish paper there was written, in a good bold hand, the following document:—
From the Chief Office of the Manor of Ananyevo to the Agent, Mihal Vikulov.
‘Whereas some person unknown entered the garden at Ananyevo last night in an intoxicated condition, and with unseemly songs waked the French governess, Madame Engêne, and disturbed her; and whether the watchmen saw anything, and who were on watch in the garden and permitted such disorderliness: as regards all the above-written matters, your orders are to investigate in detail, and report immediately to the Office.’
‘Head-Clerk, NIKOLAI HVOSTOV.’
A huge heraldic seal was attached to the order, with the inscription: ‘Seal of the chief office of the manor of Ananyevo’; and below stood the signature: ‘To be executed exactly, Elena Losnyakov.’
‘Your lady signed it herself, eh?’ I queried.
‘To be sure; she always signs herself. Without that the order would be of no effect.’
‘Well, and now shall you send this order to the agent?’
‘No, sir. He’ll come himself and read it. That’s to say, it’ll be read to him; you see, he’s no scholar.’ (The clerk on duty was silent again for a while.) ‘But what do you say?’ he added, simpering; ‘is it well written?’
‘Very well written.’
‘It wasn’t composed, I must confess, by me. Konstantin is the great one for that.’
‘What? . . . Do you mean the orders have first to be composed among you?’
‘Why, how else could we do? Couldn’t write them off straight without making a fair copy.’
‘And what salary do you get?’ I inquired.
‘Thirty-five roubles, and five roubles for boots.’
‘And are you satisfied?’
‘Of course I am satisfied. It’s not everyone can get into an office like ours. It was God’s will, in my case, to be sure; I’d an uncle who was in service as a butler.’
‘And you’re well-off?’
‘Yes, sir. Though, to tell the truth,’ he went on, with a sigh, ‘a place at a merchant’s, for instance, is better for the likes of us. At a merchant’s they’re very well off. Yesterday evening a merchant came to us from Venev, and his man got talking to me. . . . Yes, that’s a good place, no doubt about it; a very good place.’
‘Why? Do the merchants pay more wages?’
‘Lord preserve us! Why, a merchant would soon give you the sack if you asked him for wages. No, at a merchant’s you must live on trust and on fear. He’ll give you food, and drink, and clothes, and all. If you give him satisfaction, he’ll do more. . . . Talk of wages, indeed! You don’t need them. . . . And a merchant, too, lives in plain Russian style, like ourselves; you go with him on a journey — he has tea, and you have it; what he eats, you eat. A merchant . . . one can put up with; a merchant’s a very different thing from what a gentleman is; a merchant’s not whimsical; if he’s out of temper, he’ll give you a blow, and there it ends. He doesn’t nag nor sneer. . . . But with a gentleman it’s a woeful business! Nothing’s as he likes it — this is not right, and that he can’t fancy. You hand him a glass of water or something to eat: “Ugh, the water stinks! positively stinks!” You take it out, stay a minute outside the door, and bring it back: “Come, now, that’s good; this doesn’t stink now.” And as for the ladies, I tell you, the ladies are something beyond everything! . . . and the young ladies above all! . . . ’
‘Fedyushka!’ came the fat man’s voice from the office.
The clerk went out quickly. I drank a glass of tea, lay down on the sofa, and fell asleep. I slept for two hours.
When I woke, I meant to get up, but I was overcome by laziness; I closed my eyes, but did not fall asleep again. On the other side of the partition, in the office, they were talking in subdued voices. Unconsciously I began to listen.
‘Quite so, quite so, Nikolai Eremyitch,’ one voice was saying; ‘quite so. One can’t but take that into account; yes, certainly! . . . Hm!’ (The speaker coughed.)
‘You may believe me, Gavrila Antonitch,’ replied the fat man’s voice: ‘don’t I know how things are done here? Judge for yourself.’
‘Who does, if you don’t, Nikolai Eremyitch? you’re, one may say, the first person here. Well, then, how’s it to be?’ pursued the voice I did not recognise; ‘what decision are we to come to, Nikolai Eremyitch? Allow me to put the question.’
‘What decision, Gavrila Antonitch? The thing depends, so to say, on you; you don’t seem over anxious.’
‘Upon my word, Nikolai Eremyitch, what do you mean? Our business is trading, buying; it’s our business to buy. That’s what we live by, Nikolai Eremyitch, one may say.’
‘Eight roubles a measure,’ said the fat man emphatically.
A sigh was audible.
‘Nikolai Eremyitch, sir, you ask a heavy price.’ ‘Impossible, Gavrila Antonitch, to do otherwise; I speak as before God Almighty; impossible.’
I got up softly and looked through a crack in the partition. The fat man was sitting with his back to me. Facing him sat a merchant, a man about forty, lean and pale, who looked as if he had been rubbed with oil. He was incessantly fingering his beard, and very rapidly blinking and twitching his lips.
‘Wonderful the young green crops this year, one may say,’ he began again; ‘I’ve been going about everywhere admiring them. All the way from Voronezh they’ve come up wonderfully, first-class, one may say.’
‘The crops are pretty fair, certainly,’ answered the head-clerk; ‘but you know the saying, Gavrila Antonitch, autumn bids fair, but spring may be foul.’
‘That’s so, indeed, Nikolai Eremyitch; all is in God’s hands; it’s the absolute truth what you’ve just remarked, sir. . . . But perhaps your visitor’s awake now.’
The fat man turned round . . . listened. . . .
‘No, he’s asleep. He may, though. . . . ’
He went to the door.
‘No, he’s asleep,’ he repeated and went back to his place.
‘Well, so what are we to say, Nikolai Eremyitch?’ the merchant began again; ‘we must bring our little business to a conclusion. . . . Let it be so, Nikolai Eremyitch, let it be so,’ he went on, blinking incessantly; ‘two grey notes and a white for your favour, and there’ (he nodded in the direction of the house), ‘six and a half. Done, eh?’
‘Four grey notes,’ answered the clerk.
‘Come, three, then.’
‘Four greys, and no white.’
‘Three, Nikolai Eremyitch.’
‘Three and a half, and not a farthing less.’
‘Three, Nikolai Eremyitch.’
‘You’re not talking sense, Gavrila Antonitch.’
‘My, what a pig-headed fellow!’ muttered the merchant. ‘Then I’d better arrange it with the lady herself.’
‘That’s as you like,’ answered the fat man; ‘far better, I should say. Why should you worry yourself, after all? . . . Much better, indeed!’
‘Well, well! Nikolai Eremyitch. I lost my temper for a minute! That was nothing but talk.’
‘No, really, why? . . . ’
‘Nonsense, I tell you. . . . I tell you I was joking. Well, take your three and a half; there’s no doing anything with you.’
‘I ought to have got four, but I was in too great a hurry — like an ass!’ muttered the fat man.
‘Then up there at the house, six and a half, Nikolai Eremyitch; the corn will be sold for six and a half?’
‘Six and a half, as we said already.’
‘Well, your hand on that then, Nikolai Eremyitch’ (the merchant clapped his outstretched fingers into the clerk’s palm). ‘And good-bye, in God’s name!’ (The merchant got up.) ‘So then, Nikolai Eremyitch, sir, I’ll go now to your lady, and bid them send up my name, and so I’ll say to her, “Nikolai Eremyitch,” I’ll say, “has made a bargain with me for six and a half.”’
‘That’s what you must say, Gavrila Antonitch.’
‘And now, allow me.’
The merchant handed the manager a small roll of notes, bowed, shook his head, picked up his hat with two fingers, shrugged his shoulders, and, with a sort of undulating motion, went out, his boots creaking after the approved fashion. Nikolai Eremyitch went to the wall, and, as far as I could make out, began sorting the notes handed him by the merchant. A red head, adorned with thick whiskers, was thrust in at the door.
‘Well?’ asked the head; ‘all as it should be?’
The fat man made an angry gesture with his hand, and pointed to my room.
‘Ah, all right!’ responded the head, and vanished.
The fat man went up to the table, sat down, opened a book, took out a reckoning frame, and began shifting the beads to and fro as he counted, using not the forefinger but the third finger of his right hand, which has a much more showy effect.
The clerk on duty came in.
‘What is it?’
‘Sidor is here from Goloplek.’
‘Oh! ask him in. Wait a bit, wait a bit. . . . First go and look whether the strange gentleman’s still asleep, or whether he has waked up.’
The clerk on duty came cautiously into my room. I laid my head on my game-bag, which served me as a pillow, and closed my eyes.
‘He’s asleep,’ whispered the clerk on duty, returning to the counting- house.
The fat man muttered something.
‘Well, send Sidor in,’ he said at last.
I got up again. A peasant of about thirty, of huge stature, came in — a red-cheeked, vigorous-looking fellow, with brown hair, and a short curly beard. He crossed himself, praying to the holy image, bowed to the head-clerk, held his hat before him in both hands, and stood erect.
‘Good day, Sidor,’ said the fat man, tapping with the reckoning beads.
‘Good-day to you, Nikolai Eremyitch.’
‘Well, what are the roads like?’
‘Pretty fair, Nikolai Eremyitch. A bit muddy.’ (The peasant spoke slowly and not loud.)
‘Wife quite well?’
‘She’s all right!’
The peasant gave a sigh and shifted one leg forward. Nikolai Eremyitch put his pen behind his ear, and blew his nose.
‘Well, what have you come about?’ he proceeded to inquire, putting his check handkerchief into his pocket.
‘Why, they do say, Nikolai Eremyitch, they’re asking for carpenters from us.’
‘Well, aren’t there any among you, hey?’
‘To be sure there are, Nikolai Eremyitch; our place is right in the woods; our earnings are all from the wood, to be sure. But it’s the busy time, Nikolai Eremyitch. Where’s the time to come from?’
‘The time to come from! Busy time! I dare say, you’re so eager to work for outsiders, and don’t care to work for your mistress. . . . It’s all the same!’
‘The work’s all the same, certainly, Nikolai Eremyitch . . . but. . . . ’
‘The pay’s . . . very. . . . ’
‘What next! You’ve been spoiled; that’s what it is. Get along with you!’
‘And what’s more, Nikolai Eremyitch, there’ll be only a week’s work, but they’ll keep us hanging on a month. One time there’s not material enough, and another time they’ll send us into the garden to weed the path.’
‘What of it? Our lady herself is pleased to give the order, so it’s useless you and me talking about it.’
Sidor was silent; he began shifting from one leg to the other.
Nikolai Eremyitch put his head on one side, and began busily playing with the reckoning beads.
‘Our . . . peasants . . . Nikolai Eremyitch. . . . ’ Sidor began at last, hesitating over each word; ‘sent word to your honour . . . there is . . . see here. . . . ’ (He thrust his big hand into the bosom of his coat, and began to pull out a folded linen kerchief with a red border.)
‘What are you thinking of? Goodness, idiot, are you out of your senses?’ the fat man interposed hurriedly. ‘Go on; go to my cottage,’ he continued, almost shoving the bewildered peasant out; ‘ask for my wife there . . . she’ll give you some tea; I’ll be round directly; go on. For goodness’ sake, I tell you, go on.’
Sidor went away.
‘Ugh! . . . what a bear!’ the head clerk muttered after him, shaking his head, and set to work again on his reckoning frame.
Suddenly shouts of ‘Kuprya! Kuprya! there’s no knocking down Kuprya!’ were heard in the street and on the steps, and a little later there came into the counting-house a small man of sickly appearance, with an extraordinarily long nose and large staring eyes, who carried himself with a great air of superiority. He was dressed in a ragged little old surtout, with a plush collar and diminutive buttons. He carried a bundle of firewood on his shoulder. Five house-serfs were crowding round him, all shouting, ‘Kuprya! there’s no suppressing Kuprya! Kuprya’s been turned stoker; Kuprya’s turned a stoker!’ But the man in the coat with the plush collar did not pay the slightest attention to the uproar made by his companions, and was not in the least out of countenance. With measured steps he went up to the stove, flung down his load, straightened himself, took out of his tail-pocket a snuff- box, and with round eyes began helping himself to a pinch of dry trefoil mixed with ashes. At the entrance of this noisy party the fat man had at first knitted his brows and risen from his seat, but, seeing what it was, he smiled, and only told them not to shout. ‘There’s a sportsman,’ said he, ‘asleep in the next room.’ ‘What sort of sportsman?’ two of them asked with one voice.
‘Let them make a row,’ said the man with the plush collar, waving his arms; ‘what do I care, so long as they don’t touch me? They’ve turned me into a stoker. . . . ’
‘A stoker! a stoker!’ the others put in gleefully.
‘It’s the mistress’s orders,’ he went on, with a shrug of his shoulders; ‘but just you wait a bit . . . they’ll turn you into swineherds yet. But I’ve been a tailor, and a good tailor too, learnt my trade in the best house in Moscow, and worked for generals . . . and nobody can take that from me. And what have you to boast of? . . . What? you’re a pack of idlers, not worth your salt; that’s what you are! Turn me off! I shan’t die of hunger; I shall be all right; give me a passport. I’d send a good rent home, and satisfy the masters. But what would you do? You’d die off like flies, that’s what you’d do!’
‘That’s a nice lie!’ interposed a pock-marked lad with white eyelashes, a red cravat, and ragged elbows. ‘You went off with a passport sharp enough, but never a halfpenny of rent did the masters see from you, and you never earned a farthing for yourself, you just managed to crawl home again and you’ve never had a new rag on you since.’
‘Ah, well, what could one do! Konstantin Narkizitch,’ responded Kuprya; ‘a man falls in love — a man’s ruined and done for! You go through what I have, Konstantin Narkizitch, before you blame me!’
‘And you picked out a nice one to fall in love with! — a regular fright.’
‘No, you must not say that, Konstantin Narkizitch.’
‘Who’s going to believe that? I’ve seen her, you know; I saw her with my own eyes last year in Moscow.’
‘Last year she had gone off a little certainly,’ observed Kuprya.
‘No, gentlemen, I tell you what,’ a tall, thin man, with a face spotted with pimples, a valet probably, from his frizzed and pomatumed head, remarked in a careless and disdainful voice; ‘let Kuprya Afanasyitch sing us his song. Come on, now; begin, Kuprya Afanasyitch.
‘Yes! yes!’ put in the others. ‘Hoorah for Alexandra! That’s one for Kuprya; ‘pon my soul . . . Sing away, Kuprya! . . . You’re a regular brick, Alexandra!’ (Serfs often use feminine terminations in referring to a man as an expression of endearment.) ‘Sing away!’
‘This is not the place to sing,’ Kuprya replied firmly; ‘this is the manor counting-house.’
‘And what’s that to do with you? you’ve got your eye on a place as clerk, eh?’ answered Konstantin with a coarse laugh. ‘That’s what it is!’
‘Everything rests with the mistress,’ observed the poor wretch.
‘There, that’s what he’s got his eye on! a fellow like him! oo! oo! a!’
And they all roared; some rolled about with merriment. Louder than all laughed a lad of fifteen, probably the son of an aristocrat among the house-serfs; he wore a waistcoat with bronze buttons, and a cravat of lilac colour, and had already had time to fill out his waistcoat.
‘Come tell us, confess now, Kuprya,’ Nikolai Eremyitch began complacently, obviously tickled and diverted himself; ‘is it bad being stoker? Is it an easy job, eh?’
‘Nikolai Eremyitch,’ began Kuprya, ‘you’re head-clerk among us now, certainly; there’s no disputing that, no; but you know you have been in disgrace yourself, and you too have lived in a peasant’s hut.’
‘You’d better look out and not forget yourself in my place,’ the fat man interrupted emphatically; ‘people joke with a fool like you; you ought, you fool, to have sense, and be grateful to them for taking notice of a fool like you.’
‘It was a slip of the tongue, Nikolai Eremyitch; I beg your pardon. . . . ’
‘Yes, indeed, a slip of the tongue.’
The door opened and a little page ran in.
‘Nikolai Eremyitch, mistress wants you.’
‘Who’s with the mistress?’ he asked the page.
‘Aksinya Nikitishna, and a merchant from Venev.’
‘I’ll be there this minute. And you, mates,’ he continued in a persuasive voice, ‘better move off out of here with the newly-appointed stoker; if the German pops in, he’ll make a complaint for certain.’
The fat man smoothed his hair, coughed into his hand, which was almost completely hidden in his coat-sleeve, buttoned himself, and set off with rapid strides to see the lady of the manor. In a little while the whole party trailed out after him, together with Kuprya. My old friend, the clerk-on duty, was left alone. He set to work mending the pens, and dropped asleep in his chair. A few flies promptly seized the opportunity and settled on his mouth. A mosquito alighted on his forehead, and, stretching its legs out with a regular motion, slowly buried its sting into his flabby flesh. The same red head with whiskers showed itself again at the door, looked in, looked again, and then came into the office, together with the rather ugly body belonging to it.
‘Fedyushka! eh, Fedyushka! always asleep,’ said the head.
The clerk on duty opened his eyes and got up from his seat.
‘Nikolai Eremyitch has gone to the mistress?’
‘Yes, Vassily Nikolaevitch.’
‘Ah! ah!’ thought I; ‘this is he, the head cashier.’
The head cashier began walking about the room. He really slunk rather than walked, and altogether resembled a cat. An old black frock-coat with very narrow skirts hung about his shoulders; he kept one hand in his bosom, while the other was for ever fumbling about his high, narrow horse-hair collar, and he turned his head with a certain effort. He wore noiseless kid boots, and trod very softly.
‘The landowner, Yagushkin, was asking for you to-day,’ added the clerk on duty.
‘Hm, asking for me? What did he say?’
‘Said he’d go to Tyutyurov this evening and would wait for you. “I want to discuss some business with Vassily Nikolaevitch,” said he, but what the business was he didn’t say; “Vassily Nikolaevitch will know,” says he.’
‘Hm!’ replied the head cashier, and he went up to the window.
‘Is Nikolai Eremyitch in the counting-house?’ a loud voice was heard asking in the outer room, and a tall man, apparently angry, with an irregular but bold and expressive face, and rather clean in his dress, stepped over the threshold.
‘Isn’t he here?’ he inquired, looking rapidly round.
‘Nikolai Eremyitch is with the mistress,’ responded the cashier. ‘Tell me what you want, Pavel Andreitch; you can tell me. . . . What is it you want?’
‘What do I want? You want to know what I want?’ (The cashier gave a sickly nod.) ‘I want to give him a lesson, the fat, greasy villain, the scoundrelly tell-tale! . . . I’ll give him a tale to tell!’
Pavel flung himself into a chair.
‘What are you saying, Pavel Andreitch! Calm yourself. . . . Aren’t you ashamed? Don’t forget whom you’re talking about, Pavel Andreitch!’ lisped the cashier.
‘Forget whom I’m talking about? What do I care for his being made head- clerk? A fine person they’ve found to promote, there’s no denying that! They’ve let the goat loose in the kitchen garden, you may say!’
‘Hush, hush, Pavel Andreitch, hush! drop that . . . what rubbish are you talking?’
‘So Master Fox is beginning to fawn? I will wait for him,’ Pavel said with passion, and he struck a blow on the table. ‘Ah, here he’s coming!’ he added with a look at the window; ‘speak of the devil. With your kind permission!’ (He, got up.)
Nikolai Eremyitch came into the counting-house. His face was shining with satisfaction, but he was rather taken aback at seeing Pavel Andreitch.
‘Good day to you, Nikolai Eremyitch,’ said Pavel in a significant tone, advancing deliberately to meet him.
The head-clerk made no reply. The face of the merchant showed itself in the doorway.
‘What, won’t you deign to answer me?’ pursued Pavel. ‘But no . . . no,’ he added; ‘that’s not it; there’s no getting anything by shouting and abuse. No, you’d better tell me in a friendly way, Nikolai Eremyitch; what do you persecute me for? what do you want to ruin me for? Come, speak, speak.’
‘This is no fit place to come to an understanding with you,’ the head- clerk answered in some agitation, ‘and no fit time. But I must say I wonder at one thing: what makes you suppose I want to ruin you, or that I’m persecuting you? And if you come to that, how can I persecute you? You’re not in my counting-house.’
‘I should hope not,’ answered Pavel; ‘that would be the last straw! But why are you hum-bugging, Nikolai Eremyitch? . . . You understand me, you know.’
‘No, I don’t understand.’
‘No, you do understand.’
‘No, by God, I don’t understand!’
‘Swearing too! Well, tell us, since it’s come to that: have you no fear of God? Why can’t you let the poor girl live in peace? What do you want of her?’
‘Whom are you talking of?’ the fat man asked with feigned amazement.
‘Ugh! doesn’t know; what next? I’m talking of Tatyana. Have some fear of God — what do you want to revenge yourself for? You ought to be ashamed: a married man like you, with children as big as I am; it’s a very different thing with me. . . . I mean marriage: I’m acting straight- forwardly.’
‘How am I to blame in that, Pavel Andreitch? The mistress won’t permit you to marry; it’s her seignorial will! What have I to do with it?’
‘Why, haven’t you been plotting with that old hag, the housekeeper, eh? Haven’t you been telling tales, eh? Tell me, aren’t you bringing all sorts of stories up against the defenceless girl? I suppose it’s not your doing that she’s been degraded from laundrymaid to washing dishes in the scullery? And it’s not your doing that she’s beaten and dressed in sackcloth? . . . You ought to be ashamed, you ought to be ashamed — an old man like you! You know there’s a paralytic stroke always hanging over you. . . . You will have to answer to God.’
‘You’re abusive, Pavel Andreitch, you’re abusive. . . . You shan’t have a chance to be insolent much longer.’
Pavel fired up.
‘What? You dare to threaten me?’ he said passionately. ‘You think I’m afraid of you. No, my man, I’m not come to that! What have I to be afraid of? . . . I can make my bread everywhere. For you, now, it’s another thing! It’s only here you can live and tell tales, and filch. . . . ’
‘Fancy the conceit of the fellow!’ interrupted the clerk, who was also beginning to lose patience; ‘an apothecary’s assistant, simply an apothecary’s assistant, a wretched leech; and listen to him — fie upon you! you’re a high and mighty personage!’
‘Yes, an apothecary’s assistant, and except for this apothecary’s assistant you’d have been rotting in the graveyard by now. . . . It was some devil drove me to cure him,’ he added between his teeth.
‘You cured me? . . . No, you tried to poison me; you dosed me with aloes,’ the clerk put in.
‘What was I to do if nothing but aloes had any effect on you?’
‘The use of aloes is forbidden by the Board of Health,’ pursued Nikolai. ‘I’ll lodge a complaint against you yet. . . . You tried to compass my death — that was what you did! But the Lord suffered it not.’
‘Hush, now, that’s enough, gentlemen,’ the cashier was beginning. . . .
‘Stand off!’ bawled the clerk. ‘He tried to poison me! Do you understand that?’
‘That’s very likely. . . . Listen, Nikolai Eremyitch,’ Pavel began in despairing accents. ‘For the last time, I beg you. . . . You force me to it — can’t stand it any longer. Let us alone, do you hear? or else, by God, it’ll go ill with one or other of us — I mean with you!’
The fat man flew into a rage.
‘I’m not afraid of you!’ he shouted; ‘do you hear, milksop? I got the better of your father; I broke his horns — a warning to you; take care!’
‘Don’t talk of my father, Nikolai Eremyitch.’
‘Get away! who are you to give me orders?’
‘I tell you, don’t talk of him!’
‘And I tell you, don’t forget yourself. . . . However necessary you think yourself, if our lady has a choice between us, it’s not you’ll be kept, my dear! None’s allowed to mutiny, mind!’ (Pavel was shaking with fury.) ‘As for the wench, Tatyana, she deserves . . . wait a bit, she’ll get something worse!’
Pavel dashed forward with uplifted fists, and the clerk rolled heavily on the floor.
‘Handcuff him, handcuff him,’ groaned Nikolai Eremyitch. . . .
I won’t take upon myself to describe the end of this scene; I fear I have wounded the reader’s delicate susceptibilities as it is.
The same day I returned home. A week later I heard that Madame Losnyakov had kept both Pavel and Nikolai in her service, but had sent away the girl Tatyana; it appeared she was not wanted.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01