One hot summer day I was coming home from hunting in a light cart; Yermolaï sat beside me dozing and scratching his nose. The sleeping dogs were jolted up and down like lifeless bodies under our feet. The coachman kept flicking gadflies off the horses with his whip. The white dust rose in a light cloud behind the cart. We drove in between bushes. The road here was full of ruts, and the wheels began catching in the twigs. Yermolaï started up and looked round. . . . ‘Hullo!’ he said; ‘there ought to be grouse here. Let’s get out.’ We stopped and went into the thicket. My dog hit upon a covey. I took a shot and was beginning to reload, when suddenly there was a loud crackling behind me, and a man on horseback came towards me, pushing the bushes apart with his hands. ‘Sir . . . pe-ermit me to ask,’ he began in a haughty voice, ‘by what right you are — er — shooting here, sir?’ The stranger spoke extraordinarily quickly, jerkily and condescendingly. I looked at his face; never in my life have I seen anything like it. Picture to yourselves, gentle readers, a little flaxen-haired man, with a little turn-up red nose and long red moustaches. A pointed Persian cap with a crimson cloth crown covered his forehead right down to his eyebrows. He was dressed in a shabby yellow Caucasian overcoat, with black velveteen cartridge pockets on the breast, and tarnish silver braid on all the seams; over his shoulder was slung a horn; in his sash was sticking a dagger. A raw-boned, hook-nosed chestnut horse shambled unsteadily under his weight; two lean, crook-pawed greyhounds kept turning round just under the horse’s legs. The face, the glance, the voice, every action, the whole being of the stranger, was expressive of a wild daring and an unbounded, incredible pride; his pale-blue glassy eyes strayed about with a sideway squint like a drunkard’s; he flung back his head, puffed out his cheeks, snorted and quivered all over, as though bursting with dignity — for all the world like a turkey-cock. He repeated his question.
‘I didn’t know it was forbidden to shoot here,’ I replied.
‘You are here, sir,’ he continued, ‘on my land.’
‘With your permission, I will go off it.’
‘But pe-ermit me to ask,’ he rejoined, ‘is it a nobleman I have the honour of addressing?’
I mentioned my name.
‘In that case, oblige me by hunting here. I am a nobleman myself, and am very pleased to do any service to a nobleman. . . . And my name is Panteley Tchertop-hanov.’ He bowed, hallooed, gave his horse a lash on the neck; the horse shook its head, reared, shied, and trampled on a dog’s paws. The dog gave a piercing squeal. Tchertop-hanov boiled over with rage; foaming at the mouth, he struck the horse with his fist on the head between the ears, leaped to the ground quicker than lightning, looked at the dog’s paw, spat on the wound, gave it a kick in the ribs to stop its whining, caught on to the horse’s forelock, and put his foot in the stirrup. The horse flung up its head, and with its tail in the air edged away into the bushes; he followed it, hopping on one leg; he got into the saddle at last, however, flourished his whip in a sort of frenzy, blew his horn, and galloped off. I had not time to recover from the unexpected appearance of Tchertop-hanov, when suddenly, almost without any noise, there came out of the bushes a stoutish man of forty on a little black nag. He stopped, took off his green leather cap, and in a thin, subdued voice he asked me whether I hadn’t seen a horseman riding a chestnut? I answered that I had.
‘Which way did the gentleman go?’ he went on in the same tone, without putting on his cap.
‘I humbly thank you, sir.’
He made a kissing sound with his lips, swung his legs against his horse’s sides, and fell into a jog-trot in the direction indicated. I looked after him till his peaked cap was hidden behind the branches. This second stranger was not in the least like his predecessor in exterior. His face, plump and round as a ball, expressed bashfulness, good-nature, and humble meekness; his nose, also plump and round and streaked with blue veins, betokened a sensualist. On the front of his head there was not a single hair left, some thin brown tufts stuck out behind; there was an ingratiating twinkle in his little eyes, set in long slits, and a sweet smile on his red, juicy lips. He had on a coat with a stand-up collar and brass buttons, very worn but clean; his cloth trousers were hitched up high, his fat calves were visible above the yellow tops of his boots.
‘Who’s that?’ I inquired of Yermolaï.
‘That? Nedopyuskin, Tihon Ivanitch. He lives at Tchertop-hanov’s.’
‘What is he, a poor man?’
‘He’s not rich; but, to be sure, Tchertop-hanov’s not got a brass farthing either.’
‘Then why does he live with him?’
‘Oh, they made friends. One’s never seen without the other. . . . It’s a fact, indeed — where the horse puts its hoof, there the crab sticks its claw.’
We got out of the bushes; suddenly two hounds ‘gave tongue’ close to us, and a big hare bounded through the oats, which were fairly high by now. The dogs, hounds and harriers, leaped out of the thicket after him, and after the dogs flew out Tchertop-hanov himself. He did not shout, nor urge the dogs on, nor halloo; he was breathless and gasping; broken, senseless sounds were jerked out of his gaping mouth now and then; he dashed on, his eyes starting out of his head, and furiously lashed at his luckless horse with the whip. The harriers were gaining on the hare . . . it squatted for a moment, doubled sharply back, and darted past Yermolaï into the bushes. . . . The harriers rushed in pursuit. ‘Lo-ok out! lo-ok out!’ the exhausted horseman articulated with effort, in a sort of stutter: ‘lo-ok out, friend!’ Yermolaï shot . . . the wounded hare rolled head over heels on the smooth dry grass, leaped into the air, and squealed piteously in the teeth of a worrying dog. The hounds crowded about her. Like an arrow, Tchertop-hanov flew off his horse, clutched his dagger, ran straddling among the dogs with furious imprecations, snatched the mangled hare from them, and, creasing up his whole face, he buried the dagger in its throat up to the very hilt . . . buried it, and began hallooing. Tihon Ivanitch made his appearance on the edge of the thicket ‘Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho!’ vociferated Tchertop-hanov a second time. ‘Ho-ho-ho-ho,’ his companion repeated placidly.
‘But really, you know, one ought not to hunt in summer, ‘I observed to Tchertop-hanov, pointing to the trampled-down oats.
‘It’s my field,’ answered Tchertop-hanov, gasping.
He pulled the hare into shape, hung it on to his saddle, and flung the paws among the dogs.
‘I owe you a charge, my friend, by the rules of hunting,’ he said, addressing Yermolaï. ‘And you, dear sir,’ he added in the same jerky, abrupt voice, ‘my thanks.’
He mounted his horse.
‘Pe-ermit me to ask . . . I’ve forgotten your name and your father’s.’
Again I told him my name.
‘Delighted to make your acquaintance. When you have an opportunity, hope you’ll come and see me. . . . But where is that Fomka, Tihon Ivanitch?’ he went on with heat; ‘the hare was run down without him.’
‘His horse fell down under him,’ replied Tihon Ivanitch with a smile.
‘Fell down! Orbassan fell down? Pugh! tut! . . . Where is he?’
‘Over there, behind the copse.’
Tchertop-hanov struck his horse on the muzzle with his whip, and galloped off at a breakneck pace. Tihon Ivanitch bowed to me twice, once for himself and once for his companion, and again set off at a trot into the bushes.
These two gentlemen aroused my curiosity keenly. What could unite two creatures so different in the bonds of an inseparable friendship? I began to make inquiries. This was what I learned.
Panteley Eremyitch Tchertop-hanov had the reputation in the whole surrounding vicinity of a dangerous, crack-brained fellow, haughty and quarrelsome in the extreme. He had served a very short time in the army, and had retired from the service through ‘difficulties’ with his superiors, with that rank which is generally regarded as equivalent to no rank at all. He came of an old family, once rich; his forefathers lived sumptuously, after the manner of the steppes — that is, they welcomed all, invited or uninvited, fed them to exhaustion, gave out oats by the quarter to their guests’ coachmen for their teams, kept musicians, singers, jesters, and dogs; on festive days regaled their people with spirits and beer, drove to Moscow in the winter with their own horses, in heavy old coaches, and sometimes were for whole months without a farthing, living on home-grown produce. The estate came into Panteley Eremyitch’s father’s hands in a crippled condition; he, in his turn, ‘played ducks and drakes’ with it, and when he died, left his sole heir, Panteley, the small mortgaged village of Bezsonovo, with thirty-five souls of the male, and seventy-six of the female sex, and twenty-eight acres and a half of useless land on the waste of Kolobrodova, no record of serfs for which could be found among the deceased’s deeds. The deceased had, it must be confessed, ruined himself in a very strange way: ‘provident management’ had been his destruction. According to his notions, a nobleman ought not to depend on merchants, townsmen, and ‘brigands’ of that sort, as he called them; he set up all possible trades and crafts on his estate; ‘it’s both seemlier and cheaper,’ he used to say: ‘it’s provident management’! He never relinquished this fatal idea to the end of his days; indeed, it was his ruin. But, then, what entertainment it gave him! He never denied himself the satisfaction of a single whim. Among other freaks, he once began building, after his own fancy, so immense a family coach that, in spite of the united efforts of the peasants’ horses, drawn together from the whole village, as well as their owners, it came to grief and fell to pieces on the first hillside. Eremey Lukitch (the name of Panteley’s father was Eremey Lukitch), ordered a memorial to be put up on the hillside, but was not, however, at all abashed over the affair. He conceived the happy thought, too, of building a church — by himself, of course — without the assistance of an architect. He burnt a whole forest in making the bricks, laid an immense foundation, as though for a provincial hall, raised the walls, and began putting on the cupola; the cupola fell down. He tried again — the cupola again broke down; he tried the third time —-the cupola fell to pieces a third time. Good Eremey Lukitch grew thoughtful; there was something uncanny about it, he reflected . . . some accursed witchcraft must have a hand in it . . . and at once he gave orders to flog all the old women in the village. They flogged the old women; but they didn’t get the cupola on, for all that. He began reconstructing the peasants’ huts on a new plan, and all on a system of ‘provident management’; he set them three homesteads together in a triangle, and in the middle stuck up a post with a painted bird-cage and flag. Every day he invented some new freak; at one time he was making soup of burdocks, at another cutting his horses’ tails off to make caps for his servants; at another, proposing to substitute nettles for flax, to feed pigs on mushrooms. . . . He had once read in the Moscow Gazette an article by a Harkov landowner, Hryak-Hrupyorsky, on the importance of morality to the well-being of the peasant, and the next day he gave forth a decree to all his peasants to learn off the Harkov landowner’s article by heart at once. The peasants learnt the article; the master asked them whether they understood what was said in it? The bailiff replied — that to be sure they understood it! About the same time he ordered all his subjects, with a view to the maintenance of order and provident management, to be numbered, and each to have his number sewn on his collar. On meeting the master, each was to shout, ‘Number so-and-so is here!’ and the master would answer affably: ‘Go on, in God’s name!’
In spite, however, of order and provident management, Eremey Lukitch got by degrees into a very difficult position; he began at first by mortgaging his villages, and then was brought to the sale of them; the last ancestral home, the village with the unfinished church, was sold at last for arrears to the Crown, luckily not in the lifetime of Eremey Lukitch — he could never have supported such a blow — but a fortnight after his death. He succeeded in dying at home in his own bed, surrounded by his own people, and under the care of his own doctor; but nothing was left to poor Panteley but Bezsonovo.
Panteley heard of his father’s illness while he was still in the service, in the very heat of the ‘difficulties’ mentioned above. He was only just nineteen. From his earliest childhood he had not left his father’s house, and under the guidance of his mother, a very good-natured but perfectly stupid woman, Vassilissa Vassilyevna, he grew up spoilt and conceited. She undertook his education alone; Eremey Lukitch, buried in his economical fancies, had no thoughts to spare for it. It is true, he once punished his son with his own hand for mispronouncing a letter of the alphabet; but Eremey Lukitch had received a cruel and secret blow that day: his best dog had been crushed by a tree. Vassilissa Vassilyevna’s efforts in regard Panteley’s education did not, however, get beyond one terrific exertion; in the sweat of her brow she engaged him a tutor, one Birkopf, a retired Alsatian soldier, and to the day of her death she trembled like a leaf before him. ‘Oh,’ she thought, ‘if he throws us up — I’m lost! Where could I turn? Where could I find another teacher? Why, with what pains, what pains I enticed this one away from our neighbours!’ And Birkopf, like a shrewd man, promptly took advantage of his unique position; he drank like a fish, and slept from morning till night. On the completion of his ‘course of science,’ Panteley entered the army. Vassilissa Vassilyevna was no more; she had died six months before that important event, of fright. She had had a dream of a white figure riding on a bear. Eremey Lukitch soon followed his better half.
At the first news of his illness, Panteley galloped home at breakneck speed, but he did not find his father alive. What was the amazement of the dutiful son when he found himself, utterly unexpectedly, transformed from a rich heir to a poor man! Few men are capable of bearing so sharp a reverse well. Panteley was embittered, made misanthropical by it. From an honest, generous, good-natured fellow, though spoilt and hot-tempered, he became haughty and quarrelsome; he gave up associating with the neighbours — he was too proud to visit the rich, and he disdained the poor — and behaved with unheard of arrogance to everyone, even to the established authorities. ‘I am of the ancient hereditary nobility,’ he would say. Once he had been on the point of shooting the police-commissioner for coming into the room with his cap on his head. Of course the authorities, on their side, had their revenge, and took every opportunity to make him feel their power; but still, they were rather afraid of him, because he had a desperate temper, and would propose a duel with knives at the second word. At the slightest retort Tchertop-hanov’s eyes blazed, his voice broke. . . . Ah, er — er — er,’ he stammered, ‘damn my soul!’ . . . and nothing could stop him. And, moreover, he was a man of stainless character, who had never had a hand in anything the least shady. No one, of course, visited him . . . and with all this he was a good-hearted, even a great-hearted man in his own way; acts of injustice, of oppression, he would not brook even against strangers; he stood up for his own peasants like a rock. ‘What?’ he would say, with a violent blow on his own head: ‘touch my people, mine? My name’s not Tchertop-hanov, if I . . . ’
Tihon Ivanitch Nedopyuskin could not, like Panteley Eremyitch, pride himself on his origin. His father came of the peasant proprietor class, and only after forty years of service attained the rank of a noble. Mr. Nedopyuskin, the father, belonged to the number of those people who are pursued by misfortune with an obduracy akin to personal hatred. For sixty whole years, from his very birth to his very death, the poor man was struggling with all the hardships, calamities, and privations, incidental to people of small means; he struggled like a fish under the ice, never having enough food and sleep — cringing, worrying, wearing himself to exhaustion, fretting over every farthing, with genuine ‘innocence’ suffering in the service, and dying at last in either a garret or a cellar, in the unsuccessful struggle to gain for himself or his children a crust of dry bread. Fate had hunted him down like a hare.
He was a good-natured and honest man, though he did take bribes — from a threepenny bit up to a crown piece inclusive. Nedopyuskin had a wife, thin and consumptive; he had children too; luckily they all died young except Tihon and a daughter, Mitrodora, nicknamed ‘the merchants’ belle,’ who, after many painful and ludicrous adventures, was married to a retired attorney. Mr. Nedopyuskin had succeeded before his death in getting Tihon a place as supernumerary clerk in some office; but directly after his father’s death Tihon resigned his situation. Their perpetual anxieties, their heartrending struggle with cold and hunger, his mother’s careworn depression, his father’s toiling despair, the coarse aggressiveness of landladies and shopkeepers — all the unending daily suffering of their life had developed an exaggerated timidity in Tihon: at the mere sight of his chief he was faint and trembling like a captured bird. He threw up his office. Nature, in her indifference, or perhaps her irony, implants in people all sorts of faculties and tendencies utterly inconsistent with their means and their position in society; with her characteristic care and love she had moulded of Tihon, the son of a poor clerk, a sensuous, indolent, soft, impressionable creature — a creature fitted exclusively for enjoyment, gifted with an excessively delicate sense of smell and of taste . . . she had moulded him, finished him off most carefully, and set her creation to struggle up on sour cabbage and putrid fish! And, behold! the creation did struggle up somehow, and began what is called ‘life.’ Then the fun began. Fate, which had so ruthlessly tormented Nedopyuskin the father, took to the son too; she had a taste for them, one must suppose. But she treated Tihon on a different plan: she did not torture him; she played with him. She did not once drive him to desperation, she did not set him to suffer the degrading agonies of hunger, but she led him a dance through the whole of Russia from one end to the other, from one degrading and ludicrous position to another; at one time Fate made him ‘majordomo’ to a snappish, choleric Lady Bountiful, at another a humble parasite on a wealthy skinflint merchant, then a private secretary to a goggle-eyed gentleman, with his hair cut in the English style, then she promoted him to the post of something between butler and buffoon to a dog-fancier. . . . In short, Fate drove poor Tihon to drink drop by drop to the dregs the bitter poisoned cup of a dependent existence. He had been, in his time, the sport of the dull malignity and the boorish pranks of slothful masters. How often, alone in his room, released at last ‘to go in peace,’ after a mob of visitors had glutted their taste for horseplay at his expense, he had vowed, blushing with shame, chill tears of despair in his eyes, that he would run away in secret, would try his luck in the town, would find himself some little place as clerk, or die once for all of hunger in the street! But, in the first place, God had not given him strength of character; secondly, his timidity unhinged him; and thirdly, how could he get himself a place? whom could he ask? ‘They’ll never give it me,’ the luckless wretch would murmur, tossing wearily in his bed, ‘they’ll never give it me!’ And the next day he would take up the same degrading life again. His position was the more painful that, with all her care, nature had not troubled to give him the smallest share of the gifts and qualifications without which the trade of a buffoon is almost impossible. He was not equal, for instance, to dancing till he dropped, in a bearskin coat turned inside out, nor making jokes and cutting capers in the immediate vicinity of cracking whips; if he was turned out in a state of nature into a temperature of twenty degrees below freezing, as often as not, he caught cold; his stomach could not digest brandy mixed with ink and other filth, nor minced funguses and toadstools in vinegar. There is no knowing what would have become of Tihon if the last of his patrons, a contractor who had made his fortune, had not taken it into his head in a merry hour to inscribe in his will: ‘And to Zyozo (Tihon, to wit) Nedopyuskin, I leave in perpetual possession, to him and his heirs, the village of Bezselendyevka, lawfully acquired by me, with all its appurtenances.’ A few days later this patron was taken with a fit of apoplexy after gorging on sturgeon soup. A great commotion followed; the officials came and put seals on the property.
The relations arrived; the will was opened and read; and they called for Nedopyuskin: Nedopyuskin made his appearance. The greater number of the party knew the nature of Tihon Ivanitch’s duties in his patron’s household; he was greeted with deafening shouts and ironical congratulations. ‘The landowner; here is the new owner!’ shouted the other heirs. ‘Well, really this,’ put in one, a noted wit and humourist; ‘well, really this, one may say . . . this positively is . . . really what one may call . . . an heir-apparent!’ and they all went off into shrieks. For a long while Nedopyuskin could not believe in his good fortune. They showed him the will: he flushed, shut his eyes, and with a despairing gesture he burst into tears. The chuckles of the party passed into a deep unanimous roar. The village of Bezselendyevka consisted of only twenty-two serfs, no one regretted its loss keenly; so why not get some fun out of it? One of the heirs from Petersburg, an important man, with a Greek nose and a majestic expression of face, Rostislav Adamitch Shtoppel, went so far as to go up to Nedopyuskin and look haughtily at him over his shoulder. ‘So far as I can gather, honoured sir,’ he observed with contemptuous carelessness, ‘you enjoyed your position in the household of our respected Fedor Fedoritch, owing to your obliging readiness to wait on his diversions?’ The gentleman from Petersburg expressed himself in a style insufferably refined, smart, and correct. Nedopyuskin, in his agitation and confusion, had not taken in the unknown gentleman’s words, but the others were all quiet at once; the wit smiled condescendingly. Mr. Shtoppel rubbed his hands and repeated his question. Nedopyuskin raised his eyes in bewilderment and opened his mouth. Rostislav Adamitch puckered his face up sarcastically.
‘I congratulate you, my dear sir, I congratulate you,’ he went on: ‘it’s true, one may say, not everyone would have consented to gain his daily bread in such a fashion; but de guslibus non est disputandum, that is, everyone to his taste. . . . Eh?’
Someone at the back uttered a rapid, decorous shriek of admiration and delight.
‘Tell us,’ pursued Mr. Shtoppel, much encouraged by the smiles of the whole party, ‘to what special talent are you indebted for your good-fortune? No, don’t be bashful, tell us; we’re all here, so to speak, en famille. Aren’t we, gentlemen, all here en famille?’
The relation to whom Rostislav Adamitch chanced to turn with this question did not, unfortunately, know French, and so he confined himself to a faint grunt of approbation. But another relation, a young man, with patches of a yellow colour on his forehead, hastened to chime in, ‘Wee, wee, to be sure.’
‘Perhaps,’ Mr. Shtoppel began again, ‘you can walk on your hands, your legs raised, so to say, in the air?’
Nedopyuskin looked round in agony: every face wore a taunting smile, every eye was moist with delight.
‘Or perhaps you can crow like a cock?’
A loud guffaw broke out on all sides, and was hushed at once, stifled by expectation.
‘Or perhaps on your nose you can. . . . ’
‘Stop that!’ a loud harsh voice suddenly interrupted Rostislav Adamitch; ‘I wonder you’re not ashamed to torment the poor man!’
Everyone looked round. In the doorway stood Tchertop-hanov. As a cousin four times removed of the deceased contractor, he too had received a note of invitation to the meeting of the relations. During the whole time of reading the will he had kept, as he always did, haughtily apart from the others.
‘Stop that!’ he repeated, throwing his head back proudly.
Mr. Shtoppel turned round quickly, and seeing a poorly dressed, unattractive-looking man, he inquired of his neighbour in an undertone (caution’s always a good thing):
‘Tchertop-hanov — he’s no great shakes,’ the latter whispered in his ear.
Rostislav Adamitch assumed a haughty air.
‘And who are you to give orders?’ he said through his nose, drooping his eyelids scornfully; ‘who may you be, allow me to inquire? — a queer fish, upon my word!’
Tchertop-hanov exploded like gunpowder at a spark. He was choked with fury.
‘Ss — ss — ss!’ he hissed like one possessed, and all at once he thundered: ‘Who am I? Who am I? I’m Panteley Tchertop-hanov, of the ancient hereditary nobility; my forefathers served the Tsar: and who may you be?’
Rostislav Adamitch turned pale and stepped back. He had not expected such resistance.
‘I— I— a fish indeed!’
Tchertop-hanov darted forward; Shtoppel bounded away in great perturbation, the others rushed to meet the exasperated nobleman.
‘A duel, a duel, a duel, at once, across a handkerchief!’ shouted the enraged Panteley, ‘or beg my pardon — yes, and his too. . . . ’
‘Pray beg his pardon!’ the agitated relations muttered all round Shtoppel; ‘he’s such a madman, he’d cut your throat in a minute!’
‘I beg your pardon, I beg your pardon, I didn’t know,’ stammered Shtoppel; ‘I didn’t know. . . . ’
‘And beg his too!’ vociferated the implacable Panteley.
‘I beg your pardon too,’ added Rostislav Adamitch, addressing Nedopyuskin, who was shaking as if he were in an ague.
Tchertop-hanov calmed down; he went up to Tihon Ivanitch, took him by the hand, looked fiercely round, and, as not one pair of eyes ventured to meet his, he walked triumphantly amid profound silence out of the room, with the new owner of the lawfully acquired village of Bezselendyevka.
From that day they never parted again. (The village of Bezselendyevka was only seven miles from Bezsonovo.) The boundless gratitude of Nedopyuskin soon passed into the most adoring veneration. The weak, soft, and not perfectly stainless Tihon bowed down in the dust before the fearless and irreproachable Panteley. ‘It’s no slight thing,’ he thought to himself sometimes, ‘to talk to the governor, look him straight in the face. . . . Christ have mercy on us, doesn’t he look at him!’
He marvelled at him, he exhausted all the force of his soul in his admiration of him, he regarded him as an extraordinary man, as clever, as learned. And there’s no denying that, bad as Tchertop-hanov’s education might be, still, in comparison with Tihon’s education, it might pass for brilliant. Tchertop-hanov, it is true, had read little Russian, and knew French very badly — so badly that once, in reply to the question of a Swiss tutor: ‘Vous parlez français, monsieur?‘ he answered: ‘Je ne comprehend‘ and after a moment’s thought, he added pa; but any way he was aware that Voltaire had once existed, and was a very witty writer, and that Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, had been distinguished as a great military commander. Of Russian writers he respected Derzhavin, but liked Marlinsky, and called Ammalat-Bek the best of the pack. . . .
A few days after my first meeting with the two friends, I set off for the village of Bezsonovo to see Panteley Eremyitch. His little house could be seen a long way off; it stood out on a bare place, half a mile from the village, on the ‘bluff,’ as it is called, like a hawk on a ploughed field. Tchertop-hanov’s homestead consisted of nothing more than four old tumble-down buildings of different sizes — that is, a lodge, a stable, a barn, and a bath-house. Each building stood apart by itself; there was neither a fence round nor a gate to be seen. My coachman stopped in perplexity at a well which was choked up and had almost disappeared. Near the barn some thin and unkempt puppies were mangling a dead horse, probably Orbassan; one of them lifted up the bleeding nose, barked hurriedly, and again fell to devouring the bare ribs. Near the horse stood a boy of seventeen, with a puffy, yellow face, dressed like a Cossack, and barelegged; he looked with a responsible air at the dogs committed to his charge, and now and then gave the greediest a lash with his whip.
‘Is your master at home?’ I inquired.
‘The Lord knows!’ answered the lad; ‘you’d better knock.’
I jumped out of the droshky, and went up to the steps of the lodge.
Mr. Tchertop-hanov’s dwelling presented a very cheerless aspect; the beams were blackened and bulging forward, the chimney had fallen off, the corners of the house were stained with damp, and sunk out of the perpendicular, the small, dusty, bluish windows peeped out from under the shaggy overhanging roof with an indescribably morose expression: some old vagrants have eyes that look like that. I knocked; no one responded. I could hear, however, through the door some sharply uttered words:
‘A, B, C; there now, idiot!’ a hoarse voice was saying: ‘A, B, C, D . . . no! D, E, E, E! . . . Now then, idiot!’
I knocked a second time.
The same voice shouted: ‘Come in; who’s there?’ . . .
I went into the small empty hall, and through the open door I saw Tchertop-hanov himself. In a greasy oriental dressing-gown, loose trousers, and a red skull-cap, he was sitting on a chair; in one hand he gripped the face of a young poodle, while in the other he was holding a piece of bread just above his nose.
‘Ah!’ he pronounced with dignity, not stirring from his seat: ‘delighted to see you. Please sit down. I am busy here with Venzor. . . . Tihon Ivanitch,’ he added, raising his voice, ‘come here, will you? Here’s a visitor.’
‘I’m coming, I’m coming,’ Tihon Ivanitch responded from the other room. ‘Masha, give me my cravat.’
Tchertop-hanov turned to Venzor again and laid the piece of bread on his nose. I looked round. Except an extending table much warped with thirteen legs of unequal length, and four rush chairs worn into hollows, there was no furniture of any kind in the room; the walls, which had been washed white, ages ago, with blue, star-shaped spots, were peeling off in many places; between the windows hung a broken tarnished looking-glass in a huge frame of red wood. In the corners stood pipestands and guns; from the ceiling hung fat black cobwebs.
‘A, B, C, D,’ Tchertop-hanov repeated slowly, and suddenly he cried furiously: ‘E! E! E! E! . . . What a stupid brute! . . . ’
But the luckless poodle only shivered, and could not make up his mind to open his mouth; he still sat wagging his tail uneasily and wrinkling up his face, blinked dejectedly, and frowned as though saying to himself: ‘Of course, it’s just as you please!’
‘There, eat! come! take it!’ repeated the indefatigable master.
‘You’ve frightened him,’ I remarked.
‘Well, he can get along, then!’
He gave him a kick. The poor dog got up softly, dropped the bread off his nose, and walked, as it were, on tiptoe to the hall, deeply wounded. And with good reason: a stranger calling for the first time, and to treat him like that!
The door from the next room gave a subdued creak, and Mr. Nedopyuskin came in, affably bowing and smiling.
I got up and bowed.
‘Don’t disturb yourself, don’t disturb yourself,’ he lisped.
We sat down. Tchertop-hanov went into the next room.
‘You have been for some time in our neighbourhood,’ began Nedopyuskin in a subdued voice, coughing discreetly into his hand, and holding his fingers before his lips from a feeling of propriety.
‘I came last month.’
We were silent for a little.
‘Lovely weather we are having just now,’ resumed Nedopyuskin, and he looked gratefully at me as though I were in some way responsible for the weather: ‘the corn, one may say, is doing wonderfully.’
I nodded in token of assent. We were silent again.
‘Panteley Eremyitch was pleased to hunt two hares yesterday,’ Nedopyuskin began again with an effort, obviously wishing to enliven the conversation; ‘yes, indeed, very big hares they were, sir.’
‘Has Mr. Tchertop-hanov good hounds?’
‘The most wonderful hounds, sir!’ Nedopyuskin replied, delighted; ‘one may say, the best in the province, indeed.’ (He drew nearer to me.) ‘But, then, Panteley Eremyitch is such a wonderful man! He has only to wish for anything — he has only to take an idea into his head — and before you can look round, it’s done; everything, you may say, goes like clockwork. Panteley Eremyitch, I assure you. . . . ’
Tchertop-hanov came into the room. Nedopyuskin smiled, ceased speaking, and indicated him to me with a glance which seemed to say, ‘There, you will see for yourself.’ We fell to talking about hunting.
‘Would you like me to show you my leash?’ Tchertop-hanov asked me; and, not waiting for a reply, he called Karp.
A sturdy lad came in, in a green nankin long coat, with a blue collar and livery buttons.
‘Tell Fomka,’ said Tchertop-hanov abruptly, ‘to bring in Ammalat and Saiga, and in good order, do you understand?’
Karp gave a broad grin, uttered an indefinite sound, and went away. Fomka made his appearance, well combed and tightly buttoned up, in boots, and with the hounds. From politeness, I admired the stupid beasts (harriers are all exceedingly stupid). Tchertop-hanov spat right into Ammalat’s nostrils, which did not, however, apparently afford that dog the slightest satisfaction. Nedopyuskin, too, stroked Ammalat from behind. We began chatting again. By degrees Tchertop-hanov unbent completely, and no longer stood on his dignity nor snorted defiantly; the expression of his face changed. He glanced at me and at Nedopyuskin. . . .
‘Hey!’ he cried suddenly; ‘why should she sit in there alone? Masha! hi, Masha! come in here!’
Some one stirred in the next room, but there was no answer.
‘Ma-a-sha!’ Tchertop-hanov repeated caressingly; ‘come in here. It’s all right, don’t be afraid.’
The door was softly opened, and I caught sight of a tall and slender girl of twenty, with a dark gypsy face, golden-brown eyes, and hair black as pitch; her large white teeth gleamed between full red lips. She had on a white dress; a blue shawl, pinned close round her throat with a gold brooch, half hid her slender, beautiful arms, in which one could see the fineness of her race. She took two steps with the bashful awkwardness of some wild creature, stood still, and looked down.
‘Come, let me introduce,’ said Panteley Eremyitch; ‘wife she is not, but she’s to be respected as a wife.’
Masha flushed slightly, and smiled in confusion. I made her a low bow. I thought her very charming. The delicate falcon nose, with distended, half-transparent nostrils; the bold sweep of her high eyebrows, the pale, almost sunken cheeks — every feature of her face denoted wilful passion and reckless devilry. From under the coil of her hair two rows of little shining hairs ran down her broad neck — a sign of race and vigour.
She went to the window and sat down. I did not want to increase her embarrassment, and began talking with Tchertop-hanov. Masha turned her head slyly, and began peeping from under her eyelids at me stealthily, shyly, and swiftly. Her glance seemed to flash out like a snake’s sting. Nedopyuskin sat beside her, and whispered something in her ear. She smiled again. When she smiled, her nose slightly puckered up, and her upper lip was raised, which gave her face something of the expression of a cat or a lion. . . .
‘Oh, but you’re one of the “hands off!” sort,’ I thought, in my turn stealing a look at her supple frame, her hollow breast, and her quick, angular movements.
‘Masha,’ Tchertop-hanov asked, ‘don’t you think we ought to give our visitor some entertainment, eh?’
‘We’ve got some jam,’ she replied.
‘Well, bring the jam here, and some vodka, too, while you’re about it. And, I say, Masha,’ he shouted after her, ‘bring the guitar in too.’
‘What’s the guitar for? I’m not going to sing.’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘Oh, nonsense; you’ll want to when. . . . ’
‘What?’ asked Masha, rapidly knitting her brows.
‘When you’re asked,’ Tchertop-hanov went on, with some embarrassment.
She went out, soon came back with jam and vodka, and again sat by the window. There was still a line to be seen on her forehead; the two eyebrows rose and drooped like a wasp’s antennae. . . . Have you ever noticed, reader, what a wicked face the wasp has? ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘I’m in for a storm.’ The conversation flagged. Nedopyuskin shut up completely, and wore a forced smile; Tchertop-hanov panted, turned red, and opened his eyes wide; I was on the point of taking leave. . . . Suddenly Masha got up, flung open the window, thrust out her head, and shouted lustily to a passing peasant woman, ‘Aksinya!’ The woman started, and tried to turn round, but slipped down and flopped heavily on to a dung-heap. Masha threw herself back and laughed merrily; Tchertop-hanov laughed too; Nedopyuskin shrieked with delight. We all revived. The storm had passed off in one flash of lightning . . . the air was clear again.
Half-an-hour later, no one would have recognised us; we were chatting and frolicking like children. Masha was the merriest of all; Tchertop-hanov simply could not take his eyes off her. Her face grew paler, her nostrils dilated, her eyes glowed and darkened at the same time. It was a wild creature at play. Nedopyuskin limped after her on his short, fat little legs, like a drake after a duck. Even Venzor crawled out of his hiding-place in the hall, stood a moment in the doorway, glanced at us, and suddenly fell to jumping up into the air and barking. Masha flitted into the other room, fetched the guitar, flung off the shawl from her shoulders, seated herself quickly, and, raising her head, began singing a gypsy song. Her voice rang out, vibrating like a glass bell when it is struck; it flamed up and died away. . . . It filled the heart with sweetness and pain. . . . Tchertop-hanov fell to dancing. Nedopyuskin stamped and swung his legs in tune. Masha was all a-quiver, like birch-bark in the fire; her delicate fingers flew playfully over the guitar, her dark-skinned throat slowly heaved under the two rows of amber. All at once she would cease singing, sink into exhaustion, and twang the guitar, as it were involuntarily, and Tchertop-hanov stood still, merely working his shoulders and turning round in one place, while Nedopyuskin nodded his head like a Chinese figure; then she would break out into song like a mad thing, drawing herself up and holding up her head, and Tchertop-hanov again curtsied down to the ground, leaped up to the ceiling, spun round like a top, crying ‘Quicker! . . . ’
‘Quicker, quicker, quicker!’ Nedopyuskin chimed in, speaking very fast.
It was late in the evening when I left Bezsonovo. . . .
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14