MASTER AND MAN
The household to which Vasili Andreevich had come was one of the richest in the village. The family had five allotments, besides renting other land. They had six horses, three cows, two calves, and some twenty sheep. There were twenty-two members belonging to the homestead: four married sons, six grandchildren (one of whom, Petrushka, was married), two great-grandchildren, three orphans, and four daughters-in-law with their babies. It was one of the few homesteads that remained still undivided, but even here the dull internal work of disintegration which would inevitably lead to separation had already begun, starting as usual among the women. Two sons were living in Moscow as water-carriers, and one was in the army. At home now were the old man and his wife, their second son who managed the homestead, the eldest who had come from Moscow for the holiday, and all the women and children. Besides these members of the family there was a visitor, a neighbour who was godfather to one of the children.
Over the table in the room hung a lamp with a shade, which brightly lit up the tea-things, a bottle of vodka, and some refreshments, besides illuminating the brick walls, which in the far corner were hung with icons on both sides of which were pictures. At the head of the table sat Vasili Andreevich in a black sheepskin coat, sucking his frozen moustache and observing the room and the people around him with his prominent hawk-like eyes. With him sat the old, bald, white-bearded master of the house in a white homespun shirt, and next him the son home from Moscow for the holiday—a man with a sturdy back and powerful shoulders and clad in a thin print shirt—then the second son, also broad-shouldered, who acted as head of the house, and then a lean red-haired peasant—the neighbour.
Having had a drink of vodka and something to eat, they were about to take tea, and the samovar standing on the floor beside the brick oven was already humming. The children could be seen in the top bunks and on the top of the oven. A woman sat on a lower bunk with a cradle beside her. The old housewife, her face covered with wrinkles which wrinkled even her lips, was waiting on Vasili Andreevich.
As Nikita entered the house she was offering her guest a small tumbler of thick glass which she had just filled with vodka.
‘Don’t refuse, Vasili Andreevich, you mustn’t! Wish us a merry feast. Drink it, dear!’ she said.
The sight and smell of vodka, especially now when he was chilled through and tired out, much disturbed Nikita’s mind. He frowned, and having shaken the snow off his cap and coat, stopped in front of the icons as if not seeing anyone, crossed himself three times, and bowed to the icons. Then, turning to the old master of the house and bowing first to him, then to all those at table, then to the women who stood by the oven, and muttering: ‘A merry holiday!’ he began taking off his outer things without looking at the table.
‘Why, you’re all covered with hoar-frost, old fellow!’ said the eldest brother, looking at Nikita’s snow-covered face, eyes, and beard.
Nikita took off his coat, shook it again, hung it up beside the oven, and came up to the table. He too was offered vodka. He went through a moment of painful hesitation and nearly took up the glass and emptied the clear fragrant liquid down his throat, but he glanced at Vasili Andreevich, remembered his oath and the boots that he had sold for drink, recalled the cooper, remembered his son for whom he had promised to buy a horse by spring, sighed, and declined it.
‘I don’t drink, thank you kindly,’ he said frowning, and sat down on a bench near the second window.
‘How’s that?’ asked the eldest brother.
‘I just don’t drink,’ replied Nikita without lifting his eyes but looking askance at his scanty beard and moustache and getting the icicles out of them.
‘It’s not good for him,’ said Vasili Andreevich, munching a cracknel after emptying his glass.
‘Well, then, have some tea,’ said the kindly old hostess. ‘You must be chilled through, good soul. Why are you women dawdling so with the samovar?’
‘It is ready,’ said one of the young women, and after flicking with her apron the top of the samovar which was now boiling over, she carried it with an effort to the table, raised it, and set it down with a thud.
Meanwhile Vasili Andreevich was telling how he had lost his way, how they had come back twice to this same village, and how they had gone astray and had met some drunken peasants. Their hosts were surprised, explained where and why they had missed their way, said who the tipsy people they had met were, and told them how they ought to go.
‘A little child could find the way to Molchanovka from here. All you have to do is to take the right turning from the high road. There’s a bush you can see just there. But you didn’t even get that far!’ said the neighbour.
‘You’d better stay the night. The women will make up beds for you,’ said the old woman persuasively.
‘You could go on in the morning and it would be pleasanter,’ said the old man, confirming what his wife had said.
‘I can’t, friend. Business!’ said Vasili Andreevich. ‘Lose an hour and you can’t catch it up in a year,’ he added, remembering the grove and the dealers who might snatch that deal from him. ‘We shall get there, shan’t we?’ he said, turning to Nikita.
Nikita did not answer for some time, apparently still intent on thawing out his beard and moustache.
‘If only we don’t go astray again,’ he replied gloomily. He was gloomy because he passionately longed for some vodka, and the only thing that could assuage that longing was tea and he had not yet been offered any.
‘But we have only to reach the turning and then we shan’t go wrong. The road will be through the forest the whole way,’ said Vasili Andreevich.
‘It’s just as you please, Vasili Andreevich. If we’re to go, let us go,’ said Nikita, taking the glass of tea he was offered.
‘We’ll drink our tea and be off.’
Nikita said nothing but only shook his head, and carefully pouring some tea into his saucer began warming his hands, the fingers of which were always swollen with hard work, over the steam. Then, biting off a tiny bit of sugar, he bowed to his hosts, said, ‘Your health!’ and drew in the steaming liquid.
‘If somebody would see us as far as the turning,’ said Vasili Andreevich.
‘Well, we can do that,’ said the eldest son. ‘Petrushka will harness and go that far with you.’
‘Well, then, put in the horse, lad, and I shall be thankful to you for it.’
‘Oh, what for, dear man?’ said the kindly old woman. ‘We are heartily glad to do it.’
‘Petrushka, go and put in the mare,’ said the eldest brother.
‘All right,’ replied Petrushka with a smile, and promptly snatching his cap down from a nail he ran away to harness.
While the horse was being harnessed the talk returned to the point at which it had stopped when Vasili Andreevich drove up to the window. The old man had been complaining to his neighbour, the village elder, about his third son who had not sent him anything for the holiday though he had sent a French shawl to his wife.
‘The young people are getting out of hand,’ said the old man.
‘And how they do!’ said the neighbour. ‘There’s no managing them! They know too much. There’s Demochkin now, who broke his father’s arm. It’s all from being too clever, it seems.’
Nikita listened, watched their faces, and evidently would have liked to share in the conversation, but he was too busy drinking his tea and only nodded his head approvingly. He emptied one tumbler after another and grew warmer and warmer and more and more comfortable. The talk continued on the same subject for a long time—the harmfulness of a household dividing up—and it was clearly not an abstract discussion but concerned the question of a separation in that house; a separation demanded by the second son who sat there morosely silent.
It was evidently a sore subject and absorbed them all, but out of propriety they did not discuss their private affairs before strangers. At last, however, the old man could not restrain himself, and with tears in his eyes declared that he would not consent to a break-up of the family during his lifetime, that his house was prospering, thank God, but that if they separated they would all have to go begging.
‘Just like the Matveevs,’ said the neighbour. ‘They used to have a proper house, but now they’ve split up none of them has anything.’
‘And that is what you want to happen to us,’ said the old man, turning to his son.
The son made no reply and there was an awkward pause. The silence was broken by Petrushka, who having harnessed the horse had returned to the hut a few minutes before this and had been listening all the time with a smile.
‘There’s a fable about that in Paulson,’ he said. ‘A father gave his sons a broom to break. At first they could not break it, but when they took it twig by twig they broke it easily. And it’s the same here,’ and he gave a broad smile. ‘I’m ready!’ he added.
‘If you’re ready, let’s go,’ said Vasili Andreevich. ‘And as to separating, don’t you allow it, Grandfather. You got everything together and you’re the master. Go to the Justice of the Peace. He’ll say how things should be done.’
‘He carries on so, carries on so,’ the old man continued in a whining tone. ‘There’s no doing anything with him. It’s as if the devil possessed him.’
Nikita having meanwhile finished his fifth tumbler of tea laid it on its side instead of turning it upside down, hoping to be offered a sixth glass. But there was no more water in the samovar, so the hostess did not fill it up for him. Besides, Vasili Andreevich was putting his things on, so there was nothing for it but for Nikita to get up too, put back into the sugar-basin the lump of sugar he had nibbled all round, wipe his perspiring face with the skirt of his sheepskin, and go to put on his overcoat.
Having put it on he sighed deeply, thanked his hosts, said good-bye, and went out of the warm bright room into the cold dark passage, through which the wind was howling and where snow was blowing through the cracks of the shaking door, and from there into the yard.
Petrushka stood in his sheepskin in the middle of the yard by his horse, repeating some lines from Paulson’s primer. He said with a smile:
‘Storms with mist the sky conceal,
Nikita nodded approvingly as he arranged the reins.
The old man, seeing Vasili Andreevich off, brought a lantern into the passage to show him a light, but it was blown out at once. And even in the yard it was evident that the snowstorm had become more violent.
‘Well, this is weather!’ thought Vasili Andreevich. ‘Perhaps we may not get there after all. But there is nothing to be done. Business! Besides, we have got ready, our host’s horse has been harnessed, and we’ll get there with God’s help!’
Their aged host also thought they ought not to go, but he had already tried to persuade them to stay and had not been listened to.
‘It’s no use asking them again. Maybe my age makes me timid. They’ll get there all right, and at least we shall get to bed in good time and without any fuss,’ he thought.
Petrushka did not think of danger. He knew the road and the whole district so well, and the lines about ‘snowy circles wheeling wild’ described what was happening outside so aptly that it cheered him up. Nikita did not wish to go at all, but he had been accustomed not to have his own way and to serve others for so long that there was no one to hinder the departing travellers.