MASTER AND MAN
Having stumbled back to the sledge Vasili Andreevich caught hold of it and for a long time stood motionless, trying to calm himself and recover his breath. Nikita was not in his former place, but something, already covered with snow, was lying in the sledge and Vasili Andreevich concluded that this was Nikita. His terror had now quite left him, and if he felt any fear it was lest the dreadful terror should return that he had experienced when on the horse and especially when he was left alone in the snow-drift. At any cost he had to avoid that terror, and to keep it away he must do something—occupy himself with something. And the first thing he did was to turn his back to the wind and open his fur coat. Then, as soon as he recovered his breath a little, he shook the snow out of his boots and out of his left-hand glove (the right-hand glove was hopelessly lost and by this time probably lying somewhere under a dozen inches of snow); then as was his custom when going out of his shop to buy grain from the peasants, he pulled his girdle low down and tightened it and prepared for action. The first thing that occurred to him was to free Mukhorty’s leg from the rein. Having done that, and tethered him to the iron cramp at the front of the sledge where he had been before, he was going round the horse’s quarters to put the breechband and pad straight and cover him with the cloth, but at that moment he noticed that something was moving in the sledge and Nikita’s head rose up out of the snow that covered it. Nikita, who was half frozen, rose with great difficulty and sat up, moving his hand before his nose in a strange manner just as if he were driving away flies. He waved his hand and said something, and seemed to Vasili Andreevich to be calling him. Vasili Andreevich left the cloth unadjusted and went up to the sledge.
‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘What are you saying?’
‘I’m dy . . . ing, that’s what,’ said Nikita brokenly and with difficulty. ‘Give what is owing to me to my lad, or to my wife, no matter.’
‘Why, are you really frozen?’ asked Vasili Andreevich.
‘I feel it’s my death. Forgive me for Christ’s sake . . .’ said Nikita in a tearful voice, continuing to wave his hand before his face as if driving away flies.
Vasili Andreevich stood silent and motionless for half a minute. Then suddenly, with the same resolution with which he used to strike hands when making a good purchase, he took a step back and turning up his sleeves began raking the snow off Nikita and out of the sledge. Having done this he hurriedly undid his girdle, opened out his fur coat, and having pushed Nikita down, lay down on top of him, covering him not only with his fur coat but with the whole of his body, which glowed with warmth. After pushing the skirts of his coat between Nikita and the sides of the sledge, and holding down its hem with his knees, Vasili Andreevich lay like that face down, with his head pressed against the front of the sledge. Here he no longer heard the horse’s movements or the whistling of the wind, but only Nikita’s breathing. At first and for a long time Nikita lay motionless, then he sighed deeply and moved.
‘There, and you say you are dying! Lie still and get warm, that’s our way . . .’ began Vasili Andreevich.
But to his great surprise he could say no more, for tears came to his eyes and his lower jaw began to quiver rapidly. He stopped speaking and only gulped down the risings in his throat. ‘Seems I was badly frightened and have gone quite weak,’ he thought. But this weakness was not only unpleasant, but gave him a peculiar joy such as he had never felt before.
‘That’s our way!’ he said to himself, experiencing a strange and solemn tenderness. He lay like that for a long time, wiping his eyes on the fur of his coat and tucking under his knee the right skirt, which the wind kept turning up.
But he longed so passionately to tell somebody of his joyful condition that he said: ‘Nikita!’
‘It’s comfortable, warm!’ came a voice from beneath.
‘There, you see, friend, I was going to perish. And you would have been frozen, and I should have . . .’
But again his jaws began to quiver and his eyes to fill with tears, and he could say no more.
‘Well, never mind,’ he thought. ‘I know about myself what I know.’
He remained silent and lay like that for a long time.
Nikita kept him warm from below and his fur coats from above. Only his hands, with which he kept his coat-skirts down round Nikita’s sides, and his legs which the wind kept uncovering, began to freeze, especially his right hand which had no glove. But he did not think of his legs or of his hands but only of how to warm the peasant who was lying under him. He looked out several times at Mukhorty and could see that his back was uncovered and the drugget and breeching lying on the snow, and that he ought to get up and cover him, but he could not bring himself to leave Nikita and disturb even for a moment the joyous condition he was in. He no longer felt any kind of terror.
‘No fear, we shan’t lose him this time!’ he said to himself, referring to his getting the peasant warm with the same boastfulness with which he spoke of his buying and selling.
Vasili Andreevich lay in that way for one hour, another, and a third, but he was unconscious of the passage of time. At first impressions of the snow-storm, the sledge-shafts, and the horse with the shaft-bow shaking before his eyes, kept passing through his mind, then he remembered Nikita lying under him, then recollections of the festival, his wife, the police-officer, and the box of candles, began to mingle with these; then again Nikita, this time lying under that box, then the peasants, customers and traders, and the white walls of his house with its iron roof with Nikita lying underneath, presented themselves to his imagination. Afterwards all these impressions blended into one nothingness. As the colours of the rainbow unite into one white light, so all these different impressions mingled into one, and he fell asleep.
For a long time he slept without dreaming, but just before dawn the visions recommenced. It seemed to him that he was standing by the box of tapers and that Tikhon’s wife was asking for a five kopek taper for the Church fete. He wished to take one out and give it to her, but his hands would not life, being held tight in his pockets. He wanted to walk round the box but his feet would not move and his new clean goloshes had grown to the stone floor, and he could neither lift them nor get his feet out of the goloshes. Then the taper-box was no longer a box but a bed, and suddenly Vasili Andreevich saw himself lying in his bed at home. He was lying in his bed and could not get up. Yet it was necessary for him to get up because Ivan Matveich, the police-officer, would soon call for him and he had to go with him—either to bargain for the forest or to put Mukhorty’s breeching straight.
He asked his wife: ‘Nikolaevna, hasn’t he come yet?’ ‘No, he hasn’t,’ she replied. He heard someone drive up to the front steps. ‘It must be him.’ ‘No, he’s gone past.’ ‘Nikolaevna! I say, Nikolaevna, isn’t he here yet?’ ‘No.’ He was still lying on his bed and could not get up, but was always waiting. And this waiting was uncanny and yet joyful. Then suddenly his joy was completed. He whom he was expecting came; not Ivan Matveich the police-officer, but someone else—yet it was he whom he had been waiting for. He came and called him; and it was he who had called him and told him to lie down on Nikita. And Vasili Andreevich was glad that that one had come for him.
‘I’m coming!’ he cried joyfully, and that cry awoke him, but woke him up not at all the same person he had been when he fell asleep. He tried to get up but could not, tried to move his arm and could not, to move his leg and also could not, to turn his head and could not. He was surprised but not at all disturbed by this. He understood that this was death, and was not at all disturbed by that either.
He remembered that Nikita was lying under him and that he had got warm and was alive, and it seemed to him that he was Nikita and Nikita was he, and that his life was not in himself but in Nikita. He strained his ears and heard Nikita breathing and even slightly snoring. ‘Nikita is alive, so I too am alive!’ he said to himself triumphantly.
And he remembered his money, his shop, his house, the buying and selling, and Mironov’s millions, and it was hard for him to understand why that man, called Vasili Brekhunov, had troubled himself with all those things with which he had been troubled.
‘Well, it was because he did not know what the real thing was,’ he thought, concerning that Vasili Brekhunov. ‘He did not know, but now I know and know for sure. Now I know!’ And again he heard the voice of the one who had called him before. ‘I’m coming! Coming!’ he responded gladly, and his whole being was filled with joyful emotion. He felt himself free and that nothing could hold him back any longer.
After that Vasili Andreevich neither saw, heard, nor felt anything more in this world.
All around the snow still eddied. The same whirlwinds of snow circled about, covering the dead Vasili Andreevich’s fur coat, the shivering Mukhorty, the sledge, now scarcely to be seen, and Nikita lying at the bottom of it, kept warm beneath his dead master.