A Russian Proprietor By Count Leo N. Tolstoy

Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Leo Tolstoy – A Russian Proprietor – contents
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Chapter II

The young proprietor had, as he wrote his aunt, devised a plan of action in the management of his estate; and his whole life and activity were measured by hours, days, and months.

Sunday was reserved for the reception of petitioners, domestic servants, and peasants, for the visitation of the poor serfs belonging to the estate, and the distribution of assistance with the approval of the Commune, which met every Sunday evening, and was obliged to decide who should have help, and what amount should be given.

In such employments passed more than a year, and the young man was now no longer a novice either in the practical or theoretical knowledge of estate management.

It was a clear July Sunday when Nekhliudof, having finished his coffee and run through a chapter of “Maison Rustique,” put his note-book and a packet of bank-notes into the pocket of his light overcoat, and started out of doors. It was a great country-house with colonnades and terraces where he lived, but he occupied only one small room on the ground floor. He made his way over the neglected, weed-grown paths of the old English garden, toward the village, which was distributed along both sides of the highway.

Nekhliudof was a tall, slender young man, with long, thick, wavy auburn hair, with a bright gleam in[6] his dark eyes, a clear complexion, and rosy lips where the first down of young manhood was now beginning to appear.

In all his motions and gait, could be seen strength, energy, and the good-natured self-satisfaction of youth.

The serfs, in variegated groups, were returning from church: old men, maidens, children, mothers with babies in their arms, dressed in their Sunday best, were scattering to their homes; and as they met the bárin they bowed low and made room for him to pass.

After Nekhliudof had walked some distance along the street, he stopped, and drew from his pocket his note-book, on the last page of which, inscribed in his own boyish hand, were a number of names of his serfs with memoranda. He read, “Iván Churis asks for aid;” and then, proceeding still farther along the street, entered the gate of the second hut[2] on the right.

Churis’s domicile consisted of a half-decayed structure, with musty corners; the sides were rickety. It was so buried in the ground, that the banking, made of earth and dung, almost hid the two windows. The one on the front had a broken sash, and the shutters were half torn away; the other was small and low, and was stuffed with flax. A boarded entry with rotting sills and low door, another small building still older and still lower-studded than the entry, a gate, and a barn were clustered about the principal hut.

All this had once been covered by one irregular roof; but now only over the eaves hung the thick straw, black and decaying. Above, in places, could be seen the frame-work and rafters.

In front of the yard were a well with rotten curb,[7] the remains of a post, and the wheel, and a mud-puddle stirred up by the cattle where some ducks were splashing.

Near the well stood two old willows, split and broken, with their whitish-green foliage. They were witnesses to the fact that some one, some time, had taken interest in beautifying this place. Under one of them sat a fair-haired girl of seven summers, watching another little girl of two, who was creeping at her feet. The watch-dog gambolling about them, as soon as he saw the bárin, flew headlong under the gate, and there set up a quavering yelp expressive of panic.

“Iván at home?” asked Nekhliudof.

The little girl seemed stupefied at this question, and kept opening her eyes wider and wider, but made no reply. The baby opened her mouth, and set up a yell.

A little old woman, in a torn checkered skirt, belted low with an old red girdle, peered out of the door, and also said nothing. Nekhliudof approached the entry, and repeated his inquiry.

“Yes, he’s at home,” replied the little old woman in a quavering voice, bowing low, and evincing timidity and agitation.

After Nekhliudof had asked after her health, and passed through the entry into the little yard, the old woman, resting her chin in her hand, went to the door, and, without taking her eyes off the bárin, began gently to shake her head.

The yard was in a wretched condition, with heaps of old blackened manure that had not been carried away: on the manure were thrown in confusion a rotting block, pitchforks, and two harrows.

There were pent-houses around the yard, under one side of which stood a wooden plough, a cart without a[8] wheel, and a pile of empty good-for-nothing bee-hives thrown one upon another. The roof was in disrepair; and one side had fallen in so that the covering in front rested, not on the supports, but on the manure.

Churis, with the edge and head of an axe, was breaking off the wattles that strengthened the roof. Iván was a peasant, fifty years of age. In stature, he was short. The features of his tanned oval face, framed in a dark auburn beard and hair where a trace of gray was beginning to appear, were handsome and expressive. His dark blue eyes gleamed with intelligence and lazy good-nature, from under half-shut lids. His small, regular mouth, sharply defined under his sandy thin mustache when he smiled, betrayed a calm self-confidence, and a certain bantering indifference toward all around him.

By the roughness of his skin, by his deep wrinkles, by the veins that stood out prominently on his neck, face, and hands, by his unnatural stoop and the crooked position of his legs, it was evident that all his life had been spent in hard work, far beyond his strength.

His garb consisted of white hempen drawers, with blue patches on the knees, and a dirty shirt of the same material, which kept hitching up his back and arms. The shirt was belted low in the waist by a girdle, from which hung a brass key.

“Good-day,” said the bárin, as he stepped into the yard. Churis glanced around, and kept on with his work; making energetic motions, he finished clearing away the wattles from under the shed, and then only, having struck the axe into the block, he came out into the middle of the yard.

“A pleasant holiday, your excellency!” said he, bowing low and smoothing his hair.[9]

“Thanks, my friend. I came to see how your affairs[3] were progressing,” said Nekhliudof with boyish friendliness and timidity, glancing at the peasant’s garb. “Just show me what you need in the way of supports that you asked me about at the last meeting.”

“Supports, of course, sir, your excellency, sir.[4] I should like it fixed a little here, sir, if you will have the goodness to cast your eye on it: here this corner has given way, sir, and only by the mercy of God the cattle didn’t happen to be there. It barely hangs at all,” said Churis, gazing with an expressive look at his broken-down, ramshackly, and ruined sheds. “Now the girders and the supports and the rafters are nothing but rot; you won’t see a sound timber. But where can we get lumber nowadays, I should like to know?”

“Well, what do you want with the five supports when the one shed has fallen in? the others will be soon falling in too, won’t they? You need to have every thing made new,—rafters and girders and posts; but you don’t want supports,” said the bárin, evidently priding himself on his comprehension of the case.

Churis made no reply.

“Of course you need lumber, but not supports. You ought to have told me so.”

“Surely I do, but there’s nowhere to get it. Not all of us can come to the manor-house. If we all should get into the habit of coming to the manor-house and asking your excellency for every thing we wanted, what kind of serfs should we be? But if your kindness went so far as to let me have some of the oak saplings that are lying idle over by the threshing-floor,” said the peasant, making a low bow and scraping[10] with his foot, “then, maybe, I might exchange some, and piece out others, so that the old would last some time longer.”

“What is the good of the old? Why, you just told me that it was all old and rotten. This part has fallen in to-day; to-morrow, that one will; the day after, a third. So, if any thing is to be done, it must be all made new, so that the work may not be wasted. Now tell me what you think about it. Can your premises[5] last out this winter, or not?”

“Who can tell?”

“No, but what do you think? Will they fall in, or not?”

Churis meditated for a moment. “Can’t help falling in,” said he suddenly.

“Well, now you see you had better have said that at the meeting, that you needed to rebuild your whole place,[5] instead of a few props. You see, I should be glad to help you.”

“Many thanks for your kindness,” replied Churis, in an incredulous tone and not looking at the bárin. “If you would give me four joists and some props, then, perhaps, I might fix things up myself; but if any one is hunting after good-for-nothing timbers, then he’d find them in the joists of the hut.”

“Why, is your hut so wretched as all that?”

“My old woman and I are expecting it to fall in on us any day,” replied Churis indifferently. “A day or two ago, a girder fell from the ceiling, and struck my old woman.”

“What! struck her?”

“Yes, struck her, your excellency: whacked her on the back, so that she lay half dead all night.”


“Well, did she get over it?”

“Pretty much, but she’s been ailing ever since; but then she’s always ailing.”

“What, are you sick?” asked Nekhliudof of the old woman, who had been standing all the time at the door, and had begun to groan as soon as her husband mentioned her.

“It bothers me here more and more, especially on Sundays,” she replied, pointing to her dirty lean bosom.

“Again?” asked the young master in a tone of vexation, shrugging his shoulders. “Why, if you are so sick, don’t you come and get advice at the dispensary? That is what the dispensary was built for. Haven’t you been told about it?”

“Certainly we have, but I have not had any time to spare; have had to work in the field, and at home, and look after the children, and no one to help me; if I weren’t all alone”….

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