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 III

Nekhliudof went into the hut. The uneven smoke-begrimed walls of the dwelling were hung with various rags and clothes; and, in the living-room, were literally covered with reddish cockroaches clustering around the holy images and benches.

In the middle of this dark, fetid apartment, not fourteen feet square, was a huge crack in the ceiling; and in spite of the fact that it was braced up in two places, the ceiling hung down so that it threatened to fall from moment to moment.

“Yes, the hut is very miserable,” said the bárin, looking into the face of Churis, who, it seems, had not cared to speak first about this state of things.

“It will crush us to death; it will crush the children,” said the woman in a tearful voice, attending to the stove which stood under the loft.

“Hold your tongue,” cried Churis sternly; and with a slight smile playing under his mustaches, he turned to the master. “And I haven’t the wit to know what’s to be done with it, your excellency,—with this hut and props and planks. There’s nothing to be done with them.”

“How can we live through the winter here? Okh, okh! Oh, oh!” groaned the old woman.

“There’s one thing—if we put in some more props and laid a new floor,” said the husband, interrupting[13] her with a calm, practical expression, “and threw over one set of rafters, then perhaps we might manage to get through the winter. It is possible to live; but you’d have to put some props all over the hut, like that: but if it gets shaken, then there won’t be any thing left of it. As long as it stands, it holds together,” he concluded, evidently perfectly contented that he appreciated this contingency.

Nekhliudof was both vexed and grieved that Churis had got himself into such a condition, without having come to him long before; since he had more than once, during his sojourn on the estate, told the peasants, and insisted upon it, that they should all apply directly to him for whatever they needed.

He now felt some indignation against the peasant; he angrily shrugged his shoulders, and frowned. But the sight of the poverty in the midst of which he found himself, and Churis’s calm and self-satisfied appearance in contrast with this poverty, changed his vexation into a sort of feeling of melancholy and hopelessness.

“Well, Iván, why on earth didn’t you tell me about this before?” he asked in a tone of reproach, as he took a seat on the filthy, unsteady bench.

“I didn’t dare to, your excellency,” replied Churis with the same scarcely perceptible smile, shuffling with his black, bare feet over the uneven surface of the mud floor; but this he said so fearlessly and with such composure, that it was hard to believe that he had any timidity about going to his master.

“We are mere peasants; how could we be so presuming?” began the old woman, sobbing.

“Hush up,” said Churis, again addressing her.

“It is impossible for you to live in this hut: it’s[14] all rotten,” cried Nekhliudof after a brief silence. “Now, this is how we shall manage it, my friend”[6]….

“I am listening.”

“Have you seen the improved stone cottages that I have been building at the new farm,—the one with the undressed walls?”

“Indeed I have seen them,” replied Churis, with a smile that showed his white teeth still unimpaired. “Everybody’s agog at the way they’re built. Fine cottages! The boys were laughing and wondering if they wouldn’t be turned into granaries; they would be so secure against rats. Fine cottages,” he said in conclusion, with an expression of absurd perplexity, shaking his head, “just like a jail!”

“Yes, they’re splendid cottages, dry and warm, and no danger of fire,” replied the bárin, a frown crossing his youthful face as he perceived the peasant’s involuntary sarcasm.

“Without question, your excellency, fine cottages.”

“Well, then, one of these cottages is just finished. It is twenty-four feet square, with an entry, and a barn, and it’s entirely ready. I will let you have it on credit if you say so, at cost price; you can pay for it at your own convenience,” said the bárin with a self-satisfied smile, which he could not control, at the thought of his benevolence. “You can pull down this old one,” he went on to say; “it will make you a granary. We will also move the pens. The water there is splendid. I will give you enough land for a vegetable-garden, and I’ll let you have a strip of land on all three sides. You can live there in a decent way. Now, does not that please you?” asked Nekhliudof, perceiving that as soon as he spoke of moving, Churis [15]became perfectly motionless, and looked at the ground without even a shadow of a smile.

“It’s as your excellency wills,” he replied, not raising his eyes.

The old woman came forward as though something had stung her to the quick, and began to speak; but her husband anticipated her.

“It’s as your excellency wills,” he repeated resolutely, and at the same time humbly glancing at his master, and tossing back his hair. “But it would never do for us to live on a new farm.”

“Why not?”

“Nay, your excellency, not if you move us over there: here we are wretched enough, but over there we could never in the world get along. What kind of peasants should we be there? Nay, nay, it is impossible for us to live there.”

“But why not, pray?”

“We should be totally ruined, your excellency.”

“But why can’t you live there?”

“What kind of a life would it be? Just think! it has never been lived in; we don’t know any thing about the water, no pasture anywhere. Here we have had hemp-fields ever since we can remember, all manured; but what is there there? Yes, what is there there? A wilderness! No hedges, no corn-kilns, no sheds, no nothing at all! Oh, yes, your excellency; we should be ruined if you took us there; we should be perfectly ruined. A new place, all unknown to us,” he repeated, shaking his head thoughtfully but resolutely.

Nekhliudof tried to point out to the peasant that the change, on the contrary, would be very advantageous for him; that they would plant hedges, and build sheds; that the water there was excellent, and so on:[16] but Churis’s obstinate silence exasperated him, and he accordingly felt that he was speaking to no purpose.

Churis made no objection to what he said; but when the master finished speaking, he remarked with a crafty smile, that it would be best of all to remove to that farm some of the old domestic servants, and Alyósha the fool, so that they might watch over the grain there.

“That would be worth while,” he remarked, and smiled once more. “This is foolish business, your excellency.”

“What makes you think the place is not inhabitable?” insisted Nekhliudof patiently. “This place here isn’t inhabitable, and hasn’t been, and yet you live here. But there, you will get settled there before you know it; you will certainly find it easy”….

“But, your excellency, kind sir,[7] how can it be compared?” replied Churis eagerly, as though he feared that the master would not accept a conclusive argument. “Here is our place in the world; we are happy in it; we are accustomed to it, and the road and the pond—where would the old woman do her washing? where would the cattle get watered? And all our peasant ways are here; here from time out of mind. And here’s the threshing-floor, and the little garden, and the willows; and here my parents lived, and my grandfather; and my father gave his soul into God’s keeping here, and I too would end my days here, your excellency. I ask nothing more than that. Be good, and let the hut be put in order; we shall be always grateful for your kindness: but no, not for any thing, would we spend our last days anywhere else. Let us stay here and say our prayers,” he [17]continued, bowing low; “do not take us from our nest, kind sir.”[8]

All the time that Churis was speaking, there was heard in the place under the loft, where his wife was standing, sobs growing more and more violent; and when the husband said “kind sir,” she suddenly darted forward, and with tears in her eyes threw herself at the bárin’s feet.

“Don’t destroy us, benefactor; you are our father, you are our mother! Where are you going to move us to? We are old folks; we have no one to help us. You are to us as God is,” lamented the old woman.

Nekhliudof leaped up from the bench, and was going to lift the old woman; but she, with a sort of passionate despair, beat her forehead on the earth floor, and pushed aside the master’s hand.

“What is the matter with you? Get up, I beg of you. If you don’t wish to go, it is not necessary. I won’t oblige you to,” said he, waving his hand, and retreating to the door.

When Nekhliudof sat down on the bench again, and silence was restored in the room, interrupted only by the sobs of the old woman, who was once more busy under the loft, and was wiping away her tears with the sleeves of her shirt, the young proprietor began to comprehend what was meant for the peasant and his wife by the dilapidated little hut, the crumbling well with the filthy pool, the decaying stalls and sheds, and the broken willows which could be seen before the crooked window; and the feeling that arose in him was burdensome, melancholy, and touched with shame.

“Why didn’t you tell the Commune last Sunday, Iván, that you needed a new hut? I don’t know, now, [18]how to help you. I told you all at the first meeting, that I had come to live in the country, and devote my life to you, that I was ready to deprive myself of every thing to make you happy and contented; and I vowed before God, now, that I would keep my word,” said the young proprietor, not knowing that such a manner of opening the heart is incapable of arousing faith in any one, and especially in the Russian, who loves not words but deeds, and is reluctant to be stirred up by feelings, no matter how beautiful they may be.

But the simple-hearted young man was so pleased with this feeling that he experienced, that he could not help speaking.

Churis leaned his head to one side, and slowly blinking, listened with constrained attention to his master, as to a man to whom he must needs listen, even though he says things not entirely good, and absolutely foreign to his way of thinking.

“But you see I cannot do all that everybody asks of me. If I did not refuse some who ask me for wood, I myself should be left without any, and I could not give to those who really needed. When I made this rule, I did it for the regulation of the peasants’ affairs; and I put it entirely in the hands of the Commune. This wood now is not mine, but yours, you peasants’, and I cannot any longer dispose of it; but the Commune disposes of it, as you know. Come to the meeting to-night. I will tell the Commune about your request: if they are disposed to give you a new hut, well and good; but I haven’t any more wood. I wish with all my soul to help you; but if you aren’t willing to move, then it is no longer my affair, but the Commune’s. Do you understand me?”[19]

“Many thanks for your kindness,” replied Churis in some agitation. “If you will give me some lumber, then we can make repairs. What is the Commune? It’s a well-known fact that”….

“No, you come.”

“I obey. I will come. Why shouldn’t I come? Only this thing is sure: I won’t ask the Commune.”[20]

< < < Chapter II
Chapter IV > > >

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

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