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 IV

The young proprietor evidently desired to ask some more questions of the peasants. He did not move from the bench; and he glanced irresolutely, now at Churis, now at the empty, unlighted stove.

“Well, have you had dinner yet?” he asked at last.

A mocking smile arose to Churis’s lips, as though it were ridiculous to him for his master to ask such foolish questions; he made no reply.

“What do you mean,—dinner, benefactor?” said the old woman, sighing deeply. “We’ve eaten a little bread; that’s our dinner. We couldn’t get any vegetables to-day so as to boil some soup,[9] but we had a little kvas,—enough for the children.”

“To-day was a fast-day for us, your excellency,” remarked Churis sarcastically, taking up his wife’s words. “Bread and onions; that’s the way we peasants live. Howsomever, praise be to the Lord, I have a little grain yet, thanks to your kindness; it’s lasted till now; but there’s plenty of our peasants as ain’t got any. Everywheres there’s scarcity of onions. Only a day or two ago they sent to Mikháïl the gardener, to get a bunch for a farthing: couldn’t get any anywheres. Haven’t been to God’s church scarcely since Easter. Haven’t had nothing to buy a taper for Mikóla [St. Nicholas] with.”

Nekhliudof, not by hearsay nor by trust in the [21]words of others, but by the evidence of his own eyes, had long known the extreme depth of poverty into which his peasantry had sunken: but the entire reality was in such perfect contrast to his own bringing-up, the turn of his mind, and the course of his life, that in spite of himself he kept forgetting the truth of it; and every time when, as now, it was brought vividly, tangibly, before him, his heart was torn with painful, almost unendurable melancholy, as though some absolute and unavoidable punishment were torturing him.

“Why are you so poor?” he exclaimed, involuntarily expressing his thought.

“How could such as we help being poor, sir,[10] your excellency? Our land is so bad, you yourself may be pleased to know,—clay and sand-heaps; and surely we must have angered God, for this long time, ever since the cholera, the corn won’t grow. Our meadows and every thing else have been growing worse and worse. And some of us have to work for the farm, and some detailed for the manor-lands. And here I am with no one to help me, and I’m getting old. I’d be glad enough to work, but I hain’t no strength. And my old woman’s ailing; and every year there’s a new girl born, and I have to feed ’em all. I get tired out all alone, and here’s seven dependent on me. I must be a sinner in the eyes of the Lord God, I often think to myself. And when God takes me off sudden-like, I feel it would be easier for me; just as it’s better for them than to lead such a dog’s life here”….

“Oh, okh!” groaned the old woman, as a sort of confirmation of her husband’s words.

“And this is all the help I have,” continued Churis, [22]pointing to the white-headed, unkempt little boy of seven, with a huge belly, who at this moment, timidly and quietly pushing the door open, came into the hut, and, resting his eyes in wonder and solemnity on the master, clung hold of Churis’s shirt-band with both hands.

“This is all the assistance I have here,” continued Churis in a sonorous voice, laying his shaggy hand on the little lad’s white hair. “When will he be good for any thing? But my work isn’t much good. When I reach old age I shall be good for nothing; the rupture is getting the better of me. In wet weather it makes me fairly scream. I am getting to be an old man, and yet I have to take care of my land.[11] And here’s Yermilof, Demkin, Zabref, all younger than I am, and they have been freed from their land long ago. Well, I haven’t any one to help me with it; that’s my misfortune. Have to feed so many; that’s where my struggle lies, your excellency.”

“I should be very glad to make it easier for you, truly. But how can I?” asked the young bárin in a tone of sympathy, looking at the serf.

“How make it easier? It’s a well-known fact, if you have the land you must do enforced labor also;[12] that’s the regulation. I expect something from this youngster. If only you’d be good enough to let him off from going to school. But just a day or two ago, the officer[13] came and said that your excellency wanted him to go to school. Do let him off; he has no capacity for learning, your excellency. He’s too young yet; he won’t understand any thing.”


“No, brother, you’re wrong there,” said the bárin. “Your boy is old enough to understand; it’s time for him to be learning. Just think of it! How he’ll grow up, and learn about farming; yes, and he’ll know his a-b-c’s, and know how to read; and read in church. He’ll be a great help to you if God lets him live,” said Nekhliudof, trying to make himself as plain as possible, and at the same time blushing and stammering.

“Very true, your excellency. You don’t want to do us an injury, but there’s no one to take care of the house; for while I and the old woman are doing the enforced labor, the boy, though he’s so young, is a great help, driving the cattle and watering the horses. Whatever he is, he’s a true muzhík;” and Churis, with a smile, took the lad’s nose between his fat fingers, and deftly removed the mucus.

“Nevertheless, you must send him to school, for now you are at home, and he has plenty of time,—do you hear? Don’t you fail.”

Churis sighed deeply, and made no reply.[24]

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Chapter V > > >

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

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