A Russian Proprietor By Count Leo N. Tolstoy

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Chapter IX

“Davidka Byélui[25] asks for grain and posts,” was what followed Yukhvanka’s case in the note-book.

After passing by a number of places, Nekhliudof came to a turn in the lane, and there fell in with his overseer Yakof Alpátitch, who, while the prince was still at a distance, took off his oiled cap, and pulling out a crumpled bandanna handkerchief began to wipe his fat red face.

“Cover yourself, Yakof! Yakof, cover yourself, I tell you.”

“Where do you wish to go, your excellency?” asked Yakof, using his cap to shield his eyes from the sun, but not putting it on.

“I have been at Yukhvanka’s. Tell me, pray, why does he act so?” asked the prince as he walked along the street.

“Why indeed, your excellency!” echoed the overseer as he followed behind the prince in a respectful attitude. He put on his cap, and began to twist his mustache.

“What’s to be done with him? He’s thoroughly good for nothing, lazy, thievish, a liar; he persecutes his mother, and to all appearances he is such a confirmed good-for-nothing that there is no reforming him.”

“I didn’t know, your excellency, that he displeased you so.”


“And his wife,” continued the prince, interrupting the overseer, “seems like a bad woman. The old mother is dressed worse than a beggar, and has nothing to eat; but she wears all her best clothes, and so does he. I really don’t know what is to be done with them.”

Yakof knit his brows thoughtfully when Nekhliudof spoke of Yukhvanka’s wife.

“Well, if he behaves so, your excellency,” began the overseer, “then it will be necessary to find some way to correct things. He is in abject poverty like all the peasants who have no assistance, but he seems to manage his affairs quite differently from the others. He’s a clever fellow, knows how to read, and he’s far from being a dishonest peasant. At the collection of the poll-taxes he was always on hand. And for three years, while I was overseer he was bailiff, and no fault was found with him. In the third year the warden took it into his head to depose him, so he was obliged to take to farming. Perhaps when he lived in town at the station he got drunk sometimes, so we had to devise some means. They used to threaten him, in fun, and he came to his senses again. He was good-natured, and got along well with his family. But as it does not please you to use these means, I am sure I don’t know what we are to do with him. He has really got very low. He can’t be sent into the army, because, as you may be pleased to remember, two of his teeth are missing. Yes, and there are others besides him, I venture to remind you, who absolutely haven’t any”….

“Enough of that, Yakof,” interrupted Nekhliudof, smiling shrewdly. “You and I have discussed that again and again. You know what ideas I have on this[41] subject; and whatever you may say to me, I still remain of the same opinion.”

“Certainly, your excellency, you understand it all,” said Yakof, shrugging his shoulders, and looking askance at the prince as though what he saw were worthy of no consideration. “But as far as the old woman is concerned, I beg you to see that you are disturbing yourself to no purpose,” he continued. “Certainly it is true that she has brought up the orphans, she has fed Yukhvanka, and got him a wife, and so forth; but you know that is common enough among peasants. When the mother or father has transferred the property[26] to the son, then the new owners get control, and the old mother is obliged to work for her own living to the utmost of her strength. Of course they are lacking in delicate feelings, but this is common enough among the peasantry; and so I take the liberty of explaining to you that you are stirred up about the old woman all for nothing. She is a clever old woman, and a good housewife;[27] is there any reason for a gentleman to worry over her? Well, she has quarrelled with her daughter-in-law; maybe the young woman struck her: that’s like a woman, and they would make up again while you torment yourself. You really take it all too much to heart,” said the overseer looking with a certain expression of fondness mingled with condescension at the prince, who was walking silently with long strides before him up the street.

“Will you go home now?” he added.

“No, to Davidka Byélui’s or Kazyól’s—what is his name?”

“Well, he’s a good-for-nothing, I assure you. All the race of the Kazyóls are of the same sort. I [42]haven’t had any success with him; he cares for nothing. Yesterday I rode past the peasant’s field, and his buckwheat wasn’t even sowed yet. What do you wish done with such people? The old man taught his son, but still he’s a good-for-nothing just the same; whether for himself or for the estate, he makes a bungle of every thing. Neither the warden nor I have been able to do any thing with him: we’ve sent him to the station-house, and we’ve punished him at home, because you are pleased now to like”….

“Who? the old man?”

“Yes, the old man. The warden more than once has punished him before the whole assembly, and, would you believe it? he would shake himself, go home, and be as bad as ever. And Davidka, I assure your excellency, is a law-abiding peasant, and a quick-witted peasant; that is, he doesn’t smoke and doesn’t drink,” explained Yakof; “and yet he’s worse than the other who gets drunk. There’s nothing else to do with him than to make a soldier of him or send him to Siberia. All the Kazyóls are the same; and Matriushka who lives in the village belongs to their family, and is the same sort of cursed good-for-nothing. Don’t you care to have me here, your excellency?” inquired the overseer, perceiving that the prince did not heed what he was saying.

“No, go away,” replied Nekhliudof absent-mindedly, and turned his steps toward Davidka Byélui’s.

Davidka’s hovel[28] stood askew and alone at the very edge of the village. It had neither yard, nor cornkiln, nor barn. Only some sort of dirty stalls for cattle were built against one side. On the other a heap of brush-wood and logs was piled up, in imitation of a yard.[29]


Tall green steppe-grass was growing in the place where the court-yard should have been.

There was no living creature to be seen near the hovel, except a sow lying in the mire at the threshold, and grunting.

Nekhliudof tapped at the broken window; but as no one made answer, he went into the entry and shouted, “Holloa there!”[30]

This also brought no response. He passed through the entry, peered into the empty stalls, and entered the open hut.

An old red cock and two hens with ruffs were scratching with their legs, and strutting about over the floor and benches. When they saw a man they spread their wings, and, cackling with terror, flew against the walls, and one took refuge on the oven.

The whole hut, which was not quite fourteen feet[31] square, was occupied by the oven with its broken pipe, a loom, which in spite of its being summer-time was not taken down, and a most filthy table made of a split and uneven plank.

Although it was a dry situation, there was a filthy puddle at the door, caused by the recent rain, which had leaked through roof and ceiling. Loft there was none. It was hard to realize that this was a human habitation, such decided evidence of neglect and disorder was impressed upon both the exterior and the interior of the hovel; nevertheless, in this hovel lived Davidka Byélui and all his family.

At the present moment, notwithstanding the heat of the June day, Davidka, with his head covered by his sheep-skin,[32] was fast asleep, curled up on one corner of [44]the oven. The panic-stricken hen, skipping up on the oven, and growing more and more agitated, took up her position on Davidka’s back, but did not awaken him.

Nekhliudof, seeing no one in the hovel, was about to go, when a prolonged humid sigh betrayed the sleeper.[33]

“Holloa! who’s there?” cried the prince.

A second prolonged sigh was heard from the oven.

“Who’s there? Come here!”

Still another sigh, a sort of a bellow, and a heavy yawn responded to the prince’s call.

“Well, who are you?”

Something moved slightly on the oven. The skirt of a torn sheep-skin[34] was lifted; one huge leg in a dilapidated boot was put down, then another, and finally Davidka’s entire figure emerged. He sat up on the oven, and rubbed his eyes drowsily and morosely with his fist.

Slowly shaking his head, and yawning, he looked down into the hut, and, seeing the prince, began to make greater haste than before; but still his motions were so slow, that Nekhliudof had time to walk back and forth three times from the puddle to the loom before Davidka got down from the oven.

Davidka Byélui or David White was white in reality: his hair, and his body, and his face all were perfectly white.

He was tall and very stout, but stout as peasants are wont to be, that is, not in the waist alone, but in the whole body. His stoutness, however, was of a peculiar flabby, unhealthy kind. His rather comely face, with pale-blue good-natured eyes, and a wide trimmed beard, bore the impress of ill health. There was not the slightest trace of tan or blood: it was of a uniform yellowish ashen tint, with pale livid circles under the eyes, quite as though his face were stuffed with fat or bloated.


His hands were puffy and yellow, like the hands of men afflicted with dropsy, and they wore a growth of fine white hair. He was so drowsy that he could scarcely open his eyes or cease from staggering and yawning.

“Well, aren’t you ashamed of yourself,” began Nekhliudof, “sleeping in the very best part of the day,[35] when you ought to be attending to your work, when you haven’t any corn?”

As Davidka little by little shook off his drowsiness, and began to realize that it was the prince who was standing before him, he folded his arms across his stomach, hung his head, inclining it a trifle to one side, and did not move a limb or say a word; but the expression of his face and the pose of his whole body seemed to say, “I know, I know; it is an old story with me. Well, strike me, if it must be: I will endure it.”

He evidently was anxious for the prince to get through speaking and give him his thrashing as quickly as possible, even if he struck him severely on his swollen cheeks, and then leave him in peace.

Perceiving that Davidka did not understand him, Nekhliudof endeavored by various questions to rouse the peasant from his vexatiously obstinate silence.

“Why have you asked me for wood when you have enough to last you a whole month here, and you haven’t had any thing to do? What?”


Davidka still remained silent, and did not move.

“Well, answer me.”

Davidka muttered something, and blinked his white eyelashes.

“You must go to work, brother. What will become of you if you don’t work? Now you have no grain, and what’s the reason of it? Because your land is badly ploughed, and not harrowed, and no seed put in at the right time,—all from laziness. You asked me for grain: well, let us suppose that I gave it to you, so as to keep you from starving to death, still it is not becoming to do so. Whose grain do I give you? whose do you think? Answer me,—whose grain do I give you?” demanded Nekhliudof obstinately.

“The Lord’s,” muttered Davidka, raising his eyes timidly and questioningly.

“But where did the Lord’s grain come from? Think for yourself, who ploughed for it? who harrowed? who planted it? who harvested it? The peasants, hey? Just look here: if the Lord’s grain is given to the peasants, then those peasants who work most will get most; but you work less than anybody. You are complained about on all sides. You work less than all the others, and yet you ask for more of the Lord’s grain than all the rest. Why should it be given to you, and not to the others? Now, if all, like you, lay on their backs, it would not be long before everybody in the world died of starvation. Brother, you’ve got to labor. This is disgraceful. Do you hear, David?”

“I hear you,” said the other slowly through his teeth.[47]

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