"And so, all is finished!" said Vladimir to himself. "This morning I had a corner and a piece of bread; to-morrow I must leave the house where I was born. My father, with the ground where he reposes, will belong to that hateful man, the cause of his death and of my ruin!"... Vladimir clenched his teeth and fixed his eyes upon the portrait of his mother. The artist had represented her leaning upon a balustrade, in a white morning dress, with a rose in her hair.
"And that portrait will fall into the hands of the enemy of my family," thought Vladimir. "It will be thrown into a lumber room together with broken chairs, or hung up in the ante-room, to become an object of derision for his dog-keepers; and in her bedroom, in the room where my father died, will be installed his bailiff, or his harem. No, no! he shall not have possession of the house of mourning, from which he is driving me out."
Vladimir clenched his teeth again; terrible thoughts rose up in his mind. The voices of the officials reached him; they were giving their orders, demanding first one thing and then another, and disagreeably disturbing him in the midst of his painful meditations.
At last all became quiet.
Vladimir unlocked the drawers and boxes and began to examine the papers of the deceased. They consisted for the most part of farming accounts and letters connected with various matters of business. Vladimir tore them up without reading them. Among them he came across a packet with the inscription: "Letters from my wife." A prey to deep emotion, Vladimir began to read them. They had been written during the Turkish campaign, and were addressed to the army from Kistenevka. Madame Doubrovsky described to her husband her life in the country and her business concerns, complained with tenderness of the separation, and implored him to return home as soon as possible to the arms of his loving wife. In one of these letters, she expressed to him her anxiety concerning the health of little Vladimir; in another she rejoiced over his early intelligence, and predicted for him a happy and brilliant future. Vladimir was so absorbed in his reading, that he forgot everything else in the world as his mind conjured up visions of domestic happiness, and he did not observe how the time was passing: the clock upon the wall struck eleven. Vladimir placed the letters in his pocket, took up a candle and left the room. In the parlour the officials were sleeping on the floor. Upon the table were tumblers which they had emptied, and a strong smell of rum pervaded the entire room. Vladimir turned from them with disgust, and passed into the anteroom. There all was dark. Somebody, seeing the light, crouched into a corner. Turning the light towards him, Vladimir recognized Arkhip the blacksmith.
"Why are you here?" he asked, in surprise.
"I wanted—I came to find out if they were all in the house," replied Arkhip, in a low faltering voice.
"And why have you got your axe?"
"Why have I got my axe? Can anybody go about nowadays without an axe? These officials are such impudent knaves, that one never knows——"
"You are drunk; throw the axe down and go to bed."
"I drunk? Father Vladimir Andreivitch, God is my witness that not a single drop of brandy has passed my lips, nor has the thought of such a thing entered my mind. Was ever such a thing heard of? These clerks have taken it into their heads to rule over us and to drive our master out of the manor-house.... How they snore, the wretches! I should like to put an end to the whole lot of them at once."
"Listen, Arkhip," said he, after a short pause: "Get such ideas out of your head. It is not the fault of the officials. Light the lantern and follow me."
Arkhip took the candle out of his master's hand, found the lantern behind the stove, lit it, and then both of them softly descended the steps and proceeded around the courtyard. The watchman began beating upon an iron plate; the dogs commenced to bark.
"Who is on the watch?" asked Doubrovsky.
"We, little father," replied a thin voice: "Vassilissa and Loukeria."
"Go home," said Doubrovsky to them, "you are not wanted."
"You can have a holiday," added Arkhip.
"Thank you, benefactor," replied the women, and they immediately returned home.
Doubrovsky walked on further. Two men approached him: they challenged him, and Doubrovsky recognized the voices of Anton and Grisha.
"Why are you not in bed and asleep?" he asked them.
"This is no time for us to think of sleep," replied Anton. "Who would have thought that we should ever have come to this?"
"Softly," interrupted Doubrovsky. "Where is Egorovna?"
"In the manor-house, in her room," replied Grisha.
"Go and bring her here, and make all our people get out of the house; let not a soul remain in it except the officials; and you, Anton, get the cart ready."
Grisha departed; a minute afterwards he returned with his mother. The old woman had not undressed that night; with the exception of the officials, nobody closed an eye.
"Are all here?" asked Doubrovsky. "Has anybody been left in the house?"
"Nobody, except the clerks," replied Grisha.
"Bring here some hay or some straw," said Doubrovsky. The servants ran to the stables and returned with armfuls of hay.
"Put it under the steps—that's it. Now, my lads, a light!"
Arkhip opened the lantern and Doubrovsky kindled a torch.
"Wait a moment," said he to Arkhip: "I think, in my hurry, that I locked the doors of 'the hall. Go quickly and open them."
Arkhip ran to the vestibule: the doors were open. He locked them, muttering in an undertone: "It's likely that I'll leave them open!" and then returned to Doubrovsky.
Doubrovsky applied the torch to the hay, which burst into a blaze, the flames rising to a great height and illuminating the whole courtyard.
"Alas!" cried Egorovna plaintively: "Vladimir Andreivitch, what are you doing?"
"Silence!" said Doubrovsky. "Now, children, farewell; I am going where God may direct me. Be happy with your new master."
"Our father, our benefactor!" cried the peasants, "we will die—but we will not leave you, we will go with you."
The horses were ready. Doubrovsky took his seat in the cart with Grisha; Anton whipped the horses and they drove out of the courtyard.
In one moment the whole house was enveloped in flames. The floors cracked and gave way; the burning beams began to fall; a red smoke rose above the roof, and there arose piteous groans and cries of "Help, help!"
"Shout away!" said Arkhip, with a malicious smile, contemplating the fire.
"Dear Arkhip," said Egorovna to him, "save them, the scoundrels, and God will reward you."
"Let them shout," replied the blacksmith.
At that moment the officials appeared at the window, endeavouring to burst the double sash. But at the same instant the roof fell in with a crash—and the cries ceased.
Soon all the peasants came pouring into the courtyard. The women, screaming wildly, hastened to save their effects; the children danced about admiring the conflagration. The sparks flew up in a fiery shower, setting light to the huts.
"Now everything is right!" said Arkhip. "How it burns! It must be a grand sight from Pokrovskoe."
At that moment a new apparition attracted his attention. A cat ran along the roof of a burning barn, without knowing where to leap from. Flames surrounded it on every side. The poor creature cried for help with plaintive mewings; the children screamed with laughter on seeing its despair.
"What are you laughing at, you little demons?" said the blacksmith, angrily. "Do you not fear God? One of God's creatures is perishing, and you rejoice over it." Then placing a ladder against the burning roof, he mounted up towards the cat. She understood his intention, and, with grateful eagerness, clutched hold of his sleeve. The half-burnt blacksmith descended with his burden.
"And now, lads, good bye," he said to the dismayed peasants: "there is nothing more for me to do here. May you be happy. Do not think too badly of me."
The blacksmith took his departure. The fire raged for some time longer, and at last went out. Piles of red-hot embers glowed brightly in the darkness of the night, while round about them wandered the burnt-out inhabitants of Kistenevka.