Anyone who has chanced to pass from the Bolhovsky district into the Zhizdrinsky district, must have been impressed by the striking difference between the race of people in the province of Orel and the population of the province of Kaluga. The peasant of Orel is not tall, is bent in figure, sullen and suspicious in his looks; he lives in wretched little hovels of aspen-wood, labours as a serf in the fields, and engages in no kind of trading, is miserably fed, and wears slippers of bast: the rent-paying peasant of Kaluga lives in roomy cottages of pine-wood; he is tall, bold, and cheerful in his looks, neat and clean of countenance; he carries on a trade in butter and tar, and on holidays he wears boots. The village of the Orel province (we are speaking now of the eastern part of the province) is usually situated in the midst of ploughed fields, near a water-course which has been converted into a filthy pool. Except for a few of the ever-accommodating willows, and two or three gaunt birch-trees, you do not see a tree for a mile round; hut is huddled up against hut, their roofs covered with rotting thatch…. The villages of Kaluga, on the contrary, are generally surrounded by forest; the huts stand more freely, are more upright, and have boarded roofs; the gates fasten closely, the hedge is not broken down nor trailing about; there are no gaps to invite the visits of the passing pig…. And things are much better in the Kaluga province for the sportsman. In the Orel province the last of the woods and copses will have disappeared five years hence, and there is no trace of moorland left; in Kaluga, on the contrary, the moors extend over tens, the forest over hundreds of miles, and a splendid bird, the grouse, is still extant there; there are abundance of the friendly larger snipe, and the loud-clapping partridge cheers and startles the sportsman and his dog by its abrupt upward flight.
On a visit to the Zhizdrinsky district in search of sport, I met in the fields a petty proprietor of the Kaluga province called Polutikin, and made his acquaintance. He was an enthusiastic sportsman; it follows, therefore, that he was an excellent fellow. He was liable, indeed, to a few weaknesses; he used, for instance, to pay his addresses to every unmarried heiress in the province, and when he had been refused her hand and house, broken-hearted he confided his sorrows to all his friends and acquaintances, and continued to shower offerings of sour peaches and other raw produce from his garden upon the young lady's relatives; he was fond of repeating one and the same anecdote, which, in spite of Mr. Polutikin's appreciation of its merits, had certainly never amused anyone; he admired the works of Akim Nahimov and the novel Pinna; he stammered; he called his dog Astronomer; instead of 'however' said 'howsomever'; and had established in his household a French system of cookery, the secret of which consisted, according to his cook's interpretation, in a complete transformation of the natural taste of each dish; in this artiste's hands meat assumed the flavour of fish, fish of mushrooms, macaroni of gunpowder; to make up for this, not a single carrot went into the soup without taking the shape of a rhombus or a trapeze. But, with the exception of these few and insignificant failings, Mr. Polutikin was, as has been said already, an excellent fellow.
On the first day of my acquaintance with Mr. Polutikin, he invited me to stay the night at his house.
'It will be five miles farther to my house,' he added; 'it's a long way to walk; let us first go to Hor's.' (The reader must excuse my omitting his stammer.)
'Who is Hor?'
'A peasant of mine. He is quite close by here.'
We went in that direction. In a well-cultivated clearing in the middle of the forest rose Hor's solitary homestead. It consisted of several pine-wood buildings, enclosed by plank fences; a porch ran along the front of the principal building, supported on slender posts. We went in. We were met by a young lad of twenty, tall and good-looking.
'Ah, Fedya! is Hor at home?' Mr. Polutikin asked him.
'No. Hor has gone into town,' answered the lad, smiling and showing a row of snow-white teeth. 'You would like the little cart brought out?'
'Yes, my boy, the little cart. And bring us some kvas.'
We went into the cottage. Not a single cheap glaring print was pasted up on the clean boards of the walls; in the corner, before the heavy, holy picture in its silver setting, a lamp was burning; the table of linden-wood had been lately planed and scrubbed; between the joists and in the cracks of the window-frames there were no lively Prussian beetles running about, nor gloomy cockroaches in hiding. The young lad soon reappeared with a great white pitcher filled with excellent kvas, a huge hunch of wheaten bread, and a dozen salted cucumbers in a wooden bowl. He put all these provisions on the table, and then, leaning with his back against the door, began to gaze with a smiling face at us. We had not had time to finish eating our lunch when the cart was already rattling before the doorstep. We went out. A curly-headed, rosy-cheeked boy of fifteen was sitting in the cart as driver, and with difficulty holding in the well-fed piebald horse. Round the cart stood six young giants, very like one another, and Fedya.
'All of these Hor's sons!' said Polutikin.
'These are all Horkies' (i.e. wild cats), put in Fedya, who had come after us on to the step; 'but that's not all of them: Potap is in the wood, and Sidor has gone with old Hor to the town. Look out, Vasya,' he went on, turning to the coachman; 'drive like the wind; you are driving the master. Only mind what you're about over the ruts, and easy a little; don't tip the cart over, and upset the master's stomach!'
The other Horkies smiled at Fedya's sally. 'Lift Astronomer in!' Mr. Polutikin called majestically. Fedya, not without amusement, lifted the dog, who wore a forced smile, into the air, and laid her at the bottom of the cart. Vasya let the horse go. We rolled away. 'And here is my counting-house,' said Mr. Polutikin suddenly to me, pointing to a little low-pitched house. 'Shall we go in?' 'By all means.' 'It is no longer used,' he observed, going in; 'still, it is worth looking at.' The counting-house consisted of two empty rooms. The caretaker, a one-eyed old man, ran out of the yard. 'Good day, Minyaitch,' said Mr. Polutikin; 'bring us some water.' The one-eyed old man disappeared, and at once returned with a bottle of water and two glasses. 'Taste it,' Polutikin said to me; 'it is splendid spring water.' We drank off a glass each, while the old man bowed low. 'Come, now, I think we can go on,' said my new Friend. 'In that counting-house I sold the merchant Alliluev four acres of forest-land for a good price.' We took our seats in the cart, and in half-an-hour we had reached the court of the manor-house.
'Tell me, please,' I asked Polutikin at supper; 'why does Hor live apart from your other peasants?'
'Well, this is why; he is a clever peasant. Twenty-five years ago his cottage was burnt down; so he came up to my late father and said: "Allow me, Nikolai Kouzmitch," says he, "to settle in your forest, on the bog. I will pay you a good rent." "But what do you want to settle on the bog for?" "Oh, I want to; only, your honour, Nikolai Kouzmitch, be so good as not to claim any labour from me, but fix a rent as you think best." "Fifty roubles a year!" "Very well." "But I'll have no arrears, mind!" "Of course, no arrears"; and so he settled on the bog. Since then they have called him Hor' (i.e. wild cat).
'Well, and has he grown rich?' I inquired.
'Yes, he has grown rich. Now he pays me a round hundred for rent, and I shall raise it again, I dare say. I have said to him more than once, "Buy your freedom, Hor; come, buy your freedom." … But he declares, the rogue, that he can't; has no money, he says…. As though that were likely….'
The next day, directly after our morning tea, we started out hunting again. As we were driving through the village, Mr. Polutikin ordered the coachman to stop at a low-pitched cottage and called loudly, 'Kalinitch!' 'Coming, your honour, coming' sounded a voice from the yard; 'I am tying on my shoes.' We went on at a walk; outside the village a man of about forty over-took us. He was tall and thin, with a small and erect head. It was Kalinitch. His good-humoured; swarthy face, somewhat pitted with small-pox, pleased me from the first glance. Kalinitch (as I learnt afterwards) went hunting every day with his master, carried his bag, and sometimes also his gun, noted where game was to be found, fetched water, built shanties, and gathered strawberries, and ran behind the droshky; Mr. Polutikin could not stir a step without him. Kalinitch was a man of the merriest and gentlest disposition; he was constantly singing to himself in a low voice, and looking carelessly about him. He spoke a little through his nose, with a laughing twinkle in his light blue eyes, and he had a habit of plucking at his scanty, wedge-shaped beard with his hand. He walked not rapidly, but with long strides, leaning lightly on a long thin staff. He addressed me more than once during the day, and he waited on me without, obsequiousness, but he looked after his master as if he were a child. When the unbearable heat drove us at mid-day to seek shelter, he took us to his beehouse in the very heart of the forest. There Kalinitch opened the little hut for us, which was hung round with bunches of dry scented herbs. He made us comfortable on some dry hay, and then put a kind of bag of network over his head, took a knife, a little pot, and a smouldering stick, and went to the hive to cut us out some honey-comb. We had a draught of spring water after the warm transparent honey, and then dropped asleep to the sound of the monotonous humming of the bees and the rustling chatter of the leaves. A slight gust of wind awakened me…. I opened my eyes and saw Kalinitch: he was sitting on the threshold of the half-opened door, carving a spoon with his knife. I gazed a long time admiring his face, as sweet and clear as an evening sky. Mr. Polutikin too woke up. We did not get up at once. After our long walk and our deep sleep it was pleasant to lie without moving in the hay; we felt weary and languid in body, our faces were in a slight glow of warmth, our eyes were closed in delicious laziness. At last we got up, and set off on our wanderings again till evening. At supper I began again to talk of Hor and Kalinitch. 'Kalinitch is a good peasant,' Mr. Polutikin told me; 'he is a willing and useful peasant; he can't farm his land properly; I am always taking him away from it. He goes out hunting every day with me…. You can judge for yourself how his farming must fare.'
I agreed with him, and we went to bed.
The next day Mr. Polutikin was obliged to go to town about some business with his neighbour Pitchukoff. This neighbour Pitchukoff had ploughed over some land of Polutikin's, and had flogged a peasant woman of his on this same piece of land. I went out hunting alone, and before evening I turned into Hor's house. On the threshold of the cottage I was met by an old man—bald, short, broad-shouldered, and stout—Hor himself. I looked with curiosity at the man. The cut of his face recalled Socrates; there was the same high, knobby forehead, the same little eyes, the same snub nose. We went into the cottage together. The same Fedya brought me some milk and black bread. Hor sat down on a bench, and, quietly stroking his curly beard, entered into conversation with me. He seemed to know his own value; he spoke and moved slowly; from time to time a chuckle came from between his long moustaches.
We discussed the sowing, the crops, the peasant's life…. He always seemed to agree with me; only afterwards I had a sense of awkwardness and felt I was talking foolishly…. In this way our conversation was rather curious. Hor, doubtless through caution, expressed himself very obscurely at times…. Here is a specimen of our talk.
"Tell me, Hor," I said to him, "why don't you buy your freedom from your master?"
"And what would I buy my freedom for? Now I know my master, and I know my rent…. We have a good master."
'It's always better to be free,' I remarked. Hor gave me a dubious look.
'Surely,' he said.
'Well, then, why don't you buy your freedom?' Hor shook his head.
'What would you have me buy it with, your honour?'
'Oh, come, now, old man!'
'If Hor were thrown among free men,' he continued in an undertone, as though to himself, 'everyone without a beard would be a better man than Hor.'
'Then shave your beard.'
'What is a beard? a beard is grass: one can cut it.'
'But Hor will be a merchant straight away; and merchants have a fine life, and they have beards.'
'Why, do you do a little trading too?' I asked him.
'We trade a little in a little butter and a little tar…. Would your honour like the cart put to?'
'You're a close man and keep a tight rein on your tongue,' I thought to myself. 'No,' I said aloud, 'I don't want the cart; I shall want to be near your homestead to-morrow, and if you will let me, I will stay the night in your hay-barn.'
'You are very welcome. But will you be comfortable in the barn? I will tell the women to lay a sheet and put you a pillow…. Hey, girls!' he cried, getting up from his place; 'here, girls!… And you, Fedya, go with them. Women, you know, are foolish folk.'
A quarter of an hour later Fedya conducted me with a lantern to the barn. I threw myself down on the fragrant hay; my dog curled himself up at my feet; Fedya wished me good-night; the door creaked and slammed to. For rather a long time I could not get to sleep. A cow came up to the door, and breathed heavily twice; the dog growled at her with dignity; a pig passed by, grunting pensively; a horse somewhere near began to munch the hay and snort…. At last I fell asleep.
At sunrise Fedya awakened me. This brisk, lively young man pleased me; and, from what I could see, he was old Hor's favourite too. They used to banter one another in a very friendly way. The old man came to meet me. Whether because I had spent the night under his roof, or for some other reason, Hor certainly treated me far more cordially than the day before.
'The samovar is ready,' he told me with a smile; 'let us come and have tea.'
We took our seats at the table. A robust-looking peasant woman, one of his daughters-in-law, brought in a jug of milk. All his sons came one after another into the cottage.
'What a fine set of fellows you have!' I remarked to the old man.
'Yes,' he said, breaking off a tiny piece of sugar with his teeth; 'me and my old woman have nothing to complain of, seemingly.'
'And do they all live with you?'
'Yes; they choose to, themselves, and so they live here.'
'And are they all married?'
'Here's one not married, the scamp!' he answered, pointing to Fedya, who was leaning as before against the door. 'Vaska, he's still too young; he can wait.'
'And why should I get married?' retorted Fedya; 'I'm very well off as I am. What do I want a wife for? To squabble with, eh?'
'Now then, you … ah, I know you! you wear a silver ring…. You'd always be after the girls up at the manor house…. "Have done, do, for shame!"' the old man went on, mimicking the servant girls. 'Ah, I know you, you white-handed rascal!'
'But what's the good of a peasant woman?'
'A peasant woman—is a labourer,' said Hor seriously; 'she is the peasant's servant.'
'And what do I want with a labourer?'
'I dare say; you'd like to play with the fire and let others burn their fingers: we know the sort of chap you are.'
'Well, marry me, then. Well, why don't you answer?'
'There, that's enough, that's enough, giddy pate! You see we're disturbing the gentleman. I'll marry you, depend on it…. And you, your honour, don't be vexed with him; you see, he's only a baby; he's not had time to get much sense.'
Fedya shook his head.
'Is Hor at home?' sounded a well-known voice; and Kalinitch came into the cottage with a bunch of wild strawberries in his hands, which he had gathered for his friend Hor. The old man gave him a warm welcome. I looked with surprise at Kalinitch. I confess I had not expected such a delicate attention on the part of a peasant.
That day I started out to hunt four hours later than usual, and the following three days I spent at Hor's. My new friends interested me. I don't know how I had gained their confidence, but they began to talk to me without constraint. The two friends were not at all alike. Hor was a positive, practical man, with a head for management, a rationalist; Kalinitch, on the other hand, belonged to the order of idealists and dreamers, of romantic and enthusiastic spirits. Hor had a grasp of actuality—that is to say, he looked ahead, was saving a little money, kept on good terms with his master and the other authorities; Kalinitch wore shoes of bast, and lived from hand to mouth. Hor had reared a large family, who were obedient and united; Kalinitch had once had a wife, whom he had been afraid of, and he had had no children. Hor took a very critical view of Mr. Polutikin; Kalinitch revered his master. Hor loved Kalinitch, and took protecting care of him; Kalinitch loved and respected Hor. Hor spoke little, chuckled, and thought for himself; Kalinitch expressed himself with warmth, though he had not the flow of fine language of a smart factory hand. But Kalinitch was endowed with powers which even Hor recognised; he could charm away haemorrhages, fits, madness, and worms; his bees always did well; he had a light hand. Hor asked him before me to introduce a newly bought horse to his stable, and with scrupulous gravity Kalinitch carried out the old sceptic's request. Kalinitch was in closer contact with nature; Hor with men and society. Kalinitch had no liking for argument, and believed in everything blindly; Hor had reached even an ironical point of view of life. He had seen and experienced much, and I learnt a good deal from him. For instance, from his account I learnt that every year before mowing-time a small, peculiar-looking cart makes its appearance in the villages. In this cart sits a man in a long coat, who sells scythes. He charges one rouble twenty-five copecks—a rouble and a half in notes—for ready money; four roubles if he gives credit. All the peasants, of course, take the scythes from him on credit. In two or three weeks he reappears and asks for the money. As the peasant has only just cut his oats, he is able to pay him; he goes with the merchant to the tavern, and there the debt is settled. Some landowners conceived the idea of buying the scythes themselves for ready money and letting the peasants have them on credit for the same price; but the peasants seemed dissatisfied, even dejected; they had deprived them of the pleasure of tapping the scythe and listening to the ring of the metal, turning it over and over in their hands, and telling the scoundrelly city-trader twenty times over, 'Eh, my friend, you won't take me in with your scythe!' The same tricks are played over the sale of sickles, only with this difference, that the women have a hand in the business then, and they sometimes drive the trader himself to the necessity—for their good, of course—of beating them. But the women suffer most ill-treatment through the following circumstances. Contractors for the supply of stuff for paper factories employ for the purchase of rags a special class of men, who in some districts are called eagles. Such an 'eagle' receives two hundred roubles in bank-notes from the merchant, and starts off in search of his prey. But, unlike the noble bird from whom he has derived his name, he does not swoop down openly and boldly upon it; quite the contrary; the 'eagle' has recourse to deceit and cunning. He leaves his cart somewhere in a thicket near the village, and goes himself to the back-yards and back-doors, like someone casually passing, or simply a tramp. The women scent out his proximity and steal out to meet him. The bargain is hurriedly concluded. For a few copper half-pence a woman gives the 'eagle' not only every useless rag she has, but often even her husband's shirt and her own petticoat. Of late the women have thought it profitable to steal even from themselves, and to sell hemp in the same way—a great extension and improvement of the business for the 'eagles'! To meet this, however, the peasants have grown more cunning in their turn, and on the slightest suspicion, on the most distant rumors of the approach of an 'eagle,' they have prompt and sharp recourse to corrective and preventive measures. And, after all, wasn't it disgraceful? To sell the hemp was the men's business—and they certainly do sell it—not in the town (they would have to drag it there themselves), but to traders who come for it, who, for want of scales, reckon forty handfuls to the pood—and you know what a Russian's hand is and what it can hold, especially when he 'tries his best'! As I had had no experience and was not 'country-bred' (as they say in Orel) I heard plenty of such descriptions. But Hor was not always the narrator; he questioned me too about many things. He learned that I had been in foreign parts, and his curiosity was aroused…. Kalinitch was not behind him in curiosity; but he was more attracted by descriptions of nature, of mountains and waterfalls, extraordinary buildings and great towns; Hor was interested in questions of government and administration. He went through everything in order. 'Well, is that with them as it is with us, or different?… Come, tell us, your honour, how is it?' 'Ah, Lord, thy will be done!' Kalinitch would exclaim while I told my story; Hor did not speak, but frowned with his bushy eyebrows, only observing at times, 'That wouldn't do for us; still, it's a good thing—it's right.' All his inquiries, I cannot recount, and it is unnecessary; but from our conversations I carried away one conviction, which my readers will certainly not anticipate … the conviction that Peter the Great was pre-eminently a Russian—Russian, above all, in his reforms. The Russian is so convinced of his own strength and powers that he is not afraid of putting himself to severe strain; he takes little interest in his past, and looks boldly forward. What is good he likes, what is sensible he will have, and where it comes from he does not care. His vigorous sense is fond of ridiculing the thin theorising of the German; but, in Hor's words, 'The Germans are curious folk,' and he was ready to learn from them a little. Thanks to his exceptional position, his practical independence, Hor told me a great deal which you could not screw or—as the peasants say—grind with a grindstone, out of any other man. He did, in fact, understand his position. Talking with Hor, I for the first time listened to the simple, wise discourse of the Russian peasant. His acquirements were, in his own opinion, wide enough; but he could not read, though Kalinitch could. 'That ne'er-do-weel has school-learning,' observed Hor, 'and his bees never die in the winter.' 'But haven't you had your children taught to read?' Hor was silent a minute. 'Fedya can read.' 'And the others?' 'The others can't.' 'And why?' The old man made no answer, and changed the subject. However, sensible as he was, he had many prejudices and crotchets. He despised women, for instance, from the depths of his soul, and in his merry moments he amused himself by jesting at their expense. His wife was a cross old woman who lay all day long on the stove, incessantly grumbling and scolding; her sons paid no attention to her, but she kept her daughters-in-law in the fear of God. Very significantly the mother-in-law sings in the Russian ballad: 'What a son art thou to me! What a head of a household! Thou dost not beat thy wife; thou dost not beat thy young wife….' I once attempted to intercede for the daughters-in-law, and tried to rouse Hor's sympathy; but he met me with the tranquil rejoinder, 'Why did I want to trouble about such … trifles; let the women fight it out. … If anything separates them, it only makes it worse … and it's not worth dirtying one's hands over.' Sometimes the spiteful old woman got down from the stove and called the yard dog out of the hay, crying, 'Here, here, doggie'; and then beat it on its thin back with the poker, or she would stand in the porch and 'snarl,' as Hor expressed it, at everyone that passed. She stood in awe of her husband though, and would return, at his command, to her place on the stove. It was specially curious to hear Hor and Kalinitch dispute whenever Mr. Polutikin was touched upon.
'There, Hor, do let him alone,' Kalinitch would say. 'But why doesn't he order some boots for you?' Hor retorted. 'Eh? boots!… what do I want with boots? I am a peasant.' 'Well, so am I a peasant, but look!' And Hor lifted up his leg and showed Kalinitch a boot which looked as if it had been cut out of a mammoth's hide. 'As if you were like one of us!' replied Kalinitch. 'Well, at least he might pay for your bast shoes; you go out hunting with him; you must use a pair a day.' 'He does give me something for bast shoes.' 'Yes, he gave you two coppers last year.'
Kalinitch turned away in vexation, but Hor went off into a chuckle, during which his little eyes completely disappeared.
Kalinitch sang rather sweetly and played a little on the balalaëca. Hor was never weary of listening to him: all at once he would let his head drop on one side and begin to chime in, in a lugubrious voice. He was particularly fond of the song, 'Ah, my fate, my fate!' Fedya never lost an opportunity of making fun of his father, saying, 'What are you so mournful about, old man?' But Hor leaned his cheek on his hand, covered his eyes, and continued to mourn over his fate…. Yet at other times there could not be a more active man; he was always busy over something—mending the cart, patching up the fence, looking after the harness. He did not insist on a very high degree of cleanliness, however; and, in answer to some remark of mine, said once, 'A cottage ought to smell as if it were lived in.'
'Look,' I answered, 'how clean it is in Kalinitch's beehouse.'
'The bees would not live there else, your honour,' he said with a sigh.
'Tell me,' he asked me another time, 'have you an estate of your own?' 'Yes.' 'Far from here?' 'A hundred miles.' 'Do you live on your land, your honour?' 'Yes.'
'But you like your gun best, I dare say?'
'Yes, I must confess I do.' 'And you do well, your honour; shoot grouse to your heart's content, and change your bailiff pretty often.'
On the fourth day Mr. Polutikin sent for me in the evening. I was sorry to part from the old man. I took my seat with Kalinitch in the trap. 'Well, good-bye, Hor—good luck to you,' I said; 'good-bye, Fedya.'
'Good-bye, your honour, good-bye; don't forget us.' We started; there was the first red glow of sunset. 'It will be a fine day to-morrow,' I remarked looking at the clear sky. 'No, it will rain,' Kalinitch replied; 'the ducks yonder are splashing, and the scent of the grass is strong.' We drove into the copse. Kalinitch began singing in an undertone as he was jolted up and down on the driver's seat, and he kept gazing and gazing at the sunset.
The next day I left the hospitable roof of Mr. Polutikin.