I was returning from hunting in a jolting little trap, and overcome by the stifling heat of a cloudy summer day (it is well known that the heat is often more insupportable on such days than in bright days, especially when there is no wind), I dozed and was shaken about, resigning myself with sullen fortitude to being persecuted by the fine white dust which was incessantly raised from the beaten road by the warped and creaking wheels, when suddenly my attention was aroused by the extraordinary uneasiness and agitated movements of my coachman, who had till that instant been more soundly dozing than I. He began tugging at the reins, moved uneasily on the box, and started shouting to the horses, staring all the while in one direction. I looked round. We were driving through a wide ploughed plain; low hills, also ploughed over, ran in gently sloping, swelling waves over it; the eye took in some five miles of deserted country; in the distance the round-scolloped tree-tops of some small birch-copses were the only objects to break the almost straight line of the horizon. Narrow paths ran over the fields, disappeared into the hollows, and wound round the hillocks. On one of these paths, which happened to run into our road five hundred paces ahead of us, I made out a kind of procession. At this my coachman was looking.
It was a funeral. In front, in a little cart harnessed with one horse, and advancing at a walking pace, came the priest; beside him sat the deacon driving; behind the cart four peasants, bareheaded, carried the coffin, covered with a white cloth; two women followed the coffin. The shrill wailing voice of one of them suddenly reached my ears; I listened; she was intoning a dirge. Very dismal sounded this chanted, monotonous, hopelessly-sorrowful lament among the empty fields. The coachman whipped up the horses; he wanted to get in front of this procession. To meet a corpse on the road is a bad omen. And he did succeed in galloping ahead beyond this path before the funeral had had time to turn out of it into the high-road; but we had hardly got a hundred paces beyond this point, when suddenly our trap jolted violently, heeled on one side, and all but overturned. The coachman pulled up the galloping horses, and spat with a gesture of his hand.
'What is it?' I asked.
My coachman got down without speaking or hurrying himself.
'But what is it?'
'The axle is broken … it caught fire,' he replied gloomily, and he suddenly arranged the collar on the off-side horse with such indignation that it was almost pushed over, but it stood its ground, snorted, shook itself, and tranquilly began to scratch its foreleg below the knee with its teeth.
I got out and stood for some time on the road, a prey to a vague and unpleasant feeling of helplessness. The right wheel was almost completely bent in under the trap, and it seemed to turn its centre-piece upwards in dumb despair.
'What are we to do now?' I said at last.
'That's what's the cause of it!' said my coachman, pointing with his whip to the funeral procession, which had just turned into the highroad and was approaching us. 'I have always noticed that,' he went on; 'it's a true saying—"Meet a corpse"—yes, indeed.'
And again he began worrying the off-side horse, who, seeing his ill-humour, resolved to remain perfectly quiet, and contented itself with discreetly switching its tail now and then. I walked up and down a little while, and then stopped again before the wheel.
Meanwhile the funeral had come up to us. Quietly turning off the road on to the grass, the mournful procession moved slowly past us. My coachman and I took off our caps, saluted the priest, and exchanged glances with the bearers. They moved with difficulty under their burden, their broad chests standing out under the strain. Of the two women who followed the coffin, one was very old and pale; her set face, terribly distorted as it was by grief, still kept an expression of grave and severe dignity. She walked in silence, from time to time lifting her wasted hand to her thin drawn lips. The other, a young woman of five-and-twenty, had her eyes red and moist and her whole face swollen with weeping; as she passed us she ceased wailing, and hid her face in her sleeve…. But when the funeral had got round us and turned again into the road, her piteous, heart-piercing lament began again. My coachman followed the measured swaying of the coffin with his eyes in silence. Then he turned to me.
'It's Martin, the carpenter, they're burying,' he said; 'Martin of Ryaby.' 'How do you know?'
'I know by the women. The old one is his mother, and the young one's his wife.'
'Has he been ill, then?'
'Yes … fever. The day before yesterday the overseer sent for the doctor, but they did not find the doctor at home. He was a good carpenter; he drank a bit, but he was a good carpenter. See how upset his good woman is…. But, there; women's tears don't cost much, we know. Women's tears are only water … yes, indeed.'
And he bent down, crept under the side-horse's trace, and seized the wooden yoke that passes over the horses' heads with both hands.
'Any way,' I observed, 'what are we going to do?'
My coachman just supported himself with his knees on the shaft-horse's shoulder, twice gave the back-strap a shake, and straightened the pad; then he crept out of the side-horse's trace again, and giving it a blow on the nose as he passed, went up to the wheel. He went up to it, and, never taking his eyes off it, slowly took out of the skirts of his coat a box, slowly pulled open its lid by a strap, slowly thrust into it his two fat fingers (which pretty well filled it up), rolled and rolled up some snuff, and creasing up his nose in anticipation, helped himself to it several times in succession, accompanying the snuff-taking every time by a prolonged sneezing. Then, his streaming eyes blinking faintly, he relapsed into profound meditation.
'Well?' I said at last.
My coachman thrust his box carefully into his pocket, brought his hat forward on to his brows without the aid of his hand by a movement of his head, and gloomily got up on the box.
'What are you doing?' I asked him, somewhat bewildered.
'Pray be seated,' he replied calmly, picking up the reins.
'But how can we go on?'
'We will go on now.'
'But the axle.'
'Pray be seated.'
'But the axle is broken.'
'It is broken; but we will get to the settlement … at a walking pace, of course. Over here, beyond the copse, on the right, is a settlement; they call it Yudino.'
'And do you think we can get there?'
My coachman did not vouchsafe me a reply.
'I had better walk,' I said.
'As you like….' And he nourished his whip. The horses started.
We did succeed in getting to the settlement, though the right front wheel was almost off, and turned in a very strange way. On one hillock it almost flew off, but my coachman shouted in a voice of exasperation, and we descended it in safety.
Yudino settlement consisted of six little low-pitched huts, the walls of which had already begun to warp out of the perpendicular, though they had certainly not been long built; the back-yards of some of the huts were not even fenced in with a hedge. As we drove into this settlement we did not meet a single living soul; there were no hens even to be seen in the street, and no dogs, but one black crop-tailed cur, which at our approach leaped hurriedly out of a perfectly dry and empty trough, to which it must have been driven by thirst, and at once, without barking, rushed headlong under a gate. I went up to the first hut, opened the door into the outer room, and called for the master of the house. No one answered me. I called once more; the hungry mewing of a cat sounded behind the other door. I pushed it open with my foot; a thin cat ran up and down near me, her green eyes glittering in the dark. I put my head into the room and looked round; it was empty, dark, and smoky. I returned to the yard, and there was no one there either…. A calf lowed behind the paling; a lame grey goose waddled a little away. I passed on to the second hut. Not a soul in the second hut either. I went into the yard….
In the very middle of the yard, in the glaring sunlight, there lay, with his face on the ground and a cloak thrown over his head, a boy, as it seemed to me. In a thatched shed a few paces from him a thin little nag with broken harness was standing near a wretched little cart. The sunshine falling in streaks through the narrow cracks in the dilapidated roof, striped his shaggy, reddish-brown coat in small bands of light. Above, in the high bird-house, starlings were chattering and looking down inquisitively from their airy home. I went up to the sleeping figure and began to awaken him.
He lifted his head, saw me, and at once jumped up on to his feet…. 'What? what do you want? what is it?' he muttered, half asleep. I did not answer him at once; I was so much impressed by his appearance.
Picture to yourself a little creature of fifty years old, with a little round wrinkled face, a sharp nose, little, scarcely visible, brown eyes, and thick curly black hair, which stood out on his tiny head like the cap on the top of a mushroom. His whole person was excessively thin and weakly, and it is absolutely impossible to translate into words the extraordinary strangeness of his expression.
'What do you want?' he asked me again. I explained to him what was the matter; he listened, slowly blinking, without taking his eyes off me.
'So cannot we get a new axle?' I said finally; 'I will gladly pay for it.'
'But who are you? Hunters, eh?' he asked, scanning me from head to foot.
'You shoot the fowls of heaven, I suppose?… the wild things of the woods?… And is it not a sin to kill God's birds, to shed the innocent blood?'
The strange old man spoke in a very drawling tone. The sound of his voice also astonished me. There was none of the weakness of age to be heard in it; it was marvellously sweet, young and almost feminine in its softness.
'I have no axle,' he added after a brief silence. 'That thing will not suit you.' He pointed to his cart. 'You have, I expect, a large trap.'
'But can I get one in the village?'
'Not much of a village here!… No one has an axle here…. And there is no one at home either; they are all at work. You must go on,' he announced suddenly; and he lay down again on the ground.
I had not at all expected this conclusion.
'Listen, old man,' I said, touching him on the shoulder; 'do me a kindness, help me.'
'Go on, in God's name! I am tired; I have driven into the town,' he said, and drew his cloak over his head.
'But pray do me a kindness,' I said. 'I … I will pay for it.' 'I don't want your money.'
'But please, old man.'
He half raised himself and sat up, crossing his little legs.
'I could take you perhaps to the clearing. Some merchants have bought the forest here—God be their judge! They are cutting down the forest, and they have built a counting-house there—God be their judge! You might order an axle of them there, or buy one ready made.'
'Splendid!' I cried delighted; 'splendid! let us go.'
'An oak axle, a good one,' he continued, not getting up from his place.
'And is it far to this clearing?'
'Come, then! we can drive there in your trap.'
'Come, let us go,' I said; 'let us go, old man! The coachman is waiting for us in the road.'
The old man rose unwillingly and followed me into the street. We found my coachman in an irritable frame of mind; he had tried to water his horses, but the water in the well, it appeared, was scanty in quantity and bad in taste, and water is the first consideration with coachmen…. However, he grinned at the sight of the old man, nodded his head and cried: 'Hallo! Kassyanushka! good health to you!'
'Good health to you, Erofay, upright man!' replied Kassyan in a dejected voice.
I at once made known his suggestion to the coachman; Erofay expressed his approval of it and drove into the yard. While he was busy deliberately unharnessing the horses, the old man stood leaning with his shoulders against the gate, and looking disconsolately first at him and then at me. He seemed in some uncertainty of mind; he was not very pleased, as it seemed to me, at our sudden visit.
'So they have transported you too?' Erofay asked him suddenly, lifting the wooden arch of the harness.
'Ugh!' said my coachman between his teeth. 'You know Martin the carpenter…. Of course, you know Martin of Ryaby?'
'Well, he is dead. We have just met his coffin.'
'Dead?' he said, and his head sank dejectedly.
'Yes, he is dead. Why didn't you cure him, eh? You know they say you cure folks; you're a doctor.'
My coachman was apparently laughing and jeering at the old man.
'And is this your trap, pray?' he added, with a shrug of his shoulders in its direction.
'Well, a trap … a fine trap!' he repeated, and taking it by the shafts almost turned it completely upside down. 'A trap!… But what will you drive in it to the clearing?… You can't harness our horses in these shafts; our horses are all too big.'
'I don't know,' replied Kassyan, 'what you are going to drive; that beast perhaps,' he added with a sigh.
'That?' broke in Erofay, and going up to Kassyan's nag, he tapped it disparagingly on the back with the third finger of his right hand. 'See,' he added contemptuously, 'it's asleep, the scare-crow!'
I asked Erofay to harness it as quickly as he could. I wanted to drive myself with Kassyan to the clearing; grouse are fond of such places. When the little cart was quite ready, and I, together with my dog, had been installed in the warped wicker body of it, and Kassyan huddled up into a little ball, with still the same dejected expression on his face, had taken his seat in front, Erofay came up to me and whispered with an air of mystery:
'You did well, your honour, to drive with him. He is such a queer fellow; he's cracked, you know, and his nickname is the Flea. I don't know how you managed to make him out….'
I tried to say to Erofay that so far Kassyan had seemed to me a very sensible man; but my coachman continued at once in the same voice:
'But you keep a look-out where he is driving you to. And, your honour, be pleased to choose the axle yourself; be pleased to choose a sound one…. Well, Flea,' he added aloud, 'could I get a bit of bread in your house?'
'Look about; you may find some,' answered Kassyan. He pulled the reins and we rolled away.
His little horse, to my genuine astonishment, did not go badly. Kassyan preserved an obstinate silence the whole way, and made abrupt and unwilling answers to my questions. We quickly reached the clearing, and then made our way to the counting-house, a lofty cottage, standing by itself over a small gully, which had been dammed up and converted into a pool. In this counting-house I found two young merchants' clerks, with snow-white teeth, sweet and soft eyes, sweet and subtle words, and sweet and wily smiles. I bought an axle of them and returned to the clearing. I thought that Kassyan would stay with the horse and await my return; but he suddenly came up to me.
'Are you going to shoot birds, eh?' he said.
'Yes, if I come across any.'
'I will come with you…. Can I?'
So we went together. The land cleared was about a mile in length. I must confess I watched Kassyan more than my dogs. He had been aptly called 'Flea.' His little black uncovered head (though his hair, indeed, was as good a covering as any cap) seemed to flash hither and thither among the bushes. He walked extraordinarily swiftly, and seemed always hopping up and down as he moved; he was for ever stooping down to pick herbs of some kind, thrusting them into his bosom, muttering to himself, and constantly looking at me and my dog with such a strange searching gaze. Among low bushes and in clearings there are often little grey birds which constantly flit from tree to tree, and which whistle as they dart away. Kassyan mimicked them, answered their calls; a young quail flew from between his feet, chirruping, and he chirruped in imitation of him; a lark began to fly down above him, moving his wings and singing melodiously: Kassyan joined in his song. He did not speak to me at all….
The weather was glorious, even more so than before; but the heat was no less. Over the clear sky the high thin clouds were hardly stirred, yellowish-white, like snow lying late in spring, flat and drawn out like rolled-up sails. Slowly but perceptibly their fringed edges, soft and fluffy as cotton-wool, changed at every moment; they were melting away, even these clouds, and no shadow fell from them. I strolled about the clearing for a long while with Kassyan. Young shoots, which had not yet had time to grow more than a yard high, surrounded the low blackened stumps with their smooth slender stems; and spongy funguses with grey edges—the same of which they make tinder—clung to these; strawberry plants flung their rosy tendrils over them; mushrooms squatted close in groups. The feet were constantly caught and entangled in the long grass, that was parched in the scorching sun; the eyes were dazzled on all sides by the glaring metallic glitter on the young reddish leaves of the trees; on all sides were the variegated blue clusters of vetch, the golden cups of bloodwort, and the half-lilac, half-yellow blossoms of the heart's-ease. In some places near the disused paths, on which the tracks of wheels were marked by streaks on the fine bright grass, rose piles of wood, blackened by wind and rain, laid in yard-lengths; there was a faint shadow cast from them in slanting oblongs; there was no other shade anywhere. A light breeze rose, then sank again; suddenly it would blow straight in the face and seem to be rising; everything would begin to rustle merrily, to nod, to shake around one; the supple tops of the ferns bow down gracefully, and one rejoices in it, but at once it dies away again, and all is at rest once more. Only the grasshoppers chirrup in chorus with frenzied energy, and wearisome is this unceasing, sharp dry sound. It is in keeping with the persistent heat of mid-day; it seems akin to it, as though evoked by it out of the glowing earth.
Without having started one single covey we at last reached another clearing. There the aspen-trees had only lately been felled, and lay stretched mournfully on the ground, crushing the grass and small undergrowth below them: on some the leaves were still green, though they were already dead, and hung limply from the motionless branches; on others they were crumpled and dried up. Fresh golden-white chips lay in heaps round the stumps that were covered with bright drops; a peculiar, very pleasant, pungent odour rose from them. Farther away, nearer the wood, sounded the dull blows of the axe, and from time to time, bowing and spreading wide its arms, a bushy tree fell slowly and majestically to the ground.
For a long time I did not come upon a single bird; at last a corncrake flew out of a thick clump of young oak across the wormwood springing up round it. I fired; it turned over in the air and fell. At the sound of the shot, Kassyan quickly covered his eyes with his hand, and he did not stir till I had reloaded the gun and picked up the bird. When I had moved farther on, he went up to the place where the wounded bird had fallen, bent down to the grass, on which some drops of blood were sprinkled, shook his head, and looked in dismay at me…. I heard him afterwards whispering: 'A sin!… Ah, yes, it's a sin!'
The heat forced us at last to go into the wood. I flung myself down under a high nut-bush, over which a slender young maple gracefully stretched its light branches. Kassyan sat down on the thick trunk of a felled birch-tree. I looked at him. The leaves faintly stirred overhead, and their thin greenish shadows crept softly to and fro over his feeble body, muffled in a dark coat, and over his little face. He did not lift his head. Bored by his silence, I lay on my back and began to admire the tranquil play of the tangled foliage on the background of the bright, far away sky. A marvellously sweet occupation it is to lie on one's back in a wood and gaze upwards! You may fancy you are looking into a bottomless sea; that it stretches wide below you; that the trees are not rising out of the earth, but, like the roots of gigantic weeds, are dropping—falling straight down into those glassy, limpid depths; the leaves on the trees are at one moment transparent as emeralds, the next, they condense into golden, almost black green. Somewhere, afar off, at the end of a slender twig, a single leaf hangs motionless against the blue patch of transparent sky, and beside it another trembles with the motion of a fish on the line, as though moving of its own will, not shaken by the wind. Round white clouds float calmly across, and calmly pass away like submarine islands; and suddenly, all this ocean, this shining ether, these branches and leaves steeped in sunlight—all is rippling, quivering in fleeting brilliance, and a fresh trembling whisper awakens like the tiny, incessant plash of suddenly stirred eddies. One does not move—one looks, and no word can tell what peace, what joy, what sweetness reigns in the heart. One looks: the deep, pure blue stirs on one's lips a smile, innocent as itself; like the clouds over the sky, and, as it were, with them, happy memories pass in slow procession over the soul, and still one fancies one's gaze goes deeper and deeper, and draws one with it up into that peaceful, shining immensity, and that one cannot be brought back from that height, that depth….
'Master, master!' cried Kassyan suddenly in his musical voice.
I raised myself in surprise: up till then he had scarcely replied to my questions, and now he suddenly addressed me of himself.
'What is it?' I asked.
'What did you kill the bird for?' he began, looking me straight in the face.
'What for? Corncrake is game; one can eat it.'
'That was not what you killed it for, master, as though you were going to eat it! You killed it for amusement.'
'Well, you yourself, I suppose, eat geese or chickens?'
'Those birds are provided by God for man, but the corncrake is a wild bird of the woods: and not he alone; many they are, the wild things of the woods and the fields, and the wild things of the rivers and marshes and moors, flying on high or creeping below; and a sin it is to slay them: let them live their allotted life upon the earth. But for man another food has been provided; his food is other, and other his sustenance: bread, the good gift of God, and the water of heaven, and the tame beasts that have come down to us from our fathers of old.'
I looked in astonishment at Kassyan. His words flowed freely; he did not hesitate for a word; he spoke with quiet inspiration and gentle dignity, sometimes closing his eyes.
'So is it sinful, then, to kill fish, according to you?' I asked.
'Fishes have cold blood,' he replied with conviction. 'The fish is a dumb creature; it knows neither fear nor rejoicing. The fish is a voiceless creature. The fish does not feel; the blood in it is not living…. Blood,' he continued, after a pause, 'blood is a holy thing! God's sun does not look upon blood; it is hidden away from the light … it is a great sin to bring blood into the light of day; a great sin and horror…. Ah, a great sin!'
He sighed, and his head drooped forward. I looked, I confess, in absolute amazement at the strange old man. His language did not sound like the language of a peasant; the common people do not speak like that, nor those who aim at fine speaking. His speech was meditative, grave, and curious…. I had never heard anything like it.
'Tell me, please, Kassyan,' I began, without taking my eyes off his slightly flushed face, 'what is your occupation?'
He did not answer my question at once. His eyes strayed uneasily for an instant.
'I live as the Lord commands,' he brought out at last; 'and as for occupation—no, I have no occupation. I've never been very clever from a child: I work when I can: I'm not much of a workman—how should I be? I have no health; my hands are awkward. In the spring I catch nightingales.'
'You catch nightingales?… But didn't you tell me that we must not touch any of the wild things of the woods and the fields, and so on?'
'We must not kill them, of a certainty; death will take its own without that. Look at Martin the carpenter; Martin lived, and his life was not long, but he died; his wife now grieves for her husband, for her little children…. Neither for man nor beast is there any charm against death. Death does not hasten, nor is there any escaping it; but we must not aid death…. And I do not kill nightingales—God forbid! I do not catch them to harm them, to spoil their lives, but for the pleasure of men, for their comfort and delight.'
'Do you go to Kursk to catch them?'
'Yes, I go to Kursk, and farther too, at times. I pass nights in the marshes, or at the edge of the forests; I am alone at night in the fields, in the thickets; there the curlews call and the hares squeak and the wild ducks lift up their voices…. I note them at evening; at morning I give ear to them; at daybreak I cast my net over the bushes…. There are nightingales that sing so pitifully sweet … yea, pitifully.'
'And do you sell them?'
'I give them to good people.'
'And what are you doing now?'
'What am I doing?'
'Yes, how are you employed?'
The old man was silent for a little.
'I am not employed at all…. I am a poor workman. But I can read and write.'
'You can read?'
'Yes, I can read and write. I learnt, by the help of God and good people.'
'Have you a family?'
'No, not a family.'
'How so?… Are they dead, then?'
'No, but … I have never been lucky in life. But all that is in God's hands; we are all in God's hands; and a man should be righteous—that is all! Upright before God, that is it.'
'And you have no kindred?'
'Yes … well….'
The old man was confused.
'Tell me, please,' I began: 'I heard my coachman ask you why you did not cure Martin? You cure disease?'
'Your coachman is a righteous man,' Kassyan answered thoughtfully. 'I too am not without sin. They call me a doctor…. Me a doctor, indeed! And who can heal the sick? That is all a gift from God. But there are … yes, there are herbs, and there are flowers; they are of use, of a certainty. There is plantain, for instance, a herb good for man; there is bud-marigold too; it is not sinful to speak of them: they are holy herbs of God. Then there are others not so; and they may be of use, but it's a sin; and to speak of them is a sin. Still, with prayer, may be…. And doubtless there are such words…. But who has faith, shall be saved,' he added, dropping his voice.
'You did not give Martin anything?' I asked.
'I heard of it too late,' replied the old man. 'But what of it! Each man's destiny is written from his birth. The carpenter Martin was not to live; he was not to live upon the earth: that was what it was. No, when a man is not to live on the earth, him the sunshine does not warm like another, and him the bread does not nourish and make strong; it is as though something is drawing him away…. Yes: God rest his soul!'
'Have you been settled long amongst us?' I asked him after a short pause.
'No, not long; four years. In the old master's time we always lived in our old houses, but the trustees transported us. Our old master was a kind heart, a man of peace—the Kingdom of Heaven be his! The trustees doubtless judged righteously.'
'And where did you live before?'
'At Fair Springs.'
'Is it far from here?'
'A hundred miles.'
'Well, were you better off there?'
'Yes … yes, there there was open country, with rivers; it was our home: here we are cramped and parched up…. Here we are strangers. There at home, at Fair Springs, you could get up on to a hill—and ah, my God, what a sight you could see! Streams and plains and forests, and there was a church, and then came plains beyond. You could see far, very far. Yes, how far you could look—you could look and look, ah, yes! Here, doubtless, the soil is better; it is clay—good fat clay, as the peasants say; for me the corn grows well enough everywhere.'
'Confess then, old man; you would like to visit your birth-place again?'
'Yes, I should like to see it. Still, all places are good. I am a man without kin, without neighbours. And, after all, do you gain much, pray, by staying at home? But, behold! as you walk, and as you walk,' he went on, raising his voice, 'the heart grows lighter, of a truth. And the sun shines upon you, and you are in the sight of God, and the singing comes more tunefully. Here, you look—what herb is growing; you look on it—you pick it. Here water runs, perhaps—spring water, a source of pure holy water; so you drink of it—you look on it too. The birds of heaven sing…. And beyond Kursk come the steppes, that steppes-country: ah, what a marvel, what a delight for man! what freedom, what a blessing of God! And they go on, folks tell, even to the warm seas where dwells the sweet-voiced bird, the Hamayune, and from the trees the leaves fall not, neither in autumn nor in winter, and apples grow of gold, on silver branches, and every man lives in uprightness and content. And I would go even there…. Have I journeyed so little already! I have been to Romyon and to Simbirsk the fair city, and even to Moscow of the golden domes; I have been to Oka the good nurse, and to Tsna the dove, and to our mother Volga, and many folks, good Christians have I seen, and noble cities I have visited…. Well, I would go thither … yes … and more too … and I am not the only one, I a poor sinner … many other Christians go in bast-shoes, roaming over the world, seeking truth, yea!… For what is there at home? No righteousness in man—it's that.'
These last words Kassyan uttered quickly, almost unintelligibly; then he said something more which I could not catch at all, and such a strange expression passed over his face that I involuntarily recalled the epithet 'cracked.' He looked down, cleared his throat, and seemed to come to himself again. 'What sunshine!' he murmured in a low voice. 'It is a blessing, oh, Lord! What warmth in the woods!'
He gave a movement of the shoulders and fell into silence. With a vague look round him he began softly to sing. I could not catch all the words of his slow chant; I heard the following:
'They call me Kassyan, But my nickname's the Flea.' 'Oh!' I thought, 'so he improvises.' Suddenly he started and ceased singing, looking intently at a thick part of the wood. I turned and saw a little peasant girl, about seven years old, in a blue frock, with a checked handkerchief over her head, and a woven bark-basket in her little bare sunburnt hand. She had certainly not expected to meet us; she had, as they say, 'stumbled upon' us, and she stood motionless in a shady recess among the thick foliage of the nut-trees, looking dismayed at me with her black eyes. I had scarcely time to catch a glimpse of her; she dived behind a tree.
'Annushka! Annushka! come here, don't be afraid!' cried the old man caressingly.
'I'm afraid,' came her shrill voice.
'Don't be afraid, don't be afraid; come to me.'
Annushka left her hiding place in silence, walked softly round—her little childish feet scarcely sounded on the thick grass—and came out of the bushes near the old man. She was not a child of seven, as I had fancied at first, from her diminutive stature, but a girl of thirteen or fourteen. Her whole person was small and thin, but very neat and graceful, and her pretty little face was strikingly like Kassyan's own, though he was certainly not handsome. There were the same thin features, and the same strange expression, shy and confiding, melancholy and shrewd, and her gestures were the same…. Kassyan kept his eyes fixed on her; she took her stand at his side.
'Well, have you picked any mushrooms?' he asked.
'Yes,' she answered with a shy smile.
'Did you find many?'
'Yes.' (She stole a swift look at him and smiled again.)
'Are they white ones?'
'Show me, show me…. (She slipped the basket off her arm and half-lifted the big burdock leaf which covered up the mushrooms.) 'Ah!' said Kassyan, bending down over the basket; 'what splendid ones! Well done, Annushka!'
'She's your daughter, Kassyan, isn't she?' I asked. (Annushka's face flushed faintly.)
'No, well, a relative,' replied Kassyan with affected indifference. 'Come, Annushka, run along,' he added at once, 'run along, and God be with you! And take care.'
'But why should she go on foot?' I interrupted. 'We could take her with us.'
Annushka blushed like a poppy, grasped the handle of her basket with both hands, and looked in trepidation at the old man.
'No, she will get there all right,' he answered in the same languid and indifferent voice. 'Why not?… She will get there…. Run along.'
Annushka went rapidly away into the forest. Kassyan looked after her, then looked down and smiled to himself. In this prolonged smile, in the few words he had spoken to Annushka, and in the very sound of his voice when he spoke to her, there was an intense, indescribable love and tenderness. He looked again in the direction she had gone, again smiled to himself, and, passing his hand across his face, he nodded his head several times.
'Why did you send her away so soon?' I asked him. 'I would have bought her mushrooms.'
'Well, you can buy them there at home just the same, sir, if you like,' he answered, for the first time using the formal 'sir' in addressing me.
'She's very pretty, your girl.'
'No … only so-so,' he answered, with seeming reluctance, and from that instant he relapsed into the same uncommunicative mood as at first.
Seeing that all my efforts to make him talk again were fruitless, I went off into the clearing. Meantime the heat had somewhat abated; but my ill-success, or, as they say among us, my 'ill-luck,' continued, and I returned to the settlement with nothing but one corncrake and the new axle. Just as we were driving into the yard, Kassyan suddenly turned to me.
'Master, master,' he began, 'do you know I have done you a wrong; it was I cast a spell to keep all the game off.'
'Oh, I can do that. Here you have a well-trained dog and a good one, but he could do nothing. When you think of it, what are men? what are they? Here's a beast; what have they made of him?'
It would have been useless for me to try to convince Kassyan of the impossibility of 'casting a spell' on game, and so I made him no reply. Meantime we had turned into the yard.
Annushka was not in the hut: she had had time to get there before us, and to leave her basket of mushrooms. Erofay fitted in the new axle, first exposing it to a severe and most unjust criticism; and an hour later I set off, leaving a small sum of money with Kassyan, which at first he was unwilling to accept, but afterwards, after a moment's thought, holding it in his hand, he put it in his bosom. In the course of this hour he had scarcely uttered a single word; he stood as before, leaning against the gate. He made no reply to the reproaches of my coachman, and took leave very coldly of me.
Directly I turned round, I could see that my worthy Erofay was in a gloomy frame of mind…. To be sure, he had found nothing to eat in the country; the only water for his horses was bad. We drove off. With dissatisfaction expressed even in the back of his head, he sat on the box, burning to begin to talk to me. While waiting for me to begin by some question, he confined himself to a low muttering in an undertone, and some rather caustic instructions to the horses. 'A village,' he muttered; 'call that a village? You ask for a drop of kvas—not a drop of kvas even…. Ah, Lord!… And the water—simply filth!' (He spat loudly.) 'Not a cucumber, nor kvas, nor nothing…. Now, then!' he added aloud, turning to the right trace-horse; 'I know you, you humbug.' (And he gave him a cut with the whip.) 'That horse has learnt to shirk his work entirely, and yet he was a willing beast once. Now, then—look alive!'
'Tell me, please, Erofay,' I began, 'what sort of a man is Kassyan?'
Erofay did not answer me at once: he was, in general, a reflective and deliberate fellow; but I could see directly that my question was soothing and cheering to him.
'The Flea?' he said at last, gathering up the reins; 'he's a queer fellow; yes, a crazy chap; such a queer fellow, you wouldn't find another like him in a hurry. You know, for example, he's for all the world like our roan horse here; he gets out of everything—out of work, that's to say. But, then, what sort of workman could he be?… He's hardly body enough to keep his soul in … but still, of course…. He's been like that from a child up, you know. At first he followed his uncle's business as a carrier—there were three of them in the business; but then he got tired of it, you know—he threw it up. He began to live at home, but he could not keep at home long; he's so restless—a regular flea, in fact. He happened, by good luck, to have a good master—he didn't worry him. Well, so ever since he has been wandering about like a lost sheep. And then, he's so strange; there's no understanding him. Sometimes he'll be as silent as a post, and then he'll begin talking, and God knows what he'll say! Is that good manners, pray? He's an absurd fellow, that he is. But he sings well, for all that.'
'And does he cure people, really?'
'Cure people!… Well, how should he? A fine sort of doctor! Though he did cure me of the king's evil, I must own…. But how can he? He's a stupid fellow, that's what he is,' he added, after a moment's pause.
'Have you known him long?'
'A long while. I was his neighbour at Sitchovka up at Fair Springs.'
'And what of that girl—who met us in the wood, Annushka—what relation is she to him?'
Erofay looked at me over his shoulder, and grinned all over his face.
'He, he!… yes, they are relations. She is an orphan; she has no mother, and it's not even known who her mother was. But she must be a relation; she's too much like him…. Anyway, she lives with him. She's a smart girl, there's no denying; a good girl; and as for the old man, she's simply the apple of his eye; she's a good girl. And, do you know, you wouldn't believe it, but do you know, he's managed to teach Annushka to read? Well, well! that's quite like him; he's such an extraordinary fellow, such a changeable fellow; there's no reckoning on him, really…. Eh! eh! eh!' My coachman suddenly interrupted himself, and stopping the horses, he bent over on one side and began sniffing. 'Isn't there a smell of burning? Yes! Why, that new axle, I do declare!… I thought I'd greased it…. We must get on to some water; why, here is a puddle, just right.'
And Erofay slowly got off his seat, untied the pail, went to the pool, and coming back, listened with a certain satisfaction to the hissing of the box of the wheel as the water suddenly touched it…. Six times during some eight miles he had to pour water on the smouldering axle, and it was quite evening when we got home at last.