'Let us go to Lgov,' Yermolaï, whom the reader knows already, said to me one day; 'there we can shoot ducks to our heart's content.'
Although wild duck offers no special attraction for a genuine sportsman, still, through lack of other game at the time (it was the beginning of September; snipe were not on the wing yet, and I was tired of running across the fields after partridges), I listened to my huntsman's suggestion, and we went to Lgov.
Lgov is a large village of the steppes, with a very old stone church with a single cupola, and two mills on the swampy little river Rossota. Five miles from Lgov, this river becomes a wide swampy pond, overgrown at the edges, and in places also in the centre, with thick reeds. Here, in the creeks or rather pools between the reeds, live and breed a countless multitude of ducks of all possible kinds—quackers, half-quackers, pintails, teals, divers, etc. Small flocks are for ever flitting about and swimming on the water, and at a gunshot, they rise in such clouds that the sportsman involuntarily clutches his hat with one hand and utters a prolonged Pshaw! I walked with Yermolaï along beside the pond; but, in the first place, the duck is a wary bird, and is not to be met quite close to the bank; and secondly, even when some straggling and inexperienced teal exposed itself to our shots and lost its life, our dogs were not able to get it out of the thick reeds; in spite of their most devoted efforts they could neither swim nor tread on the bottom, and only cut their precious noses on the sharp reeds for nothing.
'No,' was Yermolaï's comment at last, 'it won't do; we must get a boat…. Let us go back to Lgov.'
We went back. We had only gone a few paces when a rather wretched-looking setter-dog ran out from behind a bushy willow to meet us, and behind him appeared a man of middle height, in a blue and much-worn greatcoat, a yellow waistcoat, and pantaloons of a nondescript grey colour, hastily tucked into high boots full of holes, with a red handkerchief round his neck, and a single-barrelled gun on his shoulder. While our dogs, with the ordinary Chinese ceremonies peculiar to their species, were sniffing at their new acquaintance, who was obviously ill at ease, held his tail between his legs, dropped his ears back, and kept turning round and round showing his teeth—the stranger approached us, and bowed with extreme civility. He appeared to be about twenty-five; his long dark hair, perfectly saturated with kvas, stood up in stiff tufts, his small brown eyes twinkled genially; his face was bound up in a black handkerchief, as though for toothache; his countenance was all smiles and amiability.
'Allow me to introduce myself,' he began in a soft and insinuating voice; 'I am a sportsman of these parts—Vladimir…. Having heard of your presence, and having learnt that you proposed to visit the shores of our pond, I resolved, if it were not displeasing to you, to offer you my services.'
The sportsman, Vladimir, uttered those words for all the world like a young provincial actor in the rôle of leading lover. I agreed to his proposition, and before we had reached Lgov I had succeeded in learning his whole history. He was a freed house-serf; in his tender youth had been taught music, then served as valet, could read and write, had read—so much I could discover—some few trashy books, and existed now, as many do exist in Russia, without a farthing of ready money; without any regular occupation; fed by manna from heaven, or something hardly less precarious. He expressed himself with extraordinary elegance, and obviously plumed himself on his manners; he must have been devoted to the fair sex too, and in all probability popular with them: Russian girls love fine talking. Among other things, he gave me to understand that he sometimes visited the neighbouring landowners, and went to stay with friends in the town, where he played preference, and that he was acquainted with people in the metropolis. His smile was masterly and exceedingly varied; what specially suited him was a modest, contained smile which played on his lips as he listened to any other man's conversation. He was attentive to you; he agreed with you completely, but still he did not lose sight of his own dignity, and seemed to wish to give you to understand that he could, if occasion arose, express convictions of his own. Yermolaï, not being very refined, and quite devoid of 'subtlety,' began to address him with coarse familiarity. The fine irony with which Vladimir used 'Sir' in his reply was worth seeing.
'Why is your face tied up? 'I inquired; 'have you toothache?'
'No,' he answered; 'it was a most disastrous consequence of carelessness. I had a friend, a good fellow, but not a bit of a sportsman, as sometimes occurs. Well, one day he said to me, "My dear friend, take me out shooting; I am curious to learn what this diversion consists in." I did not like, of course, to refuse a comrade; I got him a gun and took him out shooting. Well, we shot a little in the ordinary way; at last we thought we would rest I sat down under a tree; but he began instead to play with his gun, pointing it at me meantime. I asked him to leave off, but in his inexperience he did not attend to my words, the gun went off, and I lost half my chin, and the first finger of my right hand.'
We reached Lgov. Vladimir and Yermolaï had both decided that we could not shoot without a boat.
'Sutchok (i.e. the twig) has a punt,' observed Vladimir, 'but I don't know where he has hidden it. We must go to him.'
'To whom?' I asked.
'The man lives here; Sutchok is his nickname.'
Vladimir went with Yermolaï to Sutchok's. I told them I would wait for them at the church. While I was looking at the tombstones in the churchyard, I stumbled upon a blackened, four-cornered urn with the following inscription, on one side in French: 'Ci-git Théophile-Henri, Vicomte de Blangy'; on the next; 'Under this stone is laid the body of a French subject, Count Blangy; born 1737, died 1799, in the 62nd year of his age': on the third, 'Peace to his ashes': and on the fourth:—
'Under this stone there lies from France an emigrant. Of high descent was he, and also of talent. A wife and kindred murdered he bewailed, And left his land by tyrants cruel assailed; The friendly shores of Russia he attained, And hospitable shelter here he gained; Children he taught; their parents' cares allayed: Here, by God's will, in peace he has been laid.' The approach of Yermolaï with Vladimir and the man with the strange nickname, Sutchok, broke in on my meditations.
Barelegged, ragged and dishevelled, Sutchok looked like a discharged stray house-serf of sixty years old.
'Have you a boat?' I asked him.
'I have a boat,' he answered in a hoarse, cracked voice; 'but it's a very poor one.'
'Its boards are split apart, and the rivets have come off the cracks.'
'That's no great disaster!' interposed Yermolaï; 'we can stuff them up with tow.'
'Of course you can,' Sutchok assented.
'And who are you?'
'I am the fisherman of the manor.'
'How is it, when you're a fisherman, your boat is in such bad condition?'
'There are no fish in our river.'
'Fish don't like slimy marshes,' observed my huntsman, with the air of an authority.
'Come,' I said to Yermolaï, 'go and get some tow, and make the boat right for us as soon as you can.'
Yermolaï went off.
'Well, in this way we may very likely go to the bottom,' I said to Vladimir. 'God is merciful,' he answered. 'Anyway, we must suppose that the pond is not deep.'
'No, it is not deep,' observed Sutchok, who spoke in a strange, far-away voice, as though he were in a dream, 'and there's sedge and mud at the bottom, and it's all overgrown with sedge. But there are deep holes too.'
'But if the sedge is so thick,' said Vladimir, 'it will be impossible to row.'
'Who thinks of rowing in a punt? One has to punt it. I will go with you; my pole is there—or else one can use a wooden spade.'
'With a spade it won't be easy; you won't touch the bottom perhaps in some places,' said Vladimir.
'It's true; it won't be easy.'
I sat down on a tomb-stone to wait for Yermolaï. Vladimir moved a little to one side out of respect to me, and also sat down. Sutchok remained standing in the same place, his head bent and his hands clasped behind his back, according to the old habit of house-serfs.
'Tell me, please,' I began, 'have you been the fisherman here long?'
'It is seven years now,' he replied, rousing himself with a start.
'And what was your occupation before?'
'I was coachman before.'
'Who dismissed you from being coachman?'
'The new mistress.'
'Oh, that bought us. Your honour does not know her; Alyona Timofyevna; she is so fat … not young.'
'Why did she decide to make you a fisherman?'
'God knows. She came to us from her estate in Tamboff, gave orders for all the household to come together, and came out to us. We first kissed her hand, and she said nothing; she was not angry…. Then she began to question us in order; "How are you employed? what duties have you?" She came to me in my turn; so she asked: "What have you been?" I say, "Coachman." "Coachman? Well, a fine coachman you are; only look at you! You're not fit for a coachman, but be my fisherman, and shave your beard. On the occasions of my visits provide fish for the table; do you hear?" … So since then I have been enrolled as a fisherman. "And mind you keep my pond in order." But how is one to keep it in order?'
'Whom did you belong to before?'
'To Sergaï Sergiitch Pehterev. We came to him by inheritance. But he did not own us long; only six years altogether. I was his coachman … but not in town, he had others there—only in the country.'
'And were you always a coachman from your youth up?'
'Always a coachman? Oh, no! I became a coachman in Sergaï Sergiitch's time, but before that I was a cook—but not town-cook; only a cook in the country.'
'Whose cook were you, then?'
'Oh, my former master's, Afanasy Nefeditch, Sergaï Sergiitch's uncle. Lgov was bought by him, by Afanasy Nefeditch, but it came to Sergaï Sergiitch by inheritance from him.' 'Whom did he buy it from?'
'From Tatyana Vassilyevna.'
'What Tatyana Vassilyevna was that?'
'Why, that died last year in Bolhov … that is, at Karatchev, an old maid…. She had never married. Don't you know her? We came to her from her father, Vassily Semenitch. She owned us a goodish while … twenty years.'
'Then were you cook to her?'
'At first, to be sure, I was cook, and then I was coffee-bearer.'
'What were you?'
'What sort of duty is that?'
'I don't know, your honour. I stood at the sideboard, and was called Anton instead of Kuzma. The mistress ordered that I should be called so.'
'Your real name, then, is Kuzma?'
'And were you coffee-bearer all the time?'
'No, not all the time; I was an actor too.'
'Yes, I was…. I played in the theatre. Our mistress set up a theatre of her own.'
'What kind of parts did you take?'
'What did you please to say?'
'What did you do in the theatre?'
'Don't you know? Why, they take me and dress me up; and I walk about dressed up, or stand or sit down there as it happens, and they say, "See, this is what you must say," and I say it. Once I represented a blind man…. They laid little peas under each eyelid…. Yes, indeed.'
'And what were you afterwards?'
'Afterwards I became a cook again.'
'Why did they degrade you to being a cook again?'
'My brother ran away.'
'Well, and what were you under the father of your first mistress?'
'I had different duties; at first I found myself a page; I have been a postilion, a gardener, and a whipper-in.'
'A whipper-in?… And did you ride out with the hounds?'
'Yes, I rode with the hounds, and was nearly killed; I fell off my horse, and the horse was injured. Our old master was very severe; he ordered them to flog me, and to send me to learn a trade to Moscow, to a shoemaker.'
'To learn a trade? But you weren't a child, I suppose, when you were a whipper-in?'
'I was twenty and over then.'
'But could you learn a trade at twenty?'
'I suppose one could, some way, since the master ordered it. But he luckily died soon after, and they sent me back to the country.'
'And when were you taught to cook?'
Sutchok lifted his thin yellowish little old face and grinned.
'Is that a thing to be taught?… Old women can cook.'
'Well,' I commented, 'you have seen many things, Kuzma, in your time! What do you do now as a fisherman, seeing there are no fish?' 'Oh, your honour, I don't complain. And, thank God, they made me a fisherman. Why another old man like me—Andrey Pupir—the mistress ordered to be put into the paper factory, as a ladler. "It's a sin," she said, "to eat bread in idleness." And Pupir had even hoped for favour; his cousin's son was clerk in the mistress's counting-house: he had promised to send his name up to the mistress, to remember him: a fine way he remembered him!… And Pupir fell at his cousin's knees before my eyes.'
'Have you a family? Have you married?'
'No, your honour, I have never been married. Tatyana Vassilyevna—God rest her soul!—did not allow anyone to marry. "God forbid!" she said sometimes, "here am I living single: what indulgence! What are they thinking of!"'
'What do you live on now? Do you get wages?'
'Wages, your honour!… Victuals are given me, and thanks be to Thee, Lord! I am very contented. May God give our lady long life!' Yermolaï returned.
'The boat is repaired,' he announced churlishly. 'Go after your pole—you there!'
Sutchok ran to get his pole. During the whole time of my conversation with the poor old man, the sportsman Vladimir had been staring at him with a contemptuous smile.
'A stupid fellow,' was his comment, when the latter had gone off; 'an absolutely uneducated fellow; a peasant, nothing more. One cannot even call him a house-serf, and he was boasting all the time. How could he be an actor, be pleased to judge for yourself! You were pleased to trouble yourself for no good in talking to him.'
A quarter of an hour later we were sitting in Sutchok's punt. The dogs we left in a hut in charge of my coachman. We were not very comfortable, but sportsmen are not a fastidious race. At the rear end, which was flattened and straight, stood Sutchok, punting; I sat with Vladimir on the planks laid across the boat, and Yermolaï ensconced himself in front, in the very beak. In spite of the tow, the water soon made its appearance under our feet. Fortunately, the weather was calm and the pond seemed slumbering.
We floated along rather slowly. The old man had difficulty in drawing his long pole out of the sticky mud; it came up all tangled in green threads of water-sedge; the flat round leaves of the water-lily also hindered the progress of our boat last we got up to the reeds, and then the fun began. Ducks flew up noisily from the pond, scared by our unexpected appearance in their domains, shots sounded at once after them; it was a pleasant sight to see these short-tailed game turning somersaults in the air, splashing heavily into the water. We could not, of course, get at all the ducks that were shot; those who were slightly wounded swam away; some which had been quite killed fell into such thick reeds that even Yermolaï's little lynx eyes could not discover them, yet our boat was nevertheless filled to the brim with game for dinner.
Vladimir, to Yermolaï's great satisfaction, did not shoot at all well; he seemed surprised after each unsuccessful shot, looked at his gun and blew down it, seemed puzzled, and at last explained to us the reason why he had missed his aim. Yermolaï, as always, shot triumphantly; I—rather badly, after my custom. Sutchok looked on at us with the eyes of a man who has been the servant of others from his youth up; now and then he cried out: 'There, there, there's another little duck'; and he constantly rubbed his back, not with his hands, but by a peculiar movement of the shoulder-blades. The weather kept magnificent; curly white clouds moved calmly high above our heads, and were reflected clearly in the water; the reeds were whispering around us; here and there the pond sparkled in the sunshine like steel. We were preparing to return to the village, when suddenly a rather unpleasant adventure befel us.
For a long time we had been aware that the water was gradually filling our punt. Vladimir was entrusted with the task of baling it out by means of a ladle, which my thoughtful huntsman had stolen to be ready for any emergency from a peasant woman who was staring away in another direction. All went well so long as Vladimir did not neglect his duty. But just at the end the ducks, as if to take leave of us, rose in such flocks that we scarcely had time to load our guns. In the heat of the sport we did not pay attention to the state of our punt—when suddenly, Yermolaï, in trying to reach a wounded duck, leaned his whole weight on the boat's-edge; at his over-eager movement our old tub veered on one side, began to fill, and majestically sank to the bottom, fortunately not in a deep place. We cried out, but it was too late; in an instant we were standing in the water up to our necks, surrounded by the floating bodies of the slaughtered ducks. I cannot help laughing now when I recollect the scared white faces of my companions (probably my own face was not particularly rosy at that moment), but I must confess at the time it did not enter my head to feel amused. Each of us kept his gun above his head, and Sutchok, no doubt from the habit of imitating his masters, lifted his pole above him. The first to break the silence was Yermolaï.
'Tfoo! curse it!' he muttered, spitting into the water; 'here's a go. It's all you, you old devil!' he added, turning wrathfully to Sutchok; 'you've such a boat!'
'It's my fault,' stammered the old man.
'Yes; and you're a nice one,' continued my huntsman, turning his head in Vladimir's direction; 'what were you thinking of? Why weren't you baling out?—you, you?'
But Vladimir was not equal to a reply; he was shaking like a leaf, his teeth were chattering, and his smile was utterly meaningless. What had become of his fine language, his feeling of fine distinctions, and of his own dignity!
The cursed punt rocked feebly under our feet… At the instant of our ducking the water seemed terribly cold to us, but we soon got hardened to it, when the first shock had passed off. I looked round me; the reeds rose up in a circle ten paces from us; in the distance above their tops the bank could be seen. 'It looks bad,' I thought.
'What are we to do?' I asked Yermolaï.
'Well, we'll take a look round; we can't spend the night here,' he answered. 'Here, you, take my gun,' he said to Vladimir.
Vladimir obeyed submissively.
'I will go and find the ford,' continued Yermolaï, as though there must infallibly be a ford in every pond: he took the pole from Sutchok, and went off in the direction of the bank, warily sounding the depth as he walked.
'Can you swim?' I asked him.
'No, I can't,' his voice sounded from behind the reeds.
'Then he'll be drowned,' remarked Sutchok indifferently. He had been terrified at first, not by the danger, but through fear of our anger, and now, completely reassured, he drew a long breath from time to time, and seemed not to be aware of any necessity for moving from his present position.
'And he will perish without doing any good,' added Vladimir piteously.
Yermolaï did not return for more than an hour. That hour seemed an eternity to us. At first we kept calling to him very energetically; then his answering shouts grew less frequent; at last he was completely silent. The bells in the village began ringing for evening service. There was not much conversation between us; indeed, we tried not to look at one another. The ducks hovered over our heads; some seemed disposed to settle near us, but suddenly rose up into the air and flew away quacking. We began to grow numb. Sutchok shut his eyes as though he were disposing himself to sleep.
At last, to our indescribable delight, Yermolaï returned.
'I have been to the bank; I have found the ford…. Let us go.'
We wanted to set off at once; but he first brought some string out of his pocket out of the water, tied the slaughtered ducks together by their legs, took both ends in his teeth, and moved slowly forward; Vladimir came behind him, and I behind Vladimir, and Sutchok brought up the rear. It was about two hundred paces to the bank. Yermolaï walked boldly and without stopping (so well had he noted the track), only occasionally crying out: 'More to the left—there's a hole here to the right!' or 'Keep to the right—you'll sink in there to the left….' Sometimes the water was up to our necks, and twice poor Sutchok, who was shorter than all the rest of us, got a mouthful and spluttered. 'Come, come, come!' Yermolaï shouted roughly to him—and Sutchok, scrambling, hopping and skipping, managed to reach a shallower place, but even in his greatest extremity was never so bold as to clutch at the skirt of my coat. Worn out, muddy and wet, we at last reached the bank.
Two hours later we were all sitting, as dry as circumstances would allow, in a large hay barn, preparing for supper. The coachman Yehudiil, an exceedingly deliberate man, heavy in gait, cautious and sleepy, stood at the entrance, zealously plying Sutchok with snuff (I have noticed that coachmen in Russia very quickly make friends); Sutchok was taking snuff with frenzied energy, in quantities to make him ill; he was spitting, sneezing, and apparently enjoying himself greatly. Vladimir had assumed an air of languor; he leaned his head on one side, and spoke little. Yermolaï was cleaning our guns. The dogs were wagging their tails at a great rate in the expectation of porridge; the horses were stamping and neighing in the out-house…. The sun had set; its last rays were broken up into broad tracts of purple; golden clouds were drawn out over the heavens into finer and ever finer threads, like a fleece washed and combed out. … There was the sound of singing in the village.