I was coming back from hunting one evening alone in a racing droshky. I was six miles from home; my good trotting mare galloped bravely along the dusty road, pricking up her ears with an occasional snort; my weary dog stuck close to the hind-wheels, as though he were fastened there. A tempest was coming on. In front, a huge, purplish storm-cloud slowly rose from behind the forest; long grey rain-clouds flew over my head and to meet me; the willows stirred and whispered restlessly. The suffocating heat changed suddenly to a damp chilliness; the darkness rapidly thickened. I gave the horse a lash with the reins, descended a steep slope, pushed across a dry water-course overgrown with brushwood, mounted the hill, and drove into the forest. The road ran before me, bending between thick hazel bushes, now enveloped in darkness; I advanced with difficulty. The droshky jumped up and down over the hard roots of the ancient oaks and limes, which were continually intersected by deep ruts—the tracks of cart wheels; my horse began to stumble. A violent wind suddenly began to roar overhead; the trees blustered; big drops of rain fell with slow tap and splash on the leaves; there came a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder. The rain fell in torrents. I went on a step or so, and soon was forced to stop; my horse foundered; I could not see an inch before me. I managed to take refuge somehow in a spreading bush. Crouching down and covering my face, I waited patiently for the storm to blow over, when suddenly, in a flash of lightning, I saw a tall figure on the road. I began to stare intently in that direction—the figure seemed to have sprung out of the ground near my droshky.
'Who's that?' inquired a ringing voice.
'Why, who are you?'
'I'm the forester here.'
I mentioned my name.
'Oh, I know! Are you on your way home?'
'Yes. But, you see, in such a storm….'
'Yes, there is a storm,' replied the voice.
A pale flash of lightning lit up the forester from head to foot; a brief crashing clap of thunder followed at once upon it. The rain lashed with redoubled force.
'It won't be over just directly,' the forester went on.
'What's to be done?'
'I'll take you to my hut, if you like,' he said abruptly.
'That would be a service.'
'Please to take your seat'
He went up to the mare's head, took her by the bit, and pulled her up. We set off. I held on to the cushion of the droshky, which rocked 'like a boat on the sea,' and called my dog. My poor mare splashed with difficulty through the mud, slipped and stumbled; the forester hovered before the shafts to right and to left like a ghost. We drove rather a long while; at last my guide stopped. 'Here we are home, sir,' he observed in a quiet voice. The gate creaked; some puppies barked a welcome. I raised my head, and in a flash of lightning I made out a small hut in the middle of a large yard, fenced in with hurdles. From the one little window there was a dim light. The forester led his horse up to the steps and knocked at the door. 'Coming, coming!' we heard in a little shrill voice; there was the patter of bare feet, the bolt creaked, and a girl of twelve, in a little old smock tied round the waist with list, appeared in the doorway with a lantern in her hand.
'Show the gentleman a light,' he said to her 'and I will put your droshky in the shed.'
The little girl glanced at me, and went into the hut. I followed her.
The forester's hut consisted of one room, smoky, low-pitched, and empty, without curtains or partition. A tattered sheepskin hung on the wall. On the bench lay a single-barrelled gun; in the corner lay a heap of rags; two great pots stood near the oven. A pine splinter was burning on the table flickering up and dying down mournfully. In the very middle of the hut hung a cradle, suspended from the end of a long horizontal pole. The little girl put out the lantern, sat down on a tiny stool, and with her right hand began swinging the cradle, while with her left she attended to the smouldering pine splinter. I looked round—my heart sank within me: it's not cheering to go into a peasant's hut at night. The baby in the cradle breathed hard and fast.
'Are you all alone here?' I asked the little girl.
'Yes,' she uttered, hardly audibly.
'You're the forester's daughter?'
'Yes,' she whispered.
The door creaked, and the forester, bending his head, stepped across the threshold. He lifted the lantern from the floor, went up to the table, and lighted a candle.
'I dare say you're not used to the splinter light?' said he, and he shook back his curls.
I looked at him. Rarely has it been my fortune to behold such a comely creature. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and in marvellous proportion. His powerful muscles stood out in strong relief under his wet homespun shirt. A curly, black beard hid half of his stern and manly face; small brown eyes looked out boldly from under broad eyebrows which met in the middle. He stood before me, his arms held lightly akimbo.
I thanked him, and asked his name.
'My name's Foma,' he answered, 'and my nickname's Biryuk' (i.e. wolf). [Footnote: The name Biryuk is used in the Orel province to denote a solitary, misanthropic man.—Author's Note.]
'Oh, you're Biryuk.'
I looked with redoubled curiosity at him. From my Yermolaï and others I had often heard stories about the forester Biryuk, whom all the peasants of the surrounding districts feared as they feared fire. According to them there had never been such a master of his business in the world before. 'He won't let you carry off a handful of brushwood; he'll drop upon you like a fall of snow, whatever time it may be, even in the middle of the night, and you needn't think of resisting him—he's strong, and cunning as the devil…. And there's no getting at him anyhow; neither by brandy nor by money; there's no snare he'll walk into. More than once good folks have planned to put him out of the world, but no—it's never come off.'
That was how the neighbouring peasants spoke of Biryuk.
'So you're Biryuk,' I repeated; 'I've heard talk of you, brother. They say you show no mercy to anyone.'
'I do my duty,' he answered grimly; 'it's not right to eat the master's bread for nothing.'
He took an axe from his girdle and began splitting splinters.
'Have you no wife?' I asked him.
'No,' he answered, with a vigorous sweep of the axe.
'She's dead, I suppose?'
'No … yes … she's dead,' he added, and turned away. I was silent; he raised his eyes and looked at me.
'She ran away with a travelling pedlar,' he brought out with a bitter smile. The little girl hung her head; the baby waked up and began crying; the little girl went to the cradle. 'There, give it him,' said Biryuk, thrusting a dirty feeding-bottle into her hand. 'Him, too, she abandoned,' he went on in an undertone, pointing to the baby. He went up to the door, stopped, and turned round.
'A gentleman like you,' he began, 'wouldn't care for our bread, I dare say, and except bread, I've—'
'I'm not hungry.'
'Well, that's for you to say. I would have heated the samovar, but I've no tea…. I'll go and see how your horse is getting on.'
He went out and slammed the door. I looked round again, the hut struck me as more melancholy than ever. The bitter smell of stale smoke choked my breathing unpleasantly. The little girl did not stir from her place, and did not raise her eyes; from time to time she jogged the cradle, and timidly pulled her slipping smock up on to shoulder; her bare legs hung motionless.
'What's your name?' I asked her.
'Ulita,' she said, her mournful little face drooping more than ever.
The forester came in and sat down on the bench.
'The storm 's passing over,' he observed, after a brief silence; 'if you wish it, I will guide you out of the forest.'
I got up; Biryuk took his gun and examined the firepan.
'What's that for?' I inquired.
'There's mischief in the forest…. They're cutting a tree down on Mares' Ravine,' he added, in reply to my look of inquiry. 'Could you hear it from here?'
'I can hear it outside.'
We went out together. The rain had ceased. Heavy masses of storm-cloud were still huddled in the distance; from time to time there were long flashes of lightning; but here and there overhead the dark blue sky was already visible; stars twinkled through the swiftly flying clouds. The outline of the trees, drenched with rain, and stirred by the wind, began to stand out in the darkness. We listened. The forester took off his cap and bent his head…. 'Th … there!' he said suddenly, and he stretched out his hand: 'see what a night he's pitched on.' I had heard nothing but the rustle of the leaves. Biryuk led the mare out of the shed. 'But, perhaps,' he added aloud, 'this way I shall miss him.' 'I'll go with you … if you like?' 'Certainly,' he answered, and he backed the horse in again; 'we'll catch him in a trice, and then I'll take you. Let's be off.' We started, Biryuk in front, I following him. Heaven only knows how he found out his way, but he only stopped once or twice, and then merely to listen to the strokes of the axe. 'There,' he muttered, 'do you hear? do you hear?' 'Why, where?' Biryuk shrugged his shoulders. We went down into the ravine; the wind was still for an instant; the rhythmical strokes reached my hearing distinctly. Biryuk glanced at me and shook his head. We went farther through the wet bracken and nettles. A slow muffled crash was heard….
'He's felled it,' muttered Biryuk. Meantime the sky had grown clearer and clearer; there was a faint light in the forest. We clambered at last out of the ravine.
'Wait here a little,' the forester whispered to me. He bent down, and raising his gun above his head, vanished among the bushes. I began listening with strained attention. Across the continual roar of the wind faint sounds from close by reached me; there was a cautious blow of an axe on the brushwood, the crash of wheels, the snort of a horse….
'Where are you off to? Stop!' the iron voice of Biryuk thundered suddenly. Another voice was heard in a pitiful shriek, like a trapped hare…. A struggle was beginning.
'No, no, you've made a mistake,' Biryuk declared panting; 'you're not going to get off….' I rushed in the direction of the noise, and ran up to the scene of the conflict, stumbling at every step. A felled tree lay on the ground, and near it Biryuk was busily engaged holding the thief down and binding his hands behind his back with a kerchief. I came closer. Biryuk got up and set him on his feet. I saw a peasant drenched with rain, in tatters, and with a long dishevelled beard. A sorry little nag, half covered with a stiff mat, was standing by, together with a rough cart. The forester did not utter a word; the peasant too was silent; his head was shaking.
'Let him go,' I whispered in Biryuk's ears; 'I'll pay for the tree.'
Without a word Biryuk took the horse by the mane with his left hand; in his right he held the thief by the belt. 'Now turn round, you rat!' he said grimly.
'The bit of an axe there, take it,' muttered the peasant.
'No reason to lose it, certainly,' said the forester, and he picked up the axe. We started. I walked behind…. The rain began sprinkling again, and soon fell in torrents. With difficulty we made our way to the hut. Biryuk pushed the captured horse into the middle of the yard, led the peasant into the room, loosened the knot in the kerchief, and made him sit down in a corner. The little girl, who had fallen asleep near the oven, jumped up and began staring at us in silent terror. I sat down on the locker.
'Ugh, what a downpour!' remarked the forester; 'you will have to wait till it's over. Won't you lie down?'
'I would have shut him in the store loft, on your honour's account,' he went on, indicating the peasant; 'but you see the bolt—'
'Leave him here; don't touch him,' I interrupted.
The peasant stole a glance at me from under his brows. I vowed inwardly to set the poor wretch free, come what might. He sat without stirring on the locker. By the light of the lantern I could make out his worn, wrinkled face, his overhanging yellow eyebrows, his restless eyes, his thin limbs…. The little girl lay down on the floor, just at his feet, and again dropped asleep. Biryuk sat at the table, his head in his hands. A cricket chirped in the corner … the rain pattered on the roof and streamed down the windows; we were all silent.
'Foma Kuzmitch,' said the peasant suddenly in a thick, broken voice; 'Foma Kuzmitch!' 'What is it?'
'Let me go.'
Biryuk made no answer.
'Let me go … hunger drove me to it; let me go.'
'I know you,' retorted the forester severely; 'your set's all alike—all thieves.'
'Let me go,' repeated the peasant. 'Our manager … we 're ruined, that's what it is—let me go!'
'Ruined, indeed!… Nobody need steal.'
'Let me go, Foma Kuzmitch…. Don't destroy me. Your manager, you know yourself, will have no mercy on me; that's what it is.'
Biryuk turned away. The peasant was shivering as though he were in the throes of fever. His head was shaking, and his breathing came in broken gasps.
'Let me go,' he repeated with mournful desperation. 'Let me go; by God, let me go! I'll pay; see, by God, I will! By God, it was through hunger!… the little ones are crying, you know yourself. It's hard for us, see.'
'You needn't go stealing, for all that.'
'My little horse,' the peasant went on, 'my poor little horse, at least … our only beast … let it go.'
'I tell you I can't. I'm not a free man; I'm made responsible. You oughtn't to be spoilt, either.'
'Let me go! It's through want, Foma Kuzmitch, want—and nothing else—let me go!'
'I know you!'
'Oh, let me go!'
'Ugh, what's the use of talking to you! sit quiet, or else you'll catch it. Don't you see the gentleman, hey?'
The poor wretch hung his head…. Biryuk yawned and laid his head on the table. The rain still persisted. I was waiting to see what would happen.
Suddenly the peasant stood erect. His eyes were glittering, and his face flushed dark red. 'Come, then, here; strike yourself, here,' he began, his eyes puckering up and the corners of his mouth dropping; 'come, cursed destroyer of men's souls! drink Christian blood, drink.'
The forester turned round.
'I'm speaking to you, Asiatic, blood-sucker, you!'
'Are you drunk or what, to set to being abusive?' began the forester, puzzled. 'Are you out of your senses, hey?'
'Drunk! not at your expense, cursed destroyer of souls—brute, brute, brute!'
'Ah, you——I'll show you!'
'What's that to me? It's all one; I'm done for; what can I do without a home? Kill me—it's the same in the end; whether it's through hunger or like this—it's all one. Ruin us all—wife, children … kill us all at once. But, wait a bit, we'll get at you!'
Biryuk got up.
'Kill me, kill me,' the peasant went on in savage tones; 'kill me; come, come, kill me….' (The little girl jumped up hastily from the ground and stared at him.) 'Kill me, kill me!'
'Silence!' thundered the forester, and he took two steps forward.
'Stop, Foma, stop,' I shouted; 'let him go…. Peace be with him.'
'I won't be silent,' the luckless wretch went on. 'It's all the same—ruin anyway—you destroyer of souls, you brute; you've not come to ruin yet…. But wait a bit; you won't have long to boast of; they'll wring your neck; wait a bit!'
Biryuk clutched him by the shoulder. I rushed to help the peasant….
'Don't touch him, master!' the forester shouted to me.
I should not have feared his threats, and already had my fist in the air; but to my intense amazement, with one pull he tugged the kerchief off the peasant's elbows, took him by the scruff of the neck, thrust his cap over his eyes, opened the door, and shoved him out.
'Go to the devil with your horse!' he shouted after him; 'but mind, next time….'
He came back into the hut and began rummaging in the corner.
'Well, Biryuk,' I said at last, 'you've astonished me; I see you're a splendid fellow.'
'Oh, stop that, master,' he cut me short with an air of vexation; 'please don't speak of it. But I'd better see you on your way now,' he added; 'I suppose you won't wait for this little rain….'
In the yard there was the rattle of the wheels of the peasant's cart.
'He's off, then!' he muttered; 'but next time!'
Half-an-hour later he parted from me at the edge of the wood.