Бібліотека ім. Панаса Мирного >>Твори Панаса Мирного >> Do oxen low when mangers are full? >> IX. Piski in Serfdom

IX. Piski in Serfdom


Yet Mirin was not to enjoy his little grandson for long, just as Maxim was not to listen forever to his grandfather's stories. The heavy wheel of life took a sharp turn — and dragged Piski into serfdom!
The misfortune which struck the Poles also hurt the village. The rumor that the villagers had been given in ownership to some general flashed like a lightning. This was the time when the Poles rose up. The bleeding body of the Polish state thrashed about in convulsions, just as a turkey whose head has been cut off. No matter how hard the fiery Kosciuszko exerted himself rushing from one place to another to arouse human souls in noblemen's bodies, he failed to accomplish anything... He then cursed the noble lords who had caused their Motherland's death. Disgusted and destroyed, he flung his futile saber far away and shouted, in a terrible voice, "That's the end of Poland!" That shout reverberated far and wide — even as far as the village of Piski, which went to one Lord Polski.
Who was that lord anyway? Where had he come from?
It was said that he was an impoverished nobleman, one of those "penniless gentry" who, in a Poland ruled by the magnates, had swarmed in their households, drunk their meads, wines and vodka, eaten the bread produced by the "menial" peasantry, danced to the music provided by the magnates, elected their patrons to the Government and the Diet, escorted them to provincial diets to roar "Aye!" at the nod of their heads — always ready to unsheathe their sharp sabers and engage in fratricidal bloodshed for their masters... Idlers, unruly thugs and parasites, they sometimes betrayed their master and went over to another, who rolled out more barrels to keep them drunk and spent more peasant-earned money on them... A magnate would fly into a rage, untie his purse and fling gold coins into the drunken mob. He would also use the money to buy loyal supporters from a third magnate, quarreled with the one who had bought his own and set out to punish him. Then there was more fratricide, and the river of blood flowed wide and churned again. Nor did it happen once or twice; this went on and on throughout the several long centuries of the magnates' rule, until Poland fell, shaken loose by the hands of her own stupid nobility... The magnates could not care less, though. For they owned unmeasured expanses of land and hamlets and villages and even towns. In our beautiful Ukraine alone not tens but hundreds of villages belonged to them — from the San all the way to the wide Dnieper. Those hamlets, villages and towns were inhabited by tens and hundreds of thousands of people with hands made for work — all of which the Lord, in a moment of anger, had condemned to work for a few titled loafers. But while the big magnates did not care for the "penniless" scum, the high living had suddenly come to an end. Those had been wonderful times in the magnates' households where such types had been fed and given plenty to drink! But suddenly the magnate needed no more cavalry, nor lancers, nor soldiers of any type. He now enjoyed life in Paris, Rome or Baden. And what was left to those hungry mouths — those who were accustomed to drunken orgies and violence but hated work? What was there to clothe and feed them? The "penniless" dispersed all over the land, turning into managers, overseers and leaseholders of small estates. Some went to serve the Russian czar. Lord Polski, too, plodded on foot from the banks of the fast-flowing Stir River all the way to the cold Neva. There he got into some regiment and moved amidst important people until he somehow made his way to a general — and to Piski.
Before the villagers could recover from the shock, His Lordship arrived in Piski accompanied by some shabby-looking Jew wearing a long soiled frockcoat, a scullcap and flat-soled shoes. Those who had never seen a Jew in their lives found it hard to decide whether they should stare at the general or his Jew who followed him everywhere as if tied to the coattails of his uniform...
The general was the one who broke the news to the people of Piski.
"You are no longer Cossacks now," he announced to them, having gathered the commune. "No more breeding the outlaws for you! Now you belong to me... The Czarina herself granted Piski to me for my distinguished services..."
"What's that? How? For what reason?" The assembled villagers stirred like a sea before a storm.
Mirin stepped forward and walked over to the general.
"So that's the way things have turned!" he said. "So now you reach out your hands for us as well? Time for you to make your way into the free steppes, eh? May God help you. But have they up there forgotten about the agreement we made?"
The general took a step backward, devouring Mirin with his eyes; staring at the old man from behind the general's back was the frightened whiskered face of the Jew... The villagers froze... A hush fell on the crowd, and not a whisper could be heard... The general seemed to hear Mirin's heart hammering in his chest...
Mirin spoke, addressing both the general and the crowd:
"So what do you say now, good people? Didn't I tell you? Isn't this the way I told you it was going to be? Come on, speak up!"
The crowd buzzed:
"He won't get us! Never in his life! He won't have us working for him... serving him... You try and make us, damn Pole!"
The general lost his patience.
"Silence!" he shouted, stomping his foot.
The shouts died down as the crowd shrank back... Mirin had disappeared in the general turmoil and was nowhere to be seen.
The general went on, as if barking orders:
"This is my land!... and you're mine, too... everything here belongs to me!"
"It's all a pack of dirty lies!" a voice shouted from the thick of the crowd.
The words seemed to sting His Lordship like a wasp. Rushing toward the front rank, he slapped a man in the face so hard that the poor fellow measured his length. Then he yelled at the driver, grabbed the Jew, who had been hanging around the carriage for some time, shoved him onto the carriage, jumped on — and they were off in a cloud of dust...
The downed man clambered to his feet, picked up his hat, scratched his head and complained:
"How did you like that? That's surely some way of greeting people!"
"Why didn't you hit him back?" men demanded from all sides.
"I'll tell you why. That was because he jumped me so suddenly, damn him!..."
"They why didn't you at least help him onto the carriage?" a man joked.
"Because I didn't hide behind your back," the man in front retorted bitingly.
"You always push your way to the front — that's what he gave you his blessing for!"
"Blessing!" the crowd roared in laughter. "Oh, yes, that's what it was — a blessing!"
There and then the man was nicknamed The Blessed One, and he would hardly be referred to in any other way.
"That'll do — enough!" shouted a man with a snow-white head but a black mustache. "This is no time for laughing!... Better think what we are to do."
The laughter died down. Then the crowd droned:
"Why, we'll go to Kiev... or to the capital... to Czarina herself! That's a sheer outrage! Where has this devil come from anyway?..."
Some went to ask Mirin what he thought was the best they could do.
"Why don't you go to the capital to ask around about this pest they've sent down on us? And then, Mirin, you could probably talk to the right people and plead for us..."
"Me going there?... pleading?" Mirin roared. "I'd sooner take my whole family over to Turkey! Better to die in a pagan land than to rot in slavery here at home..."
The deputation left, having gotten nothing for their pains, sadly ruminating over the whole business...
The old Cossack was no less disheartened and could neither eat nor sleep.
"My son... grandsons... my blood... all the property... the land... the cattle.. everything — everything in serfdom!..." he would mutter, pacing the yard restlessly.
One evening, he suddenly disappeared. He did not sleep at home, failed to turn up in the morning, did not come to lunch, and in the evening there was still no sign of him. Where could he be? Had anyone seen Mirin Hudz, the old Cossack? Did anybody know anything about him? Nobody had seen him, nobody knew anything. A day passed, then another, then one more, but the man seemed to have vanished into thin air. Marina wept, Ivan was desperate, his wife looked awful. Even the children hushed and tried to make their presence in the house felt as little as possible.
Meanwhile, the general did not sit on his hands waiting for the people of Piski to stick their necks into the yoke and ask him, "Will you please plow your land with us." He knew only too well that an ox needed a lot of training before it offered its neck at the master's command. Until it learned to do that, it had to be yoked by force. So the general acted accordingly.
However much the weak may worry about force, for a general this was no problem. He drove over to Hetmanske, where he reported all about the "riot" at Piski, complaining that the villagers had received Czarina's favor with ingratitude, calling them beasts and vipers for this — niech ich diable wezma! The following morning he was back in Piski — but not with the Jew this time. At daybreak, a company of soldiers marched into the village. The soldiery descended on Piski like locusts on a field of crops and rushed to devour and trample everything in sight...
This was something the villagers had not expected. Bewildered, they had no idea what they could do about it... Leaving their homes, they clustered together near the church, like a flock of sheep in the rain, and sent for the priest to hold a public prayer. The spiritual father, however, was frightened and never showed up. Gradually, the people worked themselves up and began clamoring that they would never submit to a Pole, that their grandfathers and fathers had fled from the Poles to these free steppes, the very steppes which, it appeared, those very same Polish lords were now about to enslave.
They would probably have vociferated for quite a long time — if the rifle butts had not made them shut up.
The people were dispersed and ordered to their homes. They scattered to all sides like scared sheep. Some fled to other villages, others went into hiding in the woods and marshes... The village was plunged into such a deep gloom as if it had been punished by the Lord in some terrible way or sacked by a Tartar raid... Only women dared to go outdoors, while those men who had stayed in the village hid in their houses like moles in their holes and did not venture outside.
Piski was thrown into a real panic — damn the general! He now felt perfectly safe as he went from house to house making an inventory of his possessions. Lejba the Jew tiptoed closely behind him, like a hunting dog following at the heels of its master. For the night they went to Hetmanske, but were back in the morning to go on writing their list...
While the general was busy writing, Mirin turned up. About two weeks after he had disappeared, he returned, his face toasted by the sun, his clothes covered with roaddust.
"Cheer up, son!" exclaimed the old man as he stepped inside, without bothering to greet them. "Here, take this." He gave Ivan a paper. "You'll remain a free Cossack as long as you live... As to those who wouldn't listen to me, let them now take care of themselves."
It was as if the entire house were suddenly flooded by sunlight. Mirin was back, bringing them freedom! They no longer had to fear either serfdom or bondage.
Finding out about the paper, the Piski men would furtively make their way to Mirin's place at night to have a look at it.
"What's this?" they would ask. "How did you get it?"
"It says everything here," Mirin explained. "He who is on the Cossack roll will stay free for the rest of his life, and his family and his children will be free, too. Those who aren't on the roll will have to be the general's serfs."
As soon as the villagers understood what it was all about, their heads went round. What wouldn't they give to get their names on that roll! Company in distress makes trouble less. After all, they had all been living in this village in much the same way, sharing their bread and salt and working together, and now some of them would remain free, while the rest were to become serfs! Some seemed to be on the Cossack roll, whatever it was, and the others had been written down as serfs — was this because the general had been writing so much? Which of them were on the roll? Who was on that second list? Who could make it out? It was all a bloody mess.
The general could make it out very well. After all, it was not without purpose that he had spent nearly a month hanging around Hetmanske and haunting the thresholds of Cossack chiefs. Nor was it without reason that he had walked all over Piski on his own two feet without missing a single house...

* * *

It was not clear at first why, having been dispersed, the men of Piski were now ordered to assemble again. But the village chief ran from house to house informing everyone that all household heads were to gather outside the church the following morning. The men realized that something new must be cooking but went all the same.
It was early morning. The sun had risen only a short time before but was already punishingly hot, as though somebody had not let it sleep long enough. Suffering from heat, the men stood in the church graveyard and talked. Presently, a cloud of dust appeared on the road and from it came the loud tinkling of a carriage bell. Their hearts missed a beat and then throbbed faster. The voices died down, and all eyes were set on the road... Whoa! The carriage drew up at the gate. The crowd stirred and heaved. Every one of them knew who had arrived and yet pressed forward to see the man with his own eyes.
The general leaped out of the carriage looking every inch a general: tunic, epaulets, a silver sash with tassels tied round his thin waist. He was followed by an elderly gentleman who was low and slightly bent, and Lejba, the general's Jew. Some soldiers lined up on a common behind the graveyard. First of all, the general went there to greet them. The soldiers gabbled like turkeys in reply. Then Lejba was sent to fetch the priest — to hold a public prayer... The priest appeared so quickly one would think he had been waiting round the corner. So that prayer was promptly held and done with. Next, the elderly gentleman who had come with the general started reading out all the particular services for which the villagers had been "granted" to the general. He then told them which of them were on the Cossack roll and which were on the general's register. He called out all the household heads' names — and made no mistake about it. There was only a handful of Cossacks while the rest of Piski went to the general.
That was when they staged a true battle for the general's benefit. All their fright suddenly evaporated.
"We'll leave everything here! all of it!... the lands, the houses, the cattle... we'll go to look for some other country... a better land... freedom!"
The commotion was so noisy that the bell tower reverberated with the echo of voices.
Meanwhile, the Cossacks began to edge away. Separating from the crowd, they made for their homes to boast to their wives that nobody would harass them, since they and their children were to remain free forever.
Only the general's men stayed in the graveyard. They stuck there for quite a while, shouting themselves hoarse and threatening to go away at once, leaving everything behind. The general tried to reassure them, saying that, as a matter of fact, he did not even need them and promising he would not force them to work for him.
"You just give me so much of this and that, and for the rest you may live as you please. I'm not going to live with you anyway, because I must be at the capital. Give everything due to me to Lejba — he'll stay here as my manager."
"Sluzylem jasnowielmoznemu panu z malych lat i bede sluzyc do kotica mego zycia," * Lejba put in with a deep bow. (*"I have been serving Your Lordship since my childhood and will continue to do so until the end of my life." (Polish))
"Wiem, Lejba, wiem," the general told him. "Ty jestes szlachetny Zyd." **
(** "I know, Lejba, I know. You are a noble Jew." (Polish))
Then, turning to the villagers, he asked:
"Well, do you accept?"
"Paying you for our own land! Giving away our produce! Not on your life!" they shouted.
"As you please... If you don't want to pay, I'll drive you to work... I give you a day to make up your mind which suits you better. Do you hear? The day after tomorrow I must know your decision."
Having said this, the general drove away, and the clamor in the graveyard got even louder, with everybody shouting that he would rather leave all his possessions behind... Upon which they broke up.
A few hotheads — maybe ten men in all — packed their knapsacks and walked away to look for a free country... The rest, however, stayed. Where would they go? And how? Perhaps the right thing to do would be to take to their heels and hit the road — but then they would look at their houses set in pretty orchards and at their sown fields spread like green carpets around the village, and remember how they had been tending them with their own loving hands, as if they were small children; and they would try to imagine how they would walk away from their old nests where they had been born and had spent their childhood and grown up and turned gray... and how they would leave it all and their parents' graves... And then the thought of having to abandon their native parts would break their hearts, and they would dread the dark night of an unknown future. So they chose to stay — until the proper time.
The general came back.
"So what about it?"
"All right, Sir, we'll be giving you all you need — only let us live as before!"
"Good, fellows, good! You ought to have seen long ago what is good for you. Just be meek lambs and you'll only have to suck and wag your tails. Here's some drinking money for you!" He got out a gold coin and handed it to the man closest to him.
The Jew fidgeted at his master's side trying to say something. The general noticed this.
"Want something, Lejba?" he asked.
"Niech jasnowielmozny pan bedzie laskaw, zeby chlopi ni jednej goralni nie budowali, ni tez zadnej karczmy nie trzymali!" * (* "Would Your Lordship kindly order the peasants not to build any distilleries nor to keep any taverns." (Polish))
"Listen, there's one more thing. None of you is to make any more vodka or keep a tavern. You belong to me, and I'll keep my own tavern. Lejba here will be making vodka for you."
The villagers scratched the backs of their necks. They guessed that this was only a beginning — that's what it was!
The general said good-bye to them. Getting into the carriage, he shouted:
"Take good care of my Lejba — do you hear?" And then he was gone.
Lejba stayed in the village to run things. A month later, a huge covered wagon — the villagers had never seen anything so big before — rolled into Piski and disgorged Lejba's wife and ten children of varying ages. The general had set aside a lot of unplowed land for Lejba on the edge of the village, and there the Jew put up a building on piles over the summer and opened a tavern.
Life continued in the familiar old way. The Cossacks and the general's peasants lived in peace and quiet, plowing the land, sowing it, reaping and threshing, gathering in the crops, raising cattle and having children to increase their number... Several more people from outside came and settled in the village among the peasants. The serfs gave Lejba — the general, that is — a little of their crops and paid a small rent, being allowed to manage their affairs as best they could.
The villagers got used to Lejba. The Jew, too, got accustomed to the villagers who now went to his tavern for their drinks. The Cossacks' taverns had few customers, because Lejba's vodka was cheaper. Lejba became a useful man in the village.
Lejba was doing all right. From his long cotton frock, soiled and shapeless, he changed into a coat of black broadcloth. Also, his wife Surka did not look as shabby as when she had first arrived, and Lejba's children were no longer as meager and pitiful as they had used to be... The Jew now kept a goat with a kid that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere; he hired a girl called Hapka to tend his cow and got himself a pair of horses... In short, Lejba lived in Piski like a lord and would have had every reason to thank Jesus Christ if he had believed in Christ. Actually, he was a "heathen," and his forefathers had tortured Christ... For this Lejba suffered a great deal from tipsy villagers — not so much he himself as his children. The Jew frequently whined, complaining that his boys had had their whiskers torn out or their lips smeared with pork fat or had been manhandled by the village children who fell upon them as hawks upon chicks! But all that did not really hurt much. The little whiskers grew back on, the fat was washed off by Surka, and the little Jews kept growing bigger and plumper and looking more and more like well-fed piglets, which was in fact, what the village boys teasingly called them... So Lejba was doing fine!
The villagers also fared quite well. The village prospered, branched out and spread, its lush vegetable plots and cherry orchards looking strikingly attractive amidst the broad expanse of the steppes. Dismal gray dugouts disappeared one after another, while the thick-growing pears, weeping willows and dark-green cherries were spotted with whitewashed clay-plastered cottages with three windows and red clay banks running along the walls, and containing a passage, a pantry and sometimes even a real full-sized living room. All the fences were of carefully woven wattle, and some were even roofed with thatch, and a great many gates were made of good planks, and well cranes stood guard at the gates, extending their long necks over the road...
But Mirin did not live to see all that. Serfdom cut him down like a scythe. The old man withered, stooped, shrank and died just one year short of his centenary, the last of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.


Бібліотека ім. О. С. Пушкіна (м. Київ).
А.С. Пушкин. Полное собрание сочинений в десяти томах


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