Бібліотека ім. Панаса Мирного >>Твори Панаса Мирного >> Do oxen low when mangers are full? >> ХІІІ. Maxim's Career

ХІІІ. Maxim's Career

 


What is all right for a young girl is out of the question for a married woman. What a private could get away with a noncom was never supposed to do. Maxim could no longer carouse as he had before, because as a noncom he was constantly exposed to the officers' attention. Nor could he ask to go foraging, for noncoms were not allowed to do that.
Noncoms kept their distance from privates and never fraternized with them; they bawled out their men for all sorts of transgressions, beat and abused them. This earned them the privates' undying hatred. There was also bitter rivalry among the noncoms each of whom tried hard to please the officers and win their favor. Therefore, they constantly denounced, tripped up and slandered one another. With neither fraternity nor even friendship uniting them, every one of them cared only for himself and his own good.
Maxim, too, was changed by the promotion. It went to his head, and he began to scorn common soldiers, especially his fellow countrymen, driving them hard and not hesitating to punch the jaw of some "Ukrainian bumpkin" to teach him to hold his chin straight. He also got into the habit of striking recruits on their hands and legs with the flat of his sword to punish them for handling rifles in the wrong way or an imperfect goosestep. His charges had to endure it all. Even though they cursed Maxim at heart, they dreaded even his shadow... After all, that was what army service was all about!
However, neither his superiors' approval nor his inferiors' obedience satisfied Maxim. The rank for him was as bitter as wormwood. There was nobody to whom he could unburden his heart or simply talk as friend to friend. Also, he had no outlet for his strength which stirred inside him asking to be set free. Yet there was no freedom for him.
A primer once came to his hand. He attacked it as he would an enemy and nursed it like a baby. He began to study. It was hard and boring to learn his ABC but learn he did, for he had to. It went easier after he had mastered the alphabet, and his spirits rose. He watched letters lining up to form words — and was fascinated by it. Soon he started reading but was faced with a problem. He simply could not find a book to his liking. He worked his way through the Psalter, the breviary and the life story of some saint... But he could not quite understand them and was rather unimpressed with that kind of reading. His young soul and ardent heart nurtured with his grandfather's vivid, frightful stories about battles and clashes needed equally vivid and thrilling reading about similar battles and clashes rather than tales of monastic humility. Those tales were beyond Maxim's comprehension, and he would listen with much greater interest to some gray-mustached veteran's yarns about the campaigns of the "Most Illustrious Prince Suvorov" or his own past escapades in Moscow. Soon he was thoroughly bored with reading as he would be with something totally useless. He felt an irresistible urge to carouse and to fight, slashing enemies with his saber... But with his luck all was quiet and nothing stirred anywhere.
What was he to do? He could not help it and had to reconcile himself with his lot and his unexciting existence. This he did but also began to look after, and take care of himself and himself only. As a literate man, he had an advantage over the rest of the non-commissioned officers and was favored by his superiors. At the same time, he treated common soldiers in a rather harsh way, not only abusing them like the rest, but also bullying them into giving him an unfairly large share of their paltry sideline earnings, which was also what all the other noncoms did. To unwind, he kept a harlot, whom he occasionally took out for carousing.
This was in 1848. The people of France revolted against their king and dethroned him. The Germans and the Italians followed suit. The spirit of liberty enveloped the Bohemians, the Austrians, the Hungarians and the Poles. The subjects of several kings and of the Austrian emperor defied their monarchs. The flames of freedom could be seen everywhere. Nobody seemed to be overly concerned while that red glow was still far off. But then fire broke out in a neighboring country and — God forbid! — threatened to spread to our side... What if it did? "To arms!" shouted our rulers and raised an alarm. "To arms — to defend the Austrian emperor from his rebellious subjects!" Nor was this something new for us. Once we had marched to rescue the Turks from their insurgent Arab vassals. Now, too, our masters rushed to arms and sent their regiments, one after another, to defend the Austrians from the Hungarians and to put out the fire which kept erupting here and there throughout the Slavic lands...
Maxim also went there at the head of his platoon. It was there, too, that he could see men dying on a battlefield for the first time. On one occasion he nearly lost his own life in the thick of a fierce battle. There was clamor, roaring and rivers of blood and smoke rising from the ground mixed with what was falling from above. Three of them were attacked by as many as ten men who slashed away at them. But our men stood their ground. Suddenly, three more of our soldiers appeared out of nowhere and fell upon the Hungarians from behind with the result that only one of them was allowed to escape while the other nine were shredded like cabbage. Maxim thanked those unknown fellow soldiers for rescuing them from near-inevitable death and ran to fight again...
On another occasion, he himself saved three soldiers and a flag. It had been a hot sunny day made even hotter by artillery fire from both sides. Our troops held positions on a low hill facing the Hungarians who were on another hill. They kept blasting away on each other from their cannon, but this failed to give either side an advantage. Then our cavalry was ordered to capture their battery. Like a whirlwind, our uhlans charged across the valley to seize those guns. The Hungarian uhlans flew out at them and attacked them fiercely. But all the time, the cannon pounded them, making the earth groan. Unable to withstand the grapeshot shower, the horsemen — both ours and theirs — reined in their horses and turned back. What was there to be done? "Fix bayonets!" The infantry charged. Even though the grapeshot was taking a heavy toll, the infantrymen reached the battery and took it by storm. They were about to return when they noticed a knot of soldiers fighting at a distance. Among them one could see a flag, now sinking down, now rising again. Maxim was on a flank. As soon as he saw the scene, he shouted, "Platoon, follow me!", without waiting for orders. His men rushed after him. Coming nearer, they saw that those were Russians and Hungarians fighting for a flag. Maxim fell on the enemies like a lion springing at a hunter. Seeing that they were outnumbered, the Hungarians took to their heels. "Fire!" Maxim commanded. His soldiers aimed their rifles: boom! boom! boom! One Hungarian reeled, another two stopped in their tracks. Maxim took aim: boom! A Hungarian officer fell on his face without a cry or a twitch... Not a single enemy escaped alive. Only then did they turn to have a look at their own. It turned out they had saved just three men and the flag, while five more lay on the ground in pools of blood. Maxim glanced at the living, noticing that they were badly wounded. Then he looked at the dead — and trembled. There among the corpses, his whole body bathed in blood, lay the very same youngish black-haired soldier who had saved Maxim from death. There he lay, writhing, still alive...
"Oh, God!" shouted the dying man. "Please help!... Motrya! Khivrya!... Save me!... Forgive me!..." Then he wheezed and gave up the ghost...
"Who's that?" Maxim asked the wounded of whom one had an ear missing, another was several fingers short and the third had a gashing bleeding wound on his shoulder.
"The standard-bearer... Khrushchov, the Ukrainian," replied the one without fingers...
"Let him be," said the soldier who had had his ear sliced off. "Leave him, Zakharych... Let's take the flag..."
"All right..."
And they all walked back.
Maxim led his platoon back. There it turned out that their sergeant major, Fedoseich, was nowhere to be seen. Where was he? Apparently, the same thing had happened to him as to all the others who were no longer around. This was reported to the company commander who went to tell the colonel. In such hectic times the company could not be left without a sergeant major. Whom should they promote then? Who had killed the most enemies and rushed to fight at the hottest spots? None other than Maxim, of course. It was he, too, who had saved the flag. He is the right man then. So Maxim was promoted to sergeant major. Shortly afterward he was decorated with the St. George's Cross for the flag. Then the war came to an end. Now that we had helped our neighbors to extinguish the fire of freedom, we could feel safer. That's all! Now let's go back home!
And home they went.

* * *


Maxim found the higher rank an even greater burden. Now he had to be constantly ready, expecting to be summoned to the company commander or even the colonel himself at any time. He had to be careful lest his breath should smell of vodka...
He gave up drinking completely and broke with his girl. Now he only took care of himself even more than before. Which was good for him. Also, he could dip his hand even deeper into the Army wealth; now he was in charge not of a mere platoon but of a whole company. Many a little makes a mickle. Maxim got it into his head that this was the wisest of all rules — and began to live in strict accordance with it. Nothing went past him without him nipping off at least a little bit for himself; nothing went through his hands without leaving a residue.
He amassed a great deal of money and clothes... What did he do it for? He did not know himself what to do with it all or where to put it. If he at least had a family, it would be different then. But he was all alone. A family? This would be nice, Maxim thought. Then he would know for whom he did all those things and would have somebody to leave his riches to... A family would be fun, too...
Thus he often thought as he mused over his nomadic life. The only trouble was that he could not find himself a wife. Russian women did not appeal to him. Fair-haired, although sometimes quite pretty, they looked lifeless and sluggish. Such a wife would lie there like a log, unable to embrace or kiss him. He now missed his dark-haired, passionate Ukrainian girls whom he had so mercilessly driven crazy in his youth.
He wished he could go home soon. At least, there he would be able to find a wife before his hair turned gray.
Much to his delight, the right girl came along rather quickly.
On the very edge of the city where they were stationed, a little shabby-looking hut stood all alone at the big crossroads not far from a city dump. Its walls were rotten and crumbling, their bare logs moldering away. In springtime, foaming slime flew past the hut. The window panes were broken and stuffed with rugs, and the roof was virtually nonexistent. This was a wreck rather than a dwelling. All around it there were just wastes and garbage heaps. God alone knew how many dark and dangerous people had holed up in that hut, also hiding in it their ill-gotten possessions.
Now it harbored some ex-soldier and his unwed wife. Most of the time the couple were busy brawling, carousing, hiding all sorts of vagabonds and selling their loot.
For better or worse, a young girl was growing up in that hut. Named Yavdokha, she appeared a year after the squint-eyed Melania had shacked up with the lame Teryokha. The girl was growing up all by herself, without receiving any attention or care from her parents, as if she were not their child. Her father and mother could not care less if she was hungry or cold. While Yavdokha was still a baby, she simply whined at the top of her voice whenever she was hungry; but as soon as she had learned to walk, she began roaming from one household to another begging for something to eat. Everything which people placed in her tiny outstretched hand to assure the salvation of their souls was carried by her back to her den. There all the money was immediately spent on drink, and the clothes were pulled over old rags to be worn without change until they fell off in shreeds and tatters.
Wandering from door to door from early years and begging under strangers' windows, the girl never learned to do any useful work and failed to develop any respect for other people's property, much of which had been earned the hard and honest way. Besides, she had an example before her very own eyes. Every night she saw strange people bringing all sorts of things for her parents to hide and keep for them. She learned the lesson well and started to pick up all that lay handy.
Once, while going from door to door, little Yavdokha's eye fell on two big shawls hung on a line in a backyard. Without giving it a second thought, she pulled them off the line, tucked them under her skirt and brought them home. Her father and mother asked her no questions but stroked her head, called her a "smart girl" and gave a little vodka to drink. Yavdokha liked the vodka which made her feel warm and cheerful. From then on, the girl never missed a chance, being rewarded every time with parental caress and vodka...
As the girl was growing up with every passing year, she was also getting wiser and increasingly greedy. She soon drank vodka like water. Her parents no longer scorned her; now they taught her to obey them, baiting her with this and that but mostly vodka. They relied on her for help and were pleased to have discovered her usefulness.
They made another discovery when the girl turned fifteen. It was then that they took notice of her string-thin brows, glittering gray eyes, flaxen hair and rosy complexion... Her girlish prettiness impressed them. They talked it over, agreeing they must not waste such an asset.
The girl was washed, combed and clad in new fancy clothes and shoes. Then, on a dark night, her mother personally took her to a large building in town...
Let off the leash, the girl spent every day and night in the town. Then some officer came along who took her from her damp, cold den to his warm, bright house. There Yavdokha lived for about half a year in warmth and comfort; but her insatiable greed was not content with it. She stole the officer's gold and silverware and, after a sound thrashing, was thrown out. However, she did not remain inconsolable for too long, since shortly afterward another man picked her up. Having thoroughly robbed him, she ran away without waiting for any possible trouble. After that, she never again went to live with anybody. Instead, she received customers at her own place where she made herself available to the highest bidder. Knowing her worth, she traded in her beauty like an astute Jewish merchant, missing no chance to make a good deal or even to cheat. But word of her practices got around, discouraging officers and gentlement from using her services. Much of her profits was spent to buy expensive dresses, foods and drinks... Much to her chagrin, her looks, too, soon began to fade... Something had to be done. She had to find herself some shelter and support before it was too late. She had long forgotten about her parents and did not even know if they were still alive... Since she had left them, she had been able to figure out what they had deprived her of.
At that juncture of her life Maxim came across her. Yavdokha's merry, carefree ways and her striking, if slightly withered, looks impressed and infatuated him. He began to court her. Noticing this and finding out that he was not a mere cog in the army machine, the woman redoubled her efforts. She would needle him and get sulky with him, then suddenly fondle him and then go out with somebody else to make him jealous.
Maxim raged but became enamored of her even more. Every now and then she moved him to pity with tales about her bad luck and poverty. The following night he would bring her lots of gifts to make her happier.
Not that she was totally indifferent to the man. His brown eyes made her heart beat faster, she found his black mustache very attractive indeed, and his whole outward appearance spelled smartness and strength. Besides, he was not without means of his own and was never penniless...
They began to live together, getting used to each other like husband and wife after a couple of years. There were no children. No worries or troubles marred their existence. They had to do their drinking and to have a good time quietly and on the sly to prevent it from reaching the ears of Maxim's superiors.
Then the regiment was transferred to another city. Maxim went with it and soon began to miss her. Left alone, Yavdokha was also sad. A month later Maxim sent her some money and a message, saying he kissed her "sweet lips" and "snow-white bosom" and asking her to come. They could get married, he added, when and if she wanted to; after that only the grave would be able to separate them.
Yavdokha packed her belongings and traveled to join him. Shortly afterward, they were wed.

* * *

She made a good soldier's wife. Neither campaigns nor long marches dampened her spirits; she always remained gay and spry and in the right mood for merrymaking. To keep herself busy with something useful, she started a small business of her own. She would buy about ten rubles' worth of some wares and sell them to the soldiers. Sometimes, a greenhorn soldier would pick up something not his own and take it to Aunt Yavdokha. Then she would accept both the gift and the man... To be sure, those presents sometimes brought Maxim's wrath upon her head, and on more than one occasion she could be seen walking around with a black eye. But nobody really cared. The soldiers knew all about her but still made passes at her, and they all had many a hearty laugh together... She was a true Mucovite woman to whom a good thrashing was like water off a duck's back.
In this fashion they spent some ten years. Maxim aged considerably, and so did Yavdokha. Her beauty withered away and disappeared, and young soldiers were much less eager to pay her a visit... It was time to draw a line, whether she wanted to or not. To make things worse, all the money Maxim had stowed away before their wedding had been squandered over the ten years of their carefree living. Now she again had to think about the future. That she did and a year later was rocking a baby — a girl named Halya.
Halya abruptly changed their lives. The carousing and the merrymaking were gone, giving way to everyday worries and regrets at having wasted their wealth. Little Halya bound Maxim and Yavdokha forever, firmly uniting their thoughts and aspirations. Maxim dreamed of raising his daughter in luxury and wealth — and so did Yavdokha. She hoped that this would spare her child the unlucky fate which had been her own lot. Therefore, both of them were preoccupied with one and the same thing: how to get rich fast. One way or another, they had to have the money!
Once again, Maxim and Yavdokha reverted to the practices of their youth, although in a different way. Maxim gained from the "foraging" and Yavdokha profited from stealing. Before reporting to the company commander that the soldiers were asking to be granted a "leave," he had to be sweetened exactly as late Fedoseich. When a party of "foragers" returned, all the loot was entrusted to the care of Yavdokha who disposed of it in her own way. For her services, Aunt Yavdokha was entitled to half of the proceeds...
Maxim was soon due to be discharged but had to forget it. That same year, the last war against the Turks broke out. He was sent to Silistria and then transferred to the Crimea. Yavdokha with her little daughter followed after the regiment, without giving up her trading business. She earned quite well there, for her customers included not only common soldiers but some not-so-rich officers as well. Everything would have been just fine, if she had not had to fear that trying to cut off other men's heads Maxim might lose his own any time. This never happened, though. Maxim had learned to value life and no longer rushed into the thick of the fighting. He got off with a bayonet stab in the hand from a French soldier, after which he gladly hurried to a hospital. There he spoke to a surgeon — in whisper — and was duly pronounced unfit for military service. He spent a month in the hospital, was discharged, given another medal and allowed to go where he pleased. Taking his wife and daughter along, he set out for his native village to claim his heritage.
Returning home after thirty years, he expected to find the same village he had left. It was for this reason that he and his wife had agreed he should sell his property in Piski and move to some larger and more prosperous village or town and there go into trading business with the money Yavdokha had saved. But he was greatly surprised when he reached Piski. This was no longer the village he had known. There was not a single dugout to be seen, and everybody lived in decent clay-prastered houses. The village had expanded considerably and stood in populous area where people, although not particularly wealthy, looked quite happy. A good place, Maxim concluded, for a man of means to make more money.
"Well, old lady," he told Yavdokha. "It looks like we'll get buried in my native parts after all. See what lovely country we've got here?"
Yavdokha saw it all right. Maxim settled in his father's house.
Yavdokha started to trade in the village. Maxim bought himself a horse and drove out to markets. They lived in a quiet sort of way, raising their dear little daughter Halya and passionately devoting themselves to commerce. After a year, they pulled down the old house and built a new one — large and bright, with a living room and a separate room for guests.
It amazed the villagers to see what the Moscow service did to men. Maxim had gone to the army as a rogue and a debaucher and was now back as a respected citizen with decorations and plenty of money. Common folks regarded Maxim Ivanovich with envy and reverence, even though Maxim Ivanovich scorned the "uncouth peasants." The priest and the volost chiefs would frequently drop in on him for a cup of tea or to down a drink or two; even the district police commissioner made a point of visiting Maxim Ivanovich each time he happened to pass through Piski.
Maxim lived in the village for three or four years. Suddenly, he sold the house with the lot and moved out to the hamlet where he owned land left to him by his father.
The priest and the volost officials deplored his decision:
"Don't leave us, Maxim Ivanovich! Piski will be empty without you."
"I'll feel much better there — not as cramped as here," he explained. "Lots of envious types in the village. Nobody passes my place here without casting envious glances my way."
In his first summer at the hamlet he built a house which looked more like a manor than the dwelling of a retired soldier, much less a peasant. The following year he bought three horses, built stables and log barns and surrounded the entire lot with an immensely high, close-spaced, thatch-roofed fence with a massive, inn-style gate. As rumors had it, he really intended to open an inn.
The good people of Piski were open-mouthed with surprise. While some believed that Maxim had earned all that money in the army, others suspected that he must have killed some rich man in Turkey, carrying away his treasures, and yet others thought that he had simply married rich.
Yet no one saw or knew how he lived in the hamlet. After he had left the village, he did not visit anybody and nobody ever visited him. It was almost as if the man had died. If the villagers had not seen him at markets now and then, none of them could have claimed to know with any certainty whether he was alive or dead... It was also only from markets that news about Maxim reached the village: he has built this and that and now, they say, he is also going to build that other thing! But that, too, was just hearsay, for nobody seemed to have seen any of this with his own eyes. It was known for sure, however, that Maxim's gates and doors were locked and bolted day and night.
"The soldier has built himself a fortress!" the villagers joked sometimes.


 

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