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XIV. No Land

 

Life is not a bed of roses. It is rather like weather. Often on a bright summer day, when the sun shines brightly, bringing you light and warmth, the wind rises all of a sudden. Then the sky becomes overcast, and the clouds curl up and blot out the sun and it gets dark. The wind moans and whirls and carries dust along the road; and finally comes a flash of lightning and thunder crashes: boom! bang! It is the same with life. It can be still and quiet and very nice indeed, but then bang! and the good weather is suddenly gone...
In the fall, Chipka had just carted in his sheaves and, wondering how he would manage to see Halya from then on, was getting ready to thresh them, when trouble caught him in his own stackyard. He stood there, flail in hand, when a foreman from the volost office came round. "What can he possibly want?" Chipka asked himself and grimly looked him in the eye.
"You're to come to the office," the foreman said, without coming near.
Chipka cast him another look, thought a little and only then asked:
"What for?"
"I don't know," the foreman said. "They want to see you. Some man has come from the Don..."
"What man? What does he need me for?"
"I can't tell," the foreman said. "He just came and had a word with the clerk then they sent me to tell you..."
"All right," said Chipka. "I'll be there."
The foreman turned and walked away down the street at a dignified pace.
Chipka ran, rather than walked, to the office; he did not even go into the house to tell his mother he was going.
Soon he returned and hurried into the house straight away. Motrya was puttering around the stove.
"Just like that, Mother!" he said.
"What's like that, son?" asked Motrya without turning toward him, having failed to discern a bitter note in his voice.
"Some tramp has turned up. He says he's Lutsenko's nephew. He wants our land."
Motrya spun around and froze, her eyes fixed on Chipka. She stared at him but did not see him and did not understand anything.
"He says he'll sue if we don't give him the land..."
Growing pale, Motrya muttered with difficulty:
"What nephew?... Where from?..."
"From the Don didn't I tell you?" Chipka said.
"From the Don?" echoed Motrya in a strangely timid voice as she sank onto the bench.
That short word "Don" hit her like a hammer... Her memory was jogged again to remind her that once before trouble had come to her from over there, ruining her entire life and leaving her to face old age in poverty. Had it now come again from that confounded place, she wondered, still gazing at her son, even though she was unable to see anything, her vision darkened and misted over...
Chipka glanced at his sad, frightened mother and checked himself. He realized that the news had struck the old woman like a thunderbolt.
"Never fear, Mother, cheer up!" he tried to comfort her. "Let him sue... The commune has voted to give us the land. I don't care. I'll let no one snatch it from my hands..."
"But what about all the trouble... the courts?..." Motrya asked thoughtfully.
"Never mind. I won't give up the land even if I have to hold it with my teeth!"
"Hold on to it, son... That land is all we've got... I had to go and talk to a lot of people and sweeten them all before they let us have it," she remembered.
"Cheer up, I tell you," said Chipka and went to the stackyard to thresh.
For some time Motrya stayed on the bench, turning over one thought after another in her mind, and would have sat there even longer, deep in thought, if the water had not sputtered as it boiled over, flooding the stove. Then she rose to her feet, took off the pot and went back to her chores.
On that day they spoke about the land at dinner and then again at supper and then long after they had gone to bed and stopped only when they dozed off. Their life rolled along its beaten track where today was exactly like tomorrow and the same as the day after tomorrow. Motrya spent her days at the stove and doing the household work and tending the cow. Chipka worked in the stackyard threshing, winnowing and binding straw...
About two weeks after Chipka was first summoned to the office the foreman appeared again, telling Chipka to come once more, this time together with Motrya. Chipka did not comply, though. He hurried to the office alone, ordering his mother to stay at home.
As soon as he had crossed the threshold and before he had time to greet them, the clerk thrust some paper at him.
"Here's the court decision on your land. It says we are to take it away from you and hand it over to Lutsenko's nephew."
Chipka was stunned. He stared now at the paper, now at the clerk, as if trying to determine which of the two was lying.
"How can it be?" he asked. "Didn't the commune vote to give it to us?"
"What if it did?" said the clerk. "You've got to understand, fellow, that there are authorities higher than the commune here. It then gave you the land, and now the court takes it away from you."
"D'you mean I'm to give up my land just like that?"
"That's right."
"No, I'll never do that."
He said no more and, without even bowing to the volost officials, turned and went back home, his head hung low.
"What are we to do now, Mother?" he asked even before he closed the door behind him.
"What do you mean?"
"The land is gone!"
"How?"
"They say the court has taken it away from us..."
It was as if old Motrya were suddenly stabbed in the heart. Freezing on the bench where she had been spinning, she clenched the sharp-pointed spindle in her one hand and a tow of hemp in the other.
"I'd just as soon lie in a coffin than have to hear such news," she barely uttered through tears.
But Chipka did not hear and did not listen. He was hardly aware of anything around him, for that matter. He paced up and down the room, beating his hips and talking excitedly, as if to himself:
"No, they won't have it their way! They are just lying... I know those damn swindlers too well!... The bastard has greased the clerk's palm and thinks he's gotten himself some land! No way! I'm not buying this... I know my way around... and I'll get it fixed my way... Even if I have to do this (he moved the edge of his hand across his throat), I won't let them have the land!"
Stopping beside his mother, he glowered at her, his hands on his hips.
"Get out all the money there is!" he shouted heatedly.
"What money?" she asked in a surprised tone.
"All we've got... I'm going to town to sue."
"How can we have any money? There are just those five rubles I got for the lambs. It's in the chest, in the cloth roll. You may take it if you need it."
"Go get it, I don't know where it is."
Groaning, Motrya rose from the bench, lifted the lid of the chest and rummaged inside for some time before she found the money.
"Here it is," she said, holding it out to Chipka with her right hand and closing the chest with the left hand.
Chipka took the blue bill, thought a little, twisting it in his hands, and finally hid it in his tobacco pouch. Then he stuck the pouch in his pocket, sighed and took his hat.
"Good-bye, Mother, don't wait for me today. I'll be back tomorrow night maybe."
"Good luck, son. At least take some bread for the road."
But Chipka was already closing the door behind him and did not hear.
Motrya remained all alone with her grim thoughts. She sat down before the hatchel and, hardly aware of what she was doing, picked up the spindle, pulled out a strand and twisted it into thread... All sorts of images drifted into her mind, brought back the past... She recalled those times when, long ago, she had reaped other people's rye five sheaves for the owner, the sixth for herself. Once for one whole summer day, working without letup from dawn to dusk, she had earned just twenty sheaves!... And then they also had to be carried home and threshed. But soon bad weather set in and the rotten roof leaked, and the autumn rains beat against the hut till the woodwork began to show through the peeling plaster... And the winter was not far away and she was hungry and cold... Motrya's face grew as white as a sheet and the thread snapped... Tears rolled like peas, from her eyes, falling on the earthen floor...

* * *


Leaving the yard, Chipka walked as fast as his legs would carry him. His anxiety spurred him on; he wished he could fly to the town. The road to Hetmanske led past his field and the old soldier's hamlet. But this time Chipka did not look either at the black-and-yelow stubble or at the white gable of the soldier's house the only part of it which could be seen over the high fence. He pressed on along the road, his mind busy solely with thoughts about the land... What would he be without land? The gnawing question whirled in his stooped head. A fellow to be pushed around, fit only for odd jobs... There could be no freedom without land. It fed one and made one his own master... Without land everything was dead. His hopes, too, were dead...
"May you, too, be dead soon, damn you!" Quite involuntarily, the curse escaped his lips.
"May I know to whom you wish such a lovely lot? Standing in the wicket, Halya spoke to him in a most kind manner.
She had long noticed him, but he had failed to see her until now.
It was as if someone had poured a bucket of cold water on Chipka's head. Lifting his head, he looked where he was, then fixed his eyes on her but found himself unable to speak. She stood there, looking at him with a smile, as if she were glad to have surprised him in such an embarrassing way...
"See? You almost jumped and you a man, too!" she clucked.
Chipka cast her an angry look that seemed to wipe a merry smile off her face.
"To bad people, Halya..." he answered her question with some difficulty and in a lower voice. Then he turned toward the wicket.
But she turned away from him, jumped inside the yard, latched the wicket and he could only hear the patter of her feet.
"She, too, has run away!" he said bitterly. "She didn't want to wait... to talk..."
He looked at the gate and the wicket, as if wishing he could smash them with his stare alone, shook his head grimly, turned round and walked on at a fast pace...

* * *


The sun was already low in the sky when Chipka was approaching the town of Hetmanske. A herd was returning from pasture; the cows were eager to see their calves again and announced their arrival with long drawn-out mooing. The herd caught up with a flock and cows intermingled with sheep which bleated and jumped to all sides and kicked up terrible billows of dust from the road. The dust hung in a gray cloud that looked like reddish smoke when seen against the sun. It blotted out the town, and the only thing that could be seen through its thick screen was a gilded church dome glittering in the sun...
Chipka did not pause to admire the view. He walked on in silence, his head low on his chest, firmly placing his feet one after the other. Hetmanske was certainly a good way off from Piski. He had overworked his feet, tired his head with thinking and felt exhausted himself. He thought he should rest and wondered where he could spend the night. Presently he entered the town.
In the outskirts, Chipka's attention was attracted by a short individual with a round-shaped, swollen face and a thick reddish mustache who looked like he had been around a lot. Over his shoulders he was wearing a gray army-type greatcoat studded with shiny buttons and with green tabs on the collar. Soldier or not, his appearance smacked of some government service. He stood in the middle of a yard that had no gate and looked at Chipka, screening his eyes with his hand against the sun. Chipka went to the yard. Seeing this, the man walked toward him, away from the unplastered house. Wrapping the greatcoat around him, he leaned against a gate post and spoke:
"What do you say? Got any problems?"
"The Lord has sent him to me," Chipka thought to himself, taking off his hat.
"Would you be so kind tell me where Clerk Chizhik lives here?"
Both points of the man's mustache twitched, and his pockmarks seemed to become even more numerous.
"What d'you need the clerk for?" the man asked, as if restraining himself. "He doesn't receive such as you... If you have some business, I'll write a paper for you myself... What's your problem?" he pressed Chipka.
"Well, it's like this..." And Chipka started explaining his problem to the stranger.
"I see... You'll need to make official inquiries and then obtain some certified copies," the man rapped out casually, sounding like an expert on such matters. "You'll have to submit a petition, too. All right, I'll write it for you... Have you got money?" he asked, looking Chipka straight in the eye.
"How much will it come to?" asked Chipka.
"You must have about five rubles to begin with... Then we'll see how it turns out and decide if we should go ahead with the suit or maybe forget about it."
Chipka stood there digesting what the man had said. The stranger's clothes were too shabby to inspire confidence. Was the man simply trying to cheat him out of his money? Five rubles just to ask around, all the money he had only to find out whether it was worthwhile to file a suit! Wasn't that fleecing?
"Come inside then."
"No..." Chipka hesitated. "Good-bye."
"Wait... Look here! Wait a minute, I tell you!"
Chipka stopped.
"I say, I'll write it all for you for three..."
"No, thank you." Chipka again turned to go.
"Wait!" the man stopped him. "What's your name?"
"Varenichenko."
"Are you a Cossack or what?"
"My father's in the army."
"Good. That means you don't need stamps we can write on plain paper... D'you want me to write it for a rubble? Nobody will do it for a ruble but I will."
"Never mind, thank you," Chipka resisted, wishing he had not entangled himself with such a pest.
"D'you think I'm pulling your leg? No, Vasil Porokh has never cheated anyone... Haven't you heard about Porokh? I've certainly been causing a lot of trouble to that clerk of yours!"
Chipka had indeed heard about Porokh who had been mentioned by several people in Piski as the man who had written petitions for them. He paused, looking the man over once more.
"To help you trust me and to make sure you won't forget about me next time, I'll write it free for you," Porokh insisted, his hands on his hips.
Still, Chipka could not make up his mind.
"Come on!"
Chipka followed Porokh into the yard.
"I'm doing this for you only," announced Porokh, leading the way. "I've never done it free for anybody in my whole life. At least buy me a drink."
"All right," said Chipka.
"Can you see the bottle hanging over that house?" Porokh pointed across the street. "That's the tavern. Go get some vodka, quick."
Chipka walked off in that direction. Porokh went into the house. In a little while, Chipka returned, carrying a bottle. Porokh met him at the threshold and led him inside.
The interior struck Chipka as extremely squalid. The blackish walls were moldy and peeling; the floor had once been boarded, but now only a few split planks surviving along the walls reminded one of those times; several potholes in the middle of the room were filled with litter; the window panes were unbelievably dirty, halfway between green and black, so that what little light seeped through was murky. It was all dismal and disgusting. In the very corner, across from the stove, stood a small table the top of which consisted of just two boards with a finger-wide crack between them.
"Good evening to you in your home," Chipka greeted him again.
"Good evening, good evening," Porokh twittered merrily. "Sit down." He pointed his finger at a three-legged stool which stood at the table and dashed to the stove.
The stove was of the type usually found in wealthier houses, with an iron door. Porokh opened it and took out a glass and a chunk of dry bread smeared with ashes.
"I've got to hide the good bread from those locusts," Porokh chattered. "They devour everything you leave lying around. The bread has gotten a bit dry but it's all right. Some ashes have stuck to it, too..." He blew on the chunk and tried to wipe it clean.
"Where's the vodka?" He turned to Chipka.
Chipka rose to bring the bottle which he had put in a corner near the door.
"Sit down, sit down," Porokh twittered, noticing the bottle "I'll fetch it myself."
He brought it, poured himself a glass and gulped it down. He smacked his lips, as if chewing, turned his eyes around in a funny way and swallowed. Then he poured another glass, drank it and smacked his lips as before...
"Who sold you this?" he asked after the second glass.
"A Jewish woman."
"That's what I thought, damn her soul! She's impossible, that Rivka! Ovram's a decent enough fellow, but Rivka's too smart for me... Here's some, try it."
"No, I don't want it."
"Why? Don't you drink?"
"I've never tried it before, to tell the truth..."
"So you don't even know how it tastes?"
"No."
"You're a fool. You don't know what's good for you. This is the best stuff there is in this whole world. Lots of fellows would hang themselves without it. But it's here... Come on, drink it!" he shouted at Chipka, giving him the glass.
Chipka had long heard that vodka made things easier. Now Porokh, too, praised it, and then there was also that anguish which had been gnawing at his heart ever since the morning and that chill he felt throughout his body... All these feelings assailed Chipka, and every one of them shouted, "Drink!" There was nothing to be done about it except to try it... He took the glass and emptied it... The vodka burned his mouth, he nearly choked on it and coughed...
"It's clear enough that you can't drink," said Porokh. "Here's how you do it!" He poured another glass into his mouth, swallowing it like water. Then he broke off a piece of bread and started chewing it.
Chipka followed suit. The bread was so dry that he had difficulty chewing it.
"You are really good for nothing," Porokh said. You can neither drink nor eat properly."
"But how can anyone drink such bitter stuff?" Chipka pointed to the bottle.
"It only seems so. Wait till it gets through to you then you 11 be asking for more of the same."
Soon it came. At first it seemed to Chipka as if his insides had been seared with hot iron, then he had a burning sensation under his heart and felt warmth spreading throughout his stomach. Presently the fire died down, giving way to thirst and hunger. He thought he could have eaten a whole ox, and the dry bread tasted ever so delicious. His vision brightened, his head sang, and his spirits soared. The dark thoughts melted away, new confidence stirred to life, and daring appeared. It was all a pack of lies, he told himself. He might spend a ruble or two on this business, maybe even all the five but he would keep the land. That scoundrel's claims were ridiculous, of course... Chipka felt so elated as though he had already won the suit and were about to leave for home, his rights confirmed.
"What do you think it will cost me?" he asked Porokh.
"Ah, the suit? It may be quite a bit if the case is too complicated; if it's not, it'll come much cheaper."
"How does it look to you?"
"Better let's have another one before we get down to business."
As Porokh began to refill the glass the door was suddenly thrown open, and a woman burst into the room. It was hard to tell whether she was married. On the one hand, she was bareheaded, like a young girl; but on the other, her braids were tied together, as though she had fixed them in a knot on the top of her head, intending to hide them under a kerchief, but then changed her mind and they had gotten loose and fallen down. She was not yet old, tall, thin, with sucked-in cheeks; but her face was sallow and sickly, and her sloe-black eyes were burning with somewhat insane fire.
"Drinking again, may you suck your own hot blood instead!" she screamed in such a crazy voice that Porokh's hands began to shake. "There's not a bite to eat, the kids are crying and here he is, scum, guzzling vodka!..."
"Go away, get out!" Porokh sputtered. "I'm going to write a petition for this here man, so you'd better go."
"May you write yourself to death, bastard! I can't live because of you..."
"Nobody's holding you. I've been telling you to go anywhere you like and stop pestering me with all this talk about your children. But you just don't have the guts to do it."
"Like hell I don't..." Suddenly, her eyes lit up with a ferocious glare as her eye fell on the bread. Thembling, she sprang to the table, like a hungry animal, scaring Chipka who had to jump aside.
"Bloody scoundrel! No bread, he's been telling me and hiding so much of it!"
"Take it and get out," said Porokh, putting the bottle away.
She swept the room with her wild stare and walked out, unhurriedly.
"Just a " Porokh began. "She's my sister. You see, she's not all there... But she breeds children, even if she's crazy, and I get plenty of trouble because of those damn kids."
Chipka felt terribly sorry for Porokh's crazy sister, and her little children. What if they were hungry and cold? Would she have fallen so low if she had been rich? It must be nice to be rich... And here they were trying to grab the only land he had... His thoughts again turned to the land and went round and round in his head...
"Well, let's get down to that petition," Porokh interrupted his reverie. Chipka came to with a start.
Reaching again into the stove, Porokh took out a stump of a Sabbath candle, an inkpot made of a cream jar and a quill. He put it all on the table and went out of the room. Soon he returned, carrying a sheet of paper and a pair of eyeglasses. He began with fitting the candle into a broken bottle.
"When it gets dark, we want to be ready," he explained. "Now let me have this stool you may sit on the bench or anywhere you like."
Chipka took a seat on another three-legged stool. Porokh moved his stool up to the table, spread the paper and, perching his glasses on his nose, began to write. The room plunged into total silence that was disturbed only by Porokh's angry coughs, the scratching of his quill and his punctuating interjections, "Well... aha!... er... good!... next?..." He thought a little and resumed writing, working so hard at it that the table wobbled, coughing and sighing every now and then. Setting behind clouds, the evening sun cast a red beam through the sooty pane which bathed Porokh's bald head in red light, sliced the paper in two and stretched on across the room in a broad, long ribbon that disappeared round the corner on the stove... In that light, Porokh's normally florid head seemed flaming red. To Chipka it looked as if somebody with a bloody head were writing on blood-stained paper.
Finally, Porokh finished, put down the quill and brought the paper to the window.
"Will this be all right?" He started to read.
"Is it all right?" he asked again, having read it through.
"It's all right," Chipka said, although he was not exactly sure.
"Here's your petition then. Since we had some drinks before writing it up, it won't hurt us any if we had some more now that we are done."
"Good," Chipka agreed. "To my good luck, you mean?"
"That's right," Porokh said. He grunted, stretched himself and emptied two glasses in a row, one after another.
He then poured a glass for Chipka who drank it and spat. The sun had set, and it had grown quite dark in the room. Porokh did not light the candle and paced the room in silence. Chipka felt ill at ease.
"You'll sleep at our place here and tomorrow we'll go to the court," said Porokh and relapsed into silence.
The silence weighed heavily on them. Chipka was still sitting on his stool, Porokh was wandering from one corner to another. Neither of them was speaking. To break this spell, Chipka asked:
"Is this how you live then?"
"As you see. The only good thing is that we own the house."
"Not too good, I should say."
"It takes just a couple of drinks to make it seem better. Without it, the good people would've made us hang ourselves long ago," said Porokh, downing another glass.
"It's real nice for everybody then," said Chipka.
"What did you think? Nobody's without his own troubles... D'you know Polski?" Porokh asked, stopping in front of Chipka.
"Which of them?"
"Your lord who lives in Krasnohorka."
"So what about him?"
"Let me tell you. He's the one who destroyed me crushed me underfoot!" Porokh again started to pace the room. "He's driven me into a tight corner since he was elected marshal... Slanderer is what he calls me! That's why I've been treated like dirt. Before he came along, I'd been doing all right. I was in the civil service... This building has now sagged as you see but it hasn't always been that way... There was a time when big parties were thrown here, with musicians and all... The police commissioner himself was entertained here... Now it's just grinding poverty, of course... And it's all because of him!"
"What has he done to you?" Chipka asked.
"He had me kicked out of the service... branded me as a slanderer that's what he did! But never mind. It's not that easy to make people believe Vasil Porokh is a slanderer... Vasil just isn't that kind of man! He had my brother shipped off to Siberia, because my brother was a fool... His nephew seduced my sister but she's crazy anyway... But with Vasil it's been tough going for him! Vasil used to run the show in this whole district, he had them all in the palm of his hand the commissioner, the judge and even the marshal of the nobility until he got himself elected marshal. As soon as he got in, he started to show his gentlemanly pride. I did not care much for his pride, because I did all the work here anyway... Pah! But no... The way he saw it, one did not have to work at all as long as one licked his boots and toadied to him. But that's something Vasil Porokh just can't do... Let others lick his boots if they feel like it but not Vasil! If I ever get around to polishing his boots, they'll wish I'd never started! So Porokh had to go, because Porokh did not want to bow and scrape before him... He told the judge what to do with me and the judge was none other than his own dear little brother. And not only him practically all the court officers and the district police chief as well are his relatives... same breed, same blood... How can anyone hope for justice in a place like this? They were told to kick me out and kick me out they did. That was easy enough. But getting me off their backs is something else again. I don't give a damn. What do I care about that job? But I'll get them yet. I'll let some cats out of the bag and let them try and catch them again! One of them was a trustee and I got him in the dock... They fixed the case, of course, so he pulled through... Never mind! How can that court clerk serve at all? Never mind, I say... I thrive on such things. I'll write again... You just touch me and you'll find it hard to stay clear of me... I'll keep on writing about everything. I'll write about those elections they rigged... and I'll write that all of them here are kith and kin... I'll write it up all right... I'll show them up for what they are. I'm not a slanderer for nothing! Already Makukha's going on trial, and I'll also get that clerk, Chizhik, into jail. May I croak if I don't!... I know how Chizhik got the Sovinskys off the hook. Sovinsky shot a girl. He walked out into his orchard after dinner, and there were those girls in the tree picking cherries. Well, he says, let's see if you can jump down from that tree... And he fires his gun boom! And a girl tumbles down like a stone the very one who hadn't yielded to him... What does he do? He flies to Vasil Semenovich right away... That one sends for Chizhik. Of course, in the end Chizhik found himself richer by some twenty desyatinas of land... It was he, of course, who hushed up that little matter. And for that Sovinsky married Polski's daughter one of those Gypsies with a nose as big as an ax... And they covered it all up. Imagine covering up human blood... But wait! What does Vasil Porokh live for if not to tell the whole story? Blood is not water... Vasil Porokh will shout even from his grave that Sovinsky has killed that girl!... Murderers!..."
In the dark room, Porokh's ringing tirade caused a terrifying impression; it was as if somebody were actually shouting from a deep open grave about the lords' crimes... As Chipka listened to the man's outpourings, he simmered with wrath...
"I see that everybody's happy," he joked bitterly. "There's plenty of justice to go around for all."
"Are you looking for justice?" Porokh asked sternly. "A full bottle is about all the justice you can get. Because an empty one is a very cruel thing. All right, let's take some refreshments."
He tilted the bottle to his lips and let the vodka gurgle down his throat.
Chipka declined. Already his head was ringing. Porokh's words had deeply touched his heart. He clearly visualized all the unfairness of it all. Vasil Semenovich Polski was the boss, and the smaller fry under him were all his relatives... His word was law, and all the rest crawled to him... He was the lord of the peasants and the lord of the lords as well! For him there were no restraints and no limits. How could there be any justice in that setup? Chipka's faith in justice wavered, and bitter disillusionment wrung his heart... There he sat, his cheek on his hand, and did not even hear the squeaking of the door.
"Are you sitting in the dark?" a woman's voice asked, and the door closed again.
A short while later, Porokh's sister came in, carrying an oil lamp. The light struck Chipka's eyes. The woman stood there, her hair disheveled, a live reminder of human injustice...
"Shall we eat supper here or there?" she asked, holding the lamp.
"Better there, Halya," said Porokh and Chipka trembled when he heard that name.
"Let's go and eat then," she said and led the way.
Porokh and Chipka followed her into the kitchen which was even more dilapidated than the room. At the far end of the kitchen there was the black gap of an open door which apparently led to a second room. Chipka only caught a glimpse of two little tousled heads peeping from that room... Those must be her children, he thought.
They sat down to eat. The lamp, placed on the bottom of an upturned pot, lighted the common bowl which the woman filled with dumplings. Before eating, they had a drink each. Porokh's sister also drank and this without batting an eyelid. Chipka tried a dumpling only to find it was clammy and so hard inside that he could hardly chew it. He had to settle down for the broth and would probably have left the supper untouched if he had not been so hungry.
"We, too, want to eat dumplings, Mother," a child bleated from the other room. "Give us some..."
"Shoo!..." Porokh shouted at them. The children vanished from sight.
"Shame on you!" Halya snapped at him. "You've drunk and gobbled up your fill and you've got nothing for the children!"
"Why don't you give them some?" Chipka said to her.
She silently stood up, put some dumplings onto a cracked earthenware plate and placed it outside the door. Two children showed themselves in the doorway. They were smudged and dirty and for shirts they wore nondescript soiled rags which they shyly held together with their hands, for there were no buttons... Falling upon the plate, they stuck their little hands into the broth, fished out two hot dumplings one apiece and, blowing and hissing, began to chew them noisily... The scene filled Chipka with revulsion. It must also have embarrassed Porokh, for he shouted at them again. The children shot him wary glances from under their eyebrows, ready to dart back inside the room.
"Stop yelling, drunkard!" Halya rebuked him. "Stay where you are," she ordered the children.
Chipka did not feel like eating any more. Having finished the last dumpling, Porokh stood up. Chipka thanked Porokh and his sister.
"Now you may go to sleep," Porokh told Chipka.
Together, they went out of the kitchen. Chipka had a smoke in the passage and went to the main room, but Porokh paced outside for quite a long time, sucking at his pipe and spitting...
Chipka tossed and turned on the floor, unable to sleep. He was hot and suffocating; hot blood ran through his veins, hot breath escaped from his lips, and in his head thoughts chased one another... Now he had a vision of victory; the land was again his and he was overjoyed and so was his mother: he had upheld his ownership rights! He also saw Halya's nice image... Say what you like, but she is a fine girl! It would be quite something to have her for a wife... The very thought of it delighted him.
Then a chilling wind blew from the opposite direction. The land was gone... his efforts had all been in vain and his money spent for nothing... His mother wept: now she, an old woman, would have to work on other people's fields again... And what about himself? He had lost everything... Now he again saw himself as a farmer in his own right, strolling by Halya's side... She looked him in the eyes, ever so gently, and smiled at him... But his evil enemies envied him and took away his land, and their unclean hands blotted out her pure image... What was there left to him? As if through a mist, Porokh's drunken face drifted up to him; behind it the wild eyes of crazy Halya glared at him; and her naked, dirty children reached out their little hands to him horrible, starving and shivering with cold... And all the injustice of mankind loomed up before him... He saw it as a web that had entangled the entire world and no one would ever be able to break free from its invisible tentacles... Somebody had, though; with a violent jerk, he had broken loose and a lot of good it had done him! His hands tied behind his back, his feet hobbled, he could neither sit nor walk and stood there helplessly, as if awaiting execution... "Oh, Lord, where's Thy justice?" Chipka whispered. "Where am I to look for it?" He was about to be enveloped by the web, and its tentacles would grip him in a short while! He quaked and wriggled... He longed for oblivion, for sleep... He turned to the other side. But sleep would not come, as if he were bewitched.
The door squeaked as somebody came in.
"Is that you, mister?" Chipka asked.
"That's me," Porokh said. "Aren't you sleeping yet?" He made his way to his lair at the far end of the room. Within ten minutes, he began to snore.
A happy man, Chipka thought. He lost no sleep over his many troubles... He himself had barely had a glimpse of trouble and look what it did to him!



 

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