Бібліотека ім. Панаса Мирного >>Твори Панаса Мирного >> Do oxen low when mangers are full? >>XIX. The Slippery Road

XIX. The Slippery Road

 

Have you ever gone down a high hill on a sled? At first, it is terrifying to look down the slope, let alone go down it... Then, when you straddle the sled, you try to imagine how far down you will have to go, and your hair stands on end... But the sled is already sliding down... and down... and your heart is frozen with horror, and your forehead is bathed in cold sweat... Presently, you reach the point where the really steep part begins — and after that you have no more time to feel fear... You just drop down, and it takes your breath away... Then some beastly joy fills you, and you only want to go faster and faster! The same succession of sensations was experienced by Chipka, when he came to visit the landlord and got inside his grain store. Having finished his business there, he got back out — and bumped smack into the night watchman. It was neck or nothing! On that slippery road, many a fellow came to his end in such a situation. But Chipka was not accustomed to making way for anybody and he made no exception for the watchman, leaving him there groaning — and barely alive.
Now Chipka was asleep. His conscience, placated with vodka, was certainly giving him no trouble; fear was something totally unknown to him; but he was simply tired after lugging sacks of wheat and was now sleeping in his den as if after hard work... The sun had risen already, and people were scurrying about the village; but sleep still wouldn't release him from its firm embrace that in the morning seemed even stronger... The village was buzzing with rumors about the robbery and what had happened to the watchman. The people stirred up, asking the usual questions; who? how?
"I bet it was none other than those rogues!" many a villager said, pointing toward Chipka's house. "They've been carousing every day, but I wonder where they get the money. It was clear at first — they drank with what that bastard got for his animals. But he's sold clean out and thrown out his mother, so there's only stealing left for him to keep it up!"
Before long, the supposition found its way inside the volost office. The officials there told one another that there may well be something to it and rushed to raid Chipka's place.
Coming to his yard, they first walked all over his kitchen garden, checking his barn and pen to see if something was hidden there. The volost chief even poked the manure left after the mare and the cow with his cane. Having failed to discover anything, they turned their steps toward the house. The door was bolted. The chief rattled the door, but it was to no avail. Then he went to a window, peered through the broken pane and saw Chipka snoring away on the plank bed.
"Hey, you!" the chief shouted. "Open the door! Do you hear? Chipka or whatever your name is! Open up!"
Hearing an unfamiliar voice in his sleep, Chipka stirred, rolled over to the other side, moaned and fell aslep again.
One of the wardens turned the corner of the house, went to the window which was nearest to the bed, put his stick through the gaping hole in the pane and poked Chipka's side with it. Chipka jerked awake.
"Who in the hell is pushing me?" he asked in a sleepy voice.
"Open the door, you thief!" the chief hollered. "And hurry up, because I'll order to break it down — that'll be even worse for you!"
"What kind of bird are you?" Chipka demanded, rubbing his eyes. "You touch that door and I'll show you!"
"Smash the door!" shouted the chief. "Tie up the robber!"
Chipka appeared to be stung by such words.
"Go ahead," he said. "Then don't forget to count your teeth."
"Why aren't you opening, you bandit? Did you break into the lord's barn during the night? Was it you who hit the watchman? Killer!"
"What lord are you talking about? What watchman?" Chipka asked innocently, yawning and stretching himself.
"You want to know what lord? Are you trying to tell us you don't know who our lord is?... Thief!... Open the door! We've come to search your place..."
"To search my place? All right... I don't mind. Come in and go ahead!" said Chipka, rising from the bed.
Soon the bolt clanged, and the chief with five wardens entered the room.
"Search every corner... turn everything upside down!" the chief ordered.
Chipka stood with his back to the door frame, silently watching them. The wardens peered into every nook and cranny, looked under the stove and under the bed, climbed on the stove and turned over the straw on the floor... Nothing!
"Take him to the office!" the chief commanded after the search. "Only tie him up first to keep him from running away."
"No, I'll never let you do that!" Chipka snapped at the chief. "What d'you want to tie me up for anyway?"
The wardens approached Chipka, rope in hand. His eyes blazed up.
"Stay away, good men," he told the wardens, brushing off the rope with one hand. "Just why do you want to tie me up, I ask you?" — this to the chief.
"Because you are a thief and a rogue! Last night you broke into the lord's barn and almost killed a man there..."
"Who saw it?"
"Everybody says so."
"Who everybody?"
"The whole village is saying that it's been you with Lushnya, Patsyuk and Matnya... There are just four of you around here who've been drinking and making trouble every day..."
"It's quite true that we've been drinking, but those who call us troublemakers are liars!"
"Where do you get the money to drink?"
"That's none of your business... Don't you see? This here house used to be full of things, and now there's nothing left."
"Well, I'm certainly not going to waste any more time talking to you... Grab him! Tie him up and take him to the office. From there you'll go to the jail in town where they'll talk to you some more..."
"Just make sure you don't get hurt, fellows," Chipka told the wardens. "Don't listen to this old fool. I'll come with you if I have to. He's wrong if he thinks that being a volost chief makes him such a big shot!"
If eyes could kill, the chief's stare would have reduced Chipka to ashes, but it only came up against the younger man's burning gaze.
"Lasso him!" the chief fumed, pushing the wardens toward Chipka. "Tie up this crazy bull!"
"Well, fellows!" said Chipka, glaring menacingly at them and balling his fists. "You try it and I'll break your necks, as God is my witness!" He turned again to the chief. "What are you trying to tie me up for? Tell me. Who saw me stealing or killing? If you want to take me to the office, just say so and I'll come with you. If you think I'm scared by that office of yours, that's just ridiculous. Let's go... Come on!"
He took his hat, threw on the torn coat which had been spread on the bed and went out before any of them. The chief and the wardens followed after him.
At the office, Chipka found the rest of the bunch who had been brought by the clerk and other wardens. Having rounded them up, the chief talked it over with the clerk and ordered that all four of them be locked up until the district police chief arrived.

***


On that fateful day, Motrya woke up when dawn was just beginning to break. The whole village was still sleeping when she was already up and awake.
"Well, I can't sleep at all," she complained to the midwife. "This night was really bad, just terrible! My dreams were awful, too. Then there's that weight sitting heavy on my heart..."
"It all comes from thinking too much," the midwife tried to explain it away.
Motrya prayed, washed her face and sat down to spin, gloomy and grim-faced.
An hour or two later, when the sun had risen, a neighbor, Khivrya Dmitrenko, came into the room.
"Have you heard the news?" she asked after greeting them.
"What news?"
"The lord's place was robbed last night. Quite a lot was taken, and the watchman was badly hurt... Nobody can tell if he'll live till the evening..."
"Oh, Lord!" Motrya whispered, sighing.
"And your boy, Motrya, was led to the office — or was it he who led them? Because he was going in front, and the chief and some wardens were walking behind, and he was scolding them something terrible all the time!..."
As Motrya heard this, she went white, stuck the spindle into the tow and stared at the woman with murky eyes full of pity, sadness and fear. Then, unable to hold back her tears any longer, she burst out crying.
"Oh, my son, my child!" she groaned. "Rather than hear this, I should've buried you with my own hands!.."
"Don't take it to heart, Motrya," the midwife spoke. "That doesn't yet mean he did it. Don't people accuse one another for no reason at all?"
But Motrya continued weeping, far from being reassured by these words. Then she rose to her feet, put on her old sheepskin coat and, stooping and barefoot, went out of the house.
"Where are you going, Motrya?" the midwife asked.
But Motrya left without a word. Unhappiness makes one speechless and deaf.
The neighbor, who was still a young woman, smiled painfully, exchanged glances with the midwife, but did not say anything either... The room became as silent and gloomy as a cellar... The midwife's granddaughter Khristya, a short, rather plain girl of seventeen, sighed heavily for some reason, and that sigh seemed to hang in the air... Each of them sat there, lost in her own thoughts, her head bowed, her eyes downcast...
"That's what a true mother is like!" the midwife said in a hollow voice after a long pause. "She's abused by her own son and thrown out of her house — and still she's sorry for him!"
Neither her neighbor, nor her granddaughter said anything to that, but both seemed to grow even gloomier.
Motrya walked all the way to the office, but Chipka was no longer there, since he had been taken to the village lock-up. Hunched and humped like an owl, she wandered around the lockup, glancing at its small barred windows and weeping bitterly. If only she could catch a glimpse of him! If she could have a word with him, she would have known if all those accusations were true. She begged the guard to let her talk to her son. The guard refused to do it.
"The chief ordered us not to let anyone near them till the district chief gets over here, let alone talk to them," he explained.
"Just for a minute, my dear!" Motrya implored him.
"I can't do that, woman — the chief has even taken the key."
She roamed around the building for some time, cried a little more — and went away, gloomier than she had been when she had come there. Bitter tears were choking her; she was angry with the chief, the lord and even the guard; she was angry with the whole world — with the lords who were oppressing peasants and with the peasants who were trying hard to become lords... Her motherly heart was seething curses; she was mentally heaping on all and everybody. In the heart of a mother, wrath can be neither suppressed, nor checked...

***


Chipka and his buddies could not care less. There they were, in the lock-up, cracking jokes.
"At last we've found a good place to catch up on our sleep! It's so quiet and safe here... We can sleep here forever — there's even a man outside to make sure no one disturbs us..."
"Get me at least half a pail of vodka," said Matnya, "and I'll never want to leave. I'd have a little drink every now and then and a couple of dumplings to go with it and I'd sleep for the rest of the time..."
"Where would you get it all?" asked Patsyuk.
"The chief would bring it. He's been making people grease his palm, so it would be only fair if he shared it with us."
"You'll freeze and starve to death waiting for him to do it," Lushnya put in.
"It's really cold here. It would be nice if we could warm ourselves with you know what," Matnya insisted.
"We can push you some — if that's what you mean."
"No, not that. I wish we had some vodka... That would make us hot!"
"Give me a girl every time," said Lushnya.
"I'd agree to keep you company then," Patsyuk laughed.
"There's one thing I want to tell you, brothers," said Chipka who had not been listening to their banter. "The first night we get out of here we should clean out the chief's place. But we must do better than we did over at the estate — the whole works! The bastard needs to be reminded that he's only Savka — a peasant like us, who was quite poor before he started out overseeing serfs. Now he puts on airs, as if he were a big lord."
"You're right, by God!" they said in chorus. "We won't leave a thing behind... Let's visit the clerk, too, once we are at it."
"He wanted to tie me up — how do you like that?" Chipka fumed. "I'll tie you up, you son of a bitch, I say to him, so tight that you'll spend the rest of your life trying to get untied!"
"Did you really say that?"
"I swear by God I did. Because he had no right to tie me up. Let him prove first that I was there... He also threatened me with jail. We'll see, I said, who'll get in there first: this innocent poor fellow or you who've gotten rich stealing from orphans."
"What did he say to that one?" asked Lushnya.
"Not a word, lousy dog, as if he hadn't heard."
"Now tell us how you handled the watchman," said Patsyuk. "He's also a hefty fellow."
Chipka told them at some length how he had gotten into the barn, how he had stumbled on the watchman and had struggled with him until the man had gone limp, groaning.
"So you did a pretty rough job on him, right?" asked Lushnya.
"I'm sure he'll know he's been through a good pair of hands. He yelled at first, but when I squeezed him a little harder, he could only groan..."
"I guess the fellow's as good as dead," Patsyuk remarked.
"He should've stayed away from trouble," Matnya answered for Chipka.
"That's right," Lushnya said with finality and sighed.
There were no more questions. Chipka did not speak either. Soon they fell asleep.
The following day, the district police chief arrived, sent for Chipka and questioned him.
"I don't know anything at all," Chipka kept saying. "As a matter of fact, I did not leave the house for four days."
His pals were called and told the same story: they knew nothing and had never heard it before. So they were locked up again, and the chief went away, ordering them to be guarded still closer lest they should escape.
The lads spent another three days in the lock-up. As long as they were fed, it was just fine with them. They just lay around, slept a lot and spun all sorts of yarns with a certain dose of more or less true accounts of their own adventures. Only Matnya was grim-faced.
"There's really nothing to worry about, Yakim," they reassured him. "Even if the whole village gets together and says we did it, we'll only have to keep saying we weren't there and know nothing — and that's all!"
"Oh, boys, that's not what I'm worrying about at all! It's just that I last tasted vodka almost four days ago, and my mouth's watering something terrible..."
The true cause of Matnya's chagrin made them howl with laughter, but he just grumbled:
"Why the hell are you laughing? I don't see anything funny about that. My ears have also swollen. They're now as big as dumplings, by God! That's no reason to laugh!"
Chipka was splitting his sides shouting:
"Oh, no! Oh! That's a good one — ears have swollen! Like dumplings, he says!... Ha-ha-ha! Oh! Let me catch my breath, please... or I'll die laughing!... Oh! Oh-ho-ho!"
Matnya turned away from the rest of them, pulled his hat low on his eyes and sprawled himself on the floor, face down.
The bunch spent a whole week in custody until an investigator came from town and released them.
"Mind you, boys, don't forget!" shouted Chipka on the street as he turned toward his house.
"All right!... We won't!" they shouted back, disappearing round a bend of the street which led straight to the tavern.
Next morning, the news flashed through the village that during the night some white-shirted monsters, one-eyed, black-bearded and hooked-nosed, had gotten into the volost chief's bedroom, which he never let anyone enter, bound him hand and foot, covered him with a sheepskin coat and made away with a huge amount of money.
All over the village, people buzzed with excitement, and there was no end of rumors and theories. The event set tongues wagging — both the men's blunt tongues and the much sharper ones of the women.
"The Lord Himself must have punished that chief for our tears!" a woman declaimed amidst a crowd of her neighbors. "Last year my husband asked to be enrolled for resettlement — and he refused! Serves him right! I wish they'd do the same to the clerk... He took five rubles... almost snatched it away from us... our last money! He told us he'd put our names on that roll and that we'd be moved over there at government expense and given some thirty desyatinas of land — and where are we now? He didn't lift a finger to enroll us and we've lost our money for nothing, may he never get another turn of good luck!"
The morning after this conversation took place it became known that the clerk, too, had been robbed! His hands were tied to his feet, and such a huge heap of coats and pillows was piled up on top of him that he was drenched in sweat and as red as a lobster when he was rescued.
"I would've choked to death, if I'd lain like this for another half hour," he admitted. "Who did it?" they asked him.
"The devil knows! They were maybe Tartars, because I couldn't understand a word of their speech, and kept laughing all the time, and stank like hell!"
"How nice!" the chief told him. "Now we can't make fun of each other... Only there're a couple of things that I find pretty strange. Three fellows cleaned my place, and the same number robbed yours. Those who jumped me looked so terrible that I nearly passed out when I saw them, and you're talking about some Turks or Tartars... There must be something behind all that. I think I can guess but I don't feel like talking about it yet... Come with me to the office."
They walked together and did a lot of talking on the way, either deciding what they should do, or just complaining to each other about their losses. The villagers followed them with their eyes and went on about the two robberies. Again, everybody pointed to Chipka and his bunch.
Intensive search and questioning yielded no results. The wives of the chief and the clerk even traveled to another village to consult a Gypsy fortune-teller, who, for a fee of half a ruble apiece, muttered some nonsense about a black-haired one and a fair-haired one but did not elaborate. Chipka's place was searched all over again to no avail. The loot had vanished!
On the forthcoming Sunday, the chief invited the priest, had him read the right kind of prayer and sprinkle his house with holy water — and after that no longer bothered to bolt the doors, day or night.

***


Chipka had set on fire the quiet paradise of Hritsko's home and left it smouldering...
In her lifetime, Khristya had certainly experienced a good deal of suffering and want caused by human injustice, which had frequently cut her to the quick. All too often, she asked herself why nobody ever seemed to try to be just... How wonderful it would be if people were fair and just toward one another! Then why weren't they? But her thoughts broke against the harsh facts of life as waves break against a rocky shore. Her heart had achead as she had searched her soul, not entirely sure whether all her questions really made sense. Then, all of a sudden, a drunkard and a loafer came along and shouted the very same things... His questions were not prompted by fleeting female feelings, nor did he express them in a feeble and faltering voice; they were a cry from the heart of a forceful rebel. Hritsko, her good Hritsko, had never said anything like that or given any indication that he harbored similar thoughts. Why?... For all that Chipka was saying was true... God knew how true! But Hritsko had kept silent... Something was wrong... or missing... Such were the thoughts which had been haunting Khristya.
She shuddered as she recalled Chipka's sharp stare and bold face, for she was afraid of him...
Her attitude had also changed. In her, that gentle affection that helps a wife win the daily battle with her husband, no matter how domineering, became cool and almost insincere. Hritsko could not help noticing how half-heartedly, almost reluctantly Khristya snuggled against him.
Sometimes, Hritsko, as a young man, was in a playful mood. But his advances to Khristya looked just pitiful. She would then smile at him in a painful sort of way, as if through tears, suddenly tongue-tied; and he would get hot and cold all over.
"What's happened to you, Khristya?"
"Has anything happened to me?"
"You've become a bit strange... sad and silent, like you miss something... Or are you angry with me?"
"What reason can I have to be angry with anybody, for God's sake? And if I don't look too happy, that's because I can't remain a little girl forever. We didn't get married just to laugh and play around... There are plenty of things to think about... and then —"
"And then what?" He looked at her — and guessed. "But it won't be coming for a long time. Don't cross that bridge till you get to it!" He smiled.
"Of course, men don't care much about it..."
"Why do you have to be so grim?"
"Because... We are orphans, both of us... Neither of us has parents. You know how it was with me... If I'd had them, they would have taken care of everything... But when one remains all alone, God forbid, strangers mop up the house clean..." She wept.
"You've gotten around to mourning for your parents a bit late, I'd say! Let their souls rest in peace with saints and all, but we've got no reason to grieve..."
This was the time when Khristya was beginning to feel herself a mother, with all the thoughts, fears, sadness and tears of motherhood. In vain did Hritsko try to reassure her and cheer her up. Khristya sulked, brooded and sometimes wept bitterly when she thought nobody was looking. As one thought led to another, her gloom grew, widened and deepened. Hritsko's words of consolation were powerless to stop it.
Losing his patience, Hritsko began to scold Khristya for being so grim-faced. This, however, failed to make her any more cheerful. Then he, too, turned sad and began to brood... Watching Khristya surreptitiously, he noticed that she was crying to hide her tears from him, as if she were ashamed of them. Hritsko's worried heart guessed the truth. Yet he kept silent, not daring to touch the fire which was smouldering under his roof... It might yet go out of its own accord, he thought, or, maybe, she would put it out with her tears. But these thoughts would not let him have a moment's peace. He recalled how eagerly Khristya had offered to help him with the rye Chipka had given them, how she had praised it and how she had urged him to leave some of that "good rye" for seeds...
As Hritsko looked at the morose Khristya, his thoughts kept turning back to that fateful day when Chipka had bared his heart in their house. He was right in suspecting that Chipka's fiery words had made a profound impact on Khristya and that when he had shouted, with glowing eyes, "Where's justice then? What's happened to it?" — his stern, yet attractive, image had kindled a spark in her compassionate feminine heart. He now saw it all with his eyes and felt it with his heart — and yet he was afraid to name it... On that ill-fated day he had realized that Chipka was indeed an unusual man. He had known already then that Chipka was right and had mentally agreed with what he was saying, even though he had contradicted him... Chipka's words had burst into his soul like a whirlwind, stirring his thoughts and awakening his feelings. Hritsko also knew that Chipka could win anybody's heart — and he was afraid. He feared for Khristya, his good, beloved Khristya whom he did not want to lose... Often in the dead of night he lay wide awake, racking his brains and straining his memory, trying to think of something that would put Chipka in the wrong. But hard as he tried, this only added to his tortures.
Then suddenly Chipka was on everybody's tongue! Delighted, Hritsko avidly listened to all the rumors and hurried to tell Khristya.
"Have you heard about our justice-lover?" he exclaimed as he rushed into his house the day after the estate robbery.
"Whom do you mean?"
"Chipka, of course! You heard him here shoot off his mouth about justice — and look what's come of it!"
"Has he done something?"
"He's robbed the lord... and almost killed the watchman, too! For all I know, the poor fellow may have died already..."
"Oh, no!" Khristya cried out, staring at him with murky eyes. She was dazed and pale.
"By God, it's true! They've locked him up... That's the kind of man he is. Just think: he's come to robbery and murder!"
"Mother of God, what has become of this world?" Khristya gasped, crossing herself. "Even when he was here, it was already clear that he was heading for trouble."
For Hritsko such words were sweeter than honey. After this he started saying even worse things about Chipka, as though he were a bitter enemy rather than an old friend.
When Chipka was released, Hritsko hastened to tell Khristya that the rogue had gotten himself off the hook, having apparently lied his way out of detention. And when word got around about what had happened to the volost chief and the clerk, Hritsko was again the first to break the news to Khristya, swearing by God that Chipka had been involved in both robberies.
"Deep in my heart I felt something bad was going to happen even when we talked to him here," said Khristya in reply to his accusations. "I say, Hritsko. We really ought to give him back his rye. I'm not sure he won't come at night and kill us."
"What are you saying, for God's sake!" Hritsko protested. "No, Khristya, he's not as bad as to kill you for taking what he himself has given you."
"Not even when he's drunk and needs money?"
"Then he'd be more likely to insist that we pay him... And if he does that, I'll just tell him to take back his rye instead. But I don't think it'll happen."
Hritsko felt greatly relieved after this conversation. He thought his fears would never return, not after all his efforts to tarnish Chipka's image.
Khristya, however, did not become any happier. If anything, she clung even more to her thought: if such a man as Chipka did such things, what should one think about others?


 

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