Бібліотека ім. Панаса Мирного >>Твори Панаса Мирного >> Do oxen low when mangers are full? >> XI. Mohammed

 

XI. Mohammed


After the deaths of Mirin and Marina, Grief, having barely brushed the lives of Ivan and Motrya with the tip of its tear-soaked wing, flew on to other homes stricken by greater poverty and want, that is, to the lonesome dwellings of serfs. The Cossacks' nests bathed in the quiet happiness of rustic life. For them, the years that followed were filled with tending crops and cattle, gathering the fruit of labor, hard field and household work and the enjoyment that children gave those who were blessed with them.
Ivan, set on farming when still a child, continued on with it. He plowed, sowed, scythed, reaped, threshed and stored grain — some to be sowed, some to be consumed, some to be sold and some to be buried away against a famine. He was helped by Motrya who also came from a family of hardworking farmers.
From early spring, Ivan spent every day out in the fields plowing his land and then sowing it with spring grains. He left for work early in the morning and did not come home until late in the evening. This lasted until Easter. Once the Easter holidays were over, the haymaking season began. Then Motrya, too, had plenty to do, piling up the hay. Next came harvesttime. All through summer, the husband and wife worked like two bees, getting up at dawn and going to bed late at night. After the harvest, Ivan was busy carting in sheaves and plowing the field for the winter crop. Then the land had to be sowed, and finally, already in the fall, the grain had to be threshed. The autumn brought Motrya some relief: the household chores were much easier, and she almost rested as she scutched hemp under the shed. Then winds began banking up the snow. Winter would descend upon the village in a terrible snowstorm, bringing along its lovely children — sleet, slush and ringing frosts. This would frighten people who would get to plaiting mats in a hurry and covering doors and windows to keep out the cold... Still, one did not sit on one's hands — not even in winter. There was enough work both for men and for women. Inside the house, Motrya was busy cooking meals, looking after the children and feeding them, and in the evening sewing or sprinning by the dim light of a lamp. Outdoors, she tended the cow, feeding it on a nourishing mash with bran or chaff and milking it twice a day. Ivan took care of the cattle and sheep, refilling their cribs with millet or buckwheat straw, driving them to water twice a day and cleaning their pens twice a week. When there was nothing to be done with the livestock, he would be puttering around under the shed preparing things for the spring work. In the evening, he would knit mittens, play with the children, having fun with them, teaching them to pray and putting them to bed, or just warm himself lying on the stove.
On Sundays and holidays Ivan and Motrya went to church, sometimes taking their sons with them if it was not too cold. Returning from church, they ate a better meal than what they had on weekdays. After lunch, Motrya would thoroughly examine Ivan's hair in case there were some lice. Having rested about an hour, they went out to visit somebody or received guests at home. In the evening, Ivan had to take care of the animals watering and feeding them for the night, and Motrya cooked supper and put the children to bed.
Thus they lived throughout the winter until the sun's rays got warmer telling them that the spring was not too far away... And then they went back to the fields, and the same work and worries as the year before would start for them all over again... And this went on and on, not one year, not two years, but a whole lifetime. They worked to eat and ate to be able to work. So much about the happy peasant lot!
But those who got accustomed to it found it quite happy, even joyful. Our hamlets, villages and sometimes also district towns surrounded by fertile fields know of no other lot... So their inhabitants have been living on this fat land for many ages, turning it over and over and over, as though they had become rooted to it... People are like the land they live on. If it is rich, so are they; if it is fallow, they, too, go hungry... A peasant without land is like a crippled beggar. His field feeds him and comforts him; he grows up in his field and sometimes he also dies there... It is almost like the air to him, for he dies when deprived of it.
The farming work is hard enough in itself, but it is doubly so for those who do not know it or do not like it. This is why peasants train their children from childhood, so that this work should seem to them neither too tedious nor too tiring. Farmers' children learn to work early. Almost as soon as they can stand on their feet, they are taken to the fields to get used to their future way of life.
Ivan and Motrya also intended to bring up their children in this way. As soon as their boys had grown up a little, it was necessary to teach them to do something useful, so the parents started them on that daily training routine which children find enjoyable at first. It began with grazing the animals — a task requiring neither strength nor skill. It was simply a matter of watching them nibble grass. Learning to drive oxen came next. Hey, come on and whoa was about all a little driver was supposed to know.
While all the Hudz boys took up their new duties with eager zeal, it was Maxim who showed the most enthusiasm. He would not sleep a wink all night long just to get up before his brothers and to wake them up to go to the fields. However, he was also the first to get bored. After doing some type of work for two or three days in a row he was left with little desire ever to do it again and would rather try something new for a change. Then he would yield to neither force nor threats. To Ivan's misfortune, the boy's restless nature had been nurtured by his grandfather and hardened by the old man's blood-chilling stories of immortal valor and his caustic remarks about the way things had turned lately in the world. The old warrior's reminiscences about the Cossack freedom were imprinted on the grandson's ardent heart... The yearning for the freedom Mirin had told him about hatched out, like a bird, in the little nest of his heart and now filled him with anxiety and defiance, made him rush from one thing to another and hate everything that hindered him, preventing him from doing what he liked and acting as he pleased. Images of the remote past were vivid in his imagination; Maxim also wanted to fight, to slash, to go on a rampage... But fight whom? And where? Thoughts went round and round in his head...
A column of dust rose beyond the village. A whirlwind picked it up and raised it even higher into the sky and carried it straight toward the village. Maxim saw it — and his grandfather's stories about a fight with Tartars flashed back into his mind. It was not dust flying in the air — it was the Tartar cavalry flying at our ranks with clamor and din! "Wait, brothers!" the Cossack chief shouted to his men. "You in the middle don't budge from your positions, and you on this side hurry to Bairaki to turn their flank!... Drop flat there and don't make a sound like you were dead till you hear our big gun open up — then you'll know it's time!..." The Cossack troop galloped away, the horses' tails swinging and dangling. The Tartar yells approached nearer and nearer. A pasha rode in front, his saber at the ready... The Cossacks backed away a little... then some more... The Tartars pressed them hard. There were screams, shouts and the clang of weapons... Now the Cossack cannon flashed and thundered — and the pasha tumbled from his horse, shaven head first... "Kill them! Smash them!" cries rang out from one end of the battlefield to the other. Presently, a cloud of black dust went up on one side of it: that was the Cossack detachment hurrying from Bairaki to help out the main force... The ground groaned under the hoofs of their horses as they tore along... The vision took Maxim's breath away and heated his blood... Now he saw himself galloping after those valorous fighters... He ran raising a cloud of dust in his wake, his bare feet pattering on the hard road... Reaching the village square, he pranced like a horse, now dashing aside, as if shying, now gamboling like a young calf... He cracked his whip, whistled and shouted... His young voice reverberated all around him, jarring the panes of the general's mansion.
Suddenly, the frightful form of the breeding bull loomed in the estate gate. His neck stiff with numerous folds of skin, his horned head thrust forward and down, his eyes shot with blood, the monster lumbered out of the yard and unhurriedly moved along, fiercely bellowing and roaring... The ground moaned under his hoofs, and his wild roaring filled the air... Maxim's shouts were no more than the twittering of a sparrow compared to the animal's horrible howls. But the boy was not scared. Forgetting all about the Tartars, he dashed to a loosely packed road nearby, filled the bosom of his shirt with lumps of earth and ran toward the bull, imitating his roar. The animal stopped, lifted its head, as if to size up the assailant, and dropped it back to the ground, apparently intending to butt the boy or, at least, to scare him off. But it was so fat that it could not even point its horns properly. Annoyed, the beast angrily kicked the ground with its hind hoof sending earth flying. Maxim threw a lump at it. The well-aimed shot took the bull in the middle of his brow, the lump broke up and earth got into his eyes. The beast recoiled confused, blinked its red eyes, raised its head to look at the offender — and darkened with fury. Bending down its head, it advanced on Maxim. Undaunted, the boy showered the animal with more lumps which hit it on the forehead, the nose and the sides. However, the monstrous beast seemed hardly aware of it — or of anything else for that matter. Roaring, it went straight toward Maxim — faster and faster...
"Hey, kid!" a voice called from the estate. "You'd better run for your life or you'll be in big trouble!"
Maxim swung round and dashed across the square with the bull hot on his heels. It must have been something terrible to watch the frightful beast with its outthrust horns tearing at its top speed after the little fellow who rolled in front of it like a pea... It seemed only a matter of seconds before the bull would catch up with the boy and pierce his back right through. Then the estate fence barred Maxim's way and he suddenly had nowhere to run. Now, it seemed, he was cornered... No, he was not! Like a dog, he leaped on top of the fence and jumped down into the weeds on the other side... The bull also attempted to jump across but got stuck on a fence post. Blood gushed from his pierced side... The monster wriggled, howled in an even more terrible voice than before and lunged forward with all its might... The fence fell, and the bull fell with it and howled with pain. The post tore open his whole belly, gutting the poor animal. Human voices were heard and household serfs came running. A hubbub broke out.
"Do you see what you've done?" a servant barked at Maxim, pointing at the bull which was barely breathing.
The boy laughed.
"Why are you baring your teeth, you son of a b — ? Come on, let's go to the lady."
Maxim broke away and ran home.
Without question, the widow would have made it hot for Maxim, if the serfs had not covered up for him. They told her the bull had hit the fence while chasing a dog. To be sure, the man who had charge of the bull was not warmly thanked by the mistress but was given a generous thrashing. For this Ivan treated him to all the vodka he could drink. The bull died, though. Maxim got off with a lashing from his father. That was not really much of a punishment. The boy went back to his pranks as soon as his tears were dry.
His soul craved for freedom, and his youthful strength cried for action. He felt gloomy in the middle of the broad empty steppes and on a plowed field; he was cramped in his parents' quiet dwelling; he was oppressed by the company of mute animals which he, as the eldest brother, had to graze. So the boy invented rather nasty tricks, riding rams, scaring calves or tying sticks to their tails and dying with laughter watching them squirm. Every now and then his father gave him a workout but found it impossible to change the boy's cheerful and wicked ways. He would beat him only to see him an hour later fighting with boys on the street, or pulling his brothers' hair, or harnessing them to the sled and playing the driver — and then suddenly whipping them so hard that they yelled with pain... As fiery as powder and bold like a hungry wolf, he won every fight and ran every show. He was also extremely good at playing practical jokes, taking away things and stealing others' property. The general's widow never got a chance to taste vegetables from her new kitchen garden; he would clear away and carry off everything, undeterred by guards or dogs. Once he was surprised in an apple tree but that was nothing to him. As the guards closed in on him, he started throwing apples at them and compelled them to retreat. Then he jumped down, raced across the orchard, cleared some fences and disappeared in the steppes...
But real trouble with him began when he had grown up and ripened. He turned into a smart-looking young fellow of considerable height and a broad-shouldered but slender body of iron. He was as sharp as a fox and loved a good song and a hearty laugh. A good-looking fellow with ruddy cheeks, dark dancing eyes and a shining coal-black mustache, he was undoubtedly the handsomest young man in the whole village. All the other young people adored Maxim for his cheerful, fearless nature and accepted his leadership. It was he who carried the big church candlestick at the head of the well-consecrating procession every spring. Naturally, it was also he who led the young lads' gang on his street. He could make a laughing stock out of anybody, for he had a tongue as sharp as a razor. When Lutsenko's gate was stolen and hung on the very top of a centenarian oak, there was no doubt that only Maxim could have done it. Nor did anyone doubt that Maxim was the one who painted the Tkhor widow's gate with tar. Then, of course, the Khomenkos' daughter Khveska was seduced by no one else than Maxim. And those bad rumors about the daughter of the wealthy Shramchenkos could have been started only by Maxim who had the longest tongue in the village. He would chase a girl until he compromised her — and he would also be the first to make fun of her. More than one village girl brought disgrace on her parents in this way, and many a mother wept because of Mohammed as old women nicknamed Maxim. Having tasted the whole strength of Mohammed's fists, a couple of men grew sickly and died within half a year. When it came to carousing, he could drink any drunkard under the table. He and his pals made a lot of trouble after their drinking bouts.
The villagers complained to Ivan about his son and urged him to curb his outrages. However, there was not much he could do with such a giant. Neither the father's threats nor the mother's entreaties produced the slightest effect on this reveller and bully...
"Let's try to marry him!" Ivan told himself and spoke to Motrya about his idea. Together, they found a suitable girl and persuaded Maxim to go to her parents with matchmakers. They soon wished they hadn't. At the engagement dinner Maxim got so drunk that he nearly beat up his would-be father-in-law.
"May the Lord thank you for such a fiance," the man told the matchmakers. "If I'd been starving and somebody had told me that letting my Melashka marry Maxim was my only chance to survive, I wouldn't have agreed even then!"
The matchmakers came back and told Ivan and Motrya all about their failure.
"This child is my bad luck and my curse!" the father cried out.
"You, son, have disgraced us in our old age," the mother wept. "You don't care if we both die before our time because of you."
Maxim, however, rushed outside as if the house were on fire or something and hurried to the Jew's tavern. Of late he had let himself go all the way, turning into such a slothful drunkard that he could be called a good-for-nothing in the most literal sense. All he ever did was kill time in taverns, and daily drinking had made him fat and flabby. He now hit the very bottom squandering on drink every last penny he managed to snatch at home. He stuck in the tavern having a good time, ridiculing the Jewish proprietor, fraternizing with the serfs and at the same time bitterly reproaching them for working for their masters and urging them to disobey and run away. Making trouble was all the fellow was good for!
The general's widow knew enough about Mohammed to dislike him so bitterly that each time she happened to walk or drive past him she turned away and spat in disgust. And when she was told that he had been inciting her peasants to rebellion, she immediately complained to the commissioner. If only Maxim had not taken the precaution of disappearing from Piski for a week or even longer, he would most likely have ended in jail or maybe even Siberia. But what was Siberia to such a daredevil? Nothing at all!
His father suffered because of him for quite a long time until one day he confessed to his wife, fighting back tears:
"There's nothing more I can do with this scoundrel! Neither kind words, nor demands, nor curses get through to him... And I'm not strong enough to fight him... Let him go to the army! Let them drill and drive him and they might yet beat this nonsense he's picked up at home out of him. Let others try to teach him, because I've given up trying!"
Motrya burst into tears. She felt pity for her child. No matter how bad and evil he might be, he was still her own flesh and blood. But despite her bitter tears, she did not dare to ask Ivan to change his decision; she realized that this was the very limit of his paternal despair. That was something no entreaties would be able to shake.
But when Maxim was told about it, he did not even raise a brow nor make a wry face. Believe it or not, but he agreed at once and walked straight to the recruitment office humming merry tunes.
Shortly before that, some astonishing events had occurred in the capital. The old czar had died leaving two brothers. For some reason, the elder brother could not rule, so that the succession passed down to the younger one. This change did not come off peacefully, though. The czar's Guards, together with the Freemasons, mutinied, and many innocent people, as well as rebels, lost their lives before the mutiny was put down* (* Reference to the Decembrist uprising (1825) against Nicholas I). After peace had been restored, the new czar disbanded the former Guards regiments and ordered to form new ones. Soldiers were to be all alike — tall, straight and smart-looking. Maxim fitted these requirements admirably. When he was leaving the office, they did not even bark, "Shave his head!" Instead, some mustached officer shouted, "Let him serve in the Guards!" Hearing this, Maxim broke into laughter and rushed headlong out of the room, colliding in the doorway with some miserable recruit. Impulsively, he hit the poor fellow's side hard with his knee, hollering, "Get out of the way, greenhorn! Can't you see a Guard's coming?" The man reeled and nearly fell...
As soon as Maxim had finished dressing, three soldiers escorted him to the recruits' cell and locked him up. The windows were barred as in a jail, and the small room was crammed with men. Some sat crying, others did not cry but looked just as cheerless. In one corner, a cluster of men were noisily laughing at some joke.
"Let me join you, brothers," Maxim turned to them.
"Come and do your bit."
"Why have they thrown us into this cramped cage?" Maxim asked, looking around at the sooty walls.
"That's to keep you from running away," a voice replied.
"Why the hell should I run? How long d'you think they'll keep us here?"
"Nobody knows for sure... Three days, so I've heard..."
"Too bad. If only we had some booze, it would be much nicer."
"What about some kvass with dead rats instead?"
"Drink it yourself if you like it so much!"
Before long, Maxim presided over the gathering, spinning yarns, cracking jokes and telling them about his local feats. He kept everybody laughing and rolled with laughter himself. There was a sociable fellow! But at night, when the sentinel outside began shouting "Look out!", he suddenly felt sad.
Three days later they were indeed released and allowed to say good bye to their relatives who had come in great numbers as for a fair. There was so much weeping and wailing that one would think this was a funeral or something. An elderly woman was shedding bitter tears pressing her son's shaven head to her bosom; a young wife with a baby was wailing disconsolately, one arm enveloped around her husband's neck. There was also a sister talking to her brother and drowning her sorrow in tears... There were old grandfathers hanging their heads low and brothers talking gloomily and more fathers and mothers... Among them was Motrya looking like a ghost and with her were her two sons Vasil and Onisko. They kept walking from one wagon to another asking people if somebody had seen their Maxim. Nobody had, though... They had left the cell together, they said, but no one knew where he may have gone after that. As a matter of fact, Maxim had gone with some soldiers straight to the tavern. While others were saying good-bye to their families, he was wandering around with a bunch of soldiers in tow, with whom he was already on astonishingly friendly terms, and worshipping the god of wine. In the end, Motrya and her sons left for home without having seen Maxim...
Shortly afterward, the recruits were to leave for some faraway place. Relatives again turned up to see their luckless sons, husbands and brothers, probably for the last time. Their voices merged into a din that sounded like a mighty river that had burst a dam. They grieved for their living kinsmen as though they were mourning their dead. Motrya was there again. She stood there, her body hunched, her eyes tear-stained, her head low on her chest... At her side were Vasil and Onisko — and Maxim. Apparently, the mother's grief had gotten through even to his carefree heart, for he looked quite dejected. Then a drum rolled, and soldiers barked orders for the men to form ranks... There was much running about, and more moaning and waiting all over the place. It was time for the last words of parting. Maxim stepped closer to his mother.
"Farewell, Mother!... Remember me kindly..."
"Farewell, son! Good-bye, my child... Take good care of yourself..."
Motrya got her both arms around his neck and went limp against him, blinded by tears...
"That's enough, Mother, please... Cheer up, I'll manage it all right!" He freed himself from her stiff arms to say good-bye to his brothers.
The recruits were drawn up in a column, one behind another. The drum sounded once more and officers shouted more orders...
"Farewell!"
"Keep well!"
"May God help you!..."
"Good luck!"
"Good-bye, Mother!" Maxim said as he was passing past Motrya.
"Wait, son..."
She rushed to Maxim and thrust some money into his hand.
"Thank you, Mother!..." he said, putting the money into his pocket without falling out of step. "Good-bye and thank Father for me for letting the army have me."
"Look... after... yourself and good... bye..."
Motrya did not finish. But Maxim was already far ahead and could not hear her anyway.
The villagers went home. Motrya, too, returned with her sons, wet with tears and crushed by grief... Ivan paced the room, as gloomy as a night in the fall. He did not even glance at the boys and did not utter a single word. Only when the sons had gone out, he asked Motrya:
"Well... did he go away?"
"I saw him off," he said, sobbing.
"What was he like?"
"He looked all right."
"Did you give him the money?"
"Yes."
"How did he take it?"
"He told me to thank you for having him taken."
"Let him thank his silly head," Ivan snapped and fell silent again.
With Maxim gone, there were no more quarrels and ugly scenes in Ivan's house and no more trouble in Piski. Without their ringleader, his buddies fell apart. Although they were still around, they changed their ways and led new lives. A few died, and the rest got married, settled down and raised children.
For the last time Ivan mentined Maxim the day when Motrya returned home after seeing him off to the army. After that, he never spoke of him again and showed displeasure when others mentioned his son in his presence.
"I don't have a third son — and never have!" he would say. But having said it, he would then keep silent for the rest of the day. The man must have found it difficult to chase certain thoughts away.
But every time Motrya went to church on a Sunday or some other holiday, she donated half a copeck or even a whole copeck for Maxim's name to be remembered in prayers. Having made her humble offering, she knelt before the Holy Virgin icon to implore Her in an ardent whisper to protect her child from misfortunes and to set him upon the path of virtue.
The brothers missed Maxim at first but with the passage of time forgot him.
Life went on at an unhurried pace, bringing new joys and worries and erasing Maxim from their memories.
It might have been different if only he had sent a word. Where was he? How was he getting along? Nothing at all was known about him.
Meanwhile, the Hudzes were getting their share of worries and troubles. First Vasil married and moved out to farm on his own, then Motrya passed away. Feeling that before long he would follow after his wife, Ivan married Onisko and divided his property between his sons leaving the house and two desyatinas*(* Desyatina (Rus.) — unit of land area equal to 2.7) of land to the "soldier" in case he ever turned up. Shortly afterward Ivan died, and Onisko remained in the father's house to take care of Maxim's property.
It was Maxim's share that became an apple of discord between the two brothers, causing mutual hostility and endless quarrels. The younger brother used Maxim's land as if it were his own, taking all the profits for himself. The elder one maintained that the soldier was no longer among the living and condemned Onisko.
"He's no brother to me!" Vasil fumed. "What kind of brother is that? He's laid his hands on everything and he wants to be my brother. The soldier must've died long ago, and I bet not a bone of him has remained. Then why doesn't Onisko let me have my share? That would be a desyatina of land and half the house. I don't even need that house, because I've got my own. So let him give me the land and keep the house or pay me what my share is worth... But he wants it all for himself... He's a dog, not a brother!"
Onisko was hardly less adamant, and it often came to blows between them. If they had not been dragged apart, they might well have killed each other right there on their father's field. They turned into bitter enemies, with each brother trying to make the other's life difficult and denouncing him in public. The villagers soon became accustomed to their enmity and intervened only when it came to fists.
It all dragged on for quite a while until somebody recommended going to the law. Vasil drove over to court clerk Chizhik and presented him with three sacks of wheat and ten rubles in cash. A law suit was filed. Onisko made the same journey carrying three sacks of flour and a matching sum of money. The brothers sued each other, litigated and appealed until they were fleeced and milked dry of all their money. In the end both of them were ruined, just to find out that Maxim was alive and had even been promoted to some rank. Then they made up their quarrel. Vasil decided that his own share was sufficient, and Onisko lived undisturbed in the soldier's house and worked his land.




 

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