Бібліотека ім. Панаса Мирного >>Твори Панаса Мирного >> Do oxen low when mangers are full? >>XVIII. The First Step

XVIII. The First Step

 

All this time, Motrya had been living with the old midwife, earning her bread by spinning other people's hemp and wool.
The realization that in the twilight of her life she was compelled to make her living by such odd jobs filled her heart and soul with bitterness and resentment. At least, before they had had a place of their own; and their incomes, although low, had been sufficient to live on. Now she had to live in a strange house, doing her best to be acceptable company and adjusting herself to its owner's wishes and whims. The days were more or less easy to while away; but when night came, thoughts would pester her worse that a tax collector. All too often, she would weep the whole night through. She felt sorry for Chipka, because she had loved him and had brought him up, spending many a sleepless night, long in winter, short in summer, always getting up early and going to bed late. It was for him and him alone that she had been doing all that... But look what he had done to her!
Her mind would often go back to that accursed night when he had hurled drunken insults in her face. When such memories caught her at table, she lost all taste for food. Then she would spend another sleepless night, weeping into her pillow, wishing she had never given birth to him and thinking she should have killed him immediately after he had been born rather than let him grow up to abuse her in such a way. She confounded the moment when she had conceived him and cursed the joy she had experienced when she had felt something stirring under her heart. Hadn't she been praying to the Lord? What mortal sin had she committed against Him to be punished in such a cruel way, rejected by her own child?
"I can't see why you should be tormenting yourself so much, Motrya," the midwife told her. "I'd understand that if he were a decent fellow, but such a good-for-nothing isn't really worth it. There he was today, dashing about all over people's plots as if he were possessed or something — no hat, no boots, just a shirt on, ragged like a tramp... He scared Ostapiy's children to death. They were playing in their yard just when the devil brought him along. They say he came running across their plot like a mad dog... The children yelled, and he went after them and grabbed little Parasya — she's just past three — and carried her along... God knows what he picked her up for... All that drink has done him in — he must have seen little men dancing on their heads. I myself saw him tearing along the street, but I didn't pay much attention. Run, fellow, run, I thought, till you break your neck! So I just went on, past the Ostapiys' house. Then suddenly I heard somebody running after me calling me. I turned round — and that was Khimka Ostapiy, looking awful. 'What's the matter, honey?' I asked. 'Please, Granny, for God's sake,' she says, weeping terribly, 'I'll do anything for you, if only you'll come back with me to help my dear Parasya!' What's happened to her, I ask? And she weeps and says, 'Oh, Lord, it's that rogue, that drunkard — may he burn in hell! He frightened my little girl to death... He just ran into our yard and snatched her, as though he had wanted to get away with her... I can't understand why they let him run about loose at all!' So I agreed to go with her. I went in, and there was that poor child lying on the bed, writhing and thrashing about and yelling as if she were in a fit, God forbid! I made the sign of the cross over her and whispered some magic words, and she got a little better. Then I conjured all her fright away, and it poured clean out of her, like molten wax!... Well, I wouldn't wail and weep over such a villain! I would have simply put him out of my mind."
"But how can I help wailing and weeping if I have to listen to such things about him? If I'd had ten children, it would've been simpler for me, because a flock is never without a black sheep. But I've got only him and nobody but him! I cared a lot for him and raised him, driving myself hard and setting my hopes on him... And now I'm all alone, sheltering under other people's roofs... Do you think that's easy? And what will the people say? Just what kind of mother is she, they might say, if she's let her son fall so low and why hasn't she kept him from doing that? Oh, God, my Lord, there's just one thing I'm begging Thee for — and that's my death! Send it soon to me... Why does death keep snatching good people away? Why doesn't it come to me? Then I'd close my eyes and turn my back on him and let him do what he pleases — I'd see and hear none of it!"
"Come on, Motrya, you're talking nonsense! What will the people say? Let them say what they want! No devil will help him if he's made that way. If there'd been some good left in him, you wouldn't have had to leave your own house!"
Motrya was unable to continue the conversation. She just sat there, shedding bitter tears of sorrow...

***


Meanwhile, Chipka had been drinking every single day, as though he had made up his mind never to sober up... He now hit the very bottom; there was nothing left either in the yard or inside the house, and his face was swollen from constant drinking and sleepless nights.
The money to buy drinks had lasted only as long as there was something left to sell. But all changed after Hritsko had carried away his last stack of rye. Without money, Halka, the Jewish tavern keeper, flatly refused to give him even a gill. "Pay me first" was her only answer.
So it was about money that Chipka was thinking as he lay in his house after Hritsko had taken his rye. He was suffering from terrible thirst and tormented by hangover. Money! If only he had had money... He would not have been rolling and tossing as he was now, not knowing what to do with himself. For money he would have given his land — everything! Then he would have snapped his fingers and would have had anything he wanted — even her! But this was not to be...
His thoughts turned to the not-too-remote past. Before him unrolled a green field; he was walking about it, looking, glad that his rye had sprouted so well and was so luxuriant and flowering...
And then she flew out of that rye, like a scared quail... Flashy like a peafowl, as light as a butterfly, she was also merry like the morning sun... He enjoyed looking at her, and it was so nice to see her smile at him with her full rosy lips and to feel upon him her gay, black velvety eyes... He had been happy then! But no more! Now he was lying sprawled on the unswept floor of an empty house, ragged and shabby like a vagabond... And what had he been doing lately? Where were his mare, sheep and cow? What had he done with the clothes which his mother had had made? And where was his mother? Where had she found shelter in her old age? Without her, the house stood like an orphan begging by the road, its window panes broken, its room unheated, its walls gray and peeling... But winter was near, and cold was pressing inside... Cold and hunger! The thirst of hangover burned his heart...
"Oh, damn fool! What have I done to myself! In despair, Chipka seized himself by his unkempt mop of hair. Wisps of hair fell to the ground, and sparks flashed in his eyes. He bit his lips so hard that droplets of blood rolled down from them...
The autumn sun was sinking into the clouds. Leaving for the night, it flooded the earth and the clouds with fiery red light. The west glowed red, like blood, and the setting sun gazed with its red eyes through the broken panes of Chipka's house... Chipka was rolling on a litter of straw on the earthen floor.
At this moment his pals entered the room. Seeing Chipka, Lushnya burst into laughter. Patsyuk and Matnya paused by the threshold, amazed by the scene.
"Chipka!" Lushnya shouted. "Have you gone crazy or what? Why the hell are you rolling and tearing out your hair?"
Chipka was startled by a sudden burst of laughter.
"Dear brother!" he spoke in a thin voice, like a little child. "Get me at least one small glass, one drop, or I'll die! I'm all burning, choking... Give me something to drink... drink!"
"Take this and drink some, fool!" Lushnya snapped, giving him a quart-sized bottle of vodka.
Trembling, Chipka snatched it avidly with both hands. Tilting the bottle to his thirst-burned, bleeding lips, he guzzled the vodka like water.
Seeing this, Matnya, too, began to tremble. Then he rushed to Chipka to take the bottle away from him.
"To hell with him! I tell you: he won't leave a drop for us, damn devil!"
Matnya clutched at the bottle, but Chipka did not let it go, begging:
"Some more, dear brother... at least a little more... I need it — to wash my soul clean..."
"Go to hell! A real robber you are!..."
Snatching the bottle from Chipka's hands, Matnya clung to it like a leech clings to a human body... Matnya simply did not know how to leave vodka for anybody else. When given a glass, he gulped it down as if it were medicine; if he got a gill, he poured it down his throat without pausing for breath; if a pint or a quart got into his hands, he swilled its contents until he had to take a breath and then, having gulped some air, continued until the bottle was empty...
So Lushnya and Patsyuk fell on Matnya and wrested the bottle from him, almost breaking it. There were screams and guffaws... The sun had set; night was descending upon the earth in its robes of black clouds, covering everything with its veil of darkness... And in that dark house, they were yelling and guffawing like ghosts of dead men, their eyes burning drunkenly...
The vodka had its effect on Chipka; blood rushed into his head and the fire of thirst stopped burning his heart. Merrily, he sprang to his feet and shouted:
"Let's go to the tavern, brothers! To the Jew!"
"Not to him," said Lushnya. "The Jew won't give us anything on trust."
"He'll be a dirty swine if he doesn't! I've let him have all my animals for a song. Doesn't it mean anything to him? That son of Judas mustn't hang himself over a lousy gill!..."
"Whether he hangs himself or not, he won't give us anything without money," said Patsyuk in a hollow voice, drawing out his words. "It's much better to pick up something left in the temptation's way..."
"To steal?" Chipka demanded sternly, casting a sidelong glance at Patsyuk and then shifting his gaze to Lushnya and Matnya, as if asking them whether they found the proposal acceptable. Lushnya did not make him wait long for an answer.
"Right!" he said. "Rather than crawl to the damn Jew and beg him, we might just as well get a little something with our own hands and then warm ourselves a little..."
"That's a good one about warming ourselves," Matnya caught up, "because we'll soon get numb from this cold."
Chipka stood there as if in a trance, his head swarming with thoughts. To steal? Stealing must be easy enough. You just came and took somebody else's thing and you had it. What else was there to it? Nothing, except that the owner would discover the loss and rush to catch the thief and heap curses upon him. He, too, had been robbed — of his land, his happiness, his fate... May those who had done it never see the light of the sun again! He sighed. Damn them! Suddenly, he shouted:
"Come on, brothers! Let's go out and have a good time together... Maybe the Jew will trust us with a couple of drinks or maybe some nice fellow will come along and treat us... Hoo-oo! I feel real bad... and I want to have fun... and to fight and to hit somebody... hoo-oo!...'"
He balled his hand into a fist and waved it around, spinning on his feet... His pals hastily jumped aside to avoid being struck by Chipka's fist.
"You go to hell, damn fool!" yelled Lushnya when Chipka's hand grazed his shoulder. "You might as well have struck me with a crowbar! You ought to go outside and thrash the house as long as you want to keep it up!..."
"Take care!" Chipka hollered. "I'll kill you! I'll squash you like a fly!" And spinning on one foot, he made his hands go round and round, like the wings of a windmill...
His buddies exchanged winks and fell on him all at once. One of them grabbed his hands, another his feet, and the third one seized him by the waist. With great difficulty, they pressed him down to the floor. Din and crazy laughter escaped from the broken windows and filled the sleepy yard... Awakened dogs barked fiercely.
"How long are we going to stick here in the middle of the night?" asked Lushnya when the laughter died away. "We'd better get moving."
"That's right, let's go," Patsyuk and Matnya said in chorus.
"I'll tell you, Timish, where we should go," Patsyuk spoke after a pause. "To our lord! He's a good man, even though he's a landlord... Back at the time when we were serving in his household, he used to give us this and that... I bet he still won't refuse us what we'll ask him for... By the way, his barns are now crammed full for the winter..."
"Only take care not to get hanged on a beam in one of those barns," Chipka put in, casting him a sharp glance.
"Never fear," said Patsyuk. "I know them inside out. I won't stumble."
"They are quite shabby, those barns," Lushnya added through clenched teeth. "A night should be enough to fix them..."
"Then the Jew might stand us some vodka, maybe even a whole quart," Matnya summed it up.
The room grew silent. They squatted around Chipka and did not speak. Completely exhausted, Chipka lay on the floor like a log, breathing heavily... His panting was the only sound that scared away the somber somnolence thickening all around them. For some reason, he recalled Porokh and his story. The landlords' entire war against justice unfolded before his vision. Why, it all made sense, Chipka thought. One only had to look at what the lords had been doing all along... It was probably all right for them to do it, too... Then why would it be wrong for common folks to do the same? Only there was something disgusting about it... They would call him a thief... Oh, Lord, was there any justice left at all?
"Chipka," Lushnya broke the silence.
"What?"
"Let's go."
"Where?"
"To the lord."
"What for?"
"Just to pay him a visit."
"All right..."

* * *


Outside, it was dark night; thick clouds blotted out the sky, the moon was nowhere to be seen, and no stars were shining overhead. Impenetrable darkness had enveloped the earth, and they could not see anything, as though they were totally blind. There was also pin-drop silence; they could hear neither a human voice, nor the barking of a dog — nothing except the occasional sound of a dry twig snapping under their heavy feet.
They passed a side street, then another. At the third street, in the middle of the village, Lushnya separated from them.
"Wait here," he told them in a low voice.
Two men stopped, but Chipka plodded on, as though he had not heard. Lushnya went straight to a house. That was the Jew's tavern. Apparently, everybody in the house was already asleep, for no lights showed in the windows. Lushnya knocked at one of them.
"Hershko! Hershko! Open up!"
"Who's there?" a voice asked from inside.
"Good people... open the door."
"What good people can there be at this time of night? What do you want?" The owner's voice now came through sufficiently clear to be recognizable.
"You want to buy some wheat?"
"What wheat?" Hershko asked promptly, opening the small ventilation pane set in the window. Patsyuk and Matnya came nearer.
"Who are you? Where does this wheat come from?" asked the Jew, seeing three shapes looming just outside the window.
"That's something you don't really need to know. Better tell us how much you'd pay for a sack."
"Ah, that's you, Timish! Come in then. And who are the other two?"
"Friends."
"Come on in — let's talk it over inside."
Lushnya looked around but did not see Chipka.
"Where's Chipka?" he asked.
"There he's wandering like a ghost," said Matnya pointing at a black shape swaying in the darkness.
"Run and call him, Petro!" Lushnya ordered.
Patsyuk ran toward the black shape and soon came back with Chipka.
Presently, the cracked pane lighted up from inside; the inner door squeaked, the bolt of the outer door clanged, the tavern opened up — and swallowed them all.
Even before the lads had had time to take their seats, half a quart of vodka, half a loaf and a bowl of pickled cucumbers appeared before them as if conjured up from the air. The bunch immediately attacked the food and the vodka... Within less than an hour both were disposed of...
"Now, what about that wheat?" the Jew asked.
"You don't have to ask about it," Lushnya told him. "We'll get it for you."
"I know... Such a smart Cossack will get anything straight from hell!"
"You're quite right there... So what will you pay us for a sack?"
"Well... seventy copecks..."
"You swine!" shouted Chipka. "Seventy copecks for a whole sack of good wheat?!"
"Well, what do you want of me? I know nothing about that wheat but I can guess... For all I know, it might be even... well... God forbid!..." The Jew scratched his long, red, tangled beard.
Wide-eyed with astonishment, Chipka stared now at the Jew, now at his buddies, as if trying to find out what wheat they all had in mind.
"All right," Lushnya hesitated. "I guess we can trust you to be fair with us, Hershko..." He rose from the table, found his hat, apparently preparing to leave.
"When am I to expect you, Timish?" asked the Jew.
"Well..." Lushnya dropped his voice. "I'll be over before daylight..."
"Well, you'd better!.. You've drunk up a whole half quart."
"What if we have? That was never meant to be a treat, was it? I'll pay for the vodka if I don't get you the wheat."
"It's not the money, really... I'm not so stingy."
"Good. Expect me just before dawn then. Come on, boys!"
They all got to their feet, pulled on their hats and, lighting their pipes, went out of the tavern. Chattering gaily, they walked down the street together. Only Chipka was smoking in silence. The glowing pipes lighted up his pals, and he could see that their faces were burning with happy excitement. Eyeing them intensely, he wondered what was to come next.
As Chipka's pipe flared up, Lushnya noticed his grim expression.
"Why are you looking so sour, Chipka?" he asked. "What are you brooding over?"
"Who's brooding?" Chipka demanded angrily.
"Never mind."
The conversation broke off. The four lads grew silent, as did everything around them. Deep slumber had overwhelmed the entire village; neither a soul, nor a light could be seen anywhere. Everybody was sleeping, tired by the day's work... Only a few dogs were up and awake here and there... As they went through one dark street after another, hostile barking broke out in their wake... Now they were walking on in silence; three of them in front followed by Chipka who was placing one foot in front of the other almost reluctantly, like a bear that forced itself to pursue a Gypsy... In his heart there was a vague premonition, an unpleasant chilling sensation rather than plain fear... That chill spread throughout his body... Questions crept in: where was he going?... why?... what made him follow them?... But his mind deceived itself and dragged him on and on... Slowly, he was plodding on after them, lacking the will power to stay behind and to break with the "brothers," mislead by his own servile mind, suppressing the terrible presentiment...
Presently, they reached the landlord's estate and stopped. Chipka walked on past them...
"Chipka, come with us!" Lushnya called to him.
"What?!"
"Let's go and take what belongs to us by right..."
He stopped, thinking...
"Let's go!" he said in a strangely hollow voice...




 

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