Бібліотека ім. Панаса Мирного >>Твори Панаса Мирного >> Do oxen low when mangers are full? >>XVI. The Bunch

XVI. The Bunch

 

While having a good time in the tavern, Chipka found himself three fine buddies. Lushnya, Matnya and Patsyuk were birds of a feather. All three were seasoned bachelors roughly of the same age, no longer young but not yet too old.
Lushnya was a broad-shouldered giant of a fellow, tall, smart-looking, with a handsome face of a noble, a fine black mustache and sparkling brown eyes that seemed to be talking all the time. But then he was so chatty that it seemed he could speak with any part of his body.
True to his name* (* Patsyuk (Ukr.) — a rat), Patsyuk was lean, quick and mousy-looking. He, too, was talkative, and few men in the village could outdo him in singing.
Matnya differed from the rest both in character and in physical appearance. He was stocky, slow and clumsy. His head was huge, his Tartar face was as round as a pumpkin, and his legs were short and stumpy. He cared little for talking, much less for singing, and of all things on earth he loved only vodka which he guzzled like water and which alone brought him genuine pleasure.
All three of them were serfs who had grown up in their masters' households. Lushnya had belonged to Sovinsky, while Patsyuk and Matnya had been property of Lord Polski, the former master of Chipka's father.
Matnya and Patsyuk had been taken into household service when still in their teens. Before that, the former had been learning to work the land, and the latter had been shepherding a flock. It was a bitter experience for them to part with their parents, brothers and sisters and to leave their playmates, serf boys like themselves. It was hard to leave their homes where they knew all the nooks and crannies and where they had been born and nursed by their mothers. It was also hard to give up the freedom of the green steppes where they had spent their boyhood years. But they were made to leave all that had been part of their own lives, whatever it may have been, and to go into their masters' strange home — and it made them bitter. Yet there was nothing they could do against the master's will. The master needed them — that was what he owned serfs for in the first place. Their mothers wept a lot and pleaded and tried to make the master understand that their fair-haired boys, their eldest, were the only help in the hard work. But their tears and reasoning failed to sway the master. He just did not care. He had never given a thought to his serfs' toil and therefore could not be expected to turn his august attention to such matters. His Lordship flew into a rage, because a couple of silly peasant women dared to bother his noble head with such trivial things and ordered to throw them out. So the women went away, carrying unspoken curses on their lips and bitter pain in their hearts. Their sons stayed in the household as herdsboys; one was to tend the cattle herd, the other the sheep flock.
Lushnya had been born and raised in his master's household. Old Lushnya had died, leaving a few children. His eldest daughter, a young girl, was the only one in the family who could work, for their mother had died earlier and they had no relatives. Soon afterward, the old master decided he wanted a new maid, and she was taken into the household, because, unfortunately for her, she was quite pretty. A serf family was moved over from the household to her house. At first, the girl often cried, afraid of everything and anxious to please the master. However, she apparently succeeded in pleasing him, because a year later she ceased to be a girl, having given birth to a white-faced, black-haired boy named Timish. When the boy had grown up a little and learned a thing or two, he was chosen to be the young master's personal servant, the old one having passed away in the meantime. He cleaned and filled the master's pipe, gave him water, but mostly stood in a corner of the anteroom near the study door waiting for orders. The little boy had to endure a great deal. All too often, he fell asleep on his feet, exhausted by his vigil. Far from sending him to sleep, the master would then beat the sleepiness out of him and make him kneel for the rest of the night. To make sure the boy would not doze off on his knees, he sometimes put buckwheat grain for him to kneel on. Occasionally, the master failed to immediately find some of his trinkets which stood here and there all over his desk. Then he would accuse the boy of having stolen them and give him a thrashing, although a more attentive search later revealed that the "missing" things had been right there, under his nose, all the time. Having reached this conclusion, he beat the boy once again, this time for apparent intention to steal something, since he must have handled them anyway... Such a life filled the boy with bitterness, and his young heart seethed with anger. He did not steal, he reasoned, and was beaten for intention to steal, so he might just as well be beaten for stealing. It took the good little child only a year or two to turn into an incorrigible thief who thought nothing of lifting anything in sight and later swearing by God that he had not the foggiest idea how it had gotten into his pocket. Somebody else must have put it there to see him punished... He was beaten all the same, and quite severely at that, but it did not help. As he grew up, he became even more daring and rapacious. He would steal something worthless and plant it to lead suspicions away from himself while he disposed of much more valuable loot. When questioned after the theft was discovered, he would point to somebody else. Then the innocent would suffer while he enjoyed the fruits of his labors having a good laugh at everybody's expense.
The most hard-boiled of criminals is never made happy by a life of crime. Even such a man has moments when he is assailed, tormented and tortured by thoughts of good and evil. Human conscience never dies even in the most wicked soul. Nor did it die in the soul of Timish Lushnya. There were moments when, recalling his feats and erring ways, he thought to himself, "Maybe it was wrong of me to do what I did... Maybe I will have to answer for this in the other world, if not in this..." Then he felt frightened, depressed and ashamed all at the same time. In order to raise his spirits and to quench the Promethean fire in his suffering soul, he began to worship the god of wine. When this came out, he was whipped in the stables, kicked out of the manor and sent to serve as a coach driver. This happened about two years before the emancipation decree. He was around twenty at the time.
Compared to the master's chambers, the stables were somewhat freer. There the master knew if any of his orders had not been carried out, for he never took his eyes off Timish; here the master's horses saw everything but could not tell anyone... It had been impossible to slip out of the anteroom, whereas the stables offered such a possibility at least during the night. Lushnya began to hang about the village tavern. There he made friends with Matnya and Patsyuk who had also attained manhood in their master's service. Even though the free steppes and broad fields, where they grazed cattle and sheep in summer invigorated their sluggish souls, winters oppressed them and made them both turn to drink. Both became heavy drinkers, loafers and thieves. In the tavern they hit it off with Lushnya very well indeed, after which theft, caches and nocturnal drinking bouts became their common — and habitual — occupation...
Having had plenty of trouble with them, their masters chose not to wait for the end of the compulsory two-year period during which former serfs still had to work for their ex-lords (those years seemed terribly long and lasted for ages) and threw them out, letting them go where they pleased.
Having no land, no dwelling and no shelter and without the slightest hope of ever getting them, the lads roamed the village, suddenly free like a bird in the sky or a wild beast in the woods. They had nowhere to go and no shelter against the cold and the rain. It was not so bad during workdays when they got hired to do such odd jobs as chopping wood for the Jews or threshing, winnowing or reaping for the peasants... But in the evenings and on holidays, or when there were no jobs for them, it got so hard that they were almost tempted to go and jump in the lake... There was no shelter for them, no place to rest or to sleep. The village had two places open for everybody. One was the street, the other was the tavern. The street was a dangerous place, though. Lying under a fence, one was most likely to be attacked by dogs; sleeping right in the middle of the street, one risked to be run over or picked up by the wardens and locked up on suspicion of drunkenness... That left only the tavern, which offered shelter, warmth and company. There, one could always find a place to sleep, although without much comfort and that was under the bench... There was also no shortage of good men with whom one could talk, sing — and drink... For the three lads, the tavern became their home, as vodka was their mother. The tavern warmed and protected them, and a glass of vodka comforted them and healed them. The place was never empty; there was always somebody around. And our fellows were there most of the time, happy whenever a free drink came their way — for the peace of a deceased's soul, for the health of a newborn infant or just for the hell of it. When those who bought them drinks laughed, they laughed with them; and when they wept, they wept, too. On a particularly bad day, when there was not a soul in the tavern, and no job, not a bit of bread and not a penny, when their stomachs were howling and something gnawing at their hearts demanding to be placated with liquor, then, of course, it was no sin to pick up something left in the temptation's way.
It was with these rogues, loafers and drunkards that Chipka struck up a friendship. Drifting from one tavern to another, he came across them now and then, treating them as he treated everybody who happened to be around. They immediately wormed themselves into his confidence. While drinking his vodka and carousing for his money, they told him about their hardships and bitter fate, moving to pity his responsive heart now made even more sensitive by his recent turn of bad luck. Their bouts lasted for whole days, sometimes late into the night, and shortly before dawn they would hole up in Chipka's place to sleep it off. Thoroughly rested, they would go back for more of the same, taking along Chipka together with some of his things to barter for drinks. This went on from day to day.

* * *

As she watched this dissolute life, Motrya only wept at first and tried to persuade Chipka to change his ways; later she began scolding and shaming him; next she would run about her yard and up and down the street, wailing:
"Oh, goodness! That's the end of me! It's all up with me now! I might as well jump from the bridge..."
Passers-by asked her what had happened and pitied her.
"There's nothing else I can do," she told everybody, weeping. "He was so good and gentle — but then it all changed all of a sudden! It's going to kill me, because I just can't bear to see it. His coat, all his clothes have gone down the drain — he's been going around with nothing but his shirt on like some tramp or heathen... He's sold our third sheep already. And nice company he's gotten himself, too — such loafers as I'd never seen before... My God! What am I to do now, poor me?"
"Try talking to him, shaming him," the villagers advised her.
"Did I try to bring him to his senses! Did I beg him!" she shouted through tears. "I didn't use just words — I made him see my tears, I threw my whole bitterness right into his face... A lot of good it did me, too. He's like a brick wall!..."
"You should probably go to the volost office then. Let them keep him in the lock-up for a week or so. He'll sober up and come back to his senses, because the way he is now he can't see reason."
Motrya followed this advice and went to complain to the office. They grabbed him when he was very drunk and dragged him to the lock-up. There he passed out almost at once.
Toward the evening, his pals missed him. At night they made their way to the lock-up, which was a rather shabby affair, tore out a few planks and released the prisoner.
Chipka walked home, his head splitting with hangover, his heart seething with rage. Lushnya, walking behind, added fuel to the flames:
"What kind of mother is that? What mother would complain about her own son? Who'd call her mother after that? Come and lock up my son, she says, because he's been making trouble! Who's ever heard of such a thing?!"
Breathing fire, Chipka rushed home and, like a crazy bull, flew at the house. Bang! — and a window was smashed to bits. Bang! — and another was broken, then a third one. Bang — and the door was torn off its hinges.
Horrified, Motrya crawled into the corner on the stove. Chipka stormed inside, hollering:
"Where's the old witch? Did she suddenly wish to get married or what?... Or did she decide to take a lover? And her son must be locked up to get him out of the way!"
Those venomous words deeply hurt the mother's heart. Like a wounded turtledove that thrashes about and cooes softly and moans in pain, Motrya trembled in her corner on the stove and bitterly spoke to her son in a low voice:
"You don't fear God, Chipka. You just don't know what you are saying... I wish I were dead, I —" Bitter tears flooded her face.
"What about me? Do you think it's any easier for me? Maybe my heart is going to burst from all that pain... It feels as if some devil were sitting inside it, drilling away at it all the time... Then you try to make it worse still!"
"Why do you drink then, son? Does it make you feel better? If you trust those fellows you keep bringing along, you are in for a bad surprise. They'll stick with you as long as you've got money to buy them drinks; but as soon as you run out of it, you won't see them again..."
"That's a lie!" Petro Patsyuk interrupted her.
"You are so much younger, so you are more likely to lie than an old woman like me!..."
"What kind of mother is that, who reports her own son?" Lushnya supported Chipka. "Some mother! No decent man would say a kind word for her... You should've covered up for him... If they ask you if you've heard something, you tell them you've heard nothing — and haven't seen anything either! What did you tell them instead? My son is this and that and please come over and lock him up! Is that what a mother should've done?"
"D'you hear what people say?" Chipka shouted. "Do you hear?"
"People?!" Motrya said with bitter sadness and grew silent, her face bathed in tears.
But Chipka did not stop shouting at his mother for a long time. Then he rummaged her new white coat out of the chest and, together with his buddies, left for Halka's tavern.
It was already late fall. Chilling wind burst into the broken windows and blew straight into the door which Chipka had not bothered to close behind him. Shivering, she climbed down from the stove to shut the door. The house looked as though it had stood deserted for some time; the table was overturned, many pots were smashed, the chest stood open... Motrya darted to the chest — and her heart sank. Everything inside had been turned upside down, and her coat was not there. Dismayed, she sank to her knees.
"Oh, Lord! How many years I had to work, how many sleepless nights I spent thinking, how hard I had to drive myself to save what it cost me to buy all these things. And now my own child is squandering it all on drink..."
Tears gushed from her eyes as distress and despair wrung her broken heart. With great difficulty, she struggled to her feet.
"Almighty God!" she prayed lifting her hands up to the sky. "He was my only delight and my only hope, but now he, too, has deceived me! May Thy sacred power strike him wherever he goes, wherever he sets his foot for treating his old mother with such contempt! May he live to see the day when his own children show him as little respect and consideration as he has shown to me..."
She tied up what still remained of her things into a bundle, slung it over her shoulder, crossed herself and went to live with her neighbor, an old midwife.
With her departure, there was no one left to restrain Chipka. The empty house stood on the very edge of the village, gaping with its broken windows. Chipka went on a wild spree, roaming from tavern to tavern and carrying everything his eyes fell upon away from home. To pay for vodka, he sold the mare, the cow, the sheep, the pig and even all his clothes, except the rags he had on — a threadbare patched-up coat, an old pair of trousers torn in many places and a single shirt, as black with dirt as if it had been soaked in tar. Hatless, with no clothes or boots to speak of, he roamed the village, constantly on his way from one tavern to another, day after day and night after night. Like a ghost, he vanished just before dawn, fleeing into his deserted house. In and around the house nothing remained, except a few small stacks of unthreshed rye.
"Why don't you do something with this rye?" Lushnya asked him once. "Sell it to some Jew and you'll at least get some money. Otherwise it'll just rot away."
"That's right," said Chipka.


* * *


The next day the lads went out in search of a buyer. Chipka wanted to sell to a local peasant but did not find anybody. Lushnya and Patsyuk made the round of moneyed Jews. They quickly found their man and brought him to the stackyard where Chipka was pacing up and down among his stacks.
"Chipka!" Lushnya called from the street. "Here's your buyer."
"A Jew?"
"Right."
"I won't sell to a Jew."
"Come on! What does it matter to you as long as he pays? "
"I said I'm not selling to a Jew."
"What would you pay for a stack, Ovram?" Lushnya started to bargain, paying no attention to Chipka.
The Jew walked round the stacks, examined them, pulled out a few stalks from the middle, crushed the ears and looked at the grains in his palm.
"How much d'you want?" he asked.
"What about a ruble a stack?" Lushnya asked.
Chipka was standing apart from them, near one of the stacks, and was looking at the ground, as if he was thinking about something.
"What?" the Jew cried out. "For this manure?"
"And what do you say?"
"Fifty... and a half copecks — not more."
"Go to hell!" Chipka snapped at him and walked away toward the house. Lushnya and Patsyuk stayed in the stackyard with the Jew.
"That won't do, Ovram," said Lushnya. "You can't buy such rye anywhere at such a price."
"This here rye is better than you think," Patsyuk put in. "It's been grown by a true farmer. We know how carefully everything was done — from sowing to stacking. It may be a little wet on top, but the rest is as dry as gunpowder. Just look!" He pulled a bunch of stalks out of the stack.
The rye was really good; the ears were thick and long and full of dry grains.
"Take this and have a look. See how good it is?
Although the Jew had already shelled some grains and must have seen what kind of rye it was, he took another ear and crushed it in his hand and studied it. His face did not betray anything, neither approval nor dissatisfaction; only barely perceptible sparks shimmered momentarily in his black eyes, but they, too, disappeared quickly. He scratched his beard.
"Don't be so stingy, Ovram," Lushnya insisted. "Well thresh it, too, and do everything that still needs to be done."
"That's not because I'm stingy. There's no reason why I should pay more than it's worth."
"Can't you see? What about the grain? Look: the grains are all the same — full and clean. Why, I'd eat them unground." Lushnya actually put some grains into his mouth and began chewing them.
"But certainly not a ruble a stack!"
"No, not a ruble," Lushnya agreed. "He'll let you have it cheaper."
"Where's the owner then? Why doesn't he come and bargain himself?"
"He's gone inside... to drink some water maybe. Run and get him, Petro."
"Chipka!" Patsyuk shouted, walking toward the house.
"What's the matter?" Chipka asked from inside.
"Come over to strike a deal, will you?"
"I told you I wouldn't sell to a Jew."
"Why?"
There was no reply. Patsyuk waited for some time, but Chipka did not appear.
"Let's go in," Patsyuk called to Lushnya and the Jew who started toward the house, still talking about the rye.
"Don't be stingy, Ovram," Lushnya repeated. "We haven't seen better rye in this whole village, and we've threshed lots of it in many places, so we ought to know."
"There's nothing special about it. It's the same as everywhere."
"No, it isn't! It's the land that matters. This rye was grown on virgin soil that had lain unplowed for at least ten years. It comes from really fat land," Lushnya exerted himself. They almost reached the house.
Chipka was sitting inside in brooding silence. Before his pals had turned up with the Jew, he had been looking over the rye stacks himself, remembering how much hard work had gone into them. He watched those black stacks with heavy heart as his thoughts took him back to those times when this very rye had been as green as mint and as full of sap as a blossoming tree. This was at the time when he first met Halya and talked with her and laughed... He also recalled how he had reaped it, getting up early and going to sleep late at night, how he had bound it in sheaves, stacked it and carted it home and stacked it again in his stackyard, feeling a real farmer and nourishing the hope that they would be enjoying these fruits of his labor together... Now the future looked as black as this rye, once so green and golden. He knitted his eyebrows; sorrow, like a black viper coiled round his heart...
No, he would not sell it, he decided. Better let it rot before his eyes.
Lushnya and the Jew were approaching the door. Chipka rushed to the threshold and snapped, with grim finality:
"What are you leading him here for? I'm not selling."
They were struck dumb.
"If he isn't selling," the Jew fumed, "why have you brought me here at all? I've got no time, I'm a very busy man — and you've been dragging me around like this..." He hurried away.
Chipka again disappeared in the house. Dejectedly, Lushnya and Patsyuk followed him inside.
"Are you out of your mind, Chipka?" Lushnya asked after a while. "You must be crazy to send away such a buyer... Are you sure you'll find somebody else?"
"I'm not selling, I said."
"Why not? Or do you prefer it to rot? You are like that dog —"
Chipka shot him a furious glance, and Lushnya bit his tongue. At this moment Matnya burst into the room.
"Hurray for us, brothers! Look what I've got!" he shouted, holding up a bottle of vodka with both hands. "Now we can have some fun."
"Where did you get it?" asked Patsyuk, beaming with joy.
"Let's say I found it."
"But where?"
"At the tavern."
"Then how did you —"
"Here's how." Matnya showed them how he had stolen the bottle.
This took their minds off the rye.
"D'you mean you just pinched it or snatched it from somebody?" Patsyuk insisted.
"Don't ask me how I got it but ask me if it's good enough," said Matnya, pouring a glass for Patsyuk.
The latter praised the vodka. Matnya turned to Chipka.
"Here's some for you, brother. Taste it. It's so good it melts on your tongue."
Chipka drank, and Lushnya followed suit. The vodka loosened their tongues, and they started the usual palaver.
Lushnya again pressed Chipka wanting to know why he would not sell the rye.
"No Jew will buy it from me," Chipka declared.
"To whom will you sell it then?"
"To no one."
"It's a shame. You'll lose it for nothing, and we won't get a single drink out of it. Sell it, brother! We could then carouse the real way!"
"I just don't feel like it," Chipka muttered, already in his cups. "I wish I could tell you, Timish, how I don't want to sell it."
"But what d'you need it for? It'll rot anyway!..."
"All right then. Tomorrow I'll go to Hritsko. If he doesn't buy it, I'll give it to him free."
"My goodness!" Lushnya exclaimed. "Then you'd better give it to me. I'll know what to do with it. What does Hritsko need it for anyway? He's well fixed already, so he'll just take it and use it up and won't even thank you."
"No, I won't sell it to anyone else... That wouldn't be a proper thing to do."
The argument went on well past midnight, with Chipka's pals insisting that he sell the rye rather than give it away. Chipka would not budge.
"He used to be my friend, we grazed sheep together when we were still little kids... That'll be my gift to him to help him start farming on his own. Let him benefit honestly from my work, if it's had to turn out this way!"





 

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