Бібліотека ім. Панаса Мирного >>Твори Панаса Мирного >> Do oxen low when mangers are full? >>XXII. Learning the Lesson

XXII. Learning the Lesson

 

The night before that fateful day, Motrya and the midwife, her landlady, had felt rather unwell and complained about the confounded frost which had lingered on for days on end. They shivered even on the stove. The landlady's granddaughter kept darting out into the passage, letting the cold in. The girl seemed strangely restless.
"Why do you make that door creak all the time?" the midwife asked her.
Apparently, the girl was not listening, because instead of answering she chattered rapidly:
"Our girls are already gathering out on the street!... How silly! Fancy singing away like that in this cold! They'll get their lips frozen, that's for sure!"
"They must be going to a gathering somewhere inside," Motrya spoke from the stove.
"No, they are going to meet just on the street. Today, Priska has told me, too, to come out."
"Everything is upside down these days," Motrya sighed. "What street gatherings can there be now, in the middle of the winter? That's good only in summer, when it's warm enough."
"That's exactly what I told Priska, Auntie. But she just laughed, silly girl, and kept telling me to join them. Some boys from the ravine hamlets are coming over today... Vasil Kovalenko will also be there... He's so good-looking, she said, that there isn't another one like him in the whole world — as pretty as a picture!"
"That singing — it must be your girls coming," the midwife said. "Why, they are young, of course... Songs and fun — that's all they care for."
"I can also hear the boys singing," the girl twittered. "Fine singing, too! Our boys from around here don't even know such songs, so it must be those lads from the ravines..."
She inserted a pot into the stove with oven prongs, raked up some embers around it and covered it with a lid.
"I'll go out and listen till the soup here begins to boil," she said and darted out of the house.
Motrya and the midwife exchanged glances.
Some time later, the girl burst back inside, stamped her bare feet, now as red as a goose's, and blew on her hands.
"What cold, may the devil take it! It's freezing something terrible!... Hoo... Hoo!... (blowing on her hands). The boys are singing so nicely, and the girls, too!... If it hadn't been for this cold and supper, I would've also run over there!"
"Barefoot?..." asked Motrya, whether reproachfully or simply reminding.
"No, I would've put something on..."
"So you simply don't want to skip supper?" the midwife laughed. "That's some girl!"
"Well, I don't really care much for supper — even though I now have to make it for everybody. I just don't feel like going."
"You are like the beggar who didn't feel like taking that coin," the midwife joked.
"No, I really don't want to go! Because it seems there's also fighting going on over there... Do you hear that boom! boom!? It might be our boys having it out with the hamlet boys to make them stay away from our street."
"Maybe some drunken serfs have started a brawl," the midwife suggested.
Motrya sighed heavily. Drunken? Who else could have made them drunk if not he? Her heart ached. She had felt gloomy during the whole evening; neither the girl's merry twittering, nor the midwife's jokes had changed that mood.
"Somehow, I feel so uneasy," she complained to the midwife. "There's something gnawing at my heart..." And she lay down to sleep early.
She was unable to sleep though. Her thoughts and coughing would not let her fall asleep. She would close her eyes only to open them again a moment later, because her mind would fill up with visions of drunken scenes. Then she would turn to the other side and burrow her face into the pillow — and cough would well up in her throat and tickle it and suffocate her... She would sit up and cough, her head buried in her hands. She would sit there until the coughing fit let up and subsided. Why was death so slow in coming, she asked herself? What was it waiting for? From death her thoughts switched to him, her son... and then back to death. It was almost dawn when she at last fell asleep. When day broke, she did not get up.
In the morning, wild clamor and din reached the house. That was the echo of the soldiery's atrocities.
"Good heavens, you can't imagine what's going on on the common!" a woman neighbor shouted instead of greetings as she burst into the room. "The soldiers are standing in a ring around the serfs and grabbing them one by one and flogging them... The serfs are crying and begging... Lots of people have turned out to watch that fight — so many the earth is groaning under their weight... But some chief or officer out there barked at them, 'Why are you standing here, you swine? Get away!' And then they all rushed off, every man for himself... Some ran down the road, others jumped fences and tore straight across kitchen gardens and fields in that deep snow. Oh, Lord, that was something terrible, I tell you!..."
"Did you see my son there?" Motrya asked timidly.
"I did. He was running about, trying to gather the men to save —"
"Was he drunk?" the midwife interrupted her.
"God knows. I only saw him as he rushed to everybody, yelling, 'Let's do something! Let's stop it!' Then the soldiers got him..."
"And... what did they do with him?..." Motrya cried out in a frightened voice.
"I don't know — didn't see anything. I've heard that he, too, was beaten... The soldiers lashed him so badly, they say, that he bled all over."
Motrya's grim face darkened even more. Her head drooped sadly, and bitter tears rolled from her faded, murky eyes down the deep furrows which age and worry had cut in her haggard face.
The midwife had many more questions for the neighbor who spent quite a long time answering them. But Motrya did not hear the rest of it. Her heart ached, and she was in a kind of daze, her vision dimmed by tears. So he had been beaten, flogged in public, for everybody to see, she thought as tears streamed down her cheeks. On top of all their ill fortune and want and foolishness there was now this shame — and gossip! Now there would be plenty of giggling behind her back to put up with and vicious jokes... Her son had been locked up, they would be saying... He had killed a man... True or not, many would believe it. He had also robbed the chief, and the clerk, too... Who else? It was also he who had been debauching people and putting them up to all sorts of evil things... Of course! He'd been making trouble for everybody, all the time! And now her son had been publicly flogged and tortured, as if he were some thug, God forbid! But his flesh was also her flesh. When he was beaten, she, too, suffered pain. Especially if, like they said, this flogging had left him with raw, bleeding wounds... Oh, Lord! Once people went after somebody they didn't like, they never stopped till they bit him to death and tore him to pieces! It was he, a drunkard and a rogue, who was blamed for every bit of trouble that sprang up and every thing that got stolen... But even if he really deserved their punishment, they shouldn't have done it to him in broad daylight, before all and everybody. All those masters and lords were heartless and inhuman. A common man was like an animal to them... You can beat him and batter him — and he won't break or bend!... Lord! Where is Thy divine justice?
She was angry with all and everybody and the whole world, particularly those lords who had had her son beaten up. Who had given them the right to humiliate her son?... She was angry with the soldiers who had lashed him in such a cruel, cold-blooded way, and with the villagers, who, far from defending him or pleading for him, had laughed watching it all... In every person she now saw her bitter enemy. In the neighbor's chattering she heard leering mockery at her maternal anguish and unhappiness, and the elderly midwife's quiet voice seemed to contain derisive notes... They were strangers, of course... They felt no pain — why should they care? These thoughts passed through her mind as bitter tears rolled and streamed down her face. And she cursed her fate and the people and her beloved child — her son for whom she felt so much pity. That was a cry from a deeply wounded heart — something that only a mother could understand. For only a mother could love and hate her child at the same time, pity him and curse him, want to see and hear him and refuse to look at him or listen to him.

* * *


The next day Chipka awoke when the sun was already quite high in the sky. He called Lushnya. But Lushnya was already gone. Having waited till Chipka fell asleep, he had quietly climbed down from the stove, slipped out of the house and set out straight for the hamlet of Krutiy Yar.
"How's Chipka?" his pals asked him at once.
"Not so bad. Everything's all right... Only mind you: he must not know where we've been. I told him we'd ended up in the lock-up."
Then he told them how Chipka had almost killed him and how he, Lushnya, had lied his way out of it. He also told them about his conversation with Chipka and Chipka's plan, advising them to accept it. Patsyuk agreed at once, but Matnya was not sure.
"You get hired," he protested, "and you won't even have time for a drink."
However, Lushnya and Patsyuk talked him into accepting Chipka's proposal. Finally, he, too, agreed to get a job, although not with a free peasant but rather at some Jew's distillery or brewery. Which was fine with all three of them. They spent the rest of the day drinking and in the morning walked to Pobivanka and got hired at the Jew's distillery there.

* * *

Chipka waited until the sun had climbed high enough, put on his coat and went to the house where his mother had been staying. In the yard he met the midwife.
"How do you do?" he greeted her.
"Good morning."
"Is my mother living with you?"
"She is... Why do you ask?"
"It's just that I'd like to see her if I may."
"Come along then." She wondered why he had turned up and became frightened. Swiftly, she ran into the house.
"Motrya! Motrya!"
"What's happened?"
"Your son is coming."
Without saying a word, Motrya trembled. Her face turned white as she kept on going hot and cold.
"Why?" the midwife's granddaughter voiced Motrya's question.
"I don't know," the midwife answered.
Here Chipka entered the room.
"Good morning to you again, good woman, and to you, Mother," he said.
"Good morning, Chipka," the midwife replied.
Motrya turned away, her vision clouded by tears.
None of them spoke. Chipka felt ill at ease. Fumbling with his hat, he said timidly:
"I've come to you, Mother..."
Motrya did not reply, and Chipka found nothing else to say. There was tension in the air, and the ceiling seemed to weigh heavily upon them.
"Why have you come to me?" asked Motrya slowly, still not looking at him.
"I want to... to say I'm sorry... I was a fool then and drunk, too... I know I insulted you and hurt you deeply... God's now punished me for that... Forgive me! Don't be angry with me!"
Motrya was unable to restrain herself anymore. Tears gushed from her bleary eyes and, like so many peas, rolled down her face and dropped to the floor. Relief, regrets and reproach spoke in her soul all at the same time. She was relieved and glad that her son had yielded to her, that he had realized what great damage he had done to himself through his foolishness and lazy will and that he had admitted his guilt to her, his mother whom he had hurt so badly. But at the same time, the humiliation she had suffered loomed, like a black cloud, before her eyes and gripped her heart as in a vice, demanding to be poured out in bitter recriminations. Her face bathed in tears, she began to shame him.
"So now you've come running back to your mother, now that there's no one left to comfort you?! But back then she wasn't good enough for you, and you called her names!... Don't you feel any shame? Don't you see what a grave sin it was?.. You made me seek shelter in a strange home in my old age... and accept my daily bread from strangers... and listen to such things about you... Was your mother your enemy or what? She was just like any other mother!... She would've cut off her fingers if only that could make her son's life easier! But you just bristled up at once and cursed her!... Now that they've taught you a thing or two, you suddenly need your mother and run to her... Those soldiers must be pretty good teachers, don't you think? Suddenly you are as meek as a lamb... But then to every word that I said you yelled ten and kicked up a row each time I cried!... I'll tell you this, son: if I'd been strong enough to teach you as good a lesson as those soldiers have, I wouldn’t have let you jump up like a silly puppy and tell off your aged mother who'd spent so many sleepless nights caring for you and gone hungry so often to feed you!... I wouldn't have let you hurt my heart the way you did!..."
"There's no need to remember it now, Mother. Forgive me... and forget! It was all long ago. What can one expect from a drunk man? Drink makes one half-witted. A drunk can't even fix a candle in church the right way... Don't you know?"
Motrya was silent, wiping away her tears with the sleeve of her blouse. Then the midwife expressed her strong disapproval of such an outrageous behavior. Chipka stood at the doorway, hishead low on his chest. Motrya glanced at him — and her heart immediately switched to pity.
"They must've beaten you pretty hard, son, because you don't seem to have a single unbroken bone left," she remarked, looking pityingly at his pale, sickly face. "Your face has gotten so scrawny and livid!..."
"My back's hurting like it's been badly burned," Chipka complained. "They surely beat the hell out of me."
"May Heaven punish them for all this cruelty!"
"We heard it all," the midwife cut in. "Those shouts carried all the way here. That sounded like dead people groaning in their graves..."
"They must have lashed you till you bled," Motrya went on.
"They did, too..." said Chipka.
She made a wry face. There was a brief silence.
"You should have changed your shirt," she said after a while. "Maybe you don't have another one?..."
"Yes, I have... I just haven't changed."
"Why? It'll stick to your back when the blood cakes, and then you'll try to get it off and it'll bleed again and hurt!"
"It'll heal all right."
"Oh, come on!" the midwife smiled. "It'll heal! Take a seat, there's no need to stand."
Chipka sat down next to his mother. Motrya looked at him, fighting back tears. The girl, the midwife's granddaughter, stood by the stove, her back to the fire, and sadly gazed now at the son, now at the mother, now at her grandmother, biting her nails.
"Where shall we live, son?" asked Motrya, the previous conversation having come to an end.
"I'd rather you stayed on here till the end of the winter: I'll pay what it'll cost..."
"What in heavens are you talking about, Chipka?" asked the midwife. "Why should you pay anything? Certainly, my house will remain in one piece if Motrya stays in it over the winter. So let her stay. Meanwhile, you get some money and fix your place, and then in spring you can move back, when it's warm and green."
"Thank you for your kindness, Granny," said Chipka, bowing to the midwife. "That's what I'm going to do, too. I'll go and get hired at the distillery till the spring, and —"
"Don't do that, son," Motrya interrupted him. "Don't work for an unchristened Jew!.. They've cheated you out of all your property. Better get a job at a stackyard somewhere and earn a little grain... We'll have to eat something when the spring comes... Then we might get some land, and we'll need grain to sow it."
"All right, Mother. I'll do as you say. They say that there is still plenty of unthreshed grain left over at the Krutiy Yar estate. The German who runs that place is hiring hands, they say. Those who want can get paid in money, and the rest get a share of the grain... So now I'll get hired for grain and when I've earned enough of it, I'll ask to be paid in cash."
"That's right. Do it this way, son."
At this they parted.
Before the day was over, Chipka sat out for Krutiy Yar. In the morning, he got a flail and got to work threshing in a barn. He worked at it so hard that bits of straw flew a good couple of yards into the air. It was amazing that he had enough strength and will left in him for this. But he was a fine worker, clever with his hands. Even the German praised him and held him up as an example for the others:
"Chipka work gut... like ox!"
"Well, I never!" laughed one Piski Cossack talking to another. "There's nothing like the soldiers' way of teaching things. Suddenly our big chieftain is over in Krutiy Yar working a flail. The rod is a mighty strange thing indeed! Good heavens! These serfs threw such a wild party over Christmas that the earth shook and went completely crazy after the holidays!..."
Chipka did not hear such talk, although Motrya certainly did. But she closed her ears, cursing the masters, the soldiers and all who thought this was a laughing matter. While Chipka was on the job, Motrya, still staying with the midwife, grew restless. Every day she went to visit her house. How long she had suffered from worry and want under its roof, spending countless days of hunger and cold! How often her fate had betrayed her and wrecked her hopes, smashing, scattering and drowning them in the fathomless abyss of bitterness! As she sat in that deserted, dilapidated dwelling, Motrya would start to recall everything that her failing memory still retained in her mind. She would brood there in solitude, weep and go away, only to come back again the following day. She even felt ill if a day passed without her seeing her home. By night she thought only about her house and wished that this harsh winter would end soon and the snow melt away and the fields turn green again... Then they would get to work, repair their house and move back in. Such hopes kept her alive.

* * *


Then came Shrovetide. The sun now rose much higher, heralding the arrival of spring, and could at least warm one side of an ox, as they say. The snow became softer, and the ice turned gray and crumbly. The earth around the house had already thawed out, and children tumbled outside to play with red soldier bugs that sunned themselves along the walls. The air smelled of spring.
The serfs were extremely happy to have lived to see this spring — their first spring of freedom, when they would no longer have to slave for their masters.
"Come along, let's drink to freedom!" they shouted, heading for the tavern.
When the Shrovetide celebrations were over, the arbitrator arrived to enforce new regulations and to distribute land. This frightened the serfs who suspected that along with the land some other kind of bondage might be imposed upon them. The way some of them figured it out, this actually meant the return to serfdom, since the masters would surely demand regular payments for the new allotments and drive them to work, as before.
"We don't want any land — not now! We'll wait till the time is right!" buzzed the peasants, hoping that the time would come when the land would be given to them free, without any charge. They believed that the land was meant to be a gift from the czar who had made them free and that all these payments had been invented by the lords. They also hoped that sooner or later the truth would come out and were willing to wait until then.
Riots and disturbances flared up again — and not in Piski alone. Shouts about the "right time" could be heard throughout Ukraine. Coming from her villages and hamlets, they echoed in the district towns. This happened everywhere where the ignorant, work-weary serfs, whose opinions had not interested anybody for ages and who had been just an ox to plow his masters' land and make them richer, now cast off his chains and had his first taste of freedom.
The only way to deal with this spirit of freedom was, of course, to quell it by force. More soldiers got busy marching from village to village, from one volost to another, and beating this "right time" nonsense out of the natives. Now they did their military service just by thrashing peasants — sometimes their own fathers and brothers — tying them up and taking them to town jails. Most of those who ended up there simply disappeared. Only a few surfaced now and then — some in Siberian exile, others in prisons...
But Chipka was now too busy to care much for that kind of news. Day after day, he and his mother worked on repairing their house. He tore the roof down completely, ripped the plaster off the walls both inside and on the outside, replaced rotten planks with new ones, rigged up new rafters and roofed the house with fresh thatch. Meanwhile, Motrya was busy with the women hired to do the plastering. Every morning, they roused the village with their laughter and singing which carried far and wide.
On Easter the house already stood fresh and dainty like a young girl, its walls straight, high and as white as snow. Every morning and every evening, an elderly woman, with smiling eyes and slightly bent, could be seen coming out of it. Quickly, she walked to a rick which stood in the kitchen garden, spread a cloth on the ground, piled it high with straw, and, with some effort, carried the heavy bale inside to stoke the stove. This was Motrya. She seemed to have become younger since she had moved back into her home to make a fresh start.
Chipka worked about the house so hard that his mop of hair was nearly always drenched with sweat. His days were filled with hectic activity. Having put the house into shape, he cleaned up and repaired the cellar, wove a new wattle fence around the lot and made a real plank gate. On St. Nicholas Day he bought several lambs. Now he needed a place to keep them in, so he began building a sheepfold.
In summer the village haymakers chose Chipka to be their foreman. That work brought him some fifteen haycocks. Then the rye turned yellow, and it was time to reap it. Chipka showed that he could wield a sickle as well as a scythe. One moment you saw a bunch of tall rye or good-eared wheat bend down under his hand, and before you could wink a hefty, handsome sheaf lay on the ground in his wake.
Motrya was so overjoyed that she ran out of words praising her son to neighbors.
"He surely played the fool long enough, but now he has slipped back into the right track. The devil will probably let him be now, so he's bound to settle down. It's a shame though he isn't married, because without a wife he might still get slack and lazy."
This was what the villagers were telling one another. And many an elderly mother with a marriageable daughter privately took Chipka into consideration and warmly greeted the young man whenever she met him. Also, many a village girl teased Chipka with her jokes. But he was deaf and dumb and did not seem to notice either the mothers' cordiality or their daughters' overtures. He had other things on his mind. More than once, while working, he folded his arms on his chest and fell to thinking. "So what good will it do me?" he would suddenly ask himself aloud and start, as if frightened by the sound of his voice, and go back to work...
Their property, however, continued to grow all the time. Soon the harvest time was over, and the air began to smell of fall. The peasants had less work to do.
Now trouble boiled up again. The lords tried to collect land redemption payments. The serfs refused to pay — only to see their cattle valued and sold off. Chipka bought a cow from one such debtor and also wanted to buy a horse but failed to find one to his liking.
Life changed, friends changed. Chipka was now hand in glove with Hritsko. Quite often they walked to work and returned home together. On Saturdays, Chipka and his mother visited Hritsko and Khristya or received them at home. Hritsko had even forgotten about that smouldering fire which Chipka had once set going under his roof. In any case, Khristya had other matters to think about now that she had a child on her hands.
Khristya took quite a fancy to Motrya. "She is as kind to me as if she were my own mother," she would say to her husband. On a Saturday or the night before some holiday, she would often drop in on Motrya to have a chat and amuse herself. Motrya, too, went to see the young woman from time to time and looked after Khristya's little Vasilko when she was out working all day long.
"Why don't you get Chipka married?" Khristya asked her once.
"I wish I could. Many a time I've told him he should marry, but he just doesn't want to."
"He might have somebody in mind, only he doesn't dare tell you."
"Who knows? He doesn't tell me. And I can no longer bear to see him living alone, like some vagabond. A wife would cheer him up a little. She'd also make it easier for me. I'm old already and no longer what I used to be, so a daughter-in-law could give me a hand with the chores. I've been telling him all this and I also pointed to you two. 'Just look at them,' I said. 'They went and married and have been living happy ever since. Why don't you do the same?' But he wouldn't listen to that!" Motrya sighed deeply.
"I almost wish I hadn't married, Mother," Khristya laughed. "I'd make a good match for your son."
"Would you, now? He must be very hard to please, and that's why he doesn't marry."
Finding Chipka in particularly low spirits, Hritsko, too, advised him:
"You really ought to marry, Chipka."
"Will I feel better if I do?"
"Sure. A wife would smile to you and give you advice and take care of you..."
"To hell with it!" Chipka said in a hollow voice — and became still gloomier. He certainly needed no one to tell him that. He saw Hritsko's happiness... But far from warming his own life, it only added to his pain. His sadness deepened all the time, and soon he often stayed out all night long.
On such nights, Motrya impatiently waited for him... Most likely, he had gone somewhere to have a good time, she thought, not wanting her to see him at it... Well, he was still a bachelor, of course. Or maybe he had found himself a girl... She would consider this possibility, hoping this was the true reason, and go to sleep, her fears allayed. She told no one, not even Khristya, about this. Nor did she ask Chipka anything.
She dared to do it only once. On that occasion Chipka came home after daybreak, looking grim and pale.
"Where have you been, son?" she asked him, watching his face.
"Never mind," he replied gloomily and went out to do some work.
Motrya shrugged. Could it be that he had gotten mixed up with some loose woman and was ashamed of telling her?
Meanwhile, Piski was full of rumors about crime in the vicinity. The German manager in Krutiy Yar had been made to part with some money; the Pobivanka Jew had been robbed blind; some men had tried to break into the Krasnohorka estate but had been driven off; a monk and a nun had been found tied together under a tree in the Bairaki forest and were said to have lost a great deal of money; finally, a church had been robbed in Rozbishakivka. These tales clamored, rang like the tocsin and spread far and wide. Everybody got into a panic, and as they went to bed, lots of people prayed and asked God to let them wake up safe and sound in the morning.
"These are really terrible times!" a certain elderly villager complained. "I guess the end of the world must be coming pretty soon... Such things can't happen for no reason at all! Why didn't we have anything like it when we were young? And our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers never told us about such things either. There were Tartars then who buried towns and villages, killed people or drove them off to slavery. What about now? Somebody's robbing churches already! Surely, those can't be Tartars!... Who's ever heard of such a thing?! Families are breaking up, too... A son thinks nothing of raising his hand against his father, a daughter has no respect for her mother, brothers fly at each other's throats, sisters turn into bitter enemies, a wife brews poison for her husband... Everybody's suddenly gone crazy! Also, there have never been so many tramps and whores!! There're also plenty of single mothers with fatherless children and girls who aren't too particular... If such a girl had married back in our time, gossip alone would've made her life sheer hell... And now a daughter goes to bed with a soldier — and her mother tucks them up... Aw, Lord, how can Thou still stand us at all?..."




 

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