. >> >> Do oxen low when mangers are full? >>XXVII. The New Age

 

XXVII. The New Age

 

Time did not stand still. The abolition of serfdom had shattered the age-old shackles with which the once-free villages and hamlets had been chained to their masters; the former serfs got their hands free and, timidly, as if still afraid of something, reached for the land which had once belonged to "God and the people," then had become the property of nobility and was now turned over back to the peasantry, although in the form of curtailed compulsory allotments. The slavery-stupefied populace rubbed their eyes open, took a look around but failed to see anything, except peasants and masters. All who did not go around in plain gray coats were supposed to be masters of one sort or another. All who stuck to the land, digging it up again and again and soaking it with their sweat, were common peasant folks. The serfdom had divided brothers and sisters, burrowing between them a deep ravine that could only be filled up but not bridged or crossed. But in the course of ten or even twenty years, let alone a single year, it was impossible to fill an abyss which it had taken centuries to dig. On one side of it stood the descendants of the original Cossack chiefs along with numerous carpetbaggers attracted by the riches of the cheated Ukraine. The latter included Polish noblemen and their hangers-on, Russian squires and various trash of Muscovy. There were also orphaned children of Judas who had been busy rebuilding their destroyed kingdom in a land that did not belong to them; there were quite a few members of the new middle class former tar-makers, wagoners, smalltime traders and store clerks who had managed to give their sons some education and to get them jobs entitling them to don tunics with brass buttons and caps with stars. All of them in this motley crowd had been living of somebody else's work and were fed and clothed by others. Now they stood there like a pack of hungry wolves, their teeth chattering, glaring angrily across the ravine at other Cossacks' descendants who were digging the black soil over and over that work-crippled, poverty-stricken, ignorant lot who did not even look human, who had almost no knowledge of their forefathers' glorious past ridden with bloody raids in the name of "freedom and fame," who were only dimly aware of who and what they themselves were, whose hearts were seething with fury and whose throats were hoarse from hurling bitter curses across the abyss. It even seemed that had it not been for the abyss, the two mobs would have attacked each other and then rivers of black blood would have flowed to drown the guilty and the innocent alike... In that terrible slaughter, eyes blinded by rage would not have distinguished between friend and foe, and blood would have flowed on and on, and countless corpses would have rotten to fertilize the already fertile soil. It never came to that, thank God. But the appalling vision frightened and haunted the very men under whose stares everybody had trembled with fear not too long ago.
It did not even spare Vasil Semenovich, the king of Hetmanske District. Mirin Hudz, the last Zaporozhian Cossack, had once been killed by the mere thought of serfdom; Vasil Semenovich Polski died before his time, because the peasants' demands for money in his own Piski and this "crazy freedom business" was more than he could stand. Fear and fury shook and shocked the not-so-young nobleman to put him in bed, then on a table and finally into a coffin. The family mourned his departure at home and wept on his grave; and a certain Ozersky, a self-styled writer, Polski's bitter enemy during his lifetime and his close friend after his death, published fitting obituaries in Russian newspapers. With the big chief gone, the henchmen sulked. What were they to do without him? What should they undertake to keep their long-occupied positions? Who could advise them, who would help them?
They began by wrangling over the choice of successor to the departed marshal of nobility. An outsider might be dangerous, and among themselves there did not seem to be anybody fitted for the job or willing to take it. In the past they had nearly come to fists contesting the honor, but now everybody was after soft, well-paying jobs and wouldn't hear about something like this. Titles were meaningless when the money chest was empty words to that effect could be heard more than once during that debate. True enough, their savings were quickly melting away, for lately they had not been sufficiently persistent and resourceful in replenishing them. Which meant they needed a good man for marshal, preferably one of their own.
Somehow, they managed to talk Vasil Semenovich's only son into acceptance. This was the same gentleman who had manhandled Chipka's father years before. He was a rather colorless individual with a limited life experience and no particular talents. Although he had studied somewhere and was even said to have finished the course, he ad little intelligence, even less courage and practically no willpower. The only thing he inherited from his father was pride the same pride which had shaped and molded him in his childhood and youth and to which he had been clinging ever since. Now it was this pride that made him accept the job nobody wanted.
Yet the times had changed, and pride alone was no longer sufficient to get along in life. Many young people had suddenly gone crazy, scoffing at "the rights of nobility" and treating their noble origins as something to be ashamed of. Many a young gentleman walked out on his father, called him names, using such strong words as "slavedriver" and "despot," left his home and, making a mockery of his parents' customs and expectations, trod the streets of Kharkiv or Kiev in search of odd jobs. Quite a few noblemen's daughters followed the example set by their brothers; paying no heed whatsoever to what their parents were telling them, they spent their days and nights poring over books like a rabbi on a Friday night, did no work and even showed no interest in merrymaking. It was rumored that Krivinsky's younger daughter had run away one night with some student, a priest's son, to go to study in Kiev. The gentry's self-esteem suffered terribly from such outrageous behavior.
To make things worse, the "crazy freedom" bred such freaks as local self-government which did not distinguish between nobility and peasantry and arbitration courts where litigants were not even asked to state their social origins. The whole world had turned upside down! But it was too late to cry over spilled milk; the gentry had to adapt themselves to the new order of things to recover something from the wreckage. What was there for them to do? How could they fit into the new pattern? They had not been taught to work in childhood and certainly had no intention of learning to use their hands in their ripe years. As to brains who had thought before the emancipation that a landlord would ever need such a thing? All a landlord had needed then were titles and wealth, and all that had been required of him was to know how to cut the right kind of figure, to live in style and to possess the necessary skills in consuming foods and beverages. An active brain capable of doing real work and not just inventing fancy frills was probably the last thing a noble landowner had needed. But now at all crossroads and marketplaces of life everybody seemed to be shouting about intelligence and work.
He who did not let himself be unduly frightened by those shouts and got down to work, was caught by the churning river of life and carried forward, on and on now dragged to the bottom and almost drowned, now pulled back to the surface and tossed out of the water, now riding the crest of a wave but finally brought to a safe shore. And although such a swimmer ached all over, he set his unsteady, swaying foot on sure ground and found himself in a land where the human spirit still reigned supreme. After all, here he was his own master not a hanger-on or a hired servant. He quickly got used to his new place in the old country and made the land obey his will: it worked for him, brought him crops and gave him a decent living. But he who got scared holed up in his village or hamlet, cursed the new age and the new people and dragged out a miserable, dreary existence, eating away at his last remaining means the land redemption pledges which Jewish profiteers bought from him at less than half their face value. Behind him was a gay, carefree life of luxury and leisure; ahead of him was slow dying, maybe with some hard work in his old age, with bitter anguish instead of comfort, with all his money gone pocketed by Jewish swindlers, with not a single square foot remaining of his land which would have been auctioned off to pay his old debts... No wonder he was cursing the reforms and would never become reconciled to them.
Left without a leader, the august assembly at first scattered to all sides, like a flock of scared sheep. But seeing that all routes of escape were blocked by the new institutions of local self-government, the fugitives turned back and flocked together again, sadly reminiscing about the good old days when they had had plenty of green pastures to graze on and fine watering places. The late marshal's son still hung around in the middle of the flock, but it had already become abuntantly clear that he was no leader of men. Who would lead them? Who was bold enough to take the responsibility? Who was used to braving the elements and weathering the storms? Shavkun was willing to try anything had been ever since his boyhood. He had been around for a long time and everybody knew him. The only hitch was that he wouldn't want to be in charge, for he had always preferred to keep a low profile. Would he at least agree to guide and advise the nominal leader and to keep an eye on him? That he would. So Shavkun was drafted to chaperon the top man.
While Shavkun was not a man of brilliant intelligence, he was certainly no fool either. He had seen quite a lot in his lifetime and had had his ups and downs. The son of a needy priest who had served in a poor rural parish of Khituni, he had become an orphan when both he and his elder sister were still in their infancy. Their guardian, a distant relative and also a priest, took them to live in his home. The girl was at first allowed to run loose about the village and later, when she got a little older, began looking after, and playing with, the guardian's own children. Then she grew up and was married off to some deacon who drank rather a lot. The boy was sent to learn some sense in a seminary. He found it tough going being flogged and beaten so often that he soon lost count. They worked so hard on him there that a lively, hefty boy turned into a dumb freak who instead of trying to learn a little something only tried to think of another dirty trick to play on somebody. Mean tricks and loose behavior in general came to dominate the young student's thoughts and interests. When he did not see a penknife or an inkpot he could steal, he would put up other boys to fooling around or making trouble, and when he grew up, he started to worship the god of wine... The "reverend fathers" gave themselves a lot of trouble trying to make him mend his ways but in the end threw him out of the school. The boy found himself on the street practically naked, barefoot and hatless. Where in the world could he go? Where could he lay his head? Somebody advised him probably in jest to go to university. Young Shavkun thought it over. However, he did not do it and instead walked all the way to his native village of Khituni where his sister and brother-in-law were living in his father's old house. He hit it off fine with the deacon, and the two of them would often roam the village enjoying the parishioners' hospitality so thoroughly that sometimes they had to crawl back home on all fours. His sister's patience lasted for quite a long time, but when it finally gave out, she began to chew out both of them reproaching her brother with being a burden to her family, squandering their pitiful means on drink and depriving her hungry children of their daily bread and him so young and strong, too. When scolded in this manner, Shavkun kept mum. The bitter truth of her accusations must have been hard to swallow. The following morning he spent a long time complaining to his sister about his bad luck, disclosed that he was indeed going to seek admission to university and explained he would need about fifty rubles for that. The sister described his plans as sheer nonsense and advised him to get a clerk's job in some office to "earn his daily bread" as she put it. Shavkun did not follow her advice. Instead he tied up his few belongings in a bundle and made ready to seek his fortune at random, just "following his nose." Taking pity on him, his sister opened her chest and took out thirty rubles her last savings which she had been hiding from her good-for-nothing husband for a rainy day. Shavkun said good-bye and left. Three months later he wrote to her from Kiev that it had worked out all right and that he had gained admission to the university. God alone knew how he managed to support himself, but somehow he stuck it out for two years. When he was in his third year, his old bad habits returned to get him first into a lock-up and then out on the street... He now found himself all alone in a big city, without a penny to his name, shunned by his former merry pals and, worst of all, with his name on the black list. He might as well have jumped into the Dnieper River there and then! Shavkun did not jump into the Dnieper but left Kiev leaving behind his buddies and his books (he never opened one after that and did not even want books to be mentioned in his presence) and trekked to Hetmanske. He did not dare to go to his sister again. So Shavkun went to Chizhik, his friend in youth whom we have met before and who then worked in the district trusteeship office. Chizhik told him to ask his superior for a job. That he did and was taken on as a junior clerk at a flat ruble a month, conditional on his diligence. Shavkun was willing to give it a try even at such beggarly pay. He got down to work copying papers, one tedious line after another, first receiving a single ruble a month, then two and going up to three by the end of his first year. He turned into a respectable, prosperous-looking young man and pleased his superiors by never failing to take off his hat whenever one of them was around. To Vasil Semenovich he bowed from the waist the moment he caught sight of him. The mighty lord noticed the "meek calf" and had him transferred to his private office. It was probably the happiest day in Shavkun's life when the king of Hetmanske District called him to his study and promised to make him somebody, provided he behaved right. Leaving the big man's presence, Shavkun made the sign of a cross and established himself behind a desk in the district marshal's office. From then on he practically lived there, spending all his days and many of his nights at that desk, hunched up over papers, hardly ever lifting his eyes off them and speaking only when spoken to, as though the whole world and all his life had become reduced to those papers. The old chief clerk praised his good work, and the marshal gave him ten rubles every Christmastide. Shavkun mailed part of that money to his sister, and the rest went into a leather purse which he kept at the very bottom of his small chest. Then the old chief clerk died, and Shavkun was promoted to replace him. Now he was more than just a tiny cog, and almost overnight people developed respect and reverence for him. Now others took off their hats before him just as he used to do before his bosses. However, Shavkun did not let himself be overly impressed by either respect or reverence shown by clients, realizing this was only to be expected from people whose money was at stake. That was also why money became his sole absorbing passion. Money and wealth were all he dreamed about when he slept. He lived quietly and frugally and married a girl who was just as penny-pinching as he was. The two of them kept on hoarding money without quite knowing for whom, because there were no children. They led an existence that was devoid of great happiness, but also free from even minor worries.
Now it was this workhorse who thought nothing of sticking at his paper-laden desk from early morning until late at night without a letup, this wheedler and toady who had learned his lesson well and knew all that was worth knowing about how to ingratiate himself with the right people, who suddenly saw a whole district dumped into his lap to run as he pleased and saw fit in the name of the dull-witted and lazy "boy marshal." The latter immediately abdicated whatever claims to leadership he may have had, giving Shavkun a free hand.
Meanwhile, life had been bringing one novelty after another and plenty of practical problems to be solved. They were not yet through gathering redemption pledges and forcing allotments upon the peasants who did not want to touch that land for fear that it would lead to a return of serfdom, when the zemstvo business sprang up, elections, councils and all.
"What have we come to!" petty noblemen fumed whenever two of them came together. "First they made the rabble free, took away our peasants... then they grabbed our land... Now it seems they want to make gentlemen out of those bumpkins giving them this zemstvo nonsense!"
"That's where we seem to be heading, all right," some squire would agree. "Just think of it! Both noblemen and peasants can vote... Yesterday my Omelko cut dried cowdung for fuel at my estate and tomorrow I might find him sitting next to me at the same table, for all I know... He can get himself elected deputy, just like me..."
"Never! Those swine will never live to see it!" an elderly gentlewoman would blurt out in rage, striking her fists against each other and proceeding to heap curses both on the "swine" and on those who had brought such "dishonor" upon the high-born nobles.
Shavkun cursed nobody and had no fits of anger. Actually, all that talk about zemstvo seemed to improve his spirits. He knew that he would manage to survive under the new regime and might even benefit from it.

* * *


The new age also brought about a major change in Chipka's life. It ended his happy but uneventful existence at home with his beloved wife and his old mother and brought him out into public life where he won considerable respect. The villagers came to know and appreciate him, also because he sometimes stood some of them in good stead. Even though he now did not like to throw money around, he never failed to help out a man in need. When a baby was to be baptized, the parents would ask him to be godfather. Being a kind man, he treated such requests with sympathy, and although he himself invariably declined the honor, Halya collected a whole flock of godchildren scattered all over the village. The joys of motherhood being denied her, she lavished her unspent affection upon them. Loboda was marrying off his daughter but all he could scrape up for the wedding was a paltry sum of ten rubles which would not even have bought him enough vodka. The man racked his brains trying to figure out some way to raise a loan. "Go and speak to Chipka Varenichenko," his wife told him. "Maybe he'll lend you something until the next harvest." "Why, of course," said Loboda and went to Chipka straight away. Chipka talked it over with Halya and Loboda had his wedding party at which his guests caroused for a whole week.
"Chipka's the kindest man we've got!" the villagers were telling one another, taking off their hats even when he was a good way off. As a matter of fact, his popularity spread beyond Piski. Constantly traveling to fairs on his homespun business, he made himself known all over the district. At his father-in-law's place he once met Dmitrenko, the new police chief, nicknamed Mare's Muzzle because of his passion for horse-swapping. Dmitrenko, too, took a liking to Chipka. Then they ran into each other at some fair and sealed their friendship with a swap. The policeman admired the colt which Chipka had received as a gift from Halya's father and pestered Chipka to make an exchange. Chipka resisted for a long time but finally gave in. So Dmitrenko got the fine young stallion, full of life and vigor, in exchange for an old, old hack, a veteran of some hussar regiment sold off after it had ruined its feet in the service. Beaming with delight, Dmitrenko thanked Chipka effusively and promised to honor him with a visit. But the old animal left Chipka so stunned and speechless as though he were seeing a horse for the very first time in his life. He just spat in disgust and said nothing.
Arriving home, he unharnessed the horses, went indoors, greeted his mother and kissed his wife.
"We'll be having guests soon, Halya," he said.
"Who's coming?"
"The police chief."
"What does he need us for?" she asked wonderingly.
"He says he'll come over when he begins to miss that hack of his," Chipka joked.
"Hack? What are you prattling, for God's sake?"
Then he told her what a fool he had made of himself.
"He did the same thing to my father," Halya said. "There was no getting rid of him! At first Father wouldn't go along with it, but then some problem sprang up and he had to talk to the police chief about it. But before going to the district station he took a pair of his horses to Dmitrenko's stables."
Dmitrenko proved to be as good as his word and kept his promise. About a month later his carriage rolled across Piski straight to Chipka's house. "Whoa!" the horses came to a halt. Halya and Motrya darted to the windows to see who had come.
"Is Nikifor Ivanovich in?" the police chief asked them from his seat.
Halya was about to say her husband wasn't but then blushed and muttered, "He's in, yes." At this very moment Chipka appeared and went to the carriage to greet the visitor.
"Well, here I am," said the policeman. "Will you put me up for the night?"
"Shall we go in, if you please?" Chipka invited him.
They went inside. Dmitrenko took off his cloak, shook the dust off his coat, stretched himself and gave a noisy yawn that sounded so much like the bellowing of a good-sized ox that Halya peered out from another room to see what was happening. Then he sank onto the bench behind the table. Chipka brought a stool and sat down across from him.
"Do you know why I've come to you?" Dmitrenko asked, yawning again.
"God knows... I guess that's what your job is all about. Don't you keep going places all the time?"
"Sure, that's right, too. But I'm also bringing some news."
Halya opened the door slightly and peered through the crack, with Motrya trying to look into the room over Halya's shoulders. Both women were curious to hear the news brought by the officer.
Dmitrenko flicked his eyes at Halya.
"This must be your wife?"
"She is," Chipka said.
"Hudz has raised a really beautiful girl! He surely had reason enough to keep her under lock and key the way he did... She's nice all right. If I'd known what she was like, I would've smashed that lock and carried her away."
Hearing this, Halya blushed shyly and closed the door shut.
"Halya!" Chipka called to her. "Why are you running away? Are you afraid that Petro Ivanovich might still carry you away? Never fear I won't let him."
"I myself wouldn't let him," said Halya as she stepped into the living room. Even as she spoke, a dog barked outside.
"Oh, you're really afraid of something if you keep all those dogs," the officer chuckled.
"Mushka's the only dog we've got," Halya said, coloring.
Here a poorly dressed girl stepped into the room but paused silently at the threshold, seeing she would clearly be out of place there.
"Hello," Chipka greeted her. "You want something?"
"I'd like to see Aunt Motrya," the girl said timidly.
Motrya heard her and came in from the other room. Bowing low to Dmitrenko, she furtively pulled at the girl's skirt and led her out into the passage. In a little while, Motrya came back in, and the girl went away. She was the village chief's servant sent to nose out why the police officer had arrived in Piski.
Meanwhile, Halya put a samovar on in the kitchen. The sun was setting, casting its parting glances into the living room, where the police chief and the wealthy Cossack faced each other like a pair of good old friends. But their conversation did not make much headway; it kept skipping from one subject to another like a light harrow bouncing its way across a lumpy field. As they began drinking the tea Halya had served, it died down altogether. Chipka, the host, felt ill at ease.
"So what about that news you've brought us?" he began, sipping the steaming tea.
"It's good news for good people, that is... But your peasants here in this village are an unruly lot who've been giving me plenty of trouble and nothing else! That's what Larchenko warned me about when I was taking over from him. 'Watch those people in Piski,' he told me, 'because they're pretty tough!' And he was right!"
"I'm sure they would've made no trouble at all, if only "
"Now what was I saying?" Dmitrenko interrupted, having lost the thread. "Oh, yes! I've brought the zemstvo!"
"What's that?" Chipka asked, peering into the officer's eyes.
"Zemstvo? It's a new favor from the czar! You see: here you live in Piski Cossacks, former serfs and Jews... You've got Jews too, haven't you? (Chipka said they had). Now you see: it's the same in Kotolupivka, Bairaki and Vovcha Dolina there are landowners, merchants, Cossacks and peasants... They all travel and they all have to use the roads, so they want them to be kept safe from rogues and robbers may God guard us from them! One man can't do it, but the lot of you can... So you see (Dmitrenko started using the words "you see" and "so" so often that it became apparent he had only a vague idea of what he was trying to explain). So you see: now all of you will come together the masters and the peasants and do everything there's to be done about it..."
"What? Are the masters also supposed to do it with us?" Chipka asked in surprise.
"Well, not exactly... Not all of them will be doing it. They will elect deputies who will then choose a council from among themselves, and that council will be running everything..."
"Won't there be any police chiefs for that?"
"Nobody can do without us! We're the police, and the police will also be watching those councils and make sure they level out roads, build bridges and all... It would be impossible to get anything done without us. Who'd collect tax arrears if there were no police? We'll be around as long as the sun keeps on shining down on this earth..."
"I'm afraid I can't figure it out," Chipka said in a wondering tone. "We've already got the police to look after the roads, and now there'll also be this zemstvo to do the same thing..."
"You'll hear all about it when we get the commune together and I read the decree to them."
No sooner had he finished saying this than the village Cossack chief with his clerk and the peasant elder with the headman tumbled into the room. The ex-serfs mumbled greetings and remained at the threshold, their heads drooping humbly. The other two froze ramrod-stiff, like soldiers at attention.
"Aha! That's good," Dmitrenko grunted, without bothering to return their greetings. "I was about to send for you... The commune must be gathered tomorrow morning! D'you hear? I'm telling this to you and to you, too! Only make sure you try harder this time than when you pay the arrears," he added reproachfully, addressing the peasants.
"These are busy days, sir," the clerk complained. "All the men have been working in the fields..."
"I don't care. Busy days or not, I want the village assembled or I'll let you take some rest in the lock-up!"
The elder kept silent, working one foot against the other.
"How shall we put it to them, sir?" the clerk asked.
"Just tell them the police chief has brought the zemstvo and will read about it... It's zemstvo have you gotten it right? Will you remember?"
"We will."
"Am I tired, Nikifor Ivanovich! You may not believe me if I tell you that I've hardly been out of my carriage for the past two days." Then, turning back to the deputation, he said: "All right, you may go now and may God help you."
The visitors rushed to the door, each of them so eager to be the first man out that they even got jammed in the doorway.
"How d'you like that?" said the Cossack chief. "The fellow was just Chipka to everybody and now he's suddenly Nikifor Ivanovich! Amazing what money can do!"
"Never mind his money," the elder said. "Better tell us what the horsethief has come for."
"Didn't he tell you he'd brought the zemstvo?" the clerk broke in before the chief could answer.
"Sure he did... Now you explain to us what this zemstvo is all about. Does it mean new taxes or what?"
"Why, indeed, Vasil Vasilyovich!" The chief turned to the clerk. "What is it anyway?"
"They say it's going to be some new kind of authority... The Cossack district offices have just been abolished, and the peasants' arbitrations won't be around much longer. There must be somebody to hold the people in check, right?"
"They've been holding us so tight they've almost crushed our bones," the headman reflected aloud, as if talking to himself. "Now they've decided to give us more authorities."
"But the people must not be left without anybody in charge," the clerk argued. "You can't just tell them, 'Now you're free to do anything you like any way you like, and you may govern and judge yourselves as you know best.' It would lead to such a rumpus that " He scratched the back of his head.
"That's right," the chief supported him. "What else can you expect of our people? It hasn't been long since your peasants kicked up such a riot that decent folks almost had to run for it. Either you govern this hot-headed rabble with a firm hand or it'll turn the village upside down!"
"Aha!" the headman broke in. "I know already what it's going to be like."
"Tell me," the elder urged him.
"You see, it wasn't without purpose that they tried so hard to make us take the land," the headman explained. "Now I can see why! They just wanted to keep us on a lead with it. Now they can say, 'Even though the czar has made you free, the land still belongs to us, and you must keep on paying for it. And before you redeem it, we'll think of something else...' Now they've come up with this zemstvo. We've been paying for the land and now we'll also have to pay for the zemstvo! So we can tell the commune that they'll have to earn more to pay the zemstvo taxes as well!"
Here they reached the volost office. The elder and the headman walked on toward it, while the chief and the clerk turned into a side street that led to the chief's house.

* * *

The following morning both the Cossacks and the peasants of the village assembled in the square in front of the Cossack volost office. Dmitrenko arrived in his carriage drawn by Chipka's horses, read the decree to them and told them whom they were to elect, forbidding to "push through rough bumpkins" and ordering them to vote for the gentry who "knew everything and could do things the right way." He even promised to make it hot for them if they chose "uncouth louts."
The commune listened in silence. The policeman got ready to leave but then changed his mind and returned to tell them once more to vote for the gentry. Then he said good-bye to Chipka, gave him a broad wink, as if to say he was a wholly eligible candidate, and rolled away.
Almost as soon as he departed, the crowd started to buzz.
"How's that?" the peasants fumed. "Why does it have to be masters again? Haven't we had enough of them?"
"Shut up, fools!" the Cossack clerk shouted at them. "Who else could serve in the office? Can you do it? D'you have any idea about that kind of work?"
"We can hire somebody smart like you to work for us there," a peasant needled him.
"Sure you can... But who knows what this work will be like?"
The clerk and the crowd argued for a long time, and all that time Chipka listened to them in silence. The peasants painted the masters in dark colors; the clerk did not deny their accusations but still maintained that it would be impossible to get anything done without gentry, that this would be a totally new experience and that therefore they had no choice but to vote for the gentry. At this, Chipka broke his silence.
"Here's my advice to you. A farmer, no matter how bad, is still better than a hireling. Sure, the zemstvo is a new thing, but it's new for everybody. We didn't have it before, and the masters don't know more about it than we do. The Lord has given us brains to use them and to figure things out."
"Right! That's true!" the crowd murmured.
"The masters have been ruling you, good people, long enough as it is. Now try ruling yourselves for a change! Be your own masters... They won't try too hard to make everybody happy each of them will be after his own good... Besides, our masters here are all relatives, and each of them takes care of the rest. That one (Chipka poked his finger in the direction the police chief had gone) was my guest and ate my food, but he, too, sides with the masters."
"Oh yes! Sure!" the gathering buzzed excitedly. "They stick together like pigs. No more of this, brothers!... We've had enough!... Why, they're like damn weeds: they keep pushing up and up! Now that they've got no more serfs, they want at least to get elected deputies... No way!"
The meeting broke up and Chipka went home, glad to have set the commune on the right course. New feelings stirred in his heart; he really wanted his advice to be heeded and already visualized himself guiding the commune and managing its affairs. His past troubles were forgotten, as though they had never happened; now he could sway the whole commune.
"I wish they'd follow my advice, Halya," he confided to his wife at night. "If they do, it'll be the end of the rope for the masters." Then he told her at some length how he intended to serve the common people. She was pleased to see her husband commanding such considerable respect in the village.
The desire to lead men seethed in his heart and burned him, continually escaping outside in his thoughts and words. He was obsessed with the idea and, whenever he talked with somebody, never failed to bring up the subject of the zemstvo and the elections. In effect, he hardly spoke of anything else. He urged everybody to watch over their interests and those of the commune and not to let the masters take them in hand again.
His appeals had their desired effect. A week after the meeting in Piski, arbitrator Krivinsky drove into Hetmanske at full speed and burst into the marshal's office, where the district zemstvo council was to be seated.
"We've had it!" he shouted, without a word of greeting. "The peasants have beaten our men!"
"What d'you mean?" the usually quiet Shavkun cried out, leaping to his feet and freezing in stunned bewilderment.
"In Piski... not a single nobleman has been elected."
"That means even Dmitrenko hasn't been enough to make them obey us!..." Shavkun muttered with difficulty. Then, as if doused with cold water, he sank into his chair, propped his head up with his hand and froze into stillness.

 

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