Бібліотека ім. Панаса Мирного >>Твори Панаса Мирного >> Do oxen low when mangers are full? >>XX. Freedom

XX. Freedom

 

For a free man, freedom is a magic word, but for a slave it is something infinitely sweet and intoxicating. Like spirits or a potion, it blurs and blunts all his perceptions, thoughts and hopes, until he becomes deaf and blind to everything except that one word which alone shines for him and warms him along the dark way of his obscure existence...
As soon as this word was pronounced, the people of Piski stirred and seethed like boiling water.
"Knock off, brothers! Freedom! Freedom!" shouted the serfs, abandoning work and setting out for the tavern to celebrate what they called "Freedom's wedding."
"You've gotten it all wrong!" the Cossacks teased them. "Before you're set free you'll have to work out another two years."
Arguments and quarrels flared up. The serfs cursed the Cossacks, the masters and the priests. In the two years that followed there was hardly anybody in the world whom they did not denounce as their sworn enemy. However, having run out of curses and shouted themselves hoarse, the serfs went back to work. Which was work in name only: every one of them tried to do less, to gain more and to cheat the lord at every turn.
Watching it all, the masters moaned, sighed and furtively talked things over among themselves. Meanwhile, the serfs asked one another in low voices, "Are we going to get paid for these two years or not?"
But work they did, in one way or another. Presently, the most hectic season came. What with plowing, haymaking, harvesting, carting and threshing, they had no time to catch their breath, let alone talk.
Christmas was approaching. The solemn holiday worried every household with its age-old cares. One family slaughtered pigs whose frantic squeals could be heard all over the village, while another was getting ready to go to a fair in town to sell grain and to buy things for the holiday: incense to be burned at supper on Christmas Eve, fish for the festive dinner and salt for everyday needs. In a third house, women got down to plastering and whitewashing, disrupting the quiet daily routine.
Only Chipka and his bunch were without a care in the world. Plugging the broken windows with rags or old foot cloths, he would throw some rotten straw into the stove and let it smoulder and smoke in there, pretending it heated the room. Actually, they cared little for warmth or food. It was the Jew's vodka that helped them to keep warm, and for food they munched dry bread with salt, also from the Jew. When one of them managed to remove a hen or a rooster from a neighbor's perch, they would pluck and gut it, roast it on a spit and feast on it. Although Chipka had seen worse things, he sometimes grew sick of such life and such company. But then he would just drown his disgust in vodka — and keep silent. And when he could no longer go without a hot meal, he went down into his crumbling cellar, gathered some last year's turnips left in the corners, peeled them and made himself a kind of soup. And that was all.
His fellow villagers shook their heads as they looked on.
"That's hopeless," they were telling one another. "Such a fellow will never mend his ways. Nothing short of death will make him stop it... He just might get out of it if it hadn't been for his cronies... But let them wait: as soon as the next draft is on we'll at least get rid of those chicken thieves."
Finally, the holidays arrived. The happy villagers visited one another and celebrated now at the tavern, now in their homes. Chipka and his buddies practically lived in the tavern, inviting men to join them and treating them to drinks.
The men of the village, who — to tell the truth — never declined a treat, welcomed the occasion and drank gleefully, praising the good boys. A few young women, attracted by the merrymaking and the gathering, also drifted in. The Jew must have expected this, for he had lined up a band. The musicians were fiddling and piping away, while drunken men were capering around women almost on their heads. The women stood there, watching, until one of them, unable to resist the temptation any longer, started to glide sideways in small steps. Then another lady, slightly tipsy already, lifted her skirt a little and cavorted about the room like a kite chasing chickens. There were squeals of laughter, shouts and din. Every now and then, Chipka shouted to the Jew to order one thing or another. Lushnya was dancing away at a breakneck tempo the musicians found impossible to match, while Patsyuk was clucking his tongue in imitation of a balalaika. Only Matnya sat in a corner, dozing, his face swollen and red, his eyes drunken and sleepy. He would wake up, down a drink, bellow like a bull and grow quiet again, going back to sleep.
The carousing was in full swing. They forgot all about the holiday, God and their homes, drinking from early morning late into the night and from sunset to daybreak. Then the village wives, who had not seen their husbands at home for more than two days, kicked up such a fuss, as though the village had been struck by divine punishment or decimated by fire.
"What a calamity!" they wailed. "It's sheer madness! There's never been anything like this before... The Lord's given us this holiday to go to church and pray to Him — he's been praying in the tavern! The Lord's sent him this holiday to spend quietly at home with wife and children — and he's been sticking there with drunkards and loafers! I must really go to the priest and ask him to order this sot to do penance for all that drinking."
Sure enough, several women gathered and went to complain — although not to the priest but to his wife who offered them drinks and promised to tell her husband as soon as he awoke from his nap. The good women went home only to find that their husbands were not yet there... Meanwhile, the merry crowd at the tavern had captured the deacon who was so old and feeble that sometimes during a fast he could not even chant his "Hallelujah" in the proper way. Now, having downed a glass or two of the invigorating poison, he perked up a little. Suddenly, he again felt hale and hearty, warbling with women in a voice so loud and high as if he were a young girl. A drink later he hitched up his cassock, grabbed a plump, ruddy-faced wench and broke into a wild dance, his beard and braid swirling. He sweated all over and was even working up a lather. The men were rolling with laughter, while the girls were swirling around the deacon to get him worked up even more; when one of them became exhausted, another one took her place.
"We can't just keep on dancing all the time," a girl shouted, laughing. "What about taking us for a ride?"
"Well, I never," said the deacon, his hands on his hips. "Did you hear what those sinful creatures want? How d'you like that? All right, get a sled. You might never get another chance like this."
A sled appeared out of nowhere. The deacon was helped outside and harnessed, and girls piled on. Bending low with the effort, the deacon somehow managed to drag the sled along, while the girls sang away and shouted, as if it were a wedding. Suddenly, a young woman dashed to the deacon.
"There's no room for me there," she complained. "Let me mount you so that I, too, can have my ride!"
"Get on, daughter of the devil," the deacon cried, arching his back. She jumped on; the old man reeled under her weight and fell, the woman sprawled on top of him. The girls jumped off the sled and tumbled over them, pushing one another... The men yelled, "Pile up! The pile's too low! Make it higher!" More and more girls threw themselves onto the human heap, until the deacon was nearly crushed to death. He was barely breathing when they finally rescued him... The laughter and clamor were deafening. The village went crazy!
The revelry loosened the tongues, awakened the sluggish, smothered souls and stirred up smouldering grievances. It also reminded the people of Piski of those two years...
"How come, brothers?" a serf brought it up. "Have we been working these two years for nothing?"
"Sure!"
"But why? Didn't the Czar make us free to live where we want and to do as we please? Sure, he did not want those greedy swine to feel they were being left out in the cold, so he told us, 'Work another two years, good people, so that they can get used to the thought that you won't be around anymore.' But I wonder how our master figured it out. Did he really expect us to work these two years for nothing at all? Why, if I'd gotten hired, I would've made at least a hundred rubles... And what will I get from the master?"
"Nothing. As soon as you're through working, he'll just kick you off the estate..."
"Like hell I'll go! Let him pay me off the proper way. We know their tricks. It is enough that they drove our grandfathers and fathers like slaves and have been wringing us dry for so long! Let them at least pay me for those two years!"
"They'll pay you a lot — get your pocket ready!" laughed another peasant who was somewhat more sober.
"Why are you giggling?... Of course he'll pay me! I'll just go and tell him I want to get paid, and he'll give me —"
"A slap... "
"Why a slap? What about Pobivanka? Didn't their lord pay his men? Didn't he give them houses and land? That's because all of them to a man demanded their money — and he settled up. Then why wouldn't our master pay us if his own brother in Pobivanka did it? Ah! If only we weren't so stupid! We've been keeping our mouths shut as if we didn't care... Let him give us our money! That's what all of us should demand: give us our money!"
"That's just talk!"
"You're a fool if you say that!"
"Look who's talking! You're just drunk and don't know what you're blabbering..."
"What's wrong in it?" the serf demanded drunkenly. "You tell me."
"You'll know what if somebody hears you and whispers a word to the master... Do I have to explain to you what a powerful man he is?... You'll be in big trouble!"
"Nothing will happen to me! He won't dare to do anything to me, because I only speak the truth! You really are a fool..."
"Don't call me a fool, because you may still turn out an even bigger fool..."
"Maybe you want to hit me? Do you? Come on, go ahead!"
"May your own troubles hit you — not me! Get away from me, drunken devil!"
"No, you hit me, son of a bitch!... Just try!..."
And the serf offered his face. His opponent backed away, raising both hands to protect himself in case the other man, well in his cups, suddenly tried to punch him... People came running from all sides and pressed around them, curious to see what would happen next.
"Hit me, I tell you!" the first man screamed, suddenly landing a blow on the other's nose. His victim struck back, fists and curses flew, and a din went up. Not without difficulty, the onlookers dragged the two peasants apart and drew them back inside so that they could make it up over drinks. That was necessary to keep him from finding out what started the brawl. Nobody, however, could quite make up his mind as to which man was right... They all agreed that it would be nice to get that money; yet they were also afraid of him... What if he refused to pay and made it even worse for them?
The vodka carried the day, though. The more they argued, the more they became convinced by the first serf's reasoning; the other fellow's objections were dismissed as mere lack of guts. The village buzzed like a swarm of bees; the brave and the timid clustered together, talked things over, shouted and argued... Invariably, all of them ended up in the Jew's tavern.

* * *


Epiphany came and went, and now it was time to go back to work. Yet the villagers did not hurry to plunge into work; day after day, they gathered at the tavern or at some other place, and then the word "payoff" was tossed back and forth... Once they caught a peasant from Pobivanka and questioned him. Had their master really given them their houses and lots without compensation? The man confirmed it!...
"Aha!" they shouted in chorus. "That means our master is trying to cheat us! Let him just wait!"
At daybreak, when the sky was only beginning to pale, they gathered at the volost office and, taking the chief and his clerks along with them, set out for Krasnohorka to see the lord.
They arrived at the estate and stood at the porch, jamming the yard; a lackey was sent to tell the master and promised a tip if he was quick about it.
Vasil Semenovich, still in bed, was woken by the noise of footsteps and voices. He rang for the lackey and asked him what was going on. The lackey told him. His Lordship sprang up as though pricked with a needle, ordered that his clothes be brought at once, gulped down a glass of tea and disregarding his hand-wringing wife who implored him not to go out, burst out of the house, angry and red-faced.
He guessed that something important had brought to him practically the entire Piski commune and hoped to browbeat them with his display of courage.
"What do you need, people of Piski?" he asked in a stern, although restrained, voice.
The peasants took off their hats and bowed.
"We've come to talk to you, Sir..."
"What about?"
"Money, Sir..."
"What money?" the landowner cried out, glowering at them.
"Our pay for the past two years, Sir..."
"Fools! You were to work them out anyway..."
Those in front kept silent, bowing.
"How do you mean?" a voice asked from the middle of the crowd. "We were also supposed to get paid for this work..."
"No pay!... The law says so."
"What law?" shouted the same voice. "You've made that law for yourself!..."
"Who's talking there?" the master demanded. "Come over here and we'll have a chat together."
"Like hell I will! Just pay us!"
"Who's that man, you sons of bitches?" the lord screamed. "Who dares to rebel?" He rushed to the front row.
"We aren't rebelling, Sir," the front ones said, bowing again. "We've only come to ask for our pay..."
"What pay? For what? I'll show you!..." He began cursing them in earnest.
"Shut up! Enough!... We aren't scared!" — again from the middle.
"Who's that, you damn rabble? Show me that scoundrel who's shooting off his mouth! Get him at once! Get him here — or I'll have all of you locked up... sent to Siberia!"
"Go easier on it!... not so fast!... don't get jumpy! A quick fellow you are! Out with the money!"
"Tell me who's shouting there!..." Vasil Semenovich pressed the front ranks.
But the men in front did not answer and only edged closer together, bowing again and again...
"Aha!" fumed the landowner. "So you refuse to give up a rioter, do you? You want to have a rebellion, eh? You just wait... I'll teach you to rebel!" Burning with anger, he ran back into his chambers.
The crowd grew quiet for a moment. Then — as though the men had plucked up their spirits — came a deep rumble which grew louder and louder until it erupted into clamor.
"Why, he threatens us!... Does he think he can frighten us?... No more!... We want our money!... Give us the money!!! our pay!!!"
The shouts and clamor rang out from all sides without letup, filling the whole yard and penetrating the walls of the manor as a terrible, wild roar. Vasil Semenovich grew as white as chalk. He was annoyed and enraged; he wanted to shout, to swear, to strike somebody — but his strongest emotion was fear. It was fear that had driven him inside and now would not let him out. His wife looked ghostly, nervously pacing around. Anxiety tied their tongues; they kept wandering from one room to another, casting furtive sidelong glances at the windows which gave onto the yard, as though they were trying to hide their fears from each other.
The crowd stayed in the yard for the rest of the day, shouting and chanting, and did not break up until the evening. The villagers spent the whole day on their feet, and it was only the nightfall that finally drove them away.
But not even the night could keep Vasil Semenovich from fleeing. Shortly after the last of the peasants was gone, he ordered his horses to be harnessed and a certain heavy chest to be brought down from his bedroom, upon which he and his wife drove off to Hetmanske...
At daybreak, the police commissioner and arbitrator Krivinsky, who had been commissioner when the office had been elective, were already out of bed and on their feet. A messenger was sent to the village of Kotolupivka with instructions for Larchenko, the rural police chief, to hurry to Piski where a riot had broken out. It was as if Larchenko were suddenly hit on his head from behind; he stood there, completely dazed, his squinting eyes staring blankly under his feet... There, on the board floor, his imagination painted a picture of a fuming, foot-stamping Vasil Semenovich bawling him out for allowing such a thing as a peasant riot to happen in his district... Larchenko's thoughts were confused; now he mentally said good-bye to Kotolupivka... and even saw the local villagers crossing themselves as he was leaving, now his memory brought back to him that happy day when at a banquet he had recited a poem of his own composition extolling Vasil Semenovich's virtues... But the sled was waiting at the porch, and there was no time to lose. Larchenko jumped on and sped to Piski as fast as the horses could carry him.
The arbitrator was already installed at the Piski volost office. He had arrived early in the morning and immediately called a general meeting of the local serf commune. The peasants were still gathering. Before long, however, the whole village turned out, some to attend the meeting, others driven by sheer curiosity.
Emerging from the office, the arbitrator and the police chief hollered at the gathered peasants, then threatened them, then cursed them — and finally jumped and screamed at the top of their voices until foam flew from their mouths.
To all of which the serfs shouted back:
"You won't scare us!... Pay us off!... Don't jump, squinting dog!..."
Neither the police officer, nor the arbitrator could get anywhere, and, having shouted themselves hoarse in vain, they drove away.
After they were gone, the villagers sent Vasil Derkach to Krasnohorka to nose out if the master was at home and to see what was going on there.
Derkach soon returned.
"He's not there," he said. "Last night he packed up some things and went away with the lady... He didn't say where they were going."
"Aha, that means justice is on our side! He wouldn't be scared without good reason..."
"Hold on, brothers! Don't let them cheat us out of what belongs to us by right!" shouted the serfs as they were leaving for their homes. Much to the Cossacks' amazement and the Jews' disappointment, very few of them came to the tavern that night.
But early next morning, the police commissioner himself flew to Piski, accompanied by Larchenko and the district attorney — a real "special committee." The arbitrator was also on hand. Soon after them, plenty of soldiers marched into the village...
The serfs bunched together like a flock of sheep in the rain or in cold weather. None of them spoke. Only deep sighs and a kind of low drone could be heard from the crowd. The soldiers marched past them on either side and linked up to close the ring.
Krivinsky, acting in his capacity of arbitrator, came forward and questioned the peasants why they were rioting.
"We aren't rioting, mister... We're just asking for our money..."
"Your money?!"
"That's right," somebody in the thick of the crowd called out. "Surely, we haven't been working for nothing!"
"Who was that?" Krivinsky bellowed. "I want him here at once."
The serfs stirred, pressing still closer together and taking hold of one another's belts...
"Bring him here!" the official fumed. "Tell me who shouted down there!"
Not a whisper came from the crowd. Losing his patience, Krivinsky started heaping curses on them.
"Don't overdo this thing!" another shout rose from the middle.
"Now it's up to you, Ivan Petrovich," said Krivinsky, turning to the commissioner.
"Birch them!" the latter snapped at the soldiers as if in reply. Some soldiers rushed to a man at the front of the crowd.
"Don't let them grab me, brothers!... What right do they have to beat us?..."
The crowd pressed against the soldiers; the soldiers pushed them back. A clamor went up, and a tussle began... Hearing the commotion, people came running, as though there was a house on fire to gape at. Men pressed forward until they were right behind the soldiers, and women climbed fences for a better view... In all that crush, old Ulas could not keep his feet and fell... Some soldiers picked him up...
Chipka saw all this. The scene made his blood boil and stung his heart. He rushed about among the Cossacks, shouting:
"Let's stop this outrage, brothers! Save the old man! Come on, brothers! Timish, Petro! Yakim! Get everybody down here! Don't let them do this to us!..."
But as soon as his buddies realized that things were getting rough, they cleared out, and he only saw them tearing away through the village...
Chipka cursed them swearing profanely, then shouted to them, imploring them to return. He rushed to all sides, now darting to the soldiers, now running back to the onlookers. His eye fell on Hritsko.
"Hritsko, brother! Don't you see? They're out for the blood of innocent people!... Look what they've done to old Ulas — and he was barely alive when they got him!... Let's stop them!..."
Without a word, Hritsko darted away from Chipka, leaped across into somebody's kitchen garden and hid behind the fence.
Chipka again rushed to the serfs... That was when they grabbed him.
"I'm a free man!" he yelled. "I'm a Cossack!
"All the more reason why you should know better than to make trouble," the commissioner roared. "Put him down!"
Chipka thrashed about for quite a while — but they flogged him even longer...
He did not cry out or groan even once. When he got up, he looked awful. His red, bloodshot eyes burned like those of a wild beast, and his face was deadly pale, as if after a grave sickness. He let those terrible eyes rove about the crowd, glared fiercely at the officials and the soldiers — and ran home at a jog trot...
He was seized by an inhuman fury. His heart screamed, and his soul was on fire. "Confounded killers!" he cried, tossing and turning on his hard board bed. "There's not a court that would punish them and no laws to keep them in check!..." His body ached as if it were covered with burns... He clenched his teeth. "And they...those three?! They aren't worth a kind word... a tiny speck of dirt!... Damn scoundrels!... All this pain would be too good for them, even a prison... They should be tortured, burned alive, cut to pieces with a blunt knife!..." The pain was so terrible that he bit his nails and fingers...
"You've been a fool to stick with them!... You've made yourself believe that they, too, are human — but they are just loafers and drunkards! They've only been guzzling your vodka and putting you up to all sorts of wrong things... There's not been a grain of good in all of them. Their hearts, like that of Herod, are full of evil... and all they can do is put you in a tough spot and then cut and run... They just look out for somebody who'd do their dirty work and thrive on other people's tears and blood... Then they'll wag their tongues and brag about it in broad daylight, baring their teeth and having a good laugh... Dogs!... Sons of bitches!... For hearts they've got poisonous snakes in their chests... Wherever they set their stinking feet they bring trouble, suffering, blood and tears... And you trusted them?! Fool!!!" He gritted his teeth.
Suddenly, he sprang up and, without bothering to put his hat on, ran straight to the tavern. There he poured down the vodka as if it were plain water. He simply tilted the bottle to his lips and guzzled about half a quart — but it did not burn his mouth and left his head clear... Like a drop of water that falls onto live coals, hisses and is no more, that vodka burned out and evaporated at once...
He flung the empty bottle onto the table, ran home and clambered onto the stove. Now his head swam, his temples pounded, and his ears rang... He drifted away and dropped off...

* * *


Having spent quite a long time on his feet in a strange kitchen garden and satisfied his curiosity with the spectacle of serfs being flogged, Hritsko grew chilly and trudged home.
"The damn rabble are getting a fine hiding!" was the first thing he said to Khristya.
"Good heavens!" she sighed. "They must have beaten some of those poor serfs to death, because the cries that were coming from over there sounded as if somebody were dying."
"Serves them right! The rascals had it coming to them!"
"Tell me one thing: why do you hate them so much? Aren't they people like the rest of us?"
"A fellow can't live in peace because of that confounded lot!" Hritsko exploded. "It's impossible to leave a thing lying around. Unless you lock everything up, they'll rob you clean in no time at all!... I worked in the barn not too long ago and was stupid enough to leave augers there stuck behind a beam... Who'd care to look there, I thought? Today I went to get them — and they were gone! It's almost as if they'd never been there!..."
"It may have been somebody else..."
"Who? Who else would've taken them? A Cossack? He wouldn't need them, because he's a thrifty, hard-working man and he's got such things already. And those ragged loafers, the masters' scum, don't care what they steal as long as they can get drunk in the end... That's what that swine took my augers for, too — not for himself but just to get some vodka! May he choke on that vodka!"
"But how else can a serf get a couple of drinks?" Khristya laughed. "He doesn't own a thing: all he has belongs to his master..."
"They'll never own anything anyway," Hritsko interrupted her, "because they'll squander everything on drink! Under their masters they've just learned to steal and to drink instead of taking good care of the masters' property... Suddenly they're to get land and freedom... They ought to be chained instead!"
Khristya had had enough of Hritsko's unfairness and swearing. Now she lost her patience.
"Just what kind of man are you, Hritsko, for God's sake? What would you be saying if you were made a serf?"
"So what?" He goggled at her, hurt by her sticking up for the criminals who had carried away his augers. "I surely wouldn't be stealing, would I? I'd sooner let my hands wither away!"
"Don't be so sure, Hritsko! Anybody may go wrong who is only scolded day after day and called a drunkard and a thief. That drives a fellow to drink, you know. He'd start stealing, too, if he's got no money to buy drinks with... That's what slavery is all about!" Khristya summed it up gloomily.
"Slavery! What slavery? All they do is drink and make trouble — is that slavery? That's what they've got this hiding for today... A fine hiding it was, too! And Chipka, you know, came running toward me when the soldiers got down to working on them, and he was white and shaking... 'Brother Hritsko!' he yells to me. 'Let's go and fight to defend them. Come on — let's go!' To hell with you, I told myself — and got away from him in a hurry... So I jumped into Ostap's lot and lay low behind the fence, watching... And he kept rushing about the common calling everybody to put up a fight... Then they got him and worked him up nicely — he'll remember it as long as he lives! He walked away like he was drunk or something..."
Khristya only sighed and did not say anything.
Hritsko finished smoking his pipe by the stove and reached for his hat.
"Where are you going?" Khristya asked. "Dinner is ready."
"I'll only water the livestock," he said, going outside.
"Make haste!" she called after him and rushed to lay the table.



 

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