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X. The Polskis

 

They say that misfortunes never come alone. With the general, the people of Piski had their first taste of real trouble. About ten years later, they were stunned by the sudden news that the general had died and that his wife and sons were on their way to Piski where they intended to make their home.
The villagers did not believe it at first. Why would she come here, of all places? Did she have any business in the village? What would she do here anyway? Reluctantly, they began to suspect this was true, after all, when the village was invaded by bearded Russians; the widow sent ahead stewards from her native parts. Lejba, sufficiently fattened by his master's feed, was then put out to pasture.
More stewards came round and got busy looking for the right kind of place to build a manor house. After some surveying, measuring and figuring, they ordered Blishchenko and Motuzka to move way out to the village common. Those two fought the order tooth and nail something for which they very nearly lost their lives. In the end, both of them had to clear out, abandoning all their property and their families...
As the villagers watched it all, their spirits sank. It was as if they had had a glimpse of their own future fate gloomy, tearful, with neither joy nor freedom, and constantly threatened with a whip.
Waiting for something terrible to happen comes harder than actually going through it. As each of them went to bed, he wondered what tomorrow would bring. In the meantime, there was enough work to keep them busy. One day was spent tearing down the houses of Blishchenko and Motuzka. The day after that, they laid the foundations for the manor house. Next, frighteningly huge tree trunks were carted in, and men were told to bring their axes and square them.
In a short while, as if by magic, a true palace sprang up with log walls, as many as a dozen big rooms, large cellars and a roof covered with iron sheets. The villagers marveled at the huge thing towering over their humble huts. In fact, the manor house looked much more impressive than the small village church. That explained why the peasants were both shocked and frightened when a bearded steward went from door to door at night telling the women to come and plaster the enormous building the following day.
"Oh, dear, what will happen to us?" many a sobbing wife asked her husband.
"Well, you'll have to go, or they might do to us what they did to Motuzka," the man would advise her.
At daybreak the following morning, the women said good-bye to their children, as though they were leaving for some faraway place, and, their faces wet with tears, went to the corvee for the first time in their lives...
It did not take them too long to finish the job. Meanwhile, kitchens, barns, sheds and stables were being built. Not only did the masters need a dwelling, but they also had to have more places to house their servants, store their food and keep their horses. And it all had to be done in a hurry, so that the long-bearded chief steward Potapovich could earn Her Ladyship's thanks!
To deserve those thanks, Potapovich was laying himself flat out. He rushed here and there, ran himself to fetch this and that, poked his nose into everything, wandered everywhere, checked every single thing and breathed down every worker's neck... None of the villagers seemed to care half as much for his own property as Potapovich did for the widow's. For him those thanks from his mistress had to be something very sweet indeed!
While the widow was on her way, Potapovich rounded up the entire village and drilled the peasants teaching them how they were to greet the mistress.
Finally, she arrived...
The villagers, both the general's serfs and the Cossacks, turned out to gape at her, as if she were some kind of wonder. The Cossacks were ordered home, though. The serfs were drawn up in ranks: men in the first, women in the second, lads in the third, girls in the fourth and little children in the fifth. Gray-haired old men were sent ahead with bread and salt. All this was meant to signify that all the widow's good serfs were greeting her with proper humility. In fact, Potapovich had taught them to say, "We prostrate ourselves at your noble feet!"
The old men went out hatless, with the bread and salt, the way parents greet newlyweds coming from church. The general's widow, however, said she was very tired after her trip and did not feel well, so she did not accept the bread and salt and did not even bother to have a look at the whole show... The shot went wide off the mark! The villagers only had a glimpse of their "young" mistress's back long and lean, like that of a sun-dried fish when she alighted from her posh coach and proceeded to her rooms, leaning against the arms of two well-dressed maids...
Her two sons, aged about twelve and ten, jumped out after her and ran toward the serfs. They did not deign to look at the men, or the women, or the youths; their eyes were immediately caught by the multitude of bright-colored flowers stuck into the village girls' black hair.
Having examined the little girls, they ran over to the boys' line. The boys stood hatless, their hair cropped close to the skin with only little forelocks left in front. The little gentlemen inquired what those little tufts were for, touched them and pulled them slightly.
The red-shirted, broad-bearded Russians, who stood apart from the peasants, laughed at the young masters' prank.
"Now you see, Afonya, what those locks are for!... Cute, aren't they? Come on, Master, pluck that kid over there!"
"Which one?" the elder boy asked, looking now at the boys, now at the Russian peasants.
"That one with a grimy face!"
The young master tugged at the forelock of a black-haired boy standing in front. The boy violently pulled himself free, like a hawk.
"Why d'you grab my hair? Just look at him!"
"You... you... shoo!" the bearded servants hissed at the boy, clenching their fists and teeth.
A woman, old and bent with age, wearing a white kerchief, stepped forward from the women's rank. Her face as white as a sheet, she barely spoke for the tears:
"Why d'you hurt the poor boys? That's a sin!"
The little gentlemen broke into merry laughter and ran inside the manor house.
Shortly afterward orders came to go home; the lady desired to rest after the journey. The ranks broke up... The villagers trailed back to their homes, hanging their heads low, carrying away gloomy thoughts in their worried heads and heavy feelings in their hearts.
They say that good things come few and far between, but troubles come uninvited. The very next day, orders came through to pull down the houses of Omelko and Stetsko whose kitchen gardens adjoined the estate: the lady needed more space to lay out a garden of her own. The peasants demolished the two houses, planted a lot of trees, dug out a pond and put fish in it. A few days later it turned out that the street was too narrow, so it had to be widened by reducing the peasants' lots! This, too, was done, and the street became as wide as a square. Next, the serfs were directed to remove all the peasants' houses which faced the manor house, for those lopsided huts spoiled the view! So they were replaced with tall, slender poplars...
Every new day brought more whims and orders. Every new day was used to further erode the human concept of freedom. Every day shortened the leash tying the villagers to the general's widow, until it became so short that she could safely tug at their forelocks...
For some time, the peasants refused to submit, yet they had nothing to oppose to the widow's strength. Then they turned to the last resort of the weak. They used their feet and began to flee. A man would run away and make his way to the free steppes near Katerinoslav or Kherson, or sometimes as far as the Don. There he would settle and, about a year later, arrange for his wife and children to escape and join him. Many people then cleared out, both on their own and in whole families. It was then that the saying was coined: running away is the only way!
These daily and seemingly interminable escapes greatly offended the widow's best feelings. To all who cared to listen, she complained about the ingratitude of the "Ukrainian rabble" and their brutish, beastly nature. Indeed! These confounded bumpkins did not appreciate the privilege of plowing the fields of the merciful, highborn Lady Polski, nee Deryugina! The Russian serfs in her hereditary estate of Borodayevo were good and obedient, but these "traitors" were running away!
Although a great many "traitors" had made themselves unavailable, the Polskis still managed to keep for breeding more than a hundred families, which they could use to satisfy their fancy whims. The widow's whip-wielding stewards did a fine job of it. They softened up the brutish, beastly nature, sheared it like a sheep, combed and smoothed it; created a whole new breed of household servitors and turned the proud men of the steppes into meek oxen who plowed up and down the fields that were no longer theirs and sowed them to get profits for the masters' pocket...

* * *


It surely took a lot of work to fill up that pocket! The widow had quite a family, may the Lord be thanked! She brought with her two sons fat and fast like pig sucklings. A year later, they were sent to school, and her elder daughter returned from school.
"Hey, whoever is there!" the widow called.
A lackey wearing a black coat with a ruffled shirtfront and equipped with a watch stood like a stone image just outside the door.
"Find Potapovich," she ordered in a hollow voice, drawing out her vowels.
The man went out. Shortly afterward, the steward came in.
"I say, Potapovich, Vera Semyonovna will need a maid."
"Certainly," the steward said in a deep drawl.
"Find her a pretty girl."
"As you wish, Your Ladyship."
"It'll have to be somebody young about sixteen, I would say. Only be quick about it."
"Yes, Madam."
"Try to do it tomorrow."
"Very good, Madam."
"You may go now."
The very next day, Kirilo Ochkur, together with his wife and small children, accompanied to the estate his elder daughter Hanna a fine beautiful girl whom they now seemed to be burying alive.
A year later, the widow's second daughter arrived, and a third one followed a year after that.
Somebody had to comb and braid their long hair. Somebody had to lace up their corsets. Somebody had to embroider their skirts, collars and sleeves.
Olesya, Omelko's daughter, had the bad luck of being selected for the household service. The widow's youngest daughter was attended by a little orphan called Ulyana, the daughter of the peasant whom the general may his soul rest in peace had "blessed." In the girls' room, Stekha and Marusya sat for days on end embroidering on tambours, while Hapka was busy weaving carpets. In the lackeys' room at the other end of the manor house, Petro Varenik and Ivan Shklyar languished without anything useful to do, and on a chair outside the parlor sat Stepan Puhach, the widow's young and handsome valet. There were many more in the kitchen.
Feeding this whole hungry herd was no simple matter. They had to be clothed, too. Then the widow had her own children to think about. There were those three lovely daughters of hers... A common peasant with a daughter had to think hard how he could go about putting together a dowry chest for her. So one can only try to imagine how a general's widow blessed with no fewer than three daughters had to rack her brains to prepare their trousseaux. One thought, however, was foremost on the mother's mind. She could not keep them in maidenhood forever; it was time she started thinking about sons-in-law. Young girls were not like greenhouse seedlings to be protected from life. They needed light lots of it. They had to be seen and needed to see others... It was important that they have pleasant memories of their girlhood.
The manor house seethed with hectic activity... Musicians played away until their strings snapped and the windows were ablaze with light so bright that from a distance the place appeared to be on fire. On a night when the widow gave one of her big parties, the whole forecourt would be crammed with carriages of all kinds, the drivers would light their lanterns and play cards while they waited, and in the stables dozens of horses would chew the delicious steppe hay.
The rooms were jammed with guests. Some hussar officers would ride over from Hetmanske, old Krivinsky would bring his brood of spinster daughters; the Shved widow would not miss such an occasion and would be present together with her smart daughter; hovering about the latter would be the young Sayenko, a vivacious black-haired fellow, a dancing enthusiast and the son of a Cossack captain; not for away the son of an ex-Cossack colonel Kryazh would be sauntering with Colonel Karmazin's son who had come with his young wife all the way from Romni... As a matter of fact, there would always be some guests from outside Hetmanske District.
The widow played the part of a hospitable hostess well. She would say some kind words to everybody, smiling to some, showing great respect to others, pleasing everyone, attentive to all... The guests had the time of their life! Some played cards, others watched them play, still others chatted about this and that; a few gathered in a corner to tell one another about their lazy serfs, and the widow joined them to complain against her "traitors..." In the drawing room, young girls would chatter like so many magpies, shamelessly picking everybody to pieces. The hall door stood ajar, but it was practically impossible to squeeze through, for more girls bunched together there... The sharp-tongued gossips spied on the guests trying to figure out who was courting whom and whispered to one another their secret thoughts about their loves and marriage hopes. Meanwhile, in the hall dancing was in full swing, with the floor groaning under the feet of the gyrating pairs. Which was no wonder, with so many hussars about the place. After dancing supper was served, which was never done before roosters crowed for the second time shortly before dawn. Guests began to go home after daybreak...
Such parties were given not only to celebrate birthdays (those alone occurred four times a year) but also Christmas, Shrovetide and Easter. These were special affairs to which guests were invited. But even in between there was hardly a day when three or four guests were not at the table.
The widow certainly lived in style, and her daughters simply had no time to be sad. Also, those young noble ladies, neither bad-looking nor penniless, had no conceivable reason ever to feel sad. To be sure, they never bothered to think whether they were poor or rich. Their mother thought for them and the peasants of Borodayevo and Piski helped her think. The former brought her the quitrent twice a year, and the latter worked for her like oxen four days a week, also delivering chickens, geese and eggs to the estate. So why shouldn't they live in style?
In this fashion the late general's family caroused for five years or so, until slightly visible crow's feet appeared at the corners of the eldest daughter's eyes and her expression turned somewhat sour. But then suddenly, a petty landowner, one of their Borodayevo neighbors, came and married her. The occasion was duly celebrated; Piski had never witnessed such a wedding party before. The manor house roared and groaned.
They say that a good beginning is half the battle. Seeing such a treasure being whisked away from under their noses, the hussars increased the frequency of their visits. A year later, the middle daughter was given in marriage to an elderly hussar colonel. The youngest girl now remained her mother's sole comfort. A poor comfort she was, too! As a matter of fact, the widow was not particularly fond of her. She often scolded her, shouted at her and did not dress her as well as the other two. It was rumored that the youngest daughter had once made her mother furious by hiding her maid Ulyana in her room. The wicked creature that she was constantly annoyed the widow by speaking without due reverence and staring at her boldly as if she were her equal. "Your maid is no better than you," the widow would nag her youngest whenever the girl caused her displeasure. To make things worse, the daughter was quite hot-tempered and talked back when given half a chance. That led to frequent quarrels and rows between them.
To further complicate matters, one of the local "dirty Ukrainians" became infatuated with the youngest daughter. That was the young Sayenko, a rather decent fellow. He was up to his ears in it.
"I wonder, Dunya, why he keeps coming. Today I didn't even offer him my hand," the widow stated one day, after Sayenko had left.
"Which was a wrong thing to do. Sayenko is a proper gentleman."
"Who? That dirty Ukrainian?"
"It doesn't really matter that he is a Ukrainian," the daughter retorted. "Aren't Ukrainians human beings?"
"Traitors that's what they are! Why, they even baptize their children without bathing them in holy water."
"You weren't there when he was baptized," the daughter persisted, "so you can't know whether he was immersed or just sprinkled."
"You are defending that fellow as if you've already fallen for him."
"What if I have? He'd make as good a husband as any other, Mother."
"Are you in your right senses? He's way below you. Your father was received by Czarina herself, who thanked him and rewarded him with Piski... What about him? His father may have been a bandit for all I know, a rogue! A tar-maker! Pah!"
"Why should I care about his father?" the daughter snapped, going away to her room.
The following day Sayenko was back in Piski.
"He's got no shame and no honor either!" the widow fumed. "I turn my back on him, and he still comes every single day. It's very true that a churl will never become a gentleman."
Yet the churl achieved the purpose of his visits. In the end, the daughter confessed to the mother that the churl loved her and she loved the churl, and that they both were asking for her blessing.
"What!" the widow screamed. "That tar-maker! I'd sooner let my hand wither away than bless such a marriage!"
"As you like. If you won't give us your blessing, we'll have to get married without it. May God be with you, but you are no longer my mother, nor am I your daughter."
Hearing this, the widow burst into tears.
"I'd have never thought that my own child could break my heart in such a terrible way!"
They remained in a state of war for about a month. Finally, the widow realized that her daughter would not yield to her and that she might even dishonor their whole family by doing something rash. Reluctantly, she gave them her blessing.
There was no wedding party, for the widow claimed ill health...
Sayenko took his young wife to his village of Kitayka. But he did not carry away any dowry...

* * *


The widow remained all alone. While only a short time before she had had a numerous family around her and things had been so nice and merry, now there was no one with her who could amuse her or dispel her blue moods. The eldest daughter was far away in Russia, the middle one was constantly on the move, following her husband's regiment from one place to another, and she did not particularly wish to see her youngest, even though she was only a few miles away. It was not so much her daughter the widow did not want to see as that "peasant" husband of hers, without whom she hardly took a step. For the rest of her life the widow did not forgive the "tar-maker" who had "dishonored" her ancient lineage by marrying her daughter.
Thus, the widow had to spend her old age in bored solitude. Age was not nice to her. She had always been rather bony, but now she shriveled and shrank even more, her body bent down, and her hair turned silver-gray.
The big building stood empty. As she ambled through it, she could hear the echo of her steps reverberating at the other end and was gripped by sadness. The widow felt gloomy and depressed. Not even generals' widows were immune to sorrow. Her Ladyship simply did not know what to do with herself. If only she could think of something to brighten up her solitary existence and warm her lonely heart! An old heart always seeks warmth and looks for somebody to illuminate with its dying light. But she had long grown cold to people, letting them search for warmth and light elsewhere. Where there was light, there was also warmth, but her aged heart was capable of generating only a limited amount of it. To whom could she give it?
Without giving it a second thought, she gave all of it to cats. Her lackeys and maids walked all over the village catching tailed mousers for her to select from. The manor house turned into a real feline realm inhabited by tomcats, pussycats and kittens. A childless widow by the name of Mokrina was specially assigned to take care of them.
Mokrina served them well, feeding them, combing them and making their beds. So the animals ran after her all over the place. Once she did not notice a kitten at her heels and pinched it in a door. As Lady Polski heard it squeak, her face went ashen. Next day, the kitten died. Mokrina did not get away with it, of course. The widow was not the kind of person who would forget and forgive. Nor did she forgive Mokrina for that kitten's death. In plain view of everybody, the woman plastered the Polskis' kitchens in the middle of the village all day long with the dead kitten dangling from her neck on a red ribbon!
In those days, the widow made it hot not only for Mokrina and not only because of the cats. Everybody got his or her fair share. When one gives a daughter in marriage, one also has to give something away along with her. The widow had married off all of her three daughters. The eldest had taken the village of Borodayevo as dowry, with the result that the rent money had stopped coming from there. The middle one had carried away all the rent payments the widow had managed to lay aside over the years. Only the "churl's wife" had gotten nothing at all. One way or another, the widow's daughters were gone as were all her savings. Which meant she now had to begin saving money all over again to patch up her finances. The serfs of Piski had been working in her fields only four days a week. Why shouldn't she make them serve a fifth day as well? No sooner said than done. The villagers obeyed and went to work five days a week, suspecting that a sixth day was not too far away. Somehow, it was slow in coming. The widow would not have the time to introduce it.
"This Ulyana will be the death of me! She can't do a thing right and lies at every turn."
Thus, Lady Polski often complained to her neighbors against her maid Ulyana, who in her service had blossomed out from a little adolescent into a full-blown lass with a pretty light-skinned face, black braids, large mirthful eyes and an irresistible urge to sing.
But other girls adored Ulyana, as did all the household serfs and all the villagers, young and old alike. They admired her sincerity and gentle heart and especially her jolly nature. Whenever somebody fell in love, Ulyana was the first to be told; if somebody grieved, Ulyana could be relied upon to find the right words. Ulyana never seemed to suffer. At least, if she ever did, it never showed. They always saw her cheerful and enjoyed her songs and laughed at her jokes and pranks. She surely was a devil of a girl!
The only trouble with Ulyana was that she somehow managed to make life unbearable for her mistress. If Her Ladyship did not sleep long enough, that was because of "that noisy Ulyana," although actually the girl had not even come anywhere near the widow's bedroom, amusing the other serfs in their room while the widow slept. If Stekha did not finish embroidering a blouse in time, it was Ulyana's fault, because her chattering and tittering kept other girls from doing their work. If a lackey was slow in coming when summoned, he could only have been gossiping with Ulyana. In short, life with Ulyana was a sheer nightmare.
One day, the widow realized that the girls' room was unusually silent. Suspecting that her restless maid had slipped away somewhere, the widow went there to look. Ulyana was not there.
"Where's Ulyana?" she asked the girls.
"She seems to have gone to the kitchen to drink some water."
"Get her!"
Ulyana came.
"Where have you been?" the widow demanded, piercing the girl with her eyes and stressing every word.
A bad sign, the girls thought.
"I've been in the kitchen... drinking water," Ulyana replied.
"Isn't there water here?" The widow pointed to the carafe.
"It's a bit stale... I went to drink some fresh water."
"Fresh? It's a lie! You've gotten mixed up with depraved men. You've been with Stepan... Stepan! Stepan!"
Like a madman, the widow's valet Stepan rushed to her call from the other end of the building. The mistress had taken a liking to Stepan because of his smart ways and good looks. At Easter, he alone of all serfs was allowed to kiss her hand. Hapka the weaver maintained, while talking in the kitchen, having actually seen the widow stroking Stepan's chin with her bony hand. Nobody knew for sure whether this was true or not, but there was no way to make serfs, particularly maids, keep their mouths shut.
"Where have you been?" the widow attacked Stepan staring him straight in the face.
"In... in the lackeys' room."
"You are lying! You were in the kitchen. Tell me the truth: were you there?"
"Yes, I was," the man confessed.
"You see! Didn't I tell you so? That's where he was! So you've been trying to deceive your mistress! You've been debauching my men... taking lovers in my house! Well, you just wait! Petro! Ivan!"
Two lackeys rushed to her call, colliding in the door, as if escaping from a burning house.
"Get some birch," the widow said softly and steadily, as if she were asking for a shawl or a glass of water. But her eyes lit up with ferocious fire.
The men hurried out. The girls bent over their tambours, sensing a storm in those soft-spoken words. Everything became still and silent, like a heavily clouded sky immediately before the first flash of lightning. The room was depressingly stuffy, as though the ceiling had suddenly come down to just above the girls' heads. None of them stirred... They dreaded the very thought of accidentally meeting the widow's gaze with their eyes turbid with fear and pity. They were also afraid of looking at Ulyana lest they should cry!
Ulyana stood by one of the walls near a door, looking like a ghost. Across from her, at another door, stood Stepan. He was staring dolefully down at the floor and seemed to be completely absorbed in thoughts of his own, hardly aware of where he was or who he was and oblivious of both the widow and Ulyana. The widow loomed in the middle of the room, between the two culprits. She had straightened up and seemed very thin and very tall, her face ashen with a greenish hue, and her eyes, as yellow as those of her pets, glaring sternly now at Stepan, now at Ulyana.
The lackeys came back with birch rods.
"Go ahead, teach her not to cheat her mis "
"Oh, no, dear Madam!" Ulyana threw herself at the widow's feet.
"Get away from me!"
"I won't do it... I wasn't with Stepan... Ah, I won't... I wasn't in the kitchen at all... He-e-elp!... I ran to see my Aunt... Oh, help me... he-e-elp me all who trust in God!"
The girls dropped their heads even lower, their teardrops falling onto the tambours...
Stepan burst out of the room.
With great difficulty, they helped Ulyana to her feet.
Stepan seemed to have evaporated. Ivan and Petro were made to pay dearly for letting him run away. But he just vanished into thin air and was never to be seen again.
The widow became alarmed. Where could Stepan be? Why hadn't that fool wanted to exchange his old skin for a fresh one? Again, it had all been Ulyana's fault! Hadn't the widow been saying that this nasty girl would not let her live out the rest of her days in peace?
These worries wore the widow out. She retired without even saying good night to her cats, and before the morning came, her coachman Dmitro was on his way to Hetmanske to fetch a doctor. Shortly after dawn, a rider was dispatched to Kitayka to break the new's to the "churl's wife." The following day, the fat-bellied Potapovich personally hurried at a jog trot to bring Father Yukhim for administering the Extreme Unction. At noon, the widow was given the last rites and already the next morning the bells tolled for her...
The bad maid did her in, after all!

* * *

Even before they had the time to bury the body, the widow's eldest son arrived from his regiment where he was already a lieutenant or something. Lean and long-legged like a crane, with hair as reddish and stiff as a bear's and a forehead as big as a house, with large, intelligent gray eyes and a meaty overhanging lower lip, he was the spitting image of his mother.
Vasil Semenovich took charge of his parents' property. First of all he ordered to evict the feline community. The cats' sweet existence suddenly came to an end. Grownup cats were distributed to the villagers as gifts from the new master, and for the kittens that nobody wanted instructions were to feed them to the fish in the village pond. This was soon over and done with. Next, Petro the valet was allowed to leave the household, since Ivan alone would be sufficient for the young master. Somehow, Vasil Semenovich did not hurry to disband the girl servants. He would often drop into their room to banter with them. Apart from hunting, this seemed to be his only entertainment. Of all the maids, he showed special preference to Ulyana. That merry songbird kept the young gentleman from getting too sad.
"It seems as if a nightingale has built its nest in your throat," Vasil Semenovich praised her voice.
"A tomtit, more likely," Ulyana smiled.
"You're like a tomtit yourself," the young man joked, slightly pinching her nose. That would always make her blush like a rose.
The girls really enjoyed working for the young master. Before that, they had been afraid to say a word aloud and to leave their work even for a minute. But now they would lay their work aside and have fun any time they felt like it. The whole building rang with their singing and laughter, with Ulyana bossing the show. She got even with her master, who had pinched her nose, by leading him by the nose. Whenever she wanted something, she always managed to have her way.
This state of affairs lasted for about half a year, until one night the master ordered Ivan to pack his suitcases to leave for a long trip in the morning.
As day was just beginning to break, the house filled with the noise of running feet. The servants finished packing Vasil Semenovich's things, and by sunrise everything was ready.
Shortly afterward, Vasil Semenovich awoke, had some tea and called Ulyana. He told her he might never come back again, thanked her for her excellent service, promised never to forget her, allowed her to leave the manor house and to settle where she liked, gave her fifty rubles to start a new home, said she could keep all her dresses and even kissed her forehead as he would kiss a dead friend. Then he was gone.
Ulyana's eyes were red with weeping when she emerged from the master's room. Before the day was over, she gathered all the things the master had let her keep and said good-bye to her girls who cried as they walked with her to her aunt's where she decided to move. Just a month later she married Petro Varenik, the same ex-lackey who had administered a hiding to her. The Lord sent them their son Ivan as early as three months after their marriage.
All this time Piski was ruled by Potapovich. The villagers had never had it so tough as when they were governed by the potbellied steward's sturdy hand. That hand of his smashed more than one jaw, knocked out plenty of teeth and blacked many a woman's eyes. He was a burly bully and quick with his fists.
A year later, Vasil Semenovich returned with a young wife. Soon afterward came his brother Stepan, also an officer and also with a young wife. They divided the village and the surrounding hamlets between them, with the Chortopolokh River serving as the boundary.
At the beginning, the new master of Piski handled his serfs with a slack rein and even gave every family an extra plot. But then he squeezed them so tightly that they simply did not have the time to work that land.
Now Potapovich could be dispensed with. He bought his freedom and started a tavern near the town of Romodan. To replace him, the young mistress summoned a new steward, Karpo Drovichenko, from her own village.
Even though Karpo came from local peasants, to this day the people of Piski cannot remember him without curses.
"Potapovich was bad enough!" they would tell one another. "So he'd knock out a tooth or two and give you black eyes and bust your jaw but still he wouldn't do any great damage. But this fellow is just like rust. Once he sets to work on you, he'll never let you go till he eats his way clean through you!"
The peasants of Piski nicknamed him Rust, and it stuck. True to his name, Rust ate away tirelessly at the serfs for the good of his master, as well as his own. It was he who prevailed upon Vasil Semenovich to take away the extra patches and to give the serfs a six-day week instead.
"They've turned into lazy drunkards. The more we make them work, the less they'll drink," he reasoned.
The villagers had indeed turned into lazy drunkards. They had even stopped running away. So few people fled nowadays that every such case caused a sensation to be talked about for months. Slavery, like a poisonous gas, dulled the peasants' brains. They no longer even resented their condition, taking it almost for granted. Instead, they had taken to moping in taverns. A serf was either working for the lord or hanging around a tavern. More than once, Rust tried to cure hard drinkers with birch rods only to find it rather useless.
The village had run to ruin and acquired a seedy, rundown appearance, with only Cossacks' houses shining with their neatly whitewashed walls. Also, robbers and thieves got to work here and there. That was something new for Piski! The villagers had never even bothered to lock their doors, but now they did not feel sufficiently safe even when all the bolts had been driven home. Sometimes, the master's warehouses were broken into as well...
Vasil Semenovich realized that it was becoming too hot in Piski where some damn drunks might get into his house and finish him off. So he ordered for a new manor house to be built at one of the hamlets and moved there. After that, the place came to be known as Krasnohorka.

* * *

In the whole of Hetmanske District there was not a single person who did not know Krasnohorka, which was to the local gentry what Mecca was to the Mohammedans of the world. Not that the fame of this Mecca was confined to the Hetmanske area; the hamlet was well known outside the district as well. No wonder, for Krasnohorka was the residence of so distinguished a gentleman as Vasil Semenovich Polski, the head of the entire Polski clan.
The clan had grown considerably, both in number and in power. Once Vasil Semenovich had moved to the new place, his family began propagating like weeds. Nearly every coming year brought him a child. He was only unfortunate in having just one son in ten years. The rest were girls, six in all.
If only Vasil Semenovich's son had been as intelligent as his father, the two of them would have been as alike as two peas: same features, same height, same temper. Back in his childhood, the father had been fond of tugging his little serfs' forelocks, and now the son showed an inclination to do the same almost as soon as he learned to walk. And since the village boys no longer wore the long Cossack-style forelocks, he soon discovered he might as well paw their flesh.
Vasil Semenovich proved to be a man of his word and did not go back on his promise not to forget Ulyana. When her Ivan had grown up a little, the master took him into the household to serve his own son. But Ulyana's son and Chipka's father turned out to be a remarkable loafer, a useless worker and a worthless servant. The only thing he ever did was make trouble. Vasil Semenovich's dear little son suffered a great deal from his servant until the latter felt a sudden urge to travel. Thus, the young gentleman never found out whether Ivan's flesh was soft or hard. Shortly afterward he himself was shipped off to school.
Vasil Semenovich's daughters were something else again. Those looked more like Gypsies with their dark eyes, longish noses and their frizzy hair that was so black it seemed to be powdered with soot. That surely made them look like Gypsy girls straight out of the camp. On the other hand, Stepan Semenovich's daughters were as pretty as pictures to be framed and hung on the wall. Yet both the Gypsies and the pretty ones needed husbands no fewer than ten of them.
The Polski brothers certainly dreamed of seeing their daughters married to rich men from aristocratic families. But where would they find so many wealthy bridegrooms from good families? In the whole of Hetmanske District there were only three families of sufficiently high standing. Of those, the Hetmanskys never lived in their estates. Born and baptized in the capital, they spent their lives there as well. Another wealthy family was that of the Shved widow. Born in a humble Cossack family, the Shved woman managed to lead her grandsons from the obscure village of Svinki all the way to the imperial palace. The third family were the Polskis.
Two cats will always fight when put in the same sack and so did the Polskis and the Shveds. Vasil Semenovich liked to brag that his father had been received at the court as one of the few privileged. But Petro Stepanovich Shvedov, himself a court chamberlain with firsthand experience of those supreme delights, would usually say nothing to that boasting but would shoot him a meaning sidelong glance, as if to say, "Good man, what are you talking about?" And then Vasil Semenovich would lower his gaze... Their enmity started out of nothing, just because of noblemen's vanity. Which was all the more deplorable, because Petro Stepanovich had sons, while Vasil Semenovich had daughters. But no! The two men became bitter enemies, may God have mercy on them!
As years went by, the Polski girls didn't get any younger. Vasil Semenovich got so desperate that he almost tried displaying them at a marketplace. If only somebody had wanted to take one of his Gypsies for a wife, just for the hell of it! But nobody did! Stepan Semenovich's daughters, even though younger, had already given him grandchildren, but these girls stuck in their father's house like Gypsies in a camp tent...
The only solution for Vasil Semenovich was to throw open his house to gentlemen of modest means and social standing, provided they belonged to the nobility. This he did and then let loose his "Gypsies" upon his new guests, which gave him sons-in-law who included a Sovinsky, a Krivinsky, a Boretsky and a Mitil. "Gypsy" hamlets sprang up all over the district. Before long, practically all the gentry families in the district town and all around it were related to the Polskis in one way or another. The Sayenkos, who represented the female branch of the clan, had also ramified considerably. Those, too, were of the same blood, of course.
The new in-laws were mouths to be fed and stomachs to be filled. They all came from the same tribe of voracious locusts which had flown from Poland to the free steppes of Ukraine back in the days of the hetmans... Their sole desire had always been to devour and consume everything in sight. Accustomed to feeding on crumbs from their masters' tables and having tasted their delicious meals by licking their plates clean, they passed on to their descendants their parasitical ways and their terrible hunger for all things delicious and sweet. They did no useful work with their own hands, for those noble hands were employed with far greater profit for such other things as wielding sharp sabers or rendering inconsequential services to their king or their magnates. Their progeny imbibed this conviction with their mothers' milk... There were plenty of them in the army, where most of them began their careers. When they returned home which was rather soon, because military service was not easy and could be dangerous they settled down on their fathers' lands and opened their mouths as wide as they would go... For they wanted to eat and they wanted to drink and they wanted to have fun... How could they do it? Where would they get the money without soiling their noble hands?
This was achieved by marrying into the families of rich lords. Frankly speaking, they sold themselves in the hope of being rewarded.
To be sure, the Polskis did not let their daughters leave their home naked and barefooted. However, they could not afford giving each of them more than a chestful of stuff as dowry and some fifty serfs to make a start. There was not much one could hope to accomplish with such a handful. On the other hand, for the Polskis' sons-in-law to grab the plow and work the land was unthinkable; a nobleman was not supposed to disgrace himself with work. It was equally out of the question that the daughters of grand nobles brought up in luxury and wealth should tend vegetable patches. That much was clear.
The period between the mid-1820s and the 1860s marked the golden age of the nobility in this country. Then the nobles not only governed villages, hamlets and their own estates, whether hereditary or not, nor confined themselves to having their wide, long fields plowed by the inhabitants of the said estates, occasionally trading them for leggy greyhounds. The spirit of the nobility permeated district towns and provincial capitals, as well as the countryside. Everywhere, nobles were in charge of everything. Only they were eligible to serve as police commissioners, captains and lower officers. All judges and court clerks were chosen by the gentry from their midst... Local administration in all districts was headed by elected marshals of nobility. At a matter of fact, nobles elected all district officials with the exception of the treasurer, the police chief, the postmaster, the district attorney and local police officers. That was almost too good to be true!
Such were the times when the Polskis took over Hetmanske District. Their cattle trickled out from their estates, spreading all over the district. Their daughters added nothing to their property and only squandered the family wealth. Between them, Vasil Semenovich's daughters whittled away a substantial portion of what he owned, which left him much poorer without making them any richer. Well, a needy man must think of something to make both ends meet. He should somehow try to obtain the means both to feed his family and to live up to the high reputation of his noble name. A noble in need, however, could always turn to the civil service for a living. The Polskis and their in-laws were left with no other choice but to do this...
And so they did.

* * *

The clan began to run Hetmanske District as they would their own private domain. Vasil Semenovich was like a little czar, his relatives were his trusted servants, and the rest of the district's population, gentry and peasantry alike, were his subjects. He also granted audiences of almost royal dignity. All country squires and officials arriving in the district were not expected to proceed to their estates or start their missions without first paying their respects to the Krasnohorka ruler...
And they all went to see him and bowed their heads to him... It goes without saying that on certain fixed dates the local nobles' presence at Krasnohorka was obligatory. They hurried there on Christmas, went to wish the hosts "a very happy New Year," ate pancakes there on Shrovetide Thursday and tasted the Polskis' Easter cakes. Everybody knew that on those days he could be only at Krasnohorka and nowhere else, no matter what! Sick wives and dying children were no excuses. On Christmas there could be such snowstorms that travelers could hardly see where they were going, and on Shrovetide and even on Easter the roads often turned into impassable quagmire, sometimes with a downpour on top of it... Still, the entire district administration was on its way to "Mecca." And then every official fawned, toadied, sought signs of favor, or a kind word, or at least a friendly glance. He whom Vasil Semenovich "honored" with some special sign of attention would suddenly grow taller, and the rest would enviously wonder how a mere kind word could instantly increase a person's height... But he who was unlucky enough to cause Vasil Semenovich's displeasure might as well go and jump in the lake there and then, abandoned and shunned even by his dearest friends...
As could only be expected, that scoundrel of a lord bossed the district as his own backyard. His word was law. His orders were not discussed. Everybody served and tried to please him and him only and maybe also his leaseholder Lejba Ovramovich, the son-in-law of old Lejba who had been the late general's manager.
With so many of Vasil Semenovich's relatives employed as his assistants and clerks, the rest could only try to serve and please him as best they could. Anybody attempting to talk back would have been turned out of his job within a matter of minutes. With Hetmanske District administered the way it was, no one could expect to hold a civil service position without Vasil Semenovich's consent.
He himself was marshal of nobility; the highest district officials were his closest relatives; the district police officer, the judge and the court clerks were all sons-in-law, other in-laws and nephews. Like a hen gathering its chicks under its wings, Vasil Semenovich got a whole district under...
And all its people remained silent, humble and obedient, and toiled for the monstrous Polski clan and bowed their heads lower and lower before their despot..............................................................................................................................................................
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