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It happened in the 'seventies in winter, on the day after St. Nicholas's
Day. There was a fete in the parish and the innkeeper, Vasili Andreevich
Brekhunov, a Second Guild merchant, being a church elder had to go to
church, and had also to entertain his relatives and friends at home.
But when the last of them had gone he at once began to prepare to drive
over to see a neighbouring proprietor about a grove which he had been
bargaining over for a long time. He was now in a hurry to start,
lest buyers from the town might forestall him in making a profitable
The youthful landowner was asking ten thousand rubles for the grove
simply because Vasili Andreevich was offering seven thousand. Seven
thousand was, however, only a third of its real value. Vasili Andreevich
might perhaps have got it down to his own price, for the woods were in
his district and he had a long-standing agreement with the other village
dealers that no one should run up the price in another's district, but
he had now learnt that some timber-dealers from town meant to bid for
the Goryachkin grove, and he resolved to go at once and get the matter
settled. So as soon as the feast was over, he took seven hundred rubles
from his strong box, added to them two thousand three hundred rubles of
church money he had in his keeping, so as to make up the sum to three
thousand; carefully counted the notes, and having put them into his
pocket-book made haste to start.
Nikita, the only one of Vasili Andreevich's labourers who was not drunk
that day, ran to harness the horse. Nikita, though an habitual drunkard,
was not drunk that day because since the last day before the fast, when
he had drunk his coat and leather boots, he had sworn off drink and
had kept his vow for two months, and was still keeping it despite the
temptation of the vodka that had been drunk everywhere during the first
two days of the feast.
Nikita was a peasant of about fifty from a neighbouring village, 'not
a manager' as the peasants said of him, meaning that he was not the
thrifty head of a household but lived most of his time away from home
as a labourer. He was valued everywhere for his industry, dexterity, and
strength at work, and still more for his kindly and pleasant temper. But
he never settled down anywhere for long because about twice a year, or
even oftener, he had a drinking bout, and then besides spending all his
clothes on drink he became turbulent and quarrelsome. Vasili Andreevich
himself had turned him away several times, but had afterwards taken him
back again--valuing his honesty, his kindness to animals, and especially
his cheapness. Vasili Andreevich did not pay Nikita the eighty rubles
a year such a man was worth, but only about forty, which he gave him
haphazard, in small sums, and even that mostly not in cash but in goods
from his own shop and at high prices.
Nikita's wife Martha, who had once been a handsome vigorous woman,
managed the homestead with the help of her son and two daughters, and
did not urge Nikita to live at home: first because she had been living
for some twenty years already with a cooper, a peasant from another
village who lodged in their house; and secondly because though she
managed her husband as she pleased when he was sober, she feared him
like fire when he was drunk. Once when he had got drunk at home, Nikita,
probably to make up for his submissiveness when sober, broke open her
box, took out her best clothes, snatched up an axe, and chopped all her
undergarments and dresses to bits. All the wages Nikita earned went to
his wife, and he raised no objection to that. So now, two days before
the holiday, Martha had been twice to see Vasili Andreevich and had got
from him wheat flour, tea, sugar, and a quart of vodka, the lot costing
three rubles, and also five rubles in cash, for which she thanked him as
for a special favour, though he owed Nikita at least twenty rubles.
'What agreement did we ever draw up with you?' said Vasili Andreevich
to Nikita. 'If you need anything, take it; you will work it off. I'm not
like others to keep you waiting, and making up accounts and reckoning
fines. We deal straight-forwardly. You serve me and I don't neglect
And when saying this Vasili Andreevich was honestly convinced that he
was Nikita's benefactor, and he knew how to put it so plausibly that
all those who depended on him for their money, beginning with Nikita,
confirmed him in the conviction that he was their benefactor and did not
'Yes, I understand, Vasili Andreevich. You know that I serve you and
take as much pains as I would for my own father. I understand very
well!' Nikita would reply. He was quite aware that Vasili Andreevich was
cheating him, but at the same time he felt that it was useless to try
to clear up his accounts with him or explain his side of the matter, and
that as long as he had nowhere to go he must accept what he could get.
Now, having heard his master's order to harness, he went as usual
cheerfully and willingly to the shed, stepping briskly and easily on his
rather turned-in feet; took down from a nail the heavy tasselled leather
bridle, and jingling the rings of the bit went to the closed stable
where the horse he was to harness was standing by himself.
'What, feeling lonely, feeling lonely, little silly?' said Nikita in
answer to the low whinny with which he was greeted by the good-tempered,
medium-sized bay stallion, with a rather slanting crupper, who stood
alone in the shed. 'Now then, now then, there's time enough. Let me
water you first,' he went on, speaking to the horse just as to someone
who understood the words he was using, and having whisked the dusty,
grooved back of the well-fed young stallion with the skirt of his
coat, he put a bridle on his handsome head, straightened his ears and
forelock, and having taken off his halter led him out to water.
Picking his way out of the dung-strewn stable, Mukhorty frisked, and
making play with his hind leg pretended that he meant to kick Nikita,
who was running at a trot beside him to the pump.
'Now then, now then, you rascal!' Nikita called out, well knowing how
carefully Mukhorty threw out his hind leg just to touch his greasy
sheepskin coat but not to strike him--a trick Nikita much appreciated.
After a drink of the cold water the horse sighed, moving his strong wet
lips, from the hairs of which transparent drops fell into the trough;
then standing still as if in thought, he suddenly gave a loud snort.
'If you don't want any more, you needn't. But don't go asking for any
later,' said Nikita quite seriously and fully explaining his conduct to
Mukhorty. Then he ran back to the shed pulling the playful young horse,
who wanted to gambol all over the yard, by the rein.
There was no one else in the yard except a stranger, the cook's husband,
who had come for the holiday.
'Go and ask which sledge is to be harnessed--the wide one or the small
one--there's a good fellow!'
The cook's husband went into the house, which stood on an iron
foundation and was iron-roofed, and soon returned saying that the little
one was to be harnessed. By that time Nikita had put the collar and
brass-studded belly-band on Mukhorty and, carrying a light, painted
shaft-bow in one hand, was leading the horse with the other up to two
sledges that stood in the shed.
'All right, let it be the little one!' he said, backing the intelligent
horse, which all the time kept pretending to bite him, into the shafts,
and with the aid of the cook's husband he proceeded to harness. When
everything was nearly ready and only the reins had to be adjusted,
Nikita sent the other man to the shed for some straw and to the barn for
'There, that's all right! Now, now, don't bristle up!' said Nikita,
pressing down into the sledge the freshly threshed oat straw the cook's
husband had brought. 'And now let's spread the sacking like this, and
the drugget over it. There, like that it will be comfortable sitting,'
he went on, suiting the action to the words and tucking the drugget all
round over the straw to make a seat.
'Thank you, dear man. Things always go quicker with two working at it!'
he added. And gathering up the leather reins fastened together by a
brass ring, Nikita took the driver's seat and started the impatient
horse over the frozen manure which lay in the yard, towards the gate.
'Uncle Nikita! I say, Uncle, Uncle!' a high-pitched voice shouted, and a
seven-year-old boy in a black sheepskin coat, new white felt boots, and
a warm cap, ran hurriedly out of the house into the yard. 'Take me with
you!' he cried, fastening up his coat as he ran.
'All right, come along, darling!' said Nikita, and stopping the sledge
he picked up the master's pale thin little son, radiant with joy, and
drove out into the road.
It was past two o'clock and the day was windy, dull, and cold, with more
than twenty degrees Fahrenheit of frost. Half the sky was hidden by a
lowering dark cloud. In the yard it was quiet, but in the street the
wind was felt more keenly. The snow swept down from a neighbouring shed
and whirled about in the corner near the bath-house.
Hardly had Nikita driven out of the yard and turned the horse's head to
the house, before Vasili Andreevich emerged from the high porch in front
of the house with a cigarette in his mouth and wearing a cloth-covered
sheep-skin coat tightly girdled low at his waist, and stepped onto the
hard-trodden snow which squeaked under the leather soles of his felt
boots, and stopped. Taking a last whiff of his cigarette he threw it
down, stepped on it, and letting the smoke escape through his moustache
and looking askance at the horse that was coming up, began to tuck
in his sheepskin collar on both sides of his ruddy face, clean-shaven
except for the moustache, so that his breath should not moisten the
'See now! The young scamp is there already!' he exclaimed when he saw
his little son in the sledge. Vasili Andreevich was excited by the vodka
he had drunk with his visitors, and so he was even more pleased than
usual with everything that was his and all that he did. The sight of
his son, whom he always thought of as his heir, now gave him great
satisfaction. He looked at him, screwing up his eyes and showing his
His wife--pregnant, thin and pale, with her head and shoulders wrapped
in a shawl so that nothing of her face could be seen but her eyes--stood
behind him in the vestibule to see him off.
'Now really, you ought to take Nikita with you,' she said timidly,
stepping out from the doorway.
Vasili Andreevich did not answer. Her words evidently annoyed him and he
frowned angrily and spat.
'You have money on you,' she continued in the same plaintive voice.
'What if the weather gets worse! Do take him, for goodness' sake!'
'Why? Don't I know the road that I must needs take a guide?' exclaimed
Vasili Andreevich, uttering every word very distinctly and compressing
his lips unnaturally, as he usually did when speaking to buyers and
'Really you ought to take him. I beg you in God's name!' his wife
repeated, wrapping her shawl more closely round her head.
'There, she sticks to it like a leech! . . . Where am I to take him?'
'I'm quite ready to go with you, Vasili Andreevich,' said Nikita
cheerfully. 'But they must feed the horses while I am away,' he added,
turning to his master's wife.
'I'll look after them, Nikita dear. I'll tell Simon,' replied the
'Well, Vasili Andreevich, am I to come with you?' said Nikita, awaiting
'It seems I must humour my old woman. But if you're coming you'd better
put on a warmer cloak,' said Vasili Andreevich, smiling again as he
winked at Nikita's short sheepskin coat, which was torn under the arms
and at the back, was greasy and out of shape, frayed to a fringe round
the skirt, and had endured many things in its lifetime.
'Hey, dear man, come and hold the horse!' shouted Nikita to the cook's
husband, who was still in the yard.
'No, I will myself, I will myself!' shrieked the little boy, pulling his
hands, red with cold, out of his pockets, and seizing the cold leather
'Only don't be too long dressing yourself up. Look alive!' shouted
Vasili Andreevich, grinning at Nikita.
'Only a moment, Father, Vasili Andreevich!' replied Nikita, and running
quickly with his inturned toes in his felt boots with their soles
patched with felt, he hurried across the yard and into the workmen's
'Arinushka! Get my coat down from the stove. I'm going with the master,'
he said, as he ran into the hut and took down his girdle from the nail
on which it hung.
The workmen's cook, who had had a sleep after dinner and was now getting
the samovar ready for her husband, turned cheerfully to Nikita, and
infected by his hurry began to move as quickly as he did, got down his
miserable worn-out cloth coat from the stove where it was drying, and
began hurriedly shaking it out and smoothing it down.
'There now, you'll have a chance of a holiday with your good man,' said
Nikita, who from kindhearted politeness always said something to anyone
he was alone with.
Then, drawing his worn narrow girdle round him, he drew in his breath,
pulling in his lean stomach still more, and girdled himself as tightly
as he could over his sheepskin.
'There now,' he said addressing himself no longer to the cook but the
girdle, as he tucked the ends in at the waist, 'now you won't come
undone!' And working his shoulders up and down to free his arms, he put
the coat over his sheepskin, arched his back more strongly to ease his
arms, poked himself under the armpits, and took down his leather-covered
mittens from the shelf. 'Now we're all right!'
'You ought to wrap your feet up, Nikita. Your boots are very bad.'
Nikita stopped as if he had suddenly realized this.
'Yes, I ought to. . . . But they'll do like this. It isn't far!' and he
ran out into the yard.
'Won't you be cold, Nikita?' said the mistress as he came up to the
'Cold? No, I'm quite warm,' answered Nikita as he pushed some straw
up to the forepart of the sledge so that it should cover his feet, and
stowed away the whip, which the good horse would not need, at the bottom
of the sledge.
Vasili Andreevich, who was wearing two fur-lined coats one over the
other, was already in the sledge, his broad back filling nearly its
whole rounded width, and taking the reins he immediately touched the
horse. Nikita jumped in just as the sledge started, and seated himself
in front on the left side, with one leg hanging over the edge.
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