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Nekhludoff felt more at case with the boys than with the grown-up people, and he began talking to them as they went along. The little one with the pink shirt stopped laughing, and spoke as sensibly and as exactly as the elder one.
"Can you tell me who are the poorest people you have got here?" asked Nekhludoff.
"The poorest? Michael is poor, Simon Makhroff, and Martha, she is very poor."
"And Anisia, she is still poorer; she's not even got a cow. They go begging," said little Fedka.
"She's not got a cow, but they are only three persons, and Martha's family are five," objected the elder boy.
"But the other's a widow," the pink boy said, standing up for Anisia.
"You say Anisia is a widow, and Martha is no better than a widow," said the elder boy; "she's also no husband."
"And where is her husband?" Nekhludoff asked.
"Feeding vermin in prison," said the elder boy, using this expression, common among the peasants.
"A year ago he cut down two birch trees in the land-lord's forest," the little pink boy hurried to say, "so he was locked up; now he's sitting the sixth month there, and the wife goes begging. There are three children and a sick grandmother," he went on with his detailed account.
"And where does she live?" Nekhludoff asked.
"In this very house," answered the boy, pointing to a hut, in front of which, on the footpath along which Nekhludoff was walking, a tiny, flaxen-headed infant stood balancing himself with difficulty on his rickety legs.
"Vaska! Where's the little scamp got to?" shouted a woman, with a dirty grey blouse, and a frightened look, as she ran out of the house, and, rushing forward, seized the baby before Nekhludoff came up to it, and carried it in, just as if she were afraid that Nekhludoff would hurt her child.
This was the woman whose husband was imprisoned for Nekhludoff's birch trees.
"Well, and this Matrona, is she also poor?" Nekhludoff asked, as they came up to Matrona's house.
"She poor? No. Why, she sells spirits," the thin, pink little boy answered decidedly.
When they reached the house Nekhludoff left the boys outside and went through the passage into the hut. The hut was 14 feet long. The bed that stood behind the big stove was not long enough for a tall person to stretch out on. "And on this very bed," Nekhludoff thought, "Katusha bore her baby and lay ill afterwards." The greater part of the hut was taken up by a loom, on which the old woman and her eldest granddaughter were arranging the warp when Nekhludoff came in, striking his forehead against the low doorway. Two other grandchildren came rushing in after Nekhludoff, and stopped, holding on to the lintels of the door.
"Whom do you want?" asked the old woman, crossly. She was in a bad temper because she could not manage to get the warp right, and, besides, carrying on an illicit trade in spirits, she was always afraid when any stranger came in.
"I am--the owner of the neighbouring estates, and should like to speak to you."
"Dear me; why, it's you, my honey; and I, fool, thought it was just some passer-by. Dear me, you--it's you, my precious," said the old woman, with simulated tenderness in her voice.
"I should like to speak to you alone," said Nekhludoff, with a glance towards the door, where the children were standing, and behind them a woman holding a wasted, pale baby, with a sickly smile on its face, who had a little cap made of different bits of stuff on its head.
"What are you staring at? I'll give it you. Just hand me my crutch," the old woman shouted to those at the door.
"Shut the door, will you!" The children went away, and the woman closed the door.
"And I was thinking, who's that? And it's 'the master' himself. My jewel, my treasure. Just think," said the old woman, "where he has deigned to come. Sit down here, your honour," she said, wiping the seat with her apron. "And I was thinking what devil is it coming in, and it's your honour, ' the master' himself, the good gentleman, our benefactor. Forgive me, old fool that I am; I'm getting blind."
Nekhludoff sat down, and the old woman stood in front of him, leaning her cheek on her right hand, while the left held up the sharp elbow of her right arm.
"Dear me, you have grown old, your honour; and you used to be as fresh as a daisy. And now! Cares also, I expect?"
"This is what I have come about: Do you remember Katusha Maslova?"
"Katerina? I should think so. Why, she is my niece. How could I help remembering; and the tears I have shed because of her. Why, I know all about it. Eh, sir, who has not sinned before God? who has not offended against the Tsar? We know what youth is. You used to be drinking tea and coffee, so the devil got hold of you. He is strong at times. What's to be done? Now, if you had chucked her; but no, just see how you rewarded her, gave her a hundred roubles. And she? What has she done? Had she but listened to me she might have lived all right. I must say the truth, though she is my niece: that girl's no good. What a good place I found her! She would not submit, but abused her master. Is it for the likes of us to scold gentlefolk? Well, she was sent away. And then at the forester's. She might have lived there; but no, she would not."
"I want to know about the child. She was confined at your house, was she not? Where's the child?"
"As to the child, I considered that well at the time. She was so bad I never thought she would get up again. Well, so I christened the baby quite properly, and we sent it to the Foundlings'. Why should one let an innocent soul languish when the mother is dying? Others do like this. they just leave the baby, don't feed it, and it wastes away. But, thinks I, no; I'd rather take some trouble, and send it to the Foundlings'. There was money enough, so I sent it off."
"Did you not get its registration number from the Foundlings' Hospital?"
"Yes, there was a number, but the baby died," she said. "It died as soon as she brought it there."
"Who is she?"
"That same woman who used to live in Skorodno. She made a business of it. Her name was Malania. She's dead now. She was a wise woman. What do you think she used to do? They'd bring her a baby, and she'd keep it and feed it; and she'd feed it until she had enough of them to take to the Foundlings'. When she had three or four, she'd take them all at once. She had such a clever arrangement, a sort of big cradle--a double one she could put them in one way or the other. It had a handle. So she'd put four of them in, feet to feet and the heads apart, so that they should not knock against each other. And so she took four at once. She'd put some pap in a rag into their mouths to keep 'em silent, the pets."
"Well, go on."
"Well, she took Katerina's baby in the same way, after keeping it a fortnight, I believe. It was in her house it began to sicken."
"And was it a fine baby?" Nekhludoff asked.
"Such a baby, that if you wanted a finer you could not find one. Your very image," the old woman added, with a wink.
"Why did it sicken? Was the food bad?"
"Eh, what food? Only just a pretence of food. Naturally, when it's not one's own child. Only enough to get it there alive. She said she just managed to get it to Moscow, and there it died. She brought a certificate--all in order. She was such a wise woman."
That was all Nekhludoff could find out concerning his child.
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