My Life -
Dr. Blagovo arrived on his bicycle. My sister began coming
often. Again there were conversations about manual labour, about
progress, about a mysterious millennium awaiting mankind in the
remote future. The doctor did not like our farmwork, because it
interfered with arguments, and said that ploughing, reaping,
grazing calves were unworthy of a free man, and all these coarse
forms of the struggle for existence men would in time relegate
to animals and machines, while they would devote themselves
exclusively to scientific investigation. My sister kept begging
them to let her go home earlier, and if she stayed on till late
in the evening, or spent the night with us, there would be no
end to the agitation.
"Good Heavens, what a baby you are still!" said Masha
reproachfully. "It is positively absurd."
"Yes, it is absurd," my sister agreed, "I know it's absurd; but
what is to be done if I haven't the strength to get over it? I
keep feeling as though I were doing wrong."
At haymaking I ached all over from the unaccustomed labour; in
the evening, sitting on the verandah and talking with the
others, I suddenly dropped asleep, and they laughed aloud at me.
They waked me up and made me sit down to supper; I was
overpowered with drowsiness and I saw the lights, the faces, and
the plates as it were in a dream, heard the voices, but did not
understand them. And getting up early in the morning, I took up
the scythe at once, or went to the building and worked hard all
When I remained at home on holidays I noticed that my sister and
Masha were concealing something from me, and even seemed to be
avoiding me. My wife was tender to me as before, but she had
thoughts of her own apart, which she did not share with me.
There was no doubt that her exasperation with the peasants was
growing, the life was becoming more and more distasteful to her,
and yet she did not complain to me. She talked to the doctor now
more readily than she did to me, and I did not understand why it
It was the custom in our province at haymaking and harvest time
for the labourers to come to the manor house in the evening and
be regaled with vodka; even young girls drank a glass. We did
not keep up this practice; the mowers and the peasant women
stood about in our yard till late in the evening expecting
vodka, and then departed abusing us. And all the time Masha
frowned grimly and said nothing, or murmured to the doctor with
exasperation: "Savages! Petchenyegs!"
In the country newcomers are met ungraciously, almost with
hostility, as they are at school. And we were received in this
way. At first we were looked upon as stupid, silly people, who
had bought an estate simply because we did not know what to do
with our money. We were laughed at. The peasants grazed their
cattle in our wood and even in our garden; they drove away our
cows and horses to the village, and then demanded money for the
damage done by them. They came in whole companies into our yard,
and loudly clamoured that at the mowing we had cut some piece of
land that did not belong to us; and as we did not yet know the
boundaries of our estate very accurately, we took their word for
it and paid damages. Afterwards it turned out that there had
been no mistake at the mowing. They barked the lime-trees in our
wood. One of the Dubetchnya peasants, a regular shark, who did a
trade in vodka without a licence, bribed our labourers, and in
collaboration with them cheated us in a most treacherous way.
They took the new wheels off our carts and replaced them with
old ones, stole our ploughing harness and actually sold them to
us, and so on. But what was most mortifying of all was what
happened at the building; the peasant women stole by night
boards, bricks, tiles, pieces of iron. The village elder with
witnesses made a search in their huts; the village meeting fined
them two roubles each, and afterwards this money was spent on
drink by the whole commune.
When Masha heard about this, she would say to the doctor or my
"What beasts! It's awful! awful!"
And I heard her more than once express regret that she had ever
taken it into her head to build the school.
"You must understand," the doctor tried to persuade her, "that
if you build this school and do good in general, it's not for
the sake of the peasants, but in the name of culture, in the
name of the future; and the worse the peasants are the more
reason for building the school. Understand that!"
But there was a lack of conviction in his voice, and it seemed
to me that both he and Masha hated the peasants.
Masha often went to the mill, taking my sister with her, and
they both said, laughing, that they went to have a look at
Stepan, he was so handsome. Stepan, it appeared, was torpid and
taciturn only with men; in feminine society his manners were
free and easy, and he talked incessantly. One day, going down to
the river to bathe, I accidentally overheard a conversation.
Masha and Kleopatra, both in white dresses, were sitting on the
bank in the spreading shade of a willow, and Stepan was standing
by them with his hands behind his back, and was saying:
"Are peasants men? They are not men, but, asking your pardon,
wild beasts, impostors. What life has a peasant? Nothing but
eating and drinking; all he cares for is victuals to be cheaper
and swilling liquor at the tavern like a fool; and there's no
conversation, no manners, no formality, nothing but ignorance!
He lives in filth, his wife lives in filth, and his children
live in filth. What he stands up in, he lies down to sleep in;
he picks the potatoes out of the soup with his fingers; he
drinks kvass with a cockroach in it, and doesn't bother to blow
"It's their poverty, of course," my sister put in.
"Poverty? There is want to be sure, there's different sorts of
want, Madam. If a man is in prison, or let us say blind or
crippled, that really is trouble I wouldn't wish anyone, but if
a man's free and has all his senses, if he has his eyes and his
hands and his strength and God, what more does he want? It's
cockering themselves, and it's ignorance, Madam, it's not
poverty. If you, let us suppose, good gentlefolk, by your
education, wish out of kindness to help him he will drink away
your money in his low way; or, what's worse, he will open a
drinkshop, and with your money start robbing the people. You say
poverty, but does the rich peasant live better? He, too, asking
your pardon, lives like a swine: coarse, loud-mouthed,
cudgel-headed, broader than he is long, fat, red-faced mug, I'd
like to swing my fist and send him flying, the scoundrel.
There's Larion, another rich one at Dubetchnya, and I bet he
strips the bark off your trees as much as any poor one; and he
is a foul-mouthed fellow; his children are the same, and when he
has had a drop too much he'll topple with his nose in a puddle
and sleep there. They are all a worthless lot, Madam. If you
live in a village with them it is like hell. It has stuck in my
teeth, that village has, and thank the Lord, the King of Heaven,
I've plenty to eat and clothes to wear, I served out my time in
the dragoons, I was village elder for three years, and now I am
a free Cossack, I live where I like. I don't want to live in the
village, and no one has the right to force me. They say -- my
wife. They say you are bound to live in your cottage with your
wife. But why so? I am not her hired man."
"Tell me, Stepan, did you marry for love?" asked Masha.
"Love among us in the village!" answered Stepan, and he gave a
laugh. "Properly speaking, Madam, if you care to know, this is
my second marriage. I am not a Kurilovka man, I am from
Zalegoshtcho, but afterwards I was taken into Kurilovka when I
married. You see my father did not want to divide the land among
us. There were five of us brothers. I took my leave and went to
another village to live with my wife's family, but my first wife
died when she was young."
"What did she die of?"
"Of foolishness. She used to cry and cry and cry for no reason,
and so she pined away. She was always drinking some sort of
herbs to make her better looking, and I suppose she damaged her
inside. And my second wife is a Kurilovka woman too, there is
nothing in her. She's a village woman, a peasant woman, and
nothing more. I was taken in when they plighted me to her. I
thought she was young and fair-skinned, and that they lived in a
clean way. Her mother was just like a Flagellant and she drank
coffee, and the chief thing, to be sure, they were clean in
their ways. So I married her, and next day we sat down to
dinner; I bade my mother-in-law give me a spoon, and she gives
me a spoon, and I see her wipe it out with her finger. So much
for you, thought I; nice sort of cleanliness yours is. I lived a
year with them and then I went away. I might have married a girl
from the town," he went on after a pause. "They say a wife is a
helpmate to her husband. What do I want with a helpmate? I help
myself; I'd rather she talked to me, and not clack, clack,
clack, but circumstantially, feelingly. What is life without
Stepan suddenly paused, and at once there was the sound of his
dreary, monotonous "oo-loo-loo-loo." This meant that he had seen
Masha used often to go to the mill, and evidently found pleasure
in her conversations with Stepan. Stepan abused the peasants
with such sincerity and conviction, and she was attracted to
him. Every time she came back from the mill the feeble-minded
peasant, who looked after the garden, shouted at her:
"Wench Palashka! Hulla, wench Palashka!" and he would bark like
a dog: "Ga! Ga!"
And she would stop and look at him attentively, as though in
that idiot's barking she found an answer to her thoughts, and
probably he attracted her in the same way as Stepan's abuse. At
home some piece of news would await her, such, for instance, as
that the geese from the village had ruined our cabbage in the
garden, or that Larion had stolen the reins; and shrugging her
shoulders, she would say with a laugh:
"What do you expect of these people?"
She was indignant, and there was rancour in her heart, and
meanwhile I was growing used to the peasants, and I felt more
and more drawn to them. For the most part they were nervous,
irritable, downtrodden people; they were people whose
imagination had been stifled, ignorant, with a poor, dingy
outlook on life, whose thoughts were ever the same -- of the
grey earth, of grey days, of black bread, people who cheated,
but like birds hiding nothing but their head behind the tree --
people who could not count. They would not come to mow for us
for twenty roubles, but they came for half a pail of vodka,
though for twenty roubles they could have bought four pails.
There really was filth and drunkenness and foolishness and
deceit, but with all that one yet felt that the life of the
peasants rested on a firm, sound foundation. However uncouth a
wild animal the peasant following the plough seemed, and however
he might stupefy himself with vodka, still, looking at him more
closely, one felt that there was in him what was needed,
something very important, which was lacking in Masha and in the
doctor, for instance, and that was that he believed the chief
thing on earth was truth and justice, and that his salvation,
and that of the whole people, was only to be found in truth and
justice, and so more than anything in the world he loved just
dealing. I told my wife she saw the spots on the glass, but not
the glass itself; she said nothing in reply, or hummed like
Stepan "oo-loo-loo-loo." When this good-hearted and clever woman
turned pale with indignation, and with a quiver in her voice
spoke to the doctor of the drunkenness and dishonesty, it
perplexed me, and I was struck by the shortness of her memory.
How could she forget that her father the engineer drank too, and
drank heavily, and that the money with which Dubetchnya had been
bought had been acquired by a whole series of shameless,
impudent dishonesties? How could she forget it?