- The Horse-Stealers
A HOSPITAL assistant, called Yergunov, an
empty-headed fellow, known throughout the district as a great
braggart and drunkard, was returning one evening in Christmas
week from the hamlet of Ryepino, where he had been to make some
purchases for the hospital. That he might get home in good time
and not be late, the doctor had lent him his very best horse.
At first it had been a still day, but at eight o'clock a violent
snow-storm came on, and when he was only about four miles from
home Yergunov completely lost his way.
He did not know how to drive, he did not know the road, and he
drove on at random, hoping that the horse would find the way of
itself. Two hours passed; the horse was exhausted, he himself
was chilled, and already began to fancy that he was not going
home, but back towards Ryepino. But at last above the uproar of
the storm he heard the far-away barking of a dog, and a murky
red blur came into sight ahead of him: little by little, the
outlines of a high gate could be discerned, then a long fence on
which there were nails with their points uppermost, and beyond
the fence there stood the slanting crane of a well. The wind
drove away the mist of snow from before the eyes, and where
there had been a red blur, there sprang up a small, squat little
house with a steep thatched roof. Of the three little windows
one, covered on the inside with something red, was lighted up.
What sort of place was it? Yergunov remembered that to the right
of the road, three and a half or four miles from the hospital,
there was Andrey Tchirikov's tavern. He remembered, too, that
this Tchirikov, who had been lately killed by some
sledge-drivers, had left a wife and a daughter called Lyubka,
who had come to the hospital two years before as a patient. The
inn had a bad reputation, and to visit it late in the evening,
and especially with someone else's horse, was not free from
risk. But there was no help for it. Yergunov fumbled in his
knapsack for his revolver, and, coughing sternly, tapped at the
window-frame with his whip.
"Hey! who is within?" he cried. "Hey, granny! let me come in and
With a hoarse bark a black dog rolled like a ball under the
horse's feet, then another white one, then another black one --
there must have been a dozen of them. Yergunov looked to see
which was the biggest, swung his whip and lashed at it with all
his might. A small, long-legged puppy turned its sharp muzzle
upwards and set up a shrill, piercing howl.
Yergunov stood for a long while at the window, tapping. But at
last the hoar-frost on the trees near the house glowed red, and
a muffled female figure appeared with a lantern in her hands.
"Let me in to get warm, granny," said Yergunov. "I was driving
to the hospital, and I have lost my way. It's such weather, God
preserve us. Don't be afraid; we are your own people, granny."
"All my own people are at home, and we didn't invite strangers,"
said the figure grimly. "And what are you knocking for? The gate
is not locked."
Yergunov drove into the yard and stopped at the steps.
"Bid your labourer take my horse out, granny," said he.
"I am not granny."
And indeed she was not a granny. While she was putting out the
lantern the light fell on her face, and Yergunov saw black
eyebrows, and recognized Lyubka.
"There are no labourers about now," she said as she went into
the house. "Some are drunk and asleep, and some have been gone
to Ryepino since the morning. It's a holiday. . . ."
As he fastened his horse up in the shed, Yergunov heard a neigh,
and distinguished in the darkness another horse, and felt on it
a Cossack saddle. So there must be someone else in the house
besides the woman and her daughter. For greater security
Yergunov unsaddled his horse, and when he went into the house,
took with him both his purchases and his saddle.
The first room into which he went was large and very hot, and
smelt of freshly washed floors. A short, lean peasant of about
forty, with a small, fair beard, wearing a dark blue shirt, was
sitting at the table under the holy images. It was Kalashnikov,
an arrant scoundrel and horse-stealer, whose father and uncle
kept a tavern in Bogalyovka, and disposed of the stolen horses
where they could. He too had been to the hospital more than
once, not for medical treatment, but to see the doctor about
horses -- to ask whether he had not one for sale, and whether
his honour would not like to swop his bay mare for a dun-coloured
gelding. Now his head was pomaded and a silver ear-ring
glittered in his ear, and altogether he had a holiday air.
Frowning and dropping his lower lip, he was looking intently at
a big dog's-eared picture-book. Another peasant lay stretched on
the floor near the stove; his head, his shoulders, and his chest
were covered with a sheepskin -- he was probably asleep; beside
his new boots, with shining bits of metal on the heels, there
were two dark pools of melted snow.
Seeing the hospital assistant, Kalashnikov greeted him.
"Yes, it is weather," said Yergunov, rubbing his chilled knees
with his open hands. "The snow is up to one's neck; I am soaked
to the skin, I can tell you. And I believe my revolver is, too.
. . ."
He took out his revolver, looked it all over, and put it back in
his knapsack. But the revolver made no impression at all; the
peasant went on looking at the book.
"Yes, it is weather. . . . I lost my way, and if it had not been
for the dogs here, I do believe it would have been my death.
There would have been a nice to-do. And where are the women?"
"The old woman has gone to Ryepino, and the girl is getting
supper ready . . ." answered Kalashnikov.
Silence followed. Yergunov, shivering and gasping, breathed on
his hands, huddled up, and made a show of being very cold and
exhausted. The still angry dogs could be heard howling outside.
It was dreary.
"You come from Bogalyovka, don't you?" he asked the peasant
"Yes, from Bogalyovka."
And to while away the time Yergunov began to think about
Bogalyovka. It was a big village and it lay in a deep ravine, so
that when one drove along the highroad on a moonlight night, and
looked down into the dark ravine and then up at the sky, it
seemed as though the moon were hanging over a bottomless abyss
and it were the end of the world. The path going down was steep,
winding, and so narrow that when one drove down to Bogalyovka on
account of some epidemic or to vaccinate the people, one had to
shout at the top of one's voice, or whistle all the way, for if
one met a cart coming up one could not pass. The peasants of
Bogalyovka had the reputation of being good gardeners and
horse-stealers. They had well-stocked gardens. In spring the
whole village was buried in white cherry-blossom, and in the
summer they sold cherries at three kopecks a pail. One could pay
three kopecks and pick as one liked. Their women were handsome
and looked well fed, they were fond of finery, and never did
anything even on working-days, but spent all their time sitting
on the ledge in front of their houses and searching in each
But at last there was the sound of footsteps. Lyubka, a girl of
twenty, with bare feet and a red dress, came into the room. . .
. She looked sideways at Yergunov and walked twice from one end
of the room to the other. She did not move simply, but with tiny
steps, thrusting forward her bosom; evidently she enjoyed
padding about with her bare feet on the freshly washed floor,
and had taken off her shoes on purpose.
Kalashnikov laughed at something and beckoned her with his
finger. She went up to the table, and he showed her a picture of
the Prophet Elijah, who, driving three horses abreast, was
dashing up to the sky. Lyubka put her elbow on the table; her
plait fell across her shoulder -- a long chestnut plait tied
with red ribbon at the end -- and it almost touched the floor.
She, too, smiled.
"A splendid, wonderful picture," said Kalashnikov. "Wonderful,"
he repeated, and motioned with his hand as though he wanted to
take the reins instead of Elijah.
The wind howled in the stove; something growled and squeaked as
though a big dog had strangled a rat.
"Ugh! the unclean spirits are abroad!" said Lyubka.
"That's the wind," said Kalashnikov; and after a pause he raised
his eyes to Yergunov and asked:
"And what is your learned opinion, Osip Vassilyitch -- are there
devils in this world or not?"
"What's one to say, brother?" said Yergunov, and he shrugged one
shoulder. "If one reasons from science, of course there are no
devils, for it's a superstition; but if one looks at it simply,
as you and I do now, there are devils, to put it shortly. . . .
I have seen a great deal in my life. . . . When I finished my
studies I served as medical assistant in the army in a regiment
of the dragoons, and I have been in the war, of course. I have a
medal and a decoration from the Red Cross, but after the treaty
of San Stefano I returned to Russia and went into the service of
the Zemstvo. And in consequence of my enormous circulation about
the world, I may say I have seen more than many another has
dreamed of. It has happened to me to see devils, too; that is,
not devils with horns and a tail -- that is all nonsense -- but
just, to speak precisely, something of the sort."
"Where?" asked Kalashnikov.
"In various places. There is no need to go far. Last year I met
him here -- speak of him not at night -- near this very inn. I
was driving, I remember, to Golyshino; I was going there to
vaccinate. Of course, as usual, I had the racing droshky and a
horse, and all the necessary paraphernalia, and, what's more, I
had a watch and all the rest of it, so I was on my guard as I
drove along, for fear of some mischance. There are lots of
tramps of all sorts. I came up to the Zmeinoy Ravine --
damnation take it -- and was just going down it, when all at
once somebody comes up to me -- such a fellow! Black hair, black
eyes, and his whole face looked smutted with soot. . . . He
comes straight up to the horse and takes hold of the left rein:
'Stop!' He looked at the horse, then at me, then dropped the
reins, and without saying a bad word, 'Where are you going?'
says he. And he showed his teeth in a grin, and his eyes were
" 'Ah,' thought I, 'you are a queer customer!' 'I am going to
vaccinate for the smallpox,' said I. 'And what is that to you?'
'Well, if that's so,' says he, 'vaccinate me. He bared his arm
and thrust it under my nose. Of course, I did not bandy words
with him; I just vaccinated him to get rid of him. Afterwards I
looked at my lancet and it had gone rusty."
The peasant who was asleep near the stove suddenly turned over
and flung off the sheepskin; to his great surprise, Yergunov
recognized the stranger he had met that day at Zmeinoy Ravine.
This peasant's hair, beard, and eyes were black as soot; his
face was swarthy; and, to add to the effect, there was a black
spot the size of a lentil on his right cheek. He looked
mockingly at the hospital assistant and said:
"I did take hold of the left rein -- that was so; but about the
smallpox you are lying, sir. And there was not a word said about
the smallpox between us."
Yergunov was disconcerted.
"I'm not talking about you," he said. "Lie down, since you are
The dark-skinned peasant had never been to the hospital, and
Yergunov did not know who he was or where he came from; and now,
looking at him, he made up his mind that the man must be a
gypsy. The peasant got up and, stretching and yawning loudly,
went up to Lyubka and Kalashnikov, and sat down beside them, and
he, too, began looking at the book. His sleepy face softened and
a look of envy came into it.
"Look, Merik," Lyubka said to him; "get me such horses and I
will drive to heaven."
"Sinners can't drive to heaven," said Kalashnikov. "That's for
Then Lyubka laid the table and brought in a big piece of fat
bacon, salted cucumbers, a wooden platter of boiled meat cut up
into little pieces, then a frying-pan, in which there were
sausages and cabbage spluttering. A cut-glass decanter of vodka,
which diffused a smell of orange-peel all over the room when it
was poured out, was put on the table also.
Yergunov was annoyed that Kalashnikov and the dark fellow Merik
talked together and took no notice of him at all, behaving
exactly as though he were not in the room. And he wanted to talk
to them, to brag, to drink, to have a good meal, and if possible
to have a little fun with Lyubka, who sat down near him half a
dozen times while they were at supper, and, as though by
accident, brushed against him with her handsome shoulders and
passed her hands over her broad hips. She was a healthy, active
girl, always laughing and never still: she would sit down, then
get up, and when she was sitting down she would keep turning
first her face and then her back to her neighbour, like a
fidgety child, and never failed to brush against him with her
elbows or her knees.
And he was displeased, too, that the peasants drank only a glass
each and no more, and it was awkward for him to drink alone. But
he could not refrain from taking a second glass, all the same,
then a third, and he ate all the sausage. He brought himself to
flatter the peasants, that they might accept him as one of the
party instead of holding him at arm's length.
"You are a fine set of fellows in Bogalyovka!" he said, and
wagged his head.
"In what way fine fellows?" enquired Kalashnikov.
"Why, about horses, for instance. Fine fellows at stealing!"
"H'm! fine fellows, you call them. Nothing but thieves and
"They have had their day, but it is over," said Merik, after a
pause. "But now they have only Filya left, and he is blind."
"Yes, there is no one but Filya," said Kalashnikov, with a sigh.
"Reckon it up, he must be seventy; the German settlers knocked
out one of his eyes, and he does not see well with the other. It
is cataract. In old days the police officer would shout as soon
as he saw him: 'Hey, you Shamil!' and all the peasants called
him that -- he was Shamil all over the place; and now his only
name is One-eyed Filya. But he was a fine fellow! Lyuba's
father, Andrey Grigoritch, and he stole one night into Rozhnovo
-- there were cavalry regiments stationed there -- and carried
off nine of the soldiers' horses, the very best of them. They
weren't frightened of the sentry, and in the morning they sold
all the horses for twenty roubles to the gypsy Afonka. Yes! But
nowadays a man contrives to carry off a horse whose rider is
drunk or asleep, and has no fear of God, but will take the very
boots from a drunkard, and then slinks off and goes away a
hundred and fifty miles with a horse, and haggles at the market,
haggles like a Jew, till the policeman catches him, the fool.
There is no fun in it; it is simply a disgrace! A paltry set of
people, I must say."
"What about Merik?" asked Lyubka.
"Merik is not one of us," said Kalashnikov. "He is a Harkov man
from Mizhiritch. But that he is a bold fellow, that's the truth;
there's no gainsaying that he is a fine fellow."
Lyubka looked slily and gleefully at Merik, and said:
"It wasn't for nothing they dipped him in a hole in the ice."
"How was that?" asked Yergunov.
"It was like this . . ." said Merik, and he laughed. "Filya
carried off three horses from the Samoylenka tenants, and they
pitched upon me. There were ten of the tenants at Samoylenka,
and with their labourers there were thirty altogether, and all
of them Molokans. . . . So one of them says to me at the market:
'Come and have a look, Merik; we have brought some new horses
from the fair.' I was interested, of course. I went up to them,
and the whole lot of them, thirty men, tied my hands behind me
and led me to the river. 'We'll show you fine horses,' they
said. One hole in the ice was there already; they cut another
beside it seven feet away. Then, to be sure, they took a cord
and put a noose under my armpits, and tied a crooked stick to
the other end, long enough to reach both holes. They thrust the
stick in and dragged it through. I went plop into the ice-hole
just as I was, in my fur coat and my high boots, while they
stood and shoved me, one with his foot and one with his stick,
then dragged me under the ice and pulled me out of the other
Lyubka shuddered and shrugged.
"At first I was in a fever from the cold," Merik went on, "but
when they pulled me out I was helpless, and lay in the snow, and
the Molokans stood round and hit me with sticks on my knees and
my elbows. It hurt fearfully. They beat me and they went away .
. . and everything on me was frozen, my clothes were covered
with ice. I got up, but I couldn't move. Thank God, a woman
drove by and gave me a lift."
Meanwhile Yergunov had drunk five or six glasses of vodka; his
heart felt lighter, and he longed to tell some extraordinary,
wonderful story too, and to show that he, too, was a bold fellow
and not afraid of anything.
"I'll tell you what happened to us in Penza Province . . ." he
Either because he had drunk a great deal and was a little tipsy,
or perhaps because he had twice been detected in a lie, the
peasants took not the slightest notice of him, and even left off
answering his questions. What was worse, they permitted
themselves a frankness in his presence that made him feel
uncomfortable and cold all over, and that meant that they took
no notice of him.
Kalashnikov had the dignified manners of a sedate and sensible
man; he spoke weightily, and made the sign of the cross over his
mouth every time he yawned, and no one could have supposed that
this was a thief, a heartless thief who had stripped poor
creatures, who had already been twice in prison, and who had
been sentenced by the commune to exile in Siberia, and had been
bought off by his father and uncle, who were as great thieves
and rogues as he was. Merik gave himself the airs of a bravo. He
saw that Lyubka and Kalashnikov were admiring him, and looked
upon himself as a very fine fellow, and put his arms akimbo,
squared his chest, or stretched so that the bench creaked under
him. . . .
After supper Kalashnikov prayed to the holy image without
getting up from his seat, and shook hands with Merik; the latter
prayed too, and shook Kalashnikov's hand. Lyubka cleared away
the supper, shook out on the table some peppermint biscuits,
dried nuts, and pumpkin seeds, and placed two bottles of sweet
"The kingdom of heaven and peace everlasting to Andrey
Grigoritch," said Kalashnikov, clinking glasses with Merik.
"When he was alive we used to gather together here or at his
brother Martin's, and -- my word! my word! what men, what talks!
Remarkable conversations! Martin used to be here, and Filya, and
Fyodor Stukotey. . . . It was all done in style, it was all in
keeping. . . . And what fun we had! We did have fun, we did have
Lyubka went out and soon afterwards came back wearing a green
kerchief and beads.
"Look, Merik, what Kalashnikov brought me to-day," she said.
She looked at herself in the looking-glass, and tossed her head
several times to make the beads jingle. And then she opened a
chest and began taking out, first, a cotton dress with red and
blue flowers on it, and then a red one with flounces which
rustled and crackled like paper, then a new kerchief, dark blue,
shot with many colours -- and all these things she showed and
flung up her hands, laughing as though astonished that she had
Kalashnikov tuned the balalaika and began playing it, but
Yergunov could not make out what sort of song he was singing,
and whether it was gay or melancholy, because at one moment it
was so mournful he wanted to cry, and at the next it would be
merry. Merik suddenly jumped up and began tapping with his heels
on the same spot, then, brandishing his arms, he moved on his
heels from the table to the stove, from the stove to the chest,
then he bounded up as though he had been stung, clicked the
heels of his boots together in the air, and began going round
and round in a crouching position. Lyubka waved both her arms,
uttered a desperate shriek, and followed him. At first she moved
sideways, like a snake, as though she wanted to steal up to
someone and strike him from behind. She tapped rapidly with her
bare heels as Merik had done with the heels of his boots, then
she turned round and round like a top and crouched down, and her
red dress was blown out like a bell. Merik, looking angrily at
her, and showing his teeth in a grin, flew towards her in the
same crouching posture as though he wanted to crush her with his
terrible legs, while she jumped up, flung back her head, and
waving her arms as a big bird does its wings, floated across the
room scarcely touching the floor. . . .
"What a flame of a girl!" thought Yergunov, sitting on the
chest, and from there watching the dance. "What fire! Give up
everything for her, and it would be too little . . . ."
And he regretted that he was a hospital assistant, and not a
simple peasant, that he wore a reefer coat and a chain with a
gilt key on it instead of a blue shirt with a cord tied round
the waist. Then he could boldly have sung, danced, flung both
arms round Lyubka as Merik did. . . .
The sharp tapping, shouts, and whoops set the crockery ringing
in the cupboard and the flame of the candle dancing.
The thread broke and the beads were scattered all over the
floor, the green kerchief slipped off, and Lyubka was
transformed into a red cloud flitting by and flashing black
eyes, and it seemed as though in another second Merik's arms and
legs would drop off.
But finally Merik stamped for the last time, and stood still as
though turned to stone. Exhausted and almost breathless, Lyubka
sank on to his bosom and leaned against him as against a post,
and he put his arms round her, and looking into her eyes, said
tenderly and caressingly, as though in jest:
"I'll find out where your old mother's money is hidden, I'll
murder her and cut your little throat for you, and after that I
will set fire to the inn. . . . People will think you have
perished in the fire, and with your money I shall go to Kuban.
I'll keep droves of horses and flocks of sheep. . . ."
Lyubka made no answer, but only looked at him with a guilty air,
"And is it nice in Kuban, Merik?"
He said nothing, but went to the chest, sat down, and sank into
thought; most likely he was dreaming of Kuban.
"It's time for me to be going," said Kalashnikov, getting up.
"Filya must be waiting for me. Goodbye, Lyuba."
Yergunov went out into the yard to see that Kalashnikov did not
go off with his horse. The snowstorm still persisted. White
clouds were floating about the yard, their long tails clinging
to the rough grass and the bushes, while on the other side of
the fence in the open country huge giants in white robes with
wide sleeves were whirling round and falling to the ground, and
getting up again to wave their arms and fight. And the wind, the
wind! The bare birches and cherry-trees, unable to endure its
rude caresses, bowed low down to the ground and wailed: "God,
for what sin hast Thou bound us to the earth and will not let us
"Wo!" said Kalashnikov sternly, and he got on his horse; one
half of the gate was opened, and by it lay a high snowdrift.
"Well, get on!" shouted Kalashnikov. His little short-legged nag
set off, and sank up to its stomach in the drift at once.
Kalashnikov was white all over with the snow, and soon vanished
from sight with his horse.
When Yergunov went back into the room, Lyubka was creeping about
the floor picking up her beads; Merik was not there.
"A splendid girl!" thought Yergunov, as he lay down on the bench
and put his coat under his head. "Oh, if only Merik were not
here." Lyubka excited him as she crept about the floor by the
bench, and he thought that if Merik had not been there he would
certainly have got up and embraced her, and then one would see
what would happen. It was true she was only a girl, but not
likely to be chaste; and even if she were -- need one stand on
ceremony in a den of thieves? Lyubka collected her beads and
went out. The candle burnt down and the flame caught the paper
in the candlestick. Yergunov laid his revolver and matches
beside him, and put out the candle. The light before the holy
images flickered so much that it hurt his eyes, and patches of
light danced on the ceiling, on the floor, and on the cupboard,
and among them he had visions of Lyubka, buxom, full-bosomed:
now she was turning round like a top, now she was exhausted and
breathless. . . .
"Oh, if the devils would carry off that Merik," he thought.
The little lamp gave a last flicker, spluttered, and went out.
Someone, it must have been Merik, came into the room and sat
down on the bench. He puffed at his pipe, and for an instant
lighted up a dark cheek with a patch on it. Yergunov's throat
was irritated by the horrible fumes of the tobacco smoke.
"What filthy tobacco you have got -- damnation take it!" said
Yergunov. "It makes me positively sick."
"I mix my tobacco with the flowers of the oats," answered Merik
after a pause. "It is better for the chest."
He smoked, spat, and went out again. Half an hour passed, and
all at once there was the gleam of a light in the passage. Merik
appeared in a coat and cap, then Lyubka with a candle in her
"Do stay, Merik," said Lyubka in an imploring voice.
"No, Lyuba, don't keep me."
"Listen, Merik," said Lyubka, and her voice grew soft and
tender. "I know you will find mother's money, and will do for
her and for me, and will go to Kuban and love other girls; but
God be with you. I only ask you one thing, sweetheart: do stay!"
"No, I want some fun . . ." said Merik, fastening his belt.
"But you have nothing to go on. . . . You came on foot; what are
you going on?"
Merik bent down to Lyubka and whispered something in her ear;
she looked towards the door and laughed through her tears.
"He is asleep, the puffed-up devil . . ." she said.
Merik embraced her, kissed her vigorously, and went out.
Yergunov thrust his revolver into his pocket, jumped up, and ran
"Get out of the way!" he said to Lyubka, who hurriedly bolted
the door of the entry and stood across the threshold. "Let me
pass! Why are you standing here?"
"What do you want to go out for?"
"To have a look at my horse."
Lyubka gazed up at him with a sly and caressing look.
"Why look at it? You had better look at me . . . ." she said,
then she bent down and touched with her finger the gilt
watch-key that hung on his chain.
"Let me pass, or he will go off on my horse," said Yergunov.
"Let me go, you devil!" he shouted, and giving her an angry blow
on the shoulder, he pressed his chest against her with all his
might to push her away from the door, but she kept tight hold of
the bolt, and was like iron.
"Let me go!" he shouted, exhausted; "he will go off with it, I
"Why should he? He won't." Breathing hard and rubbing her
shoulder, which hurt, she looked up at him again, flushed a
little and laughed. "Don't go away, dear heart," she said; "I am
Yergunov looked into her eyes, hesitated, and put his arms round
her; she did not resist.
"Come, no nonsense; let me go," he begged her. She did not
"I heard you just now," he said, "telling Merik that you love
"I dare say. . . . My heart knows who it is I love."
She put her finger on the key again, and said softly: "Give me
Yergunov unfastened the key and gave it to her. She suddenly
craned her neck and listened with a grave face, and her
expression struck Yergunov as cold and cunning; he thought of
his horse, and now easily pushed her aside and ran out into the
yard. In the shed a sleepy pig was grunting with lazy regularity
and a cow was knocking her horn. Yergunov lighted a match and
saw the pig, and the cow, and the dogs, which rushed at him on
all sides at seeing the light, but there was no trace of the
horse. Shouting and waving his arms at the dogs, stumbling over
the drifts and sticking in the snow, he ran out at the gate and
fell to gazing into the darkness. He strained his eyes to the
utmost, and saw only the snow flying and the snowflakes
distinctly forming into all sorts of shapes; at one moment the
white, laughing face of a corpse would peep out of the darkness,
at the next a white horse would gallop by with an Amazon in a
muslin dress upon it, at the next a string of white swans would
fly overhead. . . . Shaking with anger and cold, and not knowing
what to do, Yergunov fired his revolver at the dogs, and did not
hit one of them; then he rushed back to the house.
When he went into the entry he distinctly heard someone scurry
out of the room and bang the door. It was dark in the room.
Yergunov pushed against the door; it was locked. Then, lighting
match after match, he rushed back into the entry, from there
into the kitchen, and from the kitchen into a little room where
all the walls were hung with petticoats and dresses, where there
was a smell of cornflowers and fennel, and a bedstead with a
perfect mountain of pillows, standing in the corner by the
stove; this must have been the old mother's room. From there he
passed into another little room, and here he saw Lyubka. She was
lying on a chest, covered with a gay-coloured patchwork cotton
quilt, pretending to be asleep. A little ikon-lamp was burning
in the corner above the pillow.
"Where is my horse?" Yergunov asked.
Lyubka did not stir.
"Where is my horse, I am asking you?" Yergunov repeated still
more sternly, and he tore the quilt off her. "I am asking you,
she-devil!" he shouted.
She jumped up on her knees, and with one hand holding her shift
and with the other trying to clutch the quilt, huddled against
the wall. . . . She looked at Yergunov with repulsion and terror
in her eyes, and, like a wild beast in a trap, kept cunning
watch on his faintest movement.
"Tell me where my horse is, or I'll knock the life out of you,"
"Get away, dirty brute!" she said in a hoarse voice.
Yergunov seized her by the shift near the neck and tore it. And
then he could not restrain himself, and with all his might
embraced the girl. But hissing with fury, she slipped out of his
arms, and freeing one hand -- the other was tangled in the torn
shift -- hit him a blow with her fist on the skull.
His head was dizzy with the pain, there was a ringing and
rattling in his ears, he staggered back, and at that moment
received another blow -- this time on the temple. Reeling and
clutching at the doorposts, that he might not fall, he made his
way to the room where his things were, and lay down on the
bench; then after lying for a little time, took the matchbox out
of his pocket and began lighting match after match for no
object: he lit it, blew it out, and threw it under the table,
and went on till all the matches were gone.
Meanwhile the air began to turn blue outside, the cocks began to
crow, but his head still ached, and there was an uproar in his
ears as though he were sitting under a railway bridge and
hearing the trains passing over his head. He got, somehow, into
his coat and cap; the saddle and the bundle of his purchases he
could not find, his knapsack was empty: it was not for nothing
that someone had scurried out of the room when he came in from
He took a poker from the kitchen to keep off the dogs, and went
out into the yard, leaving the door open. The snow-storm had
subsided and it was calm outside. . . . When he went out at the
gate, the white plain looked dead, and there was not a single
bird in the morning sky. On both sides of the road and in the
distance there were bluish patches of young copse.
Yergunov began thinking how he would be greeted at the hospital
and what the doctor would say to him; it was absolutely
necessary to think of that, and to prepare beforehand to answer
questions he would be asked, but this thought grew blurred and
slipped away. He walked along thinking of nothing but Lyubka, of
the peasants with whom he had passed the night; he remembered
how, after Lyubka struck him the second time, she had bent down
to the floor for the quilt, and how her loose hair had fallen on
the floor. His mind was in a maze, and he wondered why there
were in the world doctors, hospital assistants, merchants,
clerks, and peasants instead of simple free men? There are, to
be sure, free birds, free beasts, a free Merik, and they are not
afraid of anyone, and don't need anyone! And whose idea was it,
who had decreed that one must get up in the morning, dine at
midday, go to bed in the evening; that a doctor takes precedence
of a hospital assistant; that one must live in rooms and love
only one's wife? And why not the contrary -- dine at night and
sleep in the day? Ah, to jump on a horse without enquiring whose
it is, to ride races with the wind like a devil, over fields and
forests and ravines, to make love to girls, to mock at everyone.
. . .
Yergunov thrust the poker into the snow, pressed his forehead to
the cold white trunk of a birch-tree, and sank into thought; and
his grey, monotonous life, his wages, his subordinate position,
the dispensary, the everlasting to-do with the bottles and
blisters, struck him as contemptible, sickening.
"Who says it's a sin to enjoy oneself?" he asked himself with
vexation. "Those who say that have never lived in freedom like
Merik and Kalashnikov, and have never loved Lyubka; they have
been beggars all their lives, have lived without any pleasure,
and have only loved their wives, who are like frogs."
And he thought about himself that he had not hitherto been a
thief, a swindler, or even a brigand, simply because he could
not, or had not yet met with a suitable opportunity.
A year and a half passed. In spring, after Easter, Yergunov, who
had long before been dismissed from the hospital and was hanging
about without a job, came out of the tavern in Ryepino and
sauntered aimlessly along the street.
He went out into the open country. Here there was the scent of
spring, and a warm caressing wind was blowing. The calm, starry
night looked down from the sky on the earth. My God, how
infinite the depth of the sky, and with what fathomless
immensity it stretched over the world! The world is created well
enough, only why and with what right do people, thought
Yergunov, divide their fellows into the sober and the drunken,
the employed and the dismissed, and so on. Why do the sober and
well fed sleep comfortably in their homes while the drunken and
the hungry must wander about the country without a refuge? Why
was it that if anyone had not a job and did not get a salary he
had to go hungry, without clothes and boots? Whose idea was it?
Why was it the birds and the wild beasts in the woods did not
have jobs and get salaries, but lived as they pleased?
Far away in the sky a beautiful crimson glow lay quivering,
stretched wide over the horizon. Yergunov stopped, and for a
long time he gazed at it, and kept wondering why was it that if
he had carried off someone else's samovar the day before and
sold it for drink in the taverns it would be a sin? Why was it?
Two carts drove by on the road; in one of them there was a woman
asleep, in the other sat an old man without a cap on.
"Grandfather, where is that fire?" asked Yergunov.
"Andrey Tchirikov's inn," answered the old man.
And Yergunov recalled what had happened to him eighteen months
before in the winter, in that very inn, and how Merik had
boasted; and he imagined the old woman and Lyubka, with their
throats cut, burning, and he envied Merik. And when he walked
back to the tavern, looking at the houses of the rich publicans,
cattle-dealers, and blacksmiths, he reflected how nice it would
be to steal by night into some rich man's house!
title: should be translated as "Thieves"
Prophet Elijah: see 2 Kings 1-2
Red Cross: the international life-saving organization
treaty of San Stefano: 1878 treaty which ended the
Zemstvo: a district council with locally elected members
German settlers: Catherine II had brought German peasants to
Russia in the late 18th century
mouth: a superstition of Russian peasants, in order to keep the
devil from entering the body
Shamil: Shamil (1789-1871) was the last Moslem mountaineer
chieftain in the Caucasus to resist Russian conquest, but he was
Molokans: members of a religious sect
commune: the mir made decisions about village affairs and had
several administrative responsibilities