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“. . . as fate would have it, I have a houseguest. There is no room.” “Oh, no,” Ovcharov interrupted. “I tell you in all frankness that I cherish my freedom. That would inconvenience both of us. If the bathhouse were available, I would rent it from you.” “Rent? How could you, Erast Sergeyich? That even hurts my feelings,” Nastasya Ivanovna exclaimed, blushing. “Why on earth? Please!” “To take money for such a trifle  .  .  . I’ve never heard of such a thing. What price could be set for such quarters . . . I wouldn’t be able to come up with one. No, please, Erast Sergeyich.” “If that’s how it is, I take back my request,” he replied coldly. Nastasya Ivanovna was crestfallen. Ovcharov continued: “Order is necessary in all things, Nastasya Ivanovna. Germans understand this, but we Russians haven’t appreciated it. Why should you pass up an opportunity for gain, and why should I accept gifts or sacrifices from you? That’s nothing but Russia’s outdated lack of moral discipline—simple disorder. If I live on your property, there is no question but that I will pay you for everything. It would be better if you just told me whether or not I can live in your bathhouse.” Nastasya Ivanovna was utterly perplexed. Olenka’s grin expressed something between mockery and mirth. “The bathhouse, I’ll admit, is new. The shelving, thank God, isn’t in yet. The doors and hinges are ready—they just need to be hung. It is, if you please, rather spacious—I myself don’t know why I built it so large—but how can you live there, Erast Sergeyich?” Nastasya Ivanovna spoke these words with such sorrow and distress, it was as if she was asking herself whether it might somehow be possible to instantly transform the bathhouse into an elegant mansion.

“That’s wonderful, if the bathhouse will serve,” Ovcharov responded. “So be it. We Russian gentlemen must be able to adapt to any situation. We ourselves are to blame. I’ve brought my house to ruin and am paying the price. Well, now, another condition and favor: I’m sickly and adhere to a strict diet. All I need is chicken broth, a piece of white bread, a chicken cutlet for lunch, and a cup of tea in the morning—there you have my entire day. Might I hope that this can all be prepared in your kitchen and that you’ll supervise the cook?” Nastasya Ivanovna beamed. “Really, Erast Sergeyich, that goes without saying. For my part, I can claim without boasting: none of the neighbors can match us in cooking and here, cleanliness rules. You should at least try the coffee. And Aksinya Mikhailovna bakes marvelous white bread, and I myself . . .” “Fine, fine, we’ll see. However, with your permission, I will send my man; he’ll show the cook how to prepare my food. I’m a bit fastidious. I will pay your cook, of course, and for all provisions.” Nastasya Ivanovna turned away. “Without fail,” Ovcharov continued with exuberant firmness. “Whatever is lacking or, perhaps, of poor quality—after all, if you’ll excuse me, I know that we are fated to eat in the country—well, my man will purchase in town; I’ll send him.” “How will you find space for your man, Erast Sergeyich?” Nastasya Ivanovna asked dejectedly. “It will be too crowded in the bathhouse. I’ll give him my late husband’s, Nikolai Demyanych’s, study. . . . But he won’t hear you calling from the house—it’s too far.” “I won’t be bringing him here at all; I’ll leave him at Beryozovka,” Ovcharov replied, smirking at the notion of Nikolai Demyanovich’s study. “First of all, I’ve become accustomed to getting by on my own: I don’t need to be waited on over the course of the day. City Folk and Country Folk

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Second, I cannot abide the sight of manservants busying themselves with nonsense: that’s nothing but antiquated Russian lordliness and I, thank God, grew unaccustomed to such things during my travels. My man will come from Beryozovka before I get up in the morning; I’ll tell him what I need—and that will be that. The walk will do him good: the exercise will prevent him from becoming lazy. He’ll be spoiled if he stays in your house—telling stories or sleeping endlessly; he’ll lose all his polish. No, he’ll be no good after that. In general, skilled city help is strongly tainted by country life.” “That’s as you please, Erast Sergeyich,” Nastasya Ivanovna consented. “If the need arises and you will permit it, my own servants will attend you, too.” Ovcharov smiled. “Thank you. Now, the most important and central reason for my decision to spend the summer in your bathhouse, in a word: whey. I must drink whey.” “Whey?” the startled Nastasya Ivanovna replied. “What can be said of it? I have cows, and there will be plenty of that slop.” “Slop?” Ovcharov exclaimed. “Slop cannot be drunk. First of all, the kind of cows you have determines the quality of the whey—then we can decide what is and isn’t slop. Of course, you can concoct slop out of anything.” He became agitated. The promise of the curative powers of Snetki seemed about to fade like a dream. “Whey?” Nastasya Ivanovna repeated, wide-eyed. “We just have the ordinary kind.” “No, madam, I have no need for the ordinary kind.” “Well, what kind, my dear man?” Nastasya Ivanovna, herself, became agitated. “Please explain, Erast Sergeyich. Perhaps, God will provide. Well, don’t we have any

whey around? I’ll show you, you’ll take a look. I think there is some, I think I saw it . . . Olenka, ask Aksinya Mikhailovna if she’s already poured off that slop . . . or, what to call it? Go, Olenka.” Olenka went off with a laugh. “I don’t put it in my mouth, but you teach me about it, Erast Sergeyich.” Ovcharov began to explain to her in great detail how the previous summer two physicians in Schwalbach had recommended a treatment that was only available in Switzerland, because that was where the best whey was found; how he’d wanted to stay at an inn on the Handeck but left after consulting his physicians by post because the milk there turned out to be too harsh; how, finally, after lengthy search, he’d settled on Mount Rigi, where the whey turned out to be smooth, and he was highly satisfied with both his choice of locale and the society there. While he was speaking, Olenka returned, laughing, in the company of Aksinya Mikhailovna. The old woman stood in the doorway holding a pot of whey. “Here it is,” Nastasya Ivanovna announced. “Come and let me have a look, good woman,” Ovcharov beckoned. Olenka stood grinning. Nastasya Ivanovna also kept quiet in anticipation. Ovcharov brought his face close to the pot, studied it, smelled it, and took a lick. For a moment, you could hear a pin drop. In the end, Ovcharov apparently did not find any significant difference between the wheys of Switzerland and Snetki. He raised his head and pronounced: “Yes, perhaps . . . This will suffice, it’ll do.” “How could it not do, Erast Sergeyich!” Nastasya Ivanovna exclaimed, breathing a sigh of relief. “After all, I don’t feed my cows chaff. Thank God, I have a water meadow; our Snetki and Beryozovka meadows are the best in the district. The cows may not, City Folk and Country Folk

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unfortunately, be Swiss—I’ve never had that sort. Five years ago, after the cattle plague, I barely recovered; I had to get new cattle. Maria Osipovna had a cow born of a Circassian cow, so I bought that cow’s heifer. . . . Well, it’s a shame that the whey is from a Circassian cow rather than a Swiss one.” “It’s of no consequence,” Ovcharov muttered, reassuring her and becoming a bit flustered himself. “I will oversee the whey myself. So now, let us decide. First of all, what will you charge for the whey?” Nastasya Ivanovna was all but dumbfounded. “Even for the whey, you want to pay, Erast Sergeyich?” “As I said: for everything,” Ovcharov insisted, shrugging his shoulders. “What on earth would I charge for a thing like that? I can’t imagine.” “If you would please trouble yourself to calculate it.” “Erast Sergeyich, please don’t befuddle me.” “How so, if you please?” Nastasya Ivanovna fell silent for a moment. “Erast Sergeyich,” she said in a voice not quite her own, “you are hurting my feelings. I’m an old woman, I knew you when you were small, and my Nikolai Demyanych did, too. . . . Your mother and you would come to call—it was such a treat for me. . . . And now you see fit to set terms with me over every little crust, over some accursed whey! Am I really such a miser, such a money-grubber? That’s hurtful, hurtful, Erast Sergeyich. I cannot. I simply cannot calculate what price to put on all this.” “In that case I will not be lodging with you, Nastasya Ivanovna,” Erast Sergeyevich responded and reached for his hat.

Ovcharov meets Nastasya Ivanovna  
Ovcharov meets Nastasya Ivanovna  

Read an excerpt from CITY FOLK AND COUNTRY FOLK by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov. For more information about th...