Marko Vovchok (1833-1907)
Marko Vovchok (1833-1907)
KARMELIUK A Tale I Have you been to Ukraine? Do you know Ukraine? If you have been there and do know the country, you will remember. Otherwise, try to imagine those whitewashed houses which everywhere dot the cherry orchards, and how lovely – how absolutely lovely it is there in springtime, when all the orchards are in blossom and the nightingales trill. In fact, there are so many of those birds singing then, that a person couldn’t probably count them all. Once, when I was traveling there, I happened to spend a night in a village, in one of those houses standing in a cherry orchard. We came late at night and went to bed right away. The sun set, before long voices died away, and the whole village lapsed into quiet. It was very still all about. I could hear only leaves stirring in the trees outside the window, and the water murmuring in the river, over at the mill. Also, not far away, a woman was softly lulling a baby to sleep – and my eyelids became heavy. I dozed off and dreamed that the fastflowing river, which had glittered so brightly as we were driving past, was now drawing nearer and nearer, and that the trees which grew outside were rustling right over my bed. The unseen baby being lulled to sleep assumed the image of a lively little boy, now overcome with drowsiness, and she who was rocking him took the appearance of a thoughtful, slender young woman. It was then that a nightingale warbled somewhere in the cherry trees just outside, then another a little way off, and yet another until I couldn’t really tell how many of them were there, trilling as though calling to one another. They went on like this for a while, and then suddenly began singing all at once, drowning out all the other noises. The rustle of the leaves, the murmur of the water, and the lullaby could be heard no more. I was suddenly wide awake, the nightingales having chased away all my drowsiness and dreams. If I now closed my eyes, their singing only seemed to be, if anything, louder and clearer. I felt quite tired, and the drowsiness soon returned, getting worse all the time. But no matter how tired and drowsy I may have been, I still couldn’t fall asleep again because of all that singing. Finally I thought it would be better to get up and sit beside the window for a while. Even now I can still visualize most vividly that narrow street, the little white houses with their dark windows, and, beyond a low wattle fence, cherry trees covered with radiant white flowers. The sickle of a horned new moon was shining faintly, the sky was glowing with stars, and I can
3 still almost feel all that freshness, fragrance and warmth. And then there was that singing, resounding and reverberating all about until dawn. That night the nightingales didn’t let me catch a wink of sleep until daybreak. Years ago, there was one such village in Ukraine. It was small, with about twenty houses in all, and the people who lived in it were rather poor. In one of the houses, which stood near the fields on the edge of the village, there lived a widow who had a son, an only child. Ivan Karmeliuk – that was his name. He was such a good-looking lad, so bravo and bright, that to find another just like him, as they say, one would have had to search all over this large world in broad daylight and bright sunshine, carrying a blazing torch as well. Swimming straight across the most terrible rapids and – whirlpools, plunging deep into the most impenetrable woods, climbing the tallest trees, descending to the very bottom of the steepest ravines – it all came as natural to him as drinking water comes natural to you and me. Also, wherever he was sent, he could be counted on to find the way, and whatever he began doing, he was sure to get it done. If a friend asked him for something, he would fetch it from the bottom of the sea, rather than turn down a friend’s request. And if some humble poor man turned to him for a favor, it seemed he would have moved heaven and earth to do whatever was asked of him. As long as he could help such people, he just didn’t care if it might mean hunger and cold, troubles and hardships for him. The older the lad got, the better and more handsome he became, and at eighteen he was such an incredibly, unbelievably handsome young man that whoever saw him then for the first time stopped stunned and speechless and would never forget his face. As for his mother, she just was never able to look at him without a smile and a kiss. They lived more or less like all the other people in the village, being a little better off than some and a little poorer than others. It was then that something went wrong with the young Karmeliuk, and trouble came his way. He suddenly became strangely sad, and became sadder with every day and every hour God sent him. What or who had first caused that sadness was more than either his mother, or his friends, or anyone else could tell. Before, when with his companions he would speak louder and laugh more heartily than the rest in any group. But now he laughed no more and hardly ever spoke at all. More than that, his friends now saw very little of him, and whenever they chanced to come across him, he was pale and tight-mouthed. Where before he would join his friends for a stroll and a chat every evening after work, he now seemed to avoid them, slinking away all alone somewhere into the woods, or the fields, or just roaming off into the steppe. His mother was at a total loss, not knowing what to think or do. She’d been racking her brains trying to figure out whether he might want this or that, or something else again; for if she only knew, she would have been willing and ready to give him whatever it was he did want. But no: he didn’t want anything. People wondered what the matter with him was. They began talking about it and making guesses, and word spread that it had all happened since he had begun to go to other villages where he encountered all kinds of strange people. It was believed that he might have been mixed up with some evil man: hence all that sadness and sorrow. As soon as the gossip reached his mother’s ears, she went to ask him. “You go to all sorts of places, my lad,” she said (he was going to country fairs, to hamlets, villages and towns, selling his own, and sometimes others’ rye, grain, vegetables and fruits; and wayfaring like that was what he liked doing best). “So what kind of people do you see there?” she asked him. “What kind of people do I see there?” Karmeliuk answered. “They’re all of two kinds – rich and poor.” “And what people do you associate with?” his mother went on. “I make friends with the poor and needy,” Karmeliuk told her. “Those are friends for me!” Naturally his mother supposed that one of the rich had harmed or hurt him, so she pressed him further. “Has somebody harmed you, my darling? Who’s hurt you? Come on, tell me!” She embraced her son and held him close, waiting for him to tell her, so that she could soothe and
4 comfort him. But he only stared back at her and said nothing. The mother became even more alarmed and anxious, not knowing what to think, and imagining all kinds of horrible things happening to him. So she continued entreating and imploring him to tell her what had happened. “No,” Karmeliuk said. “I’ve been neither harmed nor hurt.” “Is that really so, my dear, my jewel, my treasure? Is it true that nobody’s hurt you?” “It’s true,” he said. “Then what’s happened to you? What’s bothering you? Is there something you want?” So then Karmeliuk told her. “Wherever I go,” he said, “whichever way I look, I see poor people who work hard but stay poor. That’s what torments my soul! That’s what rends my heart!” His mother tried to reassure and comfort him. “You see, that’s the way it’s been in this world for as long as anyone can remember,” she told him. “And for all we know, that’s the way it’s going to be. It seems it just can’t be helped.” She went on soothing and persuading him as best she could, and where she was lacking in words, she made up in tenderness and caresses. But nothing could console him; nothing could set his mind at rest. One evening in spring – it was one of those wonderful evenings when spring songs come naturally to one’s lips – the Karmeliuk widow lay in her house, brooding and wondering what kind of misfortune had come upon her Ivan. The sun had already set, and stars were shimmering in the window. The sound of girls’ voices singing spring songs could be heard from afar. A faint fragrance of flowers, not yet in full bloom, was in the air; and the nightingales were just beginning to sing. Then she heard soft steps; the door opened and Karmeliuk came into the house. He looked about but failed to see his mother, and went and sat by the window. Perhaps it was just that faint evening light which added pallor to his face, but it seemed to his mother that lie was terribly pale and wan, and her heart was gripped with such pity for her dear child that she was speechless, unable to utter a word. She didn’t speak nor stir, and just lay there watching him. He looked through the window for some time and then began to sing. It was quite something, that song he sang! Full of sadness and sorrow, it was the kind of song that could only come from the bottom of a pure heart. Oh, the days come and go, The hours are winging, Not for me happiness, But bitter woe bringing! In misfortune I was born, In misfortune I shall die, Oh, my mother gave me birth When misfortune was nigh. A young man, it would seem, Should not know any sorrow – Yet drown dead in a stream From grief, on the morrow. My poor head is so pain-wracked That I close tight my eyes; Don’t know why, for what reason Upon me grief lies! Pauper people! All forsaken! I see you everywhere; Your torments thoughts waken –
5 Tears with you I share. Spring of my life, that joys unroll, You scatter gifts round, But for my unhappy soul – Never a one is found. I see their eyes everywhere, Their faces grown pale, Begging hands of the bowed with care – Hands wearied, grown frail. And among fragrant flowers, ‘Neath streaming gold sunlight, And among bright leafy bowers ‘Neath the silvery moonlight – Daytime or night, or evenfall, Whatever the hour! Nought consoles me at all – Death from grief overpowers.* He finished his song and remained silent. It was only then that the old woman came to her senses. “Ivan,” she asked. “Just where did you learn this song?” On hearing her voice, Karmeliuk started, but then he realized it was his mother. “It just came to me,” he said. And it was really something to hear him sing those songs he composed himself! By God, they were simply enchanting! There were some who happened to overhear him while he was singing and learned them from him. Only those songs weren’t intended for joy or merrymaking, and they made those who learned or simply heard them bow their heads and start thinking. II One day Karmeliuk went off to a mill which was in another village about twenty versts away. He left early at dawn and drove for a while across the fields. The sky was crystal clear, and the weather warm and wonderful. The fields spread out like green velvet, and the dewdrops glistened everywhere. The sun was rising, and larks were singing in the sky. It had rained that night, so dust hardly rose from the road at all. The fields appeared boundless in their blissful beauty, and the air was so fresh that he couldn’t breathe his fill of it. He sang as he drove, sometimes just humming to himself, and sometimes raising his voice until his song reverberated all over the fields. But even on this untroubled cloudless morning, he was singing the same melancholy and inquiring songs, almost like asking for guidance, consolation and peace of mind. For as his gaze wandered all about those blooming fields, he must have visualized the same miserable figures of the poor. He soon reached a large forest through which the road ran. Old oaks, huge and mighty, stood motionless and silent. Scattered amongst them were snowball trees and wild rose bushes, and the ground was carpeted with thick grass and all kinds of herbs. As Karmeliuk drove through that forest, singing, he saw a young girl picking herbs at the edge of the road. She was crying bitterly, and was so desperate and in such distress that she hardly turned her head at the sound of his song. As soon as Karmeliuk saw this, he jumped from his wagon and approached her. “Good morning,” he said. *
Poems here and elsewhere translated by Gladys Evans.
“Good morning,” the girl replied, and as she lifted her sorrowful eyes to him, they dried up at once. For never in her life, not even in a dream, had she seen such a handsome man as the man now standing before her. She didn’t even hear him ask, “Why are you crying, young lady?” Waiting for her to answer, he stared fixedly at her, as though what he saw could somehow give him a clue. And he saw that she was a poor girl, deeply embittered by life. Her milk-white shoulders could be seen through a threadbare blouse, her skirt was faded and patched; there was no color in her young face, and her rosy lips were obviously not accustomed to smiling. Her eyes were sad and sunken, and the tears which had stopped rolling at the sight of him were still trembling on her cheeks. There she stood holding a bunch of herbs. “Why are you crying, young lady?” Karmeliuk asked again. This time the girl heard his question, but even so she made no attempts to answer and only turned her eyes away, staring into the forest. “Who are you, lassie? Where do you come from?” he went on. “I’m a servant working for the Knishes over at the village of Lany,” the girl said. “They must be bad folks, those Knishes, eh?” he said. She didn’t speak and just resumed picking her herbs. Karmeliuk went along, picking the same herbs and giving them to her, and asking her about her life and all. But as soon as he began saying that it must be pretty tough and joyless to live as hired help in somebody else’s homo, the girl burst out crying again, bitter tears streaming down her fair face. Karmeliuk felt such pity for the girl that he thought he could even die for her. “Come on, stop crying!” he urged her. “I wish I could,” she said. “But the tears just flow anyway.” And she shed tears while standing there for quite a while, as if there was something sweet in crying herself out like that. Finally she said, “It’s time for me to go. My mistress is waiting for the herbs.”
7 Two final tears rolled down her face, her rosy lips parted in a smile which was sad but also charming, and her lovely clear eyes looked up at him, candidly. “Goodbye,” she said. But it seemed to Karmeliuk that he’d sooner die than part with her. So he told her, “Come on, get onto the wagon, and I’ll take you to Lany, as I’m also going that way.” He looked around for his wagon and saw that it was quite far off, his oxen having turned off the road to graze. He ran over to them, drove them back onto the road, helped the girl onto the wagon, got on next to her, and off they went. Both were silent and thoughtful as they drove through the green forest. They felt that they had suddenly found themselves in an earthly paradise, where a fleeting bliss had engulfed them. The girl’s face flushed with lively color, and her lips parted slightly, as if her heart were beating faster. It seemed to them that they reached the village in no time at all, as though they were a couple of fast-flying birds. They left the forest behind and caught sight of Lany, a big and prosperous-looking village. A manor house built of white stone and surrounded with shady lanes and gaily colored flower-beds stood like a palace on a hill, rising above the entire village. It was a luxurious building, and it was all that luxury which caught Karmeliuk’s eye. At the sight of it, his handsome face clouded. The girl happened to be looking at him at that very moment, and her bright eyes dimmed. “Do you know this building?” she asked softly. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it,” Karmeliuk said. “But I’ve seen many like it everywhere.” They entered the village and crossed three streets. Here the girl jumped off the wagon, thanked him and said farewell. She turned round the corner and vanished. Karmeliuk started off again. And as he drove on, he constantly glanced back at the village, wishing the girl hadn’t left him, and promising himself that he would sec her again soon. He was thinking of her still when he came to the mill, and went to question the miller about the Knishes, trying to find out how they were placed and what sort of people they were. But the miller was a very taciturn man, quite tall and with very long moustaches. He didn’t like to talk, and liked answering questions even less; so Karmeliuk would have never learned anything at all had it not been for the miller’s daughter. For the miller’s daughter did like to talk and liked answering questions even more, but best of all she liked asking them. So she started by asking Karmeliuk all sorts of questions, but got precious little out of him. For he simply ignored her questions and just kept on asking his own, not unlike a newborn baby which keeps turning its eyes and stretching out its hands to the light, ignoring everything else. Seeing this, the miller’s daughter stopped asking questions and began to talk. She was small and lively like a bird, but no bird could have done as much chirping in an hour as she did then. Before long, Karmeliuk learned from her that the Knishes were rather rich, having seven pairs of oxen and two cows; that they had a good harvest of wheat the year before and were probably going to have one again that year; that their daughter had married a boy who was also from a rich family, so that she now wore ochipok bonnets embroidered with gold; that the old Knishes had a servant girl by the name of Marusia, an orphan, unmarried and no relatives; and that for Marusia, the job meant long hours and little pay. The miller’s daughter would probably have chattered on and on had Karmeliuk put in a word of his own every now and then. But he sat there like a mute, so that in the end she must have become bored with such a taciturn guest, because she cut short her prattle, picked up her needlework, and went and sat at a distance from him, striking up a song. The song rang out merrily, her work went on rapidly, and the old miller, standing gloomily in the doorway of his mill, watched it all and thought to himself, “There’s probably nothing as gay and carefree in this world as those silly young girls. And nothing could be as frivolous. Isn’t it funny, the way that vain creature keeps looking into the water, as if she can’t see enough of herself?”
8 His daughter did cast frequent glances at the water which mirrored her dark-skinned, rosycheeked bright-eyed face. But then it was probably not only her own face she was admiring, for along with it, the water also reflected the entire grass-covered slope where she was sitting, the old oak trees the miller was so proud of, and the young man who was so deeply immersed in thought that he seemed unaware of the whole world around him and of every tiling that was in it. So it was not necessarily her own face that the miller’s daughter kept glancing at. But, as we said already, the miller was a gloomy man, whom nothing could move. Years ago, having buried his wife, he had come across seven mirrors among her things, and from that time had been convinced that every female, no matter how plain or humble-looking, used at least seven mirrors to look at herself; that conviction was as unshakable as if it had been nailed to him. So the miller’s daughter... Well, we’d rather leave the miller’s daughter to herself now, because we aren’t really interested in what she may have done or sung after that. The miller called Karmeliuk, they loaded up the wagon with flour, Karmeliuk paid, and left for home. All he was able to think about on his way back was the servant girl. When he went through the village of Lany, he drove as slowly as though he were carrying somebody very ill, his eyes darting here and there all about him. However, she was nowhere to be seen, and he sighed for the rest of the way until he pulled up at his house. He simply couldn’t oust the girl from his mind. He spent a day alone with his thoughts, and discovered that it was difficult but sweet as well. He spent another, only to find that it had become even more difficult and sweeter. Early in the third day he could stand it no longer. His head burned, his heart throbbed, and his entire body ached. He somehow managed to endure it until noon, then got out a wagon, harnessed a horse to it and drove to Lany. He was hardly aware of what he was doing as he flew across the fields and sped through the forest. He just kept whipping the horse, as it seemed to him that the fields were running away from him, getting broader and longer, that the forest had never been thicker, and would never end. He eventually did roach Lany, however. When he got there, it was a quiet afternoon, and the sun was already low in the sky. Most people weren’t yet back from work, so the village was deserted, except for some children playing and fooling around in the streets, and a couple of servant girls going towards the river for water. Karmeliuk told himself that she, too, would sooner or later come to the river, and, turning his horse in that direction, went to wait for her on the bank. And when she appeared with the pails in her hands, the mere sight of her took his breath away so that he couldn’t even say “Oh!” And when she saw him, a flush spread across her face, as if it had suddenly been enveloped by flames. There was nobody on the bank except the two of them. “Will you marry me, my love?” Karmeliuk asked her. And she told him simply, “I’m yours.” They sat down side by side on the low grassy river bank, and when the stars appeared in the sky, they found them still sitting here together. That night, Marusia the servant girl did not even hear her mistress as she nagged and scolded her, reproaching her for being late; and her heart became impervious to bitterness, throbbing with the newly-discovered sweet ecstasy of love. And after everybody had gone to bed, Marusia sat beside the window and stared at the stars twinkling in the cloudless sky. Karmeliuk was meanwhile slowly driving home, and he, too, was staring at the bright stars in the clear sky. Only those who are very much in love here on earth can gaze up at the sky like that. “I’m going to marry,” Karmeliuk announced to his mother. “Her name’s Marusia and she’s a servant.” His mother tried to persuade him to change his mind. “Don’t marry this Marusia, my dear,” she pleaded. “Why does it have to be a servant? Better look around for somebody rich.” “Mother!” Karmeliuk cried out, trembling and shaking all over. “Are you not my mother?”
9 His face and reaction frightened the old woman, and she gave in. “All right,” she said. “Go ahead and marry Marusia, my darling. If she’s so dear to you, she’ll make a good daughter-inlaw to me as well.” This is how Karmeliuk came to marry Marusia the servant girl. III For a year after the wedding, Karmeliuk forgot his affliction completely. There was no trace loft of his sadness, his wife blossomed like a rose, and they got on like a pair of lovebirds. A daughter was born to them, all was well in their household, and the Karmeliuk widow would often say that, thank God, she couldn’t really think of a better life for the young family and herself. Then, Karmeliuk’s melancholy suddenly returned. He again became sad and sullen. He again took to staying away from home and wandering about alone. His pallor and frequent sighing returned. But why did it engulf him again? Where did it come from? Wasn’t he loved and happy? Didn’t he have every reason to be satisfied with life? What did he yearn for? What else could he possibly want? One evening, they all sat together after work. All the noises had already died down, the sun had sunk behind the woods, and the first star was about to come out. When people tired by the day’s work sit like this, resting, engrossed in thought, both the good and the bad things of their lives suddenly become clearer; they come to better realize their own happiness or ill luck. This is the way they sat together and thought that, apparently, their good fortune left practically nothing to be desired. The little girl didn’t even ask for anything to play with, and seemed content just to sit quietly among them, her rosy lips smiting and her eyes shining warmly. Indeed, what more could they want? Then suddenly some thought troubled and worried Karmeliuk. It also seemed to frighten him, as if blotting out his vision. He looked dismayed, and his whole appearance changed abruptly. He started for the door, saying, “It seems to be stuffy here. I’d better go for a walk.” His old mother was worried and asked if he was feeling unwell. “No, Mother, I’m all right,” he reassured her. His loving wife gave him an inquiring look, and he just hugged her in reply. He came back home late that night, when the moon and the stars were shining bright in the sky, and everybody in the village had long gone to sleep. His mother and his daughter were both asleep. But not his wife. She stood in the doorway of their house, waiting and looking out for him. She met him there and pressed herself close, as though asking what she could do to ease his pain – live or die, be happy or suffer. “My dear Marusia!” he said, clutching her to his heart. “I can’t bear to see people poor and unhappy! I must change it all! I wish I could make things better for them!” And from that night on he kept thinking, brooding, and grieving. His mother rushed here, there, and everywhere, looking for a cure, asking everybody for advice and never without tears in her eyes. Again and again, she ran to see a healer woman and a doctor about her son, who, she kept telling them, was languishing and simply wasting away. The poor old woman exhausted herself completely and was beside herself with fear and anxiety. Karmeliuk’s young wife didn’t go to a healer or a doctor, sought no advice, and did no complaining. Nobody knew what was in her heart or her mind, for she kept it to herself and wouldn’t tell. But the color went out of her face, she sang no more, and her pretty eyes brimmed with sadness. If there were those who thought that something had gone awry between Karmeliuk and his wife, it simply wasn’t true. Anyone who wasn’t blind could easily see that their love was as strong as ever and that their mutual affection and trust were just as before. Their farm was doing quite nicely as well. So people in the village kept telling one another that Karmeliuk was
10 really a happy man, if ever there was one. What more he might desire was something which left everybody puzzled. Hadn’t God given him everything to make him satisfied? Well, really! What else could one possibly want? Didn’t he realize how lucky he was? It must have been good luck that had spoiled him, and there he now was, making a fool of himself and trying to fool others. Some would even say as much in as many words straight to his face. Karmeliuk wouldn’t bother to reply, though; he spent whole days just walking about, hardly ever uttering a word, grieving and brooding. But now and then, his voice would suddenly ring out, singing a song which sounded like a warning... People say that 1 am happy – it calls forth my laughter, They don’t know how my tears fall, and often so bitter. And wherever I wander, the rich I find in power – Spending time in great luxury, each day, night and hour. While the poor and unhappy are all doomed to hard labor, To injustice, for ages the poor man’s close neighbor! O my youth, my joyful heart, and the strength of my arm! Tell me how to right the wrongs of this world without charm. 0 my young years, O my sweet years, infinitely young, If you’re given me for nothing, let my death song be sung. There were those among the villagers who trembled at the sound of this song, stopped in their tracks, and stood, as if waiting to state their case before a fair judge, as if in anticipation of a long-awaited yet unexpected deliverance. There were many cases when an unfortunate laborer, driving cattle which weren’t his own and singing his old bitter song which said that “the fate of a young landless poor peasant is the worst in the world”, stopped immediately the moment he heard Karmeliuk’s; and when he came back to his master’s for the night, ho was strangely thoughtful, seemed not to hear when berated, or to care when insulted, and left his supper untouched. And on the following day, he seemed sick and unfit for his job or any other work, and refused the master’s food; but his eyes shone with new intensity and vigor, as though he were suddenly rejuvenated and revitalized. There must have also been quite a few cases when a wealthy man happened to hear Karmeliuk’s song and stopped singing his own, funny and frivolous, turned his astonished eyes all about him, and hurried to make sure of his treasures, looking as concerned as that virtuous rich man everybody has heard about. And perhaps there were also a few men who after hearing him gave up considerable riches willingly and without regret. It was then that Karmeliuk suddenly disappeared from sight, and was not to be found either at home or anywhere else in the village. No trace of him was discovered either the next day, or the day after that, or a whole week later. He just vanished into thin air without as much as a word to anyone. His old mother was driven almost insane with grief, anxiety and fear, searching for him here, there, and everywhere, as if he were a needle in a haystack. Marusia just sat in the house, looking like somebody dying on a cross. Their little daughter kept calling him and asking, “Where’s Daddy?” “What shall we do, Marusia?” the Karmeliuk widow asked her daughter-in-law. “Is there anything we can do? Where are we to look for him?” “We’ll just wait,” Marusia said. “Wait for him? But he may not even be alive!” This is what Marusia then told the old woman: “The night that he went away,” she said, “I saw him go, and asked him, ‘What shall we do, sweetheart?’ And he told me, ‘Don’t look or enquire for me – just wait, and I’ll come back myself!’“
“Oh, good!” the Karmeliuk widow said. “All right, we’ll just wait then!” She was so delighted, as though Ivan were actually expected at any moment; she even peered through the window and then went to stand in the doorway, looking in every direction. However, they spent many more days waiting for their Ivan, but he failed to appear. Once – it was a holiday and the weather was lovely – the Karmeliuk widow sat on the pryzba outside her house, her eyes fixed on the road running away into the fields. Marusia was sitting beside her, holding her daughter in her arms. The little girl was chirping, “Mommy, are you deaf and dumb?” She was toying with her mother’s necklace and poking her tiny fingers into Marusia’s lips and ears. “You’ve turned deaf and dumb, Mother!” she teased Marusia. “Deaf and dumb!” Every now and again, Marusia smiled back, pressing the girl to her bosom. A neighbor came round and greeted them. “Have you heard of the robberies over in the Black Forest?” he asked. “They say nobody can pass through there now, whether on foot or on horseback.” Karmeliuk’s mother started when the neighbor began “Have you heard...?” but, hearing the story was about the Black Forest, she stopped listening. The Black Forest was far away, in another county, and she decided that her son had no conceivable reason for being there. Somehow, it didn’t occur to her that he had no apparent reason to remain out of sight – whether within their county or outside it. And then again, it wasn’t quite clear what made her so sure he couldn’t be as far away as the Black Forest. In any case, she paid no more attention to what the neighbor was saying and turned her eyes back to the road.
But Marusia’s beautiful sad eyes were riveted to the man’s face, and she was all ears. “A few storekeepers and some nobles have been held up over there,” he went on. “Only there’s a strange thing about it all.” “What strange thing?” asked Marusia. “The strange thing is,” the neighbor said sitting down next to her, “that they don’t kill or harm anybody! If it’s somebody rich, they just take all he has and let him go. But if they see a man is poor and moneyless, he goes through scot-free – they don’t touch him with a finger. They say there was a poor fellow driving through there who came across those highwaymen. Well, he just laughed when he saw them. ‘I’m not afraid of you, folks,’ he told them. ‘Robbery is nothing to a poor man, and even his life has got a price that’s not too high. If you’re going to kill me, go ahead, but if you aren’t let me go, because I’ve no time to hang about. I have to hurry or my master’s bound to give me hell!’ Then their leader stepped forward, so they say, and tossed him a purse full of money, saying, ‘You may go on, friend.’ And then he and his men disappeared in the woods. The fellow was quite bewildered, having had such a miraculous thing happen to him. His brains were still a little bit numb when he came home bringing a purse packed with money – pure silver, all of it!” Karmeliuk’s wife didn’t say anything at all this, but turned white as a sheet and kissed her daughter, who had also pricked up her ears, listening, as she sat in her mother’s lap. IV As one day followed another, every new day and every passing hour brought more and more news and rumors about the robbers in the Black Forest. Those robbers were definitely strange and unusual; and their robberies were also strange and unusual. Whenever a rich man fell into their hands, he was forced to part with his money; whenever a poor man encountered them, ho was given money. But nobody was killed or harmed. As well, they had a leader who was out of the ordinary and mysterious. It was rumored
13 that he was a man of such unbelievable, incredible, unsurpassed beauty, that neither words nor pen could describe him. Furthermore, it was claimed that human eyes were not able to gaze on his beauty, it being as blinding as the bright sun. They say that once a particularly greedy old lady traveled through those parts, carrying her hoarded treasure with her – her greed was such that she never parted with her wealth day or night. As she drove through the Black Forest, she was stopped by the robbers. They circled her carriage, told the coachmen and servants to clear out for the moment, and demanded her money. But the woman just let out a terrible crazy scream which echoed throughout the dark forest, clung to her riches as if with steel claws, and wouldn’t let go. They tried to wrest them away by force; but her old fingers just crackled but wouldn’t release their grip, her eyes glittering wildly in the moonlight like those of a savage hungry she-wolf. Then the leader himself emerged from the forest to speak to her. “Give up your riches!” he ordered. “You’ve lived amidst luxury and gold long enough – now let others enjoy some of it!” The old lady lifted her eyes – and her treasures fell from her hands. And down she fell too, unconscious, struck with his enchanting beauty as if by a thunderbolt, her heart strained by her greed and her strength consumed by his beauty. On another occasion, the Black Forest robbers stopped a young girl and her brother. The brother – he was no coward – quickly glanced round, only to see that dark woods stood like a wall on all sides and that they were surrounded by tall strong men. So he knew at once that they were really in a difficult spot; but he decided to try and fight his way through just the same. “Sit still!” he told his sister. “Don’t be afraid!” Then, turning to the robbers, he called, “Let us pass, please!” “You’re a rich man, so let’s have your money first!” they shouted back. His sister was frightened to death. “I’ve just no money for your kind,” he retorted. “Give it up or we’ll take it by force,” they threatened, drawing closer. The sister cried out and burst into tears, covering her face with her hands. And then, amidst all the din, shouting and yelling, she suddenly heard a voice reassuring her. “Stop crying, young lady!” the voice was saying. “You’ve nothing to fear.” She took her hands from her face to see who was standing before her – and she would never forget his wondrous beauty as long as she lived. Her fear and terror vanished; and she was enveloped by such calm that it would have made no difference to her if she were to live or to die. She folded her arms, and just stared and listened. The robbers took her brother’s money and let them continue on their journey. The same voice which had urged the girl to stop crying and not be afraid spoke to them again. “Remember!” the leader said. “Hunger and cold kill many poor people in this world!” Nobody even touched the girl’s rich necklace of gold coins – she herself took it off and cast it at the leader’s feet. “Thank you, young lady!” he said. From that time things began to lose their color and fade for the girl, until everything and everybody had turned meaningless and colorless in her eyes. “I’m going to become a nun,” she announced to her father and mother. Before long, she took her vows. Her brother, without as much as a word to his father, mother, friends, or anyone else, gathered up all his possessions he could carry, and, leaving all the rest behind, abandoned his quiet life and fled from home to join the band in the Black Forest. V When the news that none other than Karmeliuk was the leader of the band in the Black Forest spread about his native village, it caused quite a stir among old and young, good and bad alike. The men appeared concerned, while the women were visibly worried and troubled. The story also reached Karmeliuk’s mother and wife. The widow was in tears as she told her daughter-in-law: “Wicked and shameless – that’s what people are! Isn’t it horrible how they’re lying? They’re slandering my dear son! It simply can’t be true! I don’t believe it! I’d sooner die than believe it. What do you say, Marusia? What about you?”
14 “I’ll just keep living and loving him,” Marusia said. “And so will I!” prattled her little daughter who stood beside her, listening. Days went by. Then there was a night – a lovely night when the moon and stars were shining bright in a cloudless sky, the orchards were in bloom, the houses looked peaceful and dreamy, and the nightingales were singing. The Karmeliuk’s daughter was sleeping soundly, breathing evenly. Worn down by anxiety and sorrow, the widow was also asleep, but her sleep was troubled; she was continually sighing, crying out and sobbing. Sleep had overcome the frail old woman; but it failed to bring her peace. Karmeliuk’s wife wasn’t asleep, though. She had spent many sleepless nights and would most likely spend many more; for she was young and too vigorous for the lack of sleep to tell on her, and her anxiety grew by the day and by the hour. So she stayed awake, thinking about the man she loved. Suddenly, she heard the door being opened cautiously – ever so cautiously – and saw him step inside; the next thing she knew he was in her arms. And then she couldn’t tell whether everything suddenly burst into light or dimmed to darkness before her eyes, or whether it was ecstasy or agony – only when she came to her senses, she was out in the orchard where she could feel the fragrance of the flowers and saw the bright moon and brilliant stars. For quite a long time she wasn’t aware or conscious of anything except that he was there with her and that she was in his arms. She looked at him and slowly found herself again. Then they began to talk, softly and gently, and spent the rest of that night talking. The moon had disappeared from the sky, the stars had faded away, the nightingales had fallen silent, the sky had started to color in the east and the morning breeze was already in the trees, when Karmeliuk embraced his wife, kissing her goodbye. They walked together across the fields down to a valley outside the village where three black horses were grazing and two of Karmeliuk’s comrades were waiting for him, puffing away at their pipes. There Karmeliuk parted with Marusia, and his comrades heard him tell her, “I’ll be back!” Then the three of them jumped into their saddles and galloped off, the horses’ hooves raising sparks, until they disappeared from sight. Marusia walked back home. Both at their house and at the neighbors’, everybody was still asleep, and all was quiet. Only the sky was glowing brighter and the leaves in the trees were fluttering faster. As time went on, the band of robbers in the Black Forest grew stronger and stronger with every passing hour and with every new day. Also, with every passing hour and with every new day, the well-to-do and the titled grew increasingly concerned and alarmed. Finally, they decided to have the leader captured by might and main, no matter how. So they hired detectives and informers, offering them lavish fees and promising high rewards, only asking in return that they “get that man”. Before long, detectives and spies swarmed all over, in search of trails and traces. More time went by, and the leader was still at large. More than once the news spread that he had been captured; and crowds of people would then gather to have a look, driven by the desire to make sure for themselves, attracted by the heady atmosphere, aroused by disbelief, genuine interest or just common curiosity. However, the news proved to be false every time. It was true, though, that a suspicious-looking man had been detained in the forest, but that was either some poor devil, with nothing to do with the band, whom want and need had forced to take to robbery, or even a harmless, innocent traveler seized by mistake. As rumors had it, the leader enchanted people and could turn away glances and touch the heart; no living soul could hear his voice, meet his eyes or see his beautiful face and remain unmoved and unimpressed. He was said to charm and captivate everyone, and it was even claimed that several detectives had actually tracked him down but had then fallen under his spell and let him go, becoming totally unfit for similar jobs for the rest of their lives.
15 It takes all sorts to make a world, though; there are always people who can’t be charmed by any charm or deceived by any deceit. It was such men who now joined the hunt and went to trace and pursue him as tirelessly and incessantly as he escaped from them – by day and by night, from dawn to dusk, through thick woods and across boundless steppes, down in deep valleys and high in the mountains... VI One dark night, when everybody was asleep, Karmeliuk’s wife waited under a cherry tree in her orchard. She stood motionless, like a statue, until she spotted his tall figure approaching from the valley and dashed towards him – like a soul flying to Paradise. Karmeliuk was breathing hard, weary and exhausted. Embracing Marusia, he could not hold her for long in his benumbed hands. He spoke with effort. “They’re hunting me like a wild beast, Marusia,’’ he said. “I’ve been on the run for three straight days and four nights – never once stopped... I’ve had to disband the company also...” “Oh, my darling,” Marusia said. “They were here yesterday, asking about you, but we all told them we knew nothing. Yesterday – “she paused. “What’s this?” she gasped, as something clanged and banged near by. Then suddenly, the lights went on in the house, and there were loud voices inside, clamoring and shouting. The next thing they knew, more voices rang out in the orchard, all about them, and men fell on them from all sides. “Hold him! Seize him! We’ve got him! We’re holding him!” Shouts resounded in the quiet of the night. Karmeliuk was overpowered. He quickly turned to his wife. “Marusia!” he whispered. “Just tell them you don’t know anything! Do you hear?” “All right,” Marusia whispered back. Karmeliuk’s mother came running, unable to believe her eyes. She was inconsolable, seeing him seized, and pleaded with his captors to release her son. His little daughter also awoke and rushed to her father as she was – wearing only a nightshirt, her hair disheveled – and clutched at him with her tiny hands. They dragged everybody away from Karmeliuk, flung him into a carriage and drove off. The whole village had turned out to watch him be taken away, people thronging and buzzing like a swarm of bees. Karmeliuk’s wife walked after the carriage with her daughter in her arms. His old mother was unable to walk; she kept fainting while several sympathetic young men who had been deeply moved by the entire scene got a horse and wagon ready for her. Karmeliuk was brought in irons to a big town and thrown into a somber stone cell. “Karmeliuk’s had it!” shouted the rich. “His day of reckoning has come!” The poor talked one to another in hushed voices. Young women and girls wept; older people crossed themselves, saying, “Lord, have mercy upon us!” Karmeliuk’s wife and daughter followed him to the town, walking all the way. The widow was brought in the wagon. Karmeliuk was put on trial which dragged on for quite a long time. Whoever then happened to walk or ride across the square past the lifeless-looking jail would see at all hours an elderly woman whose final remaining strength seemed to be fast ebbing away. She sat on a large stone, weeping. If spoken to, she would tell about her misfortune, wailing over it. There one could also see a young woman, silting still and silent, whose lack of any color in her face seemed to suggest the loss of all that was dear. At her side was a little girl whom nobody ever saw merry or playful and who was never seen in a nearby street, where as she must have known, sweets and toys were sold – never! She just sat quietly beside her mother, sometimes questioning her softly about something or just speaking to her, sometimes snuggling up against the older woman who wept as she hugged her with her feeble aged hands. It was as though they lived there – around that large grey stone about which nobody knew who
16 and why had put it there on the square outside the prison. It was there that they ate their lunch and supper. It seems they would have slept there as well, but since the town rules didn’t allow it, every night they had to return to a hut where they had found shelter, and slept there. Every night their last glances and thoughts were directed to the dark windows of the jail; every morning their first thoughts were about the jail, and they couldn’t wait to again see that forbidding sight. As time went on, nothing was made less burdensome for them and nothing changed, except that the weather became chillier, as the autumn cold set in, and there was frost in the mornings and at nights. People wrapped themselves up in sheepskin coats and lit stoves; the little girl now ran faster and faster to the hut every evening and back to the stone outside the jail every morning, and the old woman couldn’t walk a single step without support from her daughter-inlaw. They were all fairly certain about the verdict, and only waited for the trial to end. Finally, the day came. It was bright and crisp and the snow was falling lightly when the prison door was flung open and convicts began coming out in pairs, their chains jangling. A small crowd had gathered in the square, a couple of women were crying, looking out for their loved ones among the shackled pairs. There were so many reckless, daring souls among these convicts! Karmeliuk also came out. Those convicts who had somebody to say goodbye to, were allowed to do so. Karmeliuk’s mother sank to the ground the moment she saw him; his wife and daughter rushed to his side, ready to follow him all the way. Having said goodbye to his mother, Karmeliuk then began to say goodbye to his wife and daughter, telling them something in a low voice. Blood rushed to the young woman’s face as she listened, as if his words had hurt her deeply, and their daughter cried out, “We aren’t going to leave you, Daddy!” two or three times, and then flung her little arms round her shackled father, bursting into tears. Meanwhile, shouts rang out in the crowd: “Karmeliuk! Karmeliuk! It’s Karmeliuk! Where’s he? There he is!” And the crowd heaved and swayed, like a billowing sea wave. The convicts were ordered to march and they did so. The crowd followed them as far as the highway outside the town, getting larger and larger all the time, and the shouts “Karmeliuk! Karmeliuk!” becoming louder and louder. From all sides, people were throwing coins to the convicts and shouting to them, “God be with you!” Karmeliuk’s mother was helped along; his wife and daughter walked at his side. Then, everybody was ordered to turn back. “I’ll die... I’ll die soon!” Karmeliuk’s mother gasped out, breathless. The little girl kissed and caressed her father. “I wish we could go with you!” she cried out. “We’ll do as you say,” his loyal and faithful wife told him. “Let’s hope for the better!” Karmeliuk said. “Start! Get a move on!” And they went. They marched further and further on. Soon the dull jangling of their chains could be heard no more. Their figures could barely be seen. Then they disappeared altogether; where they were last seen there were now only trees, sharply outlined against the bright sky. Karmeliuk’s mother was led back to the town, and Marusia carried the sobbing girl; the crowd trudging along, talking and offering words of sympathy and advice. Before the day was done, Karmeliuk’s family set off by wagon back to their native village. Each night, the lights burned again in Karmeliuk’s house, and all in it grieved, but their thoughts were with him every step of his long journey to an unknown destination. VII A year passed. Karmeliuk’s old mother died, as she had foretold, and by that spring her grave was already overgrown with tall thick grass. Living in the house were his wife and daughter. Once, shortly after Karmeliuk’s arrest, a kindly neighbor had asked the little girl, patting her on the head: “What are you and your mother doing, my dear?” “Waiting,” the girl
17 had replied. Which was precisely the answer. For Karmeliuk had told them to stay at home and wait. “It will be easier to escape and make my way back home on my own,” he had said. Marusia had agreed to everything. “We’ll do what you want,” she had told him. Their daughter had since grown up and learned to watch her words, and nobody ever heard from her again that they were waiting for Karmeliuk – but they were. They waited for him every day, every night, every hour. They waited for him before sunrise and at daybreak, by day and by night, from dawn to dusk. They spent hours, days, weeks and months just waiting for him. Their days were filled with work and the usual bustle and chores, but they were also filled with hope and waiting. Their evenings were set aside for rest, but they, likewise, were filled with hope and waiting. During the day, a neighbor might sometimes drop in, and then they would be momentarily overwhelmed with chattering, the din, and the daily routine. But in the evening, when all around them had lapsed into calm silence, the mother and daughter lit the lamp, as though expecting visitors, and just sat there, silently. The daughter would not play with her toys; from time to time she would speak softly with her mother, and sometimes she would also sing her father’s songs in her tender voice. She tried really hard to sing them well – so hard that her little face burned, her heart beat faster, and her whole body trembled. Her mother’s eyes were fixed on her, her hands stretched out towards her; and Marusia took her daughter in her arms and held her close, the girl’s tiny arms entwined round her mother’s neck. They sat together like this for a very, very long time – often well into the night. And in the dead of night they would still sit there. Towards daybreak, with the lamp dying away, the girl, still not in bed, would finally doze off by her mother’s side. And then the young woman would bury her face in her hands, overcome with the agony of despair. And as time went on and on, they never ceased waiting. One night they were sitting in the house, the lamp burning as always, and were thinking the same thoughts and cherishing the same hopes. And as she had so often done before, the little girl said to her mother, hopefully, “Perhaps tonight...” Then the door opened and he whom they had been waiting for so long stood before them. Oh, God! Glory to God! In the morning, when the sun had risen in the clear sky and the village stirred back to life, filling the day with its constant din, Marusia left the house to start her work, as she usually did at that hour. She looked all around, and it seemed to her that all had changed overnight. And suddenly she burst into tears. But it was not sorrow that made her weep, because when her daughter scurried to her side, she smiled gently to her and gave her a loving look, her pretty eyes shining with utter joy. Shortly afterwards Karmeliuk ’s wife sold the house, bid farewell to all, and left the village, taking her daughter with her. She had told some of the villagers that she intended to move to town, perhaps as far as Kiev, but, as a matter of fact, nobody seemed to know exactly where she had gone to, or where she might have settled. To be sure, somebody was said to have seen them in a remote, out-of-the-way village where Marusia apparently worked to earn her living. It was also rumored that she was doing odd jobs in town. All who had known her were sorry for this quiet young woman and her child, recalling their former good fortune and talking over their present misfortune which had struck them so hard, leaving them practically ruined and no longer able to live as well as they used to. Other people now lived in the Karmeliuk house, managing things in their own way: some of the old trees were cut down in the orchard and new ones planted, and different flowers were sown in the garden in spring. That same spring word spread that the robbers were back in the forest. It seemed they were Karmeliuk’s men, just as before, as Karmeliuk had escaped, returned and reorganized his band. The news cheered up the poor, and many a humble man suddenly bore himself proudly, despite his ragged clothes. There were also many others, their faces long creased with cares and
18 shriveled up with want, who now smiled cheerfully, their eyes beaming and sparkling. The rich, on the other hand, were again frightened and nervous; they busily began to form their committees and councils, urging courts to take action, tossing money about and bribing judges. They demanded that Karmeliuk be recaptured, exiled farther, and guarded more closely. So the police resumed their search, and detectives again set forth to track Karmeliuk down. But it was a far more difficult job for them now, because the robbers wore now far more numerous, and were to be found in practically all the major forests and ravines, not just in one county. VIII Quite close to a little, out-of-the-way village and not too far from town, there was a large forest, dense and dark. If somebody talkative had happened to walk along those gloomy, lonely paths, he would probably say that he often encountered a young woman with a little girl. Both carried baskets, and if asked where they were going, they would tell they were picking berries or gathering mushrooms to sell. And as they said, they could often be seen at the marketplace in town, selling berries or mushrooms. The forest was believed to be a safe place, as nobody had ever heard of any robberies occurring there. Reaching the forest, the woman and the child plunged straight in its depths, almost instantly disappearing from view, like a pair of snakes sliding through a hedgerow. Then they walked quickly on, never pausing, following along those paths and trails in a way only they themselves knew, until they reached a small meadow deep in the thick of the forest, and sat down to catch their breath.
19 There, in the heart of the forest, it was still as a church. Ancient trees seemed to be leaning on younger ones; their thick, mighty arms resting on supple young crowns, bending them down by their weight. Here and there a winding young branch threaded its way up through that maze, then reached higher and higher, twisting and turning from side to side, as though it feared that somehow its growth might be halted. The ground beneath was covered with all kinds of shrubs. Only tiny patches of sunlight sifted through from above, and flowers grew there in the cool shade. Snowball-trees and elders blossomed with flowers that were at least twice as big as anywhere else; wild roses – usually a flaming red – were paler and more luxuriant, and had a softer fragrance. The woman and the girl paused there, listening carefully. At first, they would hear nothing – not even a bird in flight, not even a breath of wind. The impenetrable forest remained still and quiet, dark and fresh. And thus it would be until the dried branches cracked softly somewhere not far away. Then the two – the woman and the girl – would pick up their heads and smile. Soon a man would appear. He would be pale, out of breath, exhausted, hungry and covered with dust; but to them he was still as beautiful as the Sun. Here they met, here he had his respite and ate his meals, here he listened to words of love and sympathy, here his wife told him about everything she had heard, seen and thought; here he enjoyed hearing his daughter’s prattle. The girl occasionally brought him some sweets; he thanked her heartily and smiled at her gently. Here sometimes he laid his tired head on his wife’s lap and slept, while the girl kept watch. She was rather expert at it, never raising false alarms, but always giving a timely warning if something seemed wrong. They had little time to spend together and when it was spent, they took leave of each other as they loved – with exceeding pain and sorrow, yet at the same time with even greater faith and hope. The man strode off into the forest; the woman and child returned to town. They waited three days and three nights before venturing into the forest again. In the meantime, the woman went out to her work, leaving the girl alone at home. They rented a small hut which stood clinging to a hillside by the river, almost outside the town. The woman was off at her work all day long. The girl, though still quite young, wasn’t idle either; she would offer to fetch water for the old woman next door or to weed her garden. “What a smart little girl!” the neighbor would say every evening patting the girl on the head and giving her a small coin or two. And before she retired for the night, she would always offer the girl some work for the next day as well. The girl then went over to the river, to a place where she could see the forest, and would sit there, thinking and remembering, and sometimes also singing a song – the song her father had taught her as he held her in his arms, back there in the green forest. Though I’m back from Siberia, no future is mine! Wear no shackles, just the same I in slavery do pine! I am shadowed day and night, all the hours have eyes, I have nowhere to go – Oh, from sorrow I’ll die! I’ve collected daring fellows – what is that, after all? And they lurk by the highroads where the stage coaches crawl. Whether travelers come or not – it’s no matter, wait they must! Oh, it looks like Karmeliuk will die a dog’s death in the dust! They call me a highway robber, and say that I murder – But I don’t kill anyone, for my soul is my preserver. What I take from the rich, I give out to the oppressed, While I do good that way, no commandment I’ve transgressed. I’ve a wife and a daughter – but when do I see them? When I think of their sorrows, flow my tears faster then. I would have gone to their village – bat my splendor is known –
Should I turn up anywhere, into jail I’ll be thrown. Oh, my heart’s wrung with sorrow – but where can I flee? It’s a wide world, full of beauty. But there’s no place for me! On an early Sunday morning, all the bells ring in chorus, But they hunt down Karmeliuk , like a beast of the forest. Let them hunt me, try to catch me, let them keep on the chase – May the whole world remember Karmeliuk ’s name and face. Her mother would then come down the road leading from the town. Here they would meet and walk back home side by side, talking affectionately, whether remembering, or encouraging each other, or sharing their sorrow... IX Meanwhile, Karmeliuk’s enemies remained vigilant. The agents and detectives were ordered to bear arms and to be prepared to shoot if he couldn’t be captured alive. Day after day, Marusia and her daughter watched every face, fearing to read the terrible news written on it, and listened anxiously to every word, expecting to hear the worst. Many were those days before the news flashed throughout the town: Karmeliuk had been wounded and captured, and would shortly be brought in! He was escorted back to town to be again confined to a somber cell, to be put in stronger and heavier irons, to face more enraged judges, to hear a harsher sentence, and to be banished to a more remote destination. Again, as before, people gathered in crowds, first to meet him, and then to watch him leave; talking excitedly and sympathizing with him. It was then that his wife and daughter reappeared. They walked after him – just as they had the first time. “We’ll do what you want,” Marusia told him – just as she had once told him before. The girl wept again, kissing him, and, as before, he told them to hope for the better. The convicts were again ordered to march, and so they did. And then he again was gone, and, as before, there were only trees, sharply outlined against a bright sky... He was driven on and on, and they again stayed behind, working harder and harder... and waiting. Then they, too, were gone. Marusia and her daughter were last seen when it was finally rumored that Karmeliuk had again escaped and had returned. The rumor faded away, but since that time neither Karmeliuk, nor Marusia, nor their daughter have ever been seen again. Where did they go? How did they end their days? No one knows, even now. They came and went, just as so many things come and go – good and evil, love and hatred, strength and glory. But sometimes a living memory lingers. Translated by Oles Kovalenko Marko Vovchok. Karemliuk. A Tale. Dnipro Publishers, Kiev. 1981 Illustrated by Vilen Chekaniuk
Monument to Karemeliuk. Letichiv, Khmelnitsky Region
23 To Taras Shevchenko I I’m a rather cheerful sort of person and some people think I’m without a care in the world. As it is, I’m cheerful by nature – I was born with it, you might say. When I got a beating – something I hate to remember – I’d often break down and start crying. But I hen I’d cool off a bit – and soon I’d be laughing instead- All some people do is weep over their troubles. Not me: I’ve been trying to laugh mine away, mostly. Anyway, if I were to cry on account of every one of my troubles, I would have long wept my eyes out. I never knew my father and mother, as I grew up an orphan, among serfs. Even if the work wasn’t too hard, nobody really cared if I was hungry or cold or alive at all. I was taken into the house soon after I’d turned ten. The old mistress was quite all right – rather harmless, that is. This was probably because she was already so ancient she could barely drag her feet along. And she always mumbled, so that half the time you couldn’t even make out what she wanted to say. Anyhow, she was no longer fit enough to care much for beating her serfs. All day long, she’d sit around on the porches, and as night drew near, she’d do plenty of moaning and groaning. Of course, she was given to some fancy tricks in her time, but then again, that’s something one has to stop, sooner or later. At least, when I was there, life was already pretty quiet in the household. The only trouble was that we weren’t allowed to take a step outside the yard. The mistress would only let us go out to church on some big holiday once in a while, but Sundays were out. “No!” she’d grumble. “You’ll get out of hand altogether. Yours isn’t yet the right age to think of God. You’ve got time enough – you aren’t going to die tomorrow.” So we’d sit in the servants’ room, day after day, working, and there was this silence all about that made you think the whole place was under a spell or something. We’d only hear the mistress moan once in a while, or one of us girls would whisper something in another’s ear or sigh with boredom. Did that work bore us! It nearly bored us to death, but there was nothing we could do. At least we didn’t get beaten ten times a day like we heard serfs did in other places. At times, though, we suddenly got merry for no reason at all. And then we felt so happy our hearts sang with joy. If only we could, we would have sung too, making it so loud it could be heard all over the village. We never did though. All we did was just make faces at each other till we were all bursting to laugh. And we’d wink at one another, or tie someone’s braid to the back of the chair; and sometimes one of us would spring to her feet and make like she was dancing – on tiptoe so the mistress wouldn’t hear – twisting, twirling and all, arms waving and flailing up and down. Well, we sure did lots of things! The old mistress had no family, except a granddaughter, and she was studying in Kiev at a finishing-school, whatever it was. She often wrote letters which the old lady read and reread, and cried and laughed over them every day. Finally, she wrote to say it was time somebody came and took her back home. Mother of God! The whole household became a beehive: on to wash, whitewash and clean everything! The young mistress was coming! The old gal seemed to perk up immediately. She shuffled in and out of the rooms, peering at the road through every window and sending us all the way beyond the village to keep watch. This was just fine with us! We never had it as good as during that week when we were watching out for the granddaughter. Each time we were sent out we’d go flying. It was so good to see the steppe and the lovely fields. The green steppe seemed to be running away from us, before our eyes, far and wide. It was like a breath of freedom! We picked flowers and made garlands and put them on, like we were brides, and kept them on until we got back to the yard. But just before entering, we’d pull them off and throw them away. It was really such a pity, having to throw flowers away!
Finally she arrived. And she was certainly a good-looking girl, too! I wondered who it was in the family she took after. Anyway, she was so nice to look at; it’s no use trying to put it in words. The old lady just hugged her and wouldn’t let go, kissing and fondling her. Then she showed her all around the house, explaining everything; and the young one just kept turning her head to all sides and casting curious looks all around. Then the old mistress seated her granddaughter at the table, asking all kinds of questions and crying and beaming with pleasure all at the same time. Every so often she urged the girl to help herself: “Would you like to have some of this?” and “Won’t you take a sip of that?” She loaded the table with all sorts of food and drink, took a seat herself, and just gazed at her granddaughter, like she couldn’t get her fill of her. And the girl was putting it away – fast and clean, like a sparrow. We peered at them from behind the door and listened to what the young one was saying, trying to make out what was on her mind and just what kind of person she was. “So how was it, living all on your own, my child?” asked the old one. “You haven’t told me anything yet.” “Granny! There’s really nothing to tell. It was all so boring!” “Did they make you study much? What have they taught you, anyway?” “Do you really want to hear about it? Well, Granny, over here you’ve been free to live as you please, so you can’t even imagine what I’ve gone through with all that learning. Best never mention it to me again!” “Oh, my poor girl! Of course – it must’ve been pretty hard on you, what with all those strangers... Then why didn’t you write immediately to tell me all about it?” “Oh, no, Granny! Impossible! They would’ve found out in no time at all.” “My poor little child! Tell me how those horrible people treated you.” “Oh, Granny! It was sheer torture having to study all those silly things. We had to learn this and that, and God knows what else – just drill and drill all the time! Now, why do I need to know how the stars travel across the sky or how people across the sea live or if they live well over there or not? All I really need to know is how to show off in company.” “But there is something that makes people want to study, my jewel. Take our neighbors’ girls here. Practically penniless, all of them, but they, too, twitter in French.” “Granny,” the girl chirped up. “Why, I certainly did my best to learn French and music, me too! Same with dancing. Because one really needs it – that’s why. That’s something everybody pays attention to, and anybody can appreciate. All the rest is just trashy stuff you learn and forget anyway. And it made the whole lot of us sick – both those who taught it and those who had to listen. I just wasted plenty of time that way.” “What do you mean? Was their teaching so bad?”
“That’s exactly what I mean – bad, boring and useless! Getting paid was all the teachers seemed to care about, and all we wanted was to be finished and out as fast as we could. Is something wrong, Granny?” “The thing is, child, they’ve been charging good money for teaching you – and doing a bad job of it. What if you forget all of it?” “Granny, what a silly thing to say. God forbid! If I entertain and go out myself, there’s no way I will forget music or dancing, in even my French. As to all that foreign nonsense, I let it in at one ear and out at the other, anyway, so I don’t really know any of it. Drat it all!” “Now what if somebody comes up and asks you how those stars travel in the sky or something? People might talk when they see you don’t know what you studied.” “Oh, that? Now, Granny, I’ve only let you in on it, but anyone else will never find me out – not if they question me all day long! I’ll fool anybody – and make them regret they ever asked. That’s the way, Granny! Would you care to hear me sing? Listen!” She sang, and her voice lilted in a silvery sort of way. The old lady rushed to kiss her: “My darling! My joy!” And the girl fawned on her and pleaded, “Please, Granny, buy me some fine dresses, the latest fashions!” “Don’t worry about that, my girl. You’ll have everything! I’ll make sure you look like a princess.” We all looked at one another: the little granddaughter had surely learned quite a lot – mostly how to fool people, so it seemed. III “Come along, child,” the old mistress said. “I want you to choose yourself a maid.” She led the way towards the door, so we sprang away from it and huddled up in the corner. “Here’s your young mistress,” she told us. “Kiss her hand.”
26 The girl barely looked at us as she held out two fingers for us to kiss. The grandmother pointed to each of us in turn, telling her this was Hanna, that was Varka, there was Domakha... “My goodness!” the granddaughter cried out, jerking suddenly and clapping her hands. “Can any of you do my hair or lace me up properly?” She stood and stared at us, her hands clasped together. “Why?” the old one said. “They can, dearie. If not, we’ll teach them how.” .”What’s your name?” the young mistress asked me. But she didn’t even wait for my answer. She turned to her grandmother and said, “I’ll take this one.” “All right, whoever you wish, darling. Let it be her, then.” Speaking to me: “Mind you, Ustina, serve the young mistress well and she’ll be good to you.” “Enough, Granny, let’s be going,” the girl broke in. She made a face and turned away, leaning to one side, like she wanted to bolt, and even screwed up her eyes – exactly like a cat when one blows smoke into its face. “Well, child,” the old one said. “We’d better start putting some sense into her, because they’re all so silly. I’ll tell her something, you’ll tell her something else, and she might make a decent maid yet.” “I wish they’d been taught before, Granny, so that we wouldn’t have to worry about that now. You should’ve sent one to town for training.” That was how they spoke about us, like we were horses or something. “Well, Ustina,” the girls pitied me. “What’s going to happen with you? She certainly doesn’t look too kind.” “So what, girls?” I told them. “It’s no use crying over spilled milk. There’s no getting away from fate, either. Let’s wait and see.” But I, too, started thinking. IV That same evening they called me, “Come undress the young mistress!” I went in, and she was standing in front of the mirror, already pulling things off herself. “Where have you been loafing about? Come on, undress me and make it quick, because I want to go to sleep!” So I began undressing her, and she kept shouting all the while for me to be quick about it. Then she flung herself onto the bed.
27 “Come take off my shoes! Do you have any idea of how to go about curling my hair?” she asked. “No, I guess not.” “My God! Oh, goodness! How stupid you are! Get out!” The girls were waiting for me. “How was it, Ustina? Just tell us, what’s she like, dear?” What was there to tell them? “I’m stupid, girls,” I said, “because I don’t know how to curl hair.” V Next morning, the young mistress got up quite early, washed, dressed and ran all over the estate – buildings, garden and all. She was in a gay, exuberant mood. “At last I’m at home!” she kept saying. “At home! And I’m free to do anything!” She kissed and played up to her grandmother, asking: “Will we be visiting somebody soon, Granny? And when will we start entertaining?” “Just let me gaze my fill at you first.” “But I can’t wait, Granny! I’ve been dreaming of getting back home and starting to celebrate – with plenty of people, music, dancing and all. Dear Granny, please!” “All right, child. Just let’s dress up before I start inviting people.” And they went right ahead with that dressing-up business. The old lady had some chests pulled out of the storeroom, got out lengths of velvet and fine linen, cut them out and had I The young one try them on. And it all delighted the girl – her cheeks glowed and she was well-nigh jumping for joy. She rushed from one mirror to another, and even when she took a
28 glass of water, she’d peer into it, admiring herself. Now she’d braid her hair, then she’d unbraid it and plait ribbons into it or fix some flowers.... “Oh, Granny!” she’d cry out. “When will I get a really nice satin dress to wear?” “As soon as you’re engaged, my girl,” the old one would tell her. “I’ll marry you to a prince or a count – somebody really rich.” The young mistress would then stick out her chin and prance about like she was already a real princess, no less. All they seemed to talk about was princes and noble gentlemen. They’d picture themselves all set for the wedding, living in brick buildings and riding about in fancy carriages, fine horses and all. They’d just rattle on and on until the young one sighed: ‘That’s just talk, Granny. And we haven’t yet had anybody over.” ‘Just wait a bit – we’ll be having so many guests there won’t be room enough for all.” VI Sure enough, they came running – so many of them you'd think the house was on fire. As some were leaving, more would be riding over. We had neither sleep nor rest, running off our feet, waiting on them and bustling about from early morning until late at night. At times we had such a crowd that it seemed just about everybody was there. The whole lot was roaring with laughter, dancing away, eating and drinking, all of them so carefree and well-fed. There were some ladies who could barely squeeze through the door. The house swarmed with young gentlemen, who hung all around our young mistress, droning like bumblebees. And she never missed a one of them, either, speaking to some, nodding to others, gently asking one about his health or complaining to another that she felt sad and strange without him around. Or else, she'd pick out one of them and seat him next to her, like he was a relative or something. The poor fellows were so taken with her that they wasted away, pining for her and making fools of themselves. They kept coming back, day after day, each trying to get there before the others and looking askance at their rivals. You couldn’t tell whether they had all really taken such a fancy to her, or simply had nothing better to do; only they kept coming in droves. But then again, what fun could they get out of life? What could they do to make their youth taste sweeter? Eat fine food, drink good drinks, play around a little – perhaps. But what else was there? VII Bit by bit, the young mistress molded the entire household to her own ways. “Stop knitting, Granny, for God’s sake! Don’t you have anybody to do it for you? What if somebody comes and finds you fiddling with that stocking, as though you were a servant or something?” “It’s boring without something to occupy myself with, child,” the old one would say. “Try reading a book then.” “How can I read? My eyes aren’t good enough for that any more.” “Then go for a walk, only don’t knit, Granny dear. You might as well put out my eye with that needle!” “All right, just don’t fret!” She stopped knitting and was bored. Her granddaughter made her wear a bonnet with bright ribbons, and seated her in an armchair in the middle of the room. When guests popped in, there she was, ready to greet them. The old mistress already had a foot in the grave, and her granddaughter kept rejoicing, “Everything’s so nice here, so really nice and grand and splendid, isn’t it, Granny!”
29 VIII And she set us to embroidering. She herself taught us how to go about it, popping in every so often to make sure everybody was working. She even frowned and grumbled whenever we went to lunch. She got nastier by the day, and soon she was berating us in a real way. Sometimes she’d also pinch or slap one of us, not very hard at first and blushing as red as a rose, like she was ashamed. That was because she was still new to it; but as soon as she settled down and made herself at home, we found out just how rough life could get. Whenever I came to dress her she’d make it hot as hell for me. I braided her hair and she’d say it was all wrong. So I had to undo it and braid it once more, only to be told it was wrong again. She’d spend the whole morning at it, pinching me, poking me, scratching me with a comb, pricking me with hairpins and throwing water over me – you name it, she’d try just about everything to hurt me. Poor me! Once we were expecting officers from the regiment stationed in town. The yard had been swept clean the night before, and the house had been tidied up as if for the Easter holidays. Then she sat down to have her hair done. Merciful heavens! I would’ve sooner carried red-hot coals with my bare hands rather than having to stick it out working on her fair braids. I was this, I was that, I was told to get out of her sight and then to get back in a hurry, and then... Then she just started pushing me and jumping on me. Was I ever frightened! And all the while she kept scolding and cursing me and stamping her feet until suddenly she burst into tears! I shot out of the room and she rushed after me – all the way to the garden. “I’ll tear you to pieces! I’ll wring your neck, you beast!” I looked back at her and she looked so terrible that my legs sort of gave way. That’s when she clutched at my throat with both her hands. They felt cold as snails, her hands did! I wanted to scream, but I just couldn’t find my voice, and then I dropped under this apple-tree and fainted. Cold water brought me to, and I saw the girls clustered all around me, their faces chalk-white. The young mistress was sobbing, sprawled out on a chair, and the old one was standing right over my face, raging at me. She was really breathing fire – she was that mad. “Look what you’ve done, you idler! How dare you annoy the young mistress? I’ll send you to Siberia! I’ll make short work of you!” She then turned to her granddaughter, trying to calm her down. “Don’t cry, my angel, please! She isn’t really worthy of your tears. You might even get sick, God forbid! Look, your little hands are all cold! Enough, calm down! Why did you try
30 and deal with her yourself? If there’s anything you don’t like, let me handle it.” Back to me: “And you, loafer, I’ll show you yet!” I’m not sure why they didn’t make things even worse for me, only I didn’t get a beating. That was probably because I was pretty sick. Anyway, the old mistress just kicked me once and told the girls to carry me inside. The girls picked me up and carried me in, and once we were in the room, they all sank down around me, crying: “Ustina dear! Who could imagine a worse fate! Oh why do we have to live with such a monster?” IX All spring long they fed me on warm milk till I mended a little. I lay there all alone – everybody was out in the fields, working – and thought to myself, Oh, Lord, how can one so young also be so wicked? It was cool and quiet in the room, the walls were white and mute, and there I was, alone with my thoughts. The wind stirred outside, bending a branch of sweet-smelling lilac down into my window. At noon, a hot beam of sun shot through the room in a bright, quivering ribbon, sending waves of heat through my body. It was stuffy and I fell dozy, but sleep wouldn’t come. And all that lime I lay there alone, thinking how was to live on in this world. I was happy – God knows how happy! – when the garden rustled in the wind, the light faded and the rain beat against the ground. Suddenly I heard the patter of footsteps, then noise and laughter, and then a bunch of children burst right into I he room, all excited, their faces flushed. They greeted me and shook themselves, sending drops of water flying onto me. Imminently, they clambered onto the windowsill to see if the rain was going to stop soon, shouting and singing: Come out, come out, Sun-beaming Shine on grandpa’s fields greening, And on granny’s strawberries, On the playground lot merry... As soon as the sun peeped out from behind the clouds, they all cleared out. But for a long time after they were gone, I still seemed to hear their laughter, now in one corner, then in another, like somebody was jingling tiny silver bells. In the evening, when dusk had already fallen, people would return from the fields, exhausted by the scorching heat and the hard work. Nobody would say a word, except that some would sigh heavily or, perhaps, somebody would hum a sad, sad song... Once in a while, one of the household girls would drop in on me: “Ustina, darling!” “How’re you getting on there?” I’d ask her. “You’d better not ask – it couldn’t be worse! Hanna was beaten today, Paraska yesterday, and tomorrow it’ll be my turn, for all I know. Oh, dear, what if they see that I’m missing! Well, Ustina, we’re really in for trouble.” “Did they ask about me?” “Sure they did. Why isn’t she back at work? Why is she lolling about like some grand lady?
31 That’s what they’ve been saying, if you want to know. Well, I’d better be running. Bye now, Ustina!” X One morning I lay there thinking, when Katria rushed in. “Come, come quick, Ustina!” “Come where?” “Over to the young mistress – and to the old one, too. Hurry up, Ustina! The young mistress has been complaining to the old one that you’re well enough already and just don’t want to work. Come on, let’s go!” “Just how do you want me to go, Katria? I can’1 put one foot in front of the other.” “I’ll help you along, dear. You’d better try, or they’ll make it even worse for you. Now, let’s get going!” I barely made it to the manor house. The young mistress stood at the door, waiting for me. “Lolling about, are you? Why aren’t you back at work? Lazy – that’s all that’s wrong with you! Just wait – I’ll think of something for you, something you’ve never seen or heard about!” My God, it was terrible, the way she was screaming! She even lost her breath yelling it me, pushing me and pulling my sleeve. My goodness! She looked like some wild beast, that pretty little face of hers twisted with rage! Hearing all that hullabaloo, the old mistress also turned up to give me more of the same. She even mentioned giving me a beating, too. Which was something she had never done to us, thank God, until the young one came back. It was then that we started getting it every day – and crying every day, too. Whenever somebody smiled – which wasn’t often – the young one ran right to her grandmother: “Granny, they show no respect for me!” Whenever somebody cried, she’d also complain: “They just don’t want to do any work, Granny, and that’s all they’re really crying about!” A real troublemaker she was, bringing more and more trouble on all of us that way. And the old one got quite furious, punishing us – like she’d suddenly remembered the days when she, too, had been young. XI Our only respite was when all those gentlemen came to visit and made the young mistress forget about us for a while. Then she’d come out to them and chirp out in that birds’ language, all nice and sweet – why, you wouldn’t recognize her! And it was really something to see all those young men swarming around her. One would edge himself to her side, another would be gazing at her from a corner, a third would be trailing behind at her
32 heels, and somebody else would be making eyes at her from the side. And she’d wriggle among them all like a partridge. Which of them is it going to be? we’d wonder. The poor fellow has some nasty surprise coming. At first, the old mistress was quite happy to have all those guests around, but later, as I they began quarreling, she must’ve thought better of it. She now she probably wished they’d never come at all, but she couldn’t turn them away. So they’d pack the house, and each one was trying to gain the young mistress’s favor, but they couldn’t stand the sight of one another, and soon started squabbling and bickering to the point when the old mistress began calling them dogs – behind their backs, of course. Then, when fall was on the way, the young mistress found her man at last, and the rest scattered away, ashamed of themselves. XII The regiment surgeon got to know the young mistress and started calling on her every day. He was a rather regular fellow, quiet and nice to everybody – why, he didn’t even look like the other young gentlemen! How did he come to meet her? The young ladies who came to visit us had long been talking about the regiment surgeon: there was a fine fellow indeed, they said, a tall man with a handsome face, a fine mouth, black brows and all – good-looking beyond belief! Only he was said to be pretty proud – that type who wouldn’t look at any girl twice, nor talk to any, no matter how you went about him. Hearing all that, the young mistress often said to her grandmother: “I wish you’d invite that doctor, Granny – I’d like to have a look at him.” “You shouldn’t believe everything those silly chatterboxes have been blabbering, my dear,” the old one would say. “A regiment surgeon – big deal! He’s poor, penniless! Why should you think of the likes of him?” “Just let me see him once, Granny. I wonder if he’s half as good as he’s made out to be?” “I wish you wouldn’t. What if he just tags along? We’ve got plenty of them hanging around as it is, but not one has proposed as yet. All they do is try to get in one another’s way and kick up rows, a plague on them!” The old lady did her best to talk the girl out of it. But her dear little granddaughter wouldn’t budge – she was bent on seeing that doctor, and see him she would! So the first time the officers from his regiment turned up for our party, the old mistress had to ask them to tell the doctor he was invited. They agreed promptly. “Of course we’ll bring him along,” they said. “And when are you coming back?” the young mistress asked, twisting among them like a fox, and peering into their eyes. “Will that be soon?” “If you’re eager to see us, we could make it as soon as the day after tomorrow,” the officers said, nearly jumping for joy. And away they went, happy fools! XIII That day, the young mistress really dressed to kill! And the old one scowled and grumbled: “What use do we have for somebody who’s poor as a church mouse?” But the girl seemed not to hear all that talk about him being poor, so the old one took it all out on us. The military came around, but the doctor wasn’t with them. “He thanked you for your kind invitation,” they said, “but he doesn’t have time – not even an hour. He has many patients, and he’s been busy treating them.” “Don’t push him,” the old one said. “Let him treat those patients, God help him.” The young mistress only flushed and bit her lip. Well, we surely got it, as soon as the guests left. We took the blame for everything! That same week, the young mistress fell ill – moaning, groaning, screaming and all. The old one got scared and cried, and said to fetch a doctor. The regiment surgeon was pretty
33 good, they said, and he was also the nearest one around, so he was sent for. Meanwhile, the girl dressed in her finest and lay in bed, waiting for him, as pretty as a picture. He came, looked her over and asked some questions. And she was something to see – arching her neck coyly, and talking soft and sweet, like she was singing. He stayed for about an hour. “I’ll call on you tomorrow,” he said as he left. The old one asked something, but she was lost in thought, and just nodded. “What about that doctor? What does he seem like?” the grandmother asked again. The girl started. “Oh, he’s proud,” she said. “As proud as a grand duke. Just who does he think he is?” So the poor fellow kept coming to treat her until he fell in love with her. She, too, fell for him. All those young gentlemen immediately caught on and made themselves scarce. The old mistress was so desperate she nearly knocked her head against the wall, but there was nothing much she could do about it. “Just try getting into our way, Granny, and I’ll kill myself!” the young one told her. “And stop that talk! Don’t try to make me change my mind – have pity!” So the grandmother stopped trying and just groaned. XIV The yard was empty and quiet; no more horses stamping their hooves, no more carriages rolling in and out all the time. The young mistress also got quieter. She didn’t scold or beat us, or even complain about us any more. All she did now was sit and think. Almost as soon as the sun went up in the sky, the doctor would be there, driving his two horses. She’d be watching for him at the window, dressed up, pretty and flushing as red as a rose. He’d run inside, and if one of us chanced to be there, he’d say, “Morning, girl! How’s the young mistress?” Often he stayed the whole day. He’d just sit next to her, never moving more than a foot from her side. The old mistress would peep at them, first out of one door and then out of another, and listen, trying to catch their words. She was terribly annoyed to see them together, but there was no way she could break them up – she was that much afraid of her beloved granddaughter. Then the doctor proposed. The old mistress wept and grieved mightily: “Did I hope to marry you to a prince, a wealthy man, a great noble!” “Oh, my God!” the young one shouted, crying. “If he were rich and a great noble, I wouldn’t have waited a minute. I’d have married him long ago. But what can I do if I’m so unlucky? That’s my cruel fate!” “Is there none better?” the old one spoke again, not really insisting, but making it sound like she was simply asking a question. “To me, there’s nobody but him in the whole world – and there won’t ever be any one better!”
34 The young mistress became so moody she even lost color and got thinner. The old one was completely at a loss, not sure with which foot to approach her granddaughter. If she so much as dropped a hint that they didn’t really have to go ahead with that marriage, the young one would fly into a rage and burst into tears. But when the old mistress wanted to comfort her and started saying things like, “Wait until you get married,” that only made the girl curse her fate. “The Lord has brought this misfortune down on me,” she said. “But all I know is I can’t help it.” Her sweetheart noticed it all and began worrying. “What’s the matter? Why are you so sad?” he’d ask. “Well, I’m not, really...” “Tell me the truth, please,” he pleaded, kissing her hand. “So we’re getting married,” she said. “But how shall we live? In misery?” “So that’s really what you’re worried about, darling? But do we need to be wealthy for our lives to be sweet and happy?” “Which means you don’t think of me at all,” she retorted. “How will you like it if somebody comes to visit us and then starts going around, saying, ‘Well, those two are counting each penny’?” she cried. “Well, dear, what do you expect me to do about my being what I am – which is poor? How can I help it? I’ve never really cared about being rich, though now I wish I possessed all the riches in the world for you to enjoy. But what can I do? I could promise you the moon, but you know I’ll never get it!” And the two would complain to each other on and on. XV She did love him in her own way, but it was a bit strange – not exactly the way people usually love. There were all those young ladies, her neighbors, coming to see her every now and then and asking all sorts of questions: “Is it true that this high hat has fallen in love with you? Has he proposed? Is he jealous? What gifts has he been giving you? Do you do everything he says or is it the other way around?” “Judge for yourselves,” she’d reply with a sly smile. And then she’d start giving them examples. “Look,” she told him once. “Go into town and buy me this and that and make it quick. You’d better hurry if you don’t want me to be angry!” So he went right off and brought everything she’d listed. “My God, what’ve you bought all this for? I don’t want any of it! Go and exchange them, because I don’t have any use for such things. Where did you dig them up, anyway?” So he had to go back and have it exchanged. Or else, he was about to drink some water. “Don’t, don’t drink that water!” “Why?” “I don’t want you to – that’s why!” “But I’m thirsty.” “But I don’t want you to – can’t you hear? I don’t want!” She’d then glance at him or smile in some way that made him obey. But when she was annoyed, she’d turn her back on him and refuse to speak to him. Then he’d apologize and plead, and she’d nearly bring him to tears that way. Those girls who came to visit were wondering:
35 “Well, I never! Who’d think he was capable of such a love! Just how did you do it? What prayers did you say?” But our young mistress only smiled. When asked about his gifts, she just spread out before them all the velvet and satin dresses her grandmother had given her: “Look what he’s bought me!” she’d boast. Well, isn’t it funny, the way the gentry love? For his part, he plainly couldn’t stand the sight of all those respectable neighbors, and could barely wait until they were gone. Meanwhile, the old mistress had been asking around about how he was getting along, and she’d somehow found out that he had a hamlet. “Let me tell you something, dear! He owns a hamlet!” “Oh, does he?” the girl shouted, starting up. “Where? How do you know?” “It’s not too far from town. They say he had an aunt who died not long ago and left it to him in her will. She never had children of her own, and it was she who brought him up.” “Good Lord! Why didn’t he tell me? It must be something pretty small – nothing special. But still, it’s a hamlet! Why, it’s an estate!” When he came, she gave him a warm welcome and was really nice to him, which pleased him immensely. He didn’t know, of course, that it wasn’t him that was welcome – it was that hamlet! XVI They were engaged at Christmas. Guests turned up in huge numbers. The young mistress was cheerful and talkative, and her eyes shone as she walked around on his arm. He didn’t take his eyes off her, so he even stumbled as he walked. The party didn’t break up until daylight. But as soon as her fiancé and guests had left, she suddenly broke into tears, complaining about her misfortune: “Oh, what have I done? Why should I have done it? Now my life’s going to be really miserable. I wish I’d never seen the light of day! I’m so unhappy! Poor orphan that I am!” Her grandmother probably wished it had never come to that engagement, and she began to soothe her: “Don’t you cry, my dear! That’s enough, stop it!” “Oh, why didn’t the Lord make him well-off?” the girl wailed, running all about the room, shedding tears and wringing her hands. “My child! My dear! Don’t cry! You aren’t going to be the richest, but you won’t be poor either. Because all I’ve got is yours too.” That was when the young one darted to the grandmother and hugged and kissed her. “Oh, Granny! I’m really so grateful – heart and soul! You’ve made the world look brighter to me; you’ve made me feel like I’ve been born again!” “Enough, let me go now, or I’ll start weeping myself. Well, I never!” said the grandmother, laughing and crying at the same time. “Granny, dear! Will you be living with us?” “I surely wish I could, but I don’t think it would be the right thing to do. I’d rather stay here in Dubtsi to keep the place going. You go and take charge of the hamlet. How else? We leave this place or the other – and without us around it’ll go to wreck and ruin. We wouldn’t be quite happy about it, anyway. The master’s footsteps fatten the soil, as the saying goes.” “Good, Granny, fine. Let it be so then. Ah, Granny, I do feel like I’ve been born again.” “Stay joyful then and don’t cry.” “I won’t, Granny – never!” Her fiancé had barely stepped over the threshold when she sprang to him: “Granny’s going to let us have Dubtsi!” He looked calm enough as he told her, gently:
36 “I see you’re glad and so am I. I myself have taken a fancy to this village. Here we met and fell in love. Do you remember how green and blossoming the orchard was as we were walking in it, talking to each other?” And she said: “Green orchard, dear me! Better think of how profitable Dubtsi is.” Here the young fellow shuddered and just stared at her as though something had suddenly struck and frightened him, as if he’d been stabbed in the back. “Is something the matter?” she asked. “Why are you staring at me like that? Did I say something mean? Don’t you want us to manage our property in a decent way?” She took his hand and smiled sweetly to him. He also smiled. “Oh, you,” he said. “My dear little landlady!” XVII The young mistress became more cheerful and set about her dowry, ordering us around, getting everything ready and doing a lot herself, too. Plenty of shoemakers, tailors, seamstresses, peddlers and vendors were brought in from town. She was bustling about the house, running her fiancé off his legs, buying, cutting, packing – all at a breakneck speed. We serfs had it toughest of all – which was our lot anyway. For whether the masters mourned or celebrated, all we knew for sure was: the master’s wedding is the chicken’s death. We had so many guests for the wedding that the house was buzzing like a beehive. All those young ladies gazed at the trousseau wide-eyed: “Oh, isn’t it lovely! And this is nice, too! Look at this! Now, that one must be really expensive!” Every now and then, one of them would suddenly close her eyes, as though her heart had missed a beat at the sight of a kerchief or some dress. They were attracted by all that stuff like flies are to honey. Were we glad to get rid of them at last! XVIII What with all that crowd, fuss and rushing about, I couldn’t spare a minute to say goodbye to the girls. So I ran to them only when the horses were already standing in harness, ready and waiting. I couldn’t find my voice’ and just hugged them all, old and young alike. The bridegroom came for her in a carriage drawn by four sleek black horses. The coachman was a broad-shouldered mustached fellow wearing a tall hat. He, too, was a serf, but he’d been schooled after the masters’ fashion. The gentry were making all kinds of noise saying goodbye to one another and crying, and that coachman just sat there stock-still, looking neither left nor right. The masters got on. I was seated at the back, on a seat perched high above the ground. “Go, Nazar, and may God help us!” my new master shouted merrily. It was a quiet, clear morning when we
37 left the village. There was also a tingling frost. Frost had powdered the willows and their branches were white and glistening in the sun. The girls fell out onto the street, bowing goodbye to me. The horses galloped quickly and everything seemed to flash past my eyes. Then we left the village behind us, and there was just the road – the long empty road all the way ahead.
XIX Before long, we drove into town, and in a way it was like stepping inside an anthill. The whole place was teeming with people – walking, riding, selling, buying... There were serfs, gentry, soldiers, peddlers... Also, wherever I looked I saw Jews in their long frock coats, crawling like cockchafers all over the place. The master told the coachman to pull up at the inn and led his young wife inside. He gave the coachman a few coins, telling him to find himself some lunch. But he didn’t even look my way. So I just sat there, looking all round. It was all so strange and new to me! Then I heard somebody calling, “Hey you, the pretty one!” It even made me start. That was the coachman calling me. I had a good look at him and saw he was like a crow, because his hair was so black. He grinned, showing his countless milk-white teeth. “You want somebody?” I asked. “Guess who! What’s your name? Ustina, isn’t it? I’m Nazar. Let’s go and have a bit of lunch.” I’d gotten terribly cold, so I wondered if I should come with him. But should I? What if the mistress raised hell? “Thank you,” I told him. “I’m not hungry.” The coachman smiled. “As you like, sweetie,” he said and left.
38 XX I had to wait a good while until they came out. The master’s eyes then fell on me. “What are you sitting like that for, Ustina?” he asked. “Have you had anything to eat?” He turned to the bearded owner who had also come out and was standing on the steps, jingling the coins as he counted them in his palm. “Hey!” he called out to him. “Give this girl something to eat, will you!” The man pocketed the money and ran back inside. “What? What?” the mistress gasped in horror. “Are we going to wait for her?” “Why not, darling?” he said. “Isn’t she hungry and pretty cold, too?” “So what? They are used to it. We’re late, and I’m afraid to travel in the dark.” “Run, Ustina and make it quick,” the master told me. “Just hurry up, so we don’t have to wait for you.” The mistress turned red to the roots of her hair. “Time to go!” “But she’s hungry, darling. Look how cold she is.” “I am cold, I, I!” she whined, stressing that “I”. “Get on!” she snapped at me and jumped onto the carriage. The master looked bewildered; he stood there not knowing what to do or say. “Well?” she said. “Are you coming?” The poor fellow climbed up and sat next to her. “Now what about that lunch for the girl?” – this from the bearded innkeeper. My master and mistress kept on talking for quite a bit after that. Then they stopped and stayed silent even longer. XXI It was already dusk when we reached the hamlet. Here and there, light could be seen in the windows. We drove along the street and stopped in front of the master's house. Out on the porch stood some folks with lighted candles and holy bread, bowing and greeting the young couple. “Thank you!” said the master, accepting the bread. “I've brought you your mistress. Do you like her?” He laughed happily – who wouldn't like such a beauty? But the mistress's eyes glittered with rage; she flashed an angry glance at him, and there was a terrible expression on her face. The master's serfs advanced towards her to greet her after their own fashion, but she just snatched a candle from somebody's hands and sprang inside. The serfs drew away from that door and didn't even get a chance to say something to the master. He hung his head low and went straight in, looking sad and uncomfortable. I went in after them and looked round the house. The rooms were rather small, but clean and nice. The tables and the chairs were all new and shining. Then I heard the master and the mistress talking. I paused to listen – she was sobbing and he doing everything to try and get her to stop: “Don’t cry, my love, my dear! If only I’d known you’d object, I wouldn’t have said that – never!” “You must have been encouraging your serfs to be familiar with you! Oh, how nice indeed – them staring at me, grinning at me, almost rushing to hug me! What a shame! How dare they!” She screamed that last bit. “Look, darling! They are good simple people...” “I don’t want to look, or hear, or see anything!” she spluttered. “You just want to get rid of me, that’s what you want!” she sobbed. “Enough, my dear, enough! You might fall properly ill... Stop crying, please! I’ll do everything as you tell me. Forgive me.” “You don’t really love me. You don’t care anything for me. May God forgive you!”
“You know better than to say such things. I don’t love you? That’s just not true, and you know it!” Then I heard them kissing. “Mind you,” she said. “If you don’t do things my way, I’ll die!” “I will, darling, I will!” XXII I went through all the rooms, and there was not a soul around. It made me wonder if they had all run away from us. I went out onto the porch. The night was clear and starry. I stood there, looking round, when I heard “Good evening!” suddenly, sounding like somebody had plucked a string right behind me. I started and spun round to find myself looking at a tall handsome fellow who stood there, smiling at me. I suddenly felt shy and frightened and I froze. I was tongue-tied and just stared into his eyes. “You’re standing here all by yourself,” he spoke again. “It looks like you don’t know your way around.” “If I didn’t, I’d ask you,” I snapped at him, finding my voice. “Good evening.” And I hurried back inside. “Bye, sweetie-pie!” he called after me. XXIII The master and the mistress were still walking about the building. She peered into every corner to see what was what. Then she saw the dried flowers stuck behind an icon. “What’s that?” “Some flowers my old housekeeper put there.” “What? Is it she who runs the house? Throw that stuff away, darling. There’s too much peasant about it.” “All right, dear.”
40 Then she kissed him: “Oh, you’re such a darling!” When they were finished walking and talking, the master said: “Why isn’t there anybody around, I wonder. Where’s my housekeeper?” “You see, you see,” she nagged him. “See how slack they are? She must’ve gone out because she felt like it – as simple as that!” “She wouldn’t go far. Let me call her. Hey there!” he called out like an obedient little boy. “She’ll be right over,” he assured the mistress. “Just where is she?” “She must be busy doing something, dear. She’s my only servant.” “And where’s my Ustina? Or has she also learned to run away without asking? Ustina! Ustina!” I hurried over to her. “Where have you been?” “Over in that room.” I went back behind the door and kept on looking and listening. XXIV An old, old woman entered. She was bent with age, and her face was all wrinkles, but her dark eyes were remarkably alive and clear. She went in, stepping softly, bowed to the mistress and asked: “What do you want, sir?” The mistress nearly started to her feet, hearing such bold talk from the old woman. “Where have you been? I’ve actually had to call for you,” said the master. “I’ve been in the kitchen, helping Hanna to prepare a truly tasty supper for you.” Even though the master felt his wife breathe down his neck, he didn’t have the heart to scold the old woman there and then. He blinked, coughed, walked up and down the room, but still couldn’t make up his mind. The mistress turned away from him, and the old woman stood quietly at the threshold. “What about that supper?” the master asked, frowning even more. “It’s ready, sir,” the old woman replied quietly. He turned to the mistress: “Shall we eat some supper, darling?” “1 don’t want any,” she said curtly and dashed out of the room, slamming the door behind her. “Then I won’t be eating either,” the master said sorrowfully. “I’ll be going then. Good night, sir.” “You may go. Only mind you, don’t make me run about looking for you!” he began sternly, but then bit his tongue at once when she said evenly, “Certainly sir.” She bowed to him and went out. XXV The master was pacing up and down the room. He heard his wife crying across the wall. “My God!” he spoke to himself. “Why is she crying?” He spoke that last word very softly, and his voice sounded so very sad! Then he couldn’t stand it any more and went to kiss and soothe her. It took him quite a while before she stopped. “All the same, I’m not eating,” she declared. “I couldn’t stand the sight of your servants anyway. Why, they treat you as they would their own brother. Some relatives!” XXVI I sat all alone in the servants’ room. It was sad and still. Was this going to be my life? Very encouraging, indeed! It occurred to me that now our girls back home would have the time of
41 their lives with the young mistress gone. They’d certainly have it nice together. And there I was – away from home and not a soul around... There suddenly was a tap on the window. The blood rushed to my cheeks, because I somehow guessed who it was. But I sat where I was, pretending I’d heard nothing. After a while, there was another tap. I jumped to my feet and closed all the doors, so the masters wouldn’t hear it. “Who’s there?” I asked. “It’s me, sweetie-pie.” “You must have lost your way,” I said, “because it seems you’re knocking on the wrong window.” “I bet it’s not the wrong window – not this one! That’s what I’ve got eyes in my head for – to find who I look for.” “You shouldn’t have taken the trouble. And what’s the big idea – talking through a double pane? Get away from that window if you don’t want the masters to hear us.” And I walked away from the window myself. “Look here, sweetie-pie!” he went on. “Why have you stuck your nose in that window, Prokip?” somebody grumbled in a low voice. “Supper’s been ready long enough and none of you people have turned up yet!” XXVII I heard somebody step into the passageway. I went to open the door and saw it was the old woman, the master’s housekeeper. “Good evening, my girl,” she said. “We invite you to have supper with us, dearie.” “Thanks, Granny.” “Come along then.” “I’ll have to ask the mistress first.” “Are you sure you have to? You’re just going to supper.” “She tells me if I’m going.” The old woman didn’t speak for a while and then said: “All right, go and ask her. I’ll be right here.” The master and the mistress sat close to each other, chattering happily. She snapped as I went in: “Why are you butting in?” “May I go out to supper?” I asked. “Take off – have supper!” XXVIII I followed the old woman across the yard into the outbuilding. “Well, here she is,” said the old woman as she led me into the room. Sitting at the table were Nazar, the black-haired coachman, and a pretty young woman, his wife. The stove was ablaze. Light flickered merrily on the whitewashed walls and on the icons in the corner which were hung with an embroidered rushnik and decorated with dried flowers and herbs. Green, red and yellow earthen plates of all sizes gleamed like jewelry from the dish rack. Everything in that room looked clean, bright and gay – a tow of soft flax hanging on a pole, a black sheepskin coat on a peg and a wicker cradle with a baby in it. They bowed to me: “Welcome to our midst.” “Now what about seating this beauty next to me, eh?” Nazar grinned. “Just what makes you think you’re the best one here?” I asked. Then I looked around and saw that Prokip was also there, sitting in a corner and looking at me in such a way that I felt a strange thrill run through me.
42 “Why not?” said Nazar. “Take a good look at me: don’t you think I’m a mighty goodlooking fellow?” “You sometimes look like that in the dark,” his wife teased him merrily. Her name was Katria, and a nice pert woman she was. She had blond hair, her nose was turned up just a bit, her eyes were blue and bright, and she was all nicely rounded and fresh-looking, like an apple. She wore a red kerchief and a green flannel skirt. She was perky and witty and awfully spry. She was talking, working and rocking the cradle all at once. Now her embroidered sleeves would fly all over the table, and the very next minute her rings were glittering over at the stove. “Well, well,” Nazar said. “If it weren’t for supper, you’d surely hear a good one from me!” At this very moment Katria placed a plateful of dumplings on the table. Nazar winked at me. “It’s no sin to have a good supper for one who’s skipped lunch!” he said. XXIX For all her talk and banter, Katria still seemed sad and worried. The old woman was sitting quietly, dignified and thoughtful. Only Nazar was in a playful mood, cracking jokes, roaring with laughter and flashing his milk-white teeth. As to Prokip, I wasn’t looking at him any more. “Tell us, dearie,” the old woman spoke to me. “How long have you been in the young mistress’s service?” “Isn’t she pretty?” Katria broke in. “What good is there in her being pretty,” Nazar cried out, “if she makes you wither just by staring at you!” The old woman sighed heavily. “Don’t get started, Nazar.” “Our master, though, is a truly decent fellow,” Katria spoke again. “He can’t have hurt a soul as long as he lives.” “I wish to God his wife were like him,” said the old woman. “What is it going to be like for us now?” Katria said worriedly. She sighed and sank into thought. “Just what is it going to be like?” she said again, softly, looking at me, like she wanted me to tell her. But I didn’t say anything. “It will all be according to God’s will, dear,” the old woman said. “Well, come what may,” Nazar called out. “We can take it. Now everybody get down to the dumplings. Why don’t you join us, Prokip? Is it the young mistress who’s caught your fancy? Or, maybe, this beauty here?” He winked at me again. “I wish I’d never see that young mistress again – not even in a dream,” said Prokip as he took a seat across the table from me. “Where do they make them so mean, anyway?” Then Katria turned to me: “Dearie! Tell us everything!” She paused. Everybody was looking hard at me. Prokip also had his eyes glued to my face. If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t have cared, but he somehow made me shy, so that I blushed and nearly felt like crying. “Dearie! Is our young mistress bad?” asked Katria. “She’s a cruel thing,” I said. “Good Lord!” she cried out. “That’s what I’ve felt in my heart all along! Think of my child!” She sprang to the cradle and leaned over the baby. “That surely wasn’t what I bargained on, when I, a free girl, agreed to marry a serf! And now she’s already as good as doomed us all with that evil eye of hers!” Tears gushed from her eyes, pouring down over her face. “The devil’s not as terrible as he’s painted,” said Nazar. “No need to get panicky. Let’s wait and see first.” But Katria just kept on crying and wailing as if she were certain that her baby had really been doomed by the mistress’s evil stare.
43 “Stop crying, dearie!” the old woman tried to comfort her. “Do we have to torture our hearts? Don’t we all have the merciful Lord to take care of us?” Prokip didn’t breathe a word, only wherever I looked, my eyes met his stare. XXX I finished my supper, said a prayer and ran back to the building. “Good night,” Prokip called after me. “Good night!” I called back, diving into the passageway. My heart was throbbing as I entered the servants’ room. I began thinking, wondering why he’d been staring at me like that. Next, the mistress came to mind; she’d hardly set foot in the yard, but she’d already made everybody worried. But why was Prokip after me?... Why, he surely looked like an awfully nice fellow! A full moon was hanging low in the sky, and the words of a song came to m mind: Oh dear moon up in the sky, Hide your light from everyone... A feeling of sweet sadness suddenly engulfed me. I wasn’t sure what I really wished in my heart of hearts – to hear his voice through that window once more, or never to see him there again. XXXI A day passed, then a week, then a month, and soon half a year went by like water under a bridge. The hamlet looked quiet and peaceful, its orchards green and blossoming. But anyone who’d bother taking a closer look would have immediately seen that things had changed a lot. Now people woke up and went to bed crying and cursing. The young mistress had gotten her way in everything. She had found hard work for all and made it plain hell for everybody. She did not allow a soul to go idle – not even poor cripples or little children. The children were made to sweep the gardens and feed the turkeys; the cripples had to stay in the master’s kitchen garden scaring away sparrows and other birds. The mistress also made every job a real torture with her nagging and arrogance. She seemed to have a hundred eyes which saw everything and to be everywhere at once, twisting her way all around the hamlet, like a lizard. God knows what it was she had in her; only whenever she looked at you, it felt like she was wringing your heart. Her gentry neighbors praised her to the skies: “Isn’t she a good manager! Isn’t she clever! It doesn’t matter she’s young – we all should learn from her.” At first, the hamlet folks pinned their hopes on the master but before long they all lost faith. He was a goodhearted easygoing master, but he was weak – a real coward! True, he did try to talk some sense into his wife, but she plainly wasn’t that kind of woman. So he was soon afraid of even broaching the subject and just acted like he didn’t see or hear anything. He had neither strength nor spirit. Oh, he was certainly a good master – one of those kind masters who didn’t scold or beat their serfs – but never took care of them either! She had only to do a little moaning and screaming and make like she was going to faint to have him there in a wink, kissing her hands and feet, crying himself and raging at us, “Damn you all! Hang you all! My wife nearly died because of you!” “He’s no good,” Nazar said. “I could immediately tell he had no backbone when I saw him buying that lunch for Ustina. If I had a wife like his, I’d make her walk straight into a swarm of mosquitoes and let her puff and pant there.” He broke into laughter. That was just like him – laughing and joking all the time. It seemed he would be cracking jokes as he was fried alive. Katria, however, kept on weeping her eyes dry. She did so much crying it made you wonder where all those tears were coming from. She would take her baby in her arms and cry on and on, and then, all of a sudden, she would break into sobs. Prokip got quite moody too. He brooded most of the time and wouldn’t even say anything funny to me.
44 “How come you’re so gloomy?” I asked him one evening. “What makes you so sad?” He suddenly grabbed my hand and drew me close to him and kissed me. Then he was gone before I could understand what had happened. XXXII All the people in the hamlet now seemed to have faded and withered; only the old woman was as dignified as ever. For the mistress just couldn’t scold her long enough or shout at her loud enough to ever make her frightened or fidgety; the old woman walked softly and spoke softly, and her eyes were always calm and clear. On several occasions I’d suddenly find myself in her arms, crying – exactly like a child cuddling up to its mother. “Now don’t cry, my girl, don’t cry,” she’d say then, softly and gently. “Let the evil ones weep; you show patience and see it through to the end. You can endure it, can’t you?” Oh, Lord! Those were days full of sadness and sorrow. There was none of the usual lively talk or laughter. The hamlet folk kept well clear of the master’s yard; and those who did come over on some business, kept looking around cautiously and just couldn’t wait to get out, like it was a far-off forest where some evil wild beast was at large. One evening I finished supper rather late, and was hurrying back to the master’s, wondering why Prokip hadn’t been in for supper. Then he appeared in front of me, out of the blue. He stood in my way and wouldn’t let me pass. “Tell me truly, Ustina, do you love me?” I would have fled, but my legs failed me. I stood there, my face burning... He took my hand and held me in his arms and asked me again and again, “Do you love me?” Now, wasn’t he funny! We sat there for a while, talking and kissing and holding hands – and we forgot all our troubles. I felt joy in my heart and loved the world, and everything in it seemed so bright and beautiful. Why, even the mistress noticed. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked. “Why are you so red, as though you’ve been beaten? Or have you filched something?” XXXIII Good heavens! How impatient I was, looking forward to those dark, sheltering nights! By the time the mistress told me to go off to supper, Prokip would already be waiting outside. He’d meet me and we’d stand there for a while together, speaking of our worries. During the day, though, even if we chanced to run into each other, we’d just exchange glances, without a word, and continue on our separate ways. “It’ll get you into trouble, this love of yours,” Katria used to say. “You’re just being wise after the event, my dearest,” Nazar would tease her. “If you were now to fall in love with me all over again, you’d do it cheerfully!”
45 “What are you talking about! I just can’t bear to see these two, because my heart bleeds when I think of what awaits them.” “Now don’t you frighten and torment the girl,” the old woman would say. “If she’s in love, let her love. It was destined for her.” XXXIV As to the mistress, she became even more cruel and wicked. Whenever she thought I was a bit slow or a minute late, she met me with her usual “Where have you been?” which always meant I was in for it. At first, it drove me to despair, but after a while I became sort of indifferent to all this abuse. The trouble was there for good, anyway. True, I still – couldn’t help crying while she was berating me and yelling at me; but after I’d done my usual share of crying, I’d wipe away my tears and become my own self again – cheerful, laughing and joking. I kept my hair neatly braided and my blouse washed clean, and I wouldn’t even complain to anyone. A lot of good that would have done me! That would have only made the other folk think of their own troubles, and every one of them had plenty. Why, I wouldn’t breathe a word even to Prokip, because I knew that always got him into a mood as black as night, when nothing would make him cheer up enough to talk or eat something. Good Lord! What with all those troubles – my own and other people’s – we saw little we could do to help one another. Katria’s baby got sick, and there she was, busy all day long, digging and sowing the kitchen garden and cooking for the masters, also hearing the mistress shouting at her all the time, “You never get anything done at all! You only get fed for nothing! I’ll teach you yet how to work!” Throughout the night Katria wouldn’t get a wink of sleep sitting with her baby daughter, and as soon as it was daylight, she would be off to work. The old woman would then look after the baby, and she’d always be doing something to cheer up Katria too. She’d either carry out the baby to her once in a while, or come out herself and say something like, “She’s quiet now” or “She’s gone to sleep”. A real gift from God the old woman was, always tireless and alert and helpful. “Why are you working yourself to death, Katria?” I asked once. Her eyes were sunken and burning in a sickly way. “I’ll just keep on working while I can. Maybe it’ll please the mistress and make her show some mercy.” But it never did, though. She went on working and going without sleep until she went out like a candle at the cradle one night. She woke up and rushed to the cradle, but the baby was already well on its way to the heavens. The poor mother barely had the time to look at it and press it to her heart before it passed away.
46 Katria suffered and grieved terribly, although at times she sounded almost as if she were glad: “Now my child, my poor dear baby will be an angel in heaven where she’ll never know any suffering!” But then she’d break down and wail: “But she’ll never again stretch out her tiny arms to me! She’ll never be here to comfort me in this world! My child! She’s left me forever, my dear little daughter!” Nazar seemed all in one piece and did what he could to console his wife, telling her she was still young and all, but his once ringing voice had faded somewhat, and he, too, grieved, although he tried not to show it. After that misfortune, Katria wasted away completely, her health failing to the point she could barely walk, let alone work. Yet the mistress wouldn’t let up: “Why aren’t you working? I’ll teach you! I’ll show you!” “I’m not afraid of you any more.” Katria said. “You may eat me alive for all I care!” The mistress made sure, of course, she didn’t get away with saying such things. “What’s going to happen to us all?” I asked Prokip. “Ustina, dear! You’ve bound my hands!” XXXV The mistress drove Katria out of the house to work in the fields; even her husband’s being the master’s coachman meant nothing to her. The master gave Katria a ruble, making sure the mistress didn’t see it. Only Katria wouldn’t touch that money, so he just placed the coin on her shoulder, but she shook it off, as if it were a bee. That ruble fell onto the lawn and lay there until it blackened, because nobody would touch it. Finally, the mistress herself spotted it and picked it up as she walked through the yard. “Have you been out scattering money?” she asked the master. “Dear me, dear!” The master said nothing, only his face turned beet red. Katria just didn’t want to live any more. Something had snapped inside her since that terrible tragedy. She ran around woods and swamps, looking for her daughter until one day she drowned, poor thing. The master was pretty distraught, but the mistress only said: “There’s no reason why this whole thing should upset you so. Didn’t you see she was always crazy? Her eyes were so weird, and then she was always saying things that made no sense...” “True enough!” the master continued eagerly. “She certainly didn’t have all her wits about her!” And crazy it would be. Wasn’t it comfortable to think so? They talked for a while and erased the whole thing from their minds. XXXVI A retired soldier from town was hired to do the cooking. There was a curious fellow! Each time he finished cooking for the master and mistress, he’d eat a bit of lunch and lie down on the bench and start whistling. There he’d lie, whistling on and on, and then suddenly he’d sing out, making a high, shrill sound, like a rooster crowing. He cared not a bit about our troubles; he’d only ask sometimes, “Were you beaten today?” adding, “It can’t be any other way – that’s what service is all about.” Nazar had never been quite the same again; he kind of wilted, but he kept on joking: “If I got somebody for a servant a single day, I’d make sure he remembered it as long as he lived!” The mistress praised that cook highly, saying he was a mighty decent fellow who treated her with all due respect. He was certainly something to see when he stood before her, as stiff as a ramrod, his arms pinned to his sides and his eyes fixed on her face. “I tried to catch the spotted pig; the spotted pig ran off into the weeds; so I went after the black pig, caught the black pig, killed the black pig, roasted the black pig...” He’d rattle it off and wait for the mistress to say something, his eyes blinking...
47 The mistress would tell him, time and again: “Good! Very good! It’s all good! But mind you, don’t get slack here among my lazy rabble.” “I’d never do that, Madam!” He’d bow low to her, face right, face left, smack his heels and march out – back to the bench and more whistling. “Damn you!” I snarled at him once. “Will you never stop that whistling? Here we are, grieving, mourning, suffering, and you...” “Don’t fret! It isn’t called service for nothing. Look how many teeth I’ve got left. Lost them in the army. There was a captain – ugh!” He just moaned. “What did you think, anyway? What’s the way to live in this world? What’s the way to serve and to please? They bear down on you and tear at you, they hoot and howl at you, and you better just stand there and don’t dare bat an eyelid! No, sir! God forbid!” And he went on whistling. Prokip suddenly got so mad he flung his pipe on the ground. “Even oxen in a yoke bellow, and here you want good Christians to put up with injustice and abuse and not even speak up!” He thundered at the soldier who stopped whistling and gaped at Prokip like he was seeing a white crow. “I’m just not that kind of man,” Prokip said. “With me it’s either win the saddle or lose the horse.” “With me it’s just run away!” Nazar laughed. “The road’s my home.” “You’ll get caught!” the soldier cried, leaping to his feet. “They’ll get you and then you’re in for it!” Even though we had plenty on our minds, we all burst out laughing. “All captains aren’t fast,” said Nazar. “Some may trip as they run. You better tell me where to run. It may turn out to be running from bad to worse. It might be like getting from the frying-pan into the fire...” “Gentry, masters everywhere..,” he broke into a song like he’d suddenly struck a bell. XXXVII A year after we had moved, the old mistress died. She’d clung to life to the end, though. She kept praying and reading the Scriptures, and had had prayers said for her in churches. She also had candles burning at the icons day and night; and once, when a candle went out, she ordered a flogging for the little girl whom she’d put there to keep them lit. “You’re a sinner,” she said, “and you’ve done harm to my salvation, too.” XXXVII Our mistress grieved terribly, mourning her grandmother. “I’m all alone in the world! My property, too, will now run to ruin! I can’t take care of everything by myself,” she told the master. “And I can’t expect you to be of any help cither. You certainly won’t add to our possessions – if anything, you’ll squander what little we have. You don’t seem to care that God will soon send us a child. For the sake of our child, if not for me, mend your ways, dear! Learn to manage things, keep an eye on everything, but above all, don’t spoil the serfs!” “For God’s sake, darling, what makes you say such things? There’s no need for you to worry. I’ll do everything you want me to, everything!” he tried to reassure her. Then once he told her, thinking he was going to make her happy: “Stop being busy for a while, will you, darling. Listen to what I’m going to tell you – I’ve already chosen a godfather for our child.” “Whom have you chosen?” the mistress immediately demanded. “A friend of mine. He’s really a fine fellow.” “Oh, God! Just as I thought – a nobody! Well, I’m having none of that! Not on your life – never!” And she burst into tears.
48 “Don’t cry, darling!” the master begged her. “It might make you sick! All right, we won’t have him as godfather – I’ll tell him I’m sorry and that will be it. Tell me whom you want, and I’ll go and ask him.” “You should ask the colonel, who else?” “So the colonel it will be. I’ll go to him tomorrow. Well, darling, I’m sorry I’ve annoyed you.” “That’s just it, you don’t care for me at all; you only make me angry.” “Darling!” the master spoke softly. “Try to care for me as well. All you do is get angry, shout, quarrel, and I hoped...” And he suddenly burst out in loud sobs. The mistress rushed to him: “What’s the matter? Why?” She tried to take his hands, but he pressed them to his face and continued sobbing. She spoke to him, kissed him and embraced him, but it took her quite a while to calm him down. “Tell me why you cried! Please!” she asked him. “I don’t really know, dear,” he said, trying to smile. “Something came over me. I don’t feel too well. Anyhow, don’t let it bother you. Well, that was really funny, wasn’t it, me crying like a child?” But he sighed. “Maybe you think I don’t love you any more?” the mistress said. “You certainly do.” “You know I do! But we just can’t sit around together all the time. We’ve got work to do, darling!” She kissed him. Next morning, the master went to see the colonel. XXXIX The mistress gave birth to a boy. Lots of people turned up for the christening-party which was quite lavish. The colonel, who had agreed to be the godfather, rode in noisily in a carriage drawn by gray horses with jingling bells. He was a stout man with a round red face who tried to keep his shoulders square and was constantly twisting up his mustache with his right hand
49 while his left was busy supporting his saber. I was only too glad to find myself less occupied for a while, so I ran out to Prokip. We were standing near the porch, talking, when the master suddenly turned up, looking pretty cheerful, just as he’d been back when he was courting the mistress. “Why are you standing here together?” he laughed. “Talking?” And Prokip said to him: “Let me marry this girl, sir!” “All right, go and marry her. You have my permission. Marry and be happy.” “What about the mistress?” Prokip asked. The master sighed and became thoughtful. Then he said: “Come with me. Take her hand, Prokip.” He went inside and Prokip led me after him, squeezing my hand. “Darling,” the master said. “I’ve brought you a young couple. How do you like them?” The room was packed full with guests. The colonel was there, too, strolling up and down among them, as vain as a peacock, giggling quietly. The mistress was sitting in an armchair. She shot us a glance and turned away. Her merry smile suddenly vanished, and she looked up at the master angrily. “What is this all about?” she asked. Prokip bowed to her and pleaded. “I’ve already given them my permission,” the master said. “Give them yours too, my dear. The Lord has made us happy, so let them also be happy!” The mistress said nothing, biting her lip. Then the colonel interrupted and bellowed, like he was blowing a trumpet: “Aren’t they a good match, the lucky devils? Don’t they look fine, the two of them? Why, we certainly should marry them off, my dear relative!” Then he asked me, “You want to get married?” He also wanted to wink at me, but when he dropped his eyelid, it stayed down, because he’d had too much to drink. All the rest repeated after him: “Marry them off, oh yes! Did you hear what Colonel the godfather said – they’re a good match!” At last the mistress said: “Well, let it be.” We were out of there so fast we hardly knew what we were doing. We did not even think of any preparations; we just rushed to the priest and got married there and then so that the mistress couldn’t stop us. She was furious with the master. “You certainly let me down,” she scolded him. “I just can’t forgive you this, the way you embarrassed me!” She also threatened me, “You wait, I’ll show you!” Let her show me anything now, I thought to myself. We were already married, anyway. And I was so glad I could speak openly to him now and look at him whenever I felt like it, because he was already mine. XL I remained the mistress’s maid. If anything, she was even worse, wearing me out till my blood boiled and teasing me all the time: “Well? How do you like it being married? Is it any easier now?” At times, it was so difficult that I might have run away from it all, had I not had my husband to keep up my spirits. When we were together, I felt so happy that I banished all my troubles from my mind. Only my husband was becoming gloomier all the time, and it made my heart bleed. “Don’t you love me any more, Prokip?”
He would then draw me close and look into my eyes so lovingly that I felt as though I were growing wings. “Then why are you so sad, Prokip? Aren’t we together forever now?” “My darling! It was hard enough without you, but with you it’s even harder. Just think that every hour God sends us may bring you more torture and abuse – isn’t it cruel? And I can’t protect you either. It’s tough, Ustina” “We’ll somehow carry on together, Prokip. Anyway, I think it’s easier together.” “You may be right there, sweetie-pie.” Then he’d smile and say something to soothe me. It gladdened my heart to see him smiling and a bit more cheerful. XLI We somehow bore our troubles and woes until the fall. Then it happened... One day we were shaking apples off the trees in the garden and gathering them in baskets. My husband was up a tree, working and shooting glances down at me from the branches. The old woman got tired and sat down to have some rest. “The good summer’s gone already,” she said. “The sun is still shining but it doesn’t warm you up any more.” She looked around. “Ustina, dear,” she said. “Aren’t there some children watching from behind that fence?” There were. “Well, children,” the old woman said. “I think I can guess what you’ve come for.” The children didn’t say anything, but cast furtive glances at the baskets. “Come over here, boys,” she said. “I’ll give you one each.” The children scampered right into the garden. They bunched up all round her like sparrows in a nest, and she busily handed out the apples. The children kicked up a din – you know how children are. Then, out of the blue, the mistress’s voice thundered: “What is this?” The children were terrified. Some cried, others scampered off. My heart throbbed too. “I’ve been giving apples to those children,” the old woman calmly explained. “You! How dare you?” the mistress screamed, her entire body shaking. “You, my serf, have been stealing my property! You’re a thief!” “Me – a thief?” the old woman stammered. Her face turned as white as a sheet, her eyes moistened, and tears rolled out of them. “You’ll steal no more!” shouted the mistress. “I’ve kept an eye on you long enough, but now I’ve got you. Giving away your master’s apples!”
“I’ve never stolen a thing in my life,” the old woman said, her voice already calm, only with a slight quaver. “The master always let us do it. He himself used to give apples to the children. God sends enough fruit for all. Just look at them – aren’t there enough left for you?” “Shut up!” the mistress yelped, jumping on her. I heard the branches rustle. My husband was peering down through the leaves, and there was a terrible expression on his face. I begged him with my eyes. “Thief! Thief!” the mistress barked at the old woman, clawing her shoulder and pushing her hard. “What you’re saying is not fair! I’m no thief, Madam! I’ve been honest all my life, Madam!” “Are you talking back?” And the mistress’s hand fell like an ax – down onto the old woman’s face! The old woman swayed on her feet; I rushed over to her, the mistress to me, my husband to the mistress. “Thank you, my dear,” the old woman spoke to me. “Don’t worry now, don’t anger the mistress.” But the mistress had already seized me by the hair. “Enough, Madam, enough!” my husband thundered, grabbing her arms. “You won’t be doing that any more! Never!” The mistress was so bewildered she only gasped crazily: “What? How? Eh?” Then, as soon as she recovered a bit, she flung herself on Prokip. But he kept her away, saying, “No, enough!” At this point she screamed. People came running and just stood there gaping at us. The master, too, came tearing along, as fast as his legs would carry him. “What’s the matter?” My husband let go of the mistress.
52 “That’s what your good people are really like!” The mistress could barely speak. “Thank you! Why don’t you say something?” she shouted. “I’ve nearly had my arms broken and you don’t say a word!” “What’s been going on here?” the master asked worriedly, turning to all sides. The mistress started telling him. The old woman had robbed her, and then everybody had actually tried to kill her – it was a pretty wild story she told. She was sobbing, screaming and cursing so much that the master also flew into a rage. He rushed over to my husband. “You murderer!” “Stand where you are, sir!” Prokip told him grimly. “I see,” the master said. “This place is too small for you. Just wait: you’ll get a chance to run as wild as you like in the army.” The mistress started squealing: “Get him in the army, oh yes! They’re conscripting people in town now – march him off there right away!” “Get him!” the master snapped at the men. “Tie his hands!” Prokip didn’t resist; he just held out his hands and even smiled. Amid all that hullabaloo Nazar cautioned me: “Don’t get scared, sweetie! And stop crying. It can’t get any worse. Though I’m not sure if it can get any better, either.” XLII They took Prokip to the outer house and placed a guard at the door. Men started getting a wagon ready. Nazar got out another carriage for the master. My husband was silent for a fairly long time and then said: “Ustina! Sit down here beside me.” “What have you done, darling? Do you know what you’ve done?” I said. “I know. You’ll be free – that’s what I’ve done. You’re going to be free, Ustina!”* “Free,” I said, “but without you!” Suddenly I felt so bitter! “Free!” he shouted. “Free! When you’re free, you aren’t afraid of anything – any troubles, any misfortunes. If I were free I’d do anything, I’d move heaven and earth. But for a serf, no matter how lucky, anything good turns out for the worse.” The wagon finally rattled in the *
Under the law, conscripts and their wives were released from serfdom.
53 yard. Prokip was led out. I also climbed on, wearing just what I had on me. The old woman blessed both of us: “May Mother of God help you, my children!” Tears ran smoothly from her gentle eyes. The wagon sped off. I wondered why the mistress hadn’t remembered about me when she’d last talked to the master before we left. I bet she wouldn’t have let me go if she had! We rode in silence, holding hands. I didn’t cry or complain; only my heart fluttered, it kept beating so fast! As we reached the town the master’s carriage overtook us, raising dust. We entered the town, rattled along some streets at a pretty fast pace, and pulled up at a tall building. Prokip let go of my hand. “Don’t grieve, Ustina,” he said. They took him to the conscript board. I sank onto the steps and sat there, as I would at a grave. “Don’t fret,” Nazar said. “Nothing’s so bad that it might have been worse. But then again, bad is the best.” His hair, however, already was flecked with gray here and there, as though strewn with snow. There he was, trying to cheer me up; but it was plain that nothing could cheer him up now. Then Prokip was led back out. Good heavens! My heart missed a beat, but he looked happy as at an Easter party. XLIII I stayed with Prokip in town. The time we spent there together flashed by like a shooting star, but I’ll remember it as long as I live. My husband was immediately handed over to a soldier for military drill. That soldier was a tall man with black eyes, and his hair and mustache were bristly like a brush. He held himself straight as he walked, spoke in a booming voice and had a rather proud manner. We bowed to him, but he didn’t say anything, only eyed Prokip grimly. Prokip gave him some money: “I’m sorry, sir, if that’s too little, but a serf never gets quite rich, you know.” The soldier coughed and spat. “All right,” he said. “Let’s walk a bit around the town, Ustina,” Prokip said to me. So we went for a walk. We strolled along those streets and alleys and he asked me now and then, “Tell me, Ustina, do you realize you’re already a free woman?” He’d smile and peer into my eyes. And worried and sorrowful as I was, I’d smile back, feeling almost happy in a way. I found a small house whose owner said she’d take lodgers, but we had no money and no way to get any either. We had nothing we could sell. All I had I’d left behind. It wasn’t much anyhow – a few blouses, a couple of skirts and a sheepskin coat. To take it all along when we were leaving was the last thing on my mind, and later the mistress wouldn’t let me have it. So now I thought I’d look around to see what work I could pick up. Prokip and I talked it over and went to speak to the owner. We told her all about the situation we were in and asked if she’d take us if we paid by the day. “All right,” she said. “As long as you have money, you can pay me daily, and I can wait when you don’t.” So we moved right in. XLIV Our landlady was an old widow, affable, genial, and terribly chatty. She’d keep talking on and on, all about her troubles that made all her folks die, leaving her all alone in the world. She also sighed every so often and would shed a few tears too. She shed lots of them on our account also; she’d sit there and listen to us talk, and then she’d start crying and saying that there we were – a fine couple with everything seemingly ideal and who should have lived happily without a care in the world... She’d just keep on crying and there was no stopping her.
54 She’d only stop when the soldier came around and growled, “1 see the widow’s been moping again!” She was slightly afraid of him, because he looked like a man who wouldn’t like being asked about something or even spoken to. “Just what kind of man is that!” she’d say. “He’s always so stern and grim – may God save us from the likes of him! Didn’t he ever have a family or what? God knows!” I would get up quite early and run to the work I found. And I would come back late, bringing some money. And I was always happy to go back home. Prokip would come out to meet me on my way back. He’d take my hand and squeeze it firmly and lovingly, and he’d ask me softly, “Tired, Ustina?” XLV One evening we all sat there together – the soldier on the bench, smoking a pipe, our landlady by the window, and Prokip and I nearby. None of us spoke. Then we heard a rat-tat at the door, and a voice boomed out, “Good evening!” It was Nazar, of all people! He came in and stood in front of us, his head nearly reaching the ceiling. He had a pipe between his teeth, and his thick curly hair had grayed considerably. “May God help the mistress and all of you!” “Thank you! We’ll be proud to have you with us,” the widow said to him. “Where on earth have you come from, Nazar?” Prokip asked him. “You seem to have sprung out of nowhere.” “Where I come from things are so nice it makes you want to travel a bit,” he said. The soldier fidgeted and cast a glance at the door. “Why are you edgy, mister soldier? I’m of the same faith, if that makes me fit to hold you company.” But the soldier kept staring at the door and the windows. “I see you’re a frisky fellow. Is there some wind you want to catch with a net out in the steppe? Well, you’re a steppe man, too – that’s what you look to me, anyway. So you ought to know better than trying to catch that wind. Better give me a light. How are you getting along here?” he asked us. “Any market for pretty young women in this town?” he winked at me. “How are things back there?” I asked him. “Fine! They offer you a free choice down there – drown or hang yourself.” “Oh, dear! It’s bad everywhere!” the widow whined. The soldier only twisted his mustache. “How’s the old woman?” I asked. “She’s alive. She can endure anything. She sends you her love.” I asked what the mistress had been saying about us. “She sure did make it hot for the master because of the two of you. We’ve now lost two pairs of hands,’ she said, ‘all because you’ve been spoiling them. Who has fooled whom?’ That’s what the mistress said, and I can only say that, fool or no fool, the master certainly didn’t look too smart as he stood there in front of her – not a bit.” The widow invited us to have some supper. Nazar came out with a bottle of vodka and plunked it on the table. “Let’s all have a drink,” he said, “and better make it a good one because life is short. Here’s how!” The soldier said: “What vodka is that? I might as well be drinking water!” “There’s no reason why you can’t,” said Nazar. “The vodka seems good,” said the widow. “May that storekeeper’s life be as good as his vodka,” the soldier grumbled. But he drank again and again. He’d drink and spit and curse the vodka, then he’d pour himself some more. The widow looked at him in amazement, shaking her head, and finally asked, “Just why are you cursing it so?”
55 “None of your business, woman!” he snapped at her. “For my friends’ sake I’ll drink anything!” “Well, I wish you liked it,” said the widow. “You Muscovite soldiers seem to be mighty generous folk,” Nazar added. We ate and talked, and the soldier just kept on drinking. The color left his face, and he leaned over the table. He stared at Prokip and me, and then said: “Hey you, young ones! You won’t be long together! Don’t let it worry you, though... You’ve been together, you’ve tasted some good things in life and you’ve had your share. Some never get it – not a thing, not even a kind word! Some just get pushed around from the cradle until their dying day. Fancy a life like that! Without kith or kin, without counsel or care – isn’t it lovely!” “Why no kin?” asked the widow. “Where are you from?” “From an army orphanage,” the soldier said grimly. “Cholera killed lots of us there in those orphanages – you may have heard about it. I’ve never even found out who my parents were.” “Not even your mother?” “Didn’t I tell you? Why ask again?” “Me too, I’m without a single relative,” the widow whimpered. “Look who’s talking!” the soldier roared. “What are your troubles? None! The real trouble is when you can’t remember anyone and none will ever remember you, when you’ve got nowhere to go and nowhere to stay, when everyone is a stranger and there is nothing you can call your own – not a house, not a person, not a piece of what you wear!” He swung to Nazar: “A steppe man, you said. Right, brother, I come from the steppes, or so I heard, and they must have been real fine steppes... Well, woman, pass me the vodka. Let’s finish the bottle, because it’s sweetest at the bottom!” Tears were now rolling down his face, but he tried laughing through them, as he drank. Then he stretched out on the bench and immediately fell asleep. “Well, it’s been real nice talking to you,” Nazar said. “Goodbye, brother Prokip.... Wait, I nearly forgot. I’ve brought you a little money – five rubles. Good luck to you!” “Thank you, brother! I don’t even know when I’ll be able to repay you.” “Not another word. Just try to stay alive. It’s none of the master’s money. It’s been collected, so it shouldn’t burn your pocket. I’ll earn more, because I intend to stay free at least half a year. They won’t get me – not even with the dogs.” He said goodbye to all and went away, and we never saw him again. XLVI Good God! What life was like together! Even though it was full of cares and woes, it was also glorious and so happy! It was easy to breathe, it was wonderful to think that what little money I might earn would all be mine, that I could sit and talk and not be afraid of anyone, and if I didn’t feel like working, no one would make me, and nobody would touch me. I felt with all my heart and with my entire body that I was really living. Towards spring, however, the word got around that the soldiers were to march out shortly! “It can’t be true,” I kept telling myself, but in my heart I knew that it was. Then the orders came to get ready to march. Prokip tried to comfort me with words that it would soon all be behind us, that he’d come back and we’d both be free. “Yes, dear, oh yes!” I’d say. But my heart ached and I cried a lot. Departure day was soon announced. We walked all the way to the hamlet to say goodbye to everybody. The master and mistress weren’t at home, only the old woman was there to look after the house. Dear woman! I recognized her as soon as I saw her standing in the yard, when we were still a long way off, and I wept there and then. Her soul seemed to be the only part of her which was still really alive. I ran to her and hugged her as I would my own mother.
56 “Why are you crying, dearie?” she asked softly. “Because you’ll stay back here, in this hell!” “Here I’m staying, that’s true. Here I was born and christened, here my parents died, here I’ll die too, my child.” “Are yon going to endure it all until you die?” “I’ll stand it, yes, dearie.” She gave us her blessing and offered us what little she had for the journey, treating us like we were her children. Then we said farewell and went. But we looked back at her more than once as we walked away. She was standing on the threshold, all was still around us, the sky was clear, a slight wind was blowing from the fields, a cool breeze reached from the groves, somewhere a brook was murmuring, and high above it all the bright spring sun was shining.... XLVII I walked with Prokip as far as Kiev. There I found a job and stayed, while he went on with the army to serve somewhere in Lithuania. “Don’t waste your heart away, darling,” he told me. “I’ll be back... I hope. You hope too. Wait for me!” I’ve been waiting... He’s been serving a long time. It’s seven years since he left. Will I ever see him again? I haven’t been back to the hamlet, only heard from some people that everybody was still alive. Things are much the same as before. The old woman has carried on patiently and Nazar hasn’t been heard from or about. I toil, look out for whatever work I can find, and earn a living. Money comes hard to people like me, and every kopeck of it is soaked in sweat. But at times I am swept with gaiety and almost happiness, when I think that if I choose, I can walk away from my work any time I like. I think about it, and it helps carry me through another year. Anyway, it’s a great comfort and a great balm to know that I’m free and that my hands aren’t tied. I keep telling myself that my present troubles won’t last forever either. How could I forget my husband for a minute? It was he who saved me from that nightmare, from that hell. If I forgot about it, God would turn from me. Prokip is my husband and savior. May the Mother of God take good care of him, because thanks to him I’m free! I live, I speak, I walk – and I don’t care if there are masters and mistresses in the world! Translated by Oles Kovalenko Marko Vovchok. After Finishing School Illustrated by Serhiy Adamovich Dnipro Publishers. Kiev, 1983
Monument to Marko Vovchok at Bohuslav, Kiev Region
Marko Vovchok Karmelyk