Mikhail Evgrafovich Saltykov.

A family of noblemen online

. (page 21 of 25)
Online LibraryMikhail Evgrafovich SaltykovA family of noblemen → online text (page 21 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

unbidden visit," he reflected. "She's a hearty eater and an extra
dish, perhaps a roast, will have to be served for the guest." His
imagination began to run away with him once more, and his mind began to
ponder over questions like these: How many spoonfuls of cabbage-soup
will Yevpraksia swallow? How many spoonfuls of gruel? What would the
Father say to his wife about Yevpraksia's visit? How do they abuse her
when alone? All this, the food and the conversation, hovered before his
eyes with corporeal vividness.

"I fancy they all guzzle the soup from the same dish. The idea! A
fine place she found to hunt for knick-knacks. Outside it's wet and
slushy - just the kind of weather that breeds disease. Soon she will
return, her skirt all dripping with mud, the disgusting creature. Yes,
I must, I must do something!" All his musings inevitably ended with
this phrase.

After dinner, he lay down for his nap, as usual, but tossed from side
to side, unable to fall asleep. Yevpraksia came back after dark and
stole into her nook so quietly that he did not observe her entrance. He
had ordered the servants to let him know when she returned, but none
of them said a word, as if they had agreed among themselves. He made
another attempt to penetrate into her room, but again found the door

Next morning Yevpraksia made her appearance at tea, but now her words
were even more alarming and threatening.

"Dear me, where is my little Volodya?" she began, speaking in a
studiously tearful tone.

Porfiry Vladimirych shuddered.

"If I could have the tiniest glimpse of him, if I could see how the
darling suffers away from his mother! But maybe he is dead already."

Yudushka's lips whispered a prayer.

"It isn't the same as at other people's here. When Palageyushka gave
birth to a daughter, they dressed the baby in batiste and silks and
made a pink little bed for her. The nurse received more sarafans and
frontlets than I ever had. And here - oh, you!"

Yevpraksia abruptly turned her head toward the window and sighed

"It is true what they say, that all the gentry are an abomination," she
went on. "They make children and then throw them in the swamp, like
puppies. What does it matter to them? They owe no account to anybody.
Is there no God in Heaven? Even a wolf would not act like that."

Porfiry Vladimirych felt like a man sitting on pins and needles. He
restrained himself for a long time, but finally could stand it no
longer and said through clenched teeth:

"This is the third day that I've been listening to your talk."

"Well, why should _you_ do all the talking? Other people have a right
to say a word, too. Yes, sir! You've had a child. What have you done
with it? I bet you let him rot in the hands of a wretched peasant woman
in a dirty hut. I suppose the baby is lying somewhere in filth, sucking
at a bottle turned sour, with no one to take care of it, and feed and
clothe it."

She shed tears and dried her eyes with the end of her neckerchief.

"The Pogorelka lady was right; she said it's horrible here with you. It
_is_ horrible. No pleasures, no joy, nothing but mean, underhand ways.
Prisoners in jail are better off. At least, if I had a baby now, there
would be something to amuse me. But you have taken it away from me."

Porfiry Vladimirych sat shaking his head in torture. From time to time
he groaned.

"Oh, how painful!" he finally said.

"Painful? Well, you have made the bed, lie on it. Upon my word, I
shall go to Moscow and have a look at my dear little Volodya. Volodya,
Volodya! Da-a-ar-ling! Master, shall I take a trip to Moscow?"

"It's no use," answered Porfiry Vladimirych in a hollow voice.

"Then I'll go without asking your permission, and no one can stop me.
Because I am - a mother!"

"What sort of mother are you? You are a strumpet - that's what you are,"
Yudushka finally burst out. "Tell me plainly what you want of me."

Yevpraksia, apparently, was not prepared for this question. She stared
at Yudushka and kept silence, as if wondering what she really wanted of

"So you call me a strumpet already?" she exclaimed, bursting into tears.

"Yes, a strumpet, a strumpet, a strumpet! Fie, fie, fie!"

Utterly enraged, Porfiry Vladimirych leapt to his feet and ran out of
the room.

That was the last flicker of energy. Then he began rapidly to collapse,
while Yevpraksia kept up her campaign. She had enormous power at her
disposal, the stubbornness of stupidity, sometimes truly appalling
because always trained upon the same point with the sole object of
annoying, teasing, plaguing. Little by little the confines of the
dining-room became too narrow for her. She invaded the study and
attacked Yudushka within the precincts of that sanctuary, into which
she would not even have thought of entering formerly when her master
was "busy." She would come in, seat herself at the window, stare
into space, scratch her shoulder blades on the post of the window,
and begin to storm at him. She was especially fond of harping on the
threat of leaving Golovliovo. As a matter of fact, she had never
seriously thought of carrying out her threat, and she would have been
astonished had anyone suggested to her that she return to her parental
roof. But she suspected that Porfiry Vladimirych feared her desertion
more than anything else, and she spared neither time nor energy in
taking advantage of this. She approached the subject cautiously and
in a roundabout way. She would sit a while, scratch her ear, and then
remark, as if in a reminiscent frame of mind:

"To-day, I suppose, they are baking pancakes at father's."

At this prefatory remark Yudushka would grow green with rage. He was
just getting ready to plunge into a complicated computation of how much
he would get for his milk if all the cows of the neighborhood perished
and none but his own, with God's help, remained unharmed and doubled
their yield of milk.

"Why are they baking pancakes there?" he asked, trying to force a
smile. "Goodness, to-day is Memorial Day! Isn't it stupid of me to have
forgotten about it? And there's nothing in the house with which to
honor the memory of my late mother. What a sin!"

"I should like to eat father's pancakes."

"Why not? Give orders to have them baked. Get hold of cook Marya or
Ulita. Ulita cooks delicious pancakes."

"Maybe she has pleased you in some other way, too," remarked Yevpraksia

"No, but, oh, she's a witch at cooking pancakes, Ulita is. She cooks
them light, soft - a sheer delight!"

Porfiry Vladimirych was evidently trying to mollify Yevpraksia, but to
no avail.

"What I want is not yours, but father's pancakes," she answered,
playing the spoiled darling.

"Well, that's not difficult. Get hold of the coachman, have him put a
pair of horses to the carriage, and drive over to father's."

"No, sir, that won't do. If I've fallen in the trap, that's my own
fault. Who has any use for one like me? You yourself called me a
strumpet the other day. It's no use!"

"My, my! Isn't it a sin in you to accuse me falsely? Do you know how
God punishes false accusations?"

"You did call me strumpet! You did! You did it in the presence of this
ikon. How I hate your Golovliovo! I shall run away from here. I shall,
by God!"

In the course of this spirited dialogue Yevpraksia behaved in a rather
unconstrained manner. She swung about on the chair, picked her nose,
and scratched her back. She was obviously playing comedy.

"Porfiry Vladimirych, I should like to tell you something," she went on
mischievously. "I want to go home."

"Do you wish to pay a visit to your parents?"

"No, I mean to stay there altogether."

"What's the matter? Has anybody offended you?"

"No, but - I'm not going to stay here forever. Besides, it's too dull
here - it's frightful. The house is like a deserted place. The servants
poke themselves away in the kitchens and their own quarters, and I sit
in the house all alone. Some of these days I shall be murdered. At
night, when I go to bed, strange whispers come from every corner."

Days went by, but Yevpraksia never thought of carrying out her threat;
which did not lessen its effect on Porfiry Vladimirych. It dawned upon
him that in spite of his labors, so-called, he was utterly helpless,
that if there were not someone to take care of his household affairs,
he would have no dinner, no clean linen, no decent clothing. Hitherto
he had not been aware of the fact that his surroundings had been
artificially created. His day had passed in a manner established once
and for all. Everything in the house centered around his person and
existed for him; everything was done in its proper time, everything was
in its proper place; in short, there reigned such mechanical precision
everywhere that he gave no thought to it. Owing to this clock-work
orderliness he could indulge in idle talk and thought without running
against the sharp corners of reality. Of course, this artificial
paradise held together only by a hair; but Yudushka, always centered
in himself, did not know it. His life seemed to him to be built on a
rock-bottom foundation, unchangeable, eternal. And suddenly the edifice
was about to collapse because of Yevpraksia's foolish whim. Yudushka
was completely taken aback. "What if she really leaves?" he reflected
panic-stricken. And he began to frame all sorts of preposterous plans
to keep her from going. He even decided on concessions to Yevpraksia's
rebellious youth which would never before have entered his mind.

"Ugh, ugh, ugh!" he thought, and spat out in disgust when the
possibility of having anything to do with the coachman Arkhip or the
clerk Ignat presented itself to him in all its offensive nakedness.

Soon, however, he became convinced that his fears were groundless.
Thereupon his existence entered a new and quite unexpected phase.
Yevpraksia did not leave him, she even abated her attacks, but, to
compensate, deserted him altogether. May set in, the weather was fair,
and Yevpraksia scarcely ever put in appearance. She ran in for a moment
and the next moment had disappeared. In the morning Yudushka did not
find his clothing in its usual place, and he had to engage in lengthy
negotiations with the servants before he got clean linen. His tea and
meals were served either too early or too late, and he was waited upon
by the tipsy lackey Prokhor, who came in a stained coat emanating a
peculiarly disgusting odor of fish and vodka.

Nevertheless, Porfiry Vladimirych was glad that Yevpraksia left him
in peace. He even reconciled himself to the disorder as long as he
knew that there was someone to bear the responsibility for it. What
frightened him was not so much the disorder as the thought that it
might be necessary for him to interfere personally in the details of
everyday life. He pictured with horror the minute he would have to
administer, give orders and supervise. In anticipation of that awful
moment, he endeavored to stifle the voice of protest that at times rose
in him, tried to shut his eyes to the confusion reigning in the house,
and keep in the background and hold his tongue.

In the meantime open debauchery made its nest in the manor-house. With
the coming of fair weather a new life pervaded the estate, hitherto
quiet and gloomy. In the evening all the servants, both young and old,
went out in the village streets. The young people sang, played the
accordion, laughed merrily, screamed and played tag.

The clerk Ignat appeared in a flaming red shirt and an astonishingly
narrow jacket, that never closed over his chest, thrown out like a
pouter-pigeon's, while the coachman Arkhip took possession of the silk
shirt and plush sleeveless jacket worn on holidays, obviously vying
with Ignat in the conquest of Yevpraksia's heart. The maiden herself
ran from one to the other, bestowing her favors now on the clerk, now
on the coachman. Porfiry Vladimirych dared not look out of the window
for fear of witnessing a love scene; but he could not help hearing
what was going on outside. At times he caught the resounding blow that
Arkhip bestowed playfully upon Yevpraksia's back while playing tag. At
other times he would catch fragments of conversation such as this:

"Yevpraksia Nikitishna! Yevpraksia Nikitishna! Madam!" the drunken
Prokhor would call from the steps of the mansion.

"What do you want?"

"The key of the tea-chest, please. The master is asking for tea."

"Let him wait, the scarecrow!"


In a short time Porfiry had completely lost all habits of sociability.
He no longer paid any attention to the confusion that had come into
his existence. He demanded nothing better of life than to be left
alone in his last refuge, his study. He had lost all his former ways
of cavilling with and pestering those about him, and he was timorous
and glumly meek. All ties between him and reality were cut. To hear
nothing, to see nothing, that was his heart's desire. The behavior of
Yevpraksia and the servants no longer concerned him. Formerly, had the
clerk allowed himself the least inaccuracy in presenting his reports
on the various branches of the household management, he would have
talked him to death. Now at times the reports were weeks late, and
he was unresentful except when he needed some data for his fantastic
computations. But when alone in his study he felt himself absolute
master, free to give himself over nonchalantly to inane musings. Both
of his brothers had died from drink. He, too, fell into the clutches
of drunkenness. But his intoxication was mental. Shut up in his study,
he racked his brains from early morning till far into the night over
fantastic problems. He elaborated various fabulous schemes, made
speeches before imaginary audiences, and wove whole scenes about the
first person that crossed his mind.

In this wild maze of fantastic acts and images a morbid passion for
gain played the most important part.

Porfiry Vladimirych had always had a strong leaning toward the
petty annoyance of people and litigation, but because of his lack
of practicality he had derived no direct profit from it. Sometimes
he was even the first to suffer. This proclivity of his was now
transferred to a world of abstractions and phantoms, where there was
no scope for resistance on the part of the oppressed and no need for
self-justification. The dividing line between the weak and the powerful
vanished. In that world there were no police or justices of the peace,
or rather, there were, but they existed solely for the purpose of
protecting his own interests. On this fantastic plane he could freely
enmesh the whole universe in his net of intriguing, cavilling, and
petty oppression.

He loved to torment people, ruin them, make them unhappy, suck their
blood - at least, in his imagination. He would look over the various
branches of his establishment and on each build up a fantastic
structure of all manner of oppression and plunder - a veritable
paradise, but the foulest ever conceived by a landed proprietor. And
everything depended here on overpayments and underpayments assumed
arbitrarily, each overpaid or underpaid kopek served as a pretext for
remodelling the entire edifice, which thus passed through endless

When his tired thoughts were no longer capable of following out all
the details of the intricate computations on which his imaginary
operations were based, he applied his imagination to a more plastic
material. He recalled every conflict and altercation he had had not
only in recent times, but far back in his youth, and he so manipulated
his reminiscences as always to come out the victor. He took revenge on
those of his former colleagues who had gone over his head in service
and had so deeply wounded his self-love that he renounced his official
career. He revenged himself on his schoolmates who had taken advantage
of their physical strength to tease or persecute him; on the neighbors
that had opposed his claims and stood up for their rights; on the
servants who had offended him or simply had not treated him with
sufficient respect; on "dearest mamma" Arina Petrovna for having wasted
too much of the money that "by law" belonged to him on the repairs
of Pogorelka; on his brother Simple Simon for having nicknamed him
Yudushka; on aunt Varvara Mikhailovna for having unexpectedly given
birth to children, with the result that the property of Gavryushkino
was forever lost to the family. He revenged himself on the living and
he revenged himself on the dead.

Gradually he worked himself into a state of actual intoxication. The
ground vanished from under his feet, wings grew on his shoulders, his
eyes shone, his lips trembled and foamed, his face grew ghastly pale,
and took on a threatening air. The atmosphere around him swarmed with
ghosts, and he fought them in imaginary battles.

His existence became so ample and independent that there was nothing
left for him to desire. The whole universe was at his feet, that
is, the universe of which his wretched mind could conceive. It was
something in the nature of ecstatic clairvoyance, not unlike the
phenomena that take place at the seances of mediums. His untrammeled
imagination created an illusory reality, rendered concrete and almost
tangible by his constant mental frenzy. It was not faith or conviction,
but unrestrained mental debauchery, a sort of trance in which his
tongue involuntarily uttered words and his body made automatic gestures.

Porfiry Vladimirych was happy. He locked up the windows and doors
that he might not hear, he drew down the curtains that he might not
see. He went through the customary functions and duties which had no
connection with the world of his imagination, in haste, almost with
disgust. When the ever-drunken Prokhor rapped at his door and announced
that dinner was served, he ran into the dining-room impatiently,
hurriedly swallowed his three courses and disappeared again into his
study. Something new showed in his manners - a mixture of timidity and
derision, as if he both feared and defied the few people whom he met.
He rose very early and immediately set to work. He cut down the time
devoted to worship, said his prayers indifferently, without thinking of
their meaning, crossed himself and went through the other gestures of
worship mechanically and carelessly. Apparently even the notion of a
hell with its complicated system of punishments was no longer present
in his mind.

Meanwhile Yevpraksia reveled in the satisfaction of carnal desires.
Dancing between the clerk Ignat and the coachman Arkhip, and also
casting glances at the red-faced carpenter Ilyusha, who was mending the
cellars at the head of a gang of workmen, she did not notice what was
going on in the manor-house. She thought the master was playing "a new
comedy," and many a light remark about the master was passed in the
jolly gatherings of the servants. But one day she happened to enter the
dining-room when Yudushka was hurriedly despatching the remnants of
roast goose, and suddenly a kind of dread fell upon her.

Porfiry Vladimirych wore a greasy dressing-gown, through the holes of
which the cotton interlining peeped out. He was pale, unkempt, and his
face bristled with a many days' growth.

"Dear master, what is it? What is the matter?" she turned to him in

Porfiry Vladimirych only smiled half sheepishly, half derisively, and
the meaning of his smile was: "I'd like to see how you could get at me

"Darling master, what is the matter? Tell me, what has happened to
you?" repeated Yevpraksia.

He rose, fixed on her a gaze brimming over with hatred, and said,
pausing after each word:

"If you, you hussy, ever dare - enter my study - I will kill you!"


As a result of this scene Yudushka's life outwardly changed for
the better. Distracted by no material hindrances, he gave himself
completely over to his solitude, so that he did not even notice how the
summer passed away.

It was late in August, the days grew shorter; it drizzled ceaselessly
and the soil became boggy. The trees looked mournful, with their
yellow leaves bestrewing the ground. Absolute silence reigned in the
court-yard and about the servants' quarters. The domestics sat quietly
under cover, partly because of the weather, partly because they finally
perceived that something was the matter with the master. Yevpraksia
came completely to her senses, forgot the silk dresses and her lovers,
and sat in the maids' room for hours on end, brooding and wondering
what she could do. The drunken Prokhor teased her that she had designs
on the master's life, that she had poisoned him and she could not
escape the road to Siberia.

Meanwhile, Yudushka sat in his study, deep in reveries. The ceaseless
patter of the rain on the window-panes lulled him half to sleep - the
most favorable state for the play of his fancy. He imagined he was
invisible and was inspecting his possessions, accompanied by old Ilya,
who had served as bailiff under Yudushka's father, and whose bones had
long since been rotting in the village churchyard.

"Ilya is a clever fellow," argued Porfiry Vladimirych with himself,
glad that Ilya had arisen from the dead. "An old servant! Nowadays his
kind is getting rare. Nowadays they know how to chat and fidget, but
when it comes to business, they're good for nothing."

After saying an appropriate prayer, Yudushka and Ilya pick their way
leisurely across meadows and ravines, dales and hills, and soon reach
the Ukhovshchina waste. For a while they stand dazed, unable to believe
their own eyes. Straight before them looms up a magnificent pine
forest, their tops tossing in the wind. Some of the trees are so big in
circumference that two or even three men could not embrace them. Their
trunks are straight, naked, crowned with mighty, spreading tops - all
signs of vigor and longevity.

"What a forest, brother!" exclaims Yudushka, enraptured.

"This wood has been protected from felling," explains Ilya. "Under your
late grandfather Mikhail Vasilyevich, a procession with holy ikons went
around it. And look how tall the trees have grown."

"How large do you think the forest is?"

"At that time it held just seventy desyatins, and the desyatin was
then, as you know, one and a half times the present size."

"And how many trees, d'you think, are there on one desyatin?"

"I can't tell. Only God has counted them."

"I reckon there are no less than six or seven hundred trees to a
desyatin. I mean the desyatin now used. Wait! If we take the number to
be six hundred - or, let us say, six hundred and fifty trees, how many
trees are there on one hundred and five desyatins?"

Porfiry Vladimirych takes a sheet of paper and multiplies 105 by 65 and
gets 6,825 trees.

"Now, see here, if I were to sell all this timber, do you think I can
get ten rubles a tree?"

Old Ilya shakes his head.

"Ten is little," he says. "Look at these trees. Each trunk will give
two mill beams and some planks and boards and firewood. What do you
think is the price of a mill-wheel beam?"

Porfiry Vladimirych makes believe he does not know, although he figured
out everything to a kopek long ago.

"Here," continues the peasant, "a beam is worth ten rubles, but if
we take it to Moscow it will be worth its weight in gold. It is a
tremendous beam. You will hardly haul it on a three-horse team. And
think of the second beam that can be made out of the stem, and the
boards and laths and firewood, and branches. Twenty rubles, I should
think, is the lowest price for a tree."

Porfiry Vladimirych listens and takes in his words greedily. A clever,
faithful servant this Ilya. And how well he has picked out his help!
Old Vavilo, Ilya's assistant - he too has been resting in the churchyard
for a good many years - is quite worthy of his superior. The foresters,
too, are all tried, stalwart men, and the hounds at the corn lofts are
fierce. Both the men and the dogs are ready to grapple with the devil
himself for the master's good.

"Let's figure out, brother. If we sell the whole forest, what will it
come to?"

Porfiry Vladimirych again makes a mental calculation of the value of
a large beam, a smaller beam, a plank, a lath, the firewood and the
branches. He adds up, multiplies, now omitting fractions, now adding
them. Columns of numbers fill the sheet.

"Here is the total, brother," says Yudushka, showing Ilya's phantom an
altogether fabulous sum. The old servant is dazed.

"Is it not a little too large?" he says, pensively shrugging his

But Porfiry Vladimirych has already cast off all doubts and giggles

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 21 23 24 25

Online LibraryMikhail Evgrafovich SaltykovA family of noblemen → online text (page 21 of 25)