[Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude]
It happened in the 'seventies in winter, on the day after St.
Nicholas's Day. There was a fete in the parish and the
innkeeper, Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov, a Second Guild
merchant, being a church elder had to go to church, and had
also to entertain his relatives and friends at home.
But when the last of them had gone he at once began to prepare
to drive over to see a neighbouring proprietor about a grove
which he had been bargaining over for a long time. He was now
in a hurry to start, lest buyers from the town might forestall
him in making a profitable purchase.
The youthful landowner was asking ten thousand rubles for the
grove simply because Vasili Andreevich was offering seven
thousand. Seven thousand was, however, only a third of its
real value. Vasili Andreevich might perhaps have got it down
to his own price, for the woods were in his district and he had
a long-standing agreement with the other village dealers that
no one should run up the price in another's district, but he
had now learnt that some timber-dealers from town meant to bid
for the Goryachkin grove, and he resolved to go at once and get
the matter settled. So as soon as the feast was over, he took
seven hundred rubles from his strong box, added to them two
thousand three hundred rubles of church money he had in his
keeping, so as to make up the sum to three thousand; carefully
counted the notes, and having put them into his pocket-book
made haste to start.
Nikita, the only one of Vasili Andreevich's labourers who was
not drunk that day, ran to harness the horse. Nikita, though
an habitual drunkard, was not drunk that day because since the
last day before the fast, when he had drunk his coat and
leather boots, he had sworn off drink and had kept his vow for
two months, and was still keeping it despite the temptation of
the vodka that had been drunk everywhere during the first two
days of the feast.
Nikita was a peasant of about fifty from a neighbouring
village, 'not a manager' as the peasants said of him, meaning
that he was not the thrifty head of a household but lived most
of his time away from home as a labourer. He was valued
everywhere for his industry, dexterity, and strength at work,
and still more for his kindly and pleasant temper. But he
never settled down anywhere for long because about twice a
year, or even oftener, he had a drinking bout, and then besides
spending all his clothes on drink he became turbulent and
quarrelsome. Vasili Andreevich himself had turned him away
several times, but had afterwards taken him back again--valuing
his honesty, his kindness to animals, and especially his
cheapness. Vasili Andreevich did not pay Nikita the eighty
rubles a year such a man was worth, but only about forty, which
he gave him haphazard, in small sums, and even that mostly not
in cash but in goods from his own shop and at high prices.
Nikita's wife Martha, who had once been a handsome vigorous
woman, managed the homestead with the help of her son and two
daughters, and did not urge Nikita to live at home: first
because she had been living for some twenty years already with
a cooper, a peasant from another village who lodged in their
house; and secondly because though she managed her husband as
she pleased when he was sober, she feared him like fire when he
was drunk. Once when he had got drunk at home, Nikita,
probably to make up for his submissiveness when sober, broke
open her box, took out her best clothes, snatched up an axe,
and chopped all her undergarments and dresses to bits. All the
wages Nikita earned went to his wife, and he raised no
objection to that. So now, two days before the holiday, Martha
had been twice to see Vasili Andreevich and had got from him
wheat flour, tea, sugar, and a quart of vodka, the lot costing
three rubles, and also five rubles in cash, for which she
thanked him as for a special favour, though he owed Nikita at
least twenty rubles.
'What agreement did we ever draw up with you?' said Vasili
Andreevich to Nikita. 'If you need anything, take it; you will
work it off. I'm not like others to keep you waiting, and
making up accounts and reckoning fines. We deal
straight-forwardly. You serve me and I don't neglect you.'
And when saying this Vasili Andreevich was honestly convinced
that he was Nikita's benefactor, and he knew how to put it so
plausibly that all those who depended on him for their money,
beginning with Nikita, confirmed him in the conviction that he
was their benefactor and did not overreach them.
'Yes, I understand, Vasili Andreevich. You know that I serve
you and take as much pains as I would for my own father. I
understand very well!' Nikita would reply. He was quite aware
that Vasili Andreevich was cheating him, but at the same time
he felt that it was useless to try to clear up his accounts
with him or explain his side of the matter, and that as long as
he had nowhere to go he must accept what he could get.
Now, having heard his master's order to harness, he went as
usual cheerfully and willingly to the shed, stepping briskly
and easily on his rather turned-in feet; took down from a nail
the heavy tasselled leather bridle, and jingling the rings of
the bit went to the closed stable where the horse he was to
harness was standing by himself.
'What, feeling lonely, feeling lonely, little silly?' said
Nikita in answer to the low whinny with which he was greeted by
the good-tempered, medium-sized bay stallion, with a rather
slanting crupper, who stood alone in the shed. 'Now then, now
then, there's time enough. Let me water you first,' he went
on, speaking to the horse just as to someone who understood the
words he was using, and having whisked the dusty, grooved back
of the well-fed young stallion with the skirt of his coat, he
put a bridle on his handsome head, straightened his ears and
forelock, and having taken off his halter led him out to water.
Picking his way out of the dung-strewn stable, Mukhorty
frisked, and making play with his hind leg pretended that he
meant to kick Nikita, who was running at a trot beside him to
'Now then, now then, you rascal!' Nikita called out, well
knowing how carefully Mukhorty threw out his hind leg just to
touch his greasy sheepskin coat but not to strike him--a trick
Nikita much appreciated.
After a drink of the cold water the horse sighed, moving his
strong wet lips, from the hairs of which transparent drops fell
into the trough; then standing still as if in thought, he
suddenly gave a loud snort.
'If you don't want any more, you needn't. But don't go asking
for any later,' said Nikita quite seriously and fully
explaining his conduct to Mukhorty. Then he ran back to the
shed pulling the playful young horse, who wanted to gambol all
over the yard, by the rein.
There was no one else in the yard except a stranger, the cook's
husband, who had come for the holiday.
'Go and ask which sledge is to be harnessed--the wide one or
the small one--there's a good fellow!'
The cook's husband went into the house, which stood on an iron
foundation and was iron-roofed, and soon returned saying that
the little one was to be harnessed. By that time Nikita had
put the collar and brass-studded belly-band on Mukhorty and,
carrying a light, painted shaft-bow in one hand, was leading
the horse with the other up to two sledges that stood in the
'All right, let it be the little one!' he said, backing the
intelligent horse, which all the time kept pretending to bite
him, into the shafts, and with the aid of the cook's husband he
proceeded to harness. When everything was nearly ready and
only the reins had to be adjusted, Nikita sent the other man to
the shed for some straw and to the barn for a drugget.
'There, that's all right! Now, now, don't bristle up!' said
Nikita, pressing down into the sledge the freshly threshed oat
straw the cook's husband had brought. 'And now let's spread
the sacking like this, and the drugget over it. There, like
that it will be comfortable sitting,' he went on, suiting the
action to the words and tucking the drugget all round over the
straw to make a seat.
'Thank you, dear man. Things always go quicker with two
working at it!' he added. And gathering up the leather reins
fastened together by a brass ring, Nikita took the driver's
seat and started the impatient horse over the frozen manure
which lay in the yard, towards the gate.
'Uncle Nikita! I say, Uncle, Uncle!' a high-pitched voice
shouted, and a seven-year-old boy in a black sheepskin coat,
new white felt boots, and a warm cap, ran hurriedly out of the
house into the yard. 'Take me with you!' he cried, fastening
up his coat as he ran.
'All right, come along, darling!' said Nikita, and stopping the
sledge he picked up the master's pale thin little son, radiant
with joy, and drove out into the road.
It was past two o'clock and the day was windy, dull, and cold,
with more than twenty degrees Fahrenheit of frost. Half the
sky was hidden by a lowering dark cloud. In the yard it was
quiet, but in the street the wind was felt more keenly. The
snow swept down from a neighbouring shed and whirled about in
the corner near the bath-house.
Hardly had Nikita driven out of the yard and turned the horse's
head to the house, before Vasili Andreevich emerged from the
high porch in front of the house with a cigarette in his mouth
and wearing a cloth-covered sheep-skin coat tightly girdled low
at his waist, and stepped onto the hard-trodden snow which
squeaked under the leather soles of his felt boots, and
stopped. Taking a last whiff of his cigarette he threw it
down, stepped on it, and letting the smoke escape through his
moustache and looking askance at the horse that was coming up,
began to tuck in his sheepskin collar on both sides of his
ruddy face, clean-shaven except for the moustache, so that his
breath should not moisten the collar.
'See now! The young scamp is there already!' he exclaimed when
he saw his little son in the sledge. Vasili Andreevich was
excited by the vodka he had drunk with his visitors, and so he
was even more pleased than usual with everything that was his
and all that he did. The sight of his son, whom he always
thought of as his heir, now gave him great satisfaction. He
looked at him, screwing up his eyes and showing his long teeth.
His wife--pregnant, thin and pale, with her head and shoulders
wrapped in a shawl so that nothing of her face could be seen
but her eyes--stood behind him in the vestibule to see him off.
'Now really, you ought to take Nikita with you,' she said
timidly, stepping out from the doorway.
Vasili Andreevich did not answer. Her words evidently annoyed
him and he frowned angrily and spat.
'You have money on you,' she continued in the same plaintive
voice. 'What if the weather gets worse! Do take him, for
'Why? Don't I know the road that I must needs take a guide?'
exclaimed Vasili Andreevich, uttering every word very
distinctly and compressing his lips unnaturally, as he usually
did when speaking to buyers and sellers.
'Really you ought to take him. I beg you in God's name!' his
wife repeated, wrapping her shawl more closely round her head.
'There, she sticks to it like a leech! . . . Where am I to
'I'm quite ready to go with you, Vasili Andreevich,' said
Nikita cheerfully. 'But they must feed the horses while I am
away,' he added, turning to his master's wife.
'I'll look after them, Nikita dear. I'll tell Simon,' replied
'Well, Vasili Andreevich, am I to come with you?' said Nikita,
awaiting a decision.
'It seems I must humour my old woman. But if you're coming
you'd better put on a warmer cloak,' said Vasili Andreevich,
smiling again as he winked at Nikita's short sheepskin coat,
which was torn under the arms and at the back, was greasy and
out of shape, frayed to a fringe round the skirt, and had
endured many things in its lifetime.
'Hey, dear man, come and hold the horse!' shouted Nikita to the
cook's husband, who was still in the yard.
'No, I will myself, I will myself!' shrieked the little boy,
pulling his hands, red with cold, out of his pockets, and
seizing the cold leather reins.
'Only don't be too long dressing yourself up. Look alive!'
shouted Vasili Andreevich, grinning at Nikita.
'Only a moment, Father, Vasili Andreevich!' replied Nikita, and
running quickly with his inturned toes in his felt boots with
their soles patched with felt, he hurried across the yard and
into the workmen's hut.
'Arinushka! Get my coat down from the stove. I'm going with
the master,' he said, as he ran into the hut and took down his
girdle from the nail on which it hung.
The workmen's cook, who had had a sleep after dinner and was
now getting the samovar ready for her husband, turned
cheerfully to Nikita, and infected by his hurry began to move
as quickly as he did, got down his miserable worn-out cloth
coat from the stove where it was drying, and began hurriedly
shaking it out and smoothing it down.
'There now, you'll have a chance of a holiday with your good
man,' said Nikita, who from kindhearted politeness always said
something to anyone he was alone with.
Then, drawing his worn narrow girdle round him, he drew in his
breath, pulling in his lean stomach still more, and girdled
himself as tightly as he could over his sheepskin.
'There now,' he said addressing himself no longer to the cook
but the girdle, as he tucked the ends in at the waist, 'now you
won't come undone!' And working his shoulders up and down to
free his arms, he put the coat over his sheepskin, arched his
back more strongly to ease his arms, poked himself under the
armpits, and took down his leather-covered mittens from the
shelf. 'Now we're all right!'
'You ought to wrap your feet up, Nikita. Your boots are very
Nikita stopped as if he had suddenly realized this.
'Yes, I ought to. . . . But they'll do like this. It isn't
far!' and he ran out into the yard.
'Won't you be cold, Nikita?' said the mistress as he came up to
'Cold? No, I'm quite warm,' answered Nikita as he pushed some
straw up to the forepart of the sledge so that it should cover
his feet, and stowed away the whip, which the good horse would
not need, at the bottom of the sledge.
Vasili Andreevich, who was wearing two fur-lined coats one over
the other, was already in the sledge, his broad back filling
nearly its whole rounded width, and taking the reins he
immediately touched the horse. Nikita jumped in just as the
sledge started, and seated himself in front on the left side,
with one leg hanging over the edge.