Birjuk

 

 I was com­ing back from hunt­ing one evening alone in a rac­ing droshky. I was six miles from home; my good trot­ting mare gal­loped bravely along the dusty road, prick­ing up her ears with an oc­ca­sional snort; my weary dog stuck close to the hind-wheels, as though he were fas­tened there. A tem­pest was com­ing on. In front, a huge, pur­plish storm-cloud slowly rose from be­hind the for­est; long grey rain-clouds flew over my head and to meet me; the wil­lows stirred and whis­pered rest­lessly. The suf­fo­cat­ing heat changed sud­denly to a damp chill­i­ness; the dark­ness rapidly thick­ened. I gave the horse a lash with the reins, de­scended a steep slope, pushed across a dry wa­ter-course over­grown with brush­wood, mounted the hill, and drove into the for­est. The road ran be­fore me, bend­ing be­tween thick hazel bushes, now en­veloped in dark­ness; I ad­vanced with dif­fi­culty. The droshky jumped up and down over the hard roots of the an­cient oaks and limes, which were con­tin­u­ally in­ter­sected by deep ruts—the tracks of cart wheels; my horse began to stum­ble. A vi­o­lent wind sud­denly began to roar over­head; the trees blus­tered; big drops of rain fell with slow tap and splash on the leaves; there came a flash of light­ning and a clap of thun­der. The rain fell in tor­rents. I went on a step or so, and soon was forced to stop; my horse foundered; I could not see an inch be­fore me. I man­aged to take refuge some­how in a spread­ing bush. Crouch­ing down and cov­er­ing my face, I waited pa­tiently for the storm to blow over, when sud­denly, in a flash of light­ning, I saw a tall fig­ure on the road. I began to stare in­tently in that di­rec­tion—the fig­ure seemed to have sprung out of the ground near my droshky.’Who’s that?’ in­quired a ring­ing voice.’Why, who are you?”I’m the forester here.’I men­tioned my name.’Oh, I know! Are you on your way home?”Yes. But, you see, in such a storm….”Yes, there is a storm,’ replied the voice.A pale flash of light­ning lit up the forester from head to foot; a brief crash­ing clap of thun­der fol­lowed at once upon it. The rain lashed with re­dou­bled force.’It won’t be over just di­rectly,’ the forester went on.’What’s to be done?”I’ll take you to my hut, if you like,’ he said abruptly.’That would be a ser­vice.”Please to take your seat’He went up to the mare’s head, took her by the bit, and pulled her up. We set off. I held on to the cush­ion of the droshky, which rocked ‘like a boat on the sea,’ and called my dog. My poor mare splashed with dif­fi­culty through the mud, slipped and stum­bled; the forester hov­ered be­fore the shafts to right and to left like a ghost. We drove rather a long while; at last my guide stopped. ‘Here we are home, sir,’ he ob­served in a quiet voice. The gate creaked; some pup­pies barked a wel­come. I raised my head, and in a flash of light­ning I made out a small hut in the mid­dle of a large yard, fenced in with hur­dles. From the one lit­tle win­dow there was a dim light. The forester led his horse up to the steps and knocked at the door. ‘Com­ing, com­ing!’ we heard in a lit­tle shrill voice; there was the pat­ter of bare feet, the bolt creaked, and a girl of twelve, in a lit­tle old smock tied round the waist with list, ap­peared in the door­way with a lantern in her hand.’Show the gen­tle­man a light,’ he said to her ‘and I will put your droshky in the shed.’The lit­tle girl glanced at me, and went into the hut. I fol­lowed her.The forester’s hut con­sisted of one room, smoky, low-pitched, and empty, with­out cur­tains or par­ti­tion. A tat­tered sheep­skin hung on the wall. On the bench lay a sin­gle-bar­relled gun; in the cor­ner lay a heap of rags; two great pots stood near the oven. A pine splin­ter was burn­ing on the table flick­er­ing up and dying down mourn­fully. In the very mid­dle of the hut hung a cra­dle, sus­pended from the end of a long hor­i­zon­tal pole. The lit­tle girl put out the lantern, sat down on a tiny stool, and with her right hand began swing­ing the cra­dle, while with her left she at­tended to the smoul­der­ing pine splin­ter. I looked round—my heart sank within me: it’s not cheer­ing to go into a peas­ant’s hut at night. The baby in the cra­dle breathed hard and fast.’Are you all alone here?’ I asked the lit­tle girl.’Yes,’ she ut­tered, hardly au­di­bly.’You’re the forester’s daugh­ter?”Yes,’ she whis­pered.The door creaked, and the forester, bend­ing his head, stepped across the thresh­old. He lifted the lantern from the floor, went up to the table, and lighted a can­dle.’I dare say you’re not used to the splin­ter light?’ said he, and he shook back his curls.I looked at him. Rarely has it been my for­tune to be­hold such a comely crea­ture. He was tall, broad-shoul­dered, and in mar­vel­lous pro­por­tion. His pow­er­ful mus­cles stood out in strong re­lief under his wet home­spun shirt. A curly, black beard hid half of his stern and manly face; small brown eyes looked out boldly from under broad eye­brows which met in the mid­dle. He stood be­fore me, his arms held lightly akimbo.I thanked him, and asked his name.’My name’s Foma,’ he an­swered, ‘and my nick­name’s Biryuk’ (i.e. wolf). [Foot­note: The name Biryuk is used in the Orel province to de­note a soli­tary, mis­an­thropic man.—Au­thor’s Note.]’Oh, you’re Biryuk.’I looked with re­dou­bled cu­rios­ity at him. From my Yer­molaï and oth­ers I had often heard sto­ries about the forester Biryuk, whom all the peas­ants of the sur­round­ing dis­tricts feared as they feared fire. Ac­cord­ing to them there had never been such a mas­ter of his busi­ness in the world be­fore. ‘He won’t let you carry off a hand­ful of brush­wood; he’ll drop upon you like a fall of snow, what­ever time it may be, even in the mid­dle of the night, and you needn’t think of re­sist­ing him— he’s strong, and cun­ning as the devil…. And there’s no get­ting at him any­how; nei­ther by brandy nor by money; there’s no snare he’ll walk into. More than once good folks have planned to put him out of the world, but no—it’s never come off.’That was how the neigh­bour­ing peas­ants spoke of Biryuk.’So you’re Biryuk,’ I re­peated; ‘I’ve heard talk of you, brother. They say you show no mercy to any­one.”I do my duty,’ he an­swered grimly; ‘it’s not right to eat the mas­ter’s bread for noth­ing.’He took an axe from his gir­dle and began split­ting splin­ters.’Have you no wife?’ I asked him.’No,’ he an­swered, with a vig­or­ous sweep of the axe.’She’s dead, I sup­pose?”No … yes … she’s dead,’ he added, and turned away. I was silent; he raised his eyes and looked at me.’She ran away with a trav­el­ling ped­lar,’ he brought out with a bit­ter smile. The lit­tle girl hung her head; the baby waked up and began cry­ing; the lit­tle girl went to the cra­dle. ‘There, give it him,’ said Biryuk, thrust­ing a dirty feed­ing-bot­tle into her hand. ‘Him, too, she aban­doned,’ he went on in an un­der­tone, point­ing to the baby. He went up to the door, stopped, and turned round.’A gen­tle­man like you,’ he began, ‘wouldn’t care for our bread, I dare say, and ex­cept bread, I’ve—”I’m not hun­gry.”Well, that’s for you to say. I would have heated the samovar, but I’ve no tea…. I’ll go and see how your horse is get­ting on.’He went out and slammed the door. I looked round again, the hut struck me as more melan­choly than ever. The bit­ter smell of stale smoke choked my breath­ing un­pleas­antly. The lit­tle girl did not stir from her place, and did not raise her eyes; from time to time she jogged the cra­dle, and timidly pulled her slip­ping smock up on to shoul­der; her bare legs hung mo­tion­less.’What’s your name?’ I asked her.’Ulita,’ she said, her mourn­ful lit­tle face droop­ing more than ever.The forester came in and sat down on the bench.’The storm ‘s pass­ing over,’ he ob­served, after a brief si­lence; ‘if you wish it, I will guide you out of the for­est.’I got up; Biryuk took his gun and ex­am­ined the firepan.’What’s that for?’ I in­quired.’There’s mis­chief in the for­est…. They’re cut­ting a tree down onMares’ Ravine,’ he added, in reply to my look of in­quiry.’Could you hear it from here?”I can hear it out­side.’We went out to­gether. The rain had ceased. Heavy masses of storm-cloud were still hud­dled in the dis­tance; from time to time there were long flashes of light­ning; but here and there over­head the dark blue sky was al­ready vis­i­ble; stars twin­kled through the swiftly fly­ing clouds. The out­line of the trees, drenched with rain, and stirred by the wind, began to stand out in the dark­ness. We lis­tened. The forester took off his cap and bent his head…. ‘Th … there!’ he said sud­denly, and he stretched out his hand: ‘see what a night he’s pitched on.’ I had heard noth­ing but the rus­tle of the leaves. Biryuk led the mare out of the shed. ‘But, per­haps,’ he added aloud, ‘this way I shall miss him.’ ‘I’ll go with you … if you like?’ ‘Cer­tainly,’ he an­swered, and he backed the horse in again; ‘we’ll catch him in a trice, and then I’ll take you. Let’s be off.’ We started, Biryuk in front, I fol­low­ing him. Heaven only knows how he found out his way, but he only stopped once or twice, and then merely to lis­ten to the strokes of the axe. ‘There,’ he mut­tered, ‘do you hear? do you hear?’ ‘Why, where?’ Biryuk shrugged his shoul­ders. We went down into the ravine; the wind was still for an in­stant; the rhyth­mi­cal strokes reached my hear­ing dis­tinctly. Biryuk glanced at me and shook his head. We went far­ther through the wet bracken and net­tles. A slow muf­fled crash was heard….’He’s felled it,’ mut­tered Biryuk. Mean­time the sky had grown clearer and clearer; there was a faint light in the for­est. We clam­bered at last out of the ravine.’Wait here a lit­tle,’ the forester whis­pered to me. He bent down, and rais­ing his gun above his head, van­ished among the bushes. I began lis­ten­ing with strained at­ten­tion. Across the con­tin­ual roar of the wind faint sounds from close by reached me; there was a cau­tious blow of an axe on the brush­wood, the crash of wheels, the snort of a horse….’Where are you off to? Stop!’ the iron voice of Biryuk thun­dered sud­denly. An­other voice was heard in a piti­ful shriek, like a trapped hare…. A strug­gle was be­gin­ning.’No, no, you’ve made a mis­take,’ Biryuk de­clared pant­ing; ‘you’re not going to get off….’ I rushed in the di­rec­tion of the noise, and ran up to the scene of the con­flict, stum­bling at every step. A felled tree lay on the ground, and near it Biryuk was busily en­gaged hold­ing the thief down and bind­ing his hands be­hind his back with a ker­chief. I came closer. Biryuk got up and set him on his feet. I saw a peas­ant drenched with rain, in tat­ters, and with a long di­shev­elled beard. A sorry lit­tle nag, half cov­ered with a stiff mat, was stand­ing by, to­gether with a rough cart. The forester did not utter a word; the peas­ant too was silent; his head was shak­ing.’Let him go,’ I whis­pered in Biryuk’s ears; ‘I’ll pay for the tree.’With­out a word Biryuk took the horse by the mane with his left hand; in his right he held the thief by the belt. ‘Now turn round, you rat!’ he said grimly.’The bit of an axe there, take it,’ mut­tered the peas­ant.’No rea­son to lose it, cer­tainly,’ said the forester, and he picked up the axe. We started. I walked be­hind…. The rain began sprin­kling again, and soon fell in tor­rents. With dif­fi­culty we made our way to the hut. Biryuk pushed the cap­tured horse into the mid­dle of the yard, led the peas­ant into the room, loos­ened the knot in the ker­chief, and made him sit down in a cor­ner. The lit­tle girl, who had fallen asleep near the oven, jumped up and began star­ing at us in silent ter­ror. I sat down on the locker.’Ugh, what a down­pour!’ re­marked the forester; ‘you will have to wait till it’s over. Won’t you lie down?”Thanks.”I would have shut him in the store loft, on your ho­n­our’s ac­count,’ he went on, in­di­cat­ing the peas­ant; ‘but you see the bolt—”Leave him here; don’t touch him,’ I in­ter­rupted.The peas­ant stole a glance at me from under his brows. I vowed in­wardly to set the poor wretch free, come what might. He sat with­out stir­ring on the locker. By the light of the lantern I could make out his worn, wrin­kled face, his over­hang­ing yel­low eye­brows, his rest­less eyes, his thin limbs…. The lit­tle girl lay down on the floor, just at his feet, and again dropped asleep. Biryuk sat at the table, his head in his hands. A cricket chirped in the cor­ner … the rain pat­tered on the roof and streamed down the win­dows; we were all silent.’Foma Kuzmitch,’ said the peas­ant sud­denly in a thick, bro­ken voice;’Foma Kuzmitch!”What is it?”Let me go.’Biryuk made no an­swer.’Let me go … hunger drove me to it; let me go.”I know you,’ re­torted the forester se­verely; ‘your set’s all alike— all thieves.”Let me go,’ re­peated the peas­ant. ‘Our man­ager … we ‘re ru­ined, that’s what it is—let me go!”Ru­ined, in­deed!… No­body need steal.”Let me go, Foma Kuzmitch…. Don’t de­stroy me. Your man­ager, you know your­self, will have no mercy on me; that’s what it is.’Biryuk turned away. The peas­ant was shiv­er­ing as though he were in the throes of fever. His head was shak­ing, and his breath­ing came in bro­ken gasps.’Let me go,’ he re­peated with mourn­ful des­per­a­tion. ‘Let me go; by God, let me go! I’ll pay; see, by God, I will! By God, it was through hunger!… the lit­tle ones are cry­ing, you know your­self. It’s hard for us, see.”You needn’t go steal­ing, for all that.”My lit­tle horse,’ the peas­ant went on, ‘my poor lit­tle horse, at least … our only beast … let it go.”I tell you I can’t. I’m not a free man; I’m made re­spon­si­ble. You oughtn’t to be spoilt, ei­ther.”Let me go! It’s through want, Foma Kuzmitch, want—and noth­ing else— let me go!”I know you!”Oh, let me go!”Ugh, what’s the use of talk­ing to you! sit quiet, or else you’ll catch it. Don’t you see the gen­tle­man, hey?’The poor wretch hung his head…. Biryuk yawned and laid his head on the table. The rain still per­sisted. I was wait­ing to see what would hap­pen.Sud­denly the peas­ant stood erect. His eyes were glit­ter­ing, and his face flushed dark red. ‘Come, then, here; strike your­self, here,’ he began, his eyes puck­er­ing up and the cor­ners of his mouth drop­ping; ‘come, cursed de­stroyer of men’s souls! drink Chris­t­ian blood, drink.’The forester turned round.’I’m speak­ing to you, Asi­atic, blood-sucker, you!”Are you drunk or what, to set to being abu­sive?’ began the forester, puz­zled. ‘Are you out of your senses, hey?”Drunk! not at your ex­pense, cursed de­stroyer of souls—brute, brute, brute!”Ah, you——I’ll show you!”What’s that to me? It’s all one; I’m done for; what can I do with­out a home? Kill me—it’s the same in the end; whether it’s through hunger or like this—it’s all one. Ruin us all—wife, chil­dren … kill us all at once. But, wait a bit, we’ll get at you!’Biryuk got up.’Kill me, kill me,’ the peas­ant went on in sav­age tones; ‘kill me; come, come, kill me….’ (The lit­tle girl jumped up hastily from the ground and stared at him.) ‘Kill me, kill me!”Si­lence!’ thun­dered the forester, and he took two steps for­ward.’Stop, Foma, stop,’ I shouted; ‘let him go…. Peace be with him.”I won’t be silent,’ the luck­less wretch went on. ‘It’s all the same— ruin any­way—you de­stroyer of souls, you brute; you’ve not come to ruin yet…. But wait a bit; you won’t have long to boast of; they’ll wring your neck; wait a bit!’Biryuk clutched him by the shoul­der. I rushed to help the peas­ant….’Don’t touch him, mas­ter!’ the forester shouted to me.I should not have feared his threats, and al­ready had my fist in the air; but to my in­tense amaze­ment, with one pull he tugged the ker­chief off the peas­ant’s el­bows, took him by the scruff of the neck, thrust his cap over his eyes, opened the door, and shoved him out.’Go to the devil with your horse!’ he shouted after him; ‘but mind, next time….’He came back into the hut and began rum­mag­ing in the cor­ner.’Well, Biryuk,’ I said at last, ‘you’ve as­ton­ished me; I see you’re a splen­did fel­low.”Oh, stop that, mas­ter,’ he cut me short with an air of vex­a­tion; ‘please don’t speak of it. But I’d bet­ter see you on your way now,’ he added; ‘I sup­pose you won’t wait for this lit­tle rain….’In the yard there was the rat­tle of the wheels of the peas­ant’s cart.’He’s off, then!’ he mut­tered; ‘but next time!’Half-an-hour later he parted from me at the edge of the wood.
 

 


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