Samovar--a metal urn with a spigot at the base; used in Russia to boil water for tea.
Verst--3500 feet (old Russian measure of distance and length).
Pristav--a district superintendent of police.
Muzhik--a lout, uncouth man, peasant (Russian).
"Go, go-o-o-o!" pleadingly rang a child. "To the right!" howled an angry, low voice from behind. "To the right, right, r-right!" someone caught up cheerfully and enthusiastically. Someone ground his teeth and made a sharp whistle... a pack of dogs barked briskly, furiously and jovially. "O-o-o! Ha-ha-ha!" The crowd laughed and moaned.
The sled was tossed upwards and bumped against the pot-hole. Kashintsev opened his eyes.
"What?" asked he in fright.
But the road was as usual deserted and quiet. The frosty night kept silence under the endless, dead, white fields. The full moon stood in the middle of the sky, and clear blue shadows, sliding at the side of the sled and breaking against the ploughed up snow drifts, were short and ugly. Bouncy dry snow crunched and squealed under the runners as rubber.
"Ah, it is snow squealing," thought Kashintsev.
"How strange," he uttered out loud.
The coachman turned at his voice. His dark face, his mustache and beard white from the cold appeared like a big, coarse, beastly mask plastered in cotton.
"What? There are another two versts left. Not much," said the coachman.
"It is snow," thought Kashintsev, again yielding to the drowsiness. "It is just snow. How strange..."
"Strange, strange," all of a sudden fussily and distinctly babbled the bell on the end of the pole. "Stra-a-a-ange, stra-a-a-ange, stra-a-a-ange..."
"Oh!-oh-oh! Look!" shouted a woman in front of the sled.
The throng, which was going to meet her, started talking, weeping and singing abruptly. Again the frantic, agitated dogs barked.
Somewhere far away the engine hooted... And immediately through the drowsiness Kashintsev recalled with unusual clearness the station buffet, its piteous, ostensible luxury: bunches of electric bulbs under the dirty ceiling and huge windows amidst the soiled walls, artificial palms on the tables, hard, stiff napkins, cupro-nickel vases, buckets of dry herbs, pyramids of bottles, pink and green wine-glasses...
It happened yesterday evening. His fellow-doctors gathered to bid Kashintsev farewell. He had just received a new assignment as a junior doctor to a distant infantry regiment. They were five men. Pushing heavy station chairs around the little "doctor's" table, they drank and talked with a strained affection and exaggerated liveliness, as if performing an emotional scene of departure. Handsome and self-confident Ryul flirted looking sideways with his artificially shining eyes, so that he could be heard by outsiders, and spoke in a carefree and dandifiedtone.
"Well now, old man, our whole lives, from birth till death, consist only of meeting and separating from each other. You can jot this into your book as a keepsake: `The nightly aphorisms and maxims of doctor von Ryul'".
Barely had he finished his speech as the fat door-keeper, his face akin to an angry bulldog, appeared at the entrance doors, shook the bell and yelled in a singing voice, stuttering and faltering upon his words.
"Fi-i-i-irst call! Ki-i-i-iev, Szhmerinka, Odess! Tra-a-a-ain is sta-a-a-aying at the se-e-e-cond pla-a-a-atform..."
And now, sitting deeply and uncomfortably in his shaking sled, Kashintsev laughed heartily--his recollection was so unusually bright and colorful. But right away the tiresome, tedious impressions of the perpetual and monotonous journey came back to him. Whilst only six or seven hours had gone by since he had left the depot, it seemed to Kashintsev that he had been traveling in the postman's sled for many weeks and months, had changed and had grown older, duller and more indifferent to everything since yesterday. Somewhere along the way he saw a beggar, drunk and torn up, his nose decayed, his shoulder bared in the frost; somewhere a long skinny horse with chocolate, rich like velvet hair threw back its neck, jibed and did not want to get in the team; somebody, ages ago, seemed to tell him kind-heartedly: "The road, panne, is good today, next thing you know, you will be there". And at that moment Kasintsev himself was carried away by the sight of the snow plain, crimson from the sunset. But it all blended, moved away to some murky, unfeasible distance, and it was impossible to remember where, when and in what sequence it had happened. At times a light sleep closed Kashintsev's eyes and then, through his obscured consciousness, he heard strange squeals, gritting creaks, dog's yelps, human yells, laughter and mutter. But he opened his eyes, and the fantastical sounds were transmuted into a simple squeak of sled runners, into a ringing of a bell on the pole. As before there were pristine white fields spreading to the left and to the right; as before there in front of him was seen a black bent figure of the next coachman; as before the horse croups moved evenly, their knotted tails dangling...
"Where should I take you, panne, right to the post office or to the inn?" asked the coachman.
Kashintsev lifted up his head. Now he was going down the long street in some village. The smooth road ahead sparkled in the moon light as polished blue steel. Dark, wretched houses, pressed down by heavy snow caps, scarcely peeped out from under the deep snow-drifts on both sides of the road. The village seemed to die out: dogs did not bark; there were no people; no light came from the windows. The silence of the human dwellings standing timidly, close to one another, lost in the deep snow, was in a way weird and mournful.
"Which way to the inn?" asked Kashintsev.
"But doesn't panne know? To the inn of Moishe Khatskel. There are always gentlemen staying there... For example, samovar, eggs, something to have a bite... To spend the night, it is possible too. There are five rooms..."
"Well, let's go," agreed Kashintsev.
Just now, thinking about food and a warm room, Kashintsev realized how chilly and hungry he was. And the small, shabby, dull houses buried in snow came across and went back, and they seemed to never end.
"When will we arrive?" asked Kashintsev impatiently.
"Soon. The village is big, a verst and a half... Gee-up!" the coachman shouted huskily and fiercely. Then, half-risen, he began to twirl the whip and pull the reins.
Far off there appeared a red bright point, and it came to grow, first hiding behind the dark, invisible barriers, and then, emerging for a moment from the gloom. Finally, the horses, as if they were toys, paused like clock-work, stopped by themselves at the gates of the wayside inn and lowered their feeble heads to the ground. The arched semicircular entrance stretched through the whole house as a black, huge, yawning corridor. Further in the courtyard lit by the bright moon one could see carriages with the lifted up shafts, straw on the snow and outlines of horse's figures under the flat sheds. To the left from the gates two windows completely covered with snow shone with the warm, invisible, inner light.
Someone opened the door that screeched on the block, and Kashintsev came inside. White clouds of frosty air, which just seemed to wait for it, burst into the room after him, madly whirling. At first, Kashintsev could not make it out: his spectacles got misted over the heat, and he saw only two hazy, rainbow-like circles.
The coachman entered from behind and shouted:
"Listen, Movsha, a panne came to you. Are you here?"
From somewhere hastily sprang out a short, stumpy, light-bearded Jew in a tall peaked cap and a knitted snuff-colored vest. He was chewing something while walking andnervouslywiping his mouth with his hand.
"Good evening, panne, good evening," said he amicably and immediately began shaking his head with a compassionate air and making a smacking sound with his lips. "Tse, tse, tse... Oh, panne has frozen, God forbid! Allow me, allow me you coat, I'll hang it up on a nail. Will panne order a samovar? Maybe something to eat? Oh, oh, panne has frozen!"
"Thank you, please," said Kashintsev.
His lips shrunk from the cold, so that he moved them with difficulty; his chin became motionless as if somebody else's, and his own feet seemed to him so soft, weak and numb as if they were made of cotton.
When his glasses cleared of the fog in the warmth, he looked around. The big room with crooked windows and bare floor was smeared all over with light-blue lime, peeling off at some places, showing the wooden structure. Along the walls there stood narrow benches and shaky tables, wet and greasy from time. On the ceiling shone a lamp-lighting. The back, smaller department of the room was separated by a motley, calico curtain from where came the smell of unclean sheets, children's nappies and some spicy food. In front of the curtain there was housed a wooden counter.
At one of the tables opposite Kashintsev sat a muzhik in a brown sweater and sheepskin hat, his shaggy head put on his spread elbows. He was heavily and powerlessly drunk, his head dangled on the table. He hiccupped all the time and boiled up something hoarse and indistinct in a gurglingly slobbering, overstrained voice.
"What will you give me to eat?" asked Kashintsev. "I am very hungry."
Khatskel raised his shoulders spreading his arms apart and squinting his left eye; he remained in this pose for several seconds.
"What will I give panne to eat?" asked he again slyly and perspicaciously. "But what does panne want? One can get everything. One can put on a samovar or boil up eggs, one can get milk... Well, you understand, panne, what one can get in this lousy village! One can cook a chick, but it will be a very long time."
"Give eggs, give milk. What else?"
"What else?" Khatskel looked astonished. "I could offer panne stuffed Jewish fish. But maybe panne doesn't like Jewish cooking? You know, this is usual Jewish fish that my wife cooks for Shabbats."
"Give fish too. And please, a glass of vodka."
The Jew closed both eyes, shook his head and smacked his lips with contrition.
"No vodka," he whispered. "You know how strict it is now. Is panne going far?"
"Excuse me, does panne work for the police?"
"No, I am a doctor, a military doctor."
"Ah, panne is a doctor! It's very nice. Honest to God, I am so sorry that I can't get you vodka. By the way... Etlya!," exclaimed Khatskel moving away from the table. "Etlya!"
He hid behind the curtain and started talking in Yiddish fast as if he was angry. And then, he appeared in the room, and disappeared several times and apparently was very fussy. At that very instant the lout lying at the table suddenly raised his head, his wet mouth open and eyes glazed, and began to sing in a husky voice while something was clicking and squelching in his throat:
O, was it po-o-o-ossi-i-i-ible...
Khatskel hurriedly ran up to him and shook his shoulder.
"Trochim... Listen, Trochime... I asked you so not to swear! Here the panne takes offence... Well, you have drunk, and that's good, and thank God, go home, Trochim!"
"Sheenies!" roared the muzhik suddenly in a frightful voice and dealt a blow on the table with all his force. "Sheenies, your mother in hell! I'l kill you!.."
Mumbling, he dropped his head heavily on the table. Khatskel jumped away from the table, his face grew pale, his lips twisted in a scornful and at the time embarrassed and helpless smile.
"Now you see, panne doctor, what it is, my daily bread!" he said bitterly, appealing to Khashintev. "Well, tell me, what can I do with this man? What can I? Etlya!" shouted he in the direction of the curtain. "When will you serve the pike after all?"
Again he dived into the fenced offpart of the room, but instantly returned with the dish, on which lay the fish cut into thin chunks and covered with a dark sauce. He also brought a big white bread with a hard wicker crust speckled with black seeds of some aromatic relish.
"Panne," said Khatskel mysteriously. "Here, my wife found some vodka. Try it, it is good fruit vodka. We drink it for the Passover, and we call it Paschal. Here it is."
He elicited from the vest a tiny narrow-necked carafe and a glass and put them before Kashintsev. The vodka was of yellowish color and slightly smelled of cognac, but when the doctor drank it, it seemed to him his mouth and larynx were filled with some stingingand fragrant fumes. At once he felt a cool crispness in his stomach, and then, soft warmth and terrible hunger. The fish seemed to be extremely tasty and so spicy that his tongue started dancing. "How does one cook it?" the wary idea nearly flashed across his mind, but right away he laughed remembering one of the familiar evening aphorisms of doctor von Ryul: "Never think of what you eat and whom you love."
Khatskel stood aloof, putting his hands behind his back. As though he guessed Kashintsev's thoughts, he was speaking obsequiously and sweetly:
"Maybe panne thinks it is dirty? Ass... never! Our Jewish women do everything by the Holy Books, and there everything has been said: how to clean, and how to cut and when to wash their hands. And if it ain't so, we consider it a sin. Let panne eat to his health... Etlya, bring more fish!"
From behind the curtain appeared a woman, her hair wrapped in a gray shawl. When turning his head to face her, Kashintsev felt an unknown force kick him in his chest, a cold hand take a clasp upon his heart. Not only had he never seen such radiant, majestic and eternal beauty, he had never dared to imagine that such beauty might exist on this earth. Previously, when he had happened to see charming womanly heads in the paintings of famous artists, he confidently, inwardly believed that such wonderful faces were not possible in nature, but mere inventions of ingenious fantasy. And it was for the reason, that this dazzlingly beautiful face appeared all the more marvelous and incredible, that he saw it now in this dirty and ragged tavern, reeking of the odors of unclean living, in this unkempt, empty and cold room, behind the counter, next to a drunk who snored and hiccupped in his sleep.
"Who is that?" whispered Kashintsev. "This..." by habit he wanted to say "sheeny", but shut himself up. "This woman?"
"Who? That?" casually asked Khatskel while kicking his head to her side. "This, panne, is my wife."
"Oh, how pretty she is!"
Khatskel gave a swift laugh and dubiously hunched his shoulders. "Is panne laughing at me?" asked he reproachfully. "Who is she? An ordinary, poor Jewess and nothing else. Has panne not seen in big cities really fine women? Etlya!" he turned to his wife and pattered something in Yiddish, at which she suddenly laughed flashing a row of perfect white teeth and raising her shoulder so high as though to rub her cheek...
"Is panne single or married?" asked Khatskel with ingratiating care.
"No, I am single. Why?"
"No, never mind... So, panne is single. And why did not panne, so solid and educated man, want to get married?"
"This is a long story... by many reasons. But I think, it is not yet late now. I am not so old, eh?"
All of a sudden Khatskel moved closer to the doctor, timidly glanced sideways and said significantly, lowering his voice:
"And maybe you, panne, will spend the night at our place in the inn. Don't worry, at my place the best pannes always stay: panne Varpachovski from Monastirische, panne possessor Lutskiy, sometimes gentlemen-officers visit..."
"No, I have to hurry. There is no time." But Khatskel slyly,shrewdly and enticingly, squinting one eye then the other, continued insisting:
"Better, by God, stay, panne. Where will one go in this cold? May God punish me if I am telling a lie! Just listen to what I am going to say to you, panne doctor... Here's a former governess..."
One fast crazy idea struck Kashintsev. By stealth, furtively he looked at Etlya, who listlesslyas if not understanding the conversation between her husband and the visitor, was staring from a distance at the white, powdered window, but at the same minute he felt ashamed.
"Leave me alone, drop it!" he ordered Khatskel abruptly.
By Khatskel's expression, rather than by his words, Kashintsev understood what he was talking about, but he could not get angry, as he would rather consider it to be his duty to get angry under different circumstances. The warmth of the room after his long cold journey soothed and softened his body. Because of vodka his head spun faintly and sweetly, the skin on his face was pleasantly burning. He wanted to sit still experiencing the languid feelings of satiety, warmth and mild intoxication, not thinking that in several minutes he would have to drive in the sled again and go along the endless, boring, freezing road. And in this strange light state of bliss he felt an immense delight from time to time, as if unintentionally deceiving himself, in pausing at the fascinating face of the Jewess and thinking of her not by thoughts but by words, as if narrating to some invisible interlocutor.
"Can such a face ever be expressed?" Kashintsev said to himself. "Can common, meager, everyday language describe these astounding features, these soft and bright colors? Here she is now, her face almost turned to me. How clean, how amazingly exquisite is this line that runs from temple to ear and down to the chin, defining her cheek. Forehead low, from both sides full with fluffy, thin hairs--how lovely, womanly and picturesque! Eyes, big and black, so big and black in fact, that they seem underlined, and in them, by the pupils, shine live, transparent, golden dots, certainly patches of lights in yellow topaz. The eyes are surrounded by a dark, somewhat damp shadow, and how elusively this shadow descends from dark tones, giving her gaze such a lazy and ardent expression, into a robust tan upon her cheeks. Lips--full, red, though presently closed--they appear open and giving. And by the upper lip, slightly under the shadow in the corner, sits an attractive mole near her mouth. What a straight and noble nose, what slender and proud nostrils! Oh lovely, oh beautiful!" gently repeated Kashintsev to himself. And he wanted to weep out of the ecstasy and tenderness that had seized him, clenching his chest and tickling his eyes.
Above the bright and tanned cheeks visible were lines of dry brown dirt. But it seemed to Kashintsev that no kind of negligence could pervert such exultant splendour. Likewise he noticed when she walked away from the counter, that the lower hem of her pink cotton skirt, heavy and wet with mud, slapped her with every step and that on her feet were enormous, worn out shoes with unwrapped tabs; he noticed that sometimes while speaking with her husband, she quickly tagged the tip of her nose with two fingers and simultaneously made sniffing noises and then, just as quickly, ran the rib of her finger under her nose. But certainly nothing vulgar or paltry could damage her beauty. "What is happiness?" Kashintsev asked himself. And he immediately decided that the only happiness is to possess such a woman and to know that such divine perfection is yours. "Hmm, what a crude, commonplace word is `possess', but what is it compared to everything else in life: a civil duty, ambitions, philosophy, fame, convictions and social problems?.. One year, or two, or three will pass, and maybe I will marry. My wife will be of a noble family name, bony and tow-haired, with scanty curls along her forehead, educated and hysterical, with a cold and blue pimply body resembling a plucked chicken. She will play fortepiano, discuss questions and suffer from women's diseases. And both of us will feel indifference if not repulsion towards each other. And how would one know, whether the meaning, and purpose, and joy of one's life is to possess such a woman like that one, by fair means or foul--to take away, to steal, to seduce--is it not all the same? Let her be dirty, ignorant, undeveloped, greedy--oh, my god!--these are all trifles compared to her extraordinary beauty!" Khatskel came up again, stopped near Kashintsev, his hands in his trousers' pockets, and sighed.
"Haven't you read, panne, what they write in newspapers?" asked he carefully and politely. "What's the news for the war?"
"Oh, it is all the same. We retreat, they beat us... I haven't read today's newspaper though," answered Kashintsev.
"Panne hasn't! What a pity! You know, panne, we live here in the steppe and hear nothing of what's happening in the world. Now, they too wrote for the Zionists. Did panne read that there had been a convention in Paris?"
"Why, of course."
Kashintsev gazed upon him intently. Under Khatskel's prompt outward quickness, in a way, there was felt something emaciated and sickly that indicated his poorness, humility and bad nourishment. His long neck sticking out of his worsted scarf--skinny, dirty-yellow--created the most pitiful impression; two long strained veins with a gap in the middle came forward as thick strings.
"Generally speaking, what are you doing?" asked Kashintsev seized with a guilty sorrow.
"Well," Khatskel hopelessly and scornfully shrugged his shoulders. "Well, what can a poor Jew do in the Pale of Settlement? We are kinda in a whirl. We buy and sell when the market comes to town. We fight over the last slice of bread. Eh, what more is there to say? Does anyone want to know how we suffer here?"
He wearily waved his hand and went behind the curtain, and Kashintsev again returned to his broken thoughts. These thoughts resembled agile motley half-words, half-images, which come to a man in the morning, between sleeping and awakening, and which, until someone did not wake up completely, seem so thin, obediently-meek and at the same time full of deep significance.
Never had Kashintsev experienced such a pleasure when dreaming as now, softened with warmth and repletion, sitting leaned against the wall, stretching his legs forward. Some vague spot on the drawing of the curtain was of great importance at this pleasure. Certainly, it was necessary to find it, to rest his gaze on it, and then, the thoughts started flowing by themselves evenly, freely and brightly, not staying too long in his head, not leaving a trace, but bringing some quiet, tickling joy. And then, everything disappeared in the bluish, vacillating mist: upholstered walls of the inn's room, and ramshackle tables, and the dirty counter. Only one gorgeous face remained that Kashintsev saw and felt, in spite of looking not at the face, but at the same vague, unknown spot.
"Wonderful, incomprehensible Jewish people!" thought Kashintsev. "What awaits them next? They got through tens of centuries not mixing, standing apart of all nations, concealing ancient grief and ancient flame in their hearts. Variegated, huge life of Rome, Greece and Egypt became possessions of museum collections, a historical delirium, a remote tale, but these mysterious people, which were patriarchs at the days of their infancy not just exist but have kept everywhere their firm, ardent southern type, have kept their faith, full of great hopes and petty rites, have kept the holly tongue of their inspired divine books and their mystical alphabet with its millennial inscription. What did they bear at the days of their youth? Whom did they trade with and entered into alliances, whom were they at war with? Not a trace remained of their enigmatic enemies, of all these philistimilians, amalikitians, moavitians and other half-mystical nations, but they, flexible and immortal, they still live, as though carrying out somebody's supernatural predetermination. All their history is imbued with a tragic horror, and it is flooded with their own blood: centenary capturing, violence, slavery, tortures, bonfires of human meat, banishment and lawlessness... How could they survive? Or do fortunes of nations really have their own, incomprehensible to us, mysterious aims? Who knows, maybe some supreme power intended that the Jews losing their homeland played a part of eternal ferment in the enormous world rumblings."
"Here stands this woman upon whose face reflects stunning beauty, inspiring its witness to feel sacred ecstasy. For how many thousands of years did her people not have to mix to preserve these astounding biblical features? With the same smooth shawl upon her head, with the same deep eyes, and with the same sorrowful crease about her lips, they would draw the mother of Jesus Christ. Somber Judith, gentle Ruth, compassionate Leah, magnificent Rachel, and Hagar and Sarah shone with the same kind of impeccable beauty. Looking at her, you believe, feel and see precisely, how these people go in their prodigious genealogy towards Moses, climb to Abraham, and higher and higher--directly to the great, terrible and vindictive biblical God!"
"Whom did I argue with not too long ago?" recalled Kashintsev, "argued about Jews. Seems it was with a colonel of the general staff in the train. Or maybe it was with a town doctor from Stepan. The doctor said: `The Jews have become decrepit. They have lost their nationality and their homeland; the Jewish people have to degenerate as not a drop of new blood has penetrated into their society. There is only one of two options left: either to mix in with other nations, to disperse amongst them, or to perish...' Yes, back then, I had no objections, but now I would take him to this woman behind the counter and say: `Here, look, this is the pledge of immortality of the Jewish people. Let Khatskel be weak, sickly and pitiable. Let this eternal struggle with life put harsh traces of imposture, timidity and distrust upon his face: for he has endured suffocating in different ghettos--for a thousand years, he was "kinda in a whirl". But the Jewish woman guards the spirit and nature of their race, cautiously carrying the sacred flame of her people's genius through the streams of blood and oppression, and never lets this flame be blown out. Now I look at her and feel, how a black abyss of centuries is opening behind her. Here is a miracle, here is some divine mystery. Oh, here I am, yesterday's savage, today's intellectual. What do I mean in her eyes? What do I mean in comparison with this live riddle, maybe the most inexplicable and greatest one in the world history?"
Suddenly Kashintsev came to himself. Commotion spread throughout the inn. Khatskel was rushing about, window to window, putting his palms to his temples, trying to make out something in the nightly dark. Etlya, annoyed and disgusted, pulled the muzhik's collar. The lout awoke and raised, then lowered his red, meaningless and rumpled from sleep face with swollen bags under his eyes until he wildly croaked.
"Trochim, listen--well! Trochim! I am asking you, get up!" the Jewess spoke impatiently in mangled Malorussian language.
"Hash! Pristav!" all of a sudden shouted Khatskel in a startled whisper. Khatskel made a quick, smacking sound, desperately shaking his head and swiftly rushing to the door, opened it exactly at the moment when a tall policeman appeared, freeing his head from a thick sheepskin collar of his fur coat.
"Listen, Trochim. Get up!" tragically murmured Etlya.
The drunk man lifted up his bloodshot face and yelled distorting his mouth:
"Oh, could one..."
"What is this!" shouted the officer threateningly, his eyes wide open. The Jew ran up to him. Indignantly throwing off his sheepskin coat onto the hands of Khatskel, with chest welled out, he made several steps forward as a magnificent opera commander.
The drunkard got up trembling, his hands, legs and body touching the table. Something similar to a conscious fear gleamed upon his bluish, swollen face.
"Out!" the pristav suddenly thundered in such a frightening voice, that nervous Kashintsev became startled and shriveled at his table. "Now out!"
The drunk man very nearly rocked forward and slackly stretched out his hands to catch and kiss the chief's right hand, but Khatskel pulled him to the door grabbing him by his collar from behind.
"You!" yelled the police officer, his eyes flashing angrily at Etlya. Selling vodka? Without a license? You are taking horse rustlers? You d-dare! I will j-jail you up!
The woman unpleasantly raised her shoulders, altogether bowed her head aside and pitifully and humbly closed her eyes as if expecting a blow from above. Kashintsev realized that the chain of his flimsy, affable and important thoughts were shattered and would not be restored any more.
"Let God punish me!" passionately and convincingly swore Etlya. "Let God make me blind and not see tomorrow's day or my own children. Panne colonel knows himself, well, what can I do if a drunkard comes into our inn? My husband is a sick man and I am a weak, poor woman.
"Well, all right!" sternly interrupted the officer. "That's enough." At that instant he noticed Kashntsev and victoriously and severely tossed up his head, strained his chest and waved his hand to the left and to the right over his splendid blonde side-whiskers. But suddenly his face showed a smile.
"Bazil Bazilich! Old crocodile! Which fair wind brought you here?" exclaimed he in a theatrically jolly tone. "The devil take it! How long haven't we seen each other!.. I am sorry" the pristav abruptly stopped at the table. "I ... mistook you for someone else."
He foppishly put his palm to his cap. Rising himself a little, Kashintsev awkwardly did the same. "I beg your pardon... I took you for my colleague, an officer from Pochainy--what a fatal coincidence. Again, I am sorry... However, you know, such a resemblance of shape that... Anyway, allow me to introduce myself: local pristav, and so to say, a Thunderer--Irisov, Pavel Afinogenich."
Kashintsev stood up again and gave his name. "If this is so extraordinary, then allow me, I will sit down with you," said Irisov and again gracefully touched his cap and clicked his heels together. "It is nice, very nice to see you. Hey! Khatskel, fetch the leather box from my sled. It is at the feet under the seat. Excuse me, are you going far?
"To Gusiatin. I just was appointed there."
"To the infantry regiment! There are very hot lads among the officers, they drink as horses though! The small town is nasty, but for our place to some degree, so to say, a residence. Well then, we will see each other! I am very glad... And just now you have been... ha!-ha!... a witness of a paternal reproof I made."
"Yes... partly" said Kashintsev forcing a smile upon his face.
"Well, well...What can I do? I am this kind of a man. This is my character. I like to be strict. I am not very fond of any cavils or complaints and so on. I have my own punishment."
The pristav was a dignified, as provincial ladies say, handsome and stalwart man, with growing aside dashing Cossack whiskers and a tall, white, serene forehead. His beautiful blue eyes gave a customary expression of a languid, rather indecent, not masculine tiredness; the whole face had soft, even, porcelain-pink tint, and crimson flexible lips always coquettishly moved and stretched as two agile red worms. It was evident, the officer Irisov was a local handsome man, fine fellow and lady-killer, former cavalry-man, gambler and debauchee who was able not to sleep for three days in succession and who never was drunk. He talked rapidly and clearly, making an exaggeratedly attentive face toward his interlocutor's words, but obviously listening only to himself.
"I am a father to all of them, but I am a strict father," continued the pristav imposingly raising up his forefinger. "Put the box on the table, Khatskel, that's right. I am strict, this is true. I do not allow anyone to be a burden to me like others, but I know everyone of my... he-he-he... so to say, subjects by heart. Have you seen now this fellow? This is a peasant, Trofim from Orechovo, by street name, Tail. Do you think, I do not know, he is a horse rustler? I know it perfectly well. For a while I have been silent, but at some marvelous May morning--bang!.. and Trichim Tail will have been withdrawn from use. Well, look at this Khatskel. Isn't it true, isn't he a mangy, lousy sheeny? But, believe me, I know what he, rascal, has in mind. What? Did I say it wrong, Khatskel?"
"Oh, my God, can panne colonel tell a lie!" Khatskel screamed out with a servile reproach. We all, how many we are, poor miserable Jews, constantly pray to God for the panne officer. We say so between us: "Why do we need our own father if our kind, dear Kashmaster is better to us than our own father?.."
"See?" the pristav screwed up his eyes with an air of importance and asked casually, pointing at Khatskel with his thumb through his shoulder. "This is the people's voice! But don't you worry. I hold them here. What? Did I tell the truth?" "What will I say for that?" Khatskel shrunk, almost squatted and stretched forward his arms as if pushing away from himself some awful, unfair accusation. "We haven't yet had time to think about it, but our master pristav knows everything in advance!"
"Did you hear?" Irisov asked shortly. "Please, said Sobakevich," pronounced as he pointed at the open box. "Do you wish fried homemade duck? Fine duck! And here are zubrovka, patties with fish and onion. Here's rum. Have no doubt, it is real Jamaica's rum and it even smells of bugs... And this, you only, please, do not laugh at me--this is chocolate. So to say, a ladies's amusement. I recommend it: while on the road, it is the best nutritious remedy. I knew it, so to say, from my sad experience, because of my thankless service. In winter, it happens, during snow storm, you blow in such a place that you hung about two days and can't get a crust of bread out of anyone for any money. But what am I blubbering? Please, try."
Kashintsev courteously refused the food, but the pristav showed very energetic persistence. One had to drink rum which smelled of anything but bugs. Kashintsev felt doleful, embarrassed and dreary. Stealthily he sometimes looked at Etlya who at the counter talked to her husband in an animatedwhisper. The fabulous charm seemed to come off her. There was a somewhat pitiable, humble, horrible and ordinary-contemporary look on her face now, but after all, it was still touchingly wonderful!
"Ah... ah! That is where you are aiming at!" all of a sudden, playfully said the officer half-risen, while thoroughly chewing a chicken and succulently moving his flexible, moisten lips. "Pretty little sheeny! What?"
"Unusually beautiful, lovely!" These words involuntarily escaped Kashintsev.
"Y-yes... Goods! B-but! .." the pristav parted his arms and closed his eyes for a second. "But one can't do anything. One tried. There is no physical chance. It is impossible... So near and yet ... And here, allow me, I will ask him now. Hey, Khatskel..."
"For God's sake, I am begging you!" Kashintsev pleadingly stretched out his arm and stood up from the bench. "I am cogentlybegging you."
"Oh well, a mere trifle... Khatskel."
At that moment the door opened and a next coachman entered inside, a whip in his hand, a tall cap on his head.
"For whom horses to Gusyatin?".
But seeing the officer, the coachman hastily pulled off his cap and shouted as a soldier:
"Good evening, your honour!"
"How do you do, Yurko!" condescendingly answered Irisov. "Eh, we would sit here for a little while," said he to the doctor with regret. "Once in a blue moon one gets to speak to an intelligent man."
"Excuse me. There is no time," Kashintsev said fastening himself up in a hurry. "You know it--official duty. How much do I owe?"
He paid his due and shivering beforehand in anticipation of the cold, and the night, and the wearisome road went to the exit. From force of naОve habit kept since his childhood to think of small objects, he thought when he touched a door cramp: "If she looks at me, then it will be fulfilled. What should be fulfilled, he himselfdid not know as well as he did not know a name for that boredom, fatigue and feeling of indeterminate disappointment that now drained his soul. But the Jewess did not look back. She stood, illuminated by the bright lamp, doing something on the counter, her miraculous, tender profile turned to him, her eyes glancing downward.
"Good bye," said Kashintsev opening the door. Elastic clouds of steam burst from outside and hid the beautiful face from the view; he felt a wave of dry cold. The post horses were waiting at the gates dejectedly hanging their heads.
They passed the village, crossed the river along the ice and again stretched the long, dull road with motionless white fields to the left and to the right. Kashintsev got drowsy. Instantly, strange, deceptive sounds started talking and singing in front and behind the sled and from its side. A pack of dogs yelped and barked furiously, a human crowd grumbled, silvery children's laughter rang and tambourines prattled, madly articulating clear words. "In the first place--stringency, stringency!" shouted the pristav's voice.
Kashintsev struck his elbow against the sled's side and woke up. From both sides of the road there were tall branches, burdened with snow as white paws, running into him. He fancied that amongst them far ahead, he saw slender, thin pillars, stone fences and balconies, high white walls with black gothic windows and fantastic lines of some sleeping, enchanted palace. But the sled turned along the bend of the road, and the spectral palace disappeared transforming into dark rows of trees and sheds of snowy branches. "Where am I? Where am I going?" asked Kashintsev to himself, puzzled and frightened. "What was it that had just happened to me? So remarkable, joyful and important?"
Into his memory with a striking clarity cropped up the adorable womanly face, gentle sketch of her cheeks and chin, humid and serenely passionate eyes, stunning curve of blooming lips. And suddenly his whole life--that, which had past, and that, which still lay ahead--appeared to him just as melancholy and lonely as this nightly road with its tedium, coldness, emptiness and absence of human being, with its irritating dreamy deceptions. Coincidently, the imperious beauty of the strange woman lit up and comforted his soul, filled it up with happiness, pleasant thoughts and sweet anxiety, but now gone, this fraction of his life was a mere reminiscence like of a hidden small light of the fortuitous station at a distance. And there is no other visible lights ahead; horses are trotting at a measured pace, and the indifferent coach--Time--is apathetically dozing off on the coach-box.