A Rolling Stone
I. I Meet Him
Stumbling in the dark upon the hurdle fence I valiantly strided over puddles of mud from window to window, tapped, not very loudly, on the window-panes with my fingers, and cried:
"Give a traveller a night's lodging!"
In reply they sent me to the neighbours or to the Devil; from one window they promised to let the dog loose upon me, from another they threatened me silently but eloquently with their fists—and big fists too. A woman screamed at me.
"Go away, be off while you are still whole! My husband is at home."
I understood her: she only took in lodgers during the absence of her husband.... Regretting that he was at home I went on to the next window.
"Good people, give a traveller a night's lodging!"
They answered me politely:
"In God's name go—further on!"
The weather was wretched—a fine, cold rain was falling, and the muddy earth was thickly enveloped in darkness. From time to time a gust of wind blew from some quarter or other; it moaned softly in the branches of the trees, rustled the wet straw on the roofs, and gave birth to many other cheerless noises, breaking in upon the gloomy silence of the night with its miserable music of sighs and groans: Listening to this dolorous prelude to the grim poem which they call Autumn, the people under the roofs were no doubt in a bad humour, and therefore would not give me a night's lodging. For a long time I had fought against this resolution of theirs, they as doggedly opposed me and, at last, had annihilated my hopes of a night's lodging beneath any roof whatsoever. So I left the village and went forth into the fields, thinking that there, perhaps, I might find a haycock or a rick of straw ... though naught but chance could direct me to them in this thick and heavy darkness.
But lo and behold! I saw, three paces in front of me, something big rising up—something even darker than the darkness. I went thither, and discovered that it was a corn magazine. Corn magazines, you know, are built not right upon the earth but upon piles or stones; between the floor of the magazine and the ground is a space where an ordinary man can easily settle down ... all he has to do is to lie upon his belly and wriggle into it.
Clearly, Destiny desired that I should pass that night not only under a roof but under a floor. Content therewith, I wriggled along the dry ground, feeling with my breast and sides for a somewhat more level place for my night's lodging. And suddenly in the darkness resounded a calmly-anticipatory voice:
"A little more to the left, if you please!"
This was not alarming, but unexpected it certainly was.
"Who's there?" I inquired.
"A man ... with a stick...."
"I have a stick too."
"Yes, I have matches also."
I didn't see anything at all good in this, for, according to my view of the matter, it would only have been good if I had had bread and tobacco and not merely matches.
"I suppose they wouldn't let you have a night's lodging in the village?" inquired the invisible voice.
"No, they wouldn't," I said.
"Me also they would not admit."
This was clear—if only he had asked for a night's lodging. But he might not have asked, he might simply have crept in here to await a favourable opportunity for executing some sort of risky operation absolutely desiderating the protection of the night. Every sort of labour is praiseworthy, I know, but for all that I resolved to clutch my stick firmly.
"They wouldn't let me in, the Devils!" resumed the voice. "Blockheads! In fine weather they let you in, while in weather like this ... may they howl for it!"
"And whither are you going?" I asked.
"To ... Nikolaiev. And you?"
I told him.
"Fellow-travellers that means. And now strike a match. I'm going to smoke."
The matches had got damp>—impatiently, it took me a long time, I struck them against the boards above my head. At last a tiny little light spluttered forth, and from out of the darkness stared a pale face with a thick black beard.
The big, sensible eyes looked at me with a smile, presently some white teeth gleamed from beneath the moustaches, and the man said to me: "Like a smoke?"
The match burnt out. We lit another, and by the light of it we stared once more at each other, after which my fellow lodger observed confidentially:
"Well, it seems to me we shan't clash ... take a cigarette."
Another cigarette was between his teeth and, brightening as he smoked it, illuminated his face with a faint reddish glimmer. Around his eyes and on the forehead of this man was a lot of deep and finely furrowed wrinkles. Earlier, by the light of the same match, I had observed that he was dressed in the remains of an old wadding paletot, girded with a piece of string, and on his feet were shoes made of a whole piece of leather—porshni as we call them on the Don.
"A pilgrim?" I asked.
"Yes, I go on foot. And you?"
He moved slightly, and there was a sort of metallic clank—evidently a kettle or tea-pot, that indispensable accessory of the pilgrim to holy places; but in his tone there was not a trace of that foxy unction which always betrays the pilgrim; in his tone there was nothing of the pilgrim's obligatory thievish oiliness, and, so far, his words were unaccompanied by any pious groans or quotations from "the Scriptures." In general he did not at all resemble the professional loafers at the holy places—that shoddy and endless variety of "Russian Vagabondage," whose lies and superstitions have such an effect upon the spiritually-hungry and starving rural population. Besides, he was going to Nikolaiev, where there were neither shrines nor relics....
"And where are you coming from?" I inquired.
Now in Astrakhan also there are no relics. Then I asked him:
"Doesn't that mean you are going from sea to sea and not to the holy places at all?"
"Nay, but I go to the holy places too. Why should I not go to the holy places? I go with pleasure ... they always feed you well there ... especially if you get intimate with the monks. Our brother Isaac is much respected by them, because he makes life a little less monotonous for them. What are your views on the subject?"
"They are feeding-places," he admitted "And whither then do you go? Aha! you find the way is long, eh? Strike a match and we'll smoke a little more. When one smokes one grows a little warmer."
It really was cold, not only because of the wind, which impudently blew right in upon us, but because of our wet clothes.
"Perhaps you'd like something to eat? I have bread, potatoes, and two roasted ravens ... have some?"
"Ravens?" I inquired inquisitively.
"Never tasted them? They're not bad...."
He chucked me a large piece of bread.
I didn't try the raven.
"Come, try them! In the autumn they're capital. And after all it is much more pleasant to eat raven angled for by your own hands than bread or fat given to you by the hand of a neighbour out of the window of his house, which, after you have accepted it as an alms, you always want to burn."
His remarks were reasonable—reasonable and interesting. The use of raven as an article of food was new to me but did not cause me any surprise I knew that in winter at Odessa "the lower orders" eat rats, and at Rostov—slugs. There was nothing improbable in it Even the Parisians, when in a state of siege, were glad to eat all sorts of rubbish, and there are people who all their life long live in a state of siege.
"And how do you catch your ravens?" my desire for information led me to ask.
"Not with your mouth, anyhow. You can knock them down with a stick or a stone, but the surest way is to fish for them! You must tie a piece of fat meat or a bit of bread at the end of a long piece of cord. The raven seizes it, gulps it down, and you haul him in. Then you twist his neck, pluck him, draw him, and, fastening him on to a stick, roast him over a fire."
"Ah! it would be nice to be sitting by a fire now," I sighed.
The cold had become more sensible. It seemed as if the very wind were freezing, it beat against the walls of the magazine with such a painful tremulous whine. Sometimes it was wafted to us along with the howl of some dog, the crowing of a cock, and the melancholy sound of the bell of the village church, hidden in the darkness. Drops of rain fell heavily from the roof of the magazine on to the wet earth.
"'Tis dull to be silent," observed my fellow night-lodger.
"It's rather cold ... to talk," I said.
"Put your tongue in your pocket ... it will warm it up."
"Thanks for the hint!"
"We will go together, eh? When we take the road I mean...?"
"Let us introduce ourselves then ... I, for instance, am Pavel Ignat'ev Promtov, Esq."
I introduced myself likewise.
"That's right, now we know where we are! And now I'll ask you how you came to fall into these paths. Was it through a weakness for vodka, eh?"
"It was from disgust of life."
"That's possible, too. Do you know that publication of the Senate, entitled: Judicial Investigations?"
"Is your name also printed there?"
At that time I had had nothing printed about me, and so I told him.
"I also am not in print."
"But have you done anything?"
"Everything is in God's hands."
"But you are a merry fellow, apparently?"
"What's the good of grizzling?"
"Not everyone in your situation would talk like that..." I doubted the sincerity of his words.
"The situation ... is damp and cold, but then you see it will be quite different at dawn of day. The sun will come out, and then we shall creep out of this, have some tea, eat and drink, and warm ourselves. That won't be bad, eh?"
"Very good!" I admitted.
"So there, you see, every evil has its good side."
"And every good thing its evil side."
"Amen!" exclaimed Promtov with the voice of a deacon.
God knows he was a merry comrade enough. I regretted that I could not see his face, which, judging from the rich intonation of his voice, must have shown a very expressive play of feature. We talked about trifles for a long time, concealing from each other our mutual desire to be more closely acquainted, and I was inwardly lost in admiration at the dexterity with which he inveigled me into blabbing about myself while he kept his own counsel.
While we were quietly conversing the rain ceased, and the darkness began to melt away; already in the East a rosy strip of dawn was glowing with a vivid radiance. Simultaneously with the dawn the freshness of morning made itself felt—that freshness which is so stimulatingly pleasant when it meets a man dressed in warm and dry clothes.
"I wonder if we could find anything here for a fire—dry twigs for instance?" inquired Promtov.
Crawling on the floor we searched and searched, but could find nothing. Then we decided to drag out one of the boards not very firmly fixed in its place. We pulled it out and converted it into firewood. After that Promtov proposed that we should, if possible, bore a hole in the floor of the magazine in order to get some rye grain—for if rye grain is boiled it makes a very good dish. I protested, observing that it was not proper—for thereby we should waste some hundred-weights of grain for the sake of a pound or two.
"And what business is that of yours?" asked Promtov.
"I have heard that one must respect the property of others."
"That, my dear boy, is only necessary when the property is your own ... and it is only necessary then because your property is not other people's property...."
I was silent, but I reflected that this man must have extremely liberal views with regard to property, and that the pleasure of his acquaintance might, conceivably, have its drawbacks.
Soon the sun appeared, bright and cheerful. Blue patches of sky looked out from the broken clouds which were sailing slowly and wearily towards the north. Drops of rain were sparkling everywhere. Promtov and I crept out of the magazine and entered the fields, amidst the bristles of the mown corn, towards the green crooked ribbon of a village far away from us.
"There's a stream," said my acquaintance.
I looked at him, and thought that he must be about forty, and that life was no joke for him. His dark blue eyes, deeply sunken in their orbits, glistened calmly and confidently, and whenever he screwed them up a bit his face assumed a cunning and cruel expression. In his steady and combative gait, in the leather knapsack adroitly slung across his back, in his whole figure there could be detected the passion for a vagabond life, lupine experience and vulpine craft.
"We'll go along together, then," said he; "straight across the stream, five miles off, is the village of Mauzhelyeya, and from thence the straight road to New Prague. Around this little place live Stundists, Baptists, and other mystical muzhiks.... They'll feed us finely if we set about amusing them properly. But not a word about the Scriptures with them. They are at home, as it were, in the Scriptures...."
We chose us a place not far from a group of poplars, selected some stones, numbers of which had been cast upon the shore by the little stream, all turbid with the rain, and on the stones laid our fire. Two versts away from us, on rising ground, stood the village, and on the straw of its roofs shone the rosy glow of dawn. The walls of the white huts were hidden by the sharp pyramids of the poplars coloured by the tints of autumn and the rising sun. The poplars were enveloped by the grey smoke from the chimneys, which darkened the orange and purple hues of the foliage and the patches of fresh blue sky between it.
"I'm going to bathe," observed Promtov; "that is indispensable after so wretched a night. I advise you to do the same. And while we are refreshing ourselves the tea can be boiling. You know we ought to see to it that our nature should always be clean and fresh."
So saying he began to undress. His body was the body of a gentleman, beautifully shaped, with well-developed muscles. And when I saw him—naked, his dirty rags, which he had cast from him, seemed to me doubly filthy and disgusting—they had never seemed so bad till then. After ducking in the bubbling water of the stream we leaped upon the shore all tremulous and blue with cold, and hastily put on our clothes, which had been warming by the fire. Then we sat down by the fire to drink our tea.
Promtov had an iron pipkin, he poured scalding tea into it, and handed it to me first. But the Devil, who is always ready to mock a man, seized me by one of the lying chords of my heart, and I observed magnanimously:
"Thank you, you drink first, I'll wait."
I said this with the firm conviction that Promtov would infallibly vie with me in affability and politeness if I thus offered to surrender to him the first drink of tea, but he simply said: "Very well, then!" —and put the pipkin to his mouth.
I turned aside and began to gaze steadily at the desolate steppe, wishing to convince Promtov that I did not see how venomously his dark eyes were laughing at me. And he, while he sipped his tea, chewed his bread deliberately, smacked his lips with gusto, and did it all with a deliberation that was torture to me. My vitals were already shivering with cold, and I was ready to pour the boiling water in the kettle down my throat.
"Well," laughed Promtov, "it's not very profitable to do the polite, is it now?"
"Alas, no!" I said,
"Well, that's all right! You'll learn to know better in time.... Why yield to another what is profitable or pleasant to yourself?—that's what I say. They say all men are brethren, yet nobody has ever attempted to prove it by any system of measurement...."
"Is that really your opinion?"
"And why pray shouldn't I speak as I think?"
"Well, you know that a man always tries to brag a little bit whatever he may be..."
"I know not why I should have inspired you with such a distrust of me," and this wolf shrugged his shoulders—"I suppose it is because I gave you some bread and tea? I did this not from any brotherly feeling, but out of curiosity. I see a man not in his proper place and I want to know how and by what means he was chucked out of life...."
"And I, too, wanted to know the same thing. Tell me who and what you are?" I asked.
He looked searchingly at me and said, after a moment's silence: "A man never knows exactly who he is. One must be always asking him what he takes himself for."
"Weill, take it like that."
"Well ... I think I am a man who has no room in life. Life is narrow and I—am broad. Possibly this may not be true. But in this world there is a peculiar sort of people who must be descendants of the Wandering Jew. Their peculiarity is that they can never find a place for themselves in the world to which they can stick fast. Inside them lives an unruly aching desire for something new. The small fry of this order of men are never able to work things out to their liking, and for that reason are always discontented and unhappy, while the big fish are never satisfied with anything—whether it be women, money, or honour. Such people are not beloved in this life—they are audacious and unendurable. You see, the majority of people are sixpences in current coin, and all the difference between them is the date when they were struck off. This one is worn out, that one is quite new; but their value is the same, their substance is of the same sort, and in every respect they are absolutely similar. Now I am not of these sixpences ... although perhaps I may be a half-sovereign.... That is all."
He said all this smiling sceptically, and it seemed to me that he did not believe himself. But he excited in me an eager curiosity, and I resolved to go with him till I discovered who he was. It was plain that he was a so-called "intelligent person." There are many of them among the vagabonds, but they are all—dead people, people who have lost all self-respect, who lack the capacity of esteeming themselves, and only manage to live by falling lower every day into filth and nastiness; finally, they dissolve in it and disappear from life.
But there was something substantial and durable about Promtov. And he did not grumble at life as all the others do.
"Well, shall we go on?" he proposed.
"By all means."
We rose from the ground warmed by tea and sunshine, and descended the bank to the current of the stream.
"And how do you manage to get food?" I asked Promtov ... "do you work?"
"Wo-o-rk? No, I am no great lover of that."
"But how then do you manage?"
"You shall see."
He was silent. Presently, after walking a few steps, he began whistling through his teeth some merry song. His eyes keenly and confidently swept the steppe, and he walked firmly like a man sure of his object.
I looked at him, and the desire to know with whom I had to deal burnt still more strongly within me.
The steppe surrounded us, desolate and quiet; above us shone the friendly sun of the south; we breathed with all our lungs the pure stimulating air, and went along in the direction where fragments of clouds jostled one another in a chaos of shapes and colours.
When we came to the street of the village—a little dog from somewhere or other bounded under our very feet, and barking loudly began to turn round and round us. Every time we looked at her, she bounded to one side, like a ball, with a terrified yelp, and again fell upon us barking furiously. Some of her friends then ran out, but they did not distinguish themselves by equal zeal, for after giving a bark or two they retired to some hiding-place. Their indifference seemed, however, to excite still more our little reddish doggie.
"Do you see what a mean nature that dog has?" observed Promtov, shaking his head at the zealous little dog. "And it is all lies too. She knows very well that barking is not necessary here, and she is not spiteful—she is a coward, and only wants to show off before her master. The little devil is purely human, and without doubt she has been educated into it.... People spoil their beasts. The time will soon come when beasts will be as abject and insincere as you and me...."
"Thank you," I said.
"Don't mention it. However, now I must take aim."
His expressive countenance now put on a pitiful mien, his eyes grew foolish, he became all bent and crooked, and his rags stood up straight like the fins of a chub.
"We must turn to our neighbour and ask for bread," he said by way of explaining to me his transformation, and he began to look keenly at the windows of the cottages. At the window of one of the cottages stood a woman suckling a child. Promtov did obeisance to her, and said in a supplicating tone:
"My sister, give bread to pilgrim folk!"
"Be not angry!" replied the woman, measuring us with suspicious eyes.
"May your breasts grow dry, then, daughter of a dog!" was the valediction my fellow-traveller sourly threw her.
The woman screamed like one who has been stung, and rushed out to us.
"Oh, you, you...." she began.
Promtov, without moving from the spot, looked her straight in the face with his black eyes, and their expression was savage and malevolent.... The woman grew pale, trembled, and murmuring something, quickly entered the hut.
"Let us go," I proposed to Promtov.
"No, we'll wait till she brings out the bread."
"She'll bring out the men upon us with pitchforks."
"A lot you know!" observed this wolf with a sceptical smile.
He was right. The woman appeared before us, holding in her hands half a loaf of bread and a solid bit of fat. Bowing low and silently to Promtov, she said to him with the tone of a suppliant:
"Pray take it, oh, man of God! be not angry!"
"God deliver thee from the evil eye, from sorcery, and from the ague!" was the unctuous farewell with which Promtov parted from her, and so we went on our way.
"Listen now!" said I, when we were already a good way from the cottage, "what an odd way of begging alms you have—to say no more."
"It's the best way. If you fix your eyes upon the woman for a little, she takes you for a sorcerer, grows scared, and will not only give you bread but the whole concern if necessary. Why should I beg and pray and lower myself before her when I can command? I have always thought that it is better to take than to beg ... but if you cannot take, you must beg, I suppose...."
"And has it never happened that instead of bread you sometimes...."
"Got one for myself, eh? No. Trust to me for that! My dear brother, let me tell you that I have got a magic little bit of paper, and I've only got to show it to a muzhik, and he is instantly my slave. Would you like me to show it to you?"
I held in my hands a pretty dirty and crumpled piece of paper, and perceived that it was a transit certificate issued to Pavel Ignat'ev Promtov by the administrative authorities of Petersburg, permitting him to journey from Astrakhan to Nikolaiev. The paper bore the seal of the Astrakhan police-office, with the corresponding signatures—all quite regular.
"I don't understand," I said, returning this document into the hands of its proprietor. "How is it you are starting from Astrakhan, when your point of departure was St. Petersburg?"
He smiled, his whole face expressed the consciousness of his superiority over me.
"Look now, it's quite simple. Think it out. They sent me from Petersburg, and in sending me invited me to choose, for certain reasons, my place of residence Say I choose Kursk, for example. Well, I appear at Kursk, and go to the police-station. I have the honour to present myself there. The Kursk police cannot welcome me amiably—they have their own little brothers there—and are full up. They assume that they have before them a sharper, and a clever sharper too; if they cannot rid themselves of him forcibly with the assistance of the statutes, they must have recourse to administrative measures in order to get shot of him. And they are always glad to send me packing—even if they plunge me into fresh misery. Perceiving their embarrassment I humanely come to their assistance. Well, well, I say, I had already chosen my place of residence, but perhaps you would like me to choose it over again? They are only too glad to get quit of me. I say, too, that I am ready to withdraw myself from the sphere of their duty, which is to preserve the inviolability of person and property, but as a reward for my amiability they must give me some provision for the road. They give me five roubles or ten, a little more or less, as the case may be, having regard to my temperament and character—and they always give gladly. It is always better to lose a fiver than to saddle themselves with grave inconvenience in my person—isn't it?"
"Possibly," I said.
"It is really so. And they provide me besides with a little piece of paper in no way resembling a passport. It is in its difference from a passport that the magic power of this little piece of paper consists. On it is written, 'ad-min-is-tra-tive-ly sent from Pet-ers-burg!' Oh! I show this to the starosta who, generally, is as dull as a clod, and devil a bit of it does he understand. He fears it—there is a seal upon it. I say to him—on the strength of this bit of paper—you are bound to give me a night's lodging! He gives it to me. You are bound to feed me! He feeds me. He cannot do otherwise, for on the paper is inscribed—from St Petersburg administratively. What's the meaning of this 'administratively'?—the deuce only knows. It may mean: sent on a secret mission for investigating the condition of the coast industries, or inquiring as to the issue of false coin, or preventing illicit distilling, or carrying out the sale of contraband goods. Or it may imply an inquiry whether the people properly attend the services of the Orthodox Church as prescribed. Or possibly it has something to do with the land. Who can decide what 'administratively from Petersburg' means? Possibly I may be someone in disguise. The muzhik is stupid, what can he understand?"
 Village elder.
"Yes, he does not understand much," I observed.
"And a very good thing too!" declared Promtov with lively satisfaction. "Such he is and ought to be, and such as he is, and only so, he is indispensable to us all like the very air. For what is the muzhik? The muzhik is for us all the means of nutriment, that is to say, he is an edible creature. Look at me for instance! Would it be possible for me to exist upon this earth but for the muzhik? Four things are indispensable for the existence of man: the sun, water, air, and the muzhik.
"And the land?"
"Granted the muzhik—and you have the land as well. You have but to command him. Hie, you there! create the land, and there the land will be. He cannot disobey."
This merry vagrant loved talking! We had long since passed the village, left behind us many farms, and once more another village stood before us, submerged in the orange foliage of autumn. Promtov chattered on—as merrily as a finch—and I listened to him, and thought about the muzhik and this new kind of parasite, unknown to me before, participating in the illusory prosperity of the muzhik.... When will the muzhik be well repaid for all the evil with which he has been so liberally requited? Here, alongside of me, marched the product of town life—a cynical and sensible vagrant, living on the vital juices of this poor muzhik, a wolf fully conscious of his lupine strength.
"Listen now"—a circumstance had suddenly occurred to me—"we meet under conditions which induce me strongly to doubt the efficacy of your bit of paper—how do you explain it?"
"Aye, aye!" laughed Promtov, "very simply. I had already passed through that place, and it is not always convenient to bring yourself back to people's recollection as you know."
His candour pleased me. Candour is always a good quality, and it is a great pity that it is so rarely to be met with among respectable people. And I listened attentively to the random chatter of my comrade, trying to make up my mind whether the picture he drew of himself was the real one.
"Here is a village in front of us! If you like I will show you the power of my bit of paper—what do you say?" proposed Promtov.
I objected to the experiment, proposing instead that he should tell me how he had really earned this piece of paper.
"Well, that is a long, long story," said he, waving his hand. "But I'll tell you—one day. Meantime let us rest and have a snack. We have an ample store of food, which means that it is not necessary at present to go into the village and trouble our neighbour."
Quitting the road, we sat down on the ground and began to eat. Then, made lazy by the warm beams of the sun and the breath of the soft wind of the steppe, we lay down and slept.... When we awoke, the sun purple and large was already on the horizon, and on the steppe the mists of the southern evening were encamping.
"Now you shall see," declared Promtov. "Fate is content that we should pass the night in that little village."
"Let us go while there is still light," I proposed.
"Don't be afraid. To-night we shall have a roof above our heads."
He was right. At the first hut at which we knocked and asked for a night's lodging we were hospitably invited to come in.
The "guid man" of the hut, a big, good-natured fellow, had just come in from the fields where he had been ploughing, his "guid wife" was making supper ready. Four grimy little children, huddled into a heap in a corner of the room, peeped out at us from thence with timid, inquisitive eyes. The buxom housewife bustled about from the hut to the outhouse swiftly and silently, bringing bread and water-melons and milk. The master of the house sat down on a bench opposite to us rubbing his stomach with an air of concentration, and fixing penetrating glances upon us. Presently the usual question came from him:
"Where are you going?"
"We're going, dear man, from sea to sea, to the city of Kiev," replied Promtov cheerfully in the words of the old cradle song.
"What is there to be seen at Kiev?" inquired the "guid man" meditatively.
"The holy relics."
The "guid man" looked at Promtov in silence and spat. Then after a pause he asked:
"And from whence do you come?"
"I from Petersburg, he from Moscow," answered Promtov.
"All that way?"—the "guid man" raised his brows. "And what's Petersburg like? Folks say that it is built upon the sea and that it is often under water."
Here the door opened and two other khokhli came in.
"We want a word with you, Michael," said one of them.
"What have you got to say to me?"
"It's this—who are these people?"
 The peasant uses the Ruthenian dialect, the effect of which is lost in a translation.
 "Tuft-headed," the name given to the Little Russians by the Great Russians, from their mode of wearing their hair.
"These?" asked our host, nodding his head at us.
Our host was silent and thoughtful, he scratched his head a bit.
"I should like to know myself," he explained.
"Maybe you are pilgrims?" they inquired of us.
"Yes!" replied Promtov.
A long silence prevailed, in the course of which the three khokhli regarded us doggedly, suspiciously, and inquisitively. At last they all sat down to table and began, with loud crunching, to consume the crimson water-melons.
"Maybe one of you is a scholar?" said one of the khokhli, turning towards Promtov.
"Both!" curtly replied Promtov
"Then perchance you know what a man ought to do when his backbone smarts and itches to that degree that he cannot sleep o' nights?"
"We do know," replied Promtov.
Promtov went on chewing his bread for a long time, dried his hands on his rags, then pensively regarded the ceiling and, at last, observed decisively and even severely:
"Break up a loaf and get your old woman at night to rub your spine with the crummy part, and afterwards anoint it with hemp-oil and fat ... that's all!"
"What will come of it?" inquired the khokhol.
 Singular of khokhli.
"Nothing," and Promtov shrugged his shoulders.
"Why should anything come of it?"
"Yet it's a good remedy?"
"Yes, it's a good remedy."
"I'll try it. Thanks!"
"To your good health!" said Promtov perfectly seriously.
There was a long silence amidst the crunching of the water-melons and the whispering of the children.
"Hark ye," began the owner of the hut, "maybe you have heard all about it at Moscow—I mean about Siberia—is it possible to settle there or not? Our district magistrate said—but no doubt he lies—that it is quite impossible!"
"Impossible!" observed Promtov with an air of astonishment.
The khokhli glanced at each other, and the master of the house murmured in his beard: "May a toad crawl into his stomach!"
"Impossible!" repeated Promtov, and suddenly his face glowed with enthusiasm; "it is impossible, but why go to Siberia at all when there is so much land everywhere—as much as you please?"
"Well, truly there's enough for the dead and to spare—but it is the living who stand in need of it," remarked one of the khokhli sadly.
"In Petersburg it has been decided," continued Promtov triumphantly, "to take all the land belonging to the gentry and the peasantry and make crown property of it."
The khokhli looked at him with wild wide-open eyes and were silent Promtov regarded them severely and asked:
"Yes, make crown property of it—and do you know why?"
The silence assumed an intense character, and the poor khokhli, apparently, were almost bursting with anxiety and expectation. I looked at them, and was scarce able to restrain the anger excited in me by the practical joke which Promtov was thus malting at the poor creatures' expense. But to have betrayed his audacious falsehood to them would have meant a whacking for him, so I held my peace, overwhelmed by this foolish dilemma.
"Speak out, good man, and tell us!" asked one of the khokhli quietly and timidly, with a stifled voice.
"They are going to take away the land in order to redistribute it more fairly among the peasants. It has been decided there"—here Promtov waved his hand vaguely to one side—"that the true owner of the land is the peasant, and so it has been ordered that there shall be no emigration to Siberia, but people are to wait till the land is divided...."
One of the khokhli let his slice of melon fall out of his mouth in his excitement. All of them looked intently at Promtov's mouth with greedy eyes and were silent, being much impressed by the strange intelligence. And then—a few seconds afterwards—four expressions were heard almost simultaneously:
"Most holy mother!"—from the woman almost hysterically.
"But ... maybe you are lying!"
"Nay, but tell us more, good man!"
"Ah, that's why we have had such bright dawns and sunsets!" exclaimed the khokhol whose backbone had ached, with conviction.
"It is only a rumour," said I. "No doubt all this sounds very much like falsehood...."
Promtov regarded me with genuine amazement and exclaimed fiercely:
"What rumour? What lies? What do you mean?"
And there poured from his lips the melody of a most audacious falsehood—sweet music for all who were listening to him except myself. He liked the fun of spinning yarns. The khokhli, whom he wanted to persuade, were ready to jump into his mouth. But it was abominable to me to listen to his inspired falsehoods, which might very well result in bringing down a great misfortune upon the heads of these simple-minded folks. I left the hut and lay down in the courtyard thinking how best I could spoil the villainous game of my travelling-companion. His voice sounded for a long time in my ears, and then I fell asleep.
I was awakened by Promtov at sunrise.
"Get up! Let's be off!" he said.
Beside him stood the sleepy master of the hut, and the knapsack of Promtov was bulging out on all sides. We took our leave and departed. Promtov was merry. He sang, he whistled, and cast ironical sidelong glances at me. I was thinking what I should say to him and walked by his side in silence.
"Well! why don't you crucify me?" he suddenly asked.
"And are you aware of what will follow from all this?" I drily inquired.
"Why, of course! I understand you, and I know that you ought to turn the jest against me. I'll even tell you how you'll do it. Would you like to hear? But better far—chuck it! What harm is there in putting ideas into the heads of these muzhiks? They will be none the wiser for it. And, besides, I've played my game well Look how they've stuffed my knapsack for me!"
"But you may bring them under the stick!"
"Scarcely.... And what if I did? What have I to do with other folks' backs. God grant we may keep our own backs whole, that's all! That's not moral I know, but what do I care whether a thing is moral or not moral. You'll agree that that's nobody's business."
"Come," thought I, "the wolf's about right."
"Assume that they do suffer through my fault—I suppose the sky will still be blue and the sea salt."
"But are you not sorry?"
"Not a bit ... I am a rolling stone, and everything which the wind casts beneath my feet wounds me in the side."
He was serious and intensely wrathful, and his eyes gleamed vindictively.
"I always do like that and sometimes worse. Once I recommended a muzhik to drink constantly olive oil mixed with blackbeetles for a pain in the stomach, because he was a skin-flint. Not a little evil of a humorous sort have I wrought during my earthly pilgrimage. How many stupid superstitions and mystifications have I not introduced into the spiritual parts of the muzhik?... And in general I am never very particular. Why should I be? For the sake of a few statutes, eh? Are there not other laws within myself? This, my confession of faith, has also the sanction of John Chrysostom, who says: 'the true Shekina—is man.'"
"But why boast of it?"
"That is wrong, eh?—from your point of view. But I, you see, am no great lover of gentlemanly points of view ... and I assume that if people lift a stick to me it is my duty to respond with a stick and not with an obeisance."
As I listened to him I reflected that it would be well for me to recollect the first Psalm of King David, and depart from the way of this sinner. But then I wanted to know his history.
I spent three more days with him, and during these three days I became convinced of much which I had previously only suspected. Thus, for example, it became quite clear to me in what manner various useless and ancient objects found their way into Promtov's knapsack, such as the lower half of a copper candlestick, a chisel, a bit of lace, and a necklace. I understood that I was running the risk of a flogging and perhaps of falling into those places which finally receive collectors similar to Promtov. I should really have to part from him But then, his story!
And lo! one day when the wind was howling savagely, knocking us off our legs, and we found ourselves in a haystack sheltering from the cold, Promtov told me the story of his life.