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The good stallion took the sledge along at a brisk pace over the smooth-frozen road through the village, the runners squeaking slightly as they went.
'Look at him hanging on there! Hand me the whip, Nikita!' shouted Vasili Andreevich, evidently enjoying the sight of his 'heir,' who standing on the runners was hanging on at the back of the sledge. 'I'll give it you! Be off to mamma, you dog!'
The boy jumped down. The horse increased his amble and, suddenly changing foot, broke into a fast trot.
The Crosses, the village where Vasili Andreevich lived, consisted of six houses. As soon as they had passed the blacksmith's hut, the last in the village, they realized that the wind was much stronger than they had thought. The road could hardly be seen. The tracks left by the sledge-runners were immediately covered by snow and the road was only distinguished by the fact that it was higher than the rest of the ground. There was a swirl of snow over the fields and the line where sky and earth met could not be seen. The Telyatin forest, usually clearly visible, now only loomed up occasionally and dimly through the driving snowy dust. The wind came from the left, insistently blowing over to one side the mane on Mukhorty's sleek neck and carrying aside even his fluffy tail, which was tied in a simple knot. Nikita's wide coat-collar, as he sat on the windy side, pressed close to his cheek and nose.
'This road doesn't give him a chance - it's too snowy,' said Vasili Andreevich, who prided himself on his good horse. 'I once drove to Pashutino with him in half an hour.'
'What?' asked Nikita, who could not hear on account of his collar.
'I say I once went to Pashutino in half an hour,' shouted Vasili Andreevich.
'It goes without saying that he's a good horse,' replied Nikita.
They were silent for a while. But Vasili Andreevich wished to talk.
'Well, did you tell your wife not to give the cooper any vodka?' he began in the same loud tone, quite convinced that Nikita must feel flattered to be talking with so clever and important a person as himself, and he was so pleased with his jest that it did not enter his head that the remark might be unpleasant to Nikita.
The wind again prevented Nikita's hearing his master's words.
Vasili Andreevich repeated the jest about the cooper in his loud, clear voice.
'That's their business, Vasili Andreevich. I don't pry into their affairs. As long as she doesn't ill-treat our boy - God be with them.'
'That's so,' said Vasili Andreevich. 'Well, and will you be buying a horse in spring?' he went on, changing the subject.
'Yes, I can't avoid it,' answered Nikita, turning down his collar and leaning back towards his master.
The conversation now became interesting to him and he did not wish to lose a word.
'The lad's growing up. He must begin to plough for himself, but till now we've always had to hire someone,' he said.
'Well, why not have the lean-cruppered one. I won't charge much for it,' shouted Vasili Andreevich, feeling animated, and consequently starting on his favourite occupation - that of horse-dealing - which absorbed all his mental powers.
'Or you might let me have fifteen rubles and I'll buy one at the horse-market,' said Nikita, who knew that the horse Vasili Andreevich wanted to sell him would be dear at seven rubles, but that if he took it from him it would be charged at twenty-five, and then he would be unable to draw any money for half a year.
'It's a good horse. I think of your interest as of my own - according to conscience. Brekhunov isn't a man to wrong anyone. Let the loss be mine. I'm not like others. Honestly!' he shouted in the voice in which he hypnotized his customers and dealers. 'It's a real good horse.'
'Quite so!' said Nikita with a sigh, and convinced that there was nothing more to listen to, he again released his collar, which immediately covered his ear and face.
They drove on in silence for about half an hour. The wind blew sharply onto Nikita's side and arm where his sheepskin was torn.
He huddled up and breathed into the collar which covered his mouth, and was not wholly cold.
'What do you think - shall we go through Karamyshevo or by the straight road?' asked Vasili Andreevich.
The road through Karamyshevo was more frequented and was well marked with a double row of high stakes. The straight road was nearer but little used and had no stakes, or only poor ones covered with snow.
Nikita thought awhile.
'Though Karamyshevo is farther, it is better going,' he said.
'But by the straight road, when once we get through the hollow by the forest, it's good going - sheltered,' said Vasili Andreevich, who wished to go the nearest way.
'Just as you please,' said Nikita, and again let go of his collar.
Vasili Andreevich did as he had said, and having gone about half a verst came to a tall oak stake which had a few dry leaves still dangling on it, and there he turned to the left.
On turning they faced directly against the wind, and snow was beginning to fall. Vasili Andreevich, who was driving, inflated his cheeks, blowing the breath out through his moustache. Nikita dozed.
So they went on in silence for about ten minutes. Suddenly Vasili Andreevich began saying something.
'Eh, what?' asked Nikita, opening his eyes.
Vasili Andreevich did not answer, but bent over, looking behind them and then ahead of the horse. The sweat had curled Mukhorty's coat between his legs and on his neck. He went at a walk.
'What is it?' Nikita asked again.
'What is it? What is it?' Vasili Andreevich mimicked him angrily. 'There are no stakes to be seen! We must have got off the road!'
'Well, pull up then, and I'll look for it,' said Nikita, and jumping down lightly from the sledge and taking the whip from under the straw, he went off to the left from his own side of the sledge.
The snow was not deep that year, so that it was possible to walk anywhere, but still in places it was knee-deep and got into Nikita's boots. He went about feeling the ground with his feet and the whip, but could not find the road anywhere.
'Well, how is it?' asked Vasili Andreevich when Nikita came back to the sledge.
'There is no road this side. I must go to the other side and try there,' said Nikita.
'There's something there in front. Go and have a look.'
Nikita went to what had appeared dark, but found that it was earth which the wind had blown from the bare fields of winter oats and had strewn over the snow, colouring it. Having searched to the right also, he returned to the sledge, brushed the snow from his coat, shook it out of his boots, and seated himself once more.
'We must go to the right,' he said decidedly. 'The wind was blowing on our left before, but now it is straight in my face. Drive to the right,' he repeated with decision.
Vasili Andreevich took his advice and turned to the right, but still there was no road. They went on in that direction for some time. The wind was as fierce as ever and it was snowing lightly.
'It seems, Vasili Andreevich, that we have gone quite astray,' Nikita suddenly remarked, as if it were a pleasant thing. 'What is that?' he added, pointing to some potato vines that showed up from under the snow.
Vasili Andreevich stopped the perspiring horse, whose deep sides were heaving heavily.
'What is it?'
'Why, we are on the Zakharov lands. See where we've got to!'
'Nonsense!' retorted Vasili Andreevich.
'It's not nonsense, Vasili Andreevich. It's the truth,' replied Nikita. 'You can feel that the sledge is going over a potato-field, and there are the heaps of vines which have been carted here. It's the Zakharov factory land.'
'Dear me, how we have gone astray!' said Vasili Andreevich. 'What are we to do now?'
'We must go straight on, that's all. We shall come out somewhere - if not at Zakharova, then at the proprietor's farm,' said Nikita.
Vasili Andreevich agreed, and drove as Nikita had indicated. So they went on for a considerable time. At times they came onto bare fields and the sledge-runners rattled over frozen lumps of earth. Sometimes they got onto a winter-rye field, or a fallow field on which they could see stalks of wormwood, and straws sticking up through the snow and swaying in the wind; sometimes they came onto deep and even white snow, above which nothing was to be seen.
The snow was falling from above and sometimes rose from below. The horse was evidently exhausted, his hair had all curled up from sweat and was covered with hoar-frost, and he went at a walk. Suddenly he stumbled and sat down in a ditch or water-course. Vasili Andreevich wanted to stop, but Nikita cried to him:
'Why stop? We've got in and must get out. Hey, pet! Hey, darling! Gee up, old fellow!' he shouted in a cheerful tone to the horse, jumping out of the sledge and himself getting stuck in the ditch.
The horse gave a start and quickly climbed out onto the frozen bank. It was evidently a ditch that had been dug there.
'Where are we now?' asked Vasili Andreevich.
'We'll soon find out!' Nikita replied. 'Go on, we'll get somewhere.'
'Why, this must be the Goryachkin forest!' said Vasili Andreevich, pointing to something dark that appeared amid the snow in front of them.
'We'll see what forest it is when we get there,' said Nikita.
He saw that beside the black thing they had noticed, dry, oblong willow-leaves were fluttering, and so he knew it was not a forest but a settlement, but he did not wish to say so. And in fact they had not gone twenty-five yards beyond the ditch before something in front of them, evidently trees, showed up black, and they heard a new and melancholy sound. Nikita had guessed right: it was not a wood, but a row of tall willows with a few leaves still fluttering on them here and there. They had evidently been planted along the ditch round a threshing-floor. Coming up to the willows, which moaned sadly in the wind, the horse suddenly planted his forelegs above the height of the sledge, drew up his hind legs also, pulling the sledge onto higher ground, and turned to the left, no longer sinking up to his knees in snow. They were back on a road.
'Well, here we are, but heaven only knows where!' said Nikita.
The horse kept straight along the road through the drifted snow, and before they had gone another hundred yards the straight line of the dark wattle wall of a barn showed up black before them, its roof heavily covered with snow which poured down from it. After passing the barn the road turned to the wind and they drove into a snow-drift. But ahead of them was a lane with houses on either side, so evidently the snow had been blown across the road and they had to drive through the drift. And so in fact it was. Having driven through the snow they came out into a street. At the end house of the village some frozen clothes hanging on a line - shirts, one red and one white, trousers, leg-bands, and a petticoat - fluttered wildly in the wind. The white shirt in particular struggled desperately, waving its sleeves about.
'There now, either a lazy woman or a dead one has not taken her clothes down before the holiday,' remarked Nikita, looking at the fluttering shirts.
Turn to the next chapter: III