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At the entrance to the street the wind still raged and the road was thickly covered with snow, but well within the village it was calm, warm, and cheerful. At one house a dog was barking, at another a woman, covering her head with her coat, came running from somewhere and entered the door of a hut, stopping on the threshold to have a look at the passing sledge. In the middle of the village girls could be heard singing.
Here in the village there seemed to be less wind and snow, and the frost was less keen.
'Why, this is Grishkino,' said Vasili Andreevich.
'So it is,' responded Nikita.
It really was Grishkino, which meant that they had gone too far to the left and had travelled some six miles, not quite in the direction they aimed at, but towards their destination for all that.
From Grishkino to Goryachkin was about another four miles.
In the middle of the village they almost ran into a tall man walking down the middle of the street.
'Who are you?' shouted the man, stopping the horse, and recognizing Vasili Anereevich he immediately took hold of the shaft, went along it hand over hand till he reached the sledge, and placed himself on the driver's seat.
He was Isay, a peasant of Vasili Andreevich's acquaintance, and well known as the principal horse-thief in the district.
'Ah, Vasili Andreevich! Where are you off to?' said Isay, enveloping Nikita in the odour of the vodka he had drunk.
'We were going to Goryachkin.'
'And look where you've got to! You should have gone through Molchanovka.'
'Should have, but didn't manage it,' said Vasili Andreevich, holding in the horse.
'That's a good horse,' said Isay, with a shrewd glance at Mukhorty, and with a practised hand he tightened the loosened knot high in the horse's bushy tail.
'Are you going to stay the night?'
'No, friend. I must get on.'
'Your business must be pressing. And who is this? Ah, Nikita Stepanych!'
'Who else?' replied Nikita. 'But I say, good friend, how are we to avoid going astray again?'
'Where can you go astray here? Turn back straight down the street and then when you come out keep straight on. Don't take to the left. You will come out onto the high road, and then turn to the right.'
'And where do we turn off the high road? As in summer, or the winter way?' asked Nikita.
'The winter way. As soon as you turn off you'll see some bushes, and opposite them there is a way-mark - a large oak, one with branches - and that's the way.'
Vasili Andreevich turned the horse back and drove through the outskirts of the village.
'Why not stay the night?' Isay shouted after them.
But Vasili Andreevich did not answer and touched up the horse. Four miles of good road, two of which lay through the forest, seemed easy to manage, especially as the wind was apparently quieter and the snow had stopped.
Having driven along the trodden village street, darkened here and there by fresh manure, past the yard where the clothes hung out and where the white shirt had broken loose and was now attached only by one frozen sleeve, they again came within sound of the weird moan of the willows, and again emerged on the open fields. The storm, far from ceasing, seemed to have grown yet stronger. The road was completely covered with drifting snow, and only the stakes showed that they had not lost their way. But even the stakes ahead of them were not easy to see, since the wind blew in their faces.
Vasili Andreevich screwed up his eyes, bent down his head, and looked out for the way-marks, but trusted mainly to the horse's sagacity, letting it take its own way. And the horse really did not lose the road but followed its windings, turning now to the right and now to the left and sensing it under his feet, so that though the snow fell thicker and the wind strengthened they still continued to see way-marks now to the left and now to the right of them.
So they travelled on for about ten minutes, when suddenly, through the slanting screen of wind-driven snow, something black showed up which moved in front of the horse.
This was another sledge with fellow-travellers. Mukhorty overtook them, and struck his hoofs against the back of the sledge in front of them.
'Pass on . . . hey there . . . get in front!' cried voices from the sledge.
Vasili Andreevich swerved aside to pass the other sledge.
In it sat three men and a woman, evidently visitors returning from a feast. One peasant was whacking the snow-covered croup of their little horse with a long switch, and the other two sitting in front waved their arms and shouted something. The woman, completely wrapped up and covered with snow, sat drowsing and bumping at the back.
'Who are you?' shouted Vasili Andreevich.
'From A-a-a . . .' was all that could be heard.
'I say, where are you from?'
'From A-a-a-a!' one of the peasants shouted with all his might, but still it was impossible to make out who they were.
'Get along! Keep up!' shouted another, ceaselessly beating his horse with the switch.
'So you're from a feast, it seems?'
'Go on, go on! Faster, Simon! Get in front! Faster!'
The wings of the sledges bumped against one another, almost got jammed but managed to separate, and the peasants' sledge began to fall behind.
Their shaggy, big-bellied horse, all covered with snow, breathed heavily under the low shaft-bow and, evidently using the last of its strength, vainly endeavoured to escape from the switch, hobbling with its short legs through the deep snow which it threw up under itself.
Its muzzle, young-looking, with the nether lip drawn up like that of a fish, nostrils distended and ears pressed back from fear, kept up for a few seconds near Nikita's shoulder and then began to fall behind.
'Just see what liquor does!' said Nikita. 'They've tired that little horse to death. What pagans!'
For a few minutes they heard the panting of the tired little horse and the drunken shouting of the peasants. Then the panting and the shouts died away, and around them nothing could be heard but the whistling of the wind in their ears and now and then the squeak of their sledge-runners over a windswept part of the road.
This encounter cheered and enlivened Vasili Andreevich, and he drove on more boldly without examining the way-marks, urging on the horse and trusting to him.
Nikita had nothing to do, and as usual in such circumstances he drowsed, making up for much sleepless time. Suddenly the horse stopped and Nikita nearly fell forward onto his nose.
'You know we're off the track again!' said Vasili Andreevich.
'Why, there are no way-marks to be seen. We must have got off the road again.'
'Well, if we've lost the road we must find it,' said Nikita curtly, and getting out and stepping lightly on his pigeon-toed feet he started once more going about on the snow.
He walked about for a long time, now disappearing and now reappearing, and finally he came back.
'There is no road here. There may be farther on,' he said, getting into the sledge.
It was already growing dark. The snow-storm had not increased but had also not subsided.
'If we could only hear those peasants!' said Vasili Andreevich.
'Well they haven't caught us up. We must have gone far astray. Or maybe they have lost their way too.'
'Where are we to go then?' asked Vasili Andreevich.
'Why, we must let the horse take its own way,' said Nikita. 'He will take us right. Let me have the reins.'
Vasili Andreevich gave him the reins, the more willingly because his hands were beginning to feel frozen in his thick gloves.
Nikita took the reins, but only held them, trying not to shake them and rejoicing at his favourite's sagacity. And indeed the clever horse, turning first one ear and then the other now to one side and then to the other, began to wheel round.
'The one thing he can't do is to talk,' Nikita kept saying. 'See what he is doing! Go on, go on! You know best. That's it, that's it!'
The wind was now blowing from behind and it felt warmer.
'Yes, he's clever,' Nikita continued, admiring the horse. 'A Kirgiz horse is strong but stupid. But this one - just see what he's doing with his ears! He doesn't need any telegraph. He can scent a mile off.'
Before another half-hour had passed they saw something dark ahead of them - a wood or a village - and stakes again appeared to the right. They had evidently come out onto the road.
'Why, that's Grishkino again!' Nikita suddenly exclaimed.
And indeed, there on their left was that same barn with the snow flying from it, and farther on the same line with the frozen washing, shirts and trousers, which still fluttered desperately in the wind.
Again they drove into the street and again it grew quiet, warm, and cheerful, and again they could see the manure-stained street and hear voices and songs and the barking of a dog. It was already so dark that there were lights in some of the windows.
Half-way through the village Vasili Andreevich turned the horse towards a large double-fronted brick house and stopped at the porch.
Nikita went to the lighted snow-covered window, in the rays of which flying snow-flakes glittered, and knocked at it with his whip.
'Who is there?' a voice replied to his knock.
'From Kresty, the Brekhunovs, dear fellow,' answered Nikita. 'Just come out for a minute.'
Someone moved from the window, and a minute or two later there was the sound of the passage door as it came unstuck, then the latch of the outside door clicked and a tall white-bearded peasant, with a sheepskin coat thrown over his white holiday shirt, pushed his way out holding the door firmly against the wind, followed by a lad in a red shirt and high leather boots.
'Is that you, Andreevich?' asked the old man.
'Yes, friend, we've gone astray,' said Vasili Andreevich. 'We wanted to get to Goryachkin but found ourselves here. We went a second time but lost our way again.'
'Just see how you have gone astray!' said the old man. 'Petrushka, go and open the gate!' he added, turning to the lad in the red shirt.
'All right,' said the lad in a cheerful voice, and ran back into the passage.
'But we're not staying the night,' said Vasili Andreevich.
'Where will you go in the night? You'd better stay!'
'I'd be glad to, but I must go on. It's business, and it can't be helped.'
'Well, warm yourself at least. The samovar is just ready.'
'Warm myself? Yes, I'll do that,' said Vasili Andreevich. 'It won't get darker. The moon will rise and it will be lighter. Let's go in and warm ourselves, Nikita.'
'Well, why not? Let us warm ourselves,' replied Nikita, who was stiff with cold and anxious to warm his frozen limbs.
Vasili Andreevich went into the room with the old man, and Nikita drove through the gate opened for him by Petrushka, by whose advice he backed the horse under the penthouse. The ground was covered with manure and the tall bow over the horse's head caught against the beam. The hens and the cock had already settled to roost there, and clucked peevishly, clinging to the beam with their claws. The disturbed sheep shied and rushed aside trampling the frozen manure with their hooves. The dog yelped desperately with fright and anger and then burst out barking like a puppy at the stranger.
Nikita talked to them all, excused himself to the fowls and assured them that he would not disturb them again, rebuked the sheep for being frightened without knowing why, and kept soothing the dog, while he tied up the horse.
'Now that will be all right,' he said, knocking the snow off his clothes. 'Just hear how he barks!' he added, turning to the dog. 'Be quiet, stupid! Be quiet. You are only troubling yourself for nothing. We're not thieves, we're friends. . . .'
'And these are, it's said, the three domestic counsellors,' remarked the lad, and with his strong arms he pushed under the pent-roof the sledge that had remained outside.
'Why counsellors?' asked Nikita.
'That's what is printed in Paulson. A thief creeps to a house - the dog barks, that means "Be on your guard!" The cock crows, that means, "Get up!" The cat licks herself - that means, "A welcome guest is coming. Get ready to receive him!"' said the lad with a smile.
Petrushka could read and write and knew Paulson's primer, his only book, almost by heart, and he was fond of quoting sayings from it that he thought suited the occasion, especially when he had had something to drink, as to-day.
'That's so,' said Nikita.
'You must be chilled through and through,' said Petrushka.
'Yes, I am rather,' said Nikita, and they went across the yard and the passage into the house.
Turn to the next chapter: IV