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Vasili Andreevich went over to his sledge, found it with difficulty in the darkness, climbed in and took the reins.
'Go on in front!' he cried.
Petrushka kneeling in his low sledge started his horse. Mukhorty, who had been neighing for some time past, now scenting a mare ahead of him started after her, and they drove out into the street. They drove again through the outskirts of the village and along the same road, past the yard where the frozen linen had hung (which, however, was no longer to be seen), past the same barn, which was now snowed up almost to the roof and from which the snow was still endlessly pouring past the same dismally moaning, whistling, and swaying willows, and again entered into the sea of blustering snow raging from above and below. The wind was so strong that when it blew from the side and the travellers steered against it, it tilted the sledges and turned the horses to one side. Petrushka drove his good mare in front at a brisk trot and kept shouting lustily. Mukhorty pressed after her.
After travelling so for about ten minutes, Petrushka turned round and shouted something. Neither Vasili Andreevich nor Nikita could hear anything because of the wind, but they guessed that they had arrived at the turning. In fact Petrushka had turned to the right, and now the wind that had blown from the side blew straight in their faces, and through the snow they saw something dark on their right. It was the bush at the turning.
'Well now, God speed you!'
'Thank you, Petrushka!'
'Storms with mist the sky conceal!' shouted Petrushka as he disappeared.
'There's a poet for you!' muttered Vasili Andreevich, pulling at the reins.
'Yes, a fine lad - a true peasant,' said Nikita.
They drove on.
Nikita, wrapping his coat closely about him and pressing his head down so close to his shoulders that his short beard covered his throat, sat silently, trying not to lose the warmth he had obtained while drinking tea in the house. Before him he saw the straight lines of the shafts which constantly deceived him into thinking they were on a well-travelled road, and the horse's swaying crupper with his knotted tail blown to one side, and farther ahead the high shaft-bow and the swaying head and neck of the horse with its waving mane. Now and then he caught sight of a way-sign, so that he knew they were still on a road and that there was nothing for him to be concerned about.
Vasili Andreevich drove on, leaving it to the horse to keep to the road. But Mukhorty, though he had had a breathing-space in the village, ran reluctantly, and seemed now and then to get off the road, so that Vasili Andreevich had repeatedly to correct him.
'Here's a stake to the right, and another, and here's a third,' Vasili Andreevich counted, 'and here in front is the forest,' thought he, as he looked at something dark in front of him. But what had seemed to him a forest was only a bush. They passed the bush and drove on for another hundred yards but there was no fourth way-mark nor any forest.
'We must reach the forest soon,' thought Vasili Andreevich, and animated by the vodka and the tea he did not stop but shook the reins, and the good obedient horse responded, now ambling, now slowly trotting in the direction in which he was sent, though he knew that he was not going the right way. Ten minutes went by, but there was still no forest.
'There now, we must be astray again,' said Vasili Andreevich, pulling up.
Nikita silently got out of the sledge and holding his coat, which the wind now wrapped closely about him and now almost tore off, started to feel about in the snow, going first to one side and then to the other. Three or four times he was completely lost to sight. At last he returned and took the reins from Vasili Andreevich's hand.
'We must go to the right,' he said sternly and peremptorily, as he turned the horse.
'Well, if it's to the right, go to the right,' said Vasili Andreevich, yielding up the reins to Nikita and thrusting his freezing hands into his sleeves.
Nikita did not reply.
'Now then, friend, stir yourself!' he shouted to the horse, but in spite of the shake of the reins Mukhorty moved only at a walk.
The snow in places was up to his knees, and the sledge moved by fits and starts with his every movement.
Nikita took the whip that hung over the front of the sledge and struck him once. The good horse, unused to the whip, sprang forward and moved at a trot, but immediately fell back into an amble and then to a walk. So they went on for five minutes. It was dark and the snow whirled from above and rose from below, so that sometimes the shaft-bow could not be seen. At times the sledge seemed to stand still and the field to run backwards. Suddenly the horse stopped abruptly, evidently aware of something close in front of him. Nikita again sprang lightly out, throwing down the reins, and went ahead to see what had brought him to a standstill, but hardly had he made a step in front of the horse before his feet slipped and he went rolling down an incline.
'Whoa, whoa, whoa!' he said to himself as he fell, and he tried to stop his fall but could not, and only stopped when his feet plunged into a thick layer of snow that had drifted to the bottom of the hollow.
The fringe of a drift of snow that hung on the edge of the hollow, disturbed by Nikita's fall, showered down on him and got inside his collar.
'What a thing to do!' said Nikita reproachfully, addressing the drift and the hollow and shaking the snow from under his collar.
'Nikita! Hey, Nikita!' shouted Vasili Andreevich from above.
But Nikita did not reply. He was too occupied in shaking out the snow and searching for the whip he had dropped when rolling down the incline. Having found the whip he tried to climb straight up the bank where he had rolled down, but it was impossible to do so: he kept rolling down again, and so he had to go along at the foot of the hollow to find a way up. About seven yards farther on he managed with difficulty to crawl up the incline on all fours, then he followed the edge of the hollow back to the place where the horse should have been. He could not see either horse or sledge, but as he walked against the wind he heard Vasili Andreevich's shouts and Mukhorty's neighing, calling him.
'I'm coming! I'm coming! What are you cackling for?' he muttered.
Only when he had come up to the sledge could he make out the horse, and Vasili Andreevich standing beside it and looking gigantic.
'Where the devil did you vanish to? We must go back, if only to Grishkino,' he began reproaching Nikita.
'I'd be glad to get back, Vasili Andreevich, but which way are we to go? There is such a ravine here that if we once get in it we shan't get out again. I got stuck so fast there myself that I could hardly get out.'
'What shall we do, then? We can't stay here! We must go somewhere!' said Vasili Andreevich.
Nikita said nothing. He seated himself in the sledge with his back to the wind, took off his boots, shook out the snow that had got into them, and taking some straw from the bottom of the sledge, carefully plugged with it a hole in his left boot.
Vasili Andreevich remained silent, as though now leaving everything to Nikita. Having put his boots on again, Nikita drew his feet into the sledge, put on his mittens and took up the reins, and directed the horse along the side of the ravine. But they had not gone a hundred yards before the horse again stopped short. The ravine was in front of him again.
Nikita again climbed out and again trudged about in the snow. He did this for a considerable time and at last appeared from the opposite side to that from which he had started.
'Vasili Andreevich, are you alive?' he called out.
'Here!' replied Vasili Andreevich. 'Well, what now?'
'I can't make anything out. It's too dark. There's nothing but ravines. We must drive against the wind again.'
They set off once more. Again Nikita went stumbling through the snow, again he fell in, again climbed out and trudged about, and at last quite out of breath he sat down beside the sledge.
'Well, how now?' asked Vasili Andreevich.
'Why, I am quite worn out and the horse won't go.'
'Then what's to be done?'
'Why, wait a minute.'
Nikita went away again but soon returned.
'Follow me!' he said, going in front of the horse.
Vasili Andreevich no longer gave orders but implicitly did what Nikita told him.
'Here, follow me!' Nikita shouted, stepping quickly to the right, and seizing the rein he led Mukhorty down towards a snow-drift.
At first the horse held back, then he jerked forward, hoping to leap the drift, but he had not the strength and sank into it up to his collar.
'Get out!' Nikita called to Vasili Andreevich who still sat in the sledge, and taking hold of one shaft he moved the sledge closer to the horse. 'It's hard, brother!' he said to Mukhorty, 'but it can't be helped. Make an effort! Now, now, just a little one!' he shouted.
The horse gave a tug, then another, but failed to clear himself and settled down again as if considering something.
'Now, brother, this won't do!' Nikita admonished him. 'Now once more!'
Again Nikita tugged at the shaft on his side, and Vasili Andreevich did the same on the other.
Mukhorty lifted his head and then gave a sudden jerk.
'That's it! That's it!' cried Nikita. 'Don't be afraid - you won't sink!'
One plunge, another, and a third, and at last Mukhorty was out of the snow-drift, and stood still, breathing heavily and shaking the snow off himself. Nikita wished to lead him farther, but Vasili Andreevich, in his two fur coats, was so out of breath that he could not walk farther and dropped into the sledge.
'Let me get my breath!' he said, unfastening the kerchief with which he had tied the collar of his fur coat at the village.
'It's all right here. You lie there,' said Nikita. 'I will lead him along.' And with Vasili Andreevich in the sledge he led the horse by the bridle about ten paces down and then up a slight rise, and stopped.
The place where Nikita had stopped was not completely in the hollow where the snow sweeping down from the hillocks might have buried them altogether, but still it was partly sheltered from the wind by the side of the ravine. There were moments when the wind seemed to abate a little, but that did not last long and as if to make up for that respite the storm swept down with tenfold vigour and tore and whirled the more fiercely. Such a gust struck them at the moment when Vasili Andreevich, having recovered his breath, got out of the sledge and went up to Nikita to consult him as to what they should do. They both bent down involuntarily and waited till the violence of the squall should have passed. Mukhorty too laid back his ears and shook his head discontentedly. As soon as the violence of the blast had abated a little, Nikita took off his mittens, stuck them into his belt, breathed onto his hands, and began to undo the straps of the shaft-bow.
'What's that you are doing there?' asked Vasili Andreevich.
'Unharnessing. What else is there to do? I have no strength left,' said Nikita as though excusing himself.
'Can't we drive somewhere?'
'No, we can't. We shall only kill the horse. Why, the poor beast is not himself now,' said Nikita, pointing to the horse, which was standing submissively waiting for what might come, with his steep wet sides heaving heavily. 'We shall have to stay the night here,' he said, as if preparing to spend the night at an inn, and he proceeded to unfasten the collar-straps. The buckles came undone.
'But shan't we be frozen?' remarked Vasili Andreevich.
'Well, if we are we can't help it,' said Nikita.
Turn to the next chapter: VI