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CHAPTER IV. THE PEASANTS' LOT.
When Nekhludoff came out of the gate he met the girl with the long earrings on the well-trodden path that lay across the pasture ground, overgrown with dock and plantain leaves. She had a long, brightly-coloured apron on, and was quickly swinging her left arm in front of herself as she stepped briskly with her fat, bare feet. With her right arm she was pressing a fowl to her stomach. The fowl, with red comb shaking, seemed perfectly calm; he only rolled up his eyes and stretched out and drew in one black leg, clawing the girl's apron. When the girl came nearer to "the master," she began moving more slowly, and her run changed into a walk. When she came up to him she stopped, and, after a backward jerk with her head, bowed to him; and only when he had passed did she recommence to run homeward with the cock. As he went down towards the well, he met an old woman, who had a coarse dirty blouse on, carrying two pails full of water, that hung on a yoke across her bent back. The old woman carefully put down the pails and bowed, with the same backward jerk of her head.
After passing the well Nekhludoff entered the village. It was a bright, hot day, and oppressive, though only ten o'clock. At intervals the sun was hidden by the gathering clouds. An unpleasant, sharp smell of manure filled the air in the street. It came from carts going up the hillside, but chiefly from the disturbed manure heaps in the yards of the huts, by the open gates of which Nekhludoff had to pass. The peasants, barefooted, their shirts and trousers soiled with manure, turned to look at the tall, stout gentleman with the glossy silk ribbon on his grey hat who was walking up the village street, touching the ground every other step with a shiny, bright-knobbed walking-stick. The peasants returning from the fields at a trot and jotting in their empty carts, took off their hats, and, in their surprise, followed with their eyes the extraordinary man who was walking up their street. The women came out of the gates or stood in the porches of their huts, pointing him out to each other and gazing at him as he passed.
When Nekhludoff was passing the fourth gate, he was stopped by a cart that was coming out, its wheels creaking, loaded high with manure, which was pressed down, and was covered with a mat to sit on. A six-year-old boy, excited by the prospect of a drive, followed the cart. A young peasant, with shoes plaited out of bark on his feet, led the horse out of the yard. A long-legged colt jumped out of the gate; but, seeing Nekhludoff, pressed close to the cart, and scraping its legs against the wheels, jumped forward, past its excited, gently-neighing mother, as she was dragging the heavy load through the gateway. The next horse was led out by a barefooted old man, with protruding shoulder-blades, in a dirty shirt and striped trousers.
When the horses got out on to the hard road, strewn over with bits of dry, grey manure, the old man returned to the gate, and bowed to Nekhludoff.
"You are our ladies' nephew, aren't you?
"Yes, I am their nephew."
"You've kindly come to look us up, eh?" said the garrulous old man.
"Yes, I have. Well, how are you getting on?
"How do we get on? We get on very badly," the old man drawled, as if it gave him pleasure.
"Why so badly?" Nekhludoff asked, stepping inside the gate.
"What is our life but the very worst life?" said the old man, following Nekhludoff into that part of the yard which was roofed over.
Nekhludoff stopped under the roof.
"I have got 12 of them there," continued the old man, pointing to two women on the remainder of the manure heap, who stood perspiring with forks in their hands, the kerchiefs tumbling off their heads, with their skirts tucked up, showing the calves of their dirty, bare legs. "Not a month passes but I have to buy six poods [a pood is 36 English pounds] of corn, and where's the money to come from?"
"Have you not got enough corn of your own?
"My own?" repeated the old man, with a smile of contempt; "why I have only got land for three, and last year we had not enough to last till Christmas."
"What do you do then?"
"What do we do? Why, I hire out as a labourer; and then I borrowed some money from your honour. We spent it all before Lent, and the tax is not paid yet."
"And how much is the tax?"
"Why, it's 17 roubles for my household. Oh, Lord, such a life! One hardly knows one's self how one manages to live it."
"May I go into your hut?" asked Nekhludoff, stepping across the yard over the yellow-brown layers of manure that had been raked up by the forks, and were giving off a strong smell.
"Why not? Come in," said the old man, and stepping quickly with his bare feet over the manure, the liquid oozing between his toes, he passed Nekhludoff and opened the door of the hut.
The women arranged the kerchiefs on their heads and let down their skirts, and stood looking with surprise at the clean gentleman with gold studs to his sleeves who was entering their house. Two little girls, with nothing on but coarse chemises, rushed out of the hut. Nekhludoff took off his hat, and, stooping to get through the low door, entered, through a passage into the dirty, narrow hut, that smelt of sour food, and where much space was taken up by two weaving looms. In the but an old woman was standing by the stove, with the sleeves rolled up over her thin, sinewy brown arms.
"Here is our master come to see us," said the old man.
"I'm sure he's very welcome," said the old woman, kindly.
"I would like to see how you live."
"Well, you see how we live. The hut is coming down, and might kill one any day; but my old man he says it's good enough, and so we live like kings," said the brisk old woman, nervously jerking her head. "I'm getting the dinner; going to feed the workers."
"And what are you going to have for dinner?"
"Our food is very good. First course, bread and kvas; [kvas is a kind of sour, non-intoxicant beer made of rye] second course, kvas and bread," said the old woman, showing her teeth, which were half worn away.
"No," seriously; "let me see what you are going to eat."
"To eat?" said the old man, laughing. "Ours is not a very cunning meal. You just show him, wife."
"Want to see our peasant food? Well, you are an inquisitive gentleman, now I come to look at you. He wants to know everything. Did I not tell you bread and kvas and then we'll have soup. A woman brought us some fish, and that's what the soup is made of, and after that, potatoes."
"What more do you want? We'll also have a little milk," said the old woman, looking towards the door. The door stood open, and the passage outside was full of people - boys, girls, women with babies - thronged together to look at the strange gentleman who wanted to see the peasants' food. The old woman seemed to pride herself on the way she behaved with a gentleman.
"Yes, it's a miserable life, ours; that goes without saying, sir," said the old man. "What are you doing there?" he shouted to those in the passage. "Well, good-bye," said Nekhludoff, feeling ashamed and uneasy, though unable to account for the feeling.
"Thank you kindly for having looked us up," said the old man.
The people in the passage pressed closer together to let Nekhludoff pass, and he went out and continued his way up the street.
Two barefooted boys followed him out of the passage the elder in a shirt that had once been white, the other in a worn and faded pink one. Nekhludoff looked back at them.
"And where are you going now?" asked the boy with the white shirt. Nekhludoff answered: "To Matrona Kharina. Do you know her?" The boy with the pink shirt began laughing at something; but the elder asked, seriously:
"What Matrona is that? Is she old?"
"Yes, she is old."
"Oh - oh," he drawled; "that one; she's at the other end of the village; we'll show you. Yes, Fedka, we'll go with him. Shall we?"
"Yes, but the horses?"
"They'll be all right, I dare say."
Fedka agreed, and all three went up the street.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER V. MASLOVA'S AUNT.