The sight of the vast pinewood, embracing the whole horizon, the sight of the ‘Forest,’ recalls the sight of the ocean. And the sensations it arouses are the same; the same primaeval untouched force lies outstretched in its breadth and majesty before the eyes of the spectator. From the heart of the eternal forest, from the undying bosom of the waters, comes the same voice: ‘I have nothing to do with thee,’—nature says to man, ‘I reign supreme, while do thou bestir thyself to thy utmost to escape dying.’ But the forest is gloomier and more monotonous than the sea, especially the pine forest, which is always alike and almost soundless. The ocean menaces and caresses, it frolics with every colour, speaks with every voice; it reflects the sky, from which too comes the breath of eternity, but an eternity as it were not so remote from us…. The dark, unchanging pine-forest keeps sullen silence or is filled with a dull roar—and at the sight of it sinks into man’s heart more deeply, more irresistibly, the sense of his own nothingness. It is hard for man, the creature of a day, born yesterday, and doomed to death on the morrow, it is hard for him to bear the cold gaze of the eternal Isis, fixed without sympathy upon him: not only the daring hopes and dreams of youth are humbled and quenched within him, enfolded by the icy breath of the elements; no—his whole soul sinks down and swoons within him; he feels that the last of his kind may vanish off the face of the earth—and not one needle will quiver on those twigs; he feels his isolation, his feebleness, his fortuitousness;—and in hurried, secret panic, he turns to the petty cares and labours of life; he is more at ease in that world he has himself created; there he is at home, there he dares yet believe in his own importance and in his own power.
Such were the ideas that came into my mind, some years ago, when, standing on the steps of a little inn on the bank of the marshy little river Ressetta, I first gazed upon the forest. The bluish masses of fir-forest lay in long, continuous ridges before me; here and there was the green patch of a small birch-copse; the whole sky-line was hugged by the pine-wood; nowhere was there the white gleam of a church, nor bright stretches of meadow—it was all trees and trees, everywhere the ragged edge of the tree-tops, and a delicate dim mist, the eternal mist of the forest, hung over them in the distance. It was not indolent repose this immobility of life suggested; no—the absence of life, something dead, even in its grandeur, was what came to me from every side of the horizon. I remember big white clouds were swimming by, slowly and very high up, and the hot summer day lay motionless upon the silent earth. The reddish water of the stream glided without a splash among the thick reeds: at its bottom could be dimly discerned round cushions of pointed moss, and its banks sank away in the swampy mud, and sharply reappeared again in white hillocks of fine crumbling sand. Close by the little inn ran the trodden highroad.
On this road, just opposite the steps, stood a cart, loaded with boxes and hampers. Its owner, a thin pedlar with a hawk nose and mouse-like eyes, bent and lame, was putting in it his little nag, lame like himself. He was a gingerbread-seller, who was making his way to the fair at Karatchev. Suddenly several people appeared on the road, others straggled after them … at last, quite a crowd came trudging into sight; all of them had sticks in their hands and satchels on their shoulders. From their fatigued yet swinging gait, and from their sun-burnt faces, one could see they had come from a long distance. They were leatherworkers and diggers coming back from working for hire.
An old man of seventy, white all over, seemed to be their leader. From time to time he turned round and with a quiet voice urged on those who lagged behind. ‘Now, now, now, lads,’ he said, ‘no—ow.’ They all walked in silence, in a sort of solemn hush. Only one of them, a little man with a wrathful air, in a sheepskin coat wide open, and a lambswool cap pulled right over his eyes, on coming up to the gingerbread man, suddenly inquired: ‘How much is the gingerbread, you tomfool?’
‘What sort of gingerbread will it be, worthy sir?’ the disconcerted gingerbread—man responded in a thin, little voice. ‘Some are a farthing—and others cost a halfpenny. Have you a halfpenny in your purse?’
‘But I guess it will sweeten the belly too much,’ retorted the sheepskin, and he retreated from the cart.
‘Hurry up, lads, hurry up,’ I heard the old man’s voice: ‘it’s far yet to our night’s rest.’
‘An uneducated folk,’ said the gingerbread-man, with a squint at me, directly all the crowd had trudged past: ‘is such a dainty for the likes of them?’
And quickly harnessing his horse, he went down to the river, where a little wooden ferry could be seen. A peasant in a white felt ‘schlik’ (the usual headgear in the forest) came out of a low mud hut to meet him, and ferried him over to the opposite bank. The little cart, with one wheel creaking from time to time, crawled along the trodden and deeply rutted road.
I fed my horses, and I too was ferried over. After struggling for a couple of miles through the boggy prairie, I got at last on to a narrow raised wooden causeway to a clearing in the forest. The cart jolted unevenly over the round beams of the causeway: I got out and went along on foot. The horses moved in step snorting and shaking their heads from the gnats and flies. The forest took us into its bosom. On the outskirts, nearer to the prairie, grew birches, aspens, limes, maples, and oaks. Then they met us more rarely, the dense firwood moved down on us in an unbroken wall. Further on were the red, bare trunks of pines, and then again a stretch of mixed copse, overgrown with underwood of hazelnut, mountain ash, and bramble, and stout, vigorous weeds. The sun’s rays threw a brilliant light on the tree-tops, and, filtering through the branches, here and there reached the ground in pale streaks and patches. Birds I scarcely heard—they do not like great forests. Only from time to time there came the doleful, thrice-repeated call of a hoopoe, and the angry screech of a nuthatch or a jay; a silent, always solitary bird kept fluttering across the clearing, with a flash of golden azure from its lovely feathers. At times the trees grew further apart, ahead of us the light broke in, the cart came out on a cleared, sandy, open space. Thin rye was growing over it in rows, noiselessly nodding its pale ears. On one side there was a dark, dilapidated little chapel, with a slanting cross over a well. An unseen brook was babbling peaceably with changing, ringing sounds, as though it were flowing into an empty bottle. And then suddenly the road was cut in half by a birch-tree recently fallen, and the forest stood around, so old, lofty, and slumbering, that the air seemed pent in. In places the clearing lay under water. On both sides stretched a forest bog, all green and dark, all covered with reeds and tiny alders. Ducks flew up in pairs—and it was strange to see those water-birds darting rapidly about among the pines. ‘Ga, ga, ga, ga,’ their drawn-out call kept rising unexpectedly. Then a shepherd drove a flock through the underwood: a brown cow with short, pointed horns broke noisily through the bushes and stood stockstill at the edge of the clearing, her big, dark eyes fixed on the dog running before me. A slight breeze brought the delicate, pungent smell of burnt wood. A white smoke in the distance crept in eddying rings over the pale, blue forest air, showing that a peasant was charcoal-burning for a glass-factory or for a foundry. The further we went on, the darker and stiller it became all round us. In the pine-forest it is always still; there is only, high overhead, a sort of prolonged murmur and subdued roar in the tree-tops. One goes on and on, and this eternal murmur of the forest never ceases, and the heart gradually begins to sink, and a man longs to come out quickly into the open, into the daylight; he longs to draw a full breath again, and is oppressed by the fragrant damp and decay….
For about twelve miles we drove on at a walking pace, rarely at a trot. I wanted to get by daylight to Svyatoe, a hamlet lying in the very heart of the forest. Twice we met peasants with stripped bark or long logs on carts.
‘Is it far to Svyatoe?’ I asked one of them.
‘No, not far.’
‘It’ll be a little over two miles.’
Another hour and a half went by. We were still driving on and on. Again we heard the creak of a laden cart. A peasant was walking beside it.
‘How far, brother, is it still to Svyatoe?’
‘How far to Svyatoe?’
The sun was already setting when at last I got out of the forest and saw facing me a little village. About twenty homesteads were grouped close about an old wooden church, with a single green cupola, and tiny windows, brilliantly red in the evening glow. This was Svyatoe. I drove into its outskirts. A herd returning homewards overtook my cart, and with lowing, grunting and bleating moved by us. Young girls and bustling peasant women came to meet their beasts. Whiteheaded boys with merry shrieks went in chase of refractory pigs. The dust swirled along the street in light clouds, flushed crimson as they rose higher in the air.
I stopped at the house of the village elder, a crafty and clever ‘forester,’ one of those foresters of whom they say he can see two yards into the ground. Early next morning, accompanied by the village elder’s son, and another peasant called Yegor, I set off in a little cart with a pair of peasant’s horses, to shoot woodcocks and moorhens. The forest formed a continuous bluish ring all round the sky-line; there was reckoned to be two hundred acres, no more, of ploughed land round Svyatoe; but one had to go some five miles to find good places for game. The elder’s son was called Kondrat. He was a flaxen-haired, rosy-cheeked young fellow, with a good-natured, peaceable expression of face, obliging and talkative. He drove the horses. Yegor sat by my side. I want to say a few words about him.
He was considered the cleverest sportsman in the whole district. Every step of the ground for fifty miles round he had been over again and again. He seldom fired at a bird, for lack of powder and shot; but it was enough for him to decoy a moorhen or to detect the track of a grouse. Yegor had the character of being a straightforward fellow and ‘no talker.’ He did not care for talking and never exaggerated the number of birds he had taken—a trait rare in a sportsman. He was of medium height, thin, and had a pale, long face, and big, honest eyes. All his features, especially his straight and never-moving lips, were expressive of untroubled serenity. He gave a slight, as it were inward smile, whenever he uttered a word—very sweet was that quiet smile. He never drank spirits, and worked industriously; but nothing prospered with him. His wife was always ailing, his children didn’t live; he got poorer and poorer and could never pick up again. And there is no denying that a passion for the chase is no good for a peasant, and any one who ‘plays with a gun’ is sure to be a poor manager of his land. Either from constantly being in the forest, face to face with the stern and melancholy scenery of that inhuman country, or from the peculiar cast and formation of his character, there was noticeable in every action of Yegor’s a sort of modest dignity and stateliness—stateliness it was, and not melancholy—the stateliness of a majestic stag. He had in his time killed seven bears, lying in wait for them in the oats. The last he had only succeeded in killing on the fourth night of his ambush; the bear persisted in not turning sideways to him, and he had only one bullet. Yegor had killed him the day before my arrival. When Kondrat brought me to him, I found him in his back yard; squatting on his heels before the huge beast, he was cutting the fat out with a short, blunt knife.
‘What a fine fellow you’ve knocked over there!’ I observed.
Yegor raised his head and looked first at me, then at the dog, who had come with me.
‘If it’s shooting you’ve come after, sir, there are woodcocks at Moshnoy—three coveys, and five of moorhens,’ he observed, and set to work again.
With Yegor and with Kondrat I went out the next day in search of sport. We drove rapidly over the open ground surrounding Svyatoe, but when we got into the forest we crawled along at a walking pace once more.
‘Look, there’s a wood-pigeon,’ said Kondrat suddenly, turning to me: ‘better knock it over!’
Yegor looked in the direction Kondrat pointed, but said nothing. The wood-pigeon was over a hundred paces from us, and one can’t kill it at forty paces; there is such strength in its feathers. A few more remarks were made by the conversational Kondrat; but the forest hush had its influence even on him; he became silent. Only rarely exchanging a word or two, looking straight ahead, and listening to the puffing and snorting of the horses, we got at last to ‘Moshnoy.’ That is the name given to the older pine-forest, overgrown in places by fir saplings. We got out; Kondrat led the cart into the bushes, so that the gnats should not bite the horses. Yegor examined the cock of his gun and crossed himself: he never began anything without the sign of the cross.
The forest into which we had come was exceedingly old. I don’t know whether the Tartars had wandered over it, but Russian thieves or Lithuanians, in disturbed times, might certainly have hidden in its recesses. At a respectful distance from one another stood the mighty pines with their slightly curved, massive, pale-yellow trunks. Between them stood in single file others, rather younger. The ground was covered with greenish moss, sprinkled all over with dead pine-needles; blueberries grew in dense bushes; the strong perfume of the berries, like the smell of musk, oppressed the breathing. The sun could not pierce through the high network of the pine-branches; but it was stiflingly hot in the forest all the same, and not dark; like big drops of sweat the heavy, transparent resin stood out and slowly trickled down the coarse bark of the trees. The still air, with no light or shade in it, stung the face. Everything was silent; even our footsteps were not audible; we walked on the moss as on a carpet. Yegor in particular moved as silently as a shadow; even the brushwood did not crackle under his feet. He walked without haste, from time to time blowing a shrill note on a whistle; a woodcock soon answered back, and before my eyes darted into a thick fir-tree. But in vain Yegor pointed him out to me; however much I strained my eyes, I could not make him out. Yegor had to take a shot at him. We came upon two coveys of moorhens also. The cautious birds rose at a distance with an abrupt, heavy sound. We succeeded, however, in killing three young ones.
At one meidan [Footnote 1: Meidan is the name given to a place where tar has been made.—Author’s Note.] Yegor suddenly stopped and called me up.
‘A bear has been trying to get water,’ he observed, pointing to a broad, fresh scratch, made in the very middle of a hole covered with fine moss.
‘Is that the print of his paw?’ I inquired.
‘Yes; but the water has dried up. That’s the track of him too on that pine; he has been climbing after honey. He has cut into it with his claws as if with a knife.’
We went on making our way into the inner-most depths of the forest. Yegor only rarely looked upwards, and walked on serenely and confidently. I saw a high, round rampart, enclosed by a half-choked-up ditch.
‘What’s that? a meidan too?’ I inquired.
‘No,’ answered Yegor; ‘here’s where the thieves’ town stood.’
‘Long ago; our grandfathers remember it. Here they buried their treasure. And they took a mighty oath: on human blood.’
We went on another mile and a half; I began to feel thirsty.
‘Sit down a little while,’ said Yegor: ‘I will go for water; there is a well not far from here.’
He went away; I was left alone.
I sat down on a felled stump, leaned my elbows on my knees, and after a long stillness, raised my head and looked around me. Oh, how still and sullenly gloomy was everything around me—no, not gloomy even, but dumb, cold, and menacing at the same time! My heart sank. At that instant, at that spot, I had a sense of death breathing upon me, I felt I almost touched its perpetual closeness. If only one sound had vibrated, one momentary rustle had arisen, in the engulfing stillness of the pine-forest that hemmed me in on all sides! I let my head sink again, almost in terror; it was as though I had looked in, where no man ought to look…. I put my hand over my eyes—and all at once, as though at some mysterious bidding, I began to remember all my life….
There passed in a flash before me my childhood, noisy and peaceful, quarrelsome and good-hearted, with hurried joys and swift sorrows; then my youth rose up, vague, queer, self-conscious, with all its mistakes and beginnings, with disconnected work, and agitated indolence…. There came back, too, to my memory the comrades who shared those early aspirations … then like lightning in the night there came the gleam of a few bright memories … then the shadows began to grow and bear down on me, it was darker and darker about me, more dully and quietly the monotonous years ran by—and like a stone, dejection sank upon my heart. I sat without stirring and gazed, gazed with effort and perplexity, as though I saw all my life before me, as though scales had fallen from my eyes. Oh, what have I done! my lips involuntarily murmured in a bitter whisper. O life, life, where, how have you gone without a trace? How have you slipped through my clenched fingers? Have you deceived me, or was it that I knew not how to make use of your gifts? Is it possible? is this fragment, this poor handful of dusty ashes, all that is left of you? Is this cold, stagnant, unnecessary something—I, the I of old days? How? The soul was athirst for happiness so perfect, she rejected with such scorn all that was small, all that was insufficient, she waited: soon happiness would burst on her in a torrent—and has not one drop moistened the parched lips? Oh, my golden strings, you that once so delicately, so sweetly quivered,—I have never, it seems, heard your music … you had but just sounded—when you broke. Or, perhaps, happiness, the true happiness of all my life, passed close by me, smiled a resplendent smile upon me—and I failed to recognise its divine countenance. Or did it really visit me, sit at my bedside, and is forgotten by me, like a dream? Like a dream, I repeated disconsolately. Elusive images flitted over my soul, awakening in it something between pity and bewilderment … you too, I thought, dear, familiar, lost faces, you, thronging about me in this deadly solitude, why are you so profoundly and mournfully silent? From what abyss have you arisen? How am I to interpret your enigmatic glances? Are you greeting me, or bidding me farewell? Oh, can it be there is no hope, no turning back? Why are these heavy, belated drops trickling from my eyes? O heart, why, to what end, grieve more? try to forget if you would have peace, harden yourself to the meek acceptance of the last parting, to the bitter words ‘good-bye’ and ‘for ever.’ Do not look back, do not remember, do not strive to reach where it is light, where youth laughs, where hope is wreathed with the flowers of spring, where dovelike delight soars on azure wings, where love, like dew in the sunrise, flashes with tears of ecstasy; look not where is bliss, and faith and power—that is not our place!
‘Here is water for you,’ I heard Yegor’s musical voice behind me: ‘drink, with God’s blessing.’
I could not help starting; this living speech shook me, sent a delightful tremor all through me. It was as though I had fallen into unknown, dark depths, where all was hushed about me, and nothing could be heard but the soft, persistent moan of some unending grief…. I was faint and could not struggle, and all at once there floated down to me a friendly voice, and some mighty hand with one pull drew me up into the light of day. I looked round, and with unutterable consolation saw the serene and honest face of my guide. He stood easily and gracefully before me, and with his habitual smile held out a wet flask full of clear liquid…. I got up.
‘Let’s go on; lead the way,’ I said eagerly. We set off and wandered a long while, till evening. Directly the noonday heat was over, it became cold and dark so rapidly in the forest that one felt no desire to remain in it.
‘Away, restless mortals,’ it seemed whispering sullenly from each pine. We came out, but it was some time before we could find Kondrat. We shouted, called to him, but he did not answer. All of a sudden, in the profound stillness of the air, we heard his ‘wo, wo,’ sound distinctly in a ravine close to us…. The wind, which had suddenly sprung up, and as suddenly dropped again, had prevented him from hearing our calls. Only on the trees which stood some distance apart were traces of its onslaught to be seen; many of the leaves were blown inside out, and remained so, giving a variegated look to the motionless foliage. We got into the cart, and drove home. I sat, swaying to and fro, and slowly breathing in the damp, rather keen air; and all my recent reveries and regrets were drowned in the one sensation of drowsiness and fatigue, in the one desire to get back as soon as possible to the shelter of a warm house, to have a good drink of tea with cream, to nestle into the soft, yielding hay, and to sleep, to sleep, to sleep….
The next morning the three of us set off to the ‘Charred Wood.’ Ten years before, several thousand acres in the ‘Forest’ had been burnt down, and had not up to that time grown again; here and there, young firs and pines were shooting up, but for the most part there was nothing but moss and ashes. In this ‘Charred Wood,’ which is reckoned to be about nine miles from Svyatoe, there are all sorts of berries growing in great profusion, and it is a favourite haunt of grouse, who are very fond of strawberries and bilberries.
We were driving along in silence, when suddenly Kondrat raised his head.
‘Ah!’ he exclaimed: ‘why, that’s never Efrem standing yonder! ‘Morning to you, Alexandritch,’ he added, raising his voice, and lifting his cap.
A short peasant in a short, black smock, with a cord round the waist, came out from behind a tree, and approached the cart.
‘Why, have they let you off?’ inquired Kondrat.
‘I should think so!’ replied the peasant, and he grinned. ‘You don’t catch them keeping the likes of me.’
‘And what did Piotr Filippitch say to it?’
‘Filippov, is it? Oh, he’s all right.’
‘You don’t say so! Why, I thought, Alexandritch—well, brother, thought
I, now you ‘re the goose that must lie down in the frying-pan!’
‘On account of Piotr Filippov, hey? Get along! We’ve seen plenty like him. He tries to pass for a wolf, and then slinks off like a dog.—Going shooting your honour, hey?’ the peasant suddenly inquired, turning his little, screwed-up eyes rapidly upon me, and at once dropping them again.
‘And whereabouts, now?’
‘To the Charred Wood,’ said Kondrat.
‘You ‘re going to the Charred Wood? mind you don’t get into the fire.’
‘I’ve seen a lot of woodcocks,’ the peasant went on, seeming all the while to be laughing, and making Kondrat no answer. ‘But you’ll never get there; as the crow flies it’ll be fifteen miles. Why, even Yegor here—not a doubt but he’s as at home in the forest as in his own back-yard, but even he won’t make his way there. Hullo, Yegor, you honest penny halfpenny soul!’ he shouted suddenly.
‘Good morning, Efrem,’ Yegor responded deliberately.
I looked with curiosity at this Efrem. It was long since I had seen such a queer face. He had a long, sharp nose, thick lips, and a scanty beard. His little blue eyes positively danced, like little imps. He stood in a free-and-easy pose, his arms akimbo, and did not touch his cap.
‘Going home for a visit, eh?’ Kondrat questioned him.
‘Go on! on a visit! It’s not the weather for that, my lad; it’s set fair. It’s all open and free, my dear; one may lie on the stove till winter time, not a dog will stir. When I was in the town, the clerk said: “Give us up,” says he, “‘Lexandritch; you just get out of the district, we’ll let you have a passport, first-class one …” but there, I’d pity on you Svyatoe fellows: you’d never get another thief like me.’
‘You will have your joke, uncle, you will, upon my word,’ he said, and he shook the reins. The horses started off.
‘Wo,’ said Efrem. The horses stopped. Kondrat did not like this prank.
‘Enough of your nonsense, Alexandritch,’ he observed in an undertone: ‘don’t you see we’re out with a gentleman? You mind; he’ll be angry.’
‘Get on with you, sea-drake! What should he be angry about? He’s a good-natured gentleman. You see, he’ll give me something to drink. Hey, master, give a poor scoundrel a dram! Won’t I drink it!’ he added, shrugging his shoulder up to his ear, and grating his teeth.
I could not help smiling, gave him a copper, and told Kondrat to drive on.
‘Much obliged, your honour,’ Efrem shouted after us in soldierly fashion. ‘And you’ll know, Kondrat, for the future from whom to learn manners. Faint heart never wins; ’tis boldness gains the day. When you come back, come to my place, d’ye hear? There’ll be drinking going on three days at home; there’ll be some necks broken, I can tell you; my wife’s a devil of a woman; our yard’s on the side of a precipice…. Ay, magpie, have a good time till your tail gets pinched.’ And with a sharp whistle, Efrem plunged into the bushes.
‘What sort of man is he?’ I questioned Kondrat, who, sitting in the front, kept shaking his head, as though deliberating with himself.
‘That fellow?’ replied Kondrat, and he looked down. ‘That fellow?’ he repeated.
‘Yes. Is he of your village?’
‘Yes, he’s a Svyatoe man. He’s a fellow…. You wouldn’t find the like of him, if you hunted for a hundred miles round. A thief and cheat—good Lord, yes! Another man’s property simply, as it were, takes his eye. You may bury a thing underground, and you won’t hide it from him; and as to money, you might sit on it, and he’d get it from under you without your noticing it.’
‘What a bold fellow he is!’
‘Bold? Yes, he’s not afraid of any one. But just look at him; he’s a beast by his physiognomy; you can see by his nose.’ (Kondrat often used to drive with gentlemen, and had been in the chief town of the province, and so liked on occasion to show off his attainments.) ‘There’s positively no doing anything with him. How many times they’ve taken him off to put him in the prison!—it’s simply trouble thrown away. They start tying him up, and he’ll say, “Come, why don’t you fasten that leg? fasten that one too, and a little tighter: I’ll have a little sleep meanwhile; and I shall get home before your escort.” And lo and behold! there he is back again, yes, back again, upon my soul! Well as we all about here know the forest, being used to it from childhood, we’re no match for him there. Last summer he came at night straight across from Altuhin to Svyatoe, and no one had ever been known to walk it—it’ll be over thirty miles. And he steals honey too; no one can beat him at that; and the bees don’t sting him. There’s not a hive he hasn’t plundered.’
‘I expect he doesn’t spare the wild bees either?’
‘Well, no, I won’t lay a false charge against him. That sin’s never been observed in him. The wild bees’ nest is a holy thing with us. A hive is shut in by fences; there’s a watch kept; if you get the honey—it’s your luck; but the wild bee is a thing of God’s, not guarded; only the bear touches it.’
‘Because he is a bear,’ remarked Yegor.
‘Is he married?’
‘To be sure. And he has a son. And won’t he be a thief too, the son! He’s taken after his father. And he’s training him now too. The other day he took a pot with some old coppers in it, stolen somewhere, I’ve no doubt, went and buried it in a clearing in the forest, and went home and sent his son to the clearing. “Till you find the pot,” says he, “I won’t give you anything to eat, or let you into the place.” The son stayed the whole day in the forest, and spent the night there, but he found the pot. Yes, he’s a smart chap, that Efrem. When he’s at home, he’s a civil fellow, presses every one; you may eat and drink as you will, and there’ll be dancing got up at his place and merry-making of all sorts. And when he comes to the meeting—we have a parish meeting, you know, in our village—well, no one talks better sense than he does; he’ll come up behind, listen, say a word as if he chopped it off, and away again; and a weighty word it’ll be, too. But when he’s about in the forest, ah! that means trouble! We’ve to look out for mischief. Though, I must say, he doesn’t touch his own people unless he’s in a fix. If he meets a Svyatoe man: “Go along with you, brother,” he’ll shout, a long way away; “the forest devil’s upon me: I shall kill you!”—it’s a bad business!’
‘What can you all be thinking about? A whole district can’t get even with one man?’
‘Well, that’s just how it is, any way.’
‘Is he a sorcerer, then?’
‘Who can say! Here, some days ago, he crept round at night to the deacon’s near, after the honey, and the deacon was watching the hive himself. Well, he caught him, and in the dark he gave him a good hiding. When he’d done, Efrem, he says to him: “But d’you know who it is you’ve been beating?” The deacon, when he knew him by his voice, was fairly dumfoundered.
“Well, my good friend,” says Efrem, “you won’t get off so easily for this.” The deacon fell down at his feet. “Take,” says he, “what you please.” “No,” says he. “I’ll take it from you at my own time and as I choose.” And what do you think? Since that day the deacon’s as though he’d been scalded; he wanders about like a ghost. “It’s taken,” says he, “all the heart out of me; it was a dreadful, powerful saying, to be sure, the brigand fastened upon me.” That’s how it is with him, with the deacon.’
‘That deacon must be a fool,’ I observed.
‘A fool? Well, but what do you say to this? There was once an order issued to seize this fellow, Efrem. We had a police commissary then, a sharp man. And so a dozen chaps went off into the forest to take Efrem. They look, and there he is coming to meet them…. One of them shouts, “Here he is, hold him, tie him!” But Efrem stepped into the forest and cut himself a branch, two fingers’ thickness, like this, and then out he skips into the road again, looking so frightful, so terrible, and gives the command like a general at a review: “On your knees!” All of them fairly fell down. “But who,” says he, “shouted hold him, tie him? You, Seryoga?” The fellow simply jumped up and ran … and Efrem after him, and kept swinging his branch at his heels…. For nearly a mile he stroked him down. And afterwards he never ceased to regret: “Ah,” he’d say, “it is annoying I didn’t lay him up for the confession.” For it was just before St. Philip’s day. Well, they changed the police commissary soon after, but it all ended the same way.’
‘Why did they all give in to him?’
‘Why! well, it is so….’
‘He has frightened you all, and now he does as he likes with you.’
‘Frightened, yes…. He’d frighten any one. And he’s a wonderful hand at contrivances, my goodness, yes! I once came upon him in the forest; there was a heavy rain falling; I was for edging away…. But he looked at me, and beckoned to me with his hand like this. “Come along,” says he, “Kondrat, don’t be afraid. Let me show you how to live in the forest, and to keep dry in the rain.” I went up to him, and he was sitting under a fir-tree, and he’d made a fire of damp twigs: the smoke hung about in the fir-tree, and kept the rain from dripping through. I was astonished at him then. And I’ll tell you what he contrived one time’ (and Kondrat laughed); ‘he really did do a funny thing. They’d been thrashing the oats at the thrashing-floor, and they hadn’t finished; they hadn’t time to rake up the last heap; well, they ‘d set two watch-men by it for the night, and they weren’t the boldest-hearted of the chaps either. Well, they were sitting and gossiping, and Efrem takes and stuffs his shirt-sleeves full of straw, ties up the wrist-bands, and puts the shirt up over his head. And so he steals up in that shape to the thrashing-floor, and just pops out from behind the corner and gives them a peep of his horns. One chap says to the other: “Do you see?” “Yes,” says the other, and didn’t he give a screech all of a sudden … and then the fences creaked and nothing more was seen of them. Efrem shovelled up the oats into a bag and dragged it off home. He told the story himself afterwards. He put them to shame, he did, the chaps…. He did really!’
Kondrat laughed again. And Yegor smiled. ‘So the fences creaked and that was all?’ he commented. ‘There was nothing more seen of them,’ Kondrat assented. ‘They were simply gone in a flash.’
We were all silent again. Suddenly Kondrat started and sat up.
‘Eh, mercy upon us!’ he ejaculated; ‘surely it’s never a fire!’
‘Where, where?’ we asked.
‘Yonder, see, in front, where we ‘re going…. A fire it is! Efrem there, Efrem—why, he foretold it! If it’s not his doing, the damned fellow!…’
I glanced in the direction Kondrat was pointing. Two or three miles ahead of us, behind a green strip of low fir saplings, there really was a thick column of dark blue smoke slowly rising from the ground, gradually twisting and coiling into a cap-shaped cloud; to the right and left of it could be seen others, smaller and whiter.
A peasant, all red and perspiring, in nothing but his shirt, with his hair hanging dishevelled about his scared face, galloped straight towards us, and with difficulty stopped his hastily bridled horse.
‘Mates,’ he inquired breathlessly, ‘haven’t you seen the foresters?’
‘No, we haven’t. What is it? is the forest on fire?’
‘Yes. We must get the people together, or else if it gets to Trosnoe …’
The peasant tugged with his elbows, pounded with his heels on the horse’s sides…. It galloped off.
Kondrat, too, whipped up his pair. We drove straight towards the smoke, which was spreading more and more widely; in places it suddenly grew black and rose up high. The nearer we moved to it, the more indefinite became its outlines; soon all the air was clouded over, there was a strong smell of burning, and here and there between the trees, with a strange, weird quivering in the sunshine, gleamed the first pale red tongues of flame.
‘Well, thank God,’ observed Kondrat, ‘it seems it’s an overground fire.’
‘Overground? One that runs along over the earth. With an underground fire, now, it’s a difficult job to deal. What’s one to do, when the earth’s on fire for a whole yard’s depth? There’s only one means of safety—digging ditches,—and do you suppose that’s easy? But an overground fire’s nothing. It only scorches the grasses and burns the dry leaves! The forest will be all the better for it. Ouf, though, mercy on us, look how it flares!’
We drove almost up to the edge of the fire. I got down and went to meet it. It was neither dangerous nor difficult. The fire was running over the scanty pine-forest against the wind; it moved in an uneven line, or, to speak more accurately, in a dense jagged wall of curved tongues. The smoke was carried away by the wind. Kondrat had told the truth; it really was an overground fire, which only scorched the grass and passed on without finishing its work, leaving behind it a black and smoking, but not even smouldering, track. At times, it is true, when the fire came upon a hole filled with dry wood and twigs, it suddenly and with a kind of peculiar, rather vindictive roar, rose up in long, quivering points; but it soon sank down again and ran on as before, with a slight hiss and crackle. I even noticed, more than once, an oak-bush, with dry hanging leaves, hemmed in all round and yet untouched, except for a slight singeing at its base. I must own I could not understand why the dry leaves were not burned. Kondrat explained to me that it was owing to the fact that the fire was overground, ‘that’s to say, not angry.’ ‘But it’s fire all the same,’ I protested. ‘Overground fire,’ repeated Kondrat. However, overground as it was, the fire, none the less, produced its effect: hares raced up and down with a sort of disorder, running back with no sort of necessity into the neighbourhood of the fire; birds fell down in the smoke and whirled round and round; horses looked back and neighed, the forest itself fairly hummed—and man felt discomfort from the heat suddenly beating into his face….
‘What are we looking at?’ said Yegor suddenly, behind my back. ‘Let’s go on.’
‘But where are we to go?’ asked Kondrat.
‘Take the left, over the dry bog; we shall get through.’
We turned to the left, and got through, though it was sometimes difficult for both the horses and the cart.
The whole day we wandered over the Charred Wood. At evening—the sunset had not yet begun to redden in the sky, but the shadows from the trees already lay long and motionless, and in the grass one could feel that chill that comes before the dew—I lay down by the roadside near the cart in which Kondrat, without haste, was harnessing the horses after their feed, and I recalled my cheerless reveries of the day before. Everything around was as still as the previous evening, but there was not the forest, stifling and weighing down the spirit. On the dry moss, on the crimson grasses, on the soft dust of the road, on the slender stems and pure little leaves of the young birch-trees, lay the clear soft light of the no longer scorching, sinking sun. Everything was resting, plunged in soothing coolness; nothing was yet asleep, but everything was getting ready for the restoring slumber of evening and night-time. Everything seemed to be saying to man: ‘Rest, brother of ours; breathe lightly, and grieve not, thou too, at the sleep close before thee.’ I raised my head and saw at the very end of a delicate twig one of those large flies with emerald head, long body, and four transparent wings, which the fanciful French call ‘maidens,’ while our guileless people has named them ‘bucket-yokes.’ For a long while, more than an hour, I did not take my eyes off her. Soaked through and through with sunshine, she did not stir, only from time to time turning her head from side to side and shaking her lifted wings … that was all. Looking at her, it suddenly seemed to me that I understood the life of nature, understood its clear and unmistakable though, to many, still mysterious significance. A subdued, quiet animation, an unhasting, restrained use of sensations and powers, an equilibrium of health in each separate creature—there is her very basis, her unvarying law, that is what she stands upon and holds to. Everything that goes beyond this level, above or below—it makes no difference—she flings away as worthless. Many insects die as soon as they know the joys of love, which destroy the equilibrium. The sick beast plunges into the thicket and expires there alone: he seems to feel that he no longer has the right to look upon the sun that is common to all, nor to breathe the open air; he has not the right to live;—and the man who from his own fault or from the fault of others is faring ill in the world—ought, at least, to know how to keep silence.
‘Well, Yegor!’ cried Kondrat all at once. He had already settled himself on the box of the cart and was shaking and playing with the reins. ‘Come, sit down. What are you so thoughtful about? Still about the cow?’
‘About the cow? What cow?’ I repeated, and looked at Yegor: calm and stately as ever, he certainly did seem thoughtful, and was gazing away into the distance towards the fields already beginning to get dark.
‘Don’t you know?’ answered Kondrat; ‘his last cow died last night. He has no luck.—What are you going to do?’….
Yegor sat down on the box, without speaking, and we drove off. ‘That man knows how to bear in silence,’ I thought.