It happened in the 'seventies in winter, on the day after St. Nicholas's Day.
There was a fete in the parish and the innkeeper, Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov, a Second Guild merchant, being a church elder had to go to church, and ha_lso to entertain his relatives and friends at home.
But when the last of them had gone he at once began to prepare to drive ove_o see a neighbouring proprietor about a grove which he had been bargainin_ver for a long time. He was now in a hurry to start, lest buyers from th_own might forestall him in making a profitable purchase.
The youthful landowner was asking ten thousand rubles for the grove simpl_ecause Vasili Andreevich was offering seven thousand. Seven thousand was, however, only a third of its real value. Vasili Andreevich might perhaps hav_ot it down to his own price, for the woods were in his district and he had _ong-standing agreement with the other village dealers that no one should ru_p the price in another's district, but he had now learnt that some timber- dealers from town meant to bid for the Goryachkin grove, and he resolved to g_t once and get the matter settled. So as soon as the feast was over, he too_even hundred rubles from his strong box, added to them two thousand thre_undred rubles of church money he had in his keeping, so as to make up the su_o three thousand; carefully counted the notes, and having put them into hi_ocket-book made haste to start.
Nikita, the only one of Vasili Andreevich's labourers who was not drunk tha_ay, ran to harness the horse. Nikita, though an habitual drunkard, was no_runk that day because since the last day before the fast, when he had drun_is coat and leather boots, he had sworn off drink and had kept his vow fo_wo months, and was still keeping it despite the temptation of the vodka tha_ad been drunk everywhere during the first two days of the feast.
Nikita was a peasant of about fifty from a neighbouring village, 'not _anager' as the peasants said of him, meaning that he was not the thrifty hea_f a household but lived most of his time away from home as a labourer. He wa_alued everywhere for his industry, dexterity, and strength at work, and stil_ore for his kindly and pleasant temper. But he never settled down anywher_or long because about twice a year, or even oftener, he had a drinking bout, and then besides spending all his clothes on drink he became turbulent an_uarrelsome. Vasili Andreevich himself had turned him away several times, bu_ad afterwards taken him back again—valuing his honesty, his kindness t_nimals, and especially his cheapness. Vasili Andreevich did not pay Nikit_he eighty rubles a year such a man was worth, but only about forty, which h_ave him haphazard, in small sums, and even that mostly not in cash but i_oods from his own shop and at high prices.
Nikita's wife Martha, who had once been a handsome vigorous woman, managed th_omestead with the help of her son and two daughters, and did not urge Nikit_o live at home: first because she had been living for some twenty year_lready with a cooper, a peasant from another village who lodged in thei_ouse; and secondly because though she managed her husband as she pleased whe_e was sober, she feared him like fire when he was drunk. Once when he had go_runk at home, Nikita, probably to make up for his submissiveness when sober, broke open her box, took out her best clothes, snatched up an axe, and choppe_ll her undergarments and dresses to bits. All the wages Nikita earned went t_is wife, and he raised no objection to that. So now, two days before th_oliday, Martha had been twice to see Vasili Andreevich and had got from hi_heat flour, tea, sugar, and a quart of vodka, the lot costing three rubles, and also five rubles in cash, for which she thanked him as for a specia_avour, though he owed Nikita at least twenty rubles.
'What agreement did we ever draw up with you?' said Vasili Andreevich t_ikita. 'If you need anything, take it; you will work it off. I'm not lik_thers to keep you waiting, and making up accounts and reckoning fines. W_eal straight-forwardly. You serve me and I don't neglect you.'
And when saying this Vasili Andreevich was honestly convinced that he wa_ikita's benefactor, and he knew how to put it so plausibly that all those wh_epended on him for their money, beginning with Nikita, confirmed him in th_onviction that he was their benefactor and did not overreach them.
'Yes, I understand, Vasili Andreevich. You know that I serve you and take a_uch pains as I would for my own father. I understand very well!' Nikita woul_eply. He was quite aware that Vasili Andreevich was cheating him, but at th_ame time he felt that it was useless to try to clear up his accounts with hi_r explain his side of the matter, and that as long as he had nowhere to go h_ust accept what he could get.
Now, having heard his master's order to harness, he went as usual cheerfull_nd willingly to the shed, stepping briskly and easily on his rather turned-i_eet; took down from a nail the heavy tasselled leather bridle, and jinglin_he rings of the bit went to the closed stable where the horse he was t_arness was standing by himself.
'What, feeling lonely, feeling lonely, little silly?' said Nikita in answer t_he low whinny with which he was greeted by the good-tempered, medium-size_ay stallion, with a rather slanting crupper, who stood alone in the shed.
'Now then, now then, there's time enough. Let me water you first,' he went on, speaking to the horse just as to someone who understood the words he wa_sing, and having whisked the dusty, grooved back of the well-fed youn_tallion with the skirt of his coat, he put a bridle on his handsome head, straightened his ears and forelock, and having taken off his halter led hi_ut to water.
Picking his way out of the dung-strewn stable, Mukhorty frisked, and makin_lay with his hind leg pretended that he meant to kick Nikita, who was runnin_t a trot beside him to the pump.
'Now then, now then, you rascal!' Nikita called out, well knowing ho_arefully Mukhorty threw out his hind leg just to touch his greasy sheepski_oat but not to strike him—a trick Nikita much appreciated.
After a drink of the cold water the horse sighed, moving his strong wet lips, from the hairs of which transparent drops fell into the trough; then standin_till as if in thought, he suddenly gave a loud snort.
'If you don't want any more, you needn't. But don't go asking for any later,'
said Nikita quite seriously and fully explaining his conduct to Mukhorty. The_e ran back to the shed pulling the playful young horse, who wanted to gambo_ll over the yard, by the rein.
There was no one else in the yard except a stranger, the cook's husband, wh_ad come for the holiday.
'Go and ask which sledge is to be harnessed—the wide one or the smal_ne—there's a good fellow!'
The cook's husband went into the house, which stood on an iron foundation an_as iron-roofed, and soon returned saying that the little one was to b_arnessed. By that time Nikita had put the collar and brass-studded belly-ban_n Mukhorty and, carrying a light, painted shaft-bow in one hand, was leadin_he horse with the other up to two sledges that stood in the shed.
'All right, let it be the little one!' he said, backing the intelligent horse, which all the time kept pretending to bite him, into the shafts, and with th_id of the cook's husband he proceeded to harness. When everything was nearl_eady and only the reins had to be adjusted, Nikita sent the other man to th_hed for some straw and to the barn for a drugget.
'There, that's all right! Now, now, don't bristle up!' said Nikita, pressin_own into the sledge the freshly threshed oat straw the cook's husband ha_rought. 'And now let's spread the sacking like this, and the drugget over it.
There, like that it will be comfortable sitting,' he went on, suiting th_ction to the words and tucking the drugget all round over the straw to make _eat.
'Thank you, dear man. Things always go quicker with two working at it!' h_dded. And gathering up the leather reins fastened together by a brass ring, Nikita took the driver's seat and started the impatient horse over the froze_anure which lay in the yard, towards the gate.
'Uncle Nikita! I say, Uncle, Uncle!' a high-pitched voice shouted, and _even-year-old boy in a black sheepskin coat, new white felt boots, and a war_ap, ran hurriedly out of the house into the yard. 'Take me with you!' h_ried, fastening up his coat as he ran.
'All right, come along, darling!' said Nikita, and stopping the sledge h_icked up the master's pale thin little son, radiant with joy, and drove ou_nto the road.
It was past two o'clock and the day was windy, dull, and cold, with more tha_wenty degrees Fahrenheit of frost. Half the sky was hidden by a lowering dar_loud. In the yard it was quiet, but in the street the wind was felt mor_eenly. The snow swept down from a neighbouring shed and whirled about in th_orner near the bath-house.
Hardly had Nikita driven out of the yard and turned the horse's head to th_ouse, before Vasili Andreevich emerged from the high porch in front of th_ouse with a cigarette in his mouth and wearing a cloth-covered sheep-ski_oat tightly girdled low at his waist, and stepped onto the hard-trodden sno_hich squeaked under the leather soles of his felt boots, and stopped. Takin_ last whiff of his cigarette he threw it down, stepped on it, and letting th_moke escape through his moustache and looking askance at the horse that wa_oming up, began to tuck in his sheepskin collar on both sides of his rudd_ace, clean-shaven except for the moustache, so that his breath should no_oisten the collar.
'See now! The young scamp is there already!' he exclaimed when he saw hi_ittle son in the sledge. Vasili Andreevich was excited by the vodka he ha_runk with his visitors, and so he was even more pleased than usual wit_verything that was his and all that he did. The sight of his son, whom h_lways thought of as his heir, now gave him great satisfaction. He looked a_im, screwing up his eyes and showing his long teeth.
His wife—pregnant, thin and pale, with her head and shoulders wrapped in _hawl so that nothing of her face could be seen but her eyes—stood behind hi_n the vestibule to see him off.
'Now really, you ought to take Nikita with you,' she said timidly, steppin_ut from the doorway.
Vasili Andreevich did not answer. Her words evidently annoyed him and h_rowned angrily and spat.
'You have money on you,' she continued in the same plaintive voice. 'What i_he weather gets worse! Do take him, for goodness' sake!'
'Why? Don't I know the road that I must needs take a guide?' exclaimed Vasil_ndreevich, uttering every word very distinctly and compressing his lip_nnaturally, as he usually did when speaking to buyers and sellers.
'Really you ought to take him. I beg you in God's name!' his wife repeated, wrapping her shawl more closely round her head.
'There, she sticks to it like a leech! … Where am I to take him?'
'I'm quite ready to go with you, Vasili Andreevich,' said Nikita cheerfully.
'But they must feed the horses while I am away,' he added, turning to hi_aster's wife.
'I'll look after them, Nikita dear. I'll tell Simon,' replied the mistress.
'Well, Vasili Andreevich, am I to come with you?' said Nikita, awaiting _ecision.
'It seems I must humour my old woman. But if you're coming you'd better put o_ warmer cloak,' said Vasili Andreevich, smiling again as he winked a_ikita's short sheepskin coat, which was torn under the arms and at the back, was greasy and out of shape, frayed to a fringe round the skirt, and ha_ndured many things in its lifetime.
'Hey, dear man, come and hold the horse!' shouted Nikita to the cook'_usband, who was still in the yard.
'No, I will myself, I will myself!' shrieked the little boy, pulling hi_ands, red with cold, out of his pockets, and seizing the cold leather reins.
'Only don't be too long dressing yourself up. Look alive!' shouted Vasil_ndreevich, grinning at Nikita.
'Only a moment, Father, Vasili Andreevich!' replied Nikita, and runnin_uickly with his inturned toes in his felt boots with their soles patched wit_elt, he hurried across the yard and into the workmen's hut.
'Arinushka! Get my coat down from the stove. I'm going with the master,' h_aid, as he ran into the hut and took down his girdle from the nail on whic_t hung.
The workmen's cook, who had had a sleep after dinner and was now getting th_amovar ready for her husband, turned cheerfully to Nikita, and infected b_is hurry began to move as quickly as he did, got down his miserable worn-ou_loth coat from the stove where it was drying, and began hurriedly shaking i_ut and smoothing it down.
'There now, you'll have a chance of a holiday with your good man,' sai_ikita, who from kindhearted politeness always said something to anyone he wa_lone with.
Then, drawing his worn narrow girdle round him, he drew in his breath, pullin_n his lean stomach still more, and girdled himself as tightly as he coul_ver his sheepskin.
'There now,' he said addressing himself no longer to the cook but the girdle, as he tucked the ends in at the waist, 'now you won't come undone!' An_orking his shoulders up and down to free his arms, he put the coat over hi_heepskin, arched his back more strongly to ease his arms, poked himself unde_he armpits, and took down his leather-covered mittens from the shelf. 'No_e're all right!'
'You ought to wrap your feet up, Nikita. Your boots are very bad.'
Nikita stopped as if he had suddenly realized this.
'Yes, I ought to… . But they'll do like this. It isn't far!' and he ran ou_nto the yard.
'Won't you be cold, Nikita?' said the mistress as he came up to the sledge.
'Cold? No, I'm quite warm,' answered Nikita as he pushed some straw up to th_orepart of the sledge so that it should cover his feet, and stowed away th_hip, which the good horse would not need, at the bottom of the sledge.
Vasili Andreevich, who was wearing two fur-lined coats one over the other, wa_lready in the sledge, his broad back filling nearly its whole rounded width, and taking the reins he immediately touched the horse. Nikita jumped in jus_s the sledge started, and seated himself in front on the left side, with on_eg hanging over the edge.