TRANSLATOR´S NOTE: This short story was included in Nikolai Gogol’s first collection, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka(1831–32), published as the work of one Rudy Panko, a Ukrainian beekeeper who had allegedly transcribed some of the tales told by his colorful visitors. “Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Auntie” stands out from this collection, and Vladimir Nabokov argued in his brilliant little study of Gogol that it marked the first appearance of the mature Gogol, the future author of The Petersburg Tales,The Government Inspector, and Dead Souls. In his Lectures on Russian Literature, Nabokov writes that “the real plot (as always with Gogol) lies in the style.” Previous translations, even recent ones, miss this essential point. They translate the plot, but not Gogol’s weird, linguistically inventive style with its perfectly timed humor. As a result, they produce a word-for-word, syntax-for-syntax version that sacrifices tone and misconstrues overall sense. Gogol’s humor depends on peculiar word choice, odd shifts in tone, mischievous playfulness, and unexpected timing; I have attempted here to capture those elements.
—Michael R. KatzT
here’s a story connected to this story: it was told by Stepan Ivanovich Kurochka from Gadyach. You should know that my memory is incredibly bad: whatever you tell me goes in one ear and out the other. It’s just like pouring water through a sieve. Knowing this about myself, I deliberately asked him to write it down in a notebook. Well, God grant him good health; he was always kind to me, so he picked up a notebook and wrote it down. I put it in the drawer of a small table; I think you know it well: it stands in the corner just where you come in the door . . . But I forget, you’ve never visited me there. My old woman, with whom I’ve lived for about thirty years, never learned to read—there’s no reason to hide it. So one day I notice she’s baking little meat pies on some sort of paper. She makes the most wonderful pies, dear readers; you won’t find better ones anywhere. I happen to look at the underside of a pie and there I see some written words. I felt it at once in my heart; I went to the little table—half the notebook was missing! She had taken those pages for her pies. What could I do? There’s no sense in quarreling at our age!
Last year I happened to pass through Gadyach. Before reaching town, I tied a knot in my handkerchief on purpose so as not to forget to ask Stepan Ivanovich about it. That wasn’t all: I promised myself that as soon as I sneezed in town, I’d remember it. But it was all in vain. I drove through town, sneezed, blew my nose into my handkerchief, but still forgot all about it; I remembered only when I’d gone about six miles past the town gate. What was to be done? I had to publish it without the ending. However, if someone absolutely wants to know what happened subsequently in this tale, all he should do is go to Gadyach and ask Stepan Ivanovich. He’ll relate it with great pleasure, only he’ll tell the whole story from the beginning. He lives not far from the stone church. There’s a small lane: as soon as you turn into it, his house will be at the second or third gate. Better still: when you see a large post in the yard with a quail sitting on top, and a heavyset old woman in a green skirt comes out to meet you (there’s no harm in saying that he’s a bachelor), it’s his house. However, you can meet him at the market where he goes every morning before nine o’clock to select some fish and greens for his table and where he chats with Father Antip or the Jewish tax-farmer. 1 You’ll recognize him immediately because nobody else wears trousers made from printed linen and a yellow cotton coat. Here’s another indication: he always swings his arms when he walks. The late local assessor, Denis Petrovich, catching sight of him from a distance, always used to say: “Look, look, here comes the windmill!”
IVAN FYODOROVICH SPONKA
t’s been four years since Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka retired and has been living on his small estate in Vytrebenki. When he was still known as Vanyusha, he was a student at the Gadyach district school, and it must be said that he was an extremely well behaved and conscientious lad. The teacher of Russian grammar, Nikifor Timofeevich Deeprichastie, 2 used to say that if all his pupils were as diligent as Shponka, he wouldn’t have to bring his maple ruler into class, which, as he himself admitted, he used to smack the hands of lazy and mischievous boys. Shponka’s notebook was always clean, with a ruled margin and no blotches anywhere. He always sat quietly, arms folded, his eyes fixed on the teacher; he didn’t stick any papers to the back of the lad sitting in front of him, didn’t carve anything into the school bench, and never fooled around by shoving anyone off the bench before the teacher came into the room. If anyone needed to sharpen his pen, he could turn immediately to Shponka, knowing that he always carried a little pocketknife; and Ivan, then still known simply as Vanyusha, took out his knife from a small leather pouch attached to a buttonhole in his gray jacket, and asked that the sharp side not be used to sharpen the pen, saying that the blunt side would better suit that purpose. Such good behavior soon attracted the attention of even the Latin teacher, whose cough in the hall alone would induce fear in the entire class even before his heavy wool overcoat and pockmarked face could be glimpsed at the classroom door. This terrifying teacher, who always had two bundles of birch twigs on his desk, and half of whose pupils were always down on their knees, made Shponka a monitor, even though there were many others in his class with greater abilities.
Here we can’t omit an incident that influenced Shponka’s entire life. One of the boys entrusted to his charge, in order to induce the monitor to write scit 3 on his paper, even though he really didn’t know his lesson, brought into class a pancake drenched in butter and wrapped in paper. Ivan Fyodorovich, although he usually behaved properly, on this occasion was hungry and unable to resist temptation; he took the pancake, placed a book in front of him, and began eating it. He was so engrossed in this that he didn’t even notice when a deathly silence suddenly fell upon the class. He only came to his senses with horror when a terrible hand, extending from a heavy woolen overcoat, grabbed him by the ear and pulled him into the middle of the room. “Give me that pancake! Give it here, I say, you rascal!” said the severe teacher, seizing the buttery pancake with his fingers and tossing it out the window, sternly forbidding the boys in the schoolyard from picking it up. Right after this he landed some painful blows on Shponka’s hands. And that was only fitting: his hands were to blame and not some other part of his body, because they took the pancake. Be that as it may, from that time forward, Shponka’s timidity, which had always been one of his attributes, increased all the more. Perhaps that very incident was the reason he never had the desire to enter government service, having learned by experience that one is not always successful in concealing one’s crimes.
He was almost fifteen years old when he was promoted to the second class, where, moving on from the abridged version of the catechism and the four rules of arithmetic, he progressed to the extended catechism, and a book about the duties of man, and one about fractions. But seeing that the further he went into the forest, the thicker the woods, and having received news that his father had passed away, he stayed on in school another two years and then, with his mother’s consent, entered the P. infantry regiment.
This regiment was not at all like any other; it was for the most part stationed in villages; nevertheless it was still on the same footing as other regiments, even some cavalry regiments. A large number of the officers would drink heavily and drag Yids around by their side curls just as well as hussars could. A few men could even dance the mazurka; the corporal of the regiment never missed a chance to mention this fact when he was talking in company. “In our regiment, sir,” he used to say, patting himself on the belly after every word, “a large number of us dance the mazurka, sir; a very large number, sir; an extremely large number, sir.” To demonstrate further the cultural level of the P. regiment, we’ll add that two officers were terrible gamblers and lost their uniforms, caps, overcoats, sword knots, and even their underwear, which is more than you can say about many other regiments.
Contact with such comrades, however, in no way diminished Shponka’s timidity. And since he didn’t drink heavily, preferring a glass of vodka before dinner and supper, and since he didn’t dance the mazurka or gamble at cards, then, naturally, he was always left alone. Thus, while others were gallivanting around on hired horses visiting small landowners, he remained in his quarters and engaged in pursuits fitting his timid and kind character: he polished his buttons, read a fortune-telling book, or placed mousetraps in the corners of his room; then, at last, removing his uniform, he would lie on his bed. On the other hand, there was no one in his regiment more meticulous than Shponka. He drilled his men so well that the company commander always held him up as an example. As a result, in a short time, only eleven years after becoming an ensign, he was promoted to second lieutenant.
During this time he received the news that his mother had passed away; his aunt, his mother’s sister, whom he knew only because in his childhood she would bring him or even send him dried pears and delicious homemade spice cakes (she had quarreled with his mother and therefore didn’t see her afterwards)—this aunt, being very kind-hearted, took over the management of his small estate, about which he learned from a letter in due time. Ivan Fyodorovich, being convinced of his aunt’s good sense, continued to perform his duties as before. Another person in his place, having received such a promotion, would have been proud; but he knew no such thing as pride, and having become a second lieutenant, he remained the same Shponka as he was when he had the rank of ensign. Four years after this remarkable event, he was preparing to leave the province of Mogilyov and move to Russia proper, when he received a letter with the following content:
Dear nephew, Ivan Fyodorovich!
I’m sending you some linen: five pairs of cotton socks and four shirts of fine material; and I would also like to speak with you about some business. Since you now hold a rank of some importance, I think you know that you have reached an age when it is time for you to manage your own estate; there’s no reason for you to remain in military service any longer. I’m already old and can’t oversee everything on your estate; besides, there is much that I would like to discuss with you personally. Come home, Vanyusha! In expectation of the genuine pleasure of seeing you,
I remain your loving aunt,
P.S. A splendid turnip has grown in our garden, more like a potato than a turnip.
A week after receiving this letter, Shponka wrote the following reply:
Honored madam, Auntie Vasilisa Kashporovna!
Many thanks for the package of linen. My socks especially are very old; my orderly has darned them four times and as a result they have become very tight. Concerning your opinion about my military service, I agree with you completely and I resigned my position several days ago. As soon as I receive my discharge, I shall hire a driver. I could not carry out your previous commission concerning wheat seeds and Siberian grain: there isn’t any to be had in all of Mogilyov province. Here for the most part pigs are fed brewers’ mash mixed with a little flat beer.
With sincere respect, dear madam Auntie, I remain your nephew,
At last Shponka received his discharge with the rank of lieutenant, hired a Jew for forty rubles to take him from Mogilyov to Gadyach, and took his place in the carriage, at the same time as the trees were scantily decked in young leaves, the whole earth was turning bright green with fresh growth, and it smelled of spring throughout the fields.
othing too remarkable happened during the journey home. He traveled a little more than two weeks. Shponka might have arrived sooner, but the devout Jew would observe the Sabbath on Saturdays: covering himself with the horse blanket, he prayed all day long. However, as I’ve had the chance to mention previously, Ivan Fyodorovich was the sort of person who didn’t allow himself to get bored. During that time he would untie his suitcase, take out his linen, and examine it carefully: was it properly washed and folded? He carefully removed the fluff from his new uniform without epaulets, then folded it again in the best possible way. In general he was not fond of reading; if he sometimes glanced into a fortune-telling book, it was because he liked to find familiar passages that he’d read several times before. In the same way a resident of a town sets off to the club every day, not to learn anything new but to meet those acquaintances, whom, from time immemorial, he’s grown accustomed to seeing there. In the same way a civil servant reads his address book several times a day, not for any diplomatic reasons but because he finds perusing the printed list of names extremely amusing. “Ah! There’s Ivan Gavrilovich!” he repeats to himself. “Ah! And here I am again! Hmm!” And the next time, he rereads it with the very same exclamations.
After a two-week journey Shponka reached a little village located some eighty miles from Gadyach. It was on a Friday. The sun had already set a long time ago when the Jew drove his carriage up to an inn.
This inn wasn’t distinguished in any way from others built in small villages. In them the traveler is usually treated to hay and oats, as if he were a post horse. But if he wants to have something to eat, as decent people usually do, he would have to save his appetite for some other opportunity. Knowing all this, Shponka had provided himself beforehand with two bundles of bagels and some sausage; after asking for a glass of vodka, of which there’s never a shortage in any village inn, and, having seated himself on a bench in front of an oak table firmly fixed on the clay floor, he began eating his supper.
Meanwhile the sound of a carriage could be heard. The gates squeaked, but the carriage took a long time to enter the courtyard. A loud voice was abusing the woman who ran the inn. “I’ll come in,” heard Shponka, “but if even one bedbug bites me in your establishment, I swear I’ll give you a beating, so help me God, I will, you old witch! And I won’t pay for any hay!”
A moment later the door opened and a fat man in a green coat walked in, or rather, squeezed in. His head rested motionless on his short neck, which seemed even thicker from his double chin. He appeared to belong to that group of men who never trouble over trifles and whose lives pass easily.
“I wish you good day, kind sir!” he said, catching sight of Shponka.
Ivan Fyodorovich bowed silently.
“Allow me to inquire, with whom do I have the honor of speaking?” continued the fat arrival.
At such an interrogation Shponka involuntarily rose from his place and stood at attention, which he used to do when the colonel of his former regiment would ask him a question.
“Retired lieutenant Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka,” he replied.
“And, may I ask, where are you traveling to?”
“To my own farm, sir, Vytrebenki.”
“Vytrebenki!” cried the stern inquisitor. “Allow me, honored sir, allow me!” he said, approaching him and waving his arms, as if someone was restraining him or he was pushing his way through a crowd; having approached, he grabbed Ivan Fyodorovich in an embrace and kissed him first on the right cheek, then on the left, and then on the right cheek again. Shponka very much appreciated these kisses because his lips felt that the stranger’s large cheeks were like soft pillows.
“Allow me, kind sir, to make your acquaintance!” continued the fat man. “I’m a landowner in the same Gadyach district and your neighbor. I live no more than four miles from your farm at Vytrebenki, in the village of Khortishche; my name is Grigory Grigorevich Storchenko. You must, absolutely must, pay me a visit, dear sir, in the village of Khortishche, or else I’ll have nothing more to do with you. Now I’m hurrying on business . . . But what’s this?” he said in a gentle voice to his servant, a lad wearing a Cossack jacket with tattered elbows, who was placing some bundles and boxes on the table with a bewildered look. “What’s this? What?” Storchenko’s voice became imperceptibly louder and louder. “Did I order you to put those here, my dear sir? Did I really tell you to put them here, you rascal? Didn’t I tell you to heat up the chicken first, you scoundrel? Get out!” he cried, stamping his foot. “Wait a minute, you beast! Where’s the basket with the bottles? Ivan Fyodorovich!” he said, pouring some liquor into a glass: “I beg you, have some of this medicinal cordial!”
“I can’t, so help me God, sir . . . I’ve already had some,” said Shponka with a stutter.
“I won’t hear of it, kind sir!” the landowner said, raising his voice. “I won’t hear of it! I won’t leave here until you try some . . .”
Ivan Fyodorovich, seeing that it was impossible to refuse, drank some, not without enjoyment.
“This is a chicken, my dear sir,” continued the fat Grigory Grigorevich, carving it with a knife in its wooden box. “I must tell you that my cook, Yavdokha, likes to tipple every so often; as a result she sometimes overcooks my food. Hey, lad,” he said, addressing the young man in the Cossack jacket, who had brought in a featherbed and pillows. “Make up my bed on the floor in the middle of the room! Be sure to put down some extra hay to raise up the pillow! And grab a bit of hemp from the old woman’s spindle so I can plug my ears at night! You should know, kind sir, that I have the custom of plugging my ears at night since that awful time when a cockroach crawled into my left ear in one Russian inn. Those damned Russians, as I found out later, will even eat their cabbage soup with cockroaches in it. It’s impossible to describe what was going on: it tickled my ear, it really did . . . it nearly drove me mad! A simple old woman in our district helped me. How do you think she did it? Simply by whispering some special words. What can you say, kind sir, about doctors? I think they simply confuse and deceive us. Some of these old women know twenty times more than those doctors.”
“As a matter of fact, that’s absolutely true, sir. These women know . . .” He paused here, as if unable to find the right word.
It wouldn’t hurt to note here that in general Shponka wasn’t lavish with his words. Perhaps that was a result of his timidity, or else from his desire to express himself more eloquently.
“Shake the hay well, very well!” said Storchenko to his servant. “The hay here is so nasty that you can suddenly find a twig in it. Allow me, kind sir, to wish you a good night! We won’t see each other tomorrow: I’ll leave before dawn. Your Jew will celebrate the Sabbath because tomorrow’s Saturday, so there’s no reason for you to get up early. Don’t forget my request: if you don’t come to visit me in Khortishche, I won’t even want to know you.”
Then his servant removed his jacket and boots, and helped him into a dressing gown; when Storchenko stretched out on the bed, it seemed as if one huge featherbed lay down on top of another.
“Hey, boy! Where have you gone to, you rascal? Come here and fix my blanket! Hey, boy, put some more hay under my head! Well, have the horses been watered? More hay! Here, under this side! Fix the blanket properly, you rascal! Like that, more! Ugh!”
Storchenko heaved a few more sighs and then emitted a terrible whistle from his nose filling the whole room, snoring so loudly at times that the old woman, who was snoozing on the stove bench, woke up and suddenly looked around on all sides but, seeing nothing, settled down again, and fell asleep.
The next day, when Shponka woke up, the fat landowner was nowhere in sight. That was the one remarkable occurrence that happened to him during his journey. Two days later, he drew near his own farmstead.
Here he felt his heart begin to pound as he saw a windmill waving its sails and, as the Jew began driving his nags up the hill, he caught sight of a row of willows below. The pond shone clearly and brightly between them and it smelled very fresh. In this very pond Ivan Fyodorovich used to go wading up to his neck for crayfish. The carriage climbed up the mound and he saw the same little old house thatched with reeds, the same apple trees and cherry trees in which he had secretly climbed. When he had just driven into the courtyard, dogs of all kinds came running from all sides: brown, black, gray, and spotted. Some of the dogs rushed forward, barking under the legs of the horses, others ran behind, having noticed that the axle was smeared with lard; one of them, standing next to the kitchen and covering a bone with his paw, began barking as loud as he could; another barked from a distance and ran back and forth, wagging his tail and seeming to say, “Look at me, good Christian folk, and see what a fine young lad I am!” Young boys in dirty shirts came running to stare. A sow, crossing the courtyard with her sixteen piglets, raised her snout with a curious glance and grunted louder than usual. On the ground in the courtyard lay a multitude of sheets with wheat, millet, and barley drying in the sun. There were also many different kinds of herbs drying on the roof: wild chicory, hawkweed, and others.
Shponka was so busy examining everything that he came to his senses only when the spotted dog bit the Jew on the calf as he was climbing down from the box. The servants came running: the cook, an old woman, and two young women in woolen undergarments. After their initial exclamations, “It’s our young master!” they told him that his aunt was out planting wheat in the garden with the maid Palashka and the coachman Omelko, who often performed the roles of gardener and watchman. But his aunt, who had seen the covered cart from a distance, was already here. Ivan Fyodorovich was astonished when she almost picked him up in her arms, hardly able to believe that this was the same aunt who had written to him about her own infirmity and illness.
t this time Aunt Vasilisa Kashporovna was about fifty years old. She had never been married and usually claimed that her single life was better than anything else in the world. However, as best I can recall, no one had ever courted her. That’s because all men felt some hesitancy in her presence and never had the courage to propose to her. “Vasilisa has a great deal of character!” prospective suitors used to say, and they were absolutely correct, because there wasn’t anyone alive she couldn’t put in his place. Every day she would yank the totally useless, drunken miller by his long braid, with her own powerful hand, without any other means, and could turn him from a simple soul into pure gold. She was of almost gigantic height, and both her breadth and strength were completely commensurate. It seemed that nature had made an unforgivable mistake in assigning her to wear a dark brown dress with small pleats on weekdays, and a red cashmere shawl on Sunday and her name-day, when a moustache and the high jackboots of a dragoon would have suited her much better. On the other hand, her activities completely corresponded to her appearance: she could row her own boat, manning the oars more skillfully than many a fisherman; she hunted game; she stood guard over the mowers; she knew exactly how many melons and watermelons grew in her garden; she collected a toll of five kopecks from every cart that crossed her dam; she climbed up pear trees and shook down the fruit; she would beat lazy servants with her fearsome hand and serve a glass of vodka to the deserving ones with the very same hand. Almost at one and the same time she could abuse the servants, dye the yarn, run to the kitchen, and make kvass and honey preserves; she was busy all day long, yet had time for everything everywhere. The result of all this was that Shponka’s small estate, consisting of a mere eighteen serfs according to the last count, was flourishing in the full sense of the word. In addition, she loved her nephew fervently and carefully saved every kopeck for him.
Upon his arrival home Ivan Fyodorovich’s life decidedly changed and proceeded in a different direction. It seemed that nature had created him to run his eighteen-serf estate. His aunt noticed that he would make a good landowner, but she still didn’t allow him to interfere in all the various aspects of estate management. “He’s still a young lad,” she used to say, in spite of the fact that Ivan Fyodorovich was almost forty years old. “How could he know everything?”
However, he was always out in the fields with the reapers and the mowers, and this afforded his gentle soul inexpressible enjoyment. The uniform sweep of a dozen or more shining scythes; the sound of the sheaves of grass falling in straight rows; the songs of the reapers pouring forth from time to time, now cheerful, as if greeting guests, then mournful, as if parting from them; and the peaceful clear evening, and what an evening it was! The air was so fresh and pure! How full of life everything was then: the steppe was turning red and blue and was aflame with flowers; quails, bustards, gulls, grasshoppers, and thousands of insects, and from them, whistling, buzzing, droning, and crackling at once merging into a harmonious choir; nothing was silent, even for a moment. The sun was setting and going into hiding. Oh! How fresh and fine! In the fields, first here, then there, campfires were burning with cauldrons placed over them; reapers sporting moustaches sat around the fires, steam rising from the dumplings. Twilight was setting in . . . It’s difficult to relate what Ivan Fyodorovich was feeling at that time. He would forget everything and join the mowers to sample the dumplings, which he loved very much, and would stand still, following with his gaze a gull disappearing in the sky or counting the heaps of harvested grain lying in the field.
In a short time people began describing Ivan Fyodorovich as a wonderful estate landlord. His aunt couldn’t have been more overjoyed with her nephew and never missed a chance to brag about him. One fine day—it was already towards the end of the harvest, that is, the end of July—Vasilisa Kashporovna took Ivan Fyodorovich by the hand with a mysterious look, and said that she wanted to talk to him about a matter that had been concerning her for some time.
“You know, my dear Ivan Fyodorovich,” she began, “you have eighteen serfs on your estate; however, that is according to the census; it may be that since then the number has grown and there might now be as many as twenty-four. But that’s not what I want to talk to you about. You know that grove, the one behind our wetland, and you probably also know the broad meadow behind that wood: it’s at least forty acres; there’s so much grass that you’d be able to sell the hay every year for more than one hundred rubles, especially if, as they say, a cavalry regiment is to be stationed in Gadyach.”
“Of course, Auntie, I know it: the grass there is very fine.”
“I myself know that the grass is fine; but do you know that all that land is really yours? Why are you staring at me like that? Listen, Ivan Fyodorovich! Do you remember Stepan Kuzmich? What am I saying: how could you remember him? You were so little then that you couldn’t even pronounce his name. Indeed! I recall that when I came here during Advent and took you in my arms, you almost spoiled my new dress; fortunately, I managed to hand you off to your wet-nurse Matryona. You were such a nasty little child then! But that’s not the point. All of the land beyond our farm, as well as the village of Khortishche, belonged to Stepan Kuzmich. I must tell you that, long before you were born, he had begun to visit your mother—true, it was only when your father wasn’t home. I’m not saying this to reproach her—may God rest her soul!—although she was always unfair to me. But that’s not the point. Be that as it may, Stepan Kuzmich gave you a deed of gift to the very piece of land I was telling you about. But your late mother, just between us, had a very strange character. Even the devil himself, God forgive me for saying his name, could never understand her. God only knows where she hid that deed. I think, simply, that it’s in the hands of that old bachelor Grigory Grigorevich Storchenko. That tubby rascal inherited that estate. I’m willing to bet you God knows what that he’s concealed that deed of gift.”
“Forgive me, Auntie: isn’t that the same Storchenko I met at the post station?”
Here Shponka recounted the story of his meeting.
“Who knows?” his aunt replied after thinking for a while. “Perhaps he’s not a scoundrel. True, it’s only been half a year since he came here to live; you don’t get to know a man in so short a time. The old woman, his mother, I hear, is a very smart woman, and they say she’s excellent at pickling cucumbers. And her servant girls know how to make fine rugs. But if, as you say, he treated you well, go and pay him a visit! Perhaps the old sinner will listen to his conscience and give you back what doesn’t belong to him. Perhaps you could drive over there in our carriage, only those damned kiddos pulled out all the nails from the back. I have to tell the coachman Omelko to attach the leather properly.”
“What for, Auntie? I’ll take the cart you use when you go out shooting game.”
With this the conversation ended.
hponka drove into the village of Khortishche at dinnertime and began to feel timid as he approached the manor house. The house was long and its roof wasn’t thatched like so many of the surrounding structures, but was wooden. Two barns in the courtyard also had wooden roofs; the gates were made of oak. Ivan Fyodorovich felt like a dandy who, having arrived at a ball, sees everyone else, no matter where he glances, dressed more elegantly than he is. Out of respect he stopped his cart near the barn and proceeded to the porch on foot.
“Ah! Ivan Fyodorovich!” cried the fat Storchenko, who was crossing the courtyard wearing a jacket, but without a tie, a vest, or suspenders. But even this attire seemed to burden his portly figure because he was sweating profusely. “Why did you say that as soon as you saw your aunt you’d come visit me, yet you didn’t come?” After these words Shponka’s lips encountered those familiar soft pillows.
“For the most part I was busy on my estate . . . I’ve come to see you for a minute, actually on business . . .”
“For a minute? I won’t allow it. Hey, boy!” shouted the fat landowner, and the same lad in a Cossack coat came running from the kitchen. “Tell Kasyan to bolt the gates at once, do you hear, lock them tight! And unharness this gentleman’s horses this very minute! Please come in; it’s so hot out here that my shirt is soaking wet.”
Upon entering the room, Shponka decided not to waste any time; in spite of his timidity, he attacked resolutely.
“My aunt had the honor of . . . she told me that a deed of gift left by the late Stepan Kuzmich . . .”
It’s difficult to depict the unpleasant expression that appeared on Storchenko’s face as soon as these words were uttered.
“So help me God, I can’t hear a thing! I must tell you that I had a cockroach in my left ear. Those damned Russians always have so many cockroaches in their cottages. It’s impossible to describe in writing what a torture it is. It tickles and tickles. An old woman helped me once with a simple remedy . . .”
“I wanted to say . . .” Shponka dared interrupt him, seeing that Storchenko intended to change the subject, “that the late Stepan Kuzmich’s will mentions a deed of gift, so to speak . . . and that according to it, I should . . .”
“I know what nonsense your aunt has filled your head with. It’s a lie, so help me God, a lie! Your uncle left no deed of gift. Although, it’s true, there’s a mention of it in his will, but where is it? No one’s presented it. I’m telling you this ’cause I sincerely wish you well. So help me God, it’s a lie!”
Shponka fell silent, thinking that perhaps his aunt had only imagined it.
“Here comes Mother with my sisters!” said Storchenko. “Therefore, dinner is served. Let’s go!” Having said this, he dragged Shponka by the arm into the room in which the vodka and some snacks were already set out on the table.
At the same time a short, old woman, resembling a coffeepot wearing a cap, entered the room with two young ladies—one blond and the other with dark hair. Shponka, like a well-brought-up gentleman, first went up to kiss the old woman’s hand, and then to kiss the hands of the two young ladies.
“This, Mother, is our neighbor, Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka!” said Storchenko.
The old woman stared at Shponka, or perhaps it only seemed that way to him. However, she was kindness itself. She seemed only to want to ask him, “How many cucumbers have you pickled for the winter?”
“Did you have some vodka?” asked the old woman.
“Mother, you probably didn’t get enough sleep,” said Storchenko. “Who asks a guest if he’s had some vodka? You merely offer it to him: it’s our business whether we drank or not. Ivan Fyodorovich! Would you like some centaury-flavored vodka or some raw vodka? And you, Ivan Ivanovich, what are you doing over there?” Storchenko asked, turning around; Shponka noticed another man approaching the table with the vodka; he was wearing a long frock coat with a large high collar that covered the back of his neck entirely, so that his head seemed to be sitting on the collar as if in a carriage.
Ivan Ivanovich went over to the vodka, rubbed his hands, examined a goblet carefully, took some, raised it to the light, and poured it from the glass into his mouth, but didn’t swallow; instead he rinsed it methodically around his mouth and only then swallowed it; after eating a piece of bread and a pickled mushroom, he turned to Shponka.
“Don’t I have the honor of addressing Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka?”
“Yes, indeed,” replied Shponka.
“You’ve changed a great deal since I first met you. Why,” Ivan Ivanovich continued, “I remember you from when you were only this tall.” After saying that he lowered his hand to about two feet above the floor. “Your late father, may he rest in peace, was a rare breed. The watermelons and melons he grew—you won’t find the likes of those anywhere. Whereas here,” he continued, taking him aside, “they serve you melons, but what sort are they? You don’t even want to look at them! Believe me, kind sir, your father’s watermelons,” he uttered with a mysterious look, spreading his arms as if he wanted to encircle a large tree, “were this big, so help me God!”
“Come to the table!” said Storchenko, taking Shponka by the hand.
Everyone went into the dining room. Grigory Grigorevich sat in his usual place at the head of the table, fastened an enormous napkin around his neck, and in this guise resembled the heroic figures that barbers like to depict on their signboards. Shponka, blushing, sat down at the place indicated to him, opposite the two young ladies; Ivan Ivanovich didn’t miss the chance to sit next to him, genuinely delighted that he could share his knowledge with him.
“You shouldn’t take the tail, Ivan Fyodorovich! It’s a turkey!” said the old woman, turning to Shponka, just as the village waiter wearing a gray frock coat with a black patch was offering him the platter. “Take the back instead!”
“Mother! No one’s asking you to interfere!” Storchenko declared. “You can be sure that your guest knows what part to take! Ivan Fyodorovich, take a wing, the other one, with the gizzard! Why have you taken so little? Take a leg! What are you staring at? Ask him! Go down on your knees, you scoundrel! Say at once, ‘Ivan Fyodorovich, take a leg!’”
“Ivan Fyodorovich, take a leg!” said the waiter standing on his knees with the serving dish.
“Hmm, what sort of turkey is this?” said Ivan Ivanovich in a low voice with a look of disdain, turning to his neighbor. “Is this what turkey should look like? You should see my turkeys! I can assure you that there’s more fat on one of my turkeys than on ten of these. Believe me, kind sir, it’s even disgusting to look at them as they strut across my courtyard—they’re so fat!”
“Ivan Ivanovich, you’re lying!” uttered Storchenko, after hearing his words.
“I tell you,” Ivan Ivanovich continued speaking to his neighbor, as if he hadn’t heard Storchenko’s words. “Last year, when I sent them to Gadyach, they paid me fifty kopecks for each one. And I didn’t want to take that little.”
“Ivan Ivanovich, I tell you that you’re lying!” uttered Storchenko, emphasizing each syllable and speaking loudly for greater clarity.
But Ivan Ivanovich pretended that these words had nothing to do with him; he continued in the same way, but only in a much softer voice.
“Yes, sir, good sir, I didn’t want to take that little. Not one other landowner in Gadyach . . .”
“Ivan Ivanovich! You’re simply stupid, and that’s that,” said Storchenko in a loud voice. “Why, Ivan Fyodorovich knows all this better than you do, and surely he won’t believe you.”
Now Ivan Ivanovich was completely offended; he fell silent and took to eating his turkey, in spite of the fact that it wasn’t as fat as those it was so disgusting to look at.
For a while the sound of knives, spoons, and plates replaced conversation; but loudest of all was the sound made by Storchenko as he sucked the marrow out of the lamb bones.
“Have you read,” Ivan Ivanovich asked Ivan Shponka after some silence, sticking his head out of his carriage, “Korobeinik’s Journey to Holy Places ? 4 It’s a genuine delight for the heart and soul! Such books don’t get published nowadays. I’m very sorry that I didn’t look to see what year it was issued.”
Shponka, having heard that the conversation concerned a book, briskly began to serve himself some gravy.
“It’s genuinely remarkable to think, good sir, that a simple merchant visited all those places. He traveled over two thousand miles, kind sir! More than two thousand miles! It must be that God Himself facilitated his trip to Palestine and Jerusalem.”
“So you say,” said Shponka, who had heard a great deal about Jerusalem from his servant in the regiment, “that he visited Jerusalem?”
“What are you talking about, Ivan Fyodorovich?” Storchenko asked from the head of the table.
“I, that is, had the occasion to remark that there are such distant places in the world!” said Shponka, being greatly content that he had managed to utter such a long and difficult sentence.
“Don’t believe him, Ivan Fyodorovich!” said Storchenko, not listening very carefully. “It’s all lies!”
Meanwhile dinner was finished. Grigory Grigorevich headed into his own room, as was his custom, to take a little nap; the guests followed the old woman and the young ladies into the living room where the same table on which the vodka had been served before dinner had been transformed and was now covered with saucers containing various preserves and dishes of watermelon, cherries, and other melons.
Storchenko’s absence was noticeable in all regards. The hostess became more talkative and revealed many secrets, without anyone’s asking, concerning the making of pastilles and the drying of pears. Even the young ladies started talking: but the blond, who seemed six years younger than her sister and who appeared to be some twenty-five years old, was more reticent.
But Ivan Ivanovich talked more than anyone else. Being certain that no one would interrupt him or interfere, he spoke about cucumbers, planting potatoes, and how there used to be such clever people in the old days—as opposed to nowadays—and about how everything was getting smarter and leading to the invention of clever things. In a word, he was one of those people who, with the greatest enjoyment, love to talk and will do so about everything under the sun. If the conversation concerned important and devout subjects, Ivan Ivanovich would sigh after every word, nodding his head slightly; if it concerned domestic matters, then he would stick his head out of his carriage and make such faces that just by looking at them it seemed that one could tell how to make pear kvass, or how large his melons were, or how fat the geese were that ran around his yard.
At last, with great difficulty, already towards evening, Shponka managed to say goodbye. And, in spite of his tractability and the fact that they forcefully insisted that he stay the night, he stuck to his decision to leave, and left.
AUNTIE’S NEW SCHEME
“Well, so? Did you wheedle the deed out of the old villain?” That was the question with which his aunt greeted Shponka; she had been waiting for him impatiently on the porch for several hours; finally, she was unable to resist running out of the gates.
“No, Auntie!” said Shponka, climbing out of the cart. “Grigory Grigorevich has no deed of gift.”
“And you believed him! He’s lying, damn him! One day I’ll go to see him and give him a beating with my own hands. I’ll take care of some of his fat for him! However, we should talk to our lawyer first, to see if we can take him to court . . . But that’s neither here nor there. Well, how was dinner?”
“Very good . . . yes, extremely so, Auntie.”
“Well, and tell me, what did they serve? I know the old woman is first-rate at looking after the food.”
“There were cheese fritters with sour cream, Auntie. Stuffed pigeons with gravy . . .”
“And was there turkey with prunes?” asked the aunt, because she herself was a master at preparing that dish.
“There was turkey, too! And very pretty young ladies, Grigory Grigorevich’s sisters, especially the blond.”
“Ah!” said the aunt and stared intently at Shponka, who blushed and lowered his eyes to the floor. A new idea swiftly occurred to her. “Well, then,” she asked with curiosity and sparkle, “what sort of eyebrows did she have?”
It needs to be said that the aunt always considered eyebrows an indication of a woman’s beauty.
“Her eyebrows, Auntie, were very much like yours, such as you had when you were young. And she has little freckles all over her face.”
“Ah!” said the aunt, satisfied with Shponka’s remark, though it hadn’t been intended as a compliment. “What sort of dress was she wearing? Although these days it’s hard to find the sort of sturdy material such as I have, for example, in this dress. But that’s not the point. Well, then, what did you talk about with her?”
“What do you mean? Me, Auntie? Perhaps you’re already thinking that . . .”
“So? What’s so strange about that? It’s as God wills it! Perhaps you’re fated to live with her in wedlock.”
“I don’t know how you can say that, Auntie. It shows that you don’t know me at all . . .”
“Now, now, you’ve already taken offense!” said the aunt. “He’s still only a child,” she thought to herself. 5 “He doesn’t know a thing! They must be brought together so they can get acquainted.”
At this point the aunt went to look into the kitchen and left Shponka alone. But from that time on she thought only about how to see her nephew married soon and about taking care of his little ones. Her head was chocked full of plans in preparation for the wedding, and it was evident that she was much busier around the house than before; however, everything she did now turned out worse. Often making some pie, which task in general she never delegated to the cook, the aunt, forgetting herself and imagining that a little child was standing next to her asking for some, would absentmindedly stretch out her hand holding a choice morsel; the courtyard watchdog, taking advantage of this fact, would seize the tasty bit and, with its loud chomping, end her reverie, for which he was always beaten with a poker. She even gave up her favorite pastimes and no longer went hunting, especially after she shot a crow instead of a partridge, something that had never happened to her before.
At last, about four days after this, everyone saw the carriage dragged from the barn into the courtyard. The coachman Omelko, who also served as gardener and watchman, wielded his hammer from early morning and attached a piece of leather to it, constantly shooing away the dogs, which were licking the wheels. I consider it my duty to inform the readers that this was the very same carriage that Adam had used; therefore, if someone else should claim to have Adam’s carriage, it’s a boldface lie and that one is undoubtedly a fake. It’s not known how the carriage managed to escape the great flood. One has to conclude that in Noah’s ark there was a special space reserved for it. I’m very sorry that I can’t describe its appearance to my readers. Suffice it to say that Vasilisa was very satisfied with its structure and always declared her regret that such old carriages had gone out of fashion. The shape of the carriage, a little lopsided, that is, with the right side much higher than the left, she found very convenient, because, as she used to say, a short person could climb in from one side, and a tall person from the other. However, there was enough space in the carriage for five short people or three people of the aunt’s girth.
Around noon Omelko, having finished work on the carriage, led out of the stable three horses, not much younger than the carriage itself, and began to harness them with a rope to the majestic conveyance. Shponka and his aunt, he from the left side, she from the right, climbed into the carriage, and set off. The peasants whom they met along the way, seeing such a fine carriage (the aunt rarely went out in it), paused respectfully, doffed their caps, and bowed from the waist. About two hours later the carriage stopped in front of the porch—I think it unnecessary to specify: it was Storchenko’s house. Grigory Grigorevich was not at home. The old woman came out with the young ladies to greet the guests in the dining room. The aunt walked up to them with a majestic stride; placing one foot forward with great agility, she said loudly:
“I’m very glad, madam, that I have the honor of personally conveying my respects to you. Together with my respects, allow me to thank you for the hospitality shown to my nephew Ivan Fyodorovich, who praised your generosity. You have very fine buckwheat, madam! I saw it as we approached the village. Allow me to inquire how many sheaves you harvest from an acre?”
After this there occurred a general exchange of kisses. When they had already seated themselves in the living room, the old woman began:
“As for the buckwheat, I can’t tell you: that’s Grigory Grigorevich’s affair. I no longer have anything to do with it; nor can I: I’m already too old! In former times, I recall, our buckwheat used to reach up to our waist; now goodness knows how it grows. Although they say that everything’s better now.” Here the old woman sighed. Some observer might have heard in that sigh the sound of the long-gone eighteenth century.
“I’ve heard, madam, that your serf girls know how to make excellent rugs,” said Vasilisa, and in so doing she touched upon the old lady’s most sensitive nerve. Upon hearing these words, the old woman seemed to come to life and began talking a blue streak about how to dye yarn and prepare threads for it. From rugs the conversation quickly shifted to salting cucumbers and drying pears. In a word, before an hour was up the two ladies were talking as if they’d known each other for years. Vasilisa even began whispering to her in a low voice, such that Shponka couldn’t hear a thing.
“Wouldn’t you care to have a look?” the old woman asked, standing up.
The young ladies and Vasilisa stood up after her and they all started to make their way to the serf girls’ workroom. But the aunt signaled to Shponka that he should stay behind and said something softly to the old woman.
“Mashenka!” said the old woman, turning to the blond. “Stay here with our guest and talk to him so that he won’t be bored.”
The blond stayed behind and sat down on the sofa. Shponka sat on his chair as if on pins and needles; he blushed and lowered his eyes; but the young lady seemed not to notice and sat calmly on the sofa, carefully examining the windows and walls, or else following the cat with her eyes, as it timidly scurried under the chairs.
Shponka worked up some courage and was about to begin a conversation; but it seemed that he’d lost all of his words along the way. Not one idea occurred to him.
The silence lasted almost a quarter of an hour. The young lady just sat there.
At last Shponka summoned up his courage:
“There are many flies in the summer, madam,” he uttered in a half-trembling voice.
“A great many!” replied the young lady. “My brother made a flyswatter out of Mama’s old slipper, but there are still very many.”
Here the conversation ended. Shponka couldn’t find his tongue, no matter how hard he tried.
At last the hostess returned with his aunt and the dark-haired young lady. After talking a little longer, Vasilisa bid farewell to the old woman and the young ladies, in spite of an invitation to spend the night. The old woman and the young ladies escorted the guests out to the porch, and for a long time they waved to the aunt and her nephew who peered out of the carriage.
“Well, Ivan Fyodorovich! What did you talk about when you were together with the young lady?” asked his aunt along the way home.
“Marya Grigorevna is a very modest and well-bred young lady!” said Shponka.
“Listen, Ivan Fyodorovich! I want to have a serious talk with you. You’re thirty-eight years old, thank God. You already hold a good rank. It’s time to think about having children! You must take a wife . . .”
“What, Auntie?” cried Shponka, growing frightened. “What do you mean, a wife? No, Auntie, do me a favor . . . You’re making me feel quite ashamed . . . I’ve never been married . . . And I wouldn’t know what to do with her!”
“You’ll find out, Ivan Fyodorovich, you’ll find out,” his aunt uttered with a smile, and she thought to herself, “My goodness! He’s still so young; he doesn’t know a thing!” She continued aloud, “Yes, Ivan Fyodorovich! You won’t find a better wife than Marya Grigorevna. And besides, you liked her very much. The old woman and I discussed this quite a bit: she would be very glad to have you as her son-in-law; it’s still not clear, however, what that old sinner Storchenko will say about it. But we won’t pay him any attention; if he refuses to provide her with a dowry, we’ll take him to court . . .”
At this time the carriage drew up to the porch; the old nags grew lively sensing the nearness of their stall.
“Listen, Omelko! Let the horses have a good rest; don’t lead them to the water trough right away after you’ve unharnessed them! They’re too hot. Well, Ivan Fyodorovich,” his aunt continued after climbing out of the carriage, “I advise you to think it over carefully. I have to run into the kitchen; I forgot to order supper from Solokha and that good-for-nothing won’t ever think of it herself.”
But Shponka stood there as if thunderstruck. True, Marya Grigorevna was not bad looking; but to get married! That idea seemed so strange to him, so bizarre, that he couldn’t think about it without fear. To live with a wife! It’s incomprehensible! He wouldn’t be alone in his own room, but there would always be two of them! Sweat broke out on his face the more he became absorbed in his thoughts.
He went to bed earlier than usual, but in spite of all his efforts, there was no way he could fall asleep. At last, wished-for sleep, that universal soother, visited him; but what a sleep it was! He had never had such incoherent dreams. First he dreamed that everything was whirling noisily around him; he was running and running, as fast as his legs could carry him. He was at his last gasp. All of a sudden someone caught him by the ear. “Ouch! Who is it?” “It’s me, your wife!” a voice resounded. And suddenly he woke up. Then he imagined that he was already married, that everything in their little house was so peculiar, so strange: a double bed stood in his room instead of single bed. His wife was sitting on a chair. He felt strange; he didn’t know how to approach her, what to say; and then he noticed that his wife had the face of a goose. Inadvertently turning to one side, he saw another wife, also with the face of a goose. Turning to the other side, there was a third wife. Behind him, still another. He panicked and ran out into the garden, but out there it was very hot. He took off his hat and there was a wife sitting in it. Beads of sweat ran down his face. He put his hand in his pocket for a handkerchief, and there was a wife in there, too. He took a wad of cotton out of his ear, and there was a wife there, too. Then he suddenly began hopping on one leg and his auntie, looking at him, said with a dignified air, “Yes, you must hop now, because you’re a married man.” He went toward her, but his aunt was no longer his aunt, but a belfry. And he felt that someone was dragging him by a rope up the belfry. “Who’s dragging me?” he asked plaintively. “It’s me, your wife. I’m dragging you because you are a bell.” “No, I’mnota bell. I’m Ivan Fyodorovich!” he cried. “Yes, you area bell,” said the colonel of his infantry regiment, who just happened to be passing by. Then he suddenly dreamed that his wife was not a person at all, but some kind of woolen fabric; and that he went into a shop in Mogilyov. “What sort of material would you like?” asked the shopkeeper. “You had better take some wife, it’s the latest thing. It wears very well. Everyone’s having coats made from it nowadays.” The shopkeeper measured and cut him off a wife. Shponka put her under his arm and went off to the Jewish tailor. “No,” said the Jew, “this is poor fabric. No one has coats made from it anymore . . .”
Shponka woke up terrified and beside himself. Cold sweat dripped from his face.
As soon as he got up that morning, he turned at once to his fortune-telling book, at the end of which the generous bookseller had placed an abridged dream manual. But there was absolutely nothing there even remotely resembling such an incoherent dream.
Meanwhile an entirely new idea was developing in his aunt’s head, about which you will learn in the next chapter.
—translated from the Russian by Michael R. Katz
- 1. In Russia, tax farming (otkup) was introduced in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. It was used especially for customs duties and salt and liquor revenues. It assumed the greatest importance during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
- 2. “Deeprichastie” means “gerund” in Russian ↩
- 3. “He knows [it]” (Latin). ↩
- 4. Trifon Korobeinikov [sic] was a sixteenth-century Moscow merchant and traveler. He made two visits to Palestine, Mount Athos, and İstanbul, in 1582 and 1594, on assignments of tsars Ivan IV and Fyodor I. His account of his travels was first published in 1594 and reprinted many times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. ↩
- 5. When his aunt thinks to herself, she does so in Ukrainian, not Russian. ↩