Sketches in Peasant Russia: I. Vinovát
WHAT a difference we find in apologies! A Britisher would say, ‘ Sorry! ’— snapping it out in a perfunctory way. And what a lot can be read into it if you are in the mood! As if to say, ‘Your misfortune, old thing; but it had to happen, you know ’ — and the offending one proceeds serenely on his way. Mefodi’s apology would be ‘ Vinovát ’ — ‘I’m guilty! ’ And, disarmed by such an abject assumption of blame, you find yourself in a forgiving mood at once.
The train stopped at a small junction. The little bell at the station entrance rang ‘one,’ and then, immediately after, ‘two,’ telling that we should be pulling out again in about three minutes. It was the customary crowded train of Bolshevik days, and all I had been able to get was standing-room in the smelly corridor. I was flattening myself against the grimy glass of a window, while the crowd behind me surged back and forth in its efforts to make two people stand where one had stood before.
‘Vinovát!’ said a fish-oily breath in my ear.
A horny hand was laid on my shoulder, and, quick as thought, I was pivoted round away from the window, with my back slap against the wall. Then a frantic haste to open the sash. It stuck badly, suddenly relented, and banged down into its slot with a crash of shattered glass.
‘Now look!’ growled the muzhik into his beard; ‘see how it broke itself!’ And sticking his head out of the window, ‘Annushka—here—quick! quick! ’
Popping my head out too, and looking in that, direction, I saw traveling toward us a huge pile of duffle, somewhere under which was Annushka. In one sack about two poods of flour, in another a couple of poods of potatoes; a bulky bundle of clothing wrapped up in an apron; a splint basket as big as a half-bushel; another splint basket, another bundle of clothes, a tin teapot; and some wet briny fish wrapped up in an old number of Novoe Vremya, and still dripping all down the platform.
‘Quicker! Quicker!’ bellowed her man; ‘ this little minute goes the train! ’
‘This hour I come!’ she called back gayly; ‘this hour! this hour!’
What are minutes and hours between congenial mates ?
‘Take, Mefod’ka!’ shouted Annushka; and wound herself up with an eighty-pound bag like a pitcher in his box.
‘Vinovát!’ predicted Mefodi again, bracing himself, spreading his feet, and thoroughly crushing two of my toes.
Annushka unwound herself, the sack came hurtling into Mefodi’s arms, caromed off and slid down the side of me, powdering me with flour as it went.
‘Vinovát!’ said Mefodi.
This time, at least, I knew what he was guilty of before the announcement.
‘Still once!’ grunted Annushka, as she wound herself up again.
She unwound, and the sack of potatoes hit me a wallop on the side of the head before it came to rest at Mefodi’s feet.
‘Vinovát!’ said Mefodi.
Just then the bell sounded ‘three,’ the conductor blew his little whistle, the engineer blew the big whistle, the passengers crossed themselves, and the train started on its way.
Annushka picked up the rest of their belongings and rushed pell-mell for the steps of the train, Mefodi leaning far out of the window and yelling, ‘Quicker! quicker!’ at the top of his lungs, kicking the paneling in his excitement.
Who would have guessed it would happen this way? What an unexpected thrill, this! Would she make it? Would she?
I leaned out and saw the car-platform packed with passengers down to the lowest step, and Annushka running alongside the moving train, clinging desperately to the grab-handle with one hand, while with the other she clutched bundles, baskets, tin teapot, and salt fish.
Expecting any moment that she would be thrown under the wheels, I pulled in my head and buried my ears in my hands. After a few uneventful moments I took heart, looked up again, and there in the car right before me came Annushka and paraphernalia, progressing slowly but surely down the completely filled corridor, beaming lovingly on her spouse, and scotching with fish-brine each and every person she passed.
The various bags, bundles, and baskets were established in the corridor in such manner as to dam very effectively the surge of humanity up and down that narrow passage (and for this I was extremely grateful). And having now been settled several minutes, Mefodi and his helpmeet gave themselves up to the world-wide pastime of travelers — eating. A splint basket was opened, the briny fish were spread out on their paper on the floor, a chunk of very soggy black bread was set beside them, also a dingy glass for him, and a handsome flowered teacup for her. And the conductor picked his way deftly among them like a cat in a crockery-store window.
All preparations now being made, it needed only some kipyatók to fill the tin teapot. We should call it boiling water, but it is such an important detail of Russian life that the phrase has simmered down to the one word.
‘Vinovát,’ said Mefodi. ‘But you don’t know of course whether kipyatók has itself at the next station? ’
I did not know; but the ice having been melted, as it were, by the boiling water, he felt encouraged to go on with other questions.
‘Have you far to travel?
‘Not especially, only into Moscow. And you, where to?’
‘Into Tula — ’
‘Two days and two nights we are traveling,’ broke in Annushka. ‘All the way from Kofkula. Tiresome!’
The train pulled up to another small station. Mefodi thrust his head out of the open window.
‘Not!’ was the reply.
Who says the Russian is garrulous?
At the next station the question was repeated.
Mefodi seized the teapot, wormed his way through the corridor, tore down the station platform, and took his place at the end of the long, long line of passengers patiently waiting each for his turn at the kipyatók.
When it came to tea, there was no sugar — there hardly ever was in those days. Nothing but some pallid little lemon-drops, with almost no taste of any kind, to say nothing of sweetness. I offered them a few lumps from my sugar supply. Annushka bit a fragment off a lump and sucked her tea through it, making a whole lump last for several cups.
Her man found he had something I did n’t have, and his face lighted up with genuine pleasure.
‘Maybe this is wished you,’ said Mefodi.
He licked his fingers, wiped them on his coat, and selected a shiny fat fish from the paper. It lay in his broad palm in its entirety, its little eye looking up at me appealingly. I could n’t do it! I had n’t the heart — or stomach. A shade of disappointment crossed Mefodi’s face — or was it a feeling of injury? I must be friendly and share it with him, I thought.
But the head I really could n’t eat!
‘You don’t love the head?’ asked Mefodi with surprise; and dispatched it himself.
Night was gradually falling. The little compartment doors along the corridor were being slid shut one by one. The glass and cup and chunk of bread were stowed away again in the basket, and the pair settled down for the long night, seated on their sacks on the corridor floor, Mefodi’s shaggy head pillowed on Annushka’s broad bosom, she sitting patiently upright until drowsiness made her chin drop down on the same soft pillow.
In the small dark hours of the morning I was roused from my fitful sleep by the swish of a robe passing by, and opened one eye to see a tall priest picking his way through the corridor. What a shame that Annushka had to wake and see him too! Why could n’t she have slept only a little minute longer? Why did she have to wake at all? But she did! And she saw him.
She shook the sleepy head on her bosom. It opened its eyes.
‘Fod’ka, do you know what? We’ve met a priest. He only now passed through the corridor!’
Mefodi sat bolt upright.
‘O Lord my God! Now what does that mean?’
There followed a long spirited discussion in low tones — and I fell off again to sleep.
Toward three o’clock, in the inky blackness, I was conscious of a cool, damp, sour smell under my nose, and woke to find the sack of flour being dragged past my face.
‘Vinovát!’ said a husky whisper.
The train was halted at a station, and two dark figures were stealthily manœuvring two bags, two bundles, two baskets across my prostrate form and down the corridor.
‘What now, Mefodi; surely this can’t be Tula?’
‘No, no. But, devil take it, we have met a priest!’ said he tragically.
‘A priest?’ said I, wondering what of that.
‘Yes, a priest, a bad sign —’
‘A very bad sign,’ whispered Annushka. ‘ When you set out on a journey, if you meet a priest, bad luck is sure to follow; nothing will come out as you want it to — ’
‘Vinovát!’ broke in Mefodi, as he dragged another bag across me. ‘ Vinovát, and good-bye!’
‘Good-bye, friends! But where to now?’
‘Back again to Kofkula!’