Sketches in Peasant Russia: Non-Committal
MY office-door stuck badly. In fact, it had stuck badly ever since Mefódi settled me in these new quarters. But I was obliged, nevertheless, to close it after me as I came in; for it was cold in the hallway, and I had already grown to require the same hot, air-tight room the Russian peasant loves.
A dozen times I had told Pável to plane off that door; a dozen times he had assured me he would do it ‘this hour’; and a dozen times I had found him curled up behind the kitchen stove reading Nat Pinkerton, King of the Detectives, beloved by young Russia as well as young America.
The building Mefódi had found me was the former People’s House of the town of Páchipolda, of which his little village of Kófkula was, as it were, a suburb. The typical people’s house was a community centre, consisting chiefly of a theatre and a large tea-room or bufét, and was admirably suited for the entertainment of the many troops quartered here at present.
Like all buildings of the region, it was built entirely of logs, cleverly seated one on the other, and caulked with moss against the cold and the fine, driving snow. The logs showed everywhere, inside as well as out.
I had told Méfodi that I needed a cook for our establishment, and he had promised to send in a girl who he was sure would be what I required. And he soon kept his word.
Just as I had settled down to my work on this particular morning, there was a knock at the closed door.
‘May I?’ asked a shrill girlish voice.
‘Please!’ said I.
The knob turned and an arm pressed heavily against the door; but nothing budged.
‘Unlock!’ ordered the voice outside.
‘Not needful, already unlocked!’ I replied.
Upon which a powerful shoulder was applied as well. Door, frame, and logwall creaked in protest; but something just had to give, somewhere. There was a loud crack, a shriek of rending fibres, a great splinter ripped off the door-frame — and a placid peasant girl proceeded slowly and serenely into the room.
As she stood and crossed herself before the ikon, I noted her low brow, her broad cheek-bones plumply upholstered, her wonderfully clear and rosy complexion, and the brilliant whites of her cool gray eyes.
Her brief devotions ended, she turned herself to me.
‘Be in good health!’ said she.
And who would not wish to be, with such an example to emulate?
‘Sit down,’ said I.
She seated herself facing me, and breathed a deep, deep sigh. I hastily weighted down the loose papers on my desk.
‘ So Méfodi sent thee to me? ’ I asked.
‘Sent,’ echoed the shrill voice.
‘How do they call thee?’
‘To thee how many years?’
‘Twenty and some.’
At times the ‘some’ proves to be twenty-five, but in this case it is quite evident that it is not. And, moreover, why should n’t we respect a woman’s reserve?
For which? Now we know no more than we did before. But if she is, he will soon be living in the kitchen too, and we shall know within a few days at latest.
‘Canst cook well?’
‘ Nichegó !'
Here is a useful word! Literally it means ‘neither of what,’ is generally translated ‘nothing,’ but can mean anything. If you asked a suffering soldier in hospital if the pain was hard to bear, and he replied ‘Nichegó,’ there would be no doubt what he meant to convey. Or if you had occasion to say, ‘ Nura, if you mind my kissing you, you have only to say so,’ and she replied, ‘Nichegó,’ again, you would know exactly what was meant.
But this answer of Irína’s is a poser. Does it mean that she can cook nothing at all, or nothing to speak of, or nothing to complain of? I decide to try another tack.
‘What canst cook?’
‘What is it wished you to cook?’
What indeed? Worse and worse. How do I know what I want cooked? I never was a housewife before! And for the life of me, all that I can think of is ham and eggs. And I know very well that we don’t want ham and eggs. Moreover, where should we get the ham — and where should we get the eggs?
Surely the only thing to do is to take her on and try her. But how much will she expect us to pay?
‘What did they pay thee last?’
‘Never did not serve before.’
‘Well, how much would it be wished thee to receive? ’
That we are quite willing to admit; but a direct reply from that source is just as hard to get as a direct reply from Irína.
‘Now, very well, Irína, we will give thee eighty roubles a month and thy board.
‘Now’, give then!’
So Irína agrees for eighty roubles a month and establishes herself in our kitchen.
There she may be found any morning after seven. There you may hear her throaty voice singing over her work up to ten o’clock at night — the strange minor melodies of the peasant world.
And she still contents herself with eighty roubles. Lazy Pável, who continues to tend our stoves indifferently, and who chops the wood, has to receive two hundred roubles a month — but he’s a man. Irína works fifteen hours a day, cooks for nine of us, makes cocoa and tea for three hundred soldiers every day, helps Pável chop the wood when he is particularly lazy, and even insists on doing our washing and mending rather than let it get into other hands — so she says.
All power to the future Russia! And may the day soon come when womankind has the name, as well as the game, of running it!