Sketches in Peasant Russia: From the Mind Gone Out

‘You will proceed to Kófkula with supply convoy of ten sleighs,’my orders had said, — ‘head of the drivers, M. Popóv.’

I was to be the only passenger, apparently, on a four-days’ trip across the frozen bogs and forests of Arctic Russia; for it was late February, and winter was at its depth.

The under-officer in charge of the dispatching took me out into the sleighyard in search of my head driver. At his call a squat figure separated itself from a chattering group of drivers, men and women, and came lumbering toward us in his heavy winter clothing. The face and contour seemed vaguely familiar, and I looked again at the figure and again at the order in my hand. ‘Kófkula. M. Popóv.’ True enough! It was indeed none other than my companion of the Moscow train, Mefódi!

At the same moment he recognized me, and a pleasant smile played hideand-seek in his reddish beard, and lighted up the corners of his eyes. He blew his nose with his fingers, wiped them on his pantaloons, and presented them to me in a cordial hand-shake.

‘Zdrávstvuite, Mr. Officer; how glad I am to see you again! You will be traveling with us in our convoy, yes? Magnificent! And you will consent to ride with me! ’

And at his order the women and men unloaded the bags and cases from Mefódi’s sleigh and transferred them to the others. This must have been a genuine sacrifice for Mefódi, for passengers paid only a small lump sum for transportation—not nearly as much as his sturdy horse could earn by hauling freight.

It was very cold. Rime coated the shaggy horses, and hoar-frost clung to the beards and shawls of the drivers, even powdering their hair with white. Clumsy mittened hands piled my baggage into the deep box of the sleigh, and in the midst of my pieces Mefódi made a snug little nest for me.

‘Plant yourself, please!’ said Mefódi, and buzzed around me, swathing me up in robes and burrowing into the hay in the bottom for a warm place for my feet, punctuating every movement with ‘so,’‘now look,’or ‘see how,’ until at last, satisfied with the job, he stepped back and beamed on me from his kindly eyes.

‘How now? Nichegó? — nothing to complain of?’

I could n’t have been more comfortable, I assured him. So, after one last tug at their binding ropes, the convoy started down the village street, past the shrine at the cross-roads, and out on to the winter road through the dense pine forest.

And the stillness of it! Fancy a land that never hears the sound of train, or steamer, or factory; where for six long months no sound of a wagon-wheel is heard; where runners slip noiselessly over the smooth track, with never even a sleigh-bell to announce their approach; where even the thud of horses’ hoofs is smothered in the soft snow! Small wonder that the peasant plods on hour after hour in silence, head bent, eyes gazing blankly into space, thoughts wandering off and off, only God knows where, evolving childlike philosophies to startle a sophisticated world.

Just so we journeyed on, I snug in the warm nest Mefódi had made for me, and he trudging stolidly alongside, only occasionally calling out to Dóbry, the horse. (Pretty conceit that, calling him Dóbry — kind, gentle, good! But of course Mefódi would do it — it was just the kind of thing he would do!)

The road turned down a sharp little hill and on to the ice of a river. One by one, as the sleighs came to the brow of the hill, the horses pricked up their ears, hunched their withers, and with a snort of joy plunged at a dead run down the steep grade — their eighthundred-pound loads behind them, and their gleeful drivers racing alongside shouting glad words of admonition.

It came our turn and down we went — one wild whizz! I felt an impulse to cross myself—I think Mefódi did, with the hand that held his whip! With the other he held the lines, while his two feet pelted down the hill in a mad effort, bundled as he was, to keep up with his running horse.

The excitement over, Mefódi came alongside again, panting for breath, his eyes snapping with excitement.

‘Nichegó?’ he asked; ‘nothing the matter with that?’

‘Delightful!’ said I. ’But isn’t it dangerous with this load? If the horse should stumble and break his legs?’

‘But he does n’t stumble.’

‘But — suppose he did stumble?’

‘But he doesn’t stumble!’ repeated Mefódi, with an air of finality, dismissing the subject.

Now, the road running for miles along the level ice, it was easy hauling, and Mefódi hopped on at my feet. He accepted a cigarette, broke it carefully in two, fished a very dirty holder out of his pocket, and fixing half the treasured smoke in the end of the holder, lighted it at my match.

’How do they call you, Mr. Officer?’ asked he.

‘By Peter,’ said I.

‘Peter! So. And you’re from what district?’

‘From no district, Mefód’ka; I come from America!’

I watched furtively for the effect of this announcement — the name of our great land of liberty to which, we have been told, all oppressed Russia has looked for decades.

‘America,’ repeated Mefódi. ‘North America or South America?’

Asáf, just ahead of us, threw the lines over the front of his sleigh and came back to join us.

To me, ‘Zdrávtstvuite!’ and to Mefódi, ‘What for a man is this?’

‘This is an Amerikánets,’ replied Mefódi, in the manner of one who had hobnobbed with Yanks all his days.

‘Amerikántsy! Yes, I know them,’ said Asáf sagely, nodding his head. ‘I know them well. They ’re from-themind-gone-out!’

‘ From-the-mind-gone-out ? ’ asked Méfodi in surprise. (They had already forgotten my presence.)

‘Very, indeed,’ replied Asáf. ‘Could n’t you tell they were? See how they must always be drinking water! Look at the crazy spectacles they wear, with little frames as big as horse-yokes! And how they must have everything done in a hurry! And when they say “no” it means “no”! Anyone understands that “no” does n’t mean “no.” Could n’t you see that they were fromthe-mind-gone-out ? ’

‘But they’re very capable,’ ventured Mefódi mildly; ‘they can do everything. Did n’t they have the trams going again in Archangel in the wink of an eye?’

‘And how not do everything?’ snapped Asáf. ‘ Could n’t we do everything if we ate as much as they?’

‘My wife’s uncle’s father-in-law,’ mused Mefódi, ‘went away into America, and one beautiful day he died, and all the relatives received money.’

And for the moment he was lost in memories.

‘Oh, they’re all rich, these Amerikántsy,’ explained Asáf. ‘ They ’re born with gold in their teeth. I myself have seen it.’

We went on and on, back into the pines again, over a low ridge, and after nightfall wound down a long hill to an izbúshka in the depths of the forest.

‘Here we will rest,’ said Mefódi, ‘four hours, and then off on the road again. Let’s be drinking tea.’

The izbúshka was a great low hut built of logs. It served as a rest-house for the convoys traveling over the winter road in either direction, and some forty sleighs and horses stood in the yard. A door four feet high gave entrance to it on one side. In a corner of the interior was a large pile of stones that served as a stove, the smoke from which was expected to find its way out of the doorway, or a small hole under the roof, depending on the wind. The logs were charred with smoke, and the panes of the two small windows stained dingy brown. At a rough table sat a dozen or more drivers, drinking tea and making jokes about the women of the company, after the manner of their kind. Along one entire side was a crude log-shelf, on which were filed away some twenty-five or thirty other drivers, — himselves and herselves, — packed in like herring and snoring away blissfully, quite warm and happy in their heavy winter clothing. There were in all some forty-odd people, and what with the smoke, not air enough in the hut for eight, but warmth enough for eighty. Their idea of comfort, may be, but not mine — even though it was ten below out-of-doors.

‘ ’Fód’ka,’ said I, ‘ do you know what? I’ll sleep outside in the sleigh!’

Mefódi said never a word, but a gentle compassionate look appeared in the depths of his gray eyes as he followed me out and arranged the little sleigh for sleeping: a big bag of hay under my head for a pillow, and heaps of loose hay over my feet. I had on a sheepskin great-coat, and felt sure of being warm. But Mefódi knew better. From the bottom of the sleigh he pulled out his kush, made of heavy reindeer skin, with deep furry cuffs and a great hood to go completely over the head.

‘But you’ll need this yourself, Mefódi,’ said I, ‘on the road in the early morning. It will be bitter cold then! ’

‘I shan’t be needing it,’ he replied. ‘If I did, I’d tell you.’

And he tucked me in as tenderly as Ánnushka tucked in little Ványa at home; and I lay snug and warm under the snapping frost and crystal stars.

I was awake, though, when they finally came out of the izbúshka and took to the road again. Asáf came out with Mefódi. Through half-shut eyes I saw him stop and look down on me bundled up in the hay in Mefódi’s furs. He bobbed his head gently up and down, and struck a comic attitude, one thumb indicating me, the other pointing in the direction of the nice, warm, smelly nest out of which they had just come.

‘Now look, Fód’ka!’ said he. ‘See how! Did n’t I tell you they were from-the-mind-gone-out ? ’