Behold How Great a Matter! A Sketch in Peasant Russia

OUR children would term it ‘calling names.’ Mefódi and Annushka would probably call it rugánie. But by one name or the other, — or any name at all, — what a safety-valve it is for the relief of overwrought feelings!

If your horse balks at the steep river-bank, or your woman is dilatory about the ploughing, then possibly you beat them — but probably you don’t. For what you undertake with those powerful hands of yours you may regret afterwards. Or violence may be returned to you again with interest. But rugánie — it is such a harmless thing — and such a relief to pent-up emotions.

Rugánie, to be explicit, consists in making selected remarks about the maternal ancestors (real or imagined) of the offending object — remarks selected neither for their flattering nature nor for their delicacy.

It was n’t a holiday, but the day before had been, and anyone knows that the day after a holiday is inviolate as far as working goes. (One day to celebrate — at least — and another to recuperate.) This explains why Mefódi and his family found themselves at home — he and his Ánnushka and their three: Grísha and little Sónya and very little Vanyúshka.

Grísha sat on the end of the long bench near the four-poster bed, making himself traps to set in the tall fir trees. He worked diligently, and the floor around him, in spite of his mother’s protests, was littered with whittlings. His sister Sónya was sprawled at full length on the floor, playing with the kitten. Little Vanyúshka, for the moment, was sleeping peacefully in the tiny cradle hanging from the supple end of a long sapling close by the stove.

The samovár stood on the table, kept hot by the charcoal fire inside; for Asáf had dropped in to drink tea and talk along with Mefódi. They also sat on the long bench, their glasses on the table in front of them. Across from them sat Ánnushka at the samovár, the picture of all a housewife should be — and so, apparently, thought Mefódi, from the approving glance he cast at her every now and then.

But she could n’t sit long at a time— she must be constantly jumping up to look after the fish pies in the oven, or to give the cradle a jog, and send it gently bobbing up and down, lulling little Ványa off to sleep again. Or she must, on one errand or another, run across the narrow passage into the barn; for Mefódi, like his neighbors, kept house and barn under the same sheltering roof, and his helpmeet was housewife of it all.

In spite of her apparent serenity, Ánnushka was thoroughly tired: tired with days of baking, getting ready for the holiday; tired with the joys of the holiday itself, joys continued far into the night — into the following morning.

And all day to-day Mefódi might rest indeed, but who would mix the moss-mash for the cow, and milk her; and feed her and the horse; and all the rest? Any housewife knows why a holiday is n’t a holiday.

And then had to come this Asáf, with his sharp tongue! Would n’t you know the Ungentle One would send him her way on this day of all days?

Now, to digress, we must explain that Ánnushka was really a bába. Anyone knows that a peasant woman is a bába, because that’s exactly what a bába is. And when Mefódi called her by this name, her heart thumped in its roomy breast.

But in Asáf’s mouth the word turned to wormwood—from him it meant nothing but derision; from him it could not and need not be tolerated — no, not once. And in the end of ends there was no reason — no, not one — why he should quote that old unpleasant proverb. But he did.

‘Hen is n’t bird-kind: bába is n’t man-kind,’ chanted Asáf.

’Bába is n’t man-kind!’ echoed Grísha gleefully (her own Grísha!). And ‘Bába! Bába!’ mimicked little Sónya from under the table.

Ánnushka stopped short in her work and confronted Asáf. ‘What’s that you tell?’ she cried.

‘That is — what did I tell? Anyone knows it’s a saying: “Hen is n’t birdkind: bába is n’t man-kind.”’

‘ Bába is n’t man-kind! ’ echoed Grísha again. And he and Asáf laughed boisterously.

Ánnushka fumed, and revolved with her sturdy arms. ‘ Now, devil take you, Asáfka, for a worthless ne’er-do-well! The whole village knows what for a bába you’ve got under your roof. Tfur!'

And the rugánie began.

Began, and continued, and increased. Increased in vehemence, in clamor, in ingenuity. Higher and higher rose their voices; lower and lower descended the abuse. Unnumbered generations — running back to Rúrik — were recalled and slandered and besmirched, until one telling thrust by Asáf (apparently containing an element of truth) goaded Ánnuskha beyond endurance.

And things began to happen.

Ánnushka reached across, seized him by the hair, and pressed his lean cheek against the samovár.

Oy! Satana!’ screamed Asáf. And jumping up from the table, he grabbed at her.

And more things happened.

Ánnushka, dodging his grasp, stumbled over little Sónya and fell against the samovár. This rocked an instant and fell to the floor at Grísha’s feet, staving a dent in its shapely side.

‘I did n’t do it!’ cried Sónya, hopping up. ‘It’s not my fault!’

Grísha jumped and rescued the samovár before the water started to flow out. And then, seizing his sister, he boxed her ears. ‘It is your fault, little fool,’ he shouted, ’lying there on the floor.’

Grísha had caught up the samovár, true; but not before a live coal, quite unnoticed, had tumbled out, and into his pile of whittlings. Then he had left his corner, and behind his back — behind the backs of all — the glowing coal kindled the litter on the floor.

Meanwhile the clamor went on.

‘It’s not my fault,’ repeated Sónya.

‘And it’s not my fault,’ cried Ánnushka. ‘It’s his!’

‘It’s not!' shouted Asáf.

And the rugánie began again.

All were gathered around the table, eyes centred on the antagonists. And behind them the little blaze set fire to the curtains of the bed, and a thin glowing skirmish line crept swiftly up that dry old stuff.

‘Tell, please! Who grabbed at me?’ continued Ænnushka.

‘ You tell who pressed my face against the samovar! ’

‘So!’ said Mefódi, willing to see justice done. ‘No need to press his face against the samovár.’

Then he sprang up suddenly.

‘Look!’ he cried. ‘Now see what you’ve done, with your rugánie!’

From the bed-curtains the flames had leaped to the large tissue-paper sunbursts hanging from the ceiling, and these too were now blazing hotly. And the little window-curtains were also alight and charring the boards of the ceiling.

As her man rushed to put out the spreading fire, Ánnushka took in the scene before her. The danger, the folly, the needlessness of it, swept over her.

‘Oy, oy, oy, oy!’ she moaned, collapsing into a chair. And, burying her head in her hands, she burst into tears.

The flames from the tissue-paper, licking up the side of the chimney, set fire to the wafer-thin shingles of the roof, the blaze creeping rapidly back toward the barn.

‘ Asáf! blankets! ’ cried Mefódi, as he glanced hurriedly around for his companion.

But of Asáf there was nothing to be seen. In the excitement he had slipped quietly away.

The paper ornaments soon burned themselves out. And in a short time Mefódi had stifled the smouldering ceiling and trampled out the fire in the whittlings. It looked as if the danger were over.

He put down the blanket and mopped his brow. Ánnushka looked shyly up at him, on her face the most lovable expression of distress and humility.

How could one be angry with a wife like this?

But suddenly from the direction of the barn came a great roaring. Mefódi heard and went sick.

‘Little Fathers!’ he cried. ‘It’s the hay — the hay is burning!’

Ánnushka crossed herself limply and sat on, her face blank in the presence of such calamity — till little Ványa waked and started to cry.

Then light gleamed in her eyes; with a swift stride she was at the cradle and had snatched him to her breast.

Scarcely a moment she stood; then, seizing the kitten she thrust it into Grísha’s arms. She grasped little Sónya and, driving Grísha before her, hurried them all out of the house. At the doorway she paused and called back, ‘Let the beasts out, Fód’ka! while you can,’ — and rushed on out into the night.

A strong wind was blowing in the direction of the other houses. Already the roof of the next had caught; and from the roof the fire spread again to the hay. Fanned by the gale, the flames leaped from one building to another; and there was no means of fighting them save buckets of water dipped from the river through holes in the ice.

All night long the fires lit up the sky, and figures darted about rescuing their goods and carrying them across the fields to Páchipolda. As house after house went up, its owners submissively crossed themselves and hurried off to help salvage the belongings from other houses next in the path of the flames.

And when the winter sun rose late the following morning, it looked down on smoking ruins only, where had been the little village of Kófkula.

Mefódi told me of this next day at Páchipolda, whither he and his family had come to us as refugees.

Of course, once the fire had got a start, one could do nothing. (What had bucket-brigades ever accomplished against burning hay?) Prevention — that was the only way out. Queer that they themselves had never thought of this!

‘Mefódusha,’ I said, ‘do you know what? If now, you had each had an extinguisher at home — ’

‘And what will that be, an extinguisher?’

I explained — how they were made, and how they were used; ending with our time-worn saying (Mefódi liked sayings) about an ounce of prevention and a pound of cure.

My friend listened and considered.

‘No, Petrúshka,’ he replied, at length; ‘not worth while. The kind of fires that we have, no extinguisher would ever put out.’