Uncle Ivan's Tale

The most celebrated of Russian novelists. MIKHAIL SHOLOKHOV made his reputation with his powerful classic AND QUIET FLOWS THE DON. The first volume of his second big novel, VIRGIN SOIL UPTURNED, dealing with collectivization among the Cossacks ,appeared in 1932. The concluding volume, from which this present episode is taken, has only recently been completed. His books are published in America by Alfred A. Knopf.

THE village of Gremyachy Log dropped out of sight behind a low rise, and the broad steppe, stretching farther than the eye could see, folded Davydov in its embrace. Breathing deeply of the heady scents of the grass and the moist black earth, Davydov gazed at the long line of ancient burial mounds in the distance. Those distant blue barrows reminded him in some way of the stormroused waves of the Baltic, and unable to resist a sudden rush of melancholy, he sighed heavily and quickly averted his misty eyes. Then his absent gaze focused on a faint dot high up in the sky. Majestic in its solitude, a black steppe eagle, dweller of burial mounds, hovered in the cold heavens, slowly, barely perceptibly losing height as it circled earthward. Its broad, blunt-tipped wings, motionlessly outspread, bore it lightly in that lofty region just below the clouds, and the wind licking greedily around the powerful bigboned body smoothed its black, dully gleaming feathers. As it swept in broad turns toward the east, the sun’s rays caught it from in front and below, and it seemed to Davydov that glittering white sparks flew from the whitish underside of the eagle’s wings.

The steppe, the boundless, rolling steppe. Ancient barrows in a light-blue mist. A black eagle in the sky. The soft rustle of wind-blown grass. Davydov felt very small and lost in this huge expanse as he gazed wistfully over the tormentingly endless plain. His love for Lushka, the grief of parting, the unrealized desire to see her now seemed trivial and unimportant. He was oppressed by a feeling of loneliness and isolation from the whole living world. Something like this he had experienced long ago, when he had stood watch at night in the bow of his ship. What a long time ago that had been! It seemed like an old, half-forgotten dream.

The warmth of the sun became more perceptible. The soft south wind freshened. Without noticing it, Davydov let his head droop and he dozed, swaying gently over the ruts and potholes in the neglected steppe-land road.

The horses he had procured were wretched animals; his driver, the old collective farmer Ivan Arzhanov, was taciturn and, in the general opinion of the hamlet, slightly daft. He kept the horses on a tight rein, and all the way to the held camp thev moved at such a tediously slow pace that halfway there Davydov, waking from his doze, could not help asking grimly: “Do you think you’re carrying pots to a fair, Uncle Ivan? Afraid of breaking them? Why do you keep the horses walking all the time?”

Arzhanov looked away and for a long time was silent. “I know what kind of‘pot’ I’m carrying,” he answered at last, in a squeaky voice. “You may be chairman of the farm, but you won’t make me gallop without need.”

“Who’s asking you to gallop? But you might let them trot a bit going downhill. You’re not carrying anything; the cart’s as good as empty, that’s certain.”

After another long silence Arzhanov said unwillingly: “A horse itself knows when it should walk and when it should trot.”

Davydov began to get really annoyed. No longer hiding his indignation, he exclaimed: “That’s great! What have you got a pair of reins in your hands for? What are you sitting here for, wearing the seat out? Come on, give me the reins.”

More willingly Arzhanov replied: “I’ve got reins in my hands to guide the horses with, so that they’ll go where they ought to go and not where they ought not to. And if you don’t like me sitting next to you, I can get down and walk along beside the cart on foot, but I won’t give you the reins.”

“Why won’t you?” Davydov asked, vainly trying to see the stubbornly averted face of the driver.

“Would you give me your reins?”

“What reins?” Davydov asked, failing to understand.

“As if you didn’t know. You’ve got the reins of the whole farm in your hands; the people have entrusted you to manage everything we’ve got. Would you let anyone else have those reins? Of course you wouldn’t. ‘I certainly won’t, you’d say. And I’m the same. I don’t ask you for your reins, do I? So don’t you ask for mine.”

Davydov gave a snort of laughter. Not a trace of his recent anger remained.

“Well, suppose there was a fire in the village. Would you drive your barrel of water at the same shameful pace?” he asked, awaiting the reply with interest.

“They don’t send people like me for water when there’s a fire.”

And at that moment, glancing sideways at Arzhanov, Davydov noticed for the first time, somewhere below the old man’s peeling weatherbeaten cheeks, the fine wrinkles of a carefully restrained smile.

“Who do you think they’d send, then?”

“People like you and Makar Nagulnov.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re the only two in the village who like to drive fast; you live at a gallop yourselves.”

Davydov laughed heartily, slapping his knees and throwing back his head. Before he had recovered his breath, he asked: “So if a fire really breaks out in the village, there’ll be only Makar and me to put it out?”

“No, why should there be? You and Makar will only be carting the water, galloping your horses for all you’re worth, making the foam fly off them all over the place, but it’ll be us, the collective farmers, who’ll do the putting out. One with a bucket, someone else with a hook, another with an ax. And the man in charge will be no one else but Razmyotnov.”

And he’s supposed to be daft, Davydov thought with genuine astonishment. After a minute’s silence he asked: “Why do you choose Razmyotnov to be in charge of the fire?”

“You’re a clever lad, but you’re not very quick on the uptake,” Arzhanov replied, now chuckling openly. “A man gets his job in a fire according to the way he lives, according to his character. Now, you and Makar live at a gallop, you’re never at peace day or night, and you don’t give others any peace either; therefore, for you, being the liveliest and nippiest of us all, a smart bit of water carrying is just the job. You can’t put a fire out without water, can you? But Andrei Razmyotnov, he lives at a trot, easy does it, like; he won’t do more than he needs, not until you show him the whip. So what else is there for him to do in the lofty position he holds now? Hands on his hips, and give orders, make a fuss and confusion, get in everybody’s way; that’s his job. But we — the people, that is — are taking things quietly for the time being, just jogging along at a walk. We’ve got to do our job without a lot of fuss and bother; we’ve got to put the fire out.”

Davydov slapped Arzhanov on the back, pulled him around, and looked closely into a pair of cunning laughing eyes and a kindly, bearded face. Smiling reservedly, Davydov said: “Well, Uncle Ivan, you seem to be a sly one!”

“And you aren’t such a simpleton either, Davydov!” Arzhanov responded.

THEY traveled along at a walk, as before, but Davydov, realizing that none of his efforts would do any good, no longer tried to hurry Arzhanov. At times Arzhanov would jump down from the cart and walk along beside it; then he would climb on again. As they talked about the affairs of the farm, and gradually about everything, Davydov became more and more convinced that his driver was a man of by no means defective brain power; about everything he reasoned clearly and sensibly, but always from his own peculiar and unusual point of view. When the field camp showed up in the distance, with a fine braid of smoke from the plowing team’s kitchen curling over it, Davydov asked: “Seriously, though, Uncle Ivan, have you been driving your horses at a walk all your life?”

“I have.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before that you were such a queer chap? I wouldn’t have come with you.”

“Why should I praise myself beforehand? Now you’ve seen for yourself the way I drive. One drive with me’s enough; you won’t want another.”

“What was it made you like this?” Davydov asked with a grin.

Instead of giving a direct answer, Arzhanov said evasively: “I had a neighbor in the old days. He was a carpenter, and a bit too fond ol the bottle. Fine pair of hands, but drank like a fish. He’d keep off it for a time; then as soon as he got a whiff of the stuff, he’d be at it for a month. He’d sell his last shirt for a drink, bless his heart.” “Well?”

“And his son never took a drop.”

“All right, that’s enough of parables; make it simple.”

“You couldn’t have it much simpler than this. My father was mad on hunting, and he was even madder on riding. When he was serving in his regiment, he always used to walk off with all the first prizes for racing, swordsmanship, and fancy riding. And when he came back from the regiment, he took all the first prizes at the village races every year. But he was a troublesome man, rest his soul; I say that myself, though he was my own father. One of the real dashing Cossacks, he was. He used to heat up a nail in the stove every morning to curl his whiskers with. He liked to cut a figure in front of people, especially the women. And how he could ride! Never another like him. Whenever he had to go into the village on business, he’d bring his old army horse out of the stable, put a saddle on it, and off he’d go like a bullet. He’d race around the yard, leap over the fence, and away he’d go. Only a whirlwind could catch up with him. He’d never ridden at a trot or a walk in his life. He’d do the twenty-four kilometers to the village at a gallop, and back the same way. He liked riding after hares just for the thrill ol it. Not wolves, mind you, but hares. He’d start up that hare somewhere in the long grass, keep it away from the gully, then ride it down and either slash it with his whip or trample it under the horse’s hoofs.

“The number of times he fell when he was going at full gallop and hurt himself badly! But he wouldn’t give up his amusement. He certainly cost us something in horses. To my memory, he did in six horses; either rode ‘em to death or crippled ‘em. And, of course, we were ruined. One winter he killed two horses outright. They stumbled at full gallop, crashed down on the frozen earth, and that was that. We’d look out of the window, and there was Father walking home with his saddle over his shoulder. Mother used to start a wailing as if somebody had died, but it was nothing to Father. He’d go to bed for three days, grumble and grunt a bit, and before the bruises healed on his body, he’d be off hunting again.”

‘If the horses were killed, how did he manage to come out alive?”

“A horse is a heavy animal. When a horse falls at a gallop, it’ll turn three somersaults before it comes to rest. But Father, he’d just take his feet out of the stirrups and fly like a swallow. Of course, he’d come down with a bang and lie there as long as need be before he’d come to his senses, but then he’d get up and make for home on foot. He was a daredevil. And his bones were like iron rivets.”

“He must have been tough,” Davydov said admiringly.

“He certainly was, but there was somebody else that was tougher.”

“Who was that?”

“My father was killed by Cossacks from our village.”

DAVYDOV lit a cigarette and asked with interest, “Why did the Cossacks kill your father?”

“Give me a cigarette too, bless you.”

“But you don’t smoke, Uncle Ivan.”

“I’m not a hard smoker, but I have a fling sometimes. And now that I recall this old story, my mouth feels kind of dry and salty. What did they kill him for? you ask. Well, he must have deserved it.”

“But, why?”

“Because of a woman, his mistress. She was married, and her husband found out about the affair. He was afraid to tackle my father man to man — Father was not very big, but lie was terribly strong. So the husband got two of his brothers to help him. It happened during Shrovetide. The three of them lay in wait for Father by the river. Merciful God, how they beat him! With clubs and an iron bar of some sort. When he was carried home in the morning, he was still unconscious and black all over, like iron. He had lain unconscious all night on the ice. Imagine, on the ice! In a week he started to speak and understand what was said to him. To make a long story short, he came to himself, but he didn’t get up for two months; he spat blood and talked very, very quietly. All his insides were knocked to bits. His friends came to see him and kept asking: ‘Who did it, Fyodor? Tell us and we’ll. . .’ But he’d keep quiet and just smile a bit and look around, and when Mother went out of the room, he’d whisper:‘I don’t remember, friends. I’ve wronged a good many husbands.’

“How many times did Mother kneel down before him and beg him: ‘Fyodor, my dearest, at least tell me who tried to kill you. Tell me, for Christ’s sake, so that I’ll know whose ruin to pray for.’ But Father would put his hand on her head and stroke her hair like a child’s and say: ‘I don ‘t know who it was. It was too dark. They knocked me down from behind, and I didn’t get a chance to see who was pitching into me on the ice.’ Or he would give the same quiet smile and say: ‘What do you want to remember old wrongs for, my sweet? I’ll answer for my own sins.’ They called in the priest to hear his confession, and he didn’t tell the priest anything either. Father was a very firm man.”

“How do you know what he said to the priest?”

“Because I was lying under the bed, listening. Mother made me do it. ‘Get under the bed, Vanya,’she said. ‘Perhaps he’ll tell the priest who his murderers were.’ But Father didn’t say a word about them. About five times he said in answer to the priest’s questions: ‘Guilty, Father,’ and then he asked: ‘Father Dmitri, are there horses in the other world?’ The priest seemed to get frightened at that and kept saying: ‘What are you talking about, Fyodor, slave of God! How can there be any horses there? You must think about the salvation of your soul.’ He went on telling off Father and arguing with him for a long time, and Father just kept quiet. Then he said: ‘So there are no horses there, you say. What a pity. I might have got a job as a herdsman. But if there aren’t any, there’ll be nothing for me to do in the other world. So I’m not going to die, and that’s all there is to it.’ After that, the priest gave him the sacrament in rather a hurry and went away very displeased. So I told Mother all I’d heard, and she burst into tears and said: ‘He’s lived a sinner and he’ll die a sinner.’

“In the spring— the snow was already melting — Father got up. For two days he walked about inside the cottage, and on the third, what should I see? He’s putting on his riding coat and hat. ‘Go and saddle up the filly, Vanya,’ he says to me. By that time all we had left in the stable was one three-year-old filly. Mother heard what he said and she was in tears. ‘What good are you for riding now, Fyodor! You can hardly stand on your feet as it is. If you won’t pity yourself, at least have pity on me and the children.’ But he just laughed and said: ‘I’ve never ridden at walking pace in my life, Mother. Just let me sit in the saddle once more before I die and ride around the yard at a walk. I’ll just go twice around the yard and come straight back indoors.’

“I went and saddled up the filly and brought her over to the porch. Mother led Father out, leaning on her arm. He hadn’t shaved for two months, and in our dark cottage we hadn’t noticed how he had changed. I looked at him in the sunlight and hot tears welled up in my eyes. Two months ago, his hair had been black as a raven, and now he’d grown a beard that was half gray, and his mustache was gray too, and his hair at the temples was white as snow. If he hadn’t given a kind of tortured smile, maybe I wouldn’t have cried, but when I saw that smile I couldn’t stop myself. He took the reins from me and got hold of the mane, but his left arm had been broken and it had only just healed. I wanted to help him, but he wouldn’t let me. He was a proud man. He was even ashamed to show how weak he was. Of course, he wanted to fly up into the saddle like a bird, as he used to do, but he didn’t manage it. He got up in the stirrup, but his left hand gave way, his fingers lost their grip, and he fell flat on his back on the ground. Mother and I carried him into the house. If he’d only been spitting up blood before, now it spurted out of his mouth like water out of a fountain. Mother didn’t leave the wash tub all day; she couldn’t wash off the blood quick enough. We called in the priest. That night the priest gave my father extreme unction, but my father was very tough. On the third day after the priest’s blessing, he got restless and started tossing about in bed; then he jumped up, looked at Mother with bloodshot but twinkling eyes, and said: ‘They say that after the sacrament yoti mustn’t step on the earth with bare feet, but I’ll stand here a bit. I’ve traveled this earth a good deal on horseback and on foot, and it really makes me sorry to think of leaving it. Give me your hand, Mother, it’s done a lot of work.’

“Mother went up and took his hand in hers. He lay back and was quiet for a little; then he said almost in a whisper: ‘And I’ve been to blame for a lot of the tears she had to wipe away.’ Then he turned his face to the wall and died, went off to the other world to watch over St. Vlas’s horses.”

ALPPARENTLV overwhelmed by his memories, Arzhanov lapsed into a long silence. Davydov coughed and asked: “But look here, Uncle Ivan, how do you know your father was killed by the husband of that — well, that woman of his, and the brothers? Did you just guess it?”

“Guess it! My father told me himself the day before he died.”

Davydov even rose a little on the seat.

“How do you mean?”

“I’ll tell you. In the morning Mother went out to milk the cow. I was sitting at the table learning my lessons before school, and I heard Father whisper: ‘Vanya, come over here.’ So I went up to him. Then he whispered: ‘Bend down closer to me.’ I bent down over him. ‘Now listen to me, son,’ he says quietly. ‘You’re twelve years old now, and when I’m gone, you’ll be master here. Remember this: it was Averyan Arkhipov and his two brothers, Afanasy and cross-eyed Sergei, who beat me up. If they’d killed me straight out, I wouldn’t be holding anything against them. That’s what I asked them to do down there on the river, while I was still conscious. But Averyan said to me: “You won’t have an easy death, you dog! You can live for a bit as a cripple and swallow as much of your own blood as you like; then you’ll die!” That’s why I’ve got a grudge against Averyan. Death’s at my bedside, but I’ve still got a grudge against him. You’re only small now, but when you grow up, remember my sufferings and kill Averyan! And don’t tell anyone what I’ve told you — not even your mother, nobody. Swear that you won’t tell anyone!’ I swore that I wouldn’t and with dry eyes kissed the cross my father wore around his neck.”

“Bah, it sounds like the Circassians of Caucasia in the old days!” Davydov exclaimed, much roused by Arzhanov’s story.

“Do you think the Circassians are the only people who’ve got hearts? Is the Russian heart made of stone? All people are the same, dear friend.”

“Well, what happened then?” Davydov asked impatiently.

“Father was buried. I came back from the cemetery, stood with my back against the wall, and drew a line above my head with a pencil. Every month I measured my height and marked it on the wall; I kept wanting to get taller, so that I could strike Averyan. And so I became master of the house, and at that time I was twelve years old; and besides me my mother had seven other children, all younger than me.

“After Father’s death, Mother often got ill, and what a lot of grief and want we had to suffer! Father may have been a daredevil, but for all his fun and games, he knew how to work. To some people he seemed a rotten kind of man, but to us, his family, he was our father, and he fed us and clothed us, and for our sakes he bent his back in the fields from spring to autumn. My shoulders were narrow in those days, and I hadn’t much of a back on me either, but I had to look after the whole household and work like a grown-up Cossack. When Father was alive, four of us used to go to school, but after his death we all had to give it up. I made Nurka, my ten-year-old sister, milk the cow and cook instead of Mother. My young brothers helped me with the farmwork. But I didn’t forget to make my mark on the wall every month. I grew poorly that year — grief and poverty didn’t let me grow properly. But I watched Averyan as a young wolf watches a bird from the rushes. I knew about every step he took, where he went, where he rode. I knew everything about him.

“The boys of my age used to play all kinds of games on Sundays, but I never had time — I was head of the house. On weekdays they would go to school while I cleaned out the cattle shed. I could have cried with grief for the bitter life I had to live in those days. And bit by bit I began to keep away from the other boys of my age. I became unsociable and silent as a rock, I didn’t want to be with people. Then people in the village started talking about me. ‘Vanya Arzhanov,’ they’d say, ‘he’s a bit queer in the head, a bit touched.’ ‘Curse you,’ I thought, ‘you ought to be in my boots! The kind of life I lead would teach you something,’ And I started hating the folk in our village; I couldn’t bear the sight of them.

“Give me another cigarette, dear friend.”

ARZHANOV took the cigarette clumsily. His fingers were trembling noticeably. With his eyes closed, pursing his lips funnily and making loud sucking noises, he took a long time getting a light from Davydov’s cigarette.

“And what about Averyan?”

“Weil, what about him? He went his own way. Couldn’t forgive his wife for my father’s love, beat her so badly that she died within a year. The next autumn he married another, a young girl from our own village. ‘Well, Averyan,’ I thought, ‘you won’t live long with that young wife of yours.’

“Without telling Mother, I started saving up money quietly, and in the autumn, instead of going to the nearest storage bin, I drove a cart of wheat to Kalach and sold it there, then bought a shotgun and ten cartridges from a fellow at the market. On the way back I tried out the gun and wasted three cartridges. It was a rotten little gun; the hammer didn’t work properly. I had two misfires out of three, and only the third cartridge went off. When I got home I buried the gun under the wall in the barn and didn’t say a word to anyone about it. And then I started watching for a chance to catch Averyan alone. For a long time I didn’t have any luck. Either there were too many people about or something else would crop up and stop me from striking him. But in the end I got what I’d been waiting for.

“The point was, I didn’t want to kill him in the village — that was the trouble. On the Day of Intercession he went off to the district fair. He went alone, without his wife. I heard he had gone alone and crossed myself, because otherwise I should have had to kill both of them.

“For two days and a night, while I was lying in wait for him by the roadside, I neither ate nor drank nor had a wink of sleep. I prayed fiercely in that ditch and begged God to make Averyan come back alone and not with a company of Cossacks. And a merciful God heard my childish prayer. On the evening of the second day I looked up, and there was Averyan riding along the road alone. And the number of carts I had watched go by, the number of times I had felt my heart thumping when I thought I heard the sound of Averyan’s horses in the distance! He came up level with me, and I jumped out of the ditch and said: ‘Get down, Uncle Averyan, and pray to God!’ He went white as limewash and reined in his horses. He was a big, tough Cossack, but what could he do to me? I had a gun in my hands. ‘What’s the idea, you little brat?’ he shouted. And I said to him: ‘Get off and kneel down. You’ll find out what the idea is in a minute.’ He was a daring devil! He jumped down from the cart and started toward me with his bare hands. I let him come near — no further away than that clump of grass — and fired at him pointblank.”

“Suppose you had had a misfire?”

Arzhanov smiled. “Then he’d have sent me to help my father grazing those herds in the other world.”

“What happened then?”

“The horses bolted at the sound of the shot, but I couldn’t move a step. My legs had gone weak, and I was trembling like a leaf in the wind. Averyan was lying in front of me, but I couldn’t even go up to him, I was so shaken. Somehow I finally collected my wits, went up to him, spat in his face, and began going through his pockets. I found his purse. There were twenty-eight ruble notes in it, a gold five-ruble piece, and two or three rubles’ worth of change. I counted that up afterwards, at home. The rest of his money he must have spent on presents for his young wife. I threw the empty purse away on the road, then jumped into the ditch. It was a long time ago, but I remember it all as clearly as if it were yesterday. I buried the gun and cartridges in the ditch and went home. When the first snow came, I went out at night, dug up my property, brought it back to the village, and buried it in an old hollow willow tree.”

“Why did you take the money?” Davydov snapped fiercely.

“Why not?”

“Why did you take it? I said.”

“I needed it,” Arzhanov answered simply. “In those times, poverty was gnawing at us worse than a shirtful of lice.”

Davydov jumped off the cart and walked for a long time in silence. Arzhanov was also silent. Then Davydov asked: “Is that all?”

“No, that’s not all, dear friend. The investigators came down and nosed about everywhere and went away empty-handed. Who’d have thought of suspecting me? And soon afterwards, cross-eyed Sergei, Averyan’s brother, got a cold chopping timber and died; it got into his lungs. And I began to get very worried. ‘What if Afanasy, too, dies his own death,’ I thought, ‘and my hand that Father blessed to punish his enemies lies idle?’ And I got in a real fluster.”

“Wait a minute,” Davydov interrupted him. “Your father only mentioned Averyan, but you seem to have had it in for all three of them.”

“What of it? Father had his own wishes, and I had mine. So I was in a fluster. I killed Afanasy through his window when he was having supper. That night I made my last mark on the wall, then wiped them all off with a cloth. And I threw the gun and the cartridges in the river; I didn’t need them any more. I had carried out my father’s will and my own. Not long afterwards, Mother was about to die. One night she called me over to her and asked: ‘Was it you who killed them, Vanya?’ ‘Yes, Mother,’ I said. She didn’t say anything. Just took my right hand and placed it on her heart.”

ARZHANOV flicked the reins, the horses quickened their pace, and looking at Davydov with childishly clear gray eyes he asked: “Now you won’t keep asking me why I don’t drive horses fast, will you?”

“No, I won’t,” Davydov replied. “You ought to be a water carrier with a bullock cart, Uncle Ivan.”

“I’ve asked Yakov Lukich Ostrovnov a number of times to make me that, but he won’t have it. He wants to have his laugh on me till the last.”

“Why?”

“When I was a boy, I worked for him for a year and a half.”

“Did you?”

“Yes, dear friend, I did. Didn’t you know Ostrovnov always used to have people working for him?” Arzhanov wrinkled his eyes cunningly. “He did, dear friend, he did. About four years ago, he quieted down, when the taxes began to squeeze him. He rolled himself into a ball, like a snake before it strikes. Had there been no collectivization and a reduction of taxes, Yakov Lukich would have showed his horns, I can tell you. He’s a real vicious kulak, and you’re nursing a snake.”

After a prolonged silence Davydov said: “We’ll see to that, we’ll get to the bottom of Ostrovnov. But say what you like, Uncle Ivan, you’re a man with a bit of a quirk.”

Arzhanov smiled, staring thoughtfully into the distance. “Well, a quirk, you know — how shall I put it? Suppose you’ve got a cherry tree with a lot of different branches. I come along and cut one to make a whip — cherry wood makes a good strong whip. When it was growing, it had all kinds of peculiarities in it, with its knots and leaves. Beautiful it was in its own way. And now I’ve whittled it down. Here it is.” Arzhanov pulled his whip out from under the seat and showed Davydov the brown, gnarled cherry-wood whip handle. “Here it is. Nothing to look at. And it’s the same with a man: without a quirk, he’s bare and wretched like this whip here. Take Nagulnov, he’s learning some strange language — that’s his quirk; old man Kramshov has been collecting all kinds of matchboxes for twenty years — that’s his quirk; you’ve got yourself mixed up with Lushka Nagulnova — that’s your quirk; a drunk goes down the street, trips, and rubs his back on the fence — that’s another quirk. Yes, dear chairman, and if you take a man’s quirks away from him, he’ll be as bare and flat as this whip handle here.”

Arzhanov held the whip out to Davydov and said with the same pensive smile: “Here, hold this in your hand for a while and think it over. Maybe you’ll see things clearer.”

Davydov pushed Arzhanov’s hand aside vexedly. “Go to hell! I’ll get things clear without that.”

They rode the rest of the way to the camp in silence.

Translated by Robert Daglish.