Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse
Higher and higher receded the sky, wider and wider spread the streak of dawn, whiter grew the pallid silver of the dew, more lifeless the sickle of the moon, and more vocal the forest. People began to get up, and in the owner’s stable-yard the sounds of snorting, the rustling of litter, and even the shrill angry neighing of horses crowded together and at variance about something, grew more and more frequent.
“Hold on! Plenty of time! Hungry?” said the old huntsman, quickly opening the creaking gate. “Where are you going?” he shouted, threateningly raising his arm at a mare that was pushing through the gate.
The keeper, Nester, wore a short Cossack coat with an ornamental leather girdle, had a whip slung over his shoulder, and a hunk of bread wrapped in a cloth stuck in his girdle. He carried a saddle and bridle in his arms.
The horses were not at all frightened or offended at the horseman’s sarcastic tone: they pretended that it was all the same to them and moved leisurely away from the gate; only one old brown mare, with a thick mane, laid back an ear and quickly turned her back on him. A small filly standing behind her and not at all concerned in the matter took this opportunity to whinny and kick out at a horse that happened to be near.
“Now then!” shouted the keeper still louder and more sternly, and he went to the opposite corner of the yard.
|Of all the horses in the enclosure (there were about a hundred of them), a piebald gelding, standing by himself in a corner under the penthouse and licking an oak post with half-closed eyes, displayed least impatience.|
It is impossible to say what flavor the piebald gelding found in the post, but his expression was serious and thoughtful while he licked.
“Stop that!” shouted the groom, drawing nearer to him and putting the saddle and a glossy saddle-cloth on the manure heap beside him.
The piebald gelding stopped licking and without moving gave Nester a long look. The gelding did not laugh, nor grow angry, nor frown, but his whole belly heaved with a profound sigh and he turned away. The horseman put his arm round the gelding’s neck and placed the bridle on him.
“What are you sighing for?” said Nester.
The gelding switched his tail as if to say, “Nothing in particular, Nester!” Nester put the saddle-cloth and saddle on him, and this caused the gelding to lay back his ears, probably to express dissatisfaction, but he was only called a “good-for-nothing” for it and his saddle-girths were tightened.
At this the gelding blew himself out, but a finger was thrust into his mouth and a knee hit him in the stomach, so that he had to let out his breath. In spite of this, when the saddle-cloth was being buckled on he again laid back his ears and even looked round. Though he knew it would do no good he considered it necessary to show that it was disagreeable to him and that he would always express his dissatisfaction with it. When he was saddled he thrust forward his swollen off foot and began champing his bit, this too for some reason of his own, for he ought to have known by that time that a bit cannot have any flavor at all.
Nester mounted the gelding by the short stirrup, unwound his long whip, straightened his coat out from under his knee, seated himself in the manner peculiar to coachmen, huntsmen, and horsemen, and jerked the reins. The gelding lifted his head to show his readiness to go where ordered but did not move. He knew that before starting there would be much shouting and that Nester, from the seat on his back, would give many orders to Vaska, the other groom, and to the horses. And Nester did shout: “Vaska! Hullo, Vaska. Have you let out the brood mares? Where are you going, you devil? Now then! Are you asleep? ... Open the gate! Let the brood mares get out first!” and so on.
The gate creaked. Vaska, cross and sleepy, stood at the gate-post holding his horse by the bridle and letting the other horses pass out. The horses followed one another and stepped carefully over the straw, smelling at it: fillies, yearling colts with their manes and tails cut, suckling foals, and mares in foal carrying their burden heedfully passed one by one through the gateway. The fillies sometimes crowded together in twos and threes, throwing their heads across one another’s backs and hitting their hoofs against the gate, for which they received a rebuke from the grooms every time. The foals sometimes darted under the legs of the wrong mares and neighed loudly in response to the short whinny of their own mothers.
A playful filly, directly she had got out at the gate, bent her head sideways, kicked up her hind legs, and squealed, but all the same she did not dare to run ahead of old dappled Zhuldyba who at a slow and heavy pace, swinging her belly from side to side, marched as usual ahead of all the other horses.
In a few minutes the enclosure that had been so animated became deserted, the posts stood gloomily under the empty penthouse, and only trampled straw mixed with manure was to be seen. Used as he was to that desolate sight it probably depressed the piebald gelding. As if making a bow he slowly lowered his head and raised it again, sighed as deeply as the tightly drawn girth would allow, and hobbling along on his stiff and crooked legs shambled after the herd, bearing old Nester on his bony back.
“I know that as soon as we get out on the road he will begin to strike a light and smoke his wooden pipe with its brass mountings and little chain,” thought the gelding. “I am glad of it because early in the morning when it is dewy I like that smell, it reminds me of much that was pleasant; but it’s annoying that when his pipe is between his teeth the old man always begins to swagger and thinks himself somebody and sits sideways, always sideways — and that side hurts. However, it can’t be helped! Suffering for the pleasure of others is nothing new to me. I have even begun to find a certain equine pleasure in it. Let him swagger, poor fellow! Of course he can only do that when he is alone and no one sees him — let him sit sideways!” thought the gelding, and stepping carefully on his crooked legs he went along the middle of the road.
Having driven the horses to the riverside where they were to graze, Nester dismounted and unsaddled. Meanwhile the herd had begun gradually to spread over the untrampled meadow, covered with dew and by the mist that rose from it and the encircling river.
When he had taken the bridle off the piebald gelding, Nester scratched him under the neck, in response to which the gelding expressed his gratitude and satisfaction by closing his eyes. “He likes it, the old dog!” muttered Nester. The gelding however did not really care for the scratching at all and pretended that it was agreeable merely out of courtesy. He nodded his head in assent to Nester’s words, but suddenly Nester, quite unexpectedly and without any reason, perhaps imagining that too much familiarity might give the gelding a wrong idea of his importance, pushed the gelding’s head away from himself without any warning and, swinging the bridle, struck him painfully with the buckle on his lean leg, and then without saying a word went up the hillock to a tree-stump beside which he generally seated himself.
Though this action grieved the piebald gelding he gave no indication of it, but leisurely switching his scanty tail sniffed at something and, biting off some wisps of grass merely to divert his mind, walked to the river. He took no notice whatever of the antics of the young mares, colts, and foals around him, who were filled with the joy of the morning; and knowing that, especially at his age, it is healthier to have a good drink on an empty stomach and to eat afterwards, he chose a spot where the bank was widest and least steep, and wetting his hoofs and fetlocks, dipped his muzzle in the water and began to suck it up through his torn lips, to expand his filling sides, and from pleasure to switch his scanty tail with its half bald stump.
An aggressive chestnut filly, who always teased the old fellow and did all kinds of unpleasant things to him, now came up to him in the water as if attending to some business of her own but in reality merely to foul the water before his nose. But the piebald gelding, who had already had his fill, as though not noticing the filly’s intention quietly drew one foot after the other out of the mud in which they had sunk, jerked his head, and stepping aside from the youthful crowd started grazing. Sprawling his feet apart in different ways and not trampling the grass needlessly, he went on eating without unbending himself for exactly three hours. Having eaten till his belly hung down from his steep skinny ribs like a sack, he balanced himself equally on his four sore legs so as to have as little pain as possible, especially in his off foreleg which was the weakest, and fell asleep.
|Old age is sometimes majestic, sometimes ugly, and sometimes pathetic.|
But old age can be both ugly and majestic, and the gelding’s old age was just of that kind.
He was tall, rather over fifteen hands high. His spots were black, or rather they had been black, but had now turned a dirty brown. He had three spots, one on his head, starting from a crooked bald patch on the side of his nose and reaching half-way down his neck. His long mane, filled with burrs, was white in some places and brownish in others. Another spot extended down his off side to the middle of his belly; the third, on his croup, touched part of his tail and went half-way down his quarters. The rest of the tail was whitish and speckled. The big bony head, with deep hollows over the eyes and a black hanging lip that had been torn at some time, hung low and heavily on his neck, which was so lean that it looked as though it were carved of wood. The pendant lip revealed a blackish bitten tongue and the yellow stumps of the worn lower teeth. The ears, one of which was slip, hung low on either side, and only occasionally moved lazily to drive away the pestering flies. Of the forelock, one tuft which was still long hung back behind an ear; the uncovered forehead was dented and rough, and the skin hung down like bags on his broad jaw-bones. The veins of his neck had grown knotty and twitched and shuddered at every touch of a fly. The expression of his face was one of stern patience, thoughtfulness, and suffering.
His forelegs were crooked to a bow at the knees, there were swellings over both hoofs, and on one leg, on which the piebald spot reached half-way down, there was a swelling at the knee as big as a fist. The hind legs were in better condition, but apparently long ago his haunches had been so rubbed that in places the hair would not grow again. The leanness of his body made all four legs look disproportionately long. The ribs, though straight, were so exposed and the skin so tightly drawn over them, that it seemed to have dried fast to the spaces between. His back and withers were covered with marks of old lashings, and there was a fresh sore behind, still swollen and festering; the black dock of his tail, which showed the vertebrae, hung down long and almost bare. On his dark-brown croup — near the tail — was a scar, as though of a bite, the size of a man’s hand and covered with white hair. Another scarred sore was visible on one of his shoulders. His tail and hocks were dirty because of chronic bowel troubles. The hair on the whole body, though short, stood out straight. Yet in spite of the hideous old age of this horse one involuntarily paused to reflect when one saw him, and an expert would have said at once that he had been a remarkably fine horse in his day. The expert would even have said that there was only one breed in Russia that could furnish such breadth of bone, such immense knees, such hoofs, such slender cannons, such a well-shaped neck, and above all such a skull, such eyes — large, black, and clear — and such a thoroughbred network of veins on head and neck, and such delicate skin and hair.
There was really something majestic in that horse’s figure and in the terrible union in him of repulsive indications of decrepitude, emphasized by the motley color of his hair, and his manner which expressed the self-confidence and calm assurance that go with beauty and strength. Like a living ruin he stood alone in the midst of the dewy meadow, while not far from him could be heard the tramping, snorting and youthful neighing and whinnying of the scattered herd.
The sun had risen above the forest and now shone brightly on the grass and the winding river. The dew was drying up and condensing into drops, the last of the morning mist was dispersing like tiny smoke- clouds. The cloudlets were becoming curly but there was as yet no wind. Beyond the river the verdant rye stood bristling, its ears curling into little horns, and there was an odor of fresh verdure and blossom. A cuckoo called rather hoarsely from the forest, and Nester, lying on his back in the grass, was counting the calls to ascertain how many years he still had to live. The larks were rising over the rye and the meadow. A belated hare, finding himself among the horses, leaped into the open, sat down by a bush, and pricked his ears to listen. Vaska fell asleep with his head in the grass; the fillies, making a still wider circle about him, scattered over the field below. The old mares went about snorting and made a shiny track across the dewy grass, always choosing a place where no one would disturb them. They no longer grazed but only nibbled at choice tufts of grass. The whole herd was moving imperceptibly in one direction.
And again it was old Zhuldyba who, stepping sedately in front of the others, showed the possibility of going farther. Black Mushka, a young mare who had foaled for the first time, with uplifted tail kept whinnying and snorting at her bluish foal; the young filly Satin, sleek and brilliant, bending her head till her black silky forelock hid her forehead and eyes, played with the grass, nipping off a little and tossing it and stamping her leg with its shaggy fetlock all wet with dew. One of the older foals, probably imagining he was playing some kind of game, with his curly tail raised like a plume, ran for the twenty-sixth time round his mother, who quietly went on grazing, having grown accustomed to her son’s ways, and only occasionally glanced askance at him with one of her large black eyes.
One of the very youngest foals, black, with a big head, a tuft sticking up in astonishment between his ears, and a little tail still twisted to one side as it had been in his mother’s womb, stood motionless, his ears pricked and his dull eyes fixed, gazing at the frisking and prancing foal — whether admiring or condemning him it is hard to say. Some of the foals were sucking and butting with their noses, some — heaven knows why — despite their mother’s call were running at an awkward little trot in quite the opposite direction as if searching for something and then, for no apparent reason, stopping and neighing with desperate shrillness. Some lay on their sides in a row, some were learning to eat grass, some again were scratching themselves behind their ears with their hind legs. Two mares still in foal were walking apart from the rest and while slowly moving their legs continued to graze. The others evidently respected their condition, and none of the young ones ventured to come near to disturb them. If any saucy youngsters thought of approaching them, the mere movement of an ear or tail sufficed to show them all how improper such behavior was.
The colts and yearling fillies, pretending to be grownup and sedate, rarely jumped or joined the merry company. They grazed in a dignified manner, curving their close-cropped swan-like necks, and flourished their little broom-like tails as if they also had long ones. Just like the grown-ups they lay down, rolled over, or rubbed one another. The merriest group was composed of the two- and three-year-old fillies and mares not yet in foal. They almost always walked about together like a separate merry virgin crowd. Among them you could hear sounds of tramping, whinnying, neighing, and snorting. They drew close together, put their heads over one another’s necks, sniffed at one another, jumped, and sometimes at a semi-trot, semi-amble, with tails lifted like an oriflamme, raced proudly and coquettishly past their companions. The most beautiful and spirited of them was the mischievous chestnut filly. What she devised the others did; wherever she went the whole crowd of beauties followed. That morning the naughty one was in a specially playful mood. She was seized with a joyous fit, just as human beings sometimes are. Already at the riverside she had played a trick on the old gelding, and after that she ran along through the water pretending to be frightened by something, gave a hoarse squeal, and raced full speed into the field so that Vaska had to gallop after her and the others who followed her. Then after grazing a little she began rolling, then teasing the old mares by dashing in front of them, then she drove away a small foal from the dam and chased it as if meaning to bite it. Its mother was frightened and stopped grazing, while the little foal cried in a piteous tone, but the mischievous one did not touch him at all, she only wanted to frighten him and give a performance for the benefit of her companions, who watched her escapade approvingly. Then she set out to turn the head of a little roan horse with which a peasant was plowing in a rye-field far beyond the river. She stopped, proudly lifted her head somewhat to one side, shook herself, and neighed in a sweet, tender, long-drawn voice. Mischief, feeling, and a certain sadness were expressed in that call. There was in it the desire for and the promise of love, and a pining for it.
“There in the thick reeds is a corn-crake running backwards and forwards and calling passionately to his mate; there is the cuckoo, and the quails are singing of love, and the flowers are sending their fragrant dust to each other by the wind. And I too am young and beautiful and strong.” The mischievous one’s voice said, “but it has not yet been allowed me to know the sweetness of that feeling, and not only to experience it, but no lover — not a single one — has ever seen me!”
And this neighing, sad and youthful and fraught with feeling, was borne over the lowland and the field to the roan horse far away. He pricked up his ears and stopped. The peasant kicked him with his bast shoe, but the little horse was so enchanted by the silvery sound of the distant neighing that he neighed too. The peasant grew angry, pulled at the reins, and kicked the little roan so painfully in the stomach with his bast shoes that he could not finish his neigh and walked on. But the little roan felt a sense of sweetness and sadness, and for a long time the sounds of unfinished and passionate neighing, and of the peasant’s angry voice, were carried from the distant rye-field over to the herd.
If the sound of her voice alone so overpowered the little roan that he forgot his duty, what would have happened had he seen the naughty beauty as she stood pricking her ears, breathing in the air with dilated nostrils, ready to run, trembling with her whole beautiful body, and calling to him?
But the mischievous one did not brood long over her impressions. When the neighing of the roan died away she gave another scornful neigh, lowered her head, and began pawing the ground, and then she went to wake and to tease the piebald gelding. The piebald gelding was the constant martyr and butt of those happy youngsters. He suffered more from them than at the hands of men. He did no harm to either. People needed him, but why should these young horses torment him?
He was old, they were young; he was lean, they were sleek; he was miserable, they were gay; and so he was quite alien to them, an outsider, an utterly different creature whom it was impossible for them to pity. Horses only have pity on themselves and very occasionally on those in whose skins they can easily imagine themselves to be. But was it the old gelding’s fault that he was old, poor, and ugly?
One might think not, but in equine ethics it was, and only those were right who were strong, young, and happy — those who had life still before them, whose every muscle quivered with superfluous energy, and whose tails stood erect. Maybe the piebald gelding himself understood this and in his quiet moments was ready to agree that it was his fault that he had already lived his life, and that he had to pay for that life, but after all he was a horse and often could not suppress a sense of resentment, sadness, and indignation when he looked at those youngsters who tormented him for what would befall them all at the end of their lives. Another cause of the horses’ lack of pity was their aristocratic pride. Every one of them traced back its pedigree, through father or mother, to the famous Creamy, while the piebald was of unknown parentage. He was a chance comer, purchased three years before at a fair for eighty assignat rubles.
The chestnut filly, as if taking a stroll, passed close by the piebald gelding’s nose and pushed him. He knew at once what it was, and without opening his eyes laid back his ears and showed his teeth. The filly wheeled round as if to kick him. The gelding opened his eyes and stepped aside. He did not want to sleep any more and began to graze. The mischief-maker, followed by her companions, again approached the gelding. A very stupid two-year-old white-spotted filly who always imitated the chestnut in everything went up with her and, as imitators always do, went to greater lengths than the instigator. The chestnut always went up as if intent on business of her own and passed by the gelding’s nose without looking at him, so that he really did not know whether to be angry or not, and that was really funny.
She did the same now, but the white-spotted one, who followed her and had grown particularly lively, bumped right against the gelding with her chest. He again showed his teeth, whinnied, and with an agility one could not have expected of him, rushed after her and bit her flank. The white-spotted one kicked out with all her strength and dealt the old horse a heavy blow on his thin bare ribs. He snorted heavily and was going to rush at her again but bethought himself and drawing a deep sigh stepped aside. The whole crowd of young ones must have taken as a personal affront the impertinence the piebald gelding had permitted himself to offer to the white-spotted one and for the rest of the day did not let him graze in peace for a moment, so that the keeper had to quieten them several times and could not understand what had come over them.
The gelding felt so offended that he went up himself to Nester when the old man was getting ready to drive the horses home and felt happier and quieter when he was saddled and the old man had mounted him.
God knows what the gelding was thinking as he carried old Nester on his back: whether he thought bitterly of the pertinacious and merciless youngsters or forgave his tormentors with the contemptuous and silent pride suited old age. At all events he did not betray his thoughts till he reached home.
That evening as Nester drove the horses past the huts of the domestic serfs, he noticed a peasant horse and cart tethered to his porch: some friends had come to see him. When driving the horses in he was in such a hurry that he let the gelding in without unsaddling him and, shouting to Vaska to do it, shut the gate and went to his friends. Whether because of the affront to the white-spotted filly — Creamy’s great- grand-daughter — by that “mangy trash” bought at the horse fair, who did not know his father or mother, and the consequent outrage to the aristocratic sentiment of the whole herd, or because the gelding with his high saddle and without a rider presented a strangely fantastic spectacle to the horses, at any rate something quite unusual occurred that night in the paddock. All the horses, young and old, ran after the gelding, showing their teeth and driving him all round the yard; one heard the sound of hoofs striking against his bare ribs, and his deep moaning. He could no longer endure this, nor could he avoid the blows. He stopped in the middle of the paddock, his face expressing first the repulsive weak malevolence of helpless old age, and then despair: he dropped his ears, and then something happened that caused all the horses to quiet down. The oldest of the mares, Vyazapurikha, went up to the gelding, sniffed at him, and sighed. The gelding sighed too....
In the middle of the moonlit paddock stood the tall gaunt figure of the gelding, still wearing the high saddle with its prominent peak at the bow. The horses stood motionless and in deep silence around him as if they were learning something new and unexpected.
This is what they learned from him ...
Yes, I am the son of Affable I and of Baba. My pedigree name is Muzhik, and I was nicknamed Strider by the crowd because of my long and sweeping strides, the like of which was nowhere to be found in all Russia. There is no more thoroughbred horse in the world. I should never have told you this. What good would it have done? You would never have recognized me: even Vyazapurikha, who was with me in Khrenovo, did not recognize me till now. You would not have believed me if Vyazapurikha were not here to be my witness, and I should never have told you this. I don’t need equine sympathy. But you wished it. Yes, I am that Strider whom connoisseurs are looking for and cannot find — that Strider whom the count himself knew and got rid of from his stud because I outran Swan, his favorite.
When I was born I did not know what piebald meant — I thought I was just a horse. I remember that the first remark we heard about my color struck my mother and me deeply.
I suppose I was born in the night; by the morning, having been licked over by my mother, I already stood on my feet. I remember I kept wanting something and that everything seemed very surprising and yet very simple. Our stalls opened into a long war passage and had latticed doors through which everything could be seen.
My mother offered me her teats but I was still so innocent that I poked my nose now between her forelegs and now under her udder. Suddenly she glanced at the latticed door and lifting her leg over me stepped aside. The groom on duty was looking into our stall through the lattice.
“Why, Baba has foaled!” he said, and began to draw the bolt. He came in over the fresh bedding and put his arms round me. “Just look, Taras!” he shouted, “what a piebald he is — a regular magpie!”
I darted away from him and fell on my knees.
“Look at him — the little devil!”
My mother became disquieted but did not take my part; she only stepped a little to one side with a very deep sigh. Other grooms came to look at me, and one of them ran to tell the stud groom.
Everybody laughed when they looked at my spots, and they gave me all kinds of strange names, but neither I nor my mother understood those words. Till then there had been no piebalds among all my relatives. We did not think there was anything bad in it. Everybody even praised my strength and my form.
“See what a frisky fellow!” said the groom. “There’s no holding him.”
Before long the stud groom came and began to express astonishment at my color; he even seemed aggrieved.
“And who does the little monster take after?” he said. “The general won’t keep him in the stud. Oh, Baba, you have played me a trick!” he addressed my mother. “You might at least have dropped one with just a star — but this one is all piebald!”
My mother did not reply but as usual on such occasions drew a sigh.
“And what devil does he take after — he’s just like a peasant-horse!” he continued. “He can’t be left in the stud — he’d shame us. But he’s well built — very well!” said he, and so did everyone who saw me.
A few days later the general himself came and looked at me, and again everyone seemed horrified at something, and abused me and my mother for the color of my hair. “But he’s a fine colt — very fine!” said all who saw me.
Until spring we all lived separately in the brood mares’ stable, each with our mother, and only occasionally when the snow on the stable roofs began to melt in the sun were we let out with our mothers into the large paddock strewn with fresh straw. There I first came to know all my near and my distant relations. Here I saw all the famous mares of the day coming out from different doors with their little foals. There was the old mare Dutch, Fly (Creamy’s daughter), Ruddy the riding-horse, Wellwisher — all celebrities at that time. They all gathered together with their foals, walking about in the sunshine, rolling on the fresh straw and sniffing at one another like ordinary horses. I have never forgotten the sight of that paddock full of the beauties of that day. It seems strange to you to think, and hard to believe, that I was ever young and frisky, but it was so. This same Vyazapurikha was then a yearling filly whose mane had just been cut; a dear, merry, lively little thing, but — and I do not say it to offend her — although among you she is now considered a remarkable thoroughbred she was then among the poorest horses in the stud. She will herself confirm this.
My mottled appearance, which men so disliked, was very attractive to all the horses; they all came round me, admired me, and frisked about with me. I began to forget what men said about my mottled appearance and felt happy. But I soon experienced the first sorrow of my life and the cause of it was my mother. When the thaw had set in, the sparrows twittered under the eaves, spring was felt more strongly in the air, and my mother’s treatment of me changed.
Her whole disposition changed: she would frisk about without any reason and run round the yard, which did not at all accord with her dignified age; then she would consider and begin to neigh, and would bite and kick her sister mares, and then begin to sniff at me and snort discontentedly; then on going out into the sun she would lay her head across the shoulder of her cousin, Lady Merchant, dreamily rub her back, and push me away from her teats.
One day the stud groom came and had a halter put on her and she was led out of the stall. She neighed and I answered and rushed after her, but she did not even look back at me. The strapper, Taras, seized me in his arms while they were closing the door after my mother had been led out.
I bolted and upset the strapper on the straw, but the door was shut and I could only hear the receding sound of my mother’s neighing; and that neigh did not sound like a call to me but had another expression. Her voice was answered from afar by a powerful voice — that of Dobry I, as I learned later, who was being led by two grooms, one on each side, to meet my mother.
I don’t remember how Taras got out of my stall: I felt too sad, for I knew that I had lost my mother’s love for ever. “And it’s all because I am piebald!” I thought, remembering what people said about my color, and such passionate anger overcame me that I began to beat my head and knees against the walls of the stall and continued till I was sweating all over and quite exhausted.
After a while my mother came back to me. I heard her run up the passage at a trot and with an unusual gait. They opened the door for her and I hardly knew her — she had grown so much younger and more beautiful. She sniffed at me, snorted, and began to whinny. Her whole demeanor showed that she no longer loved me.
She told me of Dobry’s beauty and her love of him. Those meetings continued and the relations between my mother and me grew colder and colder.
Soon after that we were let out to pasture. I now discovered new joys which made up to me for the loss of my mother’s love. I had friends and companions. Together we learned to eat grass, to neigh like the grown-ups, and to gallop round our mothers with lifted tails. That was a happy time. Everything was forgiven me, everybody loved me, admired me, and looked indulgently at anything I did. But that did not last long.
Soon afterwards something dreadful happened to me....
The gelding heaved a deep sigh and walked away from the other horses.
The dawn had broken long before. The gates creaked. Nester came in, and the horses separated. The keeper straightened the saddle on the gelding’s back and drove the horses out.
As soon as the horses had been driven in they again gathered round the piebald, who continued:
In August they separated me from my mother and I did not feel particularly grieved. I saw that she was again heavy (with my brother, the famous Usan) and that I could no longer be to her what I had been. I was not jealous but felt that I had become indifferent to her. Besides, I knew that having left my mother I should be put in the general division of foals, where we were kept two or three together and were every day let out in a crowd into the open. I was in the same stall with Darling. Darling was a saddle-horse, who was subsequently ridden by the Emperor and portrayed in pictures and sculpture. At that time he was a mere foal, with a soft glossy coat, a swanlike neck, and straight slender legs taut as the strings of an instrument. He was always lively, good-tempered, and amiable, always ready to gambol, exchange licks, and lay tricks on horse or man. Living together as we did we involuntarily made friends, and our friendship lasted the whole of our youth. He was merry and giddy. Even then he began to make love, courted the fillies, and laughed at my guilelessness. To my misfortune vanity led me to imitate him, and I was soon carried away and fell in love. And this early tendency of mine was the cause of the greatest change in my fate. It happened that I was carried away... Vyazapurikha was a year older than I, and we were special friends, but towards the autumn I noticed that she began to be shy with me...
But I will not speak of that unfortunate period of my first love; she herself remembers my mad passion, which ended for me in the most important change of my life.
The strappers rushed to drive her away and to beat me. That evening I was shut up in a special stall where I neighed all night as if foreseeing what was to happen next.
In the morning the General, the stud groom, the stablemen and the strappers came into the passage where my stall was, and there was a terrible hubbub. The General said that he would have everybody flogged, and that it would not do to keep young stallions. The stud groom promised that he would have everything attended to. They grew quiet and went away. I did not understand anything, but could see that they were planning something concerning me.
The day after that I ceased neighing for ever. I became what I am now. The whole world was changed in my eyes. Nothing mattered any more; I became self-absorbed and began to brood. At first everything seemed repulsive to me. I even ceased to eat, drink, or walk, and there was no idea of playing. Now and then it occurred to me to give a kick, to gallop, or to start neighing, but immediately came the question: Why? What for? and all my energy died away.
One evening I was being exercised just when the horses were driven back from pasture. I saw in the distance a cloud of dust enveloping the indistinct but familiar outlines of all our brood mares. I heard their cheerful snorting and the trampling of their feet. I stopped, though the cord of the halter by which the groom was leading me cut the nape of my neck, and I gazed at the approaching drove as one gazes at happiness that is lost for ever and cannot return. They approached, and I could distinguish one after another all the familiar, beautiful, stately, healthy, sleek figures. Some of them also turned to look at me. I was unconscious of the pain the groom’s jerking at my halter inflicted. I forgot myself and from old habit involuntarily neighed and began to trot, but my neighing sounded sad, ridiculous, and meaningless. No one in the drove made sport of me, but I noticed that out of decorum many of them turned away from me. They evidently felt it repugnant, pitiable, indelicate, and above all ridiculous, to look at my thin expressionless neck, my large head (I had grown lean in the meantime), my long, awkward legs, and the silly awkward gait with which by force of habit I trotted round the groom. No one answered my neighing — they all looked away. Suddenly I understood it all, understood how far I was for ever removed from them, and I do not remember how I got home with the groom.
Already before that I had shown a tendency towards gravity and thoughtfulness, but now a decided change came over me. My being piebald, which aroused such curious contempt in men, my terrible and unexpected misfortune, and also my peculiar position in the stud farm which I felt but was unable to explain made me retire into myself. I pondered over the injustice of men, who blamed me for being piebald; I pondered on the inconstancy of mother-love and feminine love in general and on its dependence on physical conditions; and above all I pondered on the characteristics of that strange race of animals with whom we are so closely connected, and whom we call men — those characteristics which were the source of my own peculiar position in the stud farm, which I felt but could not understand.
The meaning of this peculiarity in people and the characteristic on which it is based was shown me by the following occurrence.
It was in winter at holiday time. I had not been fed or watered all day. As I learned later this happened because the lad who fed us was drunk. That day the stud groom came in, saw that I had no food, began to use bad language about the missing lad, and then went away.
Next day the lad came into our stable with another groom to give us hay. I noticed that he was particularly pale and sad and that in the expression of his long back especially there was something significant which evoked compassion.
He threw the hay angrily over the grating. I made a move to put my head over his shoulder, but he struck me such a painful blow on the nose with his fist that I started back. Then he kicked me in the belly with his boot.
“If it hadn’t been for this scurvy beast,” he said, “nothing would have happened!”
“How’s that?” inquired the other groom.
“You see, he doesn’t go to look after the count’s horses but visits his own twice a day.”
“What, have they given him the piebald?” asked the other.
“Given it, or sold it — the devil only knows! The count’s horses might all starve — he wouldn’t care — but just dare to leave his colt without food! ‘Lie down!’ he says, and they begin walloping me! No Christianity in it. He has more pity on a beast than on a man. He must be an infidel — he counted the strokes himself, the barbarian! The general never flogged like that! My whole back is covered with wheals. There’s no Christian soul in him!”
What they said about flogging and Christianity I understood well enough, but I was quite in the dark as to what they meant by the words “his colt,” from which I perceived that people considered that there was some connection between me and the head groom. What the connection was I could not at all understand then. Only much later when they separated me from the other horses did I learn what it meant. At that time I could not at all understand what they meant by speaking of me as being a man’s property. The words “my horse” applied to me, a live horse, seemed to me as strange as to say “my land,” “my air,” or “my water.”
But those words had an enormous effect on me. I thought of them constantly and only after long and varied relations with men did I at last understand the meaning they attach to these strange words, which indicate that men are guided in life not by deeds but by words. They like not so much to do or abstain from doing anything, as to be able to apply conventional words to different objects. Such words, considered very important among them, are my and mine, which they apply to various things, creatures or objects: even to land, people, and horses. They have agreed that of any given thing only one person may use the word mine, and he who in this game of theirs may use that conventional word about the greatest number of things is considered the happiest. Why this is so I do not know, but it is so. For a long time I tried to explain it by some direct advantage they derive from it, but this proved wrong.
For instance, many of those who called me their horse did not ride me, quite other people rode me; nor did they feed me — quite other people did that. Again it was not those who called me their horse who treated me kindly, but coachmen, veterinaries, and in general quite other people. Later on, having widened my field of observation, I became convinced that not only as applied to us horses, but in regard to other things, the idea of mine has no other basis than a low, mercenary instinct in men, which they call the feeling or right of property. A man who never lives in it says “my house” but only concerns himself with its building and maintenance; and a tradesman talks of “my cloth business” but has none of his clothes made of the best cloth that is in his shop.
There are people who call land theirs, though they have never seen that land and never walked on it. There are people who call other people theirs but have never seen those others, and the whole relationship of the owners to the owned is that they do them harm.
There are men who call women their women or their wives; yet these women live with other men. And men strive in life not to do what they think right but to call as many things as possible their own.
I am now convinced that in this lies the essential difference between men and us. Therefore, not to speak of other things in which we are superior to men, on this ground alone we may boldly say that in the scale of living creatures we stand higher than man. The activity of men, at any rate of those I have had to do with, is guided by words, while ours is guided by deeds.
It was this right to speak of me as my horse that the stud groom had obtained, and that was why he had the stable lad flogged. This discovery much astonished me and, together with the thoughts and opinions aroused in men by my piebald color, and the thoughtfulness produced in me by my mother’s betrayal, caused me to become the serious and thoughtful gelding that I am.
I was thrice unfortunate: I was piebald, I was a gelding, and people considered that I did not belong to God and to myself, as is natural to all living creatures, but that I belonged to the stud groom.
Their thinking this about me had many consequences. The first was that I was kept apart from the other horses, was better fed, oftener taken out on the line, and was broken in at an earlier age. I was first harnessed in my third year. I remember how the stud groom, who imagined I was his, himself began to harness me with a crowd of other grooms, expecting me to prove unruly or to resist. They put ropes round me to lead me into the shafts, put a cross of broad straps on my back and fastened it to the shafts so that I could not kick, while I was only awaiting an opportunity to show my readiness and love of work.
They were surprised that I started like an old horse. They began to break me and I began to practice trotting. Every day I made greater and greater progress, so that after three months the general himself and many others approved of my pace. But strange to say, just because they considered me not as their own, but as belonging to the head groom, they regarded my paces quite differently.
The stallions who were my brothers were raced, their records were kept, people went to look at them, drove them in gilt sulkies, and expensive horse-cloths were thrown over them. I was driven in a common sulky to Chesmenka and other farms on the head groom’s business. All this was the result of my being piebald, and especially of my being in their opinion, not the count’s, but the head groom’s property.
Tomorrow, if we are alive, I will tell you the chief consequence for me of this right of property the head groom considered himself to have.
All that day the horses treated Strider respectfully, but Nester’s treatment of him was as rough as ever. The peasant’s little roan horse neighed again on coming up to the herd, and the chestnut filly again coquettishly replied to him.
The new moon had risen and its narrow crescent lit up Strider’s figure as he once again stood in the middle of the stable yard. The other horses crowded round him:
The gelding continued:
For me the most surprising consequence of my not being the count’s, nor God’s, but the head groom’s, was that the very thing that constitutes our chief merit — a fast pace — was the cause of my banishment. They were driving Swan round the track, and the head groom, returning from Chemenka, drove me up and stopped there. Swan went past. He went well, but all the same he was showing off and had not the exactitude I had developed in myself — so that directly one foot touched the ground another instantaneously lifted and not the slightest effort was lost but every atom of exertion carried me forward. Swan went by us. I pulled towards the ring and the head groom did not check me. “Here, shall I try my piebald?” he shouted, and when next Swan came abreast of us he let me go. Swan was already going fast, and so I was left behind during the first round, but in the second I began to gain on him, drew near to his sulky, drew level — and passed him. They tried us again — it was the same thing. I was the faster. And this dismayed everybody. The general asked that I should be sold at once to some distant place, so that nothing more should be heard of me: “Or else the count will get to know of it and there will be trouble!” So they sold me to a horse-dealer as a shaft-horse. I did not remain with him long. An hussar who came to buy remounts bought me. All this was so unfair, so cruel, that I was glad when they took me away from Khrenovo and parted me for ever from all that had been familiar and dear to me. It was too painful for me among them. They had love, honor, freedom, before them! I had labor, humiliation; humiliation, labor, to the end of my life. And why? Because I was piebald, and because of that had to become somebody’s horse....
Strider could not continue that evening. An event occurred in the enclosure that upset all the horses. Kupchikha, a mare big with foal, who had stood listening to the story, suddenly turned away and walked slowly into the shed, and there began to groan so that it drew the attention of all the horses. Then she lay down, then got up again, and again lay down. The old mares understood what was happening to her, but the young ones became excited and, leaving the gelding, surrounded the invalid. Towards morning there was a new foal standing unsteadily on its little legs. Nester shouted to the groom, and the mare and foal were taken into a stall and the other horses driven to the pasture without them.
In the evening when the gate was closed and all had quieted down, the piebald continued:
I have had the opportunity to make many observations both of men and horses during the time I passed from hand to hand.
I stayed longest of all with two masters: a prince (an officer of hussars), and later with an old lady who lived near the church of St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker.
The happiest years of my life I spent with the officer of hussars.
Though he was the cause of my ruin, and though he never loved anything or anyone, I loved and still love him for that very reason.
What I liked about him was that he was handsome, happy, rich, and therefore never loved anybody.
You understand that lofty equine feeling of ours. His coldness and my dependence on him gave special strength to my love for him. “Kill me, drive me till my wind is broken!” I used to think in our good days, “and I shall be all the happier.”
He bought me from an agent to whom the head groom had sold me for eight hundred rubles, and he did so just because no one else had piebald horses. That was my best time. He had a mistress. I knew this because I took him to her every day and sometimes took them both out.
His mistress was a handsome woman, and he was handsome, and his coachman was handsome, and I loved them all because they were. Life was worth living then. This was how our time was spent: in the morning the groom came to rub me down — not the coachman himself but the groom. The groom was a lad from among the peasants. He would open the door, let out the steam from the horses, throw out the droppings, take off our rugs, and begin to fidget over our bodies with a brush, and lay whitish streaks of dandruff from a curry-comb on the boards of the floor that was dented by our rough horseshoes. I would playfully nip his sleeve and paw the ground. Then we were led out one after another to the trough filled with cold water, and the lad would admire the smoothness of my spotted coat which he had polished, my foot with its broad hoof, my legs straight as an arrow, my glossy quarters, and my back wide enough to sleep on. Hay was piled onto the high racks, and the oak cribs were filled with oats. Then Feofan, the head coachman, would come in.
|Master and coachman resembled one another. Neither of them was afraid of anything or cared for anyone but himself, and for that reason everybody liked them. Feofan wore a red shirt, black velveteen knickerbockers, and a sleeveless coat. I liked it on a holiday when he would come into the stable, his hair pomaded, and wearing his sleeveless coat, and would shout, “Now then, beastie, have you forgotten?” and push me with the handle of the stable fork, never so as to hurt me but just as a joke. I immediately knew that it was a joke and laid back an ear, making my teeth click.|
We had a black stallion, who drove in a pair. At night they used to put me in harness with him. That Polkan, as he was called, did not understand a joke but was simply vicious as the devil. I was in the stall next to his and sometimes we bit one another seriously. Feofan was not afraid of him. He would come up and give a shout: it looked as if Polkan would kill him, but no, he’d miss, and Feofan would put the harness on him.
Once he and I bolted down Smiths Bridge Street. Neither my master nor the coachman was frightened; they laughed, shouted at the people, checked us, and turned so that no one was run over.
In their service I lost my best qualities and half my life. They ruined me by watering me wrongly, and they foundered me.... Still, for all that, it was the best time of my life. At twelve o’clock they would come to harness me, black my hoofs, moisten my forelock and mane, and put me in the shafts.
The sledge was of plaited cane upholstered with velvet; the reins were of silk, the harness had silver buckles, sometimes there was a cover of silken fly-net, and altogether it was such that when all the traces and straps were fastened it was difficult to say where the harness ended and the horse began. We were harnessed at ease in the stable. Feofan would come, broader at his hips than at the shoulders, his red belt up under his arms: he would examine the harness, take his seat, wrap his coat round him, put his foot into the sledge stirrup, let off some joke, and for appearance sake always hang a whip over his arm though he hardly ever hit me, and would say, “Let go!” and playfully stepping from foot to foot I would move out of the gate, and the cook who had come out to empty the slops would stop on the threshold and the peasant who had brought wood into the yard would open his eyes wide. We would come out, go a little way, and stop. Footmen would come out and other coachmen, and a chatter would begin. Everybody would wait: sometimes we had to stand for three hours at the entrance, moving a little way, turning back, and standing again.
At last there would be a stir in the hall: old Tikhon with his paunch would rush out in his dress coat and cry, “Drive up!” (In those days there was not that stupid way of saying, “Forward!” as if one did not know that we moved forward and not back.) Feofan would cluck, drive up, and the prince would hurry out carelessly, as though there were nothing remarkable about the sledge, or the horse, or Feofan — who bent his back and stretched out his arms so that it seemed it would be impossible for him to keep them long in that position. The prince would have a shako on his head and wear a fur coat with a gray beaver collar hiding his rosy, black-browed, handsome face, that should never have been concealed. He would come out clattering his saber, his spurs, and the brass backs of the heels of his overshoes, stepping over the carpet as if in a hurry and taking no notice of me or Feofan whom everybody but he looked at and admired. Feofan would cluck, I would tug at the reins, and respectably, at a foot pace, we would draw up to the entrance and stop. I would turn my eyes on the prince and jerk my thoroughbred head with its delicate forelock.... The prince would be in good spirits and would sometimes jest with Feofan. Feofan would reply, half turning his handsome head, and without lowering his arms would make a scarcely perceptible movement with the reins which I understand: and then one, two, three ... with ever wider and wider strides, every muscle quivering, and sending the muddy snow against the front of the sledge, I would go. In those days, too, there was none of the present-day stupid habit of crying “Oh!” as if the coachman were in pain, instead of the sensible “Be off! Take care!” Feofan would shout, “Be off! Look out there!” and the people would step aside and stand craning their necks to see the handsome gelding, the handsome coachman, and the handsome gentleman....
I was particularly fond of passing a trotter. When Feofan and I saw at a distance a turn-out worthy of the effort, we would fly like a whirlwind and gradually gain on it. Now, throwing the dirt right to the back of the sledge, I would draw level with the occupant of the vehicle and snort above his head: then I would reach the horse’s harness and the arch of his troika, and then would no longer see it but only hear its sounds in the distance behind. And the prince, Feofan, and I, would all be silent, and pretend to be merely going on our own business and not even to notice those with slow horses whom we happened to meet on our way. I liked to pass another horse but also liked to meet a good trotter. An instant, a sound, a glance, and we had passed each other and were flying in opposite directions.
The gate creaked and the voices of Nester and Vaska were heard.
The weather began to break up. It had been dull since morning and there was no dew, but it was warm and the mosquitoes were troublesome. As soon as the horses were driven in they collected round the piebald, and he finished his story as follows:
The happy period of my life was soon over. I lived in that way only two years. Towards the end of the second winter the happiest event of my life occurred, and following it came my greatest misfortune. It was during carnival week. I took the prince to the races. Glossy and Bull were running. I don’t know what people were doing in the pavilion, but I know the prince came out and ordered Feofan to drive onto the track. I remember how they took me in and placed me beside Glossy. He was harnessed to a racing sulky and I, just as I was, to a town sledge. I outstripped him at the turn. Roars of laughter and howls of delight greeted me.
When I was led in, a crowd followed me and five or six people offered the prince thousands for me. He only laughed, showing his white teeth.
“No,” he said, “this isn’t a horse, but a friend. I wouldn’t sell him for mountains of gold. Au revoir, gentlemen!”
He unfastened the sledge apron and got in.
“To Ostozenka Street!”
That was where his mistress lived, and off we flew....
That was our last happy day. We reached her home. He spoke of her as his, but she loved someone else and had run away with him. The prince learned this at her lodgings. It was five o’clock, and without unharnessing me he started in pursuit of her. They did what had never been done to me before — struck me with the whip and made me gallop. For the first time I fell out of step and felt ashamed and wished to correct it, but suddenly I heard the prince shout in an unnatural voice: “Get on!” The whip whistled through the air and cut me, and I galloped, striking my foot against the iron front of the sledge. We overtook her after going sixteen miles. I got him there but trembled all night long and could not eat anything. In the morning they gave me water. I drank it and after that was never again the horse that I had been. I was ill, and they tormented me and maimed me — doctoring me, as people call it. My hoofs came off, I had swellings and my legs grew bent; my chest sank in and I became altogether limp and weak. I was sold to a horse-dealer who fed me on carrots and something else and made something of me quite unlike myself, though good enough to deceive one who did not know. My strength and my pace were gone.
When purchasers came the dealer also tormented me by coming into my stall and beating me with a heavy whip to frighten and madden me. Then he would rub down the stripes on my coat and lead me out.
An old woman bought me of him. She always drove to the Church of St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker, and she used to have her coachman flogged. He used to weep in my stall and I learned that tears have a pleasant, salty taste. Then the old woman died. Her steward took me to the country and sold me to a hawker. Then I overate myself with wheat and grew still worse. They sold me to a peasant. There I plowed, and had hardly anything to eat, my foot got cut by a plowshare, and I again became ill. Then a gypsy took me in exchange for something. He tormented me terribly and finally sold me to the steward here. And here I am.
All were silent. A sprinkling of rain began to fall.
The Evening After
As the herd returned home the following evening they encountered their master with a visitor. Zhuldyba when nearing the house looked askance at the two male figures: one was the young master in his straw hat, the other a tall, stout, bloated military man. The old mare gave the man a side-glance and, swerving, went near him; the others, the young ones, were flustered and hesitated, especially when the master and his visitor purposely stepped among them, pointing something out to one another and talking.
“That one, the dapple gray, I bought of Voekov,” said the master.
“And where did you get that young black mare with the white legs? She’s a fine one!” said the visitor. They looked over many of the horses going forward and stopping them. They noticed the chestnut filly too.
“That is one I kept of Khrenov’s saddle-horse breed,” said the master.
They could not see all the horses as they walked past, and the master called to Nester, and the old man, tapping the sides of the piebald with his heels, trotted forward. The piebald limped on one leg but moved in a way that showed that as long as his strength lasted he would not murmur on any account, even if they wanted him to run in that way to the end of the world. He was even ready to gallop and tried to do so with his right leg.
“There, I can say for certain there is o better horse in Russia than this one,” said the master, pointing to one of the mares. The visitor admired it. The master walked about excitedly, ran forward, and showed his visitor all the horses, mentioning the origin and pedigree of each. The visitor evidently found the master’s talk dull but devised some questions to show interest.
“Yes, yes,” he said absent-mindedly.
“Just look,” said the master, not answering a question. “Look at her legs.... She cost me a lot but has a third foal already in harness.”
“And trots well?” asked the guest.
So they went past all the horses till there were no more to show. Then they were silent.
“Well, shall we go now?”
“Yes, let’s go.”
They went through the gate. The visitor was glad the exhibition was over and that he could now go to the house where they could eat and drink and smoke, and he grew perceptibly brighter. As he went past Nester, who sat on the piebald waiting for orders, the visitor slapped the piebald’s crupper with his big fat hand.
“What an ornamented one!” he said. “I once had a piebald like him; do you remember my telling you of him?”
The master, finding that it was not his horse that was being spoken about, paid no attention but kept looking round at his own herd.
Suddenly above his ear he heard a dull, weak, senile neigh. It was the piebald that had begun to neigh and had broken off as if ashamed.
Neither the visitor nor the master paid any attention to this neighing, but went into the house.
In the flabby old man Strider had recognized his beloved master, the once brilliant, handsome, and wealthy Serpukhovskoy.
It kept on drizzling. In the stable yard it was gloomy, but in the master’s house it was very different. The table was laid in a luxurious drawing-room for a luxurious evening tea, and at it sat the host, the hostess, and their guest.
The hostess, her pregnancy made very noticeable by her figure, her strained convex pose, her plumpness, and especially by her large eyes with their mild inward look, sat by the samovar.
The host held in his hand a box of special, ten-year-old cigars, such as he said no one else had, and he was preparing to boast about them to his guest. The host was a handsome man of about twenty-five, fresh-looking, well cared for, and well groomed. In the house he was wearing a new loose thick suit made in London. Large expensive pendants hung from his watch-chain. His gold-mounted turquoise shirt studs were also large and massive. He had a beard à la Napoleon III, and the tips of his mustache stuck out in a way that could only have been learned in Paris.
The hostess wore a dress of silk gauze with a large floral pattern of many colors, and large gold hair-pins of a peculiar pattern held up her thick, light-brown hair — beautiful though not all her own. On her arms and hands she wore many bracelets and rings, all of them expensive.
The tea-service was of delicate china and the samovar of silver. A footman, resplendent in dress-coat, white waistcoat and necktie, stood like a statue by the door awaiting orders. The furniture was elegantly carved and upholstered in bright colors, the wall-paper dark with a large flowered pattern. Beside the table, tinkling the silver bells on its collar, was a particularly fine whippet, whose difficult English name its owners, who neither of them knew English, pronounced.
In the corner, surrounded by plants, stood an inlaid piano. Everything gave an impression of newness, luxury, and rarity. Everything was good, but it all bore an imprint of superfluity, wealth, and the absence of intellectual interests.
The host, a lover of trotting races, was sturdy and full-blooded — one of that never-dying race which drives about in sable coats, throws expensive bouquets to actresses, drinks the most expensive wines with the most fashionable labels at the most expensive restaurants, offers prizes engraved with the donor’s name, and keeps the most expensive mistresses.
Nikita Serpukhovskoy, their guest, was a man of over forty, tall, stout, bald-headed, with heavy mustaches and whiskers. He must once have been very handsome but had now evidently sunk physically, morally, and financially.
He had such debts that he had been obliged to enter the government service to avoid imprisonment for debt and was now on his way to a provincial town to become the head of a stud farm, a post some important relatives had obtained for him.
He wore a military coat and blue trousers of a kind only a rich man would have had made for himself. His shirt was of similar quality and so was his English watch. His boots had wonderful soles as thick as a man’s finger.
Nikita Serpukhovskoy had during his life run through a fortune of two million rubles, and was now a hundred and twenty thousand in debt. In cases of that kind there always remains a certain momentum of life enabling a man to obtain credit and continue living almost luxuriously for another ten years.
These ten years were however coming to an end, the momentum was exhausted, and life was growing hard for Nikita. He was already beginning to drink — that is, to get fuddled with wine, a thing that used not to happen, though strictly speaking he had never begun or left off drinking. His decline was most noticeable in the restlessness of his glance (his eyes had grown shifty) and in the uncertainty of his voice and movements. This restlessness struck one the more as it had evidently got hold of him only recently, for one could see that he had all his life been accustomed not to be afraid of anything or anybody and had only recently, through heavy suffering, reached this state of fear so unnatural to him.
His host and hostess noticed this and exchanged glances which showed that they understood one another and were only postponing till bedtime a detailed discussion of the subject, putting up meanwhile with poor Nikita and even showing him attentions.
The sight of his young host’s good fortune humiliated Serpukhovskoy, awakening a painful envy in him as he recalled his own irrecoverable past.
“Do you mind my smoking a cigar, Marie?” he asked, addressing the lady in the peculiar tone acquired only by experience — the tone, polite and friendly but not quite respectful, in which men who know the world speak to kept women in contradistinction to wives. Not that he wished to offend her: on the contrary he now wished rather to curry favor with her and with her keeper, thought he would on no account have acknowledged the fact to himself. But he was accustomed to speak in that way to such women. He knew she would herself be surprised and even offended were he to treat her as a lady. Besides he had to retain a certain shade of a respectful tone for his friend’s real wife. He always treated his friend’s mistresses with respect, not because he shared the so-called convictions promulgated in periodicals (he never read trash of that kind) about the respect due to the personality of every man, about the meaninglessness of marriage, and so forth, but because all decent men do so and he was a decent, though fallen, man.
He took a cigar. But his host awkwardly picked up a whole handful and offered them to him.
“Just see how good these are. Take them!”
Serpukhovskoy pushed aside the hand with the cigars, and a gleam of offense and shame showed itself in his eyes.
“Thank you!” He took out his cigar-case. “Try mine!”
The hostess was sensitive. She noticed his embarrassment and hastened to talk to him.
“I am very fond of cigars. I should smoke myself if everyone about me did not smoke.”
And she smiled her pretty, kindly smile. He smiled in return, but irresolutely. Two of his teeth were missing.
“No, take this!” the tactless host continued. “The others are weaker. Fritz, bringen Sie noch einen Kasten,” he said; “dort zwei.” [“Bring another box. There are two there.”]
The German footman brought another box.
“Do you prefer big ones? Strong ones? These are very good. Take them all!” he continued, forcing them on his guest.
He was evidently glad to have someone to boast to of the rare things he possessed, and he noticed nothing amiss. Serpukhovskoy lit his cigar and hastened to resume the conversation they had begun.
“So, how much did you pay for Atlasny?” he asked.
“He cost me a great deal, not less than five thousand, but at any rate I am already safe on him. What colts he gets, I tell you!”
“Do they trot?” asked Serpukhovskoy.
“They trot well! His colt took three prizes this year: in Tula, in Moscow, and in Petersburg; he raced Voekov’s Raven. That rascal, the driver, let him make four false steps or he’d have left the other behind the flag.”
“He’s a bit green. Too much Dutch blood in him, that’s what I say,” remarked Serpukhovskoy.
“Well, but what about the mares? I’ll show Goody to you tomorrow. I gave three thousand for her. For Amiable I gave two thousand.”
And the host again began to enumerate his possessions. The hostess saw that this hurt Serpukhovskoy and that he was only pretending to listen.
“Will you have some more tea?” she asked.
“I won’t,” replied the host and went on talking. She rose, the host stopped her, embraced her, and kissed her.
As he looked at them Serpukhovskoy for their sakes tried to force a smile, but after the host had got up, embraced her, and led her to the portiere, Serpukhovskoy’s face suddenly changed. He sighed heavily, and a look of despair showed itself on his flabby face. Even malevolence appeared on it.
The host returned and smilingly sat down opposite him. They were silent awhile.
“Yes, you were saying you bought him of Voekov,” remarked Serpukhovskoy with assumed carelessness.
“Oh yes, that was of Atlasny, you know. I always meant to buy some mares of Dubovitzki, but he had nothing but rubbish left.”
“He has failed ... “ said Serpukhovskoy, and suddenly stopped and glanced round. He remembered that he owed that bankrupt twenty thousand rubles, and if it came to talking of being bankrupt it was certainly said that he was one. He laughed.
Both again sat silent for a long time. The host considered what he could brag about to his guest. Serpukhovskoy was thinking what he could say to show that he did not consider himself bankrupt. But the minds of both worked with difficulty, in spite of efforts to brace themselves up with cigars. “When are we going to have a drink?” thought Serpukhovskoy. I must certainly have a drink or I shall die of ennui with this fellow,” thought the host.
“Will you be remaining here long?” Serpukhovskoy asked.
“Another month. Well, shall we have supper, eh? Fritz, is it ready?”
They went into the dining-room. There under a hanging lamp stood a table on which were candles and all sorts of extraordinary things: siphons, and little dolls fastened to corks, rare wine in decanters, unusual hors-d’oeuvres, and vodka. They had a drink, ate a little, drank again, ate again, and their conversation got into swing. Serpukhovskoy was flushed and began to speak without timidity.
They spoke of women and of who kept this one or that, a gypsy, a ballet-girl, or a Frenchwoman.
“And have you given up Mathieu?” asked the host. (That was the woman who had ruined Serpukhovskoy.)
“No, she left me. Ah, my dear fellow, when I recall what I have got through in my life! Now I am really glad when I have a thousand rubles, and am glad to get away from everybody. I can’t stand it in Moscow. But what’s the good of talking!”
The host found it tiresome to listen to Serpukhovskoy. He wanted to speak about himself — to brag. But Serpukhovskoy also wished to talk about himself, about his brilliant past. His host filled his glass for him and waited for him to stop, so that he might tell him about himself and how his stud was now arranged as no one had ever had a stud arranged before. And that his Marie loved him with her heart and not merely for his wealth.
“I wanted to tell you that in my stud ... “ he began, but Serpukhovskoy interrupted him.
“I may say that there was a time,” Serpukhovskoy began, “when I liked to live well and knew how to do it. Now you talk about trotting — tell me which is your fastest horse.”
The host, glad of an opportunity to tell more about his stud, was beginning, when Serpukhovskoy again interrupted him.
“Yes, yes,” he said, “but you breeders do it just out of vanity and not for pleasure, not for the joy of life. It was different with me. You know I told you I had a driving-horse, a piebald with just the same kind of spots as the one your keeper was riding. Oh, what a horse that was! You can’t possibly know: it was in 1842, when I had just come to Moscow; I went to a horse-dealer and there I saw a well-bred piebald gelding. I liked him. The price? One thousand rubles. I liked him, so I took him and began to drive with him. I never had, and you have not and never will have, such a horse. I never knew one like him for speed and for strength. You were a boy then and couldn’t have known, but you may have heard of him. All Moscow was talking about him.”
“Yes, I heard of him,” the host unwillingly replied. “But what I wished to say about mine ... ”
“Ah, then you did hear! I bought him just as he was, without pedigree and without a certificate; it was only afterwards that I got to know Voekov and found out. He was a colt by Affable I. Strider — because of his long strides. On account of his piebald spots he was removed from the Khrenov stud and given to the head keeper, who had him castrated and sold him to a horse-dealer. There are no such horses now, my dear chap. Ah, those were the days! Ah, vanished youth!” — and he sang the words of the gypsy song. He was getting tipsy. “Ah, those were good times. I was twenty-five and had eighty thousand rubles a year, not a single gray hair, and all my teeth like pearls.... Whatever I touched succeeded, and now it is all ended.... ”
“But there was not the same mettlesomeness then,” said the host, availing himself of the pause. “Let me tell you that my first horses began to trot without... ”
“Your horses! But they used to be more mettlesome ... ”
“How — more mettlesome?”
“Yes, more mettlesome! I remember as if it were today how I drove him once to the trotting races in Moscow. No horse of mine was running. I did not care for trotters, mine were thoroughbreds: General Chaulet, Mahomet. I drove up with my piebald. My driver was a fine fellow, I was fond of him, but he also took to drink.... Well, so I got there.
“‘Serpukhovskoy,’ I was asked, ‘When are you going to keep trotters?’ ‘The devil take your lubbers!’ I replied. ‘I have a piebald hack that can outpace all your trotters!’ ‘Oh no, he won’t!’ ‘I’ll bet a thousand rubles!’ Agreed, and they started. He came in five seconds ahead and I won the thousand rubles. But what of it? I did a hundred versts [a little over sixty-six miles] in three hours with a troika of thoroughbreds. All Moscow knows it.”
And Serpukhovskoy began to brag so glibly and continuously that his host could not get a single word in and sat opposite him with a dejected countenance, filling up his own and his guest’s glass every now and then by way of distraction.
The dawn was breaking and still they sat there. It became intolerably dull for the host. He got up.
“If we are to go to bed, let’s go!” said Serpukhovskoy rising, and reeling and puffing he went to the room prepared for him.
The host was lying beside his mistress.
“No, he is unendurable,” he said. “He gets drunk and swaggers incessantly.”
“And makes up to me.”
“I’m afraid he’ll be asking for money.”
Serpukhovskoy was lying on the bed in his clothes, breathing heavily.
“I must have been lying a lot,” he thought. “Well, no matter! The wine was good, but he is an awful swine. There’s something cheap about him. And I’m an awful swine,” he said to himself and laughed aloud. “First I used to keep women, and now I’m kept. Yes, the Winkler girl will support me. I take money from her. Serves him right. Still, I must undress. Can’t get my boots off. Hullo! Hullo!” he called out, but the man who had been told off to wait on him had long since gone to bed.
He sat down, took off his coat and waistcoat and somehow managed to kick off his trousers, but for a long time could not get his boots off — his soft stomach being in the way. He got one off at last, and struggled for a long time with the other, panting and becoming exhausted. And so with his foot in the boot-top he rolled over and began to snore, filling the room with a smell of tobacco, wine, and disagreeable old age.
If Strider recalled anything that night, he was distracted by Vaska, who threw a rug over him, galloped off on him, and kept him standing till morning at the door of a tavern, near a peasant horse. They licked one another. In the morning when Strider returned to the herd he kept rubbing himself.
Five days passed. They called in a veterinary, who said cheerfully: “It’s the itch; let me sell him to the gypsies.”
“What’s the use? Cut his throat, and get it done today.”
The morning was calm and clear. The herd went to pasture, but Strider was left behind. A strange man came — thin, dark, and dirty, in a coat splashed with something black. It was the knacker. Without looking at Strider he took him by the halter they had put on him and led him away. Strider went quietly without looking round, dragging along as usual and catching his hind feet in the straw.
When they were out of the gate he strained towards the well, but the knacker jerked his halter, saying: “Not worth while.”
The knacker and Vaska, who followed behind, went to a hollow behind the brick barn and stopped as if there were something peculiar about this very ordinary place. The knacker, handing the halter to Vaska, took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and produced a knife and a whetstone from his boot-leg. The gelding stretched towards the halter meaning to chew it a little from dullness, but he could not reach it. He sighed and closed his eyes. His nether lip hung down, disclosing his worn yellow teeth, and he began to drowse to the sound of the sharpening of the knife. Only his swollen, aching, outstretched leg kept jerking. Suddenly he felt himself being taken by the lower jaw and his head lifted. He opened his eyes. There were two dogs in front of him; one was sniffing at the knacker, the other was sitting and watching the gelding as if expecting something from him. The gelding looked at them and began to rub his jaw against the arm that was holding him.
“Want to doctor me probably — well, let them!” he thought.
And in fact he felt that something had been done to his throat. It hurt, and he shuddered and gave a kick with one foot, but restrained himself and waited for what would follow.... Then he felt something liquid streaming down his neck and chest. He heaved a profound sigh and felt much better.
The whole burden of his life was eased.
He closed his eyes and began to droop his head. No one was holding it. Then his legs quivered and his whole body swayed. He was not so much frightened as surprised.
Everything was so new to him. He was surprised and started forward and upward, but instead of this, in moving from the spot his legs got entangled, he began to fall sideways, and trying to take a step fell forward and down on his left side.
The knacker waited till the convulsions had ceased, drove away the dogs that had crept nearer, took the gelding by the legs, turned him on his back, told Vaska to hold a leg, and began to skin the horse.
“It was a horse, too,” remarked Vaska.
“If he had been better fed the skin would have been fine,” said the knacker.
The herd returned down hill in the evening, and those on the left saw down below something red, round which dogs were busy and above which hawks and crows were flying. One of the dogs, pressing its paws against the carcass and swinging his head, with a crackling sound tore off what it had seized hold of. The chestnut filly stopped, stretched out her head and neck, and sniffed the air for a long time. They could hardly drive her away.
At dawn, in a ravine of the old forest, down in an overgrown glade, big-headed wolf cubs were howling joyfully. There were five of them: four almost alike and one with a head bigger than his body. A lean old wolf who was shedding her coat, dragging her full belly with its hanging dugs along the ground, came out of the bushes and sat down in front of the cubs. The cubs came and stood round her in a semi-circle. She went up to the smallest, and bending her knee and holding her muzzle down, made some convulsive movements, and opening her large sharp-toothed jaws disgorged a large piece of horseflesh. The bigger cubs rushed towards her, but she moved threateningly at them and let the little one have it all. The little one, growling as if in anger, pulled the horseflesh under him and began to gorge. In the same way the mother wolf coughed up a piece for the second, the third, and all five of them, and then lay down in front of them to rest.
A week later only a large skull and two shoulder-blades lay behind the barn; the rest had all been taken away. In summer a peasant, collecting bones, carried away these shoulder-blades and skull and put them to use.
The dead body of Serpukhovskoy, which had walked about the earth eating and drinking, was put under ground much later. Neither his skin, nor his flesh, nor his bones, were of any use.
Just as for the last twenty years his body that had walked the earth had been a great burden to everybody, so the putting away of that body was again an additional trouble to people. He had not been wanted by anybody for a long time and had only been a burden, yet the dead who bury their dead found it necessary to clothe that swollen body, which at once began to decompose, in a good uniform and good boots and put it into a new and expensive coffin with new tassels at its four corners, and then to place that coffin in another coffin of lead, to take it to Moscow and there dig up some long buried human bones, and to hide in that particular spot this decomposing maggotty body in its new uniform and polished boots, and cover it all up with earth.