In the Coach House
IT was ten o'clock at night. Stepan, the coachman, Mikailo the house porter, Aliosha the coachman's grandson who was visiting his grandfather, and the old herring-vender Nikander who came peddling his wares every evening were assembled around a lantern in the large coach house playing cards. The door stood open and commanded a view of the whole courtyard with the wide double gates, the manor-house, the ice and vegetable cellars, and the servants' quarters. The scene was wrapped in the darkness of night, only four brilliantly lighted windows blazed in the wing of the house, which had been rented to tenants. The carriages and sleighs, with their shafts raised in the air, threw from the walls to the door long, tremulous shadows which mingled with those cast by the players around the lantern. In the stables beyond stood the horses, separated from the coach house by a light railing. The scent of hay hung in the air, and Nikander exhaled an unpleasant odour of herring.
They were playing "Kings."
"I am king!" cried the porter, assuming a pose which he thought befittingly regal, and blowing his nose loudly with a red and white checked handkerchief, "Come on! Who wants to have his head cut off?"
Aliosha, a boy of eight with a rough shock of blond hair, who had lacked but two tricks of being a king himself, now cast eyes of resentment and envy at the porter. He pouted and frowned.
"I'm going to lead up to you, grandpa," he said, pondering over his cards. "I know you must have the queen of hearts."
"Come, little stupid, stop thinking and play!"
Aliosha irresolutely led the knave of hearts. At that moment a bell rang in the courtyard.
"Oh, the devil—" muttered the porter rising. "The king must go and open the gate."
When he returned a few moments later Aliosha was already a prince, the herring-man was a soldier, and the coachman was a peasant.
"It's a bad business in there," said the porter resuming his seat. "I have just seen the doctor off. They didn't get it out."
"Huh! How could they ? All they did, I'll be bound, was to make a hole in his head. When a man has a bullet in his brain it's no use to bother with doctors!"
"He is lying unconscious," continued the porter. "He will surely die. Aliosha, don't look at my cards, lambkin, or you'll get your ears boxed. Yes, it was out with the doctor, and in with his father and mother; they have just come. The Lord forbid such a crying and moaning as they are carrying on ! They keep saying that he was their only son. It's a pity !"
All, except Aliosha who was engrossed in the game, glanced up at the lighted windows.
"We have all got to go to the police station tomorrow," said the porter. "There is going to be an inquest. But what do I know about it. Did I see what happened. All I know is that he called me this morning, and gave me a letter and said: 'Drop this in the letter-box. ' And his eyes were all red with crying. His wife and children were away; they had gone for a walk. So while I was taking his letter to the mail he shot himself in the forehead with a revolver. When I came back his cook was already shrieking at the top of her lungs."
"He committed a great sin!" said the herring-man in a hoarse voice, wagging his head. "A great sin."
"He went crazy from knowing too much," said the porter, picking up a trick. "He used to sit up at night writing papers—play, peasant ! But he was a kind gentleman, and so pale and tall and black-eyed ! He was a good tenant."
"They say there was a woman at the bottom of it," said the coachman, slapping a ten of trumps on a king of hearts. "They say he was in love with another man's wife, and had got to dislike his own. That happens sometimes."
"I crown myself king!" exclaimed the porter.
The bell in the courtyard rang again. The victorious monarch spat angrily and left the coach house. Shadows like those of dancing couples were flitting to and fro across the windows of the wing. Frightened voices and hurrying footsteps were heard.
"The doctor must have come back," said the coach-man. "Our Mikailo is running."
A strange, wild scream suddenly rent the air.
Aliosha looked nervously first at his grandfather, and then at the windows, and said:
"He patted me on the head yesterday, and asked me where I was from. Grandfather, who was that howling just now?"
His grandfather said nothing, and turned up the flame of the lantern.
"A man has died," he said with a yawn. "His soul is lost and his children are lost. This will be a disgrace to them for the rest of their lives."
The porter returned, and sat down near the lantern.
"He is dead !" he said. "The old women from the almshouse have been sent for."
"Eternal peace and the kingdom of heaven be his !" whispered the coachman crossing himself.
Aliosha also crossed himself with his eyes on his grandfather.
"You mustn't pray for souls like his," the herring- man said.
"Because it's a sin."
"That's the truth," the porter agreed. "His soul has gone straight to the Evil One in hell."
"It's a sin," repeated the herring-man. "Men like him are neither shriven nor buried in church, but shovelled away like carrion."
The old man got up, and slung his sack across his shoulder.
"It happened that way with our general's lady," he said, adjusting the pack on his back. "We were still serfs at that time, and her youngest son shot himself in the head just as this one did, from knowing too much. The law says that such people must be buried outside the churchyard without a priest or a requiem. But to avoid the disgrace, our mistress greased the palms of the doctors and the роliсе, and they gave her a paper saying that her son had done it by accident when he was crazy with fever. Money can do anything. So he was given a fine funeral with priests and music, and laid away under the church that his father had built with his own money, where the rest of the family were. Well, friends, one month passed, and another month passed, and nothing happened. But during the third month our mistress was told that the church watchmen wanted to see her. 'What do they want ? ' she asked. The watchmen were brought to her, and they fell down at her feet. ' Your ladyship ! ' they cried. 'We can't watch there any longer. You must find some other watchmen, and let us go!' 'Why?' she asked. 'No!' they said. 'We can't possibly stay. Your young gentleman howls under the church all night long.' "
Aliosha trembled and buried his face in his grandfather's back so as not to see those shining windows.
"At first our mistress wouldn't listen to their complaints," the old man went on. "She told them they were silly to be afraid of ghosts, and that a dead man couldn't possibly howl. But in a few days the watchmen came back, and the deacon came with them. He, too, had heard the corpse howling. Our mistress saw that the business was bad, so she shut herself up in her room with the watchmen and said to them : 'Here are twenty-five roubles for you, my friends. Go into the church quietly at night when no one can hear you, and dig up my unhappy son, and bury him outside the churchyard.' And she probably gave each man a glass of something to drink. So the watchmen did as she told them. The tombstone with its inscription lies under the church to-day, but the general's son is buried outside the churchyard. Oh, Lord, forgive us poor sinners!" sighed the herring-man. "There is only one day a year on which one can pray for such souls as his, and that is on the Saturday before Trinity Sunday. It's a sin to give food to beggars in their name, but one may feed the birds for the peace of their souls. The general's widow used to go out to the crossroads every three days, and feed the birds. One day a black dog suddenly appeared at the cross-roads, gobbled up the bread, and took to his heels. She knew who it was ! For three days after that our mistress was like a mad woman; she refused to take food or drink, and every now and then she would suddenly fall down on her knees in the garden, and pray. But I'll say good night now, my friends. God and the Queen of Heaven be with you ! Come Mikailo, open the gate for me."
The herring-man and the porter went out, and the coachman and Aliosha followed them so as not to be left alone in the coach house.
"The man was living and now he is dead," the coachman reflected, gazing at the windows across which the shadows were still flitting. "This morning he was walking about the courtyard, and now he is lying there lifeless."
"Our time will come, too," said the porter as he walked away with the herring-man and was lost with him in the darkness.
The coachman, followed by Aliosha, timidly approached the house and looked in. A very pale woman, her large eyes red with tears, and a handsome grey-haired man were moving two card-tables into the middle of the room; some figures scribbled in chalk on their green baize tops were still visible. The cook who had shrieked so loudly that morning was now standing on tiptoe on a table trying to cover a mirror with a sheet.
"What are they doing, grandpa?" Aliosha asked in a whisper.
"They are going to lay him on those tables soon," answered the old man. "Come, child, it's time to go to sleep."
The coachman and Aliosha returned to the coach house. They said their prayers and took off their boots. Stepan stretched himself on the floor in a corner, and Aliosha climbed into a sleigh. The doors had been shut, and the newly extinguished lantern filled the air with a strong smell of smoking oil. In a few minutes Aliosha raised his head, and stared about him; the light from those four windows was shining through the cracks of the door.
"Grandpa, I'm frightened!" he said.
"There, there, go to sleep!"
"But I tell you I'm frightened!"
"What are you afraid of, you spoiled baby?"
Both were silent.
Suddenly Aliosha jumped out of the sleigh, burst into tears, and rushed to his grandfather weeping loudly.
"What is it? What's the matter?" cried the startled coachman, jumping up, too.
"I'm frightened, grandpa! Can't you hear him?"
"That is some one crying," his grandfather answered. "Go back to sleep, little silly. They are sad and so they are crying."
"I want to go home!" the boy persisted, sobbing and trembling like a leaf. "Grandpa, do let us go home to mamma. Let us go, dear grandpa ! God will give you the kingdom of heaven if you will take me home !"
"What a little idiot it is! There, there, be still, be still. Hush, I'll light the lantern, silly !"
The coachman felt for the matches, and lit the lantern, but the light did not calm Aliosha.
"Grandpa, let's go home ! " he implored, weeping. "I'm so frightened here! Oh, oh, I'm so frightened! Why did you send for me to come here, you hateful man?
"Who is a hateful man? Are you calling your own grandfather names. I'll beat you for that!"
"Beat me, grandpa, beat me like Sidorov's goat, only take me back to mamma! Oh, do! do! . . ."
"There, there, child, hush!" the coachman whispered tenderly. "No one is going to hurt you, don't be afraid. Why, I'm getting frightened myself ! Say a prayer to God !"
The door creaked and the porter thrust his head into the coach house.
"Aren't you asleep yet, Stepan?" he asked. "I can't get any sleep to-night, opening and shutting the gate every minute. Why, Aliosha, what are you crying about?"
"I'm frightened," answered the coachman's grandson.
Again that wailing voice rang out. The porter said :
"They are crying. His mother can't believe her eyes. She is carrying on terribly."
"Is the father there, too?"
"Yes, he's there, but he's quiet. He's sitting in a corner, and not saying a word. The children have been sent to their relatives. Well, Stepan, shall we have another game?"
"Come on!" the coachman assented. "Go and lie down, Aliosha, and go to sleep. Why you're old enough to think of getting married, you young rascal, and there you are bawling ! Run along, child, run along !"
The porter's presence calmed Aliosha; he went timidly to his sleigh and lay down. As he fell asleep he heard a whispering:
"I take the trick," his grandfather murmured.
"I take the trick," the porter repeated.
The bell rang in the courtyard, the door creaked and seemed to say:
"I take the trick!"
When Aliosha saw the dead master in his dreams, and jumped up weeping for fear of his eyes, it was already morning. His grandfather was snoring, and the coach house no longer seemed full of terror.